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The Strategy Of Survival

June 2024
26min read

A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.

Edward Luttwak is the author of nine books on the art of war, and he pronounces with startling confidence on a great array of events, as the titles of his works suggest. One is The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, another The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union. His most recent book is last year’s Strategy (Harvard University Press).

Luttwak was born in Arad, Transylvania, in 1942. His family emigrated first to Palermo, Sicily, in 1947, and then to England, where he was educated at Carmel College and the London School of Economics and took infantry training with the British Cadet Corps (“it’s one of the reflections on the general decay of military practices through a period of forty years of peace,” he says, “that in the 1950s Britain gave schoolboys more weapons training than a U.S. infantryman now receives under the standard course”). He published his first book, Coup d’Etat, when he was twenty-five, and, after moving to America, took his doctorate from Johns Hopkins. He has worked as an analyst and consultant for a variety of institutions, including the Defense and State departments, and he is currently affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.


Although Luttwak would no doubt argue that war, as a sphere of intricate, impressive, and profoundly dramatic human endeavor, is worth studying for the most disinterested reasons, he has in fact devoted much of his life to helping his adopted country prepare to defend itself on NATO’s central front. It is there that the conventional forces of the Soviet Union are commonly believed to have amassed a decisive superiority, there where her armored divisions are thought to pose the most profound wartime threat to her adversaries.

Luttwak has written extensively on the possibilities of defending that border, and in his thinking on this subject he uses history in the most practical manner. To him the past is a great book, and its contents constitute the sum of knowledge necessary for the achievement of a concrete task. When he consults volumes of history, Luttwak seeks urgently needed lessons from them.

The specialist literature cascades over the available surfaces in his study, and although the Loeb classics are generally those bearing on his trade, a copy of Diogenes Laertius suggests a man broad enough in learning and old-fashioned enough to read Greek for the pleasure of it.

Luttwak lives with his wife, Dalya, and their two children, Yael and Joseph, in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where this interview took place.

How did you happen to become a specialist in military matters?

Well, I can give you a jocular answer. It may contain some seriousness. I was born in Transylvania, an exceptionally contested part of Europe. Transylvania is contested today. I was born in the midst of the Second World War, the greatest and most sinister of wars known to Europe, a catastrophic war, in which it was not merely defense lines that were torn down or territories that were invaded but rather a substantial demolition of European civilization accumulated since pre-Roman times. Obviously I was not a direct observer of this, but I sensed it.

Immediately after the war my family moved to Palermo, in Sicily, which was at that time in a state of endemic civil insurrection. One of my earliest childhood memories in Sicily is of driving on a weekend, an unnecessary drive for unnecessary fresh air, this being a central European concept rather mechanically applied to Sicily, where the air was all fresh in those days. We were going to Montelepre, which was the headquarters of the bandito Giuliano. My father fondly imagined that this picturesque region was just the place to take the family, and we drove right past an armored car of the Italian carabinieri that was still smoking by the side of the road, in the wake of a clash of armed bands. So the jocular answer to your question is that someone born in Transylvania and brought up in Sicily would naturally be oriented toward the study of conflict.

But my interest began as an interest in military history and developed professionally. I may have written all sorts of books with expansive titles like The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, but the professional work I did was in the narrowest area possible. I worked for years with the US. Army Training and Doctrine Command, developing among other things the concept for the new light-infantry division. And that was not just abstract thinking; it was a lot of detail work, like deciding whether mortars should be put at the company or the battalion level, contending with terrific problems like the fact that every battalion has by law to have a chaplain and that every chaplain has to have a driver, so there you have two spaces lost to the battalion, and you’re trying to keep it slim—that sort of stuff.

First I saw these as problems of action. Then I realized that they were problems of concept. And I suppose that in later years I realized that these concepts were themselves driven by fundamental premises.

What everybody agrees on is that war has become absurd on the human plane. To think about war is therefore to be deliberately engaged in talking about the absurd. For myself 1 know only one thing. That is, precisely when everybody agrees that war is absurd, that is when people do not make the sacrifices necessary to avoid it, either by strong armament or by being willing to make political concessions. It is precisely then that war becomes feasible.

You have suggested that the essence of strategy is securing an end by avoiding an enemy's strength and approaching him at a weak point. This is one of the Navy's claims for its strategy, which you have otherwise avaided endorsing.

The essence of strategy is to generate power while avoiding the use of force. A subset of that is that one generates power by exploiting one’s advantages and finessing one’s weaknesses. When the instrumentality of power happens to be something such as naval power, which, because of its operational setting, is inherently fragile, it’s very important to avoid the competition. The way the British did it was through a general policy Britain later described, euphemistically, as a balance of power. That has a nice connotation of fairness and equilibrium; balance is a word that sounds very positive to merchants.

Actually it was a policy of keeping the adjacent Continental powers at one another’s throats. The goal was to cause Europeans to be vexed with wars and so prevent any government, even a very progressive government, from unifying northwest Europe. The Continental states were forced to maintain large armies and couldn’t afford to spend a lot of money on naval power. Then, having expended your main effort on this balance of power that prevents anyone else from engaging in naval activity, then, with a very small effort you build a navy that is much superior.

And there is an absoluteness to naval engagements. In a land engagement even a soundly defeated army disperses, runs off; many soldiers hide in the undergrowth; you can usually recover a lot of the fragments, rebuild an army, and fight another day. Navies get sunk; they disappear without a trace, and the trained men are gone with the ships. So the key to naval supremacy is to avoid competing in building ships. The key to naval superiority is to avoid staking your all on battles.

But the British didn't pursue such a rational policy all though the nineteenth century. They remained suspicious of "enemies" they were never to fight again and ignored the foe that eventually would challenge them at sea.

It’s perfectly true, as you point out, that Britain during the period, let’s say, from 1850 to 1870, focused on a nonenemy, the French. They did nothing about the emergence of Germany, which eventually would create the problems that would finally culminate in two world wars and the destruction of British power. But that is only to say that having the superior strategic logic does not at the same time give you superior political analysis. Ultimately the fact is that about 1850 every educated person knew the French were the belligerent, martial, fighting nation par excellence and Germany was a nation of watchmakers, porcelain makers, poets, and musicians.

Germany had many associations, but not one of fighting endeavor. Prussia was totally unrepresentative. There were Saxons, who liked to dress up their soldiers in the finest uniforms and never fought except to lose. There were rustic Bavarians and all these wonderful, rather impoverished, friendly, and highly cultured little courts, Wittenburg and Saxe-Coburg and so forth. Moreover, they were family; the British royal family was from there. This was their gemütlich home base, not something that they could easily reassess. So yes, the British totally shared in the general misapprehension about Germany.

So you do not suggest that the balance of power is a guide to American stratedy or policy now?

No, no way. The phrase balance of power is an Italian phrase invented in the High Renaissance to describe a situation in which all the Italian states, which shared what was very much the same culture, would combine and recombine in alliances, very much as the Arab states have done since 1945; these are states that have the same cultural background after all. What no longer happens in Europe happens constantly in the Arab world. So the balance of power, this Italian concept, has been applied to very different environments: in India, for example, for long periods; to Japan before the Tokugawa consolidation. It applies to all kinds of places, but it doesn’t always apply, and it certainly does not apply to Europe today.

When the balance fails and people fight, would you say there were national styles in war, which exist alongside the universal discipline of strategy?

Yes. There are national styles in war, and they arise not from choice but from circumstances. The American style is the style of war that amounts to an attempt to avoid war. A shorthand description of the American style is that they’re always trying to abolish the infantry; they’re always trying to abolish the necessities of combat; they’re trying to use air and artillery bombardment. It is the style where you wage war by efficiently administering resources on the largest possible scale, throwing them in the general direction of the enemy and obliterating him by a process of sequential attrition, destroying him bit by bit, and doing so by the most remote means possible. So you prefer air power to artillery and you prefer artillery to infantry. You tend to avoid maneuver and other things that would make victory or defeat dependent on chance.

This is, in fact, the correct style of war if you have a superiority in material resources. It is certainly costly in material terms but need not be very costly in terms of casualties. It’s expensive but reliable.

The German style of war is a style that started off with the presumption that Germans would always be outnumbered, that there would always be more enemy troops and more enemy matériel, and that they would have to win not by attrition, by destroying the enemy piece by piece—because when you do that, you are destroyed as well—but rather by outmaneuvering him. It’s much lower in cost because you can win spectacular victories with very little. It’s also much higher in risk. I would say that Montgomery exemplifies the attrition style, and Rommel the maneuver style. Rommel achieved a great deal with very little. Not enough to win; under the circumstances he just couldn’t.

In the case of the Soviets, their style is often satirized as just being a question of mass, of numbers. That is simply untrue. Had the Russian style of war been only a question of numbers, then they would have been no better off than the Zulus and destined to be massacred by an enemy with a touch of superiority and technique. The peculiar Russian style of war is based on the use of numbers, of mass, not mass employed mechanically to overwhelm the enemy but rather the creative, inventive use of mass. During the Second World War the Red Army learned, by 1943, to use the numerical advantage in its pattern of offensive action. The army advanced all across the front, at least in a theater of war, with regiments that were like the fingers of a hand, and the regiments were pretty rigid; their job was to advance as far as they could. The high command behind them kept back the reinforcements in a pool and would then reinforce opportunistically—whichever finger, whichever regiment or division happened to find a path through. Then they would let all the reinforcements flow through that path, thereby condemning the Germans who were holding out on the line to encirclement when the successful torrent breaking out behind them hit. So this was a case of the high command’s making a highly fluid, elastic, and flexible use of numbers, not just using mass in waves of attack.

Each style of war reflects its origins. Today the exemplary maneuver style of war would be the Israeli style. The Israelis simply don’t go to war unless they’ve figured out a highly sophisticated, very high-risk plan to outmaneuver the enemy and destroy his system of operation rather than try to destroy his units one by one. You had cases in the Israeli victory in 1967 where in theory neither side should have sustained any casualties, yet one side would be decisively superior.

One of your most persuasive essays is “On the Meaning of Victory,” in which you talk about the Manchurian campaigns of the Russo-Japanese War. You point out that lessons drawn by observers, lessons that ought to have enabled any of the belligerents to avoid disasters several years later, during the First World War, went systematically unlearned. You go on to talk about a Manchurian problem in the American armed forces, with their refusal to learn from the Israelis and the British, in the Falklands or the Middle East. Why do such dramatic lessons seem so difficult to absorb?

The permanent problem for military organizations is that they’re supposed to be ready for war in peacetime. That’s tremendously difficult. It’s like trying to operate a whole hospital and have it ready to run when it actually has no patients. It has doctors, nurses, lab technicians, cleaners, whatever, everybody on duty day after day, year after year, and no patients, and then they’re supposed to be ready when the patients start flooding in. Of course, if that happens, there are liable to be problems. A thousand things could have gone wrong unobserved. The only remedy for that would be to have made sneak visits to other hospitals that were actually treating patients. So you learn basic things. You may need fancy diagnostic equipment, but you’ve also got to have some swabs around. The trouble is that learning from the experience of others in war is tremendously difficult. Americans tend to be technologically minded, and so we often try to measure the military power of countries by listing their equipment and by focusing on a concept such as “High-tech weapons defeat low-tech weapons.” There is an important technical dimension, of course, but it usually amounts to a fraction of the study. If you’re a tactician or practically minded, then you focus on the respective tactics, and you see a different picture again. If you are able to think on a relatively sophisticated operational level, where you view the whole battlefield and think about the overall scheme of war followed by each side, again you draw a different lesson from it.

Take the case of the Falklands War. The U.S. Navy chose to learn the lesson that its long-standing policy of having aircraft carriers was suddenly justified. Other people might have drawn quite a different lesson, which is that what you need is not merely the box that carries the force somewhere—the carriers, the auxiliary ships, and so on—but that then when you lower the ramp, you have to have a valid kind of ground force. What the British did in the Falklands is instructive. They were supposed to carry out a modern airmobile assault. Well, they lost most of their helicopters, which is liable to happen in war. The reason why they won as they did is that the Royal Marine Infantry, people with thirty-two weeks of very intensive basic training, were able to march on foot, carrying sixty pounds of equipment on their backs, fight, dig, and prevail in raw infantry combat.

The lesson of the Falklands that I draw is that if you pay attention to the basics of war, which are training, cohesion, all the human dimensions, and have really reliable low-tech combat capabilities, then you win no matter what happens. If you have, in addition to that, high tech, then you win gloriously at very low cost. If you go into combat with the high tech and you haven’t got the low tech—which really is not “low,” because it contains the whole of the human dimension—then it doesn’t matter how fancy your stuff is. You’re going to end up with embarrassments, defeats, and inadequacies.

In your Manchurian case, aristocratic cavalry officers refused to learn the lesson that cavalry had become useless. Do you see particular cases where communities within the American military culture are refusing a lesson in the way that the aristocratic cavalrymen refused the lesson of Manchuria?

Sure. One aspect of the American style is a refusal to accept the primacy of the human dimension in military power. For example, the U.S. Army is unique among armies claiming to be of the first rank in that it does not systematically maintain cohesion in units. As a matter of fact, in recent years the U.S. Army had to have a special program called Cohort, with a Cohort office and administrative scheme, to do what all other first-class armies do as a matter of course, which is to train people and then put them in units and leave them there, so that they can form human bonds and be willing to fight for the sake of mutual solidarity. But after a while the Army abandoned Cohort because it turned out to be inconvenient for junior officers caught up in it. Their promotions might be delayed for a few weeks, and so for the sake of total career fairness for all officers Army-wide, they broke up the only scheme that had given some cohesion to the Army. This phenomenon ultimately may arise from a belief in equality and individual rights, but it represents a systematic violation of good military practice. It’s a disregard of the human dimension because accepting the human dimension means delving into all those nonmeasurable things like the diversities of human beings and the mysteries of how people behave.

You spoke of the high-cost, attritional American style of war as coming from our historical experience of matériel superiority.

I want to emphasize that it can be the right thing. In 1944, when we landed in Europe and confronted a German army that was decisively inferior in matériel—totally outclassed in the air, and inferior in every article of equipment, and greatly inferior in ammunition, mobility, and so on—but full of talented officers—it was exactly the right choice. It was correct to go for an attritional style of war, which was reliable and safe and so on, as opposed to trying to outmaneuver and outthink the Germans. But for the U.S. Army today in central Europe, to practice attritional methods against the Soviet Union is a recipe for disaster, because the Soviets are not outgunned; they outgun us. To practice matériel warfare against somebody who’s got enormous matériel superiority means guaranteed defeat. Going to war in the attrition style against the Soviet army is to be more or less in the position of the American tourist who goes to a hotel and whispers to the cashier that he’s paid in dollars and expects a discount. You know he is out of date.

I spent the final week of the semester teaching your book Strategy to my students. They found your meditations on NATO’s central front extremely dispiriting. They could not determine what you thought the United States should do to counter Soviet superiority in tanks and artillery.

My fundamental belief is that the best thing is not to defeat the Soviets at all but to deter war by somehow attempting to restore the legitimacy of nuclear weapons.

If that cannot be done, and you want the military recipe, then you must create a balance in Central Europe by going back to a proper equilibrium between defense and offense. That would mean redeploying the existing forces, which are basically battle forces, armored and mechanized divisions, and which are now strung out along the border and acting as very heavily armed frontier guards. We should pull them back a hundred kilometers so that they can become a concentrated mailed fist, ready to counterpunch. Between them and the frontier, the first hundred kilometers, you’d have to have a defended belt, not a belt defended with armored or mechanized divisions but rather one modeled on the very ideas pushed in recent years by the German left, what they call defensive primacy, a zone that would be occupied by small groups of sapper engineers, who would build obstacles, and by local groups, some home guard militia-type units with a few active units operating antitank weapons. A lot of barriers, obstacles, fortifications, and so on. The momentum of a Soviet armored offensive would be absorbed by this zone, which would have no rigid wall in it but would be persistently defended, so that you could never really break through to achieve the high-speed, unresisted exploitation that makes armor so dangerous. And behind that you have the battle forces for counterattack.

Your book suggests that you have little confidence in the ability of American air attack to interdict Soviet echelons.

I think that tactical air power will be a tremendous disappointment in going behind the lines to take on targets there. Once you find the targets, they are going to be moving armored forces, and they’re going to be very heavily defended by antiaircraft defenses. But once the Soviets have invaded, penetrated the belt, and left behind a fixed infrastructure of their defenses, and only have their mobile antiaircraft weapons, and once you’re getting hundreds of radio reports saying just where they are, aircraft can attack much more effectively; there is a synergism. The one thing you do not get under this scheme is forward defense, preclusive defense, which means that there will be penetration past the frontier and damage to German society. This is inevitable once you give up effective deterrence—that is, nuclear deterrence. Conventional deterrence is a myth. You might say that the whole history of war is the history of the failures of conventional deterrence. You may think that you have enough strength to deter somebody because you feel that he will be defeated, but he can always estimate matters quite differently. And often he is right.

The Washington Post recently compared the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with the disastrous naval-limitation talks in the 1920s. What do you think?

The consequences of the INF treaty are much more contextual than specific. If the President had said, “Look, fellows, these particular nuclear weapons are very different from all other nuclear weapons. We deployed them under a specific deal whereby we said we’d undeploy them if the Soviets agreed to scrap these categories of weapons. Well, the Soviets did agree to scrap, so now we have undeployed them and withdrawn them.” But he didn’t say that at all. What was said was that nuclear weapons are very wicked, and now we’ve succeeded in getting rid of this particular group, and we’re eagerly pursuing the reduction of the next lot and the next lot. You see the political leadership delegitimizing the very structure that has maintained the peace for these last forty years.

That suggests to me one of two things, dishonesty or frivolity. First of all, dishonesty. Because political leaders who claim opposition to nuclear weapons may at the same time know that our security has depended on them. And fecklessness, or perhaps a hidden desire to return to the traditional roles of statecraft, waging wars every twenty years, that sort of stuff, which has its attractions, I suppose. My view of it is that war lived very comfortably in Europe for a long time, until the fire-breathing monster of nuclear weapons arrived on the scene and scared war out of Europe. War continued to live very well outside Europe, in the Middle East, Asia, and so on. Now we are supposedly in the process of chaining this monster, reducing him, cutting him down to size, pushing him out of Europe. War will come and hover on the edge and sort of look around and see, and then when nuclear weapons are out, war will come back and live very well in Europe. It always did before, and it will again, because of the fragmentations of power. The main fault line between the two systems is in Europe, and war will happily ensconce itself there.

The notion that if you remove nuclear weapons, you can avoid war because Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States appear to have advanced to a higher state of civilization is what I call strategic apartheid. The notion is that these Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, Israelis, Africans remain at the more primitive stage where they still have wars, but we are so civilized that we don’t. This is a delusion and, of course, a historical joke, considering that only forty years ago we had the Second World War, which set such splendid examples of civilization and restraint that we need not enumerate them.

In your books you suggest that the best security against war in Europe is the massive procurement of armored forces by the NATO allies. But the two Reagan administrations have purchased four carrier task forces for what it would have cost us to field sixteen armored divisions. Would you assess this as a disaster for our nation’s defense?

Our rearmament was conducted under the general heading of self-indulgence. We spent money, but we did not introduce military service, because that’s uncomfortable. We built naval forces because we find them culturally more comfortable and appropriate and also because politically, naval power is the meeting point between isolationists, who may want military power but want no entanglements overseas, and internationalists. It’s a compromise. If you build up the Army, that means you’re building up an internationalist commitment to allies overseas. If you build up the Navy, it can be said to be useful for helping allies, but at the same time it’s a unilateralist instrument. So we didn’t do what we had to do, we did what it was comfortable for us to do. What was militarily significant at a time of diminishing reliability or credibility and our diminishing willingness to rely on nuclear deterrence was land power: ground forces and tactical air power. What we built was naval power.

To return to the Manchurian war, barbed wire and machine guns rendered cavalry essentially useless then, except for reconnaissance and on the flanks. But in 1904 cavalry officers with aristocratic connections were the greatest social power in the armies and refused to learn the lessons of Manchuria, even though they were reported in enormous detail. They came up with rationalizations, such as “Neither the Japanese nor the Russians had real cavalry, heavy cavalry.” Today’s version is the fact that the general progress of technology in methods of remote sensing, transmission, and control have made remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) very practical. Instead of assigning a forty- or fifty-million-dollar strike/interdiction type of aircraft like the A-6 or the F-111 or F-15E to penetrate air defenses and hit something, you could do it with an RPV, without a pilot, and the costs go down tremendously. Not only is your cost of acquisition maybe one-fiftieth or less, but also the cost of operation diminishes: you don’t have to fly an RPV every day to keep a pilot in trim. But air forces dominated by pilots refuse to purchase RPVs. Their first qualification for an aircraft is that it should have a cockpit. That automatically makes it a man-rated vehicle, which becomes tremendously more expensive.

Once upon a time aircraft were essentially safe because the people who tried to shoot them down from the ground by aiming pieces of lead at them tended to miss; as range increased, accuracy declined, and so forth. Today anything that flies over the ground and lower than outer space is visible against the background of the sky and becomes the victim of electronic detection. So, in order not to abandon the air, you should go there with smaller, lower-cost, losable, expendable vehicles such as missiles. Instead of sending the strike aircraft to attack a bridge, you send a cruise missile to attack a bridge. If you have a nonfixed target, so that you can’t just send a missile, if you have to look for it, then you want a remotely piloted vehicle. You have somebody sitting there drinking coffee, watching the screen, and sending instructions to the little thing, which is very hard to shoot down because it’s small, but which can destroy bridges just the same. However, pilot-dominated bureaucracies systematically sabotage, block, and delay application of remotely piloted vehicles. Recently, the United States, in order to simplify verification of the INF treaty, totally banned ground-launched cruise missiles in the appropriate range category without any peep of protest from the Air Force—in fact, with quiet approbation from the pilot-dominated bureaucracy, which foreclosed a whole area of technological advancement.

It’s hard in reading your book to determine your precise position on technological fixes for serious difficulties. You make fun of those who blithely advocate expensive technological innovations without troubling themselves about the possibility of countermeasures, and yet there are times in your own work when a moment of extreme technological optimism pops up. Is there a contradiction between your moments of technological optimism and your moments of technological pessimism?

I think there’s a very consistent pattern. We have military problems, and somebody comes along and offers a low-cost, high-effectiveness silver bullet for it. Now if this were the use of technology against nature, the use of an inanimate object like a bridge, and you’re trying to span a river with a bridge, great. Rivers sometimes expand and change course, but they never deliberately watch you build a bridge and then maliciously expand or change course. But that is exactly what happens in war. So you have the antitank missile, which is a wonderful invention, and then all tanks are supposed to be killed by them. But of course that doesn’t happen; tanks react. People use mortars to lay down smoke in front of you, so you can’t see the tank until it’s on top of you, and they react with artillery fire to suppress antitank infantry.

My technological enthusiasm is not for silver bullets, magic weapons supposed to totally defeat the enemy, but rather for technologies that create a contextual environment. For example, minelets, small mines that detonate under tank tracks. They don’t destroy tanks or armored vehicles, but they will throw a lot of tracks. So an armored force drives over a piece of terrain that you have sown with minelets, and it suffers very superficial damage. However, it gets slowed down. You have deprived the armored force of its secret power, which is momentum.

Similarly RPVs. They’re not very reliable. An RPV, a kind of kamikaze plane, is going to work only about half the time. A lot of them are going to get shot down, a lot of the controls are going to break down, a lot of them won’t hit the target, but here you are using the ability to mass-produce ten-pound plastic aircraft, which we really can do, and low-cost transistor links to control them, and low-cost video cameras, low-cost video monitors. You haven’t manufactured a silver bullet that cannot be defeated—on the contrary, it’s highly defeatable—but the enemy looks up and sees all these kamikaze RPVs coming down on him, and they create the impression of a threat he cannot readily deal with. This is the use of technology in conjunction with production, to create the contextual environment where you affect the terms of trade, as opposed to the use of technology where you’re trying to stop foursquare the full strength of the enemy, into which he has poured his political organization, his talents, his resources, and so on. That would be like the French attempt to defeat the British, to sink the British fleet, not by competing with the British in building battleships, cruisers, and so on, but by having torpedo boats, on the grounds that the battleships will not be able to hit fast little boats with their heavy guns, that they will not even be able to see them. But of course, a big ship that has so much space also has space for little guns, which can hit little boats. The battleship has so much tonnage it can be retrofitted with many countermeasures. It can carry torpedo nets; it can have electrical power, so that it can’t become a victim of night attack. And the analogy holds good. If you try to stop an armored division with a low-cost, narrow device like the antitank missile, you lose.

On the same principle, aren’t minelets vulnerable to cheap countermeasures as well? And cheap antiaircraft systems are presumably more effective against RPVs than against much more capable manned aircraft.

Minelets become important only because we can now also mass-produce a low-cost, reliable rocket. You have a Soviet armored division that is very short of manpower, reflecting the fact that the Soviet Union is a country that has more steel than it has people, as far as armor-trained soldiers go. And now the minelets have bogged it down, and in order to deal with these kamikaze RPVs, these little things putt-putting overhead, you have to have lots of antiaircraft weapons. Labor-intensive antiaircraft weapons. If you try to use technology to stop foursquare the power the enemy derives from the entire organization of his society—as the British derived from the power of the battleship, and the Soviets from their armored divisions—then you fail. If, on the other hand, you use technology to deflect and absorb the enemy’s strength, this is where technology can work for you and tip the balance in your favor. Barbed wire is not a very impressive technology, but barbed wire put cavalry out of business.

Cruise missiles are another of your enthusiasms, one that makes me nervous. Cruise missiles cannot do many things manned aircraft can do. But if we improve them, why aren’t we on the same treadmill you describe in your critique of antitank weapons? You point out that by the time we make a genuinely good one, with protection, effective firepower, and mobility, we have reinvented the tank. By the time a cruise missile becomes genuinely effective, it becomes a high-performance aircraft.

The reason cruise missiles are so interesting is that they don’t actually fly in the air; they fly so low that they cannot be dealt with as air vehicles at all. The same quality that enables them to fly really close to the ground gives them extreme precision. They actually don’t know where they are; they follow a stored map, so that you can have very high precision. Now a cruise missile is flying at a maximum of 250 or 350 knots, so all this means that it can be shot down, and this is one of its chief advantages. If an enemy wants to defend himself against a cruise missile, he can. It’s not like defending yourself against ballistic missiles, where you basically might want to give up. We did not, for many years, even try to stop ballistic missiles, because they descend upon you from space at very high speeds and are a very small target. Well, cruise missiles are very small and can be made from composites, so that they have very small cross sections, but you know, you can even see them if you have a tracker plane. So you are forcing someone who has spent a lot of money on air defense at high, medium, and low altitudes to also acquire an ultra-low-altitude air terminal defense system, and thus the vulnerability of the cruise missile attracts a defense effort against it, and the United States has a systematic advantage.

Your adversary doesn’t know when you’re coming, and because a cruise missile doesn’t fly in the sky, a defense against it cannot be centralized. If your enemy wants to protect a bridge, he has to defend that bridge. He needs a ring of radar-controlled antiaircraft guns, and he can only protect that one bridge; he cannot protect two bridges with the same ring, because cruise missiles come in so low that you only see them at the last minute, and you can’t see a few miles over and protect another bridge with the same weapons. So the ultimate culminating point of effectiveness is when a weapon forces an enemy to divert resources from offense to defense.

If the cruise missile exploits the Russian propensity to invest in labor-intensive systems to deter air attack, and therefore turns an enemy strength into a weakness, is there an American cultural propensity that could be exploited by an enemy in turn? The Russians, for example, were very impressed by their last foe and may be said to have spent immense sums to turn themselves into Germans who could invade France in 1940. They have succeeded admirably. Is there some lesson we have learned too well, which could be turned against us?

What inevitably happens is that one has a war and during that war various things happen: old forms of war go down and new forms come up, as battleships went down during the Second World War and carriers came up. Then, however, the people in command of that new form of war—carrier admirals, mechanized infantry generals, and pilots in command of tactical air power—remain in control during all the decades of peace, while more changes of technology, tactics, and modalities supervene. Forty years have passed since the Second World War, yet carrier admirals continue to protect the form of war that was validated forty years ago but which has been overtaken by events. And that is the problem. That is why you have to have the intervention of civilian authority, in order to redirect the military institution to the current realities, because otherwise the military institution merely perpetuates the victorious instruments and organization of the last war.

These are our vices, and not ours alone. Do you think we have any peculiar virtues, or potential virtues, in the sphere of war?

Yes. America remains the freest society in the world, not only because of the absence of police control but in the sense that more Americans are willing to spend more of their time totally rethinking and reevaluating what they’re doing and how they’re doing. They’re willing to move thousands of miles to change jobs; no other society is quite like this. This is the least rigid society. This brings many problems, because it is a rootless society, an alienated society, but it is also a society with tremendous advantages. One of them is free-floating creativity and innovation. Yankee ingenuity writ large. If—and this is a truly huge “if"—we were essentially able to disestablish the very slow, rigid, infinitely inert and bureaucratic acquisition system, we could have a tremendous advantage in research and development. I’m not talking here about some magic innovations but just general creativity of the sort that is manifested in areas that are not bureaucratically controlled.

It was not IBM that innovated massively with the micro-computers that fed the home computer revolution; it was a peripheral mass of people who did it, exploiting environmental advantages present in American society that the Japanese, the Germans, and the French do not have. If we are somehow able to bypass the Pentagon’s bureaucratized research and development apparatus, which forces resources into incremental improvements of existing weapon configurations because they’re the favorite cavalry of the cavalry generals and the admirals, we ought to be able to recover.

When you see a documentary of the Second World War and you see the most banal images of, let’s say, American forces advancing, you see tank transporters, fuel tankers, half-tracks, bulldozers, tanks, tank destroyers. All these were improvised, almost overnight. There was a proliferation of equipment that was workable, practical, ingenious, innovative. That was the genuine expression of the inherent superiority of American society.

You might say, with spiritual black humor, that it took the tremendous ingenuity of another group of Americans, that it took a tremendous bureaucratic perversion to finally strangle this ability to innovate. We have almost achieved it. Where we spend the most money we innovate the least. Take again the example of the aircraft carrier. The angled deck: a British innovation. As is the whole landing system. And the steam catapults. The Navy developed no part of the aircraft carrier. It couldn’t, precisely because it was focusing on it in a narrow-minded, incremental way.

Actually, the same qualities that give us innovation, which is ultimately this exceptionally self-confident belief in the value of individual lives and all those other things that are the basis of creativity, the same qualities have a perverse effect, because everything has to be legal and fair, and so elaborately fair that it conspires to create the slowest and most stultifying acquisitions procedures, to strangle everything, to systematically divert resources from the important to the unimportant. Because it is so hard to do anything new, you embellish the old. And everything is slowed down because of infinite care to avoid waste, fraud, and mismanagement, so you don’t give authority to any official. This is research and development not by men but by laws, and the effect of these laws is to slow everything down to the point that you do not get any advantage from being Americans.

That’s where the huge potential is. If you turned over the problem of stopping Soviet tanks to small engineering outfits and machine shops, to little companies in Silicon Valley, they’d figure out a way to do it. I don’t know what it would look like. I couldn’t begin to imagine. But I’ll tell you one thing: It wouldn’t look anything like what the Pentagon is doing now.



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