The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
WHEN President Truman in his last "State of the Union" message to Congress, on January 7, 1953, dwelt on the thermonuclear tests at Eniwetok in the preceding November, he added a note of significance if not substance to the original cryptic release of the Atomic Energy Commission. He asserted that man now "moves into a new era of destructive power, capable of creating explosions of a new order of magnitude, dwarfing the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." The war of the future, he added, "would be one in which man could extinguish millions of lives at one blow, demolish the great cities of the world, wipe out the cultural achievements of the past--and destroy the very structure of a civilization that has been slowly and painfully built up through hundreds of generations."
President Eisenhower was later stimulated by comparable tests in the Soviet Union to add the distinction (in his press conference of October 8, 1953) between "conventional" types of atomic weapons and more advanced types. The Soviets already have a stockpile of the former, he admitted, "and we must furthermore conclude that they have . . . a weapon or a forerunner of a weapon far in excess of conventional types." He then went on: "We, therefore, conclude that the Soviets now have the capability of atomic attack on us, and such capability will increase with the passage of time. . . . We do not intend to disclose the details of our strength in atomic weapons of any sort, but it is large and increasing steadily." In a speech at Atlantic City a few days later he envisaged "the possible doom of every nation and society."
Neither President Eisenhower nor his associates added anything to what his predecessor had said nine months earlier about the American thermonuclear experiments. Thus, almost a year after the event at Eniwetok, we know only that certain things happened there, and more recently in the Soviet Union, involving devices having thermonuclear characteristics, and that these happenings have moved two presidents of quite unlike temperament and background to reflect gravely on the threat to our civilization. But we have been told quite explicity that a new phase of nuclear weapons development has now opened, and that it points potentially to weapons of a power "far in excess" of the type which even in its most primitive form was enough to cause the horror of Hiroshima. We are thus faced with the necessity of exploring the implications of the new type when we have not yet succeeded in comprehending the implications of the old.
Although our very forebodings on nuclear developments suggest a glimpse of consequences which proceed far beyond the normal concerns of the military, it is nevertheless from the area of military utilization that all these imaginings flow. Laymen interested in politics and society must therefore interest themselves in the character of that utilization lest they beg all the questions which are legitimately theirs.
Near the beginning of the first phase of atomic development, this writer attempted, in a symposium written with some former colleagues,[i] to appraise the military effects of atomic weapons. Now that the opening of another phase of development requires a new attempt, a drastically different situation confronts him.
Then the number of bombs in existence was already a matter of great secrecy, but it was clear that the number was quite small. One could generalize broadly about the future, because broad generalizations on the subject were still novel; and the knowledge then secret mattered very little, on the whole, for sweeping projections into the future. In fact, the fund of information available publicly was quite respectable compared to the amount withheld, for we had, among other things, the Smyth Report and some fairly detailed accounts of what had happened at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The more poignant and vigorous speculations of the time centered around the questions: When will the Russians get the bomb, and what will be the rate of growth of our own stockpile? In attempting to answer them one could be as much deceived as served by privileged access to information. The first question has already been answered, painfully, and the second, in so far as it concerns our existing stockpile and projections for the immediate future, continues to touch the innermost sanctum of the temple of forbidden knowledge, with the difference that the figures are now large.
The secrecy which continues to beset the entire subject of atomic weapons and their military uses is so pervasive that anyone who discusses the subject publicly must regard it not merely as a factor which must control his own writing but as a substantive issue of the first importance to his argument. For in approaching our subject we enter the domain of the ascendancy of the partial view, where no one short of the highest levels of authority can legitimately know all the important relevant facts, and where those few who find themselves at those levels are much too preoccupied with other matters to do much thinking about the problem.
One of the insidious effects of a climate of secrecy is that those who live in it gradually lose all awareness of the limits to their thinking that result not only from the curbs on their own knowledge and curiosity but also from the protection accorded their views. Those views are legally screened off from criticism arising outside the tight corporate structure in which they were developed--a structure that is unavoidably influenced or governed by habit, tradition, interest and formal authority.
The significance of all this for us is that when we presume to talk about the consequences of nuclear weapons upon military strategy and organization, we must modify our notions of inevitable effects following from sufficient causes. We are not dealing with Holmes' free market-place of ideas.
When we recall that both sides prior to the First World War failed utterly, with incalculable resulting costs, to adjust adequately their thinking to something as evolutionary as the machine gun, and that such failures have been characteristic of rather than exceptional in the history of war, we can hardly be sanguine about the adjustments likely to be made to such a change as that represented by developments in nuclear weapons. This is not to deny the important progress in scientific handling of military problems achieved since World War II. It is simply to ask whence will come the motivation and pressure that will cause incredibly busy men, advanced in rank and experience, to preoccupy themselves with basic issues which are confounding in the extreme and which must play havoc with special service interests and previous indoctrination.
We must therefore abandon all attempts to predict the extent of doctrinal adjustment and concern ourselves only with what the new facts of life, so far as we know them, seem to us logically to indicate. Some important facts are not public knowledge. About thermonuclear weapons, for example, all we know officially is that certain "experiments" have been concluded by both the United States and the Soviet Union, and that conclusions derived from those experiments have profoundly moved two warmhearted men. Among the things we should have to know in order properly to appraise the military importance of such weapons are the following: Will they be transportable in existing types of aircraft, or likely to become so? What will be their energy yield, or probable range of yields? And what will they cost per unit to produce; particularly, what will they cost in resources specific to the manufacture of fission bombs?
On the other hand, the range of publicly available information is perhaps greater than is generally realized, and is quite sufficient to warrant some useful speculation on forthcoming developments. We would have reason to suspect from the many test shots carried out by the A.E.C. that the technology of bomb development and manufacture is a vigorously expanding one, but Mr. Truman has been quite explicit about it. In the same speech cited above he stated that "the speed of our scientific and technical progress over the last seven years shows no signs of abating. We are being hurried forward, in our mastery of the atom, from one discovery to another, toward yet unforeseeable peaks of destructive power."
We know from official remarks on the many tests made thus far that the thermonuclear weapon, when and if it comes, will be only the latest and largest of a potential family of weapons. That the fission weapon can get fairly small in over-all dimensions and weight is suggested by the fact that one model available for use in a 280 mm. (11-inch) army gun has been tested with much public fanfare. The quantity of weapons available at any one time will probably therefore depend on how the existing fund of fissionable materials is apportioned among different types of weapons and on the current state of the art so far as it governs methods and efficiencies of detonation.
It is also officially public knowledge that the number of American nuclear devices already exploded at this writing is over 40--a quite suggestive figure in the light of international tensions which would presumably restrain us from waste (though it might also conceivably stimulate an eagerness to demonstrate our power). At least three Soviet fission devices and two British ones have also been exploded, besides one Soviet device "of a new type." Incidentally, every shot publicly announced beforehand came off as planned, indicating a high degree of reliability in the weapons so used.
It has of course been open knowledge from the beginning that the two standard types of fissionable material do not appreciably decay or deteriorate. Thus, the fund of available bombs accumulates in a strictly additive way. Obsolescence presumably affects the envelope or gadgetry of the weapon, but from all available indices this must be by far the least expensive component of the whole bomb and no doubt is as readily manufactured, once designed and in prototype, as any piece of ordnance.
We know also that the rate of American production has been considerably expanded in response to external stimuli like the Soviet nuclear explosion and the Korean war. Along with various press accounts and official releases of the discovery of new uranium deposits in various parts of the world, this suggests that the rate of output has so far depended on the amount of productive capacity we have been willing to invest in the project rather than on any absolute limit in availability of raw materials.
Finally, we know that the total amount spent by the United States Government on the atomic energy program from the beginning until June 30, 1952, was eight billion dollars, and that the budget for fiscal year 1953 was approximately two billion. The over-all figure of ten billion, of which about four billion represents present capital investment, includes the Manhattan District Project and the early days of the A.E.C., when exploratory ventures in a wholly new field, under pressures of haste, inevitably involved disproportionate costs. It also includes research into fields other than that of production of weapons, although the proportion so spent is probably not high. At any rate, for this over-all figure, which is a quite small fraction of the amounts spent on the other components of the national defense in the postwar years alone, we have acquired a stockpile of bombs or bomb components which is already fairly large, is rapidly growing larger, and which is presumably subject to even further expansion of production rates if desired. We are assured that the power of the individual fission bomb is or could be substantially greater than that used at Nagasaki, which was fearsome enough.
What sorts of broad general consequences do these facts suggest to us which are not already commonplace? If we mean this in the sense of predicting consequences which were not predictable or actually being predicted six or seven years ago, probably very little. But we should certainly now be capable of much more orderly judgments, and we have a far better basis for estimating how the trends are running. The size of our nuclear stockpile is still super-top-secret. But certainly 40-odd American atomic test explosions suggest that the weapon can no longer be regarded as exceedingly scarce or costly. Also, the predictions of much greater available power per bomb, reaching up to the untold destructiveness of the thermonuclear weapon, seem to have had some degree of confirmation. We are aware, too, of a flexibility of size, type and means of delivery for the bomb which seems to have outrun all predictions. And by whatever means they learned or acquired the essential bomb secrets, the Soviets tested their first nuclear device considerably sooner than most responsible observers expected them to--and their first thermonuclear device appallingly sooner. All in all, the conservatives of six or seven years ago now find themselves quite far down the course.
Certain other patterns begin to emerge. One of the most important concerns the relationship between the bomb and the vehicle delivering it, which for the time being appears to be primarily the airplane. The fact that bombs steadily accumulate while aircraft and their crews tend to reach a fixed level at which they are maintained and replaced means that the size of the bomb stockpile must inevitably grow larger and larger compared to the stockpile of long-range combat aircraft. We also know that an air force, particularly that part of it devoted to long-range bombing, is by any kind of accounting a frightfully expensive thing. Every year our strategic air force costs us an amount not far short of the entire sum we have thus far spent on atomic weapons. And whatever the relevance or irrelevance of monetary costs during war, it certainly affects preparations for war.
It is therefore inescapable that sooner or later, if not already, the long-range combat aircraft and its crew will represent a much larger investment and a substantially scarcer military resource than the nuclear bomb it carries. In war, attrition rates will be added to operational burdens to establish a cost of delivery which must dwarf that of the weapon carried. For fission bombs, the size of the long-range bomber force rather than the bomb stockpile will be the critical factor governing the magnitude of deep-penetration attacks.
The simple circumstance just described sets off a chain reaction of significant consequences. First of all, it surely creates a bias, at least for long-range operations, in favor of larger-yield bombs, including perhaps the H-bomb itself. One should rather say it implements a bias already strongly urged by other military considerations which have to do with dependence on intelligence, on bombing accuracy, on the need for re-attack, and on the standard military desire to accomplish decisive results as quickly as possible.
This trend must in turn affect various other aspects of the strategic bombing campaign, such as choice of target, choice of vehicle, choice of base sites, and over-all force requirements. Suppose, for example, the thermonuclear weapon proves to be both technologically feasible and transportable in existing type bombers. And suppose we assume that the yield approximates that magic figure always spoken of in the newspapers, i.e., 1,000 times that of the "nominal" (20 K.T.) fission bomb. Obviously, such a weapon is not going to be used against individual plants. Whether we like it or not, such a weapon when used strategically is a "city-buster." It could not be used on any industrial concentration in or near a city, where almost all such concentrations happen to be situated, without destroying that city. But large industrial-city targets happen to be relatively limited in number in any country, and after 50 or 60 of the larger cities were destroyed in either the Soviet Union or the United States there might not be enough industry surviving to be worth going after. What this will mean for the inhabitants of the cities concerned is another matter.
All this may indicate, among other things, that while the high sortie cost of the B-47 or the B-52 might promote adoption of the super-weapon in the first place, the net effectiveness resulting may be such as to warrant recourse to a more specialized and even costlier delivery vehicle, which may in turn affect the character and location of appropriate bases. Also, if larger-yield weapons reduce the number of necessary targets, we might do with a smaller delivery force than is presently planned, though not necessarily a less costly one. And smaller numbers of delivery units will probably mean that the striking force can be more dispersed and better concealed and protected than is feasible with existing strategic air forces, which in turn does much to alleviate the present possibility of a surprise attack wiping out our deterrent and retaliatory force. All this is of course in the future, and is perhaps only a possibility worth discussing; but in view of the progress (using that word in anything but a normative sense) which has been made during the past seven years, events are likely to sweep along the unready if indeed they do not overwhelm them.
Another large result which should flow from the continuing production and accumulation of materials for nuclear weapons is the spilling over of great numbers of weapons into all kinds of tactical use. From the public comments of a number of high official authorities, including the former Chief of Staff of the Army, this is obviously already under way. The much-publicized development of the gun-fired atomic shell certainly suggests nothing else. Nevertheless, what we are justified in questioning, as a result of historical experience on the one hand and the absence thus far of any conspicuous adjustment of the tactics and organization of ground forces on the other, is whether the real portent and extent of the forthcoming revolution in firepower on the battlefield will be appreciated in good time.
The atomic bomb is already old enough to have encouraged some crystallization of attitudes concerning its use, and these attitudes naturally derive from a period of great scarcity when the conception of what was a "suitable target" had to be most restrictively interpreted. Also it is clear that military requests will greatly influence if they do not govern the rate of production of nuclear weapons and the kind of weapons produced, and it must by no means be taken for granted in these matters that the military appetite is always voracious. One might venture as a general principle the truistic proposition that there is no military unit too small, down to the company level, to be a "suitable" target for a nuclear weapon, provided such weapons are abundant enough--and whether they are abundant enough depends in good measure on whether there has been prior to the hour of need a sufficiently imaginative interpretation of the over-all economy and effectiveness of nuclear weapons as compared with ordinary munitions.
Obviously we cannot make any quantitative comparisons of economy and effectiveness here, but a few general points are worth remembering. First, the amount of ordinary high explosive ammunition consumed even in a Korean-type war is also enormously expensive. Some two billion dollars of the military budget for the fiscal year of 1953 were allocated to ammunition. Clearly it requires a good many shells to kill or disable an enemy soldier, and a considerable number of fighter-bomber sorties to put out even a small bridge. The artillery organizations and the weapons for firing that ammunition are expensive too, as are the tactical support air groups.
May we not suppose that some at least of the factors which have obviously revolutionized our conceptions of strategic air campaigns are also applicable to ground warfare and tactical air support of ground operations? The mere fact that we are able to maintain indefinitely a strategic air force which is capable, in the event of war, of carrying through with existing strength a complete strategic air campaign, argues such an overwhelming contrast with World War II conditions that we can only conclude that for such purposes nuclear weapons are enormously more economical than high explosive bombs. In fact, there is reason to suspect that because of the much greater cost of jet bombers as compared with World War II types, and also because of certain advances in defensive techniques, a large-scale strategic bombing campaign with high explosive bombs, especially over long distances, would simply not be a feasible operation today.
Battlefield targets are of course not strictly comparable to those of strategic bombing in terms of concentration and vulnerability; but it nevertheless seems clear that liberal use of nuclear weapons must contribute vastly to the effective fire power of ground forces. Nor can we on a priori grounds exclude thermonuclear weapons from tactical use, where they may indeed prove to have even greater comparative utility than in strategic bombing. In the latter, the militarily useful area of destruction is limited by the spatial extent of a fixed target. In tactical use, on the other hand, the limits are imposed only by the locations of people whom one does not want to hit; and so long as these can be protected or removed, the more area covered the better. By the very broad reach of its destructive power the thermonuclear bomb may anticipate and negate the tactics which ground combat forces might adopt as a counter to the smaller fission bomb, that is, distribution into smaller, more widely dispersed units--which cannot in any case be carried too far without forfeit of offensive power. It would also reduce dependence on precise enemy rear area intelligence, which in any rapidly moving campaign is almost always woefully inadequate.
It is perhaps impossible at this time to picture what ground campaigns will be like in a situation where both sides freely use nuclear weapons of all sizes, and it is certainly disagreeable to try. But one result appears inevitable and important. Large masses of men must count for less on the battlefield except to provide more lucrative atomic targets--and superiority in military manpower is the one respect in which the Soviets have had us at an apparently permanent disadvantage. It also seems plain that opportunities to apply nuclear weapons usefully are much more open ended in tactical than they are in strategic use, which means that the American advantage in numbers of weapons and in ability to produce them (which there is no doubt we can continue to enjoy for as long as we are willing to make the effort) is likely to be profoundly meaningful for some time to come. For the short range penetrations characteristic of tactical use, the problem of delivery is nothing like so acute as it is in strategic bombing; attrition rates for aircraft are lower, a wider array of aircraft types and much larger numbers of aircraft are useable, and in the gun and the guided missile we have alternative methods of delivery. All this would seem to present the NATO Powers with a great net military gain vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, provided always the former can stand up as well as the latter to the threat of destruction of their cities, and provided also that reasonable precaution is taken against surprise nuclear attack on our tactical air forces.
What about the "limits" of nuclear weapons which we are constantly being admonished to bear in mind? There is no doubt that there are extremely grave and far-reaching limitations. But they lie not in the costliness of the weapons, in the difficulty of delivering them or in the finite boundaries of their destructive power. They stem, on the contrary, from their excessive destructive power. Excessive in terms of what? Their power is likely to be excessive in terms of any reasonable war objectives we might have. It threatens to be excessive in terms of the degree of responsibility which either side will develop concerning their use in war. And it is certainly excessive in view of the fact that the Russians as well as ourselves will have these capabilities.
The one thing which we must obviously begin to face up to in both our military and political planning is the fact that strategic bombing, in which we seem to have pretensions to monopoly privilege, is probably already a two-way capability, and that within a relatively few years Soviet capacity to injure us and our allies through such means will at least rival our capacity to injure them. The real significance of thermonuclear weapons used strategically, if it is feasible to transport them in jet aircraft and if they become available in any numbers, is that levels of destruction are likely to be set not by quantity of weapons nor even by numbers and quality of delivery aircraft but simply by the numbers of larger cities exposed as targets. Also, as stocks of thermonuclear weapons increase, civil air defense as we now think about it will be almost meaningless, as will any active air defense which fails to achieve the very highest levels of enemy attrition. This may be the kind of war we have to fight if and when we have a major war, but it ought not be the kind which we make inevitable through our own military acts and policies.
The dilemma of our age is that in order to preserve those things which we hold inviolable we must stand ready to meet a military challenge, and unless the ensuing business is handled most skillfully the things we have moved to defend will surely perish. It is self-evident that national objectives in war cannot be consonant with national suicide. But for the future there is no use talking about an unrestricted mutual exchange of nuclear weapons as involving anything other than national suicide for both sides.
Strategic bombing, which used to be deprecated on grounds of its presumed ineffectiveness, may in the future have to be restrained because it has become all too efficient. The ability to destroy the enemy's economy and some 30,000,000 or 40,000,000 of his people overnight might be inharmonious with our political objectives in war even if it could be done with impunity; but if we have to suffer such a blow the fact that we can also deliver one may be of small advantage and smaller solace. The fate of the Kilkenny cats was not before available to nations, which could often ruin each other in war but could never wholly succeed in consuming each other. There may be reasons besides those offered by conservative army officers for wishing to bring war back to the battlefield. Perhaps we can destroy the Russian strategic bombers before they get off the ground, but who will guarantee it?
Following his description of a future war in the words quoted at the beginning of this article, Mr. Truman asserted: "Such a war is not a possible policy for rational men." There was nothing at all extravagant in his description. If the kind of war he envisaged is not a present possibility, it will certainly be one soon enough. The standard political answer to such a horrible issue is that war must at all costs be avoided. But this is not a sufficient answer. War may in the net be less likely as a result of the new atomic developments, but there is not a sufficient guarantee against its occurrence. We have not yet discovered any substitute for force as a means of controlling blatant aggressions by powerful states, whose rulers may conceivably find in the universal fear of atomic war a stimulus to evil acts rather than a restraint upon them. There must also be a military answer, a second line of insurance, one which maximizes the chances that even a resort to arms will not mean an immediate pulling of all the stops.
There are conceivable ways of accomplishing this, of placing certain restraints upon ourselves and of using our formidable atomic power to force the enemy into observing similar restraints. Universal atomic disarmament, which is still the official aspiration of the United States, is clearly not possible. We therefore need to maintain and develop further our strategic striking power, even if our only use of it in a war of the future is to command observance of the ground rules we lay down. And we should probably need to use nuclear weapons tactically in order to redress what is otherwise a hopelessly inferior position for the defense of Western Europe.
If this conception of unlimited atomic potential coupled with limited wartime use thereof appears fanciful, let us look again at what happened in Korea. Perhaps Korea is not too appealing an example of the reëmergence in modern times of limited war, because the United Nations appears to have set greater restrictions upon both its use of means and its strategic and political objectives than the circumstances demanded--with, among other results, a deplorable stalemate. But it is noteworthy that narrow limits were imposed, and that it was the obviously stronger Power which imposed them and made them stick. These facts alone render dubious some of the easy generalizations of our time concerning the inevitable totality of modern war, or for that matter of the inexorable necessity to achieve total victory rather than more limited and modest goals.
Yet in war as in many other pursuits, there's nothing right or wrong but thinking makes it so. So long as the view persists in high military and political circles that any war which brings the Soviet Union and the United States into direct and open conflict must be total, so long will preparatory measures be adopted which insure that the opening of hostilities does in fact precipitate total war. It is obvious that one of the great inducements to the American leaders to keep the fighting in Korea limited was precisely the desire to maintain a favorable posture in the event of a more direct challenge in a more important region.
We must therefore proceed to rethink some of the basic principles (which have become hazy since Clausewitz) connecting the waging of war with the political ends thereof, and to reconsider some of the prevalent axioms governing the conduct of military operations. What are suitable political objectives to be sought through military action if a war situation should develop, and what are suitable military measures for bringing them about? Above all, what are the available instrumentalities for assuring that military action does not proceed beyond the suitable? If our strategic air force is a retaliatory force, as is so often asserted, what kinds of action will it retaliate against?
The time to begin such rethinking is right now, under urgency. In the technical sense of the term we may indeed be far away from push-button war, as we are so often reminded, but we are living right now in a situation in which the flashing of certain signals, possibly ambiguous signals, would in effect push buttons starting the quick unwinding of a military force which has been tensed and coiled for total nuclear war.
[i] "The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order." Edited by Bernard Brodie. New York: Harcourt, 1946.