The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
THE Korean war, the intensified effort of rearmament to which it has led and the attendant "great debate" over policy and strategy have alike compelled a reappraisal of the significance of "sea power" in American defense planning. Mr. Hoover's proposal that the United States should retire behind its oceans and Senator Taft's more moderate variant--suggesting that the United States should confine its contribution for the common defense mainly to its "sea power" and "air power," leaving the "land power" to the Europeans or the Chinese Nationalists--both reveal a new awareness of sea power in the total political-military equation. And both seem to suffer from the many misconceptions which have grown up in the course of years around the whole "sea power" concept.
It is at least a question whether the celebrated thesis of Alfred Thayer Mahan, however stimulating in its day, has not outlived its usefulness. According to a witticism of Philip Guedalla's, if Mahan "discovered nothing in particular he discovered it very well." Modern sailors might be tempted to think that he discovered it, if anything, rather too well. In calling attention to the fact that the operations of war vessels, unseen in their desolate element, had often had an influence on war and history quite disproportionate to that usually accorded them he was introducing a valuable corrective. It was true and important to remember that "power" could be exercised by armed ships--through commerce destruction, blockade, the denial of water routes of attack to an enemy and the opening of such routes to one's own forces--quite as well as by land armies utilizing their normal methods of invasion, physical conquest and occupation. In emphasizing this, however, the Mahan doctrine tended to give to "sea power" an appearance of independent reality and influence which it could in fact claim only rarely. The phrase "sea power," if not quite a misnomer, was at best misleading.
It clouded what should be obvious: that the ocean wastes were significant only in relation to land; that the only real prizes of war were land and its resources, and the control it gives over human beings (who could permanently maintain themselves nowhere else), and that all wars were finally decided on land--even those in which the closing ceremonies might, as in the Pacific, take place on board a battleship. Even sea power's own unique weapon --blockade--was ordinarily of little military value in itself; its strangling effect derived largely from the excessive exertions imposed upon the enemy by simultaneous land attack. Mahan's correction tended to become an over-correction in the hands of his own followers. And at this point a curious fate overtook it with the appearance of the aviators.
The airmen seized enthusiastically upon the "sea power" doctrine, applied it by analogy to the new element of which they were the masters, and with the resultant concept of "air power" advanced to rule the world--over the obsolete bodies, incidentally, of seamen and soldiers alike. The air, it was reasoned, is a separate element, like the sea; itself uninhabitable, it is also unbounded and gives direct access, not simply to coastal frontiers, as does the sea, but to every land frontier and to the heart of every inhabited community. With sufficient numbers of armed aircraft one might establish a "command of the air" on the pattern of Mahan's "command of the sea;" once that had been achieved, one could then attack not simply an enemy's commerce, not simply his armed forces, but the heart and center of his national resistance--his industrial complex, his civil population, his governmental structure--with directly delivered high explosive. Just as soldiers had in the past failed to grasp the strategic significance and tactical uses of men-of-war, so neither soldiers nor sailors could be trusted to employ wisely a new weapon of such remarkable potentialities. The only answer, the aviators argued, was the recognition of "air power" as a third, independent element in warfare and of the air service as a third and independent military dicipline.
Unfortunately, the analogy, while close, was inexact, and the extension tended to exaggerate all the flaws or weaknesses of the original model. It was inexact, to begin with, in one very important respect. At the very core of the Mahan concept there lay the physical fact that war vessels could not (beyond the very limited range of bombardment artillery) participate in land warfare nor armies fight at sea. Without this physical separation there could have been no "sea power" theory. The military airplane, on the other hand, is of course indissolubly linked with every form of military action. Not only is it indispensable in all kinds of surface operations; the Second World War repeatedly demonstrated that surface operations were indispensable to the advance and success of "independent" air power. The sailors could with reason claim complete and independent control over the operations of armed ships. The aviators have been constantly bewildered by the fact that they could not establish a similar claim over the military airplane without reducing surface armies and navies to impotence, or at most to the status of mere auxiliaries for completing and securing the victories of "air power."
What militated against the latter course was the uncomfortable yet undeniable fact that in the actual experience of World War II "air power" had largely failed to produce such victories. "Sea power" theory had its weaknesses. "Command of the sea" exercised through a predominant battle fleet could never be as complete or as easy of even partial attainment as the Mahan concept suggested; while new tactics or inventions--such as the submarine in World War I--might qualify it in unexpected ways. "Command of the air" was to prove even more elusive, and even more subject to dispute by new methods and weapons. And even after the establishment of a reasonable degree of "command," the air weapon lacked the decisive effects which had been expected of it. Just as sea blockade took longer than theory always recognized, and was more dependent on the simultaneous application of other forces, so there were definite limits upon what could be done by the air delivery of high explosive. Accurate delivery proved to be very difficult. Enemy military and naval forces rapidly developed effective protective measures; while both civilian morale and the industrial complex proved capable of withstanding an unbelievable amount of punishment. In the end, those real successes which independent or "strategic" air power could claim turned out (as in the case of sea blockades) to be largely a function of the terrific pressures simultaneously applied by surface forces.
Yet "air power" theory, superposed on "sea power" theory, had in the meanwhile embedded the concept of three separate "powers"--diverse in method but roughly equivalent in utility and effect in governing the relations of states--in the popular mind. Curiously enough, this concept was finally written into the organizational structure of the American military system at the close of a war which would seem to have demonstrated above all that military power is unitary; that aircraft, ships and ground troops are alike ineffective except when utilized in closest mutual support, and that, since the political decisions which are the ultimate objectives of all military action are attainable only upon land, all power is really "land power" and should be so conceived.
All this was, or should have been, plain enough by the end of 1945; and after some years in which American military policy wandered weirdly in the jungles of inter-service rivalry and amid illusory hopes of "push-button" or gadget warfare, it was suddenly and vividly demonstrated anew with the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950. The first confident notion that "air power" would meet the crisis was shattered by a stubborn peasant infantry which had never read the works of "Billy" Mitchell and was pecularily well adapted, by its primitive training and supply system, to defy the costliest weapons of air war. "Sea power" saved the day by its command of ocean routes for prompt reinforcement; but it would obviously have been helpless if the United States, with aid from other members of the United Nations, had not been able to scrape together in time enough ground troops with which the reinforcement could be effected. Once some real "land power" was available, moreover, "air power" acquired a renewed value; for there is no doubt that the United Nations' command of the air, and the very powerful air weapons it was able to deploy, made it possible to retrieve both the first and the later Korean débâcle with many fewer ground troops than would otherwise have been required. The dominant factor in every subsequent stage of the conflict has been the closest possible teaming of all arms and services--the use of amphibious Marines at the Inchon landing, of carrier-borne naval air as tactical support in ground operations far from the coast, of "sea power" to evacuate the 10th Corps from the north and regroup it with the 8th Army, of all forms of air weapons to slow the Chinese advance and open the way for a "limited offensive" which at this writing has shattered another heavy Communist attack and worked its way back nearly to Seoul. Korea is one long lesson in the double fact that all military power is "land power;" and that it can be effectively exercised, under the conditions created by modern technology, only by the most skillful combination and concentration of all available weapons, whether airborne, seaborne or earthborne, to achieve the desired political ends under the particular circumstances which may arise.
What has been re-demonstrated in Korea must surely hold true upon the greater stage of world strategy as a whole. It is idle to think of the United States supplying the "sea" and "air" power while the Europeans and the Chinese provide the "land" component. What is necessary is to look at the total problem, to consider all the various means available for meeting it, to reassess both the military assets and the military liabilities involved and try to make the best possible use of the former while guarding so far as may be against the latter. From such a point of view, the ability of the United States and of the Western nations in general to command and use the sea routes will at once appear as a great asset, but, like most assets, of value only as it can be soundly invested, in conjunction with all other assets and in accordance with some clearly-conceived purpose. In themselves, both "sea power" and "air power" are nothing; all that counts is power--no matter what its shape or in what element it operates--to accomplish some definite political end.
The end, in the present world context, may be simply stated. It is the "containment" of Soviet-controlled Communist dictatorship, while at the same time providing so far as possible for the protection of our people and territories against whatever attacks or reprisals this policy may invite. It is true that the policy of containment has been subject, since it was first clearly defined in an article attributed to Mr. George Kennan in the pages of Foreign Affairs, to severe criticism; but its severest critics have failed to supply any very practical or acceptable alternative. Despite all arguments over tactics, timing or methods, it is the policy which has actually governed American foreign relations since the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947; and it seems likely to continue to govern in the future.
To succeed, "containment" clearly calls for many other instruments besides those of military power, such as economic and technical aid to threatened societies, political leadership, psychological and propagandist efforts; but events have proved that these, however necessary, are not enough. In face of the large Soviet and satellite armies, military strength is also indispensable; and it is the deployment and application of this military factor which is here alone under consideration. In general, it would seem that military means, as such, can operate toward containment in but two ways. One is by interposing direct physical obstacles--men and firepower--to the advance of Communist conspiracy, Communist armies, the whole "apparatus" of the Communist minority police state. The other is by influencing through threats of one kind or another, the decisions of those few powerful individuals who control the "apparatus."[i]
Down until June 1950, the United States, so far as its military policy was concerned, put virtually its whole confidence in the second method. The threat of strategic air war was about its only military instrument through which to control events; and at least since the end of 1947 "strategic air war" has meant in fact the delivery of the atomic bomb on Soviet industrial and population centers. One of the many things we still do not know about war--curiously enough, considering our 6,000 years or so of experience with the subject--is the true efficacy of mass demolition, whether by fire and sword or by atomic energy, in producing the kind of political decision here desired. The lessons of 1939-45 were not, it would seem, particularly encouraging; but they were hardly final, and few Americans would willingly resign the threat value, whatever it may be, of the atomic bomb and its carriers. As a threat, the bomb probably has had a real value in containing the Soviet ground armies; not because it would necessarily bring the armies themselves to a halt with any promptness but because it holds Soviet cities and industrial complexes in hostage, so to speak, for the ground army's actions.
The bomb is still, presumably, a potent political instrument. But its value is depreciating. Its effectiveness as a threat has been severely limited in two ways; one, of course, being the Russians' development of a bomb of their own, which by introducing a counter-threat of reprisals puts a rather drastic restraint upon our own resort to the weapon. The other is the skill with which the Russians have worked out techniques of aggression and expansion against which the threat is more or less inoperative. When it came down to cases in Korea the atomic bomb was not used, primarily because there was nothing we could have done with it which gave any promise of altering the specific situation with which we were trying to deal. The bomb could not blow the Communist infantry out of Korea; even vast devastations of Chinese and Siberian cities would not for a long time paralyze their primitive supply system, while such attacks were scarcely likely to produce in the minds of the Chinese or the Russian leaders the kind of decisions which we desired. The bomb has afforded us no means of taking the pressure off Indo-China or Tibet. If, as seems not impossible, Moscow is organizing a military attack on Jugoslavia to be delivered by the satellite armies surrounding that country, the bomb will afford only a very dangerous and unhandy answer, if it affords an answer at all. As long as Soviet Communist aggression follows the methods of piecemeal advance, it will be almost immune to an atomic strategy.
But if threats fail or are inapplicable, the military arm has only one other way in which to effect containment--by putting men and firepower on the ground to interpose a physical obstacle to the Communist advance. Where the advance has already reached a sea barrier, as at the Formosa Straits, commanding naval forces are the necessary instrument, and should be sufficient; elsewhere, the one indispensable requisite is still ground troups, available where they can stop the physical progress of the aggressor army and its supporting police, where they can arrest infiltrators, hold the communications and propaganda and press networks against seizure, and in general maintain the citadels and levers of "power" against that form of sudden capture by an organized minority which represents the basic strategy of Communist aggression.
This was the simple and somewhat brutal fact which Korea suddenly drove home--suddenly, but with such instant, unanswerable conviction that the United States acted upon it in the space of two or three days (when American ground troops were ordered into action) and then in the space of a few weeks rebuilt from the ground up (the phrase may be taken literally) a military policy with which we had been dallying and tinkering since 1945. The wave of armed and organized force which washed down over the 38th Parallel swept away tons of theorizing--military theorizing about "air power" and "sea power" and "land power;" diplomatic theorizing about the susceptibilities of the Soviet Empire; political theorizings about the attitudes and aspirations of the Asian peoples. Abruptly, all this made no difference. It certainly made no difference what the Korean people thought about it; in a matter of days they would either be swallowed by a dictatorship which would give them no further opportunity to think, or force would have to be found to prevent it. It equally made no difference what the jealously-guarded "missions" of the three services might prescribe. It was a case of get out at once--leaving another disastrous breach in the policy of containment and another springboard for further Communist advance--or else of putting men and firepower on the ground to retain physical control of the situation. The decision was almost automatic. It was a decision to stay; and the rest has followed.
It was immaterial whether the men were from the Army or the Marines, except that each had special skills which it was important to fit into a pattern of maximum utilization. It was immaterial, except again in the same sense, whether their air support was provided by the Air Force or the Navy carrier planes. Sea control was vital in bringing the men to Korea and maintaining them there; it was subsequently most useful in manœuvring them about the peninsula; and it was able to lend powerful support even to battles far inland--not only by air but also by long-range battleship bombardment--which neither the Air Force nor the Army could have provided. But sea control was validated only by the men on the ground, without whom the carrier planes would have been even more helpless than were the Air Force's Japan-based planes in the first days of the war.
Korea wrote the lesson plain. The policy of containment requires, for success, a military arm; that arm must be based on ground troops, available to control the actual (rather than the future hypothetical) situations which Communist expansion is constantly creating. In a context which is global, these ground troops must have the mobility which can be conferred only by control of the sea routes; they must also have the fullest possible support of tactical aviation, as well as whatever assistance may be lent, under the specific conditions, by longer-range "strategic" air war. The whole must be operated as a team, making optimum use of each available element in accordance with the circumstances presented. The concept of cut-and-dried "missions," which was written into American military policy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff conferences at Key West and Newport in 1948, seems somewhat questionable. There will be conditions under which tactical air support can best be provided by the land-based planes of the Air Force; but equally there will be conditions, and Korea has afforded examples, under which the Navy's carriers will provide a more prompt and efficient means to the end. The Navy has on occasion performed inland "strategic" missions as effectively as the Air Force; while even in the case of the atomic bomb, which the Air Force has claimed as peculiarly its own, it is not difficult to imagine situations in which it would be desirable to be able to launch the weapon from one of the Navy's highly mobile floating "airfields" rather than from the fixed bases of the Air Force. In actual warfare, missions are dictated, not by service politics but by combat conditions.
Korea, at all events, has torn up the military policy which ruled in this country from 1945 to 1950. It is not only that the nation has at last accepted a drastic expansion in the total scale of the military effort--to a point where for the first time since the end of the war it is absorbing a really punishing proportion of the national production--but that the emphasis has been abruptly changed. The new policy is no longer formed around the atomic bomb; it is formed around ground troops. We are trying to get them everywhere, from Western Europe, from Greece and Turkey. We are taking a new interest in Chiang's Nationalists on Formosa and in Tito's ground army. But in trying to get them from others we are also (and it is, as Mr. Hoover apparently fails to realize, an indispensable condition to the success of such efforts) raising them from our own manpower. One of the first responses to Korea was not to order more air groups but to draft four National Guard divisions into Federal service; and we are now trying rapidly to double our total manpower under arms. From relying on machines to serve as substitutes for men, we turned almost instinctively to obtain the men, for whom there is no substitute, leaving it to the machines to support and protect the men and enhance their effectiveness.
This puts the "machine," which includes everything from a B-36 to a bulldozer, from a jet fighter to a cargo ship, in sounder perspective. The West as a whole cannot quickly match the Soviet and the satellite battalions. But given a reasonably firm core of manpower on the ground, it can use its machines to expand greatly the power of the men it does have--provided always that the machines are used with skill, with a firm strategic purpose in mind, and with complete and flexible coördination of the capabilities of the machines. "Air power" is one such machine which would be far more effective in the actual contexts of today if its exponents had given more thought to them. An organization which could quickly make available anywhere in the world the combined tactical resources of the Royal Air Force, the United States Air Force, the United States Navy and Marine aviation, drawing on each component for the particular types of aircraft or training best suited to the particular conditions, would be a powerful organization indeed. No such organization now exists. "Sea power" is another machine of the same kind. An organization which could similarly use the combined power of the United States and Royal Navies and their respective merchant fleets to put troops ashore at any desired spot, to supply them and to support them to the full capabilities of modern naval artillery and aviation--or for that matter to supply and support troops already on the ground, as they are in Formosa, in Greece, in Turkey and in Jugoslavia--could again be a very powerful instrument of policy.
Admittedly, it will be some years before the structure of Western defense can be rebuilt to a point at which it will be capable of containing an all-out assault upon Western Europe by the Red Army in full strength. Until that time the atomic threat, for whatever it is worth, must continue to be the main reliance against such an eventuality. But it does not follow that the West in the meanwhile must remain militarily impotent. The West is seriously deficient in ground troops. If, however, it is fallacious to imagine that "air power" or "sea power" can be substitutes or alternates for "land power," there is no fallacy in observing that the West's dominance at sea and its relative strength in military aircraft (of all types and services) can immensely increase the effectiveness of the ground troops it does have. Command of the sea confers upon them the priceless advantage of mobility, and strength in the air gives them a tremendous additional firepower wherever they may be deployed. Properly combined and used, these advantages already confer upon the West very considerable powers for military containment.
We do not yet know the outcome in Korea. As this is written, however, there seems much reason for hope that in the end it will stand as a successful case of military containment--at a point where success was absolutely vital to the entire containment policy--achieved at a cost which, heavy and tragic as it now is, will still be negligible in comparison with the total resources of the Western world. And even this cost would obviously have been far less had the situation been foreseen, had policy been firmly determined in advance and had the then available Western resources been marshalled to meet the crisis.
It is possible, of course, that the hope will be defeated; that the Russians and Chinese will mass another and still greater effort, that the commitment will become too great for the possible gains, and that evacuation will have to be accepted. Even so, the sea will make evacuation possible at a time which the West can choose; it will be a battle lost, rather than a war, and lost under circumstances which will make containment along the new line much easier than it would have been had Korea simply been surrendered to the first push of Communist armed force. This is the worst possibility. So far, all one can say is that the original line has substantially been held; and while the holding consumed almost all the military strength which was formed and available in the United States and elsewhere in June 1950, it has put only a minor drain upon our total mobilizable power. Of all our tremendous rearmament effort, very little as yet is actually earmarked for Korea.
One hopes that our enforced resort to military containment in Korea will prove as successful an investment in the end as was our resort to political-economic containment in Greece and Turkey in 1947. Meanwhile, there are other areas where military containment may have to be envisaged, along with political and economic counter force. There is Formosa. There is Indo-China, gateway to Burma, Malaya and Indonesia. There is Jugoslavia, gateway to Greece, Turkey and Italy. There is, though less immediately under pressure, the Scandinavian Peninsula. In respect to all of these a definite plan of action, utilizing all available services and resources, based on the mobility conferred by the sea, the immediate air support which carrier-borne aviation can bring to each of these areas, the possibility of committing land-based air and ground troops without forfeiting the ability to take them off again if need be, would probably have powerful political effect.
Such reasoning obviously lays one open to the charge of advocating a series of small, indecisive peripheral wars, which would "suck in" and waste our whole military strength, leaving us helpless against the hypothetical big encounter, or would alternatively bring on a huge continental conflict before the combined strength of the West was equal to sustaining it. On such grounds the Korean war has already been bitterly criticized. One may perhaps venture certain answering observations. In Korea it is not only Western strength which has been expended; the Soviet imperial system as a whole has certainly felt the strain, and may have felt it even more acutely than the West. It has seen one of its satellite armies--the original North Korean Army, formed, equipped and trained for this particular job of expansion--destroyed as a military force. It has seen the Chinese 4th Army, which is not only the best-trained and best-equipped but also the most pro-Russian command in Red China, heavily mauled. Some observers believe that the 4th Army has in effect been withdrawn from the campaign, not because it was defeated but because it was too valuable a political-military instrument to be further risked. If so, this would in itself represent a considerable victory for Western arms. There have at the same time been heavy losses in tanks, artillery and similar matériel; no doubt a small matter for the Red Army itself, but making it so much the harder to supply other satellite forces for other adventures. The situation is obscure. But what appears to be current U.N. strategy, summed up in the remark recently attributed to a British officer in Korea to the effect that "Ridgway's interests are homicidal, not geographical," reflects a belief that in Korea the West can do more damage to the basic military potential of the Communist empire than the Communists can do to that of the West.
As for the continental war in Asia, the sea leaves the West with the choice. It has always been difficult to understand the panic lest the United States get drawn into a vast war in China. For a century and a half Western Powers have waged wars with and within China without ever being dragged into such an imagined morass--the reason being that the Western Powers always operated from the sea base and were always able to apply or withdraw pressure as the political ends seemed to dictate. It was only the Japanese, who set out to conquer the country, who got bogged down in a Chinese continental war--and as we discovered in 1941, even they were not bogged down as badly as we had assumed.
Finally, Korea is undoubtedly a "peripheral" action, and an application of its lessons elsewhere might well produce more of them. But in any policy of containment it is the periphery which is vital. Total wars cannot be won or lost on the periphery; but we have not yet reached total war, and it is the whole aim of the containment policy to insure that we never shall. If we do not use the great forces we now have, with skill and resolution and unity of plan, to hold the periphery, then all we can look forward to is the total war, for which our forces are as yet admittedly inadequate.
The plain consequence of all this is not to rebuild "sea power" into a new fetish, but to put a much greater emphasis on sea communications, sea-borne weapons (in which one may well include the amphibious Marines) and sea-based combined operations than has hitherto been accorded them. It would be better, of course, to have the power on the ground, where ultimately it will be needed. To some extent, the argument has run parallel here with arguments of certain British critics in the inter-war period, who held that with the mobility and striking power conferred by her ships, aircraft and tanks, Britain could sufficiently control events on the Continent without an undue commitment of men. As a general theory of war it had its flaws. But as an interim policy, under conditions such that the men cannot quickly be provided, it is not to be despised. And even in considering another general war, the sea--always assuming that it is used in proper combination with all other services operating in all other elements--has its uses.
Probably the best way to prevent another general war is to establish a ground power in Western Europe strong enough to insure that any Soviet attempt to overrun it would prove unprofitable. If the attempt, nevertheless, should be made, there would be other ways in which to paralyze the thrust besides either reinforcing on the Rhine or dropping atomic bombs on Moscow. John A. Lukacs[ii] has pointed to the comparatively narrow throat between Koenigsberg and Odessa through which all Soviet effort toward the West has to be channelled. This space between the Black Sea and the Baltic is only 750 miles wide (no more than about twice the length of the Northern Korean border) and is further narrowed by the Pripet marshes. It is accessible by sea at both ends, with easy landing beaches for any Power equipped with the ships and air cover to bring men to them and with the amphibious forces to make good the foothold. Mr. Lukacs also observes the rather remarkable sensitivity which Russia has always manifested toward any threat in either the Baltic or the Black Seas. No doubt one should not draw exaggerated conclusions from this. But here at least is a possible opportunity for a properly coördinated ground-sea-air team that might offer decisive results if the Third World War should be joined. It might even--provided the naval as well as ground and land-based air components necessary to take advantage of it were available--have a more important effect than the atomic bomb in averting such a catrastrophe.
"Sea power" as a concept may have outlived its usefulness. The sea, as a great highway of both aggression and of defense, as a platform and base for weapons which can now range far beyond its limiting coastlines, as an element over which complete corps and even armies can now be manœuvred, deployed or withdrawn (as was once, of course, impossible) remains a tremendous military asset, and an asset largely in the hands of the West. But as has been said, it is an asset of value only as it is properly invested in conjunction with all the other assets at hand. Much nonsense was once talked about contests between the "mastodon and the whale" (Russia and Britain), to which some in later years have added the "eagle" as a third member of the cast. A mastodon obviously never could have fought a whale, nor could an eagle do much about either. Modern warfare is beyond such absurdities. All the arms and services today are caught in the same matrix; all are to some extent "triphibious;" their common problem is how to use the capacities of each to the best effect in a total combination. It must, for the Western Powers, be a combination in which the sea takes important place, not as "sea power" but as a vehicle for that national power which can best employ the advantages which the ocean offers.
[i] Influence may be exerted by bribe as well as by threat; by the "carrot" as well as by the "stick." But the carrot does not lie within the competence of the military arm.
[ii] United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Washington, D.C., November 1950.