The United States is in the throes of another fundamental reexamination of defense strategy and posture comparable to that leading to primary reliance on nuclear deterrence in the early 1950s. This culminates a process which began over 20 years ago, as U.S. planners first began to grapple with the implications of likely Soviet catching up in nuclear capabilities. Now that nuclear stalemate is a fact of life, U.S. attention is turning to alternative strategies relying even more on conventional capabilities than the current strategic doctrine of flexible response. While crucial nuclear issues must still be addressed, this article will focus chiefly on the leading non-nuclear alternatives now under debate.

To oversimplify, one is a maritime supremacy strategy which tacitly acknowledges Soviet military predominance on the Eurasian landmass and stresses U.S. exploitation of the medium which we can most readily dominate-the sea. The other calls for trying harder to generate a credible conventional defense of such high priority areas as Western Europe, Northeast Asia, and the oil-rich Persian Gulf littoral, primarily via greater coalition burden sharing and a more efficient collective effort. At present the Reagan Administration is trying to ride both horses. Since conventional capabilities are so much more expensive than nuclear, however, economic constraints may force on it the necessity for choice.


The chief factor impelling the United States toward a new strategy has been the gradual improvement of Soviet nuclear capabilities, to the point where they make a U.S. deterrent strategy based primarily on nuclear retaliation lose a great deal of its earlier utility and appeal. Of course, from the dawn of the nuclear age there have been voices arguing that nuclear weapons of mass destruction were too terrible ever to be used, hence that adequate conventional strength was also essential to deterrence. Nor has fear of U.S. nuclear retaliation stopped Soviet exploitation of vulnerable targets in the Third World, although it has no doubt helped deter any Soviet designs on major U.S. allies. Indeed, the United States itself has been self-deterred by the awesome nature of the atom it unleashed. Though the United States fought two major limited conflicts at a time when it enjoyed massive nuclear superiority, it never seriously contemplated nuclear escalation.

Instead the United States, seeing that defense-on-the-cheap via "massive retaliation" would have declining deterrent credibility as the Soviets gradually caught up, took the lead in seeking alternative strategies less dependent on nuclear escalation. Gerard Smith describes how as early as 1958 he convinced John Foster Dulles that "massive retaliation" was becoming outdated and got the Secretary to so advise the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).1 The Kennedy Administration, spurred by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, shifted in 1962 to a "flexible response" doctrine which called for building up conventional forces to permit an initial non-nuclear threshold (and make it more credible).

However, U.S. attempts to get NATO agreement to this revised strategy ran into strong European resistance, not least to the costly conventional buildup entailed. Our allies still preferred nuclear defense on the cheap, especially since the United States (for its own reasons) kept footing most of the nuclear bills. Not until late 1967 did NATO officially adopt "flexible response," and then only in a deliberately ambiguous compromise formulation (MC 14/3). This permitted the Europeans to interpret the strategy as calling for a brief conventional "pause," with only a modestly strengthened tripwire to trigger nuclear escalation, whereas the Americans favored building toward an indefinite conventional defense.

In 1973-75, after our long Vietnam entanglement, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger returned to the fray. He found our allies almost as reluctant as ever to pay the price for a more "stalwart" conventional defense. Then the Carter Administration picked up the cudgels. Its Long Term Defense Program and other arms cooperation proposals were aimed primarily at co-opting our NATO allies into a sustained non-nuclear mutual buildup, to be funded by at least three-percent annual growth in defense spending. As so often, our allies embraced the goals but, in contrast to the United States, have fallen short to date on their performance.

We simultaneously responded to growing European concern over the adverse "Euro-strategic balance" (Helmut Schmidt's phrase) being created by Soviet SS-20 missile and Backfire bomber deployments at a time of strategic nuclear stalemate. But this long-range theater nuclear force modernization program was not the centerpiece of our NATO initiatives. It was more an add-on designed to reassure our allies that no "gap" in the deterrent spectrum would be allowed to develop while we all focused on thickening NATO's conventional shield. Even 572 missiles (464 ground-launched cruise missiles-GLGMs-and 108 Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles) were not regarded as providing NATO with a militarily adequate escalatory option. Besides, GLCMs (with relatively long flight times) are not much of a first strike system; instead, they would serve primarily to prevent the U.S.S.R. from holding Europe a nuclear hostage.

Nor was the United States ever enthusiastic about the buildup of British and French nuclear forces. We regarded them as superfluous, potentially destabilizing (could we rely on de Gaulle not to pull the nuclear trigger?), and almost inevitably funded at the expense of U.K. and French conventional forces. Though we aided U.K. nuclear force modernization, most recently in promising to provide Trident II missiles, this was essentially because we saw the U.K. as determined to modernize anyway, and hence calculated that we might as well help it do so less expensively in order to minimize the impact on its conventional NATO contribution.

In short, it is we Americans who have been trying for over 20 years to get our allies to move away from dangerous over-reliance on nuclear weapons. It is allied governments which have clung to the U.S. nuclear crutch, primarily because of their reluctance to pay for adequate conventional forces. Thus it is ironic to find a large segment of European opinion accusing the United States of wanting to fight a theater nuclear war at Europe's expense.

Similarly, the United States has almost always taken the lead in efforts to help tame the nuclear monster via arms control. The apparent interruption of this process-when the Congress failed to ratify SALT II and then the Reagan Administration deliberately held back so that the United States could negotiate later from a "position of strength"-turned out to be a grave tactical error, which the Administration is belatedly seeking to rectify. Its hesitancy, at a time when the superpower nuclear competition is creating such high levels of destructive power on both sides, has stimulated a rising popular reaction in the West. This climate has contributed to outside proposals for a U.S. "no-first-use" pledge, various forms of nuclear freeze, or even unilateral disarmament. At bottom these are symptoms of an underlying fact of life-that the advent of nuclear stalemate makes a NATO strategy based primarily on nuclear retaliation less and less appealing to the very people it is designed to protect.

This factor has spawned another problem-growing questioning of a Western alliance system based primarily on U.S. nuclear deterrence. Reliance on the U.S. nuclear commitment to defend Western Europe has long been the glue which held NATO together. While many centrifugal tendencies have created recurrent strains in the alliance, the decreasing credibility and appeal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella is surely the most serious to date. As former Secretary Schlesinger has said, "the fatal flaw in the Western alliance system is its over-reliance on nuclear deterrence."2

Another impetus to the search for a new U.S. strategy is the so-called "three front" problem created by the emergence of a power vacuum in the oil-rich Middle East. After 1945, U.S. strategic thinking focused primarily on defense of Europe and Northeast Asia, and the U.S. force posture was geared to a sizing scenario of "21/2 wars," i.e., coping with the Soviet threat in Europe and a Sino-Soviet threat in the Far East, plus a limited war somewhere in the Third World. Exploiting the Sino-Soviet split enabled the Nixon-Ford Administration to accommodate to America's post-Vietnam defense cutbacks by sizing our forces for only "11/2 wars." But the demise of our Central Treaty alliance (CENTO), the fall of the Shah, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan have now compelled the United States to assume the added burden of countering Soviet ability to dominate Persian Gulf oil-the economic lifeblood of our chief allies. The Carter Administration sought to fill this new strategic vacuum-hence also to deter Soviet exploitation of local instability-by boldly asserting the Carter Doctrine and backing it up by creation of a new Rapid Development Force (RDF). But severe resource constraints, plus the sheer distance of the United States from the area, have led many critics to aver that the emperor has no clothes.

U.S. difficulty in coping with the "three front" problem (including Northeast Asia) has been compounded by the widening gap between U.S. and Soviet defense spending. While the U.S.S.R. has been slowly but steadily increasing its defense effort for nearly 20 years, the United States first diverted no less than $300 billion in today's dollars to fighting the Vietnam War and then cut spending in the aftermath. Not until Fiscal Year 1977 did real U.S. defense outlays turn significantly upward. Since the United States spends so much more proportionally on volunteer personnel, the gap between U.S. and Soviet defense investment has become even wider. Indeed, though NATO as a whole still spends slightly more than the Warsaw Pact, even total NATO defense investment is considerably less than the Pact's. Thus the Western alliance has a lot to do to catch up.


These painful developments have created what the Joint Chiefs of Staff call a serious "mismatch between our strategy and our resources." As the Chief of Naval Operations colorfully put its maritime aspect, "we have a one-and-a-half ocean navy to deal with a three ocean war." NATO deterrence/defense capabilities in Europe are also below the level of prudence. Credible protection of Persian Gulf oil demands far more of an effort than presently projected, especially in fast sealift/airlift and in regional facilities on which to base the RDF if we can get it there in time.

This disconnect between our strategic aims and our capabilities to achieve them is becoming increasingly critical at a time when nuclear deterrence on the cheap can no longer be so heavily relied upon to deter anything but nuclear escalation, yet when substituting conventional deterrence is exceedingly expensive. It is difficult to see how the United States can assure adequate conventional deterrence/defense in three widely separated geographic theaters without much higher defense outlays than are currently foreseeable, or much greater help from its allies.

To its credit, the Reagan Administration has launched a more vigorous attack on the "mismatch" problem than any of its last three predecessors. It has sought $1.6 trillion in defense authorizations for 1982-86. Unfortunately it also seems to have adopted an even more ambitious strategy. Rejecting the 11/2-war or even 21/2-war scenarios, it calls for developing the capability to meet an even wider range of global contingencies simultaneously if necessary, including "horizontal escalation" by carrying a war "to other arenas" more advantageous to us, if we are disadvantaged at the point of initial attack.3 According to press leaks, a Pentagon study indicates that up to $750 billion more, a nearly 50-percent increase, would be required to provide the forces the Joint Chiefs consider necessary to carry out this strategy.

Given current economic prospects, there is no way in which such huge add-ons are likely to be voted. Nor is it likely that our allies will be prepared to vote comparable increases to help close the gap. Even with economic recovery, neither the U.S. Congress nor allied parliaments will find such huge add-ons politically tolerable, except perhaps in a serious crisis-by which time they might well be too late. Hence the Administration, now that it has rediscovered the resource constraints endemic to free societies, has belatedly begun to face up to the necessity for choice.

This necessity is stimulating a lively strategic debate in Washington, which parallels the corollary debate over how much the United States can afford to spend on catching up with the Soviet military effort. Regrettably the professional body to which the Administration would logically turn for advice, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is far less able to reassess strategy than to clamor for more resources, a systemic weakness which underlies the long-overdue need to reform the system by which the nation gets top level military advice.

Indeed, given the way the U.S. system works, how much does "strategy" in fact lay a peacetime basis for U.S. defense programs and force posture? As Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 1979 to 1981, I sympathized with the JCS complaint about the "mismatch between our strategy and our resources," but found it essentially a plea for more resources to carry out the same old strategy. Indeed the "single service veto" makes the present JCS system institutionally incapable of choosing between different strategic options if Service oxen would be gored. As I then argued, to the extent resources remained constrained, we ought to rethink our strategy too, and try harder to gear our force posture to our strategic priorities. Instead it tends to be dictated by service parochialism and such domestic political considerations as which defense contractors get what. The systems analysis approach which dominates Defense Department decision-making also often dictates sub-optimal decisions based on weapons systems cost-effectiveness rather than on strategic needs. But the essence of peacetime strategic decision-making must be to face up to the tough choices between competing missions and related capabilities when we can't do everything we want.


As the United States grapples with this necessity, two broad competing schools of thought have emerged in the Pentagon. Significantly, both schools accept the premise that credible deterrence now requires that the United States and its allies be prepared to fight a longer conventional war with the U.S.S.R.-not just achieve a brief conventional "pause" which serves primarily as a tripwire for nuclear escalation. This is not to say that the United States should abandon nuclear deterrence, or fail to maintain adequate capabilities for this purpose, but that in an era of nuclear stalemate such capabilities serve more to prevent the other side from nuclear escalation than to deter conventional conflict. According to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, the United States is not seeking to recapture nuclear superiority, as indicated by the fact that only 15 percent of his proposed five-year defense program-close to the historical average-is devoted to nuclear modernization.4

Both schools also recognize the need for maritime superiority, since sea control is indispensable to our overseas force projection strategy. But they differ sharply over what this means and what kind of navy is essential for the purpose. One school emphasizes maritime supremacy as the dominant consumer of constrained defense dollars. It believes that the United States, as a continental island, must put primary reliance on its ability not only to command the seas but to use them for offensive force projection against the U.S.S.R. The other school bases its case on traditional balance of power considerations, hence continues to stress a more balanced land/air/sea strategy and posture aimed at helping our allies hold on to such areas of vital interest as Northeast Asia, the Persian Gulf and Western Europe. It is most powerfully articulated by the U.S. Army.

The first school naturally tends to be more unilateralist in outlook, not relying unduly on what it regards as our feeble and weak-willed allies.5 The second, believing that allied contributions are indispensable to any viable deterrent strategy, emphasizes rejuvenating our alliances and moving toward more of a coalition defense of those land areas around the Eurasian periphery which remain vital interests of the West.

The tension between these schools is reminiscent of the long-standing debate over "maritime strategy vs. continental commitment" which recurrently flared up in times past between the Admiralty and War Office of another island nation-the U.K.6 It also reflects the same underlying constraint which fueled the earlier debates in Whitehall-the peacetime unwillingness of democratic governments to spend what is necessary for preparedness, even when they recognize that far higher costs in blood and treasure would result if unpreparedness leads to war. This constraint makes service competition for scarce budget dollars drive strategic argument in the United States-as earlier in the U.K.

At least the maritime supremacy school faces up to the fiscal facts of life and makes strategic choices. Since the United States must control the seas in any case to project force overseas, and because it (and its allies) are far more dependent on overseas trade and resources than the autarkic Soviet Union, the naval primacy advocates contend that the United States must cope with expanding Soviet naval capabilities even if the needs of other services suffer.

This traditional institutional preference of the U.S. Navy, like the Royal Navy before it, has acquired new relevance from what its adherents see as NATO's failure to generate sufficient capabilities to offer high-confidence defense of Western Europe, and the emergence of new threats to vital U.S. interests (such as Persian Gulf oil) from growing Soviet capabilities for force projection into the Third World. Ergo, this school criticizes what it regards as the Eurocentric focus of previous U.S. strategy, which even called until recently for "swinging" much of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific to the Atlantic in the event of a NATO-Warsaw Pact war.

In any case, it argues, allied shortcomings make credible land/air defense of Europe futile, while we lack sufficient allied help or even bases in the area to permit successful land/air defense of the Gulf oil fields. Therefore, to deter attack on them we must rely principally on threatened "horizontal escalation," a capability to retaliate against Soviet aggression where command of the sea confers a U.S. advantage-not where Soviet land power is at its closest and strongest, like Europe or the Persian Gulf. For example, why not develop the capacity to sweep the Soviet navy, its merchant fleet and fishing trawlers from the seas?

A related argument of the maritime supremacy school is that direct U.S. regional conflict with the Soviet Union could not be contained. Our forces at sea face each other at so many places, and are so mixed up together, that anti-submarine skippers or submarine captains would have to exercise the inherent right of self-defense. This logically buttresses the "horizontal escalation" argument. If any regional conflict involving both superpowers will inevitably escalate in any case, then why not seize the initiative elsewhere?

Allied to this perception of likely rapid global expansion of any U.S./U.S.S.R. regional conflict is the maritime supremacy school's contention that the United States must be prepared to carry the war "simultaneously" to the enemy in all relevant theaters, at least at sea. From this presumably springs the costly requirement for at least 15 big-carrier battle groups, preferably nuclear-powered.

It is important to note at this point that the issue is not whether sea control is essential. It is-for any viable conventional strategy. The real issue is what kind of and how expensive a Navy we want. In the Carter Administration, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown's policy guidance for strategic and program planning also stressed the need for command of the sea whenever and wherever essential. But rather than near-simultaneity, with its large demands for big ships, he proposed to exploit the inherent flexibility of naval power for "sequential" operations, hitting the enemy first in one place and then shifting strike forces to hit them in another. For this, 12 big carriers were deemed to suffice.

The demand for 15 big-carrier battle groups is not generated primarily by the classic maritime mission of protecting sea lines of communication to permit vital trade and overseas reinforcement. Instead, these big fast carriers with their complement of costly F-14 and F-18 fighters and fighter-bombers and their accompanying Aegis cruisers for anti-bomber or missile protection, are designed primarily for offensive force projection against Soviet land targets-among other things to cripple the Soviet navy in its home bases. The maritime school sees this as the best way to maintain sea control, and to permit countervailing operations where the Soviets are most vulnerable.

These are legitimate strategic arguments, not Service propaganda that we must meet treaty commitments "to 40 nations," or that we need 600 ships or some other magic number. In fact, if one counts allied as well as U.S. ships, the present total is more than 900 ships, with more than double the tonnage of the ships of the U.S.S.R. and its allies.


Nonetheless, there are serious questions as to whether a strategy of maritime supremacy built around 15 big-carrier battle groups would suffice to protect our vital interests overseas. First, many critics contend that the big carrier is vulnerable to Soviet Naval Aviation Backfire bombers firing anti-ship missiles, as well as to cruise missiles and submarines. With Soviet sea-surveillance satellites combing the earth's oceans, can big-carrier task forces avoid detection and missiles fired at them from sea, air, and ultimately even land? Already most of the $17-billion cost of a new carrier battle group must be spent on self-protection, which leaves each carrier with only modest offensive power against land targets at realistic ranges-presently a dozen or so A-6 bombers carrying conventional bombs.

Are carrier-launched bombers the best way to attack shore targets anyway? Perhaps so for many Third World targets, but for attack against heavily defended targets on land, senior admirals like former Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt argue that proliferating long-range cruise missiles like Tomahawk on existing and new ships provides a better and less vulnerable mode of attack. That the current Navy leadership is also persuaded of their efficacy is suggested by its plans to put over a thousand Tomahawks in submarines, cruisers, and even four refurbished battleships.

Nor do professionals like Admirals Zumwalt, Worth Bagley and Stansfield Turner see big carriers as essential for sea-lane control. Long before the civilian "reform caucus" in the Congress, they were arguing that we should invest instead in smaller carriers and in innovative new small ship technology like hydrofoil and twin-hull platforms and vertical or short takeoff (VSTOL) aircraft. In many respects, the transition of the Royal Navy to a primarily sea control force is a useful model.

In any event, how seriously could carrier strikes hurt a great Eurasian heartland power like the U.S.S.R.? This is the basic strategic flaw in the maritime supremacy strategy. Even if all Soviet ships were swept from the high seas and all Soviet home and overseas naval bases put out of action, could this prevent the U.S.S.R. from retaliating by overrunning Europe and the Middle East oil fields, emasculating or cowing China, or mounting a land-based missile and air threat to nearby Japan which would dwarf Hitler's 1944 V-1 and V-2 threat to wartime England? Sweeping up the Soviet navy, nibbling at the U.S.S.R.'s maritime flanks, even dealing with Soviet surrogates like Cuba, South Yemen, Ethiopia and Vietnam would hardly suffice to prevent a great Eurasian heartland power like the U.S.S.R. from dominating our chief allies, any more than naval superiority was decisive in defeating Germany in two world wars.

Thus a predominantly maritime strategy would offer little hope of preventing a decisive shift in the military balance of power against the United States and its remaining allies. Somehow, maritime strategists-whether in Whitehall or the Pentagon-tend to ignore those basic balance-of-power factors which compelled Britain for three centuries to intervene repeatedly on the Continent, and which must be the basis of U.S. strategy as well.

Another major flaw in the maritime strategy is that it would play hob with the alliance system itself. At a time when Soviet military capabilities are outstripping those of the United States, perhaps our most important remaining strategic advantage over the U.S.S.R. is that we are blessed with many rich allies, while the Soviets have only a few poor ones. This has enabled us collectively to fashion a mutual defense at far less cost than if we each had to defend ourselves alone.

But our chief allies would quickly perceive the implications of a maritime supremacy strategy, particularly if budget constraints compelled us to write off as unsustainable our land/air commitments to the defense of Western Europe and Persian Gulf oil. Few would welcome a maritime strategy aimed primarily at naval dominance, even if it protected their own trade, if the price were to expose them to defeat at home. Our already restive allies would correctly perceive such a U.S. strategy as at best a form of unilateral U.S. global interventionism and at worst a form of neoisolationism. Pressures for accommodation with the U.S.S.R. would be powerfully enhanced.

In fact, could the United States even conduct a successful "countervailing strategy" of sweeping the Soviets from the oceans and bottling them up in the narrow seas without active cooperation from our allies? Barring the Dardanelles would require Turkish participation. Closing the Baltic exits would be difficult without the Scandinavians and U.K. Penning up the Soviet Pacific Fleet in the Sea of Okhotsk would require the cooperation of Japan. If the United States could not guarantee their security, it is doubtful whether any of them would cooperate.

The maritime strategists also point out, inconsistently with their taste for horizontal escalation, that a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict and even a direct Soviet thrust at Persian Gulf oil are the least likely contingencies. The more likely contingencies are in the volatile Third World, well suited for use of flexible naval power based on big carriers and strong Marine amphibious forces for forcible entry. True enough, but it is risky to fall prey to this "likelihood fallacy." By the same token, nuclear conflict is the least likely contingency of all; should we therefore not bother to maintain strong nuclear deterrent capabilities? Just because the likelihood of direct threats to our most vital interests is relatively low is no reason for not continuing to invest heavily in keeping them low. The Western alliance has survived the "loss" of Cuba, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, South Yemen, even Vietnam. Could it survive as well the loss of Europe or Persian Gulf oil?


If maritime supremacy is a "no-win" strategy, does the alternative of rejuvenating our alliances via more rational burden sharing offer sufficient promise of credible conventional deterrence/defense of Western Europe, Northeast Asia and Persian Gulf oil at a politically acceptable cost? Here the issue is less one of military desirability than of economic feasibility and political will. The "coalition" school sees our present strategy as sound, and focuses chiefly on how to generate sufficient collective capabilities to make it work.

The Western coalition still dwarfs the Soviet bloc in overall economic strength. Moreover, the relative growth in allied gross national product (GNP) vis-à-vis that of the United States would logically suggest that the United States could expect its allies to assume a larger share of the burden of collective defense. To date, however, this has not occurred. While modestly increasing defense spending, none of our major allies has yet picked up much of the slack created by the diversion of U.S. resources to the Persian Gulf, or responded adequately to the alarming growth of Soviet military power. Japan, the ally with the second strongest economy, has contributed the lowest proportion to the common defense, behind even little Denmark in the proportion of GNP it spends.

Nor have the allies given much more than lip service to the concept of more rational burden sharing. Though the Western coalition still spends more collectively on defense than the entire Soviet bloc, paradoxically its high manpower costs, plus the waste and inefficiency inherent in its overlapping and duplicatory defense establishments, permit Soviet bloc defense investment to overshadow that of the allies.7 National particularism and the search for commercial advantage still reign supreme.

Given vigorous U.S. leadership (without which nothing much seems to happen in NATO), it might be possible to change the shape of this problem. The experience of the Carter Administration in attempting to fashion a stronger and more efficient NATO defense is instructive on this score. During the period from 1977 to 1980 it launched a comprehensive set of initiatives, including (1) a series of short-run "quick fix" defense improvements to demonstrate seriousness of purpose; (2) a proposed Long Term Defense Program designed to rectify through collective effort some of the most serious deficiencies in NATO capabilities; (3) a sizably increased NATO infrastructure program; (4) an effort to hold all allies to the three-percent real annual budget growth pledge adopted in 1977;8 (5) expanded cooperation in armaments research development and production, spurred by a U.S. pledge to allow more of a "two-way street" in reciprocal procurement; and (6) expanded "host nation support" for U.S. forces. Note that all the above dealt with conventional force needs; only the seventh initiative, a proposed long-range theater nuclear force modernization (LRTNF) program, was aimed at preserving nuclear deterrent credibility during the period of conventional buildup. All told, these initiatives added up to a major attempt, the most wide-ranging ever launched in NATO, to realize the benefits inherent in a more effective coalition approach.

That this attempt has enjoyed only limited success to date seems attributable less to faulty design than to the economic downturn and accelerated inflation triggered partly by the second major round of oil price increases in 1979. In the event, even the modest three-percent real growth target proved too high, though it did serve (and is still serving) as a useful lever to jack up collective defense spending higher than otherwise-including that of the United States. The hardest nut to crack was greater armaments cooperation, but even here significant gains were registered in joint projects like U.S. adoption of the German 120-mm tank gun, purchase of other allied military equipment, and several innovative joint development projects.

Another cause of the slowdown was diversion of U.S. attention to the perceived threat to Western access to vital Persian Gulf oil, consequent upon the fall of the Shah of Iran and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. By 1980 U.S. emphasis shifted to shoring up feeble Western deterrent capabilities in the Indian Ocean area. We warned our European and Japanese allies that this would necessarily involve significant diversions of resources otherwise ear-marked for NATO and Pacific defense. At least this had the desirable impact of compelling U.S. and allied planners to face up to the necessity of a more "rational division of labor," as advocated by Chancellor Schmidt. Since only the United States has the costly long-range force projection capabilities needed for Persian Gulf deterrence/defense, and allied contributions could at best be only limited, it makes military sense for the allies to concentrate on shoring up their own home defense capabilities (compensating inter alia for any U.S. diversions). While the United States accepted Schmidt's concept, the European compensatory add-ons are as yet hard to find.

Though the 1977-79 initiatives have had only limited success (the next Administration's failure to keep pressing them added to their loss of momentum), a new incentive is coming increasingly into play. To the extent that our allies perceive as we do the need for a stronger conventional deterrent to offset the declining credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella at a time of nuclear stalemate, it should be possible to fashion a stronger consensus to this end. At the very least the United States should put this proposition to its allies.

However, a note of caution is necessary here too. Their memories of World War II's destructiveness still vivid, the Europeans are fearful of a replay which over time could create casualties and damage comparable to a nuclear exchange. U.S. talk of extended conventional conflict feeds these fears, besides entailing peacetime preparedness outlays that even constrained U.S. resources are inadequate to fund. Hence NATO must realistically continue to stress deterrence-as the best way to forestall in the first place a conventional as well as a nuclear war which no one could really win. A strong initial defense which can outlast a Soviet blitzkrieg maximizes deterrence; historically speaking, general staffs do not plan long wars; the attacker invariably seeks decision in the first campaign, knowing that if he fails, all else becomes uncertain. To do otherwise is just too risky, especially in a nuclear age.

Yet, is even initial conventional deterrence/defense of NATO Europe feasible at reasonably affordable cost? The Warsaw Pact threat is formidable, and at present NATO can only put up a thin linear defense without much depth to absorb an armor-heavy breakthrough. But this defense could be greatly strengthened by several relatively inexpensive defensive measures which, taken together, would hardly be beyond Alliance grasp. For example, NATO should capitalize on the fact that the urbanization of Central Europe is creating a form of urban barrier system which is already a serious obstacle to large-scale armored maneuver. If West Germany would reconsider its political reluctance to fortify the inner German border, this barrier could be supplemented by a classic economy of force measure, field fortification (my model is the old Siegfried line, not the Maginot) along the few well-known corridors of likely enemy advance. Manning this urban barrier system largely with additional reservist infantry units formed from the large pool of European conscripts would help create a defense in depth to slow down any Soviet blitzkrieg, while freeing up allied armored units for their optimal counterattack role.

Nor need NATO be mesmerized by misleading equipment counts like a three-to-one superiority of Warsaw Pact over NATO tanks. The equation is much more complex. Proliferation of ground and helicopter-launched anti-tank missiles, mines delivered dynamically on the battlefield by artillery and rocket launchers, and other defensive systems would all help to equalize the balance. Promising systems to attack Soviet follow-on forces at longer ranges are also under development.

NATO-Warsaw Pact comparisons also tend to leave out the main sources of rapid reinforcement-nearby France and the United States.9 Using prepositioned equipment and flying over its forces, the United States plans to double its ground forces and triple its tactical air forces in Europe within less than two weeks, provided that the Europeans contribute bases, depots and other facilities, and some of the air/sealift. This "transatlantic bargain" is so favorable to Europe that it is hard to grasp why our allies (especially West Germany) still cavil over funding the modest NATO infrastructure increases required.

But perhaps the greatest single added input, through both forces and logistic support, could come from France. For example, it would be difficult to sustain for long the reinforcements the United States plans to send to NATO without additional lines of communication across France. Practical French cooperation with her allies, beyond what is already discreetly under way, is far more important than whether she rejoins NATO's military wing. Hence, it is to be hoped that France will examine whether the declining credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella does not force a reexamination of a policy which no longer accords with her own interests-and is certainly hard on her allies. It may not be too much to say that whether NATO can achieve a credible non-nuclear initial defense posture in the crucial Center Region will depend on the key role played by France.

Of course, many other measures (especially high technology) are available to strengthen non-nuclear defense; the above were selected largely to show what could be done at reasonable cost, though they involve difficult political choices. As one measure of what added funding NATO needs, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Bernard Rogers, estimates that his new 1983-88 force goals could be met with only four-percent real defense budget growth. Assuming economic recovery, it is hard to believe that the Alliance could not afford added defense outlays of this size.

Deterrence/defense against a Soviet military threat to Persian Gulf oil is a trickier proposition. Only one thing is certain-that a maritime strategy of sweeping the Soviet fleet from the Indian Ocean could not prevent a Soviet sweep overland to seize the oil fields themselves. Nor could marines landing at the Straits of Hormuz. Sea power would only suffice to secure the oil access routes, of no strategic value if we lose the oil fields themselves. While the area's geographic remoteness and lack of adequate U.S. basing facilities would greatly handicap sustained U.S. defense of the oil fields, fast enough deployment of even limited forces to create a "tripwire" would compel Moscow to consider the risks of direct U.S.-Soviet confrontation if it pressed home an attack. In considering the deterrent value of such a Rapid Deployment Force, it is worth remembering that neither superpower has seen to take on the other directly.


The rapid economic growth of Japan, and the emerging parallelism of strategic interest between China, Japan and the United States, make East Asia the theater offering the most interesting new strategic opportunities. With the world's third largest GNP and still impressive economic growth, Japan's defense outlays of less than nine-tenths of one percent of GNP make it an obvious candidate for greater burden sharing, especially when it is the largest single consumer of Persian Gulf oil. Moreover, Japan's selfish reliance on U.S. and South Korean taxpayers for the better part of its own defense smacks of a "free ride" which enhances Japan's commercial competitiveness at the expense of its allies. Under these circumstances, Japan is becoming a favorite target of U.S. defense planners, seeking ways of getting Japan to contribute more to its own defense, including that of the adjacent sea lanes on which its livelihood depends.

Given Japan's special political problems, its further contributions to the common defense could be largely indirect. Increased Japanese economic aid to threatened countries around the Soviet periphery would free these countries to spend more of their own resources on defense. For example, South Korea has a good case in seeking concessional loans from Japan, on the ground that Korea, in spending over six percent of GNP on its own defense, is providing Japan a better defensive buffer zone.

The parallel strategic interest of the United States, Japan and China in deterring the U.S.S.R. also creates a potential two-front threat-in-being which Moscow cannot ignore. Already from one-fourth to one-third of Soviet conventional forces are tied down opposite China and Japan, even though neither nation has much offensive capability for threatening Soviet territory. Offering Western technology, financed directly or indirectly by Japanese loans, to strengthen China's defensive capabilities would be a classic strategic option, historically employed to deter a strong opponent by confronting it with risks of a two-front conflict.

On the other hand, if reducing the likelihood that the United State might be confronted (as the JCS fear) with a simultaneous "three front" war is strategically desirable, the most promising prospects also lie in East Asia.10 In all likelihood, Japan and China would see advantage in remaining neutral, at least initially, in the event of a U.S.-Soviet clash. So would Vietnam. With little offensive capability, they would stand to lose far more than they gained by becoming belligerents. Moreover, it is hard to see what the U.S.S.R. would gain from attacking Japan and China until it had achieved its logical wartime objectives in Western Europe and the Persian Gulf. On this score it is worth remembering how Japan and the U.S.S.R. stayed neutral vis-à-vis each other throughout most of World War II. A reexamination of U.S. Pacific strategy in the light of such real-life possibilities seems long overdue.


In sum, a skillfully executed coalition strategy would seem to offer a reasonable prospect of achieving credible non-nuclear deterrence/defense in the three main regions of vital U.S. interest. Naturally the United States must also be prepared to meet lesser contingencies in other regions, but these are hardly the chief determinants of the size of our defense spending. Moreover, still lurking in the background would be the threat of nuclear escalation if such deterrence/defense failed.

But will even modest added investment on the order of four-percent real growth in defense spending be forthcoming, and will it suffice against growing Soviet force projection capabilities? The prospects will depend on several factors: (1) sufficient Western economic recovery to facilitate higher defense spending; (2) growing allied realization that nuclear stalemate at ever higher levels of destructiveness dictates greater investment in non-nuclear defense; (3) positive and consistent U.S. leadership aimed at achieving these preconditions; and (4) last but not least-and equally dependent on U.S. leadership-more rational burden sharing on a scale not achieved since World War II itself.

Whether this last is achievable will basically determine whether a politically realistic rate of increase in defense spending will suffice to meet coalition needs. As Secretary Brown used to tell his fellow NATO defense ministers, if NATO only could increase total defense spending in real terms by three percent per year, and at the same time achieve an additional three-percent per annum increase in the efficiency with which it spends these still constrained resources, we might be in shooting distance of the goal. Nor is this an issue for NATO alone. Since our vital interests are global in scope, similar increases-and similar improvements in input/output ratios-would be essential in the East Asian theater and the Persian Gulf.

Actual experience in peacetime cooperative programs over the last 35 years is cause for both hope and despair. In a real sense NATO has already achieved a level of peacetime defense cooperation unique in the history of alliances. It has a functioning peacetime command structure, a variety of multinationally funded programs, and a frequently updated set of common plans and force goals. But these accomplishments tend to mask the fact that NATO is still basically a classic alliance of sovereign states-composed of 14 disparate national force structures each with its own doctrine, procedures, tactics and equipment, its own national logistic support, research/development, procurement, and training establishment and overhead. The wasteful overlap and duplication are enormous. Lack of standardized or even interoperable equipment is more the norm than the exception. That more has not been done, despite recurrent efforts over the years, is testimony both to the strength of local nationalism and to the potentialities if only this and other obstacles could be overcome.

In fact, the steps to rationalize NATO's defense posture started in 1977-79 as the result of U.S. initiatives suggest what determined and consistent leadership might be able to accomplish. Europe's continued dependence on U.S. military support, no less essential in the conventional than in the nuclear sphere, tends to make it responsive over time. Among the many possibilities, the Long Term Defense Program initiatives for an integrated air defense, a common command/control/communication program, standardized electronic warfare systems and common munitions stockpiles deserve to be reinvigorated. As called for by the recent Roth-Glenn-Nunn Amendment passed almost unanimously by the U.S. Senate, we must pool alliance industrial resources more efficiently to avoid wasteful duplication and achieve economies of scale. Standardization and interoperability must also be insisted upon by governments and parliaments, lest their lack lead to the prospect of NATO disaster on the battlefield against much more homogeneous Warsaw Pact forces.


Up to this point neither of the two contending schools of strategy has yet achieved a dominant position. Indeed, it is unlikely that a clear declaratory choice would or should be made between them in real life. There are important virtues in ambiguity. Moreover, judging from Secretary Weinberger's statements and his latest annual report, he embraces the objectives of both schools. He seeks enough defense spending to meet "simultaneously" all requirements for both-and for doing more in yet other areas of the globe. But the Administration's ambitious call for an eclectic strategy and posture, even including costly preparations to sustain a protracted conventional war, is hardly realistic either. The reported Pentagon estimate that at full funding the Administration's declared strategy would require $750 billion more than the $1.6 trillion now projected may be a slight exaggeration-but if it is even approximately correct the amounts would be politically impossible. Given current economic difficulties, on top of the resource constraints on defense spending endemic in democratic states, something will have to give.

Thus, regardless of the Administration's declaratory strategy, U.S. defense budgets will have to be stretched out. The Administration and Congress will have to confront tough choices between strategic missions and between various capabilities to carry them out. These choices will over time be tantamount to deciding which strategy will in fact predominate.

Indeed, this seems to be happening already. The kind of 600-ship navy being sought by the Administration and Congress is proving to be so expensive as to be achievable only at the expense of other critical defense needs. Only the Navy has received major force structure increases; those requested by other Services have been mostly deferred. The Navy is the only Service whose share of the FY 1983 budget request has been significantly increased over its FY 1982 share, largely in order to fund two new big carriers in one year. In a decision with major strategic overtones, the Senate authorized these carriers but deferred procurement of the new AH-64 attack helicopter (with its high-quality Hellfire missile), which the Army is depending on for NATO defense against Warsaw Pact armor and for coping with a Soviet armored thrust into the Persian Gulf oil region. This illustrates how, if the United States funds a 600-ship Navy built around 15 big-carrier battle groups, it may be impossible to equip adequately either our NATO-oriented ground/air forces or the kind of RDF we need. In short, the Administration and Congress may be backing into a maritime supremacy strategy by default, even if this is not their intent.

Hence it is crucially important that such choices among competing resource allocations be illuminated by a clearer perception of their likely strategic consequences. For these consequences will not be lost on our alert enemies or allies, who carefully analyze what we build as well as what we say. Illuminating these choices is the central purpose of this article.

If we opt consciously for a maritime supremacy strategy, based on the kind of massive naval buildup the Navy seeks, let us recognize that resource constraints will probably dictate that this be at significant expense to already inadequate NATO and Persian Gulf commitments. Let us also recognize how much this will undermine the network of alliances on which the United States must increasingly depend. Indeed, the basic flaw in any maritime supremacy strategy is that it does not suffice to protect the vital strategic interests in Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf which we share with our allies.

On the other hand, the basic flaw in a more ambitious coalition strategy aimed at protecting these interests is that the coalition may be unable to generate collectively sufficient conventional capabilities to do so. Almost inevitably, given the decline of U.S. economic power vis-à-vis our allies at a time when nuclear stalemate dictates greater reliance on far more costly conventional forces, the United States will have to seek greater sharing of the common burden from our industrialized allies. If only modestly increased U.S. and allied defense spending is in prospect, then all will depend on whether we can spend that money more efficiently, via greater and more rational burden sharing and increased Alliance cooperation-on a scale never achieved before.

On balance, however, the advantages of the coalition approach so far outweigh those of a primarily maritime strategy that the most sensible course would be to try. What other alternative do we really have? America would find it difficult to live and prosper in a world in which we dominated the seas but our chief competitor dominated the economic resources of the Eurasian land mass.

2 "The Handwriting on the Wall May Be a Forgery," Armed Forces Journal, March 1982, p. 28.

4 Posture Statement, p. I-17.

5 Some of the most vocal advocates of a bigger navy also tend to be those who favor pulling troops out of Europe, often ignoring the fact that this would cost a great deal, not save money, unless the forces involved were demobilized.

6 See, for example, Michael Howard, The Continental Commitment: The Dilemma of British Defence Policy in the Era of the Two World Wars, London: Temple Smith, 1972; and Brian Bond, British Military Policy between the Two World Wars, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

7 The Defense Department's Posture Statement, op. cit., p. II-7, estimates that Warsaw Pact military investment has exceeded that of NATO plus Japan since 1973, and is currently about 15 to 20 percent larger. Since NATO/Japan investment entails much larger duplication, lesser economies of scale and less interoperability than the Warsaw Pact's, however, the Defense Department speculates that the real bloc advantage is more like 30 to 40 percent.

8 This target level was not set because it was deemed militarily sufficient but because allied consensus deemed three-percent real growth the maximum politically feasible rate.

9 A good example of this omission is the new official NATO release on NATO and The Warsaw Pact: Force Comparisons, undated but issued in May 1982.

10 It is interesting that the maritime supremacy school never suggests that the United States pull back forces from Northeast Asia, even though our chief ally in that area is the very ally which contributes proportionally least to collective defense. Could it be because the Pacific is a Navy-dominated theater?



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  • Robert W. Komer is a visiting professor at George Mason and George Washington Universities. He was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 1979 to 1981, and Advisor to the Secretary of Defense for NATO Affairs from 1977 to 1979. In the 1960s he served as a Special Assistant to President Johnson, Ambassador to Turkey, chief pacification advisor in Vietnam, and Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs.
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