Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
THE recent British White Paper on Defense has been described as a momentous shift in policy, a radical change in strategic concept, an "agonizing reappraisal." For this the wording of the Paper may itself be partly responsible, with its talk about a revision of the "whole character of the Defense plan" and "the biggest change in military policy ever made in normal times." So perhaps the first thing that should be said about the White Paper is that in fact it is no such thing. It introduces no basic revolution in policy, but merely rationalizes and (probably for the first time) explains in admirably intelligible form tendencies which have long been obvious and policies most of which successive British governments have accepted and urged upon their Allies for some years. This should be qualified in one respect, one on which unfortunately the White Paper itself is least clear and is even ambiguous, namely the nature of the total war envisaged if the deterrent fails to deter.
This is a basic question affecting the function of all three services, though more particularly (but by no means exclusively) that of the Navy. And the fact that it is not squarely faced constitutes to my mind the major element of uncertainty about the British view on strategic policy, an element which seems to have been obscured in the minds of our Allies by other doubts and fears, notably about our attitude to NATO. In one paragraph the White Paper says that reinforcements which would not be ready for action in less than three months would be of little value in nuclear war; in another it says that the nuclear battle might not be immediately decisive and therefore we must be able to defend Atlantic communications against submarine attack. In other words the White Paper to some extent still tries to have it both ways, with the inevitable result that it does not have enough either way.
A logical strategic policy for the Atlantic Alliance must surely be based on one of two assumptions. The first is that, in the unlikely event of the Great Deterrent failing to prevent total war-- which we are all agreed must be the primary aim--we must be ready to fight another prolonged global war. In that event there is no case for basing the "main elements of the Royal Navy upon a small number of carrier groups;" on the contrary, instead of providing modernized surface and air anti-submarine units "on a somewhat reduced scale," they should be provided on a largely increased scale in view of the strength of the Russian U-boat fleet; and further, the assumption of a long war certainly provides no basis for such a drastic reduction of the regular Army or for the relegation of its reserves to a purely home defense rôle.
The general impression gained from a careful study of the White Paper is, however, that the British Government inclines to the acceptance of the second alternative assumption, which is that in the event of total war the ultimate weapon would inevitably be used--not necessarily immediately but sooner rather than later--and that therefore such a war could not possibly last more than a matter of weeks, or a few months at most. It must be admitted that the acceptance of such an assumption involves a terrifically heart-searching decision for a nation dependent for its very existence on supply from overseas. And the failure to face it without ambiguity in this White Paper may perhaps be ascribed to a very human inability to forget the background of British history--especially of two world wars in living experience --and to a dogged survival of the "broken-backed war" theory in Churchill's last White Paper of 1954.
At the moment we are having the worst of both worlds; we are certainly not fitting ourselves for a prolonged global war, a sort of modernized version of 1939-45 which I for one find inconceivable in a thermonuclear and missile age; and we are not taking advantage of the economies which would flow from assuming a short war. We could effect economies which would permit us, not to reduce the over-all allocation of our resources to the fighting services, but to apportion them more in accordance with the real requirements of modern strategy, particularly by the avoidance of such dangerous reductions in the strength of the Army.
Nevertheless, the facts of life must be faced and the decision must be made, not only by Britain but by her Allies, more particularly by the United States. It is not one which can be made alone by one member of the Alliance. The White Paper itself states bluntly the truth which should have been evident for years, that "the defense of Britain is possible only as part of the collective defense of the free world." (The same, by the way, can and should be said with equal truth and bluntness of the United States.) There are many in Britain who share the dissatisfaction widely expressed among our Allies at the lack of adequate consultation before publication of the White Paper (though it must be admitted that the United States does not habitually consult us on such matters). That may in part be due to a failure in public relations policy; much misunderstanding might have been avoided by careful explanatory briefing of the press and other organs of public opinion by our ambassadors in Allied capitals. In spite of the somewhat hurried final stages of the preparation of the Paper, this should have been perfectly simple to arrange. It is true that the whole thing was necessarily somewhat hurried by exigencies of the British parliamentary system; the White Paper had to precede the Budget, which has to be submitted to Parliament early in April, and Mr. Macmillan's Government had by then been in power for so short a period as to make extended consultation with our Allies very difficult, to say the least.
Also, it may be pointed out that on a number of occasions in the past two years the need for a radical review of the NATO defense effort has been urged upon our Allies by the Foreign Secretary as well as by Mr. Macmillan himself as Chancellor; no doubt our intentions were disclosed to the President in Bermuda; and in at least some aspects they were discussed with the Supreme Commander and with our Allies in the Western European Union, in connection with the proposed reductions in the British forces in Germany. It is none the less difficult to feel satisfied that the principle of consultation within the Atlantic Alliance was observed as it should have been. The Atlantic Council has never been used as it was intended to be used when it was reconstituted at Lisbon in 1952; and we do not yet seem to have taken advantage of the new system of consultation within NATO proposed by the Lange-Pearson-Martino Committee. As between Britain and America there has been a deterioration in the arrangements for mutual consultation in recent years, and the valuable habit of informal discussions in the politico-military field established during the Korean War has fallen into disuse since the accession of Mr. Dulles to the State Department--a fact which both our countries have reason to regret in the light of recent experience.
All that having been said, it remains somewhat surprising to anyone at all familiar with the trend of British thinking on strategic policy in recent years that this White Paper should have created such a stir among our Allies. Its basic tenets are nothing new. The emphasis on the importance of NATO; priority for the prevention of war by an effective deterrent to which Britain must make her contribution; the tendency for expenditure on the Army to decline; the need to be able to undertake limited operations to resist local aggression and protect Allied and British interests in the Middle and Far East; the possibility of the use of tactical atomic weapons in limited war; the importance of the guided missile; the need for a strategic reserve capable of rapid transportation in an emergency--all these have figured in pronouncements on British defense policy since the Statement on Defense in 1954, and even earlier. The general policy in its broad fundamentals is virtually the same as that discussed by the British Chiefs of Staff with their American colleagues in 1952, which had at least a significant influence on the formulation of the so-called New Look in United States defense policy in 1953. And the inescapable truth that British military capability is conditioned by the economic factor, particularly by the balance of payments and the strength of our gold and dollar reserves, was stated in no uncertain terms by Mr. Eden to the Atlantic Council at their Lisbon meeting in 1952.
The economic factor was among the reasons for what is perhaps the most sensational feature of the White Paper--the decision to plan on the basis that compulsory National Service will come to an end in 1962. There are those in Britain who take the somewhat cynical view that this decision was determined more by electoral than strategic or even economic considerations, and are skeptical of the validity of the claim that Britain cannot afford to be strong. They remember the days when, little over a year before the outbreak of World War II, the material basis of British defense planning was a ruling by the government of the day that this country could not afford more than £300,000,000 a year for all three services over the five years 1937 to 1941--this at a time when it was known that the Germans were spending more than three times that amount. And they reflect with some bitterness upon the number of millions a year we had to pay in the ten years after 1939 for the luxury of being weak in 1939. This appeal to economics is a hand that can be overcalled.
However, it would be foolish to deny that, in the words of the White Paper, "the claims of military expenditure should be considered in conjunction with the need to maintain the country's financial and economic strength." This economic limitation is not confined to Britain. In his article in the April issue of Foreign Affairs, Henry Kissinger refers to "the predominant rôle played [in America] by fiscal considerations in setting force levels." We in Britain have to look particularly to our export trade, which makes heavy demands on some sections of the economy which are also essential to the defense program, such as the metal-using industries. Our economy narrowly survived the appalling strain of more than ten years of total war in little more than a generation; and to arm ourselves into bankruptcy would merely play into the hands of the Communist enemy and destroy our ability to serve as a worthwhile ally.
It is for government to decide what proportion of the nation's resources, including manpower, can be allocated to defense and it is for the Chiefs of Staff to advise how best, within that mandatory ceiling, those resources can be apportioned to meet the commitments laid upon them by government policy. It should be noted that in the debate in Parliament on the White Paper the Government rightly refrained from any implication that the extent of the reductions involved had the agreement of the Chiefs of Staff. Assuming the reductions were determined by economic factors alone (an assumption which some find it hard to accept), it is difficult to suggest how the available resources could be better allocated--except by facing and accepting the logical conclusions of the basic decision already referred to. But it is difficult to convince oneself that, within a total of 375,000 uniformed personnel (excluding the Ghurka division and Colonial troops), the Army can adequately play its part in the two main tasks accepted for the British armed forces within our various alliances--namely deterring and resisting aggression, and the protection of British overseas interests and limited operations in overseas emergencies.
It is the abolition of conscription--or rather the declared aim to abolish it in five years' time--that is the most questionable feature of the White Paper and one which is liable to have the most serious repercussions in Allied countries. No one will challenge the claim that in today's changed circumstances, consequent upon the withdrawal from Egypt and the liquidation of other overseas commitments, Britain could discharge her responsibilities to herself and her Allies with substantially smaller forces than the 690,000 United Kingdom personnel now under arms. But the White Paper does not attempt to assert specifically that those responsibilities can be discharged in full with only 375,000 men. That clearly is only the number which, on the most optimistic estimate, it is considered might be obtained on a system of voluntary enlistment. Whether or not such a number of volunteers can in fact be obtained is, to say the least, open to doubt-- a doubt from which evidently the Government itself is not wholly free; past history is not very encouraging in that respect, and the White Paper does face the possibility of "some limited form of compulsory service" if the gap between requirements and voluntary recruiting can not be bridged. The Royal Navy and the R.A.F. should be able to attract their share of the necessary regular recruits; for the Army it is much more doubtful. No one would question that it would be far more satisfactory if the number of men really necessary could be found by a system of voluntary regular service. The present combination of the voluntary principle with compulsory service has many disadvantages; and conscription, even for two years, is grossly wasteful in manpower; of the 690,000 men now in the three services no less than 150,000 (or about 21 percent) are instructors or men under training, and the period of productive service is so short that the young soldier is just becoming really useful when his time is up and he goes to the Reserve. But even if the voluntary recruits are forthcoming, the numbers to which the Army will be limited within the over-all total are so low that we shall have to be extremely selective in allotting priorities to the tasks of the Army, and may be compelled to take certain risks which would be little less desirable to our Allies than to ourselves.
This is so much the key of the matter that it must be discussed in more detail. For provided the policy is sound, it is surprising what can be done with relatively small numbers.
The major individual commitment of the British Army is its contribution to General Norstad's NATO screen in Europe. The very first sentence of the White Paper reads, "As previous Statements on Defense have emphasized, British defense policy is determined by her obligation to make her contribution to NATO and other Alliances for collective defense." It is unfortunate, though understandable, that the effect of this clear declaration is weakened by the announcement later in the Paper of the intention to reduce our land and air forces in Germany. Actually, even after these reductions have taken effect, the British Army of the Rhine will remain by far the biggest individual commitment of the Army. There is no question of Britain weakening in her resolve to play her full part in the resistance to aggression in Europe, which is vital to her own safety. And no doubt it is the intention that our full four divisions shall be available if it comes to war, even though they may not all be stationed in Germany. There are, however, political or psychological reasons of first importance for the British maintaining their four-divisional share of Norstad's 30 divisions, and it is to be hoped that we shall do so even if the divisions are not maintained at full strength in peacetime. The difficulty is one of the balance of payments--the practical one of actually paying in gold or hard currency for maintaining large forces in Germany in the absence of support cost payments. This is surely a difficulty which it should not be beyond the wit of men to resolve within the Grand Alliance. For example, the possibility suggests itself that some financial adjustment be made between payments by Britain for her forces in Germany and the far greater expenditure by the United States for the maintenance of American forces in the United Kingdom.
But the real issue transcends this in importance, and is one of strategic policy, harking back again to the basic question referred to in the opening paragraphs of this article. The real issue is what should be the function--or, in American terms, the rôles and missions--of the British Army. As far as the forces in Europe are concerned, that is to ask what are the rôle and mission of the forces under SHAPE? On this point it seems clear from the White Paper that in the view of the British Government it is not to fight another prolonged war in Europe beginning with a modernized version of the 1940 campaign. To some the rather unfortunate word "tripwire" suggests that the function of General Norstad's forces is to provide a façade, a thin red line, "there to be overrun" so to speak, thus touching off the nuclear deluge upon Moscow, Stalingrad and points east. This is a demonstrably fantastic conception. The true function of the NATO screen is indeed primarily to avoid just that, to stand between the hydrogen bomb and the frontier policeman, to act as a fire brigade to smother the small local conflagration or frontier coup, to ensure that we do not find ourselves again faced with the treacherous fait accompli; finally to ensure that, in the almost inconceivable event of the Kremlin embarking on the desperate gamble of an attack on Western Europe, it will have to marshal such massive force as to make it unmistakably clear that this is war to the death and to remove all inhibitions, including, it is to be hoped, the fear of suicide. If we are not prepared in the very ultimate resort to accept the possibility of suicide to avert the certainty of annihilation--then we are lost. I for one see no superior attraction in being disembowelled by a Russian bayonet or pounded to death by V-2 missiles deployed along the Channel coast, rather than risk extinction by the hydrogen bomb.
The point is, what sort of forces do we need for this function? And the answer to this question provides the clue to the manner in which a relatively small British Army--and other Allied armies for that matter--if properly organized, equipped and trained, can meet our true needs and our obligations to our Allies. If this massive assault ever did take place, it is impossible to believe that it could be held up for more than a very limited period, even with the help of tactical atomic weapons, against an overwhelmingly superior enemy armed with those same weapons. I view with anxiety the tendency of SHAPE to rely increasingly on nuclear weapons. My fear is that the armies of the Alliance will absorb a quite unjustifiable proportion of their resources in material and manpower by equipping themselves with weapons that they may never be able to use, either in Europe or in localized wars elsewere. I think they will make a great mistake if they modernize and "futurize" themselves too much. No doubt some limited tactical atomic capacity is necessary for them as part of the deterrent, but it should be strictly limited, and to my mind it is ludicrous for an army to pretend--as the American Army does-- that a 1,500-mile missile is essential for the performance of its mission. For their true mission the armies unquestionably need armor; but their main requirement is for very mobile, very highly trained infantry, well equipped with anti-tank weapons--backed in Germany by a highly trained German semi-static home guard with the same weapons. In other words, the proper job of the armies is to provide really good conventional soldiers; for these will always be indispensable whatever kind of operations we may have to undertake; the army will retain quite enough prestige without wasting its energy and resources on the modernities like missiles and heavy helicopters and atomic artillery.
It is to be hoped that not only the British but also in particular the German Army will accept this truth. There is at present an understandable feeling that for one member of an alliance to be denied these modern gadgets is rather like being a member of a club who is not allowed access to the bar. The Germans are superb conventional soldiers and, if it is realized that these represent the primary requirement of the Allied land forces, that should reconcile them to being without atomic weapons.
The second of the two main tasks for the British armed forces, according to the White Paper, is "to defend British colonies and protected territories against local attack, and undertake limited operations in overseas emergencies," and the Paper goes on to refer to our commitments in the Middle and Far East, our obligations under the Baghdad and Manila treaties, and the need to be able to reinforce local garrisons from an air-borne central reserve. Our much reduced Army will indeed be hard put to it to meet all these commitments in addition to our first priority, the contribution to NATO in Europe. And we must look to our Allies for political help in reducing them, by such means as a NATO solution of the Cyprus problem. Also, perhaps as part of a package deal in the Far East, Hong Kong could be made an international port with a United Nations force--including, of course, a British contingent--to preserve internal security. But it is fortunate that, as far as the Army is concerned, these limited local operations pose the same desiderata as those outlined above for the NATO forces in Europe--indeed more so. The free world suffers from a built-in handicap, that to take part at all in limited wars in Asia or Africa its forces have to be transported overseas. This involves dependence upon ports at the far end, and on great concrete runways which are as vulnerable as ports to an enemy equipped with modern aircraft, especially with atomic weapons. This handicap must and can be surmounted, but not by forces requiring thousands of tons of fuel and ammunition and huge fleets of motor vehicles to enable them to operate at all. For these sorts of operations the organization of armies should be more akin to that of the old Punjab Frontier Force, or the Frontier Irregular Corps who went cheerfully to war on foot, with a rifle, a couple of bandoliers, a bag of raisins, a chupatti or two and a water-bottle. In other words here again the requirement above everything else is for very mobile, very highly trained infantry.
They must, of course, be provided with air cover and support, a function not only of long-range shore-based aircraft but also-- as laid down in the White Paper--of the carrier task forces of the Navy. And this raises a question which again is not specifically answered in this White Paper but is exercising the minds of many people on both sides of the Atlantic, namely whether limited war can be kept limited and if so how, with special reference to the employment of atomic weapons. The White Paper of 1956 said that "the possible use of nuclear weapons cannot be excluded" in limited wars; the present Paper merely implies that they may be used, by referring to bomber squadrons based in Cyprus "capable of delivering nuclear weapons," in connection with our obligations under the Baghdad Pact. It is, I think, unfortunate that a clearer lead was not given on this crucially important problem. I do not go along with the advocates of "graduated deterrence"--we often confuse issues by using long words to describe a quite simple thing which, in this case, is the age-old principle that in any form of military operations you use that degree of force necessary to achieve your object, and no more. It may well be that in another limited war the methods and scope of the force employed will be limited by a sort of mutual unwritten agreement--as they were in Korea--if it suits both sides. And in an earlier article in these pages[i] I put forward the possibility of applying the old R.A.F. method of the "prescribed area"-- a method evidently visualized also by Dr. Kissinger when he says that "sanctuary areas immune to attack will be almost essential." Beyond this it does not seem to me either practicable or profitable to attempt, even by unilateral declaration of intent, to define limitations in advance, certainly not by specifying limits to the size of bombs or the nature of targets. It is not this sort of thing that will determine whether or not a war remains limited, but whether or not the issue is really vital to either side; in other words, the aim of the war and whether either side can accept failure to achieve the aim for which it is fighting--whether (in Dr. Kissinger's words) "one of the protagonists prefers a limited defeat to an additional commitment of resources." It should go without saying that, in accordance with the age-old principle just quoted, we should exhaust every possible conventional means of achieving our aim--which in broad general terms will be limited to halting aggression, driving the aggressor back behind his own frontiers and inflicting such punishment as to make further aggression clearly unprofitable. But it would be the height of folly to commit ourselves in advance not to use low-yield atomic weapons in any circumstances. It is by no means necessarily true that (the words of another contributor to this review) "the last extremity, which involves the survival of the losing side, is ruled out by the nature of limited war."[ii] An attack on the Middle East, for instance, might initially take the form of a limited war on the Korean model; failure to secure our vital interests in that area, notably of course the oil on which the economy of Europe and the mobility of NATO depend, would ultimately be fatal to the free world; the Communists on the other hand could accept limited defeat in that area without fatal results to themselves.
So I think it would have helped to clear the minds of our friends and to deter potential limited aggressors if the White Paper had included a positive statement to the effect that we shall meet aggression wherever it occurs with that degree of force necessary to defeat it, including, if necessary, with nuclear weapons--and left it at that.
The reduction in the size of the British Army, and to a lesser extent the Air Force, does not mean that we cannot make an effective contribution in a limited war. It does not even mean we could not carry through a small local war on our own--the Suez Canal Zone, for instance, could have been seized by a very small force if the operation had not been stopped by external pressures not related to military action. But the White Paper emphasizes that the conception of collective defense is the basis of all our alliances. The days of "gunboat diplomacy" are gone forever, whether we like it or not. But unfortunately in the world we live in all diplomacy is powerless if it is clear to everyone that force will never be used in any circumstances to right a wrong, even after every resource of economic and political pressure has been exhausted, except possibly with the approval of the United Nations in the event of open invasion across a frontier by an unmistakably Communist army. A major source of disquiet among America's Allies in recent months has been the growing impression that United States foreign policy, if it means anything, means just that--an impression, which it may be hoped, may be removed by recent events in the eastern Mediterranean. To say that we cannot possibly go it alone (a fact that should have been obvious before the Suez folly) does not necessarily mean that American forces must participate actively in every local fracas. It does mean we must have a common policy, for which many of us have been pleading for years, notably, but not only, in the Middle East; that we must have prior consultation before action, the lack of which in October 1956 can by no means be blamed on the British and French alone; and that the United States must at least be ready to hold the ring--as, in a way, they showed themselves prepared to do by General Gruenther's riposte to the Russian threat to rocket England during the Suez crisis.
An impression which has caused some concern among our Continental Allies, and which unfortunately has been fostered by some pronouncements by Opposition Members of Parliament, is that the White Paper means we are concentrating on the nuclear deterrent, thereby reducing our ability to support our Allies. As a matter of fact that is nonsense. The British bomber force is itself suffering certain reductions; and the nuclear weapons together with their means of delivery absorb only about half a crown in the defense pound sterling--say 12 cents in the dollar. And quite apart from their share in the Allied retaliatory deterrent, the British bomber forces constitute a very important contribution to the strength of NATO and to our capacity to take part in limited war in support of our alliances overseas. In the United Kingdom itself public opinion has perhaps been most startled, though not thrown off its sense of proportion, by the open admission that "there is at present no means of providing adequate protection for the people of this country against the consequences of attack by nuclear weapons." But there is nothing new about that--it has been obvious to thinking people for years. And it is merely silly to condemn it as defeatism. It is no such thing but merely a sensible appraisal of the facts; and if it is true of the small area of the United Kingdom, how much more strongly does it apply to the vast area of Russia? Can anyone seriously imagine that that is defensible?
Finally the White Paper seems to have given rise to the quite unjustified impression, not so much perhaps among our Allies as in our own services, that push-button warfare is just round the corner and that it is only a matter of a few years before manned military aircraft are entirely superseded by guided missiles. That again is nonsense. The missile will of course supplement--and in some specialized fields perhaps replace--the conventional airplane, when it is a really practical, present-day, working proposition and available in sufficient numbers. That day is not yet. Fortunately in the air forces it is easier than in the other services to adjust the tempo of change and progress to the realities of scientific and technical development. Though we have cancelled the contract for a supersonic bomber, it is much too early to assume that it will not be replaced by another of a more futuristic and sophisticated design. Similarly it is far from certain that the R.A.F. will not have to have another fighter after the P-1--perhaps by purchase from America to ease the strain on our own limited resources in scientific and technical manpower. I cannot foresee the day when the manned airplane ceases to play an important part in the air forces of the world.
Collective defense is as essential to the United States as to Europe. The idea of Fortress America is as idiotically out-of-date today as that of Fortress Britain was 20 years ago. It is vital to the United States that it should continually foster and build up its system of alliances and maintain the balance of power in the world, as Britain did for centuries in Europe. And in that process it should not be diverted or thrown off balance by relatively minor fluctuations in the strength of its smaller Allies.
[i] "Air Power and World Strategy," Foreign Affairs, October 1954.
[ii] "Nuclear Plenty and Limited War," by James E. King, Jr., Foreign Affairs, January 1957.
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