Commentary Magazine

How to Think About Nuclear War

Now that the United States is belatedly acting to restore a tolerable balance in forces nuclear as well as conventional, a vast chorus of protest has been heard from those who hold that deterrence is a policy not merely dangerous but irrational, and who therefore demand an immediate “freeze.” Others have made a narrower protest, against the reliance of the United States and its allies on nuclear deterrence to dissuade a Soviet invasion that might be accomplished by the great non-nuclear forces of the Soviet army. And then there has been the broadest of claims, in which pastors and priests, rabbis and bishops, have been most prominent: that nuclear deterrence, and indeed nuclear weapons as such, are in themselves immoral.

Along with the arguments and the claims there has been a great outpouring of horrific imagery of Hiroshima and its victims, of mushroom clouds and radiation burns—imagery abundantly relayed in the complaisant press and in the visual media. The purpose has been to frighten those whom the arguments have not persuaded, so that the electorate which deliberately rejected Carter’s strategy of weakness might now be terrorized into repudiating Reagan’s strategy of strength.

Yet instead of reaffirming its strategy, the Reagan administration has for the most part responded to the arguments and the claims, to the words and the manipulative imagery, by appeasing the protesters, the churchmen, and the media. From those who once could explain quite lucidly the fundamental and unchanging reasons for the inevitable failure of arms control, we now hear much talk about the virtues of that very process. From those who started off resolutely determined to explain strategic realities, we now hear only great declarations of their love for peace, their revulsion against war, and their sincere dislike of nuclear weapons. Outside the administration, too, all manner of people once very attentive to the delicate texture of strategy have now come forward to mollify protest by offering schemes and plans designed to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our defense, sometimes offering a non-nuclear substitute, and sometimes not.

And yet every one of the claims which sustain the protests large and small is false; each of the arguments, both strategic and moral, can be utterly refuted. The most respectable promoters of the “freeze” who claim that deterrence is irrational are guilty of a crude logical fallacy of composition; the four eminent retired officials who have called for NATO’s renunciation of nuclear deterrence against a conventional attack reveal one more time their own peculiar lack of strategic understanding; and the churchmen who hold that nuclear weapons are ipso facto immoral are guilty of a crude ethical illiteracy. That is the charge-sheet; the justification follows.



The “front” that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sustains against the Soviet Union and its client-states divides not nations but political systems. On the one side there is the system of production, of individual welfare and social amelioration, while on the other side there is a system that proclaims those same goals very loudly, even while subordinating them to the preservation of totalitarian control and the accumulation of superior military power.

If nuclear weapons were now disinvented, if all the hopes of the nuclear disarmers were fully realized, the Soviet Union would automatically emerge as the dominant power on the continent, fully capable of invading and conquering Western Europe and beyond if its political domination were resisted.

But why should that be so in a non-nuclear world? After all, our side has all the men and all the means that would be needed to outmatch the conventional forces of the other side. Already now, by the storekeeper’s method of making up an inventory, the forces of NATO can appear as strong as or even stronger than those of the Soviet Union and its not-necessarily-reliable client-states.1 Compare, for example, total manpower in uniform, on active duty: 4.9 million for NATO and the United States versus 4.8 million for the Soviet Union and its client-states (and remember that out of that total the Soviet Union must provide the large forces deployed against the Chinese). Compare total manpower in ground forces: 2.7 million for us versus 2.6 million for them (with the same Chinese qualification, to make us feel even better). Compare total ground forces in Europe itself: 2.1 million on our side and only 1.7 million on the other (and one must make allowance for Polish, Hungarian, and other client-state troops that prudent Soviet military planners would not want to rely upon except to add sheer mass to a successful offensive). In naval forces, the U.S.-NATO advantage is large in almost every category, even if ships are counted by the prow as in Homer and not by tonnage (in which Western superiority is still greater).

If one delights in these comparisons, one can come up with more numbers that are comforting. But there are also some other numbers that are less reassuring. Tanks: 17,053 for NATO in Europe (U.S. included) versus a total of 45,500 on the other side, including 32,200 in reliable Soviet hands (Hitler had only some 3,000 in 1941 for “Barbarossa,” the German invasion of Russia); artillery pieces: 9,502 versus 19,446; surface-to-surface missile launchers: 355 versus 1,224 for the Soviet camp (all the nuclear warheads are in Soviet hands exclusively); antitank guns (a rather antique category by conventional wisdom): 964 versus 3,614.

As for combat aircraft in Europe, the numbers go the same way: 2,293 fighter-bombers for NATO-Europe versus 3,255 in Soviet and Warsaw Pact air forces (but predominantly Soviet); fighters: only 204 on the NATO side (the U.S. Air Force believes in heavier multipurpose aircraft) versus 1,565 on the other side; interceptors (another depreciated category): 572 on the part of NATO versus 1,490 in Pact air forces.

Each set of numbers means little in itself. But ignoring all the details, there is one very striking fact that emerges—a fact that begins to tell us the real story about the “military balance” on which there is so much controversy now that McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith have jointly proposed in an article in Foreign Affairs (Spring 1982) that NATO should renounce the “first use” of nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear invasion. That fact, indeed very remarkable, is that the rich are seemingly armed as poor men are armed, with rifles, while the poor are armed as rich men, with heavy weapons. Recalling that comparison of “total ground forces in Europe” in which NATO is shown with 2.1 million troops on active duty versus a mere 1.7 million for the Warsaw Pact—a ratio of 1.27:1 in favor of our side—we now discover that the ratios for the major weapons which modern ground forces need go the other way, in favor of the Soviet side: 2.65:1 for tanks; 2.05:1 for artillery; 3.45:1 for missile launchers; and so on.

More remarkable still, the poorer and less advanced have more combat aircraft, by ratios of 4.5:1 (bombers), 1.4:1 (fighter-bombers), 7.67:1 (fighters), 2.61:1 (interceptors), and so on. Never mind that on each side one should sort out old aircraft in each category, and never mind also that Soviet aircraft are judged inferior to their U.S. counterparts (though to take Israeli-Syrian combat outcomes as an index is totally misleading, since Soviet aircraft would do very nicely in Israeli hands, just as they performed quite well against our own fighter-bombers in Vietnam, and also in Indian hands against the Pakistanis). In spite of all qualifications large and small, the fact stands, and it is a great fact: the poor are far more abundantly armed, even in air power, which is the quintessential arm of the rich.



How can this be? What does this mean? How and why have the rich come to be poorly armed as compared with the Soviet Union (whose gross national product is now 60 percent of the American and a mere 25 percent of the U.S.-NATO total)? There is, of course, a very simple answer revealed by the statistics themselves. That famous number, the count of NATO ground forces in Europe in the amount of 2.1 million (as compared to 1.7 million for the Pact), is actually made up of 980,000 men in the armies of Western Europe and another 922,000 men in the Greek, Italian, and Turkish armies which mainly consist of lightly-armed infantry, disqualified by location, training, and equipment from fighting seriously against Soviet-style armored divisions.

But that too is no more than a circumstantial fact: it is not the ineluctable consequence of unalterable limits. NATO could have forces much larger and better equipped and in the right places, for it has a much larger population than the Pact, and also a far greater production. Why then do our richer allies in Western Europe fail to remedy the imbalance? Is it greed that dissuades them from spending enough, or is it perhaps defeatism? Both are in evidence in some degree. But the decisive reason is strategic: those in Europe who understand such matters know that an increased effort would not improve the balance unless it were truly huge, because there are two fundamental military factors at work which make NATO weak and the Soviet Union strong—and these are of such powerful effect in combination that they would nullify the benefits of any marginal increase in defense spending, just as they already outweigh every one of the disadvantages that afflict the Soviet Union, including the unreliability of some of its East European subjects, the hostility of China, and the technical inferiority of some Soviet weapons. Much more than the numbers, it is these two factors that truly determine the present military imbalance in non-nuclear strength, which is very great, and not at all the small matter that Messrs. Bundy, Kennan, McNamara, and Smith suggest (“. . . there has been some tendency, over many years, to exaggerate the relative conventional strength of the USSR. . . .”).

The first of the two fundamental military factors is, quite simply, that NATO is a defensive alliance—not just defensive in declared intent, as all self-respecting alliances will claim to be, but rather in actual military orientation. Specifically, the forces of NATO on the “central front”—the 600-kilometer line running from the Baltic Sea to the Austrian border—are incapable of offensive operations on a large scale. There are no plans for a NATO offensive against East Germany, there has never been suitable training, or any army-sized exercises for offensive action. In spite of the abundant claims to the contrary in Soviet propaganda at its most implausible, Soviet military planners must know that NATO could not launch an offensive against their front. The notion that Belgian, Dutch, British, German, and U.S. forces would suddenly march across the border to invade is quite simply fantastic.

This means that the Soviet high command can concentrate its own forces for offensive action without having to allocate significant strength for defense. To be sure, many Soviet divisions are either deployed on or assigned to the very long Chinese border. But there too the Soviet Union need not disperse its forces to provide a territorial defense, since the Chinese, for all their millions of troops and tens of millions of rifle-armed militiamen, have no real capacity to mount significant offensive operations. At the very most, at a time of great opportunity such as a Soviet attack upon the West might present, the Chinese could mount a very limited and very shallow move against some segment of the Trans-Siberian railway where it runs near their territory.2

The Soviet army, which was greatly diminished in size during the 1950’s but which has grown again during the last two decades, can now mobilize so many divisions that it can cover the Chinese border very adequately; provide more divisions to maintain a threat against Iran, Eastern Turkey, and Pakistan; keep the forces now in place in Afghanistan; and still send more divisions against the “central front” than NATO could cope with.

Not counting at all the divisions of the East European client-states (even though some at least could in fact be used), the arithmetic runs as follows: if 10 more Soviet divisions are added to the Chinese “front” (in addition to the 46 stationed there already); and if a further 18 divisions are kept in reserve to deal with all the contingencies that a prudent and well-provided military leadership can imagine; and if there is no reduction in the generous allowance of 26 divisions now deployed on the Soviet Union’s “southern front” (opposite the underequipped Turks, the chaotic Persians, and in Afghanistan); then, finally, the Soviet Union, upon mobilization, could launch 80 divisions against NATO in Central Europe—that is, against the West German border. And since NATO is a defensive-only alliance, the Soviet army could concentrate its forces in powerful offensive thrusts aimed at narrow segments of that front.

By another estimate, produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies—nowadays a great favorite of Messrs. Bundy et al. owing to its far from hawkish positions—the Soviet army could send a total of 118 divisions against NATO, the greater number being obtained by assuming that no central reserve is maintained at all (the Soviet Union does after all keep 500,000 KGB and MVD troops, which are heavily armed) and that no reinforcement would be made to the Chinese “front.”

As against this, NATO can claim a total of 116 divisions, only two fewer than the higher estimate of the Soviet divisions that could be sent against it—and actually 36 divisions more than the Soviet total estimated more conservatively.

But that is truly a hollow number, since NATO’s 116 divisions include more than 16 American National Guard divisions that would have to be mobilized, remanned, reequipped (with what?), trained for weeks or months, and then transported to Europe by way of ports and airfields benevolently left intact by Soviet forces. The 116 divisions include more than 29 Italian, Greek, and Turkish divisions that are stationed far from Central Europe and are neither trained nor equipped to fight on that front. And they include 9 other divisions of foot infantry of various kinds. Once all these make-weights are removed from the count, we discover that against 80 Soviet divisions, NATO might field no more than 58 divisions of its own, including more than 12 French divisions whose participation in a fight is uncertain but whose scant armament for such combat is unfortunately not in doubt.

In fact, we might estimate even more truly by measuring NATO forces in terms of Soviet division-equivalents, whereupon we obtain 35 divisions upon full mobilization and with the transfer of all earmarked U.S. forces. The numerical imbalance thus finally emerges as a sharp one indeed: 80 Soviet divisions versus 35 for NATO. And then the defense/offense asymmetry intervenes to make the true combat imbalance even greater, since the Soviet divisions can be concentrated during an offensive against a few narrow segments of the front while NATO’s divisions must defend all along a 600-kilometer border.



Under any circumstances, the numerical imbalance in real capabilities would make things very difficult for NATO. But it would not be decisive were it not for the second great factor that makes NATO weak, which arises from the very nature of armored warfare. Nowadays, there is only one army in the world that has actual hands-on expertise in the reality of armored warfare, in the combined use of large numbers of tanks, troop carriers, and self-propelled artillery to stage offensives of deep penetration, whereby enemy forces are not merely destroyed piecemeal by fire-fights but are defeated by being cut off and forced into surrender—and that, of course, is the Israeli army. But if there is one army in the world that seriously strives to overcome its lack of recent and relevant combat experience, it is the Soviet army. It is the only one which stages vast army-sized exercises to educate its officers and men in the broad art and the detailed craft of armored warfare.

One reason Messrs. Bundy et al. are not much impressed by the strength of the Soviet army is that they simply do not understand the meaning of armored warfare in a setting such as the NATO central front. The Soviet army would not be lined up unit by unit along the 600 kilometers of the German frontier, there to fight it out in head-on combat with the forces of NATO similarly arrayed (hence the worthlessness of inventory comparisons which imply such front-to-front combat). Instead, its 80 divisions would be formed into deep columns and multiple echelons poised to advance by swift penetrations of narrow segments of the front. Having learned the art of armored warfare in the hard school of war itself, at the hands of the best masters, and having made the method at once simpler and much more powerful by employing the sheer mass of great numbers to relieve the need for fancy German-style maneuvers, the Soviet army would not employ its forces to launch a set-piece offensive on a preplanned line of advance (which would be detectable and vulnerable), but would instead seek to advance opportunistically, just as water flows down a slope, its rivulets seeking the faster paths. Initially, the advance regiments would probe for gaps and weak sectors through which a swift passage might be achieved. Any Soviet forces that could make no progress would be left in place, to keep up the threat and prevent the NATO commands from switching their forces to strengthen the front elsewhere. But Soviet reinforcements would only be sent where successful advances were being achieved in order to add to the momentum. First more regiments, then divisions, then entire “armies” would thus be channeled forward to keep up the pressure and push deep into the rear of the NATO front.

By feeding reinforcement echelons into avenues of penetration successfully opened, the Soviet high command could obtain the full effect of the classic Blitzkrieg even without having to rely on the skill and initiative of regimental officers, as the Germans once did. Instead of a fluid penetrating maneuver obtained by free improvisation, theirs would be an advance just as fast, achieved by mass and momentum directed from above.

Soon enough, advancing Soviet columns would begin to disrupt the entire defensive structure of NATO, by cutting across roads on which Western reinforcements and resupply depend, by overrunning artillery batteries, command centers, supply depots, and finally airfields—until the very ports of entry on the Atlantic shore would be reached. With NATO’s front cut in several places, with Soviet forces already in their deep rear, the choices open to NATO formations in such non-nuclear combat would be either to stand and fight for honor’s sake even without true military purpose, or else to retreat—thus opening further gaps in the front. In any case, the relentless advance would soon enough impose a broader choice at a much higher level of decision, for the Germans first and the others not much later: capitulation or military destruction.

Thus in the absence of nuclear weapons, it is not the numerical imbalance in itself that would bring the dismal results, but rather the fact that the Soviet army has a valid method of offensive war, while NATO for its part has no valid method of defense. For obviously the envisaged attempts to block Soviet advances by switching defensive forces back and forth along the line (right in front of Soviet forces which would have every opportunity to disrupt such lateral movement by fire and by their own thrusts) must fail. Indeed, it can be said that even if NATO had a perfect numerical equality, it would still find it impossible to match Soviet concentrations with its own, in order to block their advance right at the front line itself. The reason for this inherent defect is not any lack of military expertise on the part of NATO commanders and planners (although their unfamiliarity with modern armored warfare does show when some pronounce on the military balance by the bookkeeper’s method). The defect rather is caused by the combination of NATO’s defensive-only orientation and the character of large-scale armored warfare.



In the face of an offensive threat by an armored-mobile army (unless the defenders are vastly superior in sheer strength), one of two conditions must obtain to make a successful defense possible: either the defenders must be ready and willing to attack first, in order to disrupt an offensive preemptively; or else the defense must have considerable geographic space in which to maneuver and fight in a defense-in-depth strategy. If NATO had the political will, the training, and the organization to strike first in the face of massing Soviet forces, the latter could not safely form up in deep columns for the attack and would instead have to dilute their strength to form a defensive array of their own.

This option is purely theoretical in NATO’s case. It is impossible to imagine that so many diverse governments would agree to let their national forces engage in a preemptive attack to anticipate a Soviet invasion before the outbreak of war. More likely, in the face of a Soviet mobilization and a build-up of divisions opposite NATO, there would be demands for negotiations to settle the crisis by what would no doubt be called “political means,” i.e., eager concessions.

As compared with a wholly unrealistic strategy of preemptive attack, the second option, a defense-in-depth, may seem a feasible alternative; and it would offer the possibility of a very powerful defense indeed for NATO. Under such a strategy, Soviet invasion columns would not be intercepted by NATO’s main defensive forces right in the border zone. Instead, advancing Soviet forces would encounter only a mere border guard along the frontier itself, thereafter being harassed, delayed, and clearly revealed by light and elusive forces as they continued to advance, being steadily weakened by the loss of momentum imposed by time, distance, breakdowns, mined barriers, multiple obstacles at river crossing points, canals, and towns—and also by successive battles with strongholds along the way. Then too, NATO air forces operating quite freely over their own territory, where Soviet air defenses would be very weak, could attack advancing Soviet forces heavily and frequently. Only then would the major combat on the ground finally take place, with fresh NATO divisions maneuvering to strike at the stretched-out and by then ill-supplied Soviet columns (air strikes would do much more damage to supply vehicles than to the Soviet armored forces themselves).

In such a setting, with a thin line of NATO covering forces on the border itself, with multiple barriers and strongholds in depth, and with the main line of resistance 100 or 200 kilometers to the rear, NATO could indeed have a very solid non-nuclear defense, and one which could moreover deter non-nuclear invasion all by itself—since any competent Soviet planner would have to estimate that defeat would be the most likely outcome. And that, of course, would be a defeat which would deprive the Soviet army of one-half of its divisions, and thus the Soviet empire of much of its gendarmerie as well as all of its prestige, no doubt triggering unrest at home and perhaps outright insurrection in the client-states.

But to imagine such a defense in depth for the NATO central front in Germany is not to consider a live option. It is, rather, to indulge in sheer fantasy—and malevolent fantasy at that. For that zone of deep combat happens to correspond to the territory where tens of millions of Germans live. Quite rightly, what the Germans demand is not merely an eventual ability to defeat an aggression at some ultimate point in time and in space, but rather an actual provision of security for themselves, their families, their homes, and their towns. The British, French, or Americans might obtain satisfaction from the defeat of an invading Soviet army in the depth of West German territory, but such a victory would be of little worth to the Germans themselves. What the European system of peaceful construction needs is a preclusive method of protection, not ultimate victory after much destruction and millions of deaths.



In the absence of an offensive capacity by NATO and a lively willingness to preempt invasion, such protection can only be assured by nuclear weapons—or more precisely, by the architecture of nuclear deterrence which is now in place. If the Soviet Union does attack, its offensive would be met in the first instance by a non-nuclear defense of the forward areas close to the border. If NATO could not hold the front by non-nuclear combat, it would warn the Soviet Union that (small-yield) nuclear weapons would be used to strike at the invading Soviet forces. And then it would strike with such weapons if the warning went unheeded.

At that point the Soviet Union would realize that the alliance was standing up to the test, that it did have the will to defend itself in its moment of truth. One Soviet reaction might be to call off the war—a quite likely response if the invasion had been launched out of some hope of gain, but much less likely if it were the desperate last act of a crumbling empire.

Another Soviet reaction might be to respond to the threat by a wider threat against the cities of Europe, or else—and more likely—to reply in kind. With its own forces weakened by nuclear attack, it might employ nuclear weapons to make its invasion easier, by blasting gaps through the NATO defenses. Or else, the Soviet Union might want to avoid the intermediate steps, and try to impose a capitulation by threatening to attack European cities if any more battlefield nuclear weapons were used.

Such a verbal threat might in turn be averted by being answered in kind, in the first instance perhaps by the British and the French—assuming that their cities had also come under the threat. But a better response to such a Soviet threat would be possible if by then NATO had acquired its own theater nuclear forces which, like the Soviet forces that already exist in considerable numbers, would be suitable to threaten not merely cities indiscriminately, but rather such specific targets as political and military command centers, airfields, nuclear storage sites, and even large concentrations of ground forces—that threat being all the more credible for being less catastrophic.

Much more complex exchanges and many more variations can be envisaged. But by far the most likely outcome is that a war would end very soon if any nuclear weapons, however small, were actually to be detonated by any side on any target. The shock effect upon leaders on both sides—but especially on the Soviet leaders who had started the war—and also the devastating psychological impact upon the forces in the field, would most likely arrest the conflict there and then. It is fully to be expected that military units whose men would see the flash, hear the detonation, feel the blast, or merely hear of such things, would swiftly disintegrate, except perhaps for a handful of units particularly elite, and also remote from the immediate scene. The entire “software” of discipline, of morale, of unit cohesion and esprit de corps and all the practices and habits that sustain the authority of sergeants, officers, and political commissars, are simply not built to withstand such terror as nuclear weapons would cause—even if at the end of the day it were to be discovered that the dead on all sides were surprisingly few.



To believe—as Jonathan Schell insists in The Fate of the Earth3 and as Messrs. Bundy, Kennan, McNamara, and Smith imply—that the firing of small-yield nuclear artillery shells against an invasion force, or even the launch of some short-range battlefield missiles with kiloton-range warheads, would lead more or less automatically to successive nuclear strikes from one side and then the other, on a scale larger and larger, until finally European, Russian, and American cities would be destroyed, one has to believe that the instinct for survival would have been utterly extinguished in political leaders, and also that the armies in the field and their commanders, the air forces, the missile crews, and all the rest of mankind in uniform would behave as robots throughout. Just as a Roman legion trained to withstand all the terrors of the ancient world would surely break up and run if it came under machine-gun fire, so too a Soviet division that might otherwise fight and advance through artillery fire and close attack would almost certainly fall apart and retreat if its men came under nuclear attack. As for the politicians and the generals (who begin to resemble politicians when they reach the highest ranks), are we to believe that they would become so absorbed in the conflict-as-a-game that they would reply tit for tat, move by move, instead of stopping the war as soon as it had become nuclear, before it could destroy their own cities and their own families?

It is precisely this quality of nuclear weapons, their awesome, sinister, and only dimly known character, that makes them the fitting tools of deterrent protection in Europe. And yet Messrs. Bundy et al. hold that NATO should surrender its deterrent, except to deter a Soviet nuclear attack. They argue that NATO should renounce the first and by far the most important layer of deterrence, by repudiating its current and long-established policy whereby the alliance reserves the right to use nuclear weapons against a conventional invasion that could not be stopped by non-nuclear forces alone.

As we have seen, without a policy of “first use” there would no longer be a deterrent against a non-nuclear invasion and Western Europe would remain with only a dubious war-fighting defense which, even if greatly strengthened, could only yield at best some sort of ultimate victory—after much devastation and death.

But of course Messrs. Bundy, McNamara, Kennan, and Smith deny the bleak alternative. They do not believe that there is a gross imbalance, and indeed they confess that they have no sense of how one might estimate such a balance. Perhaps the four are too elevated to concern themselves with such lowly matters as the current Soviet method of armored warfare. And yet oddly enough a very specific technical suggestion is suddenly offered in the midst of the carefully crafted and indeed evasive political prose of their article. They suggest that the advent of “precision-guided weapons” might be weakening the Soviet army.

What Bundy et al. will only allude to most prudently others have proclaimed in black and white. The Soviet army, they say, is almost entirely made up of armored formations, and with the arrival of anti-armor missiles on the scene, its strength could now be nullified by the large-scale deployment of those cheap weapons—especially if the United States and NATO stop wasting their own funds on expensive and complex major weapons.

The prospect is most attractive: let the Soviet Union misuse its scant wealth on expensive tanks, obsolete playthings for nostalgic generals, since NATO can defeat their tanks, and their combat carriers too, and indeed all that relies on armor for its immunity, with cheap precision-guided weapons. Of late such things have been said or written by all manner of odd people, from a New York Times columnist who had never previously claimed the tactician’s mantle, to that part-time physicist and full-time arms-control promoter, Hans Bethe—who has for so long used his Nobel Prize to demand authority on things very much larger than the very small particles which he has investigated. And then, of course, there is the usual array of Congressmen and assorted publicists who so readily assume that every military practice and every military choice must be the wrong-headed product of inert tradition and childish preference for large, and costly, weapons.



Reinforced by the sinking of British warships by “cheap” Exocet missiles, still sustained by lingering memories of the shell-shocked misreporting of the first days of the Yom Kippur war, hardly deflated by the outcome of that same war (decided by Israeli armor, inexplicably), or indeed by other experiences of missile combat before and since (the first use of anti-ship missiles dates back to 1943), the cheap-missile delusion lives on. In the new controversy over NATO’s nuclear “first-use” policy, this delusion has attained an unprecedented currency by seemingly offering an alternative to the nuclear deterrence of invasion.

Imagine a Soviet tank approaching. A NATO soldier with his antitank missile can launch his weapon from three or four thousand yards away, he being well-hidden in the undergrowth while the tank stands clear as a very vulnerable target. The missile duly strikes and destroys the tank. That is the technical level of warfare—the only level that many scientists and all “tech-fix” enthusiasts readily comprehend.

But now broaden the picture somewhat. In a larger view we see more tanks and more NATO missile crews, but we also see the gathering of Soviet artillery—as concentrated as the Soviet armored columns themselves, to pound not all along the front but only those of its segments where breakthroughs are being attempted. Now the missile crews must see their targets through much intervening smoke (and when they cannot see them—if only for a second or two—their missiles will go off-course). But under the heavy artillery barrage many missile crews will be driven to seek refuge in the ground, or in the rear, and if not, they will be wounded or killed. They, after all, are entirely unprotected, unlike the advancing Soviet armor which can still move forward under artillery fire because of all that expensive armor protection. Now the weapon that had a 90 percent “kill-probability” in a technical estimate is revealed as much less powerful, and perhaps a 9 percent kill-probability becomes the more realistic estimate.

This is the tactical level of warfare, and one that quite a few believers in the missile illusion can still comprehend. Accordingly, they accept the analysis and merely point out that even if ten or more missiles must be purchased for each tank to be destroyed, the missile solution would still work—and would still obviate the need both for large budgets and for the “first use” of nuclear weapons. It is a matter of simple arithmetic. Armored vehicles are expensive, and even the Soviet army could scarcely have more than 40,000 or 50,000 for an invasion against NATO’s central front (that being a huge number indeed, ultimately constrained by road capacities). Let NATO therefore deploy half-a-million missile launchers if need be—an enormous number (now there are 5,000) and yet still easily affordable, since for every planned $2.7-million tank that we give up we could obtain instead some 150 missile launchers (and we are planning to build thousands of those tanks).

But now finally broaden the picture still more, to embrace the full width of that 600-kilometer NATO front. Let the half-a-million missile launchers be deployed, and now finally at the strategic level of war we discover the true strength of offensive armored warfare: while the Soviet army would attack the front here and there at places of its own choosing in deep columns of concentrated strength, the infantry’s missile launchers would be unable to move about to match the concentration. For even if some vehicles or other might be found for the weapons and crews, they would be kept from reaching the places of need by Soviet artillery fire—against which they would lack any armor protection. Now the arithmetic is suddenly overturned. Where it really counts, at the unpredictable places where the breakthrough battles would actually take place, the expensive and scarce armored vehicles would be many (because that is where they would be concentrated), while the antitank missiles would be few indeed once the initial array were scattered, suppressed, or destroyed by the devastating barrages of the abundant and concentrated Soviet artillery.

Just as at sea the cheap missile can destroy the expensive warship only so long as the latter’s space and weight, crews and power sources are not properly used to accommodate countermeasures and counterweapons, so also the cheap missile can only destroy armored forces successfully if it is used against the unprepared and the underconcentrated. Otherwise it can only serve as one more weapon on the battlefield, undoubtedly useful, but not a substitute for large defense budgets, and still less for the necessity of nuclear deterrence.



One can be certain that Jonathan Schell and all the marching and chanting thousands would remain quite unmoved by the revelation that “precision-guided munitions” will not evade the rules of strategy, that they will not offer a non-nuclear solution and a cheap one to boot. Schell’s formula for security in our age of conflict is very simple: universal disarmament under the aegis of world government. But of course that is not a proposal seriously meant, and in fact Schell does not even bother to outline for us, not even briefly, any scheme of action whereby those great results might be achieved. The proposal that he does put forward in all seriousness is that we should immediately stop all work on the development and construction of nuclear weapons.

Now as it happens Schell knows quite well that the ability of the United States to avert war by deterrence requires on the contrary that we proceed, and rapidly, to improve our nuclear forces, in order to make up for the entire decade of the 1970’s when the Soviet build-up was not offset by any adequate American response. But Schell is not concerned with the needs of deterrence because he holds deterrence to be too dangerous, and indeed irrational. The nuclear war he imagines is made of thousands of warheads unleashed upon our cities to burn, to blast, to irradiate. In such circumstances, the use of nuclear weapons for retaliation would indeed serve no purpose. From this Schell concludes that all retaliation must be purposeless, and thus all deterrence must be irrational.

Now it was always very clearly understood that if for some inexplicable reason the Soviet Union were to launch large numbers of intercontinental nuclear weapons upon our cities, then our own use of surviving nuclear weapons to destroy the Soviet population would serve no rational strategic purpose, and no moral aim. But the workings of deterrence are in no way governed by that theoretical and ultimate extreme, any more than the poisonous quality of many medicines denies their beneficial use against disease. Schell’s argument that retaliation in planetary doses deprives deterrence of its purpose is of the same intellectual quality as the objections once heard against the use of fluoride in the water supply, which were motivated by the discovery that the chemical in question can kill—in large doses.

Deterrence does not rest on the theoretical ultimate of all-out population destruction. Whether nuclear or not, the workings of deterrence depend on threats of punishment that others will find believable. This requires that the act of retaliation be in itself purposeful, and less catastrophic rather than more. And indeed, contrary to what Schell and many others believe, the nuclear arsenals have become steadily less destructive than they used to be, as weapons have become more accurate. The total megatonnage of our strategic nuclear forces is nowadays perhaps one-tenth of what it was twenty years ago.

Thus, the entirety of Schell’s argument rests on a logical fallacy. But what in a moral context is a good deal more serious is that Schell and his followers are in practice indifferent to the prospect of a large and very destructive non-nuclear European war. For such a war is the likely outcome of any prolonged “freeze,” because a decline in nuclear deterrent forces would be inevitable, as worn-out weapons are not replaced; and without nuclear deterrence, great-power politics would resume as before 1945. Looking back on the events of the last generation, with its many and dangerous crises, it is impossible to believe that another world war could have been avoided had it not been for the terror that nuclear weapons inspire. Thus in practice Schell is ready to see untold numbers of Europeans suffer and die in countries ruined by the smashing advance of Soviet armor and by the blasting of great artillery barrages, just so long as those barrages remain non-nuclear.

In the crowds that march behind Schell’s banner, many know so little of all such matters that their views do not warrant serious discussion. Many others will candidly acknowledge the abstract merit of the counterarguments, but will nevertheless assert that they have made their own incontrovertible choice. Rather than risk in any smallest way their own lives and those of their children in a nuclear conflict, however improbable, they are in fact prepared to see others and their children die in large numbers and by a certain outcome.

Those who thus frankly admit that they would abandon all the nations that now rely on our nuclear enhancement for their security, even if much war and much death would inevitably result, are the more honest members of the antinuclear camp. They have no moral pretensions and no shame to drive them into hypocrisy and false argument. But what are all those rabbis and priests, pastors and bishops, doing with them, standing in their crowds singing their songs? By what doctrine of theology, by what theory of morality, but what rule of ethics is it decreed that the small risk of nuclear war is a greater evil than the virtual certainty of the large-scale death in great-power wars no longer deterred?

The offense of the antinuclear churchmen is not strategical error, but rather a brutal attack upon the most elementary principle of morality, the most basic of religious prescriptions, by which Rabbi Hillel once summarized the entirety of the Bible: what is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The intellectual terrorism of Jonathan Schell’s book notwithstanding, nuclear weapons have no special quality, either in morality or in theology, that would invalidate the elementary calculus of good and evil.



The time has come to deal forthrightly with the antinuclear agitation. To do as the Reagan administration has done, to concede and appease, is highly dangerous. Because if the false argument is admitted, sound strategy is thereby delegitimized and then in due course policies of weakness will inevitably follow through congressional decision and public pressure.

If, for example, the Bundy-Kennan-McNamara-Smith proposal is accepted on the argument that it is good public relations to do so, and that only a verbal change would be involved, it will soon be discovered that once NATO’s “first-use” policy is renounced it will be impossible to obtain approval for the upkeep of battlefield nuclear weapons. Why, it will be said, should we keep those nuclear-capable guns so near the border if we no longer seek to deter a non-nuclear invasion by nuclear deterrence? Thus the nuclear shells of the artillery will be withdrawn—they being the smallest of our nuclear weapons, and yet very likely the most powerful for deterrence because of their immediacy and the circumscribed effect that makes use credible.

Similarly, if the principle of arms-control negotiations for this or that class of weapons is once accepted, actually for purposes of public relations but ostensibly for the sake of peace and survival, how will the demand for more concessions be resisted? After all, it will be said, what petty diplomatic concern, what minor strategic advantage, is more important than peace and survival? Not to stand and assert the truth in the war of ideas means to suffer delegitimization now, and then eventual defeat in the practical realms of policy and strategy.


1 All the statistics following are from the 1982 edition of the Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

2 That, incidentally, sets a firm ceiling to the strategic value of a U.S.-China alliance.

3 Knopf, 244 pp., $11.95.

About the Author

Edward N. Luttwak is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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