U.S./U.S.S.R. Strategic Policy

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U.S./U.S.S.R. Strategic Policy

by Palo Alto Science for the People

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 4, July/August 1981, p. 24–27

It is in Washington, rather than in Moscow, that scenarios are dreamed up for theatre wars; and it is in America that the alchemists of superkill, the clever technologists of “advantage” and of ultimate weapons, press forward the “politics of tomorrow” E.P. Thompson, “A Letter to America”.—1

Traditionally the U.S. left has been inclined to share the view of E.P. Thompson, British disarmament activist and member of European Nuclear Disarmament (END). This perception, however, presents only part of the structure and purpose of armed forces in the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

U.S. and Soviet Strategy

The central Soviet strategic priority has been fortification against a land invasion, no doubt influenced by three invasions of Russia in this century. This difference in strategy is evident in deployment of forces, indigenous airspace defense, and naval development. Only 18% of Soviet divisions are presently outside the U.S.S.R. (in Eastern Europe) whereas nearly 50% of U.S. ground forces are outside the U.S.2 Soviet airspace is heavily defended—5000 radar stations, 2600 fighter interceptors, and 12,000 highly accurate anti-aircraft missiles—while the U.S. air defense has about 1% of its Soviet counterpart.3 Finally, the Soviets have no real attack aircraft carriers whereas the U.S. has thirteen (stationed in the Pacific, Atlantic, and recently, in the Carribbean).

The absence of a carrier fleet makes the Soviet role as an interventionist superpower questionable, lacking mobile air defense for their invading forces. Even the Soviet military forces that could be used for interventionist purposes far from its borders—air transport, amphibious lifts, naval infantry (Marines), airborne troops—are smaller than comparable U.S. forces, i.e., scaled to meet the needs of securing the Soviet perimeter.

By comparison, military forces in the United States are being prepared to fight “one and a half” wars: a major war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact and small “confrontational” wars in the Third World. For the latter purpose, flexible and rapidly mobilized forces are needed for quick invasion and occupation. The development of the Rapid Deployment Force therefore represents a continued shift in U.S. policy from Soviet nuclear confrontation to counter-insurgency. Even in the early 1960s, President Kennedy declared that the next world war would not be a major confrontation in Europe, but a series of limited conflicts to meet the mounting armed struggles in the Third World.4 Conventional military capabilities in the U.S. were built up during and after Vietnam. Under Nixon, multi-billion dollar strategic airlifts, sealifts (floating arsenals which would marry up with troops flown in on jet transporters) and “instant airpower” (prefabricated mobile air bases) were added to our military capabilities.5

Context of U.S. Strategy

Despite military-industrial complex propaganda, the current massive U.S. military buildup is not based on a real necessity to compete with, or neutralize, a direct Soviet military threat to the U.S. or any perceived U.S. interests. Rather, a key aim of U.S. military strategy is “to assure from an unstable Third World the raw materials on which its economic well being, domestic stability, and political cohesion have come to depend.”6 Oil has been cited as the most strategic of commodities. According to Senator Gary Hart: “As was once said of the Balkans, the nations of the Gulf tend to produce more history than they can consume locally. Our need for effective, fast-reacting American military forces to defend our vital Gulf interest is obvious.”7

Containment and Massive Retaliation

Historically the arms race, stepped-up militarization of the economy and pervasiveness of “national security” myths date from the immediate post-World War II period.

The foreign policy goal of containment—prevention of further Soviet influence in Europe and Asia—shaped U.S. military strategy in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the outset, in 1949, NATO incorporated nuclear weapons as “technological equalizers” to a large Soviet land army. Failure of the U.S. to defeat North Korean ground forces prompted Eisenhower to order that all U.S. security interests be defended by forces supplied with nuclear weapons. The doctrine that emerged, “massive retaliation,” was outlined by John Foster Dulles in 1954: The U.S. reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to defeat aggression at times and places of its own choosing.8 Theoretically, even a local movement with socialist overtones could be defined as Communist aggression and, under this policy, lead to a chain of military actions culminating in World War III. To carry out the threat, the U.S. established a ring of military bases in countries surrounding the U.S.S.R.—today’s forward base system.

The Soviets responded by building a sizable nuclear arsenal. By the mid 1950s, they also had strategic bombing capability against both European and U.S. cities. By the late 1950s, the era of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) had begun.

Wall Street’s role in this arms buildup cycle cannot be discounted. In the United States, military Keynesianism or “the idea that high levels of military spending do not damage the economy but indeed stimulate it” gained prominence in academic centers.9 Some economists at that time even blamed the 1953-54 recession on a 20% reduction in defense spending after the Korean War. (For another view, see Cypher article in this issue.) In the mid 1950s, the Committee of Economic Development, a national organization of leading businessmen, suggested that defense spending could “safely” rise to 15% of the Gross National Product.10 Clearly, the interests of the military contractors were also served by high defense spending. The plan of contractors, bankers, and militarists, was to keep capitalism, in its monopoly form, rolling with a massive military program.

The MAD Doctrine

The U.S. doctrine of massive retaliation had to be modified by the late 1950s as the U.S.S.R. achieved retaliatory capability. The doctrine that emerged was “MAD” (Mutually Assured Destruction): the maintenance of a retaliatory capacity secure enough to survive an enemy’s first strike and then cause unacceptable damage to industrial and urban centers. Throughout the 1960s, this balance of terror—Mutually Assured Destruction—was sold as the primary preventor of a nuclear holocaust.

Intent on maintaining nuclear superiority, U.S. defense planners called a diplomatic strategy into play. If for no other reason than to gain political leverage through a symbolic show of strength, the U.S. sought to negotiate a stable structure of peace—detente—contingent on continued U.S. superiority. Thus, with both military and diplomatic objectives in mind, SALT I was signed, freezing the superpower missile inventories. A critical clause in SALT I exempted qualitatively new nuclear weapons, and in this area the U.S. had a 5-10 year lead over the Soviets.11

Countervalue Becomes Counterforce

All previous U.S. strategic targeting was based on the concept of countervalue. This says we aim at the enemy’s urban centers and industries in order to destroy their society. But this was to change.

One of the new technological developments exempted from SALT I, enhanced missile targeting accuracy, became the foundation of a new military targeting strategy. Defense Secretary Schlesinger in 1974 announced that the U.S. would no longer be deterred by threat of Soviet retaliation.12 Henceforth, the U.S. would selectively target the Soviet deterrent, i.e., missile sites. This “counterforce strategy” was to proceed in two stages: (1) retargeting from Soviet civilian to military sites and (2) development of weapons capable of striking hardened13 Soviet missile silos and underground command centers. Counterforce scenarios raise the spectre of nuclear war by exposing the opponent’s deterrent forces to new vulnerabilities, inviting a “launch it or lose it” response in a crisis.

Counterforce weapons, however, cannot be clearly limited to deterrence; they can also be used for a first strike. Several technological developments assembled around the concept of counterforce (but lending themselves to a first strike capability) proceeded after Schlesinger’s announcement: highly accurate Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle (MARY) missiles, the mobile MX missile, cruise missiles (virtually invisible to radar), stellar inertial guidance systems (SIGS), and others.

The pace of this counterforce thrust was temporarily slowed down when Carter’s Presidential Directive 18 (1978) outlined a less antagonistic U.S. military posture for the fiscal year. The objectives were: (1) an arms limitation treaty (SALT II) with the Soviets which would curtail, but not stop, the production of expensive, capital intensive ICBMs and (2) expansion of conventional forces for rapid strikes in the Mideast and other trouble spots, as well as meeting military commitments for NATO.

These objectives were short lived. The right wing mobilized against SALT II, their constituency economically intertwined with southern and western U.S. high technology military/space industries. These politicians launched a successful drive against SALT II and pressed for development of a first strike technology. In line with their theory of Soviet expansionism, they seized upon growing Soviet influence in Africa and elsewhere, and generally concurred with the Central Intelligence Agency’s 1976 “Team B” Report: the Soviet Union since 1962 has embarked on a “policy of building forces for a preemptive first-strike against the U.S. ICBMs.”14 They reasoned that the MAD doctrine was thus rendered obsolete. Similar arguments, sold by the Pentagon, not only formed nuclear policy but also served to cover-up the provocative U.S. role in the arms race. However, as activist and ex-defense engineer Bob Aldridge points out,

While the U.S. is ahead now and rapidly approaching a first strike capability … there is no available evidence that the U.S.S.R. has the combined missile lethality, antisubmarine warfare potential, ballistic missile defense, or space warfare technology to attain a disabling first strike before the end of this century.15

Recent Developments

The rightward shift in U.S. leadership makes an ideolagical tool of the Soviet Union as a threat to U.S. “vital interests”. The fact that Soviet aid benefits those Third World governments resistant to U.S. economic and political domination further fuels an interventionist U.S. military posture, which now includes a spectrum of coercive moves against the U.S.S.R. “Linkage” of arms control agreements to U.S. desired changes in Soviet foreign activities, continuing buildup of arms, the threat of a U.S.-Sino-Japanese military alliance, programs for deploying new “counterforce” nuclear weapons (such as the new generation of intermediate range missiles for deployment in Europe) suggest just a few possible coercive moves in the new militaristic climate. Meanwhile, the U.S. defense budget is soaring as recommendations for military procurement place increasing emphasis on offense.

U.S. military preparations reflect current geopolitical instability and developing Third World nationalism. All scales of battle are now being planned: “low threat” conflicts with poorly armed guerrilla armies, conflicts with heavily armed forces such as Syria or Iraq, and conflicts with Soviet expeditionary forces. Furthermore, while the political leadership claims it seeks negotiated settlements, the threshold for intervention has been lowered with the new capabilities for rapid mobile strikes, i.e., before political opposition can be mobilized. The threshold for nuclear war has been lowered due to the intention of U.S. planners to resort to the ultimate “big stick” of counterforce nuclear strategy.

For these reasons, we urge our members and readers to step up their involvement in the movement against U.S. militarism. Given ominous turns in the arms race, growth of the right, and the very dangerous posture of U.S. foreign policy, linking with other groups—here and abroad—in this struggle is absolutely essential.

The Palo Alto SftP chapter regards the problem of militarism as the most urgent political issue of the next few years. It plans to follow developments in this topic and make further contributions to the magazine. Contact with other chapters/persons on this issue is welcomed.


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  1. E.P. Thompson, “A Letter to America,” The Nation (January 24, 1981) p. 87
  2. Michael Klare, “The ‘Power Projection’ Gap,” The Nation (June 9, 1979) p. 671
  3. Philip Morrison and Paul F. Walker, “A New Strategy for Military Spending,” Scientific American (October 1978) p. 51
  4. Michael Klare, War Without End (New York: Vintage, 1972) pp. 3-55
  5. for more information, see Klare (footnote 3) pp. 142-164
  6. Lawrence Korb, “The FY 1981-1985 Defense Program,” Foreign Policy and Defense Review (1980) p. 55
  7. Gary Hart, “It’s Not Rapid, Deployable or Forceful,” Washington Star (February 4, 1981)
  8. Kevin N. Lewis, “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons,” Scientific American (December 1980) p. 66
  9. Richard Barnet, Roots of War (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1972) p. 165
  10. loc. cit.
  11. for more specific discussion, see Robert Aldridge, The Counterjorce Syndrome (Wash., D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1978)
  12. Schlesinger reasoned: in the “worst case scenario”, the Soviets launch a limited first strike and destroy a significant part of U.S. retaliatory deterrent. The U.S. President can now either launch remaining U.S. missiles at Soviet cities inviting a devastating Soviet second strike against U.S. cities, or do nothing and forfeit the war. Thus, the U.S. needed a limited first strike capability against Soviet missiles to deter such an attack, i.e., the ability to pursue a course between holocaust and surrender. However, counter force doesn’t really enhance the U.S. deterrent since a limited nuclear exchange would cause many millions of casualties on both sides and thus almost inevitably trigger all-out retaliation. The underlying aim of counterforce appears rather to be to afford the U.S. leadership political leverage over the Soviets by having a more threatening nuclear arsenal, enhancing Washington’s bargaining position in general, not just in a nuclear crisis.
  13. reinforced military sites utilizing specialized construction materials and architectures
  14. The lnternews International Bulletin (July 2, 1979) p. 1
  15. Robert Aldridge, The Counterjorce Syndrome (footnote 11) pp. 61-62