Limited strategic options


Even as the SALT I treaties were being formulated, US strategic policy was undergoing another revision. In Jan. 1974 Defense Secretary James Schlesinger issued MAD’s funeral oration, announcing a new doctrine for the United States, under which ‘immediate massive retaliation against Soviet cities was no longer to be the President’s only option and possibly not the principal option’. The strategy brought into the equation the idea of war fighting and the technical means of doing so were going into the triad the Command Data Buffer System for the Minuteman force which enabled targeting orders to be changed rapidly, the emphasis on command and control systems which could survive, the Mk 12A warhead with a hard target kill capability, and a shopping list of alternatives within the SIOP. The strategy became known by a variety of names the Schlesinger doctrine, limited strategic options and counterforce. The ability to fight a ‘limited’ strategic war at a level of violence which would leave enough surviving assets and individuals to bargain for peace would, it was argued, enhance rather than dilute deterrence.

            ‘Escalation control’ and ‘damage limitation’ became important components for the new SIOP (known as SIOP 5). Some sort of communication with the Soviet leadership during a nuclear conflict was judged possible, while ‘reasonable’ and ‘prudent’.

            In fact US defence intellectuals discovered they had Soviet equivalents in the late 1960s that there were people in the Soviet Union who also thought about nuclear war. In the Soviet Union military men dominated policy making, whereas in the United States, politicians, academics and think tankers. Changing with each administration, gave the military men a set of plans and a set of tools to carry them out. The discovery of Soviet though patterns showed how different their concepts of nuclear war were. Deterrence was indistinguishable from defence and war was divided not by types of weapons employed (conventional, chemical, nuclear, etc.) but by political objectives with ‘victory’ as the goal.

            Schlesinger’s doctrine of flexible response demanded more accurate weapons and more warheads for more targets while simultaneously assuming the Soviet leadership to be reasonable, As the procurement patterns for the new generation of weapons emerging in the 1980s were set, powerful sections of the US political establishment were pointing to the ‘new’ discovery that the Soviet leaders might not be reasonable but thought in ‘war fighting’ terms. Professor Richard Pipes’s famous anti SALT polemic of 1976, ‘why the Soviet Union thinks it can fight and win a Nuclear War’, found some heavy weight political patronage. If the Soviets thought about nuclear war fighting, then so must the US.


Above: A Boeing B-47 of Strategic Air Command, forward based in Europe and North Africa from 1954 to 1964.


Above: Douglas Thor IRBM, developed by the USAF but emplaced in Britain and operated by RAF Bomber Command from 1959 to 1964. There were 60 missiles under dual key control, in contrast to the present arrangement for GLCMs.


            Jimmy Carter meanwhile won the presidency the same year, convinced that mutual destruction was still as assured as it had been in the 1960s. Himself a former submariner, he declared, for example, that a single Poseidon submarine could inflict enough punishment to keep the deterrent alive, whatever the men with the satellite photographs and decrypts of Soviet missile test telemetry were saying. Soon he was believing them.

            One by one Carter’s attempts at arms control collapsed. Unilateral action at home was relatively straightforward, such as truncating B-1 development or halting the production of enhanced radiation weapons, but powered politics in the wider world proved much tougher. The Camp David Middle East peace initiative tailed off into anticlimax. The linkage of human rights with strategic concession was unworkable. Above all, the calm that had fallen over US policy makers about nuclear parity gave way to alarm as the results in the wider world unfolded. Soviet general purpose and naval modernization proceeded apace, coupled with opportunist power projection in the Persian Gulf, in the Horn of Africa, in Angola, in the Caribbean and in Central America. Meanwhile, the Soviet ICBM modernization programme was nearing conclusion, complete with MIRVs and hard target kill capability. The new SS-17s, -18s and –19s, their apparent accuracy and counterforce ability eagerly trumpeted by the intelligence and military establishment, really rattled the Americans, and it was not a rerun of the old bomber and missile gap scares. ‘Window of vulnerability,’ an expression coined by a Department of Defense official, James Wade, became a fashionable phrase. It meant a period of years in the mid 1980s when the temptation to launch a first strike against suddenly vulnerable US forces would be overwhelming.

            By 1980, after the Afghanistan invasion and the disastrous outcome of attempts to free US hostages in Iran, Carter finally abandoned MAD. SALT II, although signed in Vienna in 1979, was stalled in Congress and, following the invasion of Afghanistan,  Carter asked the Senate to defer ratification. With the structures of communication and understanding that surrounded SALT now dissipated, in the summer of 1980 Carter signed a new war plan, called Presidential Directive 59, a development, in fact, of Schlesinger’s SIOP-5, but which put extra emphasis on command targets and stressed the war fighting qualities of nuclear weapons and the long term survival capacity of command and control systems, PD59 further introduced the new idea that US strategic forces should be able to endure a protracted nuclear war, which might last months rather than a few days of ‘spasm’ exchange, while it also increased numbers and categories of target options to a total of 40,000 far more targets than there were warheads to hit them.




This huge total does not include urban centres. It is made up of four principal groups: Soviet nuclear forces, conventional forces (fixed sites such as airfields, tank depots, etc.), military leadership and communication targets, and economic and industrial targets, which include both war supporting industries and core economic targets. Targets sets from the four groups are allocated as Major Attack Options, Selected Attack Options, while the plan leaves open options for pre emptive attack, plus launch on warning and launch under attack. There were also so called ‘withhold targets’, including population centres and national command centres which might allow post nuclear strike diplomacy to continue.

            PD59 alarmed many people because here was a US nuclear war plan which seemed to foresee ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. However, the Carter administration was especially anxious to disabuse the press of the idea that PD-59 was a plan to ‘win’ a limited nuclear war. It would rather convince the Soviet Union that it could not win by threatening the targets which ‘the Soviet leadership values most its military forces and own ability to maintain control after a war starts’. With the emphasis on finding Soviet leaders in their bunkers, some supporters of the plant went as far as to say that once the KGB and the Kremlin bureaucracy were dead, the Soviet empire would disintegrate.

            Ancillary studies showed how ‘limited strikes’ could be made on government control targets or on core industries such as oil refining. It worked both ways. A 1980 study by the Congressional Office of Technology looked at the effects of an attack by ten SS-18s carrying 80 one megaton warheads against US oil refining centres near cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago and the gulf coast of Texas. More than half the refining capacity would be destroyed, and there be five million American dead. These ‘collateral’ casualties did not add up to a blueprint for ‘limited war’.

            In May 1981, addressing West Point cadets on his commitment to higher military spending, President Reagan told them ‘I am happy to tell you that the people of America have covered from what can only be a temporary aberration.’ Referring to the demise of SALT II, he said ‘Any controversy now would be over which weapons the United States should produce and not whether it should forsake weaponry for treaties and agreements.’

            Reagan had trounced carter in the presidential election with rhetoric such as this but his defeated opponent had left behind in PD-59 a plan and a programme for carrying it out very close to the new administration’s promise of nuclear superiority. PD-59’s so called ‘countervailing strategy’, with its acceptance of war fighting over a protracted period. Was eagerly embraced by the new administration, with the additional ingredient that US strategic forces should not only be able to fight a protracted nuclear war indeed, they should prevail.

            The Pentagon’s defence guidelines for the period 1984-8 afforded the first glimpse of the new thinking. Again the possibility of protracted nuclear war was emphasized (defined by the Department of Defense as anything beyond a single exchange of nuclear weapons). Whereas PD-59 directed attacks be made against specific military and political targets, the new strategy put greater emphasis on rendering ‘in effective the total Soviet (and Soviet allied) military and political power structure and inflicting ‘very high levels of damage’ on Soviet industry. The emphasis on C3I was even greater (see page 107), while the guidelines noted that the systems had to provide the capability to ‘execute ad hoc plans even subsequent to mass repeated attack’.

            The war-fighting tools for such a second strike counterforce capability, such as MX and Trident II, which are ale to evade or ride out a Soviet strike and yet arrive with the crushing accuracy of a set piece grand assault under a fine tuned intact C3 net, are of course about to come on stream in the late 1980s and are the cornerstones of the strategic force modernization programme.

            US defence plans are not made in a political or fiscal vacuum. A month after President Reagan told West Point cadets that SALT II was ‘dead’, Eugene Rostow, then director of the US Arms Control Agency (subsequently dismissed in Jan. 1983), assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that President Reagan had described the strengthening of the US deterrent as ‘essential to the possibility of meaningful arms control’. He further confirmed that, in the view of the Reagan administration. SALT II was deeply flawed and should not be ratified and that a new effort should be made to seek both arms control and arms reduction by means of strategic arms reduction talks (START). Pressure from the European NATO allies was also strong, made more so by the modernization decision on intermediate nuclear forces.

            After months of bleak unilateral statement and counter statement from Washington and Moscow, on May 9, 1982, President Reagan announced that the United States would propose a practical phased reduction plan in the START talks with the Soviet Union. According to the President the US goal ‘would be to achieve equal ceilings with much lower levels of force’, while reducing significantly the most destabilizing systems in the US view that meant ICBMs. On June 29, 1982, the START talks were opened in Geneva led by Lt Gen. Edward L. Rowny for the United States and Viktor Karpov for the Soviet Union. No other nuclear nations were included.

            SALT II was concerned with ceilings whereas the START agenda actually called for cuts. As proposed initially by the United States it would be in two stages. Phase I would reduce ballistic missile warheads by one third; Phase II would seek to ensure an equal ceiling on ballistic missile throw weight at ‘less than current’ US levels. The problem, however, is in the mismatch of the structures of the rival forces. They are not a mirror image of each other.

            The United States has more warheads (9000) but fewer launchers (1944) than the Soviet strategic forces (8400 warheads, 2537 launchers). The US proposal centres on land based intercontinental ballistic missiles which the administration regards as the most immediate threat to strategic stability. But it is here, both in numbers and scale, that the Soviet Union has made its greatest investment. As originally advanced, the US proposal would have required the Soviet Union to have no more than 210 large missiles of SS-19 size and upwards (equivalent roughly to MX) and no more than 110 very large missiles on the SS-18s and 360 SS-19s, it would have to reduce its newest missiles by two thirds to meet the US position of an overall total of 5000 warheads on ballistic missiles each, of which only one half should be on land.

Again, there is a fundamental mismatch the United States has only 2150 of its 9500 strategic warheads on land, whereas only about 2150 Soviet warheads are based on submarines, with lower operability and greater vulnerability to anti submarine warfare.

            The treatment of bombers presents another area for disagreement. SALT left them largely untouched. Whereas the United States has an advantage which will climb exponentially in offensive power with the introduction of air launched cruise missiles. There have been hints of linkage, cruise missile carriers versus Back fire and strategic air defence, for example, but no more, whereas a prime concern of the Soviet Union is to limit the US cruise missile programme while it acquires an equivalent technology.

            Sea launched cruise missiles are another contentious area. There are large numbers of short ranged nuclear tipped cruise missiles on Soviet warships and submarines, geared to tactical warfare on the ocean. They are, however, capable of hitting US coastal cities, but should they be equated with the much longer range weapons due to proliferate aboard the ships of the US Navy ? US Navy SLCMs will have a variety of ranges and warheads, conventional and nuclear and their radar signatures are impossible to distinguish.

            The Soviet counter proposal was presented in Geneva in Aug. 1982. It was linked to non deployment of new US missiles in Europe and called for an immediate freeze on new deployments, while proposing a ceiling of 1800 missiles and bombers of all types on each side. With little shift of emphasis during Andropov’s assumption of office, a fuller Soviet position was spelt out in Pravda at the start of 1983. it called for phased reduction of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, reduction of all warheads and bombs to an agreed level, no US forward based systems in Europe capable of striking the Soviet Union, no cruise missiles with ranges greater than 600 km, no heavy bombers or aircraft carriers in agreed zones adjoining each other’s  territory, prior notification of bomber exercises, and safe zones for submarines in which offensive antisubmarine weapons would be prohibited.

            The Soviet proposal, in fact, called for a higher cut back in its own delivery vehicles than did the US one (see table), but it did not emphasizes cuts in land based systems. It cut out cruise while demanding that Euro strategic systems should be brought in. Furthermore, the US proposal allowed MX to be deployed, while rolling back the decade of intense effort to produce the huge. Soviet strike power centred n the land based ICBMs. Both sides have proposed substantial reductions and both have shown signs of flexibility, but they cannot agree where to start.


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