Albert Wohlstetter Dot Com releases report, Protecting U.S. Power to Strike Back in the 1950s and 1960s (R-290: 1956)

Albert Wohlstetter Dot Com, a project of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, is making available a PDF (13.3 MB) of the Wohlstetter-led Vulnerability Study:

Albert Wohlstetter, Fred S. Hoffman and Henry S. Rowen, Protecting U.S. Power to Strike Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, staff report, R-290 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, September 1, 1956), top secret, declassified circa mid-1960s.

It was in this report — and not in R-244-S and R-266, the two main reports of RAND’s earlier Wohlstetter-led Basing Study — that Wohlstetter and company:

  • (a) articulated what would be stringently required for the U.S. to deter credibly a nuclear preemptive attack against America’s strategic nuclear forces; and
  • (b) argued that the deterrence of such nuclear preemption would hinge on the aggressor’s comparison of alternative risks — that is, how an aggressor would compare, especially in extreme and potentially calamitous circumstances, the risks of attack to the risks of its other perceived alternatives-to-attack.

To improve the survivability, controllability and therefore credibility of U.S. strategic nuclear forces in the face of changing dangers, R-290 (also known as “the Vulnerability Study”) recommended over fifty operational and technological measures.

For one, the Wohlstetter team originated the idea of FAIL-SAFE bomber launching to limit and manage the dangers of ambiguous warning of a possible attack: false positives (which could lead to accidental war) and false negatives (which could lead to being caught totally surprised by an undetected enemy attack). (See p. 60.) For another, they also put forward the idea of protectively basing America’s emerging force of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in hardened underground structures — in what we would call today “silos.” (See pp. 76-81.)

In addition, Wohlstetter and colleague’s R-290 report highlighted the need to develop less vulnerable communications systems that could survive and operate after an attack. (See p. 68-69.) RAND Corporation engineer Paul Baran would come up with brilliant solutions to this communications vulnerability problem — solutions that, without exaggeration, would pave the way for the Internet’s creation decades later.

This website’s bibliography for Albert’s writings will be updated shortly to contain a link to R-290’s PDF.

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