Excerpt on moving towards discriminate deterrence from Wohlstetter book’s introduction

This week’s excerpt from “Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter on Nuclear-Age Strategy,” Robert Zarate’s introductory essay to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009), looks at Albert’s particular contributions from the 1950s onward to larger U.S. efforts to discover and design more discriminate — and therefore more believable — ways to deter a wide range of potential nuclear and non-nuclear provocations by adversaries. For more, see the earlier Wohlstetter book excerpts on:

Excerpts exclude the supporting endnotes, but you can get them — and much, much more — if you view or download the PDF version of the book at www.albertwohlstetter.com/book.

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By Robert Zarate

In 1962, Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin first published (with research assistance from Donald Brennan) Strategy and Arms Control, a book that famously identified what they took to be the three core objectives of all arms control agreements: to reduce “[1] the likelihood of war, [2] its scope and violence if it occurs, and [3] the political and economic costs of being prepared for it.” Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter saw themselves as sharing these very same goals, but they diverged from the conventional wisdom of most arms controllers in that they believed the United States (and the USSR) could often achieve these objectives more reliably and effectively by means of independent technological innovation.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Albert would work to demonstrate the stabilizing potential of technological innovation. In particular, he would join a small circle of analysts who identified for U.S. decision-makers new alternatives for responding to — and thus for deterring — a wide spectrum of possible enemy aggression without resorting to the sort of massive nuclear retaliation against cities and civilian populations prescribed by mutual assured destruction (MAD) and other doctrines of automatic and minimum deterrence. By promoting the development of technologies and systems that stressed precision, control, and information, Wohlstetter would help the United States to reject MAD-inspired threats against noncombatants — and instead to field a new generation of more discriminate and less destructive non-nuclear capabilities that, in turn, would substantially reduce America’s reliance on nuclear weapons.

Birth of MAD: A New Doctrine of Deterrence by Massive Retaliation.

The doctrine of mutual assured destruction first emerged in the late 1960s. Like earlier doctrines of automatic and minimum deterrence, MAD held that a government could deter stably and reliably a wide range of nuclear and non-nuclear aggression simply by threatening to escalate any conflict with massive retaliatory attacks targeting the aggressor’s cities and populations. Because MAD required a government to field only a “minimum deterrent” — that is, a second-strike capability consisting of technologically crude and indiscriminately destructive nuclear weapons aimed at civilians — the doctrine counseled against technological innovation. The reason was that when two governments adopted “minimum deterrent” nuclear postures, MAD doctrine held that the necessary outcome will be a stable, mutual deterrence. Arms controllers — especially arms race theorists who sought to limit qualitative technological improvements to America’s strategic nuclear forces — thus gravitated toward MAD.

In a curious twist, however, it was Donald Brennan, an arms controller at Herman Kahn‘s Hudson Institute, who first coined the phrase “mutual assured destruction” in the mid-to-late 1960s. Brennan meant MAD as a tongue-in-cheek way of mocking arms controllers who had advocated escalatory threats of massive nuclear retaliation as a means not only of deterring a wide range of nuclear and non-nuclear aggression, but also of achieving deep cuts in nuclear arms. Nonetheless, many such arms controllers ended up embracing the phrase.

MAD alludes to a concept that was birthed during Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara‘s tenure. Upon arriving at the Pentagon, Secretary McNamara and his team of analysts — a group which included Charles Hitch, William W. Kaufmann, Alain Enthoven and other alumni of the RAND Corporation — set out to rein in what they saw as the budgetary excesses of the military services. To constrain military spending on nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, they had introduced by late 1963 the metric of assured destruction capability. (Although assured destruction capability is traditionally referred to by the acronym AD, this essay shall refer to it as ADCAP.) Enthoven, a protégé of Albert Wohlstetter who had served initially as McNamara’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Analysis, explained the concept behind ADCAP in a 1977 essay:

[T]he size and composition of our strategic retaliatory forces would be determined by the “assured destruction mission.” Under this policy, we would buy amounts and kinds of forces sufficient to be sure, even under very pessimistic assumptions, that they could survive a deliberate Soviet attack [aimed directly against them] well enough to strike back and destroy 20 to 25 percent of their population.

With the ADCAP metric, the McNamara Pentagon had sought to provide an argument for limiting the procurement of second-strike nuclear forces among the military services. However, ADCAP was not meant to imply that, in time of war, the United States would actually target the Soviet civilian population with massive nuclear retaliation. In How Much is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program 1961-1969 (1971, 2005), Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith underscored this point:

The assured destruction test did not, of course, indicate how these forces would actually be used in a nuclear war. United States strategic offensive forces have been designed with the additional system characteristics — accuracy, endurance, and good command and control — needed to perform missions other than assured destruction, such as limited and controlled retaliation.

Indeed, when President John F. Kennedy entered into office in 1961, his Administration sought to break away from the Eisenhower Administration’s “New Look,” a declaratory nuclear policy that sought to deter a broad range of Soviet aggression (including even minor provocations in Western Europe) through threats to escalate any conflict to higher levels of violence with massive nuclear retaliation. Instead, the Kennedy Administration decided to stress a more proportional “flexible response” approach to defense, to that end renouncing “countervalue” or “countercity” targeting of civilians with nuclear weapons. During his 1962 State of the Union address, for instance, President Kennedy declared:

. . . our strength may be tested at many levels. We intend to have at all times the capacity to resist non-nuclear or limited attacks — as a complement to our nuclear capacity, not as a substitute. We have rejected any all-or-nothing posture which would leave no choice but inglorious retreat or unlimited retaliation.

Moreover, at a commencement speech before the University of Michigan on July 9, 1962, Secretary McNamara delivered the famous “Ann Arbor speech” in which he made public the U.S. Government’s explicit renunciation of countervalue targeting:

The U.S. has come to the conclusion that to the extent feasible, basic military strategy in a possible general nuclear war should be approached in much the same way that more conventional military operations have been regarded in the past. That is to say, principal military objectives, in the event of a nuclear war stemming from a major attack on the Alliance, should be the destruction of military forces, not of his civilian population.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, however, McNamara began issuing statements that consciously but less-than-accurately conflated assured destruction capability with U.S. targeting policy. Such conflation encouraged advocates of automatic/minimum deterrence to construe ADCAP to be not merely a metric to cap the size and composition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but also to constitute actual declaratory policy regarding whom — namely, civilian noncombatants — the United States would target nuclear forces. Arms controller Donald Brennan referred to holders of such views as “MADvocates,” and Wohlstetter would join him in denouncing their preferred MAD-inspired threats of massive nuclear retaliation as disproportionate, out of control, and not credible. Moreover, Albert’s own work on promoting technologies of precision, control, and information would later help to create non-MAD response options to a broad range of potential nuclear and non-nuclear military provocations.

The Long Range Research and Development Planning Program.

In the early-to-mid 1970s, Wohlstetter participated in a highly classified DoD study that would help to clarify the potentially revolutionary implications that new technologies could have for war and peace in the nuclear age. This study would not only help the United States over time to reject doctrines of automatic and minimum deterrence and MAD-inspired threats of massive nuclear retaliation, but also lay the seeds for America’s own “revolution in military affairs.”

Initiated by Stephen J. Lukasik, director of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research and Projects Agency (ARPA), and Fred Wikner, an informal representative of the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), this study was known as the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program or LRRDPP. Because Lukasik and Wikner had intended to keep the study initially low-key, they consciously chose a name for the study that would be clunky, and the acronym for which would not be easy to pronounce.

The LRRDPP sought to examine military applications for emerging technologies: for example, new methods of autonomous-terminal homing to deliver munitions more precisely, planned global positioning system satellites, and anticipated improvements in micro-computing and information-processing. The goal was to lay out how America’s military services could leverage these technologies to provide U.S. decision-makers with new alternatives — that is, choices that would not rely on indiscriminate massive nuclear retaliation — for responding to limited-nuclear and less-than-nuclear aggression.

To work on the study, Lukasik and Wikner brought together technologically innovative industrial contractors with Albert Wohlstetter, Joseph Braddock, Don Hicks, Dom Paolucci, Jack Rosengren, and other analysts who had strong knowledge of the subject of nuclear-age strategy and intimate familiarity with the military services. Lukasik — in the commentary that he contributes to Nuclear Heuristics (2009) — summarizes how the LRRDPP worked and some of Wohlstetter’s contributions:

The program was organized into three panels supported by four industrial contractors to contribute expertise and advanced concepts in ground, air, and naval warfare, conventional and nuclear munitions, reconnaissance, command and control, and system integration. Albert chaired the strategic alternatives panel, Don Hicks the advanced technology panel, and Jack Rosengren the munitions panel. Senior-level executives from OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the Services participated in panel sessions. The team members were selected for their in-depth knowledge as well as their skill in working as a multidisciplinary group, combining history, strategy, technology, military operations, and systems. In addition to Albert’s broad skills, his ability to synthesize the essence of a problem and its solution and to communicate it to senior executives and political leaders was invaluable.

A number of factors motivated the LRRDPP. For one, both Wikner (who had served as General Creighton Abrams‘s scientific advisor at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and helped to push into the field very early forms of precision-guided munitions) and Lukasik believed that future technological innovations could change the nature of strategy and warfare — just as the advent of nuclear weapons had. For another, contemporaneous Soviet writings on the concept of revolutions in military affairs (RMAs) — in particular, Colonel General Nikolaĭ Andreevich Lomov‘s 1972 edited volume Scientific-Technical Progress and the Revolution in Military Affairs (A Soviet View) — had encouraged high-level strategic thinkers within the U.S. Government to challenge conventional thinking on the transformative potential of military innovation.

In addition, the LRRDPP’s draft summary report of February 1975 would cite two additional crucial developments. The strategic nuclear forces of both the United States and the USSR had apparently acquired survivable, controllable, and therefore credible second-strike capability; and in part because of this, the Executive Branch had called for a reassessment of the World War II-era “strategic bombing” metrics that were still being used to measure the effectiveness of nuclear and conventional strategic attacks — namely, “the number of targets destroyed” and “the percentage of the targets at risk that have been destroyed by the attack.”

Citing the potential feasibility of “weapons with near zero miss distance,” the LRRDPP strategists proposed what Wohlstetter had termed the dual-criterion (or, alternatively, the dual-criteria) to replace the persisting World War II-era targeting metrics. Under the dual-criterion, the U.S. military would aim: “(1) to achieve the desired damage expectancy on an intended target or target system with high confidence, while simultaneously (2) not damaging particular regions or population areas, again with high confidence.” To meet the dual-criterion’s much more stringent targeting requirements, the strategists identified promising weapon-system concepts which, by capitalizing on foreseeable improvements in the accuracy of warhead delivery and other technologies, could accomplish their missions using extremely low-yield nuclear and even non-nuclear explosives. Such weapon-system concepts included remotely-piloted vehicles, precision-delivered ballistic missiles, deep-earth penetrators, shallow-earth penetrators, and advanced precision-guided munitions.

Thus, a key insight from the LRRDPP’s work was that improvements in a warhead’s delivery accuracy could make greater reliance on non-nuclear explosives possible. For when it comes to increasing the probability of destroying a hardened point target (e.g., a missile silo), a ten-fold improvement in the accuracy of a warhead’s delivery vehicle is roughly equivalent to a thousandfold increase in the warhead’s indiscriminate explosive yield. This, in part, is why Wohlstetter himself saw revolutions in precision, control and information as potentially trumping the so-called nuclear revolution.

The LRRDPP strategists then used a number of possible conflict scenarios — contingencies like less-than-nuclear Soviet aggression against non-NATO nations peripheral to the USSR, and Soviet attacks against individual NATO member states — to think through the sort of strategic contexts and operations in which the United States might use these technologically-driven military capabilities to deter and, if necessary, halt such aggression. In particular, they identified two strategies for employing these capabilities:

  • Coercive response. A “declaratory or implied policy which threatened attack against limited numbers of selected targets in the USSR,” the objective of which “would be to help initiate negotiations or to support ongoing negotiations involved with halting the war”; and
  • Stemming the aggression. A deterrent response policy which would use the military forces of “the threatened country, along with prompt assistance by U.S. forces, [for] actually halting the aggression.”

To be sure, the LRRDPP strategists were aware of the positive and potentially negative implications of more precise, less destructive military capabilities. The draft summary report acknowledges that such capabilities could raise potential “politico-military issues,” such as crisis stability, military escalation and the nuclear threshold, and the possibility of heightened arms competition. The strategists cautioned: “The capability to destroy military targets with little collateral damage could be of high utility under some circumstances; but always, there is the other side of the coin, that the very existence of the capability may make conflict more probable.”

Yet the LRRDPP strategists also saw the opportunities that military capabilities using non-nuclear technologies of discrimination, control, and information could afford by enabling America to rely substantially less on threats of massive nuclear retaliation, to respond decisively to provocations short of all-out nuclear war, and, by so doing, to deter such aggression all the more credibly.

Revolutions in Technologies of Precision, Control, and Information.

The LRRDPP study profoundly influenced Wohlstetter’s thinking. Long opposed to automatic deterrence, minimum deterrence, and other doctrines of massive nuclear retaliation, he had sought as early as the late 1950s to identify for decision-makers new alternatives to meet limited-nuclear and less-than-nuclear forms of aggression. Indeed, in a conference speech titled Strength, Interest, and New Technologies delivered in September 1967 and sponsored by the Institute for Strategic Studies (now the International Institute for Strategic Studies), he had displayed remarkable prescience regarding the transformative potential of emerging technologies, suggesting that revolutions in precision, control, and information could very well trump the nuclear revolution and the fatalism that had flowed from it. America’s technological means had not yet caught up with Wohlstetter’s strategic ends, however. The Long Range Research and Development Planning Program would help to change that.

The education and expertise gained from Lukasik and Wikner’s LRRDPP study would considerably inform Wohlstetter’s own heated criticisms of MAD-inspired nuclear deterrence and targeting doctrines. The LRRDPP experience would also shape the later work of President Ronald Reagan‘s Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, a high-level panel that outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Fred C. Iklé and Wohlstetter chaired in the mid-to-late 1980s. (The other members of the Commission were Anne L. Armstrong, Zbigniew Brzezinski, William P. Clark, W. Graham Claytor, Jr., Andrew J. Goodpaster, James L. Holloway, III, Samuel P. Huntington, Henry A. Kissinger, Joshua Lederberg, Bernard A. Schriever, and John W. Vessey.) With its January 1988 final report, the Commission offered a new doctrine of discriminate deterrence to help meet the future security environment’s changing dangers, with the aim of increasing American and allied ability “to bring force to bear effectively, with discrimination and in time, to thwart any of a wide range of plausible aggressions against their major common interest — and in that way to deter such aggression.”

In the decades following the LRRDPP, the United States developed and acquired, though in stops and starts, many of the technologically-driven military capabilities that the study’s strategists had identified. In turn, these non-nuclear technologies of precision, control, and information — the development of which many arms controllers had fiercely opposed in the 1970s and 1980s on the grounds that they would spark spiraling arms races — would substantially reduce America’s reliance on indiscriminately destructive nuclear weapons, and thereby help to make all-out nuclear war less likely.

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To read more of Robert Zarate’s introduction to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009):

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