Strategy: Can mankind afford to let deterrence fail?
Since the dawn of the nuclear age mankind's survival has rested on the novel concept of deterrence.Skip to next paragraph
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Deterrence as such is not new, of course. The phenomenon has existed ever since (one assumes) the first cave man averted a raid on his hearth by holding a bigger stone aloft than the rival cave man wielded.
What is new is the central importance of deterrence. In the past it didn't matter so much to the human race if deterrence broke down and disputes over home and societal values and national grandeur were resolved by battle rather than by one side's timely retreat. One person, one family, one generation of young men, even, might be slain. But others would survive, return to normal lives, and procreate for posterity.
The hydrogen bomb changed this. Scenarios for an all-out nuclear war project tens of millions of deaths in a few moments. Mankind can no longer afford to have deterrence fail.
That axiom is simple. Its implications are not. They fly in the face of conventional military and political wisdom.
The first step in comprehending the peculiarities of deterrence came with the American debate about whether any defense was possible against the atom bomb. President Truman thought in 1945 that ''every new weapon will eventually bring some counter defense to it.'' So did the United States Navy. The US Air Force was skeptical.
The Air Force proved to be right. Defense was difficult enough against planes carrying nuclear bombs. (Unless a defender destroyed 100 percent of incoming aircraft, he would still suffer devastation.) And defense became impossible against missiles that could fly from one continent to another in minutes. (At first no technology existed to protect missiles; by now some partial technology has been invented, but its ''cost effectiveness'' means that it is cheaper for an assailant to add one more warhead than for a defender to add sufficient interceptors to stop the incoming warhead.)
Once both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, then, the first premise of security planning came to be the unavoidable vulnerability of both superpowers, and especially of their major civilian cities, to any attack. The corollary quickly came to be that the only possible ''defense'' was retaliation.
The aggressor cave man had to be deterred from ever throwing his first nuclear rock by the certainty that if he did so, a second nuclear rock would flatten him, too.
As early as 1946, Bernard Brodie, a pioneer nuclear strategist, drew the conclusion: ''Thus far the chief purpose of a military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.''
This hard nuclear truth established itself - not without resistance - after the Soviet Union broke the American monopoly on the atom bomb in 1949, and especially after both sides got the even more terrible hydrogen bomb in 1952-53. It was after the thermonuclear explosions that Winston Churchill drew the further conclusion of superpower stalemate and therefore of paradoxical enforced peace: ''Then it may well be that we shall by a process of sublime irony have reached a state in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.''
President Eisenhower's secretary of the Air Force, Donald A. Quarles, agreed. War was now an ''unthinkable catastrophe,'' from which ''neither side can hope by a mere margin of superiority in airplanes or other means of delivery to escape.''