Document created: 29 December 03
Air University Review, May-June 1973

Strategic Power: On Balance

Colonel William T. Ballard

 Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.

An inherent danger in attempting to present a quantitative and objective analysis of such a dynamic process as the world strategic balance is that the analysis often becomes dated history before it is finished. Such is the inevitable fate, however, of portions of Strategic Power and National Security,* by Joseph I. Coffey, Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Those portions of his book dealing with force projections, alliance relations, Communist behavior, and some aspects of disarmament have indeed been dated by certain events in early 1972, including the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, West Germany’s treaties with the Soviet Union and Poland resulting from Brandt’s Ostpolitik, Nixon’s visits to Peking and Moscow, and Tanaka’s trip to mainland China. Nevertheless, Coffey’s book is still an excellent primer on the general subject of strategic power and its relationship to various phenomena in the political and military environment.

* Joseph I. Coffey, Strategic Power and National Security (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971, $9.50), 214 pages.

Too brief to be comprehensive, but containing fundamental aspects of strategic issues, the book attempts to reverse the trend of the arms race by arguing that nuclear superiority is not essential to deterrence. To the attentive student of the strategic balance, his thesis is anything but a surprise. Important, however, in any discussion of the subject is the question of whether the thesis reflects a realistic assessment of the U.S. strategic position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union or whether there is a genuine attempt to carve out a new policy based on diminishing strategic alternatives.

Professor Coffey asks some very penetrating questions regarding the strategic balance. Paramount among these is “whether the continuation of strategic superiority over the USSR and Communist China and the construction of comprehensive and effective strategic defenses are, as some have argued, essential to dissuade these countries from attacking the United States, from exerting pressures against its allies, or from encroaching on its interests.” He answers with a “cautious no.” (p. 169) To arrive at this conclusion, Professor Coffey analyzes the evolution of Soviet and United States policies over the last decade. He then discusses the central strategic balance within a rather detailed assessment of the relationship between strategic nuclear power and nuclear war, deterrence, Communist behavior, alliance relations, arms control, and national security. The common thread woven throughout his work is that both the United States and the U.S.S.R. now possess so much nuclear power that further qualitative and quantitative improvements would not essentially upset the strategic balance.

Coffey’s discussion of the chronology of the U.S./Soviet arms race sets the stage for his ultimate conclusion. He generously details a number of force structure tables that compare American and Communist strategic weapon systems. All derived from open sources, often from Congressional hearings on defense appropriations, the author’s estimates of the number of launch vehicles, warheads, and deliverable megatonnage are included. Also in tabular form is a projection of the U.S., U.S.S.R., and People’s Republic of China intercontinental strategic forces circa 1975, which reveals a sizable increase in strategic power for all three.

One rather generalized conclusion drawn from a comparison of qualitative and quantitative strategic power portrayed by the projection is that, without procurement of U.S. weapon systems now under development (longer-range sea-launched ballistic missiles [SLBM] and a new bomber), U.S. forces postulated for 1975 would be able to survive a Soviet assault and have sufficient residual destructive power to “hedge against any further Soviet deployment of ABM’s.” (p. 13) The assumptions made in projecting the forces for 1975 credit U.S. forces with MIRV capability on the Minuteman III and Poseidon systems. According to Dr. Coffey’s table, five hundred Minuteman IIIs will each have three 200-KT re-entry vehicles (RV’s), and 496 Poseidons will each have ten 50-KT RV’s. Each of the 160 Polaris A-3s will have three 50-KT multiple re-entry vehicles (MRV). In addition, force loading for each B-52 includes four 1.1-MT bombs and twelve 200-KT short-range attack missiles (SRAM) and for each FB-111 includes two bombs and four SRAM’s. However, in predictions for the Soviet strategic forces there is no multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capability credited on any weapon system, and only three 5-MT MRV’s on 500 SS-9 missiles.

The conclusion based on force projections for 1975, namely, that the U.S. could survive an all-out Soviet attack and still have residual power to hedge against future Soviet antiballistic missile (ABM) deployments, neglected to consider the potential and intent of the Soviet Union to develop and employ the MIRV. The sensitivity of MIRV is critical to the strategic balance, and this sensitivity factor must be applied to both sides of the strategic equation before such an unequivocal conclusion can be drawn.

With this foundation for subsequent analysis, Coffey turns to a discussion of the relationship between strategic power and nuclear war, which leads to a rather elementary but essential task of defining terms used in any study of strategic power. He attempts to define strategic power, strategic sufficiency, and strategic superiority, taking care to remind the reader of the problems involved in using terms that are not readily adaptable to precise measurement. These serviceable definitions reveal some of the multifarious aspects in attempts to quantify strategic power. Coffey’s preferred measure of strategic power is the ability to inflict damage in a nuclear exchange; but in arriving at relative strategic power, he attempts to account for all the asymmetries that relate to nuclear power: quantitative values, technical capabilities, political implications, economic factors, etc.

Coffey persuasively argues that defensive systems complicate the planning and execution of nuclear strikes, reduce the amount of destruction, and create uncertainties about the outcome of a nuclear exchange. He contends that many diverse defensive and offensive scenarios have revealed the complexities of a strategic defensive system. As an example, he cites a RAND Corporation study which stated that even a $600 billion expenditure on defensive systems to “protect people, production facilities, and essential supplies could not guarantee American survival against large-scale attacks.” (p. 34)

Coffey maintains that air defenses, although essential, are complicated by and vulnerable to diverse and unanticipated tactics and new penetration aids. Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) effectiveness is even more complicated. Coffey reports that the present U.S. ASW system is adequate to detect and intercept most Soviet-built submarines to a distance of several hundred miles, primarily because of the noisiness of the Soviet submarine. This still, however, leaves some key coastal targets vulnerable to Soviet SLBM’S. The improved Soviet submarine is, of course, much quieter and could become as invulnerable as U.S. missile submarines. He contends that both air defense and ASW forces are vulnerable to missile strikes against defense operations, communications, and air bases.

On the surface, then, it would appear that efforts to perfect an ABM system should enjoy the highest national priority despite its high cost and as yet unknown effectiveness. An ABM system safeguards against accidental launch, minimizes damage from relatively small nuclear attacks, introduces uncertainties about reliability into the calculations of our strategic capabilities, and reduces damage from attack by another superpower. However, despite these advantageous features, Coffey asserts that a comprehensive ABM system would not prevent heavy human losses, nor would it hedge against saturation launches with MIRV, new penetration aids, or decoys. Additionally, employment of a fractional orbit bombardment system (FOBS) or heavy reliance on bombers and supersonic cruise missiles could minimize the effectiveness of the ABM. Professor Coffey cites President Nixon on this subject, who said that “the heaviest [antiballistic missile] defense system we considered to protect our major cities, still could not prevent a catastrophic level of U.S. fatalities from a deliberate all-out Soviet attack.” (p. 36) In short, Coffey believes that it is doubtful either a Soviet or a U.S. ABM system could reduce damage from an attack in sufficient measure to change the strategic balance between the two.

Coffey’s discussion of defensive systems is emphasized in this review purposely because the details presented provide a most compelling argument for a strategic mixed-force concept, the TRIAD. Building from each offensive capability of the TRIAD, defenses are developed that can only be neutralized by countervailing measures of the other side or as a result of devoting disproportionate resources in trying to defend against all three offensive systems. The ever compounding difficulties one encounters in trying to defend against each leg of the TRIAD are described by Coffey in such a way as to provide a complete and unqualified endorsement of the in-being U.S. strategic mixed force. 

In a very credible discussion of the relationship between strategic power and deterrence, Professor Coffey relates an assessment of the factors bearing on deterrence. He carefully dissects the problems and paradoxes of deterrence, the arguments, pro and con, for the capability of assured destruction, the complexities of determination (how to measure and how to communicate), and the deterrent effect of uncertainty. The reality of man’s ability to reason is the framework for the alternatives designed to make one “think the unthinkable.” This same reality, in my opinion, increases the credibility of his thesis that changes in the strategic balance receive too much attention. Coffey claims that more emphasis should be devoted to the risks, the difficulties, and the costs associated with attempts to alter the political balance. Deterrent factors, not military by nature but which must be considered by an aggressor, include such elements as the probable cost, the potential risks, internal political conditions, uncertainties associated with damage calculation, and uncertainties of the opponent’s intent or resolve. He sums up that military factors are diminishing in importance as deterrents in the age of nuclear weapons because of the wider demand by people in all nations for a more influential voice in decisions on foreign affairs, the increasing requirement for governments to look inward to deal with domestic issues, and the extremely high political and psychological costs of aggression. (p. 73)

In a less-than-totally convincing discussion of the relationship between strategic power and Communist behavior, Coffey attempts to present an insight into the incentives, motivations, and intentions of the Soviets and the People’s Republic of China. Attempts to provide such insights are inherently vague and ill defined. He is convinced that the Soviets will not use force because they fear the dangers of nuclear war and because of their “pride in past achievements, their desire to preserve and enjoy the fruits of previous efforts, and their belief that the inevitable ‘victory of socialism’ can be promoted through social and economic progress. . . .” (p. 74) Further, a shift in the nuclear balance will have only marginal impact on the willingness of the Soviet Union to engage in nuclear war or actions risking nuclear war.

Coffey is convinced that while the Soviets may rely on a less overt and provocative approach to win over the third world countries, the Chinese believe in a return to the fundamental purpose of the Communist party, which is to arouse “class consciousness among the workers” and prepare “the way for the proletarian revolution.” (p. 90) Coffey believes the Chinese have carefully avoided any military action that might lead to a direct conflict with the United States because of the overwhelming technological lead possessed by the latter. They fear the consequences of a nuclear attack despite claims to the contrary. In addition, Coffey feels that internal weaknesses within China, manifested by a decline in industrial production, division among leaders, separatism in the provinces, and loss of a generation of students because of the “cultural revolution,” militate against a provocative or reckless foreign policy. (p. 92) Reduced to its lowest common denominator, Coffey considers that China is just too far behind the U.S. to get involved in a situation which might result in a nuclear conflict.

In his discussion of Communist behavior, Coffey related that he did not believe the Soviet Union would use force for a number of reasons. Not discussed in any depth, however, yet certainly an imperative to any discussion of this nature, was the question whether the Soviet Union would threaten the use of force and, if so, the effectiveness of that threat. The United States was certainly successful by threatening to use force in the Cuban crisis. Much has been written since then about Soviet assessments as to whether Kennedy would or would not use force to preclude the placement of missiles in Cuba. Kennedy’s threat to use force, however, proved to be a powerful and successful prescription.

The questions of use of force and threat to use force should both be analyzed. Moreover, and of immense importance, Coffey’s assessment that China would not resort to tactics which could risk the use of force, because of the overwhelming superiority of the U.S., must be reconsidered when this superiority no longer exists. In other words, a change in the strategic balance between China and the U.S. or the Soviet Union is an entirely different matter from such a change between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

As Coffey assesses the relationship between strategic power and U.S. allies, he recognizes the difficulty in trying to assess the myriad problems, but he is able to highlight some of the key issues. The certain focus of this relationship is the question of the extent of U.S. strategic nuclear forces and whether the strategy for employment of these forces is adequate to insure the protection of U.S. allies. He also discusses allied assessments of the adequacy of these forces and strategies in view of the changed strategic balance.

Coffey presents a brief but useful description of the various strategies used by the U.S. in all parts of the world and how these strategies have altered with the dynamics of the international situation, citing the transformation from the strategy of massive retaliation to that of flexible response in Europe as a case in point. He discusses the credibility of the U.S. nuclear guarantee and European defense in light of what he believes to be the erosion of U.S. nuclear superiority, the diminished NATO capability primarily due to the French withdrawal of her military forces from NATO, the continued modernization of Soviet forces, and the strengthened Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean. Coffey then examines some hypotheses designed to increase the credibility of the U.S. nuclear guarantee and enhance the defense of Europe, including an increased European conventional force in NATO, an increased U.S. strategic nuclear weapons capability vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, an increased defensive system to reduce the levels of damage the Europeans would suffer from the nuclear strike, and an increased European nuclear force. He also debates some of the issues involved in the creation of an Anglo-French nuclear force under European control and the construction of a multinational force. None of these possibilities, as the discussion makes clear, would resolve all the problems of NATO.

For a number of reasons, Coffey asserts that American strategy in Asia is not well defined. The fact that the U.S. has individual pacts and not an overall Asian treaty, as in Europe, is the chief reason for lack of definition. However, the geographic dispersal of the potential Asian participants, the diversity of American interests from area to area, and the power differential of China versus the Soviet Union militates against such a treaty. (p. 118)

The political question, whether the U.S. nuclear capability will maintain its deterrent credibility in the eyes of the Asian allies, remains unanswered in Coffey’s work. Perhaps the most articulate expression concerning this question comes from Professor Makoto Momoi of the Japanese War College. Prior to President Nixon’s visit to Peking, the professor was asked how he viewed the American nuclear deterrent. His answer: “It’s like a Bible. You may know every word in it, and believe it to be true, but can you really be sure of salvation?” When asked the same question after the Peking visit, he replied: “I think you can say that we’ve put the Bible away. It’s something around the home, but the children don’t read it any longer.”1 Methods to strengthen the credibility of the U.S. nuclear guarantee and to increase the image of the U.S. as the unquestioned leader in the free world to protect against aggression were not discernible in Coffey’s discussion. The question of how the U.S. would react if put to another test, such as Cuba, Korea, or Vietnam, needs further study.

Although widely covered by the press, the complex subject of arms control is probably the least understood issue before the people today. Yet it is so important that it demands the understanding of every American. Professor Coffey, in the brief 34 pages devoted to arms control, guides any student of disarmament to an understanding of the critical issues. It was impossible in that space to deal adequately with the many relevant factors, but he does discuss some of the most urgent questions: how strategic armament limitations would enhance U.S. security, how various types of arms control measures would impact on the strategic balance, how specific disarmament measures would affect the credibility of the U.S. strategic deterrent, and how U.S. allies, protected under the nuclear umbrella, would view the arms agreement. He bases his discussion of this subject on the premise that, although arms control measures cannot insure security, they can reduce the risk of accidental war; avoid war through miscalculation by providing for communication between parties; “preclude deployments which may seem threatening or provocative”; assure any “adversary that one is not contemplating a first strike” by revealing intent, capability, and state of readiness; and minimize the advantage accruing from “striking first by stabilizing the forces on either side” through qualitative and quantitative restrictions. (pp. 137-38)

In answer to his original question of whether the continued strategic superiority is essential to deter, Professor Coffey argues against striving to increase strategic power. Reduced to the most basic issues, his “cautious no” is based on the following: The destructive ability of modern weapons is so great that only a few of them will kill millions of people. The importance of additional forces diminishes once sufficient means of delivery and of safeguarding these weapons have been achieved. Relatively, increasing or decreasing the level of damage is of no major consequence. An attempt to alter the strategic balance merely causes the other side to take measures to offset any advantage gained, thus perpetuating the arms race. The continued quest to gain “strategic superiority or to construct strategic defenses can generate fears and create tensions, largely because the Soviets and Chinese Communists tend to believe that the United States has aggressive intentions.” (p. 170)

Coffey argues that we are hopelessly deadlocked in a standoff which cannot be altered by a change in strategic balance. One cannot say categorically that strategic advantage is necessary “to deter a potential aggressor or influence his political behavior.” (p. 171) Deterrence in the future will depend more upon the reluctance of major powers to take risks, incur costs, and heighten tensions than upon strategic advantage. To square the circle, the United States might be better off to insure the continued effectiveness of its deterrent through arms limitation measures.

Arguments, subject to many value judgments, will persist and intensify as to the significance of the Soviet and Chinese buildup in strategic power. Because this book was published prior to SALT I and the promise of further arms control measures to come out of SALT II, and prior to those significant events in 1972 mentioned at the beginning of this review, the contents of Coffey’s work must be evaluated from that perspective, with an eye on its predictive value.

The clear and decided nuclear superiority possessed by the U.S. over the Soviet Union since World War II has indeed been trimmed, at best, to a level of much less disparity. There is no need to recapitulate here the Soviet quantum increases in strategic weapon systems, tactical and naval forces, and air defense systems, as well as her growing capability in avionics and computer science technology since the mid-1960s. Let it suffice to say that the Soviet capability in these areas has increased significantly. Some argue that we are now at parity with the Soviet Union and that, given the momentum the Soviets have in building their strategic nuclear forces, we will be hopelessly inferior by 1975 without some arms control agreements.

The single major weakness I find in this book is contained in Coffey’s assessment of the relationship between strategic power and Communist behavior. Professor Coffey examined the forces and issues that would tend to act as imperatives in policy-making decisions at both Moscow and Peking. But do we possess sufficient knowledge of the way Soviet or Chinese policy is made and of the institutional framework within which it is made? Lacking such intimate knowledge, we seemingly can only suggest or hint at the attitudes of those in power and at possible outcomes. One must challenge Coffey’s implied assumption that this type of assessment provides sufficient basis for valid political conclusions, no matter how thorough the assessment. The same challenge must be made of the implication that the complexities of the strategic balance, or perceived power relationships, can be condensed into the restricted theory of behavioral relationship. National survival cannot be assured by unilateral self-restraint and a trust in the rational behavior of potential adversaries. Deterrence is too complex a phenomenon and the consequences of its failure too devastating to rely on other than hard, objective facts as the basis upon which decisions are made. With the security of our country involved, we cannot risk miscalculation on the optimistic side.

On balance, the questions raised and issues discussed in Strategic Power and National Security are likely to remain materially important for a considerable length of time. The book therefore will be a useful addition to the libraries of students of strategic power.

Cambridge, Massachusetts


1. Denis Warner, “Would U.S. Fight Again after Vietnam Experience?” Kansas City Star, 13 October 1972, p. 19.


Colonel William T. Ballard (M.A., Auburn University) is a Research Associate, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After flying duties with SAC in the B-36 and B-52, he began a career in the USAF Security Service, much of it in the Far East. His next assignment will be in Intelligence, Hq USAF. Colonel Ballard is a graduate of the Air Command and Staff College and Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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