Air University Review, September-October 1984

War-Fighting Deterrence and Alliance Cohesiveness

Dr. Stephen J. Cimbala

FOR many years, the United States has attempted to extend the deterrent power of its strategic retaliatory forces to dissuade Soviet attacks on our European allies, while improved Soviet strategic capabilities have continued to call into question the viability of this "extended" deterrence. Recent developments in U.S. declaratory and force employment policies have raised new issues affecting NATO strategy and politics--issues that are important to Western Europe's defense. Indeed, the evolution of U.S. strategy toward an amalgamation termed "war-fighting deterrence" may well work against our efforts to maintain alliance cohesiveness, on which credible defense depends.

U.S. Policy

Since 1974, American spokesmen have articulated changes in declaratory policy that emphasize the more selective and controlled use of strategic retaliatory forces if deterrence fails. This evolution has seemed both logical and inevitable to U.S. policymakers. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger made clear our desire for increased flexibility in 1974. Explaining the meaning of National Security Decision Memorandum 242 (NSDM-242), he outlined three principal components of this search for increased flexibility.1 First, the U.S. President should have a wide range of choices about using nuclear weapons, retaining escalation control at any level of conflict. Second, targeting policy should emphasize more explicitly the capabilities to retaliate selectively against the military forces of the opponent. Third, certain categories of targets should be withheld, at least initially, to make possible termination of the conflict on favorable terms and with minimal collateral damage.2

Although the Carter administration came into office committed to improved strategic arms control agreements, that administration continued the evolution in employment policy toward more credible selective war-fighting options. The official pronouncement in Presidential Directive 59 (PD-59) certified the commitment of President Carter and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to the improvement of selective counterforce capabilities in the U.S. arsenal.3 The "countervailing strategy" announced by Brown had other important implications. The political and military leadership of the Soviet state would be explicit targets of selected nuclear attacks designed to threaten the survival of the political system in the postattack environment.4 The Carter administration also sought improvements in the survivability and endurance of the command, control, and communications (C3) required to ensure that U.S. strategic retaliatory forces could execute these more calibrated war-fighting missions.5

The Reagan administration has continued the emphasis of its predecessors on the development of selective retaliatory options and improved strategic command and control. The Reagan program has been accompanied also by plans for significant modernization of each element of the U.S. strategic Triad. In summary form, the components of this modernization are: (1) deployment of 100 MX intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) in Minuteman silos, presumably hardened beyond present standards; (2) development of a smaller, single-warhead ICBM in either fixed or mobile basing modes, with deployment to occur during the 1990s; (3) deployment of an estimated twenty Trident ballistic missile submarines, equipped eventually with Trident II (D-5) missiles; (4) introduction of the B-1B bomber force to replace the B-52s in the strategic penetrator mission during the 1980s, plus follow-on deployment of the advanced technology bomber (the so-called Stealth bomber) during the 1990s; and (5) deployment of thousands of nuclear-armed cruise missiles on bombers, surface naval craft, and attack submarines.6

NATO Strategy

Since 1967, NATO has been committed to a declared strategy of flexible response. To be successful as a deterrent, flexible response depends on the coupling of NATO conventional, theater nuclear, and strategic nuclear forces into a deterrent spectrum that cannot be challenged at any link. In reality, however, the basis for the concept was never as viable as it sounded. The "flexibility" in flexible response came from the U.S. reassurances that, if necessary, the United States could respond to attacking Soviet conventional forces by threatening and perhaps using limited nuclear strikes against those forces. NATO confidence in U.S. willingness to initiate nuclear war in order to defeat conventional aggression has been weakened by several factors.

First, the improvements in Soviet strategic forces during the 1970s implied a potential first-strike capability against American ICBMS. Although the United States could still suffer such an initial attack and retaliate against Soviet society, it could not credibly threaten Soviet silos in the same way. Thus the balance of land-based strategic forces seemed to tip, at least psychologically, in favor of the Soviet Union by 1980. Among West Europeans, this situation raised doubts that the United States would or could come to their aid by escalating a conventional war into a nuclear one.

Second, the evolutionary developments in U.S. declaratory policy (i.e., the trend toward selective counterforce targeting) raised the concern of Europeans, who felt that credible deterrence of war in Europe should be based on a crude rather than a surgical American retaliatory policy. Selective nuclear options and calibrated war-fighting capabilities implied an ability or willingness to confine nuclear war to Europe while isolating the American and Soviet homelands.

Third, the lack of confidence in American strategic capabilities, relative to those of the Soviets, led to demands to meet Soviet theater nuclear force improvements with NATO forces based in Europe. Thus was born the "572" decision to deploy 464 ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMS) and 108 Pershing II missiles in NATO countries, beginning in December 1983. The deployments were part of a "twin track" decision to begin negotiations with the Warsaw Pact on the reduction of intermediate nuclear forces (INF). The principal NATO concern in this regard was the large number of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMS) deployed in the western Soviet Union since 1977, numbering about 250 by 1983.7

While the United States intended the Pershing II and GLCM deployments as coupling for theater and strategic systems to strengthen deterrence and European confidence, unintentionally the deployments coupled Soviet protests about the buildup and European nuclear peace/nuclear freeze movements. The results were stalled INF negotiations with the Soviets, plus public opposition in Europe to the proposed NATO deployments, which highlighted differences in NATO strategy.

The simple truth is that NATO strategy depended on a credible threat to escalate to strategic nuclear war between the superpowers at the moment most favorable for the United States. This "escalation dominance" was now missing, and it was not likely to be restored in the near future. Actually, the 572 deployments had a more political purpose than a military one. Their operational military contribution beyond the existing capabilities of U.S. strategic systems was not clear even to experts.8

NATO strategy also suffered from conventional force imbalances relative to those of the Warsaw Pact. Although the conventional weaknesses of NATO can be overstated, analysts seemed to agree that the Soviet/Pact forces would outnumber NATO on many critical indicators at the outbreak of war. And these numerical advantages in tanks, artillery, and aircraft might be complemented by the advantage of surprise.9 It seemed apparent that NATO could not guarantee containment of a Soviet attack with conventional forces for very long, while simultaneously the U.S. nuclear guarantee was more in doubt. Thus, the flexible response policy designed to strengthen European confidence appeared increasingly unconvincing.

NATO Politics

American declarations of intentions and capabilities for selective strategic warfighting have aroused--political opposition in Europe, and the opposition groups, in some cases, include influential elites needed to implement NATO strategy. Belgian and Dutch leaders are wary of the 572 deployments, in part because of what they perceive as Reagan administration war-fighting rhetoric. Opponents of West Germany's Christian Democratic government (such as key Social Democrats), who may take power before the 572 deployments are completed, have demanded greater efforts at INF negotiations as an alternative to deployments. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who supported the deployment timetable, nevertheless demanded a British veto over the firing of nuclear-armed GLCMs from British bases.

To the extent that discussion of war-fighting strategies makes the probability of war seem higher or the consequences more devastating, should deterrence fail, it also engenders opposition in Europe. Fears run both ways and are not always consistent, but they are potent. Because the discussion of improved war-fighting capabilities sounds belligerent, Europeans fear that a higher probability of war is developing. But they also fear that Western unwillingness to plan for limited nuclear war may invite the Soviets to try an attack on favorable terms. NATO, as a coalition, not only would be hard pressed to obtain nuclear release in time to rectify a Soviet surprise attack but also would probably be incapable of providing successful resistance without escalating to U.S.-Soviet central war.10

Europeans note that American critics too have questioned whether changes in declaratory policy have been matched by improved U.S. capabilities for nuclear warfighting. In fact, American analysts have questioned whether the "limited nuclear options" and "countervailing strategy" assertions offer anything more than flexible targeting, which is not all that new anyway.11 If war-fighting deterrence is perceived as more shadow than substance by American analysts, it can hardly be convincing on the other side of the Atlantic. Europeans may be correct to be skeptical. We may indeed have begun the 1980s with the rhetoric of selective nuclear warfighting but without the capabilities. On the other hand, if we succeed in developing further capabilities, we dissuade the Europeans from increasing their budgets for conventional defense. If the United States is more willing to initiate limited nuclear strikes against Soviet conventional forces because the capacity for this kind of "battle management" has improved significantly, why should Europeans spend more money for nonnuclear forces?

THE ARRIVAL of war-fighting deterrence is as disconcerting as it appears to, be inevitable. It seems self-evident to American planners that the United States needs improved war-fighting capabilities for credible deterrence in an age of strategic parity. But the more refined and calibrated these capabilities become, the more they threaten Europeans with "limited" (from our perspective) nuclear war, and the more irrelevant European conventional commitments may seem to them. There is no way out of this dilemma other than explaining our policies much better than we have thus far. If the Soviets can be deterred only by a new version of "flexible response" in which the "flex" is now intratheater nuclear warfighting, our NATO allies must understand this as we do. Otherwise, we have a coalition with no strategy.

Pennsylvania State University


1. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Press Conference, 10 January 1974, excerpts in Survival, March/April 1974, pp. 86-90.

2. Desmond J. Ball, "The Future of Strategic Balance," in Lawrence S. Hagen, editor, The Crisis in Western Security (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), pp. 121-43.

3. Address by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, 20 August 1980, published in Survival, November/December 1980, pp. 267-70; Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Strategy (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1983).

4. Desmond Ball, "Counterforce Targeting: How New? How Viable?" Arms Control Today, February 1981, reprinted with revisions in John F. Reichart and Steven R. Sturm, editors, American Defense Policy, Fifth Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 227-34, esp. p. 230.

5. Ball, "Counterforce Targeting: How New? How Viable?" p. 233.

6. Congress of the United States, Congressional Budget Office, Modernizing U.S. Strategic Offensive Forces: The Administration's Program and Alternatives (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 1983).

7. Dr. N. F. (Fred) Wikner, "A Balance of Theater Nuclear Forces: Can We Count? Where Are the Reloads?" Armed Forces Journal International, May 1983, pp. 92-101.

8. Colin S. Gray, Strategic Studies: A Critical Assessment (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982), p. 86.

9. Richard K. Betts, Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1982).

10. Jeffrey Record, NATO's Theatre Nuclear Force Modernization Program: The Real Issues (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, November 1981).

11. The case that flexible targeting has been added to an unrevised "mutual assured destruction" doctrine is argued in Keith B. Payne, Nuclear Deterrence in U.S.-Soviet Relations (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982).


Stephen J. Cimbala (B.A., Pennsylvania State University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Wisconsin) is Associate Professor of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University, Delaware County Campus, Media, Pennsylvania, and a Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia. His articles have appeared in numerous political and social science journals. Dr. Cimbala has contributed previously to the Review.


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.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor