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Key Issues Nuclear Weapons History Cold War Strategy Testimony

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on U.S. Policy of Nuclear Deterrence in a Testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee
December 14, 1982

I. Introduction

I welcome this opportunity to brief the Committee on U.S. nuclear policy. Over the past several

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months few subjects have been treated so extensively - and so incorrectly - in the press. Our meeting today provides an opportunity to dispel the misconceptions about our nuclear strategy which these recent articles may have produced.

We live in a nuclear age. As of 1945, nuclear weapons became a fact of life. We can neither wish them away nor pretend that they do not exist. A review of the ways in which the United States has dealt with these realities for the past 37 years contributes significantly to understanding U.S. nuclear policy today. With that goal in mind I will this morning:

    • discuss our concept of deterrence;
    • trace the evolution of U.S. strategic policy; and
    • describe the systems we deploy to support the policy.

II. Deterrence - The Concept

In the wake of World War II, the United States and the Western democracies developed a policy intended to prevent any future recurrence of the tremendous carnage and devastation which the war had caused. The answer lay in addressing the root cause of the problem rather than the symptoms it produced. Thus the course of action chosen aimed at preventing wars from occurring in the first place. To that end, the United States made clear that it would use its atomic weapons not for conquest or coercion, but for discouraging - for deterring - aggression and attack against ourselves and our allies.

Today, deterrence remains - as it has for the past 37 years - the comerstone of our strategic nuclear policy, and, indeed, of our entire national security posture. Our strategy is a defensive one, designed to prevent attack - particularly nuclear attack - against us or our allies. To deter successfully, we must be able - and must be seen to be able - to retaliate against any potential aggressor in such a manner that the costs we will exact will substantially exceed any gains he might hope to achieve through aggression. We, for our part, are under no illusions about the consequences of a nuclear war: we believe there would be no winners in such a war. But this recognition on our part is not sufficient to ensure effective deterrence or to prevent the outbreak of war: it is essential that the Soviet leadership understands this as well. We must make sure that the Soviet leadership, in calculating the risks of aggression, recognizes that because of our retaliatory capability, there can be no circumstance where the initiation of a nuclear war at any level or of any duration would make sense. If they recognize that our forces can deny them their objectives at whatever level of conflict they contemplate, and in addition that such a conflict could lead to the destructions of those political, military, and economic assets which they value most highly, then deterrence is enhanced and the risk of war diminished. It is this outcome which we seek to achieve.

III. The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Policy

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, America's virtual monopoly of intercontinental nuclear systems meant that our requirements for conventional deterrence were relatively small. The Soviet Union understood that, under our policy of "massive retaliation," we might respond to a Soviet attack, however limited, on the U.S. or our allies, with an atomic attack on the USSR. As the fifties ended and the sixties began, however, the Soviets began developing and acquiring long-range nuclear capabilities. As their capacity for nuclear and conventional aggression continued to grow, the U.S. threat to respond to a conventional or even limited nuclear attack with a massive nuclear retaliation became less and less credible. Accordingly, in the 1960s the U.S. - and later the NATO Allies - adopted a policy of "flexible response." Under this concept, the United States and NATO planned to strengthen general purpose warfare forces in order to better equip them to deal with a Soviet conventional attack; at the same time, U.S. nuclear capabilities were increased in order to provide the President with the option of using nuclear forces both to support our general purpose forces and to respond selectively (on less than an all-out basis) to a limited Soviet nuclear attack. The option of retaliation on a more massive scale was retained in order to deter the possibility of a major Soviet nuclear attack. This concept of flexible response remains as a central principle of our strategy today.

Of paramount importance to the flexible response strategy is the requirement for flexibility - for our nuclear forces and plans for their use to be designed and developed in such a way that our response is appropriate to the circumstances of the aggression against us. This means that they should be capable of being used on a very limited basis as well as more massively. This does not imply that through flexible response we seek to fight a limited nuclear war, or, for that matter, to fight a nuclear war under any conditions. Our basic strategy, in direct support of our policy of deterrence has been, and remains, the prevention of any aggression, nuclear or conventional. But it would be irresponsible - indeed immoral - to reject the possibility that the terrible consequences of a nuclear conflict might be limited if deterrence should fail. To be sure, there is no guarantee that we would be successful in creating such limits. But there is every guarantee that restrictions cannot be achieved if we do not attempt to do so.

While we work toward insuring deterrence, we need to think about the failures of deterrence (for whatever reason). If that were to occur we cannot predict the nature of a Soviet nuclear strike, nor assure with any certainty that what may have started out as a limited Soviet attack would remain confined at that level. Nevertheless, we must plan for flexibility in our forces and in our response options so that there is a possibility of re-establishing deterrence at the lowest possible level of violence, and avoiding further escalation. I assure you it is not pleasant to think in these terms, but it would certainly be the gravest irresponsibility for those of us who are charged with the nation's defense not to do so.

Of course, this concept of seeking to contain the level of destruction by having flexible and enduring forces is not new. It has been squarely in the mainstream of American strategic thinking for over two decades. A brief review of the record illustrates this point well. In the early 1960s, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told the Congress:

The major mission of the Strategic Retaliatory Forces is to deter war by their capability to destroy the enemy's war-making potential, including not only his nuclear strike forces and military installations, but also his urban society, if necessary . . . What we are proposing is a capability to strike back after absorbing the first blow. This means we have to build and maintain a second strike force. Such a force should have sufficient flexibility to permit a choice of strategies, particularly an ability to: (1) strike back decisively at the entire Soviet target system simultaneously or (2) strike back first at the Soviet bomber bases, missile sites, and other military installations associated with their long-range nuclear forces to reduce the power of any follow-on attack - and then if necessary, strike back at the Soviet urban and industrial complex in a controlled and deliberate way.

Almost a decade later, then Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger reaffirmed the importance of strategic force flexibility when he told the Congress that, to remain credible, a deterrent strategy must be consistent with the threat it seeks to deter.

If anything, the need for options other than suicide or surrender, and other than escalation to all out nuclear war, is more important for us today than it was in 1960, because of the growth of the capabilities possessed by other powers . . . The Soviet Union now has the capability in its missile forces to undertake selective attacks against targets other than cities. This poses for us an obligation, if we are to ensure the credibility of our strategic deterrent, to be certain that we have a comparable capability in our strategic systems and in our targeting doctrine, and to be certain that the USSR has no misunderstanding on this point....

As the 1980s began Harold Brown, in explaining the policy of deterrence to the Congress, emphasized the importance of flexibility in much the same way as did his predecessors:

To the Soviet Union, our strategy makes clear that no course of aggression by them that led to the use of nuclear weapons, on any scale of attack and at any stage of conflict, could lead to victory, however they define victory. Besides our power to devastate the full target system of the USSR, the United States would have the option for more selective, lesser retaliatory attacks that would exact a prohibitively high price from the things the Soviet leadership prizes most - political and military control, nuclear and conventional military force, and the economic base needed to sustain a war.... Our planning must provide a continuum of options, ranging from small numbers of strategic and/or theater nuclear weapons aimed at narrowly defined targets, to employment of large portions of our nuclear forces against a broad spectrum of targets.

Thus, the past three and a half decades have taught us two central lessons with regard to implementing our policy . . . lessons which we must continue to take into account in the years ahead:

    • first, in order for our retaliatory threat to be seen as credible, we must be able - and be seen to have the means - to respond appropriately to a wide range of aggressive actions; if our threatened response is perceived as inadequate or inappropriate, it will be seen as a bluff and ignored;
    • secondly, deterrence is a dynamic effort, not a static one. In order to continue to deter successfully, our capabilities must change as the threat changes, and as our knowledge of what is necessary to deter improves.

IV. The Forces for Nuclear Deterrence

A policy of deterrence through flexible response would be hollow and not credible to us, and to our allies and adversaries alike - if we did not possess the military forces and capabilities necessary to enforce it. As a result, we have maintained - and will continue to maintain - strategic nuclear weapons systems which we have procured and deployed for the express purpose of avoiding their use in anger. This seeming paradox lies at the heart of our strategic deterrent posture.

In the 1960s the United States' nuclear forces evolved from one composed primarily of manned bombers to the current balanced force structure of manned bombers, intercontinental land-based ballistic missiles, and ballistic missiles fired from our fleet submarine forces. This force configuration, commonly known as the "Triad", has been retained because it complicates an enemy's ability to attack our strategic nuclear forces, provides us with maximum flexibility, and hedges against a catastrophic failure (either through technical difficulties or hostile action) of one leg of the Triad. The Triad has served us well in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

By the early 1960s, the U.S. had over 7, 000 strategic nuclear weapons, most of which were carried by B-47s, and the then-new B-52s. The Soviet Union had fewer than 500 strategic warheads. Throughout the 1960s our strategic posture presented the Soviet planner with a dilemma if he decided to preempt against the United States: due to the relatively small number of weapons the USSR possessed and their ineffectiveness against any U.S. strategic forces, such an attack was impossible to execute successfully. If the Soviet planner targeted our hardened missile silos and alert bomber bases, he found that he would deplete his arsenal while not significantly reducing U. S. retaliatory forces. In other words, his ability to limit the certain massive destruction to his own forces and society was rather small. If on the other hand, the Soviet planner targeted U.S. cities he would feel the full brunt of a U.S. retaliatory strike against his own cities, a U.S. arsenal quite larger and much more capable than his own, by any measure. Again, he was deterred.

During the course of the 1970s the Soviet arsenal began growing both in quantity and in quality (although the U.S. qualitative edge remained). The Soviets expanded their land-based missile force and hardened their protective silos. At the same time, the U.S. made a conscious choice not to upgrade the yield/accuracy combination of its own missile forces or to build force levels of sufficient size to threaten the Soviet Union with a sudden disarming first strike. The net result of this was to allow the Soviets a "sanctuary" for its ICBM force, since U.S. forces could not attack it effectively. The Soviets, however, did not follow our lead and developed a new generation of ICBMs specifically designed to attack U.S. missile silos. By the late 1970s, this combination of vulnerable U.S. missiles and a Soviet sanctuary has eased the earlier dilemma of the Soviet planner. Now, he potentially could envision nuclear confrontation in which he probed U.S. resolve to retaliate by attacking a smaller and smaller subset of the U.S. military forces - while U.S. options for retaliation were limited. If the Soviet leadership came to accept this as plausible, our deterrent policy, and, as a result, global stability, would be severely threatened. As the "imbalance of imbalances" continued to grow in the late 1970s, that is, as the Soviets began tipping the theater nuclear balance in their favor while maintaining their superiority in conventional forces, the risk became greater that this type of limited attack would appear attractive to the Soviet military.

The strategic modernization program which President Reagan set forth in October 1981 is designed to address in part this adverse and imbalanced situation. It restores the margin of safety we require in order to continue to deter successfully Soviet strategic aggression. In essence, the program is designed to accomplish two general goals: first, to improve the survivability of our present and planned forces in order that they do not serve to destabilize potential crises by offering lucrative targets for Soviet preemption; and, secondly, to sustain the credibility of our deterrent policy by developing the capability to threaten, and destroy if necessary, the full spectrum of potential Soviet targets. This combination of improved survivability and military capability is intended to assure that Soviet leadership will continue to recognize clearly and unambiguously that they can realize no conceivable benefit from initiating nuclear aggression.

Let me review briefly our modernization program to highlight how the specific elements contribute to these goals. With regard to survivability, we are taking the following steps:

    • In the area of command, control and communications we are upgrading the survivability of command centers and communications links upon which the effective use of our forces depends; we are also improving the survivability, performance and coverage of our warning and attack assessment systems in order that we may provide the President-and our forces with the maximum amount of control and timely information to respond to nuclear attack.
    • With regard to our bomber forces, we have begun production of a variant of the B-1 bomber which - because of its superior base escape ability - is far less vulnerable to destruction on the ground than the B-52; by equipping the B-52 with cruise missiles we are extending the in-flight survivability of these aircraft, which because of their age are increasingly less able to survive penetration missions in the face of the large and sophisticated Soviet air defense net.
    • We have taken advantage of the high survivability currently enjoyed by our sea-based systems by developing and deploying two new systems, the sea-launched cruise missile and the Trident II; deployment of the cruise missiles on selected attack submarines, as part of our secure reserve force, will ensure continued long-term survivability and the extended range potential of the Trident II will provide a hedge against any unanticipated advances in Soviet anti-submarine warfare.
    • Perhaps the most vulnerable of our retaliatory forces are the Minute-man and Titan ICBMs which were designed and housed in the late 1950s and 1960s. Designed to deter a Soviet threat of the past, these missiles have served us well: The Peacekeeper is designed to meet both the current and future Soviet threat, both in capability and survivability. Peacekeeper in Closely Spaced Basing will, at long last, provide a feasible, affordable solution to the ICBM vulnerability problem.
    • Finally, by upgrading our air defense and warning capability, we will remove any Soviet misperceptions they might have about being able to use small scale raids by bomber or cruise missile forces to disable our warning and control systems.

With regard to developing the military capabilities necessary to make our retaliatory deterrent posture stronger and more credible, we are pursuing the following measures:

    • By deploying the B-1 variant as soon as possible and by equipping less obsolescent model B-52s with air-launched cruise missiles, we will be able to continue to pose both a penetrating bomber and a stand-off cruise missile threat to the USSR. This combination places the greatest amount of stress on Soviet air defenses and thereby ensures that a high number of our bomber - delivered weapons will reach their targets; once the advanced technology, or "Stealth" bomber enters the inventory, it can assume a major share of the penetration mission, and, in combination with B-Is in a mixed air-launched cruise missile carrier and penetration role, will continue to give us high confidence that our retaliatory strike can be successful.
    • The Trident II missile, with its substantial increase in accuracy over previous SLBMs, will provide a hard target kill capability which will contribute significantly to our ability to hold the full Soviet target base at risk. A sea-based capability of this kind increases the flexibility of our strategic posture; provides an important hedge to the loss, through unexpected system failure, of similar land-based missiles; reduces Soviet incentives to attempt a pre-emptive strike against our ICBM force; and complicates severely Soviet offensive and defensive planning.
    • The Peacekeeper has had a highly successful research and development program and will be ready for deployment in 1986; we must be able to draw on its prompt hard target kill capability as soon as possible so that the Soviet Union would have to assume that even as it attempted to evaluate the consequences of its first strike it would be losing military capability it would need to implement its strategy. This will offset the current Soviet monopoly in this area.

      In sum, the strategic modernization program is tailored precisely to provide the capabilities we need in order to ensure that our deterrent continues to be credible and effective well into the next century, as well as to support our arms control efforts to reduce significantly the nuclear arsenals of both sides.

Let me conclude by returning to the point at which I began. There is nothing new about our policy. Since the era of nuclear weapons began, the United States has sought to prevent a nuclear war through a policy of deterrence. That policy has worked successfully for almost four decades. We are dedicated to ensuring that it continues to do so.