Nuclear Strategist: Albert Wohlstetter and the Delicate Balance of Terror

Pravin R. Jethwa | November 8, 2017

In the January 1959 issue of Foreign Affairs, RAND Corporation analyst Albert Wohlstetter published an article on nuclear strategy entitled “The Delicate Balance of Terror.” The piece, essentially a conclusion to his earlier and influential studies on bomber basing conducted for the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, became an instant sensation. He argued against the then widespread belief among civilian strategists – whose ranks in the early 1950s included such luminaries as Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger – that the mere possession of atomic weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union guaranteed the absence of war between them. Wohlstetter, in his article, set out to demolish the view that deterrence was easy to achieve and maintain, and also to expose and refute in the strongest possible terms what he believed was the common but mistaken assumption held by many about the unlikelihood of a general thermonuclear war.

The core argument that Wohlstetter made was that strategic deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union was not an “automatic” consequence of atomic weapons. It was, instead, “delicate”, and would require “urgent and continuing” effort by the United States to maintain it. He expressed concern that civilian experts, by being overly optimistic about the deterrent power of hydrogen bombs, had “vastly under-estimated the complexity of the Western problem of retaliation.” Having a deterrent force, he argued, was one thing; ensuring that it could be used properly and as intended in wartime was quite another.

The “complexity” Wohlstetter referred to, and which almost all other strategists at the time either overlooked or did not fully grasp the significance of, concerned “successive obstacles” that America’s nuclear deterrent force must overcome if it was to retaliate successfully in war. These included, among others, surviving an enemy attack; having the ability to make and receive orders for striking back; having the necessary range to reach and penetrate Soviet territory; and, finally, having the ability to destroy the target. A deterrent force, if it was to be credible and effective, had to have the ability to overcome all these potential obstacles.

And yet, as if these were not complex or difficult enough hurdles for Strategic Air Command bombers to overcome in a crisis, the “the technical problems” of retaliation to Soviet aggression would be compounded further, Wohlstetter warned, in the face of “sensible” Soviet planning and countermeasures.

By identifying the operational requirements of nuclear deterrence in this manner – i.e., the nut-and-bolts issues of targeting plans, bomber basings, defeating Soviet countermeasures, and the command-and-control aspects of nuclear forces – Wohlstetter’s analysis provided a sharp contrast to the abstract conceptualising of nuclear strategy then in vogue. He argued forcefully that the so-called “balance of terror” theory then being widely propagated was “a contribution to the rhetoric rather than the logic of war in the thermonuclear age.” The balance of terror theory (or “existential deterrence”, as President Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, would later call it) assumed at its core that the mere possession of hydrogen bombs both superpowers would forestall war between them essentially under all circumstances.

Not so, Wohlstetter argued. War between the United States and the communist aggressor could erupt as a result of deliberate choice despite the existence of atomic weapons, mainly because the calculus of risk facing the Soviets in a crisis would “depend in part on the vulnerability of our future posture.” What Wolhstetter meant was that the more exposed America’s deterrent force lay to a Pearl Harbor-type surprise attack, the more tempted would the enemy be to roll the thermonuclear dice in a confrontation. From this, it followed logically that the first priority for the United States was therefore to protect its retaliatory capability and to ensure that it had the technical ability to surmount the various obstacles and enemy countermeasures in the way of retaliation. By arguing along these lines and through empirical analysis, Wohlstetter famously summed up the requirements of deterrence thus: “To deter an attack means being able to strike back in spite of it. It means, therefore, a capability to strike second.”

The arguments for shielding America’s retaliatory force – then composed primarily of Strategic Air Command’s bomber squadrons – against surprise attack, however, were also being made by other strategists in the 1950s, but in more general terms. Bernard Brodie, for example, would strongly lay out the case for an invulnerable retaliatory force in his lucid and widely-acclaimed book Strategy in the Missile Age, published at the end of that decade. But, compared to Brodie and others, it was Wohlstetter who commanded attention. His distinctive style and methodology, and his unrelenting empirical focus and sensitivity to operational detail concerning nuclear force operations (he was originally trained as a mathematical logician), ensured that his work was imbued with a panache and originality few of his contemporaries could match. In the Delicate Balance, for example, he examined the assumptions underlying nuclear deterrence theory through such techniques as ‘systems analysis’ and ‘cost at the margins’ (i.e., how much it would cost the Soviets to offset a given U.S. strategic advantage). Such analytical techniques, which he had a hand in pioneering whilst at RAND in the 1950s, not only gave his discussion of nuclear strategy a distinct cast compared to others, but continue to be used in various forms in defense decision-making to this day.

If Wohlstetter’s Delicate Balance sought to reject the theory of “automatic” deterrence, it also had a harsh, anti-Soviet edge to it. The article appeared at the height of the post-Sputnik hysteria in America, and Wohlstetter, like few others at RAND, took it for granted that the Soviets would launch an attack on the United States the moment they sensed an opportunity. Ignoring the fact that the United States possessed an overwhelming nuclear superiority over Moscow at the time and would continue to do so for at least another decade, he wrote that “at critical junctures in the 1960s we may not have the power to deter attack,” thus resorting to the sort of alarmist language Paul Nitze had used in the State Department memorandum NSC-68, a key strategy document of the Truman era that would militarise containment.

Wohlstetter also argued against the belief that “mutual extinction” would be the only outcome of a general thermonuclear war: “Russian fatalities in World War II were more than 20,000,000. Yet Russia recovered extremely well.” He seemed to believe that the Russians could not be expected to resist the temptation of a nuclear fight if it suited their interests, for given past experience, they could always recover later.

Comments such as these suggest that Wohlstetter was not a subtle writer versed in the history or philosophy of great power relations (that distinction would unquestionably belong to Kissinger). He was, on the contrary, primarily a logician who applied novel techniques from game theory and econometrics to the study of nuclear strategy. He not only succeeded brilliantly in this, but in time became the single most influential civilian expert to have direct input into the evolution of U.S. nuclear strategy. Wohlstetter’s Delicate Balance remains Exhibit A of the power and logic of his analysis, and, as such, it repays reading. Thomas Schelling, a fellow strategist and an early pioneer of strategic arms control theory, rightly described the Delicate Balance as an “intellectual milestone” in the evolution of nuclear strategy.

The Balance in Retrospect: Was it Delicate?

“Intellectual milestone” or not, was Albert Wohlstetter justified in arguing that the nuclear balance between the Cold War antagonists was “delicate”? The answer, in retrospect, must be an emphatic no, primarily because from a technical standpoint, his long-standing concerns over the vulnerability of America’s nuclear deterrent (stemming from his numerous RAND bomber basing studies conducted for the Air Force in the 1950s), were quickly overtaken by the deployment of the Minuteman and Polaris land and sea-based missile systems from 1960 onward. America’s retaliatory force, which would soon comprise a ‘triad’ of bombers, ICBMs and SLBMs, would henceforth not only have the ability to survive a pre-emptive enemy attack (the Wohlstetter ‘criteria’), but would also be capable of retaliating instantly and with unimaginable power. Moreover, the various “technical complexities” and hurdles previously associated with executing a successful retaliatory strike – from surviving an enemy attack to transmitting orders for retaliation to penetrating enemy airspace – which Wohlstetter highlighted so cogently in theDelicate Balance, would more or less disappear with the advent of the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

Wohlstetter’s argument about the delicacy of the nuclear balance would therefore lose force in the light of rapid military-technological developments. Compared to the slow-flying and vulnerable bombers like the B-52, the chances of the new ICBM reaching and annihilating its intended target – a large populated city, for example – were more or less certain. When both superpowers came to possess such weaponry by the mid-1960s, a strategic stalemate resulted. Strategic deterrence between the two sides from then on resulted not from any ‘war-fighting’ configuration of U.S. forces, as Wohlstetter and others, especially Paul Nitze, theorised it would, but from the simple fact that the atomic bomb existed on both sides. Yet throughout the Cold War era, even before the advent of mutual second-strike capabilities, that fact of the Bomb’s existence alone had an important and decisive bearing on the prevention of armed U.S.-Soviet conflict. Although atomic weapons and the threat of mutual destruction they posed would not prevent the superpowers from competing vigorously and at times even dangerously for unilateral advantage in the global arena, neither side would seek to push the other over the brink during periods of intense crises, as in the various and successive Cold War confrontations over Berlin, Cuba and the Middle East.

The prospect of even one hydrogen bomb landing on one’s territory, as McGeorge Bundy pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article in 1969, would instil fear and caution in both Moscow and Washington, despite their unremitting Cold War competition for power and influence. The superpower balance, far from being precarious and delicate, would therefore turn out to be strong and robust enough to underpin mutual deterrence between the two sides. Yet, this this is not to suggest that Wohlstetter’s Delicate Balance published at the end of the 1950s missed the mark. His trenchant criticisms of the ‘balance of terror’ theory, in particular, would sensitize and compel other strategists to think about the operational requirements for nuclear deterrence, and how U.S. nuclear forces should be designed, deployed and operated. Wohlstetter’s 1959 article and his earlier RAND bomber basing studies, moreover, paved the way for a more rigorous and critical analysis of the various assumptions underlying nuclear strategy. Above all, they set a unique intellectual standard for thinking about the unthinkable and how this grim subject should be discussed in the future.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

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