July 11, 2009


The MAD Legacy of Robert McNamara: It's badly in need of rethinking. (Michael Anton, 07/20/2009, Weekly Standard)

"No single public figure," wrote British historian Lawrence Freedman in his exhaustive (and exhausting) study The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, "has influenced the way we think about nuclear weapons quite as much as Robert S. McNamara." Penned in 1981, those words remain true. Whether the ideas McNamara helped put in place fit the world we now inhabit--whether they made sense at the time--are eminently debatable questions. And, incidentally, ones that no one is debating. [...]

With the advent of nuclear weapons, the military's youngest branch--the Air Force--became its de facto "senior service," the one whose budgets were never questioned, whose every request was treated as urgent. The Air Force had the bomb, and the bomb was the guarantor of peace. The Air Force was also the home of the Strategic Air Command, by far the most important military unit in the U.S. armed forces, and the personal fiefdom of General Curtis LeMay for nine years--a tenure whose length has never been equaled in the modern military.

Famous for his bombing campaigns against Japan--which destroyed half the developed areas of more than 60 cities--LeMay had absolute faith in the value of strategic bombing to win wars by destroying enemy infrastructure and industry and undermining morale. The war plan cooked up by his staff officers--jokingly nicknamed "Operation Sunday Punch," after a WWII bombing campaign in Normandy--was nothing more complex or discriminating than an all-out attack on every significant target in the Soviet Union (later expanded to include Eastern Europe, China, and North Korea). Whatever card the Soviets might play, this was the only one the U.S. military was prepared to play in response.

The Air Force's predilection for indiscriminate strategic bombing was implicitly endorsed by the Eisenhower administration, though for entirely different reasons. Ike wanted to keep military spending down and had no interest in trying to keep up with Soviet conventional forces. So he sought to balance Soviet conventional superiority with American nuclear superiority. The doctrine came to be called "massive retaliation" and was laid out in a speech and article by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1954. Dulles argued that since the United States could not possibly defend every frontier that the Soviets could threaten, and since the West did not wish forever to remain on the defensive as the Communists nibbled away the free world's perimeter, any Soviet provocation risked the full might of the American arsenal.

McNamara was convinced that, even with budgetary concerns, by crunching the numbers in the right way, he could arrive at the optimal force. To the uniformed planners, "counterforce" required an ever growing nuclear arsenal, to match the potentially limitless number of Soviet military targets. Not prepared to give way, McNamara set arbitrary numbers of weapons "needed"--he capped ICBMs at 1,054, a level that remained in force until the Reagan years--and redesigned strategy around those numbers. He found the answer in "assured destruction"--later immortalized as "mutual assured destruction" or MAD. Here was a strategy eminently suited to systems analysis. Simply calculate the destructive power needed to assure the destruction of the other side, leave a little margin for error, and build just that much and no more.

A number of policy implications followed--among them the abandonment of any attempt at civil defense and the demonization of missile defense as inherently destabilizing to the system.

Ronald Reagan abhorred MAD and tried valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to sweep it into the dustbin of history.

Bad enough that hawks believed the Soviets were a threat in the 60s, the notion that the Russians, Chinese or NorKs are now is just silly. No one flies Aeroflot.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 11, 2009 7:17 AM
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