FIGHTING AND DETERRING NUCLEAR WAR: CONTRASTING SOVIET AND AMERICAN APPROACHES
Desmond Ball, 1985
Desmond Ball is Head of the Strategic and Defense Study Center at the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. Among his many publications are Can Nuclear War Be Controlled? and Targeting for Strategic Deterrence. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.
Whiteley: Professor Ball, you’ve indicated that the United States and the Soviet Union have fundamentally different strategic cultures. What do you mean?
Ball: I mean that the way that I think about, first of all, deterring conflict between them, and secondly, the way that they would go about actually fighting a nuclear war in the event that we actually did get into some conflict; and thirdly, the way that they go about designing their force postures to support their respective strategies are fundamentally different.
Whiteley: Let’s take those one at a time. First, how do they think differently about deterrence?
Ball: In the case of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are basically to deter the use of nuclear weapons by the West. They think of them in a war-fighting sense, but war-fighting for deterrence purposes. That is, the Soviets believe that the best way to deter use of nuclear weapons by the West is to show the West that the Soviets would be willing to engage in a massive nuclear exchange, and could end up emerging from that exchange by prevailing in some sense. One sense being that the Soviets would emerge from that exchange somewhat better than they would if they let the United States go first, so their relative damage is less, but certain though it would emerge in some sense better than the way the United States would emerge and hence prevail in their terms.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that the United States thinks about the terms very differently.
Ball: Yes, the United States’ notion of deterrence also contains an ingredient of war-fighting, that is U.S. strategic planners also believe that if deterrence is really to be credible then the U.S. has to be able to threaten to use nuclear weapons in a way that not only would the Soviets believe that they would in fact do it, but that
U.S. decision-makers themselves could be persuaded to use them that way. And hence the U.S. has tried to design a strategic posture which consists of weapons which are relatively small, highly accurate, and which hopefully could be used in very precise and discriminating ways, so that they could then threaten to use those nuclear weapons in a wide range of situations.
The other area where they differ with regard to deterrence is that U.S. planning has to take security guarantees for the whole alliance into account. This is the notion of extended deterrence; in other words that the U.S. nuclear posture is not just simply to deter a Soviet attack on the United States, but it’s also to deter Soviet conventional attacks on the European allies.
Whiteley: One consequence of having this view of deterrence is that it must be credible. What is the United States doing to make its approach to deterrence creditable?
Ball: They are trying to make their nuclear weapons as usable as possible. And hence American planners have developed a wide range of so-called ‘limited nuclear options,’ selective nuclear options,’ and ‘regional attack options.’ They are attempting to provide an American President, or the American national leadership more generally, with a wide range of options which would be available to an American President; a wide range of contingencies in the hope that the Soviets would not trigger those contingencies. Now there are very many questions there that have to be asked about just how realistic that is, and hence, ultimately just how credible those efforts really are.
Whiteley: Well, if differing views of deterrence was the first part of very different approaches to strategic issues, the second for you was force configurations. How are those different?
Ball: The basic difference is the Soviets rely on less sophisticated weapons systems; more primitive in a technological sense - larger, much more sort of blunderbuss approach. They do that because of technical reasons. They’re unable to miniaturize guidance systems as much as the U.S., they’ve not been able to develop as efficient propellants for use in their missiles, so their strategic forces generally end up being much larger, and not accompanied by anywhere near the flexible command and control structure that the U.S. has developed to accompany its strategic forces.
Whiteley: And how are the forces of the United States different?
Ball: U.S. forces are much more variegated. There is a much more reliance on being able to use weapons in much more discriminating and selective fashion. And that has meant smaller weapons, more capable weapons, weapons which are tied in much more closely to the intelligence system so that they can be retargetted and used much more flexibly. The American approach basically is to fine-tune the nuclear weapons, to design plans to go with those weapons in a sense which would allow them to orchestrate a nuclear exchange, rather than just the Soviet view, which is to have very large nuclear weapons but only to use them in a single massive strike.
Whiteley: This leads directly to the different war-fighting doctrines between the Soviet Union and the United States. Does the Soviet Union believe that limited war is possible?
Ball: No, the Soviets have always rejected the notion of any sort of limited nuclear war. Their view is that once a nuclear war starts, for technical as well as for human reasons, all the passions which would be generated in the event of the use of nuclear weapons, that it will go all the way. And hence, their posture in terms of the capabilities of their forces, as well as in the command and control structure which they built to support the forces, does not allow any notion of limited nuclear war. They just haven’t built a command and control structure which would allow them to fight a limited nuclear war even if they wanted to.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated both the United States and the Soviet Union want to limit the damage from nuclear war, but that they go about it in very different ways. What are those differences?
Ball: Well, at the very fundamental level of course, they’re both interested in damage limitation, and that’s really a quite obvious point. That if you’re going to get into a nuclear war your primary objective is to make sure that you suffer the least amount of damage (physical damage and casualties and fatalities) as possible. The Soviet view though is that, because they don’t believe any nuclear war could be limited, that any war is going to go to an all-out war. So you might as well go to that all-out war right at the start, and direct your forces (in other words the Soviet forces) against American nuclear weapons so that you can blunt the American nuclear response, and go against the American leadership and the American command and control system. So that any American response would be less coordinated, would be more ragged, would occur over a period of hours, and perhaps even days; so they could evacuate their cities, so they could get their submarines out to sea, they could get their anti-submarine warfare forces out to sea to try and destroy as many of the American missile-carrying submarines as they can in that sort of short period where all the Americans are trying to reconstitute or recoordinate themselves.
Whiteley: By way of contrast, how does America approach the same problem?
Ball: The basic American approach is, what various administrations have called the notion of escalation control, and that is that the best way of limiting damage is to try and terminate an exchange at the lowest possible level consistent with the
U.S. being able to still dominate at each level of the escalation ladder. And that means that U.S. posture has built into it such things as ‘withholds.’ In other words the United States, at least at the outset of an exchange, would avoid hitting Soviet cities, and most certainly would avoid hitting the Soviet leadership, and would avoid hitting Soviet early warning, and attack assessment, and attack characterization systems, so that the Soviets would be given every opportunity to know that the U.S. responses were limited, were discriminating, and hopefully the Soviets would respond in kind. But that’s a very big hope.
Whiteley: Given these sharp differences in approaches to strategic issues, how each Superpower would behave if they thought nuclear war was imminent becomes a very significant issue. How would the Soviet Union respond if it thought that a nuclear war was inevitable?
Ball: If the Soviets believed that a nuclear war was really unavoidable, that the crisis was evolving in a way which suggests sooner or later nuclear weapons are going to be used, that the alert-levels are increasing for the strategic forces that the bombers and the submarines are being deployed and things like that, then the Soviets would attempt to preempt, and they’d attempt to preempt quite massively. In other words, as soon as they believed that a nuclear war was going to be happening in the next few hours or the next few days, they’d want to get in there first. They’d attack with everything that they’ve got, and they’d use them against a wide range of target sites: the nuclear forces, the command and control systems, the economic industrial base of the West, and conventional military forces as well, in the hope of first of all limiting damage to themselves, but also of causing so much damage in the West that they would emerge in the post-nuclear exchange situation, in some sense, in a prevalent position.
Whiteley: By way of contrast, how is the United States set up to respond if they think that nuclear war is imminent?
Ball: The United States would respond according to the plans which are being developed over the past few decades in a much more limited fashion. The first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be more just to indicate to the Soviets that the U.S. has got the resolve to cross the nuclear threshold, that the willpower is there to go nuclear, and hopefully, by demonstrating to the Soviets that the U.S. is prepared to do that, that the Soviets would then be deterred from taking whatever inimical action it was that forced the U.S. to engage in the small demonstration strikes in the first place.
Whiteley: Your analysis is that there is a fundamental contradiction between how the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. approach the possibilities of an imminent nuclear war.
Ball: Yes, there’s fundamental contradictions right throughout their strategic policies and their strategic postures in that situation. It seems to me that the most likely way that a nuclear war is going to occur, that the first-use of nuclear weapons in any case is going to occur, is because of some conflict that the U.S. and the Soviet Union have got themselves embroiled in, whether it be at sea or in NATO, or in some of the other peripheral areas, where because of deficiencies with regard to the Western conventional forces, the U.S. would be the first to use nuclear weapons, and that’s of course why the administrations of all political colors in the United States have been adamant that they need to retain that firstuse option. But then in exercising that option, and in detonating a few nuclear weapons to prove to the Soviets that they have the resolve and the will to escalate further up the nuclear ladder, what they’re doing to the Soviets is not just showing their resolve, but indicating to the Soviets that in fact a nuclear war now is highly probably. And I believe that that would then trigger a massive Soviet response.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that a crisis will escalate most likely based on misperceptions. What are the likely misperceptions?
Ball: I believe that the most likely way that nuclear war is likely is where you already have conflicts where forces are engaged against each other. American anti-submarine warfare forces for example, tracking down Soviet missile-carrying submarines, American bombers taking to not just high levels of ground-alert status, but taking to air-alert. All of these sending messages to the other side that all the various safety catches are now being released, and that things are becoming a much more hair-trigger situation.
Whiteley: In contrast to the decade of the 1960s, you’ve indicated that the current situation is that the side that strikes first in a nuclear war would be the side that is advantaged. Why is that?
Ball: Yes, one of the most unfortunate strategic developments over the past couple of decades is that it is now possible to reduce damage greatly by going first as opposed to going second. Now in the 1960s when both sides had single warhead missiles, some of which of course were necessarily unreliable and rather less accurate than they are today, it meant that the side that went first was probably in a sense going to be disarming himself or itself. That the outcomes from going first and going second were in no meaningful sense going to be very different. Now that’s entirely different than it is today. Even if you go first today, you’re not going to totally escape unscathed; but by going first the casualties that you’re going to get could well be many tens of millions less than they would be if you went second. In other words, you could be talking about 30, 40, or 50 million fatalities instead of 120 or 130 or 140. Now that doesn’t mean that anyone is really going to be undertaking a nuclear war knowing that they’re going to suffer 40 million casualties. But if you believe that the probability of a nuclear war is coming to be close to one, in other words that a nuclear war is unavoidable, and the difference is between suffering 40 as opposed to 140, then clearly the incentives and the pressures on the leaderships to go first are going to be very strong.
Whiteley: You’ve singled out a number of actions that would lead to a safer world given the fundamental lack of symmetry between how the Russians go about providing for their national security and their use of strategic forces, and how the United States does. And I would like to give those to you one at a time and ask you to share your meaning fully. First, is a greater attention to crisis management.
Ball: Yes, it seems to me that one of the most likely causes of a nuclear war is going to be a breakdown in relations during a crisis, whether that’s caused by the miscalculations that we’ve talked about or whether that’s caused by the belief that a nuclear war is imminent and hence, that one side has to go first. So that there really is a desperate need to pay greater attention to keeping dialogue going in the event of a major crisis so that miscalculations can be resolved, and so that neither side really has to believe that a nuclear war is imminent. In other words, so that one can explain to the other side what one is doing with alert levels, and with dispersals and deployments, so they don’t get the wrong picture.
Whiteley: What clear actions will improve dialogue in crises?
Ball: The basic mechanical answer to that is to spend a lot more resources in improving the basic hotline system that exists today. That hotline is a primitive system; it’s a very vulnerable system. And indeed it’s very easy to imagine that hotline, which is very unsecure and vulnerable to all sorts of weapons effects - conventional and nuclear - being destroyed, or at least being rendered inoperable right at the very beginning of any conflict. In other words, at the very time when you most want to start talking to each other that hotline might not even be there, and that’s a basic vulnerability which needs to be corrected.
Whiteley: A second concrete action that would lower the risks of war in your analysis is a greater control of one’s strategic and tactical forces. What specifically do you have in mind?
Ball: The basic problem with the control of the forces on each side is that in the very situation where you want those controls to be as tight as possible, that is either in a crisis or in a situation where a conventional conflict is already underway, in those situations military commanders are going to be demanding the greatest autonomy possible for their own forces, and you’re going to get a conflict there with the military who are going to be basically concerned with military effectiveness. So that submarine commanders are going to be trailing the submarines of the other sides, naval vessels are going to be already aiming their radars and locking their fire control systems on the ships of the other side. Just simply for straight military reasons. But those actions themselves are the ones which are going to do the most to frighten the other side and indeed, could even start escalating things actually in the fields in ways that the decision-makers in Moscow and Washington might not even know about, let alone be able to exercise any control over.
Whiteley: A third action would be greater attention to conventional forces.
Ball: It seems to me that the reason why the United States is most likely to have to use nuclear weapons in any conflict, and certainly a large scale conflict with the Soviet Union, is because the West has given too much emphasis to rely on some nuclear weapons at the expense of the conventional forces. So there are major deficiencies in the conventional forces in terms of their overall capabilities, in terms of their readiness, in terms of their mobility; in other words the ability to get conventional forces from Europe or from the United States into areas of conflict very quickly. The Soviets have a major advantage there, being a continental power in the heart of the Eurasian land mass, so that in general that’s much easier for them to get their conventional forces into the sort of likely conflict areas faster than we could. And that of course is why we have relied on nuclear weapons for offsetting that conventional advantage with the Warsaw Pact and the Soviets in the past. It seems to me that that strategy is just too dangerous to continue with: That the basic thing which we should be doing is upgrading the conventional forces so that we do not have to resort to nuclear weapons.
Whiteley: That moves to the fourth specific action which would lower the risks of nuclear war, and that’s the renunciation by the West of its current policy of firstuse of nuclear weapons to counter a conventional gain by the Soviet Union.
Ball: I’m certainly very strongly in favor of moving towards a no first-use position. But it seems to me that there is no point in making that as a declaration at this stage without addressing the deficiencies in the conventional forces. For one reason, the Soviets aren’t going to believe in that no-first declaration while they see how the balance in the conventional forces are going; and secondly, even if a declaration to that effect was made, the American leadership couldn’t abide by that declaration in a conflict if they were losing on the conventional battlefield. So the basic precondition again of a no first-use posture is upgrading the conventional forces.
...all the reliance on first-use gives you is that choice between surrender or holocaust.
Whiteley: And that leads directly to the relationship of the first-use of nuclear weapons policy to the Soviets’ lack of appreciation of the possibilities of a limited war, specifically that a policy of first-use could start a massive escalation in the use of nuclear weapons and lead directly to a massive exchange.
Ball: Yes, it seems to me there’s two basic problems with that reliance on firstuse of nuclear weapons. One is that knowing, or believing, that it could well lead to a full scale exchange; in other words that there is a high degree of escalation possibilities inherent in the first-use, that the U.S., or the West more generally, would in fact be deterred from using nuclear weapons to begin with. In other words, that the plans for limited first-use would quickly become incredible, and the West would be self-deterred from doing anything. Or on the other hand, that the U.S. would proceed to use those nuclear weapons first, and then the Soviets would respond, and then you would have your massive all-out exchange. In other words, all the reliance on first-use gives you is that choice between surrender or holocaust.
Whiteley: You’ve indicated that the final concrete action that would reduce the risks of nuclear war is that of arms control.
Ball: Arms control is certainly one avenue which needs to be pursued and needs to be pursued most strongly. There are some areas where I think arms control can play a major role. One of the most important, there, I believe is in outerspace, where already that environment is becoming highly militarized in terms of early warning, espionage, surveillance, of various sorts. But the time is not going to be too far away from us when that militarization is going to become much more direct, and that is one area where arms control often is successful, and that is to head off the nuclearization of areas before nuclear weapons are actually deployed in those areas. And hence, that’s one area for arms control. Having said that though, I wouldn’t like to give the impression that I believe that arms control is going to solve all of our problems over the next several decades. It isn’t. The history of arms control is a rather disappointing one, and that’s not because lack of will or lack of effort; it’s because of the complexity of the problems involved. So that to believe that arms control is really going to solve the problems would, I think, be misrepresenting the situation.
Whiteley: As you’ve reflected on the Soviet Union as a superpower, you’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not inherently expansionistic at this time in their history, and that many of their views toward national security can be traced directly to their Czarist history.
Ball: You have to look at the defense of the Soviet homeland itself. That is the primary goal of the Soviet governmental system, right through the political levels down through the military. You can trace the underlying approach to Soviet security way back before the Communists took power. You can go back to the 17th and 18th Centuries. What the Soviets have done is essentially add some doctrinal variations to that, but there is a very entrenched culture there which none of us are ever going to be able to change.
Whiteley: Professor Ball, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to reduce the risks of nuclear war and the conditions for a more enduring peace.