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Conventional Deterrence: Predictive Uncertainty and Policy Confidence

  • Richard K. Betts


For over three decades the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has based its deterrent on the principle that the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapons if a Soviet conventional attack against Western Europe succeeded. This notion has long troubled most strategic analysts. It remained generally acceptable to political elites, however, when U.S. nuclear superiority appeared massive enough to make the doctrine credible (as in the 1950s); when the conventional military balance in Europe improved markedly (as in the 1960s); or when détente appeared to be making the credibility of deterrence a less pressing concern (as in the 1970s). None of these conditions exists in the 1980s, and anxiety over the danger of nuclear war has prompted renewed attention to the possibility of replacing NATO's Flexible Response doctrine (a mixture of nuclear and conventional deterrence) with a reliable conventional deterrence posture that might justify a nuclear no-first-use (NFU) doctrine.1



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1 The most prominent proposal is Bundy, McGeorge, Kennan, George, Smith, Gerard, and McNamara, Robert, “Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance,” Foreign Affairs 60 (Spring 1982).

2 For example, see McNamara, Robert S., “The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons: Perceptions and Misperceptions,” Foreign Affairs 62 (Fall 1983).

3 Evangelista, Matthew A., “Stalin's Postwar Army Reappraised,” International Security 7 (Winter 1982/1983), 110–38; Enthoven, Alan and Smith, K. Wayne, How Much Is Enough? (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), chap. 4.

4 Cockburn, Andrew, The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine (New York: Random House, 1983); Gabriel, Richard, The New Red Legions, 2 vols. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980). For persuasive counterarguments, see Reitz, James T., “Underrating Soviet Might,” Problems of Communism 32 (November-December 1983), 8488, and the review by Dick, Charles J. in Survival 24 (January/February 1982), 4445.

5 Mearsheimer, John, Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 171, 183–88; Von Mellenthin, F. W. and Stolfi, R.H.S. with Sobik, E., NATO Under Attack (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984), chaps. 3–5.

6 For a less categorically critical survey of organizational problems, see Isby, David C., Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army (London: Jane's, 1981), 6170.

7 As of 1981, of all the NATO armies based on conscription, only Greece's required two years of service; of all Warsaw Pact armies, only East Germany's and Rumania's required less. Federal Ministry of Defence, “Facts and Figures” (Bonn, 1981).

8 Cordesman, Anthony H., “NATO Faces Huge Manpower Problems Compared to Warsaw Pact, Studies Show,” Armed Forces Journal International, December 1983, p. 21.

9 Gabriel, Richard A., The Antagonists: A Comparative Combat Assessment of the Soviet and American Soldier (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984), 184–91.

10 European Security Study, Strengthening Conventional Deterrence (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983).

11 Drozdiak, William, “NATO Weighs Nonnuclear Strategies,” Washington Post, September 26, 1983, p. A15.

12 Hampson, Fen Osier, “Groping for Technical Panaceas: The European Conventional Balance and Nuclear Stability,” International Security 8 (Winter 1983–84), 7276.

13 Hiatt, Fred, “Conventional Weapon May Go Nuclear,” Washington Post, November 25, 1983, pp. A1, A18–19.

14 See Lautenschläger, Karl, “Technology and the Evolution of Naval Warfare,” International Security 8 (Fall 1983), 2730.

15 Gordon, Michael R., “‘E.T.’ Weapons to Beef up NATO Forces Raise Technical and Political Doubts,” National Journal, February 19, 1983, pp. 365–69; Gordon, , “Highly Touted Assault Breaker Weapon Caught Up in Internal Pentagon Debate,” National Journal, October 22, 1983, pp. 2152–57. For criticism of technological feasibility or doctrinal sensibility of high-tech proposals, see Canby, Steven L., “The Conventional Defense of Europe: The Operational Limits of Emerging Technology,” Working Paper No. 55, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC (April 1984), to be published in International Defense Review; and Gouré, Daniel and Cooper, Jeffrey R., “Conventional Deep Strike: A Critical Look,” Comparative Strategy 4 (No. 3, 1984).

16 For a recent example that also bears on the previous point, see Vinocur, John, “Iran Said to Develop Reflector That Fools Exocets,” New Yorl{ Times, July 6, 1984, p. 3.

17 Healy, Melissa, “Soviet Generals Enlist in Ranks Favoring Deep Strike Weapons,” Defense Week, July 16, 1984, p. 7.

18 Some analysts argue the reverse if NATO can emphasize the advantages of prepared positions and eschew large-scale maneuver defense. New U.S. AirLand Battle doctrine, however, does envision more maneuver; with different national forces crossing each others' lines, communication and coordination problems assume larger proportions. This points to a further deficiency. The Warsaw Pact is more standardized and dominated by one nation than is the NATO coalition. In the latter, not only are national equipments diverse—so are operational doctrines! “NATO's problem, therefore is … [that] there is no unity of policy.” Dinter, Elmar and Griffith, Paddy, Not Over By Christmas: NATO's Central Front in World War III (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1983), 41. With France pursuing an independent strategy, it is also uncertain what difficulties might arise in reintegrating French forces under the unified NATO command in wartime, should Paris decide to do so.

19 On dangers in allowing technology to centralize battle management, see Haasler, Col. Ruprecht and Goebel, Lt. Col. Hans, “Uneasiness About Technological Process in the Armed Forces,” Military Review 62 (October 1982), pp. 7071.

20 Steinbruner, John D., “Introduction,” in Steinbruner, and Sigal, Leon V., eds., Alliance Security: NATO and the No-First-Use Question (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1983). 34.

21 Barry Posen notes the important point, however, that NATO's far heavier investment in support systems should increase effective combat power (the “dynamic ” balance) beyond what is represented in simple comparisons of firepower; otherwise, such investments must be deemed a waste. See Posen, , “Measuring the Central European Conventional Balance,” International Security 9 (Winter 1984/1985), 4788, at 67–70.

22 von Clausewitz, Carl, On War, ed. and trans, by Howard, Michael and Paret, Peter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 366 (italics in original); see also Book Six, throughout.

23 See Dinter and Griffith (fn. 18), 104–21.

24 Kaufmann, “Nonnuclear Deterrence,” in Steinbruner and Sigal (fn. 20), 88–89. For arguments that question the severity of Soviet logistical problems, see Donnelly, C. N., “Rear Support for the Soviet Ground Forces,” International Defense Review 12 (No. 3, 1979).

25 “Though such calculations cannot predict the actual outcome of a war, they do state the best odds that can be assessed in advance on the basis of basic military capacity.” Steinbruner, “Alliance Security,” in Steinbruner and Sigal (fn. 20), 205.

26 Neu, C. R., Planning U.S. General Purpose Forces: Army Procurement Planning (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, December 1976), 4.

27 Mearsheimer (fn. 5), chap. 6, esp. 166–67.

28 Betts, Richard K., Surprise Attack (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1982).

29 Table 2 excludes interventions in revolutionary or guerrilla civil wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan), minor or bizarre operations (such as the Argentinian attack on the Falklands/Malvinas and the U.S. invasion of Grenada), and cases in which large modern armored forces were not involved (such as the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda in 1979). The IndoPakistani War of 1965 is excluded because it is impossible to determine which side started the war, and which won. The same holds for the Soviet-Chinese skirmishes on the Ussuri in 1969. The basis for most of the categorizations of superiority is obvious. For the Battle of France in 1940, see sources in Betts (fn. 28), 32, and especially Karber, Phillip A. and others, “Assessing the Correlation of Forces: France 1940,” study for the Office of the Secretary of Defense/Net Assessment and Defense Nuclear Agency (McLean, VA: BDM Corporation, June 1979), which demonstrates the limits of assessments based on the balance of forces. The categorization of Japan v. U.S.A. would be questionable if one focused on the Philippines alone rather than on forces overall, although even there the Japanese force that landed at Lingayen Gulf was only 40,000 men, while MacArthur had at least 65,000 American and Filipino troops. See Morton, Louis, “The Decision to Withdraw to Bataan (1941),” in Greenfield, Kent Roberts, ed., Command Decisions (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959), 170.

30 On the inverse deficiencies of static and dynamic analysis, see Betts (fn. 28), 13–14.

31 If qualitative and dynamic factors are included, then whichever side won was by definition superior in reality.

32 Israeli defense of the Golan in 1973 is categorized as success because the Israelis were not pushed off the Heights, and their initial defense of the Sinai is categorized as failure because the Egyptians penetrated farther than Israeli plans meant to allow; indeed, the Egyptians might have gotten farther yet if they had not voluntarily stopped.

33 This universe of cases dates back to 1805. Col. Dupuy, T. N., Numbers, Predictions, and War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1979), 1415.

34 See Comptroller General, Report to the Congress of the United States, Models, Data, and War: A Critique of the Foundation for Defense Analyses (Washington, DC: General Accounting Office, March 12, 1980), esp. 54n, 7172, 91; and Stockfisch, J. A., Models, Data, and War: A Critique of the Study of Conventional Forces (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, March 1975).

35 See Fischer, David Hackett, Historians' Fallacies (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), 120–24; Hughes, H. Stuart, History as Art and Science (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), 46.

36 For elaboration, see Betts, Richard K., “Conventional Strategy: New Critics, Old Choices,” International Security 7 (Spring 1983), 144–46.

37 See Dinter and Griffith (fn. 18),111–12. The significance of long-overlooked O vulnerability has recently been better recognized in analyses of nuclear strategy than in conventional strategy.

38 See Field Manual 100–5, Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, August 1982); Sutton, Boyd D. and others, “Deep Attack Concepts and the Defence of Central Europe,” Survival 26 (March/April 1984); Dubik, Maj. James M. and Montano, Maj. James J., “FM 100–5: Conceptual Models and Force Design,” Military Review 64 (July 1984); Romjue, John L., “The Evolution of the AirLand Battle Concept,” Air University Review 35 (May-June 1984).

39 Huntington, , “Conventional Deterrence and Conventional Retaliation in Europe,” International Security 8 (Winter 1983–84). See also Huntington, , “The Renewal of Strategy,” in Huntington, , ed., The Strategic Imperative (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1982), and “Broadening the Strategic Focus: Comments on Howard's Paper,” in Defence and Consensus: The Domestic Aspects of Western Security, Part III, Adelphi Paper No. 184 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Summer 1983), 2932.

40 Some of the precedents supporting offense by inferior forces are promising only if one ignores the ultimate outcomes. In a future European scenario, it is likely that a Soviet offensive in the North, given the lack of strategic depth, might resemble the German success of 1940 in France (which was decisive), while a NATO offensive in the south would resemble the German blunder of 1941 in Russia (which was operationally successful but strategically disastrous because it was not decisive). Idealization of the Germans' superior operational style, prevalent now among many reformist analysts of conventional doctrine, often ignores this point. See Schoenbaum, David, “The Wehrmacht and G. I. Joe: Learning What from History?” International Security 8 (Summer 1983), pp. 201–7. If one looks back before the era of mechanized operations, the initial phase of World War I is instructive. The French attacked toward Alsace, but were compelled to pull back when the German sweep westward made their position untenable. And although the French line stabilized at the Marne, the Germans had penetrated much farther west than NATO's forward defense doctrine considers tolerable for a Soviet initiative.

41 Huntington maintains that NATO's offense would be feasible because its forces would be superior in certain zones as the Soviets would have to concentrate their own forces at other points where they would try to break through. He also argues that the threat of a NATO offensive would encourage the Soviets to weaken their offensive concentrations in order to protect the parts of their line that would otherwise be vulnerable. (“Conventional Deterrence …,” fn. 39, pp. 51, 44.) The first claim, however, is based on force ratios on the front that obtain in peacetime, before Soviet reinforcement; these ratios are nearly even, and most analysts focus on the scenario of a reinforced Soviet attack before NATO mobilization is complete—in which case the overall ratios would be far less favorable to the West.

42 See Kim's, Kyung-Won analysis of the breakdown of international communication in the French Revolution, in Revolution and International System (New York: New York University Press, 1970), 3036 and throughout.

[V]iewing ideology only in terms of conscious objectives and ultimate values fails to sensitize us to the highly critical role that ideological commitment plays in the perceptual process… sharply increasing the chances of international misunderstanding.… [Distorted perception resulting from an ideological conviction is basically an integral part of the ideological commitment, itself, which makes it quite impossible to “correct” the perceptual process. Ibid., 123, 125.

See also Adomeit, Hannes, Soviet Risk-Taking and Crisis Behavior (London: Allen & Unwin 1983), 112–21, 220–30, 328–34.

43 Wohlstetter, Roberta, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962), 26, 69n, 80–89.

44 Huntington, “Conventional Deterrence …” (fn. 39), 38. Two of the cases Mearsheimer cites as successful deterrence are allied decision making at Munich (despite the fact that Hitler obtained the Sudeten territory and gobbled the rest of Czechoslovakia a year later) and allied decision making between the outbreak of war and the German blitzkrieg eight months later. By this logic, if NATO and the Warsaw Pact went to war, but Moscow waited a while before executing a successful attack, the interim would count as successful deterrence!

45 Toulmin, Stephen, Foresight and Understanding (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), 5556, 108–11.

* The author gives special thanks for trenchant criticisms of earlier drafts, and absolution for the current version, to John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Lt. Col. Richard Sinnreich. He is also grateful to Lt. Col. Asa Clark, Michael Clarke, Joshua Epstein, Michael Handel, Samuel Huntington, Robert Jervis, William Kaufmann, Lt. Col. Daniel Kaufman, John Kester, Michael Mandelbaum, Gale Mattox, Maj. Jeffrey McKitrick, Thomas McNaugher, Col. Richard Polo, Scott Sagan, and Leon Sigal. An earlier version of this article was delivered as part of a lecture at the UCLA Center for International and Strategic Affairs in February 1984.


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