The MADness of It All

This post covers ground that is already well-covered in “It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World“, “MAD, Again“, and ““MAD, Again”: A Footnote“. But those posts are now going on three years old and the issue at hand is too important to ignore.

Here is David Hambling, writing at Forbes (“The Hidden Nuclear Policy the Biden Administration Needs to Tackle“, January 26, 2021):

A U.S. Navy policy on ballistic missile submarines may threaten the stability of the strategic nuclear balance. This seems to be the result of the inertia of a strategy laid down in a different era, one which is becoming increasingly precarious as technology advances.

Previous administrations have failed to spell out the actual policy, preferring to keep it under wraps. Continuing this lack of clarity could prove catastrophic….

ASW is all about finding, tracking and destroying enemy submarines. Strategic ASW targets the submarines carrying nuclear missiles. During the Cold War, Strategic ASW was about tying up enemy forces [Soviet submarines armed with nuclear missiles, thus] affecting the war on the ground, but now the situation is quite different….

The rationale for putting missiles on submarines is to ensure second-strike capability. The argument is that while land and air-based weapons might be knocked out in a surprise attack, the underwater force would survive because submarines cannot be located. This makes submarine-based weapons a linchpin for the nuclear deterrent, the most secure leg of the U.S. nuclear triad as well as the Russian one.

Any threat to a nation’s ballistic missile submarines makes it vulnerable to a first strike, and, in a time of crisis, might prompt them to act first. Hence the question … is strategic ASW still official U.S. policy?

There is no official answer. The last National Security Strategy to be completely declassified was from the 1986 Reagan administration, which explicitly tasked the Navy with strategic ASW. The most recent National Security Strategy, from 2018, has only been released in summary form, and says nothing on the topic.

Actions speak louder than words though, and from the U.S. Navy’s actions, they are still very much in the business of pursuing Russian subs in the Arctic. For example, there are regular ‘ICEX’ exercises which include submarines test-firing torpedoes at targets under the ice….

In fact it is not even clear whether there has been any decision-making process, or whether strategic ASW has become the default policy….

This would make it one of those zombie policies that keeps going long after it ought to be dead and buried. And, while strategic ASW might have made strategic sense 30 years ago it, does not today. This is partly because technology is improving and submarine detection keeps getting better. Each new advance makes the ability to threaten ballistic missile submarines more serious….

[Some] analysts and academicians want to encourage the new administration to state clearly whether strategic ASW is still U.S. policy, and if so who is driving it. [The] aim, for starters, would be to ensure the policy is disowned, which could at least reduce the risk and open up the way for discussion.

And so, the non-problem of strategic ASW is to be solved by a non-solution: a treaty that would be hard to enforce.

Why is strategic ASW a non-problem? First, as Hambling suggests, it wasn’t a problem during the cold war, but not for the reason given by Hambling; namely,

Strategic ASW was about tying up enemy forces and affecting the war on the ground, but now the situation is quite different….

That’s tail-wagging-the-dog reasoning. Whatever strategic ASW was about during the Cold War — in the minds of American strategists — it could only have been about one thing in the minds of Soviet strategists: a threat to Soviet second-strike capability. The possibility that the U.S. would engage in strategic ASW was never an actual threat to Soviet second-strike capability because the precondition — a ground war in Europe being lost by the Allies — was never met.

Moreover, the U.S. rationale for strategic ASW during the Cold War was flawed, and the Soviets knew it. The rationale, as Hambling says, was to tie up Soviet forces defending Soviet submarines armed with nuclear missiles (the Soviet second-strike capability). But those defensive forces were in place long before strategic ASW became a U.S. policy. And those defensive forces wouldn’t have been used for any other purpose, so intent were Soviet strategists on protecting their second-strike capability.

Further, an actual effort to take out the Soviet second-strike capability during the Cold War would have met the same response as an actual effort to take out Russia’s second-strike capability now or in the future: an ultimatum followed, if necessary, by a warning shot across the bow. The ultimatum would be along these lines: Make a move toward our second-strike capability and we will take out one of your cities. And if the ultimatum were ignored, the city would be taken out. (Why, then, the need for defensive forces? Well, why do some men wear both belt and braces (suspenders, in American)? “Just in case”is the best answer to both questions.)

You can play what-ifs and if-this-then-thats all day long. But the bottom line will always be the same: Strategic ASW wouldn’t be conducted in the first place (and wouldn’t have been conducted during the Cold War) because no U.S. president would want to risk having a U.S. city taken out (or worse), nor would he want to risk being humiliated by having to back down in a game of nuclear “chicken”.

The Soviets understood all of that. The Russians (and Chinese) understand all of that. So any talk of strategic ASW is simply irrelevant. Just as irrelevant is the notion that U.S. Navy talk of strategic ASW is destabilizing. It’s not destabilizing because the Russians (and Chinese) know that it won’t happen.

But what could happen? The U.S. could sign on to — and honor — an agreement that limits the ability of the U.S. to detect enemy submarines, even as Russia (and China) — acting clandestinely in bad faith — would develop more sophisticated means of detecting U.S. submarines. Such capabilities, even if irrelevant to a nuclear showdown, would be invaluable in a war where U.S. interests are at stake (e.g., a contest for control of the South China Sea).

So, wittingly or not, Hambling and those U.S. analysts whom he represents are playing into the hands of our adversaries by advancing a “solution” to a non-problem. The “solution” — a hard-to-enforce agreement — would weaken the ability of U.S. forces to defend America and Americans’ overseas interests.

MAD and McNamara

With the anti-Kavanaugh anti-Constitution circus almost over (temporarily), it is time to revisit the weighty matter of defense strategy. In particular, there are some loose threads hanging from my earlier posts (here and here) about mutually assured destruction (MAD).

I have been using this definition of MAD:

[It] is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender…. It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.

Implicit in that definition is the sensible view that mutually assured deterrence obtains even where there is a significant disparity in the strengths of opposing forces, as long as the weaker of the forces is strong enough to wreak vast devastation on an enemy. This view is consistent with the concept of overkill: a destructive nuclear capacity exceeding the amount needed to destroy an enemy.

At any rate, I recently discovered something about MAD that I should have learned long ago. The lesson came from Roger Barnett — a professional strategist and esteemed correspondent — who sent me a copy of a chapter that he contributed to American National Security Policy: Essays in Honor of William R. Van Cleave.

Armed with what Dr. Barnett says about MAD (in the course of a deservedly scathing critique of Robert S. McNamara), I went further into the Wikipedia article quoted above, and found this:

The doctrine [MAD] requires that neither side construct shelters on a massive scale. If one side constructed a similar system of shelters, it would violate the MAD doctrine and destabilize the situation, because it would not have to fear the consequences of a second strike. The same principle is invoked against missile defense.

In other words, there is a strict (and improbable) version of MAD that implies a fine balance of strategic-nuclear offenses and defenses. The purpose of this fine balance isn’t mutually assured deterrence; it is mutually assured destruction. Anything that changes the balance is thought to be dangerously destabilizing, thus inviting a preemptive strategic-nuclear attack by the party against which the fine balance has tipped.

This flies in the face of experience and logic. There was no such fine balance throughout the years of the Cold War. The U.S. and USSR had quantitatively and qualitatively different offensive and defensive strategic-nuclear forces. Despite that state of affairs, MAD (in my loose sense of the term) held together for decades. Nothing that the U.S. or USSR did during those decades upset the rough balance of forces. Not the construction of air-raid shelters. Not efforts to develop missile defenses, Not pronouncements about a U.S. strategy of attacking Soviet ballistic-missile submarines in their bastion. Not exercises aimed at demonstrating the ability to undertake such attacks. And so on, into the night.

None of the those things — predictably decried by hand-wringers (mainly appeasing leftists who begrudge defense spending) — was, and is, enough to upset the rough balance of forces that held, and holds, MAD in place. U.S. leaders, for example, could not know with enough certainty that an anti-missile defense system would thwart a retaliatory strike by the USSR, and thus enable the U.S. to launch an devastating first strike. (Nor have U.S. leaders ever been blood-thirsty enough to contemplate such a thing.)  The same kinds of uncertainties (if not lack of blood-thirstiness) have held Soviet and Russian leaders in check.

As I say here (using Russia to stand for the USSR, as well):

The main lesson of the Cold War and its sequel in the US-Russia relationship is that MAD works among major powers.

MAD works mainly because of ASSF – assuredly survivable strategic forces, or enough of them to retaliate (perhaps more than once). It was and is impossible, even with first strikes against all three legs of Russia’s strategic-nuclear triad, to nullify Russia’s strategic retaliatory capability. The same goes for the U.S. triad and retaliatory capability.

These truths have been and are understood by U.S. and Russian leaders. Were they not understood, MAD might have failed at any of the several stress points that arose in the past 70 years.

Mr. McNamara nevertheless hewed to the strict version of MAD. Why, and to what end? I call upon Dr. Barnett for the why:

What underlay McNamara’s thinking about assured destruction was complex. It was a combination of a myopic trust in systems analysis and cost-effectiveness based on an overweening belief in the primacy of technology in the conduct of warfare; a deficiency of knowledge about, a thoroughgoing disinterest in, and a total want of respect for Soviet strategic thought; and, most importantly, an absence of faith and confidence in the rightness of America’s cause and the ability of U.S. leaders to make correct, humane, moral judgments. This combination set the United States on a course for humiliation and political failure in Vietnam, and imposed on the world a false and deeply immoral understanding of strategic interactions among states….

… Mr. McNamara rationalized [assured destruction] initially by arguing publicly that the Soviet Leaders‘ have decided they have lost the quantitative race, and they are not seeking to engage us in that contest…. There is no indication that the Soviets are seeking to develop a strategic nuclear force as large as ours.” Earlier, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara claimed that parity in strategic weapons had already been attained by the Soviet Union, even though the actual balance of strategic weapons disproportionately favored the United States…..

… Later, assured destruction was said to be the controlling factor to prevent a spiraling out-of-control action-reaction strategic arms race. There was no need to continue to add offensive weapons to the U.S. arsenal so long as an assured assured-destruction capability was maintained.

In spite of such blatant contradiction, McNamara’s henchmen went on to argue that imbalances in the size of strategic arsenals was “destabilizing.” If Country A had appreciably more strategic weapons than Country B, then deterrence was unstable. There would be a temptation on the part of the stronger to launch a disarming strike against the weaker, especially in time of crisis. Furthermore, so long as large differences in inventories of strategic weapons existed, arms control would be impossible; for the weaker side would have no incentive to agree not to build up to equal the stronger, and the latter would have no incentive to reduce its superiority through negotiations. This led to Mr. McNamara’s welcoming the Soviet buildup in strategic weapons: as a consequence the strategic balance would be stabilized, any temptation by the United States to strike first would be scotched, and the foundation for arms control would be put in place.

To what end? I return to Dr. Barnett:

[T]o McNamara, MAD was a horrific bluff — indeed the most terrifying bluff ever issued. Given much of what McNamara said, then and since, there was no intention to carry out the threat posed by assured destruction. It was merely a device to limit the size of the U.S. offensive nuclear arsenal, promote arms control, and prevent the dedicated pursuit of strategic defenses.

As a veteran of the Pentagon during the McNamara regime, I concur wholeheartedly in Dr. Barnett’s judgment:

McNamara’s great, inexcusable moral blunder was to abandon strategic defenses and to lay MAD [mutually assured destruction] as the cornerstone of strategic stability. The damage that wrongheaded course has already caused is immeasurable, and the potential for even greater harm to the United States is truly frightening. At the time McNamara, as Secretary of Defense!, turned away from the key concept of defending U.S. citizens, the entire prospect of space-basing of defenses, for example, had hardly been conceived. Perhaps MAD was necessary as a stop-gap, temporary solution in the absence of defenses. To argue that strategic defenses can never work, can always be overcome, will fuel arms races, and will run contrary to arms control is to be absolutely wrong, and immoral on all counts.


Related posts:

The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Defense Spending: One More Time
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror
Preemptive War Revisited
Bellicosity or Bargaining Strategy?
It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World
The Folly of Pacifism (III)
MAD, Again
“MAD, Again”: A Footnote


Planning for the Last War

I am in the midst of an exchange with a former colleague. He is a retired political scientist who decades ago belonged to a small but hardy band analysts who questioned the conventional wisdom about Soviet naval strategy. It turns out that he and his comrades-in-arms were right, and the conventional wisdom was wrong. He worries, with good reason, that history might repeat itself, and is working on a paper to document the events of 40 years ago and the possibility that history is repeating itself.

I have no doubt that history is repeating itself. This is from a recent message from me to him:

It seems as if the Pentagon [of the 1970s] was planning to fight the last war (or two), just because that’s the way things are usually done. Fast forward to 2018: What war(s) is the Pentagon planning to fight now? I’m not au courant with the defense budget, but I believe that it’s considerably smaller (in constant dollars) than it was in the 1980s [after adjusting for the cost of America’s present wars]. Which means, rhetoric aside, that the Pentagon is actually planning to refight the wars of the past 28 years, with a side-helping of skirmishes of other kinds. In any event, it can’t be on the scale of the two-major/one-minor war strategy of the McNamara era, which (de facto) animated the Reagan buildup after the post-Vietnam let-down. The point of this ramble is to suggest that the U.S. is in a position (once again) to be “surprised” by the not-so-sudden emergence of an aggressive power or axis of them. You may not subscribe to this view, but if you do, some discussion of it in your paper would underline the essential point: The dire consequences of [the] persistent misreading of a potential enemy’s intentions and capabilities. It’s an old refrain, which begins (at least) with Pearl Harbor and extends through North Korea’s invasion of the South, the Tet Offensive (and some later reruns), 9/11, and the emergence of IS.

Related posts:
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Defense Spending: One More Time
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
Presidents and War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
Terrorism Isn’t an Accident
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues

A Grand Strategy for the United States

REVISED 11/22/10; UPDATED 04/06/14 (where indicated)

The title of this post is a play on Strategy for the  West (1954), by Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor. Slessor was, by some accounts, a principal author of nuclear deterrence. Aside from his role in the development of a strategy for keeping the USSR at bay, Slessor is perhaps best known for this observation:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. (Strategy for the West, p. 75)

In keeping with that observation, my purpose here is to outline the requirements for the ultimate social service that the government of the United States can provide: the defense of Americans and their interests, at home and abroad.

The government of the United States was created to serve limited purposes, among them to “provide for the common defence … and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The United States owes liberty to no one but its citizens, though the liberty of others may help to ensure the liberty of Americans.

A grand strategy that promotes the liberty of Americans cannot be complete unless all components of the federal government are aligned with it. What follows is a prescription for the “common defence” that is not restricted to the Department of Defense. The broader reach of this prescription becomes evident in the latter portions of this post.


Nuclear deterrence, as a strategy, was adequate for a particular place and time: to forestall Soviet aggression toward Europe in the 1950s. It was succeeded in the 1960s by the strategy of “flexible response,” that is, the deterrence or defeat of Soviet aggression in Europe with a combination of nuclear and “conventional” forces. The latter would be capable of waging a prolonged land-air-sea campaign against Soviet forces, while also dealing with threats to U.S. interests in other parts of the world.

A grand strategy, by contrast, anticipates an evolution of potential threats and points to a defense posture that is capable of dealing with their realization. In the context of World War II, for example, the defeat of Germany by Allied forces — beginning with victory in North Africa and the Atlantic, and culminating in the entrapment of German forces by Allied invasions from the west, south, and east — was a strategy. A grand Allied strategy, on the other hand, would have seen the possibility of Stalin’s post-war expansionism, and thwarted it by (a) excluding the USSR from the occupation of Germany and (b) maintaining large standing armies instead of rushing to demobilize. The failure of the Allies to adopt a grand strategy — despite Churchill’s premonitions about Stalin — can be ascribed to Roosevelt’s declining health, the  prevalence of “doves” (if not Soviet sympathizers) among his inner circle, and the rush to demobilize in the U.S. and Britain. Then, barely two months after the surrender of Germany, British voters turned Parliament upside-down, replacing Churchill’s Conservatives with Atlee’s Labourites. Atlee’s party

ran [and won] on promises to create full employment, a tax funded universal National Health Service, and a cradle-to-grave welfare state, with the campaign message ‘Let us face the future.’

In other words, the Great British Public (or a sizable portion of it) was eager to resume its ill-advised love affair with socialism.


Moving forward to the present, it is evident that the responsible officers of the United States have failed to articulate a grand strategy. Specifically, in a report issued earlier this year, the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel (a distinguished group of defense cognoscenti assembled at the behest of Congress) recommended the formation of a standing Independent Strategic Review Panel, which would (among other things) “provide to the Congress and the President its assessment of the strategic environment.” The National Security Council, in turn, would use that “assessment [to] develop a ‘grand strategy’ for the United States that would be formalized as the National Security Strategy.”

What now passes for a strategy is written in Barack Obama’s “National Security Strategy” of May 2010. Obama’s speech of August 31, 2010, about the end of combat operations in Iraq touches on many of the same points as his strategy statement. Regarding the Iraq speech, Kenneth Anderson, a student of defense affairs, says (in part):

Commenters have noted, some with puzzlement, as to why the domestic economy figured in this speech.  Seen through a domestic policy lens, it’s obvious — Americans, with upcoming elections, are worried about the domestic economy, and this foreign stuff, even when it is a major war, is merely a side-show and distraction from the domestic agenda that is, at bottom, both what American voters care about and what the Obama administration has always truly cared about, even if those two have sharply divergent views as to what the domestic policies should be, to judge by the polls.

Seen through a foreign policy lens, however, the answer is somewhat the same, but emphasizes a different point.  That point is that the Obama administration proposes that the United States should embark on an extended period of in-turned focus upon its domestic issues but that, seen from the standpoint of the rest of the world, friend and foe alike, it looks very much like America wants a good, long, global nap.  I’m a conservative critic of this whole idea; I don’t think that would work out very well for the United States, for our friends and allies, or really for anyone — including many of our enemies, active and passive — who rely on the US for the provision of certain basic public goods in both global security and the global economy.

But I would say that the way in which the President linked the foreign and domestic policies in last night’s speech — ambiguous, to be sure, but that, from this perspective, is part of the problem — is a modest indication of the Obama administration’s overall global strategic view that “multilateral engagement” is a rhetorical term for “American strategic withdrawal.”

It is clear (to me) that Obama is willing to take the risk that bad things won’t happen, and to paper over that risk with high-sounding hopes for diplomacy and “multinationalism”? Why is he willing to take that risk? So that he can push resources in the direction of his domestic agenda. Obama’s so-called strategy is nothing more than an excuse for the continuation of the American left’s ill-advised love affair with socialism.

In that regard, it is galling that secretary of defense Gates would lend himself to Obama’s purposes. But here he is, doing just that in a speech earlier this year:

  • The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered.  In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
  • The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets.  No other navy has more than three, and all of those navies belong to pur allies or friends.  Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
  • The U.S. has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines – again, more than the rest of the world combined.
  • Seventy-nine Aegis-equipped combatants carry roughly 8,000 vertical-launch missile cells.  In terms of total missile firepower, the U.S. arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
  • All told, the displacement of the U.S. battle fleet – a proxy for overall fleet capabilities – exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
  • And, at 202,000 strong, the Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind in the world and exceeds the size of most world armies.

As if certain numbers of ships, aircraft, missiles, displacement tons, and Marines can be thought of as “too many” without reference to potential and actual threats. As if those numbers should not be out of proportion to the numbers owned by prospective enemies. As if it were somehow wrong to possess a large Navy and Marine Corps, when the U.S. has far-flung interests to protect.

Mr. Gates would object that he is only trying to steer the Navy and Marine Corps away from their outmoded ways. That is the thrust of what he says later in the same speech:

Our Navy has to be designed for new challenges, new technologies, and new missions – because another one of history’s hard lessons is that, when it comes to military capabilities, those who fail to adapt often fail to survive.  In World War II, both the American and British navies were surprised by the speed with which naval airpower made battleships obsolete.  Because of two decades of testing and operations, however, both were well prepared to shift to carrier operations.  We have to consider whether a similar revolution at sea is underway today.

Potential adversaries are well aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage – which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race before World War I.

Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages – to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America’s primary means of projecting power:  our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.

We know other nations are working on asymmetric ways to thwart the reach and striking power of the U.S. battle fleet.  At the low end, Hezbollah, a non-state actor, used anti-ship missiles against the Israeli navy in 2006.  And Iran is combining ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, mines, and swarming speedboats in order to challenge our naval power in that region.

What will happen, of course, is that the “excess” forces will be pared, in sacrificial homage to deficit reduction. But it will be a long time — if ever — before the gaps are filled with more “relevant” forces. Even if Mr. Gates does not mean to help Obama achieve some kind of limited, unilateral disarmament, that is precisely the end that will be served by his facile and irrelevant comparisons.


When I say that a grand strategy “anticipates an evolution of threats and points to a defense posture that is capable of dealing with that evolution,” I do not mean that the nation’s security posture should be determined by a sequence of set-piece scenarios. These are easy enough to conjure — for the near future, at least — but they focus on known knowns. A grand strategy worth its name should yield a coherent defense posture that can accommodate unknown unknowns.

The current bureaucratic-political process, which eventuates in the passage of defense budgets by Congress, yields a defense posture that is neither coherent nor connected to a strategy, except by mere verbiage. I therefore prescribe an analytical-political process that moves from the development of a grand strategy to an open debate about the risks of failing to implement it:

1. Describe a complete defense-in-depth; that is, prepare an exhaustive outline of the ways in which the nation must be able to defend itself, even against threats that have not (and may not) materialize. The implausibility of a potential threat is no proof against its materialization.

2. Size the budget from which a complete defense-in-depth can be constructed. An “affordable” defense budget is not a figure picked out of the air by a president who is anxious to advance his domestic agenda. (By “defense budget,” I do not mean just the budget for the Department of Defense, but rather the budget for all military and civilian components of government that have a role to play in a complete defense-in-depth.) A failure to defend Americans and their interests carries a high price tag, in lives, limbs, and treasure. An “affordable” defense budget is one that is justified by the value of the lives, limbs, and treasure that it saves by deterring, thwarting, and defeating enemies. (I offer some benchmarks of “affordability” below.)

3. Test alternative defense postures against demanding and feasible scenarios, in various combinations. The main purpose of this step is to test the robustness of the “affordable” defense budget, that is, its ability to provide a complete defense-in-depth against a variety of threats, near-term and long-term. This step yields a baseline against which the effects of lower defense budgets can be compared.

4. Assess the effects of lower defense budgets, by testing the capabilities they afford against the baseline obtained in step 4.

5. Prepare a detailed multi-year defense program and describe the risks it entails, relative to a complete defense-in-depth.

6. Present the results of steps 1-5 to Congress and the public. Members of Congress with a “need to know” (e.g., members of the subcommittees for Department of Defense authorizations and appropriations) would have access to classified information. An unclassified version would be published and distributed via the internet.

6. The ensuing political debate — in the press, over the internet, and in Congress — would culminate in the adoption of a defense budget for the coming year and adjustments to the multi-year defense program.

7. Repeat the process every two years, but change the cast of characters involved in steps 1-4.

The rest of this post focuses on step 1.


The Essential Elements

A grand strategy should

  • be rooted in a conception of Americans’ interests (e.g., continued access to foreign oil  for as long as it remains an efficient source of energy);
  • take into account the present and likely future threats to those interests — threats both specific (e.g., Islamic terrorism) and generic (e.g., attacks on vital networks, such as transportation, energy generation and transmission, and telecommunications);
  • provide a template against which the adequacy of U.S. security programs defense forces can be assessed (e.g., adequate for conventional combat against organized armies but inadequate for damage control in the event of a cyber-attack on government computing networks);
  • point to specific, technologically feasible, program and budget recommendations for shoring up areas of weakness.

The Calculus of Global Engagement

It may be possible to devise and implement a grand strategy based on military disengagement from the wider world — one that focuses on homeland defense, rapid responses to emerging overseas threats, and nuclear retaliation. But disengagement is not the proper starting point.

Any strategy that cedes forward defenses and preemption can be viewed by an adversary as an invitation to seize (or be capable of seizing) critical masses of land, water, and space, to the grave disadvantage of Americans’ interests. Forward defenses and preemption — like them or not — can prove more effective and less costly than reactive defense postures.

Some enemies cannot and will not be deterred. They must be contained — and, when necessary — struck before they can strike or abet others with a penchant for anti-American violence.

The world is not our oyster, but it is the source of much that brings prosperity and enjoyment to Americans. Any administration that claims to value to well-being of Americans should be prepared to defend the overseas sources of goods and services enjoyed by Americans — and the air, sea, and space through which those goods and services must travel.

Enemies: Within and Without

America is more despised that loved, for reasons varying from resentment to envy to inculcated hatred. The particular reasons are less important than the fact — of which most Americans seem ignorant — that the downfall of America would be greeted in much of the world with glee. This is true even of peoples who owe their liberty to the force of American arms and their prosperity to trade with Americans.

I did not write “more feared than loved” because America is no longer feared. America would still be feared if, in the aftermath of 9/11, the forces of the United States had attacked terrorism and its state supporters relentlessly and decisively. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were too limited — in part because of the shrinkage of American forces in the preceding decade — and partly because Americans — led by a generation brought up on anti-war rhetoric — have lost whatever taste they once had for all-out, decisive warfare. Afghanistan and Iraq have been Korea and Vietnam all over again, complete with halfhearted leaders, second-guessing pundits, and backstabbing politicians.

Because America is both despised and no longer feared — and is unlikely to give the world a reason to fear it — its enemies are emboldened.

Many Europeans — especially so-called intellectuals — view Americans (collectively) as boors and bullies, whose values are inconsistent with “enlightened” Europeanism, where the state reigns supreme over the individual and peace reigns by dint of the sacrifices of Americans. It would, however, be a strategic mistake to abandon Europe to its own devices and to the ambitions of Russian imperialists,  UPDATE (04/06/14) which are (barely) repressed by the Russian leadership’s evident fear of NATO which are personified in Vladimir Putin (see this and this, for example).

A “European” view of America is shared by many Americans — especially so-called intellectuals, whose views have migrated to the mainstream of American political thought. They believe that enemies can be won over by diplomacy and gestures of friendship. They believe, in sum, that peace is a product of hope, not preparedness and the will to fight.

I make these points to emphasize another one: The search for a grand strategy should not and must not be diverted by the “strategy” of hope. That — as history proves time and again — is a strategy for retreat, if not defeat.


It is equally important to keep the question of “affordability” in its proper place. Members of the executive and legislative branches should first ask what must be done to assure, with a high degree of confidence, the defense of Americans and their interests. Only after having asked and answered that question should they consider how much it would cost to do the job. Then, and only then, should they consider spending less than the full amount, while assessing and acknowledging the risks of doing so.

A grand strategy — to be a real thing — must be more than a collection of words on paper. The true grand strategy will be whatever it is that can be accomplished by actual, well-trained human beings, equipped with reliable, state-of-the-art hardware and software, and backed by modern well-run installations, logistics, communications, and intelligence systems.

In the end, the “affordability” of a defense posture should be measured by the cost of failing to protect Americans and their interests, at home an abroad. (Cutting off oil is just as much an act of aggression as flying planes into the World Trade Center.)

“Affordability” can be measured by the costs of the Great Depression and World War II. The Great Depression was caused, in part, by an international trade war, triggered by protectionist impulses. Massive and successful attacks on telecommunications facilities, trade routes, and terminals could easily replicate the economic destruction wrought by the Great Depression. How costly was that destruction? In the United States, the Great Depression cost Americans about one-fourth of the GDP that they would otherwise have enjoyed during the years 1930-1940.

What happened next was even worse. It was necessary for the U.S. to enter World War II — Pearl Harbor or not — in order to prevent encirclement, impoverishment, and possibly enslavement by the Axis powers. But, had the U.S. (along with Britain and France) prepared sufficiently, the Axis powers might have been deterred. Even if they had not been deterred, the Allies would have won sooner and at a lower cost in lives and treasure. As it turned out, World War II consumed one-third of the GDP of the United States in the years 1942-1945, peaking at 43 percent in 1944.

In effect, the Great Depression continued through World War II and did not end until 1947, when defense spending dropped to 7.5 percent of GDP. And yet there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth nowadays because defense spending has recovered a bit from its suicidal, Clintonian, budget-balancing trick:

Derived from Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product, available here.

The current push to trim the defense budget is foolish on two counts. First, the huge deficits projected for the federal government arise mainly from commitments to continue and expand three major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (Obamacare represents an expansion of all three). Second, the defense budget should be geared to external threats, not to the federal government’s fiscal problems. Cutting the defense budget to fund profligate spending on “social services” is like preparing for a street brawl by spending money on a new suit instead of brass knuckles.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency in political-punditry circles to bemoan the amounts spent on defense. Anti-defense zealots get it into their heads that the government spends “too much” on defense — period. What they mean, of course, is that the government spends money to execute wars of which they disapprove, and to prepare for wars that they would rather not think about. There is also the fear — now that the looming bankruptcy of entitlement programs cannot be denied — that money will be taken from “social services” rather than defense. On that score, it is well to remember that “the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.”

Rather than take money from defense, our “leaders” should be thinking about how to spend more on defense. There is nothing more inviting to an aggressor than his intended victim’s lack of preparedness. As the man says, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” But if you choose to pay later, you will pay one hell of a higher price, if you are still alive to pay it.


A grand strategy, as I have suggested, is a defense-in-depth that extends across time. It should not be based on a particular scenario, or a particular set of them. It should be based on a catalog of feasible threats to Americans and their interests, as those threats may change with the evolution of technology. Which is not to say that a grand strategy should fixate on technological advances, for — as the events of 9/11, 3/11, and 7/7 (among many others) should remind us — there always will be much to fear from determined, resourceful, and fanatical enemies whose main weapon is their victims’ lack of preparedness and resolve. Moreover — given the possibility of recurrences of 9/11 on a much larger scale, and the ever-present threat of cyber-war — a grand strategy cannot be built on the assumption that there will be ample time in which to mobilize the resources of the United States.

I therefore submit that America’s posture vis-à-vis its actual and potential enemies must encompass the capabilities listed below. I am not equipped with the particular knowledge or expertise that would enable me to elaborate the points in detail. Accordingly, I restrict my commentary to arcane and off-beat aspects of a defense-in-depth.

1. Effective strategic and tactical intelligence, accompanied by effective counter-intelligence.

I have several thoughts on this aspect of a grand strategy:

  • Abolish the CIA’s analytical arm. Replace it with competing “red” teams, whose funding and eventual survival would depend on their accuracy in predicting developments that affect the security of the U.S.
  • Hire unsavory characters, as necessary, for analytical and operational work, but keep a close eye on them and “terminate” them at the first sign of treachery.
  • Monitor all international communications from sensors in space and overseas, under a legal grant of authority enacted by Congress. Everything else should be fair game, but only as authorized by “intelligence court” warrants under the scrutiny of a restricted number of executive officers and members of Congress.
  • Prosecute leakers and publishers of leaks to the fullest extent of the law, without fail and regardless of rank or influence. Establish a separate prosecutorial office, staffed by “untouchables,” for that purpose.

2. Secure, hardened, and redundant telecommunications, transportation, and energy networks.

There are lessons to be learned from the evolution of business communications:

  • Technology has eliminated, and will continue to eliminate, much of the need for business travel. This development is independent of the terrorist threat, though that threat may have accelerated an otherwise inevitable shift toward more productive means of business communication.
  • The broader point is that telecommunications, transportation, and energy networks will not retain their present configurations. Technological innovation can, and will, make them more efficient and — at the same time — less vulnerable. Government should be in the business of protecting the networks from the outside, but the design of the networks should evolve from the inside. Otherwise, the “tail” of security will wag the “dog” of efficiency.

As for energy:

  • Nuclear energy may or may not be more efficient than the alternatives, but it should be given a chance. If it really is “too risky,” why haven’t all existing plants been shut down?
  • Offshore drilling platforms and production facilities in “sacred” places like ANWR can be protected more readily than foreign fields. That is merely to point out the hypocrisy of the green crowd, which tends to oppose “blood for (foreign) oil” but also opposes the best substitute for it, which is the home-grown variety.
  • But I do not counsel government-dictated retreat from foreign oil; Americans are well served by market-based changes in energy supplies, and ill-served by tax-subsidized scams (e.g., ethanol). As long as foreign oil remains a competitive source of energy, the task of securing the energy network must include the protection of foreign fields and ports from terrorists and unfriendly regimes. The cost of that protection should not be assigned solely to the cost of obtaining foreign oil — contra libertarian isolationists — for the deterrent effect of a demonstrated willingness to defend Americans’ overseas interests is a plus for U.S. interests around the world.

Regarding terrorism, generally:

  • Although al Qaeda’s terroristic repertoire includes attacks on ground transportation and buildings, its favored way of terrorizing the U.S., beginning with 9/11, has involved the use and attempted destruction of commercial aircraft. This emphasis has, in turn, led U.S. officials to focus on the protection of scheduled passenger flights, with the result that the measures used to screen passengers have become so intrusive as to spark outrage in the U.S.
  • The terrorists have “won,” in the sense that they are spreading fear and imposing heavy costs on Americans. And there is more to come. (See, for example, “Al Qaeda affiliate threatens more small-scale bomb attacks,” The Washington Post, November 21, 2010.) At some point, before it is too late, the U.S. government must focus on the real threat, which is not the mass of American travelers but an overseas-based network of terrorists who share a religion (Islam) and a hatred of non-Islamic cultures.
  • In the meantime, other forms and nodes of transportation remain relatively unprotected. Low-cost threats against those forms and nodes will impose more costs on Americans. And then there are public buildings, shopping malls, energy production and transmission facilities, and water supplies.
  • A purely defensive posture will leave Americans hunkered down. It is time for a real war on terror, which requires far more than the more-or-less conventional operations on display in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the use of UAVs in targeted killing. Which leads to the observations under the next two headings.

3. Quick response (at home and abroad) to tactical intelligence via special operations units (including units equipped for cyber-war as well as shooting skirmishes).

I counsel an ounce (or more) of prevention:

  • Federal operations on U.S. soil, especially if they affect citizens and legal aliens, involve some tricky constitutional issues and real threats to liberty. But cunning enemies can exploit the demonstrated squeamishness of American governments, as we saw in the case of the “wall” between foreign intelligence and domestic operations that allowed the 9/11 attacks to proceed.
  • Accordingly, top priority ought to be given to the working out of protocols that enable intelligence (foreign and domestic)  to be collected and released to operational units — with proper authorization — in time for them to prepare and execute preventive action in the U.S.
  • Beyond that, there is preemptive action overseas…

4. The preemptive use of technological trickery (e.g., cyber-attacks), targeted killing, small-scale hit-and-run operations, and large-scale sea, land, and aerospace operations.

I offer three ideas:

  • Establish competing “dirty tricks” shops to develop cyber-war tools (e.g., Stuxnet), and enable the command authority to use the tools to disrupt the development of offensive capabilities by hostile regimes.
  • Enable lightning strikes overseas by maintaining various kinds of “presence,” ranging from carrier battle groups to special-operations units. “Presence” has the added benefit of deterring overtly hostile acts.
  • Wars are not won by air power alone. UAV strikes would be much more effective if complemented by the occasional hit-and-run, take-no-prisoners attack on known terrorist locations. If collateral damage, host-nation protests, and bad publicity bother you, you shouldn’t be in the business of defending Americans and their interests, you should be in the State Department or on Madison Avenue.

5. A large “standing army,” with a broad range of nuclear and conventional forces that are fully manned and trained, well-maintained and supplied, and technologically advanced.

I offer two words — competition and duplication:

  • Much verbiage has been emitted over the years about the supposedly deleterious effects of inter-service competition and the duplication of certain types of forces. A time-honored example is the insistence of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps (and the Army, to some extent) on maintaining their own (somewhat) duplicative) and (undoubtedly) competitive air forces.
  • Whether this so-called competition and duplication is actually detrimental to the nation’s defense posture is another matter. I have never seen a good case made that the money would have been better spent in other ways. (Yes, the pundits often have their favored ways, but don’t we all?)  The real problem seems to be  a certain lack of neatness. Methinks the critics of duplication and competition suffer a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder; they want the armed forces of the country to fit into neat, non-overlapping, perfectly balanced organizational boxes. Those critics should worry, instead, about the overall effectiveness of those forces vis-à-vis a broad range of potential threats.
  • There is a way to obtain more bang for the buck; it is called competition. For the past 40 years, each of the military departments has been given a set of multi-year budget constraints, within which the department must could construct and propose its multi-year program. It would be a healthy, invigorating, and informative exercise to ask each of the departments (and other major players in the defense arena) to offer competing multi-year programs for the entire defense effort, not just their slice of it. These would be considered and evaluated in the course of the new defense planning and budgeting process, described earlier.

In general, any serious effort to devise a defense-in-depth should assume that all present and prospective defense programs are candidates for modification or cancellation. Sunk costs are sunk; plans are not promises.


Again, a grand strategy is not mere words. It is what the forces, systems, procedures, and people of the defense establishment (broadly conceived) are able to do, given the resources at hand or in train, under the direction of a command authority that (one hopes) is far-seeing, imaginative, flexible, and — above all — determined.

The United States will not have an enduring, consistent, and effective grand strategy unless two things happen:

  • American voters consistently elect members of Congress and presidents who are committed to peace, prosperity, and liberty at home through swift, sure justice and military preparedness.
  • That condition will obtain only if there is a successful, bloodless revolution which ends the dominant role of the “progressive, one-world, hope-over-experience” crowd in the nation’s schools, universities, news outlets, and government bureaus. Their way is peace at any price but the price of preparedness. Their way is oppression at home (disguised as do-goodism) and capitulation abroad.

It is the prospect of realizing the second condition — and through it, the first — that gives me somewhat justified hope for the future of the nation.

In the alternative, there is this, this, and this.

Related posts: War and Peace