REVISED 02/20/19 (SEE ADDENDUM)
I have in earlier posts (here, here, here, and here) discussed mutually assured deterrence. Some of the posts were inspired by correspondence with a former colleague with expert knowledge of Soviet naval forces and strategy. This post, which derives from recent exchanges with my correspondent, drills deeper into the “bastion strategy”, which was adopted by the Soviet government and has been retained by the Russian government.
The bastion strategy is the policy of stationing ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) in the Sea of Okhotsk and Barents Sea, where they can be defended by air and naval forces. The purpose of the strategy is to maintain a strategic-nuclear reserve consisting of sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as “ultimate guarantors” of the Soviet/Russian state.
I recently posed this question to my correspondent:
I have never been clear about what it means for Soviet/Russian SLBMs to be the “ultimate guarantors” of the state. Does it mean that the SLBMs are held in reserve until it is known that the enemy has depleted his entire strategic-nuclear reserve, so that (despite the vast damage to the USSR/Russia) the nation is assured of survival because there are still SLBMs to deter conquest by what is left of the enemy’s conventional and tactical nuclear forces? To put it another way, it seems that Soviet/Russian leaders were and are willing to countenance vast devastation to their homeland for the sake of maintaining its sovereignty. (The Great Patriotic War with nukes and many times the number of casualties.) More cynically, Soviet/Russian leaders were and are willing to countenance vast devastation to their homeland for the sake of the survival of a functional state apparatus (i.e., most of top leadership and an effective if diminished bureaucracy).
My correspondent replied:
A strategic-nuclear reserve … makes sense only if you think you can fight and win a meaningful victory in a nuclear war in the first place. The Soviets apparently believed that they could for a long time. But then came the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the Soviets learned that even small amounts of nuclear radiation could make a large swath of land uninhabitable. This realization was said to have shocked the military leadership and undermined support for the military among the civilian elite. Some say Chernobyl contributed to the growing current of dissatisfaction that brought down the USSR as a whole.
Today, it is obviously senseless to build a reserve of SSBNs/SLBMs if they are to serve a guarantors of a state that you know will be uninhabitable at the time their function is called into play. But the Russians have continued to build them and to defend them in bastions.
But whether the Russians are crazy to ignore this catastrophic contradiction shouldn’t affect U.S. policy: Do not seek to “deny the bastions.” It’s an astonishingly bad idea.
Did it really take the Chernobyl disaster to bring enlightenment to Soviet leaders? Haven’t Russian leaders been blessed with the same enlightenment, given the relative weakness of Russian forces vis-a-vis those of the USSR? Assuming that Russian leaders are enlightened about the futility of holding a reserve of SSBNs, why does my correspondent (among others) believe that it is dangerous for the United States to threaten the reserve by peacetime pronouncements that a mission of the U.S. Navy is to conduct antisubmarine warfare operations (strategic ASW) against Russia’s SSBNs?
Soviet leaders must known for a long time before the Chernobyl disaster that a nuclear exchange involving more than few weapons would result in vast destruction, radiation sickness, genetic anomalies, and the poisoning of the land? Further, it was known that those effects (aside from destruction) would spread far from the blast site. There was (at a minimum) the evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the measurements that must have been made of the effects of above-ground nuclear tests, and theoretical estimates based on the known effects and the laws of physics.
If Soviet leaders understood all of that, what was the point of holding SSBNs in reserve and trying to secure that reserve by adopting the bastion strategy? Was it just to make Soviet leaders feel good, knowing (or believing or hoping) that in the event of a strategic-nuclear war with the U.S. there might be a piece of Soviet military might still standing amid the rubble?
A grim possibility is that Soviet leaders hoped that a strategic-nuclear exchange with the U.S. would end in a standoff. Both homelands would have been devastated, but Soviet leaders (or what was left of them) would still possess a “trump card” — a deterrent against U.S. leaders’ use of the remainder of U.S. strategic forces. Thus the standoff. The result of the standoff would have been the survival of a skeleton crew of the Soviet state apparatus. But that is quite a different thing than the survival of the Soviet state — if by state is meant a mostly intact USSR under the control of a mostly intact state apparatus.
A less cynical view is that Soviet leaders (like U.S. leaders) couldn’t countenance a strategic-nuclear exchange and the resulting devastation. Moves to strengthen and harden strategic-nuclear forces, and to possess the means with which to defend against them and attack them, had one essential purpose, regardless of the ostensible purpose of each move. That essential purpose was deterrence of a strategic-nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR. Neither side wanted the other side to become confident about its ability to “win” by somehow devising a decisive weapon or strategy.
I see the peacetime actions of the U.S. — including anti-bastion pronouncements and exercises — in that light, and not as destabilizing threats. There is an existence proof of my thesis: Despite a few close calls, nuclear stability has persisted between the U.S. and USSR/Russia for several decades.
Given all of this, I conclude that the experience of Chernobyl served as a face-saving excuse for the tacit admission by Soviet leaders that the bastion strategy was (and still is) bankrupt. Mutually assured deterrence is what matters. It remains intact as long as neither side, for an unfathomable reason, unleashes a strategic-nuclear strike on the other side. It is even possible that the targeted power will not answer in kind, preferring to limit the destruction of its homeland to that which has already occurred.
Despite such considerations, my correspondent remains adamant that the U.S. should publicly renounce strategic ASW, to preclude the risk that Russian leaders will preemptively launch SLBMs in the event of armed conflict between the U.S. and Russia? He maintains that a strategic-ASW operation would have been risky but justified during the Cold War when, presumably, Soviet forces would have been winning on the ground. But nowadays, when Russia is relatively weak, a strategic-ASW campaign is riskier and unjustified.
In my view, there is no essential difference between the two situations. Here’s my analysis of the Cold-War scenario:
1. The Soviets are winning on the ground in Europe.
2. The U.S. launches a strategic-ASW operation, in that hope that the possible loss of SSBNs will force the Soviets to accept something less than victory on the ground (perhaps a rollback to the status quo ante).
3. The Soviets consider a preemptive launch of their SLBMs against U.S. cities, but that would result in massive nuclear retaliation against the USSR.
4. The Soviets therefore do not launch SLBMs (or any other strategic-nuclear forces), but do continue to move ahead on the ground because they understand that …
5. The U.S. won’t preemptively launch strategic-nuclear forces in response to the continued Soviet advance because to do so would invite retaliation from the Soviets (but not by Soviet SLBMs). This would cause vast devastation to the US, which is not a price that US leaders would (then or now) pay to rescue Western Europe from the Soviets (or Russians).
6. The Soviets therefore continue their ground offensive and do not launch SLBMs.
In sum, there would have been mutually assured deterrence.
How does the scenario play out today?
1. There is a ground war in Europe (I won’t speculate about its origin), which presumably isn’t going well for the Russians.
2. The U.S. launches a strategic-ASW operation in the hope that the threat to the Russians’ SLBMs will tie up forces that could be used against NATO sea lines of communication (SLOCs). (“Could” because there is good evidence that Russia doesn’t contemplate an anti-SLOC campaign.)
3. The Russians consider a preemptive launch of their SLBMs against U.S. cities, but that would result in massive nuclear retaliation against Russia.
4. The Russians therefore do not launch SLBMs (or any other strategic-nuclear forces).
5. Faced with the prospect of a loss on the ground, and the loss of at least some SLBMs, the Russians sue for peace and do not launch SLBMs.
Mutually assured deterrence rides again.
My correspondent pins his fears on the persistence of the bastion strategy, which implies (to him) the crucial importance (to the Russians) of preserving the SSBN reserve. But the persistence of the bastion strategy is attributable to bureaucratic inertia. It is a built-in feature of governments everywhere. It must be a central feature of the Russian government, which is a direct descendant of the rigid and oppressive bureaucracy that ruled the USSR for 70 years.
The notion of a ground war in Europe is a silly premise on which to conjure a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. Not only is it unlikely that Russia would attack Western Europe (WE), but even if it did the U.S. has no vital interest in rescuing WE. The affinity between WE and the U.S. has all but completely evaporated since the demise of the USSR; the lack of affinity has simply become more obvious in the Trump era. NATO’s continued existence is mainly a product of bureaucratic inertia. There might be particular countries (e.g., Poland) that are worth defending, but I wouldn’t want the U.S. government to defend France or Germany. Those countries can well afford to defend themselves, and have been free-riding on U.S. taxpayers for 70 years.