Problems of Predominance: Implications of the U.S. military advantage

John Steinbruner
John Steinbruner Brookings Institution — U.S. and Russian biological weapons programs and scientific collaboration on arms control to date

September 1, 1996

Between 1950 and 1990 in prosecuting its part of the cold war, the United States spent a total of $12.4 trillion in 1996 dollars developing and operating its military establishment—an average of $303 billion a year.

The effort was motivated by fear of deliberate aggression and was focused on two primary missions: defense of allies in Europe and Asia against invasion of their territory and deterrent retaliation against nuclear weapons bombardment wherever it might occur. Since it was believed that these forms of attack might happen with very little warning, U.S. forces were designed to fight large battles on short notice.

With the dissolution of the opposing alliance that inspired this effort, the United States has reduced its active forces and its annual defense budget by about 30 percent since 1990. But it has continued to focus on the traditional missions of conventional defense and nuclear deterrence and has continued to prepare for rapid reaction to surprise attack. And despite the reductions, the capability to perform these missions has substantially increased. Technical improvements have improved the effectiveness of the force units that have been retained, and the potential opponents now imaginedþIraq, Iran, and North Koreaþcannot pose the magnitude of threat once attributed to the Soviet Union. As a result the United States has emerged from the Cold War with a degree of military superiority that is certainly unusual and arguably unprecedented.

The basis for this superiority is an underlying process of investment that no other country has even remotely matched. As summarized in table 1, China and Russia maintain military establishments that are nominally larger in terms of manpower, but their rates of investment in basic items of military equipment are small fractions of the amounts that support U.S. forces. And the qualitative story is just as stark. The United States has applied advanced information technology and has developed logistical support to a unique extent. Its forces can bring firepower to bear in larger amounts, with greater speed, greater precision, and over longer distances than any of its potential opponents. In fact, no other military establishment is within a decade of attaining a comparable capability, and none as yet is even attempting to do so.

For the citizens of the United States and those of allied countries, this appears to be a comfortable situation and has been broadly popular. Virtually all Americans believe in a strong national defense, and believe as well that our own intentions are benign. Few of us imagine that our superiority would be a valid problem for anyone else. For those who live outside the U.S. alliance relationships, however, and who perceive a risk of serious political disagreement, American military power is inherently intimidating. Their potential reactions give us reason for concern.

Even for the large societies in questionþRussia and Chinaþit would not be feasible to match the American standard of military development in less than two decades, and a formal alliance between them would not provide an interim solution. It would provoke a sense of confrontation and further stimulate American military investment without actually balancing either the immediate or the potential capabilities of the U.S. alliance system. For Iraq, Iran, and North Korea there is no realistic prospect of acquiring an equitable balance at any foreseeable time. All these countries have an incentive, therefore, to develop means to negate the sophisticated military capabilities they cannot match. Nuclear weapons are the most effective option in that regard. Just a few of them would be sufficient to wreck a conventional force operation of the sort that the United States mounted in the Persian Gulf War. Since Russia and China can make provisions for such a contingency without any major visible change in their force posture and hence without risking immediate provocation, that can be expected to be their principal reaction to the superior potential of U.S. conventional forces. For the others, however, nuclear weapons are not currently available and effort to acquire them have already and will continue to provoke active resistance. To the extent that they feel categorically excluded and immediately threatened, as Iraq and Iran both certainly do, their reactions are likely to involve preparations for clandestine sabotage of U.S. forces and deterrent retaliation against the United States itself. Systematic pursuit of offsetting strategies of this sort intersects the realm of terrorism and could seriously aggravate that already serious problem.

In general if the overwhelming firepower of the United States and its allies effectively precludes massive frontal assault, it cannot prevent and may actually stimulate smaller-scale forms of violence that could be extremely disruptive to globally dispersed military operations and to an increasingly integrated international economy. Traditional military operations of the sort the United States has so elaborately prepared, moreover, are poorly suited to deal with the type of violence that has been most frequently encountered in recent yearsþthat which emerges from the internal disintegration of fractured political systems rather than from a calculus of strategic aggression. Both the desirability and the relevance of traditional military superiority are open to question in the new situation. However proud we may be of our historical accomplishments and however devoted to preserving them, some sharp questions will have to be posed as we evolve our national defense effort.

Troublesome Legacies

Perhaps the most significant question concerns the legacy of rapid reaction to a hypothetical surprise attack. The security logic of the Cold War focused heavily on the possibility of a disarming nuclear attack effective enough to preclude retaliation, and extensive measures were undertaken to protect deployed nuclear weapons from preemptive destruction. Absolute protection of the overall command system necessary to control nuclear forces was extremely difficult to accomplish, however, in terms of direct physical protection. As a means of assuring that retaliation could be undertaken under the worst of circumstances and hence that deterrence could be preserved, the opposing nuclear weapons establishments rigged themselves to disseminate authorization for retaliation immediately upon receiving indication that an attack was under way. The result was an operational posture whereby U.S. and Soviet forces were primed to commit themselves to full-scale retaliation within 20 minutes to beat the intercontinental fight time of a ballistic missile. Despite the declared ending of the Cold War, U.S. and Russian forces are still configured that way. And despite the drastic reduction in nuclear weapons deployments they have mutually agreed upon, the scale of retaliation that each has prepared to undertake would be virtually as lethal to the other society as it would have been during the Cold War.

That is not an inherently safe situation, particularly not for the Russians. It is difficult to preserve authoritative control over the use of nuclear weapons while also preparing for rapid retaliation, and it requires extensive investment and operational effort to minimize the conflict between these purposes. As reflected in table 1, however, investment resources are extremely scarce for the Russian military. Although their forces are being financed at a small fraction of the U.S. standard, they must somehow preserve basic deterrent capability and adequate conventional defense of their larger and more exposed national territory. If the United States were to launch a surprise attack on Russian nuclear forces, far fewer Russian weapons would survive to retaliate than the United States could count on under the reverse circumstanceþa fact that surely makes conservative Russian military planners very uneasy, however implausible one might assume an American surprise attack to be. That imbalance is embedded, moreover, in a larger context of disadvantage. The Russian military could not effectively defend itself against the conventional tactical air assault that NATO members could mount on rather short notice if they chose to do so. Nor could it hold Siberia against a ground incursion from China. Its expressed inclination is to rely on nuclear weapons to cover these traditional security requirements, and the implication is that it would continue to rely on rapid reaction to assure availability of the nuclear weapons.

However well Russian military planners might handle these pressures, the overall security configuration that emerges from their effort to perform traditional military missions with the resources at their disposal cannot possibly achieve the highest standards of operational safety. In assuring the capacity for retaliation from a position of inherent disadvantage, they will unavoidably set the protections they maintain against accidents, misjudgments, or treasonous intent in handling nuclear weapons at a lower level than they could otherwise achieve. If it is admitted in the aftermath of the Cold War that massive aggression is not the primary problem, then it seems to follow that imposing these choices on the Russian military establishment is not the desirable answer.

Nor does it appear to be wise to drive China into a corresponding set of pressures. Chinaþs military development is currently at an earlier stage than Russiaþs and has not acquired a commitment to rapid reaction. It is evident, however, that China is beginning to upgrade its military establishment, and the longer-term pattern of development will be set by policies the current leadership puts in place. If the logic of international security remains implicitly confrontational, as it now is, the Chinese will adapt to it and will predictably gravitate to residual reliance on nuclear weapons as the Russians have.

Alternative Arrangements

Because the United States possesses the predominant military establishment, our security policies do more than any other countryþs to set the basic conditions of international security. It is very much in our interest to use this influence, while it is near its peak, to work out a regulated pattern of military deployments that is inherently safer in operational terms and that discourages the offsetting strategies that are akin to terrorism. The basic means of doing this is to establish reassurance as the central objective and to configure operational forces in a manner designed to preclude surprise attack rather than to enable rapid reaction. If general standards of this sort could be established, there would be an additional benefit of lower cost. A substantial portion of current defense spending is devoted to providing the ready forces required to undertake large engagements on short notice.

Nuclear force operations would be the most important focus of this policy and the aspect of most drastic change. Deployment levels would be reduced in numbers to perhaps half or less of the current agreed ceiling (3,500 warheads) and, even more important, active alert procedures would be terminated. Residual forces would be held under common standards of accounting and physical security that would provide reliable reassurance that none of the warheads was available for immediate use and that a reasonable period of warning would occur if any were to be prepared for immediate use. It is technically demanding but inherently feasible to meet these conditions. If they were achieved, the underlying deterrent effect of nuclear weapons would be preserved essentially intact in that the capacity for annihilating retaliation would be retained, but the risk of an accident, a criminal diversion, or an inadvertently triggered engagement would be significantly reduced.

A transformation of the nuclear weapons posture would undoubtedly have to be accompanied, however, by corresponding reductions and rules of engagement for conventional forces. Although smaller and operationally more restricted nuclear forces would still be able to offset a conventional force disadvantage, the underlying principle of reassurance would require some direct mitigation of that problem. That could be achieved by setting appropriate ceilings on the overall number of conventional force units deployed and on their concentration at any one location. The successful offensive use of conventional forces generally requires concentration at the point of attack. If intimidating force concentrations were not allowed and if conventional force locations were continuously revealed, then the danger of surprise attack and the burden of national defense would be substantially reduced. The international burden of maintaining collective security guarantees would also be reduced. As revealed in the Persian Gulf War, it requires a substantial effort to reverse successful aggression even if the forces undertaking that effort have a decisive advantage. It is a great deal more efficient to stop an attack before it starts, and that basically requires that rules of concentration be defined and enforced.

The process of explicit accommodation required to establish these rules does admittedly involve a difficult evolution of prevailing attitudes. At the end of historyþs most violent century there are residual political antagonisms and instincts for confrontation that would have to be subordinated to the more refined principle of reassurance. But some powerful incentives encourage the effort. None of the major military establishments is likely to be sustained at current levels. China and Russia will have to reduce their forces substantially if they are to have any realistic hope of upgrading their quality to the standards that the United States sets. The United States itself is underfinancing its current forces by some $70 billion over the five-year planning period and is facing severe fiscal pressures thereafter. These are the principal protagonists whose security relationships have yet to be brought under a regime of systematic reassurance, and all three are driven in that direction by mutual interest in greater operational safety, greater economic efficiently, and greater protection against the dangerous process of weapons proliferation. There is no looming contest over territory or national prerogative sufficiently serious to preclude accommodation. It could happen. With a dedicated effort by the United States, as the stronger party, it probably would.

An outcome can be plausibly imagined a decade hence in which U.S. forces have been reduced to a level that could be indefinitely sustained with an annual defense budget of $175 billion in 1996 dollars, some 25 percent below what it would require to continue current forces. By explicit agreement Russia and China would have reduced their military personnel to less than half their current levels but would have upgraded their level of investment to about 40 percent of the U.S. standard. Nuclear force operations would have been transformed to the inherently safer pattern, and rules of conventional force operation would be in place to complement agreed ceilings on their size. That arrangement in conjunction with the current U.S. alliance system would provide basic deterrence and territorial defense with less risk and lower cost for all the participating members and would enable them to react to a regional assault by a rogue state just as decisively as they now can. It is a significantly better deal.


At the moment most Americans would categorically dismiss this more accommodating international security arrangement on grounds that Russia and China would not agree to it or would not sincerely comply if they did agree. The practical fact, however, is that Russia and China have not been given the opportunity to agree or to comply. The United States has articulated tentative polices of engagement with both countries, but these policies have not been developed to the point that they present a genuinely equitable collaborative security arrangement. The United States is still explicitly hedging against a return to belligerent confrontation and is thereby imposing on Russia and China the requirement to hedge in return.

Eventually this prevailing attitude will have to be seriously reconsidered. The degree of advantage we currently enjoy in performing the Cold War missions might well be sustained for quite some time, but its side effects promise to outweigh its benefits. No country is in fact preparing for the massive assaults that inspired our current configuration of forces. Several are maneuvering to fend off intimidation in a manner that can be generally dangerous. Our current security posture does not correspond to our actual interest or our apparent opportunity well enough to survive indefinitely. We need to think a good bit more about what the end of the Cold War actually means.