Strategy in The Missile Age
Yogesh Joshi ·       

How have nuclear weapons changed international politics? After more than sixty years of the atomic weapon being with us, this question may appear redundant. Nuclear weapons deter war between nuclear weapon states. This is a positive outcome of the Cold War according to the nuclear optimists.  When historian John Lewis Gaddis called the Cold War period as the ‘long peace’, he was indeed reflecting on the absence of major wars between the great powers in the second half of the 20th century. Even Kenneth Waltz’s  proposition that “more (nuclear weapons) are better” was a post-facto analysis of the uneasy calm which distinguishes power politics in the nuclear age. However, a post-facto analysis of the role of the nuclear revolution on international politics is definitely easier than studying this change when the technological revolution was still unfolding in the initial years of the Cold War.  The first 30 years of the Cold War period was one of atomic flux, and  lacked any conclusive evidence. The uncertainty generated by other  technological changes  makes this enquiry harder.

This contextualization which confronts the study of changing technological systems and their impact on international politics must be appreciated before one goes on to read Bernard Brodie’s masterpiece: Strategy in the Missile age. The critical question for Brodie is to understand the continuous change in the nature of Strategy which modern technology has brought about and to put it in the age of missiles. However, before that,it is important to underline what Bernard Brodie meant by Strategy. 

Brodie is a devout Calusewitzian. Politics before victory in war is something which is consistently maintained in his narrative. This is the fundamental principle guiding his quest to understand strategic thought as it evolved during the technological revolution in the 19th and the 20th centuries. In fact, Brodie provides a history of  strategic thought in the 19th and 20th centuries in the first part of this book-- the Origins of Air Strategy,

For Clausewitz, the theory of war and practice of war were distinct. While one could conceive of a total war being possible theoretically, in practice war was always subsumed by the objectives that the war seeks to achieve. In Brodie’s words, “In war, objectives always trump action.” However, this dictum was distorted by a period of romanticism in military thought which subsumed strategy under military needs. This romanticism, which is associated with Ferdinand Foch, brought into existence the “Cult of the Offensive”, a much derided expression in the light of the misgivings of those who fought the First World War. “Romanticism exalts strong action over negotiations, boldness over caution, and feelings over reflection,” says Brodie. By exalting qualities like the will to fight, leadership, unity of doctrine and morale, the romantic in Foch seriously underestimated the doom spelt by the technological revolution ( in the form of the machine gun).For Brodie, having being caught up in the strategy which exalted the offensive and sought only total victory, the impasse which WWI witnessed was revealing.  This was most evident in the failure of the von Schliffen plan. For Brodie, the failure to bring in the political element showed that the west was not capitalizing on the  German defeat for negotiating a lasting peace with them. This resulted from a doctrine that could not think beyond total victory. The death and destruction of WW I did not the result from the technological changes in the  early 20th century but the failure to adapt strategy suitably.

If the machine gun could wreak the havoc which a deficient strategy can bring to mankind, what could be the ramifications of an ill-conceived strategy in the Atomic age? This question preoccupies Brodie. Moreover, one must realize that the cult of the offensive and preoccupation with total victory still continued after the First World War.  This was possible because of the development of air power as an independent force and the reliance on strategic bombing as a tool for achieving victory during WW II. The Italian strategist Douhet’s role in carving out this niche for strategic bombing was critical in the interwar period. However, the role played by strategic bombing in WW II was downplayed by two important factors. First, the firepower which the Air Force could project was severely limited. Second, ground warfare, as Douhet had imagined after  WWI, did not recede into a purely defensive role. In WW II, ground warfare was very much in vogue as the primary means of aggression. 

The coming of the atomic revolution coincided with the removal of inhibitions on strategic bombing during the Second Great War. With the coming of the Hydrogen bomb, concerns regarding fission weapons and the scarce availability of fissile materials, were removed. It also brought with itself enormous firepower.  This massive change in technology favored strategic bombing.  The suddenness of the catastrophe, which atomic weapons predicated and  symbolized by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eliminated any capacity for resistance by the adversary.  Strategic bombing suddenly became decisive. Moreover, as the Cold War took shape with the initial difficulties of strategic bombers getting through the enemy defenses began disappearing. With the launch of the Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957, the first artificial satellite in space, the emerging scenario was clear. Missiles had finally provided humankind with the most aggressive weapon in history.  In a sense, the atomic arsenals of the missile age were spurred again by  early 20th century military romanticism. This time, the Air Force was its chief proponent.

The idea of preventive wars was a result of this atomic romanticism. The Soviet Union was concerned about debilitating strikes on its nuclear capabilities when the US had a relative advantage in the field. However, there was a much fatalistic thought in the belief that total wars in the nuclear age were inevitable. However, the US was unable to use its advantage in the initial years of the atomic race. Brodie gives several reasons for this. First, it was always hard for the US and the believers of total war to estimate its inevitability. If this probability was low, why risk a catastrophe? However, this issue needs to be urged in the light of Brodie’s concept of deterrence. According to him, “Deterrence does not depend on superiority,” but the estimation whether the attacking party can achieve politically meaningful objectives from its first strike. Even slight doubt about this fundamental premise can achieve meaningful deterrence for an otherwise less capable state. Moreover, “maximum capable deterrence” was an expression without meaning because deterrence follows the Law of Diminishing Returns. In the age of Hydrogen bombs and Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, striking targets many times over does not lead to any more damage than would have been possible from a single strike. For Brodie, deterrence lay not in numbers, but assurance of retaliation. Numbers were a tool for those who wanted a win-the-war strategy, not believers in deterrence.

However, it is interesting that a scholar, who is,  the doyen of strategic thinkers in the atomic age could reflect so deeply on the domestic and normative politics of nuclear weapons. He makes conspicuous use of both these factors as generating inhibitions for the US in accepting a preventive war strategy. On the influence of morals on policy he writes, “ Moral values are bound to be a part, and perhaps a major part, of that total complex of values which give directions and dynamism to our national policies. Without values and value judgments there simply can be no policies.” Similarly, in domestic politics, Brodie brings out the most characteristic feature of states. The legitimacy of the state comes from its citizenry and it is the need for this legitimacy which leads to careful maneuvering by states when it comes to nuclear politics. For him, the domestic compulsions of the Soviet Union would inevitably pressurize it to synchronize its nuclear policies with the US, irrespective of sharp ideological differences.  Seen in this light, Mao Tsetung’s assertion of the Chinese people’s capacity of absorbing nuclear attacks by the US appears to be nothing more than rhetoric.

Another manifestation of this atomic aggression lay in the concept of pre-emptive strikes and the doctrine of massive retaliation. His problem with pre-emptive strikes was that one can never have full-proof evidence that the adversary is indeed planning of a first strike. If that be so, a natural restraint would automatically inform the decision maker.  However, he had more fundamental problems with the doctrine of Massive Retaliation. The “embarrassing availability of fire power” made available by the atomic arsenals had created a credibility gap where clear space was available between the threat of a nuclear holocaust and a silent retreat from local confrontation. In other words, would the USA endanger US citizens for the sake of a country in free Europe or other peripheral areas of the world?

However, one thought which is most reflective of his foresight was Brodie’s conceptualization of defense in the era of atomic weapons and ICBMs. Brodie does not discount the advantage of striking first, provided one has a clear advantage in the initial attack.   This reflects his reading of Clausewitz, who believed that an all-out war was theoretically possible. Brodie says, “So long as there is a great advantage in striking first, and under existing conditions the advantage would be tremendous, we must realize that even rational men could start a total war, and irrational ones would need no such justification.” However, the rapid technological breakthrough in the development of hydrogen bombs and missiles were rapidly closing all doors for carrying out a successful first strike. What one could ensure in the missile age was retaliation, not decapitation. However, for Brodie, it was important to realize the crucial role which defense could play in assuring deterrence. He supported both active and passive defense. The former corresponds to measures which could help mitigate the destruction capabilities of the enemy by striking the enemy while he attacks. This is similar to the modern concepts of Ballistic Missile Defense. However, for the same reasons which modern skeptics of BMD espouse, he does not think that active defenses could achieve much in terms of securing retaliatory capacity for the US. Therefore, he also believe in passive defense, which is  the ability to absorb a first strike and still retain sufficient retaliatory capability to ensure that the deterrent equation remains stable. This can be achieved by the dispersion of forces, and hardening of silos and bunkers sheltering the strategic air force. This would achieve deterrence at a relatively low cost as compared to developing active defense systems, a thought which also corresponds with the destabilizing effects produced by BMD systems in contemporary strategic equations.

The advent of nuclear weapons interrogated the tactics of employing weapons to win battles into strategies for achieving political objectives. In the nuclear age, tactics and strategy cannot be separated. One cannot resist quoting him again. “Today we are talking not about machine guns and barbed wire but about a weapon that may in a single unit destroy all of Manhattan and leave some of it a water-filled crater. We may as well admit that the strictly tactical problem of destroying Manhattan is already absurdly easy, and time promises to make it no less easy. That is only to say that its protection, if it can be protected, is henceforth a strategic problem rather than a tactical one.” In other words, one can say “tactics is dead, long live the tactics.”

The dawn of the missile age has raised categorical imperatives, to use a phrase used by Immanuel Kant. Defining strategy and conceptualizing victory in the nuclear age are some of the most important of these imperatives.  After more than fifty years of his writing this book, his words remain pertinent. The current state of India’s nuclear posture and politics surrounding it is quite alike what the superpowers underwent during the first ten years of the Cold War. The aura of uncertainty, thanks to the development of active defenses and attempts to take future   wars into the space,   is once more destabilizing the stability achieved after the end of the Cold War. To date technology remains in flux, and Bernard Brodie remains alive in his masterpiece.