Joshua PollackNothing New Beneath The Sun

The text of Pavel Podvig’s new article (“The Window of Vulnerability That Wasn’t: Soviet Military Buildup in the 1970s”) is available at his website. The outlines of the story are familiar enough:

Although the Soviet Union denied that the purpose of its modernization program was to acquire a counterforce capability or to achieve military advantage, its protests had virtually no impact on the debate in the United States. Some experts in the United States did, however, question the alarmist interpretation of the Soviet program or point out that because of the uncertainties associated with any nuclear attack, it would be impossible for the Soviet Union to take advantage of its alleged counterforce potential. Nevertheless, the issue of the United States’ “window of vulnerability” achieved prominence on the U.S. political agenda in the late 1970s and early 1980s, opening the way for the United States to launch its own strategic modernization effort, which included development of the MX ICBM and Trident II sea-launched ballistic missile, and eventually the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program.

Based on a new documentary find, Podvig concludes that Soviet capabilities were less than they were cracked up to be.

There’s something of the ages in this story.

From Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, 2d ed., Princeton University Press, 1943:

By 1845 the steam war fleet was considered a naval arm of great importance. In that year Lord Palmerston, who not after all the chief scare-monger of the realm, referred to the great land forces of France and warned his countrymen that the Channel was no longer a barrier. “Steam navigation,” he declared, had “rendered that which was before impassable by a military force nothing more than a river passable by a steam bridge.” This phrase, “a river passable by a steam bridge,” was not to lack an echo.

The account continues:

In the midst of this alienation and mutual suspicion, a letter written by the Duke of Wellington late in 1847 to another soldier, Sir John Burgoyne, regarding the state of the nation’s defenses, found its way into the press. This letter stated that the writer had “examined and reconnoitred, over and over again, the whole coast from the North Foreland . . . to Selsey Hill, near Portsmouth,” and he believed that excepting immediately under the fire of Dover Castle, there was “not a spot on the coast on which infantry might not be thrown on shore at any time of tide, with any wind, and in any weather, and from which such a body of infantry so thrown on shore, would not find within a distance of five miles a road into the interior of the country, through the cliffs, practicable for the march of a body of troops.”

Cobden considered these statements so absurd from the viewpoint of tactical science alone as to be evidence of failing powers on the part of their author. But is it clear that most Englishmen did not so regard them. Panic spread over the country.

Perhaps needless to say, Britain also had a fleet — and a much better one than that of France!


  1. MarkoB

    A 1971 internal memo devoted to “implications of strategic force vulnerability” stated that “the implications of the situation described above depend to a considerable extent on what we want our strategic forces to do. If their sole or principal objective is assured destruction, growing Soviet capabilities pose little threat.”

    A 1975 NSC meeting is much more interesting. Kissinger states “when people speak of the vulnerability of Minuteman, they are speaking of a worst case situation for us. They do not take into account our SLBMs and bombers. The Soviets must ask themselves where they would be if they do all of these things. General Brown comments, “these sorts of things give us confidence that we have a deterrent force today”. Advisor to the Prez Scowcroft charmingly adds, “it is not to our disadvantage if we appear irrational to the Soviets in this regard.” Kissinger goes on, “I would like to comment. Looking at the seven years I have been here, we have never had to manage a crisis under the current difficult conditions…never were the Soviets conscious of parity. In every confrontation under circumstances of US superiority, the Soviet caved inordinately rapidly. We will not be in that position in the future, and we will have a crisis management problem…no President has had to manage a crisis in such a situation where we were not overwhelmingly superior in strategic forces.”

    That’s why assured destruction was not the primary objective, why Washington rejects minimum deterrence and that did and does greatly account for the size of the US arsenal.

  2. Major Lemon (History)

    MAD was replaced by the ‘countervailing strategy’, the thought of suvivability in a large scale nuclear war. That itself was a more effective deterrent. Parity was never a serious issue except for the pundits. ‘Star Wars’ or the Strategic Defense Initiative took this a step further did it not?

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