John J. Mearsheimer: Conventional Deterrence; Cornell University Press; Ithaca, NY.

Paul Bracken: The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces; Yale University Press; New Haven, CT.

Two of the major problems facing Western defense and foreign policy are truly Siamese twins: that of deterring nuclear war, and the possibility of a conventional Soviet invasion of Europe. They are intimately linked, for in the event that we are unable to stop an in­vasion of Europe, we are–theoretically–bound to use nuclear weapons, if only tactical ones. And that may well lead to full-scale nuclear war, for few people nowadays have much confidence in the likelihood of limiting the use of nuclear weapons in a European war. While these two books tend to decouple these prob­lems, they are useful analyses of the dilemmas facing us. This is especially true of Mearsheimer’s Conventional Deterrence, a work, that, despite some of its controversial and even dubious, interpretations of history, should be of interest to political and military analysts and to diplomatic and military histo­rians. It is an extremely well-researched book that examines the problem of how, in contemporary situations, antagonistic nations decide to embark on nonnuclear war.

Mearsheimer limits his collection of relevant historical situations to the post­-World War I period, the era in which tanks and planes have dominated land warfare; his view is that conventional warfare has not changed its essential nature since 1945, which is a point that some analysts might contradict. If Mear­sheimer’s schemes implifies things in one sense–by allowing us to derive some help from experience–it is no comfort in other ways. As Mearsheimer readily shows, a measurement of the ratio of strength between two sides in terms of numbers and quality of weapons is no guide to ability to win or to deter an attack; a fact demonstrated by the German victory in the West in 1940 and Israel’s victories over the Arabs in four wars. The effectiveness of arms depends on who is using them; planning and strategy counts as much as numbers, if not more.

In Mearsheimer’s view, the ability to deter a conventional attack is largely a function of strategy, and very much a matter of preventing an enemy from acquiring the ability–or the belief in his ability–to make a blitzkrieg strategy effective. In his use of the term “blitz­ krieg,” Mearsheimer is a bit idiosyncra­tic, giving it a definition narrower than that which is usually used. To him, a blitzkrieg is a strategy aimed at a quick victory through paralysis and disruption of enemy forces rather than their destruction. Mearsheimer lumps all efforts to win by destroying or encircling enemy forces together as variants of “attrition,” thus using “attrition” in a broader sense than usual. Ironically, Mearsheimer’s juggling of definitions, which is not really very useful, has the effect of denying the German conquest of Poland in 1939 the title blitzkrieg­ though that was the very event that led to the coining of the term. Some of Mearsheimer’s historical evaluations are also surprising and questionable, e.g., that mobility and the use of tanks in warfare do not, in themselves, favor offense over defense. The experience of both World Wars and Korea seem to contradict this. Even in cases where sweeping armored advances are impossible, tanks have often made a decisive difference in enabling primarily infantry forces to advance. Mearsheimer’s at­ tempt to refute such critics of NATO’s “forward strategy” and advocates of “mobile defense” as Edward Luttwak, may also be founded on a narrow read­ing of the historical record. Mear­sheimer claims that there are only three cases on record of a blitzkrieg being stopped by a mobile defense of the sort urged by Luttwak. The record shows quite a few more, notably von Manstein’s victory in South Russia in 1943. It is also by no means true that the Soviets’ strategy against nazi Germany in World War II was one of simple attrition, though here Mearsheimer’s odd defini­tion may obscure his meaning.

Mearsheimer, however, accepts that the Soviets would like to be able to launch a blitzkrieg in Europe. He is fairly optimistic in his assessment of their inability to do so. The Warsaw Pact, while possessing a numerical superiority in men and arms, is not strong enough to make NATO’s defense hopeless. (He dis­misses their ability to launch a “standing start” or “bolt from the blue” attack.) Moreover, the terrain and urban sprawl in Germany are not too favorable to Soviet aims, canalizing an attacker’s move into three relatively narrow and identifiable targets. Unlike many com­mentators, he maintains that “NATO is reasonably well-deployed to meet a Soviet blitzkrieg,” and that even the forces of Britain and the Low Countries, whose abilities have been widely doubted, should be able to fulfill their respon­sibilities. Traditional characteristics of the Soviet forces, such as their extremely centralized control and the lack of encouragement, even aspiration, for initiative in the lower ranks, are not favorable to the quick exploitation of opportunities needed to effect a blitz­ krieg–though, he stresses, the Soviet Army is a formidable enemy. Further, technological changes such as the development of precision-guided muni­tions (PGMs) and the introduction of infantry-fighting vehicles, tend to reduce the possibilities of a blitzkrieg. Though Mearsheimer cautions against claims that such weapons are about to make the tank obsolete, they will force tanks to operate more cautiously and make them more dependent on slower, and less­ blitzkrieg-oriented arms. In general, the problems facing the attackers are grow­ing more complicated. PGMs will not cause a revolution in warfare, but they will swing the balance toward the defense, for a while.

If Mearsheimer is right, then the NATO defenses in Europe are in pretty good shape, but they may not be enough. He stresses that caution is required:

For the cases examined here show that when a nation has a powerful motive for war, it will go to great lengths to find a suitable military strategy. Military planners will be subjected to unremitting pressure. Furthermore, a defender who becomes complacent is likely to be surprised, as were the Israel is in 1973 and the Allies in May 1940. The central message for status quo powers is clear; beware in a crisis, because your opponent is seeking away to defeat you.

This is a lesson well worth remembering during discussions about nuclear war and worth keeping in mind when read­ing Paul Bracken’s Command and Control of Nuclear Forces, though it is by no means Bracken’s principal theme. He mainly concentrates on examining the interaction of intelligence, early warning systems, and the military and political control of strategic nuclear weapons. Bracken is more concerned with the possible development of nu­clear war by unintentional mutual “escalation” in a crisis than with a “bolt from the blue” attack. Despite more than a few genuflections in the direction of liberalarms-control orthodoxy, some of his conclusions should not be very comforting to the adherents of that program. Others won’t be very comfort­ing to anyone else, either.

For example, our warning and intelli­gence systems are far from perfect, for the collectors of intelligence are bring­ing in more data than can be used. There is a lack of the sort of officer or civilian official who has an overall grasp of defense problems; most involved have specialized expertise. Bracken doubts that nuclear war is likely to be precipi­tated by a false alarm or an accident in the usual sense. He suggests, in fact, that safe guards and precautions built into the system, as well as a well-settled propensity to dismiss a real attack as unthink­able, render a “mistake” unlikely–but these things may, instead, lay us open to a surprise attack. Since Soviet strategic doctrine, by Bracken’s own admission, places great emphasis on “preemption” and the value of surprise, the discussion of this type of attack does merit more space than it receives.

Bracken emphasizes the problem of unintentional war in a different way. The danger is not that some electronic part will go haywire, but that control of the situation may be lost in a crisis when both sides go on the alert and try to interpret each other’s closely observed moves on very short deadlines, for warning times are very short indeed. Hence, weapons that provide very short warning time, e.g., the Pershing 2 missile and the Soviet’s Yankee class missile-firing submarines (which patrol off our shores) are “destabilizing” and arms control should focus on pullbacks of such weapons. Another point Bracken tries to make is that of the very likely uncontrollable nature of a nuclea rwar once it gets started; a cease fire is going to be very tough to arrange after things get going. This would appear to be a point scored against those who discuss the possibility of “limited” nuclear war­ that is, an exchange of attacks directed against military forces, rather than the mutual genocide people usually think of as nuclear war. However, this is not the case, for Bracken warns that “decapita­tion” attacks directed against political leaders and military headquarters and communications might just permit an attacker to avoid retaliation by his victim.

Whatever the worth of Bracken’s evaluations, however, he gives a useful account of our nuclear warning systems and the evolution of American war plans. More important, the book reveals alarm­ing gaps in American warning and communication systems. Some elements are extremely vulnerable to sabotage or other interruption. NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command Head­quarters, apparently does not even have an adequate emergency power supply. Moreover, and it is a measure of the silliness of much of the discussion of arms issues that this sort of thing does not receive much attention–our mis­siles may not be very reliable, either. According to Bracken, the Minuteman missile, supposedly our main reliance, has received only three operational tests since the mid-1960’s, and all three tests were failures. If this is the case, then it suggests that one important feature of nuclear war fully reproduces a lesson taught by past warfare: he who thinks that he can depend on peacetime prepa­rations, and dependably predict or dic­tate the course of events, once armed conflict is unleashed, is a damned fool.