In Terms of Cost and Effectiveness, Strategic-Conventional Mix Pays Off
The mere mentioning of the phrase strategic-conventional balance puts most people in mind of the kind of arcane issue that can safely be left to the experts--in this case, the professionals in charge of maintaining our national security.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The issue is every bit as complex as people suspect, but it is also a matter of such exceeding importance that it simply cannot be left to the experts alone.
If there is one bedrock truth about democracy and defense, it is that as many members of the voting public as possible must have a sound general understanding of the policies and doctrine that shape our forces. That includes the balance between strategic and conventional systems--what that balance is, and why we maintain it. As it is, few issues so fundamental are more frequently misunderstood. Public discussions on defense spending regularly exaggerate the expense of maintaining strategic nuclear systems and grossly underestimate the costs of conventional forces. When it comes to questions of defense costs versus capabilities, we simply cannot afford such confusion in the public mind.
There are several facts that Americans must know about our national-security strategy and the forces that support it. First, the military balance is never static. There are any number of factors that may affect it: the changing capabilities and technological advances of potential adversaries, developments over which we have little direct control but to which we must respond.
The second fact is that in spite of the constant need to assess and adjust our strategic assets, our security policy itself should--in its broad outlines--be as firm as possible. It should be well understood by our allies and by our potential adversaries--and, of course, by the American public on which it depends for support.
Our current strategic doctrine, known as “flexible response,” has guided both U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization security policy since the 1960s, and has enjoyed broad support across the American political spectrum. It has ensured that the United States and its allies could maintain a combination of nuclear and conventional forces that could respond to Soviet aggression in a manner of our own choosing, including the option of deliberate escalation--and therefore could convince the Soviets that employing aggression of any sort was a poor and potentially quite dangerous way to pursue their objectives.
In terms of the strategic-conventional balance at the time, flexible response meant a conventional buildup, and therefore a relative decrease in the percentage of defense spending devoted to strategic systems. Throughout the 1950s, spending on strategic forces consumed roughly 20% to 30% of the defense budget. The balance between conventional and strategic forces that emerged in the wake of flexible response has remained relatively stable for the past two decades. Strategic spending has ranged between 9% and 14%, while costs associated with general-purpose forces have ranged between 45% and 55%.
For the destructive power that they provide, nuclear weapons are cheaper to develop, build and maintain than are conventional forces. Even with President Reagan’s emphasis on strengthening our strategic deterrent, spending on strategic forces consumes only 12% of the defense budget. In sheer dollar terms, far more has been spent since 1981 on our other equally important rebuilding effort--restoring our conventional strength. In fact, the single largest expense in our defense budget is the almost $80 billion that we are currently spending on military pay and benefits--more than twice the total cost of our strategic nuclear forces, which are operated by only about 5% of our military personnel.
What the current strategic-conventional mix represents is our best effort to maintain a deterrent that is at once effective and affordable. Attempts to change the mix so that, for instance, the United States could either abandon or significantly scale back the modernization of its strategic triad--must pass both tests. Our security policy must make both strategic and fiscal sense.
To illustrate the point, consider what would be necessary if the United States were to redesign its defense posture in an attempt to eliminate the need for a nuclear deterrent. In Central Europe, to repel an attack by Soviet-Warsaw Pact forces--with conventional forces alone--would require an increase in our conventional capabilities involving defense spending of at least $30 billion a year for years to come.
Of course, our aim in the first instance is not to fight a war but to deter one from taking place. What would it cost to build a “conventional-only” force capable of convincing an aggressor that attack is not an option with any reasonable hope of success, but one with unequivocally unacceptable consequences? I am not certain that this capability is available at any price, if it means conceding to our adversary the option of escalating--or threatening to escalate--conventional conflict to the nuclear level.
Nuclear weapons, after all, possess the unique capability to deter not only nuclear but even conventional conflict.
Flexible response, as the name itself implies, has proved to be an extremely resilient doctrine. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy laid out the fundamental premise of flexible response in the message conveying his first defense budget to Congress: “Any potential aggressor contemplating an attack, conventional or nuclear, must know that our response will be suitable, selective, swift and effective . . . . Our weapons systems must be usable in a manner permitting deliberation and discrimination as to timing, scope and targets . . . .” That rationale remains as valid today as it was a quarter-century ago.
Preserving the distinct conventional and strategic capabilities that provide us with the flexible forces that we need has been the aim of this Administration since 1981--whether that meant pushing forward the long-overdue modernization of our strategic systems, improving combat readiness and air- and sea-lift capacity or replenishing our spare-parts inventories.
The benefits are evident for all to see: an America that has regained its standing in the world, and whose strength served to convince the Soviets of the wisdom of dialogue and summitry. The current mix of conventional and strategic forces has served us well. The real challenge is to make certain that we do what is necessary to maintain the flexibility that the United States needs to defend itself and to deter aggression in the 1990s and beyond.