There are two kinds of beaches in US defense planning. The first is the shoreline that US Marines typically storm in a real or rehearsed military intervention. The second belongs to the domain of the nuclear strategists. When their “limited” nuclear war games go astray, simulating escalation into all-out thermonuclear war, the strategists privately label this outcome a “beach,” after the title of Nevil Shute’s popular novel of nuclear apocalypse, On the Beach. In this era, when two military superpowers envelope the globe with the reach of their nuclear weapons, the question inevitably arises: Is it possible for the Rapid Deployment Force to storm the beaches of the Persian Gulf without leaving all of us on the beach of nuclear annihilation?

This metaphor of the beach encapsulates the two main dimensions of the current US military buildup—”rapid” intervention capability, aimed chiefly at the Middle East, and the Soviet-US nuclear arms race. The links between the two are considerable, though they are not generally perceived by opponents of present US policy. Most US citizens look at the nuclear “balance” and see only growing stockpiles of morally inconceivable destructiveness. In the eyes of high-level policymakers, though, the shift since the late 1960s toward a rough nuclear balance, from the previous condition of clear US superiority, coincides with increasing instability in key strategic regions of the world. “Western Europe, our Asian allies and the United States have sharply increased their dependence on raw materials from other parts of the world at the very time that these areas have become increasingly vulnerable to hostile action,” wrote Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in his FY 1983 Annual Report to the Congress. [1] This perceived threat lies behind the decisions of the Carter and Reagan administrations to build a Rapid Deployment Force for intervention. The strategic calculations surrounding US planning for military intervention abroad are, in turn, a major driving force in the nuclear arms buildup.

Gen. David C. Jones, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued for the MX missile in these terms in 1979. “Because the mission of our strategic forces extends beyond merely deterring an attack on our cities to encompass US interests and allied forces overseas,” he told Air Force Magazine, “there could be a reversal of the Cuban situation [the missile crisis of 1962] where [the Soviets] might have a strategic advantage combined with a local conventional force advantage.” In such a situation, the US might have to back down regardless of the stakes. In order to forestall this possibility, Jones argued for increased “strategic force modernization,,, with the “silo-killing” MX as the top priority. The Soviet Union’s conventional force superiority in key regions like the Middle East (Southwest Asia, or SWA, in Pentagon parlance), could only be offset by heightening Soviet fear of US nuclear escalation. “The focus must be on this nation having the capability actually to fight sustained nuclear war,” Jones concluded, “including all the ingredients that entails.” [2]

More recently, top Reagan administration policymakers have explicitly linked up US nuclear strategy with intervention capabilities directed at the Middle East. “Our FY 1983-87 programs place increased emphasis on our ability to project forces into Southwest Asia,” Weinberger stated in his annual report. [3] At another point in the same report, he wrote: “For the region of the Persian Gulf, in particular, our strategy is based on the concept that the prospect of combat with the US and other friendly forces, coupled with the prospect that we might carry the war to other arenas, is the most effective deterrent to Soviet aggression.” [4]

US ability to “carry the war to other arenas” is questionable, officials assert. According to John Lehman, secretary of the navy, the period from now until the mid-1980s is one in which “American decision makers must operate in an environment in which, if escalation is taken to the ultimate level, they know the United States would not prevail…. Much of the world, wherein lies the vital interests of the United States and its allies, is now for the first time outside of the nuclear umbrella.” Even in the event of a Soviet military move against the Persian Gulf, Lehman claims, “it would be unthinkable during this period for us even to contemplate escalation to the nuclear level.” [5]

The RDF: A “Portable Dienbienphu”

Strategic “parity” with the Soviet Union, and the consequent decline in the effectiveness of US threats to employ nuclear weapons, has been one factor behind the concept of a rapid deployment force. At one level, the rapid deployment force represents a reorganization of existing conventional forces, making such forces available for “power projection” in the Middle East region.

It would be a mistake, however, to see the RDF concept as an alternative to a strategy built on nuclear escalation. Rather, it represents a key ingredient in an overall strategy that rests more than ever on a doctrine of first use of nuclear weapons. This is true at several levels. First, the availability of a rapid deployment force will make it much easier for the US to intervene militarily in a situation it might otherwise have had to resolve by political or diplomatic means. It thus makes it more rather than less likely that Washington’s interventionary impulse will translate into armed action. Such interventions represent the most likely first steps of a confrontation that could quickly acquire a nuclear dimension. Second, the RDF is composed of existing armed units which are themselves already “integrated” and “dual-capable”: that is, equipped with tactical nuclear as well as non-nuclear weapons. Third, the RDF is designed as a “tripwire”—to signal US determination to escalate to nuclear weapons as much as to cope directly with opposing conventional forces. The RDF can serve as a sort of “doomsday device” which an opponent dares attack only at the risk of triggering a mutually destructive war.

The RDF is first of all a frame of mind, a piece of the ideological setting which encourages the projection of US forces abroad, whether in the form of small groups of military advisers armed with rifles and grenade launchers, or B-52 bombers loaded with more explosive power than was expended in all of World War II. Along with “forward bases” in Europe and elsewhere, a navy of more than a dozen carrier battle groups, and long-range airlift, the RDF is a part of a capability to project military power on a global basis in order to maintain what Eugene Rostow calls “world public order.” Rostow, an influential figure in the campaign to revive militarism in the US political establishment, and now director of the State Department’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, recently testified that “adequate military strength deployed in key areas around the world” was essential for maintaining “a progressive and integrated capitalist world economy which serves the interests of the industrialized and developing nations alike, and those of the Communist nations as well.” [6] In President Reagan’s words, “We have to be so strong that no other nation on earth will dare violate the peace.” [7]

In some parts of the globe, though, US forces cannot be “projected” with impunity. In Europe and the Middle East in particular, the Soviet Union is able to pose a countervailing power on the basis of its conventional military strength and geographic proximity. Some US strategists recognize that the Soviet Union may not be the primary threat to US interests in the Third World. Former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, in his fiscal 1981 “posture statement,” warned that turbulence stemming from “the explosive disparity between wealth and hunger” could “almost equal in severity the military threat from the Soviet Union.” [8] For the Reagan administration, this seems to be a distinction without a difference. As Eugene Rostow explained to the First Committee of the Thirty-Sixth UN General Assembly, “What the Soviet Union does is to exploit and manipulate regional turbulences in the interest of enlarging its own sphere of dominance.” [9] For President Reagan, the analysis is even less complicated. “There is an evil influence throughout the world,” he told an Israel Bonds meeting in 1978. “In every one of the far-flung trouble spots, dig deep enough and you’ll find the Soviet Union stirring a witches’ brew, furthering its own imperialistic ambitions. If the Soviet Union would simply go home, much of the bloodshed in the world today would cease.” [10] During a campaign interview in June 1980, Reagan reiterated that “the Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world.” [11]

In the world outlook of the president and his key advisers, then, US strategic interests are considered irreducible, while all threats to those interests essentially emanate from the Soviet Union. Sole reliance on conventional forces in Europe or the Middle East could lead to military defeat or, at best, accommodation—i.e., appeasement. A strategy of deterring all major challenges to US global interests by conventional forces anywhere in the world would bankrupt the Western alliance it is supposed to defend. The question of relative military expenditures is already a matter of bitter dispute between the US and its major allies. Moreover, there remains the possibility that the Soviet Union might resort, however irrationally, to its nuclear deterrent in such a situation. For these reasons, US planners have consistently rejected an exclusively conventional force posture. Whatever the arguments over the years about the proper size and composition of US conventional forces, these have always been in the context of an “integrated” posture of conventional and nuclear forces. [12]

The essence of this strategy is for the United States to maintain the initiative for escalating any conflict to the nuclear level, if necessary—to deter challenges if possible and to do battle with those challenges that do occur. Eugene Rostow has defined deterrence in so many words: “to confront Soviet expansion through the use of aggression with the prospect of unacceptable risk, to which they have always responded with prudence.” [13] Ronald Reagan, during his presidential campaign, responded to a question about possible Soviet intervention in the Persian Gulf in similar terms:

If it thinks that this will cause a confrontation—this is going to give them pause. They’re not going to move too swiftly because they don’t want the world blown up—they want the world. And they’d like to take it piecemeal, a chunk at a time, until finally they might have the power to give us a choice of surrender or die. But we still have going for us the fact that they don’t want to make that kind of move until their superiority is so unquestioned that there is no risk to their homeland. [14]

In his first press conference as commander in chief of the US military machine, Reagan was asked if the US could prevent militarily any Soviet move to cut off Persian Gulf oil. “Well, no,” he replied, but went on to repeat his call for a US military “presence” in the region: What is meant by a presence is that we’re there enough to know and for the Soviets to know that if they made a reckless move they would be risking a confrontation with the United States.”

Wouldn’t that be an empty threat? a reporter asked.

Well, it’s not. You just don’t plant a flag in the ground and walk away and leave it. There would be Americans there…. We’re doing that right now with the Navy in the Indian Ocean. But I think we need a ground presence also…. It’s based on the assumption—and I think a correct assumption—the Soviet Union is not ready to take on that confrontation which could become World War III…. They’re going to have to take that into their computations. [15]

In other words, any Soviet attack on an American expeditionary force would become the occasion for Washington’s first use of nuclear weapons. It is precisely this possibility that prompted Daniel Ellsberg to label the RDF as “a portable Dienbienphu,” referring to the besieged French fortress in Vietnam in 1954, which might have been “saved” only by the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons. (Secretary of State John Foster Dulles reportedly offered French Premier Georges Bidault three tactical nuclear weapons to end the siege, but France declined the offer.) “Perhaps its major function would be as an instrument of real and visible commitment to the possible first-use of nuclear weapons by the United States.” [16]

The RDF: “D” is for “Dual-Capable”

The RDF is not a new or special conventional force. It is an aggregation of elements already existing in the four services. As such, it comes equipped with its share of weapons systems that are “dual-capable”—i.e., able to deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads. The RDF has at its disposal some portion of the roughly 17,000 tactical nuclear warheads that are part of the entire US force structure.

Such interchangeability is essential both in terms of cost and available manpower, according to the Army’s Maj. Gen. Louis Wagner. “We use the same troops and we have the same cannons available to do the nuclear and conventional job,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in March 1980. “We want to provide for contingency forces. This is very important today, and if we have dual-capable forces, particularly in our 155 [mm] and 8-inch artillery, all of the units that would be in the rapid deploying forces can have these things made available to them so that they will have dual capability.” [17] President Reagan has no reservations in this regard. “I consider the neutron warhead conventional,” he remarked during the 1980 campaign. “I favor development and deployment of the neutron warhead for US theater forces, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, artillery and bombs.” [18]

The president believes that escalation to full-scale nuclear war can be contained. “I could see where you could have an exchange of tactical nuclear weapons against troops in the field without bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button,” he remarked in October 1981. [19] Secretary of Defense Weinberger has expressed readiness to use nuclear weapons even against non-nuclear opponents. Asked during his confirmation hearing whether he would have “recommended the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam,” Weinberger responded:

It is still possible, I believe, to fight some wars using conventional forces that don’t involve nuclear weapons;… but I think that if you advise potential opponents in advance that you do not intend to cross certain lines, that you have almost assured another Vietnam…. Any time you get into a war the possibility that you will use every weapon available has to be left open. [20]

As if to underscore the nuclear dimension of the RDF, one of its earmarked components is a wing of 28 B-52H strategic bombers, with refueling tankers and reconnaissance planes, from the Strategic Air Command. Dubbed the Strategic Projection Force, it represents “an inexpensive, near-term solution to a national problem,” according to SAC head Gen. Richard Ellis in 1980. [21] “SAC aircraft can provide rapid long-range force projection in the conventional and theater nuclear areas,” testified Ellis, specifying elsewhere that the SPF “can deliver up to 200 tons of [conventional] explosives per day,” as well as a range of thermonuclear gravity bombs. “The force can deploy within 24 hours,” claimed Ellis, “and be flying operational missions within 12 hours after landing at a forward operating location.”

“A forward operating location” has been the weak link in this plan. When Ellis testified a year later, the US did “not have the bases from which we have fuel or the munitions to take advantage of that capability…. We would be ready to go with nowhere to go…. One of the more critical things in our conventional capability has been the reduction of our overseas base structure in the last ten years.” “B-52s seem to have a stigma that causes a great deal of problems,” Ellis added innocently. Ellis spoke hopefully in March 1981 of “the availability of certain bases in the Middle East that I think are too sensitive to get into. We hope to store fuel and munitions there which would enable us to operate.” [22] Several months later, during the “Bright Star” war games that followed the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, the Pentagon staged a B-52 bombing run from SAC bases in North Dakota to the Egyptian desert. Airfields in and around the region are being constructed or expanded to accommodate B-52s. These include Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and Ras Banas on the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea. (Perhaps as many as four of the new military airfields being constructed in Saudi Arabia will be capable of handling B-52s, along with Qina air base in upper Egypt. Iran has one or more airfields which reportedly can receive B-52s. Several of the military air bases in Morocco, for which the Reagan administration negotiated renewed access in the spring of 1982, had been Strategic Air Command bases up through the late 1950s, and are therefore presumably capable of handling B-52s.) Thumrait, in Oman’s Dhofar province, “has one of the longest runways in the world.” [23]

The B-52s are practically incidental to the nuclear weapons already within easy reach of the Gulf. The three carrier battle groups stationed in the Indian Ocean and eastern Mediterranean are loaded with hundreds of the following weapons: B-61 light-weight nuclear bombs with four yields ranging from 100 to 500 kilotons (kt); B-57 light-weight nuclear depth charges with four yields ranging to 20 kt; B-43 medium-weight nuclear bombs with at least five yields; W-44 warheads of about one kt yield for ship-launched anti-submarine missiles; W-55 warheads of several kt yield for submarine launched anti-submarine missiles; and W-45-1 warheads of one kt yield for surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles. [24] The Lockheed P-3 anti-submarine patrol aircraft now flying out of Diego Garcia and Oman’s Masira Island also carry the B-57 light-weight nuclear depth charge. A new medium-weight high-yield nuclear bomb, the B-83, will replace the B-43 now deployed on the carriers. Terrier anti-aircraft missiles are being equipped with new W-81 low-yield warheads. In 1984, the ships and submarines patrolling the Indian Ocean may begin carrying the 1,500 kilometer range Sea-Launched Cruise Missile with W-80 200 kt warheads. Cruise missiles based in Sicily will also have the Middle East within their range.

The Marine Corps has been greatly increasing its nuclear potential. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force is another important component of the RDF. Old F-4 Phantom warplanes which were not “certified” for nuclear weapons delivery are being replaced by F/A-18 Hornets which are nuclear “certified.” The non-nuclear AV8-A Harrier vertical take-off and landing close-support aircraft are being replaced by the nuclear-capable AV8-B. Non-nuclear capable 105 mm artillery are being replaced by the dual-capable 155 mm gun, almost doubling the Marine Corps’ nuclear artillery potential. [25] There are some eight types of nuclear capable 155 mm guns which can fire the roughly 3,300 W-48 low-yield atomic projectiles in the US stockpile. A typical Marine Amphibious Force is also equipped with about a dozen eight-inch howitzers which fire both the older W-33 atomic projectiles and the newer W-79 neutron warhead. Originally conceived for deployment in Europe, 800 of these neutron weapons are being produced initially to stockpile in the US for potential crisis deployment overseas.

“Escalation Dominance”: What the MX Means to King Fahd

A strategic balance which would merely suffice to deter nuclear attacks on US and Soviet home territories “has always been rejected as a totally inadequate standard for nuclear negotiations,” according to Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director Rostow. At his confirmation hearings he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “facing the Soviet strategic arsenal which such a SALT policy would imply, we would be in no position to use conventional or nuclear forces in defense of our interests in Europe, the Far East, the Middle East or elsewhere.” [26] More recently, Rostow told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that any new arms control agreement would have to be based on the principle of “true parity” between the two nuclear superpowers. Rostow defined “true parity” as “allowing each side the equal capacity to deter aggression against its vital interests.” [27]

The trick then becomes one of defining the relative scope of US and USSR vital interests. Henry Kissinger, whose first book was entitled Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy and who continues to serve as an informal adviser to the Reagan administration on Middle East developments, recently proclaimed that “the countries in the Gulf have to understand that we are prepared to protect both their domestic structure and their frontiers; and they need to be given confidence in the means which we will use.” [28] Kissinger went on to say, “We must generate a credible capability for rapid support against internal upheaval.” US vital interests, by this perspective, include the preservation of the ruling families of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. President Reagan said as much in October 1981, when he declared that “Saudi Arabia we will not permit to be an Iran.” [29] Most US military planners do not consider Soviet military intervention to be the most plausible serious threat to ruling family longevity in the Gulf. The propensity to see “Soviet subversion” and “Soviet proxies” behind any local upheaval, though, makes it difficult to rule out military measures against local Soviet allies and interests in the area. Indeed, the possibility of such an intervention against Iran must be considered quite high. Soviet concern about developments in Iran, and Moscow’s readiness to intervene militarily if necessary to prevent hostile forces from taking control along its southern borders, are a matter of record.

There is a very great risk, in other words, of US military intervention leading to confrontation with the Soviet Union which quickly threatens to become nuclear. Prevailing military logic dictates that a threat to begin the process of nuclear escalation must be made “credible” by regional and ultimately intercontinental capacity to destroy preemptively an opponent’s nuclear arsenal. Short of this, the goal is to deprive an adversary of all responses that are remotely proportional to the scale of the initial provocation. This forces the adversary to choose between potentially suicidal escalation or retreat. US reliance on a strategy of nuclear first use inevitably produces an intense preoccupation in Washington with the overall balance of preemptive nuclear capabilities at the intercontinental strategic level, and with the nuclear balance in various theaters at different levels of intensity.

This bizarre and apocalyptic vision provides an all-too-plausible linkage between the prospective stability of the House of Saud and the Reagan administration’s decision to produce and deploy the MX missile. This is the real consequence of Secretary Weinberger’s admonition that “the possibility that you will use every weapon available has to be left open.” Examining the military balance in Southwest Asia, an American military planner can see that the US threat to Soviet armored and airborne divisions which might intervene in the Gulf—for example, nuclear-armed A-6 attack planes on carriers in the Arabian Sea—is countered by the threat of a Soviet preemptive attack on those carriers with nuclear-armed Backfire bombers and submarines. To make the initial threat credible, the US must be able to deter any Soviet attacks on US forces concentrated in the area. This produces the military need to threaten preemptive destruction of all Soviet airlift and bomber bases, command posts and war reserves stocks which could support a Soviet military operation in the Middle East—in effect, a “limited” first strike using missiles and aircraft deployed in Europe, the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

But Soviet strategists have the intermediate range SS-20 missiles to pose an equivalent threat to US bases and forces in the Middle East and the approaches to the region. To deter this potential escalation, US planners count on Pershing II and other ground-launched missiles to threaten devastation of Soviet early warning and command and control systems, and thus immobilize Soviet ICBMs. The Soviet arsenal would then be vulnerable to the new MX or Trident II missiles, or even to existing Minuteman II and III “silo-busting” warheads. To continue this conflict scenario, the Soviets would have to attack American cities and industries with whatever of their submarines had survived a preemptive missile attack on their bases, or US “hunter-killer” submarines and aircraft. The Soviets would probably not take this step, our strategists tell us, for fear of exposing their own cities to the enormous nuclear destructive potential in remaining US submarines and bombers.

The Soviet general staff, argue US strategists, would consider this chain of events in advance and advise the Soviet leadership that the current strategic balance allowed the US to think it could credibly threaten nuclear escalation. Since this might make it more likely that the US would so escalate, the Soviet Union should not consider, say, intervening in Saudi Arabia to assist the new and beleaguered revolutionary government there and prevent the restoration of the monarchy. (To forestall such an outcome, the Soviet general staff might recommend: upgrading the accuracy of Soviet ICBMs to pose an equivalent threat to the US; developing a new, more accurate submarine-launched ballistic missile; placing new medium-range missiles in Cuba and eastern Siberia; hardening the Soviet command and control systems against electromagnetic pulse disruption. This would simply be the mirror image of the program outlined by President Reagan in October 1981.)

There are other possible scenarios. For example, the Soviets could aim to destroy US tactical nuclear forces on carriers and forward bases in the Middle East before Washington decides to use them. In this situation, according to one former senior advisor to the secretary of defense, the US needs a strategic nuclear force capable of threatening the prompt destruction of all Soviet forces relevant to this Middle East operation while limiting damage to the rest of the USSR. The Russians, realizing that escalation would only widen the damage to their homeland, would back down and withdraw. Better yet, having made these calculations in advance, they would refrain from any incursion in the first place. [30]

Such scenarios constitute the underlying rationale for new strategic weapons such as the MX and the Pershing II. It is within this particular context of nuclear escalation and first use that the Pentagon views the potential vulnerability of the silo-based Minuteman force as a serious “deficiency” in the US nuclear posture. Many other nuclear forces would survive a Soviet attack on the US. But, military planners say, Minuteman vulnerability lessens the credibility of US nuclear threats against the Soviet Union in a crisis involving American “vital interests” overseas. In his 1980 Annual Report, Defense Secretary Harold Brown warned:

No enemy should be left with the illusion that he could disable portions of our nuclear forces—US-based or overseas—as a preliminary to attacks in specific theaters with his general purpose forces. [31]

According to the proponents of the MX, Soviet leaders presently entertain precisely such illusions. The United States would like to preserve the option of threatening “limited” use of its ICBM force to back up the threat of “limited” attacks with tactical and theater nuclear forces. The alleged vulnerability of US ICBMs to Soviet ICBMs undermines the credibility of this threat. Without a “survivable” capability for threatening controlled strategic nuclear escalation, according to this line of thinking, “the Soviets can undertake peripheral political and military actions without considering possible nuclear consequences to the same degree that was necessary in the past.” [32] Richard Burt, now director of the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, and before that responsible for New York Times coverage of such national security issues, believes that “the nuclear balance is the crucial barometer of Soviet willingness to take risks and nurture crises in trouble spots around the world.” According to Burt, the Soviet capacity to destroy “a large fraction of our ICBM force” is one that is “not available to us. In a future crisis, US military capabilities could be paralyzed by such a threat.” [33]

This “loss” of American nuclear superiority is in itself a debatable proposition. Far more tenuous is the notion that “parity” leaves the USSR “free” to employ its conventional and tactical nuclear forces in specific regions without fear of “controlled” US nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union itself. It is a theory scarcely susceptible to empirical confirmation, but its proponents—who occupy the highest national security positions in the US government—clearly believe it to be the case. They ascribe to it the manifold setbacks to US interests in the Third World over the past decade, from Afghanistan and Angola to Nicaragua and El Salvador. This is despite the fact that the Soviet Union has attempted nothing so “adventurous” as the attempt to place medium-range missiles in Cuba in 1962, when it had no such nuclear parity with the US.

What is involved in these calculations is the “mirror image” projection of US plans and capabilities to the Soviet side, now that the US can no longer fully “dominate” any conceivable escalation scenario. Soviet ability to destroy preemptively the US ICBMs lends credibility to any Soviet threats to defend their conventional forces with limited nuclear attacks. All Soviet “improvements” to their nuclear force, such as hardening missile silos or increasing the number of warheads per missile, only undermines further the credibility of the US preemptive threat. Without the “hard-target kill capability” of the MX and Trident II missiles, US strategists believe that Washington will no longer be able to credibly threaten nuclear escalation in a crisis. Gen. Lew Allen, Air Force chief of staff, summarized the situation for the Senate Armed Services Committee:

The real conclusion one must reach in this closed room is that the United States does face a very serious strategic nuclear problem…the Soviets’ perception of an advantage for a preemptive first strike is much higher than it has been in the past. And it is at a point, while perhaps not dangerous in that it will incite them to a first strike, it nevertheless gives them confidence in their nuclear forces. That confidence means that we will find the threshold of nuclear war much higher than in the past, and we will see greater Soviet confidence in their ability to be adventuresome and provocative to the United States across a broad range of areas. [34]

The implication is clear: a high threshold for the initiation of nuclear violence by the United States is not in the security interest of the United States. This US inability to threaten seriously nuclear escalation, by being able to control it through counter-military preemption, lies behind the Reagan administration’s misleading call to restore the US “second-strike capacity” and “margin of safety.” With such a restoration, says Reagan’s chief arms negotiator, Gen. Edward Rowny, “we could take certain slight risks without having those become big risks.” [35]

Intervention and the Doctrine of Credibility

To be effective, US threats to use nuclear weapons must remain credible even in the face of countervailing Soviet threats. The task of sustaining this credibility is at one level technical, and to that extent based on a certain “rational” calculation. At the primary level, though, it is fundamentally a psychological campaign of bluff and intimidation. “Modernization” of nuclear capabilities, improving accuracy and “survivability” (of missiles!) and reducing undesirable “collateral effects” (such as blast damage to oil facilities, fallout inflicted on one’s own troops) increases the nominal military utility of these weapons. Military planners calculate that these “improvements” should heighten “rational” expectations of an adversary that these weapons would actually be used to defend US “vital interests” in the Gulf and around the globe. Continuing modernization is essential to prevent any “misperception” by opponents or allies that US leaders have lost their “resolve” to use nuclear weapons.

Defense Secretary Weinberger and other high officials in the present administration argue strenuously that their nuclear war policy represents no radical departure from that of previous administrations since World War II. Weinberger might have in mind documents like National Security Council Memorandum 68 of April 1950, which asserted that our present weakness would prevent us from offering effective resistance at any of several vital pressure points. The only deterrent we can present to the Kremlin is the evidence we give that we may make any of the critical points which we cannot hold the occasion for a global war of annihilation. [36] For the 1980s, the most “critical point” has been identified as the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula region. As of January 1, 1983, the nuclear-equipped and nuclear-backed Rapid Deployment Force is formally constituted as a separate “Unified Command for Southwest Asia.” According to Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston, commander of the RDF, the new command will have “clear authority and responsibility for United States military activity within the region of the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia.” The RDF is expanding rapidly at every level: the Army’s contribution of three divisions has been expanded to five, the Air Force’s five tactical fighter wings has been doubled to ten, and headquarters has increased from 260 persons in March 1982 to 960 in January 1983. The US Information Agency is sending one official to supervise propaganda efforts. The new command will be the first to have a chaplain assigned to its staff, as advisor to some 200 chaplains of the component units. The head chaplain will also “review operational orders as they are carried out to check on their morality,” writes New York Times reporter Richard Halloran. “We don’t want to see any My Lais coming out of this,” one officer is quoted as saying. Some more Hiroshimas presumably lie beyond morality.

According to the defense secretary’s classified 1984-1988 Defense Guidance document,

It is essential that the Soviet Union be confronted with the prospect of a major conflict should it seek to reach oil resources of the Gulf. Because the Soviets might induce or exploit local political instabilities, their forces could be extended into the area by means other than outright invasion. Whatever the circumstances, we should be prepared to introduce American forces directly into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened. [37]

Since less than 13 percent of US oil needs, and only five percent of total US energy needs, are supplied from the Persian Gulf, the question of access is not related to oil supplies as such. Regimes of any conceivable ideological complexion would continue to face an irrepressible need to produce and market oil for the international market, especially to US allies in Europe and Asia. As for the Soviet “need” for oil supplies from the Gulf, it is quite hypothetical, and in any event their unquestioned need for mammoth imports of grains has not led Moscow to threaten an invasion of Argentina or Saskatchewan. It would appear that the question of “security access” amounts to the preservation of US energy companies’ dominance of the processing and global marketing of Persian Gulf oil. For this, US military planners have, in effect, wired up the Saudi throne, and those of the other ruling families in the area, to a nuclear tripwire. As long as the United States and the Soviet Union persist in making more “credible” their nuclear warfighting capacities, and as long as the US remains determined to “insert” its “dual-capable” power projection forces into the region, we dare not contemplate the crumbling of decrepit political formations like the Saudi monarchy with anything like the equanimity this process deserves. In its present phase, Washington is promoting the nuclear arms race as the ultimate guarantor of the status quo.


[1] Caspar W. Weinberger, Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1983 (Washington, 1982), p. 11-13.
[2] Interview with General David C. Jones, Air Force Magazine, May 1979, p. 26.
[3] Weinberger, pp. III-101.
[4] Weinberger, pp. 1-14.
[5] John F. Lehman, “The Soviet Strategic Nuclear Advantage and How to Eliminate It,” International Security Review 5/3 (Fall 1980), pp. 271-286.
[6] Prepared statement of Eugene V. Rostow, Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, June 22, 1981.
[7] Campaign statement in Columbus, Ohio, reported in New York Times, June 2, 1980.
[8] Cited in Michael T. Klare, “The Brown Doctrine,” The Nation, March 8, 1980.
[9] Address by Rostow to the First Committee of the Thirty-Sixth General Assembly of the United Nations, October 1981.
[10] Cited in The New Republic, April 15, 1980.
[11] Interview with Wall Street Journal, June 3, 1980.
[12] For more on the origins and dilemmas of nuclear-conventional “flexible response” doctrine, see the chapter “NATO Strategy and Forces” in Enthoven and Smith, How Much is Enough: Shaping the Defense Program, 1961-1969 (New York, 1971).
[13] Rostow, June 22, 1981.
[14] Interview with National Journal, March 8, 1980.
[15] New York Times, February 3, 1981.
[16] See Ellsberg’s introduction in E. P. Thompson and Dan Smith, Protest and Survive (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981).
[17] Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, March 11, 1980 in FY 1981, Part 4, Book 2, p. 2299-2301.
[18] Boston Globe, March 30, 1980; January 31, 1980 policy statement, Washington Post, April 24, 1980.
[19] Washington Post, October 22, 1981.
[20] “Nomination of Caspar Weinberger to be Secretary of Defense,” Senate Armed Services Committee, January 6, 1981, p. 45.
[21] House Armed Services Committee, Authorization for FY 1981, Hearings, Part I, pp. 10-11.
[22] Senate Armed Services Committee, Authorization for FY 1982, Part 5, p. 2466; ibid., Part 7, p. 3845.
[23] Time, October 25, 1982.
[24] “Preparing for Nuclear War: President Reagan’s Program,” Defense Monitor 10/8, pp. 12-13.
[25] Interview with William Arkin, co-editor, The Nuclear Weapons Databook (Ballinger Press, forthcoming 1983).
[26] “Nomination of Eugene V. Rostow,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hearings, June 22-23, 1981, p. 11.
[27] “Overview of Nuclear Arms Control a House Foreign Affairs Committee, February 23, March 18, March 22, 1982, p. 9.
[28] Interview with Economist, November 13, 1982.
[29] New York Times, October 18, 1981.
[30] Interview with senior adviser to the secretary of defense, April 1980.
[31] Department of Defense Annual Report, FY 1980, p. 78.
[32] “Strategic Nuclear Forces Report,” Introductory Remarks by Gen. Richard H. Ellis before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Febuary 20, 1980, p. 3. See also David Gold, Christopher Paine and Gail Shields, Misguided Expenditure: An Analysis of the Proposed MX Missile System, Council on Economic Priorities, New York, 1981, pp. 77-89.
[33] Richard Burt, statement before the House Armed Services Committee, February 23, 1982.
[34] Senate Armed Services Committee, Authorization for FY 1982, Hearings, Part 7, 3924-25.
[35] “Nomination of Edward L. Rowny,” Hearings, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, July 9-10, 1981.
[36] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1977), p. 264.
[37] New York Times, September 25, 1982.

How to cite this article:

Christopher Paine "On the Beach," Middle East Report 111 (January 1983).

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