Nuclear Strategy and ‘the Delicate Balance of Terror:’ A Retrospective

Far from being “delicate,” the US-Soviet Union balance was robust enough to prevent a direct military clash throughout the Cold War.

In January 1959, RAND Corporation analyst Albert Wohlstetter published an article on nuclear weapons strategy titled The Delicate Balance of Terror. It became an instant sensation.

He argued against the then-widespread belief that the mere possession of atomic weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union guaranteed the absence of war.

Wohlstetter set out to demolish the view that strategic deterrence was easy to achieve and maintain, and to expose and refute what he believed was the mistaken assumption about the unlikelihood of a general nuclear war.

His core argument was that strategic deterrence between the superpowers was not an “automatic” consequence of atomic weapons. Instead, it was “delicate” and would require “urgent and continuing US effort” to be maintained.

The analyst expressed concern that civilian strategists, by being overly optimistic about the weapon’s deterrent power, had “vastly underestimated the complexity of the problem of Western retaliation.”

Having a deterrent force was one thing; ensuring it could be used as intended in wartime was quite another.

Deterrent Force Complexity

The “complexity” Wohlstetter referred to, and which almost all other strategists at the time overlooked or did not fully grasp, concerned “successive obstacles” that America’s nuclear force must overcome if it was to successfully retaliate.

These included surviving a Soviet attack; having the ability to receive and transmit Presidential orders for retaliation; having the necessary range for US bombers to reach enemy territory and overcome its air- and missile defenses; and having the ability to destroy the target.

And yet, as if these were not difficult enough to overcome in wartime, the technical problems of retaliation would be compounded further by “sensible” Soviet planning and countermeasures, Wohlstetter warned.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch the Victory Day military parade at the Red Square, 2022. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

Operational Planning of Nuclear Deterrence

By identifying the operational planning of nuclear deterrence — the nuts-and-bolts issues of targeting plans, bomber basing, flight paths, enemy countermeasures, and nuclear forces’ command-and-control — Wohlstetter provided a sharp contrast to the abstract nuclear strategy theorizing then in vogue.

He argued forcefully that the balance of terror theory was “a contribution to the rhetoric rather than the logic of war in the thermonuclear age.” The balance of terror argument assumed the mere possession of hydrogen bombs by both superpowers would forestall war under essentially all circumstances.

Not so, Wohlstetter argued. War could erupt as a consequence of deliberate choice despite the existence of atomic arms, mainly because the calculus of risk facing the Soviets in a crisis would “depend in part on the vulnerability of our future posture.”

Wohlstetter meant that the more exposed America’s deterrent lay to a Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack, the more tempted the enemy would be to roll the nuclear dice in a confrontation.

From this, it followed logically that the first US priority was to protect its nuclear force and ensure its technical ability to overcome obstacles to retaliation. “To deter an attack means being able to strike back in spite of it. It means, therefore, a capability to strike second,” Wohlstetter famously summed it up.

Anti-Soviet Edge

If Delicate Balance sought to reject the theory of “automatic” deterrence, it also had a harsh anti-Soviet edge to it. The article appeared at the height of the Cold War, and Wohlstetter took it for granted that the Soviets would launch an attack the moment they sensed an opportunity.

Ignoring that Washington possessed an overwhelming nuclear superiority by the late 1950s and would continue to do so for at least another decade, he wrote that “at critical junctures in the 1960s, we may not have the power to deter attack,” resorting to the same alarmist language Paul Nitze used in the Truman administration’s key national security planning document that militarized containment.

He also argued against the belief that “mutual extinction” would be the only outcome of a general atomic war: “Russian fatalities in World War II were more than 20,000,000. Yet Russia recovered extremely well.”

Wohlstetter seemingly believed the Russians could not be expected to resist an atomic fight with the US the moment it suited their interests, for given historical experience, they could always recover later.

Such comments suggest Wohlstetter was not versed in the history or philosophy of great power relations and statecraft. Rather, he was a logician who applied novel techniques from game theory and econometrics to nuclear strategy.

He not only succeeded brilliantly in this, but in time became the single most influential civilian expert to have direct input into the evolution of nuclear strategy. Delicate Balance remains Exhibit A of the power and logic of his analysis, and as such, it repays reading.

Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile
A team of Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen launching an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Photo: Airman 1st Class Landon Gunsauls/US Air Force

The Balance in Retrospect: Was It ‘Delicate’?

Intellectual milestone or not, was Wohlstetter justified in arguing the nuclear balance between the superpowers was “delicate” and would remain so?

The answer, in retrospect, must be no, primarily because his long-standing concerns over the vulnerability of America’s nuclear deterrent were quickly overtaken by the deployment of the Minuteman and Polaris missile systems from 1960 onwards.

America’s second-strike force, which would soon comprise a “triad” of widely dispersed bombers and intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, could not only survive a pre-emptive Soviet attack (the “Wohlstetter criteria”) but retaliate instantly and with massive power.

Moreover, the various “technical complexities” previously associated with successfully retaliating — from surviving Soviet pre-emption to receiving Presidential authority and penetrating enemy airspace —disappeared with the nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile.

Strategic Stalemate

Wohlstetter’s arguments lost force with the rapid military-technological developments of the 1960s. Compared to the B-52 bomber force, the chances of new intercontinental ballistic missiles reaching and vaporizing intended “aim-points” such as large populated cities were near 100 percent certain.

When both superpowers possessed such weapons by the mid-1960s, a strategic stalemate arose. Strategic deterrence — or mutually assured destruction (MAD) — from then on resulted not from any “warfighting” configuration of US nuclear forces, as Wohlstetter argued, but from the simple fact that atomic bombs existed on both sides.

Yet, throughout the Cold War, the bomb’s existence alone had a decisive bearing on preventing a US-Soviet military clash. Although atomic arms and the threat of mutual destruction would not prevent the superpowers from competing vigorously and at times even dangerously, neither pushed the other over the brink.

Superpower Balance

The prospect of even one single hydrogen bomb landing on one’s territory instilled fear and caution in Moscow and Washington. The superpower balance, far from being precarious and “delicate,” turned out to be strong and robust enough to underwrite mutual deterrence in Soviet-American relations throughout the Cold War.

This is not to suggest that Wohlstetter’s analysis missed the mark. His criticisms of the balance of terror theory sensitized other strategists to the operational requirements of nuclear deterrence and how US nuclear forces should be designed, deployed, and operated.

The Delicate Balance, moreover, paved the way for a more rigorous and critical analysis of the assumptions underlying nuclear weapons strategy, and, above all, set a unique intellectual standard for how this grim subject should be thought about and debated in the future.

Headshot Pravin R. JethwaPravin R. Jethwa (@NixonKissinger) is a writer on defense and international security in London, England.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

The Defense Post aims to publish a wide range of high-quality opinion and analysis from a diverse array of people – do you want to send us yours? Click here to submit an op-ed.

Related Articles

Back to top button