Thankfully, I have never laid eyes on plans to fight a nuclear war. The biggest advantages to not knowing these plans are that my sleep habits and powers of analysis have not been further impaired. Knowledge is usually a good thing, but knowledge of nuclear targeting plans can be a hindrance — if this material is taken as gospel. On most topics, strategic analysts load up on caveats, but doctrine and targeting tend to be taken literally — mostly by Hawks, and sometimes by Doves, depending on whose doctrine is under scrutiny. Serious readers of doctrine gravitate toward worst cases, where they keep company with analysts who dwell on the results of computer-driven, nuclear war-fighting campaigns.
Granted, doctrine is important because very bad things can happen. In which case, it’s a good thing to have a sense of an adversary’s plans. On the other hand, reading doctrine and classified material about nuclear war can fog analytical skills — when analysts forget that national leaders have consent rights to implement these plans. Up until now, leaders of all different stripes and political persuasions have done their utmost to not implement nuclear war-fighting plans during harrowing crises.
The most prominent case of the uses and misuses of doctrinal literalism is probably the Team B exercise in 1976 – CIA Director George H.W. Bush’s parting gift to the incoming Carter administration.
It’s not easy for the intelligence community to assess what adversaries are doing. Goldilocks assessments that are “just right” are unheralded. There can, however, be hell to pay if the IC under-estimates an adversary’s nuclear capabilities. Then, typically, compensatory actions and assessments follow. In the 1970s, the CIA tended to underestimate the growth of Soviet programs. In the 1980s, it overestimated the Soviet threat – most embarrassingly, when the USSR was coming apart at the seams. Not surprisingly, Team B’s assessment was the pivot point between estimates that were too cold and then too hot. Over-estimating an adversary’s nuclear capabilities is usually safer as a career move than under-estimating them.
During the presidency of Gerald R. Ford, critics of the SALT I accords zeroed in on the National Intelligence Estimates of Soviet strategic forces. Leading figures in what famously became the Committee on the Present Danger called for a hard look at and a fresh scrub of these estimates. [Digression: In my recollection, this campaign was much harsher than the reaction to the 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program that judged, “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This NIE made an important corollary judgment, “with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”]
President Ford tacked to the right. He disavowed the word “détente” and backed away from a SALT II agreement. He consented to a competitive intelligence estimate of the CIA’s in-house “Team A” assessments. CIA Director Bush selected for this assignment outsiders not known for underestimating the Soviet threat. Team B was led by Soviet historian Richard Pipes. It included Gen. Danny Graham, William Van Cleave, Paul Nitze and Paul Wolfowitz.
The Team B assessment has been declassified. For a more flavorful summary of the proceedings, I recommend an essay by Richard Pipes, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks it Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” which appeared in the July 1977 issue of Commentary. Here’s a sampler:
“The predisposition of the American strategic community is to shrug off this fundamental doctrinal discrepancy. American doctrine has been and continues to be formulated and implemented by and large without reference to its Soviet counterpart. It is assumed here that there exists one and only one ‘rational’ strategy appropriate to the age of thermonuclear weapons, and that this strategy rests on the principle of ‘mutual deterrence’…
It is my contention that this attitude rests on a combination of arrogance and ignorance; that it is dangerous; and that it is high time to start paying heed to Soviet doctrine, lest we end up deterring no one but ourselves. There is ample evidence that the Soviet military say what they mean and usually mean what they say…
[The U.S.] middle class, commercial, essentially Protestant ethos is absent from Soviet culture… The Communist revolution of 1917… in effect installed in power the muzhik, the Russian peasant. And the muzhik had been taught by long historical experience that cunning and coercion alone ensured survival…
Expenditures on the military represent for the Soviet leadership an excellent and entirely ‘rational’ capital investment. For this reason alone… the Soviet leadership could not accept the theory of mutual deterrence…
Implicit in all this is the idea that nuclear war is feasible… thermonuclear war is not suicidal, it can be fought and won, and thus resort to war must not be ruled out.
To my way of thinking, the best rebuttal – pre-buttal, actually – of the Team B’s exercise in doctrinal literalism was written by McGeorge Bundy. No need for a GPS unit to find Bundy on the Protestant-muzhik divide. In an oft-quoted passage from his October 1969 Foreign Affairs article, “To Cap the Volcano,” he wrote:
There is an enormous gulf between what political leaders really think about nuclear weapons and what is assumed in the complex calculations of relative ‘advantage’ in simulated strategic warfare… In the real world of real political leaders… a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb of one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history.