Counter-Force and Counter-Value: The End of War?

Alvin M. Saperstein, Wayne State University,

Ever since humans have gathered together in groups there have been occasional conflicts between the groups. As these groups became nations, these conflicts became wars, hierarchically organized conflicts, with kings – or their equivalents – at the tops way down to single warrior. The purpose of the war was to obtain power – the ability to control – over the important resources of the opponents: – their land, people, mineral and agricultural resources and water, ports, transportation and commercial routes and their hubs. To attain this power, one had to overpower the opponent’s power, using your military power to destroy that of the opponents. This would be accomplished by killing their fighting people, disorganizing their units, fragmenting their will to fight, and/or depriving them of effective allies or military supplies and provisions. In other words, to win, your military forces had to defeat those of the enemy, your force had to successfully counter the force of the opponent . There was no need to inflict damage to the opponent’s non-combatants (“civilians” or other resources); in fact, they were the “value” you were fighting to achieve. Certainly civilians - and their resources - were often hurt or killed in large numbers, but this was rarely – if ever - the goal of the war. Civilians were the “innocent bystanders”; they suffered “collateral damage”. Even in religious wars, the goal was more often to “convert” the unbelieving civilians rather than to kill them. Very often, the defeated society survived, left with enough resources and will to eventually re-create its military strength and again try to achieve power over others. And so, further wars developed resulting in a long chain of wars throughout the history of “mankind.” Nations developed the ability to exert “counter-force” against potential future opponents but spent little time, effort, or resources to develop the ability to counter the values of these future enemies. Nations did not usually go to war to kill people. They went to war to achieve power over people and their resources. Even if the occasional war was for revenge over some slight or insult, revenge was much “sweeter” with power over defeated opponents than with their dead bodies.

A significant change occurs in World War I. Cities far from the battle lines were deliberately bombed or shelled; large masses of civilian refugees were driven from their homelands. Military force was exerted against objects of “value” – people and their necessary resources. There certainly was a great deal of “counter-force” capability developed on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, but nascent “counter-value” abilities and desires began to grow first in Europe. And they blossomed in World War II. Millions of civilians were killed by “conventional bombing” of the cities of both sides in Europe and Asia (in addition to those slaughtered by gassing and traditional means). There is considerable debate, among historians, as to how much the considerable tonnage of conventional bombs (millions of tons of explosive energy) dropped by Allied aircraft upon German and Japanese cities contributed to the eventual Allied success. But the large amount of aviation fuel required to kill one person - civilian or military – by aerial bombardment implied no end to the future chain of wars for there was, potentially, a large number of people in the future; the fuel would run out long before the “value” targets did.

Then came the American dropping of atomic bombs (releasing kilotons of explosive energy) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vastly increasing the amount of civilian death and destruction, (“value”) per gallon of fuel expended and, apparently, bringing the war with Japan in the Pacific to a successful conclusion for the Allies. But fear of Soviet expansionism brought on the “Cold War”, with the increasing involvement of the world’s governments in the nurturing of the physical sciences, and the development of increasingly powerful nuclear fission-fusion weapons (now capable of releasing megatons of explosive energy). Equally important was the creation, by the major competing nation states, of the means for their efficient intercontinental delivery; by missiles launched from aircraft, and from land and underwater (submarine) based silos. As the mass-killing power of these weapons increased, the prospect of war inevitably shifted from “counter-force” to “counter-value”. The only way to protect one’s nation from devastating value destruction was a pre-emptive strike against the enemy’s missiles. These initial strikes could not be guaranteed to be effective in preventing massively destructive counter-strikes because of the increasing probability of “launch on warning” – increasing space-based detection and communication capabilities meant that the incoming pre-emptive warheads would explode over empty silos. (There were many attempts to counter missile attacks with “anti-missiles” but the possible number of attacking warheads and the weakness of the defensive technology seemed to preclude any successful defense.) And the “launched -on- warning missiles” would not be aimed at the pre-empting adversary’s empty silos, but at his major value sites, such as cities, destroying major fractions of the adversary’s society.

Thus, the foundational concept of MAD – “Mutually Assured Destruction” arose and spread. As Einstein is reputed to have said: the war after the next war would be fought with sticks and stones – if there was anybody left to do the fighting. No sane person or political body liked that prospect! MAD meant that you had to be “mad” to contemplate going to war. And so, with and without formal agreement, the probability of wars between the major powers decreased, as did their stocks of nuclear weapons and the “Cold War”.

But technology marched on; with increasing missile accuracy and smaller warheads, perhaps the destruction of “value” could be minimized and the prospect of future “counter-force” war enhanced. Nations could go back to the pre-nuclear age, but with shorter and more destructive, (but hopefully) not universally destructive, wars. Concurrently, the societies of the major nation states were increasingly dominated by their “military-industrial complexes”. The prospect of a no-war future was not universally desired. And so, currently, we find the breaking of missile control treaties , increasing nuclear weapons (as well as conventional military) budgets, and an increasing number of nuclear armed states. Current governments, and their militaries, seem increasingly disinclined to accept the MAD concept as their primary means of dealing with each other in an increasingly competitive world. So now nations are engaged in expensive campaigns to “modernize” their stocks of nuclear weapons by increasing their command and control capabilities, and accuracies, even further, decreasing the size of their explosive power (though many in our present stocks already have “dial-down” options), and by bolstering their numbers and possible launch possibilities.

But nuclear weapons, no matter how small and accurate they may be, have much longer-ranged kill capacity than conventional weapons (longer -ranged in both space and time). Given the large numbers of “small” nuclear weapons contemplated (“small” = roughly the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb = “kilotons”), the havoc they would create, if used, it’s hard to believe that the massive city busters ( i.e., “megatons”) would not also come into play. Certainly, the losing side would likely use them. And so, the universal destruction envisioned by MAD would come about, even without planning for it. Thus, a counter-force strategy, which we are presently contemplating adopting, would most probably lead to a universal counter-value outcome. A counter-force strategy, if successfully adopted and executed (extremely unlikely!) would result in a continuation of the international chain of wars. A counter-value strategy – MAD – if stuck to, is likely to break that chain. There still may be “small wars” – terrorist “attacks – but a universal holocaust would be avoided, a very desirable outcome.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.