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by Benjamin L. Landis


It is the obligation of any government to accept the responsibility to ensure both the territorial integrity of the society of which it is the government and the personal security of the members of that society.  In the case of the United States, this obligation is mandated as one of the six responsibilities of the federal government by the Preamble to the Constitution.  How any government meets this obligation is determined by its geopolitical situation, i.e., its geographical location vis-à-vis other societies, the attitudes and capabilities of those societies that can threaten its territorial integrity and the security of its population, and its available economic and human resources.

With respect to the United States of America, until after the Second World War, the primary factor on which its national defense policy was based was its geographical isolation.  Since its founding, the barrier created by the oceans surrounding it has effectively protected it against invasion, except for the brief and unsuccessful incursion by the British in 1812.  Then, the fledgling American navy was inadequate to prevent the supreme naval force in the world at the time from depositing and sustaining troops on American soil.  Yet that invasion was not only short-lived, but modest in its achievements.  Obviously, the defense policy of the United States from the beginning was also based on the knowledge that there was no practical possibility that its two land-based neighbors—Canada and Mexico—would attempt to transgress the country’s territorial integrity or to harm its population.  In fact, the contrary has been the historical case.  The United States has invaded both of its smaller neighbors on different occasions.  In the development of a national defense policy that follows, the war-like propensities of Mexico and Canada will not be deemed an issue meriting attention.

This geographical isolation as the basis of the national defense policy manifested itself from the founding of the United States until the beginning of the Second World War by the maintenance of a strong navy and a very small army.  And this defense policy was successful in maintaining the security of American territory and society.  The entry of the United States into the First World War was not precipitated by any threat to United States territory or society.  The Second World War with the eventual entry of the United States into that conflict as a principal force necessitated a gigantic increase in both the army and navy, as well as the creation of an air force.  It is important to realize that the precipitating cause of American entry into the Second World War, i.e., the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, was intended to eliminate the capability of the United States Navy to interfere in the Japanese invasions of the countries of Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and the island chains of the Western Pacific.   It was not intended to be the prelude to an invasion of the United States mainland or the Hawaiian Islands.

Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people had felt secure behind their ocean barriers reinforced by a navy that was capable of preventing any invasion of the American mainland.  Nazi Germany, the instigator of the Second World War, did not appear as a threat to United States territory or society.  In fact, after conquering most of Western Europe, Hitler launched the Third Reich toward self-destruction in the depths of the Russian land mass.  How the Second World War would have played out had Japan not committed the colossal error of bombing Pearl Harbor cannot be divined, except that Nazi Germany would have eventually been defeated.  Would the Soviet Union have liberated all of Western Europe and established Communist puppet states from Norway to Italy?  Would the United States have entered the war anyway in order to prevent a Communist takeover of all of Europe?  Possibly interesting historical speculation, but only that.

With the end of the Second World War, the United States government visualized a return to the traditional defense policy based upon its ocean barriers.  However, such intentions were cut short by the beginning of the Cold War, which can be reasonably placed in 1948 with the start of the Soviet blockade of Berlin.  The United States government supported by the American population recognized in the Soviet Union a threat to the country’s territorial integrity and to the security of its population.  The most visible aspect of this threat was the quickly developed and quickly expanded Soviet capability of delivering by ICBM nuclear warheads on United States territory.  To counter this threat the United States developed an equivalent nuclear warfare capability and, through the development of an ICBM retaliatory force and a missile-launching nuclear submarine force, the means of achieving massive nuclear strikes.  Thus, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was acknowledged by both the United States and the Soviet Union and forestalled the Cold War from becoming a nuclear holocaust.

The other aspect of the Soviet threat, and in reality more menacing than the Soviet nuclear strike capability, was the propagation by the Soviet Union of Communism throughout the world by supporting national Communist Parties and attempting to set up Communist governments wherever possible.  The establishment of Communist governments in that part of Eastern Europe overrun by the Soviet armies on their way to Berlin, the establishment of a Communist government in China, and the invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea created in the American psyche a real sentiment of a non-nuclear military threat against the non-Communist world.  The United States government, therefore, conceived the need for a large army and air force, in addition to its traditional strong navy, outside all nuclear warfare considerations.

With the support of the American population, the United States government conceived itself as the “policeman” protecting the non-Communist world from the expansion of the Communist world.  It spread its military force over the whole world; it engaged in war against Communist intrusions in Korea and Vietnam and Cuba; it supported non-Communist regimes, even though they were not democracies; it supported indigenous rebellions against Communist regimes.  All these “police” actions required the maintenance of major military forces.  The Cold War national defense policy of the United States thus entailed a large inter-continental nuclear strike capability, a large army, a large navy  — not only as a part of the nuclear strike force, but also in its traditional role of preventing an invasion of American territory  — and a large air force, again as a part of the nuclear strike force and as a supplement to the navy in the protection of American territorial integrity.

The Soviet Union disappeared at the end of 1991.  The Cold War ended.   Communism ceased to be a threat to the world’s non-Communist countries.  Communism had been shown to be a bankrupt political and economic ideology.  The sure proof of this is the pauper state of North Korea.  Even China today is only nominally a Communist country.  It is transforming itself into a single-party dictatorship with a capitalist economy.  Fidel Castro has recently admitted the failure of Communism to create a prosperous economy.  Nowhere is there a nation that is trying to spread the doctrine of Communism.  The vestigial Communist Parties that still exist are negligible political factors in their countries and are barely recognizable as Communist in their political doctrines.

Yet the United States national defense policy has remained anchored to the defunct realities of the Cold War   The United States government has failed to adjust its policy to correspond to the realities of the world of today.

What are those realities?  First, today there is no nation or group of nations attempting to impose any doctrine whatsoever on other nations.  This is true for the religion of Islam as well as for Communism.  No Islamic nation is attempting to spread its religion to other countries.  On the contrary, the Islamic fundamentalists are desperately attempting to save the “purity” of their religion from the corrupting influences of Western Civilization.  Consequently, the United States has no further role as the “policeman” for the non-Communist, non-Islamic world.  Second, no country has presently any hostile intentions toward the United States and the American people.  The fact that the leadership of a country, such as Iran, indulges in unfriendly, even occasionally hostile, remarks against the United States, is a sign of their frustration at not being accepted into the comity of nations and not a sign of hostile intent, which in the case of Iran could not be realized even if it existed.  Third, the possibility of a major war on the scale of a World War is virtually nil.  Certainly, none of the nations that precipitated the major wars in the past is any longer capable of precipitating one in the twenty-first century.   And the only two powers—United States and China—capable of doing so in this century are completely restrained by the nuclear sword of Damocles.

On what then should a rational and sufficient national defense policy be based?  In view of the realities described above, it can only be based on a consideration of the possible ways in which the territorial integrity of the United States and the security of the American people could be endangered or violated.

What are these possible ways?  In total, there are only four: Invasion, Nuclear Attack, Terrorist Attack, Cyber Attack.

INVASION:  This is a chimera.  There is no country in this world today that has the capability of launching an invasion of the territory of the United States.  Should a country in the course of the century develop such a capability and demonstrate a warlike hostility toward the United States, as long as the United States government maintains an adequate navy and air force, even such a country could not successfully traverse thousands of miles of ocean and invade the territory of the United States.  The countries that would have the probable capability of developing such a military power have, on the one hand, shown no desire to do so and no hostility toward the American people and, in addition, have such a magnitude of internal problems that the likelihood of developing such a power and such a hostility is minimal.  And even if they were, by some enormous stretch of the imagination, to do so, an adequate United States Navy and Air Force would thwart any such effort.  Those few countries that have displayed in the present an unfriendly or hostile attitude toward the United States are in no position to threaten an invasion and are too small to develop the necessary military power.

NUCLEAR ATTACK:  Of the 8 other nations today that have a nuclear warfare capability, 7 of them have nuclear capabilities so inferior to those of the United States with regard to both delivery capability and number of nuclear weapons that the possibility of their initiating a nuclear attack against the United States is virtually inconceivable.  It would require a mad man, such as Adolph Hitler, trapped in his Berlin bunker surrounded by Soviet forces, knowing that defeat and death were inevitable and immediate, to order a nuclear attack against the United States.  The likelihood of such a situation presenting itself in this century is essentially nil.  Furthermore, of these 8 nations, 2 are long time allies of the United States and 4 others do not currently have the means for delivering a nuclear attack on American territory.  The only nation that has such a nuclear capability both in numbers of weapons and in delivery capability is Russia.  Since Russia has no capability of invading the United States, a nuclear attack, even massive, which would be followed by an American counterstroke equally powerful, can be considered a likely event only if one can believe that the Russian political leadership is maniacally suicidal.

Although there is virtually no danger of any nation executing a nuclear attack on American territory, there is a palpable danger that nuclear-capable nations may be tempted to use such weapons against each other or against non-nuclear nations.  For example, Pakistan and India, Israel and Middle Eastern Muslim nations, North Korea and South Korea.  The United States has a responsibility, both moral and political, as the creator of nuclear warfare, to ensure that such attacks never occur, as well as ensuring its own security against nuclear attacks.  In order to accomplish these goals, the government of the United States needs to adopt two programs to ensure that such warfare will most likely never occur.  First, the government needs to announce a clear policy on the use of nuclear weapons by the United States.  This policy should be as follows:

(1)  The United States will never be the first to use nuclear warheads or devices in any circumstances.

(2)  The United States will initiate a nuclear counter strike of equal or greater magnitude against any nation that employs nuclear weapons against another nation.  This counter strike will be aimed at the same type of targets struck by the aggressor.

It would be eminently desirable that Russia and China also adopt such a nuclear policy.

The second program would entail initiating continuing negotiations with other nuclear powers to reduce drastically the number of nuclear warheads and their delivery means.  These negotiations would be difficult, time-consuming, and of long duration.  They would initially be limited to the United States and Russia, whose nuclear arsenals represent about 90% of all the nuclear weapons on this earth.  Their objective would be to reduce substantially the two countries’ nuclear arsenals while continuing to maintain a nuclear balance of power between the United States and Russia.  The level of nuclear weapons in these countries’ arsenals would eventually drop well below the American and Russian capability today to achieve not only total societal destruction of the target country, but also of the world’s environment and the reduction of the planet’s habitable area.  A certain level of a nuclear strike capability would, nonetheless, need to be maintained in order to restrain “rogue” nations that may develop a nuclear warfare capability and also terrorist organizations that may acquire nuclear weapon devices.

Eventually, the other nuclear-armed nations would need to be brought into the negotiations as the American and Russian capabilities were reduced toward those of France and China, the world’s third and fourth nuclear powers.  Eventually, all the nuclear powers regardless of the size of their arsenals would be brought into the negotiations with a view to reducing to the absolute minimum the number of nuclear warheads hanging over the people of the world.  In fact, it should be a long term objective to eliminate the nuclear warfare capability of those nations that do not represent a threat to other nuclear-armed nations and are conversely not threatened by them or by other non-nuclear nations that would pose a conventional military threat. This is certainly an envisionable conclusion, if the major powers adopt the nuclear defense policy proposed above.  In other words, the United States, Russia, China, and possibly France, would create an “atomic umbrella” that would protect non-nuclear states from nuclear aggression.
Nonetheless, the nuclear free world envisioned by President Obama will most likely never arrive, because the technology for constructing nuclear warheads and the means for delivering them cannot be put back into a box and buried some place where it cannot be discovered and dug up.  There will very likely always exist “rogue” states, as well as terrorist organizations, that may very well develop or obtain at least a rudimentary nuclear capability.  In addition, the possibility exists that a state, having reduced, or even eliminated, its nuclear arsenal in accordance with international agreements, may, under different leadership, decide to play the nuclear card again.  The most powerful assurance that such “rogue” states and terrorist organizations will not use nuclear weapons is that they will be subject to nuclear retaliation.

TERRORISM:  It is necessary to recognize two forms of terrorism: domestic and international.  Timothy McVeigh is a prime example of domestic terrorism; Al Qaeda is a prime example of international terrorism.  In both cases, it is necessary to accept that the repression of both varieties of terrorism on the territory of the United States belongs to the police and judicial systems, to include the Department of Homeland Security, and not to the national defense establishment.  A terrorist act on American soil is a crime and must be dealt with as a crime.  The primary role that the armed forces can have is to furnish intelligence to the police and judicial operatives on terrorist activity and suspected activity, such intelligence being obtained outside the territorial limits of the United States, since it is against the law, as well as against the traditions and heritage of the American people, for the defense establishment to conduct intelligence operations in the United States itself.  Secondarily, the armed forces can be called upon to assist civil agencies, such as, FEMA, and local governments to deal with the human and material damages caused by a terrorist attack, as they are regularly called upon to do the same after natural catastrophes, such as Katrina and the BP oil spill.

In one aspect of the defense against terrorism the defense establishment would necessarily take the lead.  This is in the defense against the use of a nuclear weapon by an international terrorist organization.  As an additional, but organic, part of the nuclear defense policy proposed above would also be the following:

If the United States or another nation is struck with a nuclear weapon by a terrorist organization, the United States will strike the nation in which that organization is harbored and/or the nation that furnished the nuclear material.  The retaliation will be equivalent in its targets and explosive power to the original strike.  The United States’ retaliation will be launched only when there is a virtual 100% certainty as to the culpability of the nation to be struck.  There will be no time limit on the launching of the retaliatory strike.

Once again, it would be highly desirable that Russia and China adopt the same policy.    The defense establishment has a definite role to play in attempting to ferret out and eliminate international terrorist organizations situated abroad that could plan and organize strikes against the American people.  However, it is not through massive military intervention that this role can be successfully performed.  It is an intelligence-gathering, clandestine operations role with the use of highly sophisticated technology, such as, drones, as well as special operations forces, and as much as possible in cooperation with local military and police forces.

It is important to recognize that the best efforts of the police and judicial systems to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States and those of the defense establishment to track down and eliminate international terrorist organizations overseas will not eliminate terrorism.  Just as the police and judiciary cannot eliminate conventional crime; they can only attempt to prevent terrorist acts, and to track down the criminals and put them in prison and, by diligently performing these tasks, reduce the number of criminal acts.  Terrorism will only be eliminated by eliminating over the long term its root causes through diplomacy, wider and more humanistic education, and the development of more harmonious international relations.

CYBER ATTACK:  Cyber warfare is of a different nature from that of the other potential threats discussed above.  First, It does not wound and kill; it does not destroy material objects, either natural or man-made; it does not leave a residue of lethal nuclear radiation in the atmosphere and in the soil.  It is therefore of no interest to terrorists, whose prime motivation is to kill and destroy, to leave a durable mark and memory on a society.  Second, even when successful, its effects are temporary.  Third, because of these two characteristics, it does not constitute an isolated threat.  Its value to an aggressor is only as a support for an invasion or a nuclear attack.  Therefore, the risk of a cyber attack is the same as that of an invasion or a nuclear attack.

A cyber attack can have two objectives:  First, to reduce the capability of the armed forces to function effectively, to defend against an invasion or to thwart a nuclear attack;  Second, to incapacitate the functioning of the electronic infrastructure of American society, such as the electric power system, the communications system, the financial system, the transportation system, etc.  With respect to the first type of attack, it is necessary that the armed forces develop a cyber defense capability as well as an offensive cyber capability to employ along with conventional forces against the threat of an invasion or a nuclear attack.  With respect to the second, the assumption by the defense establishment of the responsibility for creating and maintaining a national defense capability is neither necessary, desirable, nor warranted.  In fact, it is not at all certain what should be the responsibility of the national government in this defense.  For example, with regard to the electrical power system, should not the primary responsibility devolve to the various operators of the system with the government having the role of monitor to assure the effectiveness of the defense system?  Would not the establishment of a government-run defense be financially onerous, operationally cumbersome and above all, unnecessarily invasive of the proprietary rights and personal privacy of the operators and users of the system?

How can a national defense be organized on the basis of the protection of the territory of the United States and the security of the American people to counter the potential threats described above?

The President would need to appoint a commission to develop a national defense policy tailored to respond to the real threats facing the American people.  The President cannot rely upon the Department of Defense, or any other governmental department or agency, to conduct an objective and impartial study of the country’s national defense requirements.  The commission would need to identify the threats and then determine how they should be met.  Without attempting to pre-judge the conclusions of such a commission, I would, nonetheless, suggest that the threats I have identified above represent the only ones that that are pertinent to a national defense policy.  A consideration of these threats would indicate strongly that the threat of invasion can be successfully met by an adequate navy and air force.  The threat of nuclear attack can be successfully met by the maintenance of a nuclear retaliatory strike force in the naval and air forces.  In addition, to meet this threat, the declaration of a clear and firm position of the United States government on the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons must be made.  The threat from terrorism, both domestic and international, is, within the territorial limits of the United States, a matter for the police and judiciary systems, to include the Department of Homeland Security, not for the armed forces.  The role of the armed forces would be to gather intelligence overseas and to ferret out, chase down, and destroy terrorist groups wherever they are found.  This mission cannot be accomplished successfully by massive military intervention, but through the use of intelligence and small scale clandestine operations and advanced anti-terrorist technology, such as drone surveillance and strikes.

The commission would need to ask such questions as: What is the risk of any country mounting a trans-ocean invasion of the United States?  What is the best way to preclude the use of nuclear weapons in warfare?  What is the best way to reduce the threat of domestic and international terrorism on American soil?  What should be the role of each of the armed services in meeting the specific potential threats to the territorial integrity of the United States and the security of the American people?  How should American society be defended against cyber attack?

Within this framework, questions that the commission needs to raise would concern the size, organization, composition, and stationing of the United States armed forces as they exist today.  Does the United States Navy need 11 aircraft carriers to accomplish its mission of thwarting a crossing of the oceans by an invasion force?  Do the Navy and Air Force combined need over 10,000 aircraft in order to aid in preventing a trans-ocean invasion? What should be the composition of the nuclear retaliatory strike force and how should it be progressively downsized in negotiations with Russia?  Does the United States need an Army of about 600,000 soldiers and officers to meet its possible missions in a revamped national defense system?  Does the United States need a Marine Corps of 3 divisions and 3 Expeditionary Brigades to meet its possible missions in a twenty-first century national defense establishment?

Without prejudging the conclusions of an eventual Presidential Commission, I would suggest that the Army and the Marine Corps do not have a leading role in a rational national defense policy.  They have an anticipatory role.  First, they serve as a reservoir of trained manpower when and if the occasion occurs that large ground forces would have to be created, staffed, trained, and led..  Second, they must be available to assist civil agencies and local governments to deal with the material and human damages of catastrophes, both natural and man-caused.  Third, they must be trained and prepared to deal with domestic disturbances, when and if occasions occur   In all these above missions they would obviously be augmented by the National Guard and the Reserves, as required.  Fourth, they must be trained and equipped to participate in peace-keeping missions established by the United Nations.  Fifth, a small number of the Army and Marine Corps would participate, and could possibly be the major element, in the intelligence-gathering and clandestine operations missions against international terrorist groups in foreign countries, as I have already mentioned.  Sixth, another small number of the Army and Marine Corps would participate in accordance with international agreements in the training of ground forces of other countries.

Further questions that the Commission would need to ask are:  Is there a real military necessity to have United States military forces and installations in Germany, South Korea, Japan, etc?  Is there any valid reason for continuing to fund, develop, and install the present version of a missile defense system that would not protect the American people against a multiple missile attack and not even 100% against a single missile attack?   The greatest assurance that no nation will be tempted to launch a missile toward the territory of the United States is the United States’ capability of retaliating with greater destructive power.

Regardless of the breadth and depth of the investigation that a Presidential Commission would need to cover, a time limit of less than a year for it to make its report, conclusions, and recommendations is quite feasible.  Nonetheless, until such time as the United States has withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Commission’s recommendations could not be put into effect.  The withdrawal from these two countries should be completely accomplished before the end of 2011.  For Iraq, this is already a situation of fact directed by an agreement between the United States and Iraq.  With regard to Afghanistan, see the article “Afghanistan: An American Tragedy” available at this web site.

There would be two major direct benefits from a complete revamping of the nation’s national defense policy in accordance with the realities of today’s world.  The first is that it would undoubtedly create a major reduction in the national government’s annual budget.  The national defense budget is in the range of 700 billion dollars a year.  The Secretary of Defense recently proposed reducing that budget by 20 billion dollars a year.  This is derisory.  It amounts to a 2.8% annual reduction.  And although the withdrawal of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan will reduce the defense budget, it is still predicted that it will increase, even after these withdrawals, by about 1% per year.  Therefore, Mr. Gates’ proposed savings would be a net reduction over 5 years of only about 9%.  On the other hand, a refashioning of the armed forces to correspond with the realities of today’s world could very handily achieve an annual defense budget that would be one-half of the current defense budget.

The second major benefit would be that the United States government could begin to seriously address the much greater threats that endanger the American people that are not susceptible to being overcome by armed force.  These threats are climate change, economic—financial and commercial—globalization, the movement of peoples across national boundaries, the hostile attitude of much of the Islamic world as it struggles to transform itself from a feudal to a modern society, the persecution of women, the eventual disappearance of oil as the major source of energy, the impending shortage of usable water throughout the world, the depletion of the oceans as a source of food, etc.  The level of risk to the well being and prosperity of the American society is much higher with regard to these threats than are the risks with regard to the threats that need to be met by the country’s national defense establishment.  None of these threats can be successfully met with armed force.  They can only be met through the development of domestic policies and procedures to treat them and through extensive international cooperation.

The time has already come for the United States government to reassess the challenges and threats facing the American people and to devote the maximum of resources toward overcoming them.  This cannot be done by the Department of Defense.  Other governmental departments, especially the Department of State, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, must be strengthened, reorganized as necessary, and much better funded.

The Preamble to the Constitution mandates six responsibilities for the United States Government: “…form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”   Providing for the common defense is only one of the six and is in no way singled out as the first priority of the government.  Yet, during the last half of the twentieth century the defense mandate assumed disproportionate importance because of the perceived threat from the Soviet Union and its effort to communize the world.  It has been almost 20 years since the Soviet Union disappeared and the doctrine of Communism self-destructed under the weight of its universal failure.  The world no longer needs the United States to be its “policeman.” The American people and their government need to put this era behind them, look at the world as it exists today, and adopt the policies that will successfully meet the challenges and threats of today’s and tomorrow’s world.End.

Benjamin L. Landis
Benjamin L. Landis

Benjamin Landis retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after a 27-year career that included service with the Military Assistance Advisory Group at the U.S. embassy in Paris and as Senior U.S. Liaison Officer with the French Forces in Germany. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the French Army Ecole d’Etat-Major, and has an MSA from The George Washington University.  After retirement, he was Director of Administration and Finance for several major law firms in Washington.


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