Nonprovocative Defence

A number of military analysts, keenly aware of the dangers of the current aggressive strategies, have been looking for alternatives. Among them are Anders Boserup and Dietrich Fischer. Boserup is a professor at the Institute of Sociology in Copenhagen, and is active in the Pugwash movement. He has come to have considerable influence with the Danish government. We spoke with him when he attended a conference on European Peace and Security in Toronto recently. A few days later we chatted with Fischer at a cafe near his office at New York University. Fischer is the author of Preventing War in the Nuclear Age, Totowa NJ: Rowman and Allanheld 1984 (paper).

By Metta Spencer and Michael Johansen (interviewers) | 1985-08-01 12:00:00

Toronto, May, with Anders Boserup:

CANDIS: What is “nonprovocative defence?”

Boserup: Well, it’s not the same as nonviolent defence. It’s an actual kind of military defence, but without any offensive capability. So it cannot be perceived as threatening by an opponent. Under present circumstances, where people are scared about the defence problem, you will not get acceptance of anything less.

CANDIS: People feel they have to have defence?

Boserup: Yes. They may be right or wrong, but the political realities are that we’ll get nowhere unless we have something to propose that people can recognize as a genuine defence but which has advantages compared to what they have now.

Non-offensive defence has two main advantages. First, it improves crisis stability. We want a kind of defence that does not encourage quick escalation or panic if something is about to go wrong Then we and the potential enemy can sit back, take it easy, wait, and assume that things will settle by themselves. That’s one thing to achieve.

The other objective is to create such a situation that we can start disarmament. It helps if I have strong defences and therefore don’t feel the need to match whatever the other side does, but if I also have weak offensive capability, and therefore he does not have to be very nervous whenever I do something. That enlarges our margin of safety, which allows us to negotiate a disarmament that needs not even be very well balanced to be acceptable. So these two objectives are really the advantages — crisis stability and making disarmament possible.

CANDIS: What kind of weapons improve “crisis stability?”

Boserup: Weapons that are invulnerable. They can’t be destroyed in a quick attack by the other side. Also, they have to be nonthreatening to the other side.

CANDIS: Can you give an example?

Boserup: Well, it’s easy to give examples of the kind of weapons we would not want. Cruise and Pershing missiles stationed on European soil are good examples. They are frightfully threatening to the other side and also vulnerable to quick attack. Before the war starts, while they are still in their bases, one big bomb might destroy all of them. So there is an enormous incentive to be the first to strike. In a crisis, both would try to strike first: That is what I call crisis instability.

Now for crisis stability, we’d use a non-offensive, widely disseminated, in depth defence, based on infantry that is concealed and can go into hiding.

CANDIS: When you say “widely disseminated,” you mean scattered around in the territory?

Boserup: More or less evenly distributed in the territory. This means, for example, that you cannot destroy big contingents of forces by bombardment. You’d have to destroy the whole country before you’d have destroyed those forces. So there’s no quick crisis move that can improve your situation.

CANDIS: I’ve heard that given as a reason why nuclear weapons were not used in Vietnam. The soldiers were scattered all around the jungle, so it wouldn’t have done any good. You’d have had to destroy everything

Boserup: I think that’s true, yes. The only target for these weapons was Hanoi, and it was not a military target.

That is very much on one’s mind in relation to Europe, too. It is terribly important to have forces that do not provide the other side with any useful military targets for nuclear weapons. For non-offensive defencc, you scatter people as much as possible, to reduce vulnerability and make it easier to hide.

That, on the other hand, leaves you with the problem of gaining sufficient fire power to stop an invading enemy if he concentrates his forces.

CANDIS: So if you play it one way, you distribute the forces across the countryside, but that makes it harder to fight them if they come in a concentrated assault. What’s the answer to that?

Boserup: The answer is to try to use some of the modern weapon types that are now in the pipeline — long range or intermediate range missiles, for example, with warheads that can find and home in on heavy armor, on aircraft, or what ever.

CANDIS: These are conventional warheads?

Boserup: Yes, of course. The idea is, you scatter over the whole country both your infantry and also missiles of a range of 100 kilometers or so. Since they have this range, you can concentrate on firing into that point instead of bringing all your troops in. Therefore you remain invulnerable. You do not concentrate your own forces, but only your fire. Such technical solutions are becoming possible now, but they’ve not always been possible. You need very high precision — fire over a range of 100 kilometers that is almost as accurate as fire within line of sight.

CANDIS: But I take it you wouldn’t want really long-range weapons because that would look like something you could shoot into their territory.

Boserup: Yes, that is true. But also, whether you pose a threat depends on what other forces you have. As long as the only thing you can do is to shoot 100 kilometers into enemy territory and destroy some military installations there, that does not really pose a threat of invasion. It’s only a threat of invasion if you also have armored forces that can move under enemy fire and can come in behind. So if your combination is missiles of 100 kilometers, plus unarmored infantry, then you do not pose a threat at all, because you cannot move into enemy territory with infantry. You’d be too vulnerable nowadays.

CANDIS: What countries are relying on that system now?

Boserup: None yet. But it is coming: Technology is imposing it. Modern weapons have so many defences built into them that they are inordinately expensive. We stand at a historical turning point. The cost and the possibility of decentralized technology will establish defensive systems that will facilitate disarmament. If we see clearly, we may get out of the arms race. On the other hand, if we just sort of bungle into it, we may decentralize and build up these new weapons without getting that benefit from it. Technology now allows us to move toward disarmament, but it also allows us to create something highly destabilizing, such as the AirLand Battle, the Deep strike concept, and so on. Therefore, I think it is so important that we notice the present opportunities for stability.

CANDIS: The psychology of the defensive strategist you’re describing doesn’t sound at all like the militarists I know. I think the ones in Washington are keen to keep the Russians vulnerable.

Boserup: You’re absolutely right. I think it is true; that is how one thinks in Washington. But there are plenty of people in Europe who do not think that way because we are in a different situation. The United States believes it is engaged in a global confrontation with the Soviet Union and that it must manage to prevail in the end. Our feeling in Europe is that we’ll have to live with this big neighbor of ours. We can hope that it changes but we cannot force it to change. Weapons are for use only to preserve peace. We simply cannot achieve any thing positive by force of arms. In Washington, that notion has not yet sunk in, but in Europe it sank in forty years ago.

CANDIS: Did you say that there is no country that’s using defensive defence now?

Boserup: Right, but several countries have elements of it. Yugoslavia is a good example. And of course, the guerrilla strategy that you saw in Asia — Mao’s China and Vietnam — had certain similarities. It was also a kind of hide and seek game in which the attacker really cannot find any worthwhile targets. But on the other hand, it lacks the high technology.

CANDIS: But of course these are all conventional wars. In a day when nuclear warfare is possible, isn’t it almost irrelevant to pay much attention to conventional military situations?

Boserup: No, I think this enormous focus on deterrence really gets us away from the real problems, which are the technical instabilities in the nuclear systems and the political and social instabilities in conventional forces all around the world. They could blow up, escalate. It won’t come from a sudden strike by the Soviets through some “window of vulnerability’ — a strike at the missile silos.

CANDIS: I don’t know. You hear people who worry about the Americans being forced by the logic of the situation to strike first.

Boserup: The danger is not that the Americans will start a nuclear war. The danger is that the Russians will be very scared and try to achieve the same thing that the Americans have. That produces an arms race, which can be unstable. You can have accidental war in that situation.

New York, June with Dietrich Fischer:

CANDIS: In your new book you ask the question, “What should a nation defend?” What is your answer?

Fischer: Goals that are logically compatible with themselves for all countries. For example if a nation defends its internationally recognized territory, that does not prevent any other nation from doing the same thing. If a nation defends its political independence, it does not inhibit the independence of any other nation.

But if a nation defends access to foreign raw material resources and if another nation defends the same thing, you end up with war. If a nation seeks to export its political, economic system, its ideology, or its relation to other parts of the world with military force rather than by example, that is really not defence. That leads to war if two or more countries want to do the same thing. If you want to be secure, you have to limit your causes to things that can be defended without preventing others from defending the same thing.

CANDIS: Isn’t this the distinction between offensive and defensive defence?

Fischer: Yes. offense is not really defence but is (laughs) aggression. Weapons with a long range, such as intercontinental nuclear missiles are offensive. Weapons with a short range, like a land mine that cannot be moved around, or a bunker, or a fixed obstacle to a tank, are defensive because they are non-mobile or mobile within only a short range. Also, if a weapon’s destructiveness is very localized (like an anti-tank weapon that can destroy one tank) it’s defensive. On the other hand, an incendiary weapon that can destroy a large area, or especially a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon that can wipe out entire populations, is offensive.

A defensive weapon favors the side that responds to an attack, while an offensive weapon favors the side that initiates the attack. For example, if two aircraft carriers approach each other, whichever fires first — let’s say a nuclear cruise missile — at the other one can destroy it before it can fire back. When such an offensive weapon is involved, whoever hesitates and allows the other side to strike first takes a serious risk. But with defensive weapons, the one who initiates combat is at a disadvantage. An example might be two sides facing each other in bunkers or fortresses. Whichever side first ventures out into the open field to storm the other is far more vulnerable than the one who waits inside and only fights off an aggressor.

CANDIS: So a purely defensive system improves the security of a country that acquires it, without threatening the security of anyone else.

Fischer: Exactly. A purely offensive weapon, on the other hand, reduces the security of potential adversaries without contributing anything to the country’s own defence. Most military systems are of an intermediate type: They improve our own security while reducing the security of others.

But there can also be what I call “super-defensive” measures. They simultaneously improve the security of both sides. An example would be the U.N. troops stationed along a contested border, so that neither side can attack the other.

Now obviously, building a rapid deployment force to get access to the oil of other countries would be offensive. A superdefensive action, by contrast, might be to develop new energy sources and make that technology available to other countries. That would improve every one’s energy security. Instead of threatening others, it actually helps them.

There are “super-offensive” measures too. These not only threaten others without improving your own security, but actually threaten your own security too. One example is President Reagan’s plan to build an early warning system on nuclear attack sufficiently reliable so that “the President of the United States could order a retaliatory nuclear strike against the Soviet Union without risking accidental nuclear war.” Everyone who has worked with computers knows that occasionally mistakes happen. Numerous false warnings occur. As many as 3804 warnings of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States were generated by the NORAD warning system, all of which were found to be false in time, before anything happened. To launch a nuclear counter-attack on the basis of such a warning would reduce the security not only of the Soviet Union but also of the United States, since the Soviets would certainly respond to it.

CANDIS: Of course, the nuclear weapon is a special problem. You call your book Preventing War in the Nuclear Age. Will you elaborate a bit on preventing war?

Fischer: Yes. I didn’t call my book “preventing nuclear war” because I believe it’s impossible to eliminate the danger of nuclear war without eliminating war itself. As long as disputes continue to be settled through war, the danger will exist that one side or the other will re build nuclear weapons, even after total nuclear disarmament. Someone will say, “If we don’t, our opponents may do so first.” So it really has become necessary to prevent war itself.

There are four basic reasons why a nuclear war might break out. One is accident: mechanical or human failure. Another is — well, we all remember Hitler, who should have known that Germany was not strong enough to conquer the whole world, but who was blind enough to try. It could happen again; someone might be insane enough to believe that his country could win a nuclear war. The third possibility is escalation of a conventional war into nuclear war. One side, having to choose between defeat or the first use of nuclear weapons, might set it off. And I’ve already mentioned the fourth possibility — a surprise attack out of a fear that the other side may attack first. That danger is particularly great in the presence of first-strike weapons that can destroy the nuclear weapons of the other side. In that situation, each side may believe that they have no choice but to strike because “if we wait any longer, we may be totally destroyed.”

Such situations are not just theoretical but have happened in history — fortunately involving only conventional weapons so far. For example, President Nasser believed in the 1960s that if Egypt could build an air force equal to the Israeli one, his country would be safer. He spent vast sums building a bomber fleet. As a result, both Egypt and Israel soon had vulnerable bomber fleets on open desert airfields, and each side knew that, in case of a war, “if we strike first we can destroy the enemy’s bombers in a surprise raid. If we hesitate and wait, we take an enormous risk.”

When war appeared imminent, therefore, Israel did not delay, but launched a surprise attack that destroyed most of the Egyptian bombers on the ground before they could take o f. So Egypt’s offensive weapons — first-strike bombers — did not improve, but weakened, its own security. They invited an attack.

CANDIS: Military strategists generally seem very concerned about maintaining a “balance of power.” How necessary is “balance” for security?

Fischer: It isn’t. In some situations there can be a perfect balance of military forces, yet both sides will be terribly insecure. In other situations, there can be military imbalance, yet neither side will have any incentive to attack the other. Of course, there are also situations where there is an imbalance of forces and a danger of war, and there are situations where there is a balance of forces and mutual security.

You can also have imbalance and yet security if the defensive strength of each side is stronger than their offensive strength. If they have weapons that are useful to prevent aggression but cannot be used to carry out aggression, then both sides can be secure, even without the balance of forces.

CANDIS: There is a step known as “transarmament” that comes before disarmament. Will you describe “transarmament?”

Fischer: Yes. It’s a shift to a purely defensive military posture. You see, disarmament is feasible only when it is mutual. If one side disarms unilaterally, it makes itself vulnerable and, by inviting aggression, can make war more likely, rather than less so. Hence disarmament requires simultaneous steps by two opposing sides. But “transarmament” can be undertaken independently, without risk, by either side in a conflict, and improves security for both sides. By strengthening our defences and deliberately getting rid of offensive weapons, we reduce the chances of aggression. We become able to defend ourselves, while others need not fear that we might attack them. That way it isn’t necessary to eliminate our military forces to reduce others’ fears of being attacked.

CANDIS: Canada is a member of NATO. You have a chapter in your book called “Entangling Alliances.” Could you elaborate on this?

Fischer: Basically, forming an alliance can be a good idea, enabling a group of small countries to defend themselves collectively against a threatening stronger power. There is an analogy that it’s possible to break one stick but more difficult to break a bundle of sticks tied together.

But one has to be very careful in choosing allies. If you ally yourself with a country that pursues a provocative, belligerent foreign policy, you may get drawn into a war by an ally, which you could have otherwise avoided. Deciding whether to join an alliance could be compared to the decision of a mountain climber planning an expedition. If you are on a rope with a group of other people, they may be able to save you if you slip accidentally into a glacier. But if one of the members is more careless than you, he can pull the whole party into disaster. You’d be safer going by yourself. It’s the same with military alliances. You’d be safer disassociating yourself from countries with aggressive foreign policies. (Laughs.) I will not name any country!

CANDIS: In Canada there has been a lot of discussion about the cost of defence. What kind of defence is least expensive?

Fischer: It is often said that a purely defensive posture is feasible in principle but terribly expensive. The empirical evidence doesn’t support that. Those countries that pursue foreign military interventions generally have a much higher defence budget as a percentage of their gross national product than countries that merely defend themselves against outside aggression. Some of the new technologies (such as precision guided munitions) favor the defence over the offense. One famous example was the Falkland Islands War where Argentina damaged the British vessel with the Exocet missile. I believe the British ship cost $50 million and the Exocet missile $250,000. It’s a ratio of 200 to 1. Likewise, with a small missile you can destroy a tank that may cost many times as much. A country can defend itself against invasion at a fraction of the cost of mounting an invasion.

CANDIS: There is a widespread notion that the more you spend for military purposes, the more secure you are.

Fischer: Yes, and that’s often true, but there are exceptions. If you buy first strike weapons, you may not improve your security but invite an attack by potential opponents, as in the case of the Egyptian bombers. For that same reason, Sweden and Switzerland at the beginning of the Second World War deliberately decided not to buy long-range bombers. They figured out that merely possessing such weapons, without even threatening to use them, might make Hitler decide to destroy them before they could be used. So buying certain weapons actually makes you less secure.

CANDIS: And of course, besides military defence, there is also non military defence.

Fischer Indeed. One aspect of preventing aggression is to make it too costly for a potential aggressor to afford. But that’s only one part of it. It’s equally important to make peaceful cooperation more attractive. The five year defence guidance plan that was secretly passed to the New York Times in 1983 stated that, as a peacetime complement to military strategy, we’ll have to wage an economic and political war against the Soviet Union. That does not increase the United States’ security because it does not make peace more attractive for the Soviet Union. It deliberately tries to make the current situation unbearable for the Soviet Union. Such a policy promotes war, not peace.

There are two ways of making aggression less attractive — by increasing the costs to an aggressor and by reducing any benefits that he might hope to gain from an attack. In the same way, we make peace more attractive by increasing the benefits and reducing the losses to a country during peacetime.

CANDIS: That gives four logical possibilities for reducing the likelihood of attack.

Fischer: Right, and of those four military defence concentrates on only one — increasing the losses to be suffered by an aggressor if he attacks. The other three ways (which can be called “non military defence”) are equally important and maybe just as effective. They involve making it clear to a potential aggressor that he can’t attain his goals by attacking us.

Such a policy was pursued, for example, by Sweden and Switzerland during the Second World War to deter German attack. Sweden made it clear that if Germany were to invade, Sweden would destroy its own iron and coal industries by blowing up the dams that supplied electric power to those industries, to keep Germany from gaining those resources for its war. Switzerland which didn’t have any natural resources, had to invent something artificial. It threatened to blow up the Alpine tunnels in case of a German invasion into Switzerland. Rebuilding them would have taken many years.

To make peace more attractive, one can develop mutual trade, scientific and cultural exchange, and other forms of cooperation that benefit both sides, so neither side will want to destroy their relationship.

CANDIS: Some might call that “appeasement. “

Fischer: Well, it’s not. Appeasement means to reward aggressive behavior by giving in under threats; that naturally increases more aggressive behavior. What I’m advocating is the exact opposite — cooperating during peacetime and making it clear that an attack would stop any further cooperation.

To make this approach work, one must also avoid threats or humiliating speeches against the other country, and refrain from using pressure, boycotts, or exploitative trade relations to force that country to change.

CANDIS: How do you suggest that activists can be more effective?

Fischer: Well, we should stop fighting among ourselves about what to do first. Many things need to be done and we can all do what we feel most confident of accomplishing. We need small, short term steps to survive long enough to make major political changes for lasting security. Individuals can inform them selves better by reading newspapers, books, attending lectures, and talking to other people about it. People can write to their elected officials. True, our demonstrations and other peace actions have not yet succeeded. But don’t despair: The same was true before the abolition of slavery. Abolitionists were a small minority, ridiculed and abused by the majority, who thought they were utopians. “Slavery has been with us thousands of years and will last forever.” Today, people who work for the abolition of war are also called utopian. “War has always been with us and always will be.” Well, I’m convinced that war can be abolished.

Many people avoid talking about these issues out of fear of sounding stupid. They think that the people in government with access to classified information are the only ones who can understand those issues. They’re wrong. Let me give an anecdote.

A reporter, Robert Scheer, who has written a book on the Reagan nuclear policy, interviewed many officials during the 1990 election, including Caspar Weinberger. When Weinberger was named Defense Secretary, Scheer went back, full of expectation, to the 90 minutes of taped interviews to write an article about Weinberger’s views on defence and foreign policy. He was disappointed. There was one sentence on the tape about that issue. Weinberger had said something like this: “Let’s not discuss defence and foreign policy because I know nothing about that.” (Laughs.) Three months later he was running around the country telling everyone what kind of weapon systems the United States needs, as if he were an expert. People are afraid to speak, out of fear that we don’t know enough about those issues. We hand over responsibility to people who are only too eager to tell us what we need.

Peace Magazine August 1985

Peace Magazine August 1985, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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