120. Address by Secretary of Defense McNamara at the Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council0

Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen:

I appreciate the opportunity to make some remarks today on the relationship among Alliance strategy, defense budgets and military force, and to submit for your consideration some suggestions as to how we might proceed to obtain a more effective common defense. Despite the great strides made during the past thirteen years, we are in some danger of letting our strategic concepts, forces, and defense budgets get out of touch with international and technological developments. I would like to suggest, therefore, that the Alliance take a fresh and comprehensive look at the threats we are likely to face, at the ways we might meet them, at the forces we should have, and at the funds that we should allocate to procure and support those forces.

War in the Nuclear age

For the greater part of its history NATO has concentrated on the threat of a massive Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Although General Norstad introduced as early as 1957 the idea that a Soviet attack might be limited, and proposed enforcing a “pause” to counter it, we have tended too much to fix our strategy, our budgets, and our forces on the threat as originally conceived in 1949. I doubt that we have drawn the full implication of the maturing nuclear age on the evolving nature of the dangers facing us.

In wars prior to the advent of nuclear weapons, damage was reparable and victory attainable. But after a full nuclear exchange such as the Soviet Bloc and the NATO Alliance are now able to carry out, the fatalities might well exceed 150,000,000. As I observed at Athens,1 such damage is not certain—but it is probable. In such a situation the devastation would be complete and victory a meaningless term. Responsible political and military leaders are constantly aware of this reality of the nuclear age.

Even during the years when the West possessed a virtual nuclear monopoly, that nuclear superiority did not serve as a universal deterrent against all forms of Communist political and military aggression. Still less does it do so today, and even less can we count on it to do so in the [Page 440]future. This is not to say that nuclear weapons will never be used, but that this use becomes rational only when the alternative would be even worse than nuclear war; for example, a surrender to Communist aggression. We in the West must maintain nuclear forces so large as to preclude such a possibility and to deter the first use of nuclear weapons by our opponents. But it is becoming increasingly clear that such forces by themselves will not prevent less violent acts of political and military aggression. If the Alliance’s foreign policies are to rest on military power which can be used in political and military crises of less intensity than those involving the very survival of one or more of its members, then that military power must include effective non-nuclear forces and the ability to concentrate that power where it is most needed.

The Cuban experience is consistent with this view. During the Cuban crisis, Soviet nuclear power was in effect neutralized by U.S. nuclear power. In the Caribbean area, the United States had superior non-nuclear land, sea and air forces which were quite capable of destroying the Soviet missiles. The Soviet Union’s non-nuclear forces in the area were inferior. Since the controversy between the United States and the Soviet Union was not over the issue of Soviet national survival, the Soviet Union was not prepared to use its nuclear power. And it had no other force it could effectively use. We faced a challenge which forced us to support diplomacy with military action; in this action military and diplomatic moves were meshed; there was an effort on both sides to localize the confrontation. And, perhaps, most significantly, the forces that were the cutting edge of action were the non-nuclear ones. Nuclear force was not irrelevant but it was in the background. Non-nuclear forces were our sword, our nuclear forces were our shield.

The situation in Europe is of course very different. Nevertheless, the confrontation in Cuba may throw light on certain of the military and political threats which NATO must be prepared to face. I believe that most probable threat is not a nuclear attack or even an all-out conventional attack on Western Europe. It seems far more likely that the Soviets will continue to engage in probes, tests, exploitation of weak spots and efforts to divide. These may be bold and backed by impressive force, but given their careful calculation of risks, their emphasis on keeping events under control and their preference for a blend of political and military action, the Soviets are likely to be attracted by other and more tempting programs than nuclear war, or events certain to lead to it. There can be little doubt that such a Soviet strategy presents us with a most serious threat. Therefore, should we not emphasize more the cases in which our position would be gravely weakened unless we can apply effective counter-pressure with non-nuclear forces and emphasize less those situations of major attack in which nuclear weapons must be used. Against [Page 441]the latter contingencies NATO already has very formidable deterrents indeed.

It is quite likely, of course, that the nature of the Soviet threat has changed precisely because NATO has constructed an adequate deterrent to more ambitious actions. That deterrent will be maintained and strengthened. But I would suggest that NATO’s problems in the 1960’s are radically different from those of the late forties and that it is time for us to discard those solutions and strategies that are no longer in tune with the times.

Perspectives for the Future

If we were to agree that the sudden massive Soviet assault on Europe is a most unlikely contingency, how should this affect our planning? The possibilities are many. Witness some of the events of the past ten years: the suppression of uprisings in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Soviet aid on a substantial scale to the United Arab Republic and Iraq, attempts at subversion in Africa, pressure on Berlin, and a rash but supple move into Cuba.

We should expect analogous indirect or direct challenges to the security of members of the Alliance to continue in the future. Members of the Alliance are concerned with the containment of the Communist threat in parts of the world outside of Europe. In such situations, there may be conflict, the conflict may spread, and military responses by the Alliance may become necessary.

One can easily imagine such circumstances arising in the Middle East and Africa. What is more difficult to support is that the appropriate response would involve the use of nuclear weapons.

We should not exclude Soviet subversion and political aggression backed up by military measures in areas of even more direct and immediate concern to Europe. Such countries as Finland, Austria, and Sweden are geographically vulnerable and might, in some circumstances, become targets for these tactics. We could not remain indifferent to actions in these areas that would upset the military balance in Europe and threaten our security.

We also cannot exclude the possibility of spontaneous events that would bring heightened danger of conflict—that is, events outside the control of either NATO or the Soviet Union.

There is, more directly, the ever-present danger of Soviet incursions into NATO territory itself. Berlin is the most exposed area, but the flanks and the center also contain potential targets of military pressure and attack.

Should any of these more likely contingencies arise, they would be highly dangerous. Inaction, or weak action, could result in a serious setback, a missed opportunity, or even disaster. Nor can we entirely discount [Page 442]the possibility that such limited conflicts might lead to a major Soviet attack. Such an attack might involve the use of nuclear weapons locally in Europe. It might even be the grand non-nuclear invasion of Western Europe. Or it might take the form of an all-out nuclear assault although this is still more doubtful.

A review of these contingencies suggests, first, the conflicts most likely to occur will almost certainly begin in a non-nuclear fashion. Second, NATO or some of its members may have to take a military counter-initiative. Third, if we can manage local conflicts successfully against a background of increased and adequate strength, we will not have to meet the remote contingencies. Fourth, our military posture should be as relevant to the likely as to the unlikely contingencies.

This is not to say that we should ignore the remote contingencies of nuclear or major non-nuclear attack. Quite the contrary. It makes a great deal of sense to prepare for the unlikely—especially when the lack of preparation would bring about catastrophic consequences.

Accordingly, I wish to take up two questions as urgent matters for the Alliance: first, what additional capabilities do we need in order to meet the real challenges that are apt to face us; second, what resources will be needed over the next five years in order to reach these goals?

Strategic Nuclear Posture

Since I have recently reported to you at length on the strategic nuclear posture of the Alliance, there are only a few additional points on this subject that I wish to bring to your attention. This awesome capability would naturally be the decisive element in any major nuclear war. In its deterrent function it remains a necessary—but not sufficient—condition of flexibility and initiative in other realms. The United States, in recognition of these facts, has every intention of maintaining the forces adequate to these two tasks. Plans are also in hand to increase the choices open to the strategic forces and to permit the exercise of the greatest discrimination possible in the conduct of strategic attacks if these forces should be called into play. U. S. programs, extending to 1968, provide, within the limits permitted by technology, timely and coordinated coverage of major strategic forces that might threaten the Alliance.

It is the view of the United States, in the light of this assessment, that Alliance expenditures in the strategic nuclear field—$15 billion per year in the case of the U. S. alone—remain adequate for the contingency of general nuclear war and its deterrence. The addition of nuclear vehicles in current programs is already producing sharply declining marginal returns, partly because of the investments already made, but also because the Soviets are moving steadily toward a land-based and sea-based strategic nuclear force protected by hardening, mobility and dispersal. A basic change is taking place in the nuclear relationship between [Page 443]NATO and the Soviet Union. Both sides are rapidly increasing their nuclear strength. NATO is and will undoubtedly remain ahead in most relevant dimensions: number of warheads and major delivery vehicles, degree of protection, diversity of systems, and effectiveness of command and control. But the benefits of this military advantage will be sharply reduced as compared with those of the 1940’s and 1950’s. In the circumstances of the 1960’s, it now appears that general nuclear war is likely to be even more devastating than appeared probable when I spoke to you at Athens, however much we might try further to strengthen our offensive capabilities.

If military considerations alone were at issue, I would therefore recommend against the commitment of Alliance resources to strategic nuclear forces beyond those now programmed. It does not follow, however, that some shift within present strategic nuclear programs may not be desirable, because of course the problem is not military alone. It is political, and its political meaning is of great importance. We in the United States are deeply interested in having these matters so managed that all members of the Alliance can have full confidence in the effectiveness and reliability of NATO’s strategic nuclear strength. We fully recognize that this is a problem for the Alliance as a whole and that no single member of the Alliance can or should attempt to monopolize responsibility or authority.

We have an inescapable political, legal, and moral responsibility for the management of the awesome power which our government controls. We have an equal responsibility to deal faithfully with the Alliance. In our effort to discharge this double responsibility we are seeking to make progress in two major directions.

The first is the expansion of understanding, consultation, and advance planning for the handling of the strategic deterrent. Inasmuch as more than 95 percent of strategic Alliance strength is American, we have a special duty here, and we want to do more to fulfill it. We are accelerating programs already begun for this purpose, and we are determined to search with you for new and stronger instruments of active consultation.

Our second effort is to explore the ways and means by which the Alliance as a whole might come to share effectively in the actual operations, manning, deployment and support of the strategic deterrent. For reasons we have expressed before we doubt if the best solution here is an expanding series of separate national efforts (though we have no desire to reopen an argument on which feelings are strong)—and so we have been assisting in the exploration of a possible multilateral arrangement. We shall continue in the effort, and I want to make it very clear that in this exploration our central interest is to assist as best we can in meeting the legitimate security interests of our European partners. In great measure, [Page 444]necessarily, judgment on what is wanted and needed must come from our European friends, but we emphasize again our readiness to help to the limit in exploring every one of the relevant questions of technique, deployment, control, financing, and policy—and our equal readiness to join with others in the necessary action to create a multilateral force.

The Tactical Nuclear Posture

What we may need in the tactical nuclear field is a more difficult question to answer. As one of the more remote contingencies, the Alliance must recognize and prepare for the possibility that the Soviets would initiate the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Furthermore, since NATO, even with appropriate non-nuclear increases, could not expect to have non-nuclear superiority everywhere, there are situations in which the Alliance might perceive an apparent advantage in using nuclear weapons locally. Alternatively, it has been suggested we might wish to use nuclear weapons on a large scale, but try to limit their use geographically. As I observed at Athens, however, we see no effective operational boundary which could be counted on to restrict such a war according to intensity or area. In particular, because of the problems of target acquisition and troop densities, the pressure to employ large-yield nuclear weapons to support a tactical nuclear engagement would almost certainly rise. And in all likelihood the accompanying civilian damage would be extremely great.

At this juncture, however, it is premature to suggest specific changes in our tactical nuclear programs. Because of the great strategic and tactical nuclear power already at our disposal, we have time. I strongly urge that we use the time not only to review our programs but also to re-examine the assumption that tactical use of nuclear weapons by both sides would generally be to the advantage of the Alliance.

I want to make it perfectly clear that it is our intention to maintain and to increase tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. However, I doubt that they are the means by which we can compensate for non-nuclear weaknesses.

The Non-Nuclear Posture

It seems to me to be quite clear that a stronger non-nuclear posture would confer large political benefits on the Alliance, and especially on its European members. It would give them a sense of freedom and initiative that primary reliance on nuclear power does not provide. It would enhance their bargaining power with the Soviet Union. It would enhance the attractive power of Western Europe to Eastern Europe.

In the contingencies I earlier categorized as likely, non-nuclear force may very well have to be used locally, in strength, and very probably against Soviet forces. We may find it necessary to conduct a probe in strength, to block Soviet forces from a threatening deployment, to repel a [Page 445]Soviet incursion into NATO territory, or to apply force in one locality in order to relieve enemy pressure against a different area. For this we need strong, deployable forces, with adequate air and sea lift, and pre-stocking of supplies and equipment, forces that are exercised realistically in peacetime.

Essential to this ability to deploy and use non-nuclear strength locally is a strong non-nuclear forward defense. We will want to be able to take action without dangerously weakening our defensive position. Such action is made more perilous if it leaves us vulnerable to a Soviet counter-action. Moreover, the stronger our non-nuclear forces, the more time we will have to develop and exploit advantageous courses of action—local and global, diplomatic and military.

In reviewing the prospects for a stronger non-nuclear posture, let us look at the overall strengths of the two sides. On most overall measures NATO has a position of some superiority in non-nuclear arms over the Warsaw Pact countries. It has more men under arms, 6 million to 4 million. It has more tactical aircraft worldwide, 15,000 to about 10,000. It has more major combat ships, 730 to 610. In terms of basic resources that bear especially on non-nuclear strength, it has far greater industrial resources and manpower. We are superior in a wide range of technical skills and our population aggregates 490 million as against 320 million. Of course not all of these resources are directly applicable in any particular locality on short notice. But this is true on both sides. Just as members of NATO have military interests, and forces, in the Far and Middle East, so do the Soviets. In short, our problem is not resources, but the low effectiveness of many of our forces, the likelihood that the Soviets will have the military initiative, and the Soviet position of operating in a geographically more compact area.

[Here follows discussion of NATO and Warsaw Pact force dispositions and of the “forward strategy.”]

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 396.1-PA/12-2162. Top Secret. The source text is the enclosure to circular airgram CA-6769, December 21. The Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council was held December 13-15 in Paris.
  2. See Document 82.