191. Memorandum From the Secretary of the Air Force (Brown) to Secretary of Defense McNamara 1


  • Deterrence of Strategic Nuclear War, and Damage Limiting

I am concerned about our general approach to the problem of deterring strategic nuclear war, and I am also concerned about the relation of our damage limiting capability to deterrence and to planning for actual war fighting should deterrence fail.

In my view, deterrence will depend on a Soviet judgment not only of their own losses but also of relative US losses and surviving military capability. The political stakes and the nature of the Soviet leadership will also be important. In some future equivalent of the “Cuban missile crisis” 20% Soviet fatalities might not be enough, if US losses would be 80%. Soviet leaders might believe that the US would cease to exist while the USSR could successfully recover, using surviving nuclear forces to dominate the European industrial complex.

Our evaluation should consider possible surprise Soviet tactics as well as force capabilities: pin-down, FOBs, cruise missile submarines, medium bombers, and coordinated offensive/defensive operations. My feeling is that we have become too theoretical—that our calculations are too removed from the most likely patterns of admitted unlikely wars, and hence from the probable Soviet judgments which determine deterrence.

I believe we should consider a new criterion for deterrence. We should try to insure that Soviet losses would be at least as severe as US losses in any strategic war, and that the resultant surviving military balance would not be in favor of the Soviets. With regard to this latter point, I recognize that there are arguments both pro and con, but feel that it deserves our serious consideration.

Further, we should examine our forces in the light of how they would perform if a strategic exchange began, using various scenarios for its beginning. I suggest that under such circumstances the execution of the option to destroy Soviet population and industry would be our poorest choice. Rather, we would probably act to maintain the threat of such assured destruction while operating our forces to minimize Soviet potential for destruction on the US urban/industrial complex. A force [Page 614]planned for that purpose could well look very different from one aimed at preserving assured destruction in the face of a “Greater Than Expected” Threat.

Harold Brown
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, Department of Defense, Vol. V, August 1967 [2 of 2], Box 12. Secret. The date is handwritten. A copy of the memorandum was sent to Deputy Secretary of Defense Nitze.