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Brodie: Strategy in the Missile Age

Author Background: Naval and Nuclear theorist, Political science professor at Dartmouth, Yale, RAND, and UCLA

Thesis: Deterrence is about making each side believe any advantage of striking first is outweighed by the destruction which it will endure.

  • It is appealing to consider a preventative war in hopes of receiving the upper hand, but this is likely to be unacceptable to the American people, and unless every or the preponderance of weapons are destroyed a devastating counterattack is probable.

Implications for Strategy

  • In a nuclear exchange casualties will likely be far greater than infrastructure destruction. (158)
  1. Less warning time.
  • Warning is key to the entire defense problem. With adequate warning (2-3 hrs) we could counterattack with missiles before he struck. (184)
  1. A reliable warning measured in hours or minutes is more valuable than an unreliable warning received much earlier. (185)


  • Duration of attack at any one place is instantaneous.
  • Shelters may not function.
  • Radioactivity lingers.


  • The minimum destruction and disorganization that one should expect from an unrestricted thermonuclear attack in the future is likely to be too high to permit further meaningful mobilization of war-making capabilities over the short term (167)
  • There are two ways to defend against attack: active defense and passive defense (180)
    • Active defense is the act of hitting the enemy while he attacks.
    • Passive defense is characterized as bomb shelters, dispersion, etc.
      • An inability or unreadiness to defend our retaliatory force will provoke an enemy to destroy it. (185)

Preventative War: Those opposed to the idea [of preventive war] have considered it too immoral or too utterly infeasible to be worth discussing. … The case for preventive war … has rested primarily on two presumptions: first, that in strategic air war with nuclear weapons, hitting first is certainly a crucial advantage and, with reasonably good planning, almost surely a decisive one; and second, that total war is inevitable. (229)

  • 236 – The phrase “preventive war” implies inevitably the unprovoked slaughter of millions of persons, mostly innocent of responsibility, on the inherently unprovable assumption that our safety requires it. However, the moral implications of executing a preventative nuclear war make it unlikely. (236)

Deterrence – It is not the symmetry or asymmetry of offensive power, but the stability of the balance between them which makes each nation believe the strategic advantage of striking first is overshadowed by the tremendous cost of doing so. (303)


  • No responsible government will opt for massive retaliation except where it conceives its stake in the matter at issue to be absolutely vital (259)
  • It remains unlikely that our government will ever deliberately initiate a total war for the sake of securing to ourselves the military advantage of the first blow (271)
  • The large number of wars that have occurred in modern times prove that the threat to use force, even what sometimes looked like superior force, has often failed to deter. (272)
  • One of the things wrong with the doctrine of deterrence is that in many instances the enemy may find it hard we mean it. (273)
  • The strategy of deterrence ought always to envisage the possibility of deterrence failing. (292)
  • Effective operation of deterrence over the long term requires that the other party be willing to live with our possession of the capability upon which it rests. (397)
  • We can hardly be too strong for our security, but we can easily be too forward and menacing in our manipulation of that strength (298)


*** Another take on Brodie's Strategy in the Missile Age ***

- Because you have the weapon, you’ll use it: not necessarily true

- WWI is a good example of a disconnect between means, ways, and ends

- Brodie’s greatest concern is that military means and military ways would blur political ends

- purpose of massive retaliation wasn’t deterrence but was to stop aggression

- when “stop aggression” becomes “prevent aggression”, my policy becomes deterrence

- calculus of stability is complicated

- “capabilities=intent” is a common logic flaw

Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Gloves notes) / the “Summary” at the beginning is cool iii-xi / clearly Brodie thinks nuclear weapons make Douhet’s philosophy dominant iv-v / caveats that nukes make unrestricted war different vi / limited wars aren’t fought for limited objectives; rather, leaders limit objectives to prevent UNlimited wars ix / before the WWs, war was a regulatory function of diplomacy 5 / enemy collapse isn’t because of brittleness but of exhaustion 6 / politicians aren’t committed enough to do nuclear strategy, so it pretty much belongs to the military as augmented by outsiders (academia?) 9 / secrecy exacerbates military-academia corroboration 10 / strategy is held in relatively low esteem by the military 12-13 / strategic thinking before Douhet is irrelevant, except the theory of the offensive and the theory that war projects politics 27 / Clausewitz’s elasticity makes him somewhat relevant 36 / military profession isn’t academic and is esoteric 38-39 / can’t ever forget the connection between tactics and strategy to war aims and objectives 52 / technology didn’t make war worse; the disconnection between combat and political aims made it so 67 / Douhet in a nutshell – gain command of the air by bombing rather than air to air, and when you have command of the air you will win everything else 82 / three WWII conclusions about strat bombing in Germany: brought about economic collapse, took too long, better target choice would have made it faster 109 / German city bombing was a wasted effort 120 / Japan city bombing was effective 130 / morale as a target isn’t as significant as behavior as a target 132-35 / Japan relocations were just as disruptive as the terror bombings – but Japs wouldn’t leave until their city got some bombing – so then the next time they read the leaflets they would flee 142-43 / guns, despite their novelty and increasing power, remain fundamentally tactical weapons – nukes are fundamentally strategic weapons 148ff / fission weapons weren’t powerful enough to work alone to bring about assured capitulation, but fusion bombs might be 153ff / nukes render insignificant the distinction between industrial bombing and city bombing – they aren’t discriminatory enough 155 / an exhaustive nuclear exchange leaving enemies capable of conventional war with whatever’s left is an unreasonable early concept 161ff / an unlimited strategic bombing offensive by the US or then-USSR would render a decision, because no subsequent military operations would be meaningful 166 / “[military officers] are trained to be biased in favor of the offensive, much as ordinary persons are trained to be biased in favor of virtue.” 174 / in the case of total war where the US isn’t the aggressor, we will probably have to absorb the first blow 176 / having a stance such that we can launch the retaliatory strike preemptively will be more likely to cause war rather than to deter it due to the security dilemma 176 / the military mind must realize that the government can’t help but move slowly and cautiously, which may prevent the best defense 183-84 / warning is the key – if the enemy knows that we will know what he’s going to do in two or three hours, he probably won’t do it 185 / a second-strike capability is the only unilateral deterrent, because we can’t rely on intel 185 / the cult of the offensive makes it uncomfortable to think about defending against a surprise enemy attack, so we decide not to believe the enemy will attack 187 / the best active defenses can’t expect to shoot down every bomber, and it may only take one to deliver a decisive blow 200-201 / the army can’t defend the nation in the nuclear era 225 / consider national policy in light of three facts: defense is way behind offense, there’s no defensive panacea on the horizon, and the first strike would deliver a catastrophic blow 227 / thinks “just another weapon” is smug 227 / preventive war is good because it has a crucial, perhaps decisive, advantage, and that if war is inevitable, it’s best to strike first 229 / preventive war is bad because the enemy’s second-strike capability may be too great, and that we might not accurately predict that war is inevitable 232 / moral issues also intervene in preventive war 235-37 / war games are good because they shatter the “roseate fantasies” of the war planner 247 / massive retaliation reflected sound military maxims 250 / “where our interests are not vital, how can a general threat of [massive retaliation] be believed?” 255 / massive retaliation deterrence requires boldness in scant supply in our government 258 / three reasons why civil control over nuclear strategy is a problem: some civilian leaders aren’t statesmen, nuclear strategy isn’t that high a priority in peacetime (and when war comes, it’ll be too late), and leading civilians are largely dependent on the military experts who overshadow them 267 / odd contrast – our deterrent force must always be poised to spring, but must never be used 273 / we must be credible 273 / deterrence doesn’t require superiority 275 / increasing the deterrent force has a diminishing increase in deterrent effect 276 / people aren’t universally rational, so large forces may be required anyway 277 / deterrence policies are generally less provocative than “win the war” policies 278-79 / deterrence requires the enemy know what we will do, and will know as we take the steps to build our capability 291-92 / worst-case scenario: only our second-strike forces are hit; do we retaliate against cities with our paltry remaining capability? 293 / deterrence may require the development of immoral “super-dirty” bombs 295 / what if the UK was hit? We strike Russia (as NATO), then Russia strikes us 296 / total disarmament is ludicrous because of the ease of cheating and the horrible cost of being cheated on 300 / disarmament or limitation policies should be targeted on systems that lead to surprise attack 300-301 / strategic balance requires each nation to believe that the benefit of striking first would be more than offset by the cost incurred in the retaliatory strike 303 / massive retaliation is “if you fight, go all in” 307 / limited war requires deliberate restrain (not imposed by limited means) 309 / again, limited war isn’t fought because we have limited objectives – rather, we limit the objectives because we are unwilling to fight an UNlimited war 312-313 / AF resists limited war because we stop being the only capable force and fall back into the supporting role 316 / our reasons for not using nukes in Korea (stockpile is small, no suitable targets, Britain opposed) are not as extant in Brodie’s day (plenty of them, we can make them small enough to hit a bridge, we’d been preaching they are “just another weapon” for years) 320 / use of nukes is only reasonable if it is unilateral 321 / opinions are just as influential as facts 324 / an assumption: limited war by definition excludes strategic bombing 326 and earlier / must keep a robust conventional force to handle limited wars, because nukes are unlikely to be used there 333 / nuclear deterrent credibility would be harmed by proliferation 348 / strategy and economics both require optimization of resources 361 / two economic questions: how much defense is enough? And how much defense can we afford? 365ff / if you want all the stuff you could get by going cheap with military spending, then just pay more in taxes 376-ish / how to pick the best weapons system: use opportunity cost rationale and operations analysis – this process is systems analysis 381ff / first maxim: modern total war would be “immeasurably worse” than in the past, and it is by no means inconceivable 391 / second: US will forego preemptive war (no first strike) 392 / thus deterrence is a “must not fail” policy 393 / also thus, US must devote vast resources to ensuring a certain retaliatory strike capability (nuke subs are good) 394-95 / missed the boat with hardened bomber shelters 395 / also thus, the US must develop a conventional force able to be decisive in limited wars 396 / also thus, US needs lots of really good people shelters (missed the boat here also) 397 / since deterrence depends on the enemy mindset, we must be stable 397ff / it’d be a good idea to examine the relationship between military strength and foreign policy 400 / boldness in the old days, when it failed, resulted in a resumption of a reasonable defensive posture – not so in thermonuclear war 400-01 / in total war in the atomic age, Douhet is exactly right because the land and sea forces that remain after a general nuclear exchange will be unable to muster for battle 402 / a limited first strike may allow for immediate plea for peace, but probably not 403ff / limited war necessarily puts air in the supporting role 404 / deterrence is good because peace is better and more predictable than war 408

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