Hard Things: Part I - Counterforce Vs. Countervalue
In nuclear strategy, a counterforce target is one that has a military value, such as a launch silo for intercontinental ballistic missiles, an airbase at which nuclear-armed bombers are stationed, a homeport for ballistic missile submarines, or a command and control installation.The intent of a counterforce strategy (i.e., attacking counterforce targets with nuclear weapons) is to disarm an adversary by destroying its nuclear weapons before they can be launched, thereby minimizing the impact of a retaliatory second strike. A counterforce target is distinguished from a countervalue target, which includes an adversary’s population, economic, or political resources. In other words, a counterforce strike is against an adversary’s military while a countervalue strike is against an adversary’s cities.
In nuclear warfare, enemy targets are divided into two types: counterforce and countervalue. A counterforce target is an element of the military infrastructure, usually either specific weapons or the bases which support them. A counterforce strike is an attack which targets these elements whilst leaving the civilian infrastructure – the countervalue targets – as undamaged as possible. Countervalue refers to the targeting of an opponent's cities and civilian populations.
An ideal counterforce attack would kill no civilians. Military attacks are prone to causing collateral damage however, and this is especially true when nuclear weapons are employed. In nuclear terms many military targets are located in proximity to civilian centres, and a major counterforce strike employing even relatively small nuclear warheads against a nation would possibly inflict numerous civilian casualties. Further, the requirement to use ground burst strikes to destroy hardened targets would produce enormously more fallout than the air bursts used to strike countervalue targets, introducing the possibility that a counterforce strike would cause more civilian casualties--over a medium-term view--than a countervalue strike.
-- Wikipedia; see also generally Strategic Nuclear Weapons And Deterrence
This "Hard Things" series is not about nuclear weapons and their use.
The series is designed to provoke thought about issues faced by both sides in the already-active conflict over America's future.
Tonight's topic is based on a single thesis:
The majority of freedom-oriented people in the current conflict are fixated on a pure counterforce perspective of that dispute, which in turn yields poor analysis and faulty conclusions.
Most freedom folks who are aware of the counterforce(CF)/countervalue (CV) distinction have consciously avoided any discussion of possible CV tactics and/or strategies based on a perception that inviolable moral codes will be inevitably broken when CV conflict commences.
I'll put aside that moral question -- at least until a subsequent essay in this series -- and focus tonight on the concept that I will call "CV-based active deterrence", which underpinned US strategic thinking from the beginning of the Cold War until the fall of the Soviet Union more than forty years later.
To recap the US nuclear strategy during that period very briefly, American forces gradually moved -- based on technology progress in both nuclear weapons design and delivery mechanisms -- from the largely CV-based approach required by manned bombers in the Forties to an approach featuring a blended CV/CF plan using the so-called "triad" of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), manned bombers now equipped with stand-off delivery systems, and, lurking deep beneath the seas, a significantly-resilient fleet of ballistic missile submarines capable of long-term submerged operations.
Each leg of the missile/bomber/sub triad had its strengths and weaknesses. Land-based ICBMs were fast (~ 30 minutes' flight from launch to impact), increasingly accurate (under 100 meters by the Eighties), and capable of multiple warhead payloads, yet once launched, they could not be recalled. Manned bombers had long flight times, but were capable of a vast array of missions and payloads, all under the command of their human crews from launch until return or destruction. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) had generally less accuracy than their land-based counterparts, but their launch platforms were extremely hard to find and kill once they had reached their optimal operating depths and conditions.
In the last years of the Cold War, nuclear warfighting technology improved so that with both strategic and tactical (e.g., Pershing II IRBM, ALCM, SLCM) weapons, the United States and its allies could, with a reasonable degree of certainty, actually target and destroy pure CF targets of the Soviets and their allies, such as missile silos, airbases, naval facilities, and command/communication/control nodes.
But very, very few people -- even hard-core Cold Warriors, who knew the actual US battle plans -- will acknowledge that a major part of US military strategy for forty years consisted of post-first-strike CV attacks against millions of Soviet and Warsaw Pact civilians across the imperial footprint of the USSR.
It was all we would have left to hit in the most likely scenario.
What do I mean?
US Cold War policy was widely believed to prohibit any first use of nuclear weapons against American adversaries. The assumed posture of all post-WW2 Administrations up until Reagan was that the United States would absorb a first blow, then deal a devastating response to the aggressor using all elements of the strategic triad.
This scenario was understood by all, most especially the Kremlin war-planners.
So let's walk through the broad outline of an all-out Soviet attack against the US, a la the opening chapters of Alas, Babylon:
1) US command, communications, and control would be disrupted through an EMP attack against North America via multiple near-space hydrogen bomb detonations, along with an over-the-horizon no-warning SLBM attack on the White House and Pentagon;
2) Soviet missiles would be launched against as many US and NATO military targets as feasible, while allowing the Soviets an adequate mobile ICBM reserve against follow-on US attacks and the ever-present Chinese threat on their southern flank;
3) All Soviet aircraft and naval forces not already deployed would be launched, along with their supporting craft, to both devalue American CF attacks on their now-empty bases and to preserve those air and naval assets for subsequent rounds of the conflict.
So at what, exactly, would the CinC/acting POTUS fire the American triad's weapons in the ten minutes or so remaining prior to impact of the Soviet first strike?
Largely empty Soviet missile silos?
Vacant Soviet airbases and naval stations?
Moving rail-mounted ICBM launch platforms located throughout the USSR?
Come on, Ms. Acting President, we need your orders......
Do you understand now why the Sovs placed such an emphasis on shelters for their population?
They knew that in an all-out scrap, SAC and the Navy would have very little to hit except Soviet civilians.
I hear you mumbling out there.....
"Uh... so what, Poindexter?"
Remembering that this series is not about nuclear weapons and their use, here's what:
1) From the conventional carpet-bombing raids in Germany and Japan during WW2 to Hiroshima and Nagasaki throughout the entire Cold War, it has been expressed American national policy to deliberately target non-combatants with the most devastating explosives yet devised by man.
2) This countervalue strategy has been employed by the greatest nation on earth out of sheer necessity -- that is, despite the trillions spent by the American military-industrial complex since WW2, American strategic forces would have little else but cities and civilians on which to detonate their hydrogen bombs.
3) Given the historical reliance over the past sixty years on CV targeting by our elected officials and their military appointees here in the Land of the Free, intelligent members of the FreeFor should, at the very least, noodle through what tactical and strategic applications of CV doctrine might be applicable in the current fracas.
4) Wouldn't it be ironic if the greatest military and economic power the world has ever known were to be humbled by a few score thousand dedicated fighters with the will to use any means necessary, including CV targeting, in order to achieve their objectives?
5) Wouldn't it be even more ironic if another group of dedicated fighters kicked Leviathan using the same plays as it gasped on its knees after its strategic defeat by the group in graf #4?
Food for thought, further research, and reflection, I'd say.