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Counterforce and Theater Missile Defense: Can the Army Use an ASW Approach to the SCUD Hunt?

Authored by Dr. James J. Wirtz. | March 1995

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To maximize effectiveness, theater missile defense (TMD) should include counterforce options, active defenses and passive defenses. During the Gulf War, however, the integration of these three elements occurred on an ad hoc basis. To increase the political, strategic and tactical effectiveness of existing defensive systems in wartime, Army planners should integrate the three elements of TMD into an overall strategy. This report describes how the philosophy that influenced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations can be used to guide counterforce attacks against mobile missiles, thereby improving theater missile defenses. It explains why an ASW approach to counterforce is superior to just attacking an opponent?s missile infrastructure. It also explains why this type of counterforce strategy can be based on preemption not preventive war. The impact of ASW counterforce operations are also evaluated in terms of the stability-instability paradox, crisis stability, alliance relations and deterrence.


As events during Operation DESERT STORM demonstrated, theater missile defense (TMD) will be increasingly important to the United States in the future. From a strictly operational perspective, U.S. forces stationed overseas would greatly benefit from a capability to defend themselves and their hosts against ballistic missiles, especially if an opponent?s delivery systems are armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) . But, from a political or strategic perspective, TMD could be the sine qua non of U.S. intervention in a regional conflict. If American forces lack a credible TMD capability, U.S. allies might come to believe that it is in their interest to reach an accommodation with aggressive regional powers; they could decide to bandwagon instead of balancing in the face of aggression.1 Indeed, this is the primary concern that motivates U.S. counterproliferation efforts: by obtaining a WMD capability, a state contemplating even conventional aggression could reduce U.S. regional influence.2 American policymakers might be willing to take the chance that a carrier battle group on the move cannot be targeted, but regional allies might not be willing to count solely on deterrence to protect stationary countervalue targets (population, resources or industry) from attack.

In a sense, TMD creates a sort of "chicken and egg" problem for strategists. On the onehand, allies are probably necessary for the construction of a credible theater missile defense, especially if their propinquity to the threat increases the usefulness of their territory in the construction of missile defenses. On the other hand, TMD strategies that require allied participation must find a way to secure this cooperation; they must explain why the allies needed to stage an effective defense will be available at the proper time. TMD plans that simply assume allied cooperation in this most dangerous game are simply "preferred strategy." In this case, architects of U.S. TMD assume that allied powers will join U.S. initiatives despite the best efforts of potential opponents to prevent this cooperation. After all, this was an important lesson of the Gulf War: Saddam Hussein worked to destroy the political glue of the coalition arrayed against him by attempting to draw Israel into the fray.3 Policymakers should not assume that overwhelming U.S. military superiority will again rescue the United States from a politically difficult position.4 Clearly, there is a political foundation to TMD that must be created prior to the eruption of a regional crisis involving the potential use of theater missiles. To assume otherwise would only complicate a politically and militarily dangerous situation.

Another lesson from the Gulf War is that effective TMD requires both a counterforce capability and a counterforce strategy. Despite the availability of the Patriot missile system, U.S. planners seemed to give little thought to the mobile-missile threat before the Gulf War. This lack of attention could be explained by the fact that the SCUD threat itself does not fit easily into the notion of the ideal strategic air campaign.5 Most strategists would probably agree that hunting individual SCUD launch teams in the field is an inefficient use of scarce resources.6 Yet, as the war demonstrated, ignoring this problem in peacetime only increases the need for wartime innovation. Although they did not pose a significant military threat, SCUD attacks during the war posed an enormous political problem for the alliance. Despite the protests of planners, SCUD attacks ultimately forced the alliance to alter significantly the air campaign. Indeed, as General Merrill McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff noted, "what surprised us was we put three times the effort that we thought we would on this job."7 Peacetime planners can concentrate on the rational application of air power; but, in wartime, political concerns will work to concentrate every available military asset to stop missile attacks against countervalue targets.

Seen from this perspective, the decision to deploy Patriot missiles represents more than a simple tactical counter to an opponent?s theater missile capabilities. TMD deployment creates important political and strategic consequences which should be recognized by Army planners. Politically, the decision to place the Patriots on foreign soil cuts to the core of alliance formation, greatly influencing the likelihood that the United States will be able to create the political foundations for successful coalition warfare. In other words, political calculations, not tactical considerations, are likely to influence the decision to deploy Patriot. Strategically, Patriot will be part of a larger effort against an opponent?s military capabilities that probably will include counterforce. Army planners should think about how Patriot will interact with U.S. counterforce options to achieve overall U.S. military objectives. And, from a strictly battlefield perspective, Army officers have an interest in making sure that counterforce options are available to reduce the tactical problems involved in TMD. Patriot will be far more effective if an opponent is incapable of barrage firing missiles. If Patriot is to succeed in battle, plans have to be formulated in advance to reduce the threat it faces to manageable levels. It makes no sense simply to concede opponents the advantage of launching coordinated attacks at times and places of their choosing.

Given the need for the United States to develop an effective TMD strategy to bolster allies in the face of regional aggression and to increase the effectiveness of existing defensive systems, the purpose of this monograph is twofold. First, the analysis will briefly describe an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) approach to the counterforce mission inherent in any realistic effort to defend U.S. allies and U.S. forces stationed overseas from attacks from mobile missiles. This approach offers a new philosophy about how to prosecute counterforce attacks against mobile missiles, a philosophy based upon the Navy's many years of experience hunting submarines operating at sea. Second, this monograph will explain how TMD, especially a defensive strategy that incorporates an ASW-based counterforce capability, can bolster America's political and military position by strengthening regional alliances. In other words, a counterforce strategy that reflects ASW procedures is both politically and militarily superior to other counterforce strategies because it is based on preemption and not on preventive war or retaliation. An ASW-inspired counterforce strategy would serve to bolster deterrent and denial strategies that require allied participation; but, it probably would not further exacerbate potential regional confrontations that are by definition crisis unstable.

The analysis begins by describing the "ASW approach" to counterforce. It describes the five-step method the Navy devised to conduct undersea warfare and how this approach can be used to guide a counterforce campaign directed against mobile missiles. It then states why counterforce is crucial to any TMD strategy. It describes how counterforce--the need to base TMD on a strategy of preventive war or preemption--can complicate the use of TMD to strengthen regional alliances. The monograph also explains why a counterforce strategy governed by an ASW philosophy can overcome many of the problems inherent in engaging in TMD counterforce attacks. The analysis concludes by discussing how this proposed counterforce strategy can help achieve U.S. political and military objectives.

Conclusion: TMD Counterforce and Alliances.

A preemptive counterforce strategy that is influenced by an ASW philosophy offers important advantages over other approaches to the counterforce mission that must be a part of any realistic theater missile defense plan. An ASW approach to counterforce makes a preemptive strategy possible. A preemptive strategy, in turn, makes it more likely that U.S. efforts to defend against regional missile attacks will generate regional support. Instead of reducing U.S. influence in a region, theater missile defenses based on an ASW philosophy are more likely to be supported by allies. The preemptive strategy outlined in this monograph can increase the probability that the political prerequisites of military success will be in place when the United States confronts aggressive states armed with ballistic missiles. In other words, a counterforce strategy based on ASW principles can increase the probability that regional actors will balance with the United States against aggressive states. An ASW approach to counterforce could strengthen deterrence by helping to create the alliances needed to demonstrate an American commitment to resist aggression.

To guarantee both the political (bolster U.S. regional influence and allies) and military (destroy missiles before they are launched) success of an ASW counterforce strategy, however, three processes have to be set in motion well before the onset of hostilities. First, weapons systems and intelligence collection facilities must be either created or modified to meet the requirements posed by the ASW counterforce mission. Second, discussions must take place with potential allies about the theater missile defenses as soon as possible. Not only would this be taken as a sign of U.S. support, helping to achieve the political goal of boosting U.S. influence in a region threatened by missile attack, but it would also serve as the basis for future military cooperation. Clearly, key issues related to intelligence collaboration, and the sharing of military facilities, would have to be solved before a simmering conflict becomes a crisis. But, most importantly, political and military judgments will have to be made in advance about what constitutes strategic and tactical warning of impending missile attack. Sorting out these issues during a crisis is likely to produce paralysis as allied policymakers and officers come to terms with the demands of a preemptive strategy. During the Cold War, for example, analysts called attention to the political problems the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would face in responding to indications of impending attack.26 Analysts noted that fears of miscalculated escalation, defections from the Alliance, or just political indecision could impede NATO?s response to Soviet mobilization. If one considers that NATO's membership had years to contemplate how and when to generate its defenses upon receipt of indications and warning of attack, the severity of the problem facing a nascent alliance that has adopted a preemptive strategy is clear. Extensive consultations about when and how to respond to an opponent?s generation of its mobile missiles must take place before the onset of a crisis; consultations represent a necessary condition for the success of any counterforce strategy based on preemption.

Since much of the political benefit of an ASW inspired counterforce strategy is based on its requirement of sustained and intensive political and military interaction with potential allies, the need for these kinds of consultations should be viewed as a positive development. Even though unilateral action might offer a simpler way of dealing with nascent missile threats, a multilateral response, by definition, would probably be more politically productive from the American perspective. And, since a multilateral response is likely to serve as a strong political signal of a coalition's willingness to resist attack, political, military and intelligence consultations on the issue of missile defense might serve to deter states contemplating aggression.

Third, from a strictly practical standpoint ASW counterforce operations cannot be improvised at the last minute. If the Navy's experience is any guide to this type of operation, then the hunt for mobile missiles will succeed only after much practice.27 Indeed, over the years, the Navy discovered that ASW operations required that a community of officers dedicate major portions of their careers to this specialized form of warfare. In a time of shrinking resources, however, the challenge would be to develop an interservice community dedicated to the task of destroying mobile missiles on the ground. Indeed, each of the services has something to contribute to an ASW counterforce effort. Not only would a massive amount of air power be required to complete these attacks successfully, but ground forces could also participate in reconnaissance missions, especially by guaranteeing that missiles once localized and attacked were actually destroyed.

The U.S. Army already is prepared for two missions in an ASW-inspired TMD architecture: conducting active defenses against incoming weapons and launching ground operations behind enemy lines to insure that sites targeted from the air have been destroyed. But no service has offered to coordinate both the counterforce and active defenses that constitute effective TMD. Army planners, however, are logical candidates to specify the counterforce requirements to insure the effectiveness of Patriot.

Reducing the number of incoming warheads to levels below the number of available interceptor missiles or preventing barrage attacks are reasonable requirements set by peacetime planners for counterforce options.

Ultimately, technology might improve the effectiveness of counterforce attacks, but it is impossible to predict when, during a period of decreasing defense budgets, this new technology will become available. Still, an ASW approach to organizing a counterforce attack offers a cheap, and politically and militarily effective way of destroying mobile missiles. The solution to the SCUD problem, a solution likely to meet with the approval of America's allies, is available today. Senior political and military officials simply need to recognize the potential inherent in an ASW approach to counterforce to make this capability a reality for the United States, its allies, and U.S. forces operating overseas.


1. In the literature on international relations, balancing refers to the tendency of states to form alliances to defend themselves against aggressive states. Bandwagoning is the tendency to join with aggressive states in an effort to avoid their depredations. For a discussion of these concepts see Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987; and Randall Schweller, "Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In," International Security, Vol. 19, No. 1, Summer 1994, pp. 72-107.

2. AF/XOXI Briefing Slides, "Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation: Developing the Tools," delivered September 15, 1993, USAF Academy, Colorado Springs, CO.

3. On this point see James J. Wirtz, "Miscalculation, Surprise and American Intelligence After the Cold War," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 10-11.

4. Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh note, for instance,

that because the United States was at the head of a "disparate coalition" during the Gulf War, it was on the political defensive; only an extraordinarily successful military campaign prevented political weakness from interfering with the liberation of Kuwait. See Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, "How Kuwait Was Won: Strategy in the Gulf War," International Security, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall 1993, p. 41.

5. For a fine discussion of air doctrine see Michael E. Brown, Flying Blind: The Politics of the U.S. Strategic Bomber Program, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992, pp. 29-67.

6. David E. Snodgrass provides a succinct description of how campaign planners misapplied doctrine when confronted with a difficult Scud problem: "US War planners were aware that Scud attacks, particularly on Iranian cities, had a significant impact on the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War. However, General Schwarzkopf viewed the Scud simply as a terror weapon. He did not consider the Scud as militarily effective because it had a small warhead with inaccurate guidance. Before Desert Storm, officers at the Air Staff discussed the mobile missile problem with SAC [Strategic Air Command] and learned of the difficulty in trying to find individual launchers once they deployed to the field. Air Staff officers therefore formulated a general attack plan to disrupt Saddam Hussein's command and control system rather than attack the separate launchers . . . . By interrupting Saddam's operational and strategic scheme, US planners hoped to prevent the Iraqis from using their Scuds at all." See David E. Snodgress, "Attacking the Theater Mobile Ballistic Missile Threat," MA Thesis, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, June 1993, p. 3.

7. McPeak quoted in Snodgress, "Attacking the Theater Mobile Ballistic Missile Threat," p. 3.

26. Richard Betts, Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning, Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1982.

27. According to Cohen and Gooch, the Navy learned this lesson the hard way during a highly successful U-boat campaign in 1942. See Cohen and Gooch, Military Misfortunes, pp. 59-94.