An Invulnerable Deterrent

  • Lawrence Freedman


In addition to an effective ABM system, the other major source of threat to the security of the deterrent was an enemy capability to engage in a disarming first strike. Though it had been assumed in the early stages of the atomic age that offensive forces could not be detected or attacked with sufficient accuracy to render them vulnerable, this assumption came to be challenged in the 1950s. It was pointed out that it was not enough to have forces capable of inflicting substantial death and destruction on the enemy; one also had to be sure that these forces could reach their targets. If an enemy could achieve surprise and attack the offensive forces while they were still on the ground, he would have gained a position of decisive superiority. As Soviet inter-continental forces grew during the 1950s, there was a commensurate growth in concern about the possibility of such a first strike. This animated much of the missile gap debate for, if the Soviet Union obtained a significant number of fast ICBMs before the US, then there would be a period when the US retaliatory forces, of both long and medium-range bombers, would be susceptible to a surprise attack. The major effort to spell out precisely the nature of this problem was an important study completed in 1954. by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organisation that pioneered most of the contemporary methods of strategic analysis. The dramatic conclusion reached at RAND was that:

A base system like the one formerly programmed will be extremely vulnerable in 1956. A sizeable part of the force based in ZI (Zone of the Interior), before the deployment overseas, is susceptible to an air attack which is well within enemy capabilities. The forces based overseas are even more vulnerable. We can expect the majority of the force to suffer serious damage on the ground. The destruction potential of the formerly programmed system is, as a result, smaller than that of any of the other (alternative basing) systems examined.1


Nuclear Explosion Intelligence Community Reentry Vehicle Defence Budget Soviet Leader 
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  1. 1.
    A. J. Wohlstetter, F. S. Hoffman, R. J. Lutz, and H. S. Rowen, Selection and Use of Strategic Air Bases (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, Apr 1954, 2nd printing June 1962), p. viii.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    For background to this study see Bruce L. R. Smith, The RAND Corporation: Case Study of a Nonprofit Advisory Corporation (Harvard University Press, 1966).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    Wohlstetter, Hoffman, Rowen, Protecting US Power to Strike Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, (RAND Corporation, Sep 1956), pp. 2–3.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lawrence David Freedman 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lawrence Freedman
    • 1
  1. 1.Royal Institute of International AffairsUK

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