Edward Luttwak Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Strategy: Conversation with Edward Luttwak, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University; by Harry Kreisler, March 10, 1987

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The Mistake of Efficiency

In your forthcoming book you talk about the air defense as an example of this failure of the McNamara strategy. Could you discuss that?

That's a classic case. In designing air defense missiles, under the efficiency rules what you try to do is design the best possible missile, you then mass produce it, and you distribute it out. You now have a single missile, you have only one stock of spare parts, you only need one training scheme for the operators and maintainers and so on. In the meantime, the Soviet Union was given as an example of the inefficient way of doing it. They developed for the sixties, seventies, and today, different classes of missiles. There are very low altitude missiles, like the SAM-7, the SAM-9 later on, SAM-8. They had medium altitude, SAM-3, SAM-6.

This is the Soviets.

Yes. They ended up designing, developing, producing, deploying to this day about nine or ten different kinds of missiles. Now, from the point of view of civilian efficiency, this is a disaster because here we [have] nine different sets of spare parts, all the different training schemes, no compatibility. It was very inefficient.

But in war, when you fly against a Soviet Union-style missile defense, you cannot counter-measure any one of the missiles with any one counter-measure because there are all these different missiles using different principles of guidance. You can't overfly it because some of these missiles are so high altitude, like the SAM-5, they go above the height any tactical fighter can fly. And you can't underfly, because they have these ultra-low altitude, and indeed they have a whole range of anti-aircraft guns as well. Against the single-missile solution that the U.S. produces, you can fly over it and you can fly under it. And, more to the point, you can counter-measure it because you're dealing with one missile, with one set of characteristics.

Now, the American solution was very efficient and would be exactly appropriate if you were doing machine tools, let's say, for a car plant in Detroit. The Soviet system is very inefficient, but one works in war much better than the other. The logic of peace is to specialize, reproduce, mass produce, economies of scale. The logic of war is redundancy, coverage, multiplicity, because the enemy is ready to exploit any specialization on your part to outmaneuver you.

This realm of strategy, in a democratic state, has to coexist with other realms of concern, and the common umbrella these days is cutting down costs. There are only so many things we can afford. We live in the age of Graham-Rudman. What you're suggesting about strategy seems to imply unlimited costs for the state.

It doesn't matter what logic you follow; as you point out, you have the discipline of cost. Any society is going to say, "This is what I'm willing to allocate for my defense," according to our perceptions of how wicked the enemy is and how ready he is to go to war. The logic, however, rules all the same. It rules whether you spend a lot or you spend a little. The question is how you spend it. If you apply the logic of common sense, you spend it efficiently. If you apply the logic of strategy, you spend it effectively. And very often, the effective is inefficient. And the reason it is effective is precisely because it is inefficient.

Let me give you a very specific example which shows equal cost, so the whole cost issue is neither here nor there: how to use personnel. If you want to use personnel efficiently, you put all your military in a computer, and they all have different skills and so on. Of course, one is committed to maintaining a certain number of Army divisions, squadrons, Air Force and so on. You want to assign everybody to his specialty; you don't want to have a situation where, let's say, a tank battalion has twenty turret mechanics while it has fifteen gunners over. What you want is you want to match skills, just the same as in a factory, you want to put people working with machines who can work machines, and so on.

Now, in war, you follow this approach and you've had it, because in the attempt to keep your battalions staffed correctly, as people come and go, leave the service, perhaps even wounded or retired, whatever, you end up constantly reshuffling the personnel. And you will have a much weaker unit than you will have if you accept inefficiency for the sake of having stability and cohesion. A battalion that has too many turret mechanics, not enough gunners, but whose men have been together steadily and know each other and have cohesion is going to fight much better than one that is highly efficient in having all the right manpower in the right places but has no cohesion precisely because it is efficient, because people have to be shuffled all the time.

What I'm suggesting is that the logic of strategy is either directly opposed to the logic of civilian life, which is of course merely common sense, or if not directly opposed, there is, nevertheless, a clash. There is ultimately a very fundamental reason for it, because the logic of strategy is essentially the logic of destruction.

For example, we have a Navy which is supposed to be a 600 ship navy. Well, this navy operates in distant oceans and has to be supplied. Our aircraft carriers need a constant resupply of aviation fuel so they can do all these [refuelings] and so on. And, the non-nuclear ships, which predominantly need diesel, actually need fuel. And, of course, they need food, vegetables and so on, and ammunition in case there's a war. Now, the application of common sense logic to this problem has resulted in the design of 50,000 ton, great big, very efficient, multi-use, multi-product, bulk-type carriers. We have 50,000 ton resupply ships. Each of these carrier task forces, with its aircraft carriers, its cruisers, destroyers, and so on, will be resupplied by one of these 50,000 ton vessels. Now, that's very efficient. If we tried to resupply by having small, 5000 ton fleet oilers, and separate ammunition ships and separate fruit and vegetable-type ships, we would have many more ships, many more crews, it would be much more costly to man, to repair, refit and so on.

But the logic of strategy demands redundancy, distribution, dispersion, and here we have a case where the United States could have, in fact, applied the logic of strategy, chose to apply the logic of civilian efficiency. We therefore have our magnificent carrier battle groups supplied by a very small number of very concentrated supply ships that we cannot replace easily at all. We therefore are now forced to protect them with a lot of combat ships around them when we belatedly discovered that it wasn't a good idea to do it the way it's done in civilian life.

So I really don't think that it's a question of circumstances. A band of nomads, let's say a band of nomad warriors, Huns, moving over the countryside, are more naturally strategic than a settled civilian population. For them, to be agile and reacting to threats is normal. Their whole logic is the logic of destruction. They are not creating cities which then must be defended and which are vulnerable. That is true. And that indeed has characterized a lot of human history, which is the barbarians defeating the more civilized for that very reason.

Looking at recent American history, have any of our political leaders evinced a finally attuned strategic sense in the way that you mean?

Well, one has to go back to the Second World War. Everybody who done a certain amount of reading on it and knows something about it -- no question, many people learned from participating in it -- must reflect that the United States entered the war only by the choice of Japan. It was Japan that decided the United States would enter the Second World War. And although there was a lot of clumsiness at the very beginning, in a tactical sense, and there were a lot of equipment problems, technical problems, and there was never, perhaps, in the land armies the kind of operational skills that the German Army had, there is no doubt of the superiority of American strategy. American strategy was greatly superior to German and Japanese strategy, and British strategy. It was understood, even if you look at the people involved, everybody very quickly understood that Americans were not particularly good at operating regiments and divisions, and so on. But, at the higher level, at the level of theater commanders, let's say at the level of high field officers, Patton, Bradley, Hodges, Eisenhower, Nimitz in the Pacific, they were infinitely superior to their opponents. Their opponents came off as much less capable in that regard.

Why is that, do you think? Was it the pressure of war?

Of course it was the great test. This, perhaps, may change with my own book, but even though there is no intellectual recognition of this truth, that the logic of strategy pervades all, and it is always paradoxical, we have empirically stumbled on to it and accepted it and adopt it in many areas. After all, there is a lot of redundancy nevertheless. There was no intellectual rationale for it but military tradition had absorbed this as a value, so we keep it. I would say that, if you overview all our defense plans and the design of all our weapons, the organization of our forces, indeed the nature of our statecraft, you will find that a lot of it is, in fact, correctly strategic. But to the extent that it isn't, we've created all sorts of vulnerabilities that would then emerge, as it's often said of us, in the event of a war.

Let me see if I can restate what you're saying. [In] the pressure of war, our wealth and power made a lot of redundancies possible, a successful matching of the complexity necessary for war.

Yes, but it was also a fact that although before the Second World War the military were neglected and poorly funded, they were also left alone. They may have had very little money to spend, but they were not under pressure to spend the money in a way the civilians thought was smart. They were able, instead, to spend the money in the way the military thought was right, namely, traditional. That tradition embodied a lot of very sound strategic precautions built into it, which military tradition had absorbed over the century since their formation. It came as a second nature to soldiers to provide for redundancy. They merely thought of war.

We've had a much greater infiltration of the wrong kind of logic since the Second World War than we had before the Second World War. I wonder how we would preform if we had to do it again. Before the Second World War, civilians gave very little money to the military. They also left them alone and [the military] often did the right thing. Since the Second World War, they've given much more money, but much more interference and penetration. A lot of this stuff, although it sounds smart, it sounds right from the point of view of common sense, is in fact very bad.

For example, the Navy, with its huge, vulnerable resupply ships that look just like the giant warehouses we see at the edge of American cities, which are the most efficient way of resupplying supermarkets. You wouldn't build [those warehouses] if you were concerned [that] your competitor in the supermarket business was free to use arson and launch commando attacks. You would not have all your warehouse capacity concentrated in on place along the beltway, along the freeway. But that's exactly what we've been doing, to the extent we've had these infiltrations.

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