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Planned Inferiority

December 2023
2min read

Sometime in December of 1976 I listened in stunned silence as staffers from President-elect Jimmy Carter’s transition team floated a trial balloon that would eliminate every one of the Strategic Air Command’s bombers and ICBMs, leaving only a handful of missile-firing submarines to deter Russian nuclear forces. Dubbed “Planned Inferiority,” the radical concept would become the cornerstone of the incoming administration’s defense policy.

To get to the conference room at the SAC headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, Carter’s bright young men walked by the scowling bronze bust of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, past a replica of the red telephone, and detoured around the gleaming model of the new B-1 supersonic bomber in the center of the lobby. None of this impressed them. In the midst of the Cold War, the new administration planned to cut defense and pour the savings into social programs.

The briefers spoke in the confident tones of trial lawyers, presenting the post-World War II nuclear arms race in vertical bar graphs. The slides were crisp. Soviet nuclear strength was depicted in a red column; our own in blue.

The first slide, titled “Superiority,” described the arms race during the 1950s. The blue U.S. warhead count towered like a skyscraper over the red column, which barely rose above the base line representing zero. The next slide, titled “Rough Equivalence,” compared the two stockpiles in the late 1960s. The columns were almost equal, but the blue was still taller than the red. The briefer explained the strategy behind the phrase: We would cap our warhead count with the expectation that once the two sides were about even, Moscow would quit building super-bombs and be content with parity, as agreed to in the SALT I treaty of 1972.

The third slide seemed to irritate the transition team. It was called “Current Status.” The red column was well above the blue one. If it climbed any higher, it would be off the chart.

The briefer offered a summation. “Superiority” was probably a good thing from the American perspective, but no longer attainable because of political and economic considerations. Unfortunately the Soviets hadn’t bought “rough equivalence” and had gone for numerical advantage. The new administration did not want to heat up the arms race by matching the higher Soviet warhead counts. There was an alternative.

Every officer in the room was a veteran of alert duty with SAC bombers, aerial tankers, or ICBMs, and when the next slide came up, you could hear a pin drop. It was titled “Planned Inferiority.” There was probably a threshold of damage that would keep one nuclear power from attacking another, the briefer explained, even if the first-strike initiator was guaranteed victory, at least in a military sense. That threshold could be a single surviving Polaris submarine capable of launching a second strike against the aggressor’s capital and several large population centers with sea-launched missiles. The proposal was later given a more respectable name, “Minimal Deterrence.” Just a few nuclear submarines, capable of surviving a first strike so they could retaliate against population centers, would be as effective a deterrent as the expensive triad of bombers, ICBMs, and missile-firing submarines deployed by previous administrations. At least that was the transition team’s theory. Cost savings would be immense.

“Minimal Deterrence” never went into effect. After the Carter administration canceled the B-1 bomber, Congress loudly criticized the SALT II treaty, which sanctioned a numerically superior Soviet strategic force. Carter withdrew the treaty from congressional consideration once the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and, to prove his administration was not soft on communism, funded the MX missile, the Trident submarine, and the then-secret stealth bomber.

Years later, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union broke apart, Carter’s concept reappeared under a slightly different name, “Minimum Deterrence.” New developments—the START I and II treaties downsizing both superpowers’ nuclear stockpiles, the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and the defection of SAC’s last commander, Gen. Lee Butler, to the “no nukes” movement —gave minimum deterrence added respectability. This time there were no raised eyebrows, even in Omaha.

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