Crisis Stability and Long-Range Strike

A Comparative Analysis of Fighters, Bombers, and Missiles

by Forrest E. Morgan

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Research Questions

  1. How important is force structure in bolstering or eroding stability in an international military crisis?
  2. Long-range strike assets — strike fighters, bombers, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles — play an important role in managing a crisis, but are any of these systems more conducive to crisis stability than others?
  3. What attributes do these systems require to be effective tools of crisis management and most conducive to crisis stability?

Crisis stability and the means of maintaining it, crisis management, were central concerns in the Cold War. They are becoming relevant again as nuclear proliferation and the reemergence of great power competitors make dangerous interstate confrontations increasingly likely. When managing an international crisis, U.S. leaders will need to defuse the threat of war without compromising important political or military interests, and they will want to do so before tensions escalate to the point at which one or both sides resort to nuclear brandishing. In such situations, the United States must balance its threats with restraint. It must posture forces in ways that deter aggression without implying that an attack is imminent, while limiting its own vulnerability to surprise attack. These seemingly contradictory requirements put peculiar demands on force structure. Long-range strike assets — strike fighters, bombers, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles — play an important role in crisis management, but are any of these systems more conducive to crisis stability than others and, if so, why? To answer these questions, a RAND study examined the potential effects of alternative long-range strike systems on crisis stability, with a particular focus on specific attributes: potency, ability to minimize U.S. vulnerability to surprise attack, flexibility, responsiveness, and ability to convey the desired message in the event of an international crisis.

Key Findings

To Bolster Stability in an International Crisis, U.S. Strike Assets (Fighters, Bombers, Ballistic Missiles, and Cruise Missiles) Must Have Certain Attributes

  • They should be sufficiently potent to deter a conventional attack by an opponent. Potent conventional strike assets can deter an opponent before it turns to nuclear threats.
  • They should be able to minimize U.S. vulnerability to a surprise attack by an opponent.
  • They should be able to mitigate the opponent's perception of an impending U.S. surprise attack. That is, they should not lead the opponent to believe that it must resort to brandishing its nuclear weapons.

To Ensure That a Crisis Can Be Managed Once It Begins, U.S. Strike Assets Must Have Additional Attributes

  • They should be flexible and bring a broad selection of employment profiles to the scenario.
  • They should be responsive. Strike assets must be compatible with the need for prompt alert, deployment, and employment.
  • They should offer capabilities for signaling. They must be employable in ways that communicate the intended message (e.g., capability, resolve, restraint).

All Alternative Strike Systems Have Attendant Strengths and Weaknesses

  • Aircraft are excellent tools of crisis management and deterrence, and cruise missiles are important enablers, but conventional ballistic missiles have little to offer in this area.
  • Short-range strike capabilities can be destabilizing. Future opponents will likely be able to accurately target air bases and aircraft carriers at ever increasing ranges.
  • Adding legacy bombers with standoff weapons or moving fighters back is not a reliable solution. Distant-based legacy bombers would be safe from attack, and moving fighters back would reduce their vulnerability and the perception of a surprise U.S. attack, but these assets would lose their potency in the process.
  • Penetrating bombers offer potency without excessive vulnerability. They are likely to remain the most important U.S. strike asset in future crises.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Crisis Management, Crisis Stability, and Force Structure

  • Chapter Three

    Attributes of Alternative Strike Systems

  • Chapter Four

    Strike Systems and Crisis Stability in History

  • Chapter Five

    Building a Force for Crisis Management and Structural Stability

  • Appendix A

    Two Illustrative Cases of Crisis Management

  • Appendix B

    Analyzing the Attributes of Alternative Strike Systems

  • Appendix C

    Case-Study Methodology and Data

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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