Alternative Security

A policy known as "nonprovocative defense"
offers a way to reduce military tensions and budgets

One of the articles in Is Militarism Fading? (IC#20)
Originally published in Winter 1989 on page 18
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Strange as it may sound, the military could be used in
nonmilitaristic ways to promote security. Militarism is distinguished by a reliance on the use of force to make decisions and resolve conflicts. But "alternative security," according to authors Michael Shuman, Hal Harvey, and Daniel Arbess, would have nations rely increasingly on policies that eliminate the economic and political roots of conflict, as well as on a military posture known as "nonprovocative defense."

This article comes out of their work with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) Security Program, directed by Hal Harvey, which explores how better resource policies can reduce the chance of war; and the Center for Innovative Diplomacy (CID), directed by Michael Shuman, which documents ways that citizens and cities are helping to build restraints on nations inclined toward war. CID also publishes an excellent journal called The Bulletin of Municipal Foreign Policy. Contact addresses: CID, 17931 Skypark Circle, Suite F, Irvine, CA 92714; RMI, 1739 Snowmass Creek Rd., Snowmass, CO 81654-9199.

For more than forty years, defense policy in the United States has been a tug-of-war between two schools of thought – the "arms builders" and the "arms controllers." The debate between these schools has focused on a narrow range of questions, such as how many nuclear weapons to deploy and for what purpose. The result has been a controlled arms race, in which the United States has steadily expanded and modernized its nuclear weapons forces while simultaneously negotiating new limits on them – like a driver pressing the accelerator with one foot and slamming on the brake with the other.

Underlying this entire debate have been four largely unquestioned premises about security: that the right level of weapons can ensure national security; that the biggest national security threat we face is the Soviet Union; that military force is the most effective means of global diplomacy; and that foreign policy should be entrusted to national experts. Whatever virtues these premises might once have had, they have become ill-suited to national and global security needs in the 1990s. Events in recent years have suggested that each is seriously flawed and needs to be completely rethought.

Throughout the world a growing number of analysts have begun this rethinking. Residing primarily in Western Europe – but also in North and South America, and even in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – these analysts have built up a substantial body of theory and policy recommendations. While much of this thinking has not received serious attention here in the United States, it has become the centerpiece for the principal opposition parties in Denmark, Great Britain and West Germany, and in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, some of these alternative ideas are government policy.

Our book, Alternative Security: Beyond The Controlled Arms Race, is an attempt to synthesize these alternatives for Americans, for whom they have enormous relevance, and to add some new ones of our own. In this article we cannot, of course, cover the full range of material in our book. We would instead like to provide an introduction to the principles of alternative security, and then to describe in more depth one aspect of it that may not be familiar to readers of IN CONTEXT – a policy known as "nonprovocative defense."


While the advocates of alternative security embrace many different views and political ideologies, and have prescribed a wide range of alternative policies, all of these policies seem to echo four basic principles:

  • First, security threats should be recognized as multilateral and multidimensional.
  • Second, these threats should be met with policies that are nonprovocative.
  • Third, nations should strive to prevent and elimnate conflicts long before they erupt into violence.
  • Finally, security policy should be made as democratic and participatory as possible.

Recognizing Multilateral, Multidimensional Threats * The first imperative of alternative security is to comprehend the wide array of threats endangering national security. If Americans continue to pretend that the Soviets are at the root of all of the world’s problems, threats such as terrorism, the accelerating extinction of plant and animal species, OPEC-like cartels, nuclear weapons proliferation, and global warming may overwhelm us. Every different kind of threat to national security – military, political, economic, and environmental – must be carefully weighed. Moreover, threats posed by every nation must be examined, whether coercion from Libya or Iran, trade barriers in Japan, or unsafe nuclear power plants in the Third World. To miss just one major threat could turn out to be catastrophic. Any "security" policy that ignores these threats is unworthy of the name. Yet the controlled arms race ignores nearly all of them.

Making Security Policies Nonprovocative * Under this principle, all security policies should aim to increase the security of other nations, including our adversaries – a concept sometimes called "common security." This reflects an understanding that, in today’s nuclear age, it is insecurity that drives nations to accumulate arms and seriously consider launching their missiles.

One application of this second principle is to restructure U.S. military capabilities so that they are unambiguously defensive, and at the same time to persuade other nations to do likewise. Imagine if the Soviet Union were to remove from Eastern Europe many of the troops, tanks, and long-range aircraft that Western Europeans have long feared might be used against them in a blitzkrieg attack. Further imagine that, instead, the Soviet Union fortified its defensive positions with more ditches, walls, anti-tank weapons, and short-range aircraft – weapons that could repel an attack by NATO but could not mount a credible attack on the West. The result would be an enormous relief for the West with no less security for the East. The same relief would occur in the East if NATO began similarly restructuring its own forces. This is an example of "nonprovocative defense," a policy we elaborate upon shortly.

Emphasizing Conflict Prevention and Resolution * The third principle of alternative security is to search out, identify, and resolve conflicts before they erupt into violence. Today the United States, like most nations, spends roughly twenty-one times more on military defense and military foreign assistance than on all nonmilitary international programs put together, thus spending the most on those policies that are probably the riskiest and least effective.

The alternative approach would focus on causes, not symptoms. It would have the United States give greater priority to eliminating the economic and political roots of conflict through non-provocative forms of persuasion and cooperation. For example, by promoting energy conservation at home and abroad, the United States could reduce the strategic importance of oil and eliminate the need for deploying its navy in the Persian Gulf. Alternative security would also have the United States help resolve nascent conflicts through stronger, more equitable international rules. If institutions like the United Nations and the World Court could be strengthened to resolve most conflicts long before they became violent, the demands on our military establishment would be far more modest.

Promoting Participatory Policies * The final principle of alternative security is the democratization of national security policy. Alternative security automatically does this by emphasizing nonmilitary policies. With their constitutionally-protected freedoms to speak, associate, travel, and trade, Americans can wield enormous persuasive and cooperative powers abroad – by themselves or through organizations, corporations, or state and city governments. Time and time again citizens, civic organizations, churches, and local governments have implemented much of alternative security, even without supporting policies from the national government. For example, Greenpeace has helped develop international rules about species protection. Or as another example, the church-based group, Witness for Peace, has served a peacekeeping function in Central America as contingents of volunteers have patrolled the Nicaragua-Honduras border.

In weapons policy, the one area where common sense suggests that policy ought to remain centralized, alternative security would have the United States place a new, more rigorous set of checks and balances on our political and military leaders. A stronger War Powers Act and a ban on covert actions, for example, might put important constraints on the ability of our leaders to get the United States into dangerous conflicts.

It is ironic that the emphasis of the U.S. peace movement on arms control has helped to consolidate the power of national security planners. By focusing on the security issues over which the public has the least influence, the peace movement has ensured itself limited success. If, instead, the peace movement were to begin redefining peace as flowing from appropriate diplomatic, economic, and environmental policies – policies over which citizens have a great deal more influence – security policies could begin to evolve from all Americans rather than the unelected national security experts.


Even the best conflict prevention sometimes fails. Although alternative security emphasizes non-violent conflict resolution, it also includes contingency plans for those occasions when adversaries resort to violence. This willingness of proponents of alternative security to take the threat of foreign attack seriously and even to work side by side with military planners is a significant departure from the predisposition of many peace activists.

In Europe many of the most important alternative security thinkers are former high-ranking military officers such as former Bundeswehr officers Major-General Jochen Loser and Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Mechtersheimer. Alternative security planners seek to fuse the values of the peace movement with the hard-headed pragmatism of the military. They recognize that nations do face serious threats to their security and that not to counter these threats with adequate military protection is irresponsible.

Alternative security military planning differs from current security policy, however, in two key ways. First, military force would be employed truly as a last resort, following the alternative security principle of emphasizing conflict prevention and resolution. Second, force would be structured and used exclusively in defensive ways, following the strategy known as nonprovocative defense (NPD). This strategy is perhaps best applicable to Europe, where the current NATO- Warsaw Pact absorbs more than two-thirds of the $1 trillion the world spends annually on its military establishments.

For either NATO or the Warsaw Pact to have a credible NPD, it must have a combination of weapons and force structure that have no capability for offense.

(1) NPD Weapons

The foundation of NPD strategy is defense-oriented conventional weapons. The line between defensive and offensive weapons is admittedly blurry, but some classes of weapons are easy to categorize. Anti-tank weapons are more defensive than tanks; short-range fighters are more defensive than long-range bombers; destroyers are more defensive than aircraft carriers. Defensive weapons can be distinguished from their offensive counterparts by looking at four factors: their range, their vulnerability to preemption, their concentration, and their dependence on local support.

Short Range * Unlike offensive weapons, which need to travel long distances to attack an adversary’s homeland, defensive weapons need only repel nearby forces. For example, Sweden, to demonstrate its defensive intentions, deliberately has not acquired long-range bombers and has kept the fuel tanks of its other military aircraft small to limit their range.

Low Vulnerability * Any weapon that is vulnerable to a sudden attack invites preemption or escalation in a crisis. Invulnerable weapons, in contrast, can be fired at will; there’s neither the need nor the temptation to fire them preemptively or early in a battle. Following this principle, Switzerland, for example, hides its fighter planes in bunkers carved under mountains so that they need not take off until battle actually begins.

Low Concentration of Value * Weapons of extremely high value, such as large battleships or weapons support facilities like airfields, invite preemptive attack. The Argentineans discovered this when the British began the Falklands/Malvinas War by sinking the large Argentinean battleship, General Belgrano. Singly, defensive weapons have relatively low value, and they are dispersed over a wide area.

Dependence on Local Support * Since weapons that require long, vulnerable supply lines are good targets for preemption, defensive weapons should be locally supportable. Weapons that depend on local support cannot be sent onto foreign territory for offensive purposes. As Dietrich Fischer, a noted peace scholar, describes, "[I]f tanks depend on fuel depots in fixed positions, they are limited in their mobility and serve essentially defensive functions. If they are accompanied by fuel trucks or pipelines for long-range advances, they can serve offensive functions."

By these criteria many, if not most, of the weapons currently in the NATO and Warsaw Pact arsenals must be characterized as offensive. The bulk of the Warsaw Pact forces were designed for a blitzkrieg style attack on NATO, a war-fighting strategy in which masses of tanks backed up by infantry and supported by air forces suddenly and quickly pierce NATO’s defenses, establish control, and roll onward. To defend against a possible blitzkrieg , NATO amassed forces similar to those of the Warsaw Pact – with tanks, mechanized infantry units, attack helicopters, long-range air power, extensive support forces, and a sophisticated command and control structure. These highly mobile weapons violate the first and fourth characteristics of non-provocative weapons by having both long ranges and mobile supply lines.

Both sides also have highly vulnerable forces that invite attack. NATO’s thousands of battlefield nuclear bombs in West Germany are often described as "use ’em or lose ’em" because if they are not fired early in a battle they will be overrun. In addition, both sides have vulnerable airfields, supply depots, troop camps, and command centers, all tempting targets for an early strike.

Finally, rather than dispersing their valued military assets, NATO and the Warsaw Pact have concentrated more and more "value" in fewer and fewer weapons. For example, at the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy had close to 7,000 ships; after the huge Reagan defense build-up there are now less than 600, each representing an enormous concentration of force. One aircraft carrier costs over a billion dollars to build and another billion or so to equip. Add to that the full panoply of escort ships, and the cost is closer to $15 billion. Today’s tanks cost about five times as much as their World War II predecessors. A B1 bomber, the Air Force’s newest air weapon, will cost over $250 million per plane. These valuable weapons, as well as their Soviet analogs, invite preemptive attack.

With a policy of NPD, NATO would gradually eliminate these offensive weapons and arm itself instead with short-range anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, deployed in dispersed, invulnerable positions. It would also disperse its supply depots and command and control facilities and increase their reliance on local support. Rather than being concentrated at the Warsaw Pact border, more forces would be spread throughout NATO territory. This raises the second essential factor in NPD planning – a nonprovocative force configuration.

(2) Deployment Patterns

To be credibly nonprovocative, NPD weapons must be deployed in unambiguously defensive ways. One option for NATO, for example, might be to withdraw some of its forces from the Warsaw Pact border, as Norway has done. Norway now defends its border with the Soviet Union with fixed defenses some 150 kilometers away from the border, using mountainous terrain to its advantage. The deployment pattern complements the Norwegians’ declared policy of minimizing tension in the region. The result has been that the Soviet Union has no reason or pretext to build up forces on its border with Norway – and the side-benefit of denying the Soviets potential pretexts for building up forces along the Finnish border.

Sweden provides other examples of viable NPD deployment patterns. To make its navy invulnerable, Sweden hides part of it in granite caverns at sea. This navy consists of twelve submarines, two destroyers, 35 fast attack craft, and various mine layers and minesweepers, all dedicated primarily to coastal defense. To emphasize their neutrality, Swedish forces’ radio frequencies are kept incompatible with those of both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. And the Swedish army, following the philosophy of "defense in depth," is deployed throughout Swedish territory.

Since Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia has also successfully used a similar strategy to deter a Soviet invasion. Like the Swedes, the Yugoslavs have a small navy capable only of coastal defense and they have stressed defense in depth. Local jurisdictions have their own militias, trained in guerrilla tactics, which supplement the national army. Backing up these militias is a national commitment not to surrender: giving up an inch of territory is considered an act of treason.

Whether these deployment patterns are applicable to NATO and Warsaw Pact countries is unclear. How exactly each nation should implement NPD depends on its culture, history, and geography. Plans have already been devised informally for some NATO countries, and in two of NATO’s most important partners, Britain and West Germany, the principal opposition parties have commissioned studies of NPD strategies. Most proposals integrate one or more of the following ideas:

Defensive Barriers * To make aggression by ground forces more difficult, NPD proposals recommend placing ditches, walls, mines, boulders, tank obstacles, and even dense forests along the border separating the East and West Blocs. Some analysts have suggested burying a pipeline along the East/West border, which in times of crisis would be filled with an explosive slurry and then blown up, leaving behind a gigantic trench that would be an excellent tank trap. Jochen Loser recommends establishing a defense zone with barriers 80 to 100 kilometers from the border; these would channel attacking tank forces toward well-prepared, concentrated anti-tank forces. Norbet Hannig and Albrecht von Muller would establish a four-to-five kilometer corridor along the border, a "no-man’s-land" in which advancing Warsaw Pact forces would face intense firepower delivered from afar.

Techno-Commando Units * Horst Afheldt has suggested that NATO deploy 10,000 fighting units, each containing 20 to 30 men and armed with short-ranged artillery, anti-tank weapons, and Stinger-like anti-aircraft missiles. Each unit would each be responsible for defending ten to fifteen square kilometers. By becoming intimately familiar with its sector, each unit could effectively use the terrain to build a defensive advantage. A decentralized communications network would tie the Commando units together so they could help each other when necessary. Afheldt envisions units close to the inter-German border as active duty forces, while those in the rear would contain reservists who would be activated during a crisis.

Civilian-Based Defense * Another strategy NATO might implement – civilian-based defense (CBD) – has been practiced, at least in part, for centuries by the Swiss and more recently by the Swedes and Yugoslavs and has been analyzed extensively by Harvard’s Gene Sharp. Populations would be trained to make their country ungovernable in the face of an attack. They would be taught, for example, how to resist military occupation (or, for that matter, domestic tyranny) through strikes, boycotts, noncooperation, and obstruction which would make takeover a more costly goal for any attacker. The Swiss, for example, have explicit national plans to destroy valuable economic assets and key transportation points if they are ever militarily occupied. During World War II these plans – backed up by the Swiss threat to blow up railway tunnels linking Germany with Italy – apparently were enough to dissuade the Nazis from attempting to take over the country.

Any credible NPD force structure would probably combine all of these ideas into multiple layers of defense. Frontal barriers would stop or slow advancing forces. Forces breaking through would then face techno-commando units. Then enemy occupiers would have to cope with civilian-based defense units. At all times an attacker would face continued resistance from short-range aircraft and artillery, as well as from reinforcements from neighboring countries.


NPD is not without its skeptics. Perhaps the most frequently voiced concern is that NPD condemns the defending nation to the certainty that, if war breaks out, it will be on its own territory. Edward Luttwak observes, "[T]o imagine such a defense in depth for the NATO central front in Germany is … to indulge in sheer fantasy – and malevolent fantasy at that. For that zone of deep combat happens to correspond to the territory where tens of millions of Germans live. Quite rightly, what the Germans demand is not merely an eventual ability to defeat an aggression at some ultimate point in time and in space, but rather an actual provision of security for themselves, their families, their homes, and their towns."

Luttwak’s concern for the German people, however sincere, is disingenuous – it is hard to conceive of any major battle in Europe that would not devastate Germany. Certainly compared to the alternative scenarios – thousands of tactical nuclear warheads being fired on advancing Warsaw Pact troops – NPD offers the prospect of dramatically less damage if war erupts. This explains why some of NPD’s most stalwart proponents are Germans, who are indeed concerned about "security for themselves, their families, their homes, and their towns." Dietrich Fischer also notes that this kind of argument "misses the whole point. As history has shown, the true choice is rather between a concentration on defense, which helps avoid war, and an offensive posture, which is likely to lead a country into war."

Other critics of NPD simply assume that defenses will be inadequate. Stephen Flanagan, a senior fellow at the Strategic Concepts Development Center at National Defense University, recently wrote, "A state that relies on the pure form of deterrence by denial, inherent in the nonprovocative defense concepts, runs the risk of tempting a potential aggressor to wear down its defenses." Flanagan seems to presume that an attacker’s forces would be more robust and durable than the defender’s. But the defender could just as easily wear down the attacker. Once a defender adopts NPD, it would continue amassing defenses until it has a very high level of confidence that it could outsmart and outlast foreseeable long-term offensives. Moreover, NPD does not rely exclusively on "deterrence by denial"; once foreign forces enter a nation’s territory, NPD aims to oust the attackers.

Flanagan then argues that "a related operational shortcoming is that these concepts advocate largely reactive measures to be undertaken after an attack has begun, making them highly vulnerable to surprise attack." Again, he assumes that a nation with NPD would make inadequate preparations for surprise attacks. In fact, NPD’s emphasis on decentralized forces and defense-in-depth may well be better suited to blunt a surprise attack than NATO’s current force structure, which concentrates troops and weapons in a small number of border positions.

Flanagan also asks whether "nonprovocative defense concepts deter a state with clearly hostile political objectives? For example, would a nonprovocative defense posture [by Iraq] have deterred Iranian attacks over the past seven years?" Flanagan assumes the answer is "no." But had Iraq adopted NPD, that certainly would have prevented Iraq’s attack on Iran in September 1980, the first blow in the long, tragic war. Once the war had begun, it is hard to evaluate whether an NPD posture could have then dissuaded Iran from seeking revenge against Iraq. But certainly if Iraq had better-prepared defenses before the war began, Khomeini would have been more deterred from attacking and more eager to pursue nonviolent diplomacy.

If there is any legitimate criticism of NPD, it is that NATO and Warsaw Pact military planners have yet to apply their experience and imagination to devising a package of defensive proposals with which they could live comfortably. Since most of the NPD proposals have come from either analysts outside the military or from military planners no longer on active duty, this problem is to be expected – but it is one of engineering, not of theory. The fundamental principle that defense will reduce the twin dangers of an adversary building offensive arms and launching a preemptive attack is a political, psychological, and historic judgment, not a military one.


Critics of alternative security are quick to point to its weaknesses and limitations. Conservation, they contend, will never get rid all of the roots of conflict over resources, and democratization will never restrain all future leaders from entering war. International cooperation, norms, and institutions may help resolve some conflicts, but we must remain militarily prepared for when they fail. And nonprovocative defense may look good in theory, but can we really entrust the security of Europe and the rest of the world to a theory?

However valid these questions, we must recognize that perfection is the wrong criterion for evaluating alternative security. No security system can guarantee an end to war. What must be asked, instead, is whether all of the alternative security proposals, considered as a system, can be expected to work better than our current security system.

Compared to the four cracking pillars of present policy, an alternative security system offers more vision, resiliency, and cost-effectiveness. The principles of alternative security – evaluating threats multilaterally and multidimensionally, ensuring that policies are nonprovocative, emphasizing conflict prevention and resolution ahead of military measures, and encouraging grassroots participation – comprise a far more exciting and reliable system of security than today’s controlled arms race.

If we are ready to abandon the old security paradigm, a new one is now available.


By Alan Atkinson

Military action is important to the nation –
it is the ground of death and life, the path
of survival and destruction, so it is imperative
to examine it.

Sun-tzu was a Chinese warrior-philosopher who lived over 2,000 years ago and wrote what many claim to be the most influential book of strategy in the world, The Art of War. Used for centuries in China and other Asian cultures, it is still in use today. Contemporary businessmen, for example (who increasingly see themselves as "corporate warriors," especially in Japan) study its principles and apply them to the world of international trade.

But while these principles are generally used in support of militaristic policies, such a narrow interpretation belies their true depth. When Sun-tzu wrote The Art of War, China was engulfed in a long period of civil strife as competing warlords battled over resources and terrain. The book thus has roots in both action and reflection: Sun-tzu was also very much influenced by the long string of Taoist thinkers who preceded him. His purpose in writing seems not merely to instruct generals on the means to achieve military invincibility, but to make clear the fact that war is a deadly last resort for those without other means to resolve conflicts. The best warrior, according to Sun-tzu, is one who does not have to fight.

Quotations from The Art of War will appear here and there throughout the remainder of this issue. The source is an excellent new edition translated (and very thoughtfully introduced) by Thomas Cleary, and published by Shambhala Books, Horticultural Hall, 300 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.


The rule of military operations is
not to count on opponents not coming,
but to rely on having ways of dealing with them;
not to count on opponents not attacking,
but to rely on having what cannot be attacked.

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