Twenty-First Century Power

Twenty-First Century Power

Strategic Superiority for the Modern Era

Brent D. Ziarnick

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2018, 208 pages

Book Review published on: May 17, 2019

Twenty-First Century Power: Strategic Superiority for the Modern Era discusses military power from the perspectives of military generals, civic leaders, and the public. The book also hints about acquiring and losing different types of power and how they can be used in the second nuclear age, which began at the end of the Cold War.

Comprised of the writings of the late U.S. Air Force Gen. Thomas Sarsfield Power, this descriptive book is focused primarily on using lessons learned in the second nuclear age. Edited by Brent D. Ziarnick, Twenty-First Century Power covers Power’s vision for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) as articulated in his writings, speeches, Senate testimony, and discussions with civic leaders. It also discusses the changing atmosphere of the United States and some opposing arguments of the time.

At the conclusion of World War II, the United States took on the role of global guardian and developed a policy of deterring aggression through the threat of “massive retaliation” versus actually fighting a nuclear war. However, Twenty-first Century Power posits that future nuclear wars are likely, and American strategists need to confront the problems of fighting such a war.

The book concludes with Power’s observation that deterrence is not an exact science and that several opinions exist on nuclear war. Power believed the principle of deterrence was founded on a sound economy, a prosperous industry, scientific progress, a strong school system, adequate civil defense, a stable professional military force, and the ability to convince potential aggressors we can counter any attack with decisive results that will destroy their capacity to wage war. He strongly believed that informing aggressors of our strength prevents war, but disarmament leads to war. However, Mississippi Sen. John C. Stennis contended that building on our superiority makes others build theirs, which escalates in a vicious ladder. And intellectuals such as Herman Kahn advocated that the costs of nuclear war make it unprofitable, and we should focus on our ability to dominate any enemy. In opposition to Kahn’s argument, which he perceived as foolish and dangerous, Power stressed that many of our nuclear weapons were untested and that assuming every warhead was going to be delivered on target was unrealistic.

With the various opposing arguments of the time, Power understood that the public was beginning to question the necessity of nuclear deterrence, and to combat ignorance, he began inviting members of the public to SAC. In his discussions with civic leaders, Power rarely deviated from the testimony he provided to the Senate. His messages conveyed his belief that there are no winners in nuclear war, the arms race has been on-going since history started, loss of sovereignty is the most serious thing that can happen to a nation, and the world knows that the nuclear weapons held by the United States are in mature, moral hands and will not be used to bully nations, accomplish external goals, or take over any territory. His overarching goal was to keep the world safe from a general nuclear war.

SAC’s mission continued as the public opinion evolved, especially with Russia’s goal to “dominate and enslave the world,” its 1961 and 1962 nuclear tests, its technical lead in detailed information on strategic U.S. targets, and its high-yield weapons. This led to evolving beliefs and opinions that our deterrence position would not dissuade Russians, who considered the costs of nuclear war entirely acceptable for what they expected to gain. Defense analysts of the time began questioning deterrence in a world where many minor powers had the ability to engage in limited nuclear war. However, Power maintained his consistent message that disarmament leads to war, and we obtain our superior position in the world through weaponry, scientists, and testing.

Power believed peace depended on a maintenance of an imbalance of power in favor of the West. As the guardian of two-thirds of the United States’ nuclear striking power, he rooted the SAC’s strength in global organization, dedicated professionals, and advanced weapon systems. He also believed that humanity was the ultimate weapon and defense due to the urge to survive, the reasoning power of the human mind, patriotism, and the love of freedom.

In conclusion, due to his knowledge of nuclear war, weaponry, and our enemies, Power understood how to establish strategic supremacy with a superior system of operation, maintenance, and protection of predominant weapons. He was able to maintain U.S. nuclear war superiority with 7 percent of Department of Defense personnel, 10 percent of aircraft, 10 percent of fixed facilities, and eighteen cents of every defense dollar (during a time that airplanes were being phased out and support was waning). The SAC might have been better served with more focus on the external environment and by evolving its vision to include outside arguments, as well as educating the opposition. I recommend this book to anyone with an eye for different types of power (e.g., position, charismatic, connection, information, and reward) and for scholars interested in learning how use these types of power can be used in the second nuclear age.

Book Review written by: Kathy Kim Strand, MEd, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas