To the Editor:
Congratulations and thanks to Robert Jastrow for “Reagan vs. the Scientists: Why the President Is Right about Missile Defense” [January]. What I find particularly worrisome about the current debate on nuclear weapons and deterrence is that it seems to have been preempted by those whose philosophy it is to placate the Soviet Union through American vulnerability. Because he argues that we can do something positive to insure our future liberty, Mr. Jastrow’s article comes as a welcome reversal of this trend.
Technical problems—and there will be some—with a missile-defense system can be overcome with the same skill and determination which gave us the successful space program of the 60′s; but technical objections are not the issue. Even a defensive system with a low level of confidence is preferable to none at all, because to whatever extent it does work it disrupts the “correlation-of-forces” calculation the Soviet Union works out when weighing the probability of success in a military action.
Philosophically, a missile-defense system would seem to be attractive simply because it is not aggressive. Such a system poses no threat to property or lives; a pacifist can embrace the concept with a clear conscience. Being essentially reactive, a defensive system destabilizes nothing but the aggressive intentions of others. It makes negotiations obsolete, and makes escape words like “verifiable” redundant.
A missile-defense system seems to me to be our best bet for living in the uncertain future. Thanks again to Robert Jastrow for so clearly articulating the “right” side of the debate.
Mark D. Schlageter
Sussex, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Events that have occurred since the publication of Robert Jastrow’s article make it all the more compelling reading. Nearly a year before the article appeared in print, President Reagan offered one of the most profound strategic changes in our nation’s recent history, perhaps since World War II. The subsequent commissioning of the Fletcher and Hoffman panels (on technologies and strategies, respectively), sounded a new beginning and provided a timely and accurate reflection of the public mood.
Early indications that some bureaucratic inertia would slow progress were hinted at by Dr. George Keyworth, presidential science adviser, who said in a speech last fall: “Until this event [the President's strategic-defense initiatives], I had never really appreciated how slowly our institutions accommodate to change—and that the pace of change in Washington can be positively glacial.”
Still another indicator of the “glacial” movement of policy initiatives, despite the longstanding Soviet ballistic-missile threat, was the route the administration was forced to take in its Fiscal Year 1985 defense budget recommendations. Rather than recommend an accelerated development like the Manhattan Project, the administration had to steer a middle course to keep the President’s initiatives alive within the bureaucracy . . .; in addition, a modest funding level had to be submitted to Congress.
Again, even a comment about the initiatives had to be stricken from the President’s State of the Union address so that during this election year he could be portrayed as a man concerned with arms control. Some key political advisers apparently felt that to do otherwise would detract from the President’s image as a man of peace. . . .
The President’s ideas are good ones whose time has finally come. I only hope that Congress increases his budget recommendations.
David C. Phillips
Spring Valley, California
To the Editor:
I was amazed that after Robert Jastrow’s splendid, informative article, “Why Strategic Superiority Matters” [March 1983], there was not even one letter commending him. I’m not fond of writing, but I was convinced that many others would acclaim the article. I was, therefore, surprised at the shallowness and ignorance of reader response [Letters from Readers, July 1983].
Now I would like to comment on “Reagan vs. the Scientists,” which shows the wisdom Mr. Jastrow has acquired from so many years of involvement in this field. He gives us the information we need to protect our country from an enemy like the Soviet Union which has twice as many armaments as we have—or more. His warning that the Soviets might launch a preemptive attack to destroy America should be taken very seriously. From what I know about the Soviets, they will strike without warning when they are ready (remember what they did to the Korean airliner). . . .
I wish Mr. Jastrow would clear up one point, however. In his excellent rebuttal to the critics of his earlier article, he stated: “All military communications—land, sea, and air—are vulnerable to EMP, the Electromagnetic Pulse,” which the Soviets can generate by exploding an H-bomb high above the U.S. Yet Mr. Jastrow does not mention EMP in his current article, though he does state that our military installations can be protected by the “technologies of the miniaturized computer.” But if EMP would render such computers useless, how can such protection occur?
Santa Cruz, California
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s “Reagan vs. the Scientists” is unfortunately titled. It is not “the scientists” who oppose missile defense; it is, rather, a group of publicists with scientific educations who are presented as authorities by sympathetic journalists (“the media”). Such publicists rarely do any science; they administer, attend conferences, head programs on “technology and society,” and the like. When “the scientists” address themselves to civic issues, they are rarely informed by scientific knowledge, theory, method, or standards.
Missile defense involves complex technical issues. Tens of thousands of men and women have been laboring for more than a generation on the radars, the computers, the interceptors, and the directed-energy devices that are involved in missile defense. Only these people are qualified to estimate how well missile defense will work, but they have neither the time nor the inclination to scribble or to be interviewed, and they are subject to Byzantine rites of review and censorship, so they are not heard—nonetheless, they are the real scientists.
Missile defense raises difficult issues of global security that cannot be resolved by science because they rest on estimates of the behavior of the political leadership of nations, especially the United States and the Soviet Union. “The scientists” are entirely ignorant of the latter and have little more than inchoate contempt for the former; nonetheless, they speak with pretended authority and are cited as oracles.
Issues of global security are the province of strategy. But the real strategists are hedged about by the same bureaucratic and censorship restrictions that affect the missile scientists. So we hear little from them, but much from those who write about strategy—i.e., “the strategists.”
Croton-on-Hudson, New York
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow and COMMENTARY have provided a remarkable service in putting the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union into an understandable perspective. I wish that Mr. Jastrow’s article could be made required reading for the American Congress and European Parliaments. I hope his ideas and logic will soon become part of the common domain. This said, there is still the problem of how the world may be freed from the threat of nuclear war in the near future, that is in the next couple of years.
Since the Soviet bloc is ruled by a technocracy that cannot relax tensions to any significant degree without sacrificing pride of place (if not life itself), no relief can be expected from the Soviet hierarchy.
Nor is the free world likely to give up freedom, an idea so powerful it has been known to overshadow even such passions as love, greed, and politics.
Nor can we blow up the world to save it.
The facts and logic, therefore, suggest that the only practical solution lies in bringing to an end the despotic rule of the Soviet-bloc technocrats. The initiative for this, if war is to be avoided, clearly must come from the unhappy bloc residents themselves.
There are many Soviet-bloc émigrés who believe that such an eventuality is not only possible but feasible. Indeed, American national policy used to be based on the idea that an uprising in one of the Soviet satellites would lead to freedom throughout the bloc. . . .
But the wrong “lesson” emerged from the debacle of the uprising in Hungary in 1956: a new doctrine . . . that we should encourage no new uprisings behind the Iron Curtain. If we were to do so, the new theory went, it would only visit undue misery on bloc residents.
But as the 1968 Prague Spring and Soviet dissidents and Poland’s Solidarity continue to prove, great dissatisfaction and unhappiness remain the rule. Scratch any reasonably bright Iron Curtain refugee and he bleeds prodigious confusion over why the West, as Solzhenitsyn says, “has tremendously strong allies of which it makes no use—the people of the Soviet Union and indeed of the other subject nations.” . . .
Pawleys Island, South Carolina
To the Editor:
The title of Robert Jastrow’s article, “Reagan vs. the Scientists: Why the President Is Right about Missile Defense,” gives Ronald Reagan more credit than he deserves. Mr. Jastrow never once mentions the media-hyped, but accurate, phrase, “Star Wars” technology, which, with its connotations of flashy, expensive weaponry, was what Reagan seemed to have in mind last spring and for which he was rightly attacked.
Mr. Jastrow’s plan for a defense against nuclear missiles, by contrast, relies only partially on multibillion-dollar laser platforms floating in orbit around the earth. His discussion of the capabilities of smart missiles bearing conventional explosives and of the “keg-of-nails” anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system is a constructive and valuable addition to the debate on defenses against nuclear attack. His comments should be welcomed even by nuclear-freeze advocates, since these proposed systems allow us to give up our policy of holding cities hostage in a nuclear exchange and because the new systems themselves are non-nuclear in nature. But I did not hear the President discussing either of these new technologies.
If Mr. Jastrow . . . believes in the efficacy of an orbiting laser platform, he must still address the main contention of the critics, which is that such a space-based system would be a sitting duck for a missile fired from a high-altitude aircraft or for a hunter-killer satellite.
Alan J. Saly
New York City
To the Editor:
I found Robert Jastrow’s article persuasive on the assumption that the antagonists are the United States and the Soviet Union. I would appreciate, however, having Mr. Jastrow’s comments on how deterrence is affected by the stationing of Pershing-2 missiles in the NATO countries. Would not any sudden attack . . . against the United States be likely to cause the NATO nations to retaliate in their own self-interest? They must know that without the U.S. in the picture they would be likely to fall prey to the Soviet Union. Is the possibility of a NATO response an additional deterrent to a Soviet first strike? Also, would not the United States push the button as soon as it spotted Soviet ICBM’s coming, instead of waiting for them to land?
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow spreads an astonishing amount of misinformation about the history, status, and prospects for defense of the nation against nuclear weapons.
About President Reagan’s proposal of a defense that could “intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reach our own soil,” he quotes me as saying “It won’t work.” Since I have stubbornly advocated the development and deployment of ballistic-missile defense (BMD) to defend our missile silos, my negativism is hardly so sweeping as Mr. Jastrow implies. It is a judgment, instead, on the President’s hope, with which the article ends, “. . . of rendering [nuclear] weapons impotent and obsolete.” That I say cannot be done. While we can effectively defend 1,000 Minuteman silos (or 5,000 Midgetman silos), we cannot prevent the destruction of our society by a few tens of weapons landing on our cities.
Nor can we imagine preventing the destruction of our two Trident bases by deploying “perhaps dozens of mini-missiles or more.” Against four Trident submarines in port, each with 24 missiles, each carrying six or eight silo-killing warheads, the Soviets could well afford to use 600 of their own (no-accuracy-required) nuclear warheads, which could not be defeated by “dozens” of mini-missiles (and could surely penetrate any number of mini-missiles by well-established “ladder-down” techniques).
Mr. Jastrow has critics of the Reagan plan speaking “as if he [Reagan] were proposing a defense of entire cities and their populations, but he made no suggestion of that kind in his speech.” What other meaning is there to the President’s words?
What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter Soviet attack; that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?
To achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.
If the President and Mr. Jastsow are content with forcing the Soviet Union to expend twice as many nuclear warheads in a (successful) attempt to destroy U.S. ICBM’s, then they should deploy buried nuclear weapons near the silos, as I have proposed publicly at least since 1976, or develop a non-nuclear SWARMJET shotgun-like defense of these silos. And we could help reduce the threat of nuclear war not by placing defensive arms in space and provoking the deployment there of Soviet defensive arms (additional killers of our own ICBM’s), but by banning all weapons from space and all anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and tests.
As for laser defense, when no “basic scientific obstacles stand in the way of success,” there is the certainty of a Soviet search for counter-measures—space mines to destroy defensive satellites, missiles which burn more rapidly within the protective shield of the atmosphere so that they cannot be threatened by technically successful X-ray lasers, hardening of missiles, and the like.
Almost every paragraph contains demonstrable errors. What experience or authority leads Mr. Jastrow to conclude that a warhead with “250-yard accuracy” will fall 99.9 percent of the time “within a mile of the target”? And “square acres”?
It was not “American arms-control experts [who] pressed the Soviets . . . to sign an agreement outlawing any large-scale defense against ballistic missiles.” It was President Nixon who directed this effort, signed the 1972 ABM treaty, and led the fight for its Senate ratification.
It is not true that “The first Soviet ABM tests used a surface-to-air missile called the SA-5. . . .” The Soviet Union had long before 1972 deployed a real ABM system around Moscow (then and now easily defeated by U.S. strategic weapons) using the nuclear-armed “Galosh” interceptor, which has nothing to do with air defense.
The radar at Abalakova in the Soviet Union, as described last summer in the New York Times, in my opinion is an early-warning radar, which is clearly banned by the ABM treaty. If it is completed I have no doubt that it will constitute a violation of the ABM treaty. Although it would not augment Soviet ABM capabilities significantly, such a violation cannot be condoned. It will be of great interest to see whether the Soviets will scrap that radar before it is completed, as they have ceased other activities called to their attention in the Standing Consultative Commission set up by the 1972 SALT treaty—as have we.
To return to Mr. Jastrow: B-52′s can “fly at high altitudes, which means that they can be picked up by a radar at a considerable distance,” but in their strategic role they fly (like the B-l) at low altitudes, and both at subsonic speed.
It is not true that the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) is “as slow as a B-52”—Mach 0.75 versus Math 0.53 at low altitude—and it is the ALCM on which we will rely for penetration of Soviet air defense, whether launched from outside Soviet territory by B-52 or B-l aircraft.
Nor is our submerged strategic submarine force “very hard to reach by radio. . . . To receive a message, the submarine must rise up to or just under the surface of the ocean.” Our submarines cruise at comfortable depth, without leaving a surface wake, and are in constant receipt of orders and information. This is accomplished by towing a cable which floats on the surface or by towing a small buoy which swims a few yards below the surface. It is not true that “American submarines loaded with nuclear missiles must spend much of their time at sea incommunicado, cruising at depth.” They do not talk back very often, to avoid detection, but they hear almost all the time. And if the normal broadcast means are destroyed in nuclear war, it is not true that “an airplane flies low over the water, trailing a wire several miles long.” The TACAMO aircraft fly high and communicate with submarines thousands of miles away.
At the end of the article, Mr. Jastrow suggests that ultimately when the U.S. will be able to deliver ordinary explosives across continents with accuracies “measured in feet rather than in hundreds of yards, the military uses of the nuclear bomb will dwindle into nothingness.” But even passive defenses of silos can protect them against perfectly accurate high-explosive charges. Most significantly, the availability of non-nuclear weapons will not eliminate the threat to the U.S. of Soviet destruction of our cities by nuclear weapons; although that is not a “military use,” it is the one which bothers most of us. “Military uses” of U.S. nuclear weapons have been deterred by Soviet capability to destroy our nation and society, and no significant freedom for “military uses” of Soviet nuclear weapons exists either, so long as Soviet cities are vulnerable.
Mr. Jastrow states: “If nothing else deterred the Soviet leadership from an attack on the United States, that circumstance would certainly do so.” “That circumstance” is our ability to destroy in retaliation “the 700 hardened leadership centers sheltering the Soviet elite.” No and no! Who else is “certain” that a Soviet leadership (a Hitler?) willing to attack the United States in the sure knowledge of destruction of Soviet society would be unwilling if the leadership also were to die? But if one were certain, then why not the simpler step of improving the accuracy of the Trident-1 missiles, as I proposed long ago, and reinforcing the communications to strategic submarines to guarantee the receipt of the dread order to retaliate?
I have worked on most of the technologies mentioned in the article—missile guidance, mini-missiles, nuclear weapons, optical and X-ray lasers, strategic cruise missiles, strategic communications—and continue to do so. In my opinion, there is a technical consensus that society cannot be protected against the use of the present vast stores of nuclear weapons. Many who support a defense against ballistic missiles say that it cannot defend our society against Soviet forces but against nuclear weapons in the hands of an eventual dozen or more “crazy nations.” But the threat from those nations is unlikely to be delivered by ballistic missiles.
Perhaps the President really meant to agree with the President’s Commission on Strategic Forces (the Scowcroft commission), which reported, in late April 1983, its understanding that U.S. society cannot be made invulnerable to Soviet nuclear attack, so that our primary goal is to deter nuclear war and to reduce the likelihood of war by miscalculation. If so, it would be wise to emphasize now that the President was not “proposing a defense of entire cities and their populations.” You could have fooled me!
Richard L. Garwin
Yorktown Heights, New York
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow once again voices his unrealistic, alarmist claim that the Soviet Union could easily wipe out our land-based missile force in a sudden super-Pearl Harbor attack and force our nation into surrender. Mr. Jastrow depends too much upon the vaunted report of the Scowcroft commission, which is not a sober and accurate appraisal of Soviet military capability but a biased, opinionated essay prepared by a group of superhawks in order to advance their interests. I have obtained a copy of the report . . . and, as far as I can see, it offers no substantiation for its conclusions. Indeed, hard evidence from our monitoring of Soviet missile tests indicates that Soviet ICBM’s are frequently unreliable and inaccurate and thus could hardly execute the sort of precision strike that Mr. Jastrow fears.
There are less sinister reasons than the motive Mr. Jastrow ascribes to the Soviets—i.e., that they are preparing a preemptive counter-force strike against our land-based missiles—to explain why they have placed such a large portion of their nuclear weapons into their land-based missiles and why they have considerably more nuclear weapons than they need for minimal deterrence.
The reasons for the Soviet emphasis on land-based missiles and for the large Soviet arsenal are simply that: (1) The Soviets do not now have nor have they ever had a credible intercontinental bomber force. (In his memoirs Nikita Khrushchev admitted that the Soviet jet and turboprop Bear and Bison bombers could not have been used against America. Khrushchev revealed that the Soviet leadership was delighted with the development of Soviet ICBM’s, for it meant that the Soviet Union finally had a weapon that could be used to strike at the American heartland.) (2) The Soviets’ submarine missile force is unreliable; Soviet submarines have to stay in port most of the time. (3) The military history of the Russians has been so tragic that they naturally feel they have to have large military forces. (4) The Soviet military-industrial complex is very powerful and has a vested bureaucratic interest in churning out and maintaining large quantities of weaponry. (5) The Soviets keenly understand—as we Americans unfortunately have never been able to—the political uses of military power.
Merely possessing nuclear forces beyond the bare minimum that, according to some ideas about deterrence, is required to dissuade the other side does not, as Mr. Jastrow believes, prove an intent to start a nuclear war. Many years ago the United States possessed several times more nuclear megatonnage than the Soviet Union, and many times more than would have been needed for bare “deterrence,” yet there was no intent on our part to initiate a nuclear war.
The Soviet Union does not want a nuclear war with the United States. It may be true that the Soviet Union suffered huge casualties, well over 20 million killed, as well as extensive property damage during World War II. But . . . it would be quite wrong to conclude from this that the Soviet Union was not affected by all those losses, sufferings, and privations, and would not mind going through them again as a result of a nuclear war with the United States. Neither side wants war. . . .
The analogy with the start of World War I is often used to attempt to substantiate the claim that a nuclear war could suddenly erupt unintentionally. However, if we go beyond a superficial glance, we see that the analogy is not applicable to modern conditions. At the start of World War I, . . . none of the adversaries had the power to destroy their opponents; all they had were large land armies with conventional weapons. No nation had the power to obliterate any other and thus no nation was committing national suicide by going to war in August 1914. . . .
To the Editor:
. . . As Soviet missiles become more accurate and more numerous, our own missiles find themselves in greater danger. One response is to adopt the strategy of “launch on warning” as described by John Steinbruner in the January issue of Scientific American, an utterly appalling possibility. In contrast, moving into space seems a rational, humane, and beneficent alternative.
Robert Jastrow appears not to understand the concept of destabilization. The work in space to provide a defense against nuclear missiles is likely to be slow and uncertain. Even if we achieve a workable defense of some sort, deploying it will be subject to negotiations. All sorts of destabilizing weapons, like the MIRV and the MX, started life as bargaining chips, and space lasers should be no exception. Unfortunately, Mr. Jastrow does not discuss this at all, beyond remarking that failing to undertake the particular destabilizing action he advocates “seems contrary to common sense.” . . .
A problem does exist, but Mr. Jastrow fails to address it. To put the matter very briefly: we cannot fight the Soviets without nuclear weapons, and as we become aware of the consequences of using nuclear weapons, we won’t have the will to fight the Soviets with nuclear weapons. You’d have to be crazy to use nuclear weapons. So, in order to deter the Soviets, we either have to pretend to be crazy, or actually be crazy (neither alternative is very attractive), or we have to find a defense against incoming nuclear missiles.
Even looking for such a defense is a solution in the short term. Since the Scowcroft commission exhausted the possibilities for any defense on earth (seeking an invulnerable basing mode for the MX, and concluding that none existed), the only place left to look is in the heavens. If we wish to continue to stand in opposition to the Soviet Union, Reagan’s much derided “Star Wars” scenario is the only viable option.
But you couldn’t tell it from Mr. Jastrow’s article.
Alexis A. Gilliland
To the Editor:
As Robert Jastrow points out, the track record of scientists making predictions about the feasibility of bold new ideas abounds in examples of where they went wrong. A good measure of humility on their part is in order. So is credit. After all, many of those bold new ideas were generated and later implemented by the scientific community. But Mr. Jastrow’s comment was meant to discredit totally, not to weigh judiciously. How else can he and Reagan (and presumably a few others) obtain credibility for their dangerous views in light of the “almost uniformly hostile” reaction from scientists, politicians, and journalists (a condition, by the way, not present in the examples of prophecy failure he offers)?
Giving such credibility to Mr. Jastrow would be difficult in any event after reading his article. Which is it? Can the Soviet Union destroy 70 to 75 percent of Minute-man missiles as stated in the body of the text or is it 57 percent as claimed in the footnote? Or is accuracy and/or consistency of no importance in either the writing about or firing of missiles?
Mr. Jastrow also seems to confuse prophecy with existing reality. Lasers are a bold if no longer new idea. To state, however, that “we already have the invention” and by implication can now, or in the short-term future, protect our cities against destruction is a disservice to rational discourse on the subject of defense. Most scientists . . . estimate that such a development, if possible, is quite a few years off—even as far off as 1989 or later when Trident 2 comes into use, which, according to Mr. Jastrow’s logic, would make his laser scenario unnecessary. . . .
Nicholas T. Sakell
Irvington-on-Hudson, New York
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s case for missile defenses should be convincing to those who share his enthusiasm for the elimination of nuclear terror and a return to “the good old days” when large-scale conventional war was feasible. I would like to point out one major flaw in his argument and also question his basic goal.
Mr. Jastrow repeats the traditional argument that a successful Soviet first strike would leave the United States no choice but surrender or suicide. He claims that the Soviets would not only be able to destroy our missile silos but also our submarine and air bases and other non-nuclear military targets. This is a mistake. Our submarines and surviving bombers would have the accuracy to match attacks on anything except missile silos and hardened command posts. Trading military bases makes no more sense for the Soviets than trading cities.
In reality the Soviets would be limited to destroying 90 percent of our missile silos and accepting retaliation against their silos by the surviving 10 percent. We would be the losers, since our civilian casualties would be higher, but they would in no way be the winners. Each side would retain its conventional arsenal and enough missiles to threaten the cities of the other. We would have no incentive to surrender, which means they would have no incentive to launch the attack, except to prevent us from doing so.
Nevertheless, protecting our land-based system with smart missiles or lasers would eliminate the possibility of a first strike that would destroy the world’s economic if not its ecological system. A simpler and less costly means to the same end is to get rid of our land-based missiles. They serve two purposes not better served by air- and sea-based warheads: they are accurate enough to threaten the Soviet Union with a first strike, and they provide bait for a first strike by the Soviets. To get rid of the latter, simply give up the former. The first requirement of a first strike is a target.
This radical solution would require a change in our European policy, enhanced survivability of our air-based delivery system, and better communications with our submarines. But with no possibility of a first strike, we would need far fewer warheads for deterrence—500 should be more than enough. Like Mr. Jastrow’s solution, this one doesn’t require Soviet cooperation, but in every other way its effects would be the opposite. Instead of making conventional war feasible by making nuclear weapons obsolete, it would institutionalize nuclear terror and make its management easier.
This is the fundamental question: do we want to make “civilized” wars winnable (and losable) once again? Or do we want to accept and minimize the risk of nuclear annihilation in exchange for the conventional stalemate that has limited the superpowers to proxy wars for the last forty years?
Robert Jastrow writes:
First, a general comment on events in the year since the President’s speech and the six months since the appearance of my article. Opposition to the idea of defending ourselves against Soviet missiles is still strong in the elite press and predictably among university scientists, but the basic good sense of the President’s proposal is becoming increasingly clear to many other Americans. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said recently, “It’s a matter of whether it’s better to destroy people or to destroy weapons. The President has opted for trying to destroy weapons. . . .” I think no one could make the point more succinctly than that.
Regarding actual progress toward the President’s goal: two study groups set up in response to the President’s initiative, and directed by James C. Fletcher and Fred S. Hoffman, respectively, have completed their evaluations and reported to the Secretary of Defense that a ballistic-missile defense is technically feasible, largely because of new advances in electronics and computing which, in the words of the Fletcher report, “make it possible both to manage tens of thousands of engagements simultaneously [and] when coupled with precision sensors make it feasible to perform ‘hit-to-kill’ intercepts. . . .” The Hoffman report emphasizes near-term possibilities, also stressed in my article, which would use available technologies and a less than perfect defense, in the language of the report, to “reinforce or help maintain deterrence by denying the Soviets confidence in their ability to achieve the strategic objective of their contemplated attacks.” This circumstance would enormously complicate Soviet planning for war, and add to the strength of our deterrent.
Opponents of the President’s proposal are fond of saying, as Carl Sagan did recently, that “The obvious response of the Soviet Union is simply to build more ballistic missiles.” But that comment is fatuous unless you specify the relative costs of defense and offense. If it costs the Soviets two dollars to overwhelm our defenses for every dollar we spend on them, then we have won; the Soviets may as well put away all their dreadful missiles, to paraphrase the President’s statement, while we put away all of ours. In fact, for a point defense of our deterrent force with existing technologies, the cost variation is, as I noted in my article, at least 2:1 in our favor—that is, in favor of defense over offense. For the newly developing technologies of lasers and the space-based defense, which offer the promise of a direct protection of our population, it is too early to make a firm cost estimate, but I am told that preliminary estimates strongly favor the defense over the offense in this area as well.
Reference to lasers brings me to the question of what is actually being done to implement the President’s proposal. Approximately $25 billion, spread over the next five years, is now allotted for this purpose in the current planning of the Defense Department. This includes roughly $6 billion for research on laser or “Star Wars” weapons and the same amount for the development of the defending mini-missile that steers itself into its target, known in the profession as a kinetic-energy or hit-to-kill weapon. The particular mini-missile described in my article was tested successfully by the Army in January at White Sands Missile Range, according to Aviation Week and Space Technology.
Regarding costs, the price of an effective point defense of our missile silos and other key sites is reported to be $5 billion, and a three-layered “Star Wars” defense is estimated to require about $100 billion. Some enemies of the President’s proposal have mentioned trillion-dollar figures for an effective defense, but I have heard Dr. George Keyworth, the President’s science adviser, describe those numbers as meaningless exaggerations.
Finally, there is a new awareness of the very rapid progress being made by the USSR in its own missile-defense program. While denouncing President Reagan’s proposal as “aggressive,” the Soviets apparently have been pursuing identical objectives with enormous vigor. Both study groups were alarmed by the information presented to them on the Soviet missile-defense effort. The Hoffman report refers to “the increasingly ominous possibility of one-sided Soviet deployment” of a defense against ballistic missiles and reminds us that “the decision [to deploy] ballistic-missile defenses does not rest with the United States alone.” The report by the Fletcher group states that the data available to them demonstrate that “the Soviets are already pursuing [ballistic-missile defense] at the fastest pace which their technology allows. . . . It is unlikely . . . that they could accelerate their effort more than they have, whatever we do” (emphasis added).
It is clear that criticisms of the President’s proposal on the grounds that it will stimulate the Soviet Union to a countering effort are also meaningless. The Soviets already are working as hard as they can to get their own missile defense ready for deployment. They will show us no mercy if they succeed before we do; Secretary Weinberger has said that the possibility that the Soviet Union would be the first country to develop an effective missile defense was one of the most frightening prospects he could imagine. I am sure that most Americans would agree with him.
Now to the letters. Mark D. Schlageter expresses in a very elegant way what I and many others feel is the most important point of all, namely, that even a moderately effective missile defense complicates Soviet war-fighting calculations and discourages the Soviets from an attack. Carl Sagan, Richard L. Garwin, and their colleagues in the Union of Concerned Scientists are obsessed with the notion that only a perfect defense will protect us, and of course that is not achievable. But imagine the effect on Soviet planning of even a 50-percent-effective defense—and Secretary Weinberger has said that 50 percent is the level of effectiveness of our existing missile-defense technology. Half the Soviet warheads would fail to destroy their targets, and the Soviets would not know beforehand which ones were going to be destroyed and which were not. They could not possibly plan an attack on the United States in these circumstances.
B.B. Stoller is rightly concerned about EMP or Electromagnetic Pulse, the surge of voltage produced over large areas by the high-altitude explosion of a nuclear weapon. But it is possible to harden or protect computers against EMP by shielding them in a metal cage. Communication lines can be protected by devices similar to those employed for protection against voltage surges caused by lightning. And metal cables can be replaced by fiber-optics cables. Glass does not pick up EMP. A substantial sum in the strategic-forces budget has been allotted to these measures. The problem is serious, but surmountable. The Defense Department is moving vigorously to meet it.
B. Bruce-Briggs raises a very interesting question: for whom do the scientists speak, who oppose missile defense? Their conclusions on the feasibility of the new defense technologies are quite different from those of most professionals who actually work on these problems. It is quite unfair to say that these critics rarely do any science, as Mr. Bruce-Briggs suggests, because some are physicists of very great distinction. But I think it is quite true that most of those qualified by experience to estimate the effectiveness of missile defense “have neither the time nor the inclination to scribble or to be interviewed.” On technical issues in the defense area, these professionals are the scientists whose opinion matters most. And I could not agree more with Mr. Bruce-Briggs regarding the ignorance and inadequacy of scientists when they make judgments on political behavior.
Alan J. Saly says that President Reagan had “Star Wars” and lasers in mind, and not the point defense I described. But if the President had lasers in mind, he could have said so. A careful reading of his speech suggests that he wished to avoid fencing himself in by mentioning any particular technology. The events that followed support this interpretation because the budget submitted by the Defense Department calls for a balanced program, with equal attention given to “Star Wars” weapons and the kinetic-energy or keg-of-nails weapons.
Mr. Saly also asks how a missile-defense battle station placed in orbit could protect itself from such threats as the Soviet hunter-killer satellite. Several methods are available. One is passive—a hardening or armoring of the station; another is active—the destruction of a sensed threat by lasers or hit-to-kill weapons; a third is proliferation—the deployment of additional stations, concealed in orbit until needed. Designing the optimum combination of these methods is one of the main purposes of the five-year and $25-billion research program just getting under way. Opponents of the President’s program would like to have it believed that laser battle stations and other space-based missile defenses are particularly vulnerable to a Soviet attack, but in fact they are no softer a target than our existing military assets in space, such as reconnaissance and early-warning satellites. All are vulnerable in their present unprotected state, but all will be protected in the time frame of the 1990′s.
Sinclair Kossoff asks whether the possibility of a NATO response to an attack on the U.S. would be an additional deterrent to a Soviet first strike. As things are in Europe, it seems to me to be evident that the NATO nations would be paralyzed with fear of the Soviets in the event of such an attack, and anxious to stay out of the battle. Regarding the possibility that we might fire off our missiles in a launch-on-warning, merely on suspicion of a Soviet attack, one of the main purposes of President Reagan’s missile-defense plan is to insure that no future President is ever faced with the necessity for making such an impossible decision. With a missile defense in place, you do not have to fire on the suspicion of an attack; you shoot the missiles down when you see them.
Richard L. Garwin’s letter alleges “misinformation” and “demonstrable errors.” To take his points in order: it is true that we cannot prevent the destruction of American cities by Soviet bombs, but we can make that development considerably less likely by a defense of our military sites that introduces a large measure of uncertainty into Soviet planning and therefore discourages the Soviets from planning a nuclear attack. Mr. Garwin and some other scientists seem to think that the Soviets may explode nuclear weapons over our cities rather than, or in addition to, our military sites; but it is clear that they will never do this because it is the one act that is guaranteed to trigger a devastating American retaliatory attack against Soviet cities by our submarine-launched missiles.
Regarding the protection of our Trident submarine bases, the same circumstances that make these bases enormously valuable targets to the Soviets make them equally valuable to us. How concentrated a defense of such targets can we afford? Four Trident submarines are worth about $8.8 billion, and the mini-missiles needed for a two-layered point defense, if turned out in quantity, should cost no more than $1 million each. If dozens of mini-missiles will not do the trick, we can deploy hundreds or even thousands around each base and still have a highly cost-effective defense. We cannot be certain that the submarines will escape damage with such a defense, but the Soviets cannot be certain that they will be destroyed, and since knocking out all the Trident submarines in port is likely to be an important element in the Soviet attack plan, the uncertainty is more paralyzing on their side than on ours.
Regarding Soviet countermeasures to our ICBM defense, the Soviets may indeed search for these, as Mr. Garwin suggests, but implementing them will cost time, money, and payload weight. Space mines, a popular suggestion, are readily neutralized, according to the Fletcher report. Mr. Garwin also mentions Soviet measures to “harden” their ICBM’s against the American lasers, by which he probably means spinning the ICBM to spread out the laser energy over its surface, covering its metal skin with a coat of ablative material to absorb the laser energy, shining it up so that the laser beam will bounce off it harmlessly, and so on. At least, these are among the suggestions for a Soviet response that were offered by the Union of Concerned Scientists in a statement to which Mr. Garwin attached his name.
I am not an expert in this particular area, but I have talked with the experts enough to understand why most professionals—the “real” defense scientists described by Mr. Bruce-Briggs—regard the proposals of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Mr. Garwin as bordering on inanity. A spinning ICBM can be made vulnerable again by concentrating the laser light in a sharp pulse that catches the ICBM in one moment of its spin, so to speak. An ablative covering, spread over the entire ICBM, weighs a lot and reduces the missile’s payload. If it reduces the ten warheads on the SS-18 ICBM to five warheads, the lethality of the most dangerous component of the Soviet ICBM force is cut in half. And a shine can be defeated by an X-ray laser, whose beam will penetrate the shiny surface without reflection.
Mr. Garwin suggests that the Soviet rockets can be constructed to burn out at low altitudes, where the air is so dense that our X-rays are blocked. The advantage to the Soviets in this is that if the rocket is no longer firing when it clears the atmosphere, it will be harder to detect and therefore to destroy. But there are limits to this ploy, because a rocket that gets going at full speed in the lower atmosphere will tend to melt as a result of friction with the air. Protection against this heat means shielding, extra weight, and, once again, reduced payload. The ICBM’s accuracy is also reduced, probably by a factor of two or more. In terms of effectiveness against American missile silos, that is equivalent to about a tenfold reduction in the destructive power of the Soviet weapon.
Furthermore, an ICBM that has been rebuilt in this way is not just a small modification of existing Soviet missiles. It is a new missile, with completely redesigned engines and structure. This means that the existing Soviet ICBM menace—those 800-odd SS-17′s, 18′s, and 19′s now sitting in Soviet silos, with their thousands of accurate and destructive warheads—has been rendered obsolete. That would be a great accomplishment for American security.
But this is only a part of the story. When to the cost of these countermeasures in reduced pay-load, one adds the cost of surmounting the other obstacles that the ICBM or warhead will encounter on the way to its target, the residual effectiveness of the Soviet ICBM’s may be reduced essentially to zero. For example, suppose an ICBM survives the heat of the laser beams focused on it at the start of its flight. Of course, it can only do this with the aid of countermeasures that will cost it heavily in pay-load weight and perhaps accuracy. At any rate, the ICBM survives, releases its warheads, and falls to the earth. The warheads continue on their way, and now, in mid-flight, they meet the second tier of American defense high above the earth. These defenses can be smart mini-missiles that home in on the warheads and destroy them by impact.
The countermeasures that preserved the ICBM from destruction by lasers will be valueless in protecting its warheads against these hit-to-kill mini-missiles. Other means are necessary. Suppose the Soviets use decoys—dummy warheads that distract the attention of the smart mini-missiles and allow the real warhead to slip through unscathed. In order for this to work well, the decoys must be cheap and lightweight, so that a whole flock of them can be released. The Fletcher report discusses this possibility, and points out that the American defense battle station will have instruments that take a jaundiced look at the oncoming warhead through eyes that can see visible and infrared light and possibly radar as well. Although it would be easy for the Soviets to construct a simple decoy that imitated the appearance of the real warhead as seen in one particular wavelength of light, such as the infrared, if the decoy had to be designed to fool our instruments in three different kinds of “light”—visible, infrared, and radar—it would have to have so much electronics and special equipment packed into it, according to the Fletcher report, that the decoy would weigh nearly as much as an actual warhead. But if the decoy weighs as much as a warhead, the Soviets cannot release a flock of them, and they are of little value.
The essence of the matter is that none of the suggested countermeasures will work against a properly designed multi-layer defense, except at the price of a great reduction in the payload and effectiveness of the Soviet ICBM’s. That is, of course, precisely the objective of the President’s proposal—to neutralize the terrible menace of the Soviet arsenal.
The question of countermeasures is the most interesting raised by Mr. Garwin. Regarding the others: in estimating the 99.9-percent value for missile accuracy, I used a Gaussian distribution around the aiming point and made a liberal allowance for the uncertainties of an actual attack by trebling the 250-yard “circular error probable.” As for “square acres,” this phrase read “square yards” in the typed manuscript submitted to COMMENTARY, and the typo slipped through unnoticed. Smaller nits than that would be hard to pick.
Mr. Garwin is entirely wrong about the source of the pressure leading to the 1973 ABM treaty. The facts are fairly well known and very readably summarized by Henry Kissinger (White House Years, pp. 204-10; Years of Upheaval, p. 261). Kissinger writes that when Nixon came into office all his instincts were for continuing the ABM program he had inherited from Johnson. However, heavy opposition, as today, came from prominent scientists. Nixon insisted nonetheless on going ahead with an ABM defense, and the measure passed the Senate by one vote in 1969.
At that time the Soviets were also strongly opposed to a ban on missile defense. When Johnson brought up the idea of an ABM treaty at Glassboro in 1967, Kosygin said that it was the most absurd proposition he had ever heard. But after the Senate voted to build an American ABM defense, the Soviet Union suddenly became very keen on the idea of outlawing ABM. According to Kissinger, before the Senate vote the Soviet SALT negotiators wouldn’t discuss an ABM treaty; after the vote, they wouldn’t talk about anything else. Their own intense ABM effort in the years following the signing of the treaty demonstrates the cynicism and duplicity of their position. But that is another story. The point here is that Nixon was opposed to the idea of a treaty banning ABM’s, and the pressure for the ban came from scientists and their allies in the arms-control community and the Congress. Eventually, of course, Nixon gave in to the pressure for the treaty.
On the matter of Soviet ABM defenses, Mr. Garwin’s remark shows he can be a careless reader. The context of the statement makes it clear that I was not reviewing the history of the Soviet ABM effort but only events after the signing of the ABM treaty with the United States in 1973.
Continuing with the items in Mr. Garwin’s letter, it is true that both the B-52 and the B-l fly low as they penetrate Soviet airspace, but the remainder of Mr. Garwin’s comment is entirely misleading. As I indicated in my article, the B-l flies considerably lower than the B-52; its exact altitude is classified, but has been described as “tree-top level”—so low, in fact, that collisions with power lines are a hazard. In its run through Soviet airspace—the most important part of the flight—the B-l also flies considerably faster than the B-52—Mach 0.85 versus Mach 0.55. Mr. Garwin must know these numbers, so it is hard to understand why he seeks to mislead the reader with half-truths.
Now for the cruise missile. Its speed is Mach 0.65—about 70 miles per hour faster than the low-altitude speed of the B-52, and 150 miles per hour slower than the top speed of the B-52. Both fly at the “slow speed of a commercial airliner,” as my article notes, which is the essential point. The Soviet Foxhound fighter, which has the look-down, shoot-down capability needed to intercept a cruise missile, flies at a top speed of Mach 2.4 or 1,550 miles per hour. In Soviet tests, a Foxhound at an altitude of 20,000 feet successfully destroyed drone aircraft, imitating American cruise missiles, that were flying at 200 feet. These Soviet developments may explain why last year the Defense Department cut its order of air-launched cruise missiles from 4,348 down to 1,499.
As for submarine communications, a “comfortable depth” for Mr. Garwin is not a comfortable depth for submarine commanders, according to my sources. On TACAMO aircraft, I stand corrected.
Joseph Forbes has complained before (in the letters which appeared in July 1983 on my earlier article, “Why Strategic Superiority Matters,” March 1983) about the statement that our ICBM’s are vulnerable to a Soviet attack. This is the judgment of General John W. Vessey, Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who estimates that only 25 to 30 percent of American ICBM’s can survive a preemptive attack by the USSR. Contrary to Mr. Forbes’s statement, this is also the clear judgment of the Scowcroft commission, which reported that the Soviets “probably possess the necessary combination of ICBM numbers, reliability, accuracy, and warhead yield to destroy almost all the 1,047 U.S. ICBM silos, using only a small portion of their own ICBM force.”
Alexis A. Gilliland says I do not understand destabilization. I think I understand it all too well. Nothing is more destabilizing than a situation in which the Soviet Union possesses 4,560 accurate and highly destructive ICBM warheads and we possess 1,650 warheads of comparable accuracy, of which, in fact, only 900 come close to matching the Soviet weapons in destructive power.
Nicholas T. Sakell asks about a discrepancy between the text and a footnote in relation to the survival prospects of our Minuteman missiles. The 57-percent figure in the footnote is the so-called Single Shot Kill Probability, i.e., the chance that one warhead will destroy the missile silo. General Vessey’s estimate that 70 to 75 percent of our missiles would be destroyed in their silos is based not only on the Single Shot Kill Probability but also on information furnished by his experts as to how many warheads the Soviets would target on each silo, the likelihood of a successful launch of each Soviet ICBM, the probable strategy of their attack, and so on. The distinction between these estimates should have been clarified.
Bruce McKinney says American interests would best be served by getting rid of our ICBM’s—the land leg of our strategic triad—because their main value is as a first-strike weapon. I believe—and I think most people in the U.S. and probably in the rest of the world agree—that an American first strike on the USSR is an impossibility. The importance of land-based missiles is quite different. They are not only accurate, but they also have a short flight time and relatively secure communication links to military authorities, properties not possessed by either of the other two legs—bombers and submarines—of the triad. The combination makes the land-based missile force uniquely valuable as a deterrent to a Soviet attack, since it is the only force we possess that can destroy Soviet military sites and place at risk the Soviet military and political leadership. In the words of the Scowcroft report, American ICBM’s “cast a shadow over the calculus of Soviet risk-taking.”