To the Editor:
The arguments presented in “Nuclear Strategy: The New Debate” [April] are weakened by the same sorts of errors for which the author, Edward N. Luttwak, criticizes earlier U.S. decisions on nuclear strategy. The article oversimplifies the intricate psychological, political, military, and technical factors which must be considered in determining the most appropriate number and characteristics of strategic nuclear weapons. While a point-by-point critique undoubtedly would be too lengthy to go into here, a few of the more important misperceptions recorded in the article should not be left uncorrected.
First is Mr. Luttwak’s implicit evaluation of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Agreements and relative U.S.-USSR nuclear capabilities. Both these points are related to the question of how one goes about measuring strategic power. Mr. Luttwak finds the Interim Agreement on Limiting Strategic Offensive Arms deficient in that it gave the Soviet Union an advantage in the number of missile launchers permitted to each side. Unfortunately, the number of missile launchers is not a particularly good index of strategic capabilities; in fact, it is one of the poorest. Not only does it ignore the contribution of long-range bombers, an important component of the U.S. force, but it also ignores differences in the performance characteristics of the missile’s accuracy, its reliability, its payload capacity, and so forth. In the case of the Interim SALT agreement, which expires automatically in 1977, the U.S. government reached the decision that during the lifetime of the agreement the Soviet Union would not be able to exceed U.S. nuclear capabilities, as indexed by more accurate measures of strategic power, despite the USSR’s advantage in number of launchers.
This key assessment so far has proved to be totally accurate. While the USSR has flight-tested multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV’s) during the past year, an important step, this occurred far later, not earlier, than was expected. Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger has noted consistently that the pace of the Soviet research and development program is not at all surprising. Indeed, the USSR continues to surprise U.S. planners by the slowness of its technological advance in key areas—like missile accuracy. Somehow, in view of these other deficiencies, one doubts that supposedly “hard-headed” decisionmakers in the Soviet Union will be as much impressed by their advantage in missile launchers, as are political (and academic) figures in’ the United States. And if this is the case, then the “political advantages” presumed to flow from the new missile gap are likely to refer more to domestic U.S. politics than to U.S. fortunes in the realm of foreign policy.
Which brings me to the second misperception. The key decision now facing U.S. planners is not whether the United States should acquire a capability to destroy Russian missile silos, but whether it should acquire a more efficient capability to do so. Despite their small size, present U.S. ICBM’s already can destroy a sizable portion (perhaps one-third) of the Soviet missile force in a first strike. In fact, U.S. ICBM’s are more capable in this respect than their present Soviet counterparts. In calculating the probability that a missile will destroy a small hardened target, like a missile silo, the missile’s accuracy (a major U.S. advantage) turns out to be far more important than the size of its warhead (a major Soviet advantage). If the United States and the Soviet Union both continue their present weapons-development programs, unconstrained by new SALT agreements, both will have the ability to destroy a large portion of the opponent’s force of land-based missiles. While the USSR’s potential in this respect is greater than that of the United States, because of the greater pay-load capacity of its missile, the U.S. potential is far from trivial. The decision now to be faced is what to do about this situation.
Which brings me to the third and most important simplism. Unfortunately, so long as nuclear weapons exist, choices among nuclear doctrines will be imperfect. The nation must tread a difficult path between the risks of nuclear war and the threats posed to national security by aggressive foreign powers. The choice facing the nation is not that between a good and a bad doctrine; it requires a far more subtle and complicated evaluation of relative risks and benefits.
For example, Mr. Luttwak points out that strategic forces planned on the basis of the tenets of mutual assured destruction (M.A.D.) assume certain risks with regard to the unauthorized launch of nuclear missiles. That is true. And that is why the first agreement to come out of the SALT negotiations dealt with procedures to be followed so that such a mishap would not trigger a general nuclear war.
In my view, however, the risks associated with the newly proposed doctrine far exceed those associated with mutual assured destruction. These risks come in two areas: (a) the new doctrine is more likely to result in continued competition between the superpowers in strategic armaments with negative consequences both for the allocation of national resources and for the nature of U.S.-USSR relations generally; and (b) the strategic postures resulting from the new doctrine would incorporate greater incentives, in the event of another U.S.-USSR confrontation, for one or the other to initiate nuclear war. . . .
Barry M. Blechman
The Brookings Institution
To the Editor:
Edward N. Luttwak’s “Nuclear Strategy: The New Debate” sets out forcefully the major drawbacks of the strategic doctrine of mutual assured destruction, known to friend and foe alike as M.A.D. By implication, he favors a “counterforce” strategy, entailing a capability of substantially injuring Soviet nuclear power after receipt of a less-than-all-out attack by the Soviet Union. Regrettably, Mr. Luttwak ignores the deficiencies of counterforce, which are equally appalling:
- Destabilizing character. A counterforce strategy inherently requires overwhelming superiority. In order to have much point, it requires that the nation employing it have nuclear weapons so overwhelming that, after a first-strike by its adversary, it can eradicate virtually all of the adverversary’s entire remaining nuclear weaponry. In order to have such a drastic second-strike potential, obviously the nation must have an even greater first-strike potential. This makes the adversary nervous. It makes him want superiority. In the U.S.-USSR context, neither side is likely to achieve its goal: the quest is very expensive and there is the risk that one side, enjoying a momentary technological advantage, will be tempted to try an actual first strike. Counter-force is destabilizing with a vengeance.
- The “irrational”-leader hypothesis. It is hard to see how the U.S. would be safer from irrational leaders under a counterforce strategy. By definition, the irrational leader is not deterred merely by America’s having the capability of extinguishing virtually all life in his country. Of course, counterforce would provide the U.S. with more protection from the lunatic’s second nuclear salvo, but how many lunatic leaders are likely to be able to mount a second salvo anyway?
- Political significance. Mr. Luttwak seems to assume that Soviet success at nuclear blackmail is attributable to the numerical edge in weaponry established by SALT I. An alternative explanation (assuming that the premise of Soviet success is correct) is that the real Soviet advantage here derives from its reputation for ruthlessness, which may be far more politically significant than a modest edge in weaponry. If so, the idea that the U.S. political position would be improved by adopting a counterforce strategy would have to be abandoned.
- Impact on negotiation. As noted above, counterforce theory requires superiority, thus (as a practical matter) undermining the concept of equality as a basis for stabilizing U.S.-USSR weapons construction. Moreover, the counterforce theory does nothing to help cure the greatest apparent obstacle to successful negotiations, namely, the inability to verify compliance with qualitative limitations without on-site inspections.
This is all rather gloomy. Neither strategy provides security against madmen in power; counterforce is an invitation to an arms race and may trigger a first-strike attempt by one side or the other; assured destruction in itself gives no assurance that it will be mutual—i.e., adopted by the Soviet Union. Both are very expensive.
Since genuine security is simply not an option, the range of choices should perhaps be broadened to include abandonment of nuclear weaponry altogether. This would, to be sure, leave us without security, but that, as we have seen, is not a feature that distinguishes it from M.A.D. or counterforce. It would have the advantage of eliminating any Russian incentive to embark on a preemptive strike against us, as there would be nothing to preempt. It would save resources, which we might (but might not) use intelligently. Above all, it would remove us from the ranks of potential practitioners of nuclear mass murder.
Stephen F. Williams
University of Colorado
School of Law
Edward N. Luttwak writes:
Barry M. Blechman and Stephen F. Williams take me to task for endorsing uncritically the Schlesinger strategy which they equate with a “counterforce” strategy. Both point out that total security will not be provided by either M.A.D. or any other feasible strategy. Both are right. But my article was an extended critique of M.A.D.; it was not an endorsement of an all-out counterforce strategy, nor can Schlesinger’s strategy be described fairly as such. In fact, what I do endorse is only a long overdue modification of the M.A.D. strategy, which would add an element of “selective” deterrence to the all-or-nothing massive deterrence that the M.A.D. doctrine calls for. Until quite recently, all the contingency-attack plans in the computers of SAC covered only fairly large-scale retaliatory strikes. These plans certainly did not allow for the use of strategic power in truly small doses. This, incidentally, is how you would deal with the “irrational-leader” danger, the second point in Mr. Williams’s letter: not, as he seems to believe, by “extinguishing virtually all life in his country,” but rather by having the ability to launch accurate and selective attacks which would threaten only the irrational leader’s nuclear arsenal, while minimizing damage to civilian life. As it is, with M.A.D. strategy and a M.A.D. posture (i.e., with fairly inaccurate and large weapons) the choices facing this country would be limited to massive attack, or compliance with blackmail, or, worse still, passive acceptance of the possibility of a truly irrational attack in exchange for the empty satisfaction of massive retaliation thereafter.
Mr. Blechman writes that I am mistaken in thinking the SALT-I agreement unsatisfactory. In particular he points out that mere missile numbers are a very poor guide to the overall measurement of strategic power. He is right. Unfortunately, not only does the Russian missile force have 1,618 units as against only 1,054 for the United States, but the Russian ICBM’s also happen to be much larger. And Mr. Blechman would hardly deny that at parity of range, the overall payload (throw-weight) of missile forces is now the only valid index of strategic power over time. For while missile numbers (and sizes) are frozen by the SALT-I accords, Russian (and U.S.) research-and-development work is not. This means that the Russians can steadily validate their potential superiority by subdividing warheads and improving accuracies. So can the United States. But, for both, the ultimate scope of research and development is set by the overall throw-weights of the two missile forces, in which the Russian advantage is already of the order of 3:1, and still growing. (It could reach 5:1 within the terms of the SALT-I accords, assuming full exploitation.)
My second “misperception,” according to Mr. Blechman, is that I fail to note that the United States already has a counterforce capability. Of course it has. Any fairly accurate missile force will have some degree of efficacy in destroying missile silos as long as a lot of weapons can be fired in order to get reasonable probabilities of reaching within lethal range of some silos with some warheads. This is not the same as having an ICBM force accurate enough to do the job dependably. And here I can quote Mr. Blechman himself: “While the USSR’s potential in this respect is greater than that of the United States . . . the U.S. potential is far from trivial.” How true. Mr. Blechman is satisfied that a balance will obtain in the next several years. I am not: “far from trivial” is simply not good enough. The fundamental point is that potential capabilities matter a great deal even now, since the expectations that both sides entertain on tomorrow’s strategic balance determine their bargaining strength at today’s SALT-2 negotiations. It is not an accident that the recent Russian proposal tabled at SALT has been so outrageous.
My third error is labeled a “simplism” (sic) by Mr. Blechman: I am accused of offering a false choice between a “good” and a “bad” doctrine. But this sort of absolutist, indeed theological, approach is typical of the devotees of M.A.D. My position is much more modest: I would merely like to see the United States Congress reach a new consensus on a politically adequate strategy, one that would deter the Russians from brutal provocations like those that marked the October Middle East crisis.
With serene detachment Mr. Blechman equates “the two superpowers” and advises against Schlesinger’s strategy on the grounds that it would accentuate their mutual competition. Unfortunately, the competition is already under way and with a vengeance: the Soviet Union has tested four different ICBM types in the twenty months since the SALT-I agreements were signed, the same number that the United States has tested since 1961. It is true, of course, that the United States took the lead several years ago in developing the uniquely dangerous MIRV technology. But unlike Mr. Blechman, I accept the reality of this competition as an inevitable manifestation of the political struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. I do not see them as “two superpowers” but as two very different countries which stand for very different things. I happen to prefer the United States. My first concern is therefore that the race should not be lost, although I share Mr. Blechman’s concern that it should be slowed down, if possible.
Unlike Mr. Blechman’s position, Mr. Williams’s analysis is flawed by serious errors. It is not true that “a counterforce capability requires overwhelming superiority.” It only requires some counterforce capability. Ninety-five-year-old Soviet marshals may be dreaming of acquiring a total counterforce capability, but no analyst in his right mind considers this a realistic possibility. What I do endorse is merely the acquisition of some counterforce capability against part of the Russian ICBM force in order to balance the similar Russian capability which is rapidly emerging, and so force the Soviet Union to desist from going further on a very dangerous path. Mr. Williams says that the “real Soviet advantage derives from a reputation for ruthlessness” rather than from the clear numerical advantages gained by the Soviet Union in SALT-1. He adds that “if so, the idea that the U.S. political position would be improved by adopting a counterforce strategy would have to be abandoned.” This is very odd. In facing an adversary who thrives on a reputation for ruthlessness, the correct response is surely to cut him down to size, or at least to deny him the further advantage of strategic superiority, however limited (to the thin counterforce edge) and however partial (to the ICBM sector). Finally, Mr. Williams says that the adoption of Schlesinger’s modification of the M.A.D. strategy would undermine the “concept of equality” as a basis for negotiations. The Russians do not share this quaint idea: in each and every official comment on SALT, détente, etc., Russian spokesmen invariably stress that all these good things derive from the superior strength of the Soviet Union; the word “equality” is never used. Power, as the Russians keep saying, is a dynamic phenomenon and “equality” between adversary powers merely describes a transitory moment in which descending and ascending power curves happen to intersect. Actually, I would agree that the deployment of a limited counterforce capability is a rather unsatisfactory way of preserving the overall military position of the United States (a total one would be very dangerous even if attainable). Unfortunately, present domestic-political realities do not seem to allow any alternative. It would surely be much better if the military strength of the United States could be reinforced to the required degree in all its dimensions, and not just in the dangerous and unrewarding strategic-nuclear sector.