Commentary Magazine


Strategic Superiority

To the Editor:

Robert Jastrow’s otherwise excellent article, “Why Strategic Superiority Matters” [March], has two serious flaws. The first and foremost is his contention that the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is based on the assumption that “both the U.S. and the USSR will freely offer up their populations for massacre”—a policy he says the Soviets have repudiated. In fact, all that MAD requires, from our point of view, is that the Russians are assured that after a (surprise) first strike by them on us, we retain the capacity and the will to destroy their homeland utterly. And this is indeed the case. Even if the USSR demolished all land-based U.S. ICBM’s, all U.S. bombers, and all U.S. submarines in port (which is virtually impossible with present technology), the U.S. would have about 2,400 nuclear warheads on submarines at sea, essentially invulnerable to such preemptive attack. Mr. Jastrow claims that these could be used only to attack cities and soft targets, i.e., not hardened silos. In this he is correct and that is exactly what the function of our counterforce should be. What meaningful gain could be derived from striking at the remaining Soviet missile force after its primary echelons had already done the job? The very purpose of a retaliatory-strike capability in the context of MAD is to convince the aggressor that any strategic nuclear attack will bring certain and lasting destruction on himself. Clearly 2,400 warheads, each with at least several times the destructive power of those dropped on Japan, would eliminate from the map every large city and town in the USSR, in addition to destroying industrial, commercial, transportation, and communication facilities.

Mr. Jastrow asks what American President would order such retaliation faced with the certain knowledge of further Soviet strikes against our cities? A corollary question is what President would not order such a strike after 2,000 Soviet thermonuclear warheads had impacted on our territory? Such an attack, even directed only at our military facilities, would kill millions of Americans, both directly and via the effects of long-term fallout. The Russians must be convinced that instant retaliation—especially directed at their soft targets—would be the immediate consequence of a strategic first strike.

The second flaw is Mr. Jastrow’s implication that civil, air, and missile defense would significantly mitigate the effects of a U.S. counterstrike. Most experts agree that civil defense would at best shield only a small fraction of the targeted population from the immediate blast, radiation, and thermal effects of the explosion. Even to accomplish this there would have to be widespread movement away from the population centers and/or into shelters, a process that would take considerable time and therefore give a clear warning of Soviet intentions. This would be more than sufficient for us to place our missile forces on alert status and would obviate a surprise attack. As for missile defense, Mr. Jastrow knows well that present Soviet capabilities don’t come close to meeting the threat; very few of our counterstrike missiles would be stopped in this manner. Even the Russian defenses against skillfully piloted aircraft are imperfect, as has been artfully demonstrated by Israel in Lebanon.

The above having been said, I do not mean to imply that Mr. Jastrow’s conclusion that the U.S. needs to improve and modernize, rather than dismantle, its nuclear arsenal is incorrect. Our present retaliatory capability will not last if we do not continue to develop newer technologies. The Soviets will eventually improve their ability to track and attack our submarines. Their weapons will become more accurate and they may develop an effective anti-missile capability. If we do nothing, or worse, dismantle our forces, we will eventually become vulnerable. But it is relatively easy for us to prevent this. By concentrating on small, mobile ICBM’s (not super-hardened MX’s), by improving our strategic submarine fleet, and by keeping at the forefront of research on third-generation systems (space-based, anti-missile weapons), we can retain what Paul Nitze has referred to as Situation Q, i.e., “a situation in which the strategic nuclear deployments and capabilities of the two sides are such that neither side can hope to gain in relative enduring capabilities by initiating a strike against the nuclear forces of the other side.”

Lewis A. Glenn
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, California

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To the Editor:

Robert Jastrow has alarmed himself unnecessarily. He is quite right in thinking that the latest version of the Soviet SS-18 missile is probably accurate enough to destroy American Minuteman missiles in the Midwest. But he is quite wrong to think that the United States, in the wake of such an attack, would be forced to shoot at Soviet cities, or do nothing at all. There are many thousands of Soviet military targets in addition to hardened silos—air fields, tank parks, submarine bases, missile and warhead production facilities, warhead storage depots, communication centers, transshipment points, and so on. The National Strategic Target List at Offat Air Force Base near Omaha currently includes about 40,000 targets, the vast majority of them military in nature, and all but a very few vulnerable to attack by SLBM’s and other delivery systems.

A Soviet attack on U.S. Minute-man silos, air bases, and submarine bases would involve several thousand nuclear explosions on U.S. territory. U.S. casualties would include from three to twenty million dead, depending on the exact nature of the attack, weather patterns, and the like. This would be a catastrophic event in American history. It would be followed by a catastrophic event in Russian history—the detonation of several thousand warheads on Soviet territory, but not including cities. The literature on NSDM 242 and Presidential Directive 59 makes this fact abundantly clear. If Mr. Jastrow doesn’t believe what he reads, he might try a few phone calls. There are many officials in Washington who would be glad to tell him that a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States would be followed by a comparable American nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and that our attack would hurt just as much as their attack.

If strategic superiority matters, Robert Jastrow does not know why.

Thomas Powers
South Royalton, Vermont

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To the Editor:

While in general agreement with Robert Jastrow’s historical review in the first part of his “Why Strategic Superiority Matters,” I believe his subsequent analysis of whether the Soviet Union has a preemptive first-strike capability against the United States could have profited by addressing some additional issues. . . .

First, Mr. Jastrow fails to address explicitly the usefulness of a launch-on-warning posture by the United States. . . . Mr. Jastrow’s analysis assumes that after the Soviet Union launches some 2,000 warheads in a preemptive-strike attempt, the U.S. response would be simply to leave its 1,000 Minutemen in their silos to suffer the full brunt of such an all-out attack. If the Minutemen were instead launched on warning, the United States would have up to 1,000 MIRV-ed missiles (about 3,000 warheads) with which to strike “hard” military targets in the Soviet Union. . . . Do the benefits of a launch-on-warning posture offset the presumably increased risks of a false warning precipitating a thermonuclear exchange? . . .

Second, Mr. Jastrow concludes, and I agree, that the United States can no longer threaten the use of its strategic weapons to make up for the inadequacies of its conventional-force capabilities. (“Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, the American nuclear arsenal would have been sufficient to deter a Soviet attack on Western Europe, but that is no longer the case.”) But . . . Mr. Jastrow begs the question of what the United States should do about this situation. . . .

Even with respect to nuclear weapons, he gives no clear-cut prescriptions. . . . He fails to tell us what, if anything, the United States can do to improve its strategic posture in the short term, through the 1980′s. Furthermore, given his condemnation of MAD, Mr. Jastrow is curiously silent about U.S. efforts to move away from the MAD doctrine, such as Presidential Directive 59 (set forth in the Carter administration and the goal of which is the implementation of a survivable, highly flexible counter-force strategy).

Finally, Mr. Jastrow implies that the U.S. would be in a good position if only it had more accurate and survivable missiles than the Soviet Union. Still, such efforts may fall short of providing stable strategic deterrence. Even a clear-cut U.S. numerical superiority in missiles would not prevent the Soviet Union from attempting a preemptive strike if, by striking first, it could destroy the U.S. military command’s ability to conduct an effective retaliation. The Achilles heel of U.S. strategic posture is the strategic-command system, at least according to John D. Steinbruner (“Nuclear Decapitation,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1982). Steinbruner claims: “Fewer than 100 judiciously targeted nuclear weapons could so severely damage U.S. communications facilities and command centers . . . that the actions of individual weapons commanders could no longer be controlled or coordinated. . .”

Steinbruner believes there is no technological solution to the problem of command-structure vulnerability and consequently that profound changes in U.S. strategic doctrine are necessary. I would welcome an informed discussion of whether this command-structure vulnerability really is a challenge to some of the fundamental assumptions on which national security rests.

William E. Hewitt
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

. . . I find the belief in our nation’s vulnerability to a Soviet counterforce or emasculation missile strike to be completely implausible.

Soviet missiles are not now nor could they ever realistically be accurate enough to accomplish the sort of strike against America’s land-based missiles that Robert Jastrow and a number of defense analysts fear. I admit that under ideal test conditions, Soviet rocket scientists have achieved a CEP (Circular Error Probability) of 450 meters with warheads, an accuracy which, if accomplished under actual wartime conditions on a vast scale, would be sufficient to knock out our land-based missiles in their silos. However, it should be kept in mind that a CEP of 450 meters does not mean that every warhead is guaranteed to hit within 150 meters of a target. Rather, it means that 50 percent of the warheads will fall within a circle whose radius is 150 meters—and 50 percent of the warheads will fall anywhere outside the circle. Under actual wartime conditions, however, it would be realistically impossible to achieve such deadly accuracy 50 percent of the time. The Soviets would be lucky to achieve such accuracy on a wide scale 25 percent of the time. . . .

This means that Soviet warheads would be falling all over our country, many unintentionally on or near civilian population centers. Even with an ideal level of accuracy, the Soviets would have to allot three (not the two that Mr. Jastrow claims in his article) warheads to each of our 1,054 land-based missiles to knock out about 90 percent of our land-based missile force. America would be saturated with 1,500 nuclear warheads detonating in places other than our missile silos. In addition, many of our missile silos are in or near enough to civilian population centers so that even Soviet warheads that were precisely on target would still produce great numbers of civilian casualties. The missiles inevitably hitting off-target would produce tens of millions of civilian casualties.

Thus a Soviet counterforce strike only against our land-based missile silos would inexorably produce such a high level of civilian casualties that it would be indistinguishable from a Soviet attack deliberately intended to kill large numbers of our civilians and produce widescale civilian property damage. . . .

Another serious flaw in Mr. Jastrow’s fearful reasoning is the implicit misconception that the United States would passively ride out an enemy attack, after which our leadership would very carefully assess the damage and circumspectly consider options before deciding whether to launch a retaliatory strike. But actually, at the time of the attack, we would be operating under either a launch-under-attack policy or an attack-on-warning policy, the latter being likely in a time of great international tension. Under an attack-on-warning policy, our retaliation would be ordered when it is obvious that Soviet warheads are on the way; thus many of their warheads would explode on empty American silos whose missiles had aready been launched at the USSR.

Under the launch-under-attack policy, the policy that is usually in effect, our retaliatory forces—land-based missiles, bombers, and submarine-launched missiles—would go into action as soon as it were obvious that America was under attack. Contingency systems would insure that our retaliation would be prompt, even if the President were killed at the outset, or were out of communication, or if our military’s main command-and-communication centers were destroyed. Thus the long and thoughtful pause envisaged by Mr. Jastrow after a Soviet counterforce attack, during which our leadership is supposed to decide to surrender to the Soviet Union, is, in practice, an impossibility. It does not stand up to analysis.

I think Mr. Jastrow makes far too much of the Soviet civil-defense program, a program that many Russians regard as no more than a joke. Realistically it would not save more than a handful of Soviet citizens in a nuclear attack; it would not prevent the widespread deaths from disease, famine, radiation, exposure, and civil dislocation that would follow a nuclear war; and it would do very little to preserve the USSR’s industrial capacity. The Soviets know that their civil-defense measures, while perhaps enabling some of their governmental and technocratic elite to survive a nuclear war, would not be able to prevent civilian casualties on a horrendous scale.

Mr. Jastrow is quite wrong in claiming that the Russians have “rejected” the idea of “avoiding nuclear war.” The Russians have most certainly been very careful about avoiding nuclear war, for they realize that a nuclear war would destroy the USSR as a viable, modern nation. Mr. Jastrow has used some quotations and citations out of context to present a very distorted and hence highly inaccurate view of how the Soviet leadership thinks about nuclear war. In arguing against Malenkov, who believed that a nuclear war would destroy world civilization, Khrushchev did claim, from an abstract standpoint in keeping with Marxist theory, that socialism would survive a nuclear war while capitalism would not. But Mr. Jastrow does not present Khrushchev’s complete statement in which he admitted that the Soviet Union would suffer very grievously from a nuclear war, and that therefore the Soviet Union should be very careful to avoid a nuclear war. . . . Mr. Jastrow ignores the fact that Khrushchev believed, as most of the Soviet leadership now believes, that socialism can and will win over capitalism without resort to nuclear war.

Mr. Jastrow also ignores the fact that Khrushchev instituted cutbacks in Soviet military strength and expressed the belief that the Soviet Union could possess only a fraction of the nuclear weapons possessed by its enemies and still be safe from a nuclear attack because enough Soviet weapons would survive the attack to be able to devastate the attacker. Yes, Khrushchev, in contrast to Mr. Jastrow’s distorted view of him, was amenable to what we in the West call the idea of nuclear “sufficiency.”

Mr. Jastrow, along with many other defense analysts, misperceives the function of the Soviet military and the significance of speculative statements found in various Soviet military publications.

The Soviet military does not make operative policy, and is under the control of the Soviet Communist party. The Soviet military is the obedient implementer of policy decisions of the Soviet leadership. . . . Thus various speculative opinions, essentially abstract in nature, in military publications should not be taken as irrevocably binding on the Soviet leadership. It may be true that one opinion found in Soviet military publications is that once a nuclear war is considered inevitable, the best way to fight it would be to strike first. But it is understood that the decision to strike would not rest with the Soviet military. This idea of striking first if a strike by the enemy is considered inevitable, of “beating the enemy to the punch,” as the expression goes, has also been expressed by American civilian and military thinkers—it’s called “preemption.” But because some American analysts have speculated on the possibility of launching a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union does not mean that the United States is implacably bent on launching such a strike and that America’s strategic nuclear weapons have been built with only such a preemptive strike in mind. . . .

The Soviet leadership does, in fact, believe in deterrence. In the late 40′s and early 50′s, when the United States possessed a nuclear monopoly, the Soviets believed that their capability to overrun Western Europe kept them safe from an American nuclear attack, while we believed that our capability to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons kept the Soviets from overrunning Western Europe with their army. From the time that both sides possessed nuclear weapons in large numbers, the Soviet Union has believed that its ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons has kept it safe from nuclear attack.

The Soviet leadership doesn’t want a nuclear war and has established its strategic nuclear forces to prevent a nuclear attack upon the Soviet homeland, not for the purpose of initiating an unprovoked nuclear attack upon the United States. . . .

It may be true that some Soviet generals have expressed the belief that a nuclear war is “winnable,” according to some special definition of victory. But Mr. Jastrow and other defense analysts ignore the fact that other Soviet generals, as well as civilian Soviet leaders, have expressed the view that victory in a nuclear war is a meaningless concept. And even those Soviets who do believe that victory of some sort is possible in a nuclear war, don’t actually want a nuclear war.

Joseph Forbes
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

. . . Robert Jastrow makes it seem that the USSR has left the U.S. in the dust in the nuclear-arms race when others cite good sources to show that the Soviets have simply reached parity, making the present a unique opportunity for both sides to accept a freeze on a further nuclear arms build-up (see Randall Forsberg, “A Bilateral Nuclear-Weapons Freeze,” Scientific American, November 1982). I wonder where Mr. Jastrow gets his facts.

His assumption that counterforce strategies can replace MAD ignores the fact that nuclear weapons yield massive destruction and that many military installations are in or near major population centers. Tens of millions will die in either case. Furthermore, since accuracy is the key to an effective counterforce strategy, and American missiles have long been recognized as having greater accuracy, who would be more likely to use counterforce strategy? As argued by three experts in the April 1983 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, counterforce strategy would probably take out a nation’s command-and-control capabilities, thus insuring escalation to all-out nuclear war. It is therefore more dangerous than MAD. . . .

Mr. Jastrow seems to assume Soviet imperialistic intentions in the nuclear arms build-up. George F. Kennan, whose credentials for understanding the Soviet mind carry far more weight than Mr. Jastrow’s, explains Soviet military paranoia in a light far more congruent with history. After all, the Russians suffered terrible casualties in their own homeland in the last world war, as they have in other wars. They are surrounded by their traditional enemies, and the U.S. seems to be aggravating the situation by arming some of them with weapons of massive destruction. . . .

James H. Carlisle
Riverside, California

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To the Editor:

. . . I take exception to Robert Jastrow’s belief that the Soviets “reject the view, so widely held in America, that the mass detonation of nuclear weapons would mean the end of civilization. . . .” In fact, they renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, while first use is our official policy in case of an invasion of Western Europe. Our Vice President said three years ago that we could win a nuclear war, President Carter developed a plan (Presidential Directive 59) to fight one, and we talk of limiting such a war to Europe. . . .

That the Soviet build-up began in 1963 should tell us something. In 1963 we had nuclear superiority and the Russians had been embarrassed by the Cuban missile crisis. Isn’t it possible that what Mr. Jastrow considers a build-up in order to win a nuclear war if it broke out is only an attempt to build up an arsenal so that they need never be embarrassed again? That is how I read it, since they now want a freeze while not one expert on our side is willing to trade nuclear arsenals with the Soviet Union. . . .

Next we come to perhaps the backbone of Mr. Jastrow’s case. I will not dispute his assertion that the destructive power of the Soviet nuclear arsenal is about twice as great as that of the United States. What is groundless and dangerously incorrect is his statement that “the missile forces of the Soviet Union also have a combination of accuracy, destructive power, and numbers that will enable them to destroy most of our Minuteman missiles in their silos in a preemptive first strike. We lack any such capability. In other words, the Soviet Union has strategic superiority.” All the data that I am aware of . . . clearly show that the Soviets do not have a first-strike capability, but that the next generation of weapons (MX and Trident 2, as well as the probable Soviet weapons of the 1990′s) will change that. To me, this is the reason it is imperative that we have a nuclear freeze now, before the new technology undermines MAD and gives whichever side strikes first a possible chance of “winning a nuclear war.” . . .

If the Soviet Union wants a nuclear war, the species homo sapiens will be extinct by the year 2000. If it does not, then MAD is valid and will be in effect until the next generation of strategic weapons is deployed (hence the necessity of a freeze) regardless of Soviet civil-defense measures or rhetoric to the contrary. . . .

Robert DeBare
New York City

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To the Editor:

Coming from the NASA area of Cleveland, as I did, I had complete faith in Robert Jastrow’s “Why Strategic Superiority Matters.” But a doctor relative (retired colonel) and a Common Cause associate (retired colonel) both say our Tridents know precisely where they are at all times. Who’s right?

Vivian Benton-Rubel
Clearwater, Florida

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To the Editor:

Robert Jastrow argues that because of its strategic superiority the Soviet Union could launch a preemptive first strike against our land-based missiles without threatening our civilian population. Our only response would be to destroy its cities from our submarines, and that would be suicidal because it would unleash a Soviet second-strike attack against our cities.

Leaving aside the enormous risk that such a preemptive attack would inflict serious civilian casualties, and an exceedingly generous assessment of our patience while our missiles were being destroyed, what would the Soviets have gained? Our real deterrent would still be intact. Could the Soviets move on Western Europe? No more than before they destroyed our land-based missiles. This argument merely confirms the relative useless-ness of our land-based missiles except as a first-strike weapon.

Later in his article, after having conceded that we can overkill the Soviet Union from our submarines alone, Mr. Jastrow then unthinkingly argues that if conventional war breaks out, Soviet nuclear superiority becomes the decisive factor. Why? If we could destroy the Soviet Union 10 times over rather than 5 times over, would that help us repel a conventional attack? Would it make the Soviets less likely to launch a conventional attack?

A nuclear response might be precluded in a conventional attack because of the retaliatory implications. But this is not an argument in favor of strategic superiority. It is an argument for building up our conventional might, not for sinking billions more into demonstrably useless equipment like the MX.

Ralph Roskies
Department of Physics
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Robert Jastrow’s article lacks completeness. It is true that . . . strategic parity is more stable than the overwhelming superiority of a ruthless adversary. But the second aspect of strategic policy is the avoidance of overwhelmingly large numbers of strategic weapons on earth. There are always some unintended consequences in the implementation of national-security systems: witness two world wars in this century. There is also the risk of accidental explosion as the absolute number of weapons on earth increases. The cost of losing influence in the world has to be measured in light of this risk as well as others.

The advocates of the nuclear-freeze political movement know that, in a simplistic sense, “strategic superiority matters” and “better Red than dead.” But neither of these views solves the problem: freeze advocates are driving the governments of America and Russia to face the complicated task of negotiating a condominium of national-security interests that will reduce the risk of intentional war, semi-intentional war, and purely accidental nuclear explosion.

John Gelles
Ventura, California

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To the Editor:

The emperor has clothes! The emperor has clothes! Strategic superiority does matter! Alas, my already battered convictions that apologists for the current massive build-up in the American nuclear arsenal are both logical and well-intentioned were dealt yet another blow by Robert Jastrow’s article. . . . I read the article in the hope that he could convince me that our submarine-based missiles are not sufficient to counter any Soviet nuclear threat, but it was a vain hope indeed. . . .

Mr. Jastrow is apparently suggesting that if the Soviets launched 2,000 warheads targeted on our 1,054 missile silos (his figures), equivalent to an attack several million times more devastating than the one launched against Hiroshima, the American government would simply go about its business as usual, wait for the fallout to disperse, and then call everyone out of his basement. Why? To protect our cities—now lacking some of the amenities we’ve grown to love (like edible food, potable water, and breathable air), but the best we have, I guess.

This is absolute madness of the most incredible kind. Our submarine-based missiles are a perfect deterrent precisely because they cannot destroy the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Were they able to do so, for precisely the reasons Mr. Jastrow advances in support of his arguments, the Soviets would be tempted to develop and use their first-strike capability lest they lose their ability to respond to an American attack Short of President Reagan’s Star Wars defensive shield, the Soviets’ understanding that we can destroy their society as now constituted after a first strike remains the best deterrent against such an attack.

David G. Post
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

Robert Jastrow’s plea for nuclear superiority seems logical and convincing—until one realizes that Mr. Jastrow has finessed the issue of adequate nuclear defense and is really advocating a strategy for a limited nuclear war.

Mr. Jastrow’s whole argument rests on the idea that the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (which he concedes will prevent war so long as both sides believe in it) has been undermined by the Soviets’ ability to destroy our ICBM’s; the Soviets could thus wage war on us while avoiding the large-scale destruction of their own society. . . .

According to Mr. Jastrow, the key to our supposed lack of nuclear deterrence is the fact that our submarines can only hit cities, not missile silos. But this conclusion represents a complete departure from logic. Mr. Jastrow has, in fact, inadvertently confirmed just the opposite proposition: since we do have the capability to obliterate Soviet population centers even if all our ICBM’s were knocked out, Soviet superiority is a delusion. The Soviets’ only advantage would be in waging a limited nuclear war, which they can only engage in with our cooperation; the safeguard of MAD can be undermined only if we ourselves allow it to be, by abandoning it as our avowed policy. As long as we make it clear to the Russians that a nuclear attack, even a “limited” one, would instantly bring on massive retaliation, they will never dare attack. As mad as MAD is, it has prevented nuclear war for the past generation and remains our only sure safeguard against nuclear war until that day when all nuclear weapons can be eliminated.

The true danger lies not in the illusory Soviet “superiority” but in the willingness of the U.S. to adopt limited nuclear war (including a first-strike capability) as a policy. It is people like Mr. Jastrow who, in seeking to make nuclear war “thinkable” and “winnable,” bring us that much closer to its happening.

Lawrence Auster
New York City

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To the Editor:

Robert Jastrow bases his case for strategic superiority on the belief that deterrence, which involves a devastating American counterattack, is essentially flawed. He is wrong. Nuclear weapons have no military value beyond deterrence. Strategic superiority is impossible for three reasons. There is no way to defend either our military forces or civilian population against a nuclear attack. We do not have weapons with sufficient reliability and accuracy to eliminate all the missiles of the Soviet Union. Finally, we do not have the command, control, and communication capability to fight a prolonged nuclear war. These factors also prevent the Soviet Union from obtaining strategic superiority.

Like it or not, we must accept the fact that the only purpose nuclear weapons serve is as a deterrent. The best deterrent is a nuclear weapon that can survive an attack and have the capability to respond. The submarine armed with ballistic missiles fills this need. These missiles now have the accuracy to attack targets that are valued by the Soviet leadership. They do not have to be fired indiscriminately on Soviet cities. This adds to the credibility of our deterrence doctrine. At the same time, the submarine-launched missile is not a first-strike threat since it would be virtually impossible to coordinate a sustained counterforce attack using only submarines.

A search for strategic superiority is a dangerous undertaking. It will lead to an ever-escalating and destabilizing arms race. It is a goal that can never be reached. Yet once we begin to believe that nuclear weapons have military value, the chance that they will be used in a crisis increases.

W. E. Cornelius
St. Louis, Missouri

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Robert Jastrow writes:

The main current of criticism running through these interesting letters is that a Soviet nuclear attack on American ICBM’s and military strong points would be almost certain to trigger a devastating American counterattack against Russian cities, with massive loss of life. In the opinion of the correspondents, this is sufficient to deter the Russians from a first strike. (The American attack would have to be directed against Russian cities because our submarine missiles, which would carry the attack to the enemy, are not sufficiently accurate to destroy hardened military targets.)

This is the premise on which American strategy has been based for many years. The trouble with it is that the Russians have now built up their strategic forces to such an extraordinary level of destructive power that if we should counterattack after a Russian first strike, as the American theory of deterrence envisions, it would be in the certain knowledge that the Soviet Union could direct against us a third strike so devastating that America would never rise from the ashes. Faced with this prospect, the American government might well be deterred from using our deterrent.

The correspondents seem to be saying that this doesn’t matter. In order to deter the Russians, we only need the capability for carrying out a retaliatory counterattack; we only need to threaten reprisal. But Soviet strategic superiority makes that threat far less credible than it was, say, ten years ago. Because of the huge stockpile of missiles and bombs in the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the Russians can initiate a powerful attack on our military installations and still have enough bombs in reserve to reduce the United States to charred rubble if we attempt to strike back. It seems clear to me that this circumstance diminishes the value of our strategic deterrent. If the Soviet Union can destroy a sufficient fraction of our nuclear arsenal in its initial attack, or limit the effectiveness of the arsenal by destroying the military-command links to our bombers and missile submarines, the value of the American nuclear deterrent will disappear entirely.

So now a series of quantitative questions arises for the Soviet military planners. How many B-52′s can they catch on the ground? How many American missiles in their silos? How many submarines in port? How many B-52′s and cruise missiles can be shot down in flight? How many submarines at sea tracked and destroyed? And how successfully can communication links be broken between submarine commanders and the President or his surrogate?

Military communication links are the Achilles heel in our strategic deterrent, as William E. Hewitt points out. Communication links with submarines are a particular problem, as the recent report of the Scowcroft Commission notes. Submerged submarines are hard to contact by radio because radio wavelengths now in use do not penetrate sea water. Moreover, all military communications—land, sea, and air—are vulnerable to EMP, the Electromagnetic Pulse. EMP is a destructive surge of voltage across the entire North American continent, which the Soviets can generate by exploding an H-bomb high above the United States. The new silicon circuit chips, which pack hundreds of thousands of electronic components into a tiny space, are particularly vulnerable to EMP. One large Soviet H-bomb, exploded above the atmosphere at the start of a Soviet surprise attack, could blind all our early-warning satellites and radars. EMP could also erase the memories of computers, burn out radio receivers, and damage telephone lines across the country. Our military communications satellites, which relay messages to U.S. bombers and submarines, could also be knocked out.

With military communications disrupted, the commanders of our missile submarines would be on their own. Would a submarine commander, cruising underseas, be willing to take responsibility for starting World War III, merely on the suspicion that something is amiss up there? How confident can we be that our submarines will remain the ultimate deterrent, in the light of these circumstances?

There are other problems with the submarine deterrent. The Scowcroft Report observes that our submarine force, “consisting solely of a few very large submarines, each carrying on the order of 200 nuclear bombs, presents a small number of valuable targets to the Soviets.” This circumstance is an inducement to the Soviet Union to pour enormous resources into research on anti-submarine warfare. Although submerged submarines are the least vulnerable element in our strategic triad today, they may not remain so much longer. The Scowcroft Report concludes: “Over the long run it would be unwise to rely so heavily on submarines as our only ballistic-missile force.”

The survivability of our ICBM’s is also decreasing steadily, because of the deployment of hundreds of monster Soviet SS-18′s, each twice the size of an MX. These SS-18′s are accurate as well as destructive; contrary to the suggestion in James H. Carlisle’s letter, their accuracy is roughly a tenth of a nautical mile, or 600 feet, comparable to the accuracy of American missiles. As a result, only 15 percent of our Minuteman ICBM’s can survive a Soviet attack today, and that number will decline to 7 percent in 1985 and 3 percent in 1988. The Scowcroft Report confirms this weakness also; it states that the Soviets “probably possess the necessary combination of ICBM numbers, reliability, accuracy, and warhead yield to destroy almost all of the 1,047 U.S. ICBM silos, using only a portion of their own ICBM force. The U.S. ICBM force now deployed cannot inflict similar damage.” Joseph Forbes finds these facts “implausible,” but they must be reckoned with.

At the same time the USSR has invested, and continues to invest, enormous sums in all elements of defense—civil, air, and ballistic-missile. Mr. Forbes says that Russians regard their government’s civil-defense program as a “joke,” but the USSR is spending $3-bilIion a year on civil defense and employs 150,000 Soviet workers full-time in the effort. The U.S. has essentially no air defense, but Soviet air defenses are gargantuan in magnitude—7,000 radars, 12,000 surface-to-air missiles, and 3,000 fighter interceptors. A Department of Defense report states that within a few years our aging B-52′s will be unable to penetrate the heavy Soviet air defenses. Our cruise missiles are supposed to bridge the gap until the B-l’s and Stealth bombers are ready, but penetration of Soviet air space by these slow-moving, subsonic, pilotless craft is an uncertain matter at best.

The Soviet Union is also active in ballistic-missile defense. Our reconnaissance satellites have discovered five mammoth phased-array radars under construction in the USSR, suitable for tracking incoming nuclear warheads and targeting them for interception by anti-ballistic missiles. These radars take years to construct and are the long-lead-time items in an ABM system. The USSR has also tested its interceptor missiles—SAM 5′s and SAM 10′s—in ABM modes at altitudes above 100,000 feet. The Soviets appear to be moving toward deployment of a large ABM defense.

On top of all these developments, the Soviets continue to build up their nuclear arsenal. Soviet destructive power is augmented each year by 5 new nuclear-missile submarines, 175 ICBM’s, and 100 SS-20′s. The Soviet margin of destructive power, now at least twice ours, is going up steadily. The USSR has also been investing heavily in the hardening of its silos and command-and-control centers. All late-model Soviet ICBM’s are now protected by the world’s hardest silos against the American counterattack that we envision as the backbone of our deterrence.

The trends are well-defined and the outcome is clear. If not next year, then in the year after, and if not in that year, then by 1986, we will perceive our capability for inflicting damage on the Soviets to be so diminished, and their capability for inflicting damage on us to be so enhanced, that a nuclear war would be lost without a missile being fired.

_____________

 

Turning to specific points of fact, Mr. Forbes is correct in saying that a missile accuracy of, say, 1,000 feet means that half the missiles in a salvo will land within a circle of that radius, and half will land outside the circle. However, the half that land outside the circle will still be clustered in the neighborhood of the aiming point; very few will miss their target by more than two or three times the stated accuracy, i.e., a fraction of a mile. In the case above, 99.9 percent would fall within a mile of their target. Thus, it is not correct to conclude, as Mr. Forbes does, that “Soviet warheads would be falling all over our country” during an attack on our military strong points. With the accuracy Soviet missiles are now achieving—and, according to the Scowcroft Report, accuracies as good as a few hundred feet are now in prospect with the aid of terminal guidance—it will soon be possible for the Soviet Union to execute a surgically clean strike, with relatively few civilian casualties, against key military installations in the United States.

Robert DeBare states that available data “clearly show that the Soviets do not have a first-strike capability,” but the Scowcroft Report confirms earlier judgments that the Soviets do have a first-strike capability, as I noted above.

Mr. Forbes suggests that our ICBM’s would not be vulnerable to a Soviet first strike because we would follow the policy either of launch-on-warning or launch-on-attack, and thus the Soviet warheads would only fall on empty silos. It seems to me that the discussion of strategies of launch-on-warning or launch-on-attack is academic because the Soviet Union will never contemplate a nuclear strike until it possesses the certain means of blinding our early-warning satellites and radars by EMP or other methods.

Vivian Benton-Rubel says that, according to her sources, our Trident submarines know “precisely where they are at all times.” “Precisely” is a relative term; in the case of the Tridents, it means within about 500 yards, which is pinpoint accuracy in the vast expanse of the ocean, but not good enough to destroy a hardened silo.

Thomas Powers, Robert DeBare, and William E. Hewitt ask why I did not take account of Carter’s Presidential Directive 59 of July 25, 1980 and other recent policy changes that indicate we are now more interested in targeting Russian military installations than in killing the Russian civilian population. The trouble is that we cannot implement PD-59 because we are stuck with a strategic arsenal dominated by submarine missiles—an arsenal that reflects the thinking of the years of Mutual Assured Destruction, and is therefore good for little else than killing civilians. Our most accurate missile, the Minuteman III, although accurate, is, according to the Scowcroft Report, “inadequate to put at serious risk more than a small share of the many hardened [i.e., military] targets in the Soviet Union.” Initiatives taken in the Reagan administration will create a strategic arsenal that can back up PD-59, but not before the end of this decade.

Ralph Roskies asks how American nuclear superiority would help repel a conventional attack by the Soviet Union. It seems to me the answer is that when we possessed nuclear superiority, its threatened use effectively deterred Soviet action in Berlin, in Cuba, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. By 1978, when we had lost that superiority, the Russians were able to act with impunity in Afghanistan, and, as Richard DeLauer, Pentagon chief scientist, said, “What the hell was the best thing we could do? We withdrew from their goddamn Olympics.”

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