Why Strategic Superiority Matters
When I was a young physicist I spent a year working on nuclear-physics problems with Robert Oppenheimer at Princeton. I then went out to the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, where I shared an apartment for a time with Harold Brown, who later became Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration. My friendship with Dr. Brown brought me into contact with Herbert York and the weapons physicists in Berkeley, and that led to a job on the Greenhouse project.
The Greenhouse experiment, which took place in 1951 on Eniwetok atoll in the Pacific, was supposed to create the first man-made thermonuclear reaction, using the energy of a 500-kiloton atomic bomb to ignite a fraction of an ounce of deuterium and tritium placed in a small adjoining chamber. The project was more of a public-relations stunt than a genuine experiment, because everyone knew beforehand that it was pretty certain to work; using a huge atomic bomb to ignite the little vial of deuterium and tritium was like using a blast furnace to light a match. According to my understanding at the time, Edward Teller was trying to get support for the H-bomb project, and since he could not figure out how to build an H-bomb, he thought up the Greenhouse project instead, as a demonstration piece for the people back in Washington.
In any case, my job on Greenhouse was to calculate the temperature of the reacting mixture of deuterium and tritium. As I recall, it was supposed to hit a million degrees or so, which is beyond the range of an ordinary thermometer. As the house theorist, I applied the methods of the branch of physics known as radiative transfer theory to compute the temperature inside the vessel of deuterium and tritium, using measurements on the amount of radiation coming from the outside. It was the kind of calculation astronomers do routinely for the hot gases in stars, and later on I was to do it quite often in NASA, as a part of my work in astrophysics and planetary science.
The Greenhouse assignment led to a trip to the Pacific and a close look at a 500-kiloton atomic explosion. I also had a chance to work with some very bright people, such as Drs. Teller, York, and Brown, and later on, at Los Alamos, with Stanley Ulam, George Gamow, and others. And, of course, there was a great deal of government and Atomic Energy Commission politics swirling around the figures of Oppenheimer, Teller, and Lawrence, of which I had an intimate and revealing worm’s-eye view. But that is another story.
I left nuclear research in 1958 when I joined NASA. I did not think much about it, or about nuclear bombs, for the next twenty years until, three years ago, I happened to come across a New Yorker article on nuclear weapons and SALT by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (November 19, 1979). In reading Senator Moynihan’s article, I became aware for the first time that the policies of the United States for protecting its citizens from destruction are based on a flawed premise.
The premise is that the Soviet Union will be deterred from a surprise nuclear attack on the United States by the knowledge that such an attack would trigger a devastating American counterattack. And, of course, we are deterred from an attack on the USSR by the knowledge that the Soviets maintain a similar arsenal. The result is a nuclear standoff, and world peace.
In other words, each side holds the other side’s civilian population as hostages. Holding hostages, and threatening their massacre, are time-honored methods for achieving one’s objectives in war, but they have never been suggested before as a means of keeping the peace. The proposal for mass exchange of hostages is a simple but brilliant strategy conceived by American intellectuals who were trying to figure out a solution to a terrible problem: how does the U.S. protect itself from nuclear destruction in an age in which missiles vault the oceans and the concept of Fortress America no longer has meaning?
The academicians who thought up this idea called it Mutual Assured Destruction, or sometimes simply MAD. It makes very good sense, as you would expect, since the policy was formulated by some of the most brilliant scientists and academicians who have ever served in an advisory capacity to our government. The trouble is that MAD is a theory, and like all theories, it depends on an assumption. This assumption has turned out to be false.
The assumption behind the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction is that both the United States and the USSR will freely offer up their populations for massacre. But this requires that each country give up all attempts to defend its own people. In other words, the two countries must agree that neither will have a civil-defense program, and neither side will try to shoot down the other side’s missiles.
On the face of it, this proposal sounds peculiar. What does it mean, as Senator Moynihan wrote, to say “we must not defend ourselves because if we do the enemy will attack”? As a physicist once remarked of Einstein’s theory of relativity, when you first hear this line of reasoning you think you must have misunderstood it, and when you understand it you think you must have misheard it.
Actually, MAD is a logical response to the problem of nuclear war, and it could have worked, if the Russians had been reasonable and seen matters our way—if they had been willing to offer up their people as hostages, just as we have done. But the Soviet Union saw things differently.
It is now clear—in fact it has been clear for a decade—that while for many years the American government adopted the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction proposed by our scientists and academicians, the Soviet government rejected it. The USSR undertook to do exactly what our strategists say it is supposed not to do: it implemented large programs for defending its citizens from nuclear attack, for shooting down American missiles, and for fighting and winning a nuclear war. The result, as Senator Moynihan has said, is “a policy in ruins,” and the greatest peril our nation has faced in its 200-year history.
Why did the Russians reject the American plan for avoiding nuclear war? Perhaps the reason is that the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction is very logical, and therefore appealing to a scientist; it is what a physicist might call a “sweet” solution to a difficult problem. Now scientists have an important voice in formulating American defense policy; after all, a physicist became Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration. But in the Soviet Union scientists carry little or no weight in defense matters. Andrei Sakharov—the great colossus of Soviet atomic weaponry, with the stature of Oppenheimer and Teller rolled up in one—tells the story of a banquet attended by Soviet generals and scientists following the first test of a Russian H-bomb in 1955. Sakharov, who had designed the bomb and was responsible for its success, toasted the achievement with a wish that the Russian bomb would never be exploded over cities. The general in charge of the tests replied to the effect that the job of a scientist was to make the bombs, and how they were used was none of his business.
In any case, the Russians have made it clear that they think the theories of the American scientist-advisers are crazy, and they want no part of them. Their rejection goes beyond the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction itself; they reject the view, so widely held in America, that the mass detonation of nuclear weapons would mean the end of civilization, and, therefore, that these weapons are not useful tools of military policy.
At one time, Soviet thinking on nuclear war did echo American ideas on the impossibility of a nuclear victory. That was in the 1950’s, soon after Stalin’s death, when Malenkov, who was then the Soviet premier, announced that nuclear war could lead to the “destruction of world civilization.” But Malenkov was severely criticized by Khrushchev, who said he had it wrong; only capitalism would perish in a nuclear war. By the mid-1960’s the debate was over, and the elements of Soviet nuclear policy were set in concrete. In 1979, Secretary of Defense Brown confirmed that since 1963, “The Soviets have had a policy of building forces for a preemptive attack on United States ICBM’s.”
And in fact Soviet military writings make it plain that the entire war-fighting posture of the Soviet General Staff rests on the mass use of nuclear missiles:
The most important task of the General Staff in preparing for a modern war is the detailed planning of employment of nuclear weapons by all services of the armed forces.1
The armed forces of the Soviet Union . . . must be prepared above all to wage war under conditions of the mass use of nuclear weapons.2
The basic method of waging war will be massed nuclear rocket attack. . . .3
Nuclear missile strikes . . . and the ability to use them before the opponent does, are the key to victory.4
It is recommended that the nuclear strike be launched . . . unexpectedly for the enemy. Preemption in launching a nuclear strike is expected to be the decisive condition for the attainment of superiority.5
Some American scientists and arms-control experts find it hard to believe that the Russians can actually hold these views on the massive use of nuclear weapons. They feel that if the Russian generals think they can fight and win a nuclear war, the reason must be that the generals have not thought the question through carefully. “I don’t think we should substitute their judgment for our common sense,” said Paul Warnke about the matter. Warnke, who was President Carter’s chief arms-control negotiator, thought Russian thinking about emerging victorious from a nuclear war was “primitive,” and the United States “ought to educate them into the real world of strategic nuclear weapons.”
But the Russians have refused to be educated. Around 1963, in pursuit of their objective of winning a nuclear war if it should break out, they began a massive program for building nuclear bombs, missiles, and submarines. In the next few years, American satellites photographed new missile silos sprouting all over the Soviet Union. In 1967, the Russians built 160 new silos; in 1968, they added 340 more; in 1969, they drew abreast of the United States. By then each side had about 1,000 silos and a like number of missiles.
None of this bothered American strategists because their policy of Mutual Assured Destruction required that each country must have enough nuclear destructive power to kill a lot of the other fellows. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had figured out that we had enough bombs to kill at least 50 million Russians directly in a mass nuclear attack, in addition to millions who would die later from radiation poisoning. He stated that he thought this was sufficient to deter the Russians from starting anything. Therefore, in 1967, he froze the United States force of ICBM’s at 1,000 Minutemen plus 54 of the older Titans. He also froze the number of missiles carried by our nuclear submarines at 656. Secretary McNamara had said a few years earlier: “There is no indication that the Soviets are seeking to develop a strategic nuclear force as large as our own.” The Secretary was relaxed about the Soviet build-up; his feeling was that if the Soviets improved their capabilities for blowing us up, they could be more equal partners in the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction, and the peace of the world would be more secure.
So, while the Russians were working away at increasing the size of their nuclear arsenal, the United States made no attempt to stay ahead of them, and the number of American missiles and nuclear submarines remained fixed at their 1967 levels. Meanwhile the Soviet military budget continued to climb. It went up steadily, 4 percent a year, year after year. At the same time, the American defense budget, exclusive of Vietnam, began to decline. In 1970, the two budgets crossed—one going up, and the other going down. Still the Soviet budget continued to increase, especially in the area of strategic forces—nuclear bombs, missiles, and submarines—where the Soviets spent about $40 billion a year, while American expenditures in this critical area of defense averaged about $12 billion a year.
By 1969 or 1970, the effects of the massive Soviet build-up were becoming apparent. In round numbers, the Soviet Union now had 1,400 ICBM’s plus another 300 nuclear missiles in submarines. Meanwhile, the U.S. strategic forces remained frozen at their 1967 levels of 1,054 ICBM’s and 656 nuclear-submarine missiles. Soviet superiority in ICBM’s was roughly balanced by our edge in submarine-launched missiles. (We still had a fleet of aging B-52 bombers, but their usefulness against the massive Soviet air defenses was open to question.) Overall the Russians were about equal to us in nuclear destructive power.
Now both sides met the requirements for Mutual Assured Destruction. Each possessed enough weapons to inflict serious damage on the other fellow, and to American strategists, any further build-up by either nation would have been pointless. All that remained was to sit down with the Russians and formalize the arrangement with an arms-control treaty. SALT—the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks—was the result.
Salt, ratified in 1972, did not actually limit the number of nuclear bombs in the American and Russian arsenals. What it limited was objects that carry bombs, such as missile silos and nuclear submarines. A missile silo, as Senator Moynihan has pointed out, is a hole in the ground, and it can hurt you if you fall into it, but otherwise it is harmless. A true arms-control treaty should have limited the number and size of the nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the two countries. But the United States was never able to get the Soviet Union to agree to anything like that; the Russians would only accept a limit on items such as the number of holes in the ground.
Even so, the Russians found it difficult to live by the terms of the treaty after they signed it. Some years ago, for example, our satellites caught them in the act of digging 150 extra missile silos that were not permitted by the SALT treaty. When the United States brought this matter to the attention of the Russians, they explained that the new holes were launch-control silos, intended to house the crews and equipment which launched the missiles. But the extra silos had special doors of the kind that pop open to permit a missile’s quick escape. A silo with a pop-up door is essential for launching missiles, but highly undesirable for housing the launch-control crew, which usually is housed in an underground bunker to protect it from radiation and other effects of nuclear attack. Whatever use the additional silos might be put to initially, it was obvious that they were meant to be convertible to missile silos at a moment’s notice.
Specialists monitoring Soviet compliance with the SALT treaty have reported many other violations. Some are ominous because they indicate a serious intent to deceive the United States. For example, former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird reported in 1977 that the Soviets had gone to great lengths to conceal from our satellite cameras their operations with the SS-16, a new Soviet ICBM.
Unlike our strategic missiles, the SS-16 is mobile. American satellites discovered signs that SS-16’s were being moved about under cover of darkness, concealed in wooded areas, and tested on ranges partly covered with camouflage netting. As a result, Secretary Laird said, we could not be sure whether the Russians were producing SS-16’s merely in numbers sufficient to replace older missiles, as the 1972 SALT treaty allows, or enlarging their missile force illicitly beyond the number permitted by SALT. All we knew was that by “elaborate concealment” the Soviet Union had deliberately interfered with the means of verifying compliance with the SALT treaty, which was itself a flagrant violation of the treaty.
Secretary Laird also reported that when the Soviets were testing their SS-20 missile—the medium-range missile that has been deployed in large numbers in Russia and aimed against targets in Western Europe—they scrambled or coded the radio signals which are normally transmitted from the missile to the ground during a test flight so that missile experts can monitor the missile’s performance. Because the signals were coded, United States experts could not decipher them to determine the characteristics of the SS-20’s.
When the experts finally were able to break the code, they concluded that the SS-20 missiles had been tested with a ton of ballast aboard. This ballast, replaced by fuel, would increase the range of the SS-20 and enable it to attack targets in the United States. In effect the Soviet Union has constructed a dual-use missile that can be aimed either at Western Europe or the U.S., yet its numbers are not counted in the limit on Soviet ICBM’s set by the SALT treaty.
The scrambling of the SS-20 radio signals was a particularly cynical violation of SALT on the part of the Soviet Union, because it struck at the very heart of the treaty—the promise by each side that it would not interfere with the other side’s “national means of verification.”
How did our government handle Soviet violations of the SALT treaty? Senator Edward Zorinsky brought that point up during Senate hearings on SALT II in 1979 when he asked Paul Nitze: “Do you know of any SALT violations that were not resolved . . . ?” Nitze replied: “No; but how were they resolved? They were resolved by [our side’s] accepting what had been done in violation.”
SALT treaty or no, the Soviet Union continued to outspend the United States by a wide margin on bombs and missiles throughout the 1970’s. The United States budget for strategic forces—bombs, missiles, bombers, and submarines—went down under the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, and reached a low point of about $9 billion in 1979, at which time it was three-tenths of 1 percent of our Gross National Product. Meanwhile, Russian spending on missiles and bombs continued at a level of about $40 billion a year. By that time, the Soviet Union had spent about $1 trillion on nuclear weapons.
These numbers belie the “action-reaction” theory of the arms race, which holds that the Soviet military build-up is always a response to increases in American defense spending. As Defense Secretary Brown said: “As our defense budgets have risen, the Soviets’ have risen. As our defense budgets have gone down, the Soviets’ have risen.”
Now the time is 1983. The Russians have been outspending us on nuclear weapons since the 1960’s. In President Reagan’s administration the budget for strategic forces has risen, but not enough to make up for two decades of massive Soviet weapons construction. The Soviet Union is building 150 to 200 ICBM’s a year, and we are building none. They are constructing several nuclear-missile submarines a year, and we have retired old submarines faster than we have added new ones, so that the number of submarine-launched missiles in the U.S. arsenal has actually declined.
The result is that the destructive power of the Soviet nuclear arsenal is now more than twice as great as that of the United States. 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 Minute-man missiles in their silos in a preemptive first strike. We lack any such capability. In other words, the Soviet Union has strategic superiority.
But does it matter? As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once asked: “What in the name of God is strategic superiority? . . . What do you do with it?” The American strategic-nuclear arsenal, divided into the population of the world, is equivalent to a half ton of TNT per person. The Soviet strategic-nuclear arsenal is equivalent to two tons of TNT per person. Nothing seems to demonstrate the folly of building additional bombs and missiles more clearly than these numbers. By any reasonable criterion, both the United States and the Soviet Union have acquired “overkill.”
But the reasoning that leads to the idea of overkill, like the reasoning that leads to Mutual Assured Destruction, is based on an assumption. This assumption, again, has turned out to be false. The assumption is that the bombs of the Russians and of the Americans will be exploded over cities. This is what is meant by holding the civilian population hostage. The Russians, however, have made it plain that they find no merit in this idea. In their planning, the top-priority targets are not our cities but our missile silos, bombers, and submarines—and the communication links which would carry the orders for attack to their commanders. In other words, the Soviets aim to prevent us—in the event war should break out—from inflicting damage on their country.
How would the Soviet Union accomplish that objective? Civilian defense, air defense, and missile defense are part of the answer, and the Soviets have large programs in each of those areas. Civil defense is a fifth arm of the Soviet military, with status equal to that of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, Air Force, Army, and Navy.
Another part of the answer is the 5,000 warheads on Soviet ICBM’s. It is true that a small fraction of that huge arsenal could destroy every major city in the United States, but the warheads are not intended for that purpose; they are targeted against our 1,054 missile silos, probably two to a silo. This redundancy will insure nearly complete destruction of the American missile force, even when allowance is made for the fact that some Soviet missiles will not get off the ground, others will wander off course, and some will fail to explode.
Thus, the targeted American missile force accounts for approximately 2,000 of the 5,000 Soviet ICBM warheads. Another 500 warheads could be targeted on military airfields and whatever nuclear-missile submarines are in port or can be located. An additional 500 warheads could be allotted to the destruction of our military command-and-control centers and our military-communication links, with the aim of compromising the system by which instructions flow from the President and senior officials to military commanders in the field for the launch of a retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union.
This would leave a force of 2,000 ICBM warheads still available to the Soviet Union for use in deterring the United States from launching a retaliatory second strike with the ICBM’s, bombers, or submarine missiles that had survived the first strike. If our government failed to see the wisdom of submission at this stage, and launched a retaliatory strike against Soviet cities, Russian reprisal would be swift and devastating, and the life of our nation would be ended.
What about our nuclear submarines? A great many Americans feel that submarines will be the ultimate deterrent to Soviet attack, regardless of the number of ICBM’s in the Soviet arsenal. American Trident submarines are nearly invulnerable to detection when at sea, and, as President Carter once pointed out, the nuclear warheads carried on a single one of these would be sufficient to destroy all the largest cities in the Soviet Union.
The difficulty with this line of thinking is that missiles launched from submarines can only be used to attack cities and similar “soft” targets. The reason is that a submarine never knows precisely where it is in the ocean. Although the path of the submarine-launched missile may be very accurately guided during its flight, if the starting point of the missile’s trajectory is uncertain, the place where it lands must be equally uncertain. As a consequence, the accuracy of submarine-launched missiles is relatively poor.
American submarines and their missiles therefore cannot be used to eliminate the missile force of the Soviet Union, or its command-and-control centers, because those targets, hardened with reinforced concrete and underground construction, can be destroyed only by the pinpoint accuracy of a direct hit. (An attack on cities does not require great accuracy, since the power of the nuclear weapon will destroy a city if the bomb explodes anywhere in the vicinity.)
These considerations indicate why American submarines cannot substitute for our force of Minutemen, as a deterrent to Soviet attack. From the limited accuracy of submarine-launched missiles it follows that these missiles can only be used against cities. Therefore they cannot be used at all, because our government will know that if used in this way, they will trigger a punishing Soviet counterattack on our own cities. What President would decide to launch our submarine missiles in an attack on Leningrad and Moscow, knowing that New York and Washington would be destroyed in return? Faced with this option, any government would prefer to live and fight another day.
In the course of time, technology will improve the accuracy of our submarine-launched nuclear missiles to the point where they will have a hard-target “kill” capability, and the American deterrent will be restored. According to present estimates, that should happen by the end of the 1980’s. The intervening four to five years will be, as Dr. Kissinger has said, “a period of vulnerability such as we have not experienced since the early days of the Republic.”
If the nuclear-freeze movement is successful, the period of vulnerability will be extended into the 1990’s. Assuming that does not happen, how will the Russians make use of the four to five years of nuclear superiority they will still enjoy?
The Persian Gulf is the most likely target of a Soviet move. Imagine a Soviet-instigated outbreak of violence in Saudi Arabia, with American businessmen taken hostage, and a pro-Soviet regime installed, backed by Russian guns and Cuban mercenaries. With a substantial part of the oil flow to Western Europe under Soviet control, and the Middle East in upheaval, the United States will be tempted to intervene with conventional forces. If the Soviets respond by sending in their own troops, and conventional war breaks out, we cannot prevail. The USSR has constructed five airfields in southern Afghanistan, bringing the Persian Gulf within range of its fighter aircraft. The Soviet navy heavily outnumbers the American navy in surface ships and attack submarines. As a consequence, we will probably not be able to maintain our supply lines to the Gulf and the Mediterranean and simultaneously protect our sea lanes in Atlantic and Asian waters. Defeat will be almost certain.
Could we threaten to escalate to the nuclear level? Only this threat could hope to save us from defeat in the Persian Gulf. But now the Soviet superiority in nuclear weapons becomes the decisive factor. The United States has gone on a nuclear alert three times in the past—in 1948 in the Berlin crisis, in 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis, and in 1973 when the Russians threatened to intervene in the war between Egypt and Israel. We prevailed in each confrontation. In the first two cases we had strategic superiority, and in the third a rough parity. Today, this is no longer true. We would not dare to threaten the use of our nuclear weapons, because of the circumstances I have described.
What about a Soviet move into Western Europe? In Europe, the superiority of conventional Soviet forces would be overwhelming: approximately 45,000 tanks on the Soviet side against 17,000 in NATO; a Soviet superiority of 2 to 1 in aircraft, 2 to 1 in artillery, and 3 to 1 in missile launchers. NATO forces would not be able to withstand a massive Soviet thrust into Western Europe.
But a direct attack would not be necessary. Threats, accompanied by a general escalation of tension, would probably suffice to bring all of Western Europe under Soviet hegemony. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has described how it would happen:
At one time there was no comparison between the strength of the USSR and yours. Then it became equal. . . . Perhaps today it is just greater than balance, but soon it will be two to one. Then three to one. Finally it will be five to one. . . . With such a nuclear superiority it will be possible to block the use of your weapons, and on some unlucky morning they will declare: “Attention. We’re marching our troops to Europe, and if you make a move, we will annihilate you.” And this ratio of three to one, of five to one, will have its effect: you will not make a move.
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.
When will the Russians make their move? Leonid Brezhnev supplied the timetable a few years ago, in a speech to Communist leaders in Prague:
We are achieving with détente what our predecessors have been unable to achieve using the fist. . . . By 1985, . . . we will have achieved most of our objectives in Western Europe. . . . Come 1985, we will be able to extend our will wherever we need to. . . .
And so we finally see why strategic superiority matters. We see how it is that, as Senator Moynihan has said, he who can blow the world up three times has more power than he who can blow it up only twice.
1 Voyennaya mysl' (“Military Thought”), October 1964, p. 23; quoted in Soviet Strategy for Nuclear War, edited by J.D. Douglass, Jr. and A.M. Hoeber (Hoover Institution Press, 1979). According to Douglass and Hoeber, Voyennaya mysl' is a confidential journal designed for internal use by the Soviet General Staff and officers of the Soviet armed forces.
2 V.D. Sokolovskiy, Voyennaya strategiys (“Military Strategy”), p. 193, edited by H.F. Scott (Crane, Russak, 1975).
3 Ibid., p. 210.
4 Byely et al., Marxism-Leninism on War and Army (A Soviet View), trans. U.S. Air Force, Soviet Military Thought Series No. 2 (Government Printing Office), p. 217; quoted in Douglass and Hoeber, p. 38.
5 A. A. Sidorenko, The Offensive (A Soviet View) (Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1970), trans. U.S. Air Force, Soviet Military-Thought Series (Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 115; quoted in The Future of Soviet Military Power, edited by L.L. Whetten (Crane, Russak, 1976).