The Weapons Debate

“It is clear that the Russians are pushing ahead with their drive for overwhelming nuclear superiority over the United States. . . . Their build-up has gone so far that the United States cannot afford to play their game any longer.”

This 1971 editorial from a leading Midwestern newspaper is representative of articles which have been appearing since then with growing frequency in the American press. Some refer to “Russia’s frightening weapons momentum,” “Russia’s continued build-up of her strategic arsenal at an unprecedented rate,” and “growing Soviet arms superiority.” Others conclude that recent trends “indicate a real shift in the strategic balance from the United States to Russia,” or that “we are in a position of extreme relative weakness and the gap is widening every day.” The headlines are revealing:





Along with these articles has come a series of statements by private groups concerned about the shifting strategic arms balance. These articles and statements may look like a coordinated campaign, but the explanation is actually a good deal simpler: they reflect the honest concern of their authors over the growing Soviet missile buildup, a concern which is increasingly shared by many members of the Congress and other thoughtful observers.

These people are all reacting to the same basic fact: while the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) have been going on, the Soviet Union has increased its land-based missile strength from 1190 intercontinental ballistic missiles at the end of 1969 to 1520 ICBM’s at the end of 1971, which is about 500 more than the United States has. During the same period, Russia increased its submarine-based missiles from 240 to 500; it now has as many nuclear-powered missile submarines in operation or being built as the United States, whose undersea missile force has remained constant at 41 boats. As a result, the Soviet Union, which once lagged behind us, now has several hundred more long-range missiles than the United States. The kind of arms agreement which U.S. and Soviet leaders will likely conclude will not reverse this Soviet numerical advantage. That agreement will limit strategic arms competition in certain areas only, leaving it free to proceed in others.

What numbers count?

The concern which these facts cause is natural. But that concern needs to be reassessed in light of two other facts.

First, on purely technical grounds, these numbers do not give an accurate picture of the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance. The number of independently aimed warheads available to both sides is a better measure of their nuclear strength than the number of missiles, since it’s the warheads, not the missiles, which strike targets. The United States is far ahead of the Soviet Union in developing multiple independently targeted warheads (MIRV’s), and has been busy installing these warheads on both landbased and sea-based missiles. The Soviets are reported to be installing multiple warheads on some missiles, but these are not independently aimed, and so they are a lot less dangerous.

While the Soviets will eventually achieve the level of technology required to develop independently aimed multiple warheads, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird tells us in his latest annual report that they “probably have not tested MIRV missiles thus far.” The result is that the United States has a large and growing advantage over the Soviets in warheads, and will probably keep that lead for several years.

Second, the size of both sides’ strategic nuclear force has now reached the point at which it is not clear that marginal differences in numbers-whether of warheads or missiles—are of critical importance. In the 1950s, when neither side had what is now called “sufficiency,” it was of considerable moment if one side pulled ahead of the other. But since then each side’s strength has increased tremendously. When America’s current program is completed, the U.S. submarine missile force alone will have over 5000 deliverable warheads; the U.S. strategic force as a whole will have over 10,000 deliverable warheads. When you’re talking about this range of figures, marginal differences in numbers are no longer the heart of the matter. Each side can destroy the other, no matter who strikes first, and this is clear to all concerned.

But these considerations tend to get swallowed up in the debate. There is an instinctive tendency to focus on a clear and simple measure of the two sides’ relative strength: the number of missiles that each has, and the megatonnage that they can deliver. This generates pressure to build up U.S. forces beyond the point of political and military need, at a time when budgetary resources are scarce. Just as important, it overshadows more crucial nuclear problems, which do not revolve around the relative size of U.S. and Soviet strategic forces.

There is some analogy here to the situation which existed in Europe before 1914. Germany then had a competition in ground forces going with France and with Russia, somewhat like the U.S.-Soviet competition in strategic forces today. Each country kept the size of its rival’s army under close and anxious scrutiny. If that size increased, a costly parallel increase in the other’s army followed. Military budgets rose steadily as a result.

And yet, when these countries found themselves on the brink of war in July, 1914, their actions in that crisis were not in the least influenced by the numerical balance between their armies. The chief military factor which made it difficult to resolve that crisis peacefully was not that France’s standing army was larger than Germany’s, or that Germany’s reserve forces exceeded those of France, much less that Russia’s army was larger than either of the other two, but rather that all these countries’ war plans were so keyed to split-second mobilization schedules that each believed victory would accrue to whoever mobilized first. Hence each felt compelled to anticipate the other in making the transition from peace to war, even before the resources of diplomacy had been fully exhausted.

Nor was the numerical balance between these countries’ armies decisive in the fighting that ensued. Initial victories of Germany and Russia at the frontiers in August, 1914, and these countries’ defeats at the Marne and Tannenberg later in the summer, owed more to the armies’ initial deployments, to the quality of their weapons (notably artillery), and to the failure of their services of supply than to any differences between their gross numbers.

Leaders on both sides would have managed better to keep the peace, and, failing that, to avert defeat, if they had worried more about these mobilization and technical problems and less about gross numbers. Today, as in 1914, important strategic problems need to be tackled if effective deterrence is to be maintained. Today, as in 1914, these problems do not have much to do with the most dramatic measure of strength: the numerical missile balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. So they get relatively short shrift in the press and in public debate.

What deters?

The first of these problems is this question: What types of weapons systems should be deployed to maintain stable deterrence? That deterrence now obtains; neither side sees advantage in being the first to strike in a nuclear exchange. Hence, even in a grave crisis, both sides are unlikely to resort to nuclear weapons. This situation could be altered if the Soviets scored both an offensive and a defensive breakthrough. An offensive breakthrough would mean developing either sufficiently accurate multiple missiles to destroy U.S. landbased missiles or sufficiently effective antisubmarine techniques to sink large numbers of U.S. missile-bearing submarines. A defensive breakthrough would mean deploying enough antiballistic missiles (ABM’s) to blunt a reprisal by surviving U.S. sea-based and land-based forces. If both these breakthroughs occurred, it is at least conceivable that in a grave crisis the Russians might see some advantage in being the first to strike, and that the risk of nuclear war would be increased.

This danger will not be averted simply by expanding the scale of U.S. strategic forces. The danger depends more on the types of weapons available to both sides than on their numbers.

The best insurance against a Soviet defensive breakthrough is an arms control agreement which, among other things, so limits ABM’s as to prevent effective ABM defense of missiles on Soviet territory. The agreement which U.S. and Soviet leaders seem likely to conclude will have this effect.

The best way to prevent a Soviet offensive breakthrough is for the United States to maintain both an invulnerable submarine missile force and an effective land-based nuclear force; then the Soviets will realize that even if they can knock out one of these forces, they will have to contend with the other. The President has proposed several measures to this end: accelerating development of an improved missile submarine (ULMS), pressing ahead with a new manned bomber, and hardening U.S. missile sites. The purpose to which these proposals are addressed makes sense. The question is whether these measures are the best way of achieving that purpose; Should ULMS development proceed now, or should it be held back until a future Soviet antisubmarine threat emerges more clearly, so that the next generation of U.S. missile submarines can be geared more directly to that threat? Is the kind of manned bomber that the Administration has in mind the right successor to the B-52, or would a somewhat different and less expensive type of plane do the job? Is hardening of missile sites sufficiently effective to warrant the expense involved? Indeed, do we need landbased missiles as well as bombers to maintain the land-based component of the deterrent, or should the landbased deterrent consist only of bombers?

There are arguments on both sides of these questions; they cry out for debate. But these arguments involve technical judgments as to which weapons will provide the right mix of survivability and penetration, and thus contribute most to stability. And these sorts of questions are a lot less interesting than the one of gross numbers to both sides of the debate about the level of defense spending. Numbers can be dramatized in charts and slogans. Technical questions cannot.

Hence these questions are likely to receive less than their due in public debate. If they are scrutinized anywhere, it will be in congressional committees, particularly the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is becoming an increasingly effective forum for rigorous analysis of defense expenditures. The fact that the Committee’s chairman, Senator John Stennis, Democrat of Mississippi, tends to avoid both the glorification and the denunciation of the militaryindustrial complex which dominate debate elsewhere makes it easier for him to focus effectively on issues which have little ideological content. In this type of forum, however, the question of what kinds of weapons are needed to prevent a Soviet defensive or offensive breakthrough will probably be lost to sight as a result of the general obsession with numbers.


The second problem is how to ensure that the U.S-Soviet strategic balance is not misjudged—in the United States, the Soviet Union, or the rest of the world. A widespread belief that the balance of effective nuclear power was tilting against the United States might encourage the Soviets to adopt more adventurous policies—for example, in the Middle East. Such a belief need not rest on objective fact. The missile gap of the late 1950s existed chiefly in Soviet claims and American doubts, but this did not make it any less important as part of the diplomatic landscape. Secretary Laird refers to this risk in his annual report. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer. stressed it in congressional testimony. There is no evidence now that either the Soviets or our allies judge the United States to be in a position of nuclear inferiority. But this could change.

In the short term, the United States could talk itself into a state of assumed nuclear inferiority. The current domestic debate over numbers of missiles could have precisely this effect. Soviet leaders might conclude that American despondency offered tempting opportunities for Soviet pressure. The way to prevent this is not to spend a lot of money remedying an inferiority which does not exist, but to educate our people to the fact that it doesn’t exist.

The President’s report on foreign policy includes some sensible remarks to this end: “Capabilities of both the U.S. and U.S.S.R.,” he says, “have reached a point where our programs need not be driven by fear of minor quantitative imbalances.” But the educational impact of these remarks is drowned out by other parts of that report, and parts of Secretary Laird’s annual report, which describe and stress the Soviet threat in terms of numbers of missiles. These passages seem to foreshadow a call for a substantial expansion of U.S. missile programs larger than the expansion recommended by the President in his current budget. At some point, this kind of expansion may be required. But the main need now. in U.S. debate, is less to trumpet this possibility than to educate Americans about the fairly wide range within which the numerical size of U.S. and Soviet nuclear programs can vary without decisively affecting the balance of power, and the technical issues of effective deterrence which need to be faced within this range.

The President finds it difficult to talk in this vein, however, without giving offense to those large numbers of Americans who are worried about the current U.S.-Soviet numerical balance. Moreover, he has probably calculated that Soviet leaders are more likely to negotiate a succession of arms control agreements if they expect that the United States might match increases in Russian strategic forces.

On this last point he may well be right: here, as in other areas of foreign policy, there is an inherent tension between the needs of candid education at home and of sophisticated bargaining abroad.

Over the longer run, a gap between American and Russian nuclear programs could develop which, even if it were not militarily decisive, would be so large as to shape attitudes of the Soviet Union, American allies, and perhaps the United States itself. This would probably occur only if the Soviets surpassed America not only in missiles but also in independently aimed and deliverable warheads, and if the resulting differences were very large. Given the current American lead in warheads, considerable time would have to elapse until this occurred. We can put this cushion of time to good use: after a partial U.S.Soviet arms agreement this spring, we should seek a follow-up agreement which would limit other Soviet offensive weapons systems. If that agreement cannot be secured, and if Soviet strategic programs continue to escalate, that will be the time to expand our own programs.

All of which does not add up to a very impressive case for believing that the currently planned size of U.S. strategic nuclear forces is inadequate—or, indeed, that the size of these programs is the most useful measure of their adequacy. The current furor about numbers will have done a grave disservice to national security if it obscures this fact and thus diverts debate from more pressing problems of nuclear security.