Over the past thirty years, the nuclear-arms race has been propelled by political tensions, by technical innovations, and by rivalries inside the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union. But at the moment, on the American side one overriding concern promotes the buildup of nuclear weapons—the fear that the United States might be denied its ability to inflict a devastating retaliatory blow if the Soviet Union struck first. This fear presumes that a nuclear war, far from being an act of mutual annihilation, might be a controllable, survivable, even "winnable" encounter, and that the Soviet Union may be better equipped than the United States to prevail in a nuclear war.
Such an anxiety, if well grounded, would compel any responsible American leader to search seriously for new nuclear-weapons projects, beginning with the MX missile and perhaps extending to antiballistic-missile systems and greater efforts for civil defense, in the hope of redressing the balance. The Reagan Administration, of course, is pushing ahead on several such fronts and says that it cannot persuade the Soviet Union to negotiate for reductions in strategic weapons unless we first show our determination to increase American strength. Even if the strategic-arms-reduction talks (START) that President Reagan has proposed eventually lead to an agreement, that welcome development would not come sooner than several years from now. In the meantime, American policy need not be driven by a fear of a Soviet first strike. Instead, it should rest on a recognition of the basic reality of the nuclear age: that the only option open to either the Soviet Union or the United States is deterrence. Given today's weapons, neither side can do anything to protect itself against the retaliatory threat the other poses; by the same logic, neither side need fear that its threat to the other will be called into question. This balance hardly justifies political or moral complacency. Because of the catastrophe that would occur if deterrence failed, our best efforts must be directed to preventing the circumstances in which nuclear-weapons would ever be used. But the concept of deterrence suggests a very different direction for American action from the one indicated by anticipation of a Soviet first strike.
The current era has often been spoken of as a "window of vulnerability," in which America's nuclear force is uniquely at risk. But it can instead be a "window of opportunity" in which to negotiate an end to the arms race. The most obvious and the most sensible step for the United States at the moment is to add nothing to our nuclear forces, and to seize this opportunity to press for a freeze on the development, testing, and deployment of all nuclear weapons and new delivery systems by each side.
As has happened before in the arms race, we have been told that technical progress has created a theoretical vulnerability for our force. The Soviet missile force has increased in size and accuracy, and supposedly poses fresh dangers to our land-based nuclear missiles. The Soviet Union's theoretical ability to destroy nearly all of these missiles in a surprise attack, it is argued, will psychologically upset the balance of deterrence, and will thereby make the United States vulnerable to Soviet blackmail. This will happen, it is further argued, even though the great majority of the American nuclear weapons are carried on bombers or by ballistic-missile submarines, rather than by the Minuteman and Titan missiles that are based in silos throughout the Midwest. An American President might be afraid to retaliate after a Soviet attack on the U.S. missiles, because the Soviet Union would then respond with a major attack on American cities. The conclusion of this line of reasoning is that the U.S. cannot contemplate any slackening of the pace until it has redressed the imbalance by building the MX missile or other systems.
I accepted this scenario myself until I made a few simple calculations concerning how vulnerable the Minuteman system actually is and what the strategic situation would be even if it were somehow totally destroyed. It emerges from any such calculation that neither side can escape the risk of devastating retaliation if it launches a pre-emptive attack. This is the only vital issue for each side—the actual capabilities for responding after attack, not guesses about what the other side's intentions might be. Intentions may change, and they are always difficult to discern. But the meaning of the capabilities is unambiguous: under present technology, either side could devastate the other after enduring any conceivable attack.
The U.S. has more deliverable nuclear warheads than the Soviet Union does. A 1978 study prepared for the Congressional Budget Office estimated that in the mid-1980s, when the "window of vulnerability" will allegedly stand open, the U.S. will have 13,904 warheads on its strategic delivery systems, versus 8,794 for the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, for reasons we have never fully understood, has chosen to build missiles larger than ours, with larger warheads; and its force, though smaller in numbers, contains more "equivalent megatons" than ours does. (The measure "equivalent megaton" takes account of the fact that small nuclear warheads do proportionately more damage than large ones, since the area a warhead destroys does not increase linearly with the size of the warhead.) The same Congressional Budget Office study estimated that in the mid-1980s the U.S. force would represent 4,894 equivalent megatons, versus 8,792 for the Soviet Union. Paul Nitze, of the Committee on the Present Danger, which has been among the most strident of the groups warning about a window of vulnerability, has estimated that if both sides built up to the limits allowed by the SALT II treaty (whose ratification the committee opposed), the U.S. would have 12,504 nuclear warheads and the Soviet Union 11,728. It foresees roughly the same advantage for the Russians in equivalent megatons as does the Congressional Budget Office.
Of the 13,000 to 14,000 warheads projected for the American force, roughly 2,100 are on the Minuteman and Titan missiles. The land-based force represents some 1,507 equivalent megatons. Therefore, if every single Titan and Minuteman were destroyed in a successful surprise attack, the U.S. would be left with somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 nuclear warheads. The submarine fleet would account for approximately 6,000 of these weapons, and the rest would be carried by bombers. All together, these remaining American warheads would represent about 3,500 equivalent megatons.
On planning American nuclear forces in the early 1960s, Robert McNamara came to the conclusion that 400 equivalent megatons would be sufficient to inflict unacceptable damage—and that the U.S. could have absolute confidence in its deterrent if it built such a retaliatory capacity three times over, once on the bomber fleet, once on land-based missiles, and once with the submarine force, for a total of 1,200 equivalent megatons. In other words, the 11,000 or 12,000 warheads, representing 3,500 equivalent megatons, that the U.S would retain even after a perfectly successful first strike against our land-based missiles would be three times larger than the force that was itself designed to be able thrice to destroy the Soviet Union. The accuracy of nuclear weapons has improved since McNamara's day, further increasing their effective power. These figures do not even count the several thousand American warheads that are left in Europe and other parts of the world, some of which could be used for retaliation.
Nearly all scenarios for a first strike assume that an attacker would have to target two warheads against each missile silo it hoped to destroy. The U. S. has 1,000 Minuteman missiles and several dozen Titans. The Soviet Union would, therefore, have to devote about 2,200 warheads to an attack. The most generous estimates put the mid-1980s Soviet force at slightly fewer than 12,000 warheads; so after launching its first strike, the Soviet Union would end up with fewer than 10,000 warheads, or several thousand fewer than the United States.
So far, these calculations have been based on extreme assumptions: that the Soviet Union would be able to destroy totally the force of Minuteman and Titan missiles, but that it would leave the submarine and bomber fleets intact. More realistic assumptions yield the same conclusion: that a first strike would be suicidal irrationality, which is the premise upon which deterrence is based.
Moreover, first-strike scenarios rest on the assumption that large numbers of men and machines will perform exactly as planned. The weapons used in a first strike would have to perform reliably and very accurately, and the detonations of several thousand warheads would have to be coordinated with perfect skill, or else the whole scenario becomes immediately implausible. Yet no complex system ever works as predicted when it is first used. In carefully controlled tests, involving small numbers of weapons, it may be possible to attain the levels of accuracy required for a first strike, but I am convinced that the necessary levels of accuracy and reliability are simply not attainable in an operational force. It would require many more test flights than either nation normally conducts to get enough data to establish the actual facts about these systems. How many trial runs of a surprise attack could the U.S. or the Soviet Union carry out?
Three factors make it seem especially unlikely that a surprise attack could be successfully carried out. First, the accuracy of the attacking warheads is uncertain. Because their targets, the missile silos, are so greatly "hardened," warheads must come much closer to a silo than to "softer" targets to do damage. But it may be impossible for either side to know how accurate its warheads will be when they are fired in large fleets on a trajectory that has never before been tested.
Second, the reliability of the missiles themselves is open to deep question. Optimists assume that 80 percent of the missiles that are fired will perform satisfactorily. The likely rate may be closer to 50 or 60 percent. This would mean that even assuming maximum accuracy and accepting the formula that two warheads fired at a silo will have a 95 percent probability of destroying it, the Soviet Union might fire 2,200 warheads at our missiles and destroy only 500 to 600 of them.
Third, such an exercise would require prodigious feats of timing. It would involve very precise firings of the individual missiles, so that the two warheads attacking each Minuteman would be so perfectly spaced that the detonation of the first would not destroy the second, and warheads attacking neighboring sites would not disable each other. (These very probable accidents are known as fratricide.) A successful first strike would depend on flawless communication within the Soviet command structure. It is generally recognized that the command-and-control system is the weakest link in the nuclear forces of both sides.
In principle, the Soviet Union could improve its possibilities of success by firing more than two warheads at each missile, but then the potential for destructive interference becomes even greater, as do the complications of command and coordination. Most experts believe that two warheads per target is the practical limit.
All in all, the result is this: even after a surprise Soviet attack on the American Minuteman force, U.S. strength would actually be slightly greater than the Soviet Union's. If the Soviet Union could carry out the worst attack that the alarmists have been able to imagine, the United States would not only retain its relative position but would have enough nuclear weapons to destroy several Soviet Unions. And by the same logic, the Soviet Union would certainly retain the capacity to inflict unacceptable punishment on the United States, no matter how large and clever a surprise first strike the U.S. were to launch. Theorists may claim that it would not be "logical" for the side that had endured the first strike to order a retaliation, since that would lead to further devastation, but such forbearance on the part of a badly wounded but still armed nation is hard to credit.
Theorists defending the first-strike hypothesis often refer to the issues of the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, the U.S. had many more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union, and this superiority, many advocates of the MX now say, forced Nikita Khrushchev to back down. But in the early sixties, the Soviet Union had so few deliverable nuclear weapons that its leaders had legitimate reason to fear that a first strike might take away their ability to threaten destructive retaliation. The imbalance may have affected Soviet behavior—although American superiority in conventional naval forces seems to have weighed more heavily in the Soviets' calculations. At the comparatively low levels of nuclear weaponry of twenty years ago, a difference in size between the arsenals could have political significance; indeed, much of the impetus in American policy has been to regain the first-strike potential the U.S. enjoyed for many years. But when each side has a superabundance of weaponry, which is the case today, small differences in size no longer matter.
At the moment, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union has a meaningful strategic advantage. A window of vulnerability does not exist. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to imagine how either side could achieve a usable advantage. Both sides are thoroughly deterred from using their strategic forces, because a decision to use them would be a decision to commit national suicide. And this seems sure to remain true no matter what either side deploys in the way of new weapons.
Though the Soviets might theoretically increase the capacities of their missiles in such a way as to pose significant new threats to the Minuteman force, it would require a major breakthrough in both technology and production to do so. The same is obviously true for American forces. The MX and the cruise missiles based in Europe might be the American entry into such a competition. But at the moment, such capabilities do not exist and so cannot be deployed. Thus, now is the time for a disarmament agreement, one that would freeze all missile developments, leaving both sides with an unquestioned deterrent but without any plausible threat of a first strike. Now we have a "window of opportunity" for safer, saner alternatives to a major arms buildup. This might mean ratification of the SALT II agreement, whose limitations the Reagan Administration has so far chosen to observe, or a comprehensive freeze on the testing and development of nuclear weapons, which I favor.
An agreement to halt all testing of nuclear weapons, and of the vehicles that would deliver them, could dramatically change the political cloud that surrounds these weapons. Military technologists will strenuously resist the enactment of any such program. They will be reluctant to give up new weapons already in the pipeline. Moreover, they will maintain that if they cannot test-fire weapons, they cannot guarantee that they will work as planned. That is true, but scarcely a problem. While no one could be sure that the weapons would work as planned—which further reduces the certainty essential for a first strike—neither could anyone be certain that they won't work. They would not suffice for pre-emptive attack, but they would still represent a secure deterrent.
If this opportunity for arms control is not taken, the job will only grow more difficult in the future. The weapons of today are easy to count and monitor, but those of tomorrow won't be. The cruise missile, the stealth bomber, and far more accurate guidance systems would lead us to a nightmare world, one in which our fears would increase. That is why the opportunity must be seized now.
A limited solution to the arms race is not pleasing to many religious and ethical leaders who are emphasizing the immorality of relying on the very weapons that may threaten the extinction of the species. For contrary reasons, a nuclear-arms freeze irritates conservative political leaders, who imagine that this dimension of military force should somehow be made more "usable," and who object to a policy—deterrence—that places the civilian population of the nation at risk. Deterrence is unsatisfactory—except by contrast with the alternatives. The weapons that create the threat of annihilation cannot be uninvented. The sad fact of this era is that our populations cannot conceivably be protected except through political skill and courage applied to the task of minimizing the chances that nuclear weapons will ever be used.
Seizing this opportunity to freeze the arms race would be one demonstration of such skill and courage. It would free both sides from the fear of a first strike and would leave them with such security as a deterrent can provide. It would set the stage for further safety measures, including the reduction of nuclear forces. Meanwhile, the fear of unknown new weapons would be eliminated. And with less money devoted to strategic nuclear weapons, more would be available to repair the deficiencies in our conventional forces, to right the economy, and especially to work on the ever-growing set of civilian problems facing the world.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.