London — The technological and political deterioration of the old system of nuclear deterrence has left strategists groping to define what the new system will or should look like.
The first official attempt to formulate a new definition is the August 1980 American shift of declared nuclear strategy. In this shift, in effect, the United States has finally given up, after two decades of hoping that the common nuclear danger might bring the Soviets to a "convergence" with American theories of deterrence stability. Instead, "convergence" has moved in the opposite direction; the Carter White House has come closer to presumed Soviet "war fighting" concepts by changing America's declared nuclear targeting from "countervalue" civilian targets to "counterforce" (or, in the latest jargon, "countervailing") military targets. The American hawks have won their four-year feud with American doves.
Pravda immediately denounced Washington's new strategy as an attempt to gain a first- strike capability. The newest arms race -- in mobile missiles and probably also in anti-ballistic missiles and antisatellite weapons -- was formally joined.
The '80s arms spiral comes in a confused period in which there is not even enough consensus for coherent alternative schools of analysis and policy to have developed beyond the agreed necessity for military targeting. It comes at a time in which the strategic and arms-control debate still seems mired in the concepts of a fading era. As viewed by the Strategic Survey of spring 1980 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the issues on which the debate had concentrated so far (in the form of the SALT II controversy) seem "unlikely to be the ones that would be most relevant in the 1980s and 1990s."
Under these circumstances, the election-year (and long-term) security debate in the US focuses primarily on the old hawk vision of a return to American military superiority.
This debate refers to the postwar quarter-century of a clear American nuclear lead (despite the sputnik and "missile gap" alarms). The US lead disappeared as the Soviet Union recovered from the war's devastation and built its own A- and H-bombs, missiles, and submarines -- and as Washington declined to pay the enormous domestic social and democratic cost that would have been required to maintain superiority.
The Soviet Union achieved rough strategic parity with the United States by the early 1970s. The US acknowledged this nuclear equality in the watershed 1972 SALT treaty.
Today's Soviet equivalence -- or, a few people argue, superiority -- is a fact that American hawks yearn to reverse. The most concise statement of this wish is probably the recent reference by Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to John F. Kennedy's defense policy for the 1960s: "There can be only one defense policy for the United States, and that is summed up in the word 'first.' I do not mean first, but,m I do not mean first, when.m I do not mean first, if.m I mean first period.m " The Republican platform itself calls to "close the gap with the Soviets and ultimately reach the position of military superiority that the American people demand."
More expansively, two Hudson Institute staff members, Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, in an article entitled "Victory Is Possible" in the summer 1980 issue of Foreign Policy, scoff at the whole "self-deterrent" notion that nuclear war would be the end of humanity and (by implication) that nuclear superiority is meaningless. If the US would only provide proper civil, air, and missile defense, they argue, only 20 million Americans would be killed in a nuclear exchange. The US should therefore stop being paralyzed by its fear of nuclear war and adopt a war-winning posture and doctrine (like that in the Soviet handbooks).
As part of this effort, Mr. Gray would not only scrap SALT II and the ABM treaty, but also disband the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency altogether.
Georgetown University Prof. Edward N. Luttwak, a Reagan foreign-policy adviser, agrees wholeheartedly with this approach. He ridicules the artificial neutrality of arms controllers who try to look at security questions from both the American and Soviet points of view rather than from the sole point of view of US interests. Such a "disinterested, almost third- party look" curtails American weapons development with a spurious goal of stability. If America's rich economy and inventive technology were only unleashed, he suggests, and the recent American tendency to "crisis evasion" turned into a will to fight, then America could outdo Russia in any arms competition.
Arms controllers react to such scenarios with horror. They retort that "only" 20 million killed is still a holocaust and that even after such a "limited" nuclear exchange the living might well envy the dead.
Arms controllers contend further that both America and Russia would lose heavily in any race for military superiority, from the diversion of resources to nonproductive weapons. They doubt, too, whether America would really win an open-ended arms contest with the Russians.The Soviet Union has more missile production lines ready to roll than the US does. It is habituated, as the nonauthoritarian US is not, to sacrificing the welfare of its citizens to produce weapons. And especially under the tensions and heightened chauvinism of a new cold war, it would have the psychological as well as the police tools to compel such public sacrifice.
Nor would the Soviet Union have the dissident domestic voices of flabbiness or sanity (depending on one's point of view) that would vote down any American government that taxed its citizens at a sufficiently high rate to restore military superiority. Even in the purely technological competition, the continued American lead would be far from assured in a flat-out race. The Soviet Union is only half a generation behind the United States in missiles, and Soviet technologies lead the US in a few military fields. In the volatile technological era that we are now entering, the risk of a destabilizing breakthrough is greater than in the past. Under these circumstances, it would be far less dangerous, the arms controllers say, to proceed at a calmer pace, with more time to adjust to new military technological relationships as they arise.
Some London strategists such as Christopher Bertram, director of the IISS, and Lawrence Freedman, head of the Royal Institute of International Affairs Policy Studies, argue that their American counterparts are exaggerating the dove-hawk clashes. There may be spectacular flare-ups at IISS meetings between Professor Luttwak and McGeorge Bundy, a former Kennedy-Johnson strategist. But Mr. Bundy isn't really proposing to disarm the US or to go for "minimum deterrence" or deprive the American president of nuclear options, Mr. Bertram points out. And most of those who despise Bundy's stubborn defense of the old American tenet of mutual assured destruction don't really want to go to a "war winning" posture, despite the rhetoric. Bertram doubts that a President Reagan, faced with the messy realities of today's world and the hard choices of setting priorities on finite budgets, would really opt for the nostalgic pursuit of a bygone American superiority.
Bertram sees a broad if not yet articulated consensus forming in the American center, including perhaps such people as Fred Ikle (another Reagan adviser) to the right of center, Harvard's Michael Nacht in the center, and the Arms Control Association's William Kincade to the left of center. The consensus starts with the common realization that "the genie of accuracy cannot be put back in the bottle" and that, in Bertram's thesis, we will shortly enter a very uncomfortable era of general vulnerability of all strategic systems (and not just of fixed-base silos).
In the new era the raw fear of nuclear holocaust, even if it is reverting to a more primitive form than its SALT articulation, is still a powerful disincentive to deliberate nuclear war. The painstakingly worked out concepts of assured second strike, no damage limitation, no defense, and no counterforce and a sharp distinction between deterrence and defense may now be moribund. But the uncertainties -- about the mass use of weapons systems that have never been test-fired other than individually, and about how fast escalation would get out of hand -- inspire caution. This applies to direct superpower confrontation and probably also to the crucial NATO alliance area of Western Europe. The danger, Bertram believes, lies much more in the reduced "extended deterrence" that under today's conditions is less of a disincentive to wars in the third world, possibly now including the tinderbox Mideast.
Mr. Bertram, however, goes on to say that the rough durability of superpower deterrence is far from a good enough assurance for the 1980s. He thinks it imperative that strategists set to work now to define the new deterrence plan and block out responses to it. Will we simply learn to live with this heightened threat and ambiguity? Should we try to reduce it, by such means as ABM? Should we break away from emphasis on rapid reaction, perhaps by moving from a ballistic-missile deterrent to a cruise missile deterrent which because of its slowness would preclude a surprise first strike?
How should the West react if the Soviet Union, following America's lead, puts its ICBMs into a kind of mobile mode that would not be susceptible to targeting by the American MX (and might not be susceptible to American satellite counting, either)? How should the West react if the Soviet Union, following America's lead, adds the ABM to its defenses and thus achieves a comprehensive "damage limiting" defense?
How much military power is enough in the new unpredictability? What new forms of arms control can be worked out that can maintain some momentum in the dialogue of restraint? Something reaching further back in the R&D chain? Or nothing more than modest efforts like "confidence-building measures" and continuous East-West communications?
The answers to all these questions should be sought, Mr. Bertram argues, not in piecemeal technological solutions to the problems of individual weapons systems (as the US is doing now in its MX and ballistic-missile defense debates) , but in the context of the overall analysis of the hazardous new strategic world we live in.