Deterring Nuclear War 1; The New Danger

Will mankind face up to the increased risk of nuclear war in the 1980s? The world's survival depends on the answer to this question, for the famous "balance of terror" that has thus far kept the H-bomb unused is beginning to waver under the impact of new technology and world politics.

In the process the old analytical verities -- and perhaps the old restraints -- are weakening. it is not yeat clear what can take their place as the framework of superpower peace.

Until now the balance of terror, as the name implies, has rested on mutual vulnerability of populations and mutual invulnerability of weapons. Both superpowers have maintained high levels of offensive missiles -- so high that in the present state of technology no defense has appeared possible against them.

The balance has been based as well on a very small nuclear club of only two superpowers and three medium-size members -- with this coterie observing strong inhibitions on firing their instruments of devastation.

In the years since 1945, the superpowrs' massive offense and negligible defense -- however much it offended all common-sense military maxims and norms of human decency -- did prevent nuclear war. For longer that the interval between World War I and World War II it has prevented conventional war, as well, in the area of prime concern to the united States and the Soviet union, the industrialized North -- includ inghad been war-prone. The nuclear balance has also apparently moderated superpower conflicts in tinderbox areas like the Middle East.

This perversly benigh nuclear regime is now deteriorating. Deterrence* is being weakened by revolutionary technology, a blurring of the distinction and the "firebreaks" between strategic* and tactical weapons, impending nuclear proliferation, and the likely superpower response to these technological and political developments.

Today's military technology "is more dynamic than it has ever been," declares Desmond Ball of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the author of studies of the future nuclear balance, missile basing, and military communications.

"The grim conclusion is that at least in terms of the conventional wisdom the strategic future looks fairly gloomy." He describes the impetus of lasers that could again give defense primacy over offense, and of conventional fuel-air explosives that in a small 500-pound bomb could engender the same enormous balst of 900,000 pounds per squre inch (p.s.i.) of pressure that in the past only nuclear bombs could produce.

"The whole missile age lasted 20 years," Mr. Ball points out. "The first [Us ] Minuteman [landbased missile] was October 1962. The first [US] Polaris [ submarine missile] went into the water in August 1960. If the same resources go into lasers in the next 20 years as went into missiles and warheads in the '50s and '60s, then you can say the strategic implications will be more revolutionary."

Mr. Ball doesn't anticipate that some dramatic breakthrough would suddenly give either side a definitive superiority over the other. But he does regard technology as uncommonly volatile just now and apt to jostle the military balance in unpredicted ways.

Associate Prof. Kosta Tsipis, associate director of the Program in Science and Technology for International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also notes the disruptive effect of less spectacular "technology creep." In this phenomenon, low-cost upgrading of diverse existing technologies combines to produce qualitative weapons changes -- and undermine nuclear stability.

The outstanding example is the Copernican change in missile accuracy in the 1980s. This has resulted from incremental improvements in such areas as computer and engine microminiaturization; order-of-magnitude acceleration of data processing; efficiency of solid-propellant rocket booster motors; inertial navigation*; American Navstar satellite position fixing of submarines to within 10 meters (33 feet) in three dimenstions regardless of weather; gravity and geodesy* positioning; real-time satellite reconnaissance of ground information; new materials; preprogrammed terminal homing computers in warheads; terrain-matching; infrared, radar, and other sensors that search out targets; and rapid retargeting of both intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Within a few years the new accuracy will give deployed ICBMs and even SLBMs a "kill probability" of over 90 percent even on "hardened targets."

Thus the projected Us land-mobile MX missile would have a "single-shot kill probability" of over 99 percent even on a target hardened to resist a blast of 1 ,000 p.s.i. (the current hardening of the American Minuteman). The deployed Minuteman III already has an accuracy of probably 600 feet (close to the 500 -foot accuracy at which not even the Soviet superhardening of some silos to 2, 000 p.s.i. or the 3,000-p.s.i. compressive limit of concrete and steel could protect a target). And the Soviet union, now only a half generation behind the US in this area, has reportedly produced its own test accuracies of 600 feet with the monster SS-18 ICBM.

This unanticipated accuracy, when coupled with the American MIRV* innovation of a decade ago, has suddenly made the workhorse of the fixed-base land missile -- which previously was invulnerable -- vulnerable.

I n the old, pre-'70s days of single warheads on single missiles, on attacking nation would always have expended more of its own missiles than the enemy missiles it would have destroyed, given the impossibility of a 100 percent kill ratio. The attacker would always have left himself with a risky inferior residual balance for any further combat.

In the MIRV age, though, an initial attack by a limited 150 eight-warhead missiles, with their total of 1,200 cross-targeted warheads (two per target), could theoretically wipe out 600 enemy missiles, which have 4,800 warheads. This would leave the attacker far head of the victim in the residual balance.

The new silo vulnerability -- or "obsolescence," as some are already calling it -- has shocked strategists and called into question the old strategic orthodoxy. It has started to undermine the hitherto stable balance of mutually invulnerable weapons and -- if one side could exploit the new conditions against the other -- mutually vulnerable populations. The superpower that could protect its own population while keeping the adversary's population hostage could theoretically blackmail the other superpower at will.

Most of the two dozen specialists interviewed for this series at the White house, Pentagon, State Department, Georgetown University, MIT, Harvard, the American Arms Control Association, the American Committee on the Present Danger, and London's IISS think it highly unlikely that silo vulnerability or some technological breakthrough could in the 1980s give either superpower a real "disabling first strike." That is, probably neither superpower can acquire the capacity to destroy so many of the enemy's weapons as to preclude unacceptable retaliation on the attacker's own cities.

Western hawks do argue, however, that the hope even of a less than "disabling" first-strike advantage could tempt the Soviet Union to nonnuclear aggression backed up by its nuclear muscle. Hawks argue as well that a decisive Soviet technological breakthrough -- in antisubmarine warfare (where the Russians currently lag far behind the Americans), in a missile-intercepting "anti-ballistic missile," in antisatellite weapons, or in what are today very "soft" command communications -- is a real possibility.

Western doves regard a Soviet breakthrough in advance of the Us in these areas as improbable. They worry instead that the Traditional American "technological exuberance" will lead the US once again into pioneering some innovation that will prove as destabilizing as MIRV has.

Both hawk and dove strategists worry also about a growing "crisis instability" with the increasing uncertainties of both superpowers. As long as eigher side's missiles could ride out any opening salve in large numbers, as has been the case until now, an attacker had no hope of advantage from firing first.

In the 1980s, however, if one side can theoretically wipe out 90 percent of its adversary's most accurate and flexible missiles and thus sharply reduce retaliation -- while on the other hand standing to lose an equivalent percentage of its own best missiles if the other side fires first -- the trigger fingers are a lot itchier. The temptation to nuclear pre-emption* is much greater in any gathering crisis.

On the American side, military spokesmen express particular concern about this situation in the early 1980s. For the first time in the nuclear age US silos will be vulnerable to any first strike by giant Soviet missiles that range up to 10 times the size of America's missiles.

If a Soviet first strike performed as well as American worst-case* analysis projects and destroyed the bulk of America's land-based ICBMs, the US would still have lost only one-quarter or one-third of its 9,200 strategic nuclear warheads.

With its surviving strategic subs and bombers the US could still wreak what all but a few analysts deem unacceptable retaliation on the Soviet Union. nonetheless, the Pentagon is uncomfortable with such a balance, because its vulnerable land-based missiles are the most accurate, reliable, and flexible of the land-sea-air "triad."

The generals and admirals have therefore persuaded President Carter to deploy less vulnerable mobile land-based missiles from 1986 on. And in the interim the US might move closer to a hair-trigger launch-on-warning policy -- a risky policy, given computer errors like the ones that three or four times within seven months in 1979-80 made the US think it was under nuclear attack for up to six minutes.

On the Soviet side the imminent silo vulnerability must be even more worrisome, since Moscow is so much more dependent on these vulnerable fixed-based missiles than is Washington. The ratios are just reversed, in fact, with three-fourths of the Soviet Union's 6,000 strategic warheads deployed on land rather then at sea or on planes.

The period of greatest jitteriness for the Russians should start with the American deployment of the mobile missile in the late 1980s, since it appears that the MX will have the combined accuracy, explosive charge, and numbers of MIRVed warheads to threaten an effective first strike even on superhardened Soviet missile silos.

The Soviet response to this threat might then be its own "launch on warning" policy, which would run the grave risk of mistaken firing through overhasty interpretation of finicky radar signals. Or the Soviet response might be a mobile missile system of a destabilizing type that would not be verifiable by American standards. (The US is trying to design its mobile missiles so that their numbers could be verified under arms-control agreements, but there is no American-Soviet understanding on this.)

Further down the technological road, should either side achieve a unilateral breakthrough in a laser defense against missiles in the 1990s, this could radically change the strategic balance and heighten dangers of miscalculation in the volatile transition period from the present offensive balnce to some future defensive balance.

Blurring of strategic/tactical

The blurring of the distinction between strategic and nonstrategic delivery systems, between strategic and tactical warheads, and between nuclear and nonnuclear weapons also undermines the old nuclear stability. "Conventional" weapons will soon produce the same order of devastation as nuclear weapons. Yet there are far fewer inhibitions on firing nonnuclear weapons -- and their availability will be yet another temptation in any crisis period.

Moreover, the crumbling of the strategic/tactical and nuclear/conventional "firebreaks" turns definitions and especially verification in future strategic-arms limitation talks (SALT) into a nightmare. Cruise missiles, which can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads -- and which can be cheaply mass-produced and easily hidden -- are the most troubling example so far. They are kept verifiable under the 1979 SALT II, but future SALT agreements will find them enormously difficult to count and control.

The NATO alliance will also find the strategic/tactical blurring difficult to control. "Gray zone" or "Eurostrategic" weapons are expected to be the centerpiece of SALT III or its equivalent -- but no one has the foggiest notion yet of how then can be dealth with in complicated negotiations involving not only the superpowers but also two medium nuclear powers (Britain and france); front-line, nonnuclear West Germany; and 11 other NATO partners.

At the same time SALT III talks -- and European deterrence itself -- will be all the more uncertain because of the shifting superpower balance. numerous analysts agree that the biggest threat to the West from America's early 1980s silo vulnerability is the potential loss of "extended deterrence" (that is, the restraint imposed on local conflicts in Europe, the Mideast, or elsewhere by the possibility that the US might escalate such conflicts to strategic nuclear warfare). Henry Kissinger bluntly lectured the Europeans last fall that under the new conditions Washington would hardly push the strategic nuclear button in reply to any Warsaw Pact attack on Western Europe.

Yet just such a linkage has been the cornerstone of America's defense of Western Europe, which is markedly inferior to the Warsaw Pact in conventional armament and now even in long-range theater nuclear weapons.


Proliferation promises to bring in more independent actors who may not practice the same restraint in the threat and use of the A-bomb as the original five nuclear nations. Technical safeguards against the diverting of peaceful nuclear-reactor fuel to military explosives no longer seem very secure. india already has the bomb. Israel and South Africa are widely-assumed to have it, too. Pakistan, with reported Libyan financial backing, is pressing for what outsiders are dubbing an "Islamic bomb." Taiwan, Argentina, Iraq, and Libya are all standing in line. And if these countries get their nuclear badge of prestige, West Germany and Japan might begin to reconsider their renunciation of the bomb.

The newcomers could turn out to be as cautious as the old-timers in the nuclear club. But the fact that the nations that most want the A-bomb are those involved in regional squabbles makes nuclear proliferation seem ominous. So does the domestic instability of a number of these countries.

The danger would be either that an ambiguous third-party use of a nuclear bomb could be mistaken for superpower use and trigger retaliation reflexes -- or that regional nuclear hostilities could suck in the superpowers.

The superpower response

The risk, then, is of an erosion of stability and predictability, both technologically and politically. one Carter administration official remarks: "I have only one big worry: nuclear war -- that it might actually happen. [Present trends] could lead to a situation where you would not have nearly the confidence that we do today -- which is that nuclear war would only start through madness -- but that we might go to a situation in which nuclear war could start through miscalculations as well as madness."

Strategists agree that the new balance is going to leave a lot more room for misreading and mistakes by both sides in the heat of crisis. And the formidable technological difficulties awaiting the next step in strategic-arms control, compounded by rising mutual suspicions throughout the uncertain post-Afghan '80s , could conceivably loose a new arms race that would magnify all the other superpower conflicts.

Just how dangerous are the 1980s, then?

Nuclear war is still not imminent. But it is less unlikely than it was. And when nuclear war would reportedly bring death to some 100 or 200 or 400 million, that is too dangerous -- especially if the danger slips by the public unnoticed and unchallenged. Next: The Soviet view

Further reading:

"Nuclear Weapons and World Politics Alternatives for the Future," David Gompert et al. McGraw-Hill for the Council on Foreign Relations 1980s project. The best technological-political primer on deterrence. Published in 1977, however, so it doesn't convey the extent to which concern about fixed-based missile vulnerability has become generalized or the consequent hawkish shift of SALT II and post-Afghanistan terms of debate in the US.

"Arms Control and Technological Innovation," David Carlton and Carlo Schaerf, Editors. Croom Helm, London, 1977. A more diffuse discussion of some current issues.

"The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy," by Lawrence Freedman. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies (forthcoming). Up-to-the-minute tracking of nuclear concepts, 1945-80. Written with the irreverence of a nonsuperpower outsider who is head of the policy studies unit at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.

"The Effects of Nuclear War," US Office of Technology Assessment, 1979. A grim view of what happens if deterrence fails.

"The Future of the Strategic Balance," by Desmond Ball. Reference paper No. 16 of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, Canberra.

"Technology Creep and the Arms Race," by Deborah Shapley, in Science, Sept 22 and 29 and Oct. 29, 1978.

"Arms Control as a Regulator of Military Technology," also by Shapley. Daedalus, winter 1980.

The best ongoing forums for various opinions are Harvard's International Security quarterly and IISS periodicals and occasional papers. *Glossary:

Deterrence: The common word for the superpowers' current nuclear standoff. Also prevention of war, as distinct from defense in a war.

Strategic: The semantically inaccurate, but by n ow generic, term for nuclear weapons with a superpower-to-superpower range.

Inertial navigation: Generally, use of gyro-scopes to measure acceleration from origin in three dimenstions independent of outside readings, weather, or velocity or direction changes of the vehicle.

Geodesy: The mathematics of determining the shape and areas of land masses and the curvature, shape, and dimensions of the earth.

MIRV: Multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle -- multiple warheads clustered on a single ballistic missile that can each be aimed at a separate target.

Pre-emptive strike: An attack launched in the fear that an opponent is prepared to attack.

Worst case: Prudent assumption that in any clash an adversary's military forces will work to perfection, while one's own will follow Murphy's Law.m

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