The vaporous logic of Euromissiles

With new NATO missiles already deployed in Britain, West Germany, and Italy, the focus of opposition and concern now shifts to Belgium and the Netherlands. If these two countries choose ultimately to reject their respective complement of 48 missiles apiece, they will display the first glimmer of wisdom in an otherwise self-defeating venture by the Western alliance. This is because such rejection would represent the last remaining hope for getting the Soviets back to the suspended Geneva talks on limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

In the absence of a resumption of talks between the Soviet Union and the United States, five NATO countries will have in place 572 weapons that degrade deterrence. Amid the din and confusion surrounding the cruise and Pershing II missiles, the fact is that these missiles could never actually be used in retaliation by a rational US president. They are, therefore, entirely useless.

In the event of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact conventional attack against Western Europe - the scenario that gives rise to the NATO Euromissile deployment - a reprisal by any number of missiles directed at the Soviet homeland would yield all-out nuclear war. It follows that the threat to use these weapons to deter such an attack is wholly incredible. It could be argued in response that this threat might still be credible if the Soviets believed the US president to be irrational, but if this were indeed the case, that country would have an irresistible incentive to strike first.

What if the Soviets should launch their nuclear weapons as a first offensive move of war? In such a case, the cruise and Pershing II missiles would also prove useless since they would add nothing to our existing strategic capabilities. Whatever feeble damage-limitation benefits might accrue to the US from its arsenal of counterforce-targeted nuclear weapons, they would not be improved by the firing of up to 572 new intermediate-range missiles. There would be very little of the US left to protect after the first round of Soviet attacks had been absorbed. Moreover, the US doesn't even target Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Why, then, do we deploy the new weapons? From the Soviet point of view, the only rational explanation must seem to lie in US plans for a preemptive attack against their nuclear forces. Although the new missiles would, by themselves, do nothing to enhance the prospects for such an attack, it is conceivable that they would be judged useful to preemption in conjunction with existing Triad forces (ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers). This judgment would follow from the Pershing IIs' potential to strike such protected targets as command bunkers and nuclear storage sites in the western USSR less then 10 minutes after launch, a capability known to the Pentagon as ''time urgent hard target kill potential.'' And this entire ''first strike'' appraisal must be considered together with parallel US plans for the MX, antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, ballistic missile defense (BMD), and improved civil defense.

At present, neither side could possibly attack the other without expecting to be devastated in retaliation. This does not mean, however, that a first strike would always be irrational. Such a strike would be decidedly rational if one side became convinced that the other side were about to strike first itself.

This is precisely what's wrong with the current Euromissile deployment by NATO. Since this deployment is entirely useless as a deterrent, it suggests US first-strike intentions to the Soviets. Such intentions are almost certainly not the reason behind the new weapons; all that matters, however, are Soviet perceptions.

Why is US nuclear strategy so sorely misconceived? One dominant reason seems to be a continuing preoccupation with the importance of ''balance'' in medium-range nuclear forces. There is absolutely no relationship between balance and successful nuclear deterrence. Since credible deterrence requires the capacity to assuredly destroy an aggressor after absorbing a nuclear first strike, it is possible that a markedly inferior arsenal, as long as it were survivable and penetration-capable, could keep the peace. At the same time, a nation with a vastly superior nuclear arsenal might undermine deterrence and occasion a first-strike by the other side if it were sufficiently provocative - that is, if there were the sort of nuclear war-fighting arsenal now being developed by NATO and the US. In this connection, the very worst sort of nuclear arsenal is one that occasions the other side to configure its own forces under ''launch on warning'' status. This is, of course, exactly what the Soviet response to the Euromissile deployment will ultimately be, a response increasing the chances both for US preemption and for accidental nuclear war.

Another reason behind our current lack of nuclear wisdom lies in the argument that the Soviets have been undergoing a far-reaching modernization and expansion of their own theater nuclear forces. Even if our worst case assumptions about Soviet intentions are right, it is not true that our interests are best served by escalating the levels of tension and uncertainty.

Where are the grown-ups? In developing a sensible nuclear strategy, the US and NATO should be guided only by a meticulous comparison of the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action. Instead of commitments to the vague need for ''matching Soviet moves,'' ''filling the void'' created by the Soviet SS-20s, or ''meeting the political litmus test for NATO'' (the ritualistic arguments for cruise and Pershing II), our leaders must focus on the fact that there is no defensive use for any of the new weapons. They must then consider whether such alleged expected gains are worth the expected losses. Unless the West is prepared to accept such gains as worth the very heightened risk of nuclear war, it must abandon and reverse the Euromissile deployments. For nations that are still moved by reason rather than rhetoric, it should be an easy decision.

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