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The Inferiority Complex

(The following is Professor Bethe’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 13.)

I have been a Professor of Physics at Cornell University since 1935. In 1967 I was awarded the Nobel Prize for studies of nuclear reactions in the stars. I was leader of the Theoretical Division of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory from 1943 to 1945 when that laboratory developed the first atomic bomb. I have consulted for the Los Alamos Laboratory at least once a year. I was a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee from 1957 to 1960, and remained a member of its Strategic Military Panel until 1969 when the panel was dissolved. In 1958 I participated in the Experts Conference in Geneva which discussed the verification of a ban on nuclear weapons tests, and led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963. I am testifying on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but the ideas expressed in my testimony are my own.

Several members of the government have stated repeatedly that we are inferior to the Soviet Union in strategic weapons, and that we need to build up our weapons. In my opinion there is no such inferiority. We have more nuclear warheads than the Russians, and I consider this to be the most important measure of relative strength. In addition, as Dr. Kissinger stressed many years ago, at the present level of strategic armaments superiority in numbers or megatons has no meaning.

We are told that there is a window of vulnerability because the Russians might use their large ICBMs to destroy our land-based ICBMs. It is generally agreed that this is not possible now, but with the improving accuracy of Russian missiles it might become possible in a few years. Leaving the question of the technical feasibility aside, I claim that such a first strike would give no significant military advantage to the Russians.

The reason is that ICBMs make up only one-fourth of our strategic nuclear forces, as measured by the number of warheads. One-half of our force is on invulnerable nuclear-powered submarines, and another one-fourth is on bombers, many of which can take off from their widely dispersed airfields in case of an alert. We would therefore have ample striking force left even if all our ICBMs were destroyed.

An attack on our ICBMs would surely arouse the will to fight in the American people. The fallout from such an attack would kill millions of Americans. This would have an even more profound psychological effect than Pearl Harbor, but would have fewer military consequences than Pearl Harbor did.

It is sometimes argued that our submarine-based nuclear missiles do not have sufficient accuracy. However, if a Russian attack on our ICBMs is to make any sense at all, it would be accompanied by a massive invasion of Western Europe. The military installations for such an attack (airfields, munitions, and fuel storage depots); and the staging areas for an invasion, are all soft targets for which our submarine-based missiles would have plenty of accuracy. Therefore, a hypothetical first-strike against our ICBMs would have practically no effect on our war-fighting ability. Therefore the window of vulnerability does not exist.

It is also often claimed that the Russians have introduced many new weapons of great power, such as the SS-18, SS-19, and SS-20, while we have done nothing. The latter statement is not true. While the outer envelope of our Minuteman ICBM has remained the same, we have progressed from Minuteman 1 to 2 to 3, and in the latter we have introduced MIRV, a development which the Russians imitated, and which led them to their great striking capability. More important, on our submarines we have progressed from the Polaris warhead to the Poseidon, and then to Trident I. The latter represents very significant progress. The range of Trident I is 4,000 miles, compared to about 2,000 for Poseidon. This permits our submarines to operate over most of the North Atlantic, and to still hit Russia. Submarines at sea are very difficult to find. Now that they can roam over such a vast area of ocean, they are far more elusive. This greatly enhances their invulnerability. The US has not stood still in nuclear weapons deployment.

The most important addition to our arsenal is the cruise missile, which is being deployed on our B-52 bombers. The cruise missile can penetrate into the Soviet Union. No defense system against it exists. The elaborate and costly Russian air defense system has been made obsolete by the cruise missile, 3,000 of which are to be installed on our bombers. In short we have, and will continue to have into the foreseeable future, two completely independent and essentially invulnerable strategic forces.

Because the cruise missile can penetrate the Soviet Union as no bomber can, and because it has extreme accuracy, we do not need a new bomber, the B-1, and even less its follow-up, the STEALTH. Perhaps the B-52 will eventually have to be replaced, but I cannot see why this replacement should have elaborate electronic equipment to penetrate into Russia, equipment which accounts for the enormous cost of the B-1 and the STEALTH. Penetration can be achieved much more effectively and cheaply by the cruise missile.

The government has stated that we need parity in strategic forces in every category. If this means that we need parity also in ICBMs, I disagree. With the increasing accuracy of missiles, on both sides, all land-based weapons will become vulnerable. I cannot think of any deployment on land that will be secure, and in my opinion the deployment of MX is a futile expenditure of money. We should maintain the emphasis on submarine and bomber forces; this makes our forces largely invulnerable, and thereby superior to those of the Soviets. If anyone has a window of vulnerability, it is the Soviet Union.

As I have said, several of our weapons programs are unnecessary: the B-1, the STEALTH, and the MX. But the submarine program deserves our full support, especially the further improvement of secure communication links to our submarines, as has been rightly emphasized by this administration. Also, if we wish to decrease our dependence on nuclear weapons in Europe, a goal which I strongly support, our conventional forces must be built up, especially by exploiting our available high-technology in anti-tank weapons.

We are not inferior to the Russians in strategic armaments. But we, the Russians, and Western Europe are severely threatened by the possibility that the enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons on both sides may some day be used. Our only hope lies in substantial reduction of these armaments. A good first step would be the ratification of the SALT II agreement by the Senate. The advantages of doing so have been persuasively demonstrated by Senator Gary Hart in The New York Times of May 2. Among other things, if SALT II had been ratified in 1980, the Russians would now have 250 fewer strategic missiles than they actually have, and they could not continue their buildup.

Obviously we must do more. I was happy to see that President Reagan has now proposed a plan for negotiating arms reduction with the Soviet Union. The first phase of this plan calls for a reduction of the nuclear warheads on each side from about 7,500 to about 5,000, and a significant (but apparently not specified) reduction in the number of missiles. This seems to me a reasonable and equitable plan. The proposed second phase, to equalize the throw-weight of the missiles, may be very difficult to negotiate because it requires greater sacrifices from the Soviet Union than from the US. It will be vitally important to choose an American negotiator who combines flexibility with firmness and is devoted to the goals of arms reduction and reaching an agreement with the Soviets.

Negotiations with the Russians are difficult and lengthy in any case. The SALT II treaty took six years to negotiate. We cannot wait that long. We must stop the arms race by measures which are not subject to such long delay. I find most attractive the proposal by George Kennan, the famous expert on the Soviet Union, which has recently been revived by Admiral Noel Gayler in The New York Times Magazine of April 25. The plan calls for similar reductions by both superpowers, let’s assume by 5 percent of the existing force per year. Each side would choose the weapons it wants to retire, and compliance could easily be verified by our satellites. This plan is so simple that it might be agreed on with very brief negotiation, like the Limited Test Ban in 1963. But it would, in fact, not require any agreement; we could make such a reduction, and challenge the Russians to do the same. If they do so, we would make another similar reduction the following year, and so on. This would not require any treaty, and it would enhance our security.

Such mutual reductions could not replace a negotiated treaty, which has a permanence far beyond the bilateral reductions that I just proposed. Further-more, a treaty could optimize the balance and invulnerability of the two strategic forces. This would remove the threat of pre-emptive strikes, and the current hair-trigger readiness that could lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.

To summarize:

—our strategic forces are, if anything, superior to the Soviets’;

—our national security, and that of our allies, is most threatened by the grotesque size and continuing growth of both nuclear arsenals.

These are the basic facts. Once they are recognized, the essential features of a sound national security policy become apparent.

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