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The Prospects of Nuclear War

Hawks, Doves, and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War

edited by Graham T. Allison, edited by Albert Carnesale, edited by Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Norton, 282 pp., $14.95

The Button: The Pentagon’s Strategic Command and Control System

by Daniel Ford
Simon and Schuster, 270 pp., $16.95

Hawks, Doves, and Owls is the report of the “Avoiding Nuclear War” project carried out at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Some of its contributors have had direct experience of policy-making circles in Washington. What is more, its editors, Graham Allison, Albert Carnesale, and Joseph Nye, Jr., all of Harvard, have a clear message. The protection of US values and institutions is absolutely dependent on the avoidance of nuclear war. And since no one can know how such a war might be set off or, if started, controlled, that imperative need is also dependent on the avoidance of any war in which the Western Alliance and Warsaw Pact powers might become embroiled. What is more, the three editors recognize that “the nuclear threat creates a solidarity of interest between the two superpowers—against a total war in which they would be the greatest victims.”

It is against this background, and on the sensible assumption that “US-Soviet rivalry, superpower interest in Europe, and Third World instability” are unlikely to change in the near future, that the six scholars who contribute the specialized essays in this book consider how things could go wrong. The editors provide the introductory chapter, which sets out what they call the “agenda,” and they end the book with recommendations for action.

The first chapter, on accidental nuclear war, is by Paul Bracken of Yale. Whatever might have been the situation in years gone by, he argues, technological and organizational developments have made it all but inconceivable that a war could erupt today as a result of the sort of accident that is often discussed—for example because a nuclear weapon had been launched after an operator had incorrectly interpreted radar blips made by a flock of geese, or because of a failed computer chip, or even through the action of a “crazed military officer.” There are many who are not as optimistic, among them Daniel Ford, whose book I shall be discussing later.

Bracken is more worried about trouble arising from maritime accidents in which ships or submarines are sunk because of a hasty and incorrectly drawn conclusion that they were attacked as part of a larger plan. What is needed is a continuous channel of communication between the American and Russian authorities. For the rest, he wants the US to concentrate its “energy on preventing confrontations,” and the establishment of “design principles and rules of the road” to deal with periods of intense crisis. He is also worried because he has a hunch that Britain, France, and China “have given even less thought to these issues than the United States has.” If what he writes is an indication of how far the US has got in formulating “rules of the road” to deal with the danger of unintentional nuclear war, the three countries he mentions will not have far to go before they find themselves up against a brick wall.

In the essay that follows, Richard Betts, formerly a staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and now of the Brookings Institution, deals with surprise attack and preemption. From him we learn that the Russians keep their forces “on lower levels of day-to-day alert” than does the US. This is also stated in a later chapter by Stephen Meyer, who deals specifically with “Soviet Perspectives on the Paths to Nuclear War.” Betts rates very low the possibility that either side would embark upon a preventive war, since in a nuclear age such a step might well be suicidal. The only circumstances in which he can conceive of the US risking a preemptive attack would be when a state of tension had come about because political changes in the world order were moving decisively in the Russian favor, and when the US had a chance of limiting the scale of nuclear retaliation by means of a first strike at the Russian missile silos.

Here, however, is the problem. It is inconceivable that the US would launch a preemptive surprise attack unless it was certain that nuclear war was inevitable. But who would say that it was? “A cool and rational decision to this effect by a collective body is hard to imagine.” Both sides deploy a “triad” of nuclear forces, including missiles based on land, in the air, and under the sea. Since this in effect means that both possess an invulnerable second-strike force, the price of a preemptive strike would be the high risk of national suicide—regardless of who had attacked first. In order “to ensure consistency between political aims and military signals,” both sides, Betts argues, therefore clearly need to be “thoroughly educated in the dynamics of military alerts and crisis deployments.” And in this respect, he implies, there is greater coherence today on the Soviet than on the American side.

In effect this theme is taken up by Fen Hampson, who deals with the problem of maintaining peace in Western Europe. A possible “scenario” of how this could be broken is outlined by the editors in their introduction. An uprising might take place in East Germany which the authorities could not suppress; Russian troops would be called in to help; West Germans would infiltrate to help their brothers in the East; the Russians would block all the roads to West Berlin; a NATO supply airlift would be resisted by the Russians; and so on until there is full-scale land war with the risk of nuclear escalation.

Hampson considers other possibilities—for example, that there might be “a general loosening of the Western alliance that created opportunities for Soviet adventurism, or a deterioration in Eastern Europe that tempted the United States to reverse the Yalta accords, or, more likely, some combination of the two.” War could spread to Europe from the Middle East. There might also be changes in the balance of forces, particularly in the credibility of the US commitment to launch its strategic nuclear forces in the presumed defense of Europe.

When he considers the balance of forces, Hampson sensibly associates himself with those who, now that both sides have a superfluity of warheads, are not impressed by what he calls “bean counts” and what others refer to as “nuclear accountancy.” He is also concerned about the instability that would result from futile efforts to devise defenses against ballistic missiles. But the most important and immediate danger is that a major disruption of the political status quo could lead to hostilities between the NATO and Warsaw Pact powers, hostilities which, once started, could move on to nuclear disaster. If we are to continue to avoid war in Europe, there should never be any ambiguity about NATO’s intentions of a kind that could invite a preemptive attack by Warsaw Pact forces. For example, tactical nuclear weapons should not be deployed in a way that invites preemption or accidental launch. NATO’s conventional forces should always be adequate to deal with those they face. Equally important is a sensible political strategy to govern NATO in its dealings with the Warsaw Pact powers.

It is interesting that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has recently put out a book arguing along the same lines as does Fen Hampson.1 It is also worth noting that a recent study by Daniel Frei, carried out in cooperation with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research,2 agrees that the chances of an unauthorized nuclear war are “practically zero” but warns that one could start unintentionally, not only as escalation from a conventional war but because of a multitude of causes, all compounded in different degrees of “misjudgment, miscalculation and misunderstanding.”

Francis Fukuyama’s chapter, “Escalation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf,” parallels Hampson’s on Europe insofar as it provides a balanced account of the dangerous turns that events could take in the vast and troubled region stretching from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east. Ever since the end of World War II and the breakup of the old British and French colonial and imperial order, and ever since the foundation of the state of Israel, there has rarely, if ever, been a moment when two or more of the countries concerned were not at one another’s throats. The stranglehold on Western economies of the Middle East OPEC countries has also become a major disruptive issue, in which the interests of the US and the Soviet Union conflict. Both, however, have an obvious interest in avoiding hostilities, and Mr. Fukuyama rightly insists that the “single most important factor” influencing the outcome of past crises has been “political prudence on the part of national leaders”—hence the importance of cultivating “friendly talk” and better communications between the US and the USSR.

The likelihood of the superpowers being drawn into a catalytic nuclear war through their opposing interests in some dispute involving a third country, or because of the nefarious activities of some terrorist organization, is not rated highly by Henry Rowen in his contribution to Hawks, Doves, and Owls. Hetoo sees a clear community of interest between the two superpowers. But as Stephen Meyer, a consultant to the CIA and the Defense Department, remarks in another essay, it is not always easy to understand the official Soviet views about nuclear matters. As he puts it, we have no Russian memoirs on the subject, no transcripts of public governmental hearings, no talkative officials who have moved out of Moscow, as they do out of Washington, into industry or a university.

Meyer, a professional student of Soviet affairs, has little faith in publicly proclaimed Soviet military doctrine and policy, or in pronouncements clearly made for propaganda purposes. He does not mention it, but the way Khrushchev made it his business at the beginning of the Sixties to mislead the US about the missile strength of the USSR is a case in point. In order to discern what can be learned about “Soviet perspectives on the paths to nuclear war,” he prefers to extract what meaning he can from such published material as is available about Russian military plans, force structure, and deployment, and from an analysis of Soviet diplomatic behavior. He reminds his readers that “throughout the 1950s Soviet leaders watched as tens, then hundreds, of American ‘strategic’ delivery systems were deployed around the Soviet periphery,” with the not surprising consequence that the Russians are convinced that the US is committed to their destruction. Whichever way hostilities could begin, the Russians still fear a nuclear bolt from the blue.

Meyer also reminds us that, despite this fear, Soviet nuclear forces are always at a lower state of alert than are the American, and that Soviet nuclear weapons are not entrusted to the military as a whole, but are in the charge of an elite and specialist body which he believes has some connection with the KGB. Today only Russian ICBMs are on day-to-day alert and loaded with nuclear warheads, ready to retaliate against a US first strike. “No Soviet strategic bombers are on alert,” while “only a comparatively small fraction of Soviet SLBMs [submarine launched ballistic missiles] are available at any given time for second-strike retaliation under surprise attack conditions.” “Despite popular impressions,” Mr. Meyer continues—and one has to suppose that as a CIA and Defense Department consultant he should know—“most of the Soviet military machine is not geared up to go to war at a moment’s notice.” Hence Soviet military doctrine implies “other possible paths to nuclear war.”

  1. 1

    Miroslav Nincic, How War Might Spread to Europe (Stockholm: SIPRI, 1985).

  2. 2

    Daniel Frei and C. H. Beck, Risks of Unintentional Nuclear War (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1985).

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