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The Prospects of Nuclear War

His view is that the Russian leaders now believe that nuclear hostilities could not occur except as a result of some major crisis and confrontation or as an escalation of conventional wars. Any form of “NATO nuclear use” would “unleash a massive and devastating Soviet theater nuclear strike against all NATO military facilities.” This would escalate to global nuclear war only if the Soviet homeland were hit by American weapons, say Pershing IIs or cruise missiles based on the Western European mainland. Even then, the Politburo, not the military, would be the ones who would authorize a retaliatory strike. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs Albert Wohlstetter also argues forcefully that the Politburo keeps “the use of nuclear weapons under continuing control.”3 What matters therefore is the close political understanding that exists between the Politburo and the high military command. Be this as it may, Dr. Meyer warns that no Westerner could ever predict how the Soviets would react to a nuclear strike, from wherever it came. I suppose the Russians are equally in the dark about how the West would respond to an attack they might launch.

Although Hawks, Doves, and Owls is based on long and lengthy collaboration, the two essays in which the editors sum up its findings are a bit of a letdown. The preface tells us that the book is addressed first to “members of the policymaking community,” next to interested citizens, and third to “experts on nuclear weapons and international security.” The stylized presentation of a list of “dos and don’ts” about how to avoid nuclear war might well help the interested reader to organize his thoughts on the subject. But I am doubtful whether such a list, plus a few simple tables and diagrams, could ever be taken seriously either by political leaders or by their military advisers.

For example, do they need to be warned that it is wise to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent given that one is deployed by their potential enemy; or that cities cannot be defended against nuclear attack; or that conventional forces should be strengthened; or that the Soviet Union should not be provoked; or that the West, i.e., the US, should plan for ending a war if one begins; or that the US should “expect the unexpected”; or that nuclear weapons should not be treated as other weapons? These homilies are merely statements of the obvious, and they hardly do justice to the other essays in Hawks, Doves, and Owls. It would have been a different matter if the book had specifically explained when a nuclear force becomes “incredible,” or when “enough is enough,” or what degree of so-called modernization can be under-taken without destabilizing the present state of mutual deterrence. But such matters are left untouched.

Perhaps the project was launched with altogether too ambitious an aim. How could there be a textbook that described what should or should not be done, given this or that political crisis, as a physician might resort to a computerized data bank of the signs and symptoms of disease? It is inconceivable that any such book would have been consulted in the Cuban crisis of 1962, or would be were such a crisis to recur. The story of how President Kennedy and his close advisers conducted themselves during that period of confrontation is well known and was in fact the subject of a book by Graham Allison, one of the editors of Hawks, Doves, and Owls. I do not know what ordinary people in the United States believed was going to happen, but in Europe fear of a nuclear war was widespread. Moreover, no one knew what to do about it.

The British were kept closely informed about the progress of events, particularly as the UK ambassador to Washington, the late Lord Harlech (David Ormsby-Gore at the time), was a close friend of the President. On the assumption that the “nuclear balloon” was bound to go up when the President’s ultimatum expired, the top officials of the British defense establishment were summoned to a meeting at 9 AM on Sunday, October 28. Just as they sat down, the news came on the radio that Khrushchev had agreed to President Kennedy’s demands, including the removal of the missiles and the dismantling of the missile sites.

We looked at one another in relief. We had no contingency plans. Had hostilities broken out in the Caribbean, there was a possibility that the Russians would have immediately imposed a new blockade of Berlin, or taken some other action that would have brought war to Europe. But we had no plans. I remember Lord Mountbatten, chairman of the British Chiefs, then saying, “What would we have done if the Russians had not backed down? We must work this out.” There was no answer. I am sure that were a similar situation to arise tomorrow, it too would not be dealt with, whether in Washington, Moscow, or Brussels, according to a synthesis and analysis of past decisions and past judgments. Military crises do not spring full-blown onto the center of the stage in accordance with a given pattern. Suez, Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, Lebanon—each was different, each built up differently, and each could have evolved and ended differently from the way it did.

Even if one were to assume that guidelines and rules of conduct of the kind spelled out in the final chapter of Hawks, Doves, and Owls could have practical value, a necessary condition would be that Paul Bracken is right when he assures us that we need not worry about malfunctions of a mechanical kind in the nuclear system, or about some sergeant or major starting a nuclear war in a fit of madness. For if the system could, as it were, operate on its own—or fail to operate when it was commanded to do so—there would be an even more unpredictable set of circumstances to worry about in addition to the political and other possible upsets the book lays before us. And to Daniel Ford, the control of the nuclear system is nothing near as reliable as Bracken would have us believe.

A New Yorker journalist, Mr. Ford sets out his reasons for this view in The Button, which, is based on lengthy series of interviews, mostly with unnamed people who presumably were military personnel and should not have told him all they did. We learn that the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs are largely dependent on commercial communications networks in maintaining their worldwide military command and control. Relay stations are in vulnerable places, and some critical parts of the early warning system against a missile attack have been “off the air” for some time because they are waiting for new computers or for thermionic valves to be replaced by modern solid-state devices.

A computer at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), the nerve center of the US defense system in Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, does not work. The one-star general who was showing Mr. Ford around explained what each of five telephones on the NORAD commander’s battle-station desk was for, but when the obliging officer picked up the telephone connecting directly with the White House, there was no one at the other end. Dr. John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution, and once a member of the official world of Washington, told Mr. Ford that “given the extreme vulnerability of the entire [command and control] mechanism to the preemptive moves of the opponent,” the American strategic nuclear force was “primed to go—massively.”

This and other bits of information lead Mr. Ford to conclude that a command system which is “unready to deliver orders for retaliation but streamlined to convey commands for a first strike unmistakably suggests the basic intent of its designers.” So far as he is concerned, “the stated [US] national policy of retaliation” is merely “official rhetoric.” If the president had to decide without delay whether to launch or not to launch a nuclear strike against the USSR, he could not rely on getting together with his closest advisers, the secretaries of state and defense. Mr. Ford’s authority for telling us this is Henry Kissinger, whom he quotes as saying that the only way US strategy could be implemented would be by delegating authority to some field commander “who must be given discretion so that when he thinks a nuclear war has started, he can retaliate.”

If this is indeed the situation, if even half of what Daniel Ford tells us about the inadequacies of the US command and control system is true, the Avoiding Nuclear War project of the Kennedy School either overlooked some central questions or did not treat them in sufficient depth.

First, can a 100-percent trust ever be placed in any command and control system on which the fate of a nation could rest, and particularly on one which depends overwhelmingly upon electrical and electronic relays? It takes time—decades—to construct even the kind of early warning system against a missile attack that we believe we have now. During that time technology changes, so that elements which were introduced when the system was designed need to be updated and replaced as later components are added. Ford tells us the information from current US warning systems is transmitted to 1960s computers, which were built to analyze a strike of some fifty warheads. If they had to deal with a strike involving thousands of missiles or decoys, they would be overwhelmed with data and could assess neither the size of the attack nor the likely targets. Much the same could be said of our anti-aircraft defenses. Were that not the case, why should there now be mention, in discussions of President Reagan’s strategic defense initiative (SDI), of the need to update the anti-aircraft defense systems that started to be built in the Fifties?

Those who have the responsibility of translating into hardware the President’s concept of a defense in space against ballistic missiles know how formidable are the technological hurdles that need to be overcome. As the President would have learned from an official panel which was set up in 1983 under Mr. Fred Hoffman to consider the strategic implications of his proposed SDI, an imperfect defense, one which could only deal with a small but not a full-scale attack, would be a provocative step.4 Even if a defensive space astrodome were possible, it could not prevent nuclear weapons getting beneath it or past it. And we know that in the world of abstractions with which strategic analysts deal, the idea of controlling escalation, even if one assumed a perfect command and control system, is nonsense unless the two opposing sides were to cooperate closely. In any event, if an early warning system as well as all its related systems did work, and a nuclear launch was signaled, it would be too late. Nuclear war would have begun.

  1. 3

    Between an Unfree World and None: Increasing Our Choices,” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1985).

  2. 4

    Contribution to the Future Strategy Study, submitted to the Secretary of Defense.

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