Secretary of Defense Laird’s recent speech to the editors of the Associated Press on April 20 recalls a legendary exploit in military-political annals: the villages Prince Potemkin built for Catherine the Great’s tour of the Russian countryside. Laird’s description of the Soviet nuclear arsenal bears about as much relation to reality as the rosycheeked peasants trotted out for inspection by the delighted and bamboozled Empress.

The inner circle of the Kremlin, hearing from Laird that the US is in imminent danger of becoming a second-rate power, that its nuclear forces have declined so far as to put us (in Laird’s words) “literally on the edge of prudent risk,” must wish—like Catherine’s courtiers—it were only so.

Secretary Laird began his address by commending himself on his honesty. “When I assumed office fifteen months ago,” he told the AP editors at their annual luncheon, “I immediately established as a top priority goal the restoration of credibility in the Department of Defense.” Ever since, he assured them, he had followed “President Nixon’s desire to make more information available to the American people.” Copies of his address were placed beside the plates of the 1500 editors who heard him, and they were urged to take the copies home for further dissemination. Rarely has an Administration been so anxious to spread bad news.

I have prepared this article as if to serve as a memorandum for the AP editors who heard the Secretary. It sums up one Washington newsman’s efforts to check on Laird’s presentation. The hope is that AP editors will be led to recheck all of this for themselves, to put their staff men onto the Pentagon briefing officers and the documentary sources herein covered, and then report the results of their own investigation to their readers.

The Laird address struck the theme of an alarmist campaign soon joined by the President himself and the Pentagon’s chief of research and development, Dr. John S. Foster. The immediate purpose is to stem the growing effort in Congress to block the ABM and MIRV. The Administration’s campaign also reflects a fear of public pressure for a moratorium in the deployment of ABM and MIRV in order to assure the success of the SALT talks. (The Senate on April 9 voted 72 to 6 for a resolution urging Nixon to propose a mutual freeze on strategic nuclear weapons.) A measure of Laird’s frantic mood is the memo he sent his Pentagon aides two days after the AP speech stamped “Secret…Sensitive.”1 The text which leaked to the Washington Post, May 10, said:

It has come to my attention that misleading and even erroneous information is being disseminated concerning our negotiating positions at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Vienna. In particular, information which indicates the desirability of a moratorium on MIRV and ABM deployment is harmful.

I do not believe that Department of Defense officials have been involved in indicating any positions which could be construed as favorable to a MIRV or ABM deployment moratorium. I want to be sure you understand, however, there must be no speculation which would indicate, or even imply, that a MIRV or ABM deployment moratorium is desirable. [Italics in original.]

This secret memorandum puts in perspective the alarms which followed from Dr. Foster and the White House. In a speech April 23, Dr. Foster told the American Newspaper Publishers Association that “the Soviet Union now is about to seize world technological leadership from the United States.” President Nixon in a briefing that evening for Congressional leaders warned that the Soviet Union might soon become the greatest military power on earth and then “the American position in Europe and the Far East will crumble overnight.”2 This campaign hardly provides the ideal accompaniment for the SALT talks, which reopened in Vienna only four days before Laird spoke. If it were true that America is in such imminent danger of becoming a second-rate power, we ought to be spending billions more on arms, not talking about disarmament or arms limitation at Vienna. That seems to be the message Laird is trying to get across.

The Washington Post in a brilliant editorial May 1 has already exposed the fact that Dr. Foster’s alarms rested in no small part on two sentences from a recent speech by Soviet Communist Party Leader Brezhnev. These were quoted out of context as if he were talking about the nuclear arms race. The Washington Post reproduced the passages in between the two sentences and commented that from Dr. Foster’s presentation, “you could hardly have guessed that the speech was made by party chief Brezhnev on the occasion of presenting an award for superior production to the Kharkov tractor works, or that it was entirely devoted to peaceful industrial and agricultural progress in the Soviet Union.”3 Laird’s presentation, as we shall see, is equally selective.


The heart of Mr. Laird’s address was that “for the past five years the United States has virtually been in neutral gear in the deployment of strategic offensive forces, while the Soviet Union has moved into high gear in both deployment and development of strategic nuclear weapons” as part of “a major effort since 1965 to change the balance of power.” He said, “The United States then, unlike the situation today, clearly occupied a superior position.”

If the AP editors check for themselves they will find it impossible to reconcile this over-all picture with the figures Laird himself presented to the House Armed Services Committee only a month before his AP luncheon address. A good place to start in checking this is with the new Armed Services Committee hearings on our military posture. They were released just nine days after the AP luncheon. Laird gave that committee the annual comprehensive review that every Secretary of Defense has been making to Congress since the later Eisenhower years. In this Laird “posture statement,” at page 6874, there is a table comparing the number of “force loadings,” i.e., nuclear warheads, deliverable by the two superpowers. Laird told the committee the Soviet total was 1,350 compared to 4,200 for the US. We had more than three times as much deliverable nuclear destructive power. How in the light of his own figures could he tell the AP editors we no longer had superiority?

Laird’s assertion that for five years “the United States has virtually been in neutral gear in the deployment of strategic offensive forces” does not stand up under examination. In the past five years, for example, we have expanded the number of warheads on our Polaris fleet by 250 percent. Laird hides this dramatic expansion by the way he puts the comparative figures in the table to which we have just referred. He gives the figure for SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) on both sides in “launchers.” He gives the Soviets 110 and ourselves 656, a 6-1 disparity in our favor. But if the figures are given not in launchers but in the number of warheads on those launchers, the disparity in our favor is 15-1. How can our deployment during the past five years be called “virtually in neutral gear” when the number of warheads on our nuclear submarine fleet has expanded so dramatically in that period?

This expansion is given added importance by the fears that increasing accuracy may soon make all land-based missiles vulnerable to first strike attack, no matter how deeply buried in hardened silos. A first strike strategy, however, is still made suicidal by the fear of retaliation from bombers and submarine-launched missiles. It represents a huge step forward in protecting the US deterrent when the number of warheads it can launch from undersea has been increased so enormously. I did not become aware of this until Jane’s Weapons Systems 1969-70, a new publication in the famous Jane’s military handbooks, arrived recently from London. At the top of page 107 it disclosed that 448 of the 656 launchers on our Polaris fleet are now outfitted with the A-3 missile.4 . The somewhat earlier Jane’s Fighting Ships for 1969-70 had already disclosed (at page 387) that the A-3 missile, “capable of delivering an explosive force of between 0.7 and 1 megaton,” has three separate warheads.

These A-3 missiles are not MIRVs, i.e., multiple independently targeted “reentry vehicles” but only MRVs, i.e, simply multiple warheads in a cluster. But they triple the punch and destructive power on each Polaris launcher. There are no similar triple-headers yet deployed on the other side.

So if the number of our A-3 launchers is multiplied by three and added to the remaining single-warheads on the 208 A-2s, we have a total of 1,552 warheads on our fleet as compared with the 110 Laird gives for the Soviets.

The A-3 also represents a sharp increase in range. The A-2 has a range of 1500 miles; the A-3, 2500. According to Jane’s Weapons Systems this is the result of “a major re-engineering of the basic missile to achieve a 60 percent increase in range for approximately the same weight and dimensions as the A-2 model.”5 “It has been calculated,” says the SIPRI Yearbook of World Armaments and Disarmament (p. 102), “that replacing the A-1 with the A-2 results in doubling the target area. The A-3 expands the A-1 target area by a factor of six. Polaris A-3 also provides six times as much ocean for the submarine to hide in.” That is hardly standing still. When Pentagon press spokesman Jerry W. Friedheim chimed into the Laird alarm campaign with a “background” press conference on April 23, he unintentionally revealed that even the latest model Soviet subs are far behind ours in range. He said he would “not be surprised” if there were at least one of the latest model Soviet nuclear “Yankeeclass”—the Pentagon’s own Pentagonistic term—subs cruising offshore in the Atlantic within 1200 to 1500 miles of the United States, the maximum range of its missiles.6 That is roughly half the range of the Polaris A-3. So the Soviets are far behind us in range, too.


The Friedheim background conference inadvertently disclosed another area in which Laird was less than candid. Friedheim showed color pictures of a Soviet multiple-warhead (not MIRV but MRV) test. Laird did not tell the AP editors that while the Russians are just beginning to test MRVs, we began to test MIRVs two years ago7 and will soon begin deploying them. The Minuteman 3 with three independently targeted (MIRV) warheads is scheduled for deployment in June. And the Poseidon missile, which can carry from ten to fourteen independently targeted warheads, is to begin replacing the Polaris A-3 on our nuclear submarines next January.

Far from being in neutral gear, the Navy seems to be moving full speed ahead. It already has under development a new underwater monster as a successor to Poseidon. It is building a test and evaluation submarine for a ULMS (Improved Underwater Launched Missile System). This submarine, as the new edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships describes it,8 “would be ‘on station,’ i.e., capable of targeting major Soviet cities and military complexes, even before it cleared harbour and would have an operating area which includes most of the Atlantic, the Pacific, and Indian Oceans.” This deployment for a missile, submarine, Jane’s adds, “would make such a craft virtually invulnerable to any Soviet ASW [anti-submarine warfare] threat.”

In addition, while the Poseidon missile “has double the payload and twice the accuracy” of the A-3, the longer range missile being developed for ULMS “could be a completely new weapon or an improved version of the Poseidon.”9 On April 30, during the debate on the 1971 defense authorization bill, Congressman Leggett (D., Cal.), one of the “Fearless Five” dissidents on the House Armed Services Committee, revealed for the first time that the ULMS would have 24 missile launchers as against the 16 on Polaris. How can our strategic weapons program be termed in neutral gear with such momentous projects under way?

Indeed by the mid-1970s the Soviets will find themselves even more behind than now unless a freeze is negotiated or they step up the pace of their arms effort very sharply. The latest Strategic Survey just issued by the Institute for Strategic Analysis in London says that by 1975 the number of deliverable nuclear warheads in the American strategic arsenal will be “about 11,000” while the Soviet, “which has already begun to develop its own multiple warhead system, could presumably increase its numerical strength by some similar percentage.” If the expansion of the Soviet force is by the same percentage as the US, the Soviets will have some 5,000 deliverable nuclear warheads by 1975, or less than half as many as the US. That, too, doesn’t sound like we are in low gear.

The AP editors can see just how far behind the Soviets are, and how thoroughly they were being gulled by Laird, if they recheck for themselves the two-page “balance sheet” Laird gave them to show what has happened in the last five years to the strategic balance between the US and the USSR. The balance sheet shows that the Soviets are indeed overtaking us in numbers of land-based missiles—but it also discloses inadvertently how many of their missiles are types we consider obsolete. A re-examination and recheck of the balance sheet will also throw some fresh light on that bugaboo, the Soviet SS-9 missile, the 15 to 25 MT monster, which is now supposed to threaten us with a first strike.

Laird began by saying that in 1965 the Soviets had “about 220 launchers for the relatively old-fashioned missiles—SS-6s, SS-7s, and SS-8s—somewhat similar to our Titan. We had 54 Titans in the inventory at that time.” We have the same number now. Laird says that “in this category of old-fashioned multi-megaton weapons” the Soviets still have a 4-1 advantage. Then he says that in 1965 the Soviets had no SS-9s whereas today they have 220 with at least 60 more under construction, while we have no counterpart: “So in this area the Soviets have and will maintain a monopoly.”

I went back and reread that opening section of the Laird balance sheet with fresh understanding after I stumbled on a revealing passage in Part 1 of the new House Appropriations Committee hearings on the 1971 defense budget which were released just two days after Laird’s speech to the AP. In Part 1 of the hearings, at pages 596 and 597, the AP editors will find this colloquy. The questions (and the astringent final comment) were by Congressman John J. Rhodes of Arizona, a ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Rhodes: Is the SS-9 a liquid-fueled missile?

General John D. Ryan, Chief of Staff, US Air Force: Yes, sir.

Mr. Rhodes: Are there not tremendous logistical problems connected with the launching of a missile like this?

General Ryan: Our Titan II is also a liquid.

Mr. Rhodes: That is one of the reasons we changed.

This colloquy is revealing in three ways. It brings sharply to attention that the SS-9 is liquid-fueled. Except for Titan II, all our other liquid-fueled missiles—Atlas, Thor, Jupiter, and Titan I—were phased out long ago. In the second place General Ryan did not deny it when Representative Rhodes said there were “tremendous logistical problems connected with the launching of a missile like this.” He merely replied that Titan II was also liquid-fueled. Nor did General Ryan deny the implication of Representative Rhodes’s final remark, “That is one of the reasons we changed.” So the SS-9 turns out to be of a type we abandoned long ago as cumbersome and inefficient.

Indeed, rummaging around in past hearings, I found the SS-9 described as an imitation of the Titan II. More than two years ago, when the SS-9 was still classified, Dr. Foster, then as now the Pentagon’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering, told the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on the Status of US Strategic Power,10 “I find the Soviets reacting to our moves. We have deployed a Titan I and then subsequently a Titan II in a hard silo. The Soviet Union has followed with the deployment of most recently the [deleted] which is very similar to Titan II.” The deletion could have referred only to the SS-9, and I have been so assured by an informed source. The reason we allow the Soviets a virtual monopoly—as Laird puts it—in this type of missile is that we consider it outmoded.

A few years ago the Pentagon was boasting of our superiority in developing the solid-fuel missile. But when I asked the briefing officer in the Pentagon who specializes in this question whether the liquid-fuel missile was as efficient as the solid-fuel, I was assured, to my bewilderment and surprise, that it was. But when I pulled off the shelf the Air Force ROTC manual on Aerospace Weapons Systems11 and read the passage which follows, he said he meant his answer in a very strict sense. Liquid fuel indeed has more thrust than solid fuel but this advantage is outweighed by the other disadvantages it imposes on missiles fueled by it. This is what the ROTC manual says:

None of the early liquid propellant missiles are satisfactory for the popular concept of “push button” warfare since they lack stability of fuel and require considerable human attention in their preparations for launching. Other disadvantages are the lack of mobility, large size, and high cost of production. Continued research, utilizing lessons learned in the use of the liquid-propellant ICBMs and IRBMs, resulted in the production of the SM-8 Minuteman.

Mobility, hardening [of the silo in which the missile is placed to make it less vulnerable to attack], quicker firing, lighter weight, smaller size and lower cost make the Minuteman almost a different weapon compared to the other, first generation, ballistic missiles. The three-stage solid-fueled Minuteman was developed to be scattered throughout the United States in hardened underground silos or mounted on mobile railroad cars travelling over the nation’s vast railway system. [Will the passenger soon lose his train to the missile? IFS.] Its solid fuel also permits it to be loaded and ready to be launched in seconds if necessary, since the entire countdown can be completed in advance, leaving only the actual firing to be actuated on signal. Even the firing signal can be given by remote control.

With this as background we are better able to assess Laird’s balance sheet of land-based missiles. He gives the Soviets a total of 1240 land-based missile launchers. He divides them into three categories. The first is made up of 220 of what he calls the “relatively old-fashioned missiles—SS-6s, SS-7s, and SS-8s—somewhat similar to our Titan.” These seem to be what might be called Model T missiles. The Pentagon press office told me that none of them were in hard silos. (It took all of an afternoon to get information on the SS-6. Apparently it is not included in the manual on Soviet missilery used by the Pentagon press office. The briefing officer who finally answered my question about it said it took so long to answer because the SS-6 is now regarded as a space launch booster rather than as a weapon!) So 220 of the 1240 Laird gives the Russians are the earliest, most cumbersome, and most vulnerable type of rocket, resembling our Atlas or our Titan I.

The second category is the SS-9 which, as we have already seen, is a larger version of the Titan II. The size of the Titan II warhead is classified but it has generally been described as between 5 and 10 megatons. The SS-9 is described by Laird as between 15 and 25 megatons. It is not the early type of liquid-fuel rocket. It is fueled by “storable liquid” like Titan II, as Secretary of the Air Force Seamans explained12 later in the colloquy with Representative Rhodes, and as Rhodes understood. Storable liquid represents a considerable improvement over the original liquid fuel. But neither General Ryan nor Secretary Seamans denied that there were great logistical difficulties in the use of storable liquid. The whole subject is wrapped in secrecy but as one expert told me, “It’s not like solid where you can pour it and forget it, like concrete.” The liquid is highly corrosive; the plumbing has to be flushed out from time to time; the firing may require from ten to twenty minutes. The firing is not virtually instantaneous, as with the solid-fuel rocket.

Some light on the difficulties Congressman Rhodes may have had in mind may be found in McNamara’s posture statement of January 23, 1967. He said the US was keeping its fifty-four Titan missiles for a few more years because their 6100-mile range enabled them to reach certain targets in the USSR beyond the range of the then current Minuteman but that the same targets would be within the reach of the new Minuteman 3 and Poseidon. “The Titan II,” McNamara reported, “is very expensive to operate, at least $600,000 per missile annually and probably closer to $1 million when the indirect costs of this relatively small force are considered.” He spoke of the need to buy boosters for “testing and reliability demonstration” and of “six follow-on tests per year,” i.e., one every two months. If the SS-9 is like our Titan II, it might best be described as an Edsel. So a total of 440, or more than a third of the 1240 land-based missiles with which Laird credits the Soviets are of this older variety, ranging from 5 to 25 megatons, trying to make up in megatonnage for what they lack in flexibility of handling and in accuracy.

The third category of land-based missiles with which Laird deals appears at first sight to be like Minuteman. “In 1965,” he said in his balance sheet, “the Soviet Union had no [italics in original] relatively small ICBM launcher comparable to our Minuteman…. Today the Soviet Union has over 800 such launchers operational, and a projected force that could exceed 1,000 within the next two years. These launchers include both the SS-11 and SS-13 missiles.” This sounds as though the Soviets have almost caught up with us in the small solid-fuel missile like Minuteman, of which we have 1,000. But those who look more closely—and it is important to look very closely at everything Laird says—will see that while he gave the impression these missiles were solid fuel he did not say so explicitly.

The misleading impression was created by saying that the Soviet missiles were like Minuteman, and the impression was strengthened by the way the Pentagon press office handled inquiries about it. The briefing officer who gives out information about Soviet missiles insisted over and over again to me in two days of telephone calls that of the two types Laird mentioned—the SS-11 and the SS-13—the first was solid fuel and the second was classified. The fact that descriptive details about the later model were classified led one to believe that it must be more advanced—solid fuel or better.

I told the briefing officer I had difficulty reconciling this with Jane’s Weapons Systems and with the new Strategic Survey by the Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The former (at page 629) merely said, “There is some evidence that [Soviet] missiles using solid fuel motors are in a late stage of development and these have faster reaction times,” i.e., than the liquid-fuel missiles. The somewhat more recent Strategic Survey went a little further and said, “The first Soviet solid-fueled missile is already being deployed.” Eight hundred missiles cannot be deployed overnight, like toy soldiers. The silos take many months of construction, and are clearly visible by reconnaissance satellites. But the Pentagon press officer retorted scornfully that Laird’s word was better than Jane’s and the ISS.

After picking up considerable evidence, oral and written, to the contrary, I finally accused the briefing officer of giving out false information, though perhaps unwittingly. “I know you fellows have a job to do,” I said, “but I did not think you would give a false answer to a direct question. I think the handbook you are using on Soviet missiles is phonied up.” This led to an angry outburst in which he said he would inform Daniel Z. Henkin, the Pentagon’s information chief, of my charges. I said I welcomed that and would like Henkin to call me. Within ten minutes, the same briefing officer called back apologetically and said that Laird himself in testimony last year to the House Appropriations Committee had described the SS-11 as liquid, not solid, fuel and the SS-13 as solid fuel. I had myself discovered this passage the night before and was preparing to use it against the Pentagon.

The incident shows how easily a reporter may be misled by the Pentagon press office if he does not do a good deal of independent research on his own. According to the briefing officer, the handbook he was using was revised as a result of this exchange to make it conform with Laird’s earlier testimony. AP editors can find this testimony for themselves on page 8 of the special briefing, “Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile System,” May 22, 1969, before the House Appropriations Committee. Laird said:

Currently about two-thirds of the Soviet ICBM force consists of SS-11s, a small Minuteman-sized, liquid fuel missile. With its currently estimated warhead yield and accuracy, this weapon does not pose a threat to our Minuteman forces. The Soviets have just started to deploy a new solid-fuel ICBM, the SS-13. But again this missile, with an even smaller warhead yield and no better accuracy, constitutes even less of a threat than the SS-11 to our Minuteman force.

So it is obvious from Laird’s own testimony that most of the 800 “Minuteman-type” missiles to which he referred in the speech to the AP are liquid-fuel missiles inferior to our Minuteman. They have just begun to deploy a solid-fuel missile like Minuteman while we are about to deploy Minuteman 3, which will carry three MIRV ed warheads.

I will not weary the reader by taking apart all the half-truths and disingenuous nonsense in the Laird speech. But I would like to touch on two points, one melodramatic, the other fundamental. The former is in that portion of his balance sheet where he says that the Soviets have tested a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System “and could have an operational version already deployed” while the US has “developed nothing comparable.” Dr. Ralph Lapp tells me that not a single operational analysis at the Pentagon has shown that an FOBS has military value for the US. I would like to see AP editors check this out for themselves through their own sources.

A more fundamental point is raised by Laird’s assertion, which made sensational headlines, that while “the Soviet Union has virtually quadrupled the total megatonnage in its strategic offensive force,” the US in that same five-year period “reduced its megatonnage by more than 40 percent.” This makes it sound as if we are falling fearfully behind. In fact, these figures are only an index of Soviet technological backwardness.

“More popular attention has traditionally been given,” says the latest Strategic Survey by the Institute for Strategic Studies, “to the explosive power (‘yield’) of nuclear warheads than to the accuracy with which they can be delivered. Yet, when blast is the measure of effectiveness (as it is when attacking missile silos), the effects of improving accuracy are dramatically greater than the effects of increasing yield…. [I]mprovements in the accuracy with which warheads are delivered have something like five to six times more effect than do proportional increases in the yield of the warheads themselves. Doubling the accuracy thus has about the same effect as multiplying the yield by ten…. [O]nce high accuracy has been achieved by a missile system with small warheads (50 to 100 kilotons), small increases in that accuracy will produce large increases in effectiveness.” This is why the US, instead of increasing the number of its missiles, has been improving their accuracy, and why we (and the Russians, too, though more slowly) have been moving steadily in the direction of smaller warheads.

A concluding observation from the Strategic Survey will make this clearer. It says improving the CEP13 of a 5 megaton warhead from 3,000 to 1,500 feet gives about a 20 percent increase in the probability of destroying a hardened silo, while improving the CEP of a 200 kiloton warhead from 1500 feet to 750 feet gives about a 50 percent increase in that probability. The 200 kiloton weapon is superior in this sense to a 5 megaton weapon, though the latter has 25 times its explosive power or megatonnage!

It is the improvement in accuracy and guidance which is threatening to make the land-based missile obsolete, by rendering it vulnerable in the near future to direct attack. In this race the US, by every indication, is ahead. Dr. Herbert York, former head of research and engineering at the Pentagon, has said that accuracy has increased 400-fold since the V-2 and tenfold since the ICBM program was initiated fifteen years ago, and that a twofold further increase in accuracy would make the MIRV ed Minuteman a first strike weapon, and a fourfold increase would make a first strike weapon of Poseidon. “It is very easy,” he said of this picture, “to imagine what the Russian Cassandras are saying.”14

The most dramatic development ahead is in our ABRES (Advanced Ballistic Missile Reentry System) program, now funded at $105 million, which would put maneuverable wings on the missile and a guidance system mapper in its cone to adjust its flight path, enabling it to home in on the target.15 The view from the other side is more fearful than anything Laird painted for the AP editors because if you add improved accuracy and guidance to the vast multiplication of our warheads by MIRV, the Soviets are in more imminent danger than we. The chances are that we, rather than they, will be the first to achieve a first strike capacity.

The whole alarmist campaign launched by Laird, Foster, and Nixon is pitched to the maintenance of superiority whereas early in the Administration Nixon had promised to base arms policy on “sufficiency.” Both sides now have more than ample power for deterrence. If superiority is to become the goal, then neither side will ever have a sufficiency. Endless arms race at ever greater cost is the prospect.

The SALT talks must fail if this is how the Nixon Administration approaches them. The AP’s editors owe it to themselves and their readers to recheck Laird’s alarms and explain their significance for the arms race and SALT.

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on the struggle against the arms race in the past century. The next, on Nixon and the SALT talks, will appear in an early issue.)

This Issue

June 4, 1970