Senator Henry Jackson
Senator Henry Jackson; drawing by David Levine

In the coming months Americans will be facing great decisions about the future of our defense policy and our relations with the Soviet Union. Should we decide to accept in good faith the spirit of SALT II as a limitation on the arms race—a limitation that is in fact already largely known by the public—and introduce the minimum of new weapons consistent with our security? Or, if the SALT treaty is signed, should we stretch its provisions and build as many arms as are not forbidden by it? Or, finally, should we reject the treaty and choose to increase vastly our spending on strategic weapons—for instance on the Trident submarine, cruise missiles, and the proposed MX ICBM, a large mobile intercontinental missile—in an attempt to achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union?

In recent months a great many books, articles, speeches, and advertisements—even a privately produced and widely distributed film—have been circulated in order to convince the American public that Soviet strategic power is growing while American defenses are weakening. We are told again and again that our national security is in jeopardy. The Soviet Union, we hear, will soon have the means to destroy our land-based Minuteman and Titan II missiles which are stored in and launched from hardened silos. The Russians would then strike first and destroy our deterrent missiles, thus winning the war with relative impunity. Or, short of actually going to war, they could use the threat of their superior nuclear force for political blackmail.

The hawks who want to convince the American public that the danger is growing severely criticize the SALT II treaty now being concluded under which each side would limit itself to no more than 2,250 strategic missile launchers and bombers between now and 1985. The proposed treaty is said to concede too much to the USSR, perpetuating our weakness and consolidating the Soviet threat.

Such, predictions are indeed frightening, but are they realistic, or even plausible? The past record of the arms race argues strongly that they are not. If we investigate the predictions about the Soviet military threat that have been made during the past twenty years, we find that they have been consistently exaggerated—often by the same people who make such claims today. We also find that complying with these alarmists’ suggestions to expand our arsenal has led us into a spiraling nuclear arms race that is undermining real security—the full assurance of national survival—of the US as well as the Soviet Union. Can it be that history repeats itself, and that if we follow the most recent alarmist demands—for intransigence over the SALT II treaty and an accelerated arms buildup even if it is passed—our national security will be further weakened and we will find that we are headed for a nuclear war?

Since the days when I worked in the White House as special assistant to President Eisenhower, I have seen again and again how disputes over arms control have depended on how we interpret information—often unreliable information—about Soviet military developments. It is true that during the 1940s and early 1950s we knew shockingly little. The iron curtain that Stalin drew around the Soviet bloc, and his draconian security measures within it, baffled our military intelligence. But much of the controversy over SALT II fails to recognize the extent to which systematic and highly ingenious technological advances—in which we continue to have an advantage—have now dramatically improved our knowledge. Nuclear test explosions anywhere in the world can be detected by seismic tests and air sampling; our satellites relay detailed information about the location of Soviet ICBMs, as well as of bombers and submarines in port; other techniques supported by satellite observation provide details about Soviet missile testing and submarine activity, etc.

The Soviet strategists finally acknowledged in 1972 that the policy of secrecy at any cost could no longer work. In the SALT I treaty they agreed in principle that neither the USSR nor the US would interfere with the intelligence technology of the other side. (In the SALT II negotiations, the USSR has also reportedly agreed to give the US regular information on how many strategic weapons it has deployed.) As a result, exaggerated claims about the development and deployment of strategic weapons inside the Soviet Union can sometimes be demolished fairly easily. In December 1977, for example, Melvin Laird, a former secretary of defense in the Nixon administration, published in The Reader’s Digest an article called “The Russians are Cheating.” It gave “incontrovertible evidence” that the Soviet Union was not honoring the commitments it made in the SALT I treaty and Interim Agreement signed in 1972. Mr. Laird predicted dreadful consequences for the security of the United States. A few months later Secretary of State Cyrus Vance discredited Laird’s allegations in a paper approved by the CIA and the Defense Department. He showed in detail that violations by both sides were in fact relatively minor and that they had been corrected.


Somewhat more difficult to disprove are the alarmists’ nearly hysterical assertions that the Soviet leaders consider a future nuclear war as different only in degree from earlier wars. Such hard-line professors as Richard Pipes of Harvard suggest that the USSR may well be planning a war, and they argue that its leaders seem confident of winning it. They point to blustering and aggressive statements in Soviet publications that seem to show that Russian leaders are willing to risk nuclear attack. Yet such able Russian scholars as George Kennan and Raymond Garthoff have shown in detail that this display of Soviet confidence and belligerence is largely domestic propaganda. It conceals a sharp awareness among the Soviet leaders that a nuclear war between the superpowers is certain to have catastrophic consequences for both countries.

Certainly it is more difficult to make assessments of future military power and intentions of the USSR such as those published by the US intelligence agencies in their jointly compiled National Intelligence Estimates (NIE). Soviet defense officials neither publish “posture” statements, nor testify before legislators, nor allow security “leaks” to occur. Since little definite information is available, NIE’s “projections” suggest several possibilities: they describe the probable course of events as the median case, while a threat that is possible but greater than the one expected is called the worst case.

Hard-line commentators such as Albert Wohlstetter have tried to demonstrate that US intelligence agencies consistently underestimate Soviet strength. But the history of the past twenty years shows quite the reverse. Few indeed are the instances when the Soviet military threat later turned out to be greater than the estimated “worst case.” Usually the government’s experts overestimated the danger. A principal reason for the escalation of the nuclear arms race has been the tendency among pessimistic Washington officials to treat “worst case predictions” as if they were the probable figures and then to demand that we arm ourselves to meet what later turn out to be largely imaginary threats. To understand the current opponents of SALT, we must first understand how wrong they have been in the past.

The ABM Scare

Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s US strategic policy was distorted by foolish reactions to a false alarm: that the Soviets were building vast antiballistic missile systems—the ABM—that could destroy most of the deterrent missiles we would launch after the Russians attacked, thus giving them a decisive advantage in a nuclear war.

This alleged threat not only provided the main pretext for our own expensive and useless efforts to set up an ABM system, mainly in the 1960s. It also was one of the main justifications, in the late 1960s, for the MIRVing of our missiles, so that a single missile would carry several warheads, each aimed at a different target.

While working on Eisenhower’s scientific advisory committee in 1959 and 1960 I had to assess some of the early claims that the Russians were developing an ABM system. The Soviets, we knew from our intelligence, had a center for anti-aircraft and anti-missile work at Sary Shagan in Central Asia. Our U-2 planes observed there a large radar installation that might, it was thought, be a device for detecting incoming missiles. Our intelligence experts immediately linked this installation to the Soviet tests of medium-range ballistic missiles at Kapustin Yar, many hundreds of miles to the west. They conjectured that the Russians were putting together the combination of radar (to detect incoming missiles), computers (to track them), and interceptor missiles (to destroy them) that makes up an ABM system.

The evidence was hardly conclusive that an effective ABM system was being tested at Sary Shagan, but it was enough to encourage the US Air Force and Navy to develop “penetration aids” to be used on American missiles in order to confuse a Soviet ABM system. The army justified its campaign for the earliest possible installation of our own ABM project—with the code name Nike Zeus—by citing the tests at Sary Shagan. Notwithstanding pressure from the army, defense contractors, and influential senators, my colleagues and I on the President’s Science Advisory Committee concluded that Nike Zeus defenses, while effective against single missiles, would not be useful against a massed attack. Eisenhower refused to order the Nike Zeus system to be installed.

But this was only the beginning of the Soviet ABM scare. In 1961—after the three-year moratorium on nuclear testing was ended by the Soviets—explosions near Sary Shagan and a defense installation being constructed near Leningrad were interpreted by proponents of the “worst possible case” as evidence that the Soviets were building a huge defense system that would eventually be able to launch thousands of ABM interceptor missiles. During 1961 and 1962 Pentagon officials were making plans to react in kind. They, and their supporters, claimed the Leningrad defense work justified the development and installation not only of Nike Zeus but also of multiple warheads (MRVs). In the mid-Sixties such warheads were indeed deployed on the American strategic missiles in Polaris II submarines—a major step. And although proposals by Senator Strom Thurmond and others for the immediate deployment of Nike Zeus were defeated by the Kennedy administration, these alarms about Soviet ABM armaments encouraged the development of Nike X, a more advanced system designed to defend us from a large number of simultaneous incoming missiles. In fact, later on in the 1960s, it turned out that the constructions near Leningrad were abandoned. The evidence suggested they were merely anti-aircraft defenses. But the damage was done: we had already gone ahead with our plans for MRVs.


Late in the Sixties, a number of senior weapons experts—including W.K.H. Panofsky at Stanford, George Rathjens and Jerome Wiesner, both from MIT—began to assert that no ABM system could defend the US against a determined and sophisticated missile attack. They were opposed by alarmists calling for a vastly increased missile defense system. In an attempt to mediate between the two camps, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced in late 1967 that we would deploy Nike X in a limited way: to defend American cities from a possible “light” attack by Communist China. This decision was welcomed by Pentagon officials who saw it as laying the cornerstone of a vast defensive system that could be used to resist heavy nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. But preparations for the deployment of Nike X near several large American cities—a project code-named the Sentinel system—aroused considerable public opposition, and the incoming Nixon administration canceled the project in early 1969. Thus another project was dropped, but the exaggerated fears of a Soviet ABM that produced it had not been put to rest.

During the 1960s the Russians themselves did much to exacerbate these fears, particularly after the humiliation of the missile crisis of 1962. If, as seems likely, they boasted about having impressive ABM defenses in an attempt to conceal their own weakness in strategic weapons, they only played into the hands of the Pentagon hard-liners. In 1961 Khrushchev told a group of Western reporters that the Soviet Union had developed interceptors that could “hit a fly in outer space.” In November 1964 the Moscow military parade included a display of a huge cylindrical container—code-named the Galosh canister—which was said to contain an interceptor missile. American intelligence suspected that it was part of a Moscow defense system, and over-pessimistic analysts concluded that within a few years Soviet defenses would be impenetrable. This speculation gained support when three very large “henhouse” radars—like our own “early warning” installations which detect incoming missiles at a great distance—were discovered near the northwest borders of the USSR.

Once again Pentagon zealots claimed that the Soviet development justified—indeed required—an American response. Since an effective Soviet missile defense would threaten our basic doctrine of nuclear deterrence, it would be necessary—in the interest of “stability”—to introduce a new and vastly more destructive kind of nuclear weapon: the MIRVed warheads. The Pentagon argued that by MIRVing our strategic missiles we could overwhelm Soviet ABM defenses, and thus the threat of our retaliatory force would continue to deter nuclear war. The technical development of MIRVs was authorized in 1964 and at first carried out in secret. But classified discussions and reports soon raised the question whether the possibility of using MIRVed missiles in a surprise attack aimed at the opponent’s missiles—a “counterforce” attack—would not upset the equilibrium of mutual deterrence.

Before the development of MIRVs, the theory of mutual deterrence assumed that even after an initial strike the victim would be able to launch a retaliatory strike so damaging that no rational leader would initiate strategic nuclear warfare. But if missiles are MIRVed, each missile can be used to destroy several of the enemy’s missile silos, and it could become possible to disarm the enemy with a surprise attack that uses only a fraction of one’s own forces. Theoretically, a country with a MIRVed strategic force could threaten a general nuclear attack, secure in the knowledge that the opponent’s counterstrike would be tolerably feeble. Each side might become more tempted to launch the initial attack—particularly during an international crisis when each fears that the other will strike first.

As these concerns were secretly being debated in the mid-1960s, what had become of the alleged Galosh ABM system around Moscow, which had set off the efforts to develop MIRV in the first place? By 1967 the USSR slowed down its construction: it never became an effective ABM system after all. Washington alarmists, however, soon discovered a new threat that could justify MIRVing our missiles: the Soviet defense network called the Tallinn system. In the late Sixties, as these installations spread over large areas of the Soviet Union, they provoked another intense secret debate in Washington. CIA experts gradually concluded that Tallinn was merely an air defense system which could not be used against ballistic missiles. But the Defense Intelligence Agency—and with it most of the Pentagon—insisted that Tallinn was indeed an ABM system. Among the leaders of this Pentagon group was Dr. John Foster, then the director of Defense Research and Engineering, who had long been active in efforts to convince Congress that the Soviet ABM system justified increased American armament.

The flight testing of MIRVed Minuteman and Poseidon missiles was begun in August 1968 and completed in June 1970 when MIRVed Minuteman III missiles were first deployed. Despite growing skepticism about the Soviet ABM force, Pentagon spokesmen continued to argue that MIRVs were essential for penetration of Soviet ABM defenses. Foster seemed to ignore the danger that MIRVed missiles would upset the equilibrium of mutual deterrence. As early as 1968 he suggested to the Senate Military Affairs Committee that MIRVs could be used as counterforce weapons against Soviet ICBMs.

Despite evidence that the Soviet Union had no effective ABM installations, at Tallinn or elsewhere, hard-liners such as Foster, Laird, and Nitze continued to insist that we had underestimated Soviet ABM defenses. Foster now suggested that the Tallinn project could be rapidly converted into an ABM system. In 1969 Laird repeated this claim, adding that “By the mid-to-late 1970s Soviet strategic air and missile defenses could be quite formidable.” This was another false alarm. But it led the Senate to approve, although by only one vote, the installation of four sites for American Safeguard missiles. Then and now, one of the most influential promoters of the ABM scare was Paul Nitze, a deputy secretary of defense in the Johnson administration, and currently an active leader of the Committee on the Present Danger. As recently as 1977 he told a Senate committee, “I think I have not overestimated the threat o Soviet ABM. I think I have underestimated it.” It is not yet apparent to Mr. Nitze that throughout the 1960s the US was mainly competing against itself—and not against the Soviet Union—in its race to develop strategic arms.

The Soviet Arms Scare

In 1972 the SALT I treaty so restricted ABM deployments that they no longer can be regarded as a significant military threat—as even Mr. Nitze would probably have to agree. But accompanying the false alarms about the Soviet ABM throughout the 1950s and 1960s were equally distorted claims about the danger of the Soviet offensive strategic arsenal, and these continue today.

Again the Russians’ own claims were exaggerated. During the 1950s, Khrushchev talked proudly about Soviet production of long-range missiles. In 1957, the White House appointed a secret group directed by H. Rowan Gaither to assess the Soviet threat. This group, which included Mr. Nitze and other hard-liners, predicted a catastrophic “missile gap”—claiming that by 1959 as many as 150 Soviet ICBMs would be aimed at the US. This was a wholly false scare. In fact, by the end of 1960 the USSR had deployed at most half a dozen virtually unserviceable ICBMs. Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs, Khrushche Remembers: The Last Testament, reveal his anxiety during the late Fifties over the Soviet failure to build effective strategic nuclear forces. By 1961 when the development of American ICBMs and Polaris submarines was well underway, evidence accumulated by U2 planes and later by satellites made it clear to most American experts that the threat of a Soviet ICBM force had been largely imaginary. Soviet propagandists, who had previously claimed that defense against an ICBM attack was impossible, then began to insist that the USSR had designed an ABM system and to circulate the misleading information about a Soviet ABM force that I have described.

Soviet propaganda about their ABM system was apparently intended to prove to the world that the USSR was a superpower equal to the US and to erase Moscow’s painful memory of its retreat during the Cuban missile crisis. As we have seen, this propaganda had an effect that the Kremlin could neither have planned nor desired: it played directly into the hands of American alarmists who argued that MIRVing our warheads was the only way to bring about the “assured destruction” of the USSR in a nuclear war.

In the second half of the 1960s Soviet construction and testing of what were alleged to be ABM defenses—never effective or convincing anyway—began to decline. The USSR began to install a large number of ICBMs based in silos—more than 250 missile silos per year—from 1967 through 1969. Although the increase was less dramatic during the following years, by 1972 when the SALT I agreement froze ICBM installation, approximately 1,600 Soviet silos were completed, or under construction, each capable of housing one of several kinds of ICBMs. Exactly what prompted this vast effort—which was for several years significantly underestimated by American intelligence—remains unclear. One can only surmise that the early decision to develop this system followed Khrushchev’s failure during the Cuban missile crisis. And in following years the steadily increasing numbers and accuracy of American strategic warheads, including MRVs, as well as the American debate about using MIRVs as our counterforce arsenal, must have figured in the USSR’s decision to expand its own ICBM system.

The Russian development of ICBMs produced a new campaign in Washington for a US ABM system. When Nixon took office in 1969, the new administration proposed that the Sentinel city defense system—part of the US ABM network that was never built—be installed, without major technical changes, but under a different guise. It would not be used to defend the cities, but rather would be set up at the Minuteman silo sites, functioning as the so-called “Safeguard” defense against a Soviet surprise attack. One senator sarcastically commented: “We have the same Joint Chiefs of Staff [as in the Johnson administration] but they seem to have changed their position…. About three months ago…they were saying that it was absolutely necessary for the security of the country to protect the people of the cities.” This was the beginning of a new race to build vast missile forces aimed not at cities but at the missiles of the enemy—arsenals matched in a stalemate that becomes more deadly every year.

Despite considerable opposition in Senate hearings, the administration continued to support the Safeguard system. During the summer and fall of 1969 Secretary Laird and Henry Kissinger, who was then assistant to the president for National Security Affairs, pressed the director of the CIA to increase the CIA’s estimate of the future threat that Soviet missiles posed for the Minuteman force. Kissinger is said to have urged the CIA to reconsider its estimate that Soviet SS-9 missiles were armed only with MRVs, as they were, and to have made clear his own view that these missiles were MIRVed, which they were not.*

Here we come to yet another case, and a crucial one, where false alarms led to the escalation of the arms race. In 1969, when it was not yet clear that either the USSR or the US had a workable MIRV system, it might still have been possible to agree with the Soviet Union to prevent or delay the deployment of MIRVs. When American preparations for the SALT talks began in the fall of 1969, it was proposed by one of the administration agencies that we seek a moratorium on MIRV testing. This suggestion was firmly rejected, it was said, by our Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What in fact was the evidence that the USSR was going ahead with MIRVs? Here the public was again misled. In 1968 we had observed Soviet test flights of a new heavy ICBM: the SS-9. American intelligence noticed a “triplet” of vehicles reentering the atmosphere together. Were the triplets MIRVs, or were they the more primitive MRVs, which cannot be targeted independently, and which resemble buckshot although on a much grander scale?

Mr. Laird commented on the triplets in January 1969: “The Soviets are going for our missiles and they are going for a first strike capability. There is no question about that.” Shortly thereafter, he told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that “this weapon can only be aimed at the destruction of our retaliatory force.” Dr. Foster supported Laird’s view that the SS-9 triplets were MIRVs designed to attack our hard targets: “Mr. Laird’s statements are based upon agreed intelligence data.” In fact, however, a substantial number of experts in the intelligence community concluded that the triplets were only MRVs.

They were right, and the widely reported assertions of Laird and Foster were wrong. The Soviet Union, we now know, did not begin to test MIRVs until 1973 and did not deploy them until 1975. The US began tests as early as 1968, installing the first new warheads in 1970. And, by contrast with the public opposition to the Sentinel ABM system for American cities, few people raised questions about MIRVs; the Nixon administration easily got approval for them.

One reason it could do so was that Pentagon officials and alarmist senators claimed in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the Soviet SS-9 missile, because of its multiple warheads and more powerful throw-weight, would make our strategic forces vulnerable: the huge explosions of the SS-9 warheads could allegedly destroy most of the missiles in our hardened silos. Thus, they argued, it was necessary to intensify development not only of our ABM but of MIRVs as well. In 1969 Foster told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “In the 1975 time frame…[SS-9] missiles could destroy or immobilize all but fifty or so of our Minutemen.”

Nor were these pessimistic fears calmed by the signing of the SALT I agreements in 1972. Influential senators severely criticized the agreement on offensive missiles which allowed the Soviets to maintain a larger number of missiles than the US; the Senate passed Henry Jackson’s resolution calling on the administration to insist on numerical parity in the next SALT treaty.

But in fact the Soviet SS-9 which had provoked these alarms was hardly as effective a missile as Foster and his allies alleged. By 1976, only seven or eight years after it was first deployed, it evidently was not found satisfactory and began to be replaced by the fourth generation of Soviet ICBMs, the heavy MIRVed SS-18. Altogether, since intercontinental missiles were introduced some twenty years ago, the Soviets have tested thirteen known ICBM designs—and probably several other models not identified by American intelligence—while the US tested and deployed only six models. This is an extraordinary waste of Soviet economic and technical resources. It seems likely that the Soviet leaders have had even more difficulty controlling their “military-industrial” bureaucracy than our own government has.

The SALT II Scare

The proposed SALT II treaty would limit the total number of each side’s strategic launchers to 2,250—slightly more than the number of American launchers, including silos, heavy bombers, and missile tubes on submarines, but fewer than the present Soviet totals. The USSR would have to demolish about 270 strategic launchers to meet these limits. The new SALT treaty would also limit the total number of each side’s MIRVed ICBMs to 820. Although these limits are regrettably high, they are better than none.

But such American hard-liners as Senator Jackson, Paul Nitze, Admiral Moorer, and Edward Teller claim that despite such numerical reductions, future improvements in Soviet missile technology and strategy will mean that the USSR will continue to threaten the US, especially if the SALT II treaty is approved.

Among the missiles that are currently deployed in the Soviet Union, the SS-18 and SS-19 have MIRVed warheads and are capable of yet greater throw-weight—a traditional Soviet strength—than the older designs. They are also said to be more accurate, although it is admitted unofficially that such estimates are difficult to make. Some American strategists predict that the fifth generation of Soviet ICBMs will make our Minuteman virtually obsolete within five to seven years. They claim that by the mid-1980s Soviet missiles will be more accurately guided than American missiles currently are. And the powerful throw-weight of the Soviet missiles means that they can carry more warheads. As a result, the explosions they cause would be larger, and they would not have to be aimed so precisely at their targets.

The main scare being spread by the opponents of SALT II is that the USSR’s 820 MIRVed ICBMs could carry many thousands of the new, more accurately guided Soviet MIRV warheads. Some of these, it is alleged, could destroy 95 percent of the Minuteman force in an initial counterforce attack. This would leave the USSR enough strategic warheads to threaten to destroy totally the US should we launch our remaining forces in an enfeebled retaliatory strike.

Like many other fearful predictions of strategic weakness, however, this one is based on false and simplistic assumptions—among them, in this case, that the American strategic force consists overwhelmingly of land-based ICBM missiles. In reality fewer than 25 percent of American strategic warheads are stored in Minuteman silos; the rest are carried by submarines and aircraft. And by the mid-1980s the fraction in silos will probably be even lower—assuming that Trident submarines, and cruise missiles are deployed as planned. Indeed the so-called “triad composition” of our strategic forces—the distribution of warheads in silos, submarines, and bombers—was designed to reduce the threat of a Soviet first strike aimed at our land-based missiles.

The current alarmist scenario does not account for the several thousand warheads on American bombers and submarines, which would certainly survive a Soviet surprise attack, and would assure our retaliatory strikes. Each of these warheads is powerful enough to devastate most of the Soviet cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, which also contain most Soviet industry. Our submarines could sustain the attack for several months, launching occasional missiles at the main harbors, airports, and railway centers, and thus prevent whatever is left of the Soviet economy from functioning.

Secretary of Defense Harold Brown has written in his annual report to Congress, “The potential vulnerability of our existing silo-based ICBM force is a major issue of concern to us…but the Soviets could face great uncertainties in assessing whether they would have the capacity we fear.”

Among the uncertainties facing the USSR are the retaliatory missiles we could fire from our submarines and bombers. But there are others that are too often ignored in the current debate over SALT II. First, how can Soviet leaders be certain that an American president would not launch the Minuteman force as soon as he knew that Soviet attacking missiles were on the way from their silos to the US? The president would have nearly one half hour to do so, and the Soviets would have to gamble that he would not. Nor can they predict the likelihood of human error in the execution of the attack by the Soviet Missile Command—an operation that is highly complex and impossible to rehearse. Neither Soviet nor American missiles have ever struck real targets in the other country; hence the calculation of missile trajectories is imprecise and systematic misses are not out of the question.

Equipment failures are also likely to be more frequent in real wartime situations than they are in practice launches. Mechanical failures in the propulsion of Soviet ICBMs, which use liquid fuel—used by the US only in our fifty-four old and very large Titan II ICBMs—are also likely. To use liquid fuel involves high-speed rotary machinery, turbines, and pumps that are designed to function under great strain. This machinery cannot be tested in the silos without launching a missile, and although such testing is done, it is not done frequently.

A major problem for the Soviets, and one that has not been sufficiently emphasized, would be the destruction or deflection of their warheads during their “recently” into the atmosphere on the way to their targets. The first nuclear explosions in any given area would greatly disturb its atmosphere. Atmospheric nuclear explosions (before the 1963 treaty) have shown that transient but unimaginably violent storms and atmospheric turbulence as well as highly intense electromagnetic disturbances can be expected after a nuclear explosion. An ICBM reentry vehicle arrives at a low angle over the horizon, and travels many miles through the atmosphere before striking its target. What effect this passage will have on the fuses, firing mechanism, and impact point of an incoming warhead cannot be fully predicted. The warhead could be disabled. But even assuming that it were not, any small deflection of its trajectory would substantially affect its chances of destroying its target.

The so-called “fratricidal effect” could also effectively destroy incoming warheads. A large thermonuclear blast on the ground would suck hundreds of thousands of tons of earth and gravel into the stem of the “mushroom” cloud created by the explosion. A reentry vehicle would pass through this debris in the stem faster than a rifle bullet and at a high degree of heat, and would be vulnerable to destruction or damage on hitting the gravel in the stem. It is impossible to predict the exact proportion of warheads that would be put out of action in this way during a Soviet attack aimed at Minuteman silos, which are built relatively close to one another. Since at least as many as 400 missiles would be aimed at 200 silos, a large number of warheads would certainly be incapacitated unless the launching of the missiles were very precisely timed or spread out over the large part of an hour. And during that hour the US could fire retaliatory missiles.

How, in the light of such facts and uncertainties, are we to judge the current alarmist claims that the Minuteman force is vulnerable? It should be clear that fears based on purely statistical calculations have little relevance to the real world in which a counterforce attack would take place. Soviet leaders since Stalin have often acted in ways that are hostile or intransigent, but they have shown extreme caution in using military force whenever an open conflict with the US seemed possible. To suppose that they would disregard all the terrible dangers and uncertainties surrounding an attack on the Minuteman force is to mistake the Soviet attitude toward strategic planning.

American hard-liners argue that the US has not kept up with the expansion of Soviet strategic forces. In fact, since we began to MIRV our missiles in 1970, the number of our strategic warheads has more than doubled, and most of our older missiles have been replaced by the new Poseidon and Minuteman III, the latter more accurate than any the USSR now possesses. During the past eight years we have deployed approximately as many new missiles as the Soviet Union has. The only difference is that we chose to place them in existing submarines and silos, while the Soviets continued to build new launchers until they reached the limits specified by SALT I.

As a result the Soviet ICBM force is numerically greater than ours and includes a number of very large MIRVed missiles, which could theoretically pose an effective threat to the Minuteman force if the accuracy of Soviet guidance were considerably improved. However, unlike the US, the Soviets do not have a triad of equally potent strategic forces. Their strategic bomber force is small and obsolescent; nor is a part of it kept on continual alert, as our SAC bombers are. (Their much discussed Backfire bomber has been developed and deployed as a regional, not an intercontinental, weapon.) And although the USSR has more missile-launching submarines than the US, their military effectiveness is questionable since most of them stay in harbor. In recent years the fraction of this force on station in the open ocean has risen to 15 percent of the total—still much smaller than the 60 percent of the submarine missile force that the US maintains on alert at sea.

In fact the SALT II treaty has little to do with the vulnerability of our Minuteman force. As Secretary Brown has written, “Minuteman vulnerability was not a problem created by SALT, nor is it a problem we can solve with a SALT II agreement…. We would have the same problem without such an agreement—only in that case we would have other problems as well.” He could have added that it was our own hawks who created the problem nearly ten years ago when they insisted that MIRVs should be developed and deployed—and thus foreclosed the possibility of agreeing with the Soviet Union in SALT I to ban MIRVs.

What are the “other problems” that Secretary Brown refers to? SALT II would not in any case significantly limit the development of new weapons either by the US or by the USSR. It would still theoretically be possible for both sides to use ICBMs in a counterforce attack. But the Soviet Union would probably regard rejection of the treaty as a signal to resume an unrestricted nuclear arms race. They would not demolish over 250 silos as the SALT II treaty requires, and they would continue—or perhaps even accelerate—the MIRVing of their ICBMs. They might also begin to build more silos and submarines. Congressman Les Aspin, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Defense Department official, has calculated the cost of rejecting the treaty. He estimates that, if the SALT II treaty fails, before the mid-1980s we would have to spend at least an additional 20 billion dollars on new strategic arms merely to maintain the nuclear balance that the SALT agreement would have ensured.

In spite of the aggressive and well-financed campaigns against SALT II, the polls show that a large majority of American voters want the treaty concluded. Most voters, according to recent polls, are aware that the treaty will neither end the arms race nor eliminate all threats to our security, desirable as the treaty is.

Faced with the hostility of a part of the Senate, Mr. Carter, instead of trying to mobilize this favorable public opinion, has apparently tried to appease a variety of hawkish groups—hard-line senators, intransigent generals, both active and retired, arms contractors, etc. He is proposing several new programs to increase US military strength that will probably intensify the arms race. Most ominous is the plan to develop the huge mobile ICBM, the MX, that would be equipped with as many as ten nuclear warheads. This deadly counterforce weapon would threaten Soviet ICBM forces and invite a similar response. The new proposals to increase spending on civilian “defense” are no less frightening. An attempt to evacuate our cities just before a thermonuclear exchange would not save many lives, while emptying the cities during an international crisis could well encourage hostilities if it were interpreted by the enemy as a signal that we were preparing for war.

The apparent postponement of negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear test ban is also discouraging. One can only assume that this indefinite delay in part results from the reported threat by the directors of the two American nuclear weapons laboratories and by Secretary of Energy Schlesinger that they would not testify for such a treaty if it were brought before the Senate.

Indeed, most of Mr. Carter’s decisions on military policy during the last few months seem driven by political fears rather than by analysis of US defenses. This seems the case with his new budget in which the military will receive 3 percent more than the automatic increase for inflation, while the civilian budget will be cut by some $15 billion. Carter’s decision to manufacture components of so-called neutron bombs, moreover, can only intensify the race for tactical arms.

Nor does the appointment of George M. Seignious II, a retired general, as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency augur well for future arms limitation. If indeed he does support disarmament, he will have to denounce the views of his many military colleagues and friends who belong, as he did until he was selected for the Agency, to organizations such as the American Security Council, which bitterly oppose all arms control agreements. Seignious has already said that whatever the outcome of the SALT talks, the increasing accuracy of Soviet missiles means that the US must continue to “modernize its nuclear arsenal.”

Whether or not these maneuvers actually gain votes for the SALT II treaty—and that remains in doubt—they are dangerous. By seeming to admit our military inferiority, such concessions provide ammunition to the military lobby and its supporters in the Senate. Furthermore, what if Soviet leaders actually accepted our hard-liners’ protestations that we are weak militarily, vulnerable to the kind of intimidation they claim will result unless we chase after the illusory goal of absolute nuclear superiority? One hesitates to imagine the reckless adventurism, leading possibly to a nuclear holocaust, that Soviet acceptance of such claims could encourage.

What is needed is not anxious domestic appeasement but confidence and frankness about our strategic force. Mr. Carter should stress that our present defenses are impregnable, that our will to resist aggression is firm, that—if we do not start another round of the strategic arms race—the SALT II treaty will improve our national security and allow us to give greater attention to domestic problems. Only in this way can we break out of the vicious circle of alarmism and escalation that has characterized the nuclear arms race for more than twenty years.

This Issue

March 22, 1979