At the heart of modern theories of nuclear strategy lies the premise of accuracy. The great debates of recent years—over the SALT II treaty, deployment of the MX missile, and the limited nuclear war scenarios most recently considered in Presidential Directive 59—all take for granted the assumption that a missile fired 6,000 miles can land within 600 feet of a target no more than fifty yards in diameter. 1
In the view of a former member of the Carter administration the concession that such accuracy was possible was “the greatest single mistake of the Carter administration’s defense policy.”2 It led to the decision to build the MX; it severely weakened the case for SALT II; it added significantly to the peril of a nuclear conflict actually breaking out. For once it was accepted that a US or a Russian missile could strike a missile silo in enemy territory the specter of “vulnerability” began to dominate debate and propelled huge new defense appropriations through Congress.
The presidential campaign of 1980 has contained, in the debate between the two main contenders, no doves on the matter of strategic nuclear armament, no dissent on the issue of vulnerability.3 Nor were the premises of that debate ever challenged at their most sensitive point: accuracy. There are some obvious reasons for this silence. Data about the accuracy of US missiles, and hence many of the suppositions about the performance of their Soviet equivalents, are drawn from test results which—along with codes—are among the most highly classified secrets of the government. The propositions and conclusions that follow are based on extensive interviews with scientists and former government officials.4 They deal with a problem that has led a semi-secret existence for a decade. The shorthand phrase often used to describe this problem is “the bias factor.” Bias is a term used to describe the distance between the center of a “scatter” of missiles and the center of the intended target. This distance, the most important component in the computation of missile accuracy, accounts for the fact that the predictions of missile accuracy cited above are impossible to achieve with any certainty, hence that the premises behind “vulnerability,” the MX, and Presidential Directive 59 are expensively and dangerously misleading.
The strategists assume that only a missile fired from a precisely surveyed site on dry land has the accuracy to hit a missile silo in the enemy’s territory. Such land-based missiles are, in the jargon of the strategists, called “counter-force.” A missile fired from a submarine is not expected to hit anything smaller than a city, inhabited by people. It is therefore called a “counter-value” weapon.
Here, according to the Defense Department, is how a consequent scenario could unfold: a surprise Soviet missile attack wipes out US land-based (i.e. counter-force) missiles. The only response that the president can order is a counter-value strike by US submarine-launched missiles against Russian cities. But the president will also know that the Russians will have enough missiles left…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.