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The Star Wars Controversy
An International Security Reader
By Steven E. Miller, Stephen Van Evera
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The SDI in U.S. Nuclear Strategy
Fred S. Hoffman
As we approach the second anniversary of President Reagan's speech announcing the SDI, it is useful to review the development of the issue. Critics and supporters alike now recognize that the central question concerns the kind of R&D program we should be conducting. Virtually no one on either side of the issue, here or among our allies, contests the need for research on the technologies that might contribute to a defense against ballistic missiles, and it is clear that the Administration does not propose an immediate decision on full-scale engineering development, let alone deployment of ballistic missile defenses.
Nevertheless, the issue continues to occupy a dominant place in discussions of national security issues and arms negotiations, far out of proportion to its immediate financial impact (significant as this is), to its immediate implications for existing agreements (current guidance limits the R&D to conformity with them), and to its near-term impact on the military balance. Reactions by the public and media in this country and among our allies, as well as the public response by Soviet leaders, suggest that the President's speech touched a nerve. Such extreme reactions to a program that has such modest immediate effect suggests that the President's initiative raises basic questions about some deep and essential troubles with the drift of NATO declaratory and operational strategy for the last 20 years, and about the direction in which we need to move during the next 20 years. The debate has only ostensibly been about the pros and cons of spending next year's funds on research and development. That the basic issues have been largely implicit is unfortunate. Entrenched Western opinion resists rethinking a declaratory strategy that has stressed a supposed virtue in U.S. vulnerability. And the Soviets have been campaigning furiously to aid a natural Western resistance to change. The Soviet campaign is also natural since in the 20-year period in which the West has relied on threats of Mutual Assured Destruction, the Soviets have altered what they call the "correlation of forces" in their favor.
The orthodoxy reflected in the SALT process and in much of the public discussion of the SDI is that of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) — a doctrine that holds that the only proper role of nuclear weapons on both sides is to deter their use by the other side, and that they must perform this role through the threat of massive and indiscriminate attacks on cities, designed to inflict the maximum destruction on the adversary's civilian population. On this view, any use of nuclear weapons is and should be clearly suicidal. Anything that interferes in any measure with the other side's ability to inflict "assured destruction" is "destabilizing" — in crises it is supposed to induce preemptive attack and, in the long-term military competition, a "spiralling nuclear arms race" with unlimited increases in the potential for indiscriminate destruction on both sides. MAD was the Western, though not the Soviet, strategic foundation for the ABM Treaty and the SALT offense agreements. It is largely unconscious dogma dominating the media discussions of nuclear strategy, SDI, and arms agreements.
Some who advocate this policy like to think of it as not a policy, but a "fact." A supposedly unalterable fact of nature. There is a grain of truth and a mountain of confusion in this assertion. The grain is the unquestioned ability of nuclear weapons to inflict massive, indiscriminate, and possibly global destruction. The mountain is the conclusion that this is the way we should design and plan the use of nuclear forces, and even more important, the assumption that this is the way the Soviet Union does design and plan the use of its nuclear forces. The prescription for our own strategy and the assumption about Soviet strategy are not unalterable facts of nature but matters of policy choices in each country. The contrasting U.S. and Soviet choices brought about the relative worsening of the U.S. position.
This is not the place for a detailed critique of MAD, but a summary of its principal deficiencies is essential to assess the potential role for defenses in our strategy. A central point on which most critics and supporters of SDI agree is that the assessment of defenses depends critically on what you want them to do. And what we want them to do depends on our underlying strategy.
MAD as a strategy might have something to recommend it (not nearly enough in my view) if the tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. were restricted to the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union have not been dominated by the possibility of border conflicts between the two countries or the fear of invasion by the other. Rather the post-World War II military competition arose from the desire of the Soviet Union to dominate the countries on the periphery of its Empire and the desire of the United States to preserve the independence of those countries. No nuclear strategy can long ignore the role of nuclear weapons in managing this underlying conflict of interests, nor can it ignore the asymmetry in the geostrategic situations of the two countries. The U.S. guarantees a coalition of independent countries against nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. We have also affirmed in NATO strategy that we would respond to overwhelming nonnuclear attack with whatever means proved to be necessary to defeat such an attack. Do we now mean to exclude a U.S. nuclear response in both these cases? What if the Soviets launch a nuclear attack, but one directed solely at our allies and which avoids any damage to the U.S.? How long can an explicitly suicidal nuclear response remain a credible threat in the eyes of our allies or the Soviet Union?
On the Soviet side, there is abundant evidence that they have never accepted MAD as a strategic basis for their military programs (in contrast to their rhetoric designed to influence Western opinion). They continue to maintain and improve, at massive cost, air defense forces, ballistic missile defenses, and protective measures for their leadership and elements of their bureaucracy intended to ensure the continuity of the Soviet state. Their military strategy has increasingly focused on qualitative improvements to their massive forces intended to give them the ability to win a quick and decisive military victory in Europe using their nonnuclear forces to attack our theater nuclear forces as well as our conventional forces while deterring the use of our nuclear forces based outside the theater. Deterring a suicidal use of nuclear force is not very difficult. They have steadily improved the flexibility of their own nuclear forces in what Lt. Gen. William Odom, a leading professional student of Soviet military thought, has called their "strategic architecture." They design that architecture for the pursuit of Soviet political goals as well as military operations.
They clearly wish to dominate on their periphery and to extend their influence over time. By creating conditions that weaken ties between the United States and other independent countries they serve both ends. They clearly prefer to use latent threats based on their military power, but have shown themselves willing to use force either directly or indirectly and in a degree suited to their political goals. They regard wars, especially long and large wars, as posing great uncertainties for them. Because they cannot rule out the occurrence of such wars, they attempt to hedge against the uncertainties in their preparations. There is no reason to suppose that their plans for the use of nuclear weapons are inconsistent with their general approach to military planning.
From the Soviet point of view, Western public espousal of MAD is ideal. Western movement away from such a strategy based on indiscriminate and suicidal threats would increase the difficulty of Soviet political and strategic tasks. The consequences of Western reliance on threats to end civilization can clearly be seen in the increasing level of Western public anxiety about a nuclear cataclysm. While the incumbent governments among our allies have successfully resisted coercion, trends in public opinion and in the positions of opposition parties give us little reason for comfort. In the U.S. as well, public attitudes reflected in the freeze movement will make it increasingly difficult to compete with the Soviets in maintaining parity in nuclear offensive forces. The Soviet leaders have reason to believe that the West will flag in its efforts to make up for the ground it lost in the quantitative offense competition. Proponents of MAD have also impeded and delayed qualitative improvements in the name of "stability." Finally, a broad and increasing segment of the public is questioning the morality and prudence of threats of unlimited destruction as a basis for our strategy.
The specific relevance of MAD to the assessment of SDI is best illustrated in the assertion by critics of the hopelessness of the SDI's task. They observe that if even one percent of an attack by 10,000 warheads gets through the defenses, this means 100 nuclear weapons on cities and that for more likely levels of defense effectiveness, the ballistic missile defenses would be almost totally ineffective in protecting cities. They generally leave implicit the remarkable assumption that the Soviets would devote their entire (and in this example, presumably undamaged) missile force to attacks on cities, ignoring military targets in general and not even making any attempt to reduce our retaliatory blow by attacking our nuclear offensive forces. If the Soviet attack, for example, devoted 2/3 of their forces to attacking military targets, then only 1/3 of the warheads surviving a defense like a boost phase intercept system would be aimed at cities. In one particularly remarkable exercise of this sort, the authors concluded that defenses would cause the Soviets to concentrate their forces on our cities, even if their attack were to result in nuclear winter.
Such a bizarre assumption suggests the absence of serious thought about the objectives that might motivate Soviet leaders and military planners if they ever seriously contemplated the use of nuclear weapons. Whatever we may think of the heirs of Karl Marx, the followers of Lenin, and the survivors of Stalin, nothing in their background suggests suicidal tendencies. Certainly, their strictest ideological precepts call for the preservation of Soviet power and control. Neglect of the actual motivation of our adversaries is particularly strange in a strategic doctrine that professes to be concerned with deterrence. Despite the fact that deterrence is in the mind of the deterred, those who espouse MAD rarely go beyond the assumption that the attacker's purpose is to strike preemptively before he is attacked.
MAD doctrine takes it as axiomatic that to deter such a Soviet attack we must threaten "assured destruction" of Soviet society. A consequence of this view is that only offensive forces can directly contribute to deterrence. Defensive forces can contribute only if they are useful in protecting our missile silos and the "assured destruction" capability of the missiles in them. Beyond this ancillary role in deterrence, MAD relegates defenses along with offensive counterforce capability and civil defenses to the role of "damage limiting" if deterrence fails. But since our damage-limiting capability diminishes Soviet assured destruction capability, eliciting unlimited Soviet efforts to restore their deterrent, MAD dismisses damage limiting (and with it defenses) as pointless and destabilizing.
To recapitulate, acceptance of MAD doctrine implies for SDI:
Defenses must be essentially leakproof to be useful;
Defenses can at best serve an ancillary role in deterring attack;
Defenses that reduce civilian damage are inherently destabilizing.
Even a leakproof defense would not satisfy the last condition. Together these three conditions implied by MAD are an impenetrable barrier — a leak-proof defense against SDI. Since I have indicated above reasons for rejecting MAD as a doctrine, I believe we should reexamine each of these in turn.
Most important, if defenses must be leakproof to be useful, then the odds of success for the SDI R&D program are much lower than if lesser levels of effectiveness can contribute to our security objectives. The record is replete with instances of faulty predictions about the impossibility of technological accomplishments by those with the highest scientific credentials, and we should view current predictions about the impossibility of effective ballistic missile defenses in the perspective of that record. Nevertheless, if everything in a complex and diverse R&D program must work well to derive any benefit, the odds of success will be low and the time required very long.
The critics compound the problem further by demanding that the SDI research program prove and guarantee at its outset that the defenses that might ultimately be developed and deployed will be able to deal with a wide variety of ingenious, but poorly specified and, in some cases, extremely farfetched countermeasures. Critics can produce countermeasures on paper far more easily than the Soviets could produce them in the field. In fact, the critics seldom specify such "Soviet" countermeasures in ways that seriously consider their costs to the Soviet Union in resources, in the sacrifice of other military potential, or the time that it would take for the Soviets to develop them and incorporate them into their forces. The countermeasures suggested frequently are mutually incompatible.
If, instead, we replace MAD with a view of deterrence based on a more realistic assessment of Soviet strategic objectives, we arrive at a radically different assessment of the effectiveness required for useful defenses and of the appropriate objectives of the SDI R&D program. The point of departure ought to be reflection on the motives that might induce Soviet leaders and military planners to contemplate actually using nuclear weapons. The test of deterrence would come if we and the Soviet Union found ourselves in a major confrontation or nonnuclear conflict.
In such circumstances, Soviet leaders might find themselves facing a set of alternatives all of which looked unpleasant or risky. If, for example, they lacked confidence in their ability to bring a nonnuclear conflict to a swift and favorable conclusion, they might consider ensuring the futility of opposing them by a militarily decisive use of nuclear weapons. A decisive nuclear attack in this sense might or might not have to be "massive," in the sense of "very large." Its primary motivation would be the destruction of a set of general purpose force targets sufficient to terminate nonnuclear resistance. If Soviet leaders decided that the gains warranted the risks, they would further have to decide whether to attack our nuclear forces or to rely on deterring their use in retaliation. The extent and weight of such an attack would be a matter the Soviet leaders would decide within the context of a particular contingency, based on their assessment of our probable responses.
The alternative risks they would face would be the prospect of nuclear retaliation to an early nuclear attack on one hand; on the other hand, those of gradual escalation of a nonnuclear conflict in scope and violence with the ultimate possibility of nuclear conflict in any case. In either case their primary concern would be to achieve military victory while minimizing the extent of damage to the Soviet Union and the risk of loss of Soviet political control. Their targets would be selected to contribute to these goals. Wholesale and widespread attacks on civilians would not contribute but would only serve to ensure a similar response by the large nuclear forces remaining to us even after a relatively successful Soviet counterforce attack. And this does not even take account of the possibility that, should they launch a massive attack on cities, that might trigger nuclear winter, making our retaliation irrelevant.
Excerpted from The Star Wars Controversy by Steven E. Miller, Stephen Van Evera. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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