At a time when US embassies are under attack by mobs and a hapless president is humiliated by a dictatorial madman, the US Senate is called upon to pass judgment on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). Unfortunately, in such an environment the urge to demonstrate "toughness" may conflict with the need for sound, critical thinking. Yet the issues at stake are far too serious to be decided on anything less than the most carefully rational basis.
SALT II sets limits on the numbers of missiles and bombers permitted to the United States and the USSR. It also limits the number of warheads on multiple-warhead missiles and the number of such missiles in each side's arsenal. Advocates of SALT II consider it an important step in halting escalation of the costly, dangerous strategic arms race.
Most SALT opponents raise several issues. Pointing to certain asymmetrical aspects of the treaty (the Soviet SS-18 is larger than anything on the US side, the Soviet Backfire bomber is not counted) and doubts about being able to verify Soviet compliance, they have argued that the treaty tends to ratify what they see as Soviet strategic superiority. In particular, they say, the US land-based Minuteman ICBMs are now vulnerable to being wiped out by a Soviet first strike. Hence as their price for supporting SALT II these critics demand deployment of the MX missile system with its "racetrack" method of basing. And in order to get their votes, the Carter administration has promised to go along.
Unfortunately, most of the debate is beside the point. The desirability of SALT can only be assessed by reference to fundamental questions about US defense needs. And that, in turn, requires familiarity with a number of complex technical issues. Based on such study, two highly significant facts emerge:
1. Our Minuteman missiles are not vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. Despite improvements in the theoretical accuracy of Soviet missiles (the "scatter," or CEP), their actual ability to hit desired targets head-on (their "bias") depends on such factors as gravitational variations, winds, and air-density variations. In a first-strike situation (that is, without the possibility of practice shots), these variables could not be controlled for. As James Fallows summed it up in the Atlantic, "few who understand the mechanics of nuclear weaponry consider the perfect timing, precise coordination, and pinpoint accuracy of the first-strike scenario as anything more than a frightening but unrealistic fantasy." Thus, there is no need for the costly new MX to replace Minuteman.
2. Genuine defense against ICBMs is now quite feasible. As pointed out on this page last year (Jan. 1979), orbiting platforms armed with high-energy laser weapons could destroy Soviet ICBMs in the boost phase (while still over Soviet territory). Several other new types of missile defense systems were described in Aviation Week last fall (Oct. 22, 1979). All these systems are feasible with technology that already exists; all that's required is the commitment to develop and deploy the hardware.
In the light of these two points, what can we say about SALT II? On the one hand, the concern of the treaty's opponents that SALT II ratifies US inferiority is misplaced. If all three elements of the US strategic Triad (land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and airborne weapons—bombers and cruise-missile carriers) remain effective deterrents, then the fact that the SS-18 has 10 one-megaton warheads is irrelevant. And even if the Soviets were to evade verification and put 14 warheads on the SS-18, it makes little real difference as long as our deterrent remains effective.
But the real problem with SALT II concerns the whole concept of deterrence. Like its predecessors, SALT II represents a commitment to the continuation of mutual assured destruction (MAD)—a joint agreement that neither side will attempt to defend against ICBMs. Instead, each will hold the other's population hostage, as our only defense against attack. Shades of the Ayatollah!
By continuing this policy of defense by offense, the administration makes itself vulnerable to virtually irresistible political pressures for more and "better" offensive strategic weapons—the $1.59 billion apiece Trident submarine and the absurdly costly $33-40 billion MX/racetrack system. And because even defense budgets have limits, that, in turn, means that other weapons systems—ones that might actually defend this country—cannot be procured. Building MX and Trident may keep a few defense contractors happy but will gut our real defense needs—such as:
• a naval capability adequate to protect US commerce on the high seas,
• a functioning air defense system (of which we now have none),
• adequate pay for those in uniform (rather than conscription),
• sufficient supplies and spare parts to keep the military functioning,
• a thorough research and development effort,
• adequate quantities of simple, reliable, low-cost weapons, and, above all,
• a major commitment to defense against ballistic missiles.
Ratification of SALT II would commit this country to a continuation of the dangerous, costly, and morally repugnant policy of the balance of terror. Rejection of SALT II—along with rejection of costly new offensive systems like MX and Trident—could be the beginning of a new commitment, a commitment to principled defense. By rejecting the morality of madmen and terrorists and making this country invulnerable to nuclear blackmail, such a policy might also earn us a new respect among the peoples of the earth.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "SALT and Defense".