Thinking about Strategic Defense


What is a rational person to think of the Reagan administration's October 2 decision on strategic defense programs? In a long-awaited announcement, the President dumped the controversial MX "racetrack" basing system but endorsed production of 100 MX missiles to be housed in existing silos, which will receive additional hardening. He also announced production of 100 B-1 bombers, the more-accurate Trident II submarine-launched missile (SLBM), and improvements to satellite; radar; and communications, command, and control systems.

To begin with, it's important to dispense with several arguments that have been raised about the MX. The first has been to attack MX as a first-strike weapon, arguing that its extreme accuracy means it can only have been designed to launch a preemptive strike against Soviet missile silos. Such critics as the Center for Defense Information deride the notion of MX missiles making a retaliatory strike against thousands of empty Soviet silos.

What this argument conveniently neglects is that the Soviets have developed the ability to reload their silos by using a cold-launch technique. The SALT treaties have limited the number of silos but not the number of missiles. Thus, Soviet silos would remain a vital military target before or after a Soviet strike. Moreover, the willingness of the Soviets to launch a partial ICBM attack (as a means of nuclear blackmail) should be severely constrained by the knowledge that their remaining silos are vulnerable to attack.

A second line of argument turns on the issue of ICBM vulnerability. Arms-control advocates oscillate back and forth between arguing that (land-based) ICBMs are obsolete because they are vulnerable to a first strike—and therefore MX should not be built—and arguing that missile accuracy is so poor that our existing Minuteman missiles are invulnerable—and therefore MX should not be built.

Actually, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Knowledgeable critics outside the Defense Department argue that variations in gravitational forces (primarily) cannot be taken into account over unpracticed trajectories, leading to unacceptable bias in where the warhead impact pattern will be. (The conventional measure of accuracy—Circular Error Probable [CEP]—measures only the scatter within the impact pattern.) But Pentagon sources maintain that 20 years of polar launches and satellite measurements have produced sufficient data to enable missile guidance computers to correct for gravitational variations. The net amounts of bias error are measured in tens of feet, they say, far smaller than current CEPs measured in hundreds of feet.

Yet another argument is that the whole issue of Soviet strength has been blown out of proportion. After all, the United States still has 9,200 targetable nuclear weapons, compared with only 6,000 for the Soviets. So what if they have more and larger missiles?

What this facile comparison omits, however, is the fact that a much larger fraction of our nuclear weapons is on board bombers (and thereby less likely to get delivered) or on SLBMs (and therefore useful only against cities or other soft targets). The Soviets have a three-to-one advantage in highly accurate land-based warheads.

The most important criticism of the MX centered on its absurd "racetrack" or multiple-protective-shelter basing scheme. The whole concept originated, not out of defense requirements, but as an element of the SALT-II negotiations. Increasingly, critics ranging from the Office of Technology Assessment to the Townes Panel to Pentagon R&D chief Richard DeLauer have concluded that the scheme simply would not work—that the Soviets could add additional warheads and missiles faster and at less cost than we could add additional shelters.

Even the least-costly 100-missile/1,000-shelter racetrack scheme would have cost $20 billion. Reagan's alternative of deploying 100 missiles in 100 existing but further-hardened shelters will cost only $2 billion, achieving virtually the same result at one-tenth the price.

But what of the remainder of the $180 billion program? How much sense does it make? We have long argued in these pages that this nation must move away from the fundamentally immoral position of basing our survival on the threat of wiping out the Soviet population. A morally sound defense should focus on being able to destroy the enemy's military capability with minimal impact on innocent civilians. Thus, the long-term objective of US policy should be to shift from city-busting ICBMs and SLBMs to a force structure composed of (1) offensive weapons of pinpoint accuracy able to take out military targets with minimal collateral damage and (2) truly defensive weaponry and civil defense capabilities.

The new program takes some encouraging steps in that direction. The substitution of the Trident II for the Trident I SLBM will give our sea-based missiles a counter-force capability for the first time, converting them from city-busters. The large increase in procurement of cruise missiles—to be carried by B-52s, B-1s, surface ships, and attack submarines—will provide precise accuracy with low-yield warheads against thousands of dispersed military targets other than missile silos. In the R&D area, the program calls for stepped-up work on both land-based and space-based antimissile systems. And the improvements in command and control, in over-the-horizon radars, in air defense and antisatellite capability plug long-neglected gaps in the overall strategic picture.

One can argue about whether production of the B-1 is really necessary. The B-52 G and H models, though aging, might be adequate until a Stealth-type aircraft is available in the 1990s. But Stealth is still a paper airplane. If delayed further, we could be left with a period of no airborne cruise missile carriers. Similarly, one can argue over what comes after the initial 100 MX missiles—and here the airborne Big Bird concept looks like a turkey.

But it's hard to quarrel with the basic thrust of the strategic modernization program. It represents a rejection of the costly gimmicks of the SALT/detente era and a shift away from the insanity of Mutual Assured Destruction. Those concerned about just war, as well as those enamored of cost-effectiveness, have some cause to applaud.