President Reagan has at long last called for development of systems to defend against nuclear attack. Far more than a proposal for yet another new weapons system, Reagan's March 23 speech was a call for repudiation of the major strategic policy of the past two decades—Mutual Assured Destruction. (MAD's basic premise is that the only defense against nuclear attack ought to be the threat to annihilate the Soviet Union in retaliation. To maintain this balance of terror, MAD's advocates adamantly oppose any sort of antiballistic missile [ABM] system.) It is that change in strategy that accounts for the near-hysteria on the part of MAD supporters since Reagan's speech.
The MADmen's first argument is that defensive systems are not technologically possible. These critiques have a familiar ring. Distinguished mathematician Simon Newcomb in 1901 published a detailed explanation of why "the construction of an aerial vehicle which could carry even a single man…requires the discovery of some new metal or some new force." Lacking either one, the Wright brothers flew two years later. In early 1945 FDR's naval aide, Admiral William Leahy, pronounced the Manhattan Project "the biggest fool thing we've ever done. The atomic bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert on explosions." Then there was physicist Vannevar Bush of MIT, who in 1945 told a Senate committee looking into the possibility of ICBMs: "I say, technically, I don't think anybody in the world knows how to do such things, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long period of time." The ICBM was a reality little more than a decade later.
We are at a similar stage with antiballistic-missile technology. Many people, recalling the ABM debates of the '60s, have the impression that the infeasibility of "hitting a bullet with a bullet" was established at that time. In fact, the first successful intercept of an ICBM warhead took place in 1962 over the Pacific Ocean. The real problem then was how to deal with thousands of warheads (plus decoys) all at once. Two decades of tremendous progress in computer technology have solved that problem. Other key technologies—space transportation and precision guidance systems—are exemplified by the space shuttle's routine flights and the highly accurate space probes to Jupiter and Saturn.
It is quite true that lasers and particle beams are not yet perfected as weapons. But a highly effective, several-layer ABM system can be built with existing technology. The High Frontier project, for example, would utilize essentially off-the-shelf heat-seeking missiles based in space to intercept ICBMs in the early stages of flight. And it would supplement that shield with a shrapnel-type point defense installed around Minuteman silos.
Those MADmen who are scientists are not speaking as scientists when they claim that ABM systems won't work. They are expressing their political views, as long-time advocates of arms-control via MAD (or, in some cases, of various versions of disarmament). For every anti-ABM Kosta Tsipis or Jerome Wiesner, you can find a Simon Ramo or an Edward Teller who, with solid technical credentials, maintains that ABMs are feasible.
Ironically, when confronted with an available technology for nuclear defense, the MADmen's comeback is that such systems should not be built because doing so would be dangerous or destabilizing. Were the United States to build a High Frontier defense, they say, the Soviets would, in effect, be disarmed. Hence, they'd be tempted to launch a preemptive attack! Amazingly, this argument is made by the same people who continually pooh-pooh any claim that the Soviets are ahead in nuclear arms—it doesn't matter, they say, because the side with fewer weapons could still deliver an unacceptably destructive retaliatory blow. The same Poseidon subs that Tsipis cites as invulnerable when arguing that MX is unnecessary would still be there to retaliate—and the Soviets know it.
When this silly ploy is countered, the MADmen play their trump card. "The critical failure of all these defensive systems is that they must be perfect," says Tsipis. But that is asking the impossible. No weapons system has ever been, or is ever likely to be, 100 percent effective. Isn't a system that stops 90 or 95 percent of Soviet warheads, saving 95 out of 100 million people, better than nothing? No, say the MADmen, creating highly unrealistic scenarios of all 8,500 Soviet warheads raining down on us at once—neglecting the fact that 4,000 of these are on submarines, two-thirds of which are in port at any time; that a large fraction of the warheads would be held in reserve; that a rational Soviet attack would focus on military targets, not cities. The biggest threat to most people would be short-term fallout, and that could be countered by civil-defense precautions. No ABM system would make a nuclear attack a picnic. But by drastically reducing the extent of destruction, it could greatly increase the odds of survival.
While the MADmen's desperate arguments ring hollow, the case for nuclear defense has not been won. The president's proposal simply sets a long-term goal, premised on eventual success in turning lasers or particle beams into weapons. What we need now is to utilize existing technology to begin implementing the shift to what Herman Kahn calls Mutual Assured Survival. Where would the $15 to $25 billion for High Frontier come from in an already bloated defense budget? The short-term answer involves a trade-off. Instead of "solving" the problem of Minuteman vulnerability by spending $20 billion putting MX's into still-vulnerable silos, why not launch a High Frontier crash program instead? For the same money, that could provide both a point defense of the Minuteman fields and 450 satellites armed with interceptor missiles.
The space system could later be upgraded with "Star Wars weapons," when they become available. The money for those should come from the tremendous savings to be realized by ending our $100-billion-a-year subsidies of the defense of Europe and Japan. By choosing to spend so much defending others, we have been choosing not to defend ourselves, given the limited resources available. Sooner or later we are going to have to rethink that choice. Now that MAD is on the way out and real defense is in prospect, it's high time we chose to defend ourselves.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Countering the MADmen".