Dissolving the Nuclear Suicide Pact


A Defense That Defends, by Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham and Gregory A. Fossedal, Old Greenwich, Conn.: Devin-Adair, 172 pp., $17.50

Ironically, the Department of War changed its name to the Department of Defense in the same era when it began to shift to a strategy of total offense. The current reign of nuclear terror is an inevitable product of the helpless awe that "the bomb" provoked among a generation of intellectuals.

In the furor surrounding President Reagan's call for a new look at defending the United States against nuclear attack, Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham has been a calm, reasonable proponent. A few years ago, in High Frontier, he took up a program explored and cast aside in the early 1960s, Project Defender. It envisioned an orbiting fleet of small, relatively low-tech rockets that could be sent against intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads. Now, with the help of respected journalist Gregory Fossedal, Graham outlines in clear, incisive prose the broader policy history and implications of choosing to truly defend the United States in this nuclear era.

The Constitution requires of a president that he "protect and defend" the country. Instead, recent presidents have indulged in mutual suicide pacts with enemies, hoping the deal will never be consummated. This policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) has undermined US strategy far more than the Soviet Union's. A present White House aide compares it to "the effect you get when you shine a bright flashlight in the eyes of a wild animal at night. The animal freezes." And US foreign policy has indeed been consumed with fears that any move will lead to "increased tensions," heightening the chance that the other side will initiate its part of the mutual suicide.

But while the United States has stood frozen in fear, the Soviet Union has used arms negotiations to mask a huge nuclear buildup, never accepting for a moment the MAD policy. The Soviet government stresses defenses and counterforce—striking at an enemy first to disable his ability to conduct war. Obviously, MAD is the worst posture to take against counterforce, since it rewards a first strike enormously.

The American thirst for arms negotiations in the context of a MAD policy ignores a basic fact. As long as one's only response to an enemy's improvements in forces is to add more offensive weapons of one's own, there will always be an arms race until one side loses heart. That is precisely what the United States faces. Only if we develop another response—defense—can we change our philosophy and counter the growing despair over the nuclear suicide pact.

The program presented by Graham and Fossedal begins with the technical problem of intercepting warheads in space. Defending in space is a truly radical advance, and the High Frontier scenario is an appealing first step. It uses off-the-shelf technology, requires little research, and could be deployed within five to six years for less than $50 billion. Predictably, critics have downplayed it. Far easier to attack the concept of defense if it can be associated with Star Wars laser beams and far-out scenarios.

The furor over this issue will continue for years, because it strikes equally at core assumptions of left and right. "Both hawkish Pentagon generals and ardent nuclear freeze supporters will no doubt cringe at the suggestion that their approaches go hand in hand," note the authors. Both these groups assume that the Soviet leadership is rational, constantly calculating cost-benefit ratios. They assume that accidents will not precipitate a war and that we can trust everyone to be predictable. "A defense strategy, by contrast, says that we had better trust ourselves, and make peaceful preparations to limit the harm any country can inflict on us."

Defense is morally superior and plays to US advantages. We excel at guidance and tracking technology. We have every intention of taking full advantage of the industrial/commercial potential of space. Developing conventional "smart-missile" defenses will aid conversion of NATO to a non-nuclear posture.

Why, then, oppose defense? Technologists find nuclear weapons "technically sweet" in their ease and power, while defense is complicated and messy. Intellectuals embrace a Strangelovian notion of security through vulnerability. Politicians have virtually made prostration before the bomb a moral act. A current great oversimplification—that our problem lies in the weapons per se, and therefore no solution can come from any new weapons, defensive or not—has become a litany.

In a chapter "Answering the Critics," the authors incisively expose the pervasive treatment of MAD and deterrence as synonyms. They briefly respond to technical points, most of which are based on assuming impossible goals for any defense. (They quickly demolish the idea that because bombs are so powerful, any defense must be perfect: "General Grant put a cavalry screen in front of his forces not because the cavalry was invulnerable to Confederate fire, or because a few hundred horsemen could defeat 20,000 of General Lee's soldiers, but because he did not want the battle to commence with an assault on his main forces.")

Perhaps the most important facet of this debate is the wedding of arms control with defense. Readers of Freeman Dyson's recent and excellent book, Weapons and Hope, will find a startling overlap in philosophy: to achieve real security, we must reduce arms and defend, to avoid both MAD and nuclear winter. Graham and Fossedal see this clearly; a true defensive policy can seize the moral high ground and further American interests, coopting many positions earlier taken only by the left.

Graham and Fossedal quote a 1982 poll showing that 86 percent of the American public favors a change from our current offense-only posture, to one of defending against nuclear attack. If this sense can be turned into political strength, we may yet see a world that does not perpetually cower before the all-too-thinkable abyss.

Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of the Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy.