Keeping the Peace

Which is better, SDI or arms control? The truth is, one is not much good without the other.


The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised," wrote Sir Winston Churchill at the close of World War I. "At the summit true politics and strategy are one. The maneuver which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle. The maneuver which gains an important strategic point may be less valuable than that which placates or overawes a dangerous neutral."

Churchill was aware of what many people have readily forgotten: that war is a political act and that the methods of politics and diplomacy are not separate from those of weaponry and combat. It is a lesson we learned anew during the Vietnam war, when our forces were overcome not through defeat in battle but through a withdrawal of political support at home.

And this lesson is worth remembering when we think of the Strategic Defense Initiative. We see this program derided as "Star Wars," dismissed as the hopeless pursuit of a technological fix. Instead, urge critical pundits and commentators, we should put our trust in arms-control treaties. For their part, proponents of SDI often see little hope in arms control but put their faith in the search for weapons of new design.

However, Churchill's point is valid here as well. The distinction between arms control and advancing technology also diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit they too become indistinguishable. A technical system that diminishes the value of existing nuclear arms can be as valuable as a treaty that diminishes their number. An agreement between the superpowers may prevent them from deploying a new class of missiles, but the same result can be achieved with effective missile defenses that render the deployment useless.

This does not mean that diplomacy and technology stand as alternatives, choosable at will. A sought for treaty may remain out of reach, just as a wished for technical system may prove infeasible. Thus we should not think of arms control and technology as mutually exclusive, forcing statesmen to choose one or the other. Instead we should anticipate that they will complement each other, each standing as a contribution to the essential political problem: the prevention of war.

This is not merely high flown theory. It is possible to state in some detail how this complementarity is likely to be realized as the controversial SDI and the distrusted strategic arms reduction talks proceed in tandem. Indeed, it is quite possible that this point of view—the complementarity of technology and arms control—will become the conventional wisdom of the 1990s, subscribed to by Democrats and Republicans alike. Such a consensus, if it develops, would reflect an appreciation of the interplay between nuclear missiles, advancing technology, diplomacy, and politics.

That this complementarity is more than theory is evident in the interplay between technology and diplomacy in years past, leading to the recently negotiated Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The background to INF thus illustrates the considerations that are likely to govern the future of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The INF treaty mandates the elimination of missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,000 miles. The first such missiles were developed in the decade after World War II, when the lack of advanced rockets, capable of intercontinental ranges (5,000 miles and up), made such shorter-range weapons a matter of high technical priority.

However, it proved difficult for either superpower to gain political or strategic advantage through their development. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, revolved around just these intermediate-range missiles. Under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviets had deployed them in Cuba in an effort to neutralize the U.S. lead in developing longer-range intercontinental missiles; but Khrushchev was forced to withdraw the missiles, in what for him was a humiliating retreat. Significantly, as a sweetener, President John F. Kennedy withdrew a group of similar U.S. missiles based in Turkey.

It is not surprising that such weapons fell into disfavor. Their limited ranges demanded close-in deployment; this, along with their unusually short flight times, made them highly provocative. Amid large-scale production of the intercontinental missiles, then, they faded into obsolescence. This appeared at the time to be a result of a technical advance, in that missile ranges were increasing. But of even greater importance was the fact that from a political standpoint the intermediate-range weapons were counterproductive.

Then in 1979 the Soviets thought they saw a way to use such missiles to advantage. They announced that they would deploy a new generation of them, designated SS-20, aimed at Europe. NATO ministers called on President Jimmy Carter to respond to this threat with a new missile of our own, the Pershing II, and Carter agreed.

When Ronald Reagan reached the White House, he soon faced a Soviet-orchestrated protest movement, with strong participation from Europe's socialist parties, opposing the Pershings. No such protests had greeted the SS-20s. The implications were clear: the Soviets were claiming a free hand in deploying new missiles that would threaten Europe, but the United States and NATO were to be prevented, through political means, from responding with a counter deployment. If this happened, the Soviets would indeed succeed in effecting a major political victory with their intermediate-range missiles.

This is why, in the face of widespread demonstrations and controversy, Reagan and NATO held firm. They deployed the Pershing IIs; they overrode the protests of the peace movement. And with that, the Soviets saw that they indeed would not succeed in using these missiles to gain an advantage.

By the mid-1980s, then, such intermediate-range weapons had been in existence for some 30 years and had brought little but trouble to either side. The way was open for both superpowers to negotiate them out of existence. The result is the INF treaty. Both the United States and the Soviets could gain the political advantage of appearing as peacemakers who would do away with entire classes of nuclear arms. It is likely that for both superpowers, those weapons never served the national interest better than when it was agreed that they should be destroyed.

The issues of strategic defense and intercontinental missiles, in turn, have been even more convoluted. The prospect of a defense against missiles—"a bullet to hit a bullet," in the parlance of the time—first gained serious attention in the late 1950s. The army was pursuing a defensive rocket system called Nike-Zeus, which evolved in the late 1960s into two different rocket interceptors, Spartan and Sprint. Both of them were tested extensively, being fired from Kwajalein Island in the mid-Pacific against rockets launched from California.

As approved by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in 1967, the overall system would feature ground-based radars to detect incoming warheads. Spartans then would fly to attack them, seeking to destroy the warheads outside the atmosphere. Still, some would penetrate. They were to be picked off by Sprint, which was capable of extraordinarily rapid flight and would strike at the remaining enemy warheads at lower altitudes, before they could hit the ground.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were developing a similar system, called Galosh in the West. This led the U.S. Air Force to pursue technical advances that would permit the United States to carry out a successful nuclear attack even if the Soviet Union were to be planted thickly with Galoshes.

The most significant such advance was MIRV (multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles), which greatly multiplied the number of nuclear bombs each missile would carry. Spartan, Sprint, and Galosh all had been pursued in an era of single-warhead missiles. With MIRV, however, a would-be attacker could add bombs more easily than the defender could add countermeasures. MIRV would therefore overwhelm a defensive force such as Galosh. The United States took the lead in its development, but within a few years the Soviets, too, would be MIRVing their strategic missiles.

What was more, by the early 1970s it was clear that the early defensive missiles all had a fatal technical flaw. In the words of Allan Mense, chief scientist of the current SDI effort, "In 1972 our only detectors were ground-based radars. If one or two nuclear weapons were to detonate high above the U.S., they would produce a reflecting layer that the radars couldn't see through. Our defense could be rendered useless with such fairly easy countermeasures. And since our interceptors—Spartan and Sprint—were also nuclear-tipped, they would have the same effect. We would be blinding ourselves."

Within the Soviet Union, the Galosh system had the same problem: it too was a self-blinding system, relying on radars and nuclear interceptors. No one could find a way around this fundamental incompatibility. Again, it is not surprising that both superpowers entered into an agreement, the ABM (antiballistic missile) treaty of 1972, not to pursue such missile defenses.

The treaty also boosted hopes that the arms-control process would set further limits to the arms race. Since diplomacy had dealt effectively with the ABM, it was natural to hope that the same process could set limits on offensive nuclear weapons. That was the point of the SALT arms-control negotiations that went forward during the 1970s. Here, however, there was no such success. The proposed SALT II treaty of 1979 allowed 2,250 "vehicles"—bombers or long-range missiles—to each side, a number so large as to be meaningless as a limitation. And even to win this agreement, the Carter administration had to make concessions that appeared entirely one-sided.

By 1979, for example, the Soviets had taken the lead in deploying very large missiles, SS-18s, capable of carrying 10 or more MIRVed warheads. Some 300 of them were in place, with the United States having none. The SALT II treaty proposed to freeze this imbalance by creating a category of "heavy missiles" within the total allocation of 2,250 vehicles. The Soviets were to be permitted 308 of them; the United States was to have none.

There was a similar imbalance in the matter of long-range bombers. The Soviets demanded, and the United States agreed, that their Backfire bombers should not count against their total of 2,250. The reason for this was that these bombers lacked the range to strike the United States from Soviet bases and then return to those bases. However, they could strike the eastern United States and then fly on to land in Cuba. Nonetheless, our negotiators agreed not to count them.

This was the situation when Reagan reached the White House in 1981. He quickly proceeded to launch a new generation of strategic weapons: the B-1B bomber, the MX missile, the Trident submarine. The diplomats had made their effort, with SALT II; now the technologists would have a chance.

Reagan did not, in 1981, proceed with the Strategic Defense Initiative, although developments both in technology and in diplomacy were pointing in that direction. Reagan and his advisors—the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff—were troubled by the rapid growth of Soviet forces not only in number but in accuracy. They could look ahead to the 1990s and envision a world in which the United States, despite spending enormous sums on new weaponry, would actually be less secure than in the 1970s.

Since the Kennedy administration, the United States had relied on a triad of nuclear weapons: manned bombers, intercontinental Minuteman missiles in underground launchers, and missile submarines. The prospect was that the Soviets would be unable to attack all three successfully. Then, if they launched a nuclear strike, we would be able to ride out the attack. Part of our forces would be destroyed, but enough would remain to launch a devastating retaliation that would eradicate the Soviet Union as an organized society. The upshot: their leaders would be deterred from launching a nuclear attack, since it would lead to their certain destruction.

But technical improvements in missile guidance systems now were putting this strategy of deterrence in question. In the words of White House aide Bruce Abell, "We were getting to the point where offensive weapons were becoming so accurate that they increasingly conferred the possibility of a first-strike capability on one side or the other. We really could expect not to have a triad anymore. A first strike by the Soviets could pretty much cripple our land-based missiles, wreak havoc with our airplanes, and leave us relying heavily on our submarine force. Now submarines are a very, very good deterrent—but no one is prepared to say for how long. And the situation is not getting better; it's getting worse."

The strategic balance was moving in the wrong direction. Increasingly the Soviets would be free to concentrate their resources on antisubmarine warfare, seeking a breakthrough that would permit a knockout blow to the one remaining leg of the triad. Strategic security for the United States, in turn, would depend more and more on the prospect that the Soviets would not make such a breakthrough.

With our bombers and missiles increasingly at risk, the United States might well have to rely on such strategies as "launch on warning" or "launch under attack," firing back more promptly and at earlier stages of an attack, rather than riding it out and then retaliating. These strategies would demand higher levels of readiness to fire. And they would increase the chances of nuclear war. In a crisis, the urge to escalate would heighten. Both superpowers' forces would more and more be on a hair-trigger, with the prospect of nuclear victory awaiting whichever power succeeded in striking first. That was what the world stood to look like in the 1990s.

The response of liberals—many Democrats, along with the European parties of the left—was to call for a nuclear freeze, a ban on developing and deploying new weapons. The freeze campaign amounted to the hope that in the face of great technical dynamism, people can be kept from inventing things.

Reagan's response, by contrast, was to seek to harness this dynamism. His military advisors urged a new look at building a defense against missiles using advanced technology. The result, since 1983, has been the Strategic Defense Initiative.

From the outset, two new technical prospects made SDI worth pursuing. The first was that in the decade since the ABM Treaty, it had become plausible that we could destroy attacking missiles without using nuclear blasts that would incapacitate the system. This might be done with kinetic-energy weapons—precisely guided cannonballs that could home in to a direct hit—as well as with advanced lasers. In this fashion, we could defend against a nuclear attack with weapons that could not themselves serve for mass destruction.

The homing systems, in turn, would not rely on easily blinded radar. Instead they would use infrared detectors, able to track incoming warheads even if a nuclear weapon were detonated in the atmosphere. The infrared systems could see right through the electrically charged layer produced by a nuclear explosion and could even see past glowing gas from the explosion itself to track incoming warheads.

The second prospect was that we would be able to destroy attacking missiles soon after launch, when such blows would have the most telling effect. Previous missile-defense proposals had focused on "terminal-phase kill," attacking warheads just before they struck their targets. In an age of MIRVs, however, such defensive systems would have to cope with large numbers of incoming nuclear bombs, all at the same time, and with less than a minute to spare before they would hit their targets. These bombs, in turn, would likely be hidden amid decoys—nonexplosive objects designed to resemble warheads—and would be protected by countermeasures to interfere with our defenses.

By contrast, "boost-phase kill" would destroy an attacking missile just after launch. It would be technically demanding, calling for defensive weapons of particularly long range, but would be extraordinarily effective if it worked. A just-launched missile would be easily detected, for with its rockets firing it would stand out like a firefly in a dark room. All its MIRVed warheads, along with decoys and countermeasures—"penetration aids," in Pentagon parlance—would be wrapped in a single package and could therefore be destroyed in a single blow. In sum, boost-phase kill would nullify the advantages of Soviet efforts both in MIRV and in improving guidance accuracy.

Where do we stand today, then, in the pursuit of these goals? Last September, then–Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger approved a plan to focus SDI funding on six specific projects, to be ready for operational deployment by the mid-1990s. Two projects involve kinetic energy weapons, in a ground-based as well as a space-based version. There also are to be three independent systems for detecting and tracking enemy missiles, one of them involving ground installations, the other two relying on orbiting satellites. Finally, there is to be a system of computers to process the tracking and detection data and to provide battle commands to the interceptors.

These systems, declare the proponents, could be built and deployed at a total cost of $250 billion—equivalent to about eight years' worth of spending on today's strategic missiles and bombers. The resulting defensive force, known as Phase I, then would have the capability to destroy some one-fourth of attacking Soviet missiles.

The value of such a limited defense system, with the remaining three-fourths able to get through, is commonly misunderstood. The key is the prospect that Phase I could strengthen deterrence by continuing to make nuclear attack an exercise in national suicide.

If the Soviets are ever to launch such an attack, it will be because they are certain they can fight and win the war, that they can prevent us from effectively retaliating. To do this, they would plan to launch their missiles in well-targeted salvos. But if we could knock down even a quarter of their missiles, that could suffice to disrupt their well-laid plans. Then they could not be sure the attack would succeed. To the contrary, they would have to consider seriously that enough of our own forces would survive to launch a retaliation. They then would continue to be deterred.

"A strategic defense that attacks in the boost phase creates tremendous uncertainty," observes the White House's Bruce Abell. Reagan himself has made this point. In his 1988 State of the Union address, he described SDI as a way to "offer the world a safer, more stable basis for deterrence." And Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci has added that "a strategic defense need not be 'leak-proof to achieve this objective."

Phase I, then, offers a technical means to address the gradual erosion of our triad from three strong legs to only one. It offers the prospect of moving back toward a more stable nuclear balance, of a trend toward a safer and not a more dangerous world.

Moreover, Phase I fits in very well with the goal of Reagan's START (strategic arms reductions talks): large cuts in both sides' nuclear forces. At the Reykjavik summit in 1986, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev first broached the serious prospect of an agreement that would eliminate 50 percent of these forces. Such reductions are the focus of the current round of arms negotiations following May's summit meeting in Moscow.

But as the Strategic Defense Initiative's Allan Mense points out, "There's no guarantee the Soviets couldn't hide a few extra missiles in Asia. The only real way is to have a defense at modest cost, such that it would be militarily of no value to hide such missiles." In the absence of any missile defense, as the number of nuclear weapons diminishes, the potential gains from cheating become increasingly tempting. Phase I, however, by devaluing such gains, could reduce the temptation and thus aid the prospects for such deep cuts.

In addition, a capability to destroy a quarter of an attacking force, but not a substantially higher portion, is likely to address a key worry of critics: that SDI could prove useful as an offensive and not just a defensive system. In their scenarios, the United States could use SDI to render itself attack-proof; if so, it could launch a surprise first strike and then rely on our missile defense to knock down the bedraggled remnants of Soviet missilery.

Phase I should allay such worries because our strategic planners are in the same boat as the Soviets': such a prospect (however improbable politically) would depend on having a very high level of confidence that it could in fact be pulled off. Phase I, however, would hardly appear to offer the needed level of protection in the first place, let alone the near-certainty that we could indeed fight such a one-sided nuclear war and win.

Yet Phase I carries with it two major problems, one technical, the other political. The technical problem is that it depends on rocket-propelled interceptors to accomplish the boost-phase kill, and these need several minutes to fly to the intercept. That fits the characteristics of today's Soviet missiles, which indeed take three to five minutes to accelerate under rocket thrust. But the next generation of Soviet rockets, built in response to our SDI efforts, is likely to be of the "fast-burn" variety, needing only a minute or less. So they would succeed in reaching full speed, and in releasing their MIRVs and decoys, before the defensive interceptors could get to them.

The political problem is that Phase I could not even be brought to engineering development, let alone deployment, without violating the 1972 ABM treaty. This treaty, in turn, stands as a linchpin in an arms-control process that has taken on a life of its own.

Increasingly, the U.S.-Soviet relationship has come to be seen in terms of our mutual ability to negotiate new arms-control treaties while upholding the ones already at hand. Indeed, success in such negotiations is widely viewed as the mark of an improving superpower relationship. To abrogate the ABM treaty, then, would be widely viewed as a breach of international trust and would bring a political and diplomatic crisis of the first magnitude.

Neither of these issues is intractable. To address them, however, will demand high creativity and innovative thinking both in technology and in diplomacy.

To deal with the technical problems, it will be necessary to demonstrate that Phase I could be strengthened and stiffened during the early decades of the next century by introducing second-generation strategic defenses. These would rely on advanced lasers or similar techniques capable of extremely fast response. Laser beams, for example, travel at the speed of light and could easily outrace even the fastest-burning booster.

It would not be necessary to build or deploy such lasers. We need only show that we understand the necessary principles and are prepared to develop operational versions in time to counter any Soviet move toward fast-burn missiles. Such a demonstration would devalue fast-burn in Soviet eyes and very likely dissuade them from pursuing it.

Such a demonstration may well be possible within the next few years. SDl's designers have settled on a concept called the free-electron laser as the approach of choice. The army's Strategic Defense Command is already building a major test site, near Oro Grande, New Mexico. The tests to be conducted there, in the early 1990s, have as their goal the proof that such lasers can be made as large and powerful as desired and that their beams can be successfully shot up through the atmosphere, then reflected off an orbiting mirror to destroy an enemy missile.

The Soviets are chess players, and they tend to look several moves ahead. So if the work at Oro Grande succeeds, our diplomats would be in a good position to approach the Soviets and offer a treaty to ban the development of both fast-burn boosters and missile-killing lasers. This would be in line with the ABM and INF experience: that new missile systems, offering little or no military advantage, can be traded away in exchange for political gains. The proposed elimination of fast-burn boosters and advanced lasers indeed would be seen as a further step toward arms control, a further improvement in superpower relations.

And our diplomats could go further. As a negotiating position they could offer a new principle: limited strategic defenses such as SDI's Phase I, offering useful but not total protection against nuclear attack, are to be accepted and built on both sides.

Such a principle is not accepted at all today. To the contrary, people remember that at Reykjavik in 1986, Gorbachev's offer of a mutual 50 percent cutback foundered on Reagan's insistence that he preserve the right to proceed with research on SDI. Indeed, at the time, SDI was widely described by the media as an obstacle to this sweeping agreement.

But the Soviets have changed their minds before. For instance, early in his administration, Reagan proposed that the Soviets withdraw their already-deployed SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise not to deploy the Pershing IIs. The Soviets rejected this proposal out of hand; it was widely disparaged in the media. The reason was that the Soviets, by stirring up opposition to the Pershings, hoped to win the right to deploy their missiles while preventing us from replacing ours. When this ploy failed, they proceeded to negotiate the INF Treaty—on virtually the same grounds Reagan had proposed in 1981.

And if Soviet opposition to SDI is viewed as a similar political tactic, a similar attempt to gain one-sided concessions with help from antinuclear activists, then it is likely that here too the Soviets will change their minds—if we stand firm. The arms-control discussions of the 1990s, then, may well be based on U.S. insistence on the acceptability of Phase I kinds of defenses, as a means of strengthening deterrence as well as a safeguard against cheating. The way would then be open for a grand agreement, which would define the nuclear world for the foreseeable future.

This agreement would ban the development of fast-burn boosters. It would mandate deep cutbacks in each side's arsenal of nuclear arms. It would permit the deployment of limited strategic defenses such as Phase I. It would also set strict limits on such defenses, banning the deployment of lasers or related systems, while ensuring that the initial defenses would not be made much stronger. That would guard against the prospect of one side being able to launch an attack while fending off the other side's retaliation. Moreover, the way would then be open to negotiate further agreements, leading to still further cutbacks.

Such a grand agreement would permit the world to enter the next century amid the well-founded likelihood that the threat of nuclear war will diminish, held in check through a combination of diplomacy and advanced technology. And with this, SDI could show its true significance. It might prove the key to preventing the nuclear threat from long outlasting the present century, and the people of the next one would be free to worry about other things.

T.A. Heppenheimer writes widely on scientific and aerospace issues.