Can nuclear war be ''won?'' Could either of the two superpowers confidently launch a strategic first strike, then conclude what would almost certainly be unprecedented violence on terms favorable to itself?
US nuclear strategy and force-modernization is based on the assumption that the Soviet Union does have the ability to destroy American land-based missiles in a first strike, or at least threaten to do so and thereby force Washington to capitulate. Moscow apparently fears the same of the United States.
But evidence gathered by nuclear weapons experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that the outcome of a first strike by either side is far from certain, and that this uncertainty creates a strong deterrent. At the same time, the recently concluded two-year MIT effort warns that new generations of nuclear weapons just over the technological horizon could remove many of these uncertainties and should therefore be resisted as ''profoundly destabilizing.''
US officials insist that a nuclear war cannot be won. ''But we do have to recognize that we're up against a potential opponent who, from all the evidence, thinks it can be won,'' Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told the Monitor recently. ''And that evidence is: the weapon's they've acquired, the hardening of their targets (missile silos and command centers), the refiring capability, putting people in building shelters and a lot of money for civil defense, their doctrine expressed in the things that are available for publication, and their very belligerent statements.''
The President's Commission on Strategic Forces concluded that the so-called ''window of vulnerability'' used to justify new US strategic weapons was not as worrisome as some had claimed. The new MIT data further clouds this threatening window of time during which the Soviet Union over the next few years allegedly could attack US strategic forces with confidence of success.