Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Strategic delusions

The "new" strategic doctrine recently adopted by the Carter administration (to the considerable annoyance of its secretary of state who was not consulted of informed) is of course not new at all but merely a resurrection of a policy proposed by a Republican secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, several years ago. What is new, and difficult to explain, is the formal adoption of so far-reaching and questionable a policy in the midst of an election campaign.

The essential feature of this "doctrine" is the curious contention that the "massive retaliation" provided by our strategic nuclear triad, the capability to destroy most Soviet cities and industrial establishments and to decimate its population, would not be sufficient to deter the Soviet Union from risking aggression against us but must be supplemented by a further capability to carry out attacks of pinpoint accuracy against Soviet missile sites and command centers. Among other reasons cited for this shift is that massive retaliation may be no longer "credibe," and hence an effective deterrent, whereas the now projected threat to Soviet missiles and leaders is alleged to be more credible.

About these ads

This is a transparent rationalization If there is one fact about nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union which is crystal clear, it is that such a war could not be "limited" but would, within a few days at least, escalate into full-scale nuclear war. The Soviets are quite aware of this fact and indeed reiterated it in Pravda only a few days ago. The deterrent provided by our strategic triad -- land-based missiles, submarine- based missiles, and bombers (soon to be fortified with cruise missiles) -- is eminently "credible" to the Soviets. If all this will not deter them, the addition of a supplementary threat to their missiles -- which of course would have to be launched first if it were to have much real effect -- could hardly be expected to do so.

Indeed it is a projected Soviet "first- strike" capability against our land-based missiles by increasingly accurate Soviet SS- 18s which we have been persistently protesting as threatening and "destabilising." Does it not occur to us that a similar capability on our side would be, in Soviet eyes, even more destabilizing since more than two-thirds of the Soviets' strategic arsenal is concentrated in vulnerable land-based systems, as compared with only about one-third of ours?

The most serious threat of nuclear war is not in fact calculated aggression but a misperception on the part of one both sides that the other is contemplating and preparing for a first strike. It is precisely such a misperception to which our new doctrine significantly contributes.

The real reasons for proclaiming this doctrine are not that the old one has ceased to be credible as a deterrent. Rather they are, first, that a justification is required for the deployment of new weapons with which technology is so extravagantly providing us and, second, that we are in the midst of a national debate about strategic defense, which is far more political than substantive, but which the administration obviously believes obliges it to show itself at least as tough-minded as its domestic adversaries.Unhappily this debate has long been based on the false assumption that one can never have too much of a good thing.

This combination of factors has, for example, committed the administration to the deployment of the MX missile, an enermously costly and environmentally damaging device which can only be justified, if at all, on the theory that our present threat of massive retaliation is not "credible." We have therefore slipped into the extraordinary situation of publicly undermining our own deterrent in order to justify a new generation of strategic weapons. This seems a particularly peculiar posture for an administration which has consistently recognized that arms control is an essential feature of national security and which continues to support ratification of SALT II.

One other element of this esoteric debate is the claim that Soviet strategic doctrine assumes a "war-fighting" capacity even in case of nuclear war. So what? So does American military doctrine. It is the responsibility of generals and admirals to prepare to fight, as best they can, whatever kind of war they may have to fight. That does not mean, either on the American or the Soviet side, that they want to fight such a war or intend to start one.

It is high time that strategic doctrine be brought out of the clouds and down to earth. The central fact is that any US-Soviet war would almost certainly be, or soon become, an unlimited nuclear war. The only way to forestall such a hideous eventuality is to prevent it from starting. To do so we need a wellcalculated national defense, not strategic extravagances more likely to provoke than deter attack.

About these ads

Our present strategic triad, strengthened by Trident submarines and cruise missiles, a SALT II agreement promptly followed by negotiation of SALT III reductions, new intermediate-range missiles in Europe if mutual limitations cannot be agreed, much better maintenance of the capabilities of forces already in being, an improvement in the quality of our armed personnel through better pay and benefits, and by restoration of the draft if necessary -- these are the basic components of a realistic national security policy. Neither new technology nor domestic politics should be allowed to obscure or pervert them.