LAST SUNDAY'S Outlook article, "The Doomsday Debate -- Shall We Attack America?", was a unique and imaginative presentation which explained many complex points in a clear and straightforward manner. However, I believe it also reveals an incomplete understanding of projected Soviet capabilities in 1984. Let us review the article's deficiencies one by one:
1. Anyone who believes that 100 U.S. bombers would get off the ground in a surprise attack (that is, with U.S. forces not on alert) is dreaming. Even with only 20 percent of the Soviet submarine missile force at sea, as many as 200 submarine-launched missiles, many of them with multiple warheads, would be available for initial attack. As the first Soviet land-based missiles are launched, U.S. bomber bases on the East and West coasts and in the South will be attacked by submarine-launched missiles, most likely flying a depressed trajectory profile, which would allow eight minutes' warning or less. (Bomber bases are relatively soft targets and can easily be destroyed by the less accurate submarine-launched missiles.)
It is doubtful that more than 40 or 50 bombers would get off the ground. The Soviet Union has a massive anti-aircraft umbrella, which by 1984 will probably include Backfire bombers armed with advanced air-to-air missiles designed to shoot down our B52 bombers before they are in range to launch their cruise missiles. With this capability, allowing 50 U.S. bombers to survive may be considered an acceptable risk.
2. The article portrays the Russian planners as choosing to attack the United States with less than their best mix of rockets. A larger number of SS18s would allow the targeting of three warheads on each U.S. missile silo, or better yet, two warheads on each Minuteman II silo and four warheads (two separate one-two punches) on each Minuteman III silo. This would still leave the Soviets with a formidable force of heavy missiles, since the now empty SS18 silos will simply be reloaded with spare SS18s and older SS9s now in storage. This is possible because the Russians "cold launch" their missiles and the silo can be reloaded almost immediately, and because the SALT treaty covers only the number of launchers each side may have. The Russians are believed to have a large number of ICBMs, particularly SS9s and SS11s, in storage.
3. The problem of "bias" -- geodetic distortions that affect rocket accuracy -- is not insurmountable. Sensitive satellites in polar orbit can make a geodetic map of the entire earth. Adjustments to flight control computers can be made based on hard data, not theoretical assumptions.
4. Adopting a policy of "Launching Under Attack" would present serious command, control and communication problems for the United States. Even if orders to fire reached local commanders, they may hesitate to fire, especially if the Soviets make intelligent use of their remaining submarine missiles. U.S. missile silos are designed to survive an overpressure of 2,000 pounds per square inch, and it would take a virtual direct hit to knock out a missile so protected. However, the initial launch phase is the most vulnerable portion of the missile's flight profile. While the missile is climbing through the atmosphere, a nuclear detonation many miles away might destroy it or knock it off course, or the radiation pulse might disrupt flight control computers. Submarine missile warheads, again flying depressed trajectories, could be exploded high over the missile fields, effectively "pinning down" our Minutemen until the more accurate landbased warheads arrive. Admittedly this scenario would take an unprecedented degree of coordination to accomplish, but it is a possibility.
5. Many of the NATO forward air bases, with their nuclear-armed aircraft on 15-minute alert, could be neutralized without "destroying much of Western Europe." Some could be taken out by using smaller tactical nuclear warheads, such as those on the SS21 (which will be fully deployed by 1984). Other bases could be temporarily neutralized by laying down a barrage of persistent nerve gas, delivered by SS21s, Scuds and other rockets. If caught by surprise, pilots and ground crews would be killed immediately and the persistent nature of the gas would probably keep the bases out of action long enough for them to be destroyed by conventional air strikes.
As to the threat posed by U.S. carriers, the Soviets have made great progress in the use of satellites to locate and track ships. By 1984 the Soviets can be expected to target those carriers within range with a few SS20 or SS16 missiles. The missile warheads would receive mid-course corrections from the satellites and could be very effective in neutralizing the carrier threat. As back-up, the Russians have a number of ship-to-ship weapon systems which employ high-yield nuclear warheads.
Many other, more speculative points could be mentioned, including the use of ground-based or satellite-based lasers to blind or confuse U.S. early warning satellites, the destruction of some U.S. missile submarines at sea by Soviet attack submarines or anti-submarine surface units, and the possibility of an improved Soviet anti-ballistic missile system.