MEMO TO: President's Commission on Strategic Forces:
To an outsider, the deck looks stacked. Almost all of you have been over this ground before, and several of you (Chairman Brent Scowcroft, Harold Brown, James Woolsey, Alexander Haig) have public positions in favor of the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. That will make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to come up with any recommendation other than what is expected -- to build the 100 MX missiles now planned and hide them in 300 hardened silos.
But before you make your decision, take one more look at some basic rationales about the MX that most of you have used dozens of times. These are matters which are generally discussed in a lingo familiar to nuclear strategists but which the average taxpayer -- who must pay for all this -- has trouble understanding. Many of the rationales have serious flaws, but that never seems to bother the nuclear strategists (including many of you), who continue to cling to them.
We've been told by President Reagan, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and others -- including Harold Brown when he was Jimmy Carter's defense secretary -- that America's 1,000 land-based Minuteman and 51 Titan II ICBMs are "vulnerable" to a Soviet "first strike." This is a prime reason why we need the MX, they say, in "a survivable basing mode." Translated, that means the Soviets, supposedly, could fire off enough missiles so that two warheads would land on or near each of our 1,05l missiles in their silos, and with enough accuracy to destroy up to 90 percent or more of them.
Just how realistic is the notion that the Soviets would someday launch such a mind- boggling attack, which on the face of it could lead to the devastation of their country and would require the use, at a minimum, of all 308 of their giant SS-18 missiles and probably a good number of their somewhat smaller, but still immense, SS-19s?
Set aside for now what Moscow would expect to gain from such an attack, or why it would take such a risk. Let's focus first only on whether this so-called "first strike" has a reasonable chance of achieving the success that the president and others say it would.
First there is the difficulty of coordinating the attack. The SS-18s are grouped at five bases in the south-central Soviet Union, according to a recent Brookings Institution study. The bases are separated by several hundred miles, one from the other, and almost 1,500 miles from east to west. The distance is important, for the attack would have to be coordinated down to the split second. For it to work correctly, some supremely difficult managerial roadblocks would have to be overcome, beginning with the coordination among hundreds of individuals just on the decision, and then on the order, to fire.
Although the Soviets have, in operational tests, fired up to 12 ICBMs at once, they have never attempted anything near the coordination needed to fire 300 at the same time. Moreover, since the giant Soviet missiles are liquid fueled -- meaning they do not react as quickly nor as uniformly as solid-fueled missiles such as the U.S. Minuteman -- the launch would be even harder to accomplish.
The launch timing for these widely separated missiles would have to be done within milliseconds because the several thousand Soviet warheads would have to strike their targets in such a way that the southernmost U.S. missiles -- in Arizona and Arkansas -- would be hit first, and then succeeding warheads would have to drop in what strategists call "a slow walk north." This is required so that the nuclear radiation and debris thrown up by the first warheads that hit in the South don't interfere with the missiles that follow them over the north pole from Russia to hit American missiles in the Midwest and North Central states.
Then there are the basic technical problems, such as "bias." The 300-plus Soviet missiles would have to travel north then south through the magnetic force field created by the North Pole. Normal Soviet missile tests are conducted in firings from west to east, and therefore the corrections in the guidance system that would have to be made to take account of the magnetic forces (called allowance for "bias") would be guesses. Making such guesses in what could be a cataclysmic military attack would be the mark of madmen, not rational military strategists, and uncharacteristic of traditionally cautious Soviet planners.
If all this were not enough, the Russian missilemen would have to do what is known as "cross targeting" if they wanted to have greater confidence that the attack would be successful. "Cross targeting" means that the 10 warheads on one SS-18 would each be aimed at a different U.S. missile silo, and that the second warhead to strike at each of those 10 targets would have to come from warheads contained on altogether different SS-18 missiles. That is so that if one SS-18 failed to operate as planned, the 10 American missiles targeted by its warheads would still be hit by warheads from nine other SS-18s -- depending, of course, on whether they all worked.
All these missile firings, of course, would take time -- not just to fire but also to land. The attack, in fact, would take more than an hour from first missile firing to last warhead landing. Soviet leaders would have to believe that during that time the American president would notretaliate with land-based missiles in, say, North Dakota, which would be the last attacked, or submarine-based missiles in the Mediterranean, which are only 30 minutes from mainland Russian targets. That's hard to believe for an American, and certainly harder for a Russian.
Push a nuclear strategist (such as you members of the commission) on these realities -- which all but rule out the so-called Soviet "first strike" -- and the answer normally comes back that he agrees the attack is unlikely. Then why do you continue to push American "vulnerability" as a prime rationale for the MX?
2. The Window of Vulnerability.
This wonderful phrase emerged during the attack on former President Carter's strategic arms limitation talks with the Russians. It reached peak usage after the June 1979 signing in Vienna of the SALT II treaty during the 1980 presidential campaign. The phrase was supposed to refer to a period when the Soviet increase in large, accurate, land-based missile would give Moscow so many warheads that our land-based ICBM force would be "vulnerable" (see above). The "window" was supposed to open in the early 1980s and close only when U.S. deployment of substantial MX missiles was underway -- starting in 1986 under the Carter plan. While the "window" was open, however, the alleged Soviet advantage in ICBM power was going to encourage Moscow to undertake all sorts of aggressive adventures around the world, unafraid of any Washington response.
Since Reagan has taken office, however, the "window," if it ever existed, had to be seen as opening even wider. The MX program, remember, was halved (from 200 missiles to 100), the Titan II force of old ICBMs retired, the Trident submarine program slowed, the older Polaris submarine retirement program accelerated. The only increase came in a decision to produce 100 B1 bombers, a step for the future while more existing B52D bombers were retired early.
Does anyone seem to care anymore about the "window"? The date the first MX missiles will be ready for operation was supposed to be December 1986 and now clearly has slipped, though how far no one can say, since the whole ICBM program is up in the air. As for the Russians taking diplomatic advantage of the open "window," that notion has faded into thin air.
3. Survivable Basing.
This is another notion associated with vulnerability (see above). It represents the means by which American ICBMs are to be protected from a Soviet nuclear attack so that they can later be fired.
For the 1,000 U.S. Minuteman missiles, spreading them out in fields across the central and upper Midwest and hardening their silos with additional cement have been the means by which past administrations prepared them to ride out any "first strike." Since the mid-1960s, however, the Air Force has searched in vain among more than 30 separate proposals for "survivable basing." The problem, of course, is that the "first strike" is irrational (see above), and it is impossible to come up with a rational defense against an irrational attack.
There are, however, three traditional approaches to survivability: adding more cement and steel, called hardening; pulling the missiles out of their silos and moving them around, called mobility; or adding an anti- ballistic missile system to knock down attacking warheads, called defense. All three have advantages and disadvantages, and none alone or even in combination gives total assurance of "survivability."
The survivablility of U.S. strategic forces has been rooted in the fact that we have three different forms of nuclear weapons delivery systems -- the so-called "triad": bombers, land-based ICBMs and sub-launched ICBMs -- and that the Soviets could never knock all three out in one blow. When the debates on vulnerability began, the focus was solely on land-based ICBMs, as if they were all the nuclear retaliatory power the United States had, or at least all that was worthwhile.
Perhaps you commission members should take another look at the "triad" concept of survivability.
Here is a word dear to strategists, because it makes almost no sense to the average person. But it does play an important part in the rationale developed to justify the MX.
The original atomic bombs were considered terror weapons by the U.S. scientists who built them and the military and civilian officials who ordered their use on two Japanese cities -- cities picked because although they had some military installations, the civilian population was nearby and would be destroyed by the blasts. Thus just two bombs would quickly bring the Pacific war to an end.
In the early 1960s, as both America and the Soviet Union began expanding their hydrogen bomb capabilities -- and therefore the targets each could attack -- the idea first raised in the mid-1940s surfaced again. Rational men could not appear to be planning the total destruction of civilian populations. Thus targets were picked that appeared, again, to be military in nature while still guaranteeing the threat would in fact be to the enemy's entire society.
In the early 1970s, a new U.S. technical advancement made it possible to put more than one nuclear bomb on a single missile and aim the additional ones at totally different targets. Suddenly, our military had weapons to hit more than twice as many targets in Russia. The most logical use for these new warheads was to aim at the increasing number of individual Soviet missiles.
No fools, the Soviets put more cement around their missiles to harden them (see above). American planners then decided they needed more power in our warheads, so they could destroy these Soviet silos. A nuclear missile whose warheads are capable of destroying a hardened Soviet silo is called a "counterforce" weapon.
The 10 individual warheads on the MX, which are somewhat more powerful than the newest Minuteman III warheads and billed as twice as accurate, are therefore much more valuable as "counterforce" missiles.
What you really do with this "counterforce" capability (as against what you say it will do) is not clear.
The Soviets are supposed to undertake a first strike, and the MXs, in their survivable basing, survive. They then are launched not in an attack against Russian cities but against the remaining Russian missiles in their hardened silos. You need the MX for this job because the older Minuteman ICBMs and the current sub-launched missiles are not powerful or accurate enough to do the job. The U.S. counterattack is aimed at Soviet missiles rather than cities because those missiles have to be destroyed or they will be used to destroy American cities that still remain after the first strike (which, remember, was aimed at U.S. missiles, not cities).
There are so many fallacies in this approach one doesn't know where to begin, but my favorite is this: If the Soviets have launched a first strike, for whatever reason, why does any American military planner think they would keep their remaining ICBMs in their silos if they saw a U.S. retaliatory strike heading their way? Why wouldn't they launch their missiles before the U.S. MXs arrived to destroy them?
Public justification for the MX has rested on all these rationales, which clearly constitute a flawed base for undertaking a $30 billion program. But of course those are not the only or even the primary reasons why the MX program is underway. First there is scientific progress -- nuclear scientists can pack a bigger nuclear punch in a warhead, so they want to build it; guidance systems are more accurate, and they have to be used somewhere; solid-fuel technology has been perfected for missiles, and where else can it be put?
Many of the biggest defense contractors -- Martin-Marietta, Boeing, Aerojet-General, Rockwell International -- are involved in the MX program, along with thousands of subcontractors. It's a boon for the military-industrial complex that would be hard to turn off -- not because of venality, but because the Minuteman is 20 years old, and it's time to build a successor.
Your first goal on this commission should be to provide a rationale for the nuclear systems which you believe necessary and whicht average citizens -- and even President Reagan and Secretary Weinberger -- can understand, without the help of aides. You know, yourselves, that you understand these issues better than our president and his secretary of defense. You remember when, in October, 1981, the president described the window of vulnerability as something involving "the imbalance of forces, for example, on the Western front, in the NATO line . . ."
Your commission probably offers the last chance to build a national consensus on these vital questions. You can continue to play politics with the MX, and continue to kid the American public, or you can abandon the nonsensical strategic rhetoric of the recent debate and move to a new realism.
Because you all have impeccably pro-defense backgrounds, and because you are advising a president whom no one will ever accuse of being a softliner, you are free to take a clean look at our nuclear arsenal and come up with a defensible new approach. You might even conclude that the "triad" system works, that we are not "vulnerable" after all, and that "counterforce" isn't the great deal that has been advertised.
Build the MX, but put it in silos, since they really aren't vulnerable, and neither are we, with our triad in place (see above). And if deploying an MX inevitably means deploying additional "counterforce" warheads, then link their deployment to retiring not just the Titan II missiles but also older Minuteman II ICBMs that are now being refurbished.
And if you get off on a tangent because of the politics, and propose a new, small, land- based missile or a new scheme to put the Navy's Trident II missile into airplanes, try to justify it in terms the average person can understand. When you get these strategic rationales down to language the public can appreciate, you suddenly see how foolish the whole thing really is.