President Carter's approval of a nuclear war strategy that would put more emphasis on targeting Soviet command centers and other military installations has sent shudders of concern through much of the arms control community.
"Who would be there to turn off the war if we nuked Soviet command centers?" asked Jeremy J. Stone, director of the 5,000-member Federation of American Scientists, in an interview yesterday.
"My fears," said Sidney Drell, deputy director of the Stanford linear accelerator and government consultant, are focused on whether Carter's embrace of a flexible nuclear policy will lead to a massive civil defense program.
"How it might affect Soviet conduct in time of crisis is the key question," said John B. Rhinelander, an attorney who was a member of the SALT I delegation in 1971 and 1972 that negotiated the first strategic arms limitation treaty.
The initial Soviet reaction was negative, with Russia's news agency. Tass, labeling Carter's strategy an act of "insanity." Tass on Monday said the essence of the strategy is "the threat of striking a first blow at military installations in the Soviet Union."
Arms control specialists, Tass and Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie based their reactions largely on descriptions of the new nuclear policy published in The Washington Post and The New York Times last Wednesday. p
Those stories, based on interviews with Carter administration officials, said the president had signed Directive No. 59, which, in essence, codifies a steady evolution of nuclear policy away from an emphasis on destroying Soviet cities if Russia should attack the United States first.
The president, because of advances that allow nuclear weapons to destroy command centers underground and other protected installations could opt for a limited attack on Soviet military targets -- sparing vulnerable cities. This would give him more flexibility, advocates said, than the mutual assured destruction policy in which both nations would incinerate each other's cities.
Administration briefers said specifically that Directive 59 and targeting instructions to implement it would put more emphasis on the capability to wipe out political and military command centers.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown, an architect of the modified nuclear strategy, wrote NATO defense ministers on Friday that "the U.S. has long included in its plans effective and comprehensive coverage of military and control targets . . .
"It is crucial that the Soviet leadership recognize that by aggression they would risk not only a general U.S. retaliation on the full range of targets; they must also understand that if they choose some intermediate level of escalation, the U.S. could by more limited responses impose on the Soviets an unacceptably high cost in terms of what the Soviet leadership values most -- political and military control, military power both nuclear and conventional and the industrial capacity to sustain military operations. . . ." c
It is that official U.S. warning about hitting Soviet command centers that Stone took issue with, asserting it amounts to "a fundamental inconsistency of trying to attack Soviet leaders and trying to terminate a nuclear war."
He reasoned that once either civilian command centers or military ones were knocked out in a limited nuclear attack, there would be no way the chain of command could control the devastation.
Besides that, Stone said, the shift on targeting raises the danger that each side will conclude "it's better to fire quickly" before its military capability is impaired.
Such a doctrine, he said, "leads both sides from fail-safe to fail-danger and merges with other pressures to fire on warning," meaning missiles would be launched to make sure they are not caught on the ground by surprise attack.
Administration officials involved with nuclear strategy conceded yesterday that the question of destroying the command-and-control structure that could limit a nuclear war was troublesome.
"That's a good question," said one official, adding that secret instructions that go with Directive 59 presumably would take that danger into account.
Another administration official said the whole idea is to keep a nuclear war from breaking out by serving notice on Moscow that the United States would not be limited by an all-or-nothing nuclear strategy.
"This adds to deterrence," said one official, who described the modified strategy as giving the president more options. The Soviets, he said, would be less certain than ever that they could win any kind of nuclear war.
Herbert Scoville, former CIA executive and longtime backer of arms limitation agreements, said giving the president less fearsome options for using nuclear weapons would reduce the inhibitions for employing them.
Also, Scoville contended, the more flexible nuclear strategy would provide the rationale for producing more nuclear warheads at a time when the superpowers have more than they need for deterring each other.
William Kincade, executive director of the Arms Control Association, which has backed the SALT I and II agreements, said he assumed command centers to be targeted would not include "the top civilian leadership. I guess I'm expressing a hope."
He added that the shift to putting a wider spectrum of targets under the nuclear gun is but another example of technology driving strategy, rather than the other way around.
"Options are being provided by technology," he said. "No decision maker would want to deny himself those options in an uncertain world," he added, in arguing that the imperiousness of technology was inevitable.
"Damn technology has outstripped theory," conceded one Pentagon nuclear planning specialist. But he said confronting the Soviet Union with the same kind of threat its weapons pose to U.S. military forces might be the best way to advance agreements to bring both arsenals under control.
While worried if a broader civil defense would be the next step, Drell said he could see the logic of widening the range of nuclear responses, declaring: "It helps diplomatic maneuvering."
But he said there is no way to fine tune a nuclear war and that Washington and Moscow must find ways to keep from resorting to nuclear weapons.
A spokesman for the government's Arms Control and Disarmament Agency said yesterday its leaders had not been briefed on Directive 59.