The Button: The Pentagon’s Strategic Command and Control
by Daniel Ford (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 272 pp.)
Reviewed by Art Seidenbaum
Between the peril of our time and a potential panic to end all time is a membrane of mutual intelligence--fragile, covering thousands of implanted annihilation engines as well as arms-control discussions.
Daniel Ford, reasonable and rightly concerned, takes us through the labyrinth of U.S. military communications, the control and command procedures on our side--the warning devices, the snoop satellites, the detection systems, the dubious redoubts--attached to the monstrous prospect of nuclear warfare. The professionals call the vital linkage of America’s Worldwide Military Command and Control System by the ugly name of “connectivity.”
Ford destroys several everyday illusions along the way, those comforting assumptions that allow us normal nighttime sleep. There is no single “button,” for instance. Yes, the President carries the “football” wherever he goes, but there are other balls and buttons in constant play. The logic is obvious if you allow yourself to think about it--and many of us prefer not to--because this nation cannot rely upon one man, one button in a world where anything from traffic accident to terrorist could destroy a singular connective. “The President’s most frustrating problem,” Ford writes, “in preparing to command U.S. forces during a nuclear war is that he may be among the first to die.” The word “decapitation,” meaning the literal cutting off of the heads of states and the devices of decision, appears frequently.
Our weaponry may be as deadly as advertised, but our so-called counterforce of ballistic missiles depends upon such vulnerable and unsophisticated communications relays as mere telephone wires. Our magnificent electronic abilities to intercept Soviet transmissions are balanced by our inadequate capacities to coordinate the command of our own forces.
“The Button” is extremely disturbing, whatever your perspective. If you share the Administration’s views about windows of vulnerability, then Ford presents evidence of our inability to respond even if the questionable communications system were in working order: " . . . every piece of modern electronic circuitry--from digital watches to computers to the entire national electric power grid and telecommunications system--might suddenly stop working as soon as a few large Soviet weapons were detonated somewhere high above the continental United States.” A phenomenon called “electromagnetic pulse” is the problem; its effects are arguable.
“The Button” is extremely disturbing if you believe that the United States has already bought all the widgets and weaponry that a sane society might need to deter attack. Ford cites a Pentagon study of U.S. command and control retaliatory capability and reports, . . . “the present system could be effectively disabled by fewer than 50 Soviet weapons and would survive, at best, for only six to twelve hours after a Soviet attack.”
And “The Button” is most disturbing if you think America’s posture is wholly defensive.
Openly, lucidly, horrifically, Ford explores the reasons for a nuclear power to launch a first strike rather than react to an opponent’s attack. Desperation might do it. In several chapters and by several examples, he shows how retaliation might not work. In dozens of places, he characterizes the Pentagon mentality as unwilling to wait for the other side to attack: “Down through the ages, commanders have always favored offense to defense, seizing the initiative rather than ceding it to the enemy. . . . Permitting the United States to be destroyed by the Soviets, and then retaliating, is a completely unmilitary notion.” And, in more paragraphs than this reader wants to remember, he cites civilian theorists agreeing that a first-strike possibility has to be part of the U.S. Single Integrated Operational Plan, the innocent-sounding title for what to do in case of nuclear war. John Steinbruner, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, told Ford: “We have never as a matter of national policy accepted the notion of preemption. We have always as a matter of military realism planned to be able to do it.”
The Soviets, writes Ford, will not be surprised; their war plans are a “mirror image” of our own. Neither side may want to launch what has been called mutually assured destruction (MAD), but neither side wants to absorb singular destruction either. Ford proposes no programs to cure the global malady, to strengthen the membrane of mutual intelligence. His book suggests that both sides are better at blowing up the other side than defending themselves, each suffering imbalances of power as well as fear. Arms control leading to disarmament is the most obvious, most hopeful--perhaps the only remaining intelligent step--toward mutually assured survival.
For an excerpt from “The Button,” see today’s Opinion section.