Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union will launch a nuclear strike against the other, because the leaderships know that it would fail.
To be successful, the aggressor would have to deliver such a blow that the stricken nation would have no capability to retaliate. At the same time, the aggressor would have to be assured that it would not suffer serious injury from unavoidable nuclear aftereffects.
Neither result is possible. Even if the Soviets could score 99% against our 1,000 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, Moscow's blitz planners would have to assume that the 10 remaining missiles could knock out 10 of their principal cities. Each U.S. Poseidon submarine carries more than 100 nuclear warheads. Targeted on Soviet industry, they might destroy halfof it.
So destructive are nuclear bombs that a small deviation from perfection in the offensive strike would make the potential consequences unacceptable to the striker. But no competent Soviet weapons engineer would expect anywhere near perfection in so complex an operation, one not even completely rehearsable beforehand. Think of the timing problem. Launching one craft at the scheduled moment is quite a challenge; imagine coordinating hundreds of launchings covering thousands of miles so that all the offensive warheads would arrive simultaneously. If they were to reach U.S. targets over a spread of, say, 30 minutes, might we not release all our unhit missiles immediately after their very first weapon detonated? Most of their bombs then would land on empty silos, our retaliatory missiles having been sent off to blast the Soviet Union. How could the Soviets exploit surprise anyway, with our satellites watching their missiles approaching? If they knocked out those satellites first, would that not be a signal that an attack was imminent and trigger our retaliation? How could they risk assuming that we would not respond?
The United States and the Soviet Union have each spent around a trillion of today's dollars--from the first atomic-bomb research to the creation and maintenance of manned bombers, ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles--for offensive capabilities that neither nation can justify using.
Since the almost-perfect score needed for a preemptive strike is unachievable, the only function of these costly and dangerous weapons is to deter the other side from employing theirs. If nothing changes, the superpowers will spend another trillion dollars during the rest of the century to ensure continued mutual deterrence.
Yet neither country can afford this level of expenditures. We have our $200-billion deficit, they their Poland. We need to put more resources into attaining technological competitiveness in world markets, they need to develop their resources. We need to maintain our standard of living, they need to raise theirs. Thus these powerful economic forces are driving both nations to consider large-scale strategic-force reductions.
Meanwhile, technology advances now make it possible to defend against an ICBM raid by actually shooting down most of the weapons before they arrive. This is the objective of the Strategic Defense Initiative program and of a similar development effort by the Soviets. But, as with offense, virtual perfection in defense appears both necessary--that is, if we want to shield our total population and resources--and impossible to attain. If the Soviet Union sends 5,000 bombs and we eliminate 90% of them, that still lets 500 bombs survive to strike U.S. targets. If the designers pursue the goals of a perfect defense and a perfect offense, neither will be attained and the defense effort also will cost a trillion dollars.
But suppose that the high cost does succeed in forcing a pact to cut back greatly on offensive forces. As the scale of the offense is reduced, the cost of defending against it goes down rapidly while giving credibility to the notion that the defense will perform well. Thus a balance of offense and defense becomes sensible. The allocating of resources to offense and defense should be determined by the status and the promise of available and developable technology, the relative economics of the proposition and the perception by each nation of the intent and technological strength of the other, particularly as it is manifested by arms-reduction pacts.
Is there a believable prediction as to just how this complicated combination of mutual suspicion, economic pressure for large-scale weapons reduction and offense-defense balance will get resolved? Can we reach a stable future pattern for strategic weaponry--one that will last for years, deter nuclear war and be tolerable in cost?
One future scenario that surfaced at the Reykjavik summit meeting, the elimination of all ballistic missiles, should be dismissed immediately. No U.S. President could persuade Congress and the citizenry to believe, even if he did, that the Soviet Union would not hide such weapons. Verification systems certainly could be installed that would preclude the secreting of a thousand of these weapons. But Moscow surely could hide 10 and probably many more from any conceivable verification system. Surprising as it may seem to some Americans, the Soviet Union will expect us also to cheat. In practical fact, then, the lowest quantity of weapons that we could realistically agree on would be somewhat higher than the number that we each would assume the other might plan to conceal.
We might find ourselves comfortable with a verification system that is capable of keeping the level of warheads at thousands, rather than the present tens of thousands. Disarming down to 10% of present forces would be a fabulous accomplishment. With such reductions in offense, adequately verified, both nations then could put in place defense systems at reasonable cost with the ability to shoot down 90% of incoming missiles. An installed defense system should be embraced by each side as an added security measure, not opposed. Since the number of damaging bombs surviving to arrive on target would be a tenth of a tenth of the present inventories, the idea of launching an attack would become preposterous, hence essentially obsolete.
The United States and the Soviet Union, we can predict, will converge in the not-distant future (years, not decades) on a pact that will call for: (1) massive reduction of offensive nuclear ballistic-missile forces; (2) an installed, highly detailed verification system, and (3) an installed defense system in each country that would be designed to counter the reduced offensive threat.
Of course, no President of the United States could base the nation's plans entirely around any single possibility. Instead, until and unless implemented agreements overtake and dominate the planning, a broad technological effort in strategic nuclear weaponry will continue to be needed to provide the means for acting on a wide array of possibilities.
DR, MACNELLY / Chicago Tribune