Defenses Have a Role in This Scary World of Ours

Barry M. Blechman was assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1977 to 1980

In their stiffening opposition to the administration's plans for missile defenses, congressional Democrats have acquired a strange nostalgia for the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union depended on nuclear deterrence for security.

They seem to have forgotten that in every crisis, there was a point at which one bad decision could have led to nuclear war and the deaths of millions of people on each side.

Take the 1962 Cuban crisis. We now know that there were tactical nuclear weapons on the island and Soviet commanders had authority to use them under certain circumstances. What if President Kennedy had listened to many of his military and civilian advisors and ordered an invasion of Cuba? Would the Soviets have used nuclear weapons on our troops? Would we have retaliated against the Soviet Union?

Or take the 1973 Middle East crisis, when the Soviet Union moved nuclear warheads into the region and threatened to intervene with airborne troops. The United States put its nuclear forces on heightened alert and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spoke ominously of the ashes of civilization, in effect threatening nuclear war. If the Soviet leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev, hadn't backed down, what would have happened?

We like to think about deterrence in terms of submarines and aircraft, missiles and warheads. In fact, though, deterrence depends on the decisions and actions of individuals. As a result, deterrence is inherently uncertain.

We never can know what the key people in a crisis will know or not know, what they will believe or not believe, whether they will be high on mind-altering drugs or terminally ill and desperate for one last triumph.

During the Cold War, we depended on deterrence out of necessity, not choice. As the United States and the Soviet Union deployed thousands of nuclear weapons during the 1950s, it became evident that no conceivable defensive system could protect either country. The technology simply didn't exist. So long as each nation maintained the capability to destroy the other, it was believed, neither state would initiate an attack. In 1972, the two superpowers enshrined this de facto situation by ratifying the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibited the deployment of defenses, and the SALT I agreement, which legitimized the two sides' massive nuclear arsenals by setting extremely high ceilings on them.

In effect, the agreements stood logic on its head: Defenses were bad and had to be banned. More than 10,000 offensive weapons, more than enough to destroy humanity, were good and needed to be retained. But the agreements were right, given the choices at the time.

Thirty years later, however, there is an opportunity to restore common sense to strategic planning. New technologies show great promise of effective defenses. Russian nuclear forces already are dropping to much lower levels due to economic constraints. President Bush is committed to making unilateral reductions in U.S. offensive nuclear forces.

Eventually, one would hope that the United States, Russia and the other nuclear states could agree to eliminate nuclear weapons. These crude devices already pose far more dangers than benefits to all nations, but it will take time for political leaders to be willing to recognize and act on that fact.

Even without accepting the desirability of eliminating nuclear weapons, however, any policy that seeks meaningful reductions in nuclear weapons must include the deployment of effective defenses. Defenses provide a hedge against cheating or a sudden breakout from a deep-cuts agreement.

There is the basis in this logic for a new bipartisan compact on defenses and disarmament. The Bush administration's approach has been heavily weighted on the side of the former. Officials should get started on offensive reductions and speak more pragmatically about defense plans and programs.

For their part, instead of blindly defending the ABM treaty as if it were the third tablet Moses brought down from the mountain, Democrats should refocus on the real danger: nuclear weapons. They should be encouraging Bush to follow through on his commitments to reduce offensive weapons.

The administration also should be held to a sensible development program for missile defenses, following the same precepts of prudent technology management that one would expect of any multibillion-dollar expenditure of public funds. But the Democrats should not rule out the desirability of supplementing deterrence with effective defenses on ideological grounds, or on the basis of a mistaken nostalgia for the misremembered comforts of deterrence.

I remember those Cold War crises. They were very scary.

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