On March 23, 1983, President Reagan delivered a speech on the “enormous military might” of the Soviet Union and what to do about it in nuclear weapons, he said, the Soviets had achieved a “margin of superiority” over the United States.1

As a result of this decisive shift in the nuclear balance, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others, had Impressed upon the President the “necessity to break out” of a deterrence posture that relied solely on offensive retaliation.2 The President therefore, proposed to “embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive.” He would, that is, direct an effort “to define a long-term research and development program,” taking “probably decades,” to begin to eliminate the threat of nuclear missiles altogether.

Leading Democrats denied the existence of the Soviet strategic threat and ridiculed the proposed defensive measures. U.S. forces “more than offset” the Soviet nuclear threat according to the official Democratic rebuttal. Senator Edward Kennedy branded the President’s speech “misleading Red scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.” The label stuck and the “Star Wars” debate had begun.3

Promise or Peril aims to provide “a well-rounded picture of the key issues surrounding strategic defense.” A Churchill speech from the 1930s opens the volume, apparently to dispose the reader favorably to the general idea of strategic defense. But most of the thirty-five selections included in the volume are reprints, abridgements, or expansions of articles published in the last few years in such journals as Foreign AffairsInternational SecurityOrbisStrategic Review, The New Republic, and Commentary. There are, as well a few newspaper articles, excerpts of speeches, papers presented at a 1983 Ethics and Public Policy Center conference, and two previously unpublished essays.

Contributors to the volume range from avid proponents of near-term deployment to those for whom the very thought of American self defense practically justifies a Soviet first strike. They include one incumbent and one past president former secretaries of defense and national security advisors, diplomatists and arms controllers past and present, scholars, scientists, journalists, Winston Churchill as noted, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and a Serbian Orthodox Priest.

The book is divided topically into six sections, but inevitably, there is considerable overlap and repetition. This review, discarding overlap and repetition and a good deal of complexity, ambivalence, and subtlety, extracts from the collection the main arguments for and against strategic defense.

What is the Issue?

A certain confusion has beset the SDI debate from the beginning. This arose from the striking incongruity between the immediate and critical danger posed by Soviet nuclear superiority, which had rendered our existing deterrent barren in theory and impotent in practice, and a tentative research program examining prospects for technologically sophisticated defenses “decades” down the road, if ever.4

Everyone is in favor of a “vigorous research program.” After all, we were already spending about $1 billion a year on strategic defense research before anyone ever heard of SDI. Even SDI’s most strident critics believe that this was a prudent hedge against the “theoretical” possibility that the Soviets might “creep out” or “break out” of the 1972 ABM Treaty restrictions on strategic defenses. The real battle is between those who fear that SDI research will lead to actual deployment of strategic defenses (particularly in the near-term), abrogation of the ABM Treaty, and abandonment of long-standing American strategic doctrine and those who fear that it will not. In other words, the serious political debate is between those who take seriously the immediate Soviet military threat which is supposed to be the reason for SDI, and those who do not.

Against the Detente

The mainstream critics of the President’s initiative choose to understand SDI as a program conceived to make America invulnerable to nuclear assault by strategic ballistic missiles. The core of their argument simply put is that this will not work, that it threatens to start a nuclear war, and that it destroys any prospect of arms control. Behind this position, which is put forth by former secretary of defense James Schlesinger among others, is the conviction that traditional American deterrence theory is sound and that America possesses today an effective deterrent. The President and fellow supporters of SDI “do not respect reality,” as McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith wrote in their notorious Foreign Affairs article, reprinted here. SDI is a “dream” or a “vision” originating in the “understandable,” and “entirely natural,” and altogether “proper and sensible,” but nonetheless “false” hope that nuclear weapons could somehow be made, in the President’s words, “impotent and obsolete.” SDI then, is the “expensive and dangerous pursuit of a mirage.” (87-89, 367-380)

The reality that must be respected is the revolutionary new reality created by the existence of nuclear weapons. These weapons “are destructive to a degree that makes them entirely different from any other weapon in history” (Emphasis added). Since Hiroshima, the calculations that must enter into American strategic defense are “totally different” from defensive calculations of all former times. Unlike all previous weapons in history, defense against nuclear weapons is impossible. (368-369)

The only adequate defense against nuclear weapons, according to this line of thinking, would be a virtually perfect defense. In today’s terms, this would mean the ability to stop 99 percent or 99.5 percent or 99.75 percent of the roughly 10,000 Soviet warheads if they were launched simultaneously. Anything short of that would amount to hideous failure. From this point of view, then, an SDI seeking absolute security would seem to be on the right track. The difficulty arises, however, that there is no prospect of such a defense. As Schlesinger puts it, “There is no serious likelihood of removing the nuclear threat from our cities in our lifetime, or in the lifetime of our children.” In fact “There is no realistic hope that we shall ever again be able to protect American cities.” Irretrievable vulnerability is the reality of the nuclear age. (88-89, 132-133, 368-369)

Even if technology should become available to enable us to deploy a perfect defense against 10,000 Soviet nuclear warheads, it would be imprudent to attempt it. It would cost perhaps $1 trillion (Schlesinger’s figure, repeated by many), which would inevitably require the U.S. to reduce defense expenditures in other areas, such as conventional defense of Europe. The Soviets would not in the meantime, be standing still, and it would cost them much less to develop the ability to overcome this perfect defense than it cost us to build it. And besides, even such a “perfect” defense against ballistic missiles would be radically imperfect: “[I]t entirely excludes from its range any effort to limit the effectiveness of other systems—bomber aircraft, cruise missiles, and smuggled warheads.” (91, 93, 137, 368)

All of this is in any case wildly speculative. A fully deployed, multi-layered, strategic defense “can never be tested in advance as a full system.” “All the different aspects of all the different layers must work well together in an extremely hostile environment (direct attack) the first time that the system is used. The first and only test of the extraordinarily complex system will be the one and only time it is used in battle.” And then, it “must be triggered almost instantly.” During the boost phase of Soviet missiles (now, about a five-minute period, though possibly reducible to as little as one minute) there must be “detection, decision, aim, attack, and kill.” This would be a far greater demand on our ability to exercise rational control than any system ever deployed. (370, 416)

It would take perhaps decades to develop and deploy this full-fledged ballistic missile defense. These decades would be extremely provocative to the Soviet Union and dangerous to us. The Soviets would be sorely tempted to attack and destroy our defenses as we deployed them, before we gained per impossible a decisive advantage. This “transitional danger” is one of the reasons that some have advocated sharing our technology with the Soviets as we proceed, so that they will not feel unduly threatened, a laughably absurd idea that is one of many proofs of the President’s “failure of understanding.” The kinds of secrets SDI will depend on could not be shared without enabling the enemy to overcome the defenses made possible by the secrets. (93, 138, 374)

In general, SDI critics admit that even “leaky” defenses could offer significant protection of military targets, and that defense of American ICBMs could be “consistent with the traditional concept of deterrent stability.” But advocates of ICBM defenses are thought to take an “alarmist view of the threat of Soviet preemptive attack.” Even the Reagan administration is said to have abandoned serious concern with the “window of vulnerability,” as demonstrated by the decision to base the MX missile in admittedly vulnerable Minuteman silos. “After all,” as Peter Clausen of the Union of Concerned Scientists writes, “if the vulnerability of the Minuteman forces constituted a dangerous temptation to the Soviet Union, then basing the much more capable and threatening MX in the same silos could only increase that temptation.” (172-173)

The “theoretical” vulnerability of American ICBMs does not eviscerate the American deterrent, in any case. For one, this vulnerability “may be exaggerated.” But even if it is not, the other two legs of the U.S. strategic triad are sufficient for the purposes of deterrence. There are about 10,000 nuclear warheads in the American arsenal. Only about 2,100 of these are mounted on land-based ICBMs. “[T]he U.S. ability to launch a devastating retaliatory strike would not be in doubt even if the U.S. land-based force were destroyed.” (173)

American deployment of an imperfect strategic defense—the only kind possible—would encourage, not discourage, a Soviet attack. As Charles Krauthammer argues, it would create “uncertainties for Soviet planners” that would be “destabilizing.” In a crisis, the Soviets would be driven to launch an all-out preemptive strike, for fear that an American first-strike, backed up even with an imperfect defense, might render Soviet retaliation impotent. The Soviets, in the popular phrase, would be forced to “use it or lose it” (137-138)

On top of all its inherent problems, SDI has been a shock to our European allies from the beginning. Announced as it was without prior consultation, it came as a blow to those governments who were in the midst of defending INF deployments against very active anti-nuclear opposition. If nuclear weapons were to be made “impotent and obsolete,” why spread more of them across the European countryside? If deterrence through the threat of offensive retaliation was a moral and strategic failure, why were Europeans being asked to deploy more offensive deterrents? Would an America shielded by strategic defenses mean a Europe more likely to become a battleground? Was SDI the latest expression of the American isolationist impulse? To quiet these and other concerns, consultations were initiated and allied governments were invited to participate in SDI. But, aside from the fact that successful strategic defenses would be more difficult to achieve in Europe even than in America, and aside from the political uproar that would inevitably be caused by any attempt to deploy strategic defenses in Europe, who would pay for it? Would it not mean reductions in European conventional forces, and would this not be very bad indeed? (92, 287-289)

By far the greatest danger posed by SDI, the cause of the most impassioned reaction against it, is that it threatens deterrence. To ask, Why not see whether a defense against nuclear weapons is possible? is to ask, Why not abolish deterrence? The most fervent SDI supporters are accused of reckless talk about “the immorality of deterrence.” We must never forget that “For the balance of our days, the security of the Western world will continue to rest on deterrence.” (88,131)

Now, to abolish deterrence in this context means more than to cease relying on the threat of offensive retaliation to “deter” a Soviet attack against us, and to rely instead upon strategic defenses for our safety. It means—what Kennan, McNamara, and company particularly lament—to “abandon the shared view of nuclear defense” that has underlain negotiations with the Soviets on strategic weapons for the past twenty years. This “shared view” “recognized that the pursuit of defensive systems would inevitably lead to an expanded competition and to greater insecurity for both [sides].” The Soviets and the Americans mutually understood that “neither of the two superpowers can tolerate the notion of ‘impotence’ in the face of the arsenal of the opponent.” America should not, therefore, threaten “the continued ability of Soviet warheads to get through.” This would threaten deterrence. (369, 379-80)

In other words, the American people will be made more secure if we assure the Soviet ability to land nuclear warheads upon us than if we attempt to assure to the extent possible that the Soviets cannot do this. This is the deterrence that must not be abandoned, not the American deterrent against a Soviet attack but the “mutual” Soviet-American deterrent against the common nuclear danger. To secure this deterrence, as Robert McNamara argued twenty years ago and is joined by eminent colleagues in arguing today, the U.S. must take responsibility for sustaining the effectiveness of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The U.S. must not “degrade the destruction capability of the Soviets’ offensive force to an unacceptable level.” (23, 380)

The official incarnation of this shared and mutual view of the common danger, which the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. are joined together to oppose, is the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 (reprinted in an appendix to this volume). The ABM Treaty is “the most important single arms control agreement that we and the Soviet Union share.” It is “at the very center” of arms control, because it rests upon that “common understanding” without which arms control would not be possible, that “mutual” understanding of the inherent consequences of nuclear weapons, called “mutual assured destruction,” popularly known as MAD. (90, 168, 379-380)

The ABM Treaty has been “profoundly constructive,” forcing the Soviets to accept limitations on their nuclear weapons. The “unilateral” abrogation of this treaty to pursue SDI would destroy the “mutuality” and “trust” that are essential to arms control and would with absolute certainty provoke the Soviets to take measures that would nullify our efforts. We must have mutual deterrence, or none. (90, 373)

For the Defense

The case for strategic defense is straightforward. In the course of the last twenty years, the Soviets have step by step achieved nuclear superiority over the United States. Our deterrent can no longer deter. Strategic defense is one of many urgent measures we must take to meet this crisis and restore our deterrent. This is necessary not only for the safety of the American people, which the President has a constitutional obligation to secure, but for the sake of freedom everywhere, which can hope for no succor from an undefended America and no quarter from a dominant Soviet Union.

What is the American deterrent? It is not, and it has never been, a shared concern about a common danger. There has never been a “shared” or “mutual” understanding of strategic doctrine between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, such as the one used by American arms controllers to justify the ABM Treaty of 1972. MAD was an American dream that led to an American disaster.

The American deterrent consists in something very palpable called the “strategic nuclear triad”: about 1,000 ICBMs, a few hundred bombers, and a few dozen submarines. These weapons have been variously tasked with deterring a Soviet attack against American cities and Soviet nuclear or conventional aggression against American allies and vital interests.5 To succeed in these deterrent functions, these weapons must be able to deter a successful Soviet attack on themselves. Doubt about this primary deterrent casts shadows of doubt over all those lesser tasks with which these weapons are charged in American strategic doctrine.

The Soviet Union has the ability to destroy perhaps 90 percent of our ICBMs, two-thirds of our bomber force, and half of our nuclear submarines, using about half or less of the Soviet ICBM force. Following such a strike, there is no doubt that the U.S. would remain in possession of sufficient forces to wreak destruction on Soviet society. But such retaliation, as Brzezinski writes, would be “suicidal.” The Soviets would still possess some 3,000 ICBM warheads, 2,000 or so SLBM warheads, and about a thousand nuclear bombs on their bombers. Therefore, though the U.S. might possess the “power” to retaliate, it is unthinkable that any U.S. leader would “will” to do so, even, or especially, on MAD principles. Our deterrent has been deterred. (57, 154, 426)

The Soviets developed the decisive “counterforce” capacity they now possess, as Robert Jastrow says, “since the signing of SALT I and in the name of arms control.” The ABM Treaty of 1972 was supposed to lead to reductions in such counterforce weapons. Indeed, failure to achieve such reductions, according to an official U.S. statement at the time, could jeopardize America’s “supreme interests” and “be a basis for withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.” Instead, according to Keith Payne of the National Institute for Public Policy, while the SALT “process” continued and the ABM Treaty remained in force, there was “a 600 percent increase in the number of Soviet counterforce weapons.” (149, 330-331, 450)

Offensive weapons were not all that the Soviets continued to build following the ABM Treaty of 1972. As David Yost informs us, “Soviet BMD [Ballistic Missile Defense] investments steadily increased” as well. American ABM expenditures, characteristically, declined following the treaty. According to some expert estimates, the U.S. exceeded the Soviet Union in BMD expenditures by a ratio of two to one in the late 1960s, while by 1980, the Soviets were outspending the Americans five to one in this area. Thus, among its many consequences, “the ABM Treaty halted any future progress towards an effective American missile defense system without . . . having the same effect
on Soviet research and modernization programs.” (245, 270)

After the ABM Treaty—as before the ABM Treaty—the Soviet Union continued to build that combination of offensive and defensive forces best suited to “war-fighting, war-survival, and victory.” Unlike their American counterparts, the Soviets signed the ABM Treaty for reasons other than endorsing a principle of mutual vulnerability.” Neither in declaratory policy nor in weapons programs or developments, writes Manfred Worner, Minister of Defense of the Federal Republic of Germany, have the Soviets ever accepted “the concept of deterrence through mutual assured destruction (MAD).” While making “an investment of awesome magnitude” in their offensive forces, the Soviets continued through the seventies and into the eighties to devote an equal or comparable amount to strategic defense, including civil defense, air defense, and ABM systems. Thus, as Fred Hoffman writes, “during the twenty-year period in which the West has relied on threats of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the Soviets have altered what they call the ‘correlation of forces’ in their favor.” (39, 73, 158-159, 244-245, 277-278, 308)

While the U.S. dismantled the single BMD site permitted under the ABM Treaty, the Soviets proceeded to modernize their Moscow site with upgraded interceptors and new radars. Practically before the ink was dry on the treaty, the Soviets began to test surface-to-air missiles in a manner clearly designed not for aircraft but for missiles. They have continued to improve these missiles. One of them, the SA-X-12, which “may have the capability to engage the Lance and both the Pershing I and Pershing II ballistic missiles,” is “notable because its mobility could enable the Soviets to build thousands of them and conceal them in storage until ready to deploy them relatively rapidly.” (146-147, 270-271)

Western readers are familiar with the large phased-array radar (LPAR) being constructed near Krasnoyarsk, in violation of the ABM Treaty. This is supplemented by eight other such radars (permitted under the treaty) deployed on the periphery of the Soviet Union. When this radar network becomes fully operational “in the late 1980s, the final gaps will be closed in the Soviet BMD radar coverage network.” These radars will be “technically capable of providing battle-management support to a widespread ABM system.” Because of “the transportable and concealable nature of many of the components” of the Soviet ABM system, with the LPARs operational, the Soviets will be able to deploy a nationwide ABM system, in a matter of months, when they choose. (270-273)

As to the more exotic technologies, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated in 1979 that the Soviets were outspending the U.S. by a ratio of five to one on high-energy laser programs. In certain technologies, such as microelectronics and high­ speed data processing, the U.S. still has a lead. “[B]ut the Soviet Union takes precedence in applying such technologies to BMD and getting BMD capabilities fielded” (emphasis added). In many areas of BMD technology, “for the foreseeable future, the United States will be producing only documents (and possibly prototypes) . . . while the Soviet Union is already creating hard facts.” (247, 271-272)

The Krasnoyarsk radar is particularly revealing both of Soviet strategic calculations and of the character of American opposition to strategic defense. Because this radar is such a flagrant and observable violation of the ABM Treaty, and because such radars take years to build, the Soviets must have decided long ago that the hard military advantages to be gained by constructing it far outweighed the consequences of violating the ABM Treaty. SDI critics have provided ample testimony to the soundness of this calculation.

The very thought that the Soviet Union might plan to deploy effective strategic defenses would certainly produce an energetic American response,” according to McNamara, Kennan, Bundy and Smith. Indeed, supporters of American strategic defense would wish this were the case. But instead, SDI critics energetically denounce the U.S. for threatening the ABM Treaty, while desperately excusing the Soviets for violating it. Thus, the Krasnoyarsk radar is “of only marginal importance,” and is in any case “understandable.” And we must beware that we do not allow it to undermine American “public confidence in arms control.” It might even present an opportunity for more fruitful arms control discussions with the Soviets. Though “no such sensitive discussions will be possible while Star Wars remains a non-negotiable centerpiece of American strategic policy.” (373-378)

In addition to Soviet development and deployment of defenses designed specifically for ballistic missiles, there are several other layers of Soviet defenses that complement the massive Soviet offensive forces. Extensive Soviet air defenses include some 12,000 surface-to-air missiles (the U.S. has none), 2,500 manned interceptors (with significant improvements in both missiles and aircraft), and 7,000 radars scanning the skies above Soviet territory and looking out over the horizon. Soviet civil defense efforts require the services of some 100,000 full-time personnel.

Soviet civil defense includes thorough preparation for the transition from peace to war, for the maintenance of political and military control during war, and for recovery from war. “[T]he Soviets have spent tens of billions of dollars over many years to elaborate a mutually reinforcing network of measures for protecting political and military command and control that include deception, concealment, dispersal, mobility in the air, on the ground and below ground, deep underground structures and active defense.”7About 175,000 Soviet military and civilian leaders are accommodated by some 1500 alternate hardened command posts “well away from urban centers,” besides the many bunkers and shelters within the cities. The construction and provision of these relocation sites alone would have cost $28-56 billion in the U.S. Provision is made as well for the protection of vital Industries and vital work forces.8 (58-60, 273)

Twenty years ago, Robert McNamara, one of the architects of American strategic doctrine, wrote that “The most severe threat is an extensive Soviet ABM deployment combined with a deployment of a substantial ICBM force with a hard-target kill capability.” Such a threat, he said, was “substantially higher” than the Soviets were expected to achieve in the foreseeable future. Today, due in no small part to the American strategic doctrine of mutual assured destruction and the policies justified by this doctrine, that threat has substantially materialized while we have deliberately denied ourselves the means to defend against it (21)

There is more peril than promise, then, for SDI, when supporters of at least “limited” strategic defenses, like the editor of Promise or Peril continue to subscribe to the most treacherous precepts of this self-defeating strategic doctrine. Brzezinski believes that we should proceed to deploy some sort of strategic defense; but he insists that in so proceeding, we “should not deprive the Soviet side of the assurance that under all circumstances it would still retain a broad retaliatory capability against U.S. society.” This is the kind of thinking that got us into the mess we are in, and a kind as alien as it is perilous to the American people.

For a generation our “experts” have urged us to fear death and consult our enemy. At the heart of the movement for strategic defense is an older, sounder disposition that tells us to fear God and take our own part.

1 Transcript printed In New York Times, March 24, 1983, A-20.

2 For a recent elaboration of these themes, see Caspar W. Weinberger, “U.S. Defense Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, Spring, 1986, pp. 675-97.

3 “Democrats Charge President Distorted U.S.-Soviet Balance,” Washington Post, March 24,1983, A-l.

4For a useful account of the origins and pathology of the confusion at the heart of the SDI debate, see Angelo Codevllla, “How SDI Is Being Undone From Within,”Commentary, May 1986, pp. 21-29.

5 For a lucid explanation of the various purposes of American nuclear forces, see Patrick J. Garrity, “Why We Need Nuclear Weapons,” Policy Review, Winter, 1986, pp. 36-45.

6 Three of these, near the Soviet western border, were reported publicly by the CIA as recently as last November. Since that time the State and Defense Departments have been arguing over how to interpret this radar network. State Department officials are concerned that attributing strategic significance to the radars might “make it more difficult for the Administration to compromise with the Soviets on the SDI and ABM Issues.” See Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1987, I,13.

7Albert Wohlstetter, “Between an Unfree World and None: Increasing our Choices,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1985, p. 988.

8Department of Defense, Soviet Military Power, 1985 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office) pp. 51-53.