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Trying to reduce a permanent state of feverish tension

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That kind of ghoulish scenario, far- fetched but not totally implausible, exposes the unimportance of the truism that "both sides have the nuclear destructive power to blow up the world several times over," likely correct but practically irrelevant. Speed and accuracy of delivery and survivability of deterrent power are more important criteria than simple megatonnage, which is a principal reason for the marked decline in the number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal in the past 20 years.

One of MAD's many ironies is that it is most fanatically defended by exactly those elements that are most demonstrative about the dangers of nuclear war (apart from the unilateral-disarmament quacks). It is becoming almost as complicated to assure survival of a precise retaliatory capacity as to attempt a full national anti-missile defence. And President Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) is controversial but timely. (Only his more perfervid adversaries still derisively call it "Star Wars".) The program is a plan to research a concentrated-beam (laser), space-based, non-nuclear defensive system that would detect and destroy approaching missiles in flight at high altitudes without, it is hoped, detonating them. It is the prospect of such a defence that has brought the Russians back to Geneva 15 months after their bombastic suspension of the intermediate- and strategic-missile talks. In the United States, debate has been joined on the issue with endearing combativeness. Thus, we read in the conservative think-piece Commentary, in reference to the President's critics, that "The Wizard of Oz was less flagrant in his mummery, more modest in his pretensions" (Lowell Wood of the Livermore National Laboratory). And in the learnedly liberal New York Review of Books, the venerable and distinguished George Ball has accused Reagan of imposing upon his originally skeptical followers a mass conversion (to SDI) reminiscent of that decreed by King Ethelbert of Kent in the sixth century," and has dismissed SDI as a strategic fantasy that would come to life only "when shrimps learn to whistle."

As usual with Reagan's critics, they spoke too soon and vociferously, doing violence to their own credibility. Thus, the Union of Concerned Scientists, of which Carl Sagan is co-chairman, claimed to a congressional committee that 280,000 defence missiles would be necessary to operate the system instead of the somewhat attainable best guess of 5,000. They also claimed that 2,400 anti-missile satellites would be required, each costing $ 1 billion and lumbering determinedly into the sky carrying a 40,000-ton linear accelerator (about the weight of RMS Lusitania or the battleship New Jersey), instead of, as is now acknowledged, 100 less expensive satellites bearing into orbit rather less Sisyphean payloads of 25 tons.

The argument about feasibility must be determined by qualified experts, but seems not to have resolved itself into a conventional discussion of cost effectiveness for a comprehensive but not airtight system. The most reliable estimate of its efficacy is the alarmed reaction of the Soviet which started extensive research on its own satellite-launched anti- missile defence system several years before the United States but from an inferior technological base. Already consecrating 15% of the Soviet GNP to defence and facing a limitless horizon of minimal economic growth, the Russian leadership, under its fourth chief in three years, clearly finds unappetizing the prospect of a full scientific competition with the United States that could render the Russian nuclear delivery capacity obsolete.

The post-feasibility position of Western critics (e.g. Pierre Trudeau) has been the incantation that SDI is"destabilizing." It is MAD that is destabilizing. Even Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko described MAD as early as 1962 as "a permanent state of feverish tension" in which the superpowers "raise their pistols, aim at each other's foreheads and wait for the other to shoot." The argument that the Kremlin leadership might react irresponsibly to the prospect of losing nuclear equivalence is a psychiatric question, not a strategic one. If the world is imperiled because the Russians might blow it up if the United States regains the comparative nuclear superiority it possessed through most of the nuclear age, then SDI is the least of our worries, and the Kremlin leaders should banish themselves, not their political dissidents, to their versatile psychiatric hospitals. Anyone setting out to assess these strategic questions must rise above a mountain of polemical advocacy and misinformation.

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