The New Nuclear Debates

The implications are as great as at any time since deterrence was developed in the 1950s.

One of the curiosities of the current presidential campaign is that it has yet to catch fire (do pardon the expression) around the issue of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy. The democrats profess faith in the freeze, and disbelief in the Administration’s commitment to arms control. The Administration, feeling neither heat nor blast on the issue thus far, sends START negotiator General Rowny out to do battle with evil Bob Scheer, and to the astonishment of one and all (no doubt including Scheer), Rowny comes off quite well. Barring a major international crisis over the next seven months, it looks as if the 1984 election, despite its following hard on the heels of the freeze movement, will not be the occasion of a Great National Debate on questions of nuclear weaponry and strategy.

However one explains this at the popular level — and I lean toward the view that rhetorical and televisual overkill (The Day After, the “nuclear winter” report of Carl Sagan and friends) are more to blame than public “apathy” — the quiet surface of our politics shouldn’t obscure the fact that a major and fundamental debate on nuclear strategy is being conducted just beneath the visible terrain of public life; and the implications of that debate are at least as great as at any time since the theory of deterrence was developed in the 1950s.

This new nuclear debate has several sources. Technology is one: we may be able to do things in the near future that were unimaginable even a dozen years ago. The intransigence of the U.S.S.R. for the past three years is also a factor, as is heightened public awareness of the threat beneath which we live. But, at bottom, I think the new debate has developed because of the perceived inadequacy of the ideas and doctrines that have been guiding both arms control negotiations and nuclear force modernizations for a generation. The immense difficulty of achieving arms control agreements that actually reduce the level of our present danger, rather than agreements which opt for one form of danger over others, can no longer be attributed solely to inept negotiators or ill will (on either side). The Scowcroft Commission’s valedictory letter to President Reagan last month admitted as much, noting that “a principal substantive barrier to surmount” on the way to arms reduction “is the very different composition of the strategic forces of the two sides and the manner in which they have developed.” And these asymmetries are not accidental; they “reflect the differing historical experiences, strategic objectives, and military traditions of the two superpowers.”

The result of these disparities in history, technological capability, and geography is a pair of opposed strategic forces that are dissimilar in composition and capacity; the different components of the Soviet and American systems have different strengths and weaknesses, which makes the two forces extremely hard to compare. And without rational methods of comparison, there can be no serious reductions, and in fact no serious bargaining.

The doctrines that have guided the U.S. approach to nuclear weapons negotiations (and nuclear weapons deployment) no longer fit this increasingly complex bill. New templates are needed. And it is the argument over what those templates should be that is rolling underneath the placid waters of the presidential campaign. The argument has three clusters of actors and their favored doctrines: (1) the traditional deterrence-plus-arms-control community, of which the Scowcroft Commission Report last year was the most impressive (and perhaps last) public expression; (2) the counterforce theorists, who believe that deterrence through Mutual Assured Destruction is neither credible nor moral, and who are riding the technological wave of higher and higher missile accuracies to a new theory of deterrence through war-fighting capability; (3) and the proponents of strategic defense, who propose cutting the Gordian knot of offensive weapons reductions by creating impregnable ballistic missile defense systems.


The Counterforce Theorists

One of the supreme ironies of the new nuclear debate is that it was the 1983 Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace, widely and accurately perceived as an attack on much of the present nuclear doctrine, an attack mounted in the name of arms control and disarmament, that forced to the surface a subterranean position that is now a major actor in the argument: the position of the counterforce theorists who, like the bishops, wish to be rid of MAD but who, unlike the bishops, propose to jettison MAD for high-accuracy, low-yield, “usable” nuclear weapons. How did this ever happen? Curiously enough, through an odd mixture of technology and ethics.

The technological change has been underway for some time now. As Albert Wohlstetter, point man for the counterforce theorists, points out in this school’s programmatic essay (“Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Killing of Innocents,” Commentary, June 1983), our nuclear forces have actually been declining in overall destructive capability for the past twenty some years. This has not been for reasons of moral scruple, but for reasons of technology. Weapons accuracy works in inverse proportion on megatonnage; that is, the more accurate the weapon, the less “yield” needed to destroy the target. We are now seeing the emergence of a generation of counterforce-capable weapons, weapons accurate enough to be targeted on precise military objectives rather than on gross areas like cities; the accuracy of MX warheads, Trident D-5 warheads, and cruise missile warheads will be measured in hundreds, perhaps dozens of feet, as against their nuclear predecessors whose accuracies were measured in miles. High-megaton weapons make no military sense anymore; there is no need for them: Accuracy has replaced yield as the critical measure.

But the counterforce theorists are responding to more than this major technological change. For the emergence of counterforce weapons has made it possible for these strategists to let free their moral revulsion at deterrence con-ducted through the threat of counter-population massacre. Such theories have stuck in the craws of men like Wohlstetter for twenty years; and now that technology has let them cough up their disgust, they have no intention of swallowing MAD again.

It is here that the bishops made their unintended contribution to the case for deterrence through war-fighting capability. According to the bishops’ pastoral letter, nuclear weapons can never be used against cities (an extension of the traditional just-war principle of non-combatant immunity); nor can nuclear weapons ever be used against military targets where the “collateral-damage” against civilians would be disproportionate; nor can the United States ever use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. In fact, the bishops suggest, they find it immensely difficult to imagine the circumstances in which there could be a moral use of nuclear weapons. Yet the bishops, in line with Pope John Paul II, do not wish to pull the plug on deterrence, so they accord it a “strictly conditional moral acceptance” for so long as the deterrent threat is creating the circumstances in which arms reductions can proceed. But can you threaten that which it would be immoral to do?

The complex structure of moral intentionality is such that this last question can be argued several ways by a skilled moral theorist. But politically, the meaning of the bishops’ basket of nuclear axioms is quite clear: the only permissible deterrent is a bluff deterrent, a deterrent that will never be used. And this, according to Wohlstetter and company, is the point at which the ethical emperor (or bishop) is revealed to have no clothes: for a bluff deterrent, given today’s force structures, would make nuclear war more likely (because the adversary would know it was a bluff), and would also make any nuclear war more horrific (because our retaliatory strike, were it launched, would not fall onto empty Soviet missile silos, but on teeming Soviet cities). Moreover, since the bishops tacitly endorsed the freeze, they are in principle set against technological force modernizations that would permit more careful, discriminate targeting. The bishops are clearly in deep waters here, and one need not buy Wohlstetter’s entire critique of the pastoral letter to acknowledge that he has pointed out grave political — and moral — difficulties with the bluff deterrent.

Wohlstetter and others argue, then, for deterrence conducted by possession of “usable” nuclear weapons: weapons of sufficient accuracy that they can be targeted on military installations only. Moreover, these strategists argue, continued progress in accuracy-enhancement could make nuclear weapons obsolete: why not use a conventional warhead on cruise missiles, for example, if such would do the needed military job? The important point here, it should be emphasized, is that the counterforce theorists are not panting in expectation over a “winnable” nuclear war. Their point is more simple: an adversary is much more likely to be deterred by weapons which he thinks we might use, than by weapons whose use would inevitably involve our own destruction as well as his. Just-war ethicists like Georgetown’s William V. O’Brien have been arguing this same case, on moral grounds, for years: the only morally acceptable deterrent is a deterrent which, if used, would meet the just war criteria of proportionality and discrimination (i.e. no deliberate targeting of civilians, and no excessive collateral damage). Technology and morality have combined, in the counterforce theorists, to suggest a whole new approach to the problem of the nuclear weapon, which we cannot dis-invent. And while Wohlstetter himself seems most interested in low-yield nuclear weapons as a deterrent, Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson comes to a remarkably similar, deterrence -through- usable- weapons position in his recent New Yorker essays and in his book Weapons and Hope; although Dyson wants conventional weapons only, the structure of his argument, both politically and ethically, is quite similar to Wohlstetter’s, even though the latter is a classic “hard,” and Dyson a quintessential “soft.” The convergences here are too striking to be ignored.

The Traditional Arms Control Community

It is those strategists who still favor deterrence on traditional terms, and who look with real fear on the counter- force revolution, who are most embattled in the subterranean argument today. And this despite the fact that they still control many of the levers of political power. The Scowcroft Commission Report last year was, in retrospect, the last hurrah of this doctrinal school. The Commission fervently, and genuinely, hoped to re-establish consensus on nuclear strategic issues by brokering a modest shift toward counter- force (with the small, single-warhead ICBM), but remained nervous about pushing the accuracy indices too sharply, because of the fear that “usable” weapons would make nuclear war more likely. In reality, then, if not in theory or targeting doctrine, the arms-control-plus-deterrence school has made its Faustian bargain with MAD. U.S. nuclear forces will not be primarily targeted in a MAD mode; but MAD will remain, like Poe’s raven, as the final threat that constitutes deterrence. Moreover, counterforce capabilities have to be kept under rigid control; for this school of thought still accepts the MAD-based position that “weapons aimed at people are stabilizing; weapons aimed at weapons are destabilizing.” Given the technological era we are rapidly leaving, there was a certain perverse logic in that grotesque formulation, which ran against the grain of several hundred years of moral theorizing about war; and the arms controllers of the traditional stripe still believe the logic holds.

The real counterargument to their position, paradoxically, is coming from the failure of arms control which, ac-cording to the traditional theory, should have been successful because both sides would see the advantage of “rationalizing” the mutual suicide pact in which they were engaged. Arms controllers gave up on disarmament long ago; they don’t believe it’s possible, and so the question is to prevent nuclear weapons usage through MAD, at lower and lower levels of megatonnage, it is hoped. But what happens to this elegant theorizing when the “arms control process” runs up against the hard facts of the asymmetries that the Scowcroft Commission wrung its hands over? If ten years of arms-control negotiations conducted according to the traditional doctrine have had, as their empirical bottom line, force structures on both sides that are more threatening rather than less, might we entertain the notion that the doc-trine is awry?

The counterforce theorists have moved into the argument at this point like avenging angels, and it is between them and the traditional arms-control-plus-deterrence theorists that much of the visible battle is being conducted today; this is particularly true in the Congress, where a brilliant traditionalist like Tennessee Congressman (and next Senator) Albert Gore, Jr. is fighting on what he knows to be narrower and narrower ground.

But the most intellectually interesting, and politically radical, challenge to the traditional deterrence orthodoxy is coming, not from the counterforce theorists, but from the proponents of strategic defense. They, too, set the traditionalists’ teeth on edge. But, like the counterforce school, they may well charge that they are being dismissed too easily, for, once again, technology and ethics are converging in their favor.


The Case for Strategic Defense

One of the grave problems of the new case for strategic defense is that some of its proponents have too facile a faith in the immediate feasibility of missile defense. General Daniel Graham of “High Frontier” comes right to mind. No one should doubt the intensity of Graham’s belief in the immediate prospects for space -based defensive weapons that could give America back its strategic edge over the U.S.S.R. (and possibly do in the latter in the process). Daniel Graham believes in immediate space-based defense with the fervor of a 17th century Puritan’s belief in witchcraft. But the degree of fervor involved is no guarantee that witches, or space-based defense systems, exist or can be created.

Fortunately for the strategic defense theorists, there is more evidence to hand than Graham’s evangelism. Robert Jastrow, a distinguished astronomer and former senior NASA official (he designed the scientific exploration of the moon during the Apollo program), makes the case for the technical feasibility of strategic defense in the January, 1984 issue of Commentary. According to Jastrow, a “point” defense of high-value military targets is possible now, with off-the-shelf equipment and technology. A broader “area defense,” of cities for example, is farther down the line, but there are, according to Jastrow, no insurmountable problems of understanding to be overcome en route to such systems; the problems are in the solvable realms of technology, engineering, and money.

This optimism at the technological level has been recently challenged by a report entitled “Space-Based Missile Defense,” from the Union of Concerned Scientists. I think it is fair to say that the U.C.S. falls well within the boundaries of the traditional arms-control-plus-deterrence school; that is, it remains wedded to at least a minimal form of MAD, which would hopefully set the stage for progressive and mutual de-nuclearization of the U.S.-Soviet competition, at least to levels where neither side could destroy the other’s society. Again, in this universe of doctrine, “defense” is a very bad word; defense is de-stabilizing. If I have it, and you don’t, you may well assume that I’m going to stand behind my shield and let you have it with my sword. So, in a crisis, you’ll be more inclined to preemptively go after both my sword and my shield. It is fundamentally on doctrinal grounds that the U.C.S. is dead set against ballistic missile defense. The “morality” of refusing to defend innocents is rarely, if ever, discussed in these quarters.

But to give the impressive U.C.S. report its due, the counterarguments it marshals against Jastrow and the new strategic defense school are scientific in the main. According to the U.C.S., both the curvature of the earth’s surface and the properties of lasers make effective space-based ballistic missile defense very unlikely. They don’t say it’s impossible; but given the requirements for virtually 100% accuracy, the U.C.S. finds it hard to imagine how such systems could be constructed, or, if they were in fact constructed, how they could be maintained and defended (since they would be prime targets for pre-emptive attack).

The U.C.S. report and the Jastrow article operate largely at one level of the strategic defense debate: the level of technological feasibility. For those of us who are not experts in the outer reaches of theoretical physics, at least some of this argument comes down to a question of “choose your experts.” But over the long haul, say the next hundred years or so, there would seem to be little question that some form of space-based ballistic missile defense, capable of zapping offensive rockets in either their “boost phase” (i.e. as they come up through the Earth’s atmosphere) or their “mid-course phase” (i.e. they traverse the top of the ballistic curve, in space), will be technologically feasible.

This means that the interesting question, even in to-day’s uncertain technological environment, is whether deploying such systems would be a good thing. Aside from the Grahamites, who see ballistic missile defense as an instrument for re-establishing America strategic superiority (which is their primary concern), there is widespread agreement, across today’s technological argument, that unilateral development and deployment of ballistic missile defense would be a de-stabilizing factor in U.S. -Soviet relations. Wohlstetter’s argument for deterrence-through-militarily – usable-nuclear-weapons — that Soviet authorities care at least as much for the preservation of their military power as they do about civilian casualties in a war, and would therefore be deterred more by weapons which threaten their military capability — is, if valid, just as true when thinking about ballistic missile defense: would the U.S.S.R. stand idly by while the U.S. deployed a workable defense system behind which it could credibly threaten pre-emptive action against Soviet forces? Wouldn’t the onset of such deployments provide the classic grounds for Soviet pre-emptive action?

The really meaty argument about strategic defense, then, is doctrinal rather than technological. Sooner or later, the technology will be here; then what? And what can we do about it now?

Michael Howard, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and the most distinguished military historian in the English-speaking world, told a group of congressmen in February that the advent of ballistic missile defense, whether it happened in twenty years or a hundred, presented us with a world-historical opportunity. For the first time since the invention of the machine gun, Howard argued, we have an opportunity to put politics back in front of weapons technology, rather than scrambling to catch up with it. Instead of politics being behind the technological curve, as it was with machine guns, tanks, bombers, and offensive nuclear weapons, the potential onset of defensive weaponry may make it possible to re-establish the priority of political decision-making over technological imperatives. How? Howard proposes that we seize the moment and be unprecedentedly bold, by proposing to the Soviet Union that we jointly develop and then deploy strategic defense systems.

Howard’s proposal has found resonance in perhaps surprising quarters. On three separate occasions, including a Los Angeles Times interview the week after his Star Wars speech, President Reagan has suggested that ballistic missile defense systems be “shared” with the U.S.S.R. “Sharing” is different from “jointly developing,” of course, but the difference between those two possibilities is considerably less than the doctrinal difference between those in favor of strategic defense and those opposed. The Administration’s Science Advisor, Dr. George Keyworth, raised the possibility of shared systems again last month. So, too, did Richard Nixon, in a December, 1983 Wall Street Journal interview. This spate of proposals has at least had the amusing result of radically inverting the usual attitudes toward the Soviet Union found in the strategic argument: here are President Reagan, Richard Nixon, and an historian of war suggesting joint ballistic missile defense with the U.S.S.R., with almost the entire arms control community, from faddists like Carl Sagan through statesmen like Albert Gore shaking their heads in disbelief — and dismay.

There is more going on here than amusement, though. Even the best of the traditional arms controllers, like Gore, will admit privately that the pace of offensive weapons development is rapidly outstripping the ability of classic arms control to keep pace. Much of this is blamed on the present Administration, of course; but the less-ideological members of the arms control fraternity understand that essentially the same problems would have obtained in a second Carter administration (which wanted twice the number of MX missiles that Reagan has asked for — and won’t get). The problem, at bottom, is the combination of force asymmetry and political impasse. The breakthrough possibility of joint development of ballistic missile defense lies in dealing with the latter reality, which is really the heart of the whole thing. Suppose the Soviets accepted an offer of joint development; that very fact would so alter the superpower political environment that many other logjams might begin to clear as well. Suppose the Soviets initially declined; imagine the pressures that would build on them as they definitively lost the worldwide battle for hearts and minds (this is Michael Howard’s back-up point: that even if the U.S.S.R. rejected an offer of joint development, the offer itself would be a colossal propaganda victory for the West, which could in time turn into a useful pressure for Soviet cooperation). Perhaps in the short term we needn’t gamble on an all-or-nothing response from the hidebound Soviet leadership; could we not start slowly, perhaps with a joint political commission that would assess the strategic impact of ballistic missile defense on both parties, at various levels of technological feasibility? No crown jewels of technology would be shared up front; but a very helpful precedent in working towards common security would have been set. And, again as the fall-back, there is no downside to offering. The West stands only to gain from such an initiative.

The argument over strategic defense is likely to grow increasingly visible in the immediate future. The concept should not be dismissed out of hand as the fantasies of people hooked on George Lukas flicks. For, irrespective of the immediate technological prospects for ballistic missile defense, Michael Howard’s insight into the political dynamics of defensive system in vitro, as it were, cannot be gainsaid.

A Chance for Synthesis?

Viewed from one angle, the three actors in the current subterranean strategic debate are like scorpions in a bottle. They cannot co-exist; one must prevail through the destruction of the others. The image is not entirely faulty, for there are severe differences in premises, much less conclusions, among the three. Both highly-developed counterforce and strategic defense are anathema, in principle, to the traditional arms controllers. Both the counterforce theorists and the proponents of strategic defense view the arms controllers’ death-grip insistence on MAD as politically irresponsible, militarily obtuse, and morally repugnant.

Yet all three are agreed that the present mess is getting worse, rather than better, even if they see the causes of that worsening through distinctive lenses. That rudimentary agreement suggests the possibility of marching around doctrine and imagining a synthesis of positions that is essentially political, and from which new doctrines could be developed if necessary. The synthesis would go like this:

What all of us want is a world shorn of the threat of nuclear weapons, and shorn of such weapons in a way that doesn’t simply make the world safe for immensely destructive conventional and bio-chemical weaponry. Getting to that preferred world means, in the immediate, short-term future, getting rid of the MIRVed missiles that are the source of strategic instability today (Gore’s proposal, largely accepted by the Scowcroft Commission). Moving out of a MIRVed world is going to mean force modernizations, new weapons (contra the freeze); to maintain stable deterrence, these new weapons should take advantage of the new accuracy technologies, but not in ways that asymmetrically threaten the other side’s assets. The object is to engage in a mutual, balanced de-escalation process that means reducing actual stockpiles of warheads and “modernizing” through single-warhead missiles with some counterforce capability. If both sides reach a point where they wish to denuclearize entirely, the process of conversion to conventional explosive warheads can be jointly begun. But even in such a scenario (which combines elements of the Wohlstetter approach with the Gore/classicist approach), we will eventually reach a point on the curve of de-escalation where the prospect of preemptive use will rear its ugly head again, because we will have reduced to such a point that the pre-emptor would not be gambling his whole society on a first strike. This means that, at a definable point on the curve of reductions, we must have defensive capabilities, and they must be effective on both sides. This development can take place jointly, or in a mutual, independent way; but it cannot be unilateral. Why not, then, begin joint research, at least on the political implications of defense, now, for agreement on that score might crack open the whole encrusted carapace that is preventing agreement on offensive weapons reduction?

A pipedream? No doubt there are immense problems to be solved. How all of this would relate to conventional weapons reductions (or even balance) would have to be .worked out. What instruments would settle international disputes if the superpowers were disarming? How do we avoid moving from barely-manageable chaos, as in the pre-sent, to completely unmanageable chaos, where there is no regulating mechanism in world affairs? These are all hard questions, and there are undoubtedly several hundred more to be asked, much less answered.

But if a survey of the underground nuclear strategy argument today suggests any one conclusion, it is that the old shibboleths are falling, and the old doctrinal alliances are being sundered. In a recent House exchange on ballistic missile defense, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, debating Al Gore, asked what will remain the fundamental question for those who choose to deal with these immensely complicated issues: “Since we agree the world is mad, the question, then … is: What should one do?” Given that agreement, and the perennial nature of the resulting question, there are bound to be numerous surprises ahead as the new strategic arguments come to the surface and burst into full flower.


  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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