Geneva, Star Wars and
Strategic Defense
Jude Wanniski
January 6, 1985


Executive Summary: The importance of the Shultz-Gromyko arms talks in Geneva derives from the U.S. decision to scrap the 35-year-old strategic doctrine of assured destruction. Gromyko in 1962-63 proposed the kind of defense-protected build-down Reagan has now embraced, but the balance of power and state of technology moved the U.S. away from strategic defense. The Soviet offensive buildup plus high-tech advances in computers, lasers, shift U.S. advantage toward Star Wars layered defense, not "leak-proof" but cost-effective enough to obsolete ballistic missiles. ABM Treaty de facto dissolved. Henceforth, Pentagon planning will be in strategic-defense mode, using existing ABM technology first, exotica down the line, offensive systems traded off. The Soviets, horrified, may already shifted away from military-KGB dominance, scrambling to adjust. Liberal opposition to strategic defense in U.S. splits along generational lines. Reagan gets all the credit.

Geneva, Star Wars and Strategic Defense

The most important thing in the world at the moment is the U.S.-Soviet arms-control discussions in Geneva, beginning with the January 7-8 meeting of Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The profound importance of the event has nothing to do with prospects of an agreement or treaty, however. Expectations of this kind of "success" could hardly be lower. Instead, the Russians will learn firsthand that after they stomped out of Geneva in December 1983 the Reagan Administration gradually decided to scrap the 35-year-old strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In fact, the only reason the Russians agreed to a resumption of talks in Geneva was to try to persuade the United States to stick with MAD. Secretary Shultz's assignment is to persuade Gromyko that it's in everyone's interest to shift to a policy of strategic defense, but no matter what, the U.S. is now going to go down that road.

All this is downright ironic. In the early 1960s, as the assured-destruction doctrine was crystallizing in the Kennedy Administration, reflecting the views of our foreign-policy establishment, Gromyko was on the other side of the fence. In September 1962, the Russian told the U.N. General Assembly:

Policy-making officials in the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western countries can often be heard saying that the best guarantee against a new war is the "balance of fear." Means of destruction and annihilation have become so powerful, argue the proponents of this view, that no state will run the risk of starting a nuclear war since it will inevitably sustain a retaliatory nuclear blow....

But to base the policy of states on a feeling of universal fear would be tantamount to keeping the world in a permanent state of feverish tension and eve-of-war hysteria.

At the time, the Soviets were well behind the United States in the deployment of offensive nuclear weapons and feared the U.S. could easily maintain superiority in a continued race. Gromyko's proposal then was to dismantle offensive systems but leave intact a "defensive cover" of "anti-missile missiles" to allay fears of any cheating. Instead, the U.S. decided to allow the Soviets to catch up on offensive weapons until nuclear "parity" was achieved; the assumption was that the Soviets would agree with us on what constituted parity and would thenceforth restrain themselves within the "assured destruction" framework. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1968 rejected the idea of strategic defense as impractical: "It is the clear and present ability to destroy the attacker as a viable 20th century nation and unwavering will to use these forces in retaliation to a nuclear attack upon ourselves that provides the deterrent, and not the ability partially to limit damage to ourselves."

Indeed, the idea took hold in the arms-control community that strategic defense was not only impractical, but downright destabilizing, even warlike. That is, if the U.S. built a network of anti-ballistic missile missiles (an ABM system), the Soviets would fear a U.S. "first strike" that would knock out most of their ICBMs, catching the few surviving Soviet missiles in the ABM net. The Soviets would be forced to build their own ABM net. Thus, the arms race would escalate along two tracks, swords and shields.

In 1969, the Great ABM Debate occupied the nation in Richard Nixon's first year as President, with Nixon proposing to build an ABM system to protect American cities. By this time, the Soviet Union had "caught up" with the U.S. in offensive missiles and was already embarked on an ABM system of its own, ringing Moscow with anti-missile missiles and building a network of bomb shelters and fallout shelters. Now, there was no longer talk from the Kremlin about a mutual defense-protected build-down.

Opposition to the ABM came from the liberals and their allies in the scientific community. They argued that ABMs were too expensive, they wouldn't work anyway, and would simply fuel the arms race on a separate track. Pro-ABM advocates argued that even if they didn't work, the Soviets wouldn't know for sure, and this fact would vastly complicate any of their plans for a strike against the U.S. Nixon won authorization by a single vote in the Senate, but in doing so he had made the argument that ABM authorization would be a powerful "bargaining chip" in arms-control negotiations with the Soviets. In other words, he never was really serious about a policy of strategic defense, and in 1972 dealt away the "chip" in that year's ABM Treaty with Moscow. This "enshrined" MAD.

The enshrinement of MAD, at least as American policy, was, however, a predictable result of changes in the balance of power, in American resolve, and technology. For a brief time in the 1970s, each side possessed roughly the same number of offensive missile launchers. Weapons knowhow had advanced to the point where each side had a large arsenal of weapons accurate enough to score a sure hit against a city, but too inaccurate to make hitting the other side's missile silos likely. America had virtually no strategic defense system; the Soviets had a massive civil and air defense program, but as yet lacked the sophisticated technology to deploy a broad-based population defense against strategic missiles.1

In the same way, President Reagan's abandonment of MAD, as policy, was also "predictable," resulting from changes in the balance of power, in American resolve, and technology, since 1972. The assumption that the Soviets would be satisfied with "parity" was blown away in the massive buildup of their arsenal since 1972. They've added, net, more than 1,000 missiles, 500 bombers, and 500 submarine delivery vehicles — more than 6,000 warheads of high accuracy and throw weight.

The SALT I treaty, which placed limits on the number of launchers permitted either side, led the U.S. to assume there would be an eventual barrier to Soviet expansion. But the Soviets not only moved to multiple warheads, which was predictable, but also developed refire capability for their fixed missile launchers — enabling them to make use of more than 2,000 warheads the U.S. thought would be obsolete under SALT I. In addition, the Soviets have explicitly violated the ABM provisions of SALT I by constructing a giant new radar system in Siberia, to the embarrassment and exasperation of their apologists in the United States, including Robert McNamara.

The breathtaking advances of technology in the last dozen years have also immeasurably strengthened the arguments for strategic defense. A dozen years ago there was no semiconductor industry. Five years ago there was awed discussion among scientists of the incipient development of computer chips of 32K memory. Today, there are ho-hum reports of tests on chips with 1,000 K of memory and several hundred thousand American families own personal computers with 128K. Advances in laser techniques are no less astonishing.

All of this led ineluctably to President Reagan's "Star Wars" speech of March 23, 1983:

Up until now we have increasingly based our strategy of deterrence upon the threat of retaliation. But what if free-people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack? [What if] we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?....! call upon the scientific community in our century, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

As it happens, the President had a pretty good idea that his challenge to the scientific community was attainable. According to Dr. George Keyworth, the President's Science Adviser:

For more than five months, some fifty of our nation's better technical minds (have) devoted their efforts almost exclusively to one problem — the defense against ballistic missiles." This group of specialists, which included some of the most qualified defense scientists in the country, had concluded that the President's goal was realistic — that it "probably could be done."2

Adds Keyworth, "The basis for their optimism is our tremendously broad technical progress over the last decade."

It must be understood that this Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), as the project is called, is not simply a long-term research scheme to put space-based laser weapons into operation sometime in the next century. It is a new strategic policy that, for all practical purposes and except for some screaming and shouting, is now in place. Secretary Shultz has been instructed to inform the Soviets that the U.S. is prepared to negotiate limits or reductions in offensive strategic weapons, but the SDI is not a bargaining chip.

Although the President can himself terminate the ABM treaty with six-months notice to Moscow, an event we're likely to see sooner or later, the decision has already been made to dissolve it. In other words, all strategic military planning based on the assured destruction doctrine is obsolete and from the present moment the nation (especially the Pentagon) will find itself thinking and planning in terms of strategic defense. It's now possible to imagine deployment of defensive systems within the decade, using available technology, while scrapping plans for new offensive systems such as the MX. The SDI, after all, does not envision space-based lasers or Neutral Particle Beams doing the entire job of "rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." That's the last stage of a layered defense, the other layers of which could be laid down relatively quickly.

Readers will find the debate easier to follow if they think in terms of three groups of technologies. Group one is composed of the classic anti-ballistic missile systems, which have been on the drawing board since the 1960s. Because ABMs are based on the ground, they must shoot up at nuclear warheads moving in at very high speeds. And because warheads are at this point armed and close to their targets, such systems may never provide a comprehensive population defense.

But ABMs could do a great deal to strengthen our existing forces. They would provide the country with greater security even with some reduction in offensive weapons, sirce it is survivable warheads, and not total warheads, that are expected to deter a Soviet attack. ABMs would also enhance arms control by lowering the destructive power of each side's arsenal, a "build down," in effect, that does not require any negotiations....

Group two involves systems based in space, but employing rather simple means to intercept or "kill" attacking missiles. Unlike ABMs, such systems could shoot down on missiles during their boost or post-boost phase. Groups of light, mass-produced satellites, armed with heat-seeking missiles, could thus filter out better than 90 percent of a Soviet missile launch....A group of engineers from Boeing Co. has concluded that such low-tech satellites could be built and deployed almost immediately.

Only a third group of systems is technologically controversial: the laser beams, proton weapons and other exotica discussed so often recently in the popular press. These will, as critics point out, take many years and billions of dollars to develop. Even here, there is some dispute. At a test this summer (1983), a U.S. laser weapon shot down several Sidewinder missiles in a row.3

Political opponents of SDI have tried to foster the idea that the President has set as his goal a "leak-proof" defense, which they correctly assert is no doubt impossible, and anything short of that is a waste of time and money:

What is centrally and fundamentally wrong with the President's objective is that it cannot be achieved. The overwhelming consensus of the nation's technical community is that in fact there is no prospect whatever that science and technology can, at any time in the next several decades, make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." The program developed over the last 18 months, ambitious as it is, offers no prosepct for a leak-proof defense against strategic ballistic missiles alone, and it entirely excludes from its range any effort to limit effectiveness of other systems — bomber aircraft, cruise missiles, and smuggled warheads.4

Of course, SDI has no such objective. Dr. Robert Jastrow, founder of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and first chairman of NASA's Lunar Exploration Committee, explains:

Most of the discussion of the "Star Wars" defense assumes a many-layered defense with three or four distinct layers. The idea behind having several layers is that the total defense can be made nearly perfect in this way, even if the individual layers are less than perfect.

For example, if such layer has, say, an 80-percent effectiveness — which means that one in five missiles or warheads will get through — a combination of three such layers will have an overall effectiveness better than 99 percent, which means no more than one warhead in 100 will reach its target....

Suppose the United States built a defensive screen of 100 satellites that could shoot down — as a very conservative estimate — 80 percent, or four-fifths of the Sovient missiles. And suppose the Soviets decided they wanted to build enough missiles so that the number of missiles getting through our defensive screen would be the same as the number that would have reached the United States if we had no defense. That is what "overwhelming the defense" means. To do that, the Soviets would have to build more than 5,000 additional missiles and silos.5

The "arms-control lobby" chiefly consists of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists, the Arms Control Association, and the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. They have been forced to combat this "leak-proof" strawman in attempting to dominate the news media and public debate because there is such general awareness of the advance of technology in recent years. The scientific community is being split not along "liberal" and "conservative" lines, but along generational lines, with the older architects of the assured-destruction doctrine losing the support even of younger liberals who now see the advantages of strategic defense in limiting the race in offensive nuclear weapons. Last year, in a study jointly sponsored by the Brookings Institution and MIT, the Old Guard took it on the chin with the report's conclusion:

Other missions, for less-than-perfect defenses, are technically achievable and might be very useful. And missile-delivered nuclear weapons might indeed be rendered "impotent and obsolete," to use President Reagan's phrase in his speech of March 1983 in the following sense: defenses might someday be possible for which each missile warhead added by the offense could be offset by defensive improvements of comparable or lesser cost. This would make marginal increases in missile forces unattractive to the offense, and ballistic missiles could be "obsolete" as the cheap, effective delivery systems they are today.6

The Soviets, of course, are horrified at what they see unfolding. They're not so foolish as to believe the arguments of the Union of Concerned Scientists, et al, and can see that U.S. technology can quickly render obsolete the Soviet investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in offensive weapons. In this real sense, they must feel weakened already as they discount the future. We can even begin to speculate that these developments have dealt a blow to the hardliners in the Kremlin, the military-KGB faction, with the reformers finally getting an edge. The new Defense Minister, Sergei Sokolov, does not have a seat on the Politburo. Another straw in the wind can be seen in last month's visit to China of Soviet Deputy Premier Ivan Arkhipov, who not only asked to see the new capitalistic experiments in China's free-trade zones, but also had high praise for China's economic blueprint — at a time the Chinese are elevating Adam Smith and disparaging Marxism-Leninism.

This is becoming plain even to the liberals, including some of the nuclear-freeze advocates like Jonathan Schell, who had come to see that the assured-destruction doctrine had trapped liberals into support of offensive weapons systems. Defensive systems, they can see, can break the arms-control stalemate. Because a survivable deterrent is what counts, a defensive component gives a president leeway in agreeing on the offensive builddowns. With a relatively effective shield, it's possible to imagine a president recommending unilateral dismantling of some offensive weapons to invite Soviet gestures of a similar kind. It's possible to imagine the dismantling of the entire land-based ICBM force in this framework, reposing the entire deterrent force in bombers and submarines.

In the long term, then, defense is "stabilizing," rendering any buildup for an offensive first strike hopelessly expensive and complicated. Because a U.S. defensive buildup would be accompanied by an offensive builddown, there would be no reason for the Soviets to feel threatened.

This is what Geneva is all about, the reaffirmation of the simple truth of Gromyko's 1963 logic: Only disarmament will truly remove the nuclear peril. Defenses would provide confidence without naive trust. And only then can be even dream of a world without nuclear weapons. This is President Reagan's "magnificent obsession," for which he deserves all the credit. The Strategic Defense Initiative and his Star Wars speech was all his idea, rammed through at the time over the arguments of almost all of his Cabinet and advisers, including especially the Pentagon planners who have come to share a vested interest in offensive weaponry and assured-destruction doctrine. The world will never be the same.

* * * * *

1 A Defense That Defends, by Daniel O. Graham and Gregory Fossedal, Devon-Adair, Old Greenwich, Conn., 1983, p. 29.
2 Reported in The War Against "Star Wars/' by Robert Jastrow, Commentary, December 1984, p. 19.
3The Pentagon Lust Stays MAD, by Gregory Fossedal, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 1983.
4The President's Choice: Star Wars or Arms Control, by McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara and Gerard Smith, Foreign Affairs, Winter 1984/85, p. 265.
5 Op. cit., Jastrow, pp. 20, 22.
6 Ballistic Missiles Defense, edited by Ashton B. Carter and David N. Schwartz, The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., 1984, p. 12.