In Focus: Artful Compromise on Missiles

June 1, 1983

Washington, D.C., May 2

On April 19, President Ronald Reagan, complying with a request by Congress, sent a report to Capitol Hill that endorses the recommendations of bipartisan Commission on Strategic Forces. The President urged prompt congressional approval of the measures and policies advocated by the Commission he convened at the beginning of the year.

Among the members and senior counselors of the Commission were two former Secretaries of State and four former Secretaries of Defense. Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, USAF (Ret.), a former Presidential Assistant for National Security Affairs, haired the group, which held a total of thirty-one meetings, heard from 203 experts, and spent 47,616 man-hours analyzing the facts and writing its unanimous conclusions.

The commission’s artfully crafted document — which was approved without change by the white House — embraces essential military requirements without slighting political necessity. The result is a consensus solution — arrived at through consultation with pivotal elements of Congress — that is likely to receive the cachet of Capitol Hill, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even most of the news media. So far, that seems to be the case.

Although by intent a compromise that accommodates a range of political goals and technical approaches, the Scowcroft Commission’s recommendations include no white elephants and even manage to keep obligatory sacred cows on a short tether. The effects of political influences seem to be most evident in the eight that is given to arms-control considerations. In turn, they color the Commission’s recommendations for molding the strategic forces. As a consequence, military requirements at times seem to take a backseat to arms-control goals in the Commission’s recommendation concerning the size and nature of the US strategic arsenal. The attendant presumption that the S, by setting a “good” example — by shifting to small, single-warhead ICBMs, for instance — could coax the USSR into relinquishing its towering advantage in super large multiple-warhead ICBMs is probably optimistic.

Still, the Scowcroft Commission did not overlook the fact that the Soviets might have no incentive for such a trade-down. Therefore, it constructed such incentives by suggesting that “arms-control limitations and reductions [should] be couched, not in terms of launchers, but in terms of equal levels of warheads of roughly equivalent yield. Such an approach could permit relatively simple agreements, using appropriate counting rules, that exert pressure to reduce the overall number and destructive power of nuclear weapons and at the same time give each side an incentive to move toward more stable and less vulnerable deployments.” Why the Soviets would be willing to accept rule changes that outlaw their ICBM advantage is not explained.

There is no arguing, however, with the Commission’s conclusion that “is the Soviet Union chooses to retain a large force of large missiles, each with many warheads, the US must be free to match this by the sort of employment it chooses. Any arms-control agreement equating SS-18s and small single-warhead ICBMs — because each one is a missile or because each is on one launcher — would be destabilizing in the extreme.”

President Reagan, in a statement accompanying the release of the Commission report, provided further balance when he said, “In the past, our one-sided restraint and good will failed to prompt similar restraint and good will from the Soviet Union. They also failed to produce meaningful arms control. But… when the United States has shown the resolve to remain strong, stabilizing arms control can be achieved.”

In specific terms, the Commission’s recommendations center on a broad endorsement of the five-part strategic force modernization program announced by the President on October 1, 1981. At that time, he called for modernization of all triad elements, as well as of strategic defense capabilities and strategic command and control. No major changes in the plan to modernize strategic command and control, in the bomber and air-launched cruise missile programs and in the ballistic missile research and development effort are recommended by the Commission.

In the area of the Commission’s primary concern, ICBM modernization, the first recommendation is that engineering design should start at once on “a single-warhead ICBM weighing about fifteen tons.” Full-scale development of such a weapon ought to get under way by 1987, and an initial operational capability should be attainable by about 1992. There is the implied recommendation that “deploying such a missile in more than one mode would serve stability.” Also, the Commission says, “Hardened silos or shelters and hardened mobile launchers should be investigated now.”

The second recommendation in the area of ICBM modernization is that “one hundred MX missiles should be deployed promptly in existing Minuteman silos as a replacement for those 100 Minutemen and the Titan II ICBMs now being decommissioned and as a modernization of the force.” Such a deployment, the Commission argues, would not threaten stability:

“The throw-weight of and mega tonnage carried by the 100 MX missiles is about the same as that of the fifty-four large Titan missiles now being retired, plus that of the 100 Minuteman III missiles that the MX would replace. Such [an action] would thus represent a re placement and modernization of part of our ICBM force. It would provide a means of controlled limited attack on hardened targets, but not a sufficient number of warheads to be able to attack all hardened Soviet ICBMs, much less all of the many command posts and other hardened military targets in the Soviet Union. Thus it would not match the overall capability of the recent deployment [by the Soviets] of over 600 modern ICBMs of MX size of larger.”

At the same time, the Commission suggested that several hundred MX missiles might eventually have to be deployed, along with other weapons, if the Soviets “refuse to engage in stabilizing arms control and engage instead in major new deployments.”

As a third element of the ICBM modernization effort, the Commission recommends a program to demonstrate the feasibility and military value of super hardened shelters or silos that could serve as a springboard for eventually deploying MX in such silos and for housing small, single-warhead ICBMs in hardened silos or shelters. Further, “vigorous investigation should proceed on different types of land-based vehicles and launchers, including particularly hardened vehicles.”

The commission’s conviction that “smaller s better” extends also to the ballistic missile launching submarine force, where it recommends that research “begin now on smaller… submarines, each carrying fewer missiles than the [Trident’s twenty-four], as a potential follow-on to the Trident submarine force.” Explaining that such a program would parallel its recommendation to deploy small, single RV ICBMs to reduce the value of individual targets, the Commission states that the objective of such a development should be to design a submarine and associated missile system that would, “as much as possible,” reduce the value of each platform and also present radically different problems to a Soviet attacker than does the Trident submarine force.

This work should proceed in such a way that a decision to construct and deploy such a submarine force could be implemented rapidly should Soviet progress in antisubmarine warfare so dictate. “A submarine force consisting solely of a relatively few large submarines at sea, each carrying on the order of 200 warheads, presents a small number of valuable targets to the Soviets,” the Commission warns.

The Commission’s primary concern in the area of ballistic missile defense hinges on the imperative of avoiding technological surprise by the Soviets. The ensuing requirement is vigorous research and development work on ABM technologies, in particular on ways to “sharpen the effectiveness of treaty-limited ABM systems with new types of nuclear… and non-nuclear systems.

Seemingly at odds with the Administration’s recent optimism concerning the feasibility of advanced ballistic missile defense, the Commission “believes that no ABM technologies appear to combine practicality, survivability, low cost, and technical effectiveness sufficiently to justify proceeding beyond the stage of technology development.” Applications of current ABM technology, the Commission finds, “offer no real promise of being able to defend the United Stats against massive nuclear attack in this century.”

In determining the ultimate purpose of this country’s strategic nuclear forces, the Commission weighed the “threat of mass destruction” against the “threat of aggressive totalitarianism,” pointing out that “the essential dual task of statecraft is, and must be, to avoid the first and contain the second.” The Commission reasons cogently and eloquently that “our task as a nation cannot be understood from a position of moral neutrality toward the differences between liberty and totalitarianism” and adds that what should be feared most is that “confusion and internal divisions — sometimes the by-products of the vigorous play of free politics — will lead us to lose purpose, hope, and resolve.”

From this premise the Commission moves to the importance of convincing the Soviet leaders with “calm persistence” that the West “has the military strength and political will to resist aggression; and that, if they ever choose to attack, they should have no doubt that we can and would respond until we have so damaged the power of the Soviet state that they will unmistakably be far worse off than if they had never begun.”

Specifically, the Commission believes that the US “must be able to put at risk those types of Soviet targets —including hardened ones such as military command bunkers and facilities, missile silos, unclear weapons and other storage, and the rest — which the Soviet leaders have given every indication by their actions that they value most, and which constitute their tools of control and power.”

For the time being, the Commission states, ICBMs are generically the primary means for prompt and controllable retaliatory attack on hardened military targets in response to a Soviet first strike. This conclusion is linked to the fact that the “overall perception of strategic imbalance caused by the Soviet ability to destroy hardened land-based targets — with more than 600 newly deployed SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs — while the US is clearly not able to do so with it existing ballistic missile force, has been reasonably regarded as destabilizing and a weakness in the overall fabric of deterrence.”

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, in testifying in support of the Commission’s findings, elaborated on the fundamental importance of what he termed the Soviet monopoly of prompt, hard-target kill capability. It gives the Soviets a twofold advantage: “First, it enables the Soviets to launch a very high confidence first-strike attack on our land-based ICBMs. While expending only one-third of their ICBM force in the process. The large store of remaining ICBMs would then enable them to divert weapons to other essential targets in a first-strike attack and still maintain a large and effective reserve force to conduct follow-on attacks.

“Second, the fact that we lack a prompt retaliatory capability against very hard targets allows Soviet planners to consider the possibility that, for the crucial first few hours of a nuclear conflict, the bulk of their ICBM force and supporting command and control structure would remain largely immune to US retaliation. This would eliminate one of the major sources of uncertainty that is such an important element of deterrence — the unpredictable effects of US retaliation on Soviet war plans. Without this crucial uncertainty exerting an influence on Soviet war planners, their confidence in their ability to fight and win a nuclear war is reinforced.”

The need to redress this imbalance is one of the main reasons for employing MX as rapidly as possible, which the Commission finds is achieved best by putting the new missile into existing Minuteman silos. Other factors that make such a deployment mode compelling are that abandoning MX in search of a substitute would “jeopardize, not enhance” the prospects for equitable arms control and “undermine the incentives to the Soviets to change the nature of their own ICBM force and thus the environment most conducive to the deployment of a small missile.”

There is the related conclusion that canceling the MX, when it is ready for flight testing, “when over $5 billion [has] already been spent on it, and when its importance has been stressed by the last four Presidents, [will] not communicate to the Soviets that we have the will essential to effective deterrence. Quite the opposite.”

The Commission cites the aging of the current ICBM force as another factor that mandates deployment of MX. Producing the 195,000-pound MX is crucial for twod additional reasons, according to the Scowcroft report; “As Soviet ABM modernization and modern surface-to-air missile development and deployment proceed — even within the limitations of the ABM treaty — it is important to be able to match any possible Soviet breakout from that treaty with strategic forces that have the throw-weight to carry sufficient numbers of decoys and other penetration aids [to ensure penetration of] the Soviet defenses. …Having in production a missile that could… counter such a Soviet step should help deter them from taking it. Moreover, in view of our coming sole reliance on Space Shuttle Orbiters, it would be prudent to have in production a booster, such as MX, that is of sufficient size to place in orbit at least some of our most strategically important satellites.”

All these objectives can be gained at reasonable cost — estimated at $16.6 billion in 1982 dollars — by deploying 100 MXs in Minuteman silos. The central judgment in this context is that the “vulnerability of such silos in the near term, viewed in isolation, is not a sufficiently dominant part of the overall problem of ICBM modernization to warrant other immediate steps being taken, such as closely spacing new silos or ABM defense of those silos. This is because of the mutual survivability shared by the ICBM force and the bomber force in view of the different types of attacks that would need to be launched at each.

“In any circumstances, other than that of a massive surprise attack on the US by the Soviet Union, Soviet planners would have to account for the possibility that MX missiles in Minuteman silos would be available for use, and thus they would help deter such attacks. To deter such surprise attacks, we can reasonably rely both on our other strategic forces and on the range of operational uncertainties that the Soviets would have to consider in planning such aggression — as long as we have under way a program for long-term ICBM survivability, such as that for the small, single-warhead ICBM to hedge against long-term vulnerability for the rest of our forces.”

The Commission’s case for the small missile — with a throw-weight of about 1,000 pounds — compared to Minuteman III’s 2,350 pounds and MX 8,300 pounds — hinges on this consideration: “A single-warhead ICBM, suitable based, inherently denies an attacker the opportunity to destroy more than one warhead with one attacking warhead. The need to have basing flexibility, and particularly the need to keep open the option for different types of mobile basing also suggests a missile of small size. If force survivability can be additionally increased by arms-control agreements which lead both sides toward more survivable modes of basing than is possible with large launchers and missiles, the increase instability would be further enhanced.”

The Commission contends that the design of such a missile hardened against nuclear effects can be achieved with current technology. “It should have sufficient accuracy and yield to put Soviet Hardened military targets at risk,” the report suggests. Congressional experts subsequently questioned whether such a small missile could accommodate both the weight of a sophisticated guidance system and a sufficiently large warhead over the required ranges to attain this type of lethality.

The Commission predicts wisely that its recommendations “probably will not satisfy” all of the contending groups and constituencies that have staked out specific approaches to strategic force modernization. Nevertheless, there is the admonition not to deal with these issues as “political partisans or as crusaders for one specific solution… but rather as citizens of a great nation with the humbling obligation… of preserving both peace and liberty for the world.” This goal is obviously worthy of national consensus.

Washington Observations

˜Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger recently informed Congress that the “Soviets have developed a re-firing capability for some of their larger ICBMs, which could allow them to reload their delivery systems several times.” Congressional sources told this writer that the Soviets have just demonstrated their ability to reload an SS-18 silo in about twenty-four hours. Such a “rapid reload” would seem to violate SALT II.

Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) meanwhile accused the Soviet Union of violating arms-control agreements with the US in a number of ways. Included are that the Soviets are keeping an ICBM force numbering between 1,000 to 2.000 missiles in an illegal stockpile; that they have conducted fifteen nuclear weapons tests with yields in excess of the threshold Test Ban Treaty’s limit; that they have flight-tested two new ICBMs, even though SALT II permits only one new missile development; that the Soviets appear to be deploying long-range air-launched cruise missiles without counting the launching aircraft as required by SALT II; that the Soviets are producing Backfire bombers at a rate greater than permitted; and that the near-total encryption of recent ICBM, SLBM, and sea-launched cruise missile tests, along with massive camouflage, concealment, and deception programs, violates SALT II’s prohibition against interference with the US national means of verification.

˜Presidential Science Advisor Dr. George Keyworth told an AFA meeting in Chicago, III., recently that this country needs better coordination of the “nearly half a billion dollars per year the US spends on a bunch of very divers programs [in the directed-energy weapons field] that I think are clearly going nowhere.” While the Soviet Union outspends this country in directed-energy weapons R&D “by a small amount,” he suggested that the “Soviet Union poses no immediate threat to the US — I mean certainly not for the rest of this decade — because of laser of any other directed-energy technology program.”

Dr. Keyworth, expressing his own view as a scientist and that of most scientists who have looked at MX basing “in detail,” stressed that Closely Spaced Basing, or “Dense Pack,” is “far and away the winner from among many runners because… it is the only system that offers us a reasonable degree of survivability.” He said “superhardening,” the make-or-break aspect of Dense Pace, represents a “very simple piece of technology.” The schemes for overcoming Dense Pack with advanced systems “won’t stand up to ninety seconds of intense scrutiny. I believe this system is a genuine step forward,” the Presidential Science Advisor said. — End