Air University Review, November-December 1976
Major General Edward B. Giller, USAF (Ret)
There is every reason to expect that the arming of the USSR on all fronts and in all the branches of the service will continue unabated. Détente with the United States will have little if any bearing on this matter; it sets limits on certain types of weapons, perhaps, and calls perhaps for some caution but it is most improbable that a single Soviet leader thinks relations with the U.S.A. could or should influence the rate or manner in which the USSR meets what it considers its defense needs. The idea of "parity" remains entirely alien to them.
RICHARD EDGAR PIPES
Director, Russian Research Center
The primary objective for U.S. strategic forces is the deterrence of nuclear attacks aimed at the destruction of the United States as a national entity. This is to be achieved by the retention, in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, of the ability to "strike back with devastating force at an enemy's economic and political assets. Such a force is essential not only as the basic deterrent, but also as a capability that can be withheld so as to deter any attack on U.S. and allied cities and population. Such a capability is a minimum essential foundation of strategic deterrence." The U.S. also requires the capability to strike selectively at a wide range of military targets and do so with low collateral damage. We do not rule out the capability to attack some elements of Soviet strategic force posture on a second strike It is the Soviets' perception of these capabilities and our will to use them that is the essence of deterrence.
Soviet strategic objectives, as we now understand them, emphasize deterrence of conflict and, should this deterrence fail, victory through survival of the Soviet Union and destruction of the West. There is a growing recognition that the Soviet defense programs are aimed at increasing their ability to wage general nuclear war and to emerge victorious.
The Soviet Union has recently begun the deployment of new and far more capable strategic weapon systems. In 1976, the Soviet deployment program involves six variants of four new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) and enlarged versions of the Delta class intercontinental range missile submarines. We are also aware of the development of improved models and a new generation of ICBM's and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM’s) as well as new missile submarines.
While the Soviets' thrust during 1965-1972 was primarily quantitative, their post-1972 qualitative advances are striking. They have introduced sophisticated multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) systems and warheads. Soviet progress in accuracy has been very substantial, and it seems that there will be rapid progress in the near future. Their research and development program is extremely aggressive and is beginning to pay substantial dividends in improved weapon performance.
The Defense Department now projects that by 1980 the Soviets will have eliminated the U.S. lead in the number of missile warheads. (See Figure 1.) The average Soviet MIRV yield will be about three times the highest U.S. MIRV yield, resulting in an overall Soviet missile force equivalent megatonnage superiority of three to one.
Even though the quantitative balance of strategic forces is shifting, the U.S. still maintains its technological superiority, and its capabilities are well understood by any would-be adversary. The determination of the U.S. to ensure that we maintain this technological superiority is demonstrated in the FY77 defense budget, which for the first time in several years includes real increases in defense spending.
This discussion gets us to a fundamental question. What can advanced nuclear technology contribute to the capability of the United States to develop strategic options and to modify Soviet perceptions of nuclear war? Writing in the mid-1940s, the distinguished British historian-general, J. F. C. Fuller, indicated that weapons technology determined 99 percent of the outcome of war. He was exaggerating, of course, but not very much. The human factor has played, and always will play, a major role in the outcome of war, but there are degrees of technical superiority that no amount of human effort can overcome.
During the middle 1960s, a number of American scientists active in the political arena put forth the concept of a "technological plateau." They argued that strategic stability existed and that no foreseeable technological development would be significant enough to change the outcome of a strategic exchange which assumed the total destruction of both sides. This view was partly abandoned when these same individuals launched a major campaign against MIRV and antiballistic missiles (ABM) in the late 1960s arguing the virtual antithesis of the former view--that these technologies were so effective and destabilizing that even the limited deployments then contemplated by the U.S. would upset the strategic balance. Ironically, on many occasions, both views are presented, sometimes almost in the same breath. Hence, we frequently hear talk about how much "overkill" exists on both sides and simultaneously how the next generation of U.S. weapons will so threaten the Soviet Union that there will be a massive stimulation of the arms race.
The notion that technological progress is destabilizing still exists. For a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s it significantly hampered U.S. technological progress. It is difficult to build a new missile, for example, that is not more accurate than the one it replaces, and hence under the logic of mutual assured destruction, the new missile would be destabilizing. But technological advance is inevitable in an industrialized nation. Attempts to place unilateral controls on U.S. technology only increased the cost of achieving necessary military capabilities, narrowed those technological gaps that still existed in the U.S. favor, and contributed to the Soviet goal of achieving a war-fighting capability
The Soviets have a very different view of technology that is closely related to their basic view concerning nuclear war-fighting requirements. They place great importance on equaling and then surpassing the West in the critical areas of military technology, and they are prepared to invest the resources required to do this.
Technical advances can do a number of things to improve the military potential of a nation and to influence the perceptions of adversaries and allies. Among these are:
In 1947, following the successful development of the atomic bomb by the Manhattan Project earlier in the decade, Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and charged it with broad authority over the development and control of both the civil and the military applications of this new form of energy. For a variety of reasons, in 1974, Congress abolished the AEC and divided its responsibilities between two new agencies. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 established the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to regulate the growing nuclear energy industry, and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). ERDA assumed the national security related activities of the AEC together with an expanded mandate to develop nuclear and nonnuclear energy technologies.
The Energy Reorganization Act retained most provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. It established the Office of the Assistant Administrator for National Security, one of six major program offices, to direct the weapon program and the other Restricted Data functions of the new agency. The technology-related functions under this office include weapon design, testing, and production as well as a number of international security related functions, nuclear power, export control, safeguards, intelligence, and nuclear arms control. The 1974 Act also mandated that:
During the first year of operation of the Administration, the Administrator, in collaboration with the Secretary of Defense, shall conduct a thorough review of the desirability and feasibility of transferring to the Department of Defense or other Federal agencies, the functions of the Administrator respecting military application and Restricted Data.
We have now completed this study, and it has been recommended to the President that the weapon development program remain within ERDA.
The nuclear weapons program exemplifies the most successful type of technical development. Over the last three decades we have seen a hundred-fold reduction in weight and a thousand-fold increase in yield of weapons we have or could stockpile. In an era when almost every generation of weapons has become larger and substantially more expensive, nuclear weapons have become cheaper and lighter. The U.S. success in miniaturizing nuclear weapons allowed the development of smaller, cheaper missiles. Nuclear warhead costs represent on the average only about 10 percent of the cost of a weapon system over its life cycle. Advanced nuclear design can result in very substantial cost savings in the future.
There are some who look at the success of continued nuclear weapons development as a horror story. They argue that despite the ever increasing costs of our military programs and the growing destructiveness of our nuclear arsenal, we are really less secure.
This view in many respects is built on a series of myths. The resources that have been invested in U.S. nuclear systems have been on the decline for over fifteen years. Current U.S. population vulnerability is, in at least a significant part, the result of the policies we have followed de-emphasizing strategic defenses and civil defense. Mutual population vulnerability would have resulted even if nuclear weapons technology had never developed beyond World War II devices. The major difference is that the development would have involved vastly greater delivery systems expenditure for both sides, and the forces involved would be far more vulnerable to surprise attack. Without the progress we have made in nuclear weapons design, ballistic missile submarines would not have been feasible. The greatest long-term effect of the development of fusion weapons has not been the development of weapons with drastically greater yield than the fission weapons developed in the early 1950s but, rather, that weapons have been made small enough to be carried by delivery systems that could be hardened against nuclear attack or made mobile. It enabled the development of weapons that were far safer and more secure than existing fission bombs. These weapons were also generally significantly less expensive. Hence the net effect of technological progress in nuclear weapons design since World War II has been far cheaper and more survivable strategic deterrence forces and a nuclear arsenal that can make a major contribution to the security of the U.S. and its allies.
ERDA has five weapons, four of them strategic, under active development today. They are improved warheads for the Minuteman III (W-78/Mk 12A) and Trident (W-76/Mk 4) strategic missiles; two strategic bombs, the improved B-61 (Mod 3, 4, 5, multipurpose bomb), and the new B-77 (full-fuzing option high-yield strategic bomb); and the new eight-inch shell (W-79 low collateral damage artillery projectile).
Four systems are under advanced pre-engineering development. Preliminary engineering development has been completed on a high-yield MIRV suitable for deployment on Trident or an advanced land-based missile (M-X). Development is also underway on low collateral damage warheads for the Pershing II, a warhead for future air-to-surface or cruise missiles, the Mk-500 evader maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV), and low collateral damage bombs.
Both the Trident and Minuteman MIRV will greatly increase the yield of existing alternative systems. In the case of Trident, the improved yield of the warhead will mean large savings compared to the cost of replacing the Polaris/Poseidon force with an equally capable Trident force carrying the older Poseidon MIRV. The improved yield of the Mark 12A for the Minuteman III, combined with the improvements being made to the guidance system, will prevent a major disparity in counterforce capabilities developing in the Soviet favor, at least in the near term. The Mark 12A and the high-yield MIRV are potential candidates for the M-X. Deployment of the M-X in the mid-1980s would go far toward regaining parity in hard target kill, and in a number of the quantitative indications such as number of warheads, megatonnage, throw weight, and megaton equivalents.
The new variants of the B-61 bomb now under development will have improved safety/security devices including nonviolent command disablement. The B-77 full-fuzing option (FUFO) bomb was designed to provide the Air Force with a weapon in the high-yield range with the flexibility of the lower yield B-61. It will provide delivery capabilities consistent with 1980 penetration requirements and at the same time incorporate advanced safety features such as insensitive high explosives to prevent fissile material scatter in the event of a crash. The weapon also minimizes the nuclear material costs.
A number of ERDA programs in conjunction with DOD delivery systems in early developmental stages could provide the U.S. greatly improved penetration capabilities against advanced Soviet defenses. For example, development of MARV evaders hedges against the threat of possible Soviet clandestine upgrade or their surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems or the rapid deployment of one of their new ABM systems. The new cruise missile warhead will help maintain the penetration capability of our bomber force in the 1980s.
The Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT) limits the further development of higher yield strategic bombs and warheads. As a result of the accelerated test program, we feel we can meet our strategic weapons requirements for the foreseeable future. Under the TTBT limit of 150 kilotons, the U.S. can still develop advanced penetrators as well as improved strategic and tactical warheads designed for lower collateral damage. We can, to a lesser degree, test the stockpile reliability of our nuclear systems.
We have completed a long series of negotiations with the Soviets, the principle objective of which is to allow the exploitation of what they believe to be the considerable economic potential of peaceful nuclear explosives (PNE) while prohibiting their use as a cover for the development of advanced military applications.
The most important advancement in weapon design in the next decade, however, is likely to come in areas other than simple yield-to-weight ratios. These areas include:
In the tactical area, controlled output devices combined with precision guidance can dramatically improve our capabilities to destroy a variety of military, economic, and logistic targets with low collateral damage. In many cases the yield required for target destruction can be reduced by a factor of several hundred. The combination of yield reduction and controlled output can improve military effectiveness by allowing attacks on enemy troops closer to the forward edge of battle area (FEBA) without endangering friendly troops. Reduced collateral damage makes the U.S. nuclear guarantee more credible and hence improves the capabilities of our forces to deter.
It is sometimes argued that the development of low-yield, low collateral damage weapons will increase the likelihood that these weapons will be used. This fear has little relation to reality. Low-yield nuclear weapons have been in the stockpile for about twenty years. They have never been used despite the fact that the risk associated with their use in the 1950s and 1960s--an era of massive U.S. superiority in both strategic and tactical nuclear systems--was probably substantially less than the risk would be today. The only conceivable use of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons is in response to aggression of sufficient magnitude to change the international balance of power.
The Soviet Union regards tactical nuclear weapons as a fundamental part of their war-fighting capability. The Soviets have traditionally stressed the importance of pre-emptive, massive, in-depth, surprise nuclear attacks that can be exploited by their highly mobile, armored, and mechanized infantry divisions. As their tactical nuclear capabilities have improved, they have increasingly recognized a distinction between intercontinental and theater nuclear warfare.
Early Soviet tactical nuclear systems were apparently high-yield weapons. We are much less certain about the systems they have introduced in recent years. Those who argue that U.S. introduction of low collateral damage tactical nuclear weapons is meaningless as long as the Soviets maintain high-yield systems ignore the possibility that the Soviets have already moved toward lower-yield systems or will do so in response to the U.S. initiative.
The new eight-inch shell will be the first U.S. weapon specially designed to reduce collateral damage from blast and radioactivity. The Pershing II will also be considered for a number of low collateral damage warheads. Preliminary work is underway on a number of tactical bombs and strategic warheads that would result in far less collateral damage because of controlled outputs and alternative delivery modes.
There is little room for complacency in assessing the continuing Soviet drive for technical superiority in military technology. As Dr. Malcolm R. Currie, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, notes:
I would suggest that all of us, in examining the current technology balance and its dynamics, would agree that the Soviet Union has a large and determined effort and that the Soviets are inexorably increasing their Level of technology relative to ours and are, in fact, seizing the initiative in important areas. This technological development is molding future Soviet strategy . . . . The Soviet effort is dominated by their often-stated goal of surpassing the U.S. in science and technology.
While there is much uncertainty concerning Soviet nuclear weapon technology since the end of atmospheric testing in 1963, we are certain that the Soviet nuclear weapons development program is vigorous and is supported by large Soviet basic research in weapons-related nuclear technology. More than ten Soviet tests since 1970 have been in the megaton or multimegaton range, presumably related to the development of efficient nuclear warheads for their new strategic weapon systems. Only one U.S. test since 1970 has been over one megaton--the warhead for the Spartan ABM system. At least parity probably exists in the field of high-yield strategic warhead technology. While we know comparatively little in the area of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons, the variety of their nuclear-capable tactical delivery systems is visibly increasing, probably indicating comparable Soviet progress in weapons design.
A superior technical base is critical for the national security of the United States. U.S. technical superiority is being rapidly eroded by current Soviet efforts. In the nuclear weapons area the threat is particularly severe because of the larger scale of Soviet efforts, the reduced funding for U.S. nuclear weapons research, development, and production over the last decade, and because of the physical aging of the stockpile. The latter is particularly important, and in the long term all current U.S. weapons will have to be replaced because of age if nothing else.
There is much international pressure today for a comprehensive test ban (CTB) treaty. Because of the aging problem, fissile material limitations, concerns about nuclear weapons security that create pressures to reduce the stockpile, and the lesser throw weight of U.S. systems, the U.S. must examine, from a technical point of view, the possibility of a much more severe impact on the U.S. weapons program than upon the Soviet Union. While the precise numbers are subject to debate, there will always be a significant yield range that will be below the minimum detectable by national technical means. We must consider the effects of clandestine testing below this threshold and the significance of a weapon test disguised as a PNE for the development of tactical and strategic weapons. As long as the U.S. is required to maintain nuclear weapon systems that can survive a nuclear attack and respond reliably in a controlled manner, we must be able to maintain, modify, and, when necessary, improve the systems involved. It is less likely that a stable deterrent system can be maintained if the reliability of Western nuclear systems degrade faster than those of the Soviet Union.
There are major political reasons for a comprehensive test ban, but the technical consequences must be weighed, also. Without a CTB, we could develop and deploy improved nuclear weapons that through controlled output and delivery accuracy can significantly improve the capabilities of our military forces to carry out their wartime missions and at the same time improve the safety and security of our weapons. The cost of these new weapons will not be significantly greater than reinitiating the production of older and in some cases obsolete designs now in the stockpile. The effectiveness of our deterrent will be significantly enhanced if we exploit the potential of the new technologies.
Above all, we must not allow the nuclear weapons development and production complex to erode. In many respects, this complex is unique, and some of its assets are irreplaceable. The weapons laboratories represent a combination of trained manpower and physical resources that is available nowhere else in the West. The laboratories also make a major contribution to U.S. energy programs and to basic scientific research in general. It would be extremely difficult if not impossible to reassemble this complex in a crisis situation.
Major General Edward B. Giller, USAF (Ret), (Ph. D., University of Illinois) is Deputy Assistant Administrator for National Security, Energy Research and Development Administration. He has been Acting Deputy since the formation of ERDA in 1975. While on active duty, he served as Director and Assistant General Manager, Atomic Energy Commission Division for Military Application; Chief, Radiation Branch, Effects Division, Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (formerly the Manhattan Project); and USAF Director of Science and Technology. General Giller was Assistant General Manager for National Security, Atomic Energy Commission, when he retired.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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