Air University Review, November-December 1985

The Strategic Defense Initiative

political risks

Dr. Stephen J. Cimbala

THE Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proposed by the Reagan administration raises many uncertainties and risks for U.S. deterrence strategy, particularly in the areas of deterrence stability, technology, Soviet reactions, crisis management, and conventional war in Europe. Prospects for SDI are too uncertain for anyone to make decisive assessments of the program's probable success or failure, but the relevant policy issues should be addressed now. Failure to anticipate possible problems could make eventual deployments of U.S. or NATO strategic or theater defenses self defeating.

Strategic Deterrence

U.S. strategic nuclear forces are deployed with the primary mission of deterring Soviet attack against U.S. forces or cities. Two kinds of attacks concern U.S. planners. The first is the "bolt from the blue"--an unexpected, premeditated attack against forces on day-today rather than generated alert.1 Although regarded as improbable compared to other scenarios, the sudden, planned attack provides a benchmark relative to which force sizing can be estimated.2 The second kind of attack is the preemptive strike, made during a crisis in which the Soviets fear that war is imminent and strike us first to reduce damage to themselves.3 Strategic preemption could result either from escalation from theater nuclear or conventional warfare or from Soviet anticipation of U.S. preemption. The authoritative President's Commission on Strategic Forces (Scowcroft Commission) noted in 1983 that U.S. strategic retaliatory forces were synergistically survivable: the strategic Triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers could not be attacked successfully by current or near-term Soviet forces without the subsequent retaliatory destruction of Soviet society.4 The Scowcroft Commission did recommend that the United States deploy the MX/Peacekeeper ICBM during the 1980s and the Midgetman small, single warhead ICBM in the 1990s to enhance survivability and to threaten those targets (Soviet ICBM silos and command bunkers) that the commission felt Soviet leaders would regard as most important.5

The commission was quite explicit in its concern about the implications of U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) deployments for deterrence, crisis, and arms race stability.6 It noted that the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty should be regarded as an important milestone and not casually abrogated. This point is acknowledged by most arms control experts.7 But the treaty is vulnerable to pressure from the President and powerful interest groups to begin deployments of partially effective U.S. theater or strategic ballistic missile defenses. If BMD deployments are in the U.S. interest, the United States should seek to modify the treaty to permit those deployments.8 The treaty is not sacrosanct because of its symbolism, important as that may be; it is as durable as the political commitments of the superpowers to the principles of deterrence that provided for its creation.

Those principles rested on an assumption shared by the United States and the Soviet Union that although their doctrines might differ, their capabilities had implications for stability apart from those doctrines. The ABM Treaty of 1972 acknowledged that the protection of cities from nuclear attack was not cost-effective, given technology then available. By implication, it also suggested that missile defenses which contributed to perceived first-strike capabilities were destabilizing. Either superpower in a crisis might be tempted to attack the vulnerable forces of the other. Whatever else they chose to do, according to the logic of the treaty, the superpowers must protect the strategic forces of both sides from surprise attack.

It is important to note that this tacit mutual acceptance was not purchased lightly. Both the United States and the Soviet Union learned a great deal about each other's approaches and doctrines during the course of the SALT I negotiations.9 It is an overstatement to say that either adopted the deterrence principles or the prewar political objectives of the other, and neither doctrine has evolved since then as the "mirror image" of its counterpart.10 But the two sides sprayed each other's doctrinal fences with very visible strategic graffiti, not all of which was subsequently expunged.

One enduring feature of the SALT I (and subsequent SALT II) negotiations was that both sides grew to distrust very complicated and very specific formulas, preferring general rules of thumb as negotiating positions. The ceilings on strategic defenses resulting from SALT I and on offenses from SALT II reflected relatively uncomplicated, verifiable assessment and counting rules rather than statistical elegance. Most important was the mutual denial of the right to interfere with the "national technical means" of verification as codified in Article 12 of the ABM Treaty.11 It was understood by both sides that "national technical means" was a euphemism for satellites and other high-technology photographic or electronic listening devices. Those technologies would permit monitoring of compliance under a regime which based restraints on rules of thumb rather than strategic minutia that would be open to perpetual challenge by house card counters

Another reason for the rule-of-thumb approach had to do with both superpowers' conservatism on the guaranteed survivability of their strategic forces. They wanted not only a plausible case for survivable forces but also an exemplary one. Forces beyond those required for minimum or finite deterrence would be needed to ensure that even a "lucky" opponent could not feel confident about a first strike without equal devastation. For this reason, among others, both parties were willing to abandon BMD.12 Deployment of BMD would make redundant strategic offensive forces into necessities in order to ensure that survivable strategic forces penetrated to their assigned targets. The United States was concerned enough about penetrability to deploy MIRVs (multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles) on both ICBMs and SLBMs merely on the assumption that the Soviets might improve their defenses significantly.

The proposed U.S. BMD system (then called ABM in public references) relied on technology that was "second generation" by contemporary standards.13 The Safeguard (formerly Sentinel) system would not have defeated plausible Soviet attacks against the U.S. ICBM force. It lacked sufficient numbers of interceptors (even before the ABM Treaty) and survivable radars to preclude Soviet destruction of the ABM-BMD itself and much of the Minuteman ICBM force, including the Minuteman launch control centers.14 Current Soviet BMD deployments around Moscow are being upgraded by modernization of the Galosh system to a capability that appears to be equivalent to our discarded Safeguard.15


There has been a great deal of controversy about the feasibility of candidate systems for area defense, as intended by the Strategic Defense Initiative and proposed by the President.16 Such a system could require four "layers" of boost, postboost, midcourse, and terminal interceptors and their associated surveillance, acquisition, tracking, and kill assessment subsystems.17 It might have to be at least 90 percent effective in each of its layers to reduce damage to U.S. countervalue targets to tolerable proportions. Technology studies indicate that the boost-phase layer is the most critical in thinning out a Soviet attack of the size and character we could expect by the time a U.S. space-based BMD became a deployed reality.18

A study for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) by Ashton Carter questioned whether space-based boost-phase defenses could ever provide comprehensive population protection.19 Carter also contributed to an authoritative study sponsored by the Brookings Institution that cast doubt on the objective of area defense against robust Soviet attacks.20 The Union of Concerned Scientists has been consistently critical of the President's objective of making nuclear weapons obsolete and has endorsed OTA's assessment that significant population defense might not be attainable even with futuristic technologies.21

Former Secretaries of Defense James R. Schlesinger and Harold Brown have evaluated the prospects for BMD technology and found them uncertain and mission-dependent. Schlesinger emphasized the danger in arguments that deterrence is immoral and (by implication) that it can be transcended through new defense technologies.22 Harold Brown compared three possible BMD deployments (comprehensive area, limited area, and point defenses) and concluded that only the last would be affordable, although he judged it unnecessary at present.23 The administration is apparently hearing these criticisms. Although the President and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger continue to speak of BMD technologies that can provide societal survivability, there is significant skepticism at the working levels of the administration. This skepticism has been reported by many in the press, and it has led to some advocacy for limited defenses for U.S. retaliatory forces and some important strategic command, control, and communications (C3) centers. One widely noted article--by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs; Robert Jastrow, space scientist and advocate of missile defenses; and Max Kampelman, a principal U.S. negotiator at the U.S.-Soviet arms control talks in Geneva--called for limited BMD deployments with two layers to provide significant, although less than total, protection for U.S. retaliatory forces and other key targets. 24

Technology arguments will not be resolved soon, but the relevant policy context is not being clearly specified by many BMD advocates and critics. Two parts of the policy context--probable Soviet responses to U.S. BMD and the policy guidelines for using BMD systems during crisis or way-need particular study and discussion as technological avenues are being explored.

Soviet Reactions

Soviet assumptions about U.S. policies and the strategic intentions that motivate U.S. BMD deployments (which will be discussed in the next section here) will determine Soviet reactions to proposed and actual deployments. Soviet reactions may vary considerably, depending on the type and scope of U.S. deployment.25

First, the United States might deploy BMD in order to protect its deterrence assets, which could include ICBM silos, air bases, and submarine pens, plus critical command and control targets. Undoubtedly, terminal defenses of several kinds could raise the "attack price" that the Soviet Union would have to pay to destroy a U.S. silo or command bunker.26 Whether the Soviets would be willing to pay that price is scenario-dependent. A race between the construction and deployment of defensive interceptors and the multiplication of warheads on offensive missiles, under present conditions, is a losing proposition for the defense.27 However, point defenses of silos need not be nearly perfect; if even a small proportion of U.S. ICBMs were to survive a Soviet first strike, it could be used promptly to destroy remaining Soviet ICBMS, other silos, and command bunkers. Estimates of U.S.-Soviet countersilo exchange ratios without missile defenses underscore the uncertainty that already exists in war planners' assessments of the probability of success for any strategic first strike.28

The case for defending only retaliatory forces thus has the obvious advantage (compared to comprehensive population protection) of less ambitious objectives, but such a system can be overwhelmed if the opponent is determined to out build the defense. At some point, the marginal utility of point defenses by themselves begins to deteriorate against an unconstrained offensive force of the opponent. To forestall such an outcome, either arms control agreements that limit the opponent's force modernization or the amalgamation of point defenses into more enhanced capabilities is required.29

The success of arms control depends on Soviet reactions that may be difficult for us to predict, let alone influence. The United States, if it chooses to deploy point defenses for its retaliatory forces, must presumably abrogate or amend the ABM Treaty while our U.S. leaders and negotiators convince the Soviet Union that we seek limited strategic modernization objectives in doing so. The Soviets would have to be convinced that our defenses were designed only for the mission of second-strike retaliation and not as supplements to any potential first-strike capability. To convince them that this indeed was the case, the United States might then have to limit its point defenses to terrestrial deployments, since the Soviets could not regard our space-based defenses as without first-strike potential. The reason why they could not dismiss the first-strike potential of any U.S. space-based system is that such a system would be a very capable ASAT (antisatellite weapon) even before it provided capabilities in a BMD mission. Thus, our expectation of Soviet reactions might lead us to deploy a less threatening but therefore less capable system. We might then have a system that amended the ABM Treaty, charged the Soviet Union a very modest "attack price" for destroying silos, and created in Soviet minds substantial doubts about our commitment not to expand this limited system into something more comprehensive.

Another U.S. option would be to attempt to provide area defense for U.S. cities, populations, and societal values. This choice could provoke Soviet countermeasures less benign than those provoked by U.S. point defense. Protection for U.S. society implies not only denial of Soviet second-strike capabilities but also counterforce preeminence, given the probable capabilities of U.S. strategic offensive forces by the time active defenses are deployed. It might also appear to the Soviets as a necessary step toward a U.S. first-strike capability.30

The Soviet Union could exploit the impression that U.S. population defense would provide us with first-strike capabilities by a self serving (though not technically incorrect) interpretation of mutual assured destruction (MAD) doctrine as explained by some past American policymakers.31 A very "puristic" MAD strategist would argue that the "mutual vulnerability" of U.S. and Soviet societies provided the most stable deterrence, whereas counterforce capabilities must be considered intrinsically destabilizing.32 The Soviets could point out to Europeans the U.S. BMD was destabilizing according to previously articulated U.S. theories of mutual vulnerability, which formed part of the intellectual backdrop for U.S. interest in, and subsequent adherence to, the ABM Treaty.

Thus, the more comprehensive a U.S. BMD system appeared to be, the more it would underline previously articulated U.S. declaratory policies that have taken root in scientific, academic, and military professional communities. The strategic zeitgeist known as MAD theory has a tenacity that has outlasted the drift of presidential and other executive "amendments" to declaratory policy, including those favoring flexible targeting of strategic forces, limited nuclear options, escalation control, and limited, protracted nuclear war.33 Moreover, firm adherence to assured destruction perspectives among the "attentive public," including the U.S. Congress, creates an alliance of coincidence between U.S. and Soviet elites. Whether Soviet doctrine converges toward U.S. declaratory policy or not, Soviet attentiveness, to American advocates of mutual vulnerability, has been timely. American MAD thinkers want to defeat comprehensive population protection for the American homeland because they are convinced that a viable, deployed defensive system would make deterrence less stable. Their Soviet counterparts are motivated to delay or prevent U.S. population defenses because those defenses might deny Soviet second-strike capability or might preclude a "victory denial" or "countervailing" strategy for the Soviet Union. Although Soviet military writers have never endorsed victory denial or countervailing strategies in those words, their anxieties about U.S. declaratory policies so labeled make clear their understanding of the implications of those strategies, were we to succeed in implementing them.34

Comprehensive strategic defenses of the kind mooted in the President's Strategic Defense Initiative could fail even if they succeed in creating the appropriate space and terrestrially based technologies. They would fail in the political realm, which is the more decisive (especially in the judgment of Marxist/Leninist Politburo members). Marxist/Leninist rulers of the Soviet Union would continue to judge U.S. intentions by interpreting U.S. behavior through the perspective of international class struggle. Moreover, a preclusive "shield" for the U.S. population would create Soviet expectations about the potential for U.S. coercion, which we demonstrated to the Soviets' dissatisfaction during the Cuban missile crisis. Meanwhile, at least some U.S. arms control experts would fear the destruction of deterrence stability, arms race stability, and crisis stability, while in Britain and France, many who have supported their own nations' nuclear deterrents, which now promise fairly substantial counter city attacks against the Soviet Union by the 1990s if the Soviets do not deploy more effective BMD, would perceive that these weapons could be nullified by the Soviet deployments in reaction to presumably very capable U.S. initiatives.35

If this projected sequence of events and outcomes seems unnecessarily pessimistic, it is appropriate to consider the relationship between domestic politics and national procurement policies. The decision to embark on population defenses, however imperfect, could be irreversible. It would require the commitment of budgets, military service roles, and missions that, once adopted, could be abandoned only with the greatest difficulties. The normal inertia of the policymaking process, which feeds like a tapeworm on "incremental" decisions, would require an enormous and complicated set of political bargains and "partisan mutual adjustments" to resolve the bureaucratic and mission malaise attendant to launching comprehensive BMD.36 Some of those same bargains would have to be struck in the event of point defense deployments, but these would be fewer in number and characterized by less irrevocability.

The policy process, however it performs, must finally confront the third potential set of pitfalls facing U.S. BMD deployments--policy guidelines for employing BMD weapons during crisis or war.

Strategic Defense and Crisis Management

Freeman Dyson outlines three possible political futures into which BMD technologies might be fitted. The first he calls the "arms controllers" future; the second, the "technical follies" future; and the third, his own preference, the "live and let live" alternative.37

As explained by Dyson, the arms controllers' preferred future would involve no BMD deployments and continued reliance on assured destruction for strategic stability. The "technical follies" people would prefer a future marked by unbounded U.S.-Soviet military space deployments, including no restraints on BMD. Proponents of the "live and let live" alternative would permit deployment of nonnuclear BMD in space to accompany reductions in nuclear offensive forces by both superpowers. "Live and let live" would have outcomes comparable to those envisioned in the "defense-protected build-down" proposed by Alvin Weinberg and Jack Barkenbus: nonnuclear defenses would be phased in as nuclear offenses would be phased down or out.38

Dyson offers a very hopeful prognosis for deterrence stability achieved through phased deployment's of defenses that would replace reliance on offenses. This hopeful expectation is logically compelling, but politically improbable. Very effective U.S. and/or Soviet BMD may not be compatible with more stable deterrence because of the dilution of crisis stability during the interim period until complete deployment by both sides is achieved.

Crisis stability implies that neither side fears preemptive attack and so aligns its forces and its command Structure to preclude preemption based on misinformation, accident, or unauthorized launch. Deterrence theorists have noted for many years the importance of aligning forces so that they are crisis-stable. Until recently, they less frequently acknowledged that the command structure and the process of strategic command, control, and communications that direct strategic forces in crisis and war are also very important for stability. In recent years, however, several informative studies on the significant role of command, control, and communications for crisis stability have been published in open literature.39

The findings of these and other studies have implications for the relationship between BMD and crisis stability that are not reassuring. First, many U.S. fixed command posts are vulnerable to destruction early in war. Second, command posts may be survivable but not "enduring" as required by U.S. declaratory policies of Presidents Carter and Reagan. Third, the United States has little experience with the alerting of strategic forces under conditions similar to those that might make a contemporary superpower crisis. Fourth, there is no experience in U.S. and Soviet strategic forces simultaneously being alerted to high and comparably precarious (for stability) levels. Fifth, the activation of the command system during crises places almost impossible demands for both positive" and "negative" control, either sequentially or simultaneously maintained. Sixth, the Soviet system may be worse than ours in many, if not all, of these attributes.40

Adding BMD to this picture would uncomplicate matters only if we could "leapfrog" into a comprehensive system from scratch. Even advocates olvery capable U.S. BMD acknowledge that managing the "defense transition" will be a significant policy challenge.41 An important part of that challenge is crisis stability. During the transition, it could fail catastrophically. The reasons for this are several.

First, partially effective BMD systems invite preemptive attack. If they are based in space (as they must be in most designs for boost-phase intercept), they are vulnerable to space mines, ASATs, and other countermeasures.42 U.S. space-based battle stations, for example, would require layers of other "escort" vehicles designed to defend the battle stations. Space defenses could be based on our experience in naval carrier task forces strategy.

Second, proliferated battle stations and escorts create C3 problems that can be resolved only by automation of response to presumed threats. Computer software will need to be designed to incorporate criteria that define an attack, a threat, and (if necessary) the validated destruction of an opponent's space vehicles. Although the relevant algorithms will allow some capacity for "man in the loop" intervention, the incentives for automated "delegation of authority" increase as space BMD deployments become more crucial. The interaction between even crude BMD and C3 now becomes most problematical for crisis stability. Either side's partially effective space-based BMD is a very effective ASAT, threatening preemptive destruction of the opponent's early warning and attack assessment capabilities based in space.43

Third, the reciprocal interactions between Soviet and American C3 during crises could be triggers to war if policy guidelines for the defense of the U.S. BMD system are not clarified in advance. If the Soviets did not deploy BMD but chose to attack the U.S. system to prevent its completion, such an attack would be taken by U.S. policymakers as a casus belli. Thus our worst-case analysis of Soviet intentions would accompany Soviet ASAT deployments in space. The Soviets could deploy space-based DSATs (defensive satellites) to protect their communication and early-warning satellites. U.S. planners would consider the Soviet DSATs as potential ASATs that threatened potential crisis destruction of U.S. BMD. Of course, one can imagine also the reverse situation, i.e., crisis instability prompted by Soviet BMD and U.S. ASAT/DSAT deployments.44

If either or both superpowers deploys partially effective BMD, command and control arrangements will have to be weighted toward positive or negative control errors.45 Either the U.S. space-based ASAT/BMD will attack Soviet ASAT/BMD automatically once Soviet ASAT/ BMD exhibit certain presumably threatening behaviors, or the ASAT/BMD system will do so only on positive command of political and military authorities. The system, in theory, can be arranged so that presidential or other political intervention is required to activate or deactivate a U.S. ASAT/BMD within certain threat parameters. It either would attack automatically, with political interference required to stop it, or would not attack unless explicit and specific political authorization is given to do so.

In the first case, the risk is that non threatening behaviors will be mistaken for threatening ones. War, which could have been avoided, will be initiated under mistaken assumptions. In the second case, the predominant risk is that the threat is real but political authorization is not forthcoming to activate the system. The first case is analogous to the predicament of national leaders on the eve of World War I. The second case is more akin to Pearl Harbor or Barbarossa.46

Conventional War

Uncertainty or risk associated with the prospects for U.S. BMD have been identified here in the areas of stable deterrence assumptions, technology, probable Soviet reactions, and crisis management. A fifth category of BMD attendant uncertainties is the impact of any U.S. and/or Soviet missile defenses on the probability of conventional war in Europe.

At first glance, it might seem that SDI would have little to do with the probability of conventional war in Europe. The probability of conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact is not judged to be high by expert analysts.47 The risks of beginning war in Europe without being able to end it short of nuclear war between the superpowers are considerable. However, it is also the case that the very improbability of war on the Central Front might make it more difficult for NATO governments to accept valid indicators that deterrence had failed. This doubt that war will occur would maximize the possibility of surprise if the Warsaw Pact decided to go to war but only ambiguous indicators were available.48

U.S. strategic defenses based in the continental United States or U.S. / NATO theater ballistic missile defenses (antitactical ballistic missile, or ATBM, system) could affect deterrence stability and crisis management in Europe. They could do this in several ways. Theater or strategic defenses might make more credible the limited nuclear options for the use of U.S. strategic forces--options that have been sought by every Secretary of Defense since James R. Schlesinger first called for them in 1974.49 Active defenses could allow more time for the verification of ambiguous indicators of threat and warning. U.S. and NATO European leaders who were nervous about Soviet surprise attack might be less willing to preempt if European targets, such as airfields, nuclear weapons storage sites, and short- and intermediate- range nuclear forces, were defended.

Each of these potential missions for BMD/ATBM presents difficulties, however, if we assume equally competent Soviet deployments. Soviet/Warsaw Pact ATBM based in Eastern Europe, for example, could provide the necessary ingredients for counterair superiority in the tactical air battle over the Central Front.

U.S. Army operational innovations intended to attack pact forces in the so-called second echelons and to disrupt enemy logistics, including AirLand Battle, rely on air superiority that might not be attainable against existing fixed and mobile Soviet air defenses.50 NATO "follow-on forces attack" as explained by SAC:EUR General Bernard Rogers also implies control of the air for deep interdiction missions.51

Warsaw Pact ATBM complemented by Soviet BMD could pose formidable problems for NATO by reducing the importance of factors that now favor the defender. Soviet European theater offensive strategy is said to emphasize surprise, a rapid tempo of operations, and the objective of breakthroughs into NATO's rear to encircle and then destroy those adversary forces caught in the remaining pockets.52 Soviet timetables would be related closely to perceived requirements for "annihilation" or "neutralization" of the appropriate objectives quickly.53 NATO active defenses under present deployments could defeat the attack by slowing it down, channeling it into undesirable directions, and turning the conflict into a protracted war of attrition.54 Soviet political success depends on a short war and a rapid victory, if victory is defined as the subjugation of part or all of West Germany and/or the Low Countries and the bifurcation of NATO Europe from the United States. Conversely, protracted conventional war might favor NATO: stalled Soviet forces might be needed to pacify restless Eastern Europe, and superior U.S. and West European economies could prove decisive.55

If Warsaw Pact deployment of ATBM in Eastern Europe could disrupt NATO operations, Soviet BMD could defeat NATO strategy. The possibility of protracted war would no longer automatically favor the West, and the Soviets would not necessarily need to win quickly. One of the most fearful attributes of protracted conventional war for the Soviets is that a NATO counterstroke into Eastern Europe could disrupt their contiguous empire. Samuel P. Huntington has even predicated his proposal for a "conventional retaliatory offensive" on the vulnerability of the pact to early counterattacks into Eastern Europe by NATO conventional forces.56 With strategic defenses, Soviet fears that NATO might adopt this strategy or improvise it during war would be less pronounced. BMD would provide to the Soviets more survivability for their nuclear and conventionally armed short- and intermediate range land-based missiles. These forces could disrupt any Western counteroffensive and would be immune from preemption by NATO, since that preemption would require either the use of long-range intermediate nuclear forces (Pershing IIs or GLCMs) or enhanced-technology conventional delivery vehicles and munitions not now available in NATO arsenals.57

Both NATO counterair and (ground) counteroffensive strategies would be vulnerable to deployed Soviet BMD/ATBM. But the more ominous implications, particularly in turning current Soviet/Warsaw Pact disadvantages into advantages, are found by considering the effects of Soviet BMD/ATBM deployments on coupling.

Coupling of U.S. strategic and U.S./ NATO theater nuclear forces to NATO conventional forces is an important component of Western deterrence strategy. Making credible the linkage between strategic nuclear and theater nuclear forces, on one hand, and conventional forces, on the other, is one facet of the problem. Credible coupling implies that it would be self defeating to have conventional forces which were self-sufficient (capable of defeating a robust conventional attack by themselves). Conventional forces are considered more deterring if they are adequate to disrupt Warsaw Pact plans and to buy time for NATO to consider and to implement escalatory options. This paradox--of more credible conventional forces that are actually less capable of conventional combat than idealists might prefer--is much misunderstood by critics of NATO strategy.58

The other aspect of coupling that is important for deterrence of conventional war in Europe is the linkage between strategic nuclear and theater nuclear forces. Beginning in December 1983, NATO has sought to make this connection more credible by deploying 108 Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) in Western Europe. These long-range intermediate nuclear forces (LRINFs) are the connecting pins between conventional and strategic systems, sharing with NATO conventional forces the paradox of being more credible because they are not "too good" -- that is, NATO long-range intermediate nuclear forces are not designed to fight a self-contained nuclear war in Europe but to bring U.S. strategic forces into the deterrent picture as it appears in the war plans of Soviet leaders.59

Both the coupling between conventional and theater nuclear forces and that between strategic and theater nuclear forces would be jeopardized by Soviet BMD even if the Soviet deployments are inadequate to nullify a massive U.S. attack against the Soviet homeland. Even partially effective Soviet BMD would threaten to decouple the connections lower and higher on the ladder of escalation from theater nuclear forces. NATO theater nuclear forces are not designed for a self-contained war and thus are not capable of penetrating robust Soviet defenses; nor are Pershing IIs and GLCMs necessarily survivable against either nuclear or conventional preemption.60 Moreover, the GLCMs have flight times too long for prompt attacks against many highly valued Soviet military targets, while Pershing IIs, which have shorter flight times, could have insufficient mobility to survive once war began.61

These limitations on the capabilities of Pershing IIs and GLCMs, in the context of present NATO strategy and deployments, are not fatal. NATO theater nuclear forces have ambiguous deterrent rather than credible war-fighting roles. Soviet BMD would change that equation, making only survivable, prompt, and highly penetrating LRINFs valuable and reducing the likelihood that NATO LRINFs can meet any of those necessary criteria. Soviet BMD would also diminish the importance of the 400 Poseidon warheads assigned to SACEUR for theater missions and the significance of British and French strategic forces.62 Those regionally based strategic forces add to the uncertainties facing Soviet attack planners and to the credibility of ambiguously deterring NATO theater nuclear forces.

Five sets of reasons why SDI might add to the risks and uncertainties in U.S. strategy do not make the case for SDI impossible but do reveal some of the particular difficulties facing SDI advocates. The more general problem--not new to U.S. military decision makers--is that the more capable that U.S. systems are assumed to be, the more they motivate responsive Soviet deployments that may leave us worse off.

The credibility of U.S. deterrence strategy for conventional war in Europe could be at particular risk after U.S.-Soviet BMD or ATBM deployments. If there were mutual and offsetting Soviet and American systems, U.S./NATO theater nuclear forces could be decoupled from U.S. strategic forces and from NATO conventional forces--a situation that would leave NATO with the unpalatable alternatives of a regional nuclear deterrent for Europe or a conventional war-fighting capability so imposing as to be threatening to deterrence stability.

None of the problems delineated here should generate pessimism about the military uses of space for navigation, reconnaissance, early warning and attack assessment, and other measures that contribute to deterrence of preemptive attack. Nor is there any doubt that new technologies will make possible at least partially effective space or terrestrially based missile defense systems. But SDI must adapt new technologies to new missions. If that adaptation is misbegotten, deterrence could be weaker rather than stronger.

Pennsylvania State University


Author's note: I wish to thank Charles R. Gellner, Congressional Research Service, and Dr. Gary L. Guertner, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.



  1. The term bolt from the blue could apply to accidental outbreak of war, although usually it refers to a deliberate attack. See Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 206-07. On accidental war, see Paul Bracken, "Accidental Nuclear War," in Hawks, Doves and Owls, edited by Graham T. Allison, Albert Carnesale, and Joseph S. Nye, Jr. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1985), pp. 25-53.
  2. Richard K. Betts, Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1982), p. 229.

3. Raymond L. Garthoff, "BMD and East-West Relations," in Ballistic Missile Defense, edited by Ashton B. Carter and David N. Schwartz (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1984), pp. 275-329 (especially pp. 309-10, on Soviet shift from emphasis on preemption to launch under attack or on warning of attack).

4. This is an important finding of the President's Commission on Strategic Forces (Scowcroft Commission), Report (Washington, 1983).

5. Scrowcroft Commission, Report, p. 6.

6. Leon V. Sigal distinguishes deterrence (strategic) stability, crisis stability. and arms race stability in Nuclear Forces in Europe (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1984), pp. 9-10.

  1. See Thomas K. Longstreth and John E. Pike, "U.S., Soviet Programs Threaten ABM Treaty," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1985, pp. 11-15.
  2. For an overview, see Alan M. Jones, Jr., "Implications of Arms Control Agreements and Negotiations for Space-Based BMD Lasers," in Laser Weapons in Space, edited by Keith B. Payne (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983), pp. 36-105.
  3. That they learned does not necessarily mean that they agreed; indeed, it would be surprising if the United States and the Soviet Union understood strategic doctrine in the same way. On Soviet interpretations of U.S. doctrine, see Jonathan Samuel Lockwood. The Soviet View of U.S. Strategic Doctrine: Implications for Decisionmaking (New York: National Strategy Information Center, 1983).
  4. See Benjamin S. Lambeth, "How to Think about Soviet Military Doctrine," in The Defense Policies of Nations, edited by Douglas J. Murray and Paul R. Viotti (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 146-53.
  5. Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, 26 May 1972, reprinted in Detente and Defense: A Reader, edited by Robert J. Pranger (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1976), P. 120. Strictly speaking, national technical means (NTM) allow monitoring of compliance or non compliance; verification implies a political judgment. The author is indebted to Gary L. Guertner for this clarification.
  6. A summary of the fate of BMD in U.S. debates appears in Freeman Dyson, Weapons and Hope (New York: Harper and Row, 1984). pp. 73-84.
  7. John Pike, "Is There an ABM Gap?" Arms Control Today, July/August 1984, pp. 2-3, 16-17.
  8. For a historical perspective, see the essays in William Schneider, Jr., Donald G. Brennan, William A. Davis, Jr., and Hans Ruhle, U.S. Strategic-Nuclear Policy and Ballistic Missile Defense: The 1980s and Beyond (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, April 1980).
  9. Sayre Stevens, "The Soviet BMD Program," in Ballistic Missile Defense, edited by Ashton B. Carter and David N. Schwartz (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1984), pp. 182-220, especially pp. 211-12.
  10. The White House. The President's Strategic Defense Initiative (Washington, January 1985).
  11. James C. Fletcher, "The Technologies for Ballistic Missile Defense," Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1984, pp. 15-29.
  12. Stephen Weiner, "Systems and Technology," in Ballistic Missile Defense, pp. 49-97.
  13. Ashton B. Carter, Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space, Background Paper (Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment, April 1984).
  14. Carter and Schwartz.
  15. Union of Concerned Scientists, The Fallacy of Star Wars (New York: Random House, 1984).
  16. James R. Schlesinger, Banquet Address, National Security Issues Symposium 25-26 October 1984, Space, National Security and C3I (Bedford, Massachusetts: The MITRE Corporation, 1985), pp. 55-62. I am grateful to Richard L. Garwin for calling this to my attention.
  17. Harold Brown, "The Strategic Defense Initiative: Defensive Systems and the Strategic Debate," unpublished paper, 1984. Brown's study has been widely reported in the press.
  18. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Jastrow, and Max M. Kampelman, "Defense in Space Is Not Star Wars," New York Times Magazine, 27 January 1985, pp. 28-29, 46-51.

25. For a very visible and pessimistic assessment of probable Soviet reactions, see McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith, "The President's Choice: Star Wars or Arms Control," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1984-85, pp. 264-78, especially P. 271.

26. The concept of an "attack price" is discussed in Ashton B. Carter, "Applications," in Ballistic Missile Defense, pp. 109-20.

27. Multiplication of offensive warheads is only one of a number of potential offensive countermeasures. See Union of Concerned Scientists, The Fallacy of Star Wars, pp. 119-28, 137-40,

28. Matthew Bunn and Kosta Tsipis, "The Uncertainties of Preemptive Nuclear Attack," Scientific American, November 1983, pp. 38-47.

  1. In his Banquet Address, National Security Issues Symposium 25-26 October 1984, Schlesinger estimates that in the mid-1960s the exchange ratio was five to one, favoring superpower strategic offensive forces over defenses. The ratio might now be three to one, in his judgment.
  2. Bundy et al., P. 271.
  3. For a discussion of U.S. doctrine, see Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982).
  4. U.S. employment policy has not actually followed such formulations of MAD, at least since the beginning of single integrated operational plans in the 1960s. See Aaron L. Friedberg, "The Evolution of U.S. Strategic 'Doctrine'--1945 to 1981," in The Strategic Imperative: New Policies for National Security, edited by Samuel P. Huntington (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1983), pp. 53-99; and Desmond Ball, "Counterforce Targeting: How New? How Viable?" Arms Control Today, February 1981, reprinted with revisions in American Defense Policy, edited by John F. Reichart and Steven R. Sturm (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 227-34.
  5. Leon Sloss and Marc Dean Millot, "U.S. Nuclear Strategy in Evolution,"Strategic Review, Winter 1984, pp. 19-28. In addition to amendments to declaratory policy, some changes in employment policy (war plans) also took place.
  6. Lockwood, pp. 140-67.
  7. For a useful discussion of the pertinent issues, see David S. Yost, "Ballistic Missile Defense and the Atlantic Alliance," International Security, Fall 1982, pp. 143-74.

36. Charles E. Lindblom, The Policy-Making Process (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1980), pp. 18-25, 64-70. See also Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1979).

37. Dyson, pp. 65-72.

  1. Alvin Weinberg and Jack N. Barkenbus, "Stabilizing Star Wars," Foreign Policy Spring 1984, pp. 164-70. See also Keith B. Payne and Colin S. Gray, "Nuclear Policy and the Defensive Transition," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1984, pp. 820-42.
  2. See, for example. Paul Bracken, The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); John Steinbruner, "Nuclear Decapitation," Foreign Policy, Winter 1981-82, pp. 16-28; Desmond Ball, Can Nuclear War Be Controlled? Adelphi Papers, No. 169 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Autumn 1981).
  3. In addition to sources listed in note 39, see Ashton B. Carter, "The Command and Control of Nuclear War." Scientific American, January 1985, pp. 32-39; and Bruce Blair, "Solving the Command and Control Problem," Arms Control Today, January 1985, pp. 1, 6-9.
  4. Payne and Gray, "Nuclear Policy and the Defensive Transition," passim.
  5. Union of Concerned Scientists, The Fallacy of Star Wars, pp. 119-28. I also appreciate the opportunity to review a related unpublished paper by Kurt Gottfried and Richard Ned Lebow, Cornell University.

43. Richard L. Garwin, "Star Wars: Shield or Threat," paper for the Second International Scientific Congress, " Earth and Space: How to Defend Them," 12-13 October 1984, Rome, Italy. Provided by the author.

44. For a discussion of possibilities, see Colin S. Gray, American Military Space Policy: Information Systems, Weapon Systems and Arms Control (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Abt Books, 1982), pp. 45-74.

45. John Steinbruner, " Launch under Attack," Scientific American, January 1984, pp. 37-47.

46. Richard K. Betts, Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1982), pp. 35-50; Barton Whaley, Codeword Barbarossa (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1973); Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1962).

47. Betts, pp. 153-54.

48, Ibid., p. 162.

49. See Lynne Etheridge Davis, "Limited Nuclear Options:

Deterrence and the New American Doctrine," in Strategic Deterrence in a Changing Environment, edited by Christoph Bertram (Montclair, New Jersey: Allenheld, Osmun, and Company, 1981), pp. 42-62.

50. Christy Campbell, Weapons of War (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1983), pp. 75-86.

  1. General Bernard W. Rogers, "Follow-on Forces Attack (FOFA): Myths and Realities," NATO Review, December 1984, pp. 1-9.
  2. John G. Hines and Philip A. Peterson, "The Warsaw Pact Strategic Offensive: The OMG in Context," International Defense Review. October 1983, pp. 1391-95; C. N. Donnelly, "The Soviet Operational Maneuver Group; A New Challenge for NATO." International Defense Review (1982), pp. 1177-86.

53. John Erickson, "Soviet Ground Forces and the Conventional Mode of Operations," RUSI Journal, June 1976, pp. 45-49; John Erickson, "Soviet Breakthrough Operations: Resources and Restraints," RUSI Journal, September 1976, pp. 74-79. Present and foreseeable resources would enable the Soviet command to mount eight to ten break through operations using Soviet forces in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, supported by forces from the Northern Group (Poland) and the western military districts of the Soviet Union. See Erickson, "Soviet Breakthrough Operations: Resources and Restraints," p. 75.

54. John J. Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 165-88; Richard Ned Lebow, "The Soviet Offensive in Europe: The Schlieffen Plan Revisited," International Security, Spring 1985, pp. 44-78.

55. P. H. Vigor, Soviet Blitzkrieg Theory (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983); William P. Mako, U.S. GroundForcesandthe Defense of Central Europe (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1983); Phillip A. Karber, "In Defense of Forward Defense," Armed Forces Journal International, May 1984, pp. 27-50.

56. Samuel P. Huntington, "Conventional Deterrence and Conventional Retaliation in Europe," in Military Strategy in Transition, edited by Keith A. Dunn and William O. Staudenmaier (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984), pp. 15-41.

57. Some analysts feel that the Soviet Union may have the Conventional forces to prevent NATO nuclear first use. See Stephen M. Meyer, Soviet Theatre Nuclear Forces, Part II: Capabilities and Limitations, Adelphi Papers, No. 188 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Winter 1983/84).

58. On this point, see Karber, "In Defense of Forward Defense," passim.

59. Paul Buteux, Strategy, Doctrine and the Politics of Alliance: Theatre Nuclear Force Modernization in NATO (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983).

60. For analyses of the "572" decision, see David N. Schwartz, NATO's Nuclear Dilemmas (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1983), pp. 193-251, and Stanley Hoffmann, "NATO and Nuclear Weapons: Reason and Unreason," chapter 11 in Hoffmann, Dead Ends: American Foreign Policy in the New Cold War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1983), pp. 219-41.

61. Soviet concepts of "critical time" and "control time" as they apply to this situation are explained in Meyer, Soviet Theatre Nuclear Forces: Part II, p. 37.

62. See George M. Seignious II and Jonathan Paul Yates, "Europe's Nuclear Superpowers," Foreign Policy, Summer 1984, pp. 40-53.


Stephen J. Cimbala (B.A., Pennsylvania State University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Wisconsin) is Associate Professor of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University, delaware County Campus, Media, Pennsylvania, and a Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia. Dr. Cimballa's articles have appeared in the American Political Science Review, World Politics, Air University Review, and other military and social science journals


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.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor