A LearnWorld Text

Race to Oblivion

A Participant's View of the Arms Race

Herbert F. York




Table of Contents57Missile-Gap Mania125
INTRODUCTION78The McNamara Era147
Prologue: Eisenhower's Other Warning9PART TWO: UNBALANCING THE BALANCE OF TERROR171
1The Arms Race and I159MIRV: The Multiple Menace173
2The Race Begins: Nuclear Weapons and Overkill2711Other Lessons from the ABM Debate213
3The Bomber Bonanza4912The Ultimate Absurdity228
4The Elusive Nuclear Airplane60A Glossary of Acroyms241
5Rockets and Missiles75Index245




After the election of John F. Kennedy, the term "missile gap" soon disappeared. The continuing flow of new intelligence information confirmed that the Soviets were not translating their lead in ICBM development into a corresponding lead in missile deployment. More important, the term had been pretty much taken over by the Democrats as a campaign criticism of the Eisenhower Administration, and the political utility of such charges disappeared with the election of the new Administration. Despite common expectations and some misguided but fervent hopes to the contrary, the changeover in administration was marked by continuity and consolidation insofar as the strategic-arms race was concerned. This continuity, in turn, was due in part to the fact that any sensible technological approach to the strategic-arms problem was bound to produce more or less the same solution. Even more importantly, many of the persons who had played the principal roles in formulating these policies under Eisenhower continued to do so in the new Kennedy Administration.

The new Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, invited all five of the research and development officials at the Presidential-appointee level to stay on, and four of us did. Besides myself, this group included Dr. Joseph V. Charyk, the Undersecretary of the Air Force; Dr. James H. Wakelin, Jr.,


the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development; and Richard S. Morse, the Director of Research and Development for the Army. I had agreed to stay on only for a few months in order to help make the transition in government as smooth as possible and to give the new Secretary plenty of time to find the kind of man he considered suitable as my replacement. And on May first I was replaced by my good friend and long-time colleague Harold Brown. The other holdovers had no plans for leaving soon, and in fact most of them stayed on for protracted periods.

In addition, all of my senior staff stayed on and two of them were promoted by Robert McNamara to positions of greater responsibility and authority. My principal deputy, John Rubel, was given the additional title of Assistant Secretary of Defense (Deputy Director of Research and Engineering). That title had been unused since the enactment of the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. Jack P. Ruina, who had been my Assistant Director for Air Defense, became the Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA, succeeding Brigadier General Austin R. Betts, who had left a few weeks earlier to become the Director of the Division of Military Applications in the Atomic Energy Commission.

This continuity of top personnel in science and engineering was in marked contrast to what happened in other areas. With only one exception, the twenty-odd nonscientific members of the Defense secretariat were all replaced at the very beginning of the new administration.

Much the same thing happened in 1961 in the case of the White House science apparatus. Jerome Wiesner became President Kennedy's Special Assistant for Science and Technology. He had been one of the members of Killian's original PSAC and he was a close associate of bath Killian and George Kistiakowsky, his immediate predecessors. His views were basically very similar to theirs. The President's Science Advisory Committee itself, as usual, held over all but a very few of its seven-


teen members. The committee, in accordance with custom, also elected Wiesner its Chairman. A new unit named the Office of Science and Technology was soon established in the Executive Office of the President, but this did not indicate a change. Wiesner was its Director. Some of the men who had been the principal members of the Special Assistant's staff during the Eisenhower administration became part of the staff of this new unit in the Kennedy administration. Among the holdovers were David Z. Beckler and Spurgeon Keeny. Beckler has served from the beginning as de-facto chief executive officer of the White House science apparatus. Keeny later also served simultaneously as an assistant to both McGeorge Bundy and Walt W. Rostow when they in turn were Special Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs. (To jump way ahead of our story, we may note that in 1969 when Nixon succeeded Johnson there was a broader and deeper change in the White House science apparatus: Nixon's new science adviser, Lee DuBridge, had not been a major participant in political affairs for many years prior to his appointment, and Spurgeon Keeny, who had been an important factor in maintaining continuity earlier during the 1961 change of administration, moved over In 1969 to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency as its Assistant Director for Science and Technology.)

Because of the continuity of people in 1961, it was to be expected that there would be no revolutionary changes in our strategic-weapons development and deployment programs. And there were none. The Atlas development and deployment program was continued very nearly as it had been originally planned, and eventually about one hundred missiles were deployed. The first few Atlas squadrons were stored above ground in a horizontal position in concrete coffins that provided some protection against blast damage. In order to launch the early missiles it was necessary first to hoist them into a vertical position and, after they were erect, to fill their tanks


with several tens of thousands of gallons of fuel and liquid oxygen.

Later versions of Atlas, like all present-day ICBMs, were stowed in concrete-lined underground silos designed to protect them against nearby nuclear explosions. These silos were able to withstand some hundreds of pounds per square inch of overpressure. (A one-megaton bomb exploded on the ground produces a blast overpressure of one hundred pounds per square inch at a distance of about six tenths of a mile from ground zero.) These silo-based Atlases also had to be fueled at the last minute, just like the earlier ones. The fueling process plus other last-minute adjustments were supposed to be accomplished in only fifteen minutes. This time was just short of the maximum warning time that could then be expected in the event of a surprise missile attack. It was, of course, much shorter than the warning time available in the case of a bomber attack. However, subsequent tests and exercises gave results which, in my mind, make it very doubtful that we could have gotten even one in five of the early operational Atlases off in that time under surprise-attack conditions.

During the early sixties, the Atlas went through a number of modifications designed to improve readiness and delivery accuracy, but the system was awkward in a fundamental way and the last Atlas missiles were decommissioned in the mid-sixties.

At the time of President Kennedy's inauguration there were two distinct Titan development programs under way. The older version, the Titan I, had basically the same performance characteristics as Atlas and used the same fuels. It differed principally in that it employed the more nearly ideal two- stage design. This made it somewhat less awkward than the Atlas, but it still shared the same fundamental deficiency of requiring that its liquid oxygen, or LOX as it is usually called, be supplied just before launch.

The other version of this missile is known as the Titan II.


Its development was started about four years later than the Titan I, and it was consequently based on a later and more advanced state of the art. It weighs about fifty percent more than the Titan I, the thrust of its engines is also about fifty percent greater, and its payload-carrying capability is correspondingly larger. But more important for military applications, it uses an entirely different fuel-and-oxidizer combination. The fuel, UDMH, is a derivative of a toxic nitrogen compound, hydrazine. The oxidizer is nitrogen textroxide [sic]. Both are poisonous and nasty to handle, but they have the twin advantages of being liquids under normal temperature conditions and of igniting directly on contact. Such fuel-oxidizer combinations which ignite on contact are spoken of as being "hypergolic," and combinations which can be stored without the use of extreme refrigeration or high pressures are known as "storable." The use of this storable hypergolic propellant combination enables the Titan II to be stored in its silo fully fueled and ready to go. It also makes possible a somewhat simpler and hence more reliable engine design. The Titan II development program had always been surrounded by controversy. I had favored it, and so had General Schriever, but not all of our technical and military colleagues had. However, after a review of the Titan program, the new Administration decided to continue its development as previously laid out, but to reduce the number of planned Titan II squadrons by one. Eventually all of the Titan Is were decommissioned, but in 1970 there were still fifty-four Titan IIs deployed as part of our strategic forces.

The Atlas and the Titan II performed major service as boosters in our civilian and military satellite programs throughout the 1960s. The Atlas was used to launch the one-man Mercury capsules which initiated our manned-space-flight program. The Titan II was used to launch the two- man Gemini capsules which made possible the docking experiments and the space-walk experiments which led directly to our Apollo program. With some additional solid-propellant boosters strapped


on in parallel with its first stage to give it still greater initial thrust, the Titan II became the Titan III and was used to launch satellites into extremely high orbits.

The Minuteman ICBM was, of course, also inherited from the Eisenhower Administration, having been started in 1957 just before Sputnik. The Minuteman was, as already described, a three-stage solid- propellant rocket. Its payload was considerably less than that of either the Atlas or the Titan, but it could be stored indefinitely in a ready-to-go status and launched on approximately a one-minute warning to targets which bad been previously stored in the memory bank of its inertial-guidance system.

Like the Atlas and the Titan, the Minuteman was to be deployed in underground silos, but, since the whole system was smaller and less complex, it was easy to make the silos stronger than in the case of the big liquid missiles. These days the figure "300 pounds p.s.i. hardness" is commonly used to describe the degree of protection which the underground silos give to the Minuteman. This number means that in order to destroy a Minuteman rocket in its silo an attacking weapon must land close enough to produce a blast overpressure of three hundred pounds per square inch. For example, a one-megaton ground burst must be within about two thousand feet of the entrance to the silo in order to destroy its contents. At the time of the changeover in administration, Secretary Gates had not yet determined the ultimate number of Minutemen to be deployed, but he had set in motion programs designed to provide facilities for manufacturing and reworking a force of somewhat less than 1,000, the precise number depending on the rates involved. The Air Force, on the other hand, was urging deployment figures more like 2,000 to 3,000, and General Thomas S. Power, then commander of SAC, talked of 10,000.

McNamara resolved these uncertainties early in his administration. He set the deployment goal at first at 800 and then soon after increased it to 1,000. He also increased somewhat


the size of the manufacturing and reworking facilities. There had also been a plan to build a rail-mobile version of Minuteman, but McNamara canceled that too within the first six months of his administration.

Minuteman has steadily evolved as new components and new operational concepts have been developed since 1960. The Minuteman III now (1970) being deployed will hurl a larger payload a longer distance and will do so with much finer accuracy than the original version of this weapon. The warhead of the Minuteman III is scheduled to be a MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles). During the public ABM debate of 1969, the Minuteman MIRV was said to consist of three independently guided warheads of two hundred kilotons explosive power each.

The Navy's Polaris program was also solidly under way at the time of the administration changeover in 1961. The first boat carrying the A-1 version of the Polaris missile was already on station. Firm commitments had been made for about a dozen more. The A-2 and A-3 versions were already being deployed. The A-3, as in the ease of the later Minuteman, had a longer range and a larger payload than the first version and was to be supplied with a special new type of warhead known as the Claw.

The Claw consisted of three separate warheads which were launched in such a way that they landed in a tight pattern centering on the aiming point; they were not separately targetable. Such a warhead cluster is known as an MRV (multiple reentry vehicles). The reason for the three separate warheads in that ease was simply to provide a greater certainty of penetrating an anti- ballistic-missile system such as the Nike-Zeus system, which we had been working on in this country for some time. The Russians had occasionally boasted about knowing how to build an antimissile missile, and our intelligence confirmed that they did have a research and development program in this field.

Secretary McNamara reviewed the Polaris program with


those responsible for it and with the appropriate members of his secretariat. He concluded that the development program and the deployment program should continue along the lines already laid down. He took up the question of how many submarines in all should be built during the sixties and finally settled on a force of forty-one. Secretary Gates had been planning on a force of about forty-five, and the Navy had been urging forty-nine as a minimum.

The range of the A-1 missile was a little over one thousand miles, the range of the A-2 was almost two thousand miles, and the range of the A-3 was almost three thousand miles when fitted with the payload designed for the original version (2,500 miles with a new warhead). The first test flight of the A-3 came in the fall of 1962; the first submarine outfitted with A-3 missiles. the Daniel Webster, became operational in the fall of 1964. By the end of 1966, our sea-launched-missile capability consisted of twenty- eight nuclear submarines (SSBNs) armed with A-3s and thirteen armed with A-2s.

Soon after the deployment of the first A-3s, further improvement in the design and the characteristics of solid propellants, inertial-guidance components, and nuclear weapons reached a point where the performance of these submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) could be further upgraded. However, since the range of the A-3 was by then long enough for most purposes, these gains were used to improve the warhead and its effectiveness rather than to increase the range. The development of a new weapon system, the Poseidon, was started to exploit these advances in the state of the art. Like the Minuteman III, the Poseidon is scheduled to have a MIRV-type warhead. In discussing this system during the ABM debate in 1969, the Poseidon MIRV warhead was said to consist of ten individually guided warheads of fifty kilotons explosive power each.

This same logical continuation and consolidation of past programs and decisions occurred in the ease of other strategic systems.


The Eisenhower Administration had started to cut back the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system when it was finally appreciated that a precursor attack by ballistic missiles could easily destroy its vital parts and thus allow an almost free passage for any aircraft that might follow afterward. SAGE was further reduced and curtailed during the first years of McNamara's administration.

The Nike-Zeus anti-ballistic-missile system had been carefully reviewed during both the McElroy and Gates administrations. Each time, it had been determined that research and development should continue on a high- priority basis but that the then current design ideas did not merit deployment. McNamara reviewed this matter in the first months of his administration and came to the same conclusion.

We had become disenchanted with the Skybolt air-launched ballistic missile very late in the Eisenhower administration. As a consequence, we deferred indefinitely any firm plans for its deployment and we began to hold back on funding the development program. The new Administration seriously considered canceling the program immediately, but domestic political factors, as well as relations with our British ally, forced the administration to continue the Skybolt for a time. (I heard President Kennedy remark that he needed it to shoot down the B-70.) Even so, a year or so later these political problems had been overcome sufficiently to permit scrubbing this missile.

The old Administration had restored the funds to the B-70 program in late 1960 after virtually canceling the program earlier that same year. The new Administration, alter much argument, did succeed in eventually terminating this program also.

The old Administration had also cut back the ANP nuclear-airplane program from a full-scale engine-development program involving a peak annual expenditure rate of almost $200 million to a materials-research and engine-design program which would have involved about $25 million a year. The new Administration gave this program its coup de grâce. This same


pattern of continuity and consolidation prevailed in other research and development activities, including, specifically, military space applications.

Many persons in Congress, the missile press, the defense industry, and among the public generally had supported Kennedy or at least opposed Eisenhower because they believed that the Eisenhower Administration had done too little too late in responding to what they took to be the threat revealed by Sputnik. Such persons were, to say the least, grossly disappointed by these actions, and their disappointment grew and was greatly aggravated by the failure (as they saw it) to start any "new" weapons systems during the next several years.

To be sure, a few major new (or newish) systems were started, including the TFX, the MIRV, the Poseidon, and the MOL, but these were entirely inadequate for satisfying the demands of the gung-ho types. They felt that the TFX (a joint Air Force-Navy fighter-bomber) was being forced on them by McNamara, and for that reason they never liked it. The MIRV did eventually turn out to have enormous consequences, but it didn't seem too important at the time and, besides, it was not entirely new, being derived from the MRV, which in turn had been started earlier. And the Poseidon not only came along quite late (more than four years after the new Administration took office), but it also looked like nothing more than a fourth version of Polaris that had been given a new name at least partially in response to the charge of "no new weapons systems since 1960." That left the MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory)` but unfortunately, because of the veil of secrecy surrounding it, the authorities were never able to make its purpose very clear (and it was canceled by Nixon and Laird in 1969).

To make matters worse, by the end of the fifties a great many persons, specifically including high-ranking military officers and many members of the Armed Services Committees of Congress and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, had


come to believe that the normal technological state of affairs was one of a continuing flow of ever new scientific discoveries automatically leading to ever more exotic applications in turn inevitably producing great new political and strategic advantages for "whoever got there first." The recent past had in fact seen quite an imposing series of developments that were both breakthroughs in the technological sense and highly significant in the political and strategic sense. First came radar, then the A-bomb, then the H- bomb, and then finally the ICBM and the satellites with all their brilliant subtechnologies: propulsion, guidance and control, and reentry. Solid-state electronics had only recently come of age, and the laser had just been invented. As for political significance, radar had played a crucial role in defending Britain in 1940 and 1941, and the A-bomb had ended the war in the Pacific, or so we thought at the time. Today the H-bomb and the ICBM certainly play a very large role in the relations between states having a highly developed technology, even though their relevance in the relationships between two states only one of which has a high level of technology (such as Russia vis-à-vis China, the United States vis-à-vis North Vietnam and North Korea) is not so clear.

The breakthrough, or the "quantum jump," became not only the expected norm, but also the desideratum. Thus, the continuing emphasis throughout the early sixties on the intensive development of older ideas was thought of as being both unimaginative and dangerous. Weapons fanciers in all walks of life not only complained of "no new systems since 1960," some began to yearn for a return to what they came to think of as the lush days of the Eisenhower administration! But not only nontechnical weapons buyers and promoters expected a continuing series of significant breakthroughs and quantum jumps. Many weapons scientists and engineers also believed that such a situation was normal and desirable. They virtually promised their military and Congressional supporters that the future would be as glorious as the recent past, only more so.


Thus, we have Herman Kahn in his book On Thermonuclear War, written in 1959 when the rate of breakthroughs seemed to be still rising, making a whole set of extrapolations which turned out to be false. He predicted then that by 1969 we would probably have "cheap simple bombs,,' "cheap simple missiles," controlled thermonuclear power, "Californium bullets" (by which he meant A-bombs very much smaller than any we now have), and a superior substitute for radar. He said we would be able to put payloads in orbit for only ten dollars a pound. He predicted that by 1973 we would be working on supersonic bombers and supersonic fighters two generations beyond the B-70 and the F-108 and that there would be manned offensive satellites and manned defensive satellites in orbit. Every one of these errors in prediction arose out of the twin false assumptions that the immediate past was typical and that the technological future could be predicted by simple extrapolation. These errors are also illustrative of what happens when analysts use sophisticated methods but poor or nonsensical inputs: the final result cannot be better than the inputs no matter how fancily they may be processed. Unfortunately, many technologists as well as laymen don't realize this, and they are repeatedly fooled by the apparent sophistication of efforts like Kahn's 1959 predictions.

A somewhat different example of the same basic error can be found in articles written by Freeman Dyson in 1960 and 1961, during the first nuclear-test moratorium. In essence, he predicted a new, third breakthrough in nuclear weaponry which he appeared to equate with the other two, the A-bomb and the H-bomb. This third type of nuclear weapon was often referred to (rather loosely) as the neutron bomb. Dyson wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1960:

I believe that radically new kinds of nuclear weapons are technically possible that the military and political effectiveness of such weapons would be im-


portant, and that the development of such bombs can hardly be arrested by any means less drastic than international control of all nuclear operations.

To make it clear that he really meant it when he said they would be militarily and politically important, he presented a little scenario demonstrating what just might happen:

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which the United States is armed with existing weapons, while some adversary (not necessarily the Soviet Union) has a comparable supply of nuclear fuel and has learned how to ignite it fission free . . . . God help the American infantryman who is sent to fight against such odds. Practically speaking, our army would have only two alternatives, either to retreat precipitously or to strike back with our much more limited number of heavier nuclear weapons and thoroughly destroy the whole country.

A full decade has passed since Dyson wrote his horror tale. To be sure, that's not forever, but there is no sign whatsoever of our precipitously retreating before the threat of such bombs. The question is not so much whether such devices as fission-free or neutron bombs are possible, but whether they are practical and cheap and whether they would really represent a military, let alone a political, breakthrough such as was envisaged even if they were practical. Teller was saying much the same thing at the time, but, most unfortunately and contrary to his own wishes, he was then being kept under wraps on this subject, and so his views were not publicly exposed in any clear way.

I must add, however, that Dyson, unlike the true weapons fancier, did not think the development of such devices would be advantageous to the United States; he just thought they


were inevitable. In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists he wrote in 1961:

. . . neutron bombs, like hydrogen bombs, will in the long run only complicate our lives, increase our insecurity, and possibly facilitate our extermination . . . I do not support any of the arguments which have recently appeared in the newspapers claiming that the neutron bomb makes it necessary to resume testing immediately.

I agree very much with his assessment of the situation contained in that last quotation, but the earlier quote is another example of the then very common error of predicting the technology of the future by simply extrapolating the immediate past as if it were typical.

The device which this last argument was about supposedly had an advantage: it could, some said, kill lots of people without damaging much property. It was frequently referred to within the nuclear-weapons trade as the "capitalist bomb," for obvious reasons. Perhaps in this case the bomb can indeed be built. In any event, the important error in the prediction lies in the statements about what its political and strategic significance would be.

As I new see it,, there were three good reasons for starting "no new systems" in the early sixties (more correctly' for starting no more than the few that actually were started). Any one of these reasons might have been sufficient.

First, the McNamara administration inherited a number of very large development programs in midstream. These had to be continued and further developed, and they absorbed the bulk of our available resources in terms of good men, money, and facilities. The first Minutemen had an inadequate range (only a little above four thousand nautical miles) and could


reach only part of the target area even when sited optimally in this country. During the early sixties, further development work on this missile system extended its range to more than 6,500 miles and produced marked improvements in its accuracy as well as in its ability to penetrate any hypothetical antimissile defenses. The Polaris went through the same kinds of change. The first Polarises had just been deployed when the new Administration took office in 1961. They had a range of a little over a thousand miles. The submarines carrying them would have had to approach hostile shores very closely, and even then the missile could by no means reach all targets. A set of new developments based on advances in the state of the art pushed the range eventually up to 2,500 miles. This made it possible to reach virtually any target from large parts of the high seas. As in the case of Minuteman, the accuracy of the missile and the means for precisely determining the position of the submarine carrying it were also improved. And for all long-range missiles, including Polaris and Minuteman, intensive research and development programs were necessary to increase their reliability (which turned out to be very much lower than originally anticipated), to enable them to penetrate hypothetical defenses, to cope more adequately with the extremely important problem of command and control, and to assure their survival in the event of an attack on them or, in the case of Polaris, on their carriers.

A rather similar situation prevailed in the cases of other types of weapons systems. Our bombardment aircraft and the equipment they carried, such as missiles and penetration-aid devices, had to be and were further improved. Our antisubmarine devices and techniques had to be improved, and so forth. In short, the intellectual burst of new technological ideas generated by our scientists and engineers in response to the challenge (not the provocation!) of the Soviet missile programs (not Sputnik!) and of the Soviets' boasts about them had resulted in a large legacy of unfinished business. It had to


be properly taken care of before any radically new business could be undertaken.

The second inhibiting factor present during the early sixties was a genuine scarcity of new, good technical ideas. Even those few that were generated did not then seem to be relevant to the strategic or political problems at hand or anticipated. Hindsight confirms that, in the strategic- weapons area at least, that view was correct. A number of examples of the kind of idea that was generated in the early sixties and of what was wrong with them could be given, but one will have to suffice here.

Soon after our satellite program got onto a solid footing through the application of the Thor-Agena, Atlas-Agena, and similar space launch vehicles (SLVs in the trade)“ it was widely realized that no matter how loudly the cry of "Don't put the budget ahead of survival" was made, the cost of orbiting satellites was going to put a real limitation on the use of space as a military arena. By 1961 the cost had dropped to a few thousand dollars per pound in orbit, but, barring the introduction of some entirely different launch methods, there seemed to be little promise of its dropping any further. I should note that the precise total cost depends on how you prorate partial costs such as those involved in development, operation of the missile ranges, recovery when applicable, and other overhead items. But the figure of a few thousand dollars per pound in low earth orbit is adequate for our purposes. On the same basis, it costs almost ten times as much to put satellites in the very high synchronous, or "twenty-four-hour," orbits for communication relay.

Since the smallest manned vehicles weigh a few thousand pounds, and since typical unmanned military satellites as then planned were in the same general weight class, it was clear that the cost per launch could be projected as being $10 million and up. As a result, an intensive search for cheaper ways of launching satellites got under way on a very broad front.


Nearly all governmental organizations and private industries that had programs or responsibilities in any way related to space flight worked on the problem. Some thousands of man years, many of them scrounged from genuinely high-priority programs, were spent on thinking up ideas, transforming them into colorful "airbrushed" sales brochures, and presenting them to an endless series of review boards and Congressional committees. In the process an all too common yet quite improper selling practice was often followed. As part of its sales pitch for a particular program, a company would promise or imply that certain key individuals would carry it out. Then, after winning the bid, the company would put these same people to work on selling yet another idea. One of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover's few positive contributions to defense technology in the sixties was his absolute refusal to countenance this practice in his bailiwick.

Literally, hundreds of millions of dollars of research funds, overhead funds, "bid and quote" funds, were spent on an intensive and widespread effort to find and, above all, to sell solutions to this problem. Practically all of this was government-financed, either directly or through tax deductions.

The many ideas generated may, for simplicity, be divided into two classes. The first class involved launching extremely large single payloads into orbit by one or another more or less exotic means, which even in theory works efficiently only for very large payloads. Various bizarre ideas involving nuclear energy were proposed. One, called Orion, was to be launched into orbit and propelled by a series of hundreds or thousands of individual nuclear explosions. Payloads of thousands of tons were contemplated for this scheme. I am not sure to this day whether the Orion idea was utter nonsense or was simply grossly premature, but for our purposes here it does not matter which. Even if it could be made to work, its hypothetical reduction in launch costs per pound could be realized only in the event of a huge program of interplanetary flight far far


beyond anything even now considered relevant or desirable. The other class of ideas involved using some sort of recoverable booster. Then, as now, the rocket stages used for launching satellites fell into the ocean or onto the tundra and were lost or destroyed after just one use. These stages were, of course, expensive, and so their recovery and reuse could, in principle, result in important cost savings. There were many versions of this recoverable-booster idea, ranging from simply recovering the first stage from the sea, after it had been let down gently by a parachute, to the Aerospace-Plane type of thing which I discussed earlier. In the latter scheme the satellite-launch vehicle was to be flown all the way up into orbit and then back to the ground. Nothing at all was to be lost, discarded, or mutilated. At first blush, such techniques locked as if they might indeed cut launch costs a factor of ten or so. However, in all cases I know about, a thorough examination of the matter properly prorating development costs, base costs, refurbishing costs and other overhead items limited potential savings to something well below that figure. And the remaining saving could be realized only in the event of a very much heavier traffic rate than today's space program involves. Even in the case of the anticipated space traffic of the next ten years it has been estimated that the use of recoverable boosters would result in roughly the same cost as the current throwaway-booster technique.

To say it differently and at some risk of too much oversimplification, I estimate that if we spent fifteen times as much as we are spending now per year on our space program (that is, $100 billion) we could launch perhaps one hundred times as much weigh' into orbit as we are launching new. However, there is no presently known reason for doing so and therefore these new technological schemes cannot yet be effectively used. Thus, although at least some of these new ideas were technologically workable, even these were irrelevant and were not pursued on a full-scale- development basis. Some of them are


still being studied and may of course one day be useful, but the decision of McNamara, Webb, Brown, Wiesner and others not to push them in the early sixties was sound.

The third factor inhibiting the introduction of new strategic-weapons systems in the early sixties relates to the overkill capability which each of the superpowers possessed by then. Back in the early fifties our strategic forces consisted of medium-range aircraft armed with fission bombs. The numbers and potentials of these weapons were such that they threatened to snuff out the lives of a few million people in a matter of a few hours. By the mid-sixties we had both intercontinental missiles and intercontinental aircraft armed with hydrogen bombs. The numbers and potentials of these weapons were such that we had far more than enough of them to threaten the lives of a few hundred million people in less than an hour. Thus, from the early fifties to the mid-sixties the strategic capabilities of the two superpowers as measured by the amount of destruction they could cause increased about a hundredfold. Whether or not this was desirable or even "thinkable," it certainly was of very great strategic significance, at least insofar as the relations of the two superpowers with each other were concerned. But in achieving this huge "quantum jump" the threat became saturated; that is, large changes in either the numbers or the individual capabilities of the weapons possessed by each side can now produce only small changes in the threat to human life. Only truly extreme changes in weapons capabilities can affect the strategic situation, and hence it is simply harder to invent anything that can make a real difference. Thus, horrible as it may otherwise be, this situation of a saturated balance of terror does at least lead to a degree of stability.

To be more specific, let us consider a very much simplified version of the strategic situation as of January 1, 1970. At that time, according to our defense officials, the Soviet Union and the United States had very nearly the same number of


ICBMs: about one thousand each. In the case of the United States, fifty- four of these were the large Titan IIs and the rest were Minutemen. For our purposes, we may assume that a Titan II can deliver a single ten-megaton warhead and that a Minuteman can deliver a single one-megaton warhead. In the case of the Soviet Union, some two hundred fifty or so of the ICBMs were the large SS-9s and we may take the rest as being roughly equivalent to the Minuteman. In this case, we may assume that an SS-9 can deliver a twenty-five-megaton warhead and that the other ICBM can deliver a one-megaton warhead. For simplicity, let us also assume that all of these missiles are deployed in silos hard enough to protect them against blast overpressures of up to three hundred pounds per square inch. Finally, let us forget for now all the other strategic weapons that both sides possessed and consider what these ICBM forces alone could do to each other.

We must first note that a twenty-five-megaton bomb exploded on the ground produces three hundred pounds of overpressure per square inch at a distance of about 1.2 miles from the explosion; a ten-megaton explosion produces the same overpressure at about .8 of a mile; a one-megaton explosion, at almost .4 of a mile. But this information is still not enough. In order to calculate precisely what each of these forces could do if fired in a massive surprise attack against the other, we must also know what the accuracy and reliability of each of the various missile systems involved are.

Unfortunately for our immediate goal of making an estimate, no one in authority has revealed specifically just what the accuracy of any of these delivery systems is. There are two reasons for this. First“ there is the usual one of security: we don't want to reveal just what the accuracy of our missiles is and we don't want to reveal just how much we know or, possibly, don't know about the accuracy of theirs. The second reason is more fundamental: we really don't know what the accuracy or the reliability of our missiles is, and still less do


we know these figures for the Soviet missiles. And the same thing applies the other way around. Of course, we do know something about the reliability of test missiles fired on the test range by test crews under contrived conditions. But these circumstances are quite different from those which would pertain to the operational missiles. And all we can be sure of is that the reliability and the accuracy of the operational missiles are not as good as they are for the test missiles. The same lack of knowledge applies in the case of silo hardness: we really don't know how close a hit by, say, a one-megaton bomb our silos could withstand, and we don't know what it really takes to destroy one of theirs.

Thus, no one really knows the figures that are necessary in order to make a precise calculation of what one of these forces could do against the others. And anyone who pretends to present such exact figures is indulging in a kind of useless and potentially harmful mathematical nonsense. However, crude estimates can be sensibly made. These, I believe, indicate that, roughly speaking, each time the button is pressed for launching a missile carrying a one-megaton weapon, there is less than a fifty-fifty chance that an enemy missile in a hard silo will be destroyed, and each time the button is pressed for launching one of the bigger weapons that each side possesses, there is somewhat more than a fifty-fifty chance. In the often strange jargon of strategic analysis, these odds are referred to as "kill probabilities" whether or not human life is directly involved. What this means, then, is that well over half of the missile forces each side possessed at the very beginning of the seventies would have survived a massive surprise attack by the other side's missile forces under the assumed set of circumstances.

Most professional analysts of the subject believe that the prospect of about one hundred thermonuclear warheads exploding over urban areas is more than enough to deter either side from starting a nuclear war. Therefore the more than five hundred missiles that would have survived the surprise attack


we postulated would be very much more than sufficient for deterrence.

I personally believe that very much smaller numbers are sufficient to deter war; I have used numbers like one hundred only because it is customary to do so in such arguments, and because the above arguments do not hinge on whether the number is in fact one hundred or something very much smaller. In this regard, McGeorge Bundy, who had been Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to both President Kennedy and President Johnson, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs:

In the real world of real political leaders--whether here or in the Soviet Union a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.


But to continue with the ideas and in the language of those whose profession is analyzing strategy: Each side could be confident of retaining an "assured destruction capability" after a surprise attack by the other. Therefore each side possessed a "credible deterrent" to a "preemptive attack" by the other.

To put this whole matter the other way around, neither side could have had any confidence whatsoever that by making a surprise preemptive attack it could reduce the other side's retaliatory capability to an acceptable level. This last way of locking at the question is the one that really counts. The surprise attacker by definition has the initiative, and accordingly it is his view of the situation that determines whether or not something will happen and thus whether or not the defender possesses a "credible deterrent."


A complete analysis of this matter would require considering the bombers and the Polaris missiles also, but the land-based missiles are commonly considered to be the single most important element of the deterrent, and including these others would not substantially change the preceding analysis. Nor would this situation have been changed substantially even if one side had, say, twice as many missiles as the other. As long as the mix of types and their characteristics were not radically changed, the attacker would still not have been able to be confident of reducing the other side's forces below the number that could wreak an unacceptable revenge. Thus the situation at the beginning of the seventies was one of stability and strategic parity. Even considering silo-based missile forces alone, each side possessed many more missiles than were necessary for deterrence, and neither side possessed nearly enough missiles to risk a preemptive strike.

Thus a balance of terror had been created such that neither side could conceivably survive a nuclear exchange no matter who struck first, and even fairly large deviations from strict numerical parity could not seriously upset the balance.

Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms
[Transaction Publishers, 1996]

British SSBNs

French SNLEs
Other Sites
"Comprehensive Test Ban" [28 February 1996] and a 21 June 1996 addendum on China's CTB policy. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report [16 March 1946]: Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy. Re CTB

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