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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




The actions and processes described in this book have led to two absurd situations.

The first of these absurdities has been with us for some time, and has come to be widely recognized for what it is. It lies in the fact that ever since World War II the military power of the United States has been steadily increasing, while at the same time our national security has been rapidly and inexorably decreasing. The same thing is happening to the Soviet Union.

The second of these absurdities is still in an early stage and, for reasons of secrecy, is not yet so widely recognized as the first. It lies in the fact that in the United States the power to decide whether or not doomsday has arrived is in the process of passing from statesmen and politicians to lower- level officers and technicians and, eventually, to machines. Presumably, the same thing is happening in the Soviet Union.

At the end of World War II, the United States was' as it had been for more than a century, invulnerable to a direct attack by a foreign power. Just a few years later, the development of the atomic bomb by the Soviet Union ended that ideal state of affairs, perhaps forever.

By the early 1950s the U.S.S.R., on the basis of its own unilateral decision to accept the inevitable retaliation, could


have launched an attack against the U. S. with bombers carrying fission bombs. Most of these bombers would have penetrated our defenses and the American casualties could have numbered in the tens of millions.

By the mid-sixties, the U.S.S.R., again on the basis of its own decision to accept the inevitable retaliation, could have launched an attack on the U. S. using intercontinental missiles and bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons. This time the number of American casualties could very well have been on the order of 100 million.

This steady decrease in national security did not result from any inaction on the part of responsible U. S. military and civilian authorities. It resulted from the systematic exploitation of the products of modern science and technology by the U.S.S.R. The air defenses deployed by the U. S. during the 1950s and 1960s might have reduced somewhat the number of casualties that the country might have otherwise sustained, but their existence did not substantially modify this picture. Nor could it have been altered by any other defense measures that might have been taken but that for one reason or another were not.

From the Soviet point of view the picture is similar but much worse. The military power of the U.S.S.R.. has been steadily increasing since it became an atomic power in 1949. Soviet national security, however, has been steadily decreasing. Hypothetically the U. S. could unilaterally decide to destroy the U.S.S.R., and the U.S.S.R. would be absolutely powerless to prevent it. That country could only, at best, seek to wreak revenge through the retaliatory capability it would then have left.

Each of us has lived as the pawn of the other's- whim--or calculation for the past twenty years.

The first absurdity is the simple, direct, and probably inevitable result of the interaction of modern science and technology with the chronic military confrontation between the


two superpowers. The nuclear-arms race, then, is simply an especially dangerous manifestation of a deeper struggle. This deeper struggle in turn owes its existence to historical forces and tensions that I have not attempted to discuss here. Seemingly, statesmen so far have not been able to cope successfully with this underlying struggle.

Only concerted action by the two superpowers can completely do away with this first absurdity. The long series of closely interrelated actions and reactions by each of them has led to a situation of such complexity that only a similar series of interdigitated arms control and disarmament steps can undo it.

But even if the basic causes of the arms race have been and remain beyond the reach of American statesmen and politicians, its rate and scale have been largely subject to our control. Over the last thirty years we have repeatedly taken unilateral actions that have unnecessarily accelerated the race. These actions have led to the accumulation of unnecessarily large numbers of oversized weapons. In short, these actions have led to the present situation of gross overkill. I do not mean to imply by anything I have written that the Soviets are blameless for accelerating the arms race. The Russian penchant for secrecy, the closed nature of Soviet society, and, for a time, Stalin's visible paranoia--all these are parts of the reciprocating engine that drives the arms race.

I have emphasized American actions partly because I shared responsibility for some of them, partly because I know the details involved in most of the rest and hence understand them far better than I do Russian actions, but most importantly because of a fact that many people sense but do not quite grasp: In the large majority of cases the initiative has been in our hands.

Our unilateral decisions have set the rate and scale for most of the individual steps in the strategic-arms race. In many cases we started development before they did and we easily


established a large and long-lasting lead in terms of deployed numbers and types. Examples include the A-bomb itself, intercontinental bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and MIRV. In other instances, the first development steps were taken by the two sides at about the same time, but immediately afterward our program ran well ahead of theirs both in the development of further types and applications and in the deployment of large numbers. Such cases include the mighty H-bomb and, very probably, military space applications. In some cases, to be sure, they started development work ahead of us and arrived first at the stage where they were able to commence deployment. But we usually reacted so strongly that our deployments and capabilities soon ran far ahead of theirs and we, in effect, even here, determined the final size of the operation. Such cases include the intercontinental ballistic missile and, though it is not strictly a military matter, manned space flight. There are, of course, a few instances where each side has taken actions not yet duplicated by the other. Only the Soviets have deployed the fractional orbital bombardment system, albeit in very small numbers. Only we have had an extensive system of overseas bomber bases surrounding the other side's homeland and a fleet of widely deployed aircraft carriers having a very powerful strategic bombardment capability even if that is not their only purpose or even their major purpose. (I have excluded from consideration all weapons systems, such as Soviet IRBMs and our tactical fighter- bombers, which cannot be readily used against the homelands of the two superpowers.)

The second absurdity--the steady transfer of life-and-death authority from the high levels to low levels, and from human beings to machines stems from two root causes. One of these is the development and deployment of weapons systems designed in such a way as to require complex decisions to be made in extremely short times. The other is the sheer size and wide dispersal of our nuclear-weapons arsenal.


As we have seen, deployment of MIRV by both sides, coupled with advances in accuracy and reliability, will put a very high premium on the use of the frightful launch-on-warning tactic and may place an even higher premium on a preemptive strike strategy. Under such circumstances, any fixed land-based-missile system must be able to launch its missiles so soon after receipt of warning that high-level human author)" ties cannot be included in a decision-making process without seriously degrading the system, unless perhaps such authorities have been properly preprogrammed to produce the "right" decision in the short time that might be available to them. And an identical situation applies to any ABM system. After years of waiting,, but only minutes of warning, it must respond at the precisely correct second. In order to have any chance of being effective,, it must have a "hair trigger.', Thus, we seem to be heading for a state of affairs in which the determination of whether or not doomsday has arrived will be made either by an automatic device designed for the purpose or by a preprogrammed President who, whether he knows it or not, will be carrying out orders written years before by some operations analyst.

Such a situation must be called the ultimate absurdity. It would involve making the ultimate decision in an absurd manner, and it would almost surely be more dangerous and insidious than the situation that would result from the invention and deployment of what others have called the ultimate weapon.

The sheer size of the huge nuclear-weapons arsenal and its very great dispersal is leading us in the same direction. The proper command and control of these weapons requires a correspondingly large and complex system reaching down from the President, whose authorization to use nuclear weapons is required by law, to the many soldiers and technicians at lower levels who actually have physical custody of the weapons and the buttons that fire them. All kinds of complicated technical


and organizational schemes have been invented and introduced to inhibit any unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon. These include the so-called "permissive-action link," (PAL), the "two-key" type of control system, and the "fail-safe" technique employed by our SAC bombers. So far, these have worked, but no one can be certain they will continue to do so indefinitely. Some of these controls, schemes, and devices are cumbersome and awkward. They "get in the way" and they reduce the state of readiness of the various elements of the stockpile. A number of the schemes have been unpopular with the military services from the beginning, and the introduction of some of them has been resisted.

Some people would like to eliminate the distinction between ordinary and nuclear weapons that now exist in most people's minds. If they succeed, even in part, can we expect these extraordinary control measures to continue in force?

Can we rely on the Soviets to invent and institute the same kind of controls? What will happen as advances in our weapons technology require them to put more and more emphasis on the readiness and the quick responsiveness of their weapons? Do they have the necessary level of sophistication to solve the contradiction inherent in the need for a "hair trigger" (so that their systems will respond in time) and a "stiff trigger" (so that they won't fire accidentally)? How good are their computers at recognizing false alarms? How good is the command and control system for the Polaris-type submarine fleet now being rapidly, if belatedly, deployed by the Soviets? Is it fail-safe?

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that unfavorable answers to these questions about their capability mean diminished national security for us. Yet there is no way for us to assure favorable answers to them. The only way we can reestablish something like our former level of national security and safety is by eliminating the need to ask them. Strategic weapons must be designed so that no premium is put on a preemptive


attack and so that there is no need for the kind of "hair trigger" epitomized in the launch-on-warning concept. Their numbers must not be so great and their dispersal not so wide that such long and complex chains of command are necessary Weapons systems that do not fit these characteristics must be eliminated. The distinction between ordinary weapons and nuclear weapons must be reinforced and not weakened.

What underlies these overreactions and technological excesses? The answer is very largely patriotic zeal, exaggerated prudence' and a sort of religious faith in technology. Malice, greed, and lust for power are not the main sources of our trouble. In a way, that's too bad; if evil men were the progenitors of these dangerous errors we could expose them and root them out and all would be well. But dealing with errors committed by sincere men acting in good faith is extremely difficult, if not impossible. And the guilty men and organizations are to be found at all levels of government and in all segments of society: Presidents, Presidential candidates; governors and mayors, members of Congress, civilian officials and military officers; business executives and labor leaders; famous scientists and run-of-the-mill engineers; writers and editorialists; and just plain folks.

The various individual promoters of the arms race are stimulated sometimes by patriotic zeal, sometimes by a desire to go along with the gang, sometimes by crass opportunism, and sometimes by simple fear of the unknown. They are inspired by ingenious and clever ideas, challenged by bold statements of real and imaginary military requirements, stimulated to match or exceed technological progress by the other side or even by a rival military service here at home, and victimized by rumors and phony intelligence. Some have been lured by the siren call of rapid advancement, personal recognition, and unlimited opportunity, and some have been bought by promises of capital gains. Some have sought out and even made up problems to fit the solution they have spent much of their


lives discovering and developing. A few have used the arms race to achieve other, often hidden objectives.

Nearly all such individuals have had a deep long-term involvement in the arms race. They derive either their incomes, their profits, or their consultant fees from it. But much more important than money as a motivating force are the individuals' own psychic and spiritual needs; the majority of the key individual promoters of the arms race derive a very large part of their self- esteem from their participation in what they believe to be an essential--even a holy--cause.

The organizations these men belong to or represent run the gamut from the Pentagon to the National Defense Industries Association, from the Navy League to the local Rotary, from university departments to the PTA. The strongest and most aggressive of them derive their very raison d'etre from the arms race. When the principal programs or activities of such organizations are threatened, they react as if endowed with the instincts of living beings. In this book I have expanded on examples of this phenomenon in the reactions of the General Electric Propulsion Division and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy whenever reductions in the nuclear-airplane program loomed, in the reactions of not only national but also local politicians to attempts to make sense out of the B-70 program, and in the reactions of the Army missile-development organization when it was becoming clear that its beloved Jupiter was no more than a backup to a stopgap. These three cases are, it must be emphasized, only examples; similar events differing only in nonessential details made it very difficult to cancel the Skybolt, the Dyna-Soar, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the Navaho, the Snark, and many, many others.

At various times, pride and arguments over pecking order, rather than threats of cancellation, have provided a major stimulus to the arms race. When outer space exploded on the political scene and replaced atomic energy as the sexiest technological area in which the Congress was directly involved, the


various Armed Services Committees and subcommittees and the Joint Committee for Atomic Energy jockeyed for legislative control over it. In the process, they stimulated and promoted a number of expensive technological developments that were either unnecessary (large-scale nuclear auxiliary power) or premature (nuclear rocket propulsion) or nonsensical (controlled thermonuclear rockets).

The intense interservice rivalry over roles and missions in space and long-range missilery did the same thing, only more so. Many programs had as one of their main (but hidden) objectives the preemption or recapture of some particular position in the roles- and-missions struggle. Skybolt, Thor, Wizard and the early communications-relay satellites are some of the more obvious instances.

Occasionally wider and more complex power struggles result in programs being continued long after all logic said they should be halted. Such cases include the struggle over the nuclear airplane--a convoluted and long-drawn-out contest among the JCAE, the AEC, the Air Force, the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense--as well as the B-70 battle fought by the Secretary of Defense, the Air Staff, the aerospace industry and the House Armed Services Committee.

Partly as a result of participation in this series of long-drawn-out and sometimes bitter struggles, and partly just due to long association, strong personal bonds and a spirit of camaraderie have built up among the various parties interested in the arms race in one way or another. Many deep friendships exist between procurement and development officials and the leaders of the arms industries. They have bet their futures, often their honor, on each other. Chairmen of powerful Congressional committees usually hold their positions much longer than the principal officers in the executive branch do, and over the years they develop strong feelings of fatherly responsibility for the programs, agencies, and persons that come within their jurisdiction. They often act to promote


the programs and causes of these agencies and men without too much regard for their content, and the agency heads and their minions reciprocate with various open and covert demonstrations of admiration and affection.

These political forces are magnified by the gross misapplication of "worst-case analysis," a method of analysis that makes it utterly impossible for both superpowers simultaneously to recognize any given strategic situation as being safe for each of them.

These human failings are exaggerated by a widely held myth: that technical experts--generals, scientists, strategic analysts--have some special knowledge making it possible for them, and only them, to arrive at sound political judgments about the arms race. This belief is held not only by much of the general public, but also by many of the experts themselves. And it is made all the more plausible by lavish use of secrecy whenever the debates begin to get tough.

The net result of all this over the years since World War II has been the creation of a defense establishment and an arms industry that are very much bigger than they need to be. The people who inhabit this oversized military-industrial complex in turn form the constituency supporting those elements of the Congress that automatically endorse any weapons development program. Thus a vicious spiral has been created that gives the arms race a "mad momentum" of its own and drives it forward blindly and faster than necessary without regard for, and in spite of, the absurd situations that have been steadily arising from it.

I have not attempted to assess the causes of the strategic-arms race and I have not tried to apportion the blame for its existence. Rather, I have examined many of the separate steps by which it has reached the incredible situation now facing us, and I have found in the majority of those cases that the rate and scale of the individual steps has, in the final analysis, been determined by unilateral actions of the United States.


To be sure, in most cases the taking of each step in the first place has been the almost inevitable result of some combination of preceding steps taken by the Soviets as well as ourselves. But even so, the reaction typically far outran the cause. Accordingly, it is fair to say that the size of our reaction was unilaterally determined by us.

I do not suggest that Einstein and Szilard are culpable for their mistaken assessment of the German A-bomb program, or that those of us on the Von Neumann Committee should be chastised for encouraging and endorsing too many different kinds of big ballistic-missile systems in the mid-fifties, or that the people who promoted all those wild ideas in the wake of Sputnik should be summarily banned from public life. Each of those mistakes and many others like them were made in the context of a totally new situation. Plenty of prudence was, in my view, justified at the time. But the strategic-arms race is now almost a third of a century old. We must learn from these past mistakes that such excessive prudence is itself dangerous and can no longer be justified. Similarly, the frantic concern and zeal rampant in the land after Sputnik that stimulated so many wild ideas can also be explained and excused by the novelty of that situation. We were all surprised by the sudden emergence of the Soviet Union as a first-rate technological power; the reaction Sputnik engendered was nearly universal. But being surprised once ought to be enough; continued overreactions to a series of lesser surprises cannot be condoned. On the contrary, the public safety demands that they be stopped.

Why has the United States been responsible for the majority of the actions that have set the rate and scale of the arms race? Why have we led the entire world in this mad rush toward the ultimate absurdity?

The reason is not that our leaders have been less sensitive to the dangers of the arms race, it is not that our leaders are less wise, it is not that we are more aggressive or less con-


cerned about the dangers to the rest of mankind. Rather, the reasons are that we are richer and more powerful, that our science and technology are more dynamic, that we generate more ideas of all kinds. For these very reasons, we can and must take the lead in cooling the arms race, in putting the genie back into the bottle, in inducing the rest of the world to move in the direction of arms control, disarmament and sanity.

Just as our unilateral actions were in large part responsible for the current dangerous state of affairs, we must expect that unilateral moves on our part will be necessary if we are ever to get the whole process reversed.

It may be beyond our power to control or eliminate the underlying causes of the arms race by unilateral actions on our part. Our unilateral actions certainly have determined its rate and scale to a very large degree. Very probably our unilateral actions can determine whether we move in the direction of further escalation or in the direction of arms control and, in the long run, nuclear disarmament.

Conventional good sense urges us to keep quiet, to leave these matters to the experts and the technicians. My father, troubled by my repeated trips East to testify against the ABM, asked me, "Why are you fighting City Hall?" His metaphor is sound; the defense establishment is indeed our City Hall, and it can be depended upon to care for its own interests, whether or not these are the interests of the entire nation. If we arc to avoid oblivion, if we are to reject the ultimate absurdity, then all of us, not just the current "in" group of experts and technicians, must involve ourselves in creating the policies and making the decisions necessary to do so.

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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