Evidence, Commentary, and Judgment

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4.3 Change of Governmental Policies

The rapid evolution of mass-destruction technology has been closely linked with Government policies. The stages in the evolution of the corresponding US policies have been summarized by Professor Boyle thus: "The United States government has experienced at least seven basic changes in the fundamental rationale underlying its official policy for the use and threat of nuclear weapons:

  1. the Truman administration's utilitarian justification for the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki;
  2. the Eisenhower administration's doctrine of "massive retaliation";
  3. the Kennedy administration's doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD);
  4. the Johnson administration's doctrine of "flexible response" for NATO;
  5. the Nixon administration and its so-called "countervailing strategy" known as the Schlesinger doctrine;
  6. the Carter administration's presidential Directive 59, that naively contemplated the possibility of America "fighting" a "limited" nuclear war; and,
  7. under the Reagan administration, Secretary of Defence Casper Weinberger's 1982 Five-Year Defence Guidance Statement, that boldly proclaimed the incomprehensible objective of America "prevailing" in a "protracted" nuclear war."

The policy of MAD was gradually dropped as both NATO and WPO began to explore the possibilities of flexible response, which is the use of smaller quantities of nuclear weapons possibly stopping short of complete annihilation. This strategy was made conceivable by the existence of a complete range of nuclear weapons from low to high yield and of short to intercontinental range.

In the U.S. the Rand Corporation studied the legal implications of nuclear weapons. They concluded in 1981 that the U.S. could not use nuclear weapons pursuant to MAD and be consistent with international law. Its second conclusion was that one can use nuclear weapons in a more limited setting because of development in technology, targeting and weaponry sophistication.

This second RAND Report conclusion was strongly disputed by a number of witnesses who did not believe that these weapons can be used in a limited context, except in the most unlikely circumstances.

The Tribunal believe that once there has been a nuclear exchange, there are no reliable mechanisms to stop either side from increasing the number of missiles fired. In the escalating chaos of communications following even "limited" nuclear use and the escalation of crisis perceptions, use by mis-perception becomes highly likely.

Professor Meyrowitz stated that it may be theoretically possible to have such a limited war but in reality, the U.S. strategic doctrines do not envisage an isolated use, but a graduated increase. This he supported by quotations from General Rogers (Commander of NATO forces), General Jones (former Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff) and Robert MacNamara (former U.S. Defence Secretary)

Evidence was heard that the military had never liked MAD as a strategy since it negated the function of the military, viz to defend one's country. Under the policy they would neither defend nor defeat the opposition - their sole choice was between either holocaust or humiliation. It allowed the opposition to choose the time, place and manner of the attack.

The Tribunal believes that the U.S. feels the more precise a weapon is, the more usable it is, by reason of its controllability. The development of such weapons is against any principle of deterrence for which very accurate weapons are not needed, rather just ones capable of inflicting vast amounts of damage.

By reason of this it is possible and probable that the Soviets conclude that the U.S. intends to start and win any nuclear confrontation. The U.S. have a similar perception of the USSR.

The Tribunal sees that there are many seemingly good reasons for striking first. Taking the initiative is a military priority as one does not want to leave everything in the hands of the state which is an enemy. If one could make a sufficiently effective first strike, by which one reduces the retaliatory capability of ones adversary to an acceptable level, this would make a first strike an option.

Professor Pentz gave a detailed and disturbing analysis of the new generation of nuclear weapons such as Pershing II, MX, Cruise and Trident: these weapons could be directed against Soviet missiles silos which are "hardened", heavily built, protected and thus able to withstand all but direct hits.

Also targeted are the Command and Control Centres, which are the military nervous system. As mentioned earlier, such targeting is called "Decapitation".

For these purposes Pershing II missiles based in West Germany are ideal and seen as offensive by the U.S.S.R. They are extremely fast and accurate, delivery time being 6-10 minutes from launch. This leaves very little time to react and they are thus seen as a considerable threat.

Philip Webber presented the book Crisis Over Cruise as part of his evidence, in which is stated "Over three hundred SS-20s have now been deployed of which two thirds are targeted on Western Europe, and the remaining on China. They each carry three independently targeted warheads, and in total the force comprises enough warheads to strike at about 1000 separate targets within Europe or continental Asia. This force is far greater than that needed for deterrence against China and the European countries of NATO; it is also quite separate from the long-range intercontinental force targeted on the USA".

The accuracies attributed to the latest generations of weapons are between 5 and 10 times greater than those of the preceding generation of missiles. These missiles can be expected to land at most 120 metres from their designated target 13.

There is very little available information on the reliability of weapons, but in the past year there have been a number of well publicized failures of U.S. rockets and missiles.

It was stated that the purpose of improving the accuracy of delivery systems and numbers of independently targeted warheads has been to enable surgical strikes against military targets to be carried out with greatly reduced "collateral damage". These promises have unfortunately not been borne out as there is now a trend to increase numbers, accuracy and yield even further.

The Tribunal's conclusion on first-strike capabilities is that at present the missiles deployed by both superpowers are too inaccurate and unreliable to offer either side a credible first strike. This of course does not take into account the invulnerable submarine force and bombers, which make such a first strike even less credible and as such not a rational strategy.

The very rapid technological change resulting in greater accuracy, and the new weapons becoming operational, have far-reaching consequences for peace.

When both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were prepared only for second strike retaliation, there was no danger that either side would intentionally strike first. The weapons were not accurate enough and thus a more stable condition existed at times of high international tension.

Today with the U.S. leading the technological advance towards a perceived first strike, it could conceivably motivate the Soviets to fire first, because of the fear that they would not be able to fire second. So advancing technology may provoke, not prevent, such a nuclear war. General Nino Pasti in his paper presented to the Tribunal stated: "Each of the two mightiest powers is finding itself with the enemy pointing a gun at its temple. Such a psychologically untenable position would be doomed to end with one power using its nuclear arms in order to free itself from the nightmare of a first strike launched by the enemy".

Dr. Dando saw this change in technology leading to problems in a somewhat different way from the other witnesses. His concern was that of crisis management. In times of peace and stability decisions are made rationally, but in wartime when people are under pressure, they do not react rationally (nor do organizations). Misunderstanding arise easily. Errors are common. These assertions have been shown to be correct in a number of studies as well as in military exercise.

These problems limit the possibility of controlling a crisis and increase the danger of the crisis escalating, even if both sides do not desire war.

When a crisis is brewing there will come a point when if one's command and control systems are under threat one must delegate authority down to battlefield level; with the British army this means as low as a major.

A problem arises with this delegation to battlefield level of decision making. The technologically advanced conventional weapons are nowadays themselves very destructive - some more destructive than small nuclear weapons. It is very difficult to tell whether some weapons are nuclear or not. One must put oneself in the shoes of the person who has authority in the field. He may not know whether the weapons being fired are nuclear or not. One bomb in particular, the "fuel air explosive", has a very similar blast signature to that of a nuclear weapon and the question arises if its use could inadvertently trigger a nuclear response. The firing of conventional cruise or standoff missiles could also provoke a nuclear response in error.

The Tribunal found that these advanced conventional weapons seriously blur the difference between nuclear and conventional war. The nuclear-conventional "firebreak" has been eroded by advancing technology.

A further problem caused by advancing technology is that of "launch on warning". This is a virtually automatic launch condition where once incoming missiles are detected a computer may give the order. There have been many malfunctions of computers which are a cause for concern.

The Tribunal accepted that the time needed to manage crises is being diminished by the new technology. The time available to make a decision is less. So more mistakes are possible, moving us towards a hair trigger alert system.

The Reagan Administration have confronted this problem and as a result have updated the hotline between the superpowers. A crisis nowadays, however started, is becoming more difficult to manage.

The Tribunal also feels that if a nuclear war has actually started, the very fact that we were not clever enough to prevent the war commencing makes it extremely unlikely that once it has started anyone would be able to control it. The doctrine of "decapitation" also makes this all the less likely since anyone who could have stopped the war would probably have been blown up.


13 Editorial note: since the evidence before the Tribunal, the US and USSR have concluded the INF Treaty 1987, Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of their Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missiles, 8th December l987.

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