Chapter 12 - Strategic Offensive: Modernization, START Reductions, Nuclear Deterrence and Testing

Furthermore, only the land-based ballistic missiles (of which the Soviets had many more) were considered stable enough in their launch, and their warheads accurate enough, to destroy the “hard” silos in which ICBMs were based. Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) were also fast-flying, i.e., “prompt,” but were launched from less stable submarine platforms, had smaller, less accurate warheads, and in Reagan’s time, could not destroy “hard” targets. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. ICBM silos (considered hard or super-hard targets) and their deployed missiles leveled off in the late 1960s at exactly 1,000, a number that appears to have been arbitrarily chosen by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who wrongly insisted that the Soviet Union would never exceed this number.

The U.S.-Soviet Difference. A Soviet Military Power Chart—1987 shows that while the U.S. had clearly decided not to seek a first strike or “prompt hard target-killing” capability, the Soviets did the opposite. Thus by 1975, the U.S. warheads on the 1,000 largely single- or double-warhead U.S. ICBMs leveled off at a total of 2,000 warheads. The Soviet Union, in contrast, by 1975 had deployed some 1,600 “large” ICBMs with sufficient “throwweight” to launch over 2,500 warheads. Because the “kill-ratio” of warheads to super-hardened silos was considered to be 2.5 to 1 or 3 to 1 to assure silo destruction, the Soviet Union therefore had enough warheads for an annihilating “first strike,” which would surely destroy virtually all the U.S. ICBM silos/missiles. U.S. ICBMs would not survive for a retaliatory “second strike” on which the U.S. MAD concept depended for its power of deterrence.

Reagan’s Critics and Soviet “Overkill.” Reagan’s critics who disdained such realities were forceful in accusing him of “overkill” in his strategic force assessments, U.S. strategic modernization programs, and the Strategic Defense Initiative he was directing against this Soviet threat and its MAD implications. They did not recognize that already by 1975 “overkill” applied to Soviet, but not to U.S., strategic nuclear strike capabilities in the sense that the Soviets had gained such a status, while the U.S. never had and never sought it. While U.S. strategic programs were canceled or constrained and ICBM silo and hard-target-killing warhead numbers remained level, the Soviet ICBM warhead levels and their kill ratios against U.S. ICBM silos accelerated during the Carter Administration. Soviet ICBM warheads increased to over 3,000 in 1977, over 4,000 in 1978, and over 5,000 in 1979, with the number still climbing until 1984 when it reached above 6,000 to gain a preemption-capable 6 to 1 kill ratio against the 1,000 U.S. ICBMs and their silos.

Visualizing the Danger. Chapter 10 describes the unprecedented NSC-coordinated public information and public diplomacy campaign that the Reagan administration brought to bear on educating the American people, Congress, and allies about the dangerous nuclear asymmetries and Reagan’s counter programs and arms control proposals. The Soviet Military Power series cited earlier and publications, including those on Security and Arms Control—1983, produced a steady flow of accurate data and informative charts, which were utilized in countless Reagan Administration briefings and publications on Reagan’s revolution in defense and arms control policy. Several of the most telling of these charts are provided in Key Reagan Charts on U.S.-Soviet Strategic Force Asymmetries and U.S. Arms Control.

The Ticking Clock. Unlike his critics, Reagan understood that the nuclear threat clock was ticking due to the deadly combination of Soviet buildup, the Soviet asymmetric “overkill” and “first-strike” ratios compared to U.S. forces and the ABM Treaty’s ban on establishing a base for national strategic defenses (which the Soviet Union was unilaterally violating). Adding to the numerical and pragmatic concerns was the liklihood of new nuclear threats from rogue nuclear states. When the United States had a nuclear monopoly, it had not blackmailed or attacked the Soviet Union. With nuclear force capabilities shifting radically in the 1970s, it was far less certain that Soviet plans and actions would be similarly benign, given the Soviet Union’s aggressive imperial ambitions and its known nuclear preemption doctrine discussed earlier. The clear and present danger recognized by Reagan, his team, and many independent experts, was reaching a critical historical tipping point of U.S. vulnerability to potential Soviet first strike attacks.

[Book pg. 268]