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The Times 19 Sept 1985|
The Button: Will The Americans Strike First?
In the event of a sudden nuclear attack, with the US President and many of his aides killed and main command posts such as the Pentagon and Strategic Air Command HQ filled with dead officers and dead telephones, a co-ordinated counter-attack against the Soviet Union might be impossible.
The Russians would, however, face massive retribution from US submarines firing on their own initiative once they cease to receive the broadcast coded message: 'We're happy'. The US submarine fleet, two thirds of which is normally at sea, carries nearly 5,000 nuclear missiles with a total destructive power roughly equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshimas.
The submarine counter-attack would very likely consist of ragged, poorly timed and military pointless salvos ordered by commanders isolated from the civilian hierarchy and from each other. For the submarine fleet, too, suffers from what a 1979 report to Congress described as 'perhaps the weakest link in our strategic forces' - lack of the necessary communications channels.
The Navy's TACAMO aircraft (the acronym stands for 'Take Charge and Move Out') are radio replay planes equipped with very low frequency antennae that are supposed to convey orders, if there is anyone left to give them, to US submarines on patrol.
TACAMOs are refitted C-30 transports stuffed with communications equipment. They are grossly overweight, and several modifications have had to be made to permit them to carry all the heavy gear they need and still get into the air.
As a message-relay station, a TACAMO plane suffers from further limitations to its basic mission. It depends on a single antenna for both receiving and broadcasting messages, which has meant that it could jam itself. Its worst limitation, however, as a post-attack message-distribution centre, results from the fact that the single TACAMO plane over the Atlantic and its sister plane over the Pacific are rarely in a position where they can give a comprehensive order to all of the submarines on patrol.
Basically, it's never there when it's wanted', Dr Desmond Ball, head of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told me. An admiral compared the weakness of the communications link with the submarines to what you would get if you put 'a watch chain in connection with a battleship anchor cable'.
Nevertheless, the submarine fleet, which President Reagan has described as the 'revenge force', is seen as the main deterrent to a Soviet first strike. Frank von Hippel, the Princeton University physicist, makes the important point: 'Lack of centralized control is not the same as lack of nuclear deterrence. What do Soviet leaders think US submarine crews are going to do if they learn that the United States has been destroyed - go to Tahiti and retire?'
Even if it is now to be upgraded at a cost of billions of dollars, what conclusion can be drawn from the flawed, ad hoc nature of the US command and communications structure?
United States civilian and military leaders have stated in solemn and unqualified terms that they would never use the country's nuclear forces to make a surprise attack, a first strike on the Soviet Union. However, every military organization, by what it does, by the kinds of weapons and related apparatus it deploys, will inevitably provide many clues to its true aims.
The standard account of presidential control, and of the use of nuclear weapons only in retaliation for Soviet attack, is a piece of contemporary folklore. There is, to be sure, a black bag that is carried by the President's military aide. It does, in fact, contain authentication codes as well as a notebook whose pages outline the various options in the US nuclear war plan, known as SIOP (Single Integrated Optional Plan).
The current SIOP, however, is divided into two main parts: it has a wide range of attack options, not just a set of attack-response plans. The military, moreover, which prepares the codes and accompanying documents with the assistance of the National Security Agency, does not, as we have already seen, provide them merely to the President. It keeps copies - several copies - for itself.
The military's communications systems, as we have also seen, are expected to work badly or not at all as emergencies arise. No greater emergency can be imagined than a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. Yet most Pentagon communications gear, including some of the special systems relied upon to convey the order to retaliate, is able to operate only in a benign peacetime environment.
On the other hand, if it is the Pentagon's plan to strike first should the ultimate showdown with the Soviet Union occur, experts judge the existing command and control system satisfactory. Just about any primitive communications method is good enough for this purpose. The formats for first-strike orders have been deliberately designed, that is, so that a single short code containing all the required information can even be delivered over non-secure public telephone lines.
Thus, the existing command and control system serves to reveal the kind of nuclear war plan the Pentagon has adopted. A command system ill-prepared to deliver orders for retaliation, but streamlined to convey commands for a first strike, suggests unmistakeably the basic intent of its designers. It also indicates the size of the gap between official rhetoric and Pentagon plans.
In addition to assembling circumstantial evidence, it is possible, of course, to ask Pentagon strategists what they have in mind. Senior officials who have worked on the SIOP without compromising security restrictions are able to provide remarkable details about the offensive strategy that now dominates US nuclear war planning.
Actual preparations attach only secondary importance to retaliation. The primary emergency plan, the one that would be executed if a nuclear showdown appeared inevitable, involves a massive first strike on key military targets in the Soviet Union. Its principal aim would be to kill Soviet leaders and thereby paralyse the highly centralized Soviet war machine.
An Air Force strategist, who has worked on the SIOP, told me: 'If there is a nuclear war, the United States will start it'. Should some crisis make war seem unavoidable, he said, the Air Force view is that, when you have to fight, you fight. You do not concede the initiative to the enemy, especially when the enemy's first salvo could involve the destruction of your forces and your homeland.
'In a real situation, you don't compare going first to going second', a former Pentagon official said. 'You compare going first with not going at all. If you're going to get into a nuclear war, that's big time. When you go, go. Do it. Finish the job. Launching under attack just means that you've missed the moment.'
Soviet awareness of the potentially decisive importance of attacks against enemy leadership is suggested not just by their writings about how to attack the United States. To protect their own high officials during possible nuclear conflict, they have built some 2,000 underground bunkers capable of housing more than 110,000 Soviet military officials and Communist Party leaders.
Desmond Ball estimates that it would require 'more than 2,000' nuclear warheads to knock out the entire Soviet command system, but top Soviet leaders, despite the efforts to protect themselves, might also have difficulty in surviving a direct US attack.
The underground shelters that have been built will not guarantee absolute protection against incoming US warheads, including those that burrow into the ground before exploding. For one thing, like officials in Washington who would have little time to run for their helicopters, Soviet leaders may not have much of an opportunity to seek their underground hideaways. Missiles launched from US submarines stationed in the North Sea could reach Moscow in minutes, as could the Pershing II missiles that the US is deploying in West Germany.
Of course, the President can try to negotiate with the Soviets in a crisis if he wants to, but the military options in his black book were not designed with any step-by-step bargaining in mind. 'There is no provision in the SIOP for controlled escalation', a senior officer who has worked on it told me.
Controlled nuclear options to force concessions from the Soviets presume communications with the Soviet Union. 'Yet, from a military point of view, one of the most efficient kinds of attack is against leadership and command and control systems', said General Brent Scowcroft, another senior military officer. 'This is a dilemma that, I think, we still have not completely come to grips with'.
The question whether it is better to plan to kill Soviet leaders or to keep them around to negotiate with has simply been left open. The subject is treated in the way it is customary for government planners to handle important problems that they are unable to resolve. The official attitude is that we shall fall off that bridge when we come to it.
...Adapted from The Button: The Nuclear Trigger - Does It Work? by Daniel Ford (Allen & Unwin)