Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.


Procrustes in modern dress, the nuclear scientist will prepare the bed on which mankind must lie; and if mankind doesn't fit-well, that will be just too bad for mankind.

Aldous Huxley1


A Note on Military Jargon

Throughout this book I use as few acronyms and specialized military terms as I can. These terms are not needed to grasp the general picture. Unlike their counterparts in the natural sciences and mathematics, these terms do not economize or clarify discussions of which they are a part, but needlessly encumber them, thereby making it harder for citizens to critically evaluate military policies. And, once we begin to use the war intellectuals' terms, we tend to think about military affairs in their terms too. For example, it mattered little to the Russians whether a bomb which could destroy Moscow made its home in a Nebraskan or a German missile site. Endowing these bombs with two different names, however, made it easier for our war intellectuals to act as if locations and other trivial characteristics of these bombs made all the difference in the world. This, in turn, was used to support the fallacious argument that the cause of peace was served by negotiating small reductions in one kind of bomb and large increases in another (see Chapter 6).

Western governments and military organizations employ terms like "Minutemen," "Polaris," "initiative," and "shield" (which evoke in most of us positive associations) to promote weapons and policies of mass destruction. This miscalling started early; for example, giving the name "Peacemaker" to a 1940s' aircraft whose deadly cargo could destroy at least one large metropolitan area. This miscalling still continues; for example, giving the name "Peacekeeper" to a ballistic missile which could wipe a few cities off the face of the earth. The least this book can do is break away from this inglorious tradition.


Conventional Weapons

In the 1980s, deployment, production, and research of conventional weapons accounted for some 75 percent of the United States' military budget.2a,3 These weapons are familiar to most of us, and only call for a few generalizations.

In this century, dramatic increases in the technological sophistication and effectiveness of conventional weapons have taken place. As a result, modern conventional wars are, to a considerable extent, wars between machines and their operators, not between soldiers in open combat. It follows that the side with a more advanced scientific base and a stronger economy has a decisive edge. Because most poor nations have neither, they must import most of their weapons, and they often settle internal political conflicts not through an open fight between the well-armed state and its poorer opponents, but through guerrilla warfare.

A new weapon might confer a decisive edge in conventional warfare on the side which deploys it first. However, soon opponents acquire the new weapon or invent effective countermeasures against it, so the edge is of a short duration. Hence, though new weapons have often helped the side possessing them win battles, in the long run they have harmed the human prospect by steadily raising the costs of war.

Weapon development often leads to obsolescence. Cannons replaced catapults, rifles replaced swords, tanks replaced horses, and modern anti-tank weapons may outdate tanks.

Throughout history, some devices which were not ordinarily viewed as weapons found use in warfare. This practice still continues, albeit at a more advanced technological level. The primitive method of fighting wars by setting forests or fields on fire was replaced by methodically poisoning, plowing over, and setting ablaze large tracts of land. The ancient tactic of defending a city under siege by pouring boiling oil on its attackers has given way to the use of incendiary materials that stick to people's skin and burn them alive.


Chemical and Biological Weapons

Chemical and biological weapons may be used to kill and injure people and other living organisms and to damage non-living materials. Chemical weapons are made of inanimate substances. Biological weapons are living organisms. In comparison to nuclear weapons neither weapon is, at the moment, very effective. They have both been used in the past and will be used in the future, but, except for their psychological impact, and (like all other weapons) their inhumanity, there is nothing particularly unusual or devastating about them. In 1990, the USA and USSR agreed to eliminate their stockpiles of chemical weapons, a decision which may further diminish their importance. On the other hand, their successful deployment in some recent Third World conflicts may increase their appeal, especially for hard-pressed non-nuclear countries.

The chief concern, then, is not with what people can do with these weapons now, but with what they might be able to do with them in the future. In this context, biological research appears more ominous. Over many decades, some biologists have been trying to develop new varieties of disease-causing living organisms.4 Future advances along these lines might tempt nations or terrorists to vaccinate their people against one such organism in secret, then let it loose, or threaten to let it loose, on the world. Today this is only a script for a science fiction thriller, but we have all learned by now the bitter-sweet lesson that today's science fiction may become tomorrow's commonplace realities.


Nuclear Bombs

Let us move on to nuclear weapons, the "backbone of American military power."5 In the late 1980s, the entire nuclear program accounted for about a quarter of America's military spending.3 The nuclear bombs themselves, are, comparatively speaking, cheap; their production probably consumed less than 1 percent of America's total defense budget.2a Their yields cover a considerable range; single bombs in the American arsenal could cause roughly as much as 100 times, or as little as 1/100th, the damage in Hiroshima.

A bomb's yield determines, in part, its wartime use. Small bombs are destined for such things as battlefield situations, mines, artillery shells, and anti-submarine operations. Medium bombs are destined against small military targets. Large bombs could be used against metropolitan areas or against large well-protected military targets.

Pound for pound, the Hiroshima bomb had a far greater destructive power than non-nuclear explosives. Since 1945, nuclear scientists have made even more impressive strides in this respect. In the 1980s, a modern bomb weighing as much as the Hiroshima bomb (about five metric tons), could have as much as 150 times its explosive yield.2b In fact, by 1980 at the latest, humanity came close to the theoretical limit of weight reductions; as far as contemporary theoretical physics is concerned, further research in this direction was fruitless.


Delivery Vehicles

Bombers and Cruise Missiles

From 1945 through 1991, several types of airplanes could be used to deliver nuclear bombs to a target, depending in part on their starting points. In the event of war between the USA and the USSR, a large number would have taken off from the USA and flown to targets in the USSR and elsewhere. These bombers were large, they could fly to the Soviet Union and back without landing, and they could carry bombs or cruise missiles (see below). Smaller airplanes which could carry fewer nuclear bombs and could not fly so far were stationed in Europe, Korea, and on aircraft carriers.

American bombers were once destined to drop bombs above targets, but, allegedly, the Soviets air defense system could have prevented as many as half of our bombers from reaching their targets. Though the remaining half could still obliterate Soviet cities and military targets many times over, war planners-who like to play it safe-developed countermeasures against Soviet air defense. Of these countermeasures, two deserve special mention.

The so-called stealth bomber should be able to penetrate the Russian air defense system better than existing American bombers.

The second countermeasure equipped bombers with cruise missiles. These missiles could be released hundreds of miles from target, thereby reducing a bomber's vulnerability to Soviet air defense. A cruise missile is a small, pilotless airplane which can fly close to the ground. It is equipped with a built-in navigational system which allows it to deliver its single warhead to target with great accuracy. By early 1992, the USA was deploying cruise missiles by the thousand, with the Commonwealth of Independent States trailing some distance behind. Because these missiles could be launched from airplanes, they maximized the bomb's chances of reaching the target and the crew's safe return (it is not clear, however, whether there will be anyplace safe to return to in an all-out nuclear war). In addition to large bombers, these little unmanned airplanes can be readily launched from almost any platform. As seen in the Persian Gulf War, cruise missiles can also carry a large load of conventional bombs.

Ballistic Missiles

Among delivery vehicles, ballistic missiles have for a long time been held in the highest regard by Western and Soviet analysts. These missiles are equipped with bombs, which, together with the mechanisms that set them off, guidance systems, and some other components, are called warheads. A ballistic missile is essentially a rocket which shoots its warheads out to space and from there propels them toward their targets. From then on, the warhead's trajectory is determined by gravity. Because there is no air resistance in space, warheads there fly with amazing speed-some 25 minutes after a Midwestern missile has been launched, its warheads would begin exploding over Asian or European soil.

At first, ballistic missiles had only one warhead each. Later, new missiles were often equipped with several warheads and many of the old ones were similarly retrofitted. Some ballistic missiles carried as many as ten warheads (ten MIRVs in jargon), and each of these warheads could hit a different target. All the bombs delivered from a single missile have, however, a limited range, and must fall within an area not exceeding some 90 miles in length and 30 miles in width.6 For instance, bombs from a single missile could destroy targets in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (30 miles apart), but not in Baltimore and Pittsburgh (210 miles apart).

Ballistic missiles in the American arsenal could be launched from land and sea. In the 1980s, most Western land missiles were stationed in Europe and in the American Midwest. The European-based missiles were smaller, had a shorter range, were not well protected, and, towards the end of the decade, were being negotiated out of existence. The Midwestern missiles (ICBM in jargon) were placed underground, had a longer range, and were protected by massive concrete silos.

Ballistic missiles could also be launched from submarines. Each missile-submarine carried a number of ballistic missiles, and each missile could be equipped with multiple warheads. On the American side, all missile-submarines were powered by nuclear reactors. Because these reactors enabled missile-submarines to stay under water (without surfacing) for more than two months at a time and to make less noise than conventional submarines, nuclear submarines were harder to detect and destroy.


Strategic Requirements of Nuclear Weapons and Delivery Vehicles

Ideally, all warheads and delivery vehicles must meet the following requirements:

Reliability. Delivery vehicles must take off and discharge their warheads properly; warheads must reach and pulverize their targets. Though the U.S. has never fired ballistic missiles over the North Pole (as it would have in time of war with Russia), most experts believe that American warheads and delivery vehicles were reliable.

Penetrability. They must get past any obstacle on their way to target. Most ballistic missiles are unstoppable, but a certain fraction of bombers and cruise missiles may have been prevented by Soviet air defenses from reaching target.

Accuracy. They must hit Moscow and not Paris; a missile site and not a preschool two miles away. The U.S. has made great strides in this regard: In 1991, about half of all American bombs, regardless of their point of origin and delivery vehicle, were reportedly able to land within one-quarter mile of target.

Survivability. Enough warheads and delivery vehicles must survive the worst imaginable surprise attack to assure the sufficient destruction of the attacker in a retaliatory strike. Only this, it is believed, can deter nuclear blackmail.


Command, Control, and Communication

A nation's Armed Forces must be continuously integrated into one functional unit. This integration has been achieved through a rigid chain of command which went all the way to the Presidents in the USA and the USSR; through various means of gathering intelligence, including advance warning of impending or actual nuclear attack; and through an extensive communication network.

The most important mission of the American and Soviet militaries in times of peace was prevention of accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons. For this purpose, a complicated (and so far remarkably effective) network of safeguards and codes has been used. The command, control, and communication network was also believed to be vital to the national interest because it helped assure nuclear retaliation. Though substantial efforts have been expended in this direction, it is doubtful whether this network would have survived a surprise attack in either the USA or the USSR.7

For obvious reasons, each side had to know what the other was up to. In part, the needed information has been gathered through traditional activities such as spying and analysis of open publications. In part, it has been gathered through sophisticated technologies such as radar and satellites. Early detection is considered particularly important in deterring nuclear war. Thus, if the Soviets knew that Americans were likely to be forewarned of a surprise attack and save their bombers (by putting them in the air on time), the Soviets might have been less inclined to launch an attack in the first place.



Like some nuclear warheads, satellites are carried into space by rockets. But, instead of being propelled back to earth, they are propelled into orbit around it. In the early 1980s, some three-quarters of all space missions had military purposes,8a and every third day saw the launch of a new military satellite.8b Throughout the 1980s, military satellites were not involved in direct warfare; they only constituted a vital element in integrating the entire military machine. Their integrative functions included (1) reconnaissance, which provided, among other things, surveillance of the entire earth and advance warning of a missile attack; (2) communication, in fact, 80 percent of all military communications were carried out via satellites; and (3) navigation, for example, by helping missile submarines pinpoint their exact location, satellites enabled them to improve the targeting accuracy of their warheads.8c

Satellites are gradually being equipped with means of destroying fellow satellites and of defending themselves from attack. If military competitions among major world powers overtake humanity again, these developments could turn out to be critically important to warfare and to the fate of the earth. In contrast, although America's spaced-out 1980s' rush to render satellites capable of missile destruction (SDI in jargon) might produce some unexpected technological spin-offs, the contribution it will make to our national security is sure to be far too slight to justify the costs. Sooner or later, this attempt will be given up as a bad job.

This then is what those exciting first years of peaceful space exploration have come to. Many among us are too young to remember the early promise of humanity's reach to the stars. Some people disdained it even then. Others cannot forget the quarrels which set them apart from their fellow passengers to the grave. But those of us who shared the excitement, those of us whose compassion for their fellows transcends national and ideological boundaries, can only view the 1980s' militarization of space as a letdown from that wonderful moment in 1969 when a man first walked on the moon.



As much as possible, modern military terms are eschewed in this book because they only served to encumber, obfuscate, and degrade the moral and intellectual quality of discourse in Cold War America. Conventional weapons include such old standards as tanks and rifles and such relative newcomers as anti-tank guided missiles and laser beams. Throughout the Cold War, conventional weapons have been used extensively in international warfare and consumed a much larger fraction of the world's military spending than nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons such as mustard gas may be defined as substances which can be gainfully used to harm human beings, other living organisms, or non-living materials. Recent years have seen a marked increase in their use in local conflicts, but they were not expected to play a major role in a worldwide conflagration. Biological weapons are toxic or harmful living organisms, e.g., disease-causing bacteria or submarine-destroying dolphins. Although they have been relatively unimportant throughout the Cold War, future research might greatly increase their significance and appeal. Despite their overwhelming military importance, nuclear bombs consumed a relatively small portion of America's total military budget; a far greater proportion was expended on the development, production, and maintenance of delivery vehicles. Nuclear bombs could be launched from many corners of the globe; from air, sea, and land; from the ocean's and earth's surfaces and subsurfaces; from aircraft carriers and infantry cannons; from submarines and bombers. They could be delivered to target through bombers, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and cannons. These delivery vehicles and the warheads they carried were expected to meet minimum standards of reliability, penetrability, accuracy, and survivability. Each nation has used various means to integrate its armed forces into one functional unit and gain information about the activities of its adversaries and allies. Space satellites played important roles in the military machines of the United States and the Soviet Union, roles which included reconnaissance, communication, and navigation.


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