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Sunday, June 17, 2001

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The BYTE Fiasco



A Dialogue

Jerry Pournelle et. al.

This began with a letter from an old friend to me and a number of other people. It said in part:

But obviously, ballistic missile defence is a subject that should be investigated seriously, and there can be honest disagreement on what could and should be done. Though I'm still amazed that even the dimmest Congressman should worry about 'rogue states' developing ICBMs to attack the U.S. when it would be so much cheaper to use Federal Express (I'm only half joking - you know what I mean.)

Moreover, several good arguments can be made for developing really high-powered lasers - e.g. their possible use for defence of planet Earth against threatening NEO's - though I didn't use this idea in THE HAMMER OF GOD because the Bruce Willis approach was more interesting!

Anyway, I look forward to hearing your comments.

I replied by posting this in my VIEW and sending a copy to all the recipients of the original letter:

I note that the campaign against strategic defenses, led by the usual suspects, has heated up again. The Europeans are at least open about it: they want the US to be vulnerable to strategic attack so that we will "remain involved." Washington would have called those "entangling alliances" and "becoming involved in the territorial disputes of Europe" but that was a simple era. Still, I would think that "If you would have peace, be prepared for war," is no less relevant today as in the old Roman Republic; and one of the preparations for war, I would have thought, is sufficient continental defense to give us time for mobilization, so that we do not have to keep enormous standing armies with the inevitable temptation to use them whether needed or not. 

In the old days of the Cold War I admit being an advocate of Legions, and I recall delivering a lecture to that effect to Mr. Gingrich when he was an opposition Congressman; but that was when we had to keep proud legions on the far frontier as part of the defense of America. It is no longer clear that we need to do that now, or that we need specially trained troops for the purpose of interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations, advanced, developing, or uncivilized. It is not clear that we need to renew colonialism under a new name. At least it is not clear to me. 

Is this "isolationism"? Hardly. I haven't changed my views. The policy of the United States should be "We are the friends of liberty everywhere, but guardians only of our own." Guarding our own may well involve interfering in the affairs of others: but that is quite different from seeking out opportunities to do so, and being involved in all corners of the world and every civil insurrection. Guarding our own certainly means keeping the sea lanes open: we have always been a maritime power, and Free Trade as a policy demands that we be able to buy the products after we export the job of making them. Guarding our own means making us as secure as possible from attack. 

And yes: I know that nuclear weapons can be delivered by "Fedex" or otherwise smuggled in. I have been aware of "anonymous war" since 12 September, 1945 when it was discussed in a civics class following the revelation of the atomic bomb. But what one may not do with "Fedexed" bombs is WIN A WAR. Now there may well be nations who wish us harm but who do not think in terms of winning a war. One solution to THAT problem is not to give them so many reasons to hate us: I doubt the Taliban would dislike us as much had we not dropped cruise missiles on their territory (to no beneficial effect I can discern): bombing a power with whom you are not at war tends to strain relations with that power. I wish the State Department acted as if it were aware of that. But there are also powers which may well think in terms of winning a nuclear war. One of the Cold War nightmares was this scenario: Soviet warheads explode over our major missile bases. They were delivered by single birds to avoid triggering any launch on early warning. Perhaps some were sent by Fedex. We cannot launch into that cloud. Now behind the single weapons are waves of ICBM's which effectively rip out our deterrent force. And now comes the negotiation: surrender or we use the rest of our inventory on your cities. 

The answer to this was to make our deterrent invulnerable. That's impossible, so you do the next best thing: you make sure the other guy cannot KNOW with any certainty just how much of our Strategic Offensive Force (SOF) he can take out with pin-down and massive bombardment or any other conceivable first strike that may or may not include smuggled in weapons (and smuggling in atom bombs is not as trivial as fiction writers like to make it). Passive measures go only so far as accuracies of ICBM's improve, and improve they will: of the ICBM guidance error budget, geodetic anomalies are now trivial; correction for winds over target becomes possible with worldwide weather broadcasts; guidance integration errors are tiny with good computers; onboard computers allow much more precise steering toward the desired trajectory; mapping errors vanish as satellites tie all the continental grids together; GPS allows absolute location of bases by agents on the ground, much easier for the USSR to have than for the US to have; and on, and on. 

As accuracies get down to CEP's of under a hundred feet at ICBM ranges, passive measures fail. You can harden a silo only so far. At that point active defenses of both cities and missile field become important, and note that active defense of a missile farm aids the second striker far more than the first striker: i.e., these are stabilizing influences. And city defenses make it harder to take out the other guy's SOF because you must hold back more of your strike force to overcome the city defenses if you are going to present a credible threat in your negotiation stage. 

All this was discussed 30 years ago in Possony and Pournelle, ASSURED SURVIVAL, which was our answer to Assured Destruction as a doctrine.  To those who say this is all far-fetched, I can only say that Immanual Bloch showed well before World War One that a major war would bankrupt all the powers involved, and no one would win. No one COULD win. Well, a day.

There followed a letter recommending Fitzgerald's book, which triggered another posting of my own:

Probably the silliest book of the season is "Way Out There in the Blue" by Frances Fitzgerald. It purports to be a history of Strategic Defense Initiative. It's fantasy by someone who knows little of technology.

Richard Garwin, IBM Fellow, does know technology, or says he does. Predictably Richard Garwin, the man who seriously proposed that the US and USSR put hydrogen weapons in each other's capitals as deterrents, and could not understand why real heads of state would not take his proposal seriously -- the same IBM Fellow Richard Garwin who seriously proposed that the US scrap all deterrent forces except a fleet of 5-man subs with 2 ICBM's each which would swim around on the Continental Shelf with crews incapable of retargeting or launching their birds -- did a large and favorable review of this silly book in the LA Times.

Fitzgerald and Garwin and the usual suspects have never been able to act as if they believe there is any side to an issue but their own. Garwin has always been willing to use "any means necessary" to discredit his enemies. Garwin even went so far as to dream up a missile defense system of boost phase intercepts with inertial impact kill weapons based in the US. This required weapons that could travel faster than light, which gave Garwin plenty of laughs at his opponents. I recall him saying that General Graham and I didn't know about the speed of light limits, and laughing like hell. This was at a AAAS meeting.  Of course no one but him ever described such an intercept system.  Garwin also propagated the myth that we all believed we could build a "leak-proof" defense system, or that a system would be useless if it were not 100% effective.

The real point of Strategic Defense was to put stress on the already over-stressed economy of the USSR. They had opted to forgo investment in infrastructure to gain military power. The result was a nation that stretched across degrees of longitude but was held together by a single-track railroad and had few paved roads outside cities: Bulgaria with missiles. (I forget who first used that description. General Graham popularized it. He may have got it from me, or I may have got it from someone else and appropriated the phrase. In any event it was applicable.) By threatening to negate the missiles we made it clear that the USSR had no real pretense to being a superpower, or indeed a power at all: that far from being the Second World, it wasn't even all that high up in Third World powers except for its missiles. This is why Gorbachev was so desperate to get Reagan to call off SDI, and why things came apart when Reagan wouldn't do it. But that's the real world. There's another world view, that of Fitzgerald and Garwin.

This book and Garwin's reviews give a good insight into the minds of people who were intellectually important during the time when  the Wall was a reality and killed people monthly. We really were afraid of losing the Seventy Years War and the USSR was a fearful beast capable of invading neighbors -- it had done so in Hungary and Prague and threatened to do so to Poland to the point where Poland invaded itself to satisfy the Russians. These works show the minds of people who, having worked as hard as they could to prevent the collapse of the USSR, are now trying to denigrate the efforts of those who brought that about. It's mildly amusing to see them flop about, but they are clever, and they might convince people who weren't there that there's some element of truth to the fantasies they spin. The worst of a well written book like this is that it is likely to win prizes and be taken for a serious work of history instead of a panegyric to those who almost lost us the Seventy Years War.

I sent it off to various people, and one response was from Jay Keyworth who was Reagan's science advisor. His letter was to several of us; I have deleted the references to the other recipients.

Hello Jerry and Pete, 

My tardiness in contributing to the rich dialogue about Frances Fitzgerald's book is because I've been, for a month, in a remote spot in Tuscany where web access was negligible. Jerry's and Pete's comments are correct. 

But let me add a bit of context. It is noteworthy that Fitzgerald made no effort to interview any of the people who were advising President Reagan during the period leading up to his decision to propose his SDI in March of 1983. Instead, she focuses on the fact that SDI did not derive from any kind of consensus, which is true. But her book is simply wrong, capturing none of the dialogue and little about the issues that pervaded the Reagan White House in 1982-83. And, she overlooks that it was, in fact, a heroic act of leadership, involving huge risks, and that it was hugely successful.

 The big omission is that she, like Garwin, denies that deterrence ever evolved beyond early, counter-value deterrence, i.e., MAD or mutual assured destruction. In fact, the combination of multiple warheads and precision delivery, in the mid 1970s, lead to the far more complex situation of counter-force deterrence. The fundamental difference is that, in counter-force deterrence, there can exist an advantage in going first. Thus, the concept of "stability," defined as the circumstance in which a first-strike advantage is nullified, became central to START negotiations --leaving behind much of the SALT debates.

What is crucial here, to be historically correct, is to realize how intensely Reagan came to realize the implications of an erosion in nuclear stability, because that is why he initiated the SDI. Simply expressed, he became convinced that mere modernization of offensive forces was insufficient. Garwin, and others who had put their reputations on the ABM treaty (SALT I) refused to acknowledge this erosion, in spite of the fact that it's pursuit became central to Soviet strategy and force structure. And those folks never seriously participated in any of the Strategic Modernization decisions of 1981-83, as Jerry's reference to Garwin's small-submarine deterrent exemplifies. I might add that Garwin proposed to me, in 1982 in my office, that I should suggest to the President that he and the Soviet leader (then Andropov, interestingly enough) should discuss identifying 20 department stores in the USSR and a like number of supermarkets in the US to house the hydrogen bomb deterrent to which Jerry referred. (I never transmitted the message, and Reagan never became aware of Garwin, in fact.)

But, the point is, neither Garwin nor Fitzgerald, in her book, ever acknowledged the added complexity that surrounded deterrence in the last two decades of the cold war. Instead, as Pete and Jerry point out, Garwin promulgated the hypocrisy of "perfect defense," a concept that caught us unaware in its utter duplicity. Simply put, how could people like Garwin who were constantly recounting scenarios based on "exchange ratio" calculations sudddenly reverse logic, and start talking about a "perfect defense." It certainly created a lot of meaningless dialogue.

 Best to you all, Jay Keyworth