Monday, July 25, 2011

First Strike

Minuteman missile in its silo
It is always interesting to have a retrospective view on the Cold War history (yes, that's easy with hindsight) and see how accurate, or inaccurate, the assumptions were back then, influenced by the mind set of those days. First Strike, the 1979 PBS documentary, is a good example of how assessment of one's own capabilities and of those of the opponent can trigger an enormous arms build-up in an era where disarmament and weapons control and limitations were the words of the day.

The documentary starts with a dramatization of a Soviet surprise first strike attack, destroying nearly all Minuteman missile silos, wiping nuke carrying B-52's from their runways and sinking nuclear submarines in their ports and at see. Crippling the U.S. Strategic Forces in minutes was a daunting prospect in those days, in fact, it still is, but one can question the accuracy of this scenario, and the capabilities of the Soviets in those days. Spicy detail: actual Air Force personnel and air force installations were used to film the documentary.

The fear for such a scenario was undoubtedly real, both in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union, but fear has often been a bad counselor. In the next part of the documentary, analysts from the Defense and Strategic Studies Program, Rand Corporation, Research and Development, and other think tank experts defended their what-if theories in the documentary. Pretty scary and risky statements and conclusions! Parts of the documentary were later used in the notorious 1983 movie The Day After (which even scared the hell out of Ronald Reagan). Both documentary and movie were very good at convincing tax payers, both in the United States, in Europe... and unfortunately also in the Soviet Union. War scare at its best.

As we now know, the fear was real, the facts and the estimated treat were not (the latter paradoxically later made itself come true). If fear did achieve one thing, then it were the exorbitant defense budgets on both sides, which eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet economy and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The route chosen made many on both sides poor and a few very rich. Both sides never intended to strike first, both believed the other one would do so, and no one used its nukes.

Words could have done the job just as well, and much cheaper. One can discuss ages about the sense or nonsense of Assured Mutual Destruction and yes, it did the job, but there must have surely been better solutions, with less risk of escalation (we did have a few close encounters of the third World War kind, see here). Lessons learned? Who knows? Today's analysts still have a tough job with the current military and geopolitical situation.

You can watch the documentary First Strike on YouTube in four parts: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4, or watch it here below with a link to the next part at each end. More on the U.S. estimates on the Soviet strategic capabilities, and how it often deviated from Soviet reality, is found on my post on US Strategic Intelligence on the USSR. In my Farewell Dossier post, you can read how the defense budget itself was used as a weapon to destabilize the Soviet Union. If you want to find out more on the Minuteman missiles, you can visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site website, where you'll discover lots of information, images and interview with Minuteman personnel. You can pay a virtually visit to a Minuteman Missile site with spherical panoramas (click-and-drag to move around).

1 comment:

Ken Prescott said...

The big problem driving US perceptions of vulnerability was the decision in the early 1960s to base Minuteman in fixed silos only instead of deploying the rail-mobile variant.

I'm reminded of Patton's observation that "fixed fortifications are monument's to man's stupidity."

A compounding factor was the overall command & control architecture for Minuteman--the C2 system was simply riddled with single points of failure.