The position in January 1987
Russia has enough atomic weapons to devastate America utterly, in less than an hour. America, equally, could do the same to Russia. Either side could choose to strike at any time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Unlike a conventional war, a nuclear war could be over before most people knew it had begun.
But such a war is very unlikely. There is Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.). Russia could destroy most of the American population, sink its surface fleet and destroy most of its army. But enough nuclear weapons would survive to wreck Russia in turn – even if not a single missile were launched before the enemy missiles had done their worst. Equally, Russia could still retaliate after any surprise attack that America might launch. Neither side is likely to start such a war, since both sides would inevitably be ruined by it.
This works as long as both sides have roughly the same number of missiles and warheads of more or less the same quality. If both sides have 1,000 missiles, say, neither can win. But if one side has 2,000 and the other 10,000, then the stronger power could well hope to strike and win. It would be a dangerous gamble, but far from unthinkable. Knowing this, the weaker power would not dare to annoy the stronger, which would thus be able to dominate the world.
Previous agreements on nuclear armaments – SALT and SALT II – allowed both sides to build up their forces. Both sides now have huge numbers of expensive and more or less useless nuclear weapons – useless because both sides would be just as safe if neither had more than a thousand or so.
Will we see a new agreement, to limit or even cut the numbers of nuclear weapons? The agreement which was very nearly made at the Reykjavik meeting would have been good for both sides. Russia has a sluggish economy, America a record budget deficit. Both want to cut arms spending; neither dare to do it unilaterally.
The stumbling block at Reykjavik was “Star Wars”, the Strategic Defence Initiative (S.D.I.). President Reagan’s original idea was that the S.D.I. would eliminate the danger of immediate nuclear destruction by making a “first strike” impossible. This seems unlikely. To date, lasers and other beam weapons have destroyed only targets which had been specially set up to be vulnerable. Moreover, if space-based beams or lasers were built, they could be used to destroy missiles. Missiles can dodge or send out decoys; cities can not.
This does not mean that “Star Wars” devices would be useless, however. They could not prevent a “first strike”, but they could help to make a “first strike” successful. First the missiles would devastate the enemy, then the space weapons would mop up his weak and disorganised retaliation. At present, only the Americans have the technology to build a successful “Star Wars” system. This advantage has made the Russians very anxious to do a deal. But it has to include limits on “Star Wars”. Reagan has said that he will not accept such limits – in the same way as he was unwilling to trade Zakharov for Danilov. I rather think that some sort of arrangement will be patched up soon.
This article appeared in January 1987, in Issue 1 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/. It was the first of the long-running Newsnotes series.