Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Sputnik and Arms Control

On this date in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite--Спутнйк (Sputnik, meaning "fellow traveler" or "satellite"). The basketball-sized sphere created a panic in national security circles and a firestorm of recriminations in American domestic politics. Three years after the first Sputnik launch, John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections in history thanks in part to public concern over a non-existent "missile gap."

The launch of Sputnik suggested to American military strategists that the Soviet Union might have rockets with sufficient throw-weight to deliver nuclear weapons to the continental United States. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would have flight times of approximately 30 minutes as opposed to the six to eight hours that bombers flying over the Arctic Ocean might be expected to take to reach their targets. Furthermore, the possibility of defending against ICBMs was nil. (Fifty years and billions of dollars' worth of ballistic missile defense research later, it remains uncomfortably close to nil.) The strategic impact of the Sputnik launch, therefore, was to accelerate the move toward nuclear deterrence based on the development of an assured second-strike capability (known as "Mutual Assured Destruction," or MAD). Albert Wohlstetter, in a seminal article entitled "The Delicate Balance of Terror" published in Foreign Affairs in January 1959, said, "The notion that a carefully planned surprise attack can be checkmated almost effortlessly, that, in short, we may resume our deep pre-Sputnik sleep, is wrong and its nearly universal acceptance is terribly dangerous."

In April 1960, Henry Kissinger argued in Foreign Affairs that "the advantage of surprise can be overwhelming." He was not alone in this view. The fear of surprise attack fostered by the Sputnik launch (filtered through memories of Pearl Harbor) was soon combined with a growing suspicion that the security dilemma and action-reaction processes in international affairs loomed large in the Cold War. What followed was much concern about "the reciprocal fear of surprise attack," to use Thomas Schelling's term. Schelling put it this way in The Strategy of Conflict, a book published in 1960:

If surprise carries an advantage, it is worth while to avert it by striking first. Fear that the other may be about to strike in the mistaken belief that we are about to strike gives us a motive for striking and so justifies the other's motive. But, if the gains from even successful surprise are less desired than no war at all, there is no "fundamental" basis for an attack by either side. Nevertheless, it looks as though a modest temptation on each side to sneak in a first blow--a temptation too small by itself to motivate an attack--might become compounded through a process of interacting expectations, with additional motive for attack being produced by successive cycles of "He thinks we think he thinks we think . . . he thinks we think he'll attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will; so we must."

Did you follow that?

Mutual assured destruction, in other words, wasn't enough because it wasn't inherently stable. Stable deterrence was the goal. The action-reaction processes had to be managed so that fear, rather than leading to an outcome that neither side wanted, would lead to caution on both sides. Arms control (which is not the same thing as disarmament) was therfore developed as a tool for managing the strategic nuclear arms race (of which the October 1957 Sputnik launch was a part) in an effort to escape the tensions inherent in a world full of ICBMs armed with nuclear weapons.