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The Threat Lurking in the Weeds : Cruise Missiles May Give Arms Controllers a New Dilemma

December 10, 1987|JACK BURBY | Jack Burby is the deputy editor of The Times' editorial pages

The cynical view of arms-control negotiations is that they are more trouble than they are worth. No sooner might the superpowers get a handle on one kind of weapon than something even worse will be flung out of a national laboratory.

Americans and Soviets are smiling through an extraordinary summit thaw in Washington, thinking ahead to a day next spring when, if nothing goes wrong, they can both pound half their intercontinental missiles into scrap.

But some arms-control strategists already are worrying about what may be lurking in the weeds, waiting to take the place of the monster missiles. What they see is the cruise missile, a pilotless airplane with stubby wings that lopes along at speeds no faster than the average airliner. Some analysts think that, compared with the intercontinental missiles, the cruise variety--even those that carry nuclear warheads--is almost benign. It is so accurate that it could destroy many targets with conventional explosives.

Because it is slow, advocates contend that it would give plenty of warning thatit was coming. A cruise missile could take hours to cross the Atlantic and reach the Soviet Union after it was launched from an airplane, a submarine or a surface ship. That would allow more time for leaders in a targeted country to decide how to respond than the 10 minutes that they would have once an intercontinental missile was launched.

To understand what makes cruise missiles seem less malevolent than rocket missiles in the context of the nuclear age, start with a wild-eyed Italian prophet ofair power, Brig. Gen. Guilio Douhet. Between World War I and World War II, he wrote that armies were, as we might now say, impotent and obsolete because airplanes carrying bombs, incendiary material and poison gas could wipe out an adversary's forces and cities and that war would become something that you fought between breakfast and lunch.

Early American air commanders naturally were devoted to Douhet and his theoretical support for long-range bombers. World War II, with its big air losses over Europe and the failure of air power to shut down Germany completely, took the luster out of Douhet's theory. Nuclear weapons put it back.

Thus, for much of the 40 years since nuclear weapons first appeared, Douhet's prophecy guided nuclear strategy. Going first in a nuclear exchange could mean winning if the job were thorough enough--that is, if in a first strike one nation could destroy enough of the other's weapons to make retaliation impossible. It is the ghost of Douhet--getting there first--that has driven the nuclear arms race, with every move designed to make it impossible for the other to hope for a crippling first strike.

In that, both have succeeded--so far. Few, if any, nuclear specialists any longer argue that either nation is capable of a disarming strike. But in the process both nations have put into place, or are putting into place, weapons with no other mission than to strike first. For the Soviets it was the fleet of SS-18s capable of launching 3,080 warheads, enough to destroy all of America's land-based missiles. The MX was to be America's answer to the SS-18; not enough were built to handle the mission by themselves, but new missiles for the Navy's Trident submarines will be accurate enough to do any job that the MX could do.

If there is no hitch, negotiations between now and next spring would give the highest priority to pounding these first-strike weapons into scrap under the next nuclear treaty. At Reykjavik, President Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev talked of getting rid of all nuclear weapons, but leaving a few hundred would still make the nuclear world more stable.

Enter the cruise missile. As bigger missiles are scrapped, it would inherit a role as the best offensive weapon. It may be too good. It is slow, but satellites cannot detect its launch as they can rockets. As one specialist put it recently, "If you don't know it's been launched and you don't know it's coming, it doesn't matter how long it takes to get there." Knowing that it's coming is another problem. Most early-warning radars are pointed in the direction of known fields of missile silos. Cruise missiles are maneuverable; they could simply detour around the radars. Finally, the cruise missile is so accurate that it would have a better shot at crippling a field of SS-18s than any other U.S. weapon.

Cruise missiles also are relatively cheap, so you can build a swarm of them for what one bigger missile would cost. Does that mean that Douhet's first-strike prophecy is coming back in another form and that the cynics are right?

The experts are debating the point. The best way to settle the debate is to set upparallel teams of arms controllers to work on the problem between now and next spring.

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