28 APRIL 1961, Page 8

Agonising Misappraisal

By RUDOLF E. PEIERLS ACOMMON human weakness is a refusal to think about unpleasant facts. In the world situation today we have to face a fact of truly gigantic unpleasantness, namely the existence of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, and means for delivering them, which provide the technical possibility of East and West inflicting on each other damage and casualties on a terrifying scale. It is not surprising that we should experience a degree of reluctance to think straight correspond- ing to the degree of horror of the possibilities, and an equal temptation to indulge in wishful (or fearful) thinking, or to clutch at simple solutions.

One is therefore hopeful of enlightenment when one picks up the book by Dr. Herman Kahn,* a member of the RAND corporation, that strange research organisation which conducts studies for the US Air Force and other government agencies. Here indeed we are going to face the facts, for 651 pages. It will, of course, take some effort to study a book of this size, particularly since it consists of the text of a series of lectures, and to read lecture notes verbatim is usually almost as hard as to listen to the recital of a written text.

We shall, in the words of the foreword by Klaus Knorr, 'boggle at the unfamigar idiom,' with its seventy-five tables listing items usually labelled by new names and then explained (even if the term is not used again), but with no index to help us track down a definition we have for- gotten.

We shall boggle even more at the endless repetitions, which only in some cases are marked by an emphatic 'I repeat,' which assists us in skipping a few pages. But mostly the repetition contains some variations, so that we may miss a point if we omit it.

But we shall not be deterred and shall follow the book to the end in the hope of learning the answers to the important questions.

What are the issues with which one is con- cerned? It is not easy to summarise a presenta- tion of this length and as amorphous in structure, but the central theme is the question of 'deter- rence.

It is usually believed that as long as both East and West have the power to attack each other with 'modern' weapons the danger of a deliberate aggression from either side is negligible, because the unavoidable retaliation would involve too high a price for whatever advantages the attack might be supposed to bring. This is quite apart from the question whether either side is likely to be in the mood for a deliberate unprovoked attack if it could do so with impunity. Kahn is quite satisfied that the US would not strike Russia 'out of the blue' (p. 210). He evidently * ON THERMONUCLEAR WAR. By Herman Kahn. (Princeton U.P. and O.U.P., 55s.) is not willing to discount the opposite possibility. In a different context (p. 33) he remarks, 'I have not asked any Soviet citizen' in a tone which implies that it is a completely fantastic notion to talk on any such matters with a Russian. If he had had an opportunity of doing so, he would no doubt have discovered that they are willing, with equal or greater conviction, to discard the possibility of an attack out of the blue from their side.

But as far as the possibility of an unprovoked attack exists. it is obviously a good thing for the prospects of peace that there exists the certainty of retaliation. There would be doubt about this certainly if the aggressor had a chance of knock- ing out the retaliatory potential of the other side with the first blow. At present probably a good deal of American strength lies in manned bombers or 'soft' missile bases (i.e., bases vulner- able to attack by modern weapons) and it is therefore technically feasible that a Russian attack might destroy or severely reduce Amer- ica's power of retaliation unless the bombers got away and the missiles were fired before the Russian missiles or planes reached their target. This need for 'split-second' retaliation increases the danger of mistakes, and therefore frightens both sides. The development of 'hard' bases and such developments as the virtually invulnerable Polaris missiles reduce the need for automatic retaliation, and therefore tend to lessen tensions.

A deliberate unprovoked attack against a country capable of retaliating would seem so crazy that we need not take it seriously (except that this may be straining our confidence in the sanity of statesmen; one cannot imagine the con- sequences of Hitler possessing thermonuclear weapons), but there remains the possibility of accidents and of pre-emptive war. The thought of an accidental firing of a missile,, or of an attack by a plane because of a fault in com- munications, is most disturbing, however small the likelihood of such errors may be. An accident need not automatically lead to full- scale retaliation, if the country responsible for it realises what has happened and notifies the other side of the fact before the process has gone too far. But there are evidently " terrible risks in this, and in any case even the effects of a single weapon are so serious that the risk of accidents is, in my opinion, by itself an extremely powerful motive for getting on with the problem of disarmament.

The possibility of pre-emptive war, i.e. of an attack to forestall an apparently impending attack from the other side which would lead to greater disaster, depends very much on the magnitude of the disaster which retaliation will bring to the aggressor. If the result of full-scale action by both sides is in any case mutual annihilation or, as is sometimes claimed, the total destruction of life on the earth, there would be no sense in any pre-emptive action, since it would substitute certain annihilation for a probable annihilation of perhaps a more drastic kind. This reasoning therefore leads to the question, 'How complete is the disaster caused by thermonuclear war?'

The same question arises in connection with what Kahn calls 'Type 11 Deterrent,' i.e., the use of the threat of nuclear weapons to stop different kinds of aggressive behaviour. Can the fear of thermonuclear attack prevent or limit crises of the type of Korea or Laos (or Cuba)? If any use of thermonuclear weapons is bound to lead to the complete mutual annihilation of both sides, and this is known, it is evident that no sane government would resort to the use of these weapons no matter how serious the provocation.

Kahn rightly warns us against sloppy reason- ing. on this question. He reminds us that the populations of English and German cities sur- vived during the Second World War air raids of an intensity which, it was predicted. would break morale and make life in the city impos- sible. (I remember hearing during the Abyssinian crisis the argument that Britain was not in a position to take a stronger line because the Italian Air Force had a few planes ready to drop bombs on London.) It is necessary to form an idea of the consequences of thermonuclear war in order to know not only whether we would ourselves be willing to accept these consequences to avoid military or political defeat, but also whether it is likely that (rightly or wrongly) some government will be willing to accept them.

The study of these consequences, and of the capacity of the United States to recover from them, forms the most original part of the book. It reports in many pages, and many tables, the results of calculations which are no doubt cor- rect. But the same can hardly be said for the assumptions and hypotheses on which these cal- culations are based.

In the first place it is assumed that the attacker cannot afford to waste his weapons on cities, but must concentrate on attacking the missile and bomber bases of the other side to minimise the retaliation to which he will be exposed. The defender's bases will have been damaged and his retaliation capacity somewhat limited. Perhaps this is right if the aggressor makes a rational choice about his tactics. But are we justified in relying on rational choices being made at this particular point?

Kahn's assumptions about the post.attack problems are based on severe simplifications of which 1 can give only a few examples, by way of illustration., The productive capacity of the country is assumed to continue at a rate reduced in proportion \N ith the sur- viving resources. The possibility of bottle- necks arising from specific shortages is men- tioned. but not taken very seriously. It is assumed that normal processes of government continue, sufficient to get the best distribution of remaining food resources and to ration the remaining stocks and supplies of petrol and the remaining vehicles. At this point one is staggered to read on p. 92 the admission that the study has so far dealt with the effect of the various kinds of damage. radio- activity, physical destruction, casualties. etc., as if each occurred by itself. 'But if all these things happened together,.and all the other effects were added at the same time, one cannot help but have some doubts.' A poor layman would, of course, try to picture the situation with all these terrible things happening together. Since the mutual inter- play' of the different causes is less easily ex- pressed in terms of numbers, the experts can only look at one at a time.

Elsewhere one discusses the question of sur- viving military capacity. There will be some bombers and some usable airfields left; one just has to find out where they are and what crews and servicing they need (p. 108). 'This calls for the survival of at least a minimum communica- tions, monitoring, data-processing, and comput- ing capability. . . .' The emphasis on data- processing and computing in the situation described seems to me incredibly misplaced.

Ones doubts about the basis of such studies are enhanced by the reference (p. 119) to a tech- nological breakthrough at the RAND corpora- tion in military studies. This was the discovery that it is not right to assume a set. of circum- stances and then determine one's plans to give the best possible result in such circumstances, if the same plan works out badly in a different set of circumstances. Hence one must study a range of possible situations and choose a plan which is reasonably good in all of them. Dr. Kahn does not state how many man-hours and computer- hours were used on military studies before this great discovery was made.

By these studies the conclusion is reached That the consequences of an attack leading to the loss of several, or all, major cities, and to five or perhaps even twenty million casualties in the United States might in some circumstances be tolerable, given adequate advance planning and civil defence. As I have tried to show, the basis of the arguments is so unrealistic that the con- elusion is most unconvincing. - Dr. Kahm advocates making these preparations in order to make the deter'rent 'credible,' and to make it also a 'Type H Deterrent,' i.e., use it to discourage provocative action short of direct atomic aggression. He does not seem to make sufficient allowance for the effect in the present situation of uncertainty. Either side is restrained from too provocative adventures by the fear that too much tension may result in a major thermo- nuclear war, even if from any rational point of view it was crazy to resort to this. (How far are We willing to gamble on other people's sanity?) It is hard in a short summary to mention all the interesting points thrown up on some of the 651 pages. While disarmament is dismissed quite early (p. 6) as not realistic at the moment, arms control is discussed later (p. 241) with the sug- gestion that one should accept the Russian pro- posal of a ban on the use of atomic weapons, except in direct retaliation against atomic attack, and perhaps excepting use in aerial defence, or against naval units at sea. He suggests coupling this with the US giving up their overseas bases, in return for an opening-up of the USSR. It is strange to see this followed in the same breath, still under the heading of arms control (p. 243), by mention of a proposal to make a firm com- mitment that any attack on one's own territory (suitably defined for the purpose) would be met by atomic retaliation, while one reserved one's freedom of action in the event of conflict else- where. Nor can one mention all the little asides which suggest that the sources of information on the facts on which the studies were based must have had their weaknesses, such as the remark (p. 99) that in Russia 'most current peasant housing has earth walls two or three feet thick.' I am afraid I have not gained from Dr. Kahn's book any confidence that we can learn much about the future, let alone improve it, unless we succeed in negotiating a substantial measure of disarmament.