Michael Kidron


(October 1969)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.40, October/November 1969, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The US decision to go for a potentially huge escalation in the arms race, via the deployment of Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM’s) and their counter, Multiple Independently-targetted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV’s), can be seen as the. most significant they have taken since the onset of the Cold War. The decision was unveiled two years ago when Robert McNamara, then US Defence Secretary, announced plans to set up “a relatively light and reliable Chinese-oriented ABM system”. But it is only in the last few months, with the Senate’s hairbreadth vote for the Safeguard system that it has been irretrievably confirmed.

The new weapons systems are vulnerable. The ABM’s have to work to “historically unprecedented maintenance, electronic reliability and computer programming standards ... Highly complicated computer programmes, sensitive radars and sensitive missiles filled with electronic equipment are supposed to be regularly shooting down hundreds of incoming missiles in an environment with radar-blinding fire-balls, electronics-disrupting blast and x-ray effects, and earthshaking detonations.” [1] And this, first time, without ever having been tested as a system.

They are vulnerable also because they become obsolete before they become operational: the Nike-Zeus system which could have been installed by 1963-64 was considered useless by 1962 [2]; the Nike-X system designed as its replacement to be ready by 1968, would have been obsolete by 1966 [3]; and later systems are threatened in the same way by unrelated advances in offensive weapons – non-ballistic missiles, orbiting bombs, new radar-destroying devices, and suchlike.

Finally. they are vulnerable because they cat he so easily overwhelmed by counter-measures like MIRV’s – clusters of nuclear warheads attached to a single missile, each unit of which is programmed to zero in on its own target. and which can therefore multiply beyond exhaustion the need for ABM’s – or radar-confusing electronic measures, or simultaneous arrival, or two-stage attacks which draw the defence to peripheral battles, and so on.

The new weapons systems are also militarily destabilising. For some yearK US (and Russian) nuclear strategy has rested on the concept to inflict “within a day and perhaps within an hour” “more than 120 million immediate deaths, to which must be added deaths ... by fire, fallout, disease and starvation”, and to destroy “more than 75 per cent of the productive capacity of each country ... regardless of who strikes first”. [4] In the final analysis, the strategy rested on the existence of ‘second-strike’ weapons, like Polaris, which were considered invulnerable to attack and sufficiently potent after attack to deter it.

Now, by investing in ABM’s (and anti-submarine warfare) which might be thought to be effective against disjointed or sporadic nuclear attack and by simultaneously multiplying offensive power enormously – via MIRV’s – so as to overwhelm the competing defence system and ensure that any response would be weak and sporadic, the Pentagon is shifting from a second-strike strategy to a first-strike, pre-emptive one – at least until such time as the two superpowers achieve a balance of terror once again.

There is no need to spell out the dangers of this shift. For years the Administration fought to retain the strategy of ‘assured destruction’ and the framework of a stable relationship with Russia. They hoped to underwrite them with an anti-proliferation treaty and even, perhaps, marginal concessions on disarmament. But the permanent arms economy has a logic of its own and that logic a willing instrument in the military-industrial complex. At the prospect of a massive and continuing rise in military expenditure, anti-proliferation and disarmament were easily forgotten. Dr John S. Foster, Director of Defence Research and Engineering, put it clearly enough to a Senate Subcommittee, if rather ingenuously: “Because of the enormous quantities of equipment involved, and the near rapid rate at which the technology changes, to maintain an effective, system one would essentially have to turn over the whole system, the whole $20 billion system,, every few years. [5]

Potential waste and danger on such a colossal scale cannot remain unnoticed long. They have already shocked the American middle-class into something like the apprehensiveness that preceded CND here. This year for the first time in our lifetime the Pentagon was forced by Congress to take a cut (of 3 billion dollars) in its budget, having already been shaved of 1.1 billion dollars by Nixon the year before. The Defence Department had to fight unbelievably hard for Senate to approve – by one vote – its Safeguard ABM system for missile-site defence which is itself a retreat, under considerable and well-organised middle-class pressure, from the earlier Sentinel system for area, and city, defence. There’s clearly more to come from this quarter.

The shift in strategic thinking has already altered the whole course of the Vietnam War, and with it American policy in Southeast Asia. The Pentagon might be a new recruit to the flight of doves, but it’s an ardent one. It knows that if it is to get its sophisticated systems from a disturbed Congress – and it wants them installed by the mid-seventies – it will have to disentangle itself from the battlefield fairly soon. The war has become the enemy. As The Economist reports of the current Defence Secretary, “Mr Laird is determined that the cuts shall not be at the expense of the new weapons systems whose development has been delayed by the war in Vietnam.” [6]

But this is only the beginning. The US decision, slowly forming out of the dispersed part-decisions which make up military and political policy, is part of a US-Russian decision-complex that is bound to compound the strain of military preparedness for them both. It is bound to intensify class and regional conflict within their borders; and polarise even further world military and industrial power, with, all that that means in revolt, repression and revolution. [7]

The ARM decision has the smell of doom about it. By careering round this new twist in the arms spiral, the US, with Russia in tow, has made a fateful, perhaps even fatal, jump. For in its ABM stage, the permanent arms economy is becoming an increasingly’ unstable system.


1. Jeremy J. Stone, The Case Against Missile Defences, London: The Institute for Strategic Studies, Adelphi Paper No.47, April 1968, p.3-4.

2. US Congress, House Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Department of Defence Appropriations for 1964, Part I, p.434-5.

3. US Congress, Senate Committee on the Armed Services, Military Procurement Authorisation Fiscal Year 1964, cited in Stone, op.cit., p.1.

4. Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe, Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, Scientific American, March 1968, reprinted in Survival, August 1968, p 260. Emphasis added.

5. US Armament and Disarmament Problems, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Disarmament of the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, February 3 to March 3 1967, p.15.

6. Economist, August 30, 1969, p.29.

7. Alarm at the actual and prospective rise in military spending is being expressed in the most unlikely places, even in purse-lipped East Germany where a Lieutenant Siegried Schoenherr of the Friedrich Engels Military Academy in Dresden has written a surprisingly candid article on the Economic Defence Strains of the German Democratic Republic in Economic Sciences (reported from Bonn in The Financial Times, September 9, 1969).

Last updated on 24.2.2008