Predictions revisited

The counterforce nightmare

or “All you have to say is Tripoli”

When in Prague Castle in April 2010 the US and Russian Presidents signed the latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), it stirred memories of how terrifying the world was 30 years ago, especially for folk in the know. From Hiroshima in 1945 till the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the fear of atomic death for all your little chickens and their dam was the curse of an otherwise cheerful age. But by the late 1970s, the risk had become hair-raising.

Minuteman intercontinental missile test-fired at Vandenberg AFB. USAF/DOD

Strategic instability” was the jargon term. As I wrote at the time, “The danger is not that either side is tempted in cold blood to make his strike, but that both are driven towards it by mutual fear. There may come a moment when, without any malice in your heart, you have frightened your opponent so badly you must hit him before he hits you. Nuclear deterrence becomes nuclear impulsion.”

Intercontinental missiles were getting so sophisticated and accurate that both the USA and Soviet Union had good reason to fear that the other could attempt a surprise counterforce strike against the nuclear weapons in their missile silos and bomber bases – in the hope of coming off less badly in the unrestrained war that would follow. If you thought that was happening, simple logic then said that you had to get your own missiles launched before they were “dug out”. Decision times were limited by the few minutes remaining between the detection and arrival of incoming warheads.

Nuclear Nightmares: The Wars That Must Never Happen”, BBC-TV 1979, was produced and directed by Peter Batty and written by Nigel Calder. Made at precisely that critical stage of the Cold War, and filmed with operational forces and in command bunkers across Europe and the USA, the documentary explored four possible routes to nuclear war. Each segment ended with a fictional survivor sitting in a fallout shelter and explaining what went wrong. The culminating scenario concerned an all-out nuclear exchange between the USA and the Soviet Union.

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