Silo-based nuclear missiles are better than their reputation, and Stanislav Petrov did not save the world

Pavel Podvig has some interesting points on his blog about the Soviet Union’s nuclear strategy and the value of silo-based missiles. Pavel’s point is that silo-based ICBMs are much more useful than they are typically made out to be:

Silo-based multiple-warhead ICBMs have a consistently bad reputation with the arms control crowd and nuclear hawks alike. We all know the argument – these are highly vulnerable and very lucrative targets that undermine stability in every possible way. Since a single MIRVed missile can potentially destroy several MIRVed missiles of the opposing force, taking out a lot of warheads, the incentives to strike first seem almost irresistible. As does the urge to “use them or lose them” – if I know that the opponent can destroy my entire ICBM force with only of fraction of his own, I better launch my missiles before he has that chance. Silo-based ICBMs are thought to be the worst since they appear to be of no use unless launched in a preemptive strike or at the first sign of an incoming attack.

This logic has been guiding arms control discussions as well as the actual arms control and disarmament process ever since first MIRVed missiles were deployed in the early 1970s. It became one of those dogmas of the nuclear age that have never been questioned, let alone contested. But it probably should be. The issue with this logic is that it rests on an implicit assumption that both sides build their strategic nuclear forces with warfighting and damage limitation in mind.

The argument is that the Soviet Union had a fundamentally different conception of how to use nuclear weapons than the US. The American logic was to use their nuclear missiles to attack the Soviet nuclear missiles. This strategy aimed to limit the damage to the US. Since one MIRVed missile carries several warheads, this also has economical benefits: Use one missile to destroy several missiles. The downside to this strategy is that it presupposes early use of nuclear weapons, as you must shoot before the enemy.

In the Soviet Union, the rationale was different. The Soviet leadership emphasized the retaliatory strike, which would be directed at the enemy’s cities rather than his weapons. They expected to lose a lot of weapons in an American first strike, but with massive silo-based ICBMs they only needed a few to survive for a devastating second strike. The large missiles could carry many warheads and countermeasures against missile defense.

The silo-based installations also had advantages for launch-under-attack scenarios, where the Soviet Union would initiate a retaliatory strike after being hit by the first American nuclear warhead. The silo-based missiles were on very high alert with their gyroscopes already spun up, and the hardwired communication systems allowed reliable command and control.

These are two very different approaches. According to Podvig, the American understanding of nuclear weapons favored an early preemptive strike, and due to mirror imaging they expected the USSR to do the same. Therefore they came up with a wrong interpretation of the Soviet silo-based missiles.

Launch-on-warning vs. launch-under-attack

Podvig also has some interesting observations about launch-on-warning scenarios, where nuclear weapons are launched upon receiving data that your opponent has started an attack. This is basically the situation where the missiles pass each other in the air, and both sides are destroyed simultaneously.

According to Podvig, the Soviet leadership disregarded this possibility. They rejected the notion of making so important decisions under such immense time pressure. Therefore the Soviet leadership based their nuclear response strategy entirely on concepts of launch-under-attack or retaliatory second strikes – meaning that they would only respond to a confirmed nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. As Podvig notes:

Putting this all together brings us to a conclusion that goes very much against the conventional arms control wisdom. It turns out that if you plan on using them properly, silo-based MIRVed ICBMs actually improve crisis stability and provide protection against catastrophic early-warning or command-and-control errors.

This means that Stanislav Petrov actually did not save the world in 1983, because that would have required a Soviet launch-on-warning strategy.

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