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REVIEW: _First Strike!_

Robert Aldridge. — November 1983

In 1957, Robert Aldridge got a job as an aeronautics engineer at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company. He worked on the design of Polaris and Poseidon sea. based missiles, multiple independently. targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). and manoeuvrable reentry vehicles (MARVs). In January 1973, after long consideration, he left Lockheed and since then he has been active in the disarmament. movement.

In First Strike!, Aldridge argues that by the late 1980s the U .S. will have the capability to enact a disarming and unanswerable first strike against the Soviet Union; the U.S.S.R. will have no comparable capability. An unanswerable first strike might present a considerable temptation for the U.S., especially in a crisis, and the U.S.S.R. might be tempted to try a preemptive strike, even if it were only partly successful, in order to limit the destruction of its own territory. It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous situation.

Let me quickly say that I’m not convinced by Aldridge’s argument. A successful first strike would require a near-perfect destruction of Soviet land-based missiles; an anti-ballistic missile defence system to deal with those Soviet missiles not destroyed in their silos; a perfect defence against bomber penetration; a perfect or near-perfect antisubmarine capability; and a command, control and communications system which could co-ordinate the whole show within seconds. Aldridge does demonstrate that the U.S. is making considerable advances In all these areas, but uncertainties necessarily remain — the systems cannot even be tested sufficiently in advance, and the consequences of even tiny failures would be catastrophic. I cannot believe that any rational commander would order a first strike even with the improvements and advances Aldridge describes; but then again, I’m not sure our commanders are rational.

Aldridge does convince me. however. that the U.S. military would like very much to have a first strike capability and that they are doing their best to get it. They may well be able to deceive themselves into the belief that they have it — and that belief (or Soviet fear) could be just as dangerous as the reality.

In the course of his discussion, Aldridge describes the new and up. coming nuclear arsenal in considerable detail; the book is essential reading for those who want to keep up with the technical aspects of the arms race. His discussions of missile accuracy versus megatonnage and warheads versus launchers is particularly useful in clearing up confusion perpetuated by the U .5. government. First Strike! requires a careful and critical reading, but it will certainly repay the effort.

Matthew Clark