Excerpts from Report on the Challenge of Peace and Policy Developments 1983-1988

Ad Hoc Committee on the Moral Evaluation of Deterrence
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
June 1988

B. Technological Developments

78. Technology acts as a two-edged sward in the nuclear competition; some technological changes (e.g., Permissive Action Links) contribute to increasing control of nuclear weapons; other developments (e.g., MIRVing) have had a long-term destabilizing impact. Since 1983, developments in missile accuracy, anti-satellite weapons and stealth technology have continued the bivalent influence of technology on the arms race. The dilemmas of command, control and communication systems (C3) illustrate this well. Some improvements in C3 are dangerous if they enhance "war-fighting" capabilities and feed the illusion of surviving an extended nuclear exchange. Other improvements would decrease reliance on strategies of launch under attack or launch on warning, and so enhance the stability of deterrence in crisis. These latter improvements are at present hardly keeping up with the expansion and evolution of weaponry; they require vigorous attention at the level of technology and at the level of superpower political understanding.

79. But the most significant change by far in the area of technology and policy has been the proposal of President Reagan to pursue a defense against ballistic missiles. Technically described as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), it originated on March 23, 1983 in a presidential address to the nation. The key passages of the address are well known:

Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive....What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our won soil or that of our allies. " (1)

80. The proposal, described as "radical" by both then Secretary of Defense Weinberger and critics of the SDI, holds particular importance in any review of The Challenge of Peace for three reasons. First, the proposal was made only weeks before publication of the pastoral; so there is no treatment of defensive systems in the letter. Second, the defensive proposal now permeates the debate about nuclear policy. A recent report of the Aspen Institute Strategy Group observed: "Virtually all issues related to arms control, alliance security, and Soviet-American strategic relations are now linked to SDI in one way or another." (2) Third, the proponents of SDI, from the president to the secretary of defense to supporters in the public debate, all have made the claim that SDI constitutes a superior moral policy to that of deterrence as we have known it in the nuclear age. Individually and collectively these reasons point toward the need to address the SDI proposal. Here, we seek to outline the character of the SDI debate, using representative public positions, and then to comment on it in light of relevant moral principles.

1. SDI: What Is It?

81. In simple terms, SDI is a research program charged with investigating the technological possibilities of defense against ballistic missiles. But the description cannot remain simple, for even within the Reagan Administration there is a certain pluralism in describing the scope and purpose of SDI. The president's address described the goal of the program in terms of rendering nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." Mr. Weinberger described the meaning of the SDI proposal as a "radical rejection of benign acquiescence in reliance upon the threat of mutual destruction." (3) Taken at face value these descriptions depict a program designed to transcend a policy of deterrence based on the threat of nuclear retaliation.

82. Almost from the beginning of the SDI program, however, official statements have included a more modest goal, not to transcend deterrence but to enhance deterrence. In 1986 Mr. Weinberger spoke of three justifications for the SDI program: to hedge against a Soviet breakthrough on defensive technologies, to guard against a Soviet breakout of the ABM Treaty, and, finally, "the very real possibility that American science and technology will achieve what appears to some to be an impossible dream." (4) The first two reasons do not transcend deterrence, the third looks to that goal.

83. Enhancing deterrence means using defensive systems in a mode which will complicate Soviet planning for a preemptive strike against American land-based ICBMs. The administration case is neither a pure instance of area defense (of population) nor point defense ( of missiles) but a mix of partial area and partial point defense designed to forestall Soviet confidence in resorting to a nuclear attack." (5)

84. These two descriptions of SDI (transcending and enhancing deterrence) have created a certain confusion in the public debate, since the technological challenge and strategic rational for the two are substantially different. In spite of a less than clear policy focus, the administration has been quite successful in securing congressional support for SDI. A recent congressional staff report records the growth in SDI appropriations:

In FY 1985 the Administration requested $1.78 billion for SDI, a 79 percent nominal increase over the previous year's funding level. Congress approved $1.40 billion for FY 1985, a 41 percent increase. In FY 1986, the Administration requested $3.72 billion for SDI, a 166 percent increase over FY 1985. Congress approved $2.76 billion, a 97 percent increase. And in FY 1987, the Administration requested $4.8 billion for SDI, a 74 percent increase. Congress approved $3.2 billion, a 16 percent increase." (6)

85. While these statistics indicate a certain congressional reserve about the program, the significant increases should not be overlooked; spending rose by 41 percent, 97 percent and 16 percent in nominal terms over a three-year period. The congressional study specifies the meaning of these expenditures: "The SDI program's budget has more than tripled since its inception, it has become the largest military research program in DOD--the department's top strategic priority--and its funding level now surpasses the combined technology base funding for the Army, Navy and Air Force." (7)

86. In addition to an aggressive legislative program, the administration has expanded the policy framework in its presentation of the SDI. Two speeches by senior State Department officials set the policy rational and criteria for SDI. In January 1985, then Under Secretary of State Kenneth Dam set forth the "strategic concept" which the administration is using to link its SDI program with its arms control philosophy:

For the next 10 years, we should seek a radical reduction in the number and power of existing and planned offensive and defensive nuclear arms, whether landbased, spacebased, or otherwise. We should even now be looking forward to a period of transition, beginning possibly 10 years from now, to effective nonnuclear defensive forces, including defenses against offensive nuclear arms. This period of transition should lead to the eventual elimination of nuclear arms, both offensive and defensive. A nuclear-free world is an ultimate objective to which we, the Soviet Union, and all other nations can agree. " (8)

87. In February 1985, Ambassador Paul H. Nitze moved the SDI debate forward by establishing criteria which any deployment would have to satisfy. The Nitze criteria have become a canonical reference in the SDI debate, with both critics and supporters of the proposal appealing to them. Nitze reiterated Dam's argument that the objective of the SDI was "a cooperative effort with the Soviet Union, hopefully leading to an agreed transition toward effective nonnuclear defenses that might make possible the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons." (9) Movement toward this goal involves three stages: the near-term, a transition period and an ultimate phase. In the near-term, deterrence based on nuclear retaliation will continue to structure the nuclear relationship, but research in defensive technologies and arms control aimed at "radical reductions" in offensive forces would both be pushed vigorously.

88. In the transitional period--the key moment--greater reliance will be placed on defensive systems. The criteria which must be met in any deployment are technological feasibility, survivability and cost-effectiveness." (10) If defensive systems cannot be deployed in a survivable manner, they become tempting targets and increase strategic instability. If these systems are not "cost-effective at the margin," then it will be cheaper for the adversary to build countermeasures. The transition period would be, in Nitze's words, "tricky"; it would require progress in controlling offensive weapons, and it would have to be executed in cooperation with the Soviets. Provided the conditions of the first two periods are met, the ultimate phase of the new strategic concept could, in Nitze's view, lead to "the reduction of nuclear weapons down to zero:" (11)

89. Both the specific proposal of the SDI--a multilayered defense designed to attack ballistic missiles in the four stages of their trajectory (boost phase, post-boost phase, midcourse flight and terminal phase)--and the strategic concept sustaining it have come under criticism. The public debate has focused on the technological feasibility of SDI and its impact on strategic stability and arms control.

2. SDI: Technology, Strategy and Arms Control

90. The nuclear debate has always had a forbiddingly technical character, but the SDI controversy has raised the technical discussion to a new plateau of complexity. Both the density of the technological data and the diversity of expert opinions make the debate about the feasibility of the system a crucial point in the policy arena. Diversity of opinion should not be taken to mean the experts are equally divided; there seems to be substantially more doubters in the scientific community than advocates of SDI.

91. Yet the administration has continued to be optimistic in its assessment of the feasibility of SDI--at least the SDI-- designed to enhance deterrence. Paul H. Nitze spoke in March 1986 of "impressive advances" in the investigation of SDI technology. The progress is such that "the United States has good reason to believe that SDI technologies hold the promise for feasible, survivable, and cost-effective defenses." (12) Dr. George Keyworth, science adviser to President Reagan when SDI was proposed spoke to the NCCB Ad Hoc Committee in terms which seemed to reach beyond Nitze's cautious "promise" to a tangible product. Describing the technological progress made since 1983, Keyworth said:

That progress meant that by the time of the Geneva Summit in 1985 we could, with some confidence, picture a boost-phase defense system driven by any of several different technologies....These numbers describe an awesome defensive capability; a battery of perhaps a dozen such weapons would so overwhelm the offensive forces that countering them by proliferation would be out of the question. So if in March of 1983 we were asking IF we could develop SDI, we can now ask how best to choose from those that are emerging." (13)

92. The evaluations of feasibility coming from other voices in the scientific and strategic community have often been notably more cautious. Perhaps the preeminent critical contribution to the technical debate from outside the administration has been the report commissioned by the American Physical Society (APS). The APS convened a study group "to evaluate the status of the science and technology of directed energy weapons (DEW)." (14) The group was established because of "the divergence of views within the scientific community [on SDI]." (15) The 400-page study is devoted exclusively to directed energy weapons (only one possible SDI technology), but its detailed assessment lends weight to its cautious prediction:

Although substantial progress has been made in many technologies of DEW over the last two decades, the Study Group finds significant gaps in the scientific and engineering understanding of many issues associated with the development of these technologies. Successful resolution of these issues is critical for the extrapolation to performance levels that would be required in an effective ballistic missile defense system. At present, there is insufficient information to decide whether the required extrapolations can or cannot be achieved. Most crucial elements required for a DEW system need improvements of several orders of magnitude. Because the elements are interrelated, the improvements must be achieved in a mutually consistent manner. We estimate that even in the best of circumstances, a decade or more of intensive research would be required to provide the technical knowledge needed for an informed decision about the potential effectiveness and survivability of directed energy weapon systems. In addition, the important issues of overall system integration and effectiveness depend critically upon information that, to our knowledge does not yet exist." (16)

93. The APS Study Group eschewed the policy issues of arms control, strategic stability and cost. Two other recent studies are more policy-oriented, joining their judgments on the feasibility of SDI to arms control concerns. The Aspen Strategy Group Report argues that meeting the administration's own criteria of survivability and cost-effectiveness would effectively rule out any deployment of space-based defenses until well into the 1990s. The strategy group specifies three challenges facing SDI:

  1. many innovations which assist the defense also enhance offensive capabilities;
  2. effective boost-phase defense "seems problematic"; and
  3. terminal phase defense seems unlikely using SDI's nonnuclear technology.

The Aspen Group advocates a SDI research program, but one carried out within the limits of the ABM Treaty (strictly interpreted) and joined with an arms control policy pursuing deep cuts in offensive weapons. Changing the commonly used metaphor, the Aspen Report sees SDI not as a "bargaining chip" but a "lever": "SDI will not likely drive the Soviets to accept offensive reductions that leave asymmetries in our favor....But what SDI can do--and, arguably, has done in light of the Reykjavik summit--is to prompt the Soviets to offer reductions of a magnitude that eluded U.S. negotiators throughout the 1970s and early 1980s." (17) The wise use of the lever, argues the report, is to strike The Grand Compromise of Soviet cuts in their most menacing offensive systems for U.S. restraints--within the ABM Treaty--on defensive technologies.

94. Similar policy perspectives to the Aspen Study are found in the 1985 report of the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control, "Strategic Missile Defense: Necessities, Prospects and Dangers in the Near Term." (18) The report is signed by scientists with a wide variety of views on the policy issues of SDI. But supporters and critics of SDI join in recommending research conducted within the parameters of the ABM Treaty, and research which is not pushed by political objectives, but governed by scientific criteria.

95. The purpose in setting forth administration positions and these reports is not to count or even to weigh authorities on the feasibility and arms control issues, but to illustrate how the SDI debate is being joined.

3. SDI: The Moral Argument

96. One of the characteristics of the nuclear debate of the 1980s, fostered in part by The Challenge of Peace, has been a growing dissatisfaction with the theory and policy of deterrence. The standard doctrine has come under critique from the left and the right of the political spectrum and both have resorted to moral as well as political-strategic arguments to stress the shortcomings of deterrence. The moral case propounded for defensive systems fits into this wider atmosphere of dissatisfaction with deterrence. Both President Reagan and former Secretary Weinberger regularly appeal to the moral motivation and moral quality of the SDI. Supporters of the SDI pick up on this theme, joining a critique of Mutual Assured Destruction theories to an argument about the moral stability which will accompany a defense dominated nuclear relationship.

97. As bishops, we are interested in the scientific and strategic dimensions of the SDI policy debate, but we are not in a position to contribute to them. It is precisely the visible role which the morale argument has assumed in the policy arena which draws us into more specific commentary here. The SDI is proposed by some of its supporters as a superior moral answer to the moral dilemmas of the nuclear age analyzed in The Challenge of Peace. We seek here to probe the relationship of the moral claims made for SDI and other dimensions of the policy debate.

98. The case made for the moral superiority of SDI is primarily an ethic of intention; using the just-war ethic, supporters of SDI review the nuclear age, pointing out how classical deterrence doctrine has been willing to abide or endorse threats against innocent populations. In contrast to this posture, a case is made describing the intended objectives of SDI: either the transition to a world where the nuclear threat has been negated or at least to a world where the principal targets shift from populations to weapons. Stated at the level of intentionality, the SDI case seeks to capture the moral high ground, undoubtedly contributing to the popularity of the program with the general public.

99. But the complexity and the stakes of the policy debate on SDI require that the moral argument be pressed beyond its intended objectives. The SDI debate is less a dispute about objectives or motives than it is about means and consequences. To probe the moral content of the effects of pursuing SDI is to raise issues about its risks, costs and benefits.

100. Giving proper weight to the effects of pursuing SDI moves the focus of the moral argument back from the desirability of freeing the world from the factual condition of an assured destruction posture (an objective commended by everyone) to the technological feasibility of fulfilling this intention, to the potential risks for strategic stability of an offensive-defensive arms competition and to the economic costs and trade-offs which pursuit of SDI will require in a deficit-ridden federal budget. These categories of feasibility, stability and cost are already prominent in the SDI debate. The point here is to assert that the moral character of SDI cannot be determined apart from these other elements precisely because consequences count in a moral assessment.

101. First, while the feasibility argument is primarily a scientific-technological question, there are risks associated with pursuing some technological paths:

  • risks to the existing arms control regime;
  • risks of introducing dimensions of uncertainty into the already delicate political-psychological fabric of deterrence;
  • risks that defensive systems can have real or perceived offensive uses;
  • finally, risks that some forms of SDI would be ineffective against an adversary's first-strike, but more effective against a retaliatory second-strike, thereby eroding crisis stability.

Assessing these risks--evaluating which are prudent to pursue, which are too high to tolerate--involves a moral as well as a technological judgment. Precisely because of the number and quality of scientific judgments which have warned against precipitous movement toward SDI, it is necessary to stress the need for continued technological scrutiny and moral restraint concerning a decision which might later be regretted.

102. The second question concerns the impact of the defensive option on strategic stability. The critics of deterrence (The Challenge of Peace included) detail several negative factors in the deterrence regime, but the judgments of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II and the pastoral letter also posit a role for deterrence in a world of sovereign states armed with nuclear weapons. While the need to move "beyond deterrence" is asserted by both Pope John Paul II and the U.S. bishops, there is also found in their statements the logic of the 1976 Vatican statement at the United Nations: that a move beyond deterrence should not place the world in a more dangerous condition than our present plight." (19) Hence, moves beyond deterrence are open to scrutiny. They must be assessed in light of their impact on the basic purpose of deterrence--its role in preventing the use of nuclear weapons.

103. Assessment of SDI in light of its impact on strategic stability will force the moral argument onto the path of examining the contrasting views of whether the "transition" from assured destruction to common security can be carried off with acceptable risk. Supporters of SDI argue from the moral and the strategic perspective about the opportunities it provides to transform the nuclear dilemma--to end the mutual threats which constitute the present delicate deterrence balance." (20) These arguments stress the goal of the transition.

104. While this goal is undoubtedly attractive, the more compelling moral case presently rests with those who specify the likely risks of an aggressive SDI program at this time:

  1. the obstacle it poses to effective movement on arms control;
  2. the possible shift toward offensive use of defensive system;
  3. the further "tilt" of the deterrence relationship toward preemptive strategies during the transition period.

No one of these results is a certain consequence of pursuing SDI deployment but the collective danger they pose to the dynamic of deterrence leaves us unconvinced of the merits of proceeding toward deployment of the system. The combination of the technological and the strategic evaluations of the present status of SDI appear to us to promise serious risks and very hypothetical benefits at this time.

105. The feasibility and strategic stability arguments are central to the policy debate about SDI. Third, the economic argument--the escalating cost of SDI in a time of continuing budget deficits and in a decade which has seen deep cuts in programs for the poor at home and abroad--has particular moral relevance. While The Challenge of Peace recognized the need for and moral legitimacy of defense spending, it followed recent papal and conciliar teaching in pressing for limits on military spending. The deep divisions in the technological community about the feasibility of SDI, the arguments cited above about the negative impact on strategic stability and the certainty of the costs of SDI bring it within the framework of the Bernardin-O'Connor criteria cited earlier in this report. Specifically, their judgment is that a program which fails to attract a clear consensus on technological-strategic grounds should not be allowed to command resources at a time when other human needs go unfulfilled.

106. In summary, our primary purpose in this section has been to dispel the notion that the moral character of SDI can be decided simply by examining it in terms of the objectives (or ends that it intends). These are not the only morally relevant factors that need to be taken into account in rendering a moral judgment about SDI. Judged within an adequate moral framework, one that takes into account the relevant moral circumstances surrounding this policy, it is our prudential judgment that proposals to press deployment of SDI do not measure up to the moral criteria outlined in this report. Our judgment about SDI can be summarized in the following statements:

  1. Some of the officially stated objectives of the SDI program, to move away from a long-term reliance on deterrence and to protect civilians and society as a whole, correspond to key themes of the pastoral letter.

  2. The pursuit of these objectives must be carried our within limits which protect other principles of the pastoral letter.
    • that the framework of arms control agreements and negotiations not be eroded or made more difficult;
    • that a new surge of offensive competition not be stimulated as a consequence of introducing defensive proposals;
    • that the stability of deterrence not be weakened in an untested attempt to transcend or enhance it;
    • that defense spending as a whole not absorb a morally disproportionate percentage of the federal budget.
  3. Observing these limits in the immediate future requires that:
    • SDI be maintained as a research and development program, within the restraints of the ABM Treaty, not pressed to deployment;
    • the ABM Treaty should not be cast aside or overridden;
    • a specific test of each new step in SDI be an assessment of its effects on the offensive-defensive interaction of the arms competition;
    • clear criteria be established about spending for SDI in relationship to other needs in legitimate defense expenditures (e.g., conventional forces) and particularly in relationship to the basic human needs of the poor in our country and in other nations.

16.President Reagan, "Launching the SDI," cited in Z. Brzezinski, ed., Promise or Peril: The Strategic Defense Initiative (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1986), pp.48-49

17. Aspen Strategy Group Report, The Strategic Defense Initiative and American Security (Lanham, Md., University Press of America, 1987), p. ix.

18. C.W. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to the Congress Fiscal Year 1987 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986), p. 73

19. C. W. Weinberger, "U.S. Defense Strategy," Foreign Affairs 64:4 (1986): p. 682. For the Reagan Administration's evaluation of Soviet activities on defensive systems, see, e.g., Soviet Strategic Defense Programs (Washington, D.C.; Department of State and Department of Defense, 1987).

20. K. Adelman, Director of U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Testimony before NCCB Ad Hoc Committee on the Moral Evaluation of Deterrence March 27, 1987.

21. SDI Progress and Challenges-Part Two Staff Report Submitted to Senator Proxmire and Senator Johnston (March 19, 1987), p.3. (Since the staff report was published, the Congress decided to fund SDI at $3.9 billion for FY 1988.)

22. Ibid.

23. K.W. Dam, "Gereva and Beyond: New Arms Control Negotiations; "Department of State Bulletin 85:2097 (March 1985): p.39.

24. P.H. Nitze, "On the Road to a More Stable Peace," Department of State Bulletin 85:2097 (April 1985): p. 27.

25. Ibid., p. 28

26. Ibid.

27. P.H. Nitze, " The Promise of SDI," Department of State Bulletin 86:2110 (May 1986): p.55.

28. G.A. Keyworth, II "SDI and Arms Control," Testimony to NCCB Ad Hoc Committee on the Moral Evaluation of Deterrence, December 5, 1986, pp. 12-13.

29. N. Bloembergen (Harvard University), C.K. Patel (AT&T Bell Laboratories), co-chairs, et al. Report to the American Physical Society of the Study Group on Science and Technology of Directed Energy Weapons, p. 1. [Published in Reviews of Modern Physics 59:3 Part II (July 1987)]

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., p. 2.

32. Aspen Strategy Group Report, p. 45.

33. Center for International Security and Arms Control, Strategic Missile Defense: Necessities, Prospects and Dangers in the Near Term (Stanford: Stanford University, 1985).

34. "Statement of the Holy See to the United Nations General Assembly," L'Osservatore Romano, English weekly edition (June 17, 1976):p.9.

35. Cf.K.B. Payne and C. Cray, "Nuclear Policy and the Defensive Transition, "Foreign Affairs 62:4 (1984):pp. 820-842; G. Weigel, "Breaking the Doctrinal Cridlock: Common Security and the Strategic Defensive Initiative," This World 16 (Winter 1987): pp. 3-22.