Dr. Strangelove takes a break

April 24, 1991|By The Los Angeles Times

THE SATIRICAL Parkinson's Law holds that work expands to fill the time available for doing it. The bizarre dialectic of strategic nuclear planning appears to have long held that the number of targets pinpointed for attack will increase as the production of nuclear warheads rises.

About 12,000 U.S. nuclear bombs or warheads had been earmarked for about 8,500 targets in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. "With all the weapons they had, (Pentagon planners) seemed to have targeted almost every telephone pole and Communist Party headquarters out in the sticks," one former high Department of Defense official told Los Angeles Times staff writer Robert C. Toth. The numbers are mind-boggling. The lasting destruction produced by anything even remotely approaching such an all-out barrage is unimaginable. Consider the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster five years ago this month, which left a large area of the Ukraine contaminated and depopulated. Consider then how much of the Earth's surface would be made unlivable if even a few score nuclear weapons were detonated.

A sweeping and welcome change in American nuclear targeting procedures has now been proposed. A two-year Pentagon review, undertaken at the behest of high U.S. military leaders, calls for striking from the target list up to 2,000 or more sites in the Soviet Union and former Warsaw Pact countries that had earlier been marked for nuclear attack in the event of total war. Included are facilities in Eastern European countries that have re-won their independence from Moscow, as well as many Soviet targets that were of only modest military significance.

The proposed reduction in targeted sites is inherent in the planned reduction of the overall nuclear weapons arsenal, anticipated in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. In the course of this decade, the U.S. nuclear weapons inventory is scheduled to fall 25 percent, from 12,000 to 9,000, while the Soviet arsenal is expected to decrease from 13,000 to about 8,000. Delivery systems will also decline sharply. The land-based Minuteman ICBM force, for example, is scheduled to shrink by 50 percent, to 500 missiles, and each will be armed with two warheads instead of three.

All of this will still leave the superpowers with very considerable margins of nuclear overkill. Let's hope that Washington and Moscow continue to work for further deep reductions in their nuclear stocks. Meanwhile, what one former senior military official describes as the almost mindless competitive growth in nuclear weaponry of earlier decades is finally being brought into better balance.

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