True Story of the SS-20 and Pershing II
November 11, 1981
In the last few weeks, some of the largest demonstrations in the postwar history of Western Europe have surged through the streets of London, Brussels, Bonn, Rome, Milan, and Paris. With varying emphasis, they have been directed against the growth of so-called “theater nuclear” weaponry — primarily the U.S.-made Pershing IIs and Cruise missiles to be deployed by NATO, and the SS-20 missile deployed by the Soviet Union.
Western European fears are not hard to explain. The Reagan administration, rabid on the topic of the Russian threat, has escalated bellicose rhetoric to a level which quite simply terrifies people. Ensuing assertions by the administration that deployment of the new NATO missiles will go hand-in-hand with talks with the Russians on reduction of these and the Soviet missiles seem either specious or ludicrous.
Reaganite rationale for the Pershing IIs and the Cruise, following the line of the Carter administration — which promulgated the policy — is that something had to be done about the threat posed by the fearsome SS-20s, and that it was in fact Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany who asked for the new weapons in the first place. In a talk with U.S. journalists on October 29, Schmidt denied this, and said Carter had proposed the plan at the Guadeloupe summit in January 1979.
Whatever the truth of Schmidt’s assertion, the proposed deployment of the new missiles threatens his own leadership and has posed enormous problems for NATO, confronted by a peace movement broader by far than the campaigns of the late 1950s.
Crisis at Nadiradze
Acres of newsprint in recent years have been covered with spine-shriveling verbiage about the Soviet SS-20 medium-range missiles, invoked by U.S. and Western European arms lobbies as the most conspicuous evidence of Soviet determination to Finlandize the continent from the Elbe River to the Bay of Biscay, and as a threat which had to be countered.
But in all the high-minded discussion about the famous SS-20s and the NATO response to them, much essential data has been omitted.
Arms debates, as conducted by politicians, strategists, and the press, invariably ignore an important point: weapons are made by people who want to make money out of them. And if these people have no weapons to make, they will be out of a job.
Such was the grim prospect faced by at least some of the comrades at the Nadiradze Design Bureau in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, and by their opposite numbers in the Martin Marietta Corporation in the United States.
The Nadiradze Design Bureau has, for the last 20 years, been charged with the responsibility for constructing a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile for the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Soviet Union. Other bureaus in the Soviet Union, such as the Yangel and Cholomei, have been briskly turning out liquid-fueled ICBMs (the SS-11, 17, 18, 19), all of a type abandoned by the U.S. some 20 years ago.
After herculean efforts, the Nadiradze Bureau finally managed to come up with a prototype for the SS-16 in the mid-’70s. It was not a success. Test-firings, monitored by the U.S., almost invariably went wrong, and the SS-16 never went into production. Glum faces in the comfortable dachas inhabited by Nadiradze bureaucrats and engineers — and in the adjacent dachas inhabited by the generals of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, who had been promised up-to-date missiles of the sort flaunted by the Americans.
From this crisis emerged the SS-20, hailed by Nadiradze salesmen and by U.S. threat-inflaters as super-accurate and terrifyingly MIRVed with up to three warheads. In fact the SS-20 is our old friend, the SS-16, chopped down by a third. The Russians began to deploy it in the late 1970s across the breadth of the Soviet Union, aimed at both the Chinese and NATO hordes.
…and at Martin Marietta
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, a crisis rather similar to that afflicting the Nadiradze/Strategic Rocket Forces complex was brewing between the Martin Marietta Corporation, headquartered in Florida, and the U.S. Army.
By 1970, Martin Marietta was in danger of losing its treasured status as a “prime contractor” for military aerospace items. A prime contractor makes complete systems — a plane, a missile, a ship — thus lording it over humbler accomplices making subsystems: parts. One of the corporation’s more successful recent products had been the Pershing I medium-range nuclear missile, contracted for by the U.S. Army and deployed in Europe. But the days of Pershing I production were ebbing. Martin Marietta was faced with the disaster of no follow-on contract, and the U.S. Army with the prospect of being without an up-to-date nuclear missile and losing the last vestiges of nuclear missile turf to the enemy — the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy.
At the time, there were no plans in NATO to purchase a fresh range of nuclear missiles for deployment in Europe. NATO was amply equipped with nuclear bombs on planes, on the aforementioned Pershing I, and on Polaris submarines. Undeterred by the absence of a policy decision by the NATO powers (and certainly undisturbed by the SS-20 threat, which had yet to be invented by the Nadiradze Bureau), the U.S. Army funded the development of the Pershing II, which, it claimed, would have a longer range than its predecessor and unprecedented accuracy.
A Blessed Threat
Development of the Pershing II went limping along, to the gratification of the army and Martin Marietta but unbeknownst to all but the most assiduous readers of U.S. military budget statements. No production contracts had been awarded. Then came salvation, with the news that the SS-20 was being deployed. Threatmongers, notably Richard Burt — then at the Institute for Strategic Studies, subsequently defense correspondent for The New York Times, and now a Haig deputy in the State Department — and Uwe Nerlich, a West German defense analyst, began to bewail a NATO “escalation gap” which supposedly had opened up, requiring the deployment of a fresh generation of missiles in Europe.
Thus, in the face of the dreadful SS-20 threat, began the campaign for installation of Pershing II and Cruise missiles — everyone conveniently forgetting that in the ’60s the U.S. had withdrawn medium-range missiles capable of hitting the Soviet Union from Europe in favor of missiles of equal prowess based on submarines cruising in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.
The advantage of the Pershing II over the Pershing I is that it will be capable, if deployed, of hitting the Soviet Union — a fact not lost on the Soviets, who are less worried about the slow-moving and wildly inaccurate Cruise than the Pershing II, which can reach their territory in five minutes.
NATO proposes to deploy 108 Pershing IIs and 464 ground-launched Cruise missiles. The Soviets have about 259 SS-20s deployed in the Soviet Union.
It goes without saying that both the Pershing II and SS-20 have far fewer technical capabilities than those usually proclaimed on the printed page. Veterans of Pentagon procurement say that even by the usual relaxed standards, the tests of the Pershing II guidance system were “outrageously faked.” The SS-20, sometimes called “highly mobile” but with the relative speed of movement of an oil rig, has also turned out to be much less accurate than claimed.
Today, the collective lunges at self-preservation and profit of the Nadiradze Bureau and Martin Marietta have led to the rebirth of the disarmament lobby and a mass movement in Europe, and the corresponding derogation of NATO.
The uproar has greatly benefited the Russians. For years, the Soviet Union has been trying to get forward-based tactical nuclear systems included in arms-limitation talks. For years, the U.S. has stoutly resisted. Now, under pressure from Western European allies, the U.S. may at last have to enter into serious limitation talks about these very systems.
If the U.S. decides to abort such talks, the Russians come out ahead once again because European disarmament campaigns will continue with redoubled force.