The Numbers Game
The map below, showing the ranges over which nuclear weapons can be delivered to or from Europe, appeared in The Guardian of London. It was published the week before a NATO meeting decided to base 464 American ground-launched Cruise missiles and 108 Pershing II ballistic missiles in Europe. The map was supposed to illustrate how the new weapons would counterbalance the threat from the Soviet Union's increasing arsenal of SS-20 missiles. The ranges given - for both sides - are open to question but, as E.P.Thompson has pointed out, the threat from the Soviet Union must be very serious indeed, `since it is marked in heavy dotted lines and thick arrowheads, whereas NATO's response is delicately etched'.
The Guardian's graphics department would almost certainly deny that they had produced anything other than an accurate representation of factual information. Yet the map, with its heavy threatening lines and thin weak lines, provides an excellent example of the slanted way in which `facts' and `statistics' about the international nuclear balance are presented.
When. British Defence Minister Francis Pym announced siting plans for the Cruise missiles in the House of Commons in June 1980, he said that the Soviet Union was `turning out the SS-20 mobile nuclear missile with three new warheads at the rate of more than one a week'. He could have said that the SS-20 is replacing the SS-4 at the rate of more than one a week. But somehow, that would have sounded different. Equally, he could have noted that the Americans will withdraw 1000 nuclear warheads from Europe when their new Cruise and Pershing missiles are brought in.
Either way the numbers are meaningless, since they take no account of the technological superiority of the American nuclear arsenal nor of strategic differences in the weapons. The importance of introducing SS-20, Cruise and Pershing 11 into the European nuclear theatre lies not in their numbers, but in the way in which they will change the nature of any `limited' nuclear war which might be fought. In whatever quantities, they emphasise that both sides are increasingly seeing Europe as the initial battleground of World War III. Nuclear information can be presented in dozens of misleading ways. Facts and statistics are most often used to compare American (or NATO) and Soviet (or Warsaw Pact) forces. Eye-catching charts and graphs are devised, showing one side with a decisive advantage or showing how the `missile gap', the `bomber gap' or whatever is narrowing. In the US this has been called `the Soviet threat assessment business'; in Britain the New Statesman, somewhat less elegantly, has referred to `the bullshit machine'. Often the tables or illustrations are based on data from several unnamed sources - so it becomes impossible to check the numbers.
Military information, couched as it is in secrecy, jargon and acronyms, is even more prone than most to misinterpretation - deliberate or accidental. Furthermore, it is virtually unverifiable. So the legitimate areas of confusion - such as the distinction between conventional and nuclear warfare, or between strategic and tactical (or theatre) nuclear weapons (see The Facts) - become even more unclear.
Quantitative indices of the nuclear balance also present huge problems. What the military analysts call a 'bean-count' approach is often used: an Economist article on NATO and the Warsaw Pact started with a quote from Voltaire, `God is always on the side of the big battalions', and went on, `Technology has changed warfare enormously since Voltaire's day, yet counting up the numbers is still the best way - short of actually fighting - to judge a potential enemy's strength.' This bean-count approach easily leds itself to inaccuracy and misrepresentation, as we'll see later; more importantly, it takes no account of difficulties in comparability. Technological differences cannot be written off as summarily as the Economist would have us believe.
The chart reproduced here, comparing American and Soviet strategic nuclear forces, shows how statistics canbemisused. It was originally published in the New York Times and was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune on 11 December 1980, as part of a larger chart which accompanied an article by Richard Burt, New York Times national security correspondent. The chart is based on figures from The Military Balance, published annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies; these figures are generally reckoned - despite their many imperfections -to be the most accurate available.
While the US does have `only' 1054 ICBMs and 656 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as the chart shows, the chart fails to mention that the US has, as a point of strategic policy, kept its ICBM and SLBM inventory static over the past decade, while vastly increasing the number and accuracy of the warheads they carry. Nor does the chart indicate that 200 MX ICBMs, each with ten warheads, are on order. Neither does it include Britain's 64 Polaris SLBMs, which are part of the NATO inventory, or France's 80 SLBMs which would almost certainly be assigned to NATO in any nuclear confrontation. The significant factor here is not American versus Soviet strength, but NATO versus Warsaw Pact strength. The chart does not show that the Soviet Union's 1398 ICBMs are far fewer than the maximum of 1618 which it had in 1974 -but equally, neither does it show how the Soviet Union's SLBM inventory steadily rose from 304 in 1970 to 1028 in 1978.
Not the whole story
While the figure of 7301 is far too low for US warheads, the figure of 6000 Soviet warheads may be too high. According to The Military Balance, if Soviet ICBM changes go ahead, they could, `potentially result in an increase of about 10 per cent on ICBM warheads, bringing the overall warhead total to about 6000'. So on the chart, an American figure 20 per cent lower than it should be is compared to a Soviet figure possibly 10 per cent higher than it should be.
Nor does this chart show anything of theatre nuclear forces, for which the figures are notoriously unreliable - showing anything from a 3:1 advantage for the Warsaw Pact to a 21/2:1 advantage for NATO. It depends entirely on which weapons are included as theatre forces.
Statistics can always be made to lie, or tell any sort of truth. Used as militarist (or anti-militarist) propaganda, they become so disreputable that they obscure that which actually is true: that the United States did, for nearly two and a half decades, have unquestioned nuclear superiority; that over the past decade the Soviet Union has rapidly been narrowing that gap; that `restoring the strategic balance', in the eyes of American military planners, means restoring superiority; and that both sides have more than enough nuclear weaponry, no matter how you define it or count it - strategic or theatre, mega-tonnage or throw-weight or sheer absolute numbers - to blow us all off the earth far too many times over.