chapter  6
36 Pages

Historical Background

I am the space you desecrate as you pass through. — Margaret Atwood from "Backdrop

Addresses Cowboy" (p. 51)1


The American AGM-86B cruise missile also known as ALCM (air-launched cruise missile) is designed to be launched over the north pole by B-52 bombers. Following the launch, the B-52 is to turn toward home while the missile continues to fly to targets in the USSR. The cruise flies low in order to escape radar detection. This missile is assumed to be very accurate, difficult to identify and destroy. There is some debate about whether the cruise is a first or second strike weapon. Generally, U.S. officials publicly maintain that the function of the cruise is to knock-out communications and command centers as a second-strike weapon. The cruise missile was obviously perceived by the American government as an element in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) discourse. The initial assumption was that the characteristics of this particular weapon would lend force to the American position in the talks without being unduly threatening to the Soviets:

The United States could acquire a capability to destroy Soviet ICBM silos in a second strike without posing a first-strike threat to the Soviet ICBM force by procuring large numbers of bomber-delivered cruise missiles and wide-

bodied cruise missile carrier aircraft. Such a "slow" counterforce capability might be an attractive option to those who believe that the United States should have the capability to respond in kind to a Soviet counterforce attack but should, at the same time, avoid posing a potentially destabilizing first-strike threat to Soviet strategic forces. (p. 49)2

However, military specialists later observed that the government had miscalculated the Soviet reaction to the threat posed by the cruise:

Soviet leaders give no indication that they view cruise missiles as less dangerous than other, faster weapons; indeed, it is uncertain how far they accept the prevalent American conceptual distinction between first-and second-strike weapons.