May 12, 2015

1968. The Cold War Arms Race

The Balance of Nuclear Terror
The USS Pueblo crew released by the North Koreans on December 23, 1968
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

January 26 for Sunday, January 28

Knowledge is power, and in the case of the incident off Wonsan Bay last Tuesday, the quest for knowledge is powerful enough to bring the world to the brink of another war.

It might be said that the many breakthroughs in science—in electronic communications; in the miniaturization of translators and printed circuits; in the art of solid physics; in orbital space vehicles; and of course in nuclear weaponry—that all of this scientific development applied to military defense by the advanced and industrial nations of the world has brought the dangerous position we're in today.

It might be said that the world's physicists and electronic geniuses and the skilled technicians are real, behind-the-scenes military strategists who hold the balance of power in this divided world. A weapons breakthrough in some secret nuclear laboratory might give some unprincipled government the power to blackmail its adversaries into submission.

That's the reason the defense minister and chiefs of staff in capitals throughout the earth go into a flap when they detect new weapons experiments and testing.

The Russians, for example, know they are behind the United States in the development of orbiting "remote censors" and so-called "spy satellites." The Air Force has lifted scores of them into space, where they orbit over the North and South Poles and keep a close watch on specified areas of the Soviet Union and mainland China several times a day.

By the same token, US defense leaders and military scientists also have occasion to flap—as, for example, over the mysterious testing of the so-called "Kosmos series" of Russian satellites. The USSR orbited the 200th Kosmos satellite the other day—also on a polar orbit—and the Pentagon suspects these are also communist "spy satellites." But no one really knows for sure. There was another kind of flap here a couple of months ago when Secretary McNamara announced that the Russians might be testing a "Fractional Orbital Bomb," presenting US defense officials with the horrible prospect of countering a potential population destroyer which would give any American target city something less than four minutes advance warning.

By the same token, lack of knowledge about the Russian anti-ballistic missile system, which US intelligence determined was built to defend the Moscow-Leningrad industrial complex, also presented Washington with a defense dilemma. Although McNamara and many other military experts believe that the Russians are wasting their money, pressure from the Congress and the public forced President Johnson to order a go-ahead on the so-called "thin line" ABM system.

Cite the above examples to emphasize the importance of the intelligence gathering mission of the USS Pueblo. For, after all, we live constantly in a balance of nuclear terror that has become so much part of our lives that people forget about it. But the fact remains that American and Russian nuclear-tipped missiles are now poised in their silos and pads aimed at each others' cities, and if the rockets go up, most of us will have only some fifteen minutes to live.

Someday some future historian may judge us all mad. But both America and Russia have invested many billions of dollars to assure that they have this fifteen minutes margin. The USS Pueblo, in her small way, was part of that expensive effort.

All nations, according to their need and capability, engage in intelligence gathering in the interests of their own security. It may consist in some cases of keeping track of a potential enemy's daily newspapers and parliamentary proceedings. But to be and to continue to be a major world power, that nation must literally keep track of the world.

The records show that the Russians have twenty-six large trawlers loaded with electronic and oceanographic equipment which prowl the seas collecting data. These intelligence vessels are regularly on station off Cape Kennedy and the Vandenberg missile base in California. They shadow ships of the US Seventh Fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin. And a Russian fishing boat has become part of the horizon off the island of Guam, presumably radioing advance warning when the big B-52 bombers take off and head westward on a bombing mission over Vietnam. There's always a few communist spy ships around the Mediterranean keeping track of the US Sixth Fleet and of NATO naval maneuvers, off the Scottish coast at Holy Loch where the US Polaris submarines are based when on NATO duty.

The records also show that the United States has five merchant ships converted and rigged for electronic surveillance. One of them is the USS Liberty, which got into trouble in the eastern Mediterranean last June while monitoring military messages of the Israeli and Arab armies during the Six Day War. Obviously the Liberty wanted to watch for any Soviet intervention in that crisis, but her attempts to play a passive role in those dangerous waters brought tragedy. Israeli radar spotted her and Israeli planes and gunboats attacked.

What the records do not show is the large number of other, smaller vessels believed to be in an expanding intelligence fleet. The nine hundred ton trawler Pueblo was one of these. It is significant that the Pentagon lost no time in identifying the Pueblo for what she was: an "intelligence gathering vessel." Thus defense officials avoided the snafu over honest identification which caused so much confusion in the USS Liberty incident last spring.

The Pueblo's electronic gizmos are capable of tracking anything within range that moves in the air, on the ground or sea, or that floats underwater. It can eavesdrop on military radio messages, locate hidden radar stations, map coastal defense installations, and monitor traffic on highways, railroads, and air bases.

But the presence aboard the Pueblo of two civilian oceanographers indicates her mission might have been as routine as it was secret. The increasing importance of Polaris submarines in the defense picture makes the charting of the ocean environment increasingly important.

But the American intelligence ship must also have been checking on such things as North Korean troop and plane concentrations, and on communist coastal ship movements around the port of Wonsan. Recent forays across the 17th parallel truce line by North Korean patrols, saboteurs, and commandos indicate that the Pyongyang government may be trying to foment a Vietnam-style guerrilla war against the Republic of Korea. If so, Wonsan would be a major base for seaborne infiltration of the South.

No matter what the outcome of this newest Korean crisis, the communist capture of the USS Pueblo and her crew already has proved to be a futile act of brutal piracy. The electronic surveillance and close monitoring of Wonsan Bay and the east coast of North Korea has more than doubled.

Reports here say that two more US intelligence ships like the Pueblo are not patrolling offshore waters. Only this time, the so-called spy ships have the backing of a US Navy task force led by the nuclear carrier USS Enterprise and her planes.

Ironically, the Enterprise has more tonnage in her single hull than all the ships of the North Korean navy. And more American sailors and pilots operate this one carrier and fly her planes than the total manpower of the North Korean fleet.