The wartime structure of the National Security Council in 1987 was clear and rock solid. President Reagan was the final arbiter on all matters. Before the fighting broke out early in July, National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci had sat down with Reagan to work out a plan for how the NSC would operate once the balloon went up. The principals would come together for meetings only when the situation called for it. In other words, when a significant decision on the conduct of the war had to be reached.
This morning was one of those times.
After the initial briefings, and Carlucci’s prelude, the discussion started. Within fifteen minutes the positions of most of the NSC principals crystalized along expected lines. Secretary of State George Schultz and Vice President George Bush favored a balanced, thoughtful approach. Both men advocated for President Reagan to speak with Romanov before a final decision was made. On the matter of direct attacks on Soviet ballistic missile subs in northern waters, Bush and Schultz were firmly against it.
“Those subs are strategic assets,” Schultz reminded everyone in the room. “Going after them will surely invite a similar Russian response. From there escalation is almost assured. It will be impossible to control the situation from that point forward.”
The intelligence community was also advocating for a measured approach to the SSBN sailings. Yet Director of Central Intelligence William Webster also warned that time was not on the US side at the moment. He then went on to confirm that no Soviet SSBNs had left Petropavlovsk on the Pacific, and there were no signs that any other Soviet strategic forces were increasing their readiness levels. As for attacking the subs in the Barents and White Sea, Webster opposed the measure. Like Schultz, he warned that doing so could take both countries, and the world down a road that leads to certain destruction.
Understandably, the military’s perspective was different. Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff adamantly supported beginning the anti-SSBN campaign as soon as possible. Not doing so would undermine the US Navy’s war plans and doctrine. “Starting a measured campaign against the boomers is part of Maritime Strategy,” he explained. “A damn large part. And in all honesty, we’re entering the phase of operations at sea presently where that campaign is supposed to start.”
Crowe’s words provided fuel for the debate. Over the next hour the NSC members debated the pros and cons of launching the anti-SSBN campaign at this point. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger agreed with Crowe and laid out the reasons why. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t sway anyone else at the table. An anti-SSBN effort now was nothing short of reckless escalation. Bush and Schultz continued to push for the president to make contact with Romanov before anything else. The DCI pointed out that Moscow was an intelligence and information black hole. The Kremlin was silent and that by itself was disquieting.
President Reagan quietly watched as the discussion flowed around the table, absorbing everything. He gave each one of the NSC members ample opportunity to present and defend their positions. Yet the discussion couldn’t be allowed to continue indefinitely. As the Director of Central Intelligence had correctly pointed out, time was not a luxury that was working in their favor.
Reagan allowed the group another ten minutes of discussion and then raised a hand indicating the time for debate was over. The conference room became silent, and after a few seconds the president spoke.
“I want to thank all of you for a spirited and informative talk. I’ve heard and considered all of your positions on the subjects and have weighed them against my own, as well as the needs of the nation right now.
“So, the Russians are sending more missile subs to sea than they said. This is a serious matter and we can’t ignore it. At the same time, we cannot go off half-cocked either. So what we’re going to do is put a similar number of our own ballistic missile subs to sea. We will match them sub for sub and continue that as long as necessary. George,” he turned to the secretary of state. “I want you to contact Moscow through the Swiss and explain our action. I also want to talk to Romanov over the Hotline this afternoon if it can be arranged.”
Schultz nodded his understanding and scribbled a few lines of notes on the legal pad on the desk in front of him.
“As for going after their subs now up north,” Reagan breathed and looked around the room before going on. “We’ll put that on hold for the time being. I believe it’d be too dangerous right now. We need time to talk to the Kremlin, or failing that, try and learn what’s really happening in Moscow. Admiral Crowe, how long will it take to get our missile submarines in motion?”
“CINCLANT is primed and ready to surge his boomers, Mr. President. The first boats will be underway within ninety minutes of the order being given.”
“Alright then,” Reagan nodded his head sharply. “Consider the order to be given. Get those subs moving.”