ABM and Arms Control, Part I
In the next few days President Clinton will be meeting with his
Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow. Among the
many topics on the agenda, none is more important to both sides
than arms control. Simply put, the U.S. desires to build a limited
missile defense in case of an attack from a "rogue" state while
Russia would like to see it''s own missile "burden" reduced in an
effort to save money. So how did we get to this point? That''s
today''s discussion, but first, let''s define some terms which we
will be employing the next few weeks.
ABM - Antiballistic Missile treaty of 1972
ICBM - Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
MAD - Mutual Assured Destruction
MIRV - Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles
NMD - National Missile Defense
Rogue state - Iran, Iraq, Libya or North Korea
SALT - Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (Accord)
SLBM - Submarine (Sea) - Launched Ballistic Missile
START - Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (Accord)
The history of arms control agreements between the U.S. and the
former Soviet Union is an extensive one. The current discussion is
centered around the ABM treaty of 1972, an offshoot of the
SALT I agreement which was reached that year.
While Russia and even our own allies bitch about current U.S.
intentions to build some kind of missile defense, the history of
the "defensive" ABM treaty goes back to 1966 when the Soviet
Union began to deploy an antiballistic missile defense around
Moscow. That same year China tested its first nuclear weapon.
Then in September, 1967, the U.S. announced it was close to
deploying its own ABM system, ostensibly to meet a possible
limited Chinese ICBM threat - China back then was the "rogue"
nation to be concerned with - as well as to add protection against
"the improbable but possible accidental launch of an
intercontinental missile by one of the nuclear powers."
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said at the time:
"Let me emphasize - and I cannot do so too strongly - that our
decision to go ahead with a limited ABM deployment in no way
indicates that we feel an agreement with the Soviet Union on the
limitation of strategic nuclear offensive and defensive forces is in
any way less urgent or desirable."
On July 1, 1968, President Johnson announced that the Soviets
had agreed to begin discussions on limiting and reducing both
strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems and defense against
ballistic missiles. But on August 20, the USSR, up to its old
tricks, invaded Czechoslovakia and talks with the U.S. were
But just five months later, on January 20, 1969, Richard Nixon
assumed the oval office and immediately undertook a review of
the strategic, political, and verification aspects of arms control.
SALT talks began in Helsinki on November 17 of that year.
Up until this point, the two sides had operated under a policy of
"assured destruction," or MAD. The feeling being that neither
side would risk a massive first strike if they knew that the other
side''s forces would have more than enough left over to retaliate
in kind. Blowing up one nation was bad enough. Taking out
each other, and the world, seemed insane.
The U.S. had not added to its own ICBM forces since 1967 and
by 1970 the Soviets had taken the lead in land-based ICBMs.
But it was felt that the U.S. had a superior submarine-based force
and it was beginning to conduct extensive research on equipping
existing missiles with MIRVs.
In the Pre-MIRV days, each side had single warhead missiles.
MIRVs permitted an individual missile to carry a number of
warheads directed at separate targets. Thus, when the U.S.
decided to deploy MIRVs it gave the U.S. the lead in warheads.
While the USSR was deploying a simple ABM system around
Moscow, the U.S. decided to deploy an ABM system of its own
at two land-based ICBM missile sites in order to protect their
As the SALT negotiations dragged, the issue of an ABM system
became a crucial one. The Soviet''s position was best
enumerated by President Kosygin who said, "Defense is moral,
aggression is immoral." It was designed to protect human life,
exclaimed the Soviet #2 in private conversations. And Moscow
had been the first to deploy it.
On May 26, 1972, during the first trip to Moscow by a U.S.
president, Richard Nixon and his Soviet counterpart, General
Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, signed the SALT I agreement.
It was the first treaty of its kind to place limits and restraints on
some of their most important armaments. The first part was the
ABM accord. The second part was a five-year Interim
Agreement which obliged both sides to freeze their strategic
offensive forces at agreed levels. Regarding the ABM half,
Ambassador Dobrynin wrote:
"This was a grave mistake on both sides, because forswearing
ABMs before they were built would have solved one of the most
crucial disarmament problems. To understand what a major
opportunity we had lost, suffice it to recall how the idea of an
ABM system developed into Ronald Reagan''s ''Star Wars''
program a decade later."
Now when you look at the treaty which has become so
controversial today, it''s important to note what it granted each
The U.S. and USSR were each limited to two defensive sites and
200 missile launchers - too few to contain even a small-scale
attack. One site was for the respective nation''s capital,
the other a land-based missile site. In light of the current
discussion it''s interesting what President Nixon was thinking
back then. Henry Kissinger wrote:
"Nixon agreed to the ceilings in order to preserve a nucleus of
defense and because he feared that, otherwise, the Congress
would eliminate even the experimental program. At the time, the
defensive limitations were relatively free of controversy."
The ABM treaty also gave each Party the right to withdraw from
it on six months notice if it decides that its supreme interests are
jeopardized by "extraordinary events."
The second part of the SALT agreement froze the offensive-
missiles, whether land- or sea-based, at agreed levels. The U.S.
was limited to 1,710 missile launchers, which at the time
consisted of 1,054 land-based and 656 sea-based missiles. The
Soviets were limited to 2,328 missile launchers; at the time the
agreement went into effect, these included 1,607 land-based and
740 sea-based missiles. Historian Richard Pious:
"The numerical disparity favoring the Soviets had several
factors. American rockets were considered more accurate, and
more of them were equipped (or soon would be equipped) with
MIRVs. The Soviets had bigger warheads and more powerful
rockets but were behind in accuracy and had not yet deployed the
MIRV missiles they had been developing. The agreement left
the U.S. with 3,500 warheads and the Soviets with 2,350. [By
the end of the agreement, the U.S. had built up to 9,000 and the
Soviets had 4,000.]
Kissinger writes of the controversy on the U.S. side when SALT
"The disparity in agreed launchers suddenly became
controversial. It was a strange state of affairs. Before SALT
negotiations had even been conceived, the United States had
established the existing ceilings. The Pentagon had made no
effort to increase the level throughout Nixon''s first term; no
Pentagon request for larger strategic forces was received much
less turned down. And even after higher and equal ceilings were
agreed on in the follow-on accord at Vladivostok in 1974 (SALT
II), the Defense Department never proposed increasing the
number of launchers which had been established in 1967.
"But a visitor from Mars observing America''s domestic debate
would have heard an amazing tale about how the United States
government had ''conceded'' an inequality in missiles by agreeing
to settle for its own unilateral program, which it had never
planned to change in the absence of SALT, and which it never
changed, even after the ceiling was removed two years later - not
even in the Reagan Administration. A force level which the
United States had adopted voluntarily because it provided
America with more warheads than it did the Soviet Union, and
which the United States was in no position to change for the
duration of the agreement, was suddenly termed as dangerous
when it was reaffirmed as part of that agreement."
And that''s where we will leave it for now. Next week, what all
this has to do with today.
Sources: Arms Control and Development Agency reports
"The Presidents," Henry Graff
"Diplomacy," Henry Kissinger
"In Confidence," Anatoly Dobrynin