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The ABM Treaty: obstacle to security

By Jim Courter / December 18, 1985

THE debate over SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative) and arms control is taking on a sense of d'ej`a vu. We're replaying the debate that we held in 1972. The same two countries participated, the same strategic questions were addressed, the same offensive-defensive trade-off is being suggested, the same arguments are being made on both sides. But even though we have been down this road before, we don't often hear references to the 1972 debate that led to the ABM Treaty and the SALT I agreement, least of all from SDI opponents, and for very good reason. The last time we banned antimissile defenses in the interest of obtaining offensive arms reductions, we failed.

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Today, as in 1972, our strategic goal is to prevent the Soviet Union from having the ability to disarm the United States in a surprise attack. We can deter a first strike in two ways. Offensive deterrence threatens unacceptable retaliation, while defensive deterrence gives unacceptable levels of doubt to an attacker, whose first-strike strategy falls apart as he loses certainty that his missiles will reach all the necessary targets.

These two types of deterrence are not mutually exclusive, and they actually complement each other. Even a small deployment of defenses would protect us against the accidental launch of a nuclear missile -- a danger to which we are completely vulnerable today.

Our vulnerability is deliberate, because assured vulnerability is the policy we adopted when we signed the ABM Treaty of 1972. We placed severe limits on defenses, not because they were dangerous, but because they were viewed as a new incentive for an offensive arms race. With defenses removed, nuclear missiles would enjoy a ``free ride'' to their exposed targets; the weapons both sides already possessed would be sufficient; and there would be no reason to continue building more missiles.

This design was expressed in the ABM Treaty, which limited defenses, and in the SALT I agreement, which put a temporary lid on offenses until more substantial reductions could be negotiated. From the American point of view, failure to reduce offensive arms within five years would cause us to reconsider our adherence to the ABM Treaty. That is why SALT I was an ``interim'' agreement with a five-year life, and that is why we expressed this conditional acceptance of the ABM ban in a unilateral statement we

appended to the treaty itself.

Today, some tout the ABM Treaty as the most successful arms control agreement ever. In one sense it certainly is successful: We remain defenseless, 13 years after the treaty was signed. But the offensive reductions -- and hence the stability -- that the treaty was supposed to bring about never materialized.

Instead of reductions, we got the very expansion of offensive weapons that we were told would result from deployment of defenses. The Soviets have surpassed us in several important ways. While we engage in the usual congressional-executive bickering over a new mobile missile that is on the drawing board, the Soviets are deploying mobile missiles. Soviet strategic forces now have more than twice the megatonnage and more than four times the throw-weight of US forces. In the last three years, they have inc reased their stock of long-range nuclear warheads by 37 percent, while we increased ours by 10 percent, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Our land-based deterrent is more vulnerable now than it was in 1972, despite the SALT agreements on offensive arms.