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The Belated Consequences of Killing the ABM Treaty

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Quote of the week:

“There is not much solace in raising the enemy’s requirements if he is still able to meet them.”
— Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age

The hardest sell in the crucial debates over strategic arms control in the 1960s was that constraining offenses required strictly limiting ballistic missile defenses. Forgoing defenses against the most dangerous weapon systems ever devised seemed counterintuitive, to say the least. The notion of remaining defenseless against surprise attack, or being unable to complicate Soviet attack plans, or to forgo leverage from missile defenses in a strategic arms competition was beyond the pale to Hawks.

Doves saw things quite differently. They focused on the futility of ballistic missile defenses against the atomic bomb – let alone far more powerful nuclear arms coming down the pike. Strategic analysts like Bernard Brodie and renowned physicists like Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe argued that the mad momentum of an entirely foreseeable strategic arms competition could only be forestalled by accepting vulnerability or MAD — mutual assured destruction. In this view, the more one superpower tried to defend against intercontinental attack, the more its adversary would commit to getting through.

Arms controllers won the first round in 1972 by a technical knock out. Missile defense technologies were hopelessly backward, and yet their prospect unnerved the Kremlin – even to the point of its giving up prospective missile defenses of the Motherland. The Pentagon wasn’t nearly as keen on missile defenses as on pursuing leverage by means of missiles carrying multiple warheads. Democrats on Capitol Hill dug in their heels against missile defenses. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger read the writing on the wall and reluctantly agreed to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which permitted only two missile defense bases within national territories.

One founding father of arms control, Donald Brennan, flipped sides over this decision on strategic and moral grounds. Others, like Paul Nitze, flipped and flopped, depending on whether they were on the outside opposing arms control or on the inside negotiating arms reductions. Most stayed firmly in their opposing camps.

The dream of effective missile defenses never died within the U.S. strategic enclave. Pushback during the Cold War was never greater than during the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan had a dream of saving the world from Armageddon by making nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete, and defense contractors lined up at the trough. The Kremlin pushed back by seeking to make missile defenses impotent and obsolete by producing missiles like sausages. The Kremlin could clearly win this competition. The ABM Treaty survived this challenge and fulfilled its purpose when President Reagan’s “dealers” outmaneuvered his “squeezers” by leveraging the Strategic Defense Initiative to secure deep cuts in offensive arms.

The last gasp of the ABM Treaty was the Clinton administration’s attempt to accommodate and demarcate acceptable theater missile defenses within the Treaty’s framework. The notion of (symbolically if not actually) seeking to defend allies from missile attacks made perfect sense, but by this time, Republican strategists and legislators were firmly in the “kill the ABM Treaty” camp. This became easy for the George W. Bush administration to do after the 9/11 attacks.

As ACW Founding Father Jeffrey Lewis and Aaron Stein note in their most recent podcast, it took a while for the consequences of killing the ABM Treaty to become manifest. At the top of this list, I would place the negative ramifications of achieving deep cuts in U.S. and Russian strategic offensive forces. After ridding themselves of Cold War excess, new reductions – substantive reductions – require meaningful constraints on ballistic missile defenses that are now lacking. It’s hard to envision the re-imposition of severe constraints on BMD in the future, given the state of domestic U.S. politics and the proliferation of longer-range missiles.

A second consequence, long anticipated, is renewed emphasis on cruise missile penetration capabilities. (As hard as long-range ballistic missiles are to intercept, cruise missiles that fly below and around ballistic missile defenses are harder.)

A third consequence is renewed freaked out behavior by the Kremlin and the somewhat revived Russian military industrial complex. Many have noted the crazed nature of some of the new Russian programs – the doomsday torpedo, the nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile and, last but not least, the revival of a liquid-fueled, silo-based MIRVed missile. (Talk about shades of the seventies.)

A fourth consequence, I regret to surmise, is the renewal of freaked out behavior by the U.S. missile defense complex, which will be encouraged by the usual precincts on Capitol Hill to explore space-based interceptors once again.

A fifth consequence (not to be a complete downer) might be the demise of new U.S. low-yield warhead options previously championed in Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review. The notion of escalating to de-escalate, which low-yield options were presumably designed to counter, seems downright silly after Putin’s new laundry list of nuclear overkill. When it comes to nuclear weapons, the Kremlin doesn’t fine tune. Nor should the Pentagon.

A sixth consequence of killing the ABM Treaty — and one that is worth dwelling on here and elsewhere — is the prospective demise of a numerically-based system of U.S.-Russian strategic arms control and reductions. Even if the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is extended without further reductions, these limitations are not hard and fast. There are already many workarounds to these limits, and more are in store with the advent of the aforementioned cruise missile programs. Absent significantly improved relations between Washington and Moscow, decades of hard work to configure nuclear and conventional arms control regimes will go by the boards. Reducing nuclear dangers in the future will then depend increasingly on transitioning from numerical limits to normative constraints.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on March 7, 2018. 

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