Michael KreponThe Belated Consequences of Killing the ABM Treaty

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.


  1. dreukrag (History)

    Isn’t the Kremlin severely overstating the benefits of BMD tough? With the failure rates and ammount of interceptors, certainly a competent actor like Russia or China can overcome the US BMD, ‘lesser’ nuclear powers incapable of fielding as many wepons would be the ones affected.

    I’m under the impression the Kremlin’s freaked out behavior might mean their nuclear deterrent is nowhere near as capable as they make it out to be.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      I think you are right. There is so much huffing and puffing here… it’s reasonable to suspect overcompensation.
      That said, I’ve reached the conclusion that you can translate US interest in BMD into great deals over and over again.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      I have a curious tome in my personal library; Weaponry in Space: The Dilemma of Security, VTI Press, Moscow, Copyright Mir Publishing, 1986. In it Soviet thinkers lay out very cogent arguments that, whether intended or not, the building of missile defenses in the face of MAD lays the basis for a pre-emptive (that is, First) strike, and hence is inherently destabilizing. As far as I can tell, they were genuinely convinced of this then, and the their Russian Federation successors remain genuinely convinced.

    • Dreukrag (History)

      Well, if they believe that, have they offered an agreement towards removal of BMD? If they were honest at fearing that BMD would make the US that much likelier to strike them surely they’d be willing to sitdown and have a talk no?

      Building doomsday nukes is unlikely to force the US to backdown.

  2. Miguel (History)

    I guess the liquid-fueled, silo-based MIRVed missile you mention above is RS-28 Sarmat, wich was recently announced. Both the timing -short after the latest NPR- and the spectacular mise en scene of the announcement suggest a true “retaliation” against the assumption of an escalation theory (which seems really silly now, as you wrote above). However,perhaps for the same reasons, also raise some suspicions on whether or not that weapon is already operational. May I have some feedback about this?

  3. Larry Chasteen (History)

    Our MD was never designed to be effective against Russia or China. It is “limited” and only works against N. Korea or Iran. Some Americans even say it won’t work against N. Korea or Iran. It is strange that Russia and China think it could threaten them!

    • Alexis Toulet (History)

      The concern for any nuclear-armed country other than the US is that NMD could become effective enough to repel not the full nuclear force of, say, China, but what would remain of that force after a US nuclear first strike out of the blue.

      Yes, it’s possible that this is not the real objective of US strategic planners, that they are earnestly interested only in negating attempts of new nuclear countries to target CONUS. Then, it’s also possible that the purported rationale for NMD is merely a veil on the real objective, which is quite simply: world domination.

      Paranoid? Possible, but logical. How could a Chinese adviser on strategy demonstrate to his country’s political leadership that this has not been the real US objective all along? How could that adviser demonstrate that even if unintended, that won’t be the logical consequence?

      There are ordinary enemies such as terrorists and assorted small fry. Then there is a potential enemy that is doing extraordinary efforts to create a situation where he could just decide to utterly submit the world.

      The two are not the same. One of these situations only is deadly serious.

      And Russian and Chinese – and French, but shhh – efforts to make sure that the US NMD remains impotent against their deterrent are only logical.

  4. Larry Chasteen (History)

    I don’t think any “real experts” believe the US would launch a 1st strike on either Russia or China – so this is just political posturing.

    • Alexis Toulet (History)

      A real expert knows the limits of his knowledge. Possible actions, short or long term, of a foreign government are not within limits of knowledge.

      Also: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

      The question is not the probability of a US nuclear first strike on China or Russia, as estimated by a person who, in reality, can’t know that probability and will just guess. The question is whether such a thing is possible.

      It is not possible. But it would be if US NMD had succeeded.

  5. smdvmx (History)

    “The US is creating a military infrastructure near Russia’s borders for the application of a sudden nuclear strike.”
    – Viktor Poznihir, first Deputy Chief of the Main Operations Directorate, to the Moscow international Security Conference of the Russian Armed Forces, April 26. http://www.fort-russ.com/2017/04/us-forces-preparing-sudden-nuclear.html

  6. smdvmx (History)

    Putin, speech to Federal Assembly March 1, 2018 from transcript:

    “Now, on to the most important defence issue.
    I will speak about the newest systems of Russian strategic weapons that we are creating in response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States of America from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of their missile defence systems both in the US and beyond their national borders.”
    http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/56957 More at Nukewatch.org

  7. jeannick (History)

    ” I don’t think any “real experts” believe the US would launch a 1st strike on either Russia or China ”

    The Russians do not believe a surprise attack is not imaginable ,
    they did got some in the past , several times in fact ,Pearl Harbor was not imaginable either