Michael KreponIs a Third Trade for Missile Defenses Possible?

Quote of the week:

“The situation in the world seemed to me like the unfolding of a great Greek tragedy, where we could see the march of events and know what ought to be done, but to be powerless to prevent the marching to its grim conclusion.” – Diary entry of Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, April 17, 1932. 

In professional sports, teams swap overpriced talent with long-term contracts. So, why not trade expensive programs with limited military utility to secure controls and reductions in nuclear arms?

Two U.S. Presidents have already made sound trades topping off national ballistic missile defenses. They accepted limits on programs burdened by technological and operational constraints to gain something of greater value. Might a third trade be in the cards? Don’t bet on it, but let’s consider the possibilities after a brief walk down memory lane.

The first trade occurred when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger agreed to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in return for capping Soviet missile launcher deployments in the first strategic arms limitation talks. This linkage was unavoidable because the Kremlin was convinced that U.S. advantages in defensive technologies could place it at a grave disadvantage. The ABM Treaty was of indefinite duration. The first offensive limits were temporary, to be replaced by tighter ones. The deal struck was therefore called an “Interim Agreement.”

Before these talks began, the Kremlin hurried to excavate new silos and to build modern ballistic missile-carrying submarines. The Soviet Union was significantly behind U.S. deployments on both fronts and resolved not to negotiate from a position of weakness. So, it delayed the start of negotiations for a full year toward the end of the Johnson administration. Negotiations were then delayed further when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia.

By the time SALT I was negotiated in 1972, Moscow had deployed more land- and sea-based missile launchers than the Pentagon, which had opted to multiply warheads atop launchers rather than to increase their number. Deterrence strategists in both countries felt disadvantaged by the Interim Agreement.

The ABM Treaty limited strategic ballistic missile defense deployments to just two locations apiece, with one-hundred interceptors allowed at each site. Nixon, Kissinger, and hawks on Capitol Hill wanted bigger numbers, but the Pentagon was lukewarm to this idea, preferring offensive upgrades. There was also strong public and congressional opposition to missile defenses that were hobbled by technological limitations and that sought to defend U.S. cities and silos with nuclear detonations.

To further clarify the ineffectuality of national defenses against missile attacks, early warning radars for these limited deployments had to be situated on the periphery of national territory oriented outward. They were soft targets that would be destroyed in the opening salvos of a nuclear war, leaving both superpowers blind and even more hopelessly vulnerable to missile attacks. By joint agreement, Washington and Moscow subsequently agreed to downsize the two permissible sites to one in 1974. 

SALT I’s limitations on offensive arms were as porous as sandstone. The Pentagon and the Soviet Ministry of Defense would have it no other way. It took another two decades for deep cuts to become possible — thanks again to renewed U.S. interest in missile defenses. 

The second trade became possible when Ronald Reagan embraced the concept of making nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” by means of futuristic missile defenses. His beloved Strategic Defense Initiative triggered every Soviet neuron that feared U.S. technological leapfrogging. Mikhail Gorbachev was willing to trade fifty per cent reductions in Soviet globe-spanning missiles, including the most fearsome of the lot, to ground Reagan’s SDI. 

This trade was finalized in the George H.W. Bush administration, which negotiated not one, but two strategic arms reduction treaties, the latter eliminating land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. Bush quietly shelved Reagan’s dream and focused on less technologically challenging missile defense systems. Long story short: two decades after its negotiation, the intended purposes behind the ABM Treaty were realized. Mutual vulnerability helped to prevent nuclear exchanges and enabled deep cuts.

The George W. Bush administration was marked by critical errors of omission and judgment. Only the President and the Vice President could have demanded that domestic and foreign intelligence agencies collaborate to connect the dots to prevent the attack that they forecast. Neither did so. Then came ill-executed and ill-advised wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During his second term, Bush insisted that Ukraine and Georgia be added to the queue for NATO expansion, with predictable results. With regulators asleep at the switch, his administration ended with the 2008 financial collapse.

To this list some of us would add Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002. Vladimir Putin responded by killing the second strategic arms reduction treaty and its prohibitions on MIRVed land-based missiles. Bush, like Putin, wanted freedom of action. But fielding effective national missile defenses didn’t become any easier; technological and operational challenges remained immutable.

Deeper reductions became harder for Bush’s successors after the ABM Treaty’s demise. The Kremlin continues be wary of U.S. missile defense upgrades. Consequently, Putin values land-based missiles carrying MIRVs and other means of attack to make national missile defenses impotent and obsolete.

Another reason why deeper reductions are harder to accomplish is because China is significantly ramping up its deployed land-based missiles amidst calls that Beijing be included in any future strategic arms limitation agreement. The Soviet Union deployed up to three-hundred missiles annually in the run-up to SALT; Chinese deployments don’t begin to match this build up, but they are eye opening, nonetheless.

Moscow has included U.S. missile defense programs in its long list of items to be discussed in the strategic stability talks. We don’t yet know what priority the Kremlin attaches to preventing missile defense upgrades. If this is a high priority, it might be possible to trade the same horse three times to the Kremlin. If so, how might Washington benefit a third time?

To be continued…


  1. john Hallam (History)

    I am sceptical that the same horse can be traded tree times. Wont the Kremlin feel they are being diddled? Besides the thing abut missile defense is that- at the technical level – it doesn’t and can’t work.

  2. Sy Gunson BAUGHTY NOY (@SimonGunson) (History)

    Russia is in a position of technological superiority at the moment. USA would need to beg hard like lifting trade sanctions and restoring open skies over flight would be a bare minimum US concession.

  3. Rob Goldston (History)

    My response: Let’s give it a try. How about eliminating all silo-based ICBMs in trade for strict limits on BMD interceptors. And we can trade the same horse with China.

  4. Shams Zaman (History)

    Though the idea is great, the US will have to walk a mile to bridge the credibility gap. The US unilaterally withdrew from ABM Treaty in 2002, unilaterally exit the JCPOA in 2018, abandoned INF Treaty in 2019 and Open Skies Treaty in 2020.
    Looking at the US unilateral and unpredictable track record on international agreements and treaties, probably neither Russia nor China, or for that matter any other state, would like to enter into a legally binding treaty with regards to arms control and disarmament.
    Even NATO was skeptical about US committments regarding collective defence during the Trump administration.
    So it will not be easy to negotiate agreements due to increased spending on developing new kinds of advanced weapon systems by three great powers.

    • Rob Goldston (History)