Truth or Consequences: 1988 ABM Treaty Review Conference


The Reagan administration plans to use
the 1988 ABM Treaty Review Conference as
a means of advancing its campaign to
“restore the integrity” of that
accord. For the United States, therefore,
the focus of this meeting will be on
getting the USSR to stop violating the
Treaty. Much energy will be expended in
particular on the matter of the Soviet
Union’s illegal construction of a large,
phased array radar (LPAR) at Krasnoyarsk.

As important as compliance with
treaties is, however, were the Review
Conference to do nothing more than berate
the Soviets about their egregious
violations of their obligations, it will
represent a tragically missed
opportunity. In fact, with regard to the
long-term security interests of the
United States the conference will be a
failure — even if it results in Soviet
agreement to destroy the Krasnoyarsk

The reason for this harsh judgment
should be self-evident: The five-year
review affords a unique and final
opportunity for the Reagan Administration
to engage in a fundamental reappraisal of
the rationale behind the ABM Treaty. Such
a reappraisal would reveal that, after
sixteen years, the history of this accord
has been one of unrealized expectations
and a dramatically worsened U.S.
strategic posture:

  • Contrary to the prediction of the
    ABM treaty’s architects, the
    treaty did not halt Soviet
    movement toward development of a
    nationwide ABM defenses.
  • Indeed, growing evidence of the
    Soviet Union’s intention to
    deploy such defenses suggests
    that the premise that
    anti-ballistic missile systems
    could not be made to work is no
    longer true (if ever it were).
    The United States’ own research
    under the Strategic Defense
    Initiative bears this out.
  • Also contrary to predictions, the
    treaty did not lead to deep arms
    reductions or greater stability
    in offensive weapons.
  • In fact, the signature of the ABM
    treaty ushered in a period of
    vast and unprecedented growth in
    the Soviet arsenal (a fourfold
    increase in the number of Soviet
    strategic nuclear weapons since
    1972). In its aftermath, the
    United States is decisively more
    vulnerable to preemptive attack
    than when the treaty was signed.

For its part, the Soviet Union will
almost certainly wish to keep the focus
of the review conference squarely on
strengthening the ABM Treaty. However
much it may contrast with their own
actions, the Soviets’ rhetoric since 1983
has emphasized the USSR’s commitment to
the Treaty; Soviet diplomacy has been
uniformly directed at ensuring that the
United States would continue for the
foreseeable future to be bound by that
agreement’s limitations.

Toward this end, the USSR may agree at
this meeting to do something about the
Krasnoyarsk radar; then again, it may
not. Most likely is some middle position
— a cosmetic action that seems to meet
part of the American objections without
entirely dismantling the radar. Even if
the Soviets were to destroy the radar
facility at Krasnoyarsk, however, the
significant problems posed for U.S.
security by this accord will persist.

Soviet Strategic Defenses

Central among these problems has been
a Soviet behavior which has scorned not
only the letter but also the spirit of
the agreement. The Krasnoyarsk radar is
an important part of this behavior, but
it is not the whole story. As President
Reagan has repeatedly certified to
Congress in his annual reports on Soviet
non-compliance, this radar fits into a
broad pattern of Soviet strategic defense
activities. Some of these are permitted,
some of them legally ambiguous, and some
of them clearly in violation of the ABM
Treaty. While Soviet secrecy, advances in
technology and ambiguities in the
Treaty’s constraints have made it
difficult to establish clearly that all
such activities contravene the ABM
accord, in their totality these
questionable activities pose a
significant risk of eventual Soviet ABM
breakout. Together they suggest, as the
United States has repeatedly said, that
the “USSR may be preparing an ABM
defense of its national territory.”

To cite but a few examples:

  • The Soviets have increasingly
    exploited the technological
    gray-areas between air defense
    and anti-ballistic missile
    defense. For example, their SA-12
    missile, nominally an
    anti-aircraft missile, also has
    capability against tactical
    ballistic missiles. It could be
    used illegally to defend against
    submarine-launched, and possibly
    even some land-based,
    intercontinental-range missiles.
  • U.S. concerns about this
    possibility are exacerbated by
    the Soviet Union’s pattern of
    testing ABM and air defense
    components concurrently —
    behavior the United States
    believes may amount to yet
    another violation of the treaty.

  • The Soviet Union has been
    developing for years ABM systems
    believed capable, thanks to their
    inherent mobility, of being
    deployed to sites around the
    Soviet Union in a matter of
    months. Such systems could reduce
    dramatically the warning time the
    United States might have of
    Soviet breakout from the treaty.
    Recently, the Soviets established
    unequivocally the
    transportability of the
    components of two such systems —
    the Pawn Shop and Flat Twin ABM
    radars by moving them from legal
    sites to a prohibited location.
    In so doing, they committed
    another unequivocal breach of the
    ABM Treaty.
  • Reload capabilities of the Moscow
    ABM system also gives rise to
    what the President’s December,
    1987 noncompliance report cites
    as a “serious concern”
    and an “ambiguous
    situation” with regard to
    compliance. Such reload
    capabilities significantly expand
    the usefulness of the
    100-launcher ABM system that the
    Soviets are permitted under the
  • It must be assumed, moreover,
    that, as the Soviets engage in a
    major upgrade of the ABM system
    at Moscow, they are producing
    sufficient numbers of
    interceptors and other equipment
    to support a larger ABM
    deployment than allowed by the
    Treaty. Indeed, the fact that one
    such interceptor, the SH-08, has
    previously been associated with
    the mobile ABM-X-3 system
    heightens concerns about the
    likelihood of a rapid and
    widespread deployment.

  • The Soviets are in the process of
    completing a network of radars
    like that at Krasnoyarsk. Such a
    network is an essential
    ingredient for a traditional
    territorial defense system. It is
    also the most time-consuming one
    to acquire. The inherent
    capability of these radars could
    permit them to contribute
    significantly to a Soviet
    territorial defense capability —
    even though they are nominally
    deployed in a legal fashion.
  • Such ABM-related activities take
    on even greater strategic
    significance against the
    back-drop of a wide array of
    other Soviet defensive measures.
    Massive investments in air
    defenses, deeply buried
    leadership shelters, civil
    defenses and a variety of means
    applied to enhancing the
    survivability of offensive forces
    (e.g., hardening, concealment,
    mobility, deception, etc.) all
    attest to the Soviet Union’s
    abiding commitment to reduce the
    vulnerability of its most
    valuable assets to nuclear
    attack. These other strategic
    defenses work synergistically
    with the USSR’s ABM program and
    would enhance the effectiveness
    of even a relatively modest
    capability against ballistic

In short, there is a broad sweep of
Soviet activities that go well beyond the
problem posed by the Krasnoyarsk radar
and that bear directly upon the Soviet
Union’s actual capabilities to defend its
territory against ballistic missile
attack. The simple truth of the matter is
that the USSR remains committed to
strategic defense, a commitment it is
pursuing in violation of the spirit as
well as the letter of the ABM Treaty.
Even if the Soviets agree to destroy the
Krasnoyarsk radar, they will not have
altered this fundamental reality.

ABM Technologies Can Work

The U.S. SDI program has demonstrated
that techniques are available that will
permit the interception of ballistic
missiles and their reentry vehicles with
non-nuclear means. The Soviets have, of
course, opted for a less elegant, more
brute-force approach — traditional,
nuclear-armed interceptors guided to
their targets by powerful ground-based

The American research program into and
the substantial Soviet deployment of
their respective technologies attest to
the shortsightedness of the ABM Treaty’s
framers. Far from it being impossible to
stop a bullet with a bullet, as some of
them believed at the time, doing so is
today well within the technical
capacities of both nation’s military
establishments. The difference is that
the USSR is actively pursuing deployment
of its system, at a minimum in the Moscow
region and possibly beyond; the United
States, meanwhile, is racked with
uncertainty and divisiveness over the
future of its Strategic Defense

Stability in Offensive Arms
Has Not Ensued

Perhaps the most important and least
realized promise of the ABM Treaty was
that it would create a stable strategic
environment, one that would give rise to
reductions in strategic arms from the
levels existing in 1972. In the event,
the number of the weapons in the Soviet
strategic arsenal has actually increased
since the Treaty was signed.

What is more, during this period, the
Soviet Union deployed a new generation of
highly accurate missiles, optimized to
render U.S. ICBMs vulnerable to
preemptive attack. Ironically, under the
ABM Treaty, the survivability of U.S.
land-based forces has not grown and the
stability of the strategic balance has
not improved; to the contrary, they have
worsened dramatically. U.S. strategic
forces — like the nation they are
supposed to protect — became more, not
less, vulnerable with the Treaty’s
inhibition of American defenses.

The Review Conference

It is against this backdrop that the
five-year review of the ABM Treaty should
be considered. The following prescription
will maximize the utility of this event
and ensure its consistency with long-term
U.S. interests:

  • The United States should be
    extremely chary of Soviet
    proposals aimed at reinforcing
    the ABM Treaty. The Treaty has
    manifestly not prevented the
    Soviet Union from obtaining
    considerable capability to
    breakout of its limitations.
    However much the United States
    (especially its uniformed
    military) might hope the Soviets
    will not do so, there is little
    evidence to support the
    contention that new commitments
    not to withdraw from the Treaty
    will do much to prevent them from
    breaking out when and if they
    wish to.
  • While the Soviets should be
    encouraged to destroy the illegal
    radar at Krasnoyarsk, the United
    States should be under no
    illusion that this action — if
    it is taken — will preclude the
    USSR from breaking out of the ABM
    Treaty or otherwise acquiring
    defensive capabilities not
    permitted by that agreement.
    Moreover, anything short of
    complete destruction of the radar
    facility may not even seriously
    interfere with its use by the
    Soviet Union in the future for
    illegal purposes.
  • Under no circumstances should the
    United States agree to further
    encumber research into practical
    strategic defenses as the price
    for more promises about
    reductions in offensive arms.
    America has already paid dearly
    for the last such promise; when,
    moreover, it is becoming
    increasingly unclear that sharp
    reductions are going to produce
    additional strategic stability
    (any more than the ABM Treaty
    did), there are further grounds
    for resisting the so-called
    “Grand Compromise.”

In short, the purpose of the ABM
Treaty Review Conference should be to
dispel illusions about this agreement,
not to strengthen its regime. It should
establish unequivocally that the Soviets
have materially breached this agreement,
violated its spirit and acted so as to
ensure that whatever arguably mutual
benefits might have arisen from its
strategic construct were not achieved.
Finally, the 1988 Review Conference
should set the stage for vigorous work on
and deployment of SDI — not its

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