Arms Control: Set Aside the ABM Treaty and Move Towards a SmallerStrategic Nuclear Force

Report Defense

Arms Control: Set Aside the ABM Treaty and Move Towards a SmallerStrategic Nuclear Force

November 5, 2001 8 min read
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

There are two important and related arms control topics that are certain to be discussed by Presidents Bush and Putin during these meetings. Both topics are part of the larger agenda of the Bush Administration to establish a new strategic framework for the post-Cold War world. The first and more important matter is settling the future of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. The ABM Treaty, if made a binding legal agreement between the U.S. and Russia, will permanently cripple the U.S. missile defense program and leave the American people vulnerable to the expanding missile threat for the foreseeable future. The Bush Administration wants to lessen U.S. vulnerability, and therefore, is eager to move beyond the treaty. The second topic is the matter of facilitating further reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces. Economic circumstances are forcing the Russians to reduce the size of their arsenal and they are eager to see the U.S. reduce its strategic nuclear force, as well. Progress on reaching an agreement requires:

Setting aside the ABM Treaty.
The Bush Administration is likely considering two approaches for addressing the ABM Treaty issue at this summit. One approach is to revive the treaty as an agreement between the U.S. and Russia and seeks narrow amendments to allow progress in the U.S. missile defense program. The second approach is to set aside the treaty and seek informal arrangements for managing the transition to the deployment of missile defenses. There are both substantive and procedural reasons why the U.S. should set aside the ABM Treaty. They are:

1. Continuation of the ABM Treaty will force the U.S.-Russian relationship in an adversarial direction, similar to the U.S.-Soviet relationship. The ABM Treaty was designed to codify the policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD was predicated on the notion that the best way to ensure strategic stability between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was for both sides to remain defenseless against a nuclear missile strike. It also assumed the U.S. and the Soviet Union would remain in an adversarial relationship, where the threat of annihilation would be the constant. Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union of the Cold War. President Bush is right to seek a new strategic framework where MAD and the threat of annihilation are abandoned. Politically, a decision to set aside the ABM Treaty, as opposed to amending it, will signal that the Cold War and the MAD policy are a thing of the past.

2. The ABM Treaty was drafted with the intention of prohibiting a defense of U.S. territory against missile attack, not just limiting it. The object and purpose of the ABM Treaty is to deny the U.S. a territorial missile defense. President Bush's policy is to bring an end to the vulnerability of the American people to missile attack by constructing the territorial defense the treaty prohibits. While as a practical matter the U.S. and Russia could agree to amendments to a revived ABM Treaty that would allow the U.S. to do all that it wants to do, such an approach defies logic. Such a package of amendments would turn the ABM Treaty on its head. The better approach is to acknowledge that the purpose of the treaty no longer serves either U.S. or Russian interests. If both sides find it advantageous to limit the resulting missile defense programs in some, they can undertake negotiations on a new treaty.

3. Narrow amendments to the ABM Treaty cannot anticipate all the development, testing, and deployment activities the U.S. may want to undertake. The Bush Administration has established only general guidelines for its missile defense program. It has not chosen a missile defense architecture and the details of the development and testing program remain unclear. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to design a package of narrow amendments to the ABM Treaty that will be certain to accommodate all the missile defense activities that U.S. may wish to undertake in the future. The alternative approach to accommodating U.S. missile defense activities through an amendment procedure, however, should be unacceptable to the Bush Administration and all Americans. It would engage the Russians in a negotiating process where the U.S. would propose an amendment to the ABM Treaty at each juncture in the testing, development, and deployment process that is inconsistent with a provision of the treaty. Such a process, in the context of a revived ABM Treaty, would give Russia multiple vetoes over the U.S. ability to defend itself. No country, including Russia, should be given such a veto.

4. Making Russia a party to the treaty will undermine the process of agreeing to future amendments. Currently, Russia is not a party to the ABM Treaty. Formal negotiations, wherein Russia assumes the position of a party, must wait until Russia is made a party. The Clinton Administration signed an agreement to make Russia, along with three other former Soviet republics, parties in September 1997. This agreement, however, requires Senate consent prior to ratification and entry into force and the agreement has not yet been forwarded to the Senate for its consideration. Even if the Bush Administration sent the 1997 agreement to the Senate and the Senate approved it quickly, a highly unlikely prospect, it would serve to revive the entire range of ABM Treaty prohibitions and restrictions. Thus, the process of amending the ABM Treaty would put the U.S. in the highly awkward position of asking for relief from a treaty that it had just agreed to extend. Further, the ratification of the 1997 agreement will multilateralize the ABM Treaty and make the procedure for adopting future amendments hopelessly complex by requiring the agreement of five states.

5. Negotiating and ratifying formal amendments to the ABM Treaty will take too long. Making Russia a party to the ABM Treaty, and then negotiating a series of amendments to modify the treaty in other ways, is a process that will take months or even years. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has already had to curtail U.S. missile defense activities because of the policy of continuing to observe the treaty. Thus, the policy of observing the ABM Treaty is already preventing the U.S. from even determining which options for missile defense will be most effective. Further, the U.S. missile defense program is already lagging behind the expanding missile proliferation threat. The U.S. cannot afford to leave the American people vulnerable to missile for such an extended time. The likelihood of a missile attack, with the consequence of a much larger loss of American life than in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, is just too high.

6. The Constitution prohibits an informal arrangement for allowing the U.S. to undertake the missile defense testing activities it now desires. President Bush may be contemplating an approach on missile defense that would use an informal declaration that would have the impact of preserving the ABM Treaty, while allowing a limited number of near-term development and testing activities in the U.S. missile defense program. The appeal of this approach is that it would provide immediate relief for near-term missile defense testing activities. The Constitution, however, bars this approach on two levels. First, the Department of Defense has found that the near-term activity in question, the use of Navy radar to track long-range ballistic missiles during flight tests, is not compatible with the Treaty. This means the issue is no longer a matter of interpretation. The only way to make the language of the treaty can be made to accommodate this test activity under the Constitution is to amend the treaty. This is because any substantive change to a treaty is itself a treaty document, subject to Senate consent. Second, President Clinton told Congress that he recognized that the Senate would first have to consent to the ratification of the 1997agreement before he could take any action that would treat Russia, or any other former Soviet republic, as a party to the ABM Treaty. Entering into formal negotiations and signing an agreement to amend the ABM Treaty with Russia would be an action that would confer party status on Russia, prior to Senate consent. Therefore, such negotiations and the signing of such an agreement are unconstitutional actions.

For these reasons, President Bush should press President Putin at Crawford to acknowledgethat the ABM Treaty is no longer valid. Such an agreement should take the form of both unilateral and joint declarations and be accompanied by a commitment to establish a variety of cooperative measures between Russia and the U.S. on missile defense. The cooperative measures should include transparency measures, shared assessments of the missile threat, sharing of early warning, technology sharing, coordinated missile defense deployments, and non-proliferation measures.

Moving to a smaller strategic nuclear force. The Russian government has been pressing the U.S. to agree a reduction in strategic nuclear forces to levels below the 2,000 to 2,500 deployed warheads on each side contemplated for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty III (START III). The Russians have proposed a figure of 1,500 deployed warheads on each side. President Bush has stated that he is willing to reduce the U.S. strategic nuclear force to levels well below the current number of more than 6,000 deployed warheads on each side, but wants to complete the still ongoing Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) prior to announcing a specific commitment. In the interim, the START III negotiations have stalled.

President Bush is right to be cautious. He needs to establish the national security requirements for the U.S. strategic nuclear force in the post-Cold War world prior to agreeing a specific reduction in the size of the force. National security requirements, not arms control considerations or some arbitrary demand for parity with the Russian force, should determine the size of U.S. strategic nuclear forces. Further, the NPR needs to calculate how a higher quality nuclear force can allow for quantitative reductions.

If progress on the NPR is sufficient and certain conditions are met, however, President Bush should feel comfortable issuing a unilateral statement at Crawford that commits the U.S. to a strategic nuclear force that is smaller than that contemplated for START III. The conditions are:

  • Russia reduces its nuclear arsenal to 1,500 deployed warheads or fewer.
  • China's strategic nuclear arsenal does not exceed 100 deployed warheads
  • Potentially hostile Third World states do not deploy strategic nuclear forces exceeding 50 deliverable warheads combined.
  • The U.S. is allowed to retain a fully modernized, safe, reliable, and effective nuclear force, and may resume explosive testing to allow for such a force.
  • The U.S. is allowed to deploy an effective missile defense system.

By making this commitment in the form of a unilateral statement, as opposed to a treaty document, President Bush can preserve the flexibility necessary to adjust U.S. strategic forces as the U.S. confronts unexpected developments in an unpredictable post-Cold War world. It will also allow for a controlled transition to the smaller force, which should be spread over a period of several years. President Putin should be invited to issue a reciprocal unilateral statement regarding Russia's strategic nuclear force.

Taken together, actions by President Bush and President Putin at the Crawford meeting to set aside the ABM Treaty and move toward significantly smaller nuclear forces will form the foundation of a new strategic framework. This framework should allow both the United States and Russia to better address the new security requirements of the post-Cold War world, including the fight against terrorism.

Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy