Executive Summary: The ABM Treaty: Outdated and Dangerous

Report Defense

Executive Summary: The ABM Treaty: Outdated and Dangerous

August 20, 1998 3 min read Download Report
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

During his tenure as Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, Robert S. McNamara formulated a strategic nuclear policy designed to keep both the United States and the Soviet Union essentially defenseless against nuclear attack. This policy, aptly named "mutual assured destruction" or MAD, was codified in a treaty signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972 called the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The ABM Treaty barred both the U.S. and the Soviet Union from deploying systems capable of defending their national territories against ballistic missile attack.

Despite dramatic changes in the strategic environment since 1972, the territory of the United States remains completely undefended against ballistic missile attack. In fact, the Clinton Administration continues to work assiduously to retain both the MAD policy and the ABM Treaty.

The tangible result of this effort was revealed in a new set of ABM Treaty-related agreements between the United States and four republics of the former Soviet Union. One of these agreements would establish a new ABM Treaty, virtually identical to its predecessor, in a multilateral setting. The new agreement, formulated as a memorandum of understanding (MOU) among the United States, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine, was signed for the United States by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on September 26, 1997, at the United Nations in New York. It must be approved by the Senate prior to ratification.

The original ABM Treaty, under the terms of international law, lapsed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Considering that Senate rejection of the MOU would block the re-establishment of ABM Treaty-style restrictions, the most critical question for the Senate is whether the continuation of ABM Treaty restrictions serves the national security interests of the United States.

The answer is that, if continued, these restrictions will prevent the U.S. from protecting itself from a clear, present, and growing danger. Specifically:

  • The continuation of ABM Treaty restrictions will perpetuate a security policy based on the illogical notion that leaving the American people vulnerable to missile attack somehow makes the nation more secure.

  • With the demise of the Soviet Union, both MAD and the ABM Treaty are obsolete.

  • ABM-style restrictions increase the risks associated with accidental or unauthorized missile launches from Russia or China.

  • Continuation of ABM-like restrictions will leave the U.S. unable to respond to the growing threat associated with the proliferation of missile systems among rogue states.

  • Continuation of ABM restrictions will impose limits on the kinds of cooperative efforts the United States can undertake with its friends and allies in the area of missile defense.

  • As in the past, the ABM Treaty will not serve its stated purpose of limiting the size of offensive nuclear arsenals.

  • ABM Treaty restrictions involve purely artificial distinctions between tactical and theater missile defenses and strategic missile defenses.

  • The alternative of a "treaty-compliant" deployment of national missile defenses is a dead end because it ensures that effective missile defense technologies remain permanently in the research and development stage and are never deployed.

  • The continuation of ABM Treaty restrictions will bar the U.S. from developing a reasonable missile-defense deployment plan that initially would field 650 interceptors on 22 Navy ships and later field a combination of space-based interceptors and space-based lasers.


The ABM Treaty has always been incompatible with the deployment of an effective missile defense system, despite the arguments of some ABM proponents that a treaty-compliant approach to deployment was available. This incompatibility will be perpetuated if the MOU is ratified.

It has been difficult to argue that deployment of an effective missile defense system is incompatible with the ABM Treaty, however, since few realistic opportunities to free the U.S. from the treaty have materialized. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Senate has both the opportunity and the obligation to debate the benefits and risks of the policy of vulnerability codified in the ABM Treaty.

--Baker Spring is a Senior Policy Analyst in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy