The Heritage Foundation

Executive Memorandum #311 on Russia

October 10, 1991

October 10, 1991 | Executive Memorandum on Russia

Gorbachev's Reversal on Strategic Defense: An Opportunity for Bush

(Archived document, may contain errors)

10/10/91 311


Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on October 5 made what may tam out to be the most important statement on strategic defense by a world leader since Ronald Reagan's March 23, 1983 sp eech propos- ing the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. In the midst of an otherwise disappointing response to George Bush's September 27 unilateral nuclear cutbacks, Gorbachev made an astonishing proposal: "We are prepared to consider proposals from t h e United States of America on non-nuclear anti-missile defense systems." This reverses nearly a decade of intense Soviet opposition to SDI and paves the way for the fulfillment of Reagan's vision of cooperative U.S.-Soviet defense deployments. It also dep r iveff U.S. SDI opponents of a key ally. Bush quickly should seize this opportunity to present Moscow with a detailed plan for revising the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to permit the limited deploy- ment of strategic defenses. Bush also should p ress Congress to approve a 1996 deployment target for America's first SDI interceptors. Since Reagan's 1983 speech, Moscow until last weekend had taken a hard-line against strategic de- fenses. At the Defense and Space Talks (DST), which opened in 1985 to discuss SDI-related issues, Moscow consistently has opposed any casing of restrictions on the testing and deployment of anti-mis- sile defense systems. The U.S., meanwhile, has urged Moscow to explore a "cooperative transition" ftom the existing nuclear " b alance of terror`!--in which both sides remain completely vulnerable to at- tack-to a more stable balance that includes defenses capable of protecting against an accidental or lim- ited strike. With nuclear weapons and missile technology now spreading to m any Third World countries, and with the Soviet Union unsure it will retain control over its own arsenal, defenses make ever more sense for both sides. Now Gorbachev has recognized this new reality. Not Unexpected. To close observers of the Soviet scene, G o rbachev's reversal was not entirely un- expectrA In a July 16 letter to the leaders of the seven major industrial nations; Gorbachev signaled So- viet willingness to develop "joint ABM early warning systems to prevent unauthorized or terrorist oper- ated l aunches of ballistic missiles." In recent years, moreover, Soviet officials and academicians have en- gaged in an increasingly public debate over strategic defense. In June 1990, Keith Payne, President of the National Institute for Public Policy in Fairfa x , Virginia, documented this debate, concluding that a change in Soviet policy might be in the offing. Among the evidence, a quote from Mikhail Al- eksandrov, a Senior Expert in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Assessment and Planning Department, who wrote i n December 1989 that: "the only way to a new strategic structure is- that of gradual mutually agreed and coordinated steps, which might include phased deployment of ABM components ...... While Gorbachev's statement is a reversal in official Soviet diploma t ic policy, it does not represent any change in Soviet military thinking on strategic defense. Today, as throughout the 1980s, the Soviet military spends about half its strategic budget on defense, including the construction of massive deep un- derground b unkers for Soviet leaders, an extensive civil defense network for the Soviet population, and a completely modernized anti-ballistic missile system for Moscow. As late as last year the Soviet mili-

tary-industri al complex continued to increase the produc tion of missile defense interceptors, despite cut- backs in virtually every other weapon system. The Soviet Union's military emphasis on defense and its diplomatic opposition to SDI were complementary policies. Together they were designed to put as many c o nstraints as possible on America's SDI system while maximizing Soviet protection within (and some- times outside) ABM Treaty limits. Now Moscow has recognized that these limits, at least as they now stand, serve neither side's interests. SDI Critics Refut e d. SDI opponents in Washington consistently portrayed Soviet opposition to SDI as 'immutable, and used it to bolster their case against defenses. Matthew Bunn, Associate Director of the Arms 6ntrol Association, argued in a debate last November 7 at The He r itage Foundation that "just about the weakest, of the many weak links, in the chain of pro-SDI arguments [is] the idea that the Soviets may be reconsidering, and may soon agree to joint deployment of, strategic ballistic missile de- fenses." Only two mont h s ago, Arms Control Association President Spurgeon Keeny wrote in Arro Con- trol Today that Soviet military leaders are "entering the START [Strategic Arms Reduction] treaty only on the condition that the ABM Treaty remains in effect ... A U.S. decision t o initiate a major ABM de- ployment would be the one action that could still derail the START agreement. And without question, it would preclude the negotiation of deeper cuts in START U." Gorbachev seems to have other ideas. His proposal to discuss mutual defensive deployments came in the same speech in which he announced a unilateral reduction in Soviet warheads to 1,000 below the number permitted by START, and proposed that both sides cut their post-START arsenals by half. Growing MomentunL Bush's announ c ement of his Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (G- PALS) plan for SDI in January, the Senate's endorsement in August of limited strategic defense deploy- ments by mid-decade, and now Gorbachev's announcement, make the deployment of strategic defen s es by the U.S., and perhaps the Soviet Union, a near certainty. Bush should encourage the growing momen- tum in favor of strategic defense by advancing a concrete proposal at the Defense and Space Talks in Ge- neva for the mutual deployment of up to 800 g r ound and 1,000 space-based SDI interceptors along the lines of his G-PALS proposal. This also is the time for Bush to state unequivocally the need for Con- gress, which now is hammering out the final version of the 1992 Defense Authorization Bill, to set a firm date of 1996 for imi-tial SDI deployments. If Gorbachev's announcement ultimately paves the way for anti-missile defenses, it will be appropri- ate that opposition to SDI finally was buried in Moscow at the hands of perhaps the last "Sovief 'presi- dent. There could be no more fitting ending for the drama Ronald Reagan set in motion eight years ago.

Jay P. Kosminsky Deputy Director of Defense Policy Studies

Baker Spring Policy Analyst


For further information. Baker Spring, "The Defense and Space Talks- ne Pwspects for a Breakthmugh," Heritage Lecture No. 275, July 10, 1990. Keith B. Payne, with Willis Stanley, "Soviet Statements Sympat4etic to Mutual BMD Deployment" National Institute for Public Policy Information Series No. 182, June 1990.