The issues of strategic arms control are complex in their technical details, but they nonetheless revolve around a reasonably simple central problem. The United States is primarily interested in reducing the level of strategic force deployments in order to alleviate a perceived threat to the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile forces and a politically sensitive imbalance in weapons deployed in Europe. The Soviet Union is primarily interested in restricting the process of technical improvement in order to alleviate what it perceives as an emerging threat to Soviet ICBMs and ultimately to the entire structure of Soviet military forces. With the United States committed to revising the past and the Soviet Union to shaping the future, viable compromise requires arrangements that do both. The issues are too extensive and the underlying hostility too great to allow an immediate, comprehensive solution. Thus, compromise must be achieved through a series of partial measures, each of which balances force reductions and modernization restrictions.

Recent arms control negotiations have not focused on a balanced but limited combination of force reductions and weapons modernization restrictions, and that fact has virtually precluded their success. The proposals the U.S. and Soviet governments have advanced could be supplemented or combined in a variety of ways to embody such a balance, but in the context of related events the practical opportunities are limited. The Strategic Defense Initiative announced by the United States and the Soviet reaction to that announcement have made the issue of weapons in space a necessary element of any immediate compromise. Both in the substance of security and in the politics of adversarial diplomacy, that issue has become the gate to all others.

II

To the extent that an objective perspective is possible on matters so dominated by national sentiment, it appears that an agreement restricting the direct use of weapons in space is of overriding mutual interest for both countries. The reasons are quite fundamental. Over the past 20 years, space has been accepted as a sanctuary for gathering and communicating information necessary for the safe and stable management of worldwide military operations. The satellites that support these purposes depend upon mutual tolerance that has been established in practice, though not legally defined. They are susceptible to disruption and are highly vulnerable to deliberate attack. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have long been able to improvise indiscriminate attacks in space that would damage their own satellites as well as the opponent’s, but neither has fully developed the weapons and organizations dedicated to precise and systematic destruction of the opponent’s assets. Both are now in the early stages of doing so. If not established by formal agreement, the informal tolerance that now protects intelligence and communication activities in space is likely to be degraded very severely, with consequences for the stability of international security far greater than those posed by any of the weapons issues that are more prominently discussed.

With apparently compelling mutual interests at stake, an agreement restricting weapons in space should in principle emerge from the Geneva negotiations. In broad outline the plausible content of such an agreement is reasonably apparent. A distinction would be drawn between military research in space, which would be allowed, and weapons development, which would be prohibited. At the same time, reductions in ICBM deployments would be undertaken, affecting particularly the Soviet SS-18 as the largest and potentially most destructive member of that class.

In actual practice, however, such an outcome does not appear likely. Thus far, the two governments have taken starkly opposing positions. The Soviet Union insists on banning what they refer to as "strike weapons" in space as a necessary condition for any other measure of strategic arms control, and has proposed a 25-percent reduction in total force deployments to accompany such a ban. The Soviets have not as yet suggested reductions focused on the specific weapons that are of primary American concern. The United States rejects any additional restrictions on weapons testing in space in order to protect plans for developing what we refer to as defensive technologies, and in general has not offered any meaningful restraint on the process of weapons modernization. The compromise necessary to avert a collision on these questions will require a degree of change in prevailing attitudes that rarely occurs. It is still plausible to hope for a constructive outcome, but it is not realistic to expect it.

III

The primary reasons for this situation extend well beyond the politics of the moment—the personalities of the current leaders, for example, or their putative bargaining maneuvers. The problem emerges from very basic differences in the security positions of the two countries, in their political systems, in their dominant perceptions, and in their respective policies. Some of these many enduring differences have immediate practical importance.

As has been true for much of the past 40 years, the timing of major decisions in the United States and in the Soviet Union is out of phase. In each country the size and technical character of its strategic establishment has been determined historically by a few fundamental decisions that, once made, have required a decade or more for full implementation. The fact that the two countries have made their critical decisions at different times has encouraged a sequential interaction between their respective weapons programs and has compounded the difficulties of achieving arms control. The preferred moment for compromise has been different for each country.

This problem of timing is quite acute at the moment. The United States is currently in a phase of implementing recently established commitments to a series of technical modernization programs and to two significant additions to the structure of its strategic forces (the deployment of submarine-based cruise missiles and of intermediate-range missiles in Europe). The surge of investment associated with this effort is highly unusual, and currently authorized programs will require several more years to be completed. The Soviet Union is emerging from a decade during which the top leadership did not authorize any major new strategic weapons deployment programs (as distinct from research and development efforts). As the Soviets completed previously authorized programs during the 1970s (notably the SS-17, SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs, and the SS-20 intermediate-range missile system), overall Soviet investment in military forces remained essentially constant, and that portion allocated to strategic forces declined. The Soviet leaders appear now to be contemplating a series of new strategic weapons deployment initiatives and associated adjustments in security policy. More than they were during the 1970s and more than the United States at the moment, the Soviet Union is in a reactive phase.

In addition to the disparity in timing of decisions, there are also fundamental differences in the way the two political systems make decisions. The Soviet Union initiates major decisions by establishing general military doctrines and by adopting planning assumptions; the implications are then imposed reasonably systematically on the details of weapons acquisition, operational posture and diplomatic positions. The system operates, as it were, deductively. In contrast, the United States requires widespread political consensus in order to make authoritative decisions and does not readily achieve this regarding doctrinal abstractions. The U.S. system makes very specific decisions and leaves open their broader implications for subsequent interpretation and political discussion. The U.S. decision-making process operates inductively and at any given time displays substantial internal inconsistencies representing unresolved political issues.

This difference in style has affected perspectives on strategic arms control. The Soviet Union understood the arrangements embodied in the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) treaties as a fundamental political bargain focused on the principle of conferring "equal security" on both countries. Since equality could not be precisely defined—given the wide differences in established force deployments, geographic position, alliance arrangements and economic potential—the Soviets believed that the aggregate positions of the two countries had been arbitrarily but not unreasonably declared to be equal; advantages enjoyed by one side were assumed to be balanced by those of the other. Specifically, Soviet advantages in ICBMs, theater forces and numbers of weapons carriers were assumed to balance U.S. advantages in total weapons, submarine and bomber operations, overall force quality, geographic position and economic capacity. Moreover, with a baseline condition established, the Soviets believed that rules of evolution were to be followed preventing either side from securing any additional advantage that was not offset by the other side.

The U.S. political system is not equipped to make a bargain of that scope and did not do so. Actual decisions in the United States focused narrowly on the specifics of the formal treaties, and the broader implications of the arrangements were subjected to an as yet unresolved internal political debate. A well-organized group of security specialists has objected to the concession of Soviet advantage in any important dimension of military power, most notably in the payload capacity of the respective ICBM forces. Disputes over compliance with technical details of the treaties have been generalized into sweeping charges of Soviet cheating that resonate with general American distrust of the Soviet Union. The idea of a limited compromise that did not include a settlement of major political disputes has been opposed by constituencies in the United States that have strong grievances over human rights in the Soviet Union, political repression in Poland, military intervention in Afghanistan and many other matters. The United States has not formed the domestic consensus necessary even to ratify the SALT II agreement, let alone establish an enduring political bargain.

These different levels of conception and of political commitment have combined with the long-standing animosity between the two countries to produce sharp recriminations. The United States now accuses the Soviet Union of numerous treaty violations, the most prominent of which is a radar installation whose function is acknowledged to be legitimate but whose location is believed to be illegal under the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972. The Soviet Union staunchly defends its own compliance record and accuses the United States of reneging on the basic political understanding, most notably by introducing new missile deployments in Europe which "circumvent" the SALT agreements and by announcing the intent to develop defensive weapons. With both sides now projecting weapons programs that would collapse the entire structure of existing arms control arrangements, each profoundly doubts and fears the basic intentions of the other.

IV

The current surge in U.S. strategic force investment is being interpreted by Soviet military planners as an offensive threat representing, potentially, a significantly enhanced capacity for a preemptive attack on Soviet forces. This underlying intention is imputed primarily on the basis of U.S. weapons modernization programs and additions to the force structure: the MX, the Trident II missile, the Pershing II in Europe, and cruise missiles with stealth technology. All in combination appear to establish the potential for precise attacks on the Soviet military infrastructure with tactical warning that would be too short to allow protective reaction. Moreover, as the Soviets view them, U.S. arms control proposals appear to have been designed to support such a preemptive strategy: if accepted, U.S. proposals would reduce deployed forces but they would not inhibit weapons modernization and would thus render successful preemption easier to accomplish.

The U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative is also assimilated into this pattern. In Soviet estimation, the technical prospects for a successful defense against an offensive attack designed to penetrate defenses are too remote to be a rational basis for a security policy. In this view, the only serious aspiration is for a defense against an offense already severely diminished by a preemptive attack. So interpreted and fully credited, this overall pattern presents a security threat to the Soviet Union of the gravest proportions.

Even if practical-minded Soviet leaders doubt that the United States can in fact achieve an effective capacity for strategic preemption, there are secondary implications of the U.S. effort that eventually are also very threatening. At its core, the U.S. strategic investment program is based on information gathering and processing technologies that represent the area of greatest U.S. advantage relative to the Soviet Union. These technologies have strong implications across the full range of U.S. military effort—conventional as well as nuclear weapons, offensive as well as defensive missions. Despite U.S. rhetorical emphasis on defense, it is reasonable for the Soviets to expect the most immediate and most dramatic results to involve offensive weapons. Indeed, it has become technically conceivable that precision navigation, rapid collection and dissemination of target information, automated battle management and related developments will eventually enable attacks on the Soviet military infrastructure by conventional munitions that are comparable to nuclear weapons in range, destructive effectiveness and even timing. Beyond that, the underlying technologies are also likely to have very significant implications for general economic productivity. In effect, the United States appears to be marshaling its strongest comparative advantage for an extended competition in general military and technical positions. If that process is not restrained and if equal security is not conceded, then eventually the Soviet security position is likely to be severely degraded even if the ultimate destruction of nuclear war can be prevented.

Cast in these terms, the implicit American threat to the Soviet Union is sufficient to motivate a very extensive Soviet response and to force very difficult internal choices. If Soviet leaders cannot achieve acceptable restraints on the process of weapons modernization by normal diplomatic means, they will confront the apparent necessity of military reactions that are demanding enough to impose significant new burdens in the allocation of economic resources. Moreover, they face immediate deadlines for these choices. A new five-year plan (for 1986-1991) is nearing the point of final approval, to be accompanied, in all probability, by an unusually far-reaching policy review under the new political leadership.

V

The United States, of course, generally rejects the validity of Soviet fears and the legitimacy of any reaction to current U.S. programs. In the prevailing U.S. perspective, the MX and Trident II programs are justified responses to the perceived threat to U.S. ICBM installations emanating from the Soviet SS-18 and SS-19 programs that have already been completed. Similarly, the Pershing II and cruise missile deployments are accepted as necessary ripostes to the earlier Soviet SS-20 program. They have been reconciled with legal requirements strictly construed, and the thought that they might contradict a broader political understanding would be summarily dismissed by most Americans.

With a limited qualification for the purpose of bolstering the conventional defense of Europe, the United States has consistently declared its only strategic intention to be that of deterring nuclear war by threat of appropriate retaliation. The explicit acquisition of a reliable preemptive attack capability against Soviet forces rather clearly would not receive broad support in the United States. To be sure, there is a possibility that U.S. forces facing the apparent inevitability of war might feel compelled to attempt a preemptive attack as the only conceivable route to victory and at any rate the most effective means of limiting damage. This tendency might be enhanced as a greater capacity for preemption is in fact acquired. These possibilities, however, have not yet been sufficiently absorbed to have immediate influence on security policy. In short, an inclination to compromise in the arms control negotiations is not likely to emerge in the United States from any sympathy for the substance of Soviet arguments.

Moreover, prevailing opinion in the United States discounts even the subjective sincerity of the Soviet position. The central purpose of Soviet diplomacy is presumed to be the political division of NATO, and Soviet objections to American weapons programs are interpreted as tactical measures designed to promote dissent in Western Europe. A display of alliance resolve, it is believed, will eventually force the Soviets to accept what they cannot prevent. This assessment was strongly reinforced when the Soviets allowed negotiations on intermediate-range missiles to be reestablished after many stark warnings that they would not do so unless U.S. Pershing II and cruise missile deployments were first removed. The same logic is now being applied to the Soviet position on space weapons.

Given these attitudes and the state of its strategic weapons programs, the United States at the moment both enjoys the virtues and suffers the defects of a fortified position. There are no internal deadlines to force diplomatic actions. Extensive modernization of the U.S. strategic weapons arsenal has already been authorized by recent defense budgets, and the fact of active negotiations provides political accompaniment adequate to deal with domestic and even allied sentiment for arms control. President Reagan’s vision of a transition to a posture of protective defense rather than retaliatory offense dominates the discussion of security policy. The vision has inspired a strong technical critique, but as yet no effective political opposition has crystallized. In the process of negotiation the United States is playing a waiting game and has thereby imposed on the Soviet Union both the burden of initiative and the associated opportunity.

VI

Aside from ideological rhetoric, the Soviets have been very cautious and conservative in recent history and they are unlikely to abandon that pattern suddenly, even under more vigorous political leadership. Though the greatest resolve must prudently be assumed, the Soviets are likely to maintain a rational preference for diplomatic solutions and to adjust that preference only in discrete stages. Some of those stages have undoubtedly already passed, but it is a reasonable assumption that an acceptable agreement with the United States remains the primary Soviet objective, as they themselves assert. Romantic Western ideas about hard bargaining notwithstanding, direct military pressure on the Soviet Union works to increase its terms for an acceptable agreement rather than to diminish them. As in any political system with internal integrity, the Soviet Union cannot be expected to collapse under pressure if it has other options; it will quite predictably seek to react in kind.

In making the issue of weapons in space the centerpiece of their diplomatic position, the Soviets are using it as both the symbol and the primary immediate instance of the broader issue of weapons modernization. This is a logical choice. Restrictions on weapons testing in space would in fact inhibit any short-term "demonstration" of missile defense technology beyond the limited purposes allowed under the ABM treaty. Such restrictions offer a practical means of reducing the American defense initiative to its minimum and most legitimate claim—exploratory research on the fundamentals of defensive technology. To accomplish that in the area currently proclaimed by the United States as being of highest priority would establish the heretofore missing element in the U.S. arms control position: the principle of balancing force reductions with restraints on weapons modernization.

The choice of space as the central topic also conveys an implicit warning that antisatellite weapons will be an element of Soviet reaction if arms control efforts fail, and unfortunately that is also a logical choice. The Soviets can ill afford a comprehensive and sustained reaction to the perceived threat of American strategic investment. Before they commit themselves to broad weapons programs of the scope and magnitude required, they will very likely attempt a focused reaction designed to provide enough countervailing leverage to force an American compromise. If adroitly managed, a Soviet antisatellite weapons program could provide leverage that would be quite effective both in military and in political terms.

It is well within Soviet technical capability to develop and deploy advanced antisatellite weapons that will threaten critical assets of the U.S. command system—by far the most vulnerable and most important element of U.S. strategic forces. Though they already possess a rudimentary capability of this sort, the Soviets have not yet developed the dedicated, discriminating antisatellite weapons that they could produce if they chose to do so. Such weapons might effectively preclude the coordination required to organize a U.S. preemptive strike even if the raw firepower required for such a strike could not be denied. Moreover, by challenging the legitimacy of current space activities and creating controlled interference with military support systems, the Soviet Union could also introduce issues that would be enormously divisive both within the American political system and within the NATO alliance. In effect, the Soviet Union can create an immediate conflict between the continuation of military support activities and the developmental testing of new space weapons.

Beyond that, there are two areas of strategic weapons deployments where the Soviets can compete with relative advantage despite underlying technical inferiority. First, the large-scale deployment of submarine-based cruise missiles will be to the Soviet Union’s advantage even if its versions are not as effective as ours. The reason is that the United States and its allies are exposed to threats from the oceans, have many critical targets near coast areas, have no significant air defense systems, and have strategic command arrangements that can readily be disrupted by attacks that develop with little warning. Second, the Soviets also have advantages in any competitive deployment of land-mobile ICBMs: notably, large empty land areas, authoritarian political control and internal secrecy that allow effective concealment, a ready system (the SS-25) that has already been designed and tested, and established experience with mobile missile operations on land.

Systematic exploitation of these advantages would bring the U.S. forces under significantly greater threat of preemption than they now experience and hence would increase our own incentive to initiate strategic operations under the pressure of crisis circumstances. Though this exploitation would be subtle and not very visible politically, in terms of military realities it would be profoundly destabilizing. Moreover, such a development would be accompanied by a highly visible increase in the forward positioning of Soviet naval assets; over time this would register politically as a major change in security circumstances. Finally, concealed deployment of land-mobile ICBMs combined with extensive submarine cruise missile deployments could readily deny any accurate counting of total Soviet strategic assets. That would also be likely to register politically as a major and unfavorable change in security circumstances.

The short of it is that the Soviet Union, even though competing at a considerable technical disadvantage, can degrade the current U.S. and allied security position very significantly. In the absence of effective mutual restraints, it will probably do so.

VII

Given these circumstances, the diplomatic component of current U.S. security policy does not appear adequate to deal with emerging strategic conditions and is in need of substantial revision. In particular, its objectives have been misspecified. The virtually exclusive focus on achieving reductions in Soviet force levels and the consequent sacrifice of opportunities to impose restraints on future weapons deployments distort the priorities of actual American security interests. Force reductions, though desirable, are not as important as preventing new Soviet weapons programs. Restraint on new weapons is, at any rate, a necessary concomitant to reductions.

The further development of dedicated Soviet antisatellite systems represents the most serious immediate threat to the integrity and operational capability of U.S. military forces, particularly when combined with forward deployments of submarines and other measures designed to enhance a preemptive threat to the central U.S. command system. Though absolute protection against this threat is not possible, very significant restrictions could be achieved by a prohibition on further testing and deployment of antisatellite systems. In any reasonable assessment, that should be the diplomatic objective of highest immediate priority. Categorical rejection of both the technical feasibility and inherent desirability of this objective has dominated recent American policy; this is an error of judgment serious enough eventually to force a major political correction. Whether this can be accomplished before irreversible consequences have been triggered is perhaps the single most important security question confronting the United States at the moment.

The deployment of submarine-based cruise missiles is an issue somewhat similar in character but different in implication. The U.S. commitment to unilateral deployment of these systems without any serious attempt to achieve negotiated restraints is also a major mistake but one that has already been made. The consequences probably have already become irreversible, though they might conceivably be mitigated by eventual limitations on the scale and positioning of these deployments. The issue is largely whether the United States can learn from this experience to diagnose a significant flaw in its security planning: weapons acquisition and diplomacy are being separately managed, and the integration of them that circumstances require is not being achieved.

Regarding theater weapons, the threat to European and Asian allies posed by the SS-20 is less significant than the potential represented by the new SS-25. The characteristics of this system have not yet been fully displayed, and an assessment of it requires a degree of imagination. The problem is not so obscure, however, that security planners should be excused from anticipating it. The SS-20 is a system improvised from the cancelled SS-16 ICBM program, and there are reasons to believe that the Soviets considered its deployment to be a transitional arrangement. It is prudent to suppose that substantial improvements have been embodied in the SS-25, and that the new system provides a significantly better basis for a large-scale mobile deployment, one that is capable of covering targets throughout the entire U.S. alliance network in Europe and east Asia. If the Soviets choose fully to exploit their advantages in concealed mobile operations with a better system, the NATO missile deployment—so inherently visible that it is exposed to preemptive destruction by conventional Soviet forces—is not likely to be considered an adequate response indefinitely. Anyone worried about the SS-20 should be distinctly more worried about the SS-25 and relatively more interested in arms control arrangements that would prevent its deployment. No effort of this sort appears to have been made in Geneva, however, and U.S. officials at the moment appear to be conceding the inevitability of an impending surge in this category of weapons.

Beyond these more familiar issues lies the problem of the integrity of the command system. It has yet to emerge into clear public focus as the central strategic security problem of the age but is ultimately destined to do so. Current strategic command systems could not withstand even a small fraction of the offensive firepower that could be directed against them by existing forces, and this fact creates pressures on both sides for rapid and large-scale reaction to the perceptions of an impending attack. Since the interaction of these pressures under conditions of intense crisis could produce a sudden catastrophic breakdown of deterrence, diminishing them should be a major objective of arms control.

The problem is a difficult one in that it requires a combination of measures, no single one of which is likely to be decisive, or even effective, by itself. To be successful, the controls must dominate each country’s overall assessment of the opponent’s entire strategic posture. The most compelling method would be to remove the offensive capacity for an effective attack against the command system. But the force reductions required to accomplish that are too extensive to be a realistic immediate aspiration. Practical controls, therefore, must deal with the more ambiguous matter of intentions, largely through measures designed to prevent either side from optimizing a rapid, highly coordinated preemptive attack. A number of such measures can be identified to control the timing, precision and operational coordination of offensive forces: for example, the elimination of short-range systems and the disengagement of all systems from forward deployments; the design of deeply buried weapons and other means of protection that do not require and do not allow rapid responsiveness; the protective dispersion of command system assets; and the introduction of operational doctrines based on reconstitution after attack. These measures and the objectives they serve need much more development than they have yet received.

VIII

In sum, then, the familiar tragedy of avoidable and mutually damaging weapons deployments appears again to be emerging from the interaction of U.S. and Soviet strategic security policies. The situation is not yet irremediable. Effective statesmanship could still prevent misfortune, but many opportunities have been squandered. It has become difficult to believe that such statesmanship will suddenly emerge to master current trends. As indicated at the beginning of this article, designs for necessary compromises are certainly available, the most promising of which combines a prohibition on weapons development tests in space with reductions in large multiple-warhead missiles. It is prudent to acknowledge, however, that such arguments are being rapidly overtaken by events.

Let us repeat, then, some of the pieties of the nuclear age that have yet to become driving principles of policy. The securities of the United States and the Soviet Union have been locked together; it is extremely unlikely that either power can obtain any enduring net advantage by unilateral efforts. The age of technical virtuosity and dramatic weapons development has largely run its course. It has produced a dangerous situation which cannot be transformed by more weapons development, inevitable and even desirable as the individual projects may be. The cause of security primarily requires the establishment of a structure of political understanding and formalized restraint between the United States and the Soviet Union. For this to occur both political systems will have to undergo very substantial shifts in their prevailing attitudes and perceptions of security.

The most important threat to each country does not arise from weaknesses in political resolve, technical capacity, organizational competence or destructive firepower. The gravest threat is the inability to impose reasonable restraint, a mutually acknowledged problem for which each prefers to blame the other. There is in fact plenty of blame to be shared and, simply on practical grounds, each country would be well advised to begin at home. In the case of the United States, that requires adjustments in our strategic arms control policy.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now