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Since President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in March of 1983, it has dominated Western discourse on international security. Throughout this debate, the issues addressed have ranged from technical feasibility to fiscal practicality to the implications of SDI for America’s alliance relations and the strategic balance. It is hardly surprising that SDI has provoked such controversy. Broadly speaking, the program entails a far-ranging effort to explore new concepts for ground- and space-based defense against ballistic missiles that might, in the president’s words, eventually render these weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Naturally, given its implications for the East-West deterrent relationship, SDI has been a lightning rod for Soviet criticism. Although much of its commentary has been patently propagandistic, the Kremlin’s pronouncements have also reflected deeper concerns about what SDI may portend for Soviet prospects in the long-term competition. That the program has figured so centrally in Soviet rhetoric and behavior speaks powerfully of its potential for influencing a broad array of Soviet interests in both the near term and the longer run.
Yet little attention has been paid to the Soviet side of the equation. True enough, there have been numerous efforts to predict the hardware options the Kremlin might pursue in an effort to evade, emulate or neutralize future American strategic defenses. However, in this rush to itemize and contemplate the various technical solutions available to the Soviets, few analysts have given much thought to how Moscow perceives SDI in strategic terms or what it implies for Soviet foreign and defense policy.
The programmatic and policy dimensions of Moscow’s response to SDI will be crucial in determining the ultimate practicality and fate of the American venture. Moreover, insofar as Soviet planners regard SDI as a significant threat, their expectations will largely dictate the leverage SDI offers the West over Soviet force deployments and arms control behavior. For both reasons, it is essential to understand the nature and depth of Moscow’s concerns about SDI and the implications it presents for the full scope of possible Soviet responses.
The Soviets did not react immediately to President Reagan’s original SDI speech. Like most Americans, they were caught off guard by the announcement. The first rejoinder by General Secretary Yuri Andropov came four days after the president’s statement, suggesting that the Kremlin needed more than the usual amount of time to put its official thoughts together.
Andropov went to special lengths to characterize the president’s speech as yet another manifestation of Washington’s alleged hope to reestablish military superiority over the Soviet Union. In this respect SDI was linked to earlier Administration comments on "prevailing" in nuclear war and similar notions which, in the Soviet portrayal, reflected an American defense policy at best irresponsible and at worst downright fiendish. Yet Andropov’s remarks also stressed other points that were to become recurrent themes in the subsequent Soviet line. Most prominent was the charge that SDI was not, as advertised, "defensive" in intent but rather indicated a revived American effort to acquire a nuclear first-strike capability.
Before long Soviet pronouncements came to reflect such consistency as to suggest that high-level guidance on approved language had been carefully crafted. Despite the many controversial features of SDI there has been no evidence either of conflicting Soviet "schools" on the subject or of any notable change in the Soviet position, save for a toning down of the more virulent rhetoric coincident with Moscow’s return to the Geneva arms talks in January 1985. On the contrary, the various signals emanating from Moscow show every sign of having been orchestrated to play up a number of common themes. Their arguments have uniformly portrayed SDI as an American subterfuge for developing a war-winning capability. This, the Soviets allege, will bring the world closer to nuclear war—or at least an intensified arms race—by obliging the Kremlin to pursue offsetting measures, the result of which will be to undermine the strategic balance.
A more insidious effort has been to blame the United States for aggravating the arms competition while suggesting that the Soviet Union has forsworn interest in homeland defense. This pleading is totally at odds with long-standing Soviet operational doctrine, to say nothing of an amply funded Soviet antiballistic missile (ABM) development program and comparable investments in other homeland defense efforts, notably air and civil defense. Nevertheless, the Soviets have repeatedly implied that Moscow now embraces classic Western deterrence theory, with its emphasis on mutual assured destruction, at a time when the United States is allegedly abandoning this worthy strategic outlook.
This is a virtual echo of American concerns over the threat of Soviet offensive and defensive programs that have been expressed by every U.S. administration since 1965. Perhaps it is not surprising that the same Soviet scientists who have occupied the front ranks in Moscow’s campaign against SDI have also been long-standing participants in the U.S.S.R.’s own effort to develop a defense against ballistic missiles. Yet by putting the United States on the defensive with an argument that commands wide appeal among those critics of SDI inclined to believe it, this refrain has given Moscow an edge in propaganda. Whatever one may think about the merits of SDI from a technical or policy perspective, this double standard in Soviet rhetoric must be recognized if the real meaning and worth of the program are to be properly evaluated.
It is likely that the Kremlin’s public arguments against SDI mask the real concerns of the Soviet leadership. Their claim that SDI will "wreck arms control," for example, has merit only if they allow it to do so through their own unwillingness to countenance significant offensive force reductions in the face of a continuing SDI of some sort. This appeared to be their going-in position at both the Reykjavik and Washington summits. Likewise, their intimation that any American deployment of space-based missile defenses will make nuclear war "inevitable" is a gross exaggeration. Indeed, there are good reasons for believing that Moscow’s apprehensions over SDI as a military threat are distinctly subordinate to more pressing concerns of a political and economic nature.
Of course, the most troublesome long-term ramifications of SDI are military. Yet, barring a truly miraculous development, such as the leakproof "astrodome" originally alluded to by President Reagan in his 1983 address, the ultimate ability of the Soviet Union to retaliate against the American urban-industrial base will not be eliminated. Even should such a serious erosion of this now-established foundation of deterrence eventually occur, it probably would not happen for at least several decades.
The advent of SDI at this juncture almost has to be regarded by the Soviet high command as less significant, in terms of its ultimate repercussions and threat potential, than might have been the case two decades ago, when a struggle for some measure of strategic superiority was still under way (or, more correctly, when the outcome of such a struggle mattered more). Today, both superpowers have acquired diversified and highly capable nuclear arsenals. Truly meaningful change in the equilibrium comes both in smaller increments and at longer intervals. This has not, of course, eliminated Moscow’s need to think through the many operational issues presented by SDI. On the contrary, the number of ways SDI could unfold is quite large, and many troubling possibilities doubtless exist in the Soviet Union’s playbook of contingencies. But the immediate military significance of SDI is not so great.
Far more prominent on Moscow’s list of SDI worries is the economic aspect. SDI threatens to shift a major part of the arms competition away from areas in which the U.S.S.R. holds clear advantages toward one in which the United States might gain leverage from its greatest strengths. By forcing the Soviets into a contest in which they are least qualified, strapping them for resources and undercutting any plans they might have for exploiting their technological strides in the civilian economy, such a competition could prove highly favorable to the West. Were the Soviets nevertheless determined to press ahead in such a contest, they might be forced to suffer additional resource diversions, abandon other pursuits inimical to the West, and perhaps settle for arms control arrangements to the net benefit of the United States and its allies.
Even these considerations, however, are only likely to make their influence felt over the longer haul. For the nearer term the resources and technologies at issue are not beyond the means of either side. It is the extended, multiyear competition that SDI and its offshoots can potentially impose that would most likely confront the Soviets with an economic crunch. For that reason, although such forebodings have undoubtedly captured the attention and concern of Soviet planners, they are probably not yet viewed by the leadership as warranting any immediate radical diversion of current investment priorities.
By far the most likely source of Soviet agitation over SDI has to do with high-level concerns that continued progress of the U.S. program may undermine worldwide appreciation of Soviet military prowess, irrespective of any technical problems SDI may encounter along the way. Military power is the sine qua non of the Soviet state. It has singularly bestowed upon the U.S.S.R. its claim to "equivalence" with the United States. Toward that end the Soviets have invested heavily in their strategic nuclear posture over the past two decades. Insofar as SDI aims, in President Reagan’s expression, to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," it threatens—at least from the Kremlin’s vantage point—to render worthless the very foundation of the U.S.S.R.’s superpower status.
For the Soviet Union, significant SDI progress could also have discomfiting implications for other aspects of the military competition, including the competition in non-nuclear forces. The most obvious case in point, and one not likely to be overlooked by Soviet planners, concerns analogous theater defense functions. Although some SDI components might not be particularly appropriate in a theater setting (such as certain space-based defenses, given the shorter flight time and lower apogee of tactical reentry vehicles), others could prove notably helpful in relieving current and emerging Western vulnerabilities.
For example, high-speed data-handling capabilities essential for effective battle management against a large-scale ballistic missile attack might have applications in other areas as well, such as NATO air defense. The same applies in the case of certain sensor technologies to detect, track and direct conventional munitions to deep theater targets such as Soviet armored vehicle concentrations. In short, the Soviets have ample ground to be nervous about the long-term implications of any technology base that might develop as a result of the SDI program, whatever eventually happens to SDI itself.
The Soviets often boast that they can match SDI easily if need be. Such asides have had a tone of nervous whistling in the dark, however, and suggest some abiding private fears that, in fact, the Soviets cannot so easily (or affordably) counter SDI. Moscow has gained considerable propaganda advantage from statements by Western scientists who insist that SDI will never work. Yet the continuing Soviet political effort to subvert the program constitutes powerful evidence of an underlying concern that, in the end, SDI will work only too well—or well enough to compel heavy Soviet spending in response.
Should SDI continue to the point of forcing Moscow to proceed beyond R&D hedges, the Kremlin’s options will be bounded first and foremost by the constraints of Soviet technology and engineering style. For the period until about the mid-1990s, any Soviet response will necessarily draw on concepts and capabilities already in hand. For the decade following, the menu of options becomes richer. Even then, however, the Soviets will be limited by technologies and design concepts generated by investment choices that will be made in the next few years.
One of the problems posed for the U.S.S.R. by the multilayered defense scheme envisaged by SDI is the need to react not only to a demanding threat but also to a multifaceted one. By concurrently exploring a broad range of boost-phase, mid-course and terminal intercept configurations, SDI could force Moscow to concentrate its resources against each of these hurdles simultaneously in order to vouchsafe the offensive capabilities it currently enjoys. Such a challenge would strain Soviet R&D far more than would the need simply to negate a single American ballistic missile defense component.
Moscow’s response will also be affected if SDI becomes an arms control bargaining counter. Up to now, the U.S. government has insisted that SDI research and testing will not be presented as a bargaining chip, regardless of anything the Soviets might offer in return. Yet the Reagan Administration undoubtedly appreciates the enormous potential of SDI to drive Soviet strategic programs away from directions harmful to Western security interests, as amply attested by the enthusiasm of Moscow’s arms control offerings to date. The Soviet Union has rarely before shown itself willing to trade existing capabilities of its own for only potential American capabilities. Usually, the situation has been the other way around.
It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the Reagan Administration or its successor will eventually yield to certain SDI restrictions as a fair price for an arms control accord that imposes reciprocal limitations on Soviet strategic offensive power. Of course, in the absence of any way to anticipate such a development, there is no telling how the arms control process will affect Moscow’s response to SDI. Whatever comes of the present U.S. position on SDI as arms control currency, however, Soviet planners will be keenly interested in the outcome of the strategic arms talks as they go about framing their hedges against SDI.
There are other factors beyond the capabilities and limitations of Soviet technology and the vagaries of the arms control process. One has to do with Moscow’s estimate of SDI’s future based on the Soviet memory of past U.S. behavior with regard to strategic defense. Although the Kremlin faces many problems with respect to SDI, the urgency of these problems may be eased by the fact that the United States has not shown a notable record of sustaining controversial military programs over multiple budget cycles. This has especially held true in the case of strategic defense.
There is a precedent for American involvement in continental defense during the 1950s and 1960s that, for its time, was as long on technological wizardry as SDI is today, yet in the end proved to be much shorter on programmatic and doctrinal durability. Of course, any Soviet effort to evaluate SDI in light of past American behavior must contend with our proclivity for abrupt shifts in priorities, often unpredictable stabs at experimentation, and the pursuit of unclear or even incoherent policies on what must appear, to a Kremlin planner accustomed to great regularity, to be a scale occasionally bordering on the incredible. Nevertheless, Soviet planners will make at least some effort to couch SDI in the context of broader U.S. strategic conduct when it comes to designing and carrying out their own responsive force policy.
Deterrence by the threat of retaliation has been a central theme of American strategic policy since the dawn of the nuclear age. A major focus of U.S. defensive planning has accordingly been concerned with assuring the viability of our nuclear counterattack options. Any Soviet assessor mindful of this history will be inclined to conclude, and rightly so, that most of the important programmatic shifts in U.S. strategic defenses have involved warning and related functions in support of the offense.
What may be of greatest concern to Soviet planners charged with interpreting SDI, therefore, is that the offensive inclinations of American strategy have all too often masqueraded as "defensive" enterprises, at least as the Soviets might view it. This may go far toward accounting for the almost reflexive Soviet depiction of SDI as a reflection of alleged American "first-strike" ambitions. U.S. defenses over the past three decades indeed have shown a strong pattern of having been pursued mainly to help get our retaliatory forces out of harm’s way in case of war. Yet even in this subordinate role, defenses have also typically been the first to go when budgets have become tight or when Americans have identified higher military or social priorities. Consequently, a well-informed Soviet observer would not be making predictions wildly out of keeping with the historical record if he bet on the low staying power of SDI over the long haul.
There are enough unique circumstances surrounding SDI, however, to raise uncertainty in the mind of a Soviet planner regarding the validity of past trends as a basis for projecting future American behavior. One area that will be watched with special interest by any Soviet analyst will be the bureaucratic setting. The formation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization is something very new in this regard and portends some important departures from past practice. First, the mere existence of such an agency should assure more sustained fiscal support for strategic defense than previously. Second, a centralized management entity like SDIO should improve the integration and direction of the overall enterprise. Third, SDI’s increased institutional visibility should lead to greater accountability—and perhaps even higher programmatic status. Fourth, the unified and directed nature of SDI should contribute to a steady growth in its priority compared to other efforts. Last, we can expect greater coherence in various associated development activities, such as high-speed computer software and hardware, that will gain heightened prominence as a result of their connection with SDI. None of this will be lost on the Soviets.
Another dimension that will figure importantly in Moscow’s assessment of SDI’s seriousness will be the stability of the funding support it receives, particularly under the administration that succeeds the present one. For Americans, SDI may seem to represent a major break from the past because of the low priority we assigned to strategic defense for many years preceding it. In fact, however, there have been times when considerable sums were invested in U.S. continental defense.
This presents the Soviets with a vexing analytical dilemma. On one hand, any Soviet planner familiar with the peregrinations of American defense activities over the past four decades will have good reason to foresee two alternatives: (1) that SDI, as presently conceived, could change dramatically in its characteristics and goals over time, or (2) that the program could slip in key development and procurement decisions—and even be canceled altogether.
On the other hand, Soviet planners must recognize the remarkable persistence of SDI since President Reagan announced it five years ago. It has acquired a substantial bureaucratic foundation, consistently generous budgetary support and the unambiguous backing of the president, who has personally taken the lead in giving the program direction and vitality.
Based on the American track record, however, the smart Soviet planner will probably put his rubles on some forecast which allows for SDI not to follow any road map currently in vogue. Moreover, since U.S. defenses have been intimately tied to U.S. offensive force planning since the early 1950s, the Soviets will almost surely continue to discount American assertions that the goal of SDI (perhaps in conjunction with arms control) is the general elimination of the nuclear specter. More likely, they will be inclined to view SDI as, at best, a camouflaged attempt to enhance U.S. nuclear employment options and offensive potential at the Soviet Union’s expense.
Still another determinant of Moscow’s response to SDI will be the ultimate outcome of internal Soviet political maneuvering over the multiple resource allocation choices that any response will entail. Granted, the U.S.S.R. is not subject to many of the domestic influences that often complicate defense management in pluralistic societies like our own. Nevertheless, there are numerous institutional and bureaucratic constituencies with competing interests in whatever decisions the Soviets may eventually reach.
An institution with a particular stake is the Strategic Rocket Forces, whose weapons stand to be most directly threatened by the prospect of an American defense against ballistic missiles. The SRF has over the years acquired a reputation for carrying significant weight in Soviet military circles and has remained largely immune to public displays of incompetence of the sort that have recently afflicted the Soviet air defense establishment. It will naturally feel strong compulsions to assure the continued relevance of its ICBM force through warhead proliferation or other offsetting measures before acquiescing in responses to SDI that would redound to the benefit of other Soviet services.
Beyond that, consideration of alternative counters to SDI will almost certainly become caught up in the debate over the relative weight to be ascribed to nuclear and non-nuclear forces in Soviet strategy. One possible indicator of such resource conflicts to come was the uncharacteristic silence of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov regarding SDI during his last year and a half as chief of the general staff. As an advocate of a Soviet arms development policy emphasizing conventional forces, he may have been disinclined to help legitimize SDI as an excuse for precisely the sort of continued SRF programs about which he had long expressed reservations. Ogarkov’s dismissal in September 1984 may have been a net gain for the SRF as far as the question of countering SDI was concerned. Yet the debate over this issue within the Soviet defense community is far from over, and any Soviet effort to craft a serious response to SDI will be bound to complicate that debate even further.
Soviet military doctrine promises to influence Moscow’s reaction to SDI not only by shaping the operational preferences of the high command, but also by coloring the way the Soviets read American motivations for pursuing SDI. On this score, the point that matters concerns the prospect of the Soviet Union’s acceding to any agreement (whether through negotiation or tacitly) that seeks to replace the current nuclear standoff with a new relationship dominated by defenses on both sides.
It has been suggested that the Reagan Administration’s desired transition to a defense-dominant world should be rendered that much easier by the "natural" preeminence of the home defense mission in Soviet military thought. Unfortunately, this expectation reflects a misunderstanding of the role of strategic defense in Soviet military planning. Soviet military theory has long placed great weight on strategic defense, far more than has been the case with American military policy. That emphasis, however, has typically occurred within the context of a continued parallel stress on the indispensability of overwhelming offensive forces.
The offensive remains the linchpin of Soviet strategy. It is only through well-endowed intercontinental attack forces that Soviet planners contemplate surviving any war they may have to fight in the wake of a catastrophic failure of deterrence. In this outlook, active defenses are merely seen as a backstop for what remains essentially a counterforce strategy. Defenses certainly are not viewed as a substitute for offensive forces or as suitable guarantors in and of themselves of Soviet security.
It is not, of course, inconceivable that out of a desire to avoid worse alternatives, the Soviets might eventually recognize the wisdom of joining the United States in a cooperative effort to alter the current foundations of deterrence. After all, they found it convenient enough to sign the ABM treaty when doing so served their perceived security interests, notwithstanding the persistent injunctions of their military doctrine, which tended to point the other way. Yet in all likelihood, any serious Soviet willingness to participate in a joint transition to a defense-dominated strategic world will require their acceptance of a concept of security very different from the one that currently undergirds their force modernization. We could wait forever for Moscow to embrace the logic of defensive emphasis within the context of existing Soviet doctrinal proclivities.
Perhaps the most important factor that will determine Moscow’s response to SDI, after all allowances are made for technical wherewithal and the inevitable disputes that will arise over resource allocation, is the availability of fiscal assets which the Kremlin will be able to mobilize against the problem. Among the many truisms that abound with regard to the Soviet Union today, one of the most common is that the ruling elite—after two decades of sustained force modernization—is finally having to confront the looming presence of real limits to further military growth.
Economic reform is not just one of the most urgent priorities of the Gorbachev regime; it is an imperative if the Soviet Union is to remain a competitive global power in the 21st century. Although Soviet military expenditure has risen each year since the beginnings of the buildup in 1965, there has been a mounting decline in the rate of military investment, more or less in tandem with the general decline in the rate of annual Soviet economic growth (now at around two percent, down from six percent in the 1950s and four percent just a decade or so ago).
For this reason, SDI would have come as bad news for the Soviets in any event. But there are even further problems posed by competing demands within the military sector itself. Before SDI the Defense Ministry was already grappling with the thorny issue of how to fund a number of increasingly pressing requirements that promised to stress the Soviet defense budget mightily. There was the growing hard-target challenge to Soviet ICBMs posed by the U.S. MX and Trident D-5 missiles. Beyond that, the already permeable Soviet air defense net was becoming even more penetrable with the specter of cruise missiles, the B-1B bomber and the Advanced Technology (Stealth) Bomber.
Finally, Moscow’s traditional strength in Europe—its overwhelming numerical dominance in ground forces—was increasingly coming under pressure from a variety of emerging U.S. technologies in conventional arms that promise an effective denial of Moscow’s advantages. The costs of further naval expansion (which the Kremlin has since apparently decided to curb), a growing manpower crunch, Third World military aid and the drain of operations in Afghanistan no doubt added up as well. It was on top of these and other already existing trade-off dilemmas that the Kremlin was presented with SDI and its implied threat to open up an entire new category of arms competition.
This situation would, by itself, constitute ample grounds for Soviet pessimism, but the problem is worse. Whatever course SDI ultimately takes, Moscow’s response will occur in a deteriorating economic environment. Since 1976 there has been a pronounced decline in productivity growth as the Soviet economy has found itself simultaneously confronted with slackening investment, unanticipated shortages in energy and raw materials, and transportation bottlenecks. In an effort to deal with this problem, Gorbachev proposed at the April 1985 plenum of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that greater attention be devoted to the machine-building sector, particularly that part concerned with electronic engineering, machine tools, computers and instruments. A problem confronting this ambition, however, is that these investment items compete directly with the production of high-technology strategic systems. As a result Gorbachev’s effort to revitalize the civilian economy by stimulating growth through the application of technology may be severely hampered by the competition between that goal and the existing high-technology Soviet defense effort.
Some have cited this evidence of Soviet economic duress to argue that now may be a good time to try to "spend them into the ground" by means of SDI. Unfortunately, history has not been kind to the United States with regard to such efforts. Unlike most of their Western counterparts, the Soviet leaders do not consider defense spending to be an unavoidable form of social overhead. On the contrary, they enjoy the comparative luxury of not having to regard such spending as a "burden" until and unless they define it as such.
All the same, the prospect of having to react to a U.S. space-based ABM confronts the Soviets with some uncongenial policy choices. If Gorbachev’s campaign to improve the economy fails, yet Moscow still seeks to maintain high investment growth, the Soviets will experience a decline in consumption even if their defense spending continues along the lines of the past decade. In the more stressful case of a Soviet programmatic response to SDI coupled with unsuccessful economic reform, the result will almost surely be a near-term decline in consumption.
This brings us to the difficult task of anticipating future Soviet behavior with regard to SDI. Obviously, the less finely we tune our predictive scope, the more reliable any ensuing forecast of Soviet conduct will appear. In the case of alternative Soviet counters to SDI, we can identify three broad clusters of plausible SDI fates that fairly well cover the range of possibilities:
(1) We can postulate a situation in which SDI progresses on a sustained basis through the midterm future. In this scenario the program would proceed roughly in the direction originally intended in President Reagan’s March 1983 speech, even though the specific phases, technologies employed, military context and other factors might prove very different from those that SDI supporters today consider most desirable.
(2) Alternatively, SDI could run out of steam in fairly short order. This would not necessarily preclude the program from realizing some payoff (possibly even a significant one) for such applications as antitactical missile defenses for NATO or some sort of terminal defense for vulnerable national command centers and ICBMs. But the nationwide SDI scheme originally contemplated would be brought to an end in the fairly near term, perhaps before 1990.
(3) One can imagine still another case in which SDI eventually collapses, but not before causing substantial compensatory behavior on both sides. In this instance SDI would proceed apace for a number of years. An appropriate mix of technical achievement, budgetary commitment, adjustment to the ABM treaty, alliance support and public opinion would deny Moscow any confidence that the program could be easily sidetracked or manipulated into oblivion.
For the time being, the Soviets are directing their main efforts toward helping to bring about the second of these contingencies: namely, the early political dissolution of SDI. Having largely failed in their propaganda attempts to erode American and West European support for continued SDI research, the Soviet leadership now appears to have changed its tune and instead seeks leverage through the arms control forum. In this respect the earlier stress of Soviet pronouncements on the theme of "countermeasures" has been toned down, and the Soviets have adopted a more positive attitude emphasizing the Kremlin’s commitment to negotiated solutions to the arms competition.
Should Moscow’s diplomatic and arms control efforts fail in the next few years to halt the progress of SDI toward a deployable system, the Kremlin will feel mounting pressure to begin laying the foundations of an infrastructure capable of developing at least those longer lead-time items that will be required for any SDI countermeasure scheme. Even then, however, the Soviets will have plenty of time to continue monitoring the direction and progress of SDI before committing themselves to any programmatic response. During that period, they will also be able to continue a rearguard effort to subvert SDI politically in the hope that the third scenario noted above might be realized, namely, a gradual dissipation of SDI after substantial progress has been made.
For Moscow the worst case is one in which the ABM treaty becomes superseded by the imminent deployment of an American SDI network. Should this occur, the Kremlin will almost certainly give up its reliance on rhetoric and take action. One Soviet alternative, in the continued presence of an aggressive SDI, would be to abandon further pretense at restraint and leap into a full-fledged ABM breakout, vigorously pursuing all varieties of exotic technologies and expanding the Moscow ABM into a nationwide defense based on then-existing radars and interceptors.
In our judgment, however, such a development is unlikely. It would be too costly compared to more modest offsetting measures. Beyond that, an excessive concentration on matching SDI at the expense of overcoming it would be inconsistent with the offensive thrust of Soviet military doctrine. Finally, a Soviet ABM breakout seems unlikely simply because of the great extent to which the U.S.S.R. has been able thus far to improve its technology base within the constraints of the ABM treaty.
Of course, in the event of an outright abrogation of the treaty by the United States, any such consideration would become moot for the Kremlin. But that is a remote prospect. Short of it, a Soviet breakout would merely strengthen support for SDI throughout the United States and Western Europe, yielding precisely the outcome the Soviets seek to avoid. Although continued R&D in various technologies at a lower level can be expected of the Soviets, they are more likely to accommodate SDI, at least in the immediate decade ahead, through continued public diplomacy and arms control efforts.
Even the need to pursue an offsetting response to SDI may not seem as pressing to the Kremlin as many in the West assume. Indeed, the Soviets may have inadvertently told us as much through the unusual enthusiasm with which they have "warned" us about what countermeasures they might undertake. Normally they do not even hint at military programs they actually have under way or may be considering, in keeping with their traditional penchant for secrecy.
Soviet planners undoubtedly appreciate that SDI could follow such an erratic course that they could end up chasing a blind lead were they to leap prematurely into any programmatic response. Indeed, Soviet Americanologists may be privately advising their Kremlin bosses to continue a high-visibility stance of indignation against SDI but otherwise to keep their deeper fears under control in light of the continuing possibility that SDI could die a natural death at the hands of the American budgetary process, with perhaps some generous assistance from Soviet propaganda and covert action.
Perhaps the worst outcome, from an American perspective, would be one in which the domestic consensus behind SDI collapsed after enough momentum had gathered to drive the Soviets into vigorous offsetting measures that could not be easily turned off, and which might indeed assume heightened attractiveness to Soviet planners in the absence of an opposing U.S. defensive capability. In this case, we would have in effect a Soviet response to a U.S. non-program, as with the SA-5 surface-to-air missile and MiG-25 interceptor, both conceived in the late 1950s as Soviet answers to the abortive American B-70 bomber. While the SA-5 and MiG-25 are of less than prepossessing concern today to U.S. planners, a substantially expanded Soviet offensive posture (including greater numbers of warheads, bombers and cruise missiles), along with a more capable Soviet ABM system, could give Moscow precisely what we originally sought to deny it through SDI, namely, a credible first-strike capability that could be invoked with great coercive effect in a crisis.
An even more disconcerting harbinger of what could happen were SDI terminated after Soviet compensatory measures had begun is the adverse situation that has resulted from our failure to proceed with an orderly deployment of the MX, with the original plan to field 200 in a survivable basing mode. We might now confront the Soviets with a hard-target kill capability much like the one they have long presented to us, a threat that we remain incapable of reciprocating even a decade later. Moreover, we would be enjoying a renewed lease on the survivability of the ICBM leg of our triad to match that promised to the U.S.S.R. by the mobility of its SS-24 and SS-25 missiles, both of which were evidently inspired by the MX.
Moscow’s agitation over SDI seems sufficiently genuine to suggest that the United States can hardly go wrong by continuing to play its SDI card closely, pending a better assessment of just how much the Soviets might be willing to pay in the currency of both strategic and conventional arms to head it off. In combination with other trends in U.S. nuclear and general-purpose force modernization, SDI has placed the United States in a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union than at any time since the Kennedy-McNamara buildup of the early 1960s. The challenge posed by SDI may also have an important political dimension for Gorbachev personally and could heighten his desire to avoid a costly arms competition.
Obviously one can never be sure. In light of the manifold dilemmas SDI puts before the Soviet leaders, an important challenge for the U.S. is to develop a strategy that brings SDI into step with our diplomacy toward the Soviet Union so that we might elicit the greatest possible political leverage from it, even as we continue to press for a validation of the many technological concepts being explored.