After almost five years of breakthroughs, setbacks and mostly stalemate, the Soviet Union and the United States succeeded last September in agreeing on the outlines and some of the details of a new strategic arms limitation accord. Since then, several other details of the proposed SALT agreement have been ironed out. Although it is unclear whether the two sides will be able to complete a new agreement this year, the terms of the proposed accord have already triggered a wide-ranging debate in the United States and among allied states in Western Europe over whether its contents serve American security interests and those of the West as a whole.

It is a complex debate, because the understanding itself is complicated and because it deals with the arcane problem of measuring the superpower strategic balance. It is an enormously important debate, because its outcome will have major consequences for the future evolution of that balance, the character of Soviet-American relations in general, the tenor of Alliance politics, and the ability of the Carter Administration (and perhaps succeeding ones) to conduct foreign affairs. Finally, it is an intense debate, because positions adopted by supporters and opponents of the proposed agreement reflect deeply felt beliefs concerning the character of the strategic balance and the political and military utility of nuclear weapons.

The centrality of the SALT process to American national security policy makes it impossible here to address all the implications of the proposed agreement. But because a central theme in this essay is that both advocates and critics of the Carter Administration's approach to SALT have tended to exaggerate what the talks can and should accomplish, the attempt will be made to judge the emerging terms of the superpower understanding in terms of the dynamics of continuing Soviet-American strategic competition. For if one lesson has already emerged from the mounting debate over SALT, it is that regardless of whether a new agreement is both signed and approved by the U.S. Senate, the United States will not be spared some difficult strategic deployment decisions in the immediate years ahead.


To appreciate the present debate, it is necessary to trace the genealogy of the proposed accord back to 1973, when Soviet and American negotiators began talks on a new and more permanent arrangement to replace the 1972 five-year Interim Agreement limiting offensive strategic arms. The Interim Agreement which placed separate ceilings on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), provided the Soviet Union with a potential 40 percent advantage in launcher totals: under the terms of the accord, the Soviet Union could have 2,358 missile launchers compared with 1,710 for the United States. Although this disparity was justified in terms of overall American technological superiority (particularly in multiple warheads and missile accuracy), the Nixon Administration, with the prodding of Senator Henry Jackson's amendment calling for numerical equality in future agreements, vowed to replace the Interim Agreement with a long-term treaty establishing parity between the two sides. An additional incentive for institutionalizing numerical equivalence in a new agreement was provided in the summer of 1973, when the Soviet Union began the deployment of a new family of high-payload ICBMs, the SS-17, -18 and -19, all of which had been tested with multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). This development not only carried with it the potential for massively increasing the destructiveness of the Soviet Union's 1,600 or so silo-housed missiles, but it also erased the MIRV headstart that many believed was the single most important technological advantage enjoyed by the United States.

The Nixon Administration's effort in 1973 and early 1974 to get the Soviet Union to agree to limit the total payload (or throw-weight) its missile force could deliver resulted in failure. Thus, the new Ford Administration, at Vladivostok in November 1974, returned to the simpler and less controversial principle of only limiting launcher numbers in a new treaty lasting until 1985. Thus, in a tentative accord, the two sides agreed for the first time to place equal ceilings of 2,400 on strategic launchers, and of 1,320 on MIRV-equipped missiles. Significantly, the Vladivostok aide mémoire was silent on the subject of halting weapons modernization and (upon the insistence of American negotiators) both sides were thus free to move ahead with the deployment of land-mobile ICBMs.

The adoption of equal ceilings in numbers of strategic launchers was possible essentially because, unlike the Interim Agreement, the Vladivostok accord included "heavy" bombers, in which the United States had a substantial edge. Moreover, the ceilings did not force the Soviet Union to undertake any reductions in its growing arsenal. Thus, while the tentative accord was criticized in the United States for doing little to hamper the growth of Soviet ICBM capabilities, the Ford Administration defended it on the grounds that it would not impair any American effort to respond to the Soviet buildup, such as deploying a larger proportion of forces at sea or replacing the Minuteman ICBM force with a new mobile missile, such as the Air Force's proposed MX.

Over the next 18 months the two sides failed in their efforts to work out the details of the proposed arrangement. In part, this difficulty can be traced to problems in the wider American-Soviet relationship: the Nixon Administration's détente policy was badly undermined by Soviet behavior prior to and during the 1973 Middle East War; domestic skepticism grew during 1974 and was reinforced in 1975-76 by Soviet involvement in the Angolan civil war. However, the major factor blocking a new agreement was integral to the talks themselves: the two sides were simply unable to agree on what weapons were to be limited under the proposed 2,400 ceiling. The Vladivostok aide mémoire said that air-launched missiles with ranges that exceeded 600 kilometers were to be limited in the accord - shortly after the summit, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told reporters that this referred to air-launched ballistic missiles and not to the new generation of precision-guided, long-range cruise missiles that the United States had under development. Despite this, Soviet negotiators insisted that cruise missiles, including sea- and ground-launched variants, had to be constrained in any new agreement, a position that their American counterparts resisted on the grounds that these weapons were peripheral to the central strategic balance and were of primary importance as potential theater systems, armed with nuclear or conventional warheads. In similar fashion, Soviet negotiators resisted American demands to include a new Soviet bomber, known by its NATO code name Backfire, under the 2,400 ceiling on overall launchers, maintaining that Backfire was an intermediate-range system, deployed primarily for use against targets in Western Europe and East Asia - an argument that paralleled, in some respects, American claims over the cruise missile.

In an attempt to break the cruise missile-Backfire deadlock, Henry Kissinger in January 1976 traveled to Moscow and offered a compromise proposal. While the mission did not produce a completed agreement, it is worth noting because of its resemblance to important facets of the approach finally settled upon by the Carter Administration. In Moscow, Kissinger proposed that air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) be limited to a range of 2,500 km. and that aircraft deploying them be counted under the 1,320 ceiling for MIRV-equipped delivery vehicles. In return, he offered to keep the Backfire out of the 2,400 ceiling, so long as Moscow agreed to limit its production rate (to two-and-a-half units per month), to place certain restrictions on where the bomber was based, and to lower the overall ceiling on launchers by ten percent (to 2,160).

Although the Soviet leaders showed interest, by the spring of 1976 the Ford Administration appeared to have backed away from these ideas - which were apparently opposed within the Ford Cabinet. Instead, in its last attempt to achieve an accord, the Administration proposed that the two sides enter into the arrangement outlined at Vladivostok and defer the cruise missile and Backfire issues to a later round of negotiations. Clearly wanting to curb cruise missiles before they were actually deployed, Moscow refused.


Announcing in his inaugural address the hope that "nuclear weapons could be rid from the face of the earth," Jimmy Carter and his chief advisers quickly moved to distance themselves from the arms control strategy formulated during the Nixon-Ford years. The new Administration viewed SALT more as an arms control process and less as a political enterprise: the talks, it was said, could be separated somewhat from the wider Soviet-American political relationship, and arms control approached on its own technical merits. This had two important consequences for the Carter Administration's early strategy for negotiations:

First, it suggested that the central purpose of the exercise was not, as in years previous, to provide greater momentum to superpower détente. Viewing Soviet-American relations, as outlined in Presidential Review Memorandum 10, as embodying strands both of competition and cooperation, the predominant view in the first months of the Administration was that progress (or the lack of it) at SALT need not interfere with other Administration policies toward Moscow, such as human rights. SALT, in other words, was not to become a hostage to "linkage diplomacy."

Second, the primary purpose of the negotiations should be to secure a more stable strategic relationship, not simply to codify, as the Vladivostok understanding was accused of doing, a continued Soviet-American quantitative and qualitative arms race. This meant that overall equality in numbers of strategic launchers was an insufficient objective at the talks. New agreements, it was argued, could not cope with emerging strategic problems, particularly the vulnerability of American land-based missiles, by merely allowing each side to deploy new systems such as mobile missiles. Instead, "real" arms control was supposed to solve the vulnerability problem, making the deployment of new strategic weapons unnecessary.

Thus, the Carter Administration quickly moved to incorporate a much more ambitious range of objectives into the negotiations. The problem that had stalled the talks for two years - the place of "peripheral systems" in the Vladivostok totals - was set aside and attention was focused on new goals: reducing launcher numbers from the 2,400 ceiling, limiting the testing of new missiles, installing a new set of sub-limits on especially threatening systems such as Soviet "heavy" ICBMs, and banning certain new systems.

The result of this reappraisal was the so-called comprehensive proposal that Secretary of State Cyrus Vance laid before Soviet negotiators in March 1977. The proposal consisted of five important parts. First, it would have reduced the Vladivostok ceilings for overall strategic launchers to between 1,800 and 2,000. Second, it would have cut the number of launchers equipped with MIRVs from the Vladivostok total of 1,320 to between 1,100 and 1,200. Third, it would have placed two new sub-ceilings on land-based missiles: a ceiling of 550 on MIRV-equipped ICBMs and of 150 on "heavy" missiles. Fourth, it would have limited ICBM and SLBM tests to six a year and banned the deployment of follow-on systems. Finally, while it sought a 2,500-km. range ceiling for bomber-launched ALCMs (in anticipation, it seems, of President Carter's decision to cancel the B-1 penetrating bomber in July), it proposed a 600-km. limit for sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles.

In what seemed to be an effort to "sweeten" the comprehensive offer, the Administration in March 1977 also resurrected, as an alternative, the last proposal offered by President Ford: both sides could enter into the Vladivostok arrangement and defer the cruise missile and Backfire issues until a later phase of the talks. Neither proposal, however, met with Russian approval and in an extraordinary statement, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko particularly criticized the comprehensive proposal, accusing the Carter Administration of trying to achieve "unilateral advantages" in the talks.

In some respects, Mr. Gromyko's remarks deserve to be taken seriously. The Administration's proposals did reflect a growing concern over both the political and the military implications of Soviet missile modernization. The comprehensive proposal was not just designed to bring about a general reduction in strategic forces - a mostly cosmetic objective - but it also sought to single out a special category of weapons for reduction and qualitative restraint - MIRVed land-based missiles. Under the Vladivostok formula, there would be nothing to stop the Soviet Union from deploying over 1,000 new MIRV-equipped ICBMs (including over 300 "heavy" SS-18s), which, with further testing and improvements in accuracy, seemed certain to pose a threat to the Minuteman force in the 1980s. For the Carter Administration, then, the Soviet MIRVed ICBM, and not the Backfire, had become the central stumbling block to securing a new agreement. What the Carter Administration viewed as the most serious threat to strategic stability - the increasingly accurate, high-payload, MIRVed ICBM - the Soviet leadership undoubtedly viewed as the cornerstone of its strategic power.

The compromise arrangement formulated by the Administration following the March 1977 debacle - which forms the basis of the agreement now in the final stages of completion - is probably best viewed as an amalgam of the comprehensive and the deferral proposals. First submitted to the Soviets in May, the arrangement envisaged three different agreements: a treaty lasting until 1985, a protocol lasting for three years and a statement of principles to guide negotiators during the next phase of negotiations. Although the Soviet Union accepted the idea of the "three-tier" agreement in May 1977, it was not until Gromyko's visit to Washington in September that the two sides actually agreed on the substance of much of the new accord. Since the September breakthrough, the two sides have gradually narrowed their differences on details of the proposed agreement. While some differences still remain, the proposed agreement can now be described in some detail.

The treaty, lasting until 1985, will consist of 13 major components:

1. A ceiling of 2,250 is to be placed on the aggregate number of launcher vehicles possessed by each side. This is slightly higher than the figure proposed by the Administration in September (2,160), but it was apparently accepted in return for Soviet acquiescence to the sub-ceiling placed on total numbers of land- and sea-based MIRVed missiles (see below). The ceiling will require the Soviet Union to undertake a small reduction in its existing arsenal (some 250 launchers), but whether this cut is to be completed by December 1980 (the American preference) or somewhat later remains unresolved.

2. Within the 2,250 aggregate, a sub-ceiling of 1,320 will be placed on the total number of land- and sea-based MIRVed missiles as well as heavy bombers equipped with ALCMs. No limit has been placed on the number of ALCMs each existing heavy bomber can carry. A ceiling, however, may be placed on the number of ALCMs permitted aboard a new generation of wide-bodied aircraft carrying cruise missiles.

3. A sub-ceiling of 1,200 is to be placed on total numbers of land- and sea-based MIRVed missiles.

4. A further sub-ceiling of 820 is to be placed on numbers of MIRVed ICBMs. This represents the first time that this separate class of systems has been restricted. However, within this ceiling, the Soviet Union will be permitted to MIRV its entire force of SS-19 "heavy" systems, some 313 missiles.

5. While permitted to MIRV its existing heavy missile force, the Soviet Union will not be permitted to build additional ones. Nor will it be allowed to deploy new systems with useful payloads exceeding those of the new Soviet SS-18 "heavy" ICBM. In addition, new missiles with payloads exceeding the Soviet SS-19 "medium" missile will be counted as "heavy" ICBMs. The United States, which presently does not possess any "heavy" missiles, will not be permitted to deploy them during the period of the treaty.

6. In order to aid in the verification of sub-ceilings placed on MIRVed launchers, the two sides have agreed that any missile of a type tested with a MIRV is to be counted as a MIRVed launcher when deployed. This means that while the Soviet Union has deployed single-warhead versions of the SS-19 and the SS-18, all these missiles will be considered as MIRVed for purposes of the agreement.

7. The testing and deployment of long-range ALCMs are to be restricted to heavy bombers: American B-52s and Soviet Bear and Bison aircraft. (Whether this will apply only to nuclear-armed ALCMs or conventionally armed versions, too, is unclear.) In order to keep open the option of deploying ALCMs aboard a new generation of cruise missile carriers during the 1980s, the United States is also willing to take steps to differentiate such carriers (probably modified 747s) from civilian transports, in order to aid Soviet verification efforts.

8. A limit of 2,500 km. is to be placed on the range of ALCMs deployed aboard heavy bombers, but this has been defined to allow these missiles additional range to follow a zigzag course toward their targets.

9. To prohibit the rapid reloading of ICBM silos, the storage of excess missiles at launching sites is to be prohibited.

10. Although the deployment of mobile ICBMs is not banned in the draft treaty, the Soviet Union is prohibited from deploying the SS-16 ICBM in a mobile mode because of its similarity to the now-deployed SS-20 intermediate-range missile, which is not limited in the accord.

11. Both sides have agreed not to circumvent the agreement, including not taking actions through other states that could weaken the provisions of the accord. This would appear to rule out the transfer of weapons limited in the treaty to allied governments in Western Europe.

12. Both sides are to provide each other prior notification of missile testing and information on the size and performance of their respective arsenals, and both would agree to refrain from interfering with national technical means of verification, such as reconnaissance satellites.

13. Last, the Backfire bombers will not be counted under the ceilings set by the treaty. However, the production rate of the bomber will be frozen, with the possibility that restrictions will also be placed on the basing, refueling and modernization of the aircraft. What form an agreement covering the Backfire would take - an exchange of letters or a formal accord requiring Senate approval - is still unclear.

The protocol, on the other hand, is a temporary agreement, primarily designed to codify some of the restrictions on weapons modernization sought by the Administration in its earlier comprehensive proposal and to meet Soviet concerns over the American sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles. The Administration proposes that it run until December 1980; the Soviet Union, however, has argued that the protocol should expire three years after it enters into force, which could run into 1981 and conceivably beyond. The most important provisions contained in the protocol are:

1. A ban would be placed on the testing and deployment of "new types" of missiles, with certain exceptions. The Soviet Union desires to be allowed to deploy a new single-warhead ICBM as well as a new SLBM, the Typhoon. (This would be in addition to being able to deploy two other new SLBMs - the SS-NX-17 and the SS-NX-18 - which have been tested and are thus deemed eligible for deployment.) The United States is also proposing that each side should be allowed to deploy a new ICBM, but that each side be allowed to choose whether it would be MIRVed or unMIRVed. The Administration is also proposing that if the Soviet Union is allowed to deploy the Typhoon, the United States be permitted also to deploy a new longer-range SLBM, Trident II. There are indications that, as the two sides narrow their differences on what new systems would be exempted from the "new types" ban, they may move this provision from the protocol into the longer-term treaty.

2. The significant improvement of existing systems will be restricted, with substantial upgrading of boosters, post-boost vehicles and guidance systems ruled out. The deployment of new MIRVs that increase the number of warheads aboard existing post-boost vehicles may also be prohibited. Electronic improvements to existing guidance units - to achieve higher accuracies - would not be restricted because they could not be verified.

3. The testing and deployment of mobile ICBMs would be banned, but the testing of ICBMs (from fixed launchers) actually intended for deployment aboard mobile launchers after the expiration of the protocol will apparently be permitted.

4. The testing and deployment of armed (nuclear or conventional) cruise missiles with ranges exceeding 2,500 km. would be barred. Deployment of cruise missiles (land-, air-, or sea-launched) with ranges exceeding 600 km. on platforms other than heavy bombers would be banned, but these systems could be developed and tested at ranges up to 2,500 km.

The third component of the proposed SALT package, the statement of principles, is intended to provide a framework for future negotiations, meant to begin shortly after the conclusion of SALT II. The United States is asking that the negotiations focus more heavily on reductions in forces and on new qualitative limits (testing and research and development), while the Soviet Union, apparently less enthusiastic about the whole concept of a statement to guide a SALT III dialogue, is pushing for recognition of the concept that American nuclear-capable aircraft in Western Europe (so-called forward based systems, or FBS) and allied strategic nuclear forces (the British and French SLBM forces) be subject to limitation in a future agreement.


Not unexpectedly, much of the controversy that has surrounded this complex package has focused on two interrelated issues: (1) the possible asymmetries in the overall strategic balance that could emerge during the course of the treaty, and (2) the dampening effect that the three-year protocol could have on American technological initiative.

In making its case for the treaty, the Administration argues that it provides, for the first time, overall equality in strategic launchers and that, in particular, it places a ceiling on the expansion of the most dangerous element of Soviet strategic power - land-based MIRVed missiles. Critics, however, contend that overall equality in strategic launchers is a poor measure of parity and that the proposed ceiling of 820 on MIRVed ICBMs is unlikely to put any real dent in Soviet military capabilities, especially against hardened military targets such as missile silos.

The problem of measuring the strategic balance is a familiar one, and comparative figures may provide little real indication of actual military capabilities under the proposed treaty. However, within the constraints laid down by the treaty, the Soviet Union is likely to increase its overall edge in deliverable megatons (a measure of destructive potential against area targets) as well as throw-weight (a measure of how payloads can be exploited). The Soviet edge in these measures will become particularly pronounced for ICBMs: by 1985 the Soviet Union is likely to enjoy a seven to one lead in deliverable megatons and a five to one advantage in throw-weight. These Soviet advantages in overall capabilities are offset somewhat by the American edge in total warheads, but this edge is likely to decline somewhat after 1982. However, even then, with American deployment of ALCMs aboard bombers and the new MIRVed Trident I missile, the United States will maintain a substantial lead in bomber and SLBM warheads.

In overall terms, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, during the treaty, a shift in the strategic nuclear balance will in fact occur. It is important to note, however, that this shift has little to do with the ceilings and sub-ceilings laid down in the treaty and is really the result of a continuing and unprecedented buildup in Soviet capabilities. Since the 1972 SALT agreements, the Soviet Union has deployed four new ICBMs, two new SLBMs (with two more under development), and a new bomber. For its part, the United States has tested and cancelled a new bomber, finished the deployment of a new SLBM, and begun the testing of another. What the shift represented in the crude indices reflects, then, is not necessarily an inequitable agreement but unequal momentum in Soviet-American strategic arms competition.

Whether the various asymmetries that could arise under the treaty are significant is a difficult question to answer. In the case of many, they are symbolic - reflecting the fact that Soviet strategic power in overall terms is growing faster than that of the United States. While this may have little immediate impact on real Soviet military options, it is much more difficult to argue that a shift in the perceived balance will not affect Soviet behavior in other areas, as well as the confidence of allied governments in the West, and possibly the confidence of American leaders.

A much more difficult problem, however, is posed by the prospect that, between now and 1985, the treaty will permit the Soviet Union to develop a new military option - the ability to threaten the destruction of most, if not all, of the Minuteman ICBM force in a disarming first strike. Whether the Soviet Union is likely to achieve the technical capacity to actually undertake what Secretary of Defense Harold Brown has called a "cosmic roll of the dice" is still very much in dispute. But with over 5,000 separately targeted warheads, and a force of 820 SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs possessing accuracies below 0.2 nautical miles, the Soviet Union will pose a strategic threat in the mid-1980s that American planners will be hard-pressed to ignore, despite the many uncertainties attached to any first-strike scenario against the Minuteman.

The emergence of a real probability of Minuteman vulnerability during the course of the treaty must be immediately troubling for President Carter, for as we have seen, a central Administration aim has been to use SALT to establish a more stable strategic relationship. Under the comprehensive American proposal of March 1977, the low limit proposed for MIRVed ICBMs (550) and, more importantly, the limit on missile tests (six per year) would have gone a long way to reduce the emergence of Minuteman vulnerability. However, as Administration officials have come to acknowledge, the limits on Soviet ICBMs (or the lack of them) laid out in the present accord are likely to do little to forestall the Soviet achievement, at least on paper, of a credible first-strike capability against the most flexible and responsive component of the American triad. As the Administration as well as many critics of the treaty recognize, this means that the United States will probably be forced to take some unilateral step, during the coming decade, such as moving ahead with a land-mobile ICBM, to cope with the silo-vulnerability problem. More immediately, however, it means that the Administration, by failing to solve the problem at SALT, has been unable to achieve what was earlier a primary objective in the negotiations.


While the debate over the treaty will surely focus on strategic trends, the controversy over the protocol is likely to concern whether or not it can be kept temporary in character. Although the protocol's terms place a broad range of restrictions on options for weapons modernization, it has been primarily designed to limit cruise missiles in a manner acceptable to both parties. As the experience following the Vladivostok Tentative Accord demonstrated, the Soviet Union is unwilling to enter into an agreement that does not place some type of restrictions on long-range cruise missiles, particularly land- and sea-based versions that could proliferate in the thousands in and around Western Europe, posing threats not only to Soviet capabilities in Eastern Europe but to the Soviet homeland as well. At the same time, the United States remains similarly unwilling to foreclose any options for the cruise missile, despite the fact that American planners are unsure how the new technology can best be exploited. The solution to this impasse has been to place a three-year ban on cruise missile deployment (but not development) - which could set a precedent for limiting these systems in SALT III but which does not in itself rule out their possible deployment at a later date.

In purely legal terms, the Administration is on firm ground in arguing that limits on sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles will have no impact on existing American deployment plans, which do not envisage deployment until 1981 at the earliest. But while the United States will remain free, under the protocol, to continue to develop long-range versions of these systems and, if judged necessary, to deploy cruise missiles after the protocol ends, there will be powerful forces working on any Administration not to do so. For a start, with cruise missiles limited by a SALT agreement (whatever its label), any effort to move ahead with their deployment in the 1980s will be viewed by many - in and out of government - as a retrogressive step in arms control. Thus, once controls are placed on the technology at SALT, it may be politically difficult, as many critics of the protocol argue, for the United States to simply plunge ahead with cruise missile deployment. This would be particularly true if, as seems likely, the protocol expired in the midst of negotiations on a follow-on SALT III agreement; in such circumstances a U.S. cruise missile deployment would be viewed and portrayed by Moscow (as well as by many arms control supporters in the United States) as severely damaging the chances of achieving a follow-on agreement.

In fact, Soviet statements on the protocol make it very clear that Moscow views it as only the first step toward achieving a more comprehensive set of constraints on the cruise missile. Placing temporary limits on the cruise missile within the protocol does appear to have enabled the two sides to surmount a central negotiating obstacle that has hindered agreement since 1974. The protocol, however, is not a solution to the cruise missile problem; it only defers the issue to a later stage of negotiations and it does so in a way that the United States could regret.

The possibility that, despite its temporary character, the protocol could emerge as a much more permanent fixture also has implications for the problem of Minuteman vulnerability, discussed above. Although the treaty would not prohibit the United States from responding to the threat by deploying a land-mobile ICBM in the 1980s, the protocol (on present indications) would ban for its duration the testing and deployment of a system such as the MX, being proposed by the U.S Air Force.

Again this prohibition, in theory, would have no real impact on American options because the MX is at an early development stage and the United States has no plans to deploy, or even to test, a mobile ICBM over the next three years. But, as with sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles, the dynamics of future SALT negotiations could create pressures to place longer-term limits on mobile ICBM deployment. For example, because the protocol would also limit the Soviet development of a new family of follow-on ICBMs, it will probably be argued that an American decision to allow it to expire would open the floodgates to a new generation of far more threatening Soviet systems. Although this might be true, extending the protocol would deny the United States the means of coping with the problems created even by existing Soviet ICBMs. When viewed together, then, the implications of the treaty and the protocol appear indeed troubling: while the treaty is likely to do little to forestall the emergence of Minuteman vulnerability during the 1980s, it is possible that the protocol could work to limit American options for responding to the problem.


Although the key issues posed by the proposed agreements concern the effect of the treaty on superpower strategic stability and the possible impact of the protocol on American options, three other potential problems arising out of SALT also merit discussion.

The first concerns the possible impact of the new agreements on the cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance. So far, the problems that a new SALT accord could create for the Alliance have been understood to revolve around the issue of technology transfer. Would a new agreement restrict the ability of the United States to continue existing programs for nuclear weapons collaboration with its NATO allies, or to undertake new ones? As with many other parts of the accord, the answer, at this stage, is unclear. As outlined above, the two sides have agreed not to take steps through "other parties" that could weaken the proposed accord. While this noncircumvention provision, as the Administration is quick to point out, does not specifically rule out the American transfer of weapons, their components or their blueprints to allied partners (what the Soviet Union originally sought to achieve in the accord), it also fails to outline specifically what types of Alliance cooperation would be permitted under the accord. Clearly, the United States, along with its allies, will attempt to define the provision in a way that would minimize any possibility for disrupting existing practices, such as the American sale of Polaris A-3 missiles to Britain, or any future assistance that might be offered, say in the development of a European cruise missile force. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, can be expected to take a more restrictive approach to the provision and might capitalize on its vagueness to challenge a wide range of European-American programs for cooperation. Despite this, it seems unlikely that the differences of interpretation that could flow out of the accord's noncircumvention language will pose serious problems either for superpower relations or for NATO. This is simply because, for the foreseeable future, NATO allies are unlikely to seek large-scale American help in expanding European strategic forces and, if they did, it is doubtful that the United States would respond with massive assistance.

A much more serious threat to Alliance unity, and one that has been neglected in recent discussions, is the possible impact that the accord could have on efforts to improve American capabilities in and around Western Europe. During the first round of SALT, one of the sensitive issues within the Alliance was the possibility that, in an agreement, the Nixon Administration might sacrifice its freedom to maintain or improve forces earmarked for the defense of NATO. Attention was particularly focused on nuclear-capable aircraft based in Europe and assigned missions in the European theater, but which, in theory, possess the capability to strike the Soviet homeland. Had the Administration agreed to limit FBS aircraft in the 1972 agreements, European governments would have perceived this as an American decision to pursue superpower arms control at the expense of NATO defense. As it happened, American negotiators successfully resisted Soviet pressures on this score, and strike aircraft were excluded from the ceilings laid down in the Interim Agreement, a precedent that is continued within the new accord.

But while the Carter Administration has been able to sidestep the FBS issue in the new agreement, it has not succeeded in minimizing the potential impact of the new accord on future American contributions to NATO defense. This, of course, is because the Administration has accepted the concept of limiting long-range sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles. While the contribution these systems could make to NATO's theater nuclear (and conventional) capabilities is still under study, there are strong reasons to believe that cruise missiles deployed in the European theater would greatly enhance the survivability and responsiveness of NATO's existing nuclear posture.

However, as we have seen, the limits laid down in the protocol could mean that the United States will be unable to exercise this option over the coming decade. In theory, if a new NATO deployment of these systems is judged necessary in the early 1980s (the earliest point the systems would be available), the three-year protocol could be allowed to lapse. If, on the other hand, the cruise missile option does not appear as interesting in the early 1980s as it does at present, the Administration maintains that it will use the possibility of cruise missile deployment as a significant bargaining chip to achieve Soviet concessions in a future round of SALT.

The crucial question, of course, is how much flexibility the Administration will realistically possess in moving ahead with the deployment of sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles as the protocol nears expiration. At that point, the same political and "image" problems already noted as to other parts of the protocol would arise for this one as well. Thus, the United States could be tampering with its ability to replace existing NATO FBS systems in the future.

The problems posed for NATO by cruise missile constraints are exacerbated by the fact that equivalent Soviet long-range theater nuclear systems, such as the SS-20 missile or the Backfire bomber, are not to be limited in the new SALT agreement. It is possible, then, as the Soviet Union expands its "Euro-strategic" missile and bomber forces, West European governments will be led to argue that NATO's best instruments for responding to this buildup - American cruise missiles - have been withheld from the Alliance. This impression could be further reinforced by the very structure of the protocol itself. In general terms, it can be argued that the agreement limits American weapons of greatest relevance to the defense of Western Europe (sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles) in return for Soviet restraint in weapons that primarily threaten the United States (a new family of four ICBMs). Thus, over time many Europeans may conclude that the United States - in order to reach a new agreement - has mortgaged systems that are most likely to serve Western, rather than strictly American, interests.


This review has only touched on what are viewed as the most significant issues raised by the proposed SALT agreement. Other problems have already been identified by other authors and they, too, will receive attention in the coming debate over the new accord. One of these, the question of what limits, if any, will be placed on the Backfire is still an issue in dispute in the talks. However, even if the Soviet Union is willing to agree (through restrictions on where the bomber is deployed and its ability to be refueled) to limit its capability to strike targets in the American homeland, the fact that the bomber is not to be included in the overall ceiling of the treaty is certain to arouse concern in the Senate.

The same is true for procedures in the agreement for verification. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency has already informed the Senate that it will be able to monitor Soviet compliance with the new accord with confidence, but it has acknowledged that certain provisions - for example, those dealing with cruise missile range and limits on missile modernization - will be difficult to verify. In general, Soviet efforts to take advantage of verification problems posed by the new accord would not result in any decisive strategic advantages in the near term. So the Administration is probably correct in arguing that Moscow would be unlikely to jeopardize the new agreement by seeking marginal advantages through cheating. At the same time there is growing sentiment within the United States, whether it is justified by the Soviet record at SALT I or not, that Moscow will seek to use ambiguities or loopholes in arms control accords to further its strategic interests. Thus, regardless of their strategic significance, apparent opportunities for violating the new agreement are certain to be seized upon in the SALT debate.

There can be little doubt that the new accord will receive rough treatment if and when the Administration presents it to the Senate for approval. In addition to the largely symbolic concerns generated by the Backfire and the problems of verification, the agreement appears to countenance (1) an overall shift in the strategic balance in favor of Moscow; (2) the emergence of Minuteman vulnerability; and (3) the growth of serious strains within the Atlantic Alliance. These are not happy prospects, and it is understandable that supporters of the agreement have begun to argue that while it is not ideal, the United States would be far worse off without a new SALT accord. Representative Les Aspin has suggested, for example, that without a lid of 2,250 on overall launcher numbers, the Soviet Union might be capable of deploying some 3,500 launchers by 1985.

However, this seems a curious way to build public support for SALT. For a start, it suggests that the accord itself is somewhat inadequate and, accordingly, can only be sold by comparing it with a more unpleasant state of affairs. More important, by arguing that without a new agreement the American-Soviet balance would be bound to worsen, the Administration is in danger of appearing unable or unwilling to compete with Moscow over the coming decade. This is hardly the image the Administration wants to convey when it seeks Senate approval for a new accord.

While supporters of SALT may be making a mistake by emphasizing the dire consequences of not achieving a new accord, critics appear to be promoting a reverse fallacy - pretending that it is SALT, and SALT alone, that will be responsible for the emergence of the various strategic problems described above. As we have seen, the shifting overall balance as well as the more specific problem of Minuteman vulnerability are not really the products of arms control negotiations. Instead, they are the results of earlier Soviet and American weapons procurement decisions that have been inevitably reflected in the outcome of negotiations.

In spite of this, the impact of the new agreement will be debated in terms of cause and effect, in part because of the Carter Administration's earlier hopes for what SALT could accomplish. In seeking substantial reductions and qualitative controls on strategic forces last year, the Administration raised expectations for SALT beyond what the talks are probably capable of accomplishing. Raising expectations is not an unfamiliar characteristic of the Carter Administration's general approach to foreign policy, but the problem, this time, is that many members of the Senate seem inclined to take the White House at its word. Thus, in its haste to practice "real" arms control, the Administration, in a bold initiative last year, sought to solve most of the outstanding strategic problems confronting the United States through the vehicle of SALT. Whether the initiative was hopelessly naive, as some argue, or merely premature, as the Administration contends, is really unimportant. For the agreement that has finally emerged from the talks accomplishes little the Administration originally set out to do.

This does not mean, however, that the SALT agreement now nearing completion must be judged as a failure. Compared with the Vladivostok guidelines, it appears superior in several respects: it provides for lower overall launcher numbers; it limits Soviet MIRVed ICBMs and it permits the deployment of American ALCMs aboard bombers. But judged in terms of the Administration's March 1977 proposal, it is likely to be viewed by many as inadequate: it has not placed a really restrictive ceiling on Soviet ICBMs and, in particular, it has not cut into the Soviet advantage in heavy missiles. Even without the legacy of the March proposal, the new agreement would still be controversial. But, having asked SALT to do too much, the Carter Administration now runs the risk of having its modest accomplishment characterized as an embarrassing failure. An agreement, in other words, that should be understood as an accommodation to reality is now widely perceived as an accommodation to the Soviet Union.

The Administration's problems, of course, have been compounded by other actions that have added to its image as being naive both in the talks and in its wider dealings with Moscow. The decision to cancel the B-1, for example, suggested that the Administration was not only insensitive to how such budgetary decisions affect American negotiating leverage at the talks, but that it viewed the negotiations as an end in themselves rather than as an instrument of American security policy. Other actions, such as deferral of the so-called neutron bomb, while not directly related to the talks, have only served to reinforce the image of an Administration uncertain over how to respond to the growth of Soviet military power. Finally, Soviet military involvement in Africa has served to deepen skepticism on Capitol Hill and elsewhere over Moscow's motives and the prospects for a cooperative superpower relationship.

Under these circumstances, arguments that were unheard of during the 1972 SALT debate have begun to surface - the suggestion, for example, that only by defeating a new agreement might the United States be alerted to the changing strategic balance and might the Soviet Union recognize the risks it is undertaking in continuing its massive buildup and becoming involved in foreign adventures far from its shores. As these arguments gain currency, it becomes more difficult for the Administration to argue, as it has already begun to do, that a failure to ratify a new agreement will come as a profound shock to Soviet-American relations, which could lead to new superpower tensions and increased defense spending. For many, the emergence of a clear disparity in strategic capabilities over the next decade is a much more troubling vision than the traumatic failure of SALT. At least one-third of the Senate membership, in the final analysis, may decide that no SALT agreement is preferable to what they believe is a bad one.


There is, of course, little the Administration can do to the agreement itself to make it more acceptable to critics. But in order to achieve Senate approval, the Administration will have to consider committing itself to a variety of measures to build congressional confidence in U.S. security under a new SALT regime. The Senate is sure to request assurances concerning the ability to monitor the agreement. And, on the controversial protocol, the Administration would be wise to promise that any extension would only take place following Senate debate and approval.

More importantly, the price of Senate approval is also likely to include an accelerated program of strategic modernization, including upgrading of the Minuteman III missile, a speedup of Trident submarine and ALCM procurement, and perhaps even a second look at the B-1. Because of the sensitivity of the Minuteman vulnerability issue, the Administration might particularly defuse concerns over a new agreement by making a commitment to a new mobile ICBM. Many of these improvements, ironically, are steps that the Administration earlier hoped that a new agreement would make unnecessary. However, a commitment by the Administration to boost defense spending and accelerate new strategic programs is probably a political necessity to gain approval for the accord. It will force the Administration to recognize the close interconnection between the arms talks and the defense policy process.

A commitment by the Administration to ensure that the strategic balance is not allowed to change dramatically over the coming decade may well provide the margin that the White House will need in winning congressional support for its policies at SALT. But an acceleration of the American defense effort will not solve a different class of problems posed by the new accord, problems that may not figure significantly in the Senate's review of SALT but could have a profound impact on superpower arms control.

As the cruise missile issue has made abundantly clear, the ability of the two superpowers to continue to discuss their own strategic relationship at SALT without reference to the possible impact that agreements could have on the security of their allies is rapidly declining. New classes of highly flexible weapons - possessing both strategic and tactical attributes - have made it no longer possible for Washington and Moscow to "compartmentalize" their strategic relationship at SALT. Thus, it is no accident that the major stumbling blocks to agreement following the Vladivostok summit were weapons, like the cruise missile or the Soviet Backfire bomber, that did not easily fit into the categories erected by strategic thinkers a decade ago. These were weapons that seemed to affect primarily theater military balances - in Europe or in Asia - but their ability also to perform strategic missions placed a high premium on including them in SALT.

The Carter Administration has finessed the cruise missile problem by constructing the three-year protocol. But this is not a solution to the dilemma, it simply puts off the matter while some means is sought to find a formula for reconciling Soviet, American and West European interests reflected in the cruise missile issue. This will not be an easy task.

A more permanent arms control solution to the cruise missile problem will require both superpowers to begin addressing not only the strategic balance, but the wider NATO-Warsaw Pact nuclear balance. Whether cruise missiles, the Backfire, the new Soviet SS-20 and the British and French nuclear forces should be introduced into SALT or made the subject of yet another arms control forum is a question that has only begun to be asked. But an answer will be necessary before the end of the decade. Thus, both the Administration and critics of the proposed agreement should ensure that the coming debate does not merely focus on its details and possible military impact. If the SALT process itself is not put under scrutiny, superpower arms control may not survive beyond the protocol.

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  • Richard Burt currently covers defense and foreign policy matters for the Washington, D.C. bureau of The New York Times. He was Assistant Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London, in 1975-77.
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