Arms Control and the U.S. Russian Relationship



The ABM Treaty was a product of the Cold War, bipolarity, and the state of technology at that time. The United States and Soviet Union had both deployed significant strategic nuclear forces that increasingly came to rely on long-range ballistic missiles. In an attempt to forestall a further Soviet increase in the number of such systems, the United States sought and obtained from the Soviet Union in 1972 an interim agreement for the limitation of "strategic offensive arms" (Interim Agreement), which essentially froze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers of the two sides at existing levels. At the same time, the two parties entered into a formal treaty (the ABM Treaty) on the limitation of "antiballistic missile systems," or systems designed to defend against strategic ballistic missiles.

The ABM Treaty did not ban all antiballistic missile systems. It permitted the research, development, and limited deployment of ground-based ABM systems. As signed in 1972, the two sides were permitted two operational ABM sites, each with 100 ABM launchers and 100 ABM interceptor missiles, with associated radar, storage, and test facilities. A 1974 amendment reduced the number of permitted operational ABM sites to one per side. The deployments were limited to ground-based ABM systems, which were the technological approach of the time and included fixed ground-based launchers, ground-launched interceptor missiles, and associated ground-based radars. Deployment of ABM systems based on "other physical principles" and including constituent parts capable of substituting for these ground-based ABM components was to be subject to discussion and agreement by the parties. Development, testing, or deployment of sea-, air-, or space-based, or mobile land-based systems were all banned.


The ABM Treaty thus enshrined as strategic doctrine the principle of deterrence through threat of retaliation. Since neither side was free to deploy unlimited defenses against the strategic ballistic missiles of the other, each nation sought to deter any outright attack by the other through its ability to threaten overwhelming retaliation against an attack with its own nuclear-armed strategic ballistic missiles. The Interim Agreement and the ABM Treaty were bilateral agreements applicable only to U.S. and Soviet strategic ballistic missiles and ABM systems. While the Soviets were worried about U.K. and French strategic nuclear forces, and both the Soviet Union and the United States had reason to be concerned about Chinese nuclear forces, these forces were not limited by either agreement.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the end of the Cold War, the underpinnings of the ABM Treaty changed. Neither the United States nor Russia (the ultimate successor to the strategic nuclear forces of the Soviet Union) felt, as they had during the Cold War, seriously threatened any longer by the other's strategic nuclear forces. In the START II Treaty, both the United States and Russia agreed to a radical reduction of their strategic nuclear forces. But if massive strategic nuclear forces were no longer required to deter a U.S.-Russian conflict, other threats had emerged. The 1990-91 Gulf War revealed the strategic significance of even short-range ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads. Scud missile attacks by Iraq on Israel sought to provoke Israeli entrance into the war in order to fracture the broad coalition of states supporting U.S. efforts to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The rapid deployment of U.S. Patriot missile batteries to defend against the Iraqi Scuds helped allow Israel to remain out of the war and facilitated the victory of the coalition forces.

The attempted coup against then-Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 raised serious questions about the command of Soviet strategic nuclear forces and gave new credence to the risk of accidental or unauthorized launches of such forces. Today, this concern may be even more serious with respect to China because of its domestic political uncertainties and its relatively primitive command and control systems and procedures.


Moreover, the launch of Chinese ballistic missiles in 1996 against targets north and south of Taiwan serves to underscore that the risks associated with Chinese ballistic missiles are not simply those of an unauthorized or accidental launch. The Chinese launches that bracketed Taiwan are a prime example of the use of ballistic missiles for purposes of political blackmail and coercion. While Saddam Hussein used his Scud missiles to try to provoke Israeli intervention in the Gulf War, a future Saddam Hussein armed with longer-range ballistic missiles may use them to try to deter the United States and potential coalition partners from mounting an effort against him. If a future aggressor were to have ballistic missiles with a range capable of reaching American territory, the United States itself might then be subject to blackmail attempts to stand by in the face of aggression. Current North Korean development of the Taepo Dong II missile raises the prospect that North Korea could, in the next five to ten years, deploy a ballistic missile system threatening Alaska or Hawaii. These developments have resulted in the emergence of substantial bipartisan support for the development and deployment of active defenses against ballistic missiles of less than strategic range (theater ballistic missiles) in the form of theater missile defense systems, which would defend U.S. military forces and allies overseas. Although much more controversial, there is also considerable backing for the development of a national missile defense (NMD) system, which would defend U.S. territory and population against a limited missile attack.


The ABM Treaty has come to play a critical role in the debate over both theater missile defense and national missile defense. But this role is very different for the two types of systems. The ABM Treaty does not limit theater missle defense systems per se. The treaty limits ABM systems that are defined as systems "to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight trajectory." Since TMD systems are aimed not at countering strategic ballistic missiles but at shorter-range theater ballistic missiles, they are outside the scope of the ABM Treaty.


The problem is that the term "strategic ballistic missiles" is not defined in the ABM Treaty, leaving open the question of what constitutes a "strategic ballistic missile" as opposed to a "theater ballistic missile." The situation is complicated further by Article VI of the treaty. In that article, the parties agreed to two things: not to give non-ABM systems "capabilities to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight trajectory" and not to test non-ABM systems "in an ABM mode." Again, the treaty nowhere defines the phrase "capabilities to counter" or what constitutes "testing in an ABM mode." While the United States made a unilateral statement at the time of the negotiations as to what it considered "testing in an ABM mode," this statement was directed toward the testing of air defense systems and sheds little light on the testing of TMD systems.

This has meant that development of U.S. TMD systems has, almost from its inception occurred under a cloud of possible non-compliance with the ABM Treaty. The secretary of Defense was given responsibility for U.S. compliance with the treaty shortly after it was ratified. The secretary has been assisted in this role by the Compliance Review Group (CRG), established within the Department of Defense. In trying to decide whether a TMD system in development has "capabilities to counter" strategic ballistic missiles, the CRG has based its assessment on the "inherent capabilities" of a TMD system against a strategic ballistic missile. In making this judgment, the CRG has relied on computer-based calculations and simulations of a one-on-one engagement between a TMD interceptor and a single strategic ballistic missile, rather than on more realistic scenarios involving projected performance in real-world combat situations (force-on-force engagements). This has tended to overstate the capabilities of TMD systems.

Further, this approach is inherently one-sided. The ABM Treaty is verified only by national technical means (NTM). This means that the United States can object to Soviet (now Russian) compliance based only on observable activities such as actual testing of TMD systems. The United States has little insight into the theoretical computer-based capabilities of Russian TMD systems, and therefore cannot raise compliance objections based on


them. Yet the United States is constraining its own development of TMD systems based on just this kind of analysis.

The upshot has been significant limitations on the technical capability of U.S. TMD systems under development. For example, the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system has been certified by the United States as ABM Treaty-compliant only through the demonstration and validation phase of development. It is uncertain as to whether the system will be certified for deployment. To the extent that it will, certification is likely to be conditioned on the system being rendered incapable of receiving sensor data from sources other than its own radar. Thus, the system will be unable to acquire targeting data from satellite-based sensors (such as the former "Brilliant Eyes" satellite constellation). If THAAD were permitted to receive data from such sources, the potential area that it could defend against attack from a ballistic missile fired from 1,000 kilometers away would nearly double in size.

Similarly, the Navy's Theater Wide Defense (NTWD) system (formerly the Navy Upper Tier system) has been certified by the United States as ABM Treaty-compliant, but is based on a concept of operations that restricts the NTWD to making interceptions ordy while the target is within the range of the SPY radar aboard the AEGIS cruisers or destroyers that will carry the NTWD. This effectively restricts the potential for interception to the ascent phase of a theater ballistic missile's flight (from initial launch to burnout of the missile's rocket motor). The AEGIS ship must be close enough to the launch point of the theater ballistic missile that its radar can track the flight and guide the interceptor to the target before that target either attains a velocity that the interceptor cannot overcome or flies out of the radar's range. If the interceptor could rely on data about the target's flight provided from other sensors - such as satellites - then the NTWD system could engage theater ballistic missiles or their warheads in mid-course flight (after the missile has burned out or a warhead has separated from the missile).

In terms of national missile defense, the essence of the ABM Treaty was that each side foreswore the deployment of a defense


of its territory against the strategic ballistic missiles of the other. The treaty did permit the deployment of ABM defenses initially at two sites on each side, designed originally for the national capitals and one ballistic missile field each. Only the Soviet Union took advantage of this freedom, and Russia still maintains an ABM system to defend Moscow.

What both nations eventually would benefit from, however, is not limited defenses of specific sites, but a thin layer of protection for their entire countries -- to defend not against each other's ballistic missiles, but against ballistic missiles from third countries that could threaten them both, or from accidental or unauthorized launches. By its terms, the ABM Treaty makes this difficult. Sea-based ABM systems (such as might be achieved by an upgraded Navy NTWD system), or air- or space-based systems (such as "Brilliant Pebbles" pursued by the Reagan and Bush administrations), are proscribed. A single site centrally located in the continental United States for deployment of a fixed land-based ABM system would, with today's technology, have a difficult task in providing an effective defense of Alaska and Hawaii.

The Bush administration sought to enlist first the Soviet Union and then Russia, along with U.S. allies, in building a global protection system that would provide a limited ballistic missile defense to all nations committed to nonproliferation norms. It sought Moscow's agreement to relax the ABM Treaty constraints to permit the development and deployment of such a system. However, Soviet consent was never achieved, and Russian officials have increasingly indicated their commitment to the strictest possible continuation of the ABM Treaty.

The administration has been pursuing negotiations with the Russians to define the demarcation line between an ABM system (limited by the ABM Treaty) and a TMD system (unlimited by the treaty). This is consistent with the administration's view that theater ballistic missiles constitute the only near- or medium-term danger and that America's most important priority is to ensure that it can develop and deploy those TMD systems needed to defend against that threat. Negotiators for the two sides have apparently agreed that "testing in an ABM mode"


means testing a TMD system against a ballistic missile target that anywhere in its target flight has a velocity in excess of 5 kilometers per second or flies to a range of over 3,500 kilometers. TMD systems tested against such a target would presumably be deemed to be "tested in an ABM mode" and subject to ABM Treaty limitations.

As to giving TMD systems "capabilities to counter strategic ballistic missiles," the parties are apparently nearing agreement that systems having an interceptor with an intercept velocity of three kilometers per second or less (it is unclear whether this is a theoretical capability or is to be determined by what has actually been demonstrated in test flights) would not be considered to have "capabilities to counter strategic ballistic missiles" and would not qualify as NMD systems as long as they were not "tested in an ABM mode." Those systems having an interceptor with an intercept velocity of greater than three kilometers per second, however, would be subject to the compliance judgment of the side deploying that system as to whether it possessed "capabilities to counter" strategic ballistic missiles. Additionally, the parties may agree upon a number of joint TMD activities including joint exercises, joint development contracts, and possible sharing of early-warning data. Confidence-building measures would also be discussed.

The administration believes that this approach will ensure that its near-term TMD systems (upgraded Patriot missiles, THAAD, and the Navy Lower Tier missile defense system) can be deployed without ABM Treaty problems. It is less clear whether this approach would protect planned follow-on systems (such as NTWD and a possible boost-phase intercept system launched from aircraft) or future generations of systems required to deal with more sophisticated theater ballistic missile threats.

There is also a danger that the three kilometers per second interceptor velocity parameter - intended by the U.S. side to be a "safe harbor' below which no question of inherent ABM capability can be raised - in fact become a permanent upper limit on acceptable TMD interceptor velocity. Although this is not inevitable, parameters established for the sole purpose of trigger-


ing reviews can become performance ceilings as Department of Defense program managers seek to avoid treaty compliance questions and protect their programs. If the standards used in the past by the CRG for assessing inherent ABM capability continue to be used, systems with interceptor velocities above three kilometers per second could run into compliance problems, thus seriously delaying their development.

The administration has undertaken no fundamental review of the ABM Treaty with the Russians and has proposed three years for U.S. development of limited national missile defenses and then, should the threat warrant, a three-year deployment period. Although the majority of the Task Force believes this position is too equivocating, some members generally support this approach by the administration.

They argue that the ABM Treaty continues to be a key element in U.S.-Russian strategic relations and the international nuclear nonproliferation regime despite the radical changes in the post-Cold War world. In their view, current efforts to deploy BMD systems that would undercut or lead to the abrogation of the treaty would have a profound negative impact on U.S. efforts to reduce Russian and Chinese strategic nuclear arsenals and to build a stronger nuclear nonproliferation regime. (See their extended comments in the Additional and Dissenting Views of the report.)

The majority of the Task Force believes that there is a deadly emerging ballistic missile threat to the United States and its allies and friends. As was clear in the Gulf War, that threat already exists at the theater level and is growing. Because this theater risk is so immediate and so great, the United States must move as quickly as possible to develop systems that will meet the theater ballistic missile threat. This should be feasible within a sensible reading of the ABM Treaty. The United States should urgently develop an effective TMD with the Russians if possible, and without them if necessary. Time is of the essence. With regard to U.S. national missile defense, the risk is more distant and the timeline can be somewhat longer to field a thin system. This more remote danger, and consequent lengthier time-


frame, provides an opportunity for Washington to build on a collaborative TMD effort with Russia to produce the mutual confidence necessary to move naturally into NMDcooperation. Such cooperation should be the U.S. objective, and intense effort and political capital in Washington from the U.S. president on down should be devoted to this goal. If, however, the Russian government rejects now, for whatever reasons, such collaboration in TMD, and subsequently in NMD, the United States must move forward without Moscow, and eventually without the constraints of the ABM Treaty.

The ABM Treaty is too important a strategic symbol in U.S.-Russian and transatlantic relations to carelessly throw it aside, but it is not sacrosanct. It should be modified through mutual agreement to meet the new circumstances and the new risks. A 1972 agreement, negotiated in wholly different times, must not, over the long term, stand in the way of an energetic commitment by the United States to defend its citizens against ballistic missile attack. This needs to be said now, politely and firmly, to President Yeltsin and his senior advisers.


  1. The United States should strongly encourage Russia to develop in the next decade an effective theater missile defense, and then a limited national missile defense system, in a joint venture with the United States and like-minded nations. This could encourage the Russians in due course to adopt the view that the ABM Treaty should not be allowed to stand in the way of deployment of such cooperatively based limited-capability systems. This is the best, perhaps only, long-term answer to the challenge of protecting the United States from ballistic missile attack, promoting Duma ratification of START II, and keeping U.S.-Russian relations on as solid a footing as possible. At the same time, however, Washington should make clear to the Russians that, although it would strongly prefer to work closely with Moscow in this effort, it is in any case determined not to leave the United States undefended against this emerging new ballistic missile threat.


  2. If such a cooperative US.-Russian effort toward first an effective TMD and then an NMD system can be realized, the United States should be prepared, along with its allies and friends, to assist Russia in funding this effort, partly through the purchase of relevant Russian technologies. Russia has deployed systems with TMD capabilities such as the SA-10 and SA-12. U.S. endorsement of these systems, as part of broader U.S.-Russian TMD cooperation, could result in sales of these systems that Russia would otherwise not realize. This could help Russia fund a limited NMD effort.

  3. The United States should continue to seek an interim demarcation agreement with Russia concerning theater and national ballistic missile defense activities consistent with the ABM Treaty. Although negotiations with the Russians on this issue have not succeeded at this writing, it may still be possible for the United States to reach a medium-term demarcation agreement that would allow it to work steadily first toward a theater ballistic missile defense and eventually an antiballistic missile regime that would defend the nation from limited attack, while assuaging Russia's worries that such U.S. systems would allow an American breakout to nullify Russia's deterrent capability.

  4. If an interim demarcation agreement cannot be negotiated with Moscow by the end of 1996, Washington should unilaterally judge its own compliance with the ABM Treaty using the "demonstrated" standard described here. After all, TMD systems were consciously left free of the ABM regime. And this approach is consistent with the negotiating history of SALT I; is supported by the May 10, 1995, summit statement; and would not undermine the basic underpinnings of the ABM Treaty.

  5. The United States should stop turning "capabilities to counter strategic ballistic missiles" into an effort to assess the theoretical "inherent capability" of a TMD system. What matters is the operational capability (force-on-force) that the system has actually demonstrated against real ballistic missile targets. If a system has not been "tested in an ABM mode,' then it simply


    does not have the kind of "capabilities to counter" strategic ballistic missiles on which serious people - Russian or American - are going to rely.

What is critical for ABM Treaty compliance, therefore, is what has actually been demonstrated in the testing of the TMD system. Basing ABM Treaty compliance judgments on such "demonstrated" capabilities is fully consistent with the verification approach taken by the treaty, which depends on what each side can actually observe through its national technical means (NTM) of the capabilities "demonstrated" by the systems tested and deployed by the other side. This approach will remove the double standard that has plagued the U.S. policy on compliance - holding the Soviets (and then the Russians) to a "demonstrated" standard, while holding U.S. systems to a theoretical "capabilities to counter" standard.

In the absence of an interim demarcation agreement and over the longer term, this would mean that as long as a system has not been flight-tested against a target ballistic missile with flight test parameters that exceed 5 kilometers per second and a 3,500 kilometer range, the United States would argue that no ABM Treaty compliance issue was raised. As such, it would be conclusively deemed by Washington to be a TMD system not subject to the provisions of the ABM Treaty. There would be no limitations on the configuration, number, deployment, or geographic location of such systems. There would be no limits on its use of data from any source, including sensors external to the system providing data directly to the interceptor missile.