Chapter 12 - Strategic Offensive: Modernization, START Reductions, Nuclear Deterrence and Testing

As Reagan had done for INF, his START proposals in June 1982 replaced his predecessors’ traditional focus on “caps” and “freezes” in a Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) process that that had slowed but not stopped the rate of permitted escalations. Reagan instead proposed reductions of about one-half in missiles and one-third in warheads through a series of innovative force “build-downs” accompanied by new Confidence Building Measures all backed by high-confidence verification. He was not a utopian or a nuclear abolitionist as some writers now suggest, but instead continued to insist that as U.S. nuclear weapons numbers were reduced, they absolutely must be modernized and essential nuclear deterrent capabilities developed. This would be done through both continued limited nuclear testing underground (i.e., no Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), and through deployment of an increasingly robust anti-missile Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) system to replace the doctrines and dangers of MAD and proliferation.

1. Historical Context: The Failed SALT Process, Reagan’s MAD Shock, No Nuclear “Abolition,” and Reagan’s Alternative Strategies

Reagan and his national security team considered the SALT process which dominated the 1970s strategic arms debate in the “détente” era of presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter as deeply flawed. They saw Nixon’s Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT I) Agreement of 1972 (an executive agreement), Ford’s proposed Vladivostok Agreement of 1974, and Carter’s proposed SALT II Treaty of 1979 as incapable of reducing mounting Soviet strategic threats. Instead, the SALT approach had produced unilateral U.S. constraints and cancellations of U.S. strategic modernization programs while creating illusions about potential Soviet moderation.

In addition, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed at the 1972 Moscow summit and ratified in a package with the SALT Agreement, was seen as compounding the clear and present dangers of the Soviet strategic nuclear threat and of the dubious U.S. nuclear doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) on which both agreements were based. MAD was, in fact, a pact supported by U.S. actions, but was contradicted both by Soviet programs and doctrine. The ABM Treaty ban on deployment of national ABM systems had led the U.S. to downgrade its permitted ABM research programs and to deactivate its permitted limited deployments, even while the Soviet Union took an opposite path.

This historical context is detailed in several chapters of this book. Chapter 5 covers Nixon’s inter-related SALT and ABM agreements and Ford’s proposed Vladivostok Agreement and new nuclear testing limitations agreements. Chapter 6 reviews Carter’s faltering Cold War defense and foreign policies, including his failed SALT II proposal. Chapter 13, to follow, reviews Reagan’s strategic defense strategy on the ABM Treaty, MAD, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) systems.

No Nuclear Abolition. In reviewing Reagan’s integrated three-part nuclear arms strategy of strategic force modernization, deterrence (including strategic defense and nuclear testing) and effectively verifiable arms control reductions, it is important to distinguish Reagan’s views on “nuclear abolition,” or “banning the bomb.” Today, some emphasize his statement that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” and his hope that mankind could one day “eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons.” Yet, in a nuclear world Reagan considered U.S. nuclear weapons as non-negotiable preconditions critical to countering the Soviet threat, the MAD policy, proliferation dangers, and weak diplomacy. His strategy documents and statements firmly rejected illusory calls for a “Nuclear Freeze,” for a total “Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT),” and for any unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament. Reagan instead insisted that in a nuclear world in the foreseeable future, the U.S. must continue strategic modernization, strategic defense, and U.S. nuclear testing to assure deterrence and ensure nuclear weapons’ safety and reliability.

The MAD Choice. There is no doubt that Reagan was deeply shocked by Joint Chief of Staff briefings that demonstrated the MAD reality that if a U.S. president, the nation’s Commander-in-Chief, was warned of an impending nuclear strike on U.S. territory, he could choose no morally or strategically satisfactory course of action. Under the ABM Treaty ban on deployment of national anti-missile defenses, a U.S. president could either order massive nuclear retaliatory strikes on Soviet targets or do nothing in the twenty or so minutes after the U.S. detected a fast-flying missile before its warheads hit U.S. missile silos or other U.S. targets including cities. When considering the complex verification and communication processes going through the military chain of command, Reagan knew that a president would have even less time to decide, and thus would be reduced to launching or not launching “on-warning.” In such a crisis, the MAD U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy

[Book pg. 264]