Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

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The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty or ABMT) was a treaty between the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 on the limitation of the anti-ballistic missile
Anti-ballistic missile
An anti-ballistic missile is a missile designed to counter ballistic missiles .A ballistic missile is used to deliver nuclear, chemical, biological or conventional warheads in a ballistic flight trajectory. The term "anti-ballistic missile" describes any antimissile system designed to counter...

 (ABM) systems used in defending areas against missile-delivered nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first fission bomb test released the same amount...


Signed in 1972, it was in force for the next 30 years until the US unilaterally withdrew from it in June 2002.


Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union had been developing a series of missile systems with the ability to shoot down incoming ICBM warheads. During this period the US considered the defense of the US as a part of reducing the overall damage inflicted in a full nuclear exchange. As part of this defense, Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 and the US established the North American Air Defense Command (now called North American Aerospace Defense Command NORAD).

By the early 1960s, US research on the Nike Zeus
Project Nike
Project Nike was a U.S. Army project, proposed in May 1945 by Bell Laboratories, to develop a line-of-sight anti-aircraft missile system. The project delivered the United States' first operational anti-aircraft missile system, the Nike Ajax, in 1953...

 missile system had developed to the point where small improvements would allow it to be used as the basis of a "real" ABM system. Work started on a short-range, high-speed counterpart known as the Sprint
Sprint (missile)
The Sprint was a two-stage, solid-fuel anti-ballistic missile, armed with a W66 enhanced radiation thermonuclear warhead. It was designed as the short-range high-speed counterpart to the longer-range LIM-49 Spartan as part of the Sentinel program. Sentinel never became operational, but the...

 to provide defense for the ABM sites themselves. By the mid-1960s, both systems showed enough promise to start development of base selection for a limited ABM system dubbed Sentinel. However, due to political debate, Sentinel never expanded beyond defense of missile-bases.

An intense debate broke out in public over the merits of such a system. A number of serious concerns about the technical abilities of the system came to light, many of which reached popular magazines such as Scientific American
Scientific American
Scientific American is a popular science magazine. It is notable for its long history of presenting science monthly to an educated but not necessarily scientific public, through its careful attention to the clarity of its text as well as the quality of its specially commissioned color graphics...

. This was based on lack of intelligence information and reflected the American nuclear warfare theory and military doctrines. The Soviet doctrine called for development of their own ABM system and return to strategic parity with the US. This was achieved with the operational deployment of the A-35 ABM system
A-35 anti-ballistic missile system
The A-35 anti-ballistic missile system, or A-35 Aldan, was a Soviet military battle management radar complex deployed around Moscow to intercept enemy missiles targeting the city or its surrounding areas. In development since the 1960s and in operation from 1971 until the 1990s, It featured the...

 and its successors, which remain operational to this day.

As this debate continued, a new development in ICBM technology essentially rendered the points moot. This was the deployment of the Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) system, allowing a single ICBM to deliver as many as ten separate warheads at a time. This way, any ABM defense system could be overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of warheads. Upgrading it to counter the additional warheads would be economically infeasible—the defenders required one rocket per incoming warhead, whereas the attackers could place 10 warheads on a single missile at a reasonable cost. To further protect against ABM systems, the Soviet MIRV missiles were equipped with electronic countermeasures and heavy decoys. R-36M heavy missiles were carrying as many as 40 of them. These decoys would appear as warheads to ABM, effectively requiring engagement of 50 times more targets than before and rendering defense even less effective.

At about the same time, the USSR reached strategic parity with the US in terms of ICBM forces. A nuclear war would no longer be a favorable exchange for the US, as both countries would be devastated. This led in the West to the concept of mutually assured destruction, MAD, in which any changes to the strategic balance had to be carefully weighed. To the U.S., ABMs now seemed far too risky—it was better to have no defense than one that might trigger a war.

In the East however, the concept of MAD was almost entirely unknown to the public, studied only by those in the Soviet military and Government who analyzed Western military behavior. Soviet military theory fully involved the mass use of nuclear devices, in combination with massive conventional forces.

ABM Treaty

As relations between the US and USSR warmed in the later years of the 1960s, the US first proposed an ABM treaty in 1967. This proposal was rejected. Following the proposal of the Sentinel and Safeguard decisions on American ABM systems, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks began in November 1969 (SALT I). By 1972 an agreement had been reached to limit strategic defensive systems. Each country was allowed two sites at which it could base a defensive system, one for the capital and one for ICBM silos (Art. III).

The treaty was signed in Moscow on May 26, 1972 by the President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

, Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon
Richard Milhous Nixon was the 37th President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1974. The only president to resign the office, Nixon had previously served as a US representative and senator from California and as the 36th Vice President of the United States from 1953 to 1961 under...

 and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the title given to the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. With some exceptions, the office was synonymous with leader of the Soviet Union...

, Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev  – 10 November 1982) was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union , presiding over the country from 1964 until his death in 1982. His eighteen-year term as General Secretary was second only to that of Joseph Stalin in...

; and ratified by the US Senate on August 3, 1972.

The 1974 Protocol reduced the number of sites to one per party, largely because neither country had developed a second site. The sites were Moscow
Moscow is the capital, the most populous city, and the most populous federal subject of Russia. The city is a major political, economic, cultural, scientific, religious, financial, educational, and transportation centre of Russia and the continent...

 for the USSR and Grand Forks Air Force Base
Grand Forks Air Force Base
Grand Forks Air Force Base is a United States Air Force base located north of Emerado, North Dakota and approximately west of Grand Forks, North Dakota...

, North Dakota
North Dakota
North Dakota is a state located in the Midwestern region of the United States of America, along the Canadian border. The state is bordered by Canada to the north, Minnesota to the east, South Dakota to the south and Montana to the west. North Dakota is the 19th-largest state by area in the U.S....

, since its Safeguard
Safeguard Program
The Safeguard Program was a United States Army anti-ballistic missile system developed during the late 1960s. Safeguard was designed to protect U.S. ICBM missile sites from counterforce attack, thus preserving the option of an unimpeded retaliatory strike. Safeguard used much of the same technology...

 facility was already under construction, for the US.

It was seen by many in the West as a key piece in nuclear arms control, being an implicit recognition of the need to protect the nuclear balance by ensuring neither side could hope to reduce the effects of retaliation to acceptable levels.

In the East, however, it was seen as a way to avoid having to maintain an anti-missile technology race at the same time as maintaining a missile race.

For many years the ABM Treaty was, in the West, considered one of the landmarks in arms limitations. It was perceived as requiring two enemies to agree not to deploy a potentially useful weapon, deliberately to maintain the balance of power
Balance of power in international relations
In international relations, a balance of power exists when there is parity or stability between competing forces. The concept describes a state of affairs in the international system and explains the behavior of states in that system...

 and as such, was also taken as confirmation of the Soviet adherence to the MAD doctrine.

Missiles limited by the treaty

The Treaty limited only ABMs capable of defending against "strategic ballistic missiles", without attempting to define "strategic". It was understood that both ICBMs and SLBMs are obviously "strategic". Both countries did not intend to stop the development of counter-tactical ABMs. The topic became disputable as soon as most potent counter-tactical ABMs started to be capable of shooting down SLBMs (SLBMs naturally tend to be much slower than ICBMs), nevertheless both sides continued counter-tactical ABM development.

After the SDI announcement

The treaty was undisturbed until Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Wilson Reagan was the 40th President of the United States , the 33rd Governor of California and, prior to that, a radio, film and television actor....

 announced his Strategic Defense Initiative
Strategic Defense Initiative
The Strategic Defense Initiative was proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 to use ground and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. The initiative focused on strategic defense rather than the prior strategic...

 (SDI) on March 23, 1983. On the one hand, Reagan stated that SDI was "consistent with... the ABM Treaty", but on the other hand, he viewed it as a defensive system that would help reduce the possibility that mutual assured destruction
Mutual assured destruction
Mutual Assured Destruction, or mutually assured destruction , is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would effectively result in the complete, utter and irrevocable annihilation of...

 (MAD) would become reality; he even suggested that the Soviets would be given access to the SDI technology. Nevertheless, SDI was against the spirit—if not the letter—of the ABM Treaty, which sought to pursue the principle of MAD.

The project was a blow to Yuri Andropov
Yuri Andropov
Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov was a Soviet politician and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 12 November 1982 until his death fifteen months later.-Early life:...

's so-called "peace offensive". Andropov said that "It is time they [Washington] stopped... search[ing] for the best ways of unleashing nuclear war... Engaging in this is not just irresponsible. It is insane".

SDI research went ahead, although it did not achieve the hoped-for result. SDI research was cut back following the end of Reagan's presidency, and in 1995 it was reiterated in a presidential joint statement that "missile defense systems may be deployed... [that] will not pose a realistic threat to the strategic nuclear force of the other side and will not be tested to... [create] that capability." This was reaffirmed in 1997.

Regardless of the opposition, Reagan gave every indication that SDI would not be used as a bargaining chip and that the United States would do all in its power to build the system. The Soviets were threatened because the Americans might have been able to make a nuclear first strike possible. The Nuclear Predicament explains that one of the central goals of Soviet diplomacy was to terminate SDI. A surprise attack from the Americans would destroy much of the Soviet ICBM fleet, allowing SDI to defeat a “ragged” Soviet retaliatory response. Furthermore, if the Soviets chose to enter this new arms race, they would further cripple their economy. The Soviets could not afford to ignore Reagan’s new endeavor, therefore they had to enter negotiations with the Americans.

US withdrawal

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 the status of the treaty became unclear, debated by members of Congress and professors of law. In 1997, a memorandum of understanding
Memorandum of understanding
A memorandum of understanding is a document describing a bilateral or multilateral agreement between parties. It expresses a convergence of will between the parties, indicating an intended common line of action. It is often used in cases where parties either do not imply a legal commitment or in...

 between the US and four of the former USSR states was signed and subject to ratification by each signatory, but it was not presented to the US Senate for advice and consent
Advice and consent
Advice and consent is an English phrase frequently used in enacting formulae of bills and in other legal or constitutional contexts, describing a situation in which the executive branch of a government enacts something previously approved of by the legislative branch.-General:The expression is...

 by Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton
William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton is an American politician who served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. Inaugurated at age 46, he was the third-youngest president. He took office at the end of the Cold War, and was the first president of the baby boomer generation...


On December 13, 2001, George W. Bush
George W. Bush
George Walker Bush is an American politician who served as the 43rd President of the United States, from 2001 to 2009. Before that, he was the 46th Governor of Texas, having served from 1995 to 2000....

 gave Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

 notice of the United States' withdrawal from the treaty, in accordance with the clause that required six months' notice before terminating the pact—the first time in recent history that the United States has withdrawn from a major international arms treaty. This led to the eventual creation of the American Missile Defense Agency
Missile Defense Agency
The Missile Defense Agency is the section of the United States government's Department of Defense responsible for developing a layered defense against ballistic missiles. The agency has its origins in the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was established in 1983 and was headed by Lt...


Supporters of the withdrawal argued that it was a necessity in order to test and build a limited National Missile Defense
National Missile Defense
National missile defense is a generic term for a type of missile defense intended to shield an entire country against incoming missiles, such as intercontinental ballistic missile or other ballistic missiles. Interception might be by anti-ballistic missiles or directed-energy weapons such as lasers...

 to protect the United States from nuclear blackmail
Nuclear blackmail
Nuclear blackmail is a form of nuclear strategy in which an aggressor uses the threat of use of nuclear weapons to force an adversary to perform some action or make some concessions. It is a type of extortion, related to brinkmanship.-Effectiveness:...

 by a rogue state
Rogue state
Rogue state is a controversial term applied by some international theorists to states they consider threatening to the world's peace. This means meeting certain criteria, such as being ruled by authoritarian regimes that severely restrict human rights, sponsor terrorism, and seek to proliferate...

. The withdrawal had many critics as well as supporters. John Rhinelander, a negotiator of the ABM treaty, predicted that the withdrawal would be a "fatal blow" to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT, is a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to...

 and would lead to a "world without effective legal constraints on nuclear proliferation
Nuclear proliferation
Nuclear proliferation is a term now used to describe the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material, and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and information, to nations which are not recognized as "Nuclear Weapon States" by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the...

." The construction of a missile defense system was also feared to enable the US to attack with a nuclear first strike.

Reaction to the withdrawal by both the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 was much milder than many had predicted, following months of discussion with both Russia and China aimed at convincing both that development of a National Missile Defense was not directed at them. In the case of Russia, the United States stated that it intended to discuss a bilateral reduction in the numbers of nuclear warheads, which would allow Russia to reduce its spending on missiles without decrease of comparative strength. Discussions led to the signing of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in Moscow on May 24, 2002. This treaty mandates cuts in deployed strategic nuclear warheads, but without actually mandating cuts to total stockpiled warheads, and without any mechanism for enforcement.

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