Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association (ACA), was a member of the U.S. SALT II START I delegations. John B. Rhinelander, vice chairman of ACA, was the legal adviser to the U.S. SALT I delegation.
The Clinton administration is on a path to undermine the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty by proposing "clarifications" to the treaty that would permit the deployment of an extensive, highly capable anti-theater ballistic missile (ATBM) defense system.
The ABM Treaty is clearly the most important U.S.-Russian arms control agreement presently in force. For over 20 years it has been the keystone of the strategic nuclear relationship between the two countries. By severely limiting strategic ABM systems, the treaty assures both countries that their nuclear retaliatory forces retain full deterrent capability and that, in the absence of any meaningful defensive challenge, these forces will remain effective even as significant reductions are undertaken. Without this confidence in their ability to retaliate, it is unlikely that either Washington or Moscow would have agreed to the remarkable reductions in nuclear arms that have taken place in recent years--the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, the reciprocal withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons of 1991, and the START I and II strategic force reduction agreements of 1991 and 1993.
Conversely, without the ABM Treaty, the large-scale deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems would undermine efforts to shrink strategic arsenals and could even provoke the United States and Russia to increase strategic offensive forces to overcome any perceived threat to their retaliatory capability. A freeze or reversal of the strategic nuclear arms reduction process would, in turn, have a highly negative impact on the attitude of non-nuclear-weapon states toward international nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), writing in 1989 on the issue of strategic defenses, concluded that "it is only prudent that we carefully and objectively examine the question of how we keep the ABM Treaty viable for at least the next decade."(1) The end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia's membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace and the (admittedly symbolic) U.S.-Russian agreement to detarget strategic missiles are all dramatic and welcome changes. But, as Secretary of Defense William Perry noted on the eve of a trip to Moscow last March, these changes are not reasons to throw prudence to the winds. The future of Russia, of U.S.-Russian political relations and of the strategic relationship between the nuclear superpowers remains uncertain and, Perry said, the United States must "hedge" against the possibility of Moscow emerging "from her turbulence as an authoritarian, militaristic, imperiastic nation, hostile to the West."
What the ABM Treaty Does
The first fundamental constraint of the ABM Treaty is a prohibition on the deployment of a nationwide ABM system. This is achieved through limits on the type (fixed, land-based), number (100 launchers and a handful of associated engagement radars) and location (one site, reduced from two by a 1974 treaty protocol) of ABM systems. The second fundamental constraint is a prohibition on the establishment of a base for a nationwide system to ensure that neither side could develop a quickly deployable nationwide defense and rapidly "break out" of the treaty. The creation of a potential "base" for a nationwide missile defense is inhibited by a ban on the deployment of highly capable early warning radars except on the periphery of the country and oriented outward; a ban on the development and testing as well as the deployment of highly capable space-based, air- based, sea-based and mobile ground-based ABM systems; a ban on testing non-ABM systems "in an ABM mode;" and a ban on giving non-ABM systems "capabilities to counter strategic ballistic missiles …