SDI and Arms Control

By DeWolf, Howard G. | McNair Papers, November 1989 | Go to article overview

SDI and Arms Control


DeWolf, Howard G., McNair Papers


PRESIDENT REAGAN'S Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, and the pursuit of defenses to protect against ballistic missile attack are issues of significant debate. Some praise the proposal, first made in a presidential address to the nation on 23 March 1983, as a grand vision that will abolish nuclear blackmail by adopting a totally defensive posture. Others condemn it as being destabilizing, a Pandora's box of strategic transition that could precipitate armed conflict.

To date, the focus primarily has been on questions of technology. Are defenses feasible? Will they work? How effective can they be? In addition, many have addressed the impact of defenses on US-Soviet stability. Will SDI defenses seem threatening? Will they destabilize the strategic equation? Is a shift toward defense necessarily away from offense? Perhaps the real questions to ask concern the strategic direction currently being pursued, how strategic defense will or should interact with strategic offense, and the relationship of strategic defense to arms control.

The vision of SDI originally portrayed in March 1983--ultimately eliminating the threat of strategic nuclear missiles--is now a longer-term goal. Now deterrence is, as before, the byword; perfect defenses are recognized as being unattainable, and continued dependence on offensive ballistic missiles is envisioned. These considerations, once accepted, may precipitate further nuclear arms control agreements--with SDI as the catalyst.

Earlier arms control agreements, although they placed modest limitations on nuclear forces, generally did not achieve significant reductions. The major exception was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which essentially eliminated a class of weapons by regulating the development, testing, and deployment of ABM systems. In more recent years, however--since the SDI program has been in place--progress on arms control has improved.

I. The Strategic Defense Initiative

In the crescendo to his 1983 announcement, President Reagan touched on some major themes relating to US strategy:

   Since the advent of nuclear weapons, those steps [steps taken
   to counter the Soviet threat] have been directed toward deterrence
   of aggression through the promise of retaliation--the notion
   that no rational nation would launch an attack that would
   inevitably result in unacceptable losses to themselves.... Up
   until now we have increasingly based our strategy of deterrence
   upon the threat of retaliation. But what if ... we could intercept
   and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our
   own soil or that of our allies? (1)

Was the President proposing a major shift in US national strategy or policy? Exactly how did the President envision this proposal fitting into the national strategy of the United States? Was it a modification of the concept of deterrence--signaling a shift from offensive deterrence to defensive deterrence? Or was he proposing no more than a new weapon system to be added to the inventory of existing systems?

In addition to raising such questions, the speech also alluded to the notion of eventually refuting traditional offensive deterrence. The President noted the importance of ongoing arms control efforts to achieve major arms reductions, but went on to say, "Nevertheless it will still be necessary to rely on the specter of retaliation ... and that is a sad commentary." He continued by acknowledging, "Defensive systems have limitations.... [I]f paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy and no one wants that." (2)

Statements such as these did not suggest a long-term commitment to current offensive systems. In fact, the President's call to "render these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete" and to "eliminate the weapons themselves" (3) exhibited his frustration with continuing a strategy that ultimately threatened mutual annihilation. …

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