Reflections on the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty and National Missile Defense

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Editorial Abstract: The United States recently announced its withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Major Ruse's examination of how the treaty restricted the development of our national missile defense system helps us understand what the withdrawal means for the future.

DID THE 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty hinder American military capability, threaten international strategic stability, or endanger the safety and welfare of our nation and its citizens Clearly, the Cold War strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) between the United States and the Soviet Union played a critical role in strategic stability and the prevention of global nuclear war. People saw the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of MAD, but more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, we find numerous and divergent legal, political, and personal views on the ABM Treaty and its impact on our national security strategy. On 13 December 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would pull out of the treaty. In light of that announcement, it is important to reflect on the various legal, political, economic, and military circumstances surrounding this decision if we are to understand the implications it has for our present situation.

In the context of international law, the 1972 ABM Treaty contributed significantly to the rapidly expanding legal discipline of warfare in space. Support of the treaty rose to national relevance and concern following the release in January 2001 of the report of the Space Commission, chaired by Donald Rumsfeld prior to his becoming secretary of defense. After its six-month investigation, the commission concluded that "the security and well being of the United States, its allies and friends depend on the nation's ability to operate in space."1 The national security strategy even stated that "the ABM Treaty remains a cornerstone of strategic stability and the U.S. is committed to continued efforts to enhance the Treaty's viability and effectiveness."2

The ABM Treaty clearly had a prominent influence on the national military strategy and an expanding legal influence on future space warfare. The original treaty, however, focused on a much more limited role. As designed, it severely limited the deployment, testing, and use of national missile systems designed to intercept incoming strategic or long-range missiles. Interestingly, the treaty banned a technology that did not even exist in 1972. Specifically, it outlawed national missile defense (NMD) systems in the United States and Soviet Union but did not limit development and deployment of theater missile defense (TMD) systems. In the midst of the Cold War, with the two superpowers dominating global military might, the bipolar treaty was adopted to avert a possible nuclear war and curb the nuclear arms race. Logic held that if each nation remained defenseless to a nuclear attack and if nuclear retaliation to a first strike were guaranteed, then neither nation would have any motivation to consider launching a nuclear strike. The treaty codified MAD, which prevailed until the fall of communism and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, it seems ironic and contrary to logical thinking that any nation, especially a superpower like the United States, would agree to remain defenseless in hopes of maintaining strategic stability. For whatever reason, the two countries avoided nuclear world war, and MAD prevailed throughout the Cold War. Yet, the idea of developing and fielding antimissile missiles began as early as the 1950s, and President Ronald Reagan formally promoted it in 1983 with his quest for a "peace shield" to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."3

In an idealistic world, Reagan preferred nuclear disarmament to achieve nuclear stability, but, realistically, he understood that retaliation would continue to influence world relations. From the beginning, he intended his Strategic Defense Initiative, derisively termed "Star Wars" by the media, as a comprehensive defensive capability-possibly including space-based lasers-that would ensure the ineffectiveness of threats or the use of long-range missiles against the United States and its global interests/allies. …