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Arms Control and Disarmament

Salt I And After

The STRATEGIC ARMS LIMITATION TALKS (SALT I and SALT II) were first undertaken in the era of détente in the early 1970s, when relations between the United States and the USSR became more amicable. SALT I led to two agreements: the ANTI-BALLISTIC-MISSILE TREATY OF 1972 (ABM Treaty), which eventually limited each superpower to one site for antiballistic missiles (ABMs), the missiles designed to intercept and destroy incoming missiles; and an "interim" arms agreement limiting the number of inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to those already deployed by specific dates in 1972. It also required that any modernization and replacement of ICBMs and SLBMs be on a one-for-one basis and prohibited any development of new, more powerful ICBMs. The agreement was meant to set limits before a more definitive SALT II treaty could be negotiated. When the SALT II Treaty was signed in 1979, it set a limit of 2,400 strategic missiles and bombers for each side. Although the U.S. Senate did not ratify this treaty, the United States abided by it for several years.

U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev shake hands after signing SALT II in June 1979.

The ABM Treaty of SALT I was much more successful than the interim ICBM-SLBM agreement. Because the SALT agreements limited only the number of ICBM launchers, or missiles, both superpowers went on in the 1970s to develop missiles with multiple warheads, called multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Launcher totals thus remained constant, but the number of warheads increased dramatically. Adding warheads to missiles also made nuclear deterrence more unpredictable; a superpower with MIRVs could have enough warheads to destroy the opponent's retaliatory capability, thereby making MAD ineffective. Both superpowers felt that their land-based missile forces had become vulnerable to a first strike from the other side.

Compliance with the SALT treaties became a contentious issue in the 1980s when the United States accused the USSR of violating treaty provisions on the development of new missiles. The administration of President RONALD REAGAN decided that alleged Soviet violations made it necessary to end U.S. compliance with the agreements. In 1986, the United States exceeded limits set by SALT II when a B-52 bomber equipped with cruise missiles (nuclear missiles that fly at a low altitude) entered active service. Another U.S. military proposal, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also complicated the ABM Treaty. In 1983, Reagan made a televised speech in which he announced plans to develop a space-based missile defense system. He presented SDI as an alternative to MAD. SDI would, he claimed, effectively shield the United States from a Soviet missile launch, including an accidental or third-party attack. SDI would also protect the land-based leg of the United States' nuclear triad, the other two legs of which are aircraft bombers and submarine-launched missiles. Many doubted whether such a missile defense system could actually be created, and others criticized SDI as a dangerous upset in the nuclear balance. A debate also arose as to whether SDI was in violation of the ABM Treaty.

Relations between the superpowers eventually warmed when Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as leader of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Relatively young and dynamic compared with his predecessors, Gorbachev initiated reforms for increased openness in the Soviet Union that facilitated arms control agreements. In 1987, President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, another major step in arms control. The INF Treaty called for the elimination of an entire class of short- and intermediate-range (300- to 3,400-mile) nuclear missiles. These included 1,752 Soviet and 859U.S. missiles. It was the first treaty to result in a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. The agreement also involved the most complete verification procedures ever for an arms control treaty. These included data exchanges, on-site inspections, and monitoring by surveillance satellites.

After the INF Treaty, the superpowers continued to try to work out a strategic arms reduction treaty that would cut the number of long-range missiles by 50 percent. By that time the superpowers each had nuclear arsenals that could destroy the other many times over, and a 50 percent reduction would still leave nuclear deterrence well intact.

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