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Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.

Are arms control and deterrence two sides of the same nuclear coin? Or are they separate and distinct, serving different objectives and fundamentally at odds? In a new book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace, Michael Krepon, the founder of the Stimson Center, argues that while both deterrence and arms control are necessary, only the pursuit of arms control reduces nuclear dangers.

Krepon is particularly upset with conservative opponents of some arms control deals. He considers them American hawkish triumphalists, unwilling to exercise nuclear restraint and seeking to get the drop on the other guy through a misguided search for nuclear dominance.

While it is true that conservatives have long held that agreements with the Soviet Union and now with Russia have harmed U.S. security, it is not because such treaties prevent the United States from achieving dominance.

SALT II

President Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty. Washington, DC. June 16, 1979.

Far from it. It’s the other way around. For example, the SALT I and II agreements in 1972 and 1979 respectively allowed a huge buildup in nuclear forces, where the Soviets went from under 2,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons to over 11,000, a 550 percent increase.

Particularly troublesome was the huge Soviet arsenal allowed under the SALT deals of land-based multiple-warhead systems. These missiles were nearly at 100 percent alert (ready to fire) levels and could quickly eliminate U.S. nuclear missile forces in Minuteman silos, and/or remaining triad elements at U.S. submarine and bomber bases, leaving only the navy submarines at sea available for retaliation.

At the height of the Cold War, Moscow could use or threaten to use a relatively small fraction of its 11,000 strategic long-range nuclear warheads to take out upwards of 80 percent of U.S. nuclear forces, leaving a remaining imbalance with which to coerce the United States to stand down in a crisis.

Then-candidate Ronald Reagan made this dynamic, what he described as a “window of vulnerability,” central to his push for a major change in U.S. foreign policy. After the 1980 election and the subsequent adoption of what became known as a “peace through strength” strategy, Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush successfully ended the first Cold War and dismantled the Soviet empire.

But what Krepon misses is an understanding why the Soviet Union built vastly more multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) than the United States, as well as tens of thousands more battlefield and medium-range nuclear weapons.

While most nuclear deterrent analysts wrote and spoke about the USSR “deterring” the United States, Moscow was not worried about a NATO invasion from the West. The USSR wanted the United States to not interfere with Moscow’s plans for military aggression, the most notable of which was the Warsaw Pact’s tank armies poised at the Fulda Gap to invade Western Europe, and wars of national liberation throughout the third world.

In particular, the United States and its NATO allies were overmatched on the conventional battlefield of central Europe and only the U.S. nuclear umbrella could make up the difference.

In short, the U.S. nuclear deterrent was designed to keep the peace and prevent war. The Soviet “deterrent” was, however, designed to support aggression and prevent the United States from coming to the defense of its allies.

START II Treaty

President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin sign the Start II Treaty at a Ceremony in Vladimir Hall

Krepon fails to understand this factor and proves Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick right as he finds the United States repeatedly at fault for Russian perfidious behavior. No matter whether the Russians violated the Open Skies Treaty; the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; invaded Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia; built up tens of thousands of battlefield weapons; placed missiles in Cuba; engaged in “naked territorial conquest”; or rejected START II, Krepon manages to find a complimentary U.S. action that apparently triggered Moscow’s bad behavior.

While arms control through the START process did dramatically reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons, as Krepon underscores, it is not as if Moscow jumped at the chance to secure reductions as soon as the two adversaries would sit down across the table in Geneva. U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance proposed reductions early in 1977 when discussing the SALT II framework and received a blunt “nyet” from the Soviet negotiators.

The resulting default position was the SALT II process which, if enacted, would have enabled a joint U.S. and Soviet buildup to each having over 12,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

By 1979, the SALT II treaty was before the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan compelled President Jimmy Carter to withdraw the treaty from further consideration.

Contrary to what Krepon writes, the reductions secured under START I (ratified in 1991) and START II (unfortunately rejected by the Russian Duma) were not the result of a benighted General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev leading the United States into the promised land of deep reductions.

Reductions were put on the table by Reagan as early as 1976 when he spoke before the Committee on the Present Danger. And while the SALT II treaty was never law, the very first question Reagan was asked at his first press conference was whether the United States was going to abide by the SALT II treaty! This was followed by a companion question of whether the United States was going to remain wedded to the twin strategies of détente and peaceful coexistence, both of which Reagan campaigned against.

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Reagan, of course, replied that building up weapons to astronomical levels was hardly what one would describe as “arms control,” especially within the context of Soviet armed aggression and wars of national liberation throughout the entire 1970s.

He further referenced, albeit obliquely, that in the near-decade after détente and peaceful coexistence were proposed by the Nixon administration—and readily accepted by Moscow and its communist allies—Soviet military subversion helped switch some countries from the Western camp into the revolutionary Marxist fraternity led by Moscow, starting with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and culminating in the takeover of Iraq by Saddam Hussein, the Mullahs’ ascendancy in Iran, and the Soviets invading Afghanistan.

By November of his first year in office, despite the disarmament community in the United States and Europe pushing hard for the adoption of a Soviet-sponsored nuclear freeze, Reagan proposed major reductions of 50 percent in all deployed strategic nuclear weapons and complete elimination of all SS-20 nuclear-armed missiles from Europe and Asia. However, Reagan simultaneously restored the U.S. nuclear deterrent with the deployment of Ohio-class submarines, the new B-1 bomber, the Peacekeeper ICBM, and the Pershing and GLCM missiles in Europe.

The initial Soviet response to Reagan’s peace through strength strategy was to walk out of the Geneva arms talks, and under Gorbachev, double the pace of the deployment of SS-20’s in Europe, add extra billions of rubles to the Soviet defense budget, send more Soviet soldiers to Afghanistan, and funnel even more Soviet cash to both the terrorists in Europe such as the Red Brigades and Baader Meinhof gangs. In addition, Moscow paid millions to the demonstrators throughout Europe who were demanding an end to the U.S. INF deployments, while suspiciously remaining silent about the Soviet deployment of thousands of SS-20 warheads.

Why then did Moscow eventually change its mind? Two of the best assessments of how the Cold War was won revealed how. Sven Kraemer’s Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan detailed some hundreds of national security defense directives from the Reagan administration that specified the strategy of massive pressure and how subsequently the Soviet empire was undone.

Warren E. Norquist’s 2001 essay “How the United States Won the Cold War” also detailed the cost to the Soviets of having to meet Reagan’s challenges in Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Angola; over nuclear deterrent measures; in the buildup of conventional military forces in Asia and NATO; and the saving of Solidarity in Poland.

All these efforts had such a major negative economic impact on the Soviets that it brought down the entire empire and the Warsaw Pact with it.

While the Soviets’ disinformation campaign talked peace and waged war, Reagan pushed the Soviets to either put up or shut up. If Gorbachev wanted peace, he could tear down the Berlin Wall. If nuclear weapons were bad, well the Soviets could remove all their SS-20 nuclear-armed missiles from Europe and Asia.

And as for a nuclear freeze, just after Moscow had finished one round of nuclear modernization and the United States had not yet begun such modernization, Reagan rejected the freeze and instead proposed real reductions of first 50 percent and then an additional 40 percent on top of that. Included in that proposal was a unilateral ban on multiple-warhead ICBMs, exactly the kind of sound and stabilizing deterrent measure Krepon supports. All 400 Minuteman missiles now deployed carry only a single warhead. Even if the United States wanted to expand its force to three warheads per missile—which is possible—that hedge would take some four years to implement; Hardly the dangerous ICBM force Krepon ascribes to U.S. deterrent modernization measures.

Minuteman II Missile

A Minuteman II missile test launches USAF

The key to reductions was not just a strong U.S. deterrent but the proposal by the United States to build missile defenses. Such defenses would not need to be overcome by those seeking stability or peace but would serve to restrain first strikes.

Today, air and missile defenses could significantly undercut Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping’s escalate to win strategy that threatens to use a small number of nuclear weapons to coerce or blackmail the United States and its allies to stand down in a crisis or conflict.

Here defenses do not have to be perfect to intercept thousands of warheads. Under escalate to win scenarios, defenses need to be highly effective in the face of dozens of such weapons, a technological challenge that now can be overcome, as the Israelis have forcefully demonstrated repeatedly in shooting down literally hundreds of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets.

A group of senior U.S. senators widely recognized as defense champions met in 1984 with the administration and demanded to know when arms control reductions would be implemented if the Senate was to approve the new proposed Strategic Defense Initiative or missile defenses, which many of the assembled Senators were wary of. A senior administration official said that within three years the United States would get its arms control deals—precisely when the INF treaty was signed.

To get that agreement, Reagan, over a period of many meetings, fought against Gorbachev’s insistence missile defenses would be unnecessary with agreed-upon nuclear reductions. This intellectual tussle was especially prominent during their meeting at Reykjavik when the elimination of fast-flying nuclear-armed missiles was on the table for possible abolition.

But as Reagan said repeatedly, missile defenses were at the very least insurance against madmen subsequently getting nuclear-armed missiles—even if nuclear weapons could be abolished in the future.

Robust and effective air and missile defenses—which we can now build—could checkmate the use of nuclear weapons for coercive purposes or blackmail, the very thing that Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, recently warned that China is seeking to secure.

Today, missile defenses coupled with major and verifiable reductions in nuclear warheads and a robust, credible, and modern deterrent are the triple insurance against rogue madmen and part of the process to make nuclear weapons truly “obsolete”—useless as instruments of coercive diplomacy and aggression and, therefore, no longer sought-after.

We have a very considerable distance to travel to get there, but the path the previous seven administrations have walked holds enough of a promise that a bipartisan consensus can prevail to continue building a stabilizing deterrent that includes space-based missile defenses and stabilizing, verifiable arms control.

Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.