President Reagan's vision of an extremely long-range major effort to defend the United States and its allies against attack by Soviet ballistic missiles raises troublesome questions.
Would the program violate the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty of 1972? The President's statement about his vision's consistency with the ABM Treaty is hard to understand. Article 3 permits research, development, and testing, but not deployment of land-based systems involving future technology such as lasers or particle accelerators. Article 5, while permitting research in the form of paper studies and laboratory experiments, bans not only deployment but even development and testing of a system based in space.
Although a party to the treaty can withdraw on giving six months notice if extraordinary events have jeopardized its supreme interests, amendments can be proposed at any time. But it seems most unlikely that the earth-spanning systems contemplated by the vision could be blessed by any treaty amendment that would realistically be negotiable.
If we proceed on this course, the United States government will be faced with a decision about the ABM Treaty. Even if the Soviets agreed to amending it to permit widespread defensive systems, the resultant treaty would lack significance. If parties to a treaty start banned programs on the assumption that a treaty can be amended, the value of a treaty will be sharply devalued. Will it be to the US interest to dissolve this arrangement which for over a decade has held back an all-out competition with the Soviets in defensive weapons?
The basic assumptions of the ABM Treaty were that a secure defense against missiles was probably not technologically possible, that a Soviet-American race to mount defensive systems would make the strategic balance unstable, and that the cost of such a competition would be astronomical. No systems were conceivable that could not rather easily be neutralized by the adversary's merely adding to its offensive arsenal. To be fully effective any system would have to cope not only with ballistic missiles but cruise missiles and radar-escaping stealth bombers. Mutual vulnerability was seen as the best deterrent to nuclear war.
The basic assumptions of 1972 still appear valid, although technology has made advances, both in the US and in the USSR. Scientific visionaries are thinking of systems involving X-ray lasers driven by nuclear explosions to destroy missiles in flight. Even to test such a system would require abrogation of another agreement, the Limited Test Ban Treaty.
No better deterrent concept than mutual vulnerability has appeared on the scene.
On its face, the deterrent threat of an effective missile defense to replace the deterrent threat of retaliatory missile attack has great appeal. How much more moral and humane! Even bishops and freeze advocates might endorse such a passive strategy. But the President has prudently pointed out its central danger. Paired with offensive missiles, an effective defense can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, he said, though quickly and correctly adding that we do not want to give that signal.
But, regardless of our intent, could an effective defense of North America, Western Europe, and Japan send any other signal, since it inevitably would be paired with continued maintenance of America's immensely powerful and accurate offensive missiles? There seems to be no prospect that as both sides were making vast efforts to mount systems to kill attacking missiles they could at the same time agree to decommission all of their offensive systems. And I am sure the President is not giving thought to replacing unilaterally our offensive with defensive systems.
The President did not mention the unpleasant subject of civil defense, which is bound to come up if the US moves to a defense strategy. Unless the unwarranted assumption is indulged that an impermeable defense screen can be erected, it must be calculated that some incoming missiles would still penetrate. Civil defense for their unpredictable targets would then seem urgent. Americans and allies alike would be faced with urgent pressures for civil defense programs of gigantic proportions, as opposed to the symbolic and cosmetic efforts of the present. Missile defense and civil defense go hand in hand.
The immediate negative Soviet position foreshadows a USSR program to match the President's vision. Instead of one nuclear arms race we would have two. And as each side worked on defensive ABM systems, impetus would be given to developing new offensive systems to penetrate these defenses. Defense budgets would be distorted as funds were diverted from urgent current programs to implement the vision.
While we still are struggling to agree on a treaty limiting offensive forces to match the ABM Treaty, we will be seen as having in mind ending the ABM Treaty. The President's vision does not bode well either for balanced defense programs or for arms control.