Reagan Was Right About Ballistic Missiles

Historians sifting through President Ronald Reagan's papers may find no subject as riveting or controversial as his policies on nuclear weapons and arms control.

Historians sifting through President Ronald Reagan's papers may find no subject as riveting or controversial as his policies on nuclear weapons and arms control.  Reagan challenged conventional orthodoxy and advocated sweeping nuclear arms agreements with the Soviet Union to reduce the potential for a cataclysmic war.  The nuclear threats that inspired Reagan's vision have changed dramatically since the end of his presidency, but in many ways, the potential for nuclear catastrophe has increased.  Today, Reagan's bold proposal to eliminate offensive ballistic missiles could be more than just an historical footnote, but rather, a roadmap for a new generation of leaders.

Reagan sent Mikhail Gorbachev a letter in July 1986 proposing the elimination of all U.S. and Soviet offensive ballistic missiles.  Three months later, at a summit meeting with Gorbachev held in Reykjavik, Iceland, the U.S. president offered to eliminate all offensive ballistic missiles within 10 years, provided that each side would be then free to deploy strategic missile defenses.

Much has changed since that gray day in Iceland.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, three successive U.S. Presidents have declared the end of the Cold War.  Yet, the most dangerous manifestation of that war - long-range (greater than 5,500 kilometers) ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, both land (ICBMs) and sea based (SLBMs) - remain a fixture of U.S. and Russian arsenals. 

Even when the Moscow Treaty is fully implemented in 2012, Russia and the United States will each maintain thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of ballistic missiles deployed on "hair-trigger" alert - ready for immediate launch and capable of hitting their targets in minutes.   Hair triggers on ballistic missiles put tremendous pressure on leaders in both countries - in particular, Russia, with an early warning system in serious disrepair and only a handful of survivable nuclear warheads on day-to-day alert - to rely on "launch on warning" or "launch under attack" strategies to ensure there can be no advantage from a first strike.  Under these circumstances, there continues to be a risk that a decision to use ballistic missiles will be made in haste, with disastrous consequences. 

Perhaps even more significant than the continued reliance of the U.S. and Russia on ballistic missiles has been the proliferation of offensive ballistic missiles in the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean peninsula.  On top of this, China - America's most likely strategic competitor over the next two decades - has begun a significant modernization of its long-range ballistic missile force.

Ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads remain the most fearsome weapon system ever devised.  One missile fired in anger, by accident or miscalculation could produce tens of millions of casualties within minutes; a few missiles could destroy a society and trigger a global conflagration. 

As is the case with any weapons technology, one can always fall back on the argument that the "genie is out of the bottle" and nothing can, or should, be done to reduce the potential for catastrophe; or make the argument that it is political factors, not weapons systems, that are the key to conflict resolution and threat reduction (the geopolitical equivalent of "guns don't kill people, people kill people").     

But this kind of thinking ignores the serious magnitude of the nuclear problem.  President Reagan was prepared to consider the elimination of our entire offensive ballistic missile force at the height of the Cold War in exchange for the elimination of Soviet missiles.  Today, when Russia is our partner, it is worth reexamining this proposal - applied globally - to address residual Cold War threats and new threats emanating from missile proliferation.

Global ZBM

Under a notional global ZBM agreement:


·        The U.S. and Russia would agree to eliminate over the next 10-15 years all offensive ballistic missiles - land and sea-based, nuclear and conventional - with a range greater than 500 kilometers.  (The Intermediate Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty has already eliminated all U.S. and Russian ground-launched ballistic missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.)

·        Space launch vehicles and interceptors for ballistic missile defense - both of which incorporate ballistic missile stages - would be permitted, with verification.  

·        The U.S. and Russia would seek a global ban on offensive ballistic missiles with a range in excess of 500 kilometers, to be concluded coincident with the U.S.-Russian agreement.  This global ban would seek to include at least those countries with ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 500 kilometers - the UK, France, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, India, Pakistan and North Korea. 

How would this proposal address the security challenges posed by ballistic missiles?

Under Global ZBM, nuclear bombers and cruise missiles would remain in U.S. and Russian arsenals, effectively deterring those who can be deterred.

ZBM would reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch by unraveling the dangerous nexus between thousands of U.S. and Russian ballistic missile warheads on hair trigger alert and huge gaps in Russia's early warning system.  More broadly, ZBM would dramatically reduce the nuclear component of the U.S.-Russia relationship.