Reagan Was Right About Ballistic Missiles

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. 

ZBM would also simplify the challenge of missile defense.  First, the need for a "thick" defense against ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 500 kilometers would be greatly reduced as ZBM was implemented.  Second, missile defense could focus on the threat from short-range missiles not banned by Global ZBM - that is, missiles with ranges less than 500 kilometers.  For the foreseeable future, defenses against shorter-range missiles whose warheads have lower reentry velocities are likely to be more effective than defenses against "faster-flying" longer-range systems, which typically are harder to shoot down. 

China would forgo the limited capability it has today to strike the United States with nuclear weapons.   But China would retain the ability to conduct nuclear strikes throughout Asia, using aircraft, bombs and short-range ballistic missiles not banned by the agreement (a major incentive for China).  Under these circumstances, China might well conclude it can maintain a sufficient nuclear deterrent - in particular, if each of the other major nuclear powers was committed to Global ZBM.

Global ZBM would have a greater impact on Britain and France.  Both have made greater investments than China in long-range ballistic missiles - specifically, SLBMs - and thus would be giving up more.  And both have broader security commitments than China; thus, they may feel less able to forgo ballistic missiles.

Still, there would be important security gains for both countries, beginning with the elimination of Russian and Chinese ballistic missiles that could devastate Europe.  In addition, the UK and France would need to weigh the potential benefits of Global ZBM from the standpoint of ballistic missile proliferation.

ZBM would provide what is sorely lacking in today's international security policy mix:  a bold diplomatic approach to missile non-proliferation that can be applied globally.
By eliminating weapons optimized for preemptive strikes, ZBM could improve regional stability.  Most states in regional hotspots lack a ballistic missile early warning system or reliable command and control to coordinate a response to a ballistic missile attack.  In a crisis, the state that delivers the first blow could reap a significant advantage, putting these countries on their own hair triggers. 

Convincing India, Pakistan, Israel, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and North Korea to give up missiles with ranges greater than 500 kilometers will require a huge diplomatic effort.  Each of these countries has made or is planning to make significant investments in these weapons precisely because they believe they need such a threat to deter their enemies or defend their interests.

Some states will argue ballistic missiles are their only deterrent against even greater threats.  Iran, for example, will point to Israel's nuclear weapons or U.S. conventional and nuclear strike capabilities as a reason to cling to its missile programs.  Others will note that missiles with ranges less than 500 kilometers will not be banned under global ZBM (a necessary incentive for China); thus, they will remain vulnerable to short-range missiles.

Still, the elimination of ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 500 kilometers could prove a turning point in political relations between regional antagonists (just as the Reagan-Gorbachev INF agreement was a turning point in relations between Washington and Moscow).  Moreover, Global ZBM would markedly improve the threat environment for states that live under the shadow of ballistic missile attack by removing the most dangerous weapons from regional arsenals and making it easier to mount a conventional defense.

Negotiation of a Global ZBM agreement would require a significant investment in multilateral diplomacy - beginning with Washington and Moscow - at a time when the United States is preoccupied with Iraq and the ongoing war on terror, and Russia with post-Communist reforms and the war in Chechnya.  From the outset, there would be high negotiating hurdles - the kind that always exists when each party is asked to give up something significant.  Would the effort be justified, even if ZBM were understood initially as an organizing principle that could only be implemented in practice over a period of many years?