During the Cold War it became clear that effective defences against nuclear missiles would be counter-productive. They could be countered by missiles that could deliver ten warheads each to separate targets—more than any defence system could intercept.
Seeing the growing futility of defending against missiles, the US and USSR adopted the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972. For 30 years it limited each country’s means of intercepting nuclear missiles. East and West chose to remain vulnerable to each other, counting on their capacity to retaliate to attacks. Luckily, that terrifying system of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) actually may have deterred them.
MAD was, of course, intolerable as a permanent arrangement, if only because of misperceptions. Sometimes a retaliatory strike was nearly launched before the error was detected. The two superpowers upheld the ABM Treaty until Ronald Reagan became enthusiastic about a proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, known popularly as “Star Wars.” He liked it so much that at a 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev he rejected an agreement to mutually disarm the nuclear weapons of both sides. Soon, though, this Star Wars scheme would disappoint even its most eager promoters; it rarely can intercept an incoming missile, and it can be distracted by cheap decoys and chaff.
Still, additional steps toward nuclear disarmament occurred when Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty of 1987, agreeing to abolish their intermediate range and shorter range missiles. Then in 1991 they adopted the START I Treaty, reducing strategic offensive nuclear weapons. By 2001 about 80 percent of all such weapons had been dismantled, lulling many citizens into supposing that the nuclear threat was over. That year President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty and began spending heavily again on missile defence.
The long-time nuclear weapon states still possess large arsenals and new countries want into “the nuclear club.” Even small arsenals threaten the whole world. For example, if a nuclear exchange were to take place between, say, India and Pakistan alone, enough smoke would come from burning cities to blot out sunshine for years, preventing crops from growing in the northern hemisphere and starving most of humankind. A big nuclear war would be even worse.
Yet aerospace and defence systems are a lucrative business with interests at stake. The Republicans and such corporations as Raytheon press the US to keep modernizing its arsenal and developing anti-ballistic missile defences. The US Missile Defense Agency no longer claims that a robust defence of whole countries is possible, but it is proceeding with plans to establish the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense on ships in the Mediterranean and ground-based facilities in Turkey, Romania, and Poland.
They tell Russia that these new technologies are not meant to neutralize its nuclear arsenal, but only Iran’s. However, Russia doubts the intentions of its former Cold War adversary and warns that if the US continues, it will have to revive aspects of the arms race.
According to the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets (Dec. 26, 2012), Putin stated that Russia would respond by developing “nuclear missile attack complexes.” The paper interviewed missile industry insiders whose accounts should worry the US and its allies.
During the Cold War the Russians had long-range missiles that moved around the country by rail, camouflaged as freight trains. They were first deployed in 1987. By 1991 there were three missile divisions near Kostroma, Perm, and Krasnoyarsk, with a total of 12 units of a solid-propellant rocket called BZHRK.
This heavy weapon did require some modification of train tracks and boxcars, but it often eluded the 18 expensive US satellites overhead that were supposed to keep track of them. The weapon was immensely dangerous, for a defensive system needs to know the origin of a missile in order to calculate an interception plan. On the ground, the trains looked normal, except that the rocket launchers had eight wheel sets. One triumph of American arms control negotiators in the early 1990s was getting the Russians to destroy those trains.
Now they may come back. The new missiles will be lighter and do not violate the terms of any treaty. They will be a convincing response to the US’s forthcoming Ballistic Missile Defences.
One can hardly blame Putin for countering the unfriendly US plans, which Russia did not provoke. Canada is an ally of the United States, and no longer an adversary of Russia, so shouldn’t the Canadian government complain to Obama and Putin? Friends don’t let their friends drive drunk—or provoke nuclear arms competitions. Let’s support Ban Ki-Moon’s plan: to ban all nuclear weapons from Planet Earth.
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace and author of The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy.