On a wintry evening in early 1977 a National Security Concil official named Roger Molander and his wife experimented with Irish coffee, the strong concoction of coffee and Irish whisky topped with cream. Afterwards Molander, who had been working for weeks on proposals for the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) talk with the Soviet Union, could not get to sleep. In his post midnight restiveness, he had an idea.
Jimmy Carter had come to the presidency advocating deep cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenals of the superpowers, and also proposing limits on the relentless technological improvements that have made each new generation of weapons more devastating than the last. Molander's idea was to implement Carter's policy by proposing that the superpowers ban all new intercontimental ballistic missiles. The United States would offer to stop the development, testing and deployment of the proposed MX missile and other such programs, if the Soviets would do the same.
Molander's suggestion was examined and adopted in the White House, but in March 1977 this and other Carter administration proposals were summarily rejected in Moscow. For a time Molander, director of the government's SALT working group, blamed himself and even the Irish coffee for the setback. But as the months went by the Soviet Union demonstrated increasing willingness to negotiate controls on missile development. Gradually, limits on the "qualitative" strategic weapons race became the central question of SALT II.
Since the first mushroom cloud over Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July of 1945 and the first Soviet explosion four years late, there have been two nuclear weapons races between the superpowers.
The quantity race has mushroomed the arsenals - about 9,200 stategic warheads on the U.S. side and 5,000 on the Soviet side, all several times as powerful and some many times as powerful as the warheads that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in the month after Alamogordo.
The other closely related race has been the competition in power, variety and sophistication of strategic delivery systems: Intercontinental missiles carrying not one but many indepeently targetable nuclear warheads, each with enormous destructive force and increasing accuracy; submarine that can launch multiple-warhead missiles from beneath the seas; high-performance bombers loaded wtih devices to deceive defensive radars; crulse missiles only a few feet in diameter and a few yards long designed to deliver nuclear warheads through sophisticated defenses by flying thousands of miles at high speeds very close to the ground.
The SALT I agreement on strategic offensive arms in 1972 and the Vladivostok accord in 1974 placed the first ceilings on number of strategic "launchers" (a SALT term for deployed missiles or bombers). However, these restrictions were thwarted by the swiftly growing numbrs of independent multiple warheads on each of the allowed launchers. Without curbs on the technological race, a cap on missile and aircraft would have little meaning.
At the beginning of this decade the United States was far ahead in missile technology, and thus lacked incentive to negotiate limitations. Although scientists and a few policymakers advocated restrictions to head off the multiple warhead (MIRV) race, Washington and Moscow made only cosmetic efforts.
In the spring of 1970 for example, Washington had tested its multiple warheadand thus proposed a ban on further testing (to stop Moscow's catch up efforts) but no ban on deployment. Moscow counter-proposed a ban on deployment (to head off U.S. programs) but no ban on testing to restrain its own efforts. None of these proposals was deemed serious.*tThe Carter administration's proposals and Soviet responses, while representing strides toward important restrictions, were deeply affected by perceptions of advantage and self-interest.
The United States in March 1977 initially proposed a total ban on new types of land-based ballistic missiles for the duration of the treaty,.and the Soviets rejected it. In May 1978, the Soviet proposed a total ban, and the United States said no. Except for these two flatly rejected proposals, each superpower tailored its negotiating proposals to protect its own programs while halting those on the other side. In the end each side obtained leeway to build the one new ICBM system it had previously planned.*tThe United States insisted through-out on protecting its planned new generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, while the Soviet proposed to stop it. In the end each side was permitted to go ahead with any number of new types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The United States proposed and the Soviets accepted the first limitations on the number of independetly targetabel multiple warheads (MIRVs) allowed on each land or sea-based missile. The initial Soviet plan would have cut back multiple warheads on future land-based missiles to a lower number than Moscow has already tested on existing weapons, possibly providing for an eventual lead in warheads. The Russian plan was rejected.
To recap the bargaining step by step:
The original Carter administration comprehensive proposal of March 1977 would have banned development, testing and deployment of all "new types" of land-base intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the life of the new treaty. The Soviets rejected all the initial proposals, on a variety of grounds.
In May 1977, when the shattered talks were restarted, the United States proposed a ban on testing and deployment of new ICBMs but for only three years. The United State could go ahead with development work on the proposed new MX multiple-warhead missile; testing and deployment was at least three years away in any case.
The Soviet response was to accept a ban on new types of multiple warhead missiles such as the planed American MX. But the Russians proposed to leave free new types of single-warhead missiles, such as the replacement they had planned for their aging SS11 single-warhead missile.
The Soviet also proposed to extend the new-type restriction to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which would restrict the American Trident as well as the less powerful Soviet Typhoon.
To protect, the United States proposed, instead of a total ban, that each side be permitted one new submarine missile system.
Despite the bold beginning, there was increasing apprehension within the U.S. bureaucracy about the newtypes limitations. By mid-1977 U.S. intelligence reported that the Soviets were developing as many as four new ICBMSs to Washington's one and there was fear that some of the Russian systems could be tested and deployed before SALT II limits could take effect. Moreover, the MX missile had gathered strong support in the Pentagon and elsewhere; there were growing internal objections to SALT curbs on it.
In May 1978, at the height of U.S. indignation over Soviet moves in Africa, Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko brought to the White House a complex "new-type" offer. One set of options would have permitted a new Soviet single-warhead ICBM but not the U.S. multiple-warhead MX missile, either in the three-year protocol or to 1985. The other option would have banned all new types of ICBMs including Moscow's planned new weapon and Washington's planned new weapon, for the duration of the treaty.
Seeing both options as a threat to MX, Carter rejected Gromyko's proposals out of hand, even though the latter one was similar to the original American bid. The rejection was so flat and hard, with no immediate counterproposal offered, that it gave rise to reports that Carter had decided to "freeze" the SALT negotiations. The reports were quickly denied.
The Soviets made their big move on the modernization issue in a meeting between Gromyko and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance last July in Geneva. Bitterness and cross-purposes on Africa had clouded the May bargaining in Washington, but two months later the Soviets were ready to move ahead on SALT at the height of international controversy over the trials of Anatoly Scharansky and other dissidents. Just hours after receiving Gromyko's concession, in fact, Vance held a highly publicized and previously announced meeting in Geneva with Schransky's wife.
The new Soviet proposal accepted the essential features of the U.S. position on new types. Each side would be permitted one exception to the ban for either a new multiple-warhead ICBM (the American MX) or a new single-warhead ICBM (a Soviet missile to replace the SS11). Moreover, there would be either no limit or a broadly defined limit on new types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, thus preserving the American Trident II and the Soviet Typhoon.
In characteristic Soviet style, Gromyko offered this major concession if the United States would concede on other oustanding issues. The U.S. pocketed the concession and moved to debate the other issues.
Having agreed at last on the newtypes bargain in broad dimension, the two sides were still faced with long and hard negotiation over all-important details. By last summer the U.S. had modified its definition in order to restrict the number of multiple warheads permitted on new and existing ballistic missiles. Such upper limits on Soviet warhead numbers would be essential to the effectiveness of a "shell game" plan to hide and protect American land-based missiles from attack in the mid-1980s. Without such a top limit, the Russians could simply add enough new warheads to cover every potential launching point or "shell."
The Russians were prepared to accept the principle of warhead limitations, often called "fractionation" limits, but an argument arose over the number of warheads to be allowed. The U.S. proposed to permit up to 10 warheads each on the new type of ICBM allowed to each side; the Soviets proposed a limit of six.
The Soviets have already tested 10 warheads each on their giant SS18 heavy missiles, and will be allowed to equip all such missiles in this fashion. The plan to permit only six warheads on the new U.S. missile was interpreted as a Soviet bid to maintain an advantage, and thus politically as well as strategically unacceptable. Last fall the Russians conceded the point.
Another aspect of the definition of what is "new" touched off a protracted argument. The U.S. proposed that any weapon 5 percent larger or smaller than existing ICBMs be considered a new type of missile and this be subject to limitation. The Soviets counterproposed that a missile more than five percent smaller not be considered new because it would present a lessened threat.
The Carter administration was puzzled and apprehensive about the Russians' objective. The fear was that new and better Soviet solid-fuel missiles to replace existing models might not count under Moscow's definition, thus effectively allowing more Soviet "new types" than American "new types."
In mid-April 1979, the issue was finally resolved when the Soviets conceded the point. The SALT II bargaining over the modernization and advance of strategic missilery approached its end.