Jul 24, 2012

Revolution, Global Science, Espionage, and Cooperation: Russian-Western Nuclear Interactions

written by Keith Blasing

Part 2: Dealing with the Fallout: SALT, START, and Other Acronyms

As we saw last time (Part 1), the nuclear cat was out of the bag in the 1950s and 1960s, with the number of nuclear weapons states growing (China became the fifth in 1966) and the size of their arsenals growing even faster. At the same time, cooler heads were at least trying to prevail, and steps to rein in the spread of nuclear weapons coalesced into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. Among the signatories to the Treaty, the NWS states (the US, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China) in principle agreed to work towards disarmament and the NNWS states agreed to use nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes.

Even before the NPT was signed, the US and Soviet Union had expressed willingness to negotiate on the reduction of arsenals, but there were a few major stumbling blocks that continued to be a problem even after the NPT was signed and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) had begun in 1969. One of these was to determine what hardware the talks would cover. While the Soviet Union had more long-range missiles (because its targets were generally farther from its bases), the US had more actual warheads, more strategic bombers, and was increasing production of delivery mechanisms known as MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), which could launch several targeted warheads at the same time. Each side had different emphases in their nuclear arsenals, so it was difficult to determine what tradeoffs to make. Agreement on offensive weapons proved elusive, so it was decided, at the suggestion of the Soviets, to focus on the missile defense systems that were theoretically forcing offensive weapon production and technology to develop at a faster rate. Though it was not the comprehensive agreement that some had hoped for, some success was achieved on this front when the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty was signed by President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev in 1972, along with an interim agreement to commit to address offensive weapons capabilities at a later date.

Those 1969-72 talks became known as SALT I, and the follow-up talks from 1972-79 became known as SALT II. The goal of SALT II was to formalize the 1972 interim agreement on offensive weapons. After a rough start, things looked promising for some concrete limits to be set after some breakthroughs in late 1974, but two main issues – how cruise missiles would be addresses and whether a newly developed Soviet bomber would be limited as a “heavy bomber” under the language of the proposed agreement. These issues proved stubborn, and the talks stalled until renewed interest from the new Carter administration pushed matters forward again from 1977 to 1979, when a high-level agreement was signed. Though Carter asked Congress to suspend the ratification process due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, the US and USSR were both at least bound not to take steps in flagrant violation of the principles of the treaty, so some limitations were achieved. However, no treaty was ever ratified, and the numbers of nuclear weapons and delivery systems increased significantly over the course of the 1980s.

Though SALT II had limited success, the US and USSR kept trying. A new series of talks, called START, was proposed by Reagan in 1982 but stalled due to the Soviets’ objection to his Strategic Defense Initiative, among other things. The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR changed the international dynamic, and a treaty prohibiting intermediate range missiles was signed in 1987 (the INF Treaty). Progress on the START talks in the late 1980s led to signing in 1991, five months before the USSR collapsed. The nuclear weapons successor states to the Soviet Union agreed to abide by the treaty, and reductions progressed largely as planned by the Treaty’s implementation date in 2001. 

The end of the Cold War was a hopeful time, but at the same time the relative chaos introduced by the collapse of the Soviet Union made for a good deal of uncertainty about where the nuclear weapons and nuclear material from the Soviet Union were. After the Cold War, the history of nuclear interaction with Russia is less a matter of hostile and fearful competition and more of mutual fear of what might happen if all that nuclear material and technology were to fall into the wrong hands.
 

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