Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | April 8, 2009

We’ve Been Here Before

… Sort Of

Nuclear weapons reduction proposals are not a bad thing.  In fact, in proposing to aim for a world free of nuclear weapons, as Barack Obama did in his speech in Prague this week, he is following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan.  I wonder why his supporters have not been at pains to point that out.

Possibly because most of them do not remember Reagan’s “zero option” arms reduction proposal to the Soviet Union of November 1981, in which he suggested eliminating all intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe and Asia, and negotiating significant reductions – not mere limitations – on global nuclear forces (changing the process from “SALT” to “START”).  The arms negotiating proposal Mikhail Gorbachev announced in 1985, and took to Reykjavik in 1986, was essentially Reagan’s own 1981 proposal, as Gorbachev himself stressed to Reagan during the Reykjavik summit.

Some of Obama’s supporters may persist in the pattern of Reagan’s critics, of attributing the eventual success of arms reduction to Gorbachev rather than Reagan.  But I suspect many of them simply don’t know anything about this period in arms diplomacy.

Others, however, may be rendered discreet by the fact that Reagan’s approach to dramatic arms reductions – the only historical instance we have of successfully achieving them – was very different from the likely prospect of Obama’s.  One rather humorous, but not insignificant, difference in the political environment was simply that Reagan’s November 1981 proposal was characterized by the chattering classes of the time as everything from lunacy to a bluff.  His aggressive arms reduction proposal met with zero respect from the left, unlike Obama’s rhetoric, which has been hailed as peace-loving and visionary.  Even on the right, many of Reagan’s own supporters approached his zero-option proposal with criticism and doubt.

Reagan experienced neither popularity nor approval for his strategic arms stance between 1981 and 1987, when the USSR finally signed the INF treaty, and had joined us in the START negotiations.  Yet by the time he left office, Reagan had gotten virtually everything he had proposed in November 1981, when he was accused on all sides of being unserious and foolish.

Obama could well profit from studying how Reagan achieved this.

Reagan used four tactics that we may justly be concerned Obama will make impossible for us, based on his actions and rhetoric to date.  One was very simple:  refrain from unilateral strategic disarmament.  Reagan, after making his zero-option/arms reduction proposal, was promptly rebuffed by the Brezhnev regime.  He did not, therefore, take any action to reduce US strategic arms, or to take off the table the possibility of deploying our intermediate-range missiles in Europe – a prospect highly alarming to the Soviets, who conceived of their security as relying on their ability to hold Western Europe hostage to their own intermediate-range missiles, deployed to Eastern Europe during the Carter years.

Reagan was, naturally, called a hypocrite and a bluffer by Western media and politicians, for not proceeding with any unilateral arms reductions.  That he was fully prepared to embrace arms reductions, if the Soviets would agree to embrace them as well, was not the story his opponents wanted to sell.  They used the tacit premise that if he were serious, he would set an example for the Soviets by reducing US arms first – and dismissed without consideration the premise that in negotiation, you do not give away what the opponent wants.  You make him bargain for it, and make him buy what he wants by paying for it with you what you want.

We do not even have to argue that Reagan’s posture, of withholding arms reductions until the Soviets had also agreed to them, was a decisive influence on Soviet thinking.  It probably was, but the more basic point is that Reagan got the USSR to agree to the zero option for intermediate-range missiles, and to strategic arms reductions, while maintaining that posture.  Reagan’s immovable posture was fully compatible with successful arms negotiation – whether you think it was essential to the negotiations or not.  The argument that to get others to disarm, we must unilaterally do so ourselves first, is directly refuted by the process and outcome of Reagan’s arms negotiating strategy.

The second of Reagan’s approaches was continuing with key weapons deployments that the Soviets badly wanted to bog us down in negotiations over.  The most celebrated of these was the deployment in Europe of the intermediate-range Pershing-II ballistic missile, intended as a theater-level counterweight to the Soviet SS-20 that had been deployed to Eastern Europe in the Carter years.  The Pershing-II was ready for deployment prior to Reagan taking office in January 1981, but Carter’s policy had been to pursue a “dual track,” for negotiations with the Soviets, that held the Pershing-II deployment as a bargaining chip.  Reagan decided to proceed with deploying the Pershing-II, and did so in 1983.

The blowback was tremendous.  Europeans took to the streets and demonstrated passionately against the Pershing-II deployments.  (Their political leaders were solidly in favor of it, however.)  The Soviets announced an “analogous response” with their strategic and naval forces, and moved missile submarines closer to America’s coasts to shorten the flight time of their missiles.  (Soviet concern about the Pershing-IIs was not only that their deployment raised the potential cost to the Soviets of using their SS-20s against Western Europe, but also gave NATO a theater weapon that improved its “correlation of forces” in any war for the “Central Front”:  a clash of NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe.  In the late 1970s, Soviet military writers had conceived it as possible for the USSR to win such a war.  The Pershing-II deployment was a major part of the developments that changed that calculation.)

Reagan withstood substantial political criticism to go forward with the Pershing-II deployment.  Less-celebrated in Western public dialogue, but of equal concern to the Soviets, was the long-range cruise missile – ground-launched, air-launched, and naval (the Tomahawk) – that was coming online in the US operating forces in the 1980s.  The Soviets sought, sometimes in near-hysterical terms, to get the cruise missile on the strategic arms negotiating table.  B-52s and US attack submarines could launch these missiles from positions the Soviets had little hope of interdicting; in the context of warfare and technology in the 1980s, they represented an operational-level game-changer.  Reagan resisted all the Soviet efforts to hold up the fielding of the long-range cruise missile, and by the mid-late 1980s they were deployed in ground batteries, with the Air Force’s bomber force, and in the Navy.

As history demonstrates, these deployments too were compatible with ultimately achieving substantial arms reduction agreements with the Soviet Union.  It is false to argue that improving our operational posture sinks the possibilities for arms negotiation.  These major system deployments also imply the third Reagan approach to arms reduction, which was increasing our conventional defense spending, and dedicating it to operational implementations that changed our posture relative to the USSR.  This effort was realized in a number of ways, but we may consider two here:  the “Maritime Strategy,” and the joint concept of “AirLand Battle” developed by the Army and Air Force.

The Maritime Strategy was the conceptual basis for the 600-ship Navy, and, like many of the conventional force initiatives realized under Reagan, had its origins in the late-Ford and Carter years.  Its animating idea was simple:  operate the US Navy forward, and demonstrate a sustained level of maritime encirclement to the Soviet Union, focusing particularly on the Soviets’ major port complexes.  In case of war, the Maritime Strategy envisioned rapidly swarming the fleet into the seas adjacent to the Soviets’ home waters, and preventing the Soviet navy from being a factor in a war in Europe or the Far East – guaranteeing our lines of communication to our allies.

Under Reagan, the operational profile inherent in the Maritime Strategy was actually adopted.  Underpinning it was the biggest revival of the US fleet since WWII – the 600-ship Navy plan (which never reached that number, but did result in a larger fleet), and the politically dramatic recommissioning of the battleships.  A summit encounter in the last years of the Cold War may illustrate best the impact of this forward-operating profile on Soviet thinking.  At the 1989 meetings of George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev, on naval ships in the Mediterranean, one of Gorbachev’s chief actions was to hand Bush a Soviet-drawn map depicting the forward deployment of US naval and air forces worldwide, with a (perhaps quizzical) complaint about this posture.  (Bush and Brent Scowcroft have this map reproduced on pp, 170-71 of their joint 1998 memoir A World Transformed.)

AirLand Battle was a more tactically-focused initiative, which sought to exploit improvements in air and ground technology to achieve rapid, exploitable rewards from deep penetration of the enemy’s tactical rear.  It was not unfair to characterize it as a modernization of the Blitzkrieg concept, with a much heavier emphasis on leveraging airpower.  It had a particular effect on Soviet operational thinking about the “Central Front” in Europe, however, because it represented a shift in the US concept, to an earlier and deeper-penetrating counteroffensive.  In their 1970s period, when they considered the war for the Central Front winnable, the Soviets were assuming a longer timetable for a NATO forces advance – based in good part on what was known about NATO’s own plans.  The rapid and deep penetration envisioned with AirLand Battle handed them a new problem – and one the US clearly had the resources, both technologically and economically, to turn into reality.

Reagan showed no signs of backing off on any of these approaches:  maintaining US strategic forces, implementing high-profile weapon systems, and building up conventional forces and their operating profile.  The fourth approach on which he made no concessions was, of course, the Strategic Defense Initiative.  From his announcement of it in 1983 to the eventual signing of the INF Treaty, the Soviets tried to put it on the negotiating table and get him to bargain it away.  He took considerable political heat for refusing to do so.  When Gorbachev, at Reykjavik in 1986, offered Reagan almost everything he had proposed in November 1981, if he would give up SDI, Reagan’s refusal stirred serious doubts even among his strongest supporters.  A missile defense for Americans was non-negotiable for Reagan.

All four of these approaches were, however, compatible with achieving remarkable, unprecedented, and for most people, unforeseeable arms reductions between the US and the USSR.  It will never again be possible to argue honestly that a firm national defense posture is inimical to obtaining dramatic arms reductions, because the one example we have of the dynamic involved demonstrates otherwise.

As the Obama presidency unfolds, we have seen already that his path apparently will differ from Reagan’s.  He has not made any specific proposals, for starters.  He has instead invoked sentiment through vague, indefinite assertions.  He has left many with the impression that he intends to reduce the US nuclear arsenal further – perhaps to zero? – without reference to the nuclear weapons possessed by other nations.  But he has made no specific promise he can be held accountable for, nor offered any other nation – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea – a starting point for negotiation.

This is the precise opposite of Reagan’s 1981 initiative, in which he made no unilateral promises, and no implications about American disarmament as an example to others – but did offer a specific proposal.

Obama has also, with his first defense budget, chosen a path counter to Reagan’s regarding modernized weapon systems and the enlargement of conventional forces.  Obama’s 2010 budget cuts several major procurement programs entirely, and instead of building up overstretched forces across the board, focuses on a few items like special forces, training of coalition partners, and small-footprint, low-lethality capabilities.  We need not oversell the prospect of degeneration for our armed forces to recognize that Obama proposes to spend less on defense resources than his predecessors, and that that is the opposite of Reagan’s approach to winning arms reduction concessions.

A key Obama decision, of course, is to cut funding for ballistic missile defense (BMD), which his first budget does.  Not only is this approach the opposite of Reagan’s – Obama has the perspective of 25 years on SDI, which Reagan did not have.  In 1983, we could not intercept a ballistic missile in its terminal phase, when the missile is descending toward its target and continuously gathering speed.  In 2009, we can point to having done so 35 times since 2001, in BMD program testing.  SDI has been proven to not be “pie in the sky, “ or a “can’t hit a bullet with a bullet” fantasy.  We have made significant progress* with missile defense since Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech.

The fact that intercepting a ballistic missile during its ascent to apogee has always been feasible lies behind Russia’s strenuous objections to the missile defense sites planned for Poland and the Czech Republic.  Whether the interceptor missiles in Poland would succeed, in intercepting the ascent of a missile from Russia or Iran, is not in question:  they will.  Intercepting an ascending missile is not the hard part of missile defense.

Yet, with the certainty of ascent-phase intercept working as planned, and the great progress achieved in terminal-phase intercept, Obama’s gestures regarding missile defense – his secret letter to Moscow offering it up in negotiation, and his decision to cut funding for the BMD programs – have thrown his commitment to it in serious doubt.  There are good reasons to be concerned about his actions from the standpoint of missile defense itself.  But we may also contrast his posture with the posture of Reagan:  the negotiating posture that actually worked to produce history’s only instance of major arms reductions.

We may consider briefly one development, as an early measure of how Obama’s policies are working:  the posture of the Russians on Iran.  Obama’s letter to Moscow sought to gain Russian support in pressuring Iran to come clean with the IAEA and refrain from developing nuclear weapons.  That was the benefit Obama reportedly sought, in offering the missile defense sites in Eastern Europe as a bargaining chip.  But as Commentary’s Abe Greenwald points out, Russia’s position is now that Iran poses no threat.  The position is not, I note, that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.  Russia’s position is that Iran poses no threat.

We are not going to leverage Moscow, from this position, into putting pressure on Iran to halt her nuclear programs.  And as I observed in a previous post, Russia also probably doesn’t need a decision from us, to prevent deployment of the missile defense equipment in Eastern Europe.  Warsaw and Prague will take care of that for her, as their people lose confidence in our commitment to the project, and our ability to defend them against retaliation from Russia.  Such retaliation need not be overtly military:  it could not have been lost on Eastern Europe that the EU was rendered prostrate by Russia’s natural gas gambit against Ukraine in January, and provided no cover to Kiev, or resistance to Moscow’s strong-arm tactics.

Obama will have his work cut out for him, to denuclearize the world while putting out vague implications that America will unilaterally cut or eliminate our nuclear arms; while cutting major defense programs and cutting spending on defense resources overall; and while backpedaling on our commitment to missile defense.  I have agreed with Reagan for years that nuclear weapons are a terrible prospect hanging over mankind, and perhaps Obama and I agree on that point as well.  But seeking a nuclear-free world has to be done realistically.


* See slides 12-18 of this September 2008 presentation in particular.


  1. A little of topic, but what do you think about this: ?

  2. chuck martel — I assume you don’t need help recognizing this guy’s overheated rhetoric (he’s the sort who sincerely refers to it as “abuse” when Mom calls him down for pestering Brother Jimmy). I guess you’re wondering what I think of the basic concept, that remotely piloted vehicles will proliferate.

    Sure, I think they will. The more basic of them are so extraordinarily susceptible to being shot down that WE don’t have to worry about them a whole lot. It’s not like China will be flying them over North America — any time soon, or, really ever. A UAV would have to fly too high for physical feasibility, to avoid being shot down by our interceptor missiles (Patriot, the Navy SM-3).

    Our troops might encounter them abroad, but again, are well-equipped to shoot them down. As you can probably deduce, our success with them to date has depended heavily on primitive enemies not being able to detect, track, or shoot them down. Russia and China could do so pretty easily, however. Iran, not so much — today. If she gets the Russian S-300, her capability in that regard will improve dramatically.

    As time goes by I’m sure UAVs will be improved in suvivability, with measures and countermeasures being developed, probably at an accelerating pace as their importance to other nations increases. Using them expendably would open a whole new concept also, like one of reconaissance-to-detonation: send an image stream back until the drone hits a target, like the TACAIR weapons we saw on TV in Desert Storm, but over a much longer range.

    Building super-UAVs is a long way off, though, because we know how easy they are to defeat. We’ll be having lawsuits against our neighbors over the use of personal UAVs before we have to worry that Russia is sending one with a nuke or chemical warhead to loiter over Houston.

    Using them for assassination in ill-protected nations — e.g., if the US president visits parts of Africa or Asia — may be something we begin preparing against: having our president travel with his own anti-air defense force, or something. It’s not that we shouldn’t take this seriously, just that right now, the defense mechanism has the advantage. It isn’t possible to use UAVs to pose a Terminator-type threat on a global basis. Anyone with a working AAA gun or a 1960s-technology surface-to-air missile can shoot the average UAV down. (And yes, ours have been shot down, in Bosnia and Iraq.)

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