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Pass the SALT: An Interview with Paul Warnke

Paul Warnke was Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency until he resigned last autumn. He was the chief negotiator of the SALT II treaty for the Carter administration. The following talk with Walter Pincus took place early in May.

WALTER PINCUS: What do you make of the criticism of the SALT agreement from liberal senators such as McGovern and Hatfield?

PAUL WARNKE: I think there are probably two threads that run through their opposition. One is the quite legitimate concern that you may be paying too high a price for too little. But you always have that sort of risk when you’re trying to develop a consensus. In order to placate the opponents of arms control you may adopt particular weapons systems that might otherwise be left on the drawing board.

The second problem is that you can’t ever get a wholly comprehensive arms control agreement. As a consequence, in order to get a specific arms control agreement accepted, you may feel that you have to do all of those things or most of those things that under its terms are not prohibited. Take, for example, the partial test ban treaty of 1963 prohibiting atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. As a consequence of accepting only a limited test ban rather than a comprehensive one, the US had to adopt a program that meant greatly accelerated underground testing. The fact that SALT I dealt only with launchers of ballistic missiles probably gave the US some incentive to go ahead with cruise missiles. The risk that critics like Senator McGovern, Senator Hatfield, Senator Proxmire see is that in order to buy off the opponents you may go ahead with something like a mobile MX system1 or with more civil defense, and I think they question whether or not that’s too high a price.

WP: Now that they have made their point and tried to acquire some kind of political leverage, do you think when it finally comes to voting they’ll vote against the treaty?

PW: No, I don’t think that they would because I think that they will find that the SALT II treaty is a much more significant step, perhaps, than they now realize—a much more effective agreement, in fact, than we had any reason to hope.

WP: You don’t think they will join with the disarmament groups that want the treaty defeated?

PW: No, the senators shouldn’t be confused with those zealots for arms control who feel that nothing short of very substantial nuclear disarmament is worthwhile. Some peace groups, for example, which say: this permits some continuation of the nuclear arms race, therefore it’s evil. I think that’s a classic example of the best being the enemy of the good. You just can’t, in arms control matters, get to where they want to go in a single step. Or even in two, three, or four steps. You have to take a significant step when it becomes available to you.

WP: How about really powerful opposition to SALT II—those who think the US defense position requires more weapons?

PW: They probably showed their hand in the statement issued in April by the Coalition for Peace Through Strength. This purported to favor arms control, but came out against SALT II, came out for repudiation of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and against any possible extension of SALT I. And I think what they reflect is a genuine feeling that you should not be doing business with the Soviets, that there ought to be a policy of all-out competition and confrontation, that we ought to try to drive them to their knees, bankrupt them. What they appear to fear is that, if we have an arms control agreement, it is going to create such a sense of euphoria that the American public is going to be lulled into a feeling of false security and won’t maintain a strong defense. They also seem to harbor the illusion that in an all-out competition we’re going to have some sort of technological breakthrough that eventually would give us strategic superiority.

WP: I was looking over the membership of the Committee on the Present Danger. There are a lot of people on it who worked in government during the 1950s when we had superiority in strategic weapons. Do you think that’s the condition they want to go back to, that they want to re-create the 1950s?

PW: They would like to create a situation in which we do have strategic superiority. But I think Kissinger was perfectly correct to ask, “What is strategic superiority?” Strategic superiority can only mean, to my mind, that you can both threaten the other side with the use of nuclear weapons and make that threat plausible because they would not be able to respond in a fashion that would be unacceptable to you. That kind of superiority existed at the time at which we had, say, twenty-five ICBMs and the USSR had none. Well, our lead in warheads over the Soviet Union today has gone up from twenty-five to something like 4,975. But we don’t have strategic superiority any more because if we used our nuclear weapons, or threatened to use them, they could respond either with the use or the plausible threat of retaliation. Now, until you reach the point at which your nuclear weapons can, in fact, destroy the other side’s nuclear retaliatory force, you don’t have strategic superiority.

WP: The Committee on the Present Danger includes intelligent men who have dealt in these matters for a long time. Why do they persist in believing either that the US will make a break-through or that it should push toward a superior position or toward a position that could at least be described as superior?

PW: Well, I think you have to separate the various groups that are opposed to SALT II. I don’t put the Committee on the Present Danger in the same category as the spokesmen for the Coalition for Peace Through Strength. I think that the Committee on the Present Danger does contain some thoughtful people. They are genuinely concerned about strategic balance. One of the points of difference, perhaps, is that we are dealing with the concept of deterrence, and deterrence is a matter of perception, of how each side perceives the possible responses of the other. Some of the people in the Committee on the Present Danger feel that the perception is adverse to us because the Soviets have a big advantage in the throw-weight of their intercontinental ballistic missiles. And I think they focus on that while neglecting the other elements in the strategic balance that make, in my opinion, deterrence not only a fact but a perceptible fact.

WP: What about the Coalition? The harder line.

PW: Well, it seems clear that the people who issued the Coalition’s April statement—Admiral Thomas Moorer, General Daniel Graham, General George Keegan, former Navy Secretary J.W. Middendorf—are basically opposed to arms control. They are basically against restricting American arms in any arrangement with the Soviet Union.2

WP: Do you see a possibility that they could form a coalition with the disarmament advocates and jointly work to kill SALT II?

PW: There is that risk. Those who do support arms control ought to be very aware of it, and they shouldn’t play the game of those who are really their dedicated opponents.

WP: SALT I was sold to the American public as something that would freeze both sides where they were. In fact, the Soviets were ahead in ICBM launchers but it was argued we would then be able to catch up by making qualitative improvements that would match the power of numbers. Wasn’t there some confusion over the selling of SALT I?

PW: Well, what SALT I did in the interim agreements on control of offensive arms was to freeze the existing number of ballistic missile launchers at the number then under construction or already in existence. Now, the Soviets had a lead in that particular category. SALT I did not include the strategic bomber force where we have a very significant lead. And it did not do anything to freeze the number of MIRVs, that is, the number of bombs on each missile. So it meant that both sides could continue to MIRV their existing ballistic missiles. And, of course, since 1972 there has been a very significant increase in the total number of strategic warheads on both sides. But I think you’ve got to remember that SALT I was advertised as an interim agreement. Nobody pretended that it was a comprehensive agreement. It was designed to freeze one part of the competition—sea- and land-based ballistic missile launchers—while negotiations took place on a more comprehensive, longer lasting treaty. The unfortunate part is that the interim agreement has really continued for too long. It was expected that well within that five-year term we would have been able to reach a SALT II treaty.

WP: What has moved the Soviets to build the system that they’ve built, to go to larger and more and more warheads? This was understandable at a time when they had fewer launchers; but they keep building them and MIRVing them to an extent that seems far beyond any necessary number. What do you see as their purpose?

PW: It seems to me that in the absence of arms control both countries are going to continue to build more and more systems. They’re going to do a lot of things that are unnecessary in the light of any sensible understanding of the strategic balance. We, for example, have been adding something like three additional warheads per day since SALT I, and in fact our lead in warheads since SALT I has increased. What sense does that make for us? Each side will tend to expand in the direction in which it feels that it has some sort of an edge. Now, the only place in which the balance could be said to favor the Soviet Union is in land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. So that is the part of their strategic force that they’re going to tend to concentrate on.

We, on the other hand, have far superior MIRV technology—far superior submarine-launched missiles, for example, and so we’ve tended to emphasize that point. And because of our technological superiority, we’ve gone ahead with such new systems as the cruise missile. But again, as I say, in any sort of an objective analysis of the strategic balance there is no sensible answer to the question why have the Soviets continued to MIRV their heavy ICBMs. Nor is there an objective answer to the question why we have gone ahead with such new things as cruise missiles. As I’ve said, we have to deal with the fact that deterrence is a question of perceptions, and the subjective elements in perceptions prevent people from comfortably accepting any sort of a gross disparity overall, even if they were to estimate that objectively, analytically, a much lower level of weapons would provide the necessary retaliatory forces.

  1. 1

    The proposed “missile-experimental” system of larger land-based ICBMs, each with ten warheads.

  2. 2

    Moorer was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Graham was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Keegan was head of Air Force Intelligence.

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