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.

WP: By building the numbers they have, the Soviets have led analysts in this country to suggest the possibility that their ICBMs may have the power to make a first strike. In other words, that our ICBM force will be vulnerable to theirs in the early 1980s. That possibility, as you know, has been discussed for a long time—but my impression is that this administration is the first to take it seriously.

PW: Oh, I disagree with that. The possibility was taken seriously back in the 1950s—so much so that it led us to develop the Polaris submarine. The only reason for that was our fears about the potential vulnerability of any fixed target. When I came to work in the Pentagon in the late 1960s, I found that the entire concept of Minuteman vulnerability was already being discussed. As a matter of fact, in the late 1960s some people suggested that we ought to phase out the land-based force. Being potentially or theoretically vulnerable it might present an “attractive nuisance,” and therefore increase the risk of nuclear war.

WP: Now the Carter administration’s position is to accept that the land-based missile force is becoming vulnerable. How do you view this? Is it a political mistake?

PW: Well, as for its being a political mistake, of course you’re going to get different opinions depending upon whether you feel an invulnerable ICBM force is both a military necessity and a technical possibility. I don’t think that it’s a military necessity, because I think that the vulnerability is theoretical. Any attack that tries to knock out just that one part of our deterrent triad—the land-based ICBMs—would leave the attacker exposed to retaliation from our other two forces—our nuclear submarines and bombers—just as surely as if we had one invulnerable force.

WP: But when President Carter and Secretary Brown accept vulnerability, they connect it with what they claim is a need to make our ICBM force invulnerable.

PW: The mistake is to assume that somehow you have to make the ICBM force invulnerable, otherwise your deterrent is threatened.

WP: Is that mistake compounded when the administration not only tries to make its ICBM force invulnerable but also tries to build up our forces so that the Soviets will be vulnerable at some later date?

PW: Yes, I think that both are a mistake. The argument that we’ve got to have a “counterforce capability” to destroy Soviet launchers is, in my opinion, incompatible with sound strategic doctrine. What it does is to accept the argument of the critics of arms control that somehow the only good warheads in a retaliatory force are those on your ICBM force. The submarine warheads are claimed to be not as accurate—somehow they won’t do the job that’s to be done, and the strategic bomber force is said to be slow. Somehow our really very effective triad is portrayed as inadequate to balance the Soviet ICBM force. Now that logic seems to imply that we made a mistake in diversifying our forces as evenly as we have. So I find that the position of some people is inherently contradictory. They say that the only really good warheads are the ICBM warheads. But, of course, they claim ICBMs are so vulnerable.

WP: Why don’t we do away with ICBMs on land?

PW: This has been talked about but it makes no sense. First of all, the vulnerability of Minuteman is, as I’ve said, theoretical. It is not real. Secondly, by having an ICBM force in existence you certainly complicate any Soviet attempt to plan a first strike attack. A pre-emptive attack against an ICBM force would partially disarm the attacker. In order to get rid of our land-based force or to have any theoretical chance of getting rid of that land-based force, the attacker has to use up a very substantial part of his missiles. And, therefore, in the strategic balance that’s left, our remaining ICBMs, our submarine force, and our strategic bomber force are more effective than his residual force.

WP: Then why do we have to make large numbers of our land-based ICBMs invulnerable—as administration planners now seek to do?

PW: I have no such fear myself. Diversifying our forces so that we have one third on the sea, one third on land, one third in the air was the sensible decision. It did and does protect strategic stability. And I think we’re unnecessarily concerned now about the inevitably increasing theoretical vulnerability of any fixed target. As accuracy improves, it’s clear that any fixed target becomes more vulnerable than it was before.

WP: The government is now discussing different plans to make our land-based systems mobile—shifting them about from hole to hole or carrying them in trucks, or planes. What response do you think the Soviets will make to that?

PW: Well, there are, of course, a variety of things they might do. One Soviet response, I think, could be constructive so far as strategic stability is concerned. That would be to improve their strategic submarines, so they could have more of their force in SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), less in ICBMs. In some ways it is unfortunate that 70 percent of their strategic force now consists of land-based, fixed-target ICBMs. That’s bad from two stand-points. First, if they have that much power in the more accurate ICBMs, it’s easier to argue that our ICBM force has become more vulnerable. And secondly, their own force, 70 percent of it, is vulnerable because of the fact that we can develop hard-target killers that are just as good or better and so make their ICBMs vulnerable.

If they put more of their forces in SLBMs then you’d have greater stability in a crisis. But instead of going ahead and diversifying their forces as we have, they might react differently. They might change their doctrine to one of launching their missiles “on warning”—i.e., when they believed the other side was about to fire an ICBM salvo. That would be an answer to the ICBM vulnerability problem—a dangerous answer.

WP: Isn’t it much more likely they will do what our own government is now talking about? That is, to make their land forces, the biggest part of their strategic force, invulnerable?

PW: “Invulnerability” may be an illusion. First, I would say that you have to come up with a plan that does, in fact, increase the ability of that land-based force to survive. And I have yet to see any plan or suggestion that convinces me that such ability will be improved. Still, I think there’s no doubt that if we chose to make a particular change in the basing of our ICBM force, they would be apt to do the same, and that’s been the history of the competition up to this point.

WP: Our officials talk about building “multiple shelters”—i.e., a number of different holes—for one missile and shifting it about. Are the Soviets not much more likely to develop a truly mobile ICBM that could be launched from a truck?

PW: Well, you see, there again you’ve got the question of whether or not installing a missile on a truck would increase its ability to survive. You’ve made it a moving target rather than a fixed one, but you’ve also made it a much, much softer target. One question is how close such a mobile ICBM has to be to the nuclear explosion to be disabled. I mean, how much does it take to turn one of these land-based mobiles over on its back like a beetle? I don’t know the answer to that.

WP: Do any of the proposals for mobile missiles offer any kind of stability for our force?

PW: Well, I think we now have a stable situation with the force that we possess. As far as I’m concerned, the triad of land ICBMs, submarine missiles, and bombers is an effective deterrent. So I stop at that. I think the scenario that has the Soviets planning a pre-emptive attack against our ICBMs is wholly unrealistic. They would have to make a variety of assumptions about the failure of the US to respond that no sane leader could ever make.

But then if you say, wouldn’t it still be better to have even the theoretical vulnerability of our land-based force removed, the answer is yes. The less chance there is of either side counting on any sort of decisive superiority, the more stable the strategic situation. And the less chance, also, of either side fooling around with concepts like “launch on warning.” But I have not seen, as yet, any suggestion that strikes me as significantly improving the ability of ICBMs to survive. After examining the idea of a twenty-mile trench, for example, we came to doubt that creating a silo twenty miles wide would improve the chances of surviving an attack. I would say the same about the so-called Multiple Vertical Protection Shelters. It is far from clear that multiplying the number of fixed targets solves the fixed-target problem, particularly when multiplying the number of fixed targets means having more soft targets. That solution, of course, requires that you have some confident estimate of the number of warheads that can be deployed against that increased number of fixed targets. And here the inherent problem of verification means that you will not be sure how many missiles they have arrayed against you if they have a similar system.

Take just the mathematics of the thing. They have an SS-18 with a maximum of ten warheads. Now suppose you make twenty holes for each one of our Minuteman III. Then you move that Minuteman III among those holes. If you’ve got twenty holes and they’ve got one SS-18 with ten warheads, then you’ve got twice as many targets as they have warheads. But unless you can be sure that there’s only one SS-18 in their field of twenty holes, you’ve got no way of telling whether or not you’ve improved the survival chances of your Minuteman III. Or your MX.

WP: But we seem to be moving toward such a basing system for the MX.

PW: I think that will never occur.

WP: Why not?

PW: Conceptually it’s defective. It’s defective because it decreases verifiability and, therefore, you can’t convince yourself that you have built more holes than they have warheads to strike against those holes. The other problem, as one of the early advocates of this system put it, is that it would create a sponge that would soak up Soviet warheads. Well, that’s fine until you consider that the sponge is the dear old United States of America.

WP: Then what do you think of putting ICBMs in airplanes?

PW: Again you can say it does theoretically increase the chances of more ICBMs surviving. But one of the ideas behind the deterrent triad is that no single type of attack could render all three parts vulnerable. And I think that putting an ICBM on an airplane theoretically makes that part of the deterrent subject to the same sort of attack as our strategic bomber force. And again, you’re dependent on your ability to get the plane up in the air before the Soviet missiles get over here. So I wonder whether an analysis of the costs in relation to the probable effects would show it would be worth the additional expense.

WP: But the public has been led to believe the president plans a new MX land-based ICBM that will, in some way, be mobile.

PW: Well, I think this will sound like a good idea to the public, provided someone can show convincingly how the new mobility really makes missiles invulnerable. But I don’t find that there is any widespread affection for the so-called multiple aim point system or the air launch system. And I wonder if a system of basing the MX in multiple holes can be politically acceptable. It may run into very much the same resistance that proposals to set up the ABM system around American cities encountered in the late 1960s. Remember when the Pentagon was trying to sell the concept of the ABM? The generals who had to tell the “lucky people” of such places as Newton, Massachusetts, that they were going to have an ABM system in their backyard did not make themselves popular. Are people in New Mexico and Arizona going to relish the idea of their states being turned into Swiss cheese for the purpose of soaking up Soviet warheads?

WP: Do you see a debate on this MX missile and its deployment converging with the one on the SALT treaty?

PW: Probably it will. But it’s quite irrelevant to SALT II. SALT would permit MX missiles and mobile basing. The problem isn’t with any of the provisions of the treaty. The problem is coming up with a workable, effective mobile-based system. And, of course, that’s a different question than whether you build an MX missile. You could make an argument that building an MX missile with a total of ten re-entry vehicles on each missile would, in fact, give us more ICBM warheads that could survive an attack and strike back, particularly if we harden the silos some more.

Maybe there is no answer to a fixed target’s theoretical vulnerability. And so what the US would continue to do is to modernize the other parts of its deterrent triad, so that it has a sure retaliatory capacity no matter what happens to the ICBM. I think that the best possible answer to the problem of Minuteman vulnerability is what we’re doing with the Trident missiles. We’re going ahead with not only the Trident I but the Trident II. And that accomplishes a variety of things that make for stability, since the Trident is a deterrent weapon and is perceived as such by the Soviets. Our military strategists should stress more strongly than they have that the Trident systems are basically stabilizing systems. Not all developments are bad. Supposing today that both we and the Soviets had nothing but the land-based ICBM force. Then I would say that strategic stability would be in much worse shape than it is today.

WP: As for ICBMs, you seem to hope that the administration will do no more than build an MX that will be placed in the current Minuteman holes.

PW: What surprises me, frankly, is that all of a sudden vulnerability has caused such a panic. If it weren’t for the inherent theoretical vulnerability of the land-based force, we never would have gone into the Polaris missile. People wouldn’t be complaining about the neglect of our strategic bomber force. If one invulnerable system were really possible, then why have we bothered spending so much money on others? Now the Soviets still maintain something like three-quarters of their force in the ICBMs. I don’t know whether they judge from debates going on that a large part of their deterrent is inherently vulnerable. They did follow us in developing the submarine-launched missile system.

I think that the things we’re already doing are basically the intelligent things to do. We are increasing the range of the submarine-launched missile system. This frees us from worries about possible improvement in anti-submarine warfare by the Soviets and it makes control simpler. And we are going ahead with modernizing the bomber force by equipping it with cruise missiles that will have an unrestricted range. Both systems increase stability, and in my opinion they will not intensify a crisis.

WP: Do you feel satisfied that the basic gains in the SALT II treaty are clearly understood in the press and in Congress?

PW: I wonder if it is really clear how much the Soviets conceded when they accepted the limitation on warheads. There is no absolute limit on the number of warheads, only on the number that can be put on any missile. But since each side is limited to no more than 2,250 strategic missile launchers and bombers until 1985, the effect is to limit the overall number of warheads.

What is important to understand is that the Soviet SS-18, which is capable of carrying thirty to forty missiles, will be limited under the treaty to ten. After all, the military advantage of the greater throw-weight of the Soviet ICBMs is essentially that it would enable them to put more warheads on each missile. So the limit on warheads in the treaty prevents them from exploiting the one factor in which their force has a clear advantage over our own. The key point here is that warhead numbers are much more important than warhead size.

WP: Why is that?

PW: Simply because, with greater accuracy, the vulnerability of a hardened target is greatly increased—far more so than if the explosive force of the warhead were to be increased. If you’ve got a bigger warhead no doubt you will leave a bigger hole, but most of the metropolitan areas of Russia can be devastated by even our smallest warheads.

A second point that I suspect may not be clear is that when the treaty allows each side to develop only one new system of land-based ICBM missiles, this does not mean that each side will not be modernizing its missile systems, making them more accurate or powerful, for example. The Soviets know very well that the Mark 12 A warhead we’re now putting on the Minuteman is more accurate and twice as powerful. We expect them to make similar modifications and just such changes were anticipated in the negotiations. But major changes, constituting a new missile, will be limited to one. So unfortunately the arms race will continue and we should be preparing now for SALT III. What we’ve done essentially is limit really large changes that can be verified—changes in throw-weight, in the propulsion system, in overall dimensions.

WP: So won’t verification be a major issue in ratifying the treaty?

PW: It shouldn’t, since the Soviets conceded on every demand we made between 1972 and 1978 for banning interference with intelligence gathering, for exchange of strategic data, for launcher counting. Then in 1978 we resolved one outstanding point—about coded data on current testing. We knew that any lingering exception whatever to our right to verify current testing could well sink the treaty. We spent extra time in eliminating ambiguity, and I think that time was very well spent because the one great risk to arms control is an ambiguity that ends in disputes.

WP: If people are opposed to the treaty I suppose they will always find something. The lack of bases for verification in Iran and Turkey is being cited against the treaty right now.

PW: Yes, and of course we never claimed we relied for verification purposes on access to any foreign base. SALT would never have been counted as verifiable if it depended on bases in Iran or Turkey. We have always had redundancy in verification, which is why Secretary Brown can claim that the treaty will be verifiable as soon as it is signed.

WP: What would happen if the Senate were to amend provisions of SALT?

PW: If you tried to amend the treaty to make it tougher on the Soviets it would be exactly the same as rejecting the agreement. The Soviets aren’t going to give the Senate more than they have been willing to give during more than six years of negotiations. For example, suppose we try to get them to accept an amendment that would deprive them of some strategic force they believe is necessary to balance off our own advantages. They clearly are not going to accept. Take the question of their large ICBMs. Well, that’s the one factor in which they can say they have an edge. They’re not going to allow us to have the unlimited range cruise missiles we want for our strategic bombers if we insist that they give up their SS-18.

WP: Do you see the Soviets coming back for anything if SALT II is rejected?

PW: No, I think that they’d figure, with their customary suspicion, that it had all been a charade. They would just assume that we had not been serious. And I could see that that would be a plausible assumption on their part. They would have dealt with three presidents, two Republican and one Democratic, and then found, at the end of the road, rejection.

  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.