Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972

Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972

The Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972 (ABM Treaty) limited the number of defensive antiballistic missile (ABM) systems that the United States and the former Soviet Union could use in preparation for nuclear war (23 UST 3435: TIAS 7503; 944 UNTS 13, U.S. department of state, Treaties in Force, 1993). Restrictions on ballistic missile defenses (BMDs), military warning systems designed to alert and protect a nation, composed the bulk of the treaty's articles. The treaty limited each country's supply of remote-controlled, long-range nuclear rockets, or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation continued to adhere to the agreement. In 2001, however, the United States announced that it would no longer abide by the pact.

On May 26, 1972, at the U.S.-Soviet summit in Moscow, President richard m. nixon of the United States and President Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union signed, in conjunction with the strategic arms limitation talks of 1969–72 (SALT I), the ABM Treaty. The treaty limited each party to two ABM sites, with no more than one hundred ABM launchers and interceptors at each site. One of these sites could protect an ICBM silo deployment area, and the second could protect the national capital. The treaty prohibited the development, testing, or deployment of sea-based, air-based, space-based, or mobile land-based ABM systems. Furthermore, it excluded the transfer or deployment of ABM systems to or in other nations. The 15 articles of the treaty were of unlimited duration and would come up for renewal every five years.

The principles of the treaty explicitly reflected the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD)—the belief that the best way to control nuclear arms is to allow both sides enough power to ensure the destruction of both nations in the event of war. As stated in Article I of the treaty, each side agreed "not to deploy ABM systems for a defense of the territory of its country and not to provide a base for such a defense, and not to deploy ABM systems for defense of an individual region" (Durch 1988). Article II defines an ABM system as "a system to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight trajectory, currently consisting of ABM interceptor missiles … ABM launchers [and] … ABM radars." Article III reiterates the ban on ABM deployment, excepting, for each side, one deployment area around the national capital and one around an ICBM launcher deployment area. This provision was later reduced, in 1974, to just one deployment area for each country, allowing "no more than 100 ABM interceptor missiles at launch sites." Articles IV to XV outline provisions for, among other issues, nuclear testing, radar deployment, amendments to the treaty, and the terms of treaty withdrawal.

After the ABM Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Congress, legislators refused to authorize funds for building an ABM site outside Washington, D.C. In early 1975, the United States deployed its single permitted system near the Minuteman Fields at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. Within a year, however, the system was deactivated by Congress on the ground that it was not very cost-effective. The Soviets, meanwhile, used their ABM deployments to protect Moscow.

Despite attempts to follow the principles of SALT I, continued limitations on strategic arms fell apart with the SALT II Treaty of 1979. The U.S. Congress refused to ratify the treaty, which had been signed by Presidents jimmy carter and Leonid Brezhnev. SALT II went on to draw heavy fire in the 1980s from the newly empowered Reagan administration. Whereas the Soviets generally adhered to a strict interpretation of the ABM Treaty, President ronald reagan advocated "peace through strength" and pushed for new weapons programs and policies. Reagan reinterpreted the treaty liberally, putting it to its most serious test. His proposal to render nuclear ballistic missiles ineffective and obsolete, with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based BMD system popularly known as Star Wars, caused great debate at home and considerable alarm in the Soviet Union.

Like Reagan, opponents of the ABM Treaty believed that its limits were based on one-way accommodation, that is, allowing the Soviets to retain their numerical superiority, as seen in SALT II. The Soviets had previously established numerical superiority in ICBM deployment, and the ABM Treaty supposedly held back the development of further U.S. weapons technology. Especially troublesome to some was the Soviet's Krasnoyarsk radar system in western Siberia. According to Article VI of the ABM Treaty, an early warning radar with this orientation should have been located on the Pacific coast or in the outer Arctic reaches of Siberia. Many believed that Moscow was cheating on its end of the deal, hence the treaty should go.

In the 1980s, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union flared. In October 1985, the Reagan administration announced a new interpretation of the ABM Treaty, under which the development and testing of "exotic" ABM systems (those not spelled out in the treaty itself, e.g., Star Wars) would have no limit. In 1986, with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) talks in full swing, the United States and the Soviet Union treated the ABM Treaty as a central bargaining chip. Moscow looked to maintain the treaty for at least another decade, with tight constraints on space testing. Washington, meanwhile, looked to abide by the treaty for at most another decade and expected lessened constraints on the space testing of exotic technologies.

The ensuing events of the late 1980s and early 1990s caught everyone by surprise. Although the United States's interest in the SDI continued into the george h. w. bush administration years, and persisted through the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union, both the United States and the Soviet Union showed interest in pursuing at least the spirit of the ABM Treaty. True arms reductions talks developed with the Soviet demise. In 1991, Soviet nuclear forces were split up between four countries—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—and spokespersons on both sides saw revision of the ABM Treaty as necessary. The START agreements of 1992 shed new light on older concessions. As the chief U.S. architect of the original ABM Treaty, henry kissinger now joined others in declaring it obsolete in the new era of disarmament. As a gesture of Good Faith, the Soviets demolished their controversial Krasnoyarsk radar system; a shoe factory now occupies the site.

In the years that followed, the United States and Russia both worked together and strayed from the MAD doctrine. They also turned their attention elsewhere, mainly to the developing world. New nations on the list of nuclear powers included Israel, India, Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria, none of which had any formal attachment to the ABM Treaty. U.S. and former Soviet strategists went from analyzing BMD research provisions set forth in the ABM Treaty to setting up safeguards against attack from other powers.

In December 2001, however, the United States announced that it would no longer follow the ABM treaty. The formal announcement by President george w. bush set in motion a six-month period for ending the pact. He stated that the ABM Treaty "hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks."

The United States's withdrawal from the treaty was motivated by the desire to build and deploy a long-range missile defense system that would protect the nation from attacks by rogue nations such as North Korea. The deployment of the missile shield system was set for 2004. The withdrawal came after months of failed negotiations with Russia to jointly abandon the ABM treaty and to craft a new pact based on the current world situation. Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed regret at the decision but did not signal a move to build a competing system.

Further readings

American-Soviet Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems. May 26, 1972. Moscow.

Assembly of Western European Union. 1993. Anti-Missile Defence for Europe, Symposium, Rome, April 20–21.

Blackwill, Robert D., and Albert Carnesale, eds. 1993. New Nuclear Nations. New York: Council on Foreign Relations.

Durch, William J. 1988. The ABM Treaty and Western Security. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger.

——. 1987. The Future of the ABM Treaty. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Greenville, J.A.S., and Bernard Wasserstein. 1987. The Major International Treaties Since 1945. London: Methuen.

Joint Chiefs of Staff. 1994. Doctrine for Joint Theater Missile Defense. Joint pub. no. 3-01.5, March 30.

Kartchner, Kerry M. 1992. Negotiating START. New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Transaction.

Mazarr, Michael J., and Alexander T. Lennon, eds., 1994. Toward a Nuclear Peace. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Perez-Rivas, Manuel. December 14, 2001. "U.S. Quits ABM Treaty." Inside Politics. Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Voas, Jeanette. 1990. Soviet Attitudes towards Ballistic Missile Defence and the ABM Treaty. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Arms Control and Disarmament; Bush, George Herbert Walker; International Law.