Light Sabres in Space: Soviet Views on SDI

By John Devlin
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
1997, Vol. 1996/1997 No. 2 | pg. 1/1

President Ronald Reagan branded the USSR an “evil empire” in March 1983. A few days later he instigated a “long-term research and development [R&D] program” to explore ways to protect America from strategic nuclear attack (Survival, 1983, p.130). This was a staggering proposal. The US would retain strategic nuclear forces for an indefinite period to uphold national security. Reagan added that the US did not “seek military superiority or political advantage” (Survival, 1983, p.130). This was the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). It had the potential to become a full-blown security dilemma par excellence.

SDI managed to strain the political relationship of the superpowers, particularly in the field of arms control. Why was the USSR so disturbed about a technically problematical research programme that may have proceeded to the next stage? SDI became an obstacle to arms control. It is ironic that while Reagan saw SDI as a vehicle to promote arms control, SDI was the very antithesis of arms control for the USSR. This was the legacy of the 1972 Anti- Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. By strictly controlling the scope of ballistic missile defence (BMD) deployments, each superpower would not feel obliged to continually increase strategic nuclear weapons. Each was vulnerable to the other’s nuclear weapons. This condition of mutual assured destruction (MAD) encapsulated within the treaty brought a semblance of predictability and order to the strategic equation.

But SDI threatened to bring the US out of the MAD relationship and to deprive the USSR of the means to retaliate through nuclear weapons. The USSR would not accept limitations on strategic weapons in the context of SDI and especially not in the context of the US strategic modernisation programme under Reagan. Yet some progress was made. The lack of an agreement on strategic weapons in the Reagan era can be mainly explained by the security interests of the USSR. These interests were perceived to be threatened by SDI. Even if the superpowers did not embrace MAD doctrine, they nevertheless conducted nuclear deterrence within the condition of MAD. Two factors help determine this relationship. The first is crisis stability.

According to the Scowcroft Commission of 1983, this is present when each superpower feels secure enough to not have any incentive to launch a disarming first strike. Furthermore, this also involves the ability of the second state to be able to retaliate with its surviving nuclear forces and still inflict an unacceptable amount of damage against the aggressor. The second factor is arms race stability. This can be said to exist when states do not feel a pressing need to arms race to offset the adversary’s military structure. Two more factors emerge. Smith advances the survivability and penetrability criteria. Both superpowers had always tried to ensure that a certain amount of strategic forces would survive a first strike. Secondly, warheads on the strategic delivery vehicles (SDVs) must be able to penetrate to their respective targets. With mutual vulnerability endorsed by the ABM Treaty and given the diversification of SDVs, each had the capacity to “ride-out” a first-strike and still retaliate. Both sides, however, found mutual vulnerability wanting.

Buzan and others have asserted that the “Soviet leadership did not accept the concept of mutual assured destruction” (Scott and Scott, 1988, p.70). The single most important objective was to deter nuclear aggression against the USSR. Not only did the USSR have to account for the American threat, but Moscow also had to consider Chinese, French and British strategic nuclear forces. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) saw US recognition of Soviet strategic nuclear parity with America in nuclear forces. The USSR regularly made statements of the importance to avoid nuclear war. But the USSR found MAD unsatisfactory as a basis for long-term security.

Sloss argues that Soviet forces prepared for nuclear war so if it broke out, the USSR would conduct a strategy of damage- limitation. It was believed if likely enemies saw the USSR prepared to wage a conventional or nuclear war as successfully as possible, this would deter the adversary. Soviet military strategy would call for a series of actions to destroy enemy assets while doing as much as possible to protect Soviet military capabilities. This is seen in improvements to multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) joined to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

For example, The Military Balance 1986-88 records that the Soviet SS-25 ICBM, while only a single warhead missile, is mobile and estimated to have a circle of error probable (CEP) of about 200m. This meant that the USSR could field highly accurate and very destructive weapons throughout the USSR. As this class of weapons had mobility, it would be very difficult for the US to discover their location in a crisis. Also the accuracy meant such systems could be used in a first-strike fashion against the stationary missile silos in the US.

Soviet strategic defence complemented offence. The USSR deployed thousands of interceptors, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and radarÆs. Critical facilities like ICBM silos and command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) posts were hardened to help preserve military capabilities. A limited BMD complex was deployed around Moscow consisting of 100 missiles and launchers. The USSR had its own R&D project into futuristic ABM technologies, like directed energy weapons (DEW).

This programme was not thought to be so ambitious as SDI. It had been argued that SDI would trigger increases in offensive weapons levels to ensure survivability and penetrability. The Soviet Galosh BMD system is strictly limited in size and capabilities. Yet the Galosh deployment made the British attach increased importance on the penetrability of it’s submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). A new warhead called Chevaline was produced in response to the Moscow BMD. It seems fair to ponder what type of counter-deployments could have occurred if one or both of the superpowers tried to “break-out” of the ABM Treaty to deploy a nation-wide BMD.

America placed great emphasis on the means to retaliate after a hypothetical Soviet first strike. This could be seen with the importance of ballistic missile carrying submarines (SSBNs) which are deemed to be the most invulnerable nuclear platform as submarines can evade detection. Soviet nuclear doctrine was more offensive-oriented.

If either superpower had it’s deterrent capability seriously impaired, either (or both) would attempt to regain credible deterrent forces. For example, if one or both had been on the verge of deploying widespread BMD which would question the effectiveness of the other’s nuclear forces. The ABM Treaty locked the superpowers into MAD. By constraining BMD deployments, an offensive and defensive arms race was averted. Otherwise, each would presumably be trying to outdo the other to secure survivability and penetrability of their nuclear forces. SDI would come to clash directly with the ABM Treaty. The USSR was concerned above all else with the means to prevent nuclear war by being able to threaten the US with survivable and penetrable strategic forces and the maintenance of strategic parity with America.

To Reagan, nuclear deterrence was sinister and morally reprehensible. SDI, ideally, would be the foundation for the transition from MAD to mutual assured survival (MAS). SDI would also act as a hedge against Soviet non-compliance of past agreements. For example, US satellites discovered the construction of a big radar facility in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, deep in the USSR. This was in direct contravention of the ABM Treaty which stipulated that early-warning radars can only be positioned on the periphery of national borders facing outwards. This radar was also near a group of SS-11 and SS-18 ICBMs.

This aspect of the treaty is to prevent either party from establishing a “base” to serve as a jumping-off point for full break-out from the treaty. SDI was also to help arms control. Surely the USSR would recognise the benefits of arms control and the attractions of MAS rather than MAD. It is argued that even limited BMD would strengthen deterrence as it would complicate Soviet attack plans by raising the cost of the number of missiles launched to destroy their targets. Under SDI, extended deterrence would also be made more credible. If SDI was successfully developed, it would probably emerge as a multi-layered, space-based anti-missile defence (SBAM). In each of the four stages of the missile’s trajectory, SDI elements would be ready to attack the missiles and their accompanying components.

The Empire Strikes Back

General Secretary Yuri Andropov wasted no time in denouncing SDI. Talking to Pravda a few days later after the speech, he warned if SDI was achieved, the “floodgates of a runaway race of all types of strategic arms, both offensive and defensive” would happen (Survival, 1983, p.131). For much of the rest of the year, the USSR was quiet because it spent much of 1983 trying to prevent the deployment of NATO intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). Mathers has identified four major Soviet criticisms of SDI. But surely the USSR could anticipate with some reasonable accuracy the serious hurdles facing US scientists? Surely the USSR could accept that SDI was purely an R&D project? That such a short period of R&D had little chance of producing a radical or fundamental breakthrough?

That the Americans could conceivably fail in their efforts to produce a workable BMD system to save themselves from the tyranny of MAD? The short answer is no. The USSR saw things quite differently. This was in spite of the problematical nature of SDI. Examples abound of Reagan Administration insiders expressing clear doubts over SDI. Richard DeLauer, the senior Pentagon scientist, stated SDI required “eight technical problems to be solved, each of which was as challenging as the Manhattan Project” (Lakoff and York, 1989, p.15)!

According to Newhouse, the US Ambassador in Moscow described that the general Soviet consensus was that if America would climb this technologically daunting mountain, then climb it she would. The USSR was painfully aware of US scientific and engineering skills, and did not want to be sucked into a costly technological arms race in which America was stronger. Another reason to explain the initially hostile Soviet reaction was many of the SDI proponents were passionate anti-Soviet “hawks.” Some statements, especially from government officials, were alarming for the USSR. The US Secretary of Defence, Casper Weinberger had this to say when questioned :

Mr Secretary, he was asked repeatedly, you say SDI offers us peace and stability; what if the Soviets were to develop SDI?
His answer : That would be a disaster.
Why? Isn’t that inconsistent?
Weinberger’s response, often in so many words : Because they’re aggressive and we’re not. (Talbott, 1988, p.199)

SDI appeared to have the goal of rescuing America from MAD, while leaving the USSR to the mercy of US BMD and strategic nuclear forces. If this were not in itself enough to set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin, then the repeated policy statements would that the US strategic modernisation programme would continue, regardless of SDI. Soviet charges took the form of America attempting to gain strategic superiority, of the greater likelihood of defensive and offensive arms racing (the survivability and penetrability aspect); and how the ABM Treaty would be crushed by SDI and, overall, greater instability. A serious Soviet fear was that by committing itself to R&D, even if SDI did prove itself to be the strategic will-o’- the-wisp many thought it would be, SDI-related technologies could have considerable conventional applications. For example, NATO’s anti-armour capabilities could be significantly enhanced by new sensor technologies.

The strategic environment as a whole was very disturbing for the USSR, with or without SDI. Many in the USSR felt the West was brazenly going about trying to gain strategic superiority. SDI “was routinely described as one component in a larger strategy intended to gain a disarming first-strike capability for the United States, and, in effect, to disarm the USSR.” (Mathers, 1994, p.142). SDI in conjunction with a sweeping strategic modernisation programme would only have fuelled Soviet fears of US intentions to gain a first-strike capability. If both goals were realised, crisis stability would be gravely weakened. The US could look upon nuclear weapons as more “user-friendly” given the marked improvements in US offensive forces and the deployment of BMD. The USSR would look at US offensive capabilities and draw all-too-obvious conclusions.

Even if the White House incumbent was a self-confessed pacifist, America would still have the possibility of an increased means to launch a first-strike. Reagan was no pacifist. His modernisation programme included, among other hardware, the new B-1 strategic bomber, the development of a “stealth” bomber, new generation cruise missile technology and so on. Moreover the quality of the strategic systems had improved too. The new MIRVed ICBM, the MX, apparently has a CEP of about 100m, according to The Military Balance 1986-88. Some see the MX as a first- strike capable weapon. When structured with new systems reputedly similar in capability (the new Trident II D-5 SLBM), and taking into account the looming possibility of phased SDI deployments on the horizon, we are in a better position to appreciate Soviet strategic sensibilities.

To cap it off, the USSR failed to prevent the NATO deployment of 108 Pershing II and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). For the USSR, the potential enemy’s correlation of forces had clearly been strengthened. BMD deployment and the new strategic systems would lower crisis and arms race stability. Some Soviet writers argued BMD components could be used in an offensive manner to strike at targets, rather than being used in a defensive manner. This allegation seems to hold up. On the very day of the “Star Wars” speech, officials from the Department of Defence (DOD) were testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee. They said DEW could “neutralise or disrupt enemy targets” (Lakoff and York, 1989, p.46).

If there had been a major crisis, with one or both of the superpowers in possession of BMD, the pressures and temptations to strike first could be enormous. The side with BMD may feel tempted to launch a counter force strike. The BMD of the aggressor would then be in a better position to absorb a more ragged retaliatory response. The side with little or no BMD would be aware of this and so would also feel pressured to strike first. This is only one example of some of the scenarios constructed out of the destabilising nature of BMD.

There was no overarching unified response by the USSR to SDI. The propaganda campaign was to discredit SDI and to disguise true Soviet concerns. Such a naked challenge to the USSR could not go unheeded. Soviet security was based on the means to deter nuclear aggression and if necessary to be able to retaliate. The Soviet responses tended to be piecemeal for a number of reasons, not least because of the physical infirmity of Andropov and Chernenko. It was also hoped SDI would quietly go away. The USSR would stress the relatively cheap and effective range of countermeasures currently available. These included more decoys (to confuse SDI sensors), possible direct attacks on the SDI infrastructure itself and simple saturation attacks. Finally the USSR could place an increasing reliance on “air-breathing” SDVs, bombers and cruise missiles.

Arms control had been in a state of limbo since the Soviet walk-out from negotiations as a protest against NATO’s INF deployment. Konstantin Chernenko dropped hints about the USSR resuming talks, this was a ploy to cripple SDI before it became an even larger threat. Reagan never showed any flexibility on SDI. This was consistently maintained, even when the USSR tabled increasingly attractive proposals affecting their ICBMs. The USSR wanted to strangle SDI through arms control and to try and influence the pace and scale of the strategic modernisation programme.

In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the USSR. Initial efforts were made to drastically limit any and all SDI-related activities. Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time in November 1985 to discuss US-Soviet relations and arms control. Gorbachev made it no secret that the key issue was “space-strike” weapons. Reagan did not compromise, nothing was achieved. In autumn 1986 they met again, this time in Reykjavik. It is not necessary to repeat the events of that summit, or what might have been. Between the two summits, Gorbachev had become slightly more flexible towards SDI. At Geneva in 1985, he was so against SDI that he refused even to admit that the ABM Treaty permitted R&D confined to the laboratory.

At the Moscow summit in May 1988 Gorbachev appeared to condone a statement whereby each party to the ABM Treaty would observe the provisions of the treaty for ten years. After that, each state could choose to do what it wanted with regard to BMD. In 1987, the INF Treaty was signed in Washington. This showed that some form of arms control was not impossible, but the spectre of SDI seemed to prevent strategic arms control. Why the change in Gorbachev?

Gorbachev had been strongly influenced by civilian researchers. Mathers records how this impacted upon Soviet military doctrine under Gorbachev. New ideas like defensive defence, “reasonable sufficiency” of military forces and strategy, and common security were mushrooming in the USSR. This New Political Thinking viewed nuclear weapons as a source of insecurity in international relations. The emphasis of this was that military solutions and conceptions of security were ill-suited.

Security would be at an interdependent level, where each state would try to accommodate the others’ most pressing concerns. Gorbachev wanted to cut back on the large Soviet military budget and re-channel savings into the ailing civilian economy. More importantly still, he knew that the USSR had over-reacted, thus giving SDI an importance (and legitimisation in the eyes of US hawks) that it never deserved for such a fledgling R&D programme. SDI was becoming a favourite target in the US by politicians because it could probably not achieve even a considerably limited defence (perhaps a 50% leakage rate) for decades to come, had a negative impact on superpower relations and could be tremendously expensive.

But how did this tally with the supreme Soviet security goal of having nuclear weapons to defend the USSR? Did not the revised Soviet attitude to SDI weaken Soviet security? The fact that the USSR gradually demonstrated growing flexibility to SDI did not mean acceptance of SDI or the implicit acknowledgement of Soviet strategic inferiority. The USSR kept its nuclear forces and continued expansion (like the SS-25) to maintain strategic parity with America. Moreover, the USSR examined ways to preserve, if not increase, the penetrability of Soviet nuclear weapons. The Soviet “policy” of something along the lines of a “let’s wait and see” approach appears to have paid off for the USSR in trying to prosecute an arms control regime whilst simultaneously trying to keep SDI at bay.

This conclusion seems to be borne out in reference to the following quote. In March 1989, A. Kokoshin, a senior member of the Moscow Institute for the USA and Canada, had this to say to the US Congress Committee on Armed Services:

Our major conclusion of this study was that, as SDI will take some time to proceed with research, development and testing and deployment, it will cost enormous sums of money and will be very vulnerable to counter-measures. We recommended that the Soviet response to SDI should be an asymmetrical one, not to build a similar kind of system as we did several times before. (Sapir, 1991, p.188)


Survival, 1983, excerpts from Reagan’s speech

The Military Balance 1986-88

Boszek, M Soviet Views of SDI Defence Analysis, 1989

Puschel, K. Can Moscow live with SDI? Survival, 1989

Voas, J. Soviet attitudes towards Ballistic Missile Defence and the ABM Treaty

Adelphi Papers, 1990

Lakoff, S. and York, H. A Shield in Space? 1989

Mathers, J. Soviet Perspectives and Policies on Ballistic Missile Defence from Khrushchev to Gorbachev 1994

Miller, S. and Van Evera, S. The Star Wars Controversy 1986

Newhouse, J. The Nuclear Age from Hiroshima to Star Wars 1989

Reagan, R. Ronald Reagan : An American Life 1990

Sapir, J. The Soviet Military System 1991

Scott, H. and Scott, W. Soviet Military Doctrine : Continuity, Formulation and Dissemination 1988

Talbott, S. The Master of the Game : Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace 1988

Tirman, J. The Fallacy of Star Wars 1983

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