war on the rocks

The Forgotten Side of Arms Control: Enhancing U.S. Competitive Advantage, Offsetting Enemy Strengths

June 27, 2018

In the spring of 1988, President Ronald Reagan described the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as an agreement that would, “for the first time, eliminate an entire class of U.S. and Soviet missiles.” Reagan’s description of the INF Treaty as a historic and mutually beneficial reduction of nuclear arms remains the conventional wisdom. This narrative is not wrong, of course, but it is incomplete: Arms control has never been purely cooperative. Rather, the United States employed arms control negotiations to build military-technological advantages over the Soviet Union. From the 1940s onwards, U.S. leaders sought to “offset” the Soviet Union’s advantage in conventional weapons by developing advanced military technologies that their Cold War opponent did not have. Arms control played an important role in advancing this offset strategy. American leaders raced the Soviets in military technologies where the United States was perceived to enjoy significant advantages, while simultaneously entangling the Soviet Union in an arms control regime that would limit areas of Soviet strength. By combining arms racing and arms control, the United States pursued a holistic offset strategy.

The relationship between arms control and offset strategies has been obscured because most accounts of U.S. arms control policy ignore its competitive dimensions. The traditional scholarly accounts emphasize the incredible dangers of nuclear weapons, the mutual U.S.-Soviet interest in limiting nuclear competition, and the importance of this dialogue to stabilizing U.S.-Soviet relations more generally. These accounts, however, only tell half of the story. More recent historical accounts have called into question this benign interpretation, noting instead America’s long-term strategy to employ negotiations to promote its own advantages. Some of this newer scholarship has focused on the self-serving motives behind U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy, but as more and more documents are declassified, historians are increasingly noting that the United States also employed superpower arms limitation to promote American advantages. Today, U.S. policymakers would do well to consider how arms control can contribute to sustaining America’s military-technological competitiveness.

The First Offset: Seeking Quantitative Parity

The United States began seeking competitive advantage over the Soviet Union through arms control from the very beginning of the Cold War. The First Offset strategy depended on maintaining overwhelming nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. To support this objective, U.S. leaders sought to entrap the Soviets in arms control agreements that would preserve America’s lead in nuclear weapons. Because the United States enjoyed a head start in the arms race, efforts to freeze that race at any given point would have frozen U.S. nuclear advantages, sustaining the First Offset indefinitely. Indeed, America’s first major nuclear arms control proposal, the 1946 Baruch Plan, would have allowed the United States to retain its own nuclear arsenal in exchange for a promise of eventual disarmament while banning any other country (especially the Soviets) from procuring its own nuclear weapons. Negotiations over a nuclear test ban were similarly loaded, with the Eisenhower administration seeking to prevent the Soviets from catching up to the United States in testing data, especially important for developing smaller, missile-capable warheads. The initial impetus for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) also involved an effort to freeze Soviet deployments of ballistic missiles and anti-ballistic missiles while the United States still retained the lead in nuclear weapons.

The Soviets rejected early American arms control proposals as nonstarters. Soviet leaders quickly concluded that nuclear weapons were essential to their national security, and rejected any framework that would deny them the same nuclear rights as the United States. Especially after their perceived humiliation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leaders were unwilling to conclude an arms control agreement that would enshrine American advantage in number of weapons. The single major arms control success of the era, the 1963 Limited Test-Ban Treaty, was only concluded after the Soviets had caught up to the United States in atmospheric testing. In this regard, early U.S. efforts at competitive arms control were simply too transparent. Furthermore, America’s disastrous intervention in Vietnam undermined both the financial and political capital necessary to sustain the arms race. By the early 1970s, the Soviets were approaching numerical parity in nuclear weapons and the First Offset was coming to an end. Perceiving the correlation of forces to be in their favor, Soviet leaders were unwilling to make serious arms control concessions to the United States.

The Second Offset: Qualitative Advantages

The end of U.S. numerical nuclear superiority required a new strategy for military-technological competition. American leaders embarked on a Second Offset that leveraged American advantages in electronics, precision manufacturing, and digital computing to generate sustainable qualitative military-technological advantages. As Secretary of Defense Harold Brown wrote to Congress in January 1981, “Technology can be a force multiplier, a resource that can be used to help offset numerical advantages of an adversary.” Even as it necessitated a new offset strategy, nuclear parity with the Soviets allowed for greater progress in arms control negotiations, in part because it allowed American leaders to claim that the resulting agreements were “fair,” even when they were promoting U.S. military-technological advantages. Within this framework of rough numerical equivalence, U.S. arms control policy advanced American advantages in three main ways: dictating the pace of key military-technological developments; promoting competition in environments more conducive to U.S. organizational and cultural advantages; and denying the Soviets the ability to respond to U.S. qualitative improvements by increasing their numerical strength.

First, arms control agreements allowed the United States to slow (but not halt) military-technological competition until more favorable political, economic, and technical circumstances emerged. The best example of manipulating the pace of competition in this way was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. By the late 1960s, the Soviets were making rapid progress on anti-ballistic missile technology. On the U.S. side, Congress would not fund a comparable American anti-ballistic missile system, which was both too expensive and insufficiently technologically mature. In effect, the ABM Treaty limited the Soviet Union to anti-ballistic missile levels comparable to those that the U.S. Congress would allow, preventing the Soviets from pulling ahead in large-scale anti-ballistic missile deployments – an echo of earlier attempts at quantitative arms control. At the same time, the treaty promoted American qualitative advantages by allowing continued testing of new anti-ballistic missile concepts at Kwajalein Test Facility, buying time until superior American anti-ballistic missile technology matured. As Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird stated in his June 1972 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, even under the treaty the United States would “vigorously pursue a comprehensive ABM technology program…[to] examine ABM deployment options that might be exercised if permitted by future agreements, or otherwise necessary.”

By limiting both deployments and testing, the ABM Treaty allowed American leaders to postpone a key area of military-technological competition for nearly a decade. It also provided some flexibility to re-escalate that competition under more favorable political and technological circumstances in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, the distant predecessor of America’s current ballistic missile defense technology.

Second, arms control agreements allowed the United States to promote competition in environments more conducive to its organizational and cultural advantages. For instance, the INF treaty emerged as a response to the Soviet deployment of new SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which posed a direct threat to America’s NATO allies. NATO responded by adopting the Dual-Track Decision, in which the United States deployed its own next-generation intermediate-range capabilities in Europe while also seeking an arms control agreement to eliminate the SS-20. The resulting negotiations eventually culminated in the INF Treaty.

The agreement is widely hailed as a major arms control achievement, but it is very specific in the types of weapons it limits: not all intermediate range weapons, but only land-based intermediate range weapons. Air- and sea-launched cruise missiles of any range were still allowed. Secretary of State George Shultz explained, “[The INF Treaty] eliminates the SS-20 threat which directly led to the dual track decision. It does not limit U.S. aircraft, which make a critical contribution to NATO’s defense. It strengthens deterrence by significantly complicating Soviet attack planning.” As a result, even as both sides dismantled their land-based intermediate-range missiles, the United States made rapid progress on its air- and sea-launched cruise missiles. The Soviet Union was free to compete with the United States in the naval and aerial domains, but in practice these were areas in which the United States enjoyed significant geographic, organizational, and alliance advantages. In fact, the United States repeatedly proposed arms control agreements that would incentivize the Soviets to compete against American strengths in the aerial and naval domains, whether by insisting that tactical aircraft be excluded from strategic arms negotiations, allowing replacement of land-based missiles with sea-based ones, or by insisting on permissive “counting rules” for missile-armed bombers. While on paper these proposals seemed neutral, in practice they shaped competition in ways that favored the United States. The INF Treaty was the most successful instance of this general approach.

Finally, arms control agreements denied the Soviets the ability to respond to American qualitative improvements by increasing the size of their forces. From the early 1970s onwards, American leaders pushed the Soviets to consider not just limitation but reduction of both missile numbers and size. Reduction had an obvious public motive in making the world safer from nuclear weapons. In private, however, American leaders emphasized that reducing the number and size of both sides’ nuclear weapons would prevent the Soviets from offsetting U.S. advances in weapons accuracy and reliability by doubling down on the scale of their own missile deployments. To this end, the SALT process placed absolute limits on the number of launchers, while allowing the United States to proliferate increasingly accurate warheads through technologies like multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles and air-launched cruise missiles (which did not add to the overall number of launchers). In private conversation with President Richard Nixon, Laird emphasized that under the SALT I agreement:

[The United States] can still keep ahead of [the Soviet Union]. There is a lot more we can even do with the Minuteman at the site as far as getting it even more accurate…and we can do it at a very small price, because we have the technological capability that far outstrips the Soviet Union. This is important to maintain this leadership.

However, the Soviets were reluctant to accept limits on missile size, so for a time U.S. improvements were generally offset by Soviet advantages in sheer scale, as their larger missiles could carry more warheads. The SALT II Treaty ultimately foundered in the Senate amid conservative criticism that it failed to limit the size of the Soviet missile force.

Following SALT II’s failure, the Reagan administration focused once again on limiting both the number and size of missiles, the better to emphasize American advantages in smaller and more accurate weapons. In 1983 the Scowcroft Commission endorsed the deployment of a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as a means of incentivizing the Soviets to accept limitations on missile throw weight. Driven in part by this expanding U.S. missile force, the Soviets agreed to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in 1991. START I was consistent with America’s longtime approach to arms reduction, requiring the Soviets to dismantle half of their heavy ICBMs and reduce their missile throw weight by nearly 50 percent. The treaty required no similar reductions by the United States, which had no “heavy” ICBMs and whose light and accurate missile forces were already below the agreed-upon weight limit. As with the ABM and INF Treaties, START I’s seemingly neutral language in fact promoted American military-technological advantages.

START I was one of the high points of the Second Offset strategy in the nuclear realm. By preventing the Russians from matching U.S. qualitative force improvements with quantitative offsets of their own, the treaty kicked off a “New Era of Counterforce,” in which the United States enjoyed superior nuclear capabilities over its Russian rival. The Second Offset was also bolstered by conventional force reductions, about which the Soviets were similarly intransigent during the 1970s, before eventually agreeing to large-scale downsizing in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. By equalizing the sizes of the two sides’ nuclear and conventional forces while permitting the United States to retain a qualitative edge in practice, START I and CFE supported the Second Offset Strategy of building qualitative military-technological advantage over the Soviet Union.

Opportunities and Challenges

From the perspective of the competitive offset, arms control has a mixed track record, but one worth pondering. While the Soviets rejected obvious early efforts to hem them in via arms control negotiations, American strategy in the second half of the Cold War bore greater fruit, as “equal” and “fair” quantitative restrictions allowed the United States to pursue qualitative force advantages with greater success and at less cost. Today, arms control is viewed solely as a tool for promoting international cooperation, lauded by doves and disdained by hawks. Contemporary policymakers would do well to also recognize the competitive dimension that has historically undergirded arms control, for three reasons.

First, this perspective can help sustain the arms control process by building a broader base of support for legacy arms control achievements. The United States retains a significant competitive incentive to uphold arms control successes like the INF Treaty, which continues to shape U.S.-Russian nuclear competition in ways beneficial to U.S. interests. While Russia cannot be allowed to cheat, critics of the agreement should consider how the treaty, properly observed, enables the United States to exploit its advantages in aerial and naval forces to the full. Similarly, defenders of the treaty ought to make the case for the agreement on its significant competitive merits, not solely on the basis of mutual interest with the Russians. Recognizing both the cooperative and the competitive elements of the INF Treaty creates a much stronger case for why the United States should seek to sustain, and perhaps even expand, the ban on land-based intermediate-range missiles.

Second, the strong association of “arms control” with “peace and cooperation” often distorts our understanding of real arms control successes. For example, some defenders of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have argued that Iran’s willingness to participate in an arms control agreement is indicative of a broader desire for cooperation with the United States. At the same time, some critics of the agreement have pointed to Iran’s continued military competition with the United States as evidence that the Iranians are not serious about arms control. Because they conflate arms control with cooperation, both defenders and critics often miss one of the JCPOA’s major strengths: It promotes U.S. military advantage over Iran by limiting Iran’s access to nuclear weapons, while requiring no similar changes in American military capability. And the agreement accomplishes this objective whether or not the Iranians are truly interested in expanding cooperation. Arms control does not need to end military competition entirely for it to be an effective tool of American foreign policy.

Finally, U.S. leaders ought to think about how arms control might promote competitive advantage in the area of emerging technologies like cyber weapons, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Proponents of arms control for these fields have recently staked out maximalist positions that would prohibit all countries from pursuing military applications of emerging technologies. For U.S. policymakers considering the Third Offset, however, the appropriate questions are how these technologies can be used to enhance American military-technological competitiveness and how arms control restrictions can be tailored to further that competitive advantage. In an era labeled as a return to great power competition, American leaders can take a page out of the history of the Cold War to devise strategies that keep the United States ahead of its rivals.


John Maurer is the Henry A. Kissinger Postdoctoral Fellow at International Security Studies and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. His work draws on the Kissinger Papers at Yale to examine how academic ideas on the nature and purpose of arms control shaped U.S. arms control policy. He has a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

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