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Jimmy Carter and SALT II:
by Matthew M. Oyos

Part 2. The Structure of Strategic Deterence

ALMOST SINCE THE DAWN of the atomic era, American strategic policy rested on deterrence of Soviet military action against the United States or its allies. Deterrence stood on the premise that the potential for unparalleled devastation represented by nuclear weapons would prevent a possible opponent from challenging American or allied security.

Defense analysts long held that the United States must at least possess the capability to endure a first-strike and still inflict unacceptable devastation to maintain a valid deterrent against the Soviet Union. From the Soviet perspective, a similar potential would help insure that the United States would not resort to nuclear arms, especially in a political or military crisis when such a temptation would be at its greatest.1

Although differences marked American and Soviet thinking on deterrence, the two nations constructed their strategic arsenals along roughly similar lines. The United States relied on a triad of forces to maintain a second-strike capability and allow the President various options in case deterrence failed. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), manned bombers or air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) formed roughly equal legs of the American triad.

Each weapons system contributed different strengths to American strategic capabilities:

  • ICBMs represented the quickest, most accurate technology and could attack a full range of targets, especially an enemy's ICBMs;
  • bombers were slower and recallable, thereby furnishing a less drastic instrument to threaten an opponent;
  • SLBMs were the least vulnerable system and therefore insured best the maintenance of a second-strike capability.

Each part of the triad, however, had its weaknesses. Housed in fixed land-based silos, ICBMs remained most exposed to attack; bombers had little protection on the ground; and communications were problematic, although accuracy was fast rising among this force.

The Soviets also relied on a strategic triad, but its legs were hardly equal. Commanding a huge landmass, Russian leaders chose to stock their strategic inventory with a large number of ICBMs, maintain a much smaller amount of SLBMs, and retain even fewer bombers. With a formidable ICBM force, the Soviets possessed a potentially greater capability to launch a preemptive attack than the United States, but their deterrent remained less survivable owing to the smaller proportions of their SLBM force.

For both superpowers, strategic nuclear weapons protected basic foreign policy interests. American political and military leaders had perceived Western Europe as an area of vital concern since the end of World War II and extended strategic nuclear deterrence over that region as part of the United States commitment to NATO. Deeming European economic and military strength crucial to American security, presidents since Harry Truman considered the extension of strategic nuclear protection a way to insure that Western Europe kept close ties with America. American leaders worried that a perception of insecurity in Western Europe might lead some nations, especially West Germany, to seek accommodation with the Soviet Union and to loosen connections with the United States. Such an event would reduce American access to Western Europe's sizable military and economic resources while exposing that key region to Soviet domination. To cement the relationship with Western Europe, the United States strove to maintain a strategic nuclear arsenal that would not only deter Soviet aggression but convince Western European countries of the American political and military commitment to their defense.2

IN THE EYES OF THE SOVIET leaders, strategic nuclear arms functioned less to seal alliances and more to further political prestige. After suffering two major invasions during the twentieth century, the Soviets regarded Eastern Europe as vital to their security and, since 1945, maintained a firm military grip on that region. The substantial Soviet military presence in Eastern Europe and apparent determination of the Kremlin to preserve a sphere of influence there insured loyalty to Moscow.

Rather than guarding the integrity of the Eastern Bloc, strategic nuclear arms demonstrated the Soviet Union's stature as a superpower. The Soviets lacked the economic power of the United States and, instead, stressed their military might as a means to extend influence. A limitation or reduction of strategic arms, therefore, might lessen Soviet influence in international affairs. To Moscow, arms control needed not only to protect national security but also provide political benefits in the world arena as compensation for any weakening of military power.3


  1. Introduction
  2. The Structure of Strategic Deterence
  3. Jimmy Carter's Strategic Arms Objectives
  4. Strategic Arms Control Negotiations
  5. Domestic Political Considerations in the United States
  6. Conclusion
  7. Endnotes
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