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Soviet Union

Retaining a Capability to Fight and to Win

In addition to deterring a nuclear world war, Soviet strategic forces were expected to fight it and to win it. SALT I was acceptable to the Soviet military not only because it made war less likely but also because the Soviet military would have the capability to carry out its intercontinental strike mission even in a worst-case scenario. By limiting defensive systems to one installation in each country, the ABM Treaty guaranteed that Soviet missiles could successfully penetrate United States airspace.

Because SALT I limited the number of ballistic missile launchers but not the number of warheads, the Soviet Union was able to increase its intercontinental missile arsenal. It used new technologies to equip its land- and sea-based strategic missiles with several warheads, known as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The Soviet military also greatly improved the accuracies of its missiles, especially the SS-l8 and SS-l9 ICBMs.

In 1979, when President Jimmy Carter and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the second SALT agreement in Vienna, the Soviet Union had 5,000 warheads on its strategic missiles, an increase of 2,500 since l972. By l986 the number of Soviet strategic warheads exceeded 10,000. Thus neither of the SALT agreements significantly constrained Soviet nuclear modernization and the growth of the Soviet arsenal, whose ultimate aim was to hold at risk the vulnerable United States force of land-based Minuteman III missiles.

Soviet leaders objected to United States proposals in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), a new round of talks to reduce nuclear arsenals, that began in June 1982, because, if accepted, such proposals would have cut in half the number of Soviet ICBMs, their principal war-fighting component. In the mid1980s , when it began deploying the fifth generation of ICBMs (the mobile SS-24 and SS-25 missiles, to assume part of the SS-l8 mission), the Soviet Union began to show interest in reducing the number of its heavy SS-18 missiles. Since their deployment in 1974, the United States had viewed the SS-18s as the most threatening and destabilizing component of the Soviet arsenal. In 1989 the Soviet leaders continued to link reduction of the SS-l8s to severe restrictions on the testing of SDI. First unveiled by President Ronald W. Reagan in March l983, the SDI promised to yield advanced technologies for a North American antimissile shield. Should SDI prove feasible, it could render Soviet nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."

This prospect alarmed the Soviet military because such a shield could prevent it from attaining its two most important military objectives: avoiding wars and being prepared to fight them. In l989 the Soviet Union appeared willing to agree to deep cuts in its offensive weapons in order to derail SDI or at least to force the United States to ban SDI-related tests in space for a minimum of ten years.

Data as of May 1989