SALT II was a modest achievement, to say the least. The two signatories, while generally abiding by its provisions, each have accused the other of conducting the largest military buildup in the history of mankind over the last five years. The Soviet accusation is much less true. But in any case, the treaty has not limited either side at all. Since the SALT II negotiations were completed in 1979 the United States has added about 2,000 nuclear warheads to its arsenal; the Soviets have added about 4,00. Yet only in 1985 does the United States bump up against a SALT II limit. When we launch our next Trident submarine with 24 multiple-warhead missiles, we will have to remove from service a Poseidon submarine equipped with 16 such missiles.
Reagan apparently has seen the wisdom of two propositions—one general, one specific—that he has long denounced. The general proposition is that the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations did not negotiate SALT II as a favor to the Soviet Union. They negotiated it because it promised a marginal improvement in the security of the United States. The specific proposition shows why. The treaty imposes real constraints on the Soviet Union. The Soviets have not reached the ceiling of 1,200 MIRVed launchers, which the United States is now constrained by. But they have long since reached SALT II’s total ceiling of 2,300 land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and intercontinental bombers. Even the Reagan administration acknowledges that the Soviets have been dismantling old weapons as they deploy new ones in order to stay under this limit. Indeed SALT II called for lowering this ceiling to 2,250 by 1981. Ironically, because the United States is far short of the 2,250 limit, President Reagan could obtain a unilateral reduction in Soviet arms simply by ratifying SALT II. Short of that, his decision to continue abiding by the provisions of the ungratified treaty is unusually sensible.
This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.