165. Memorandum From Spurgeon Keeny of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for Science and Technology (Hornig)1


  • ABM Deployment

The Administration is now considering a proposal to initiate in FY–68 the deployment of a “light” ABM defense of the United States. While there are many pros and cons to this complex question, I believe that on balance such a system is not only unnecessary at this time but, in fact, contrary to our net strategic interests.

The purpose of this “light” ABM system would be primarily to provide a high level of protection against any Chinese missile capability that would emerge in the 70s and to increase the survivability of our Minuteman force against a massive Soviet counterforce attack. It is not claimed that the system would be able to defend U.S. cities against a heavy, sophisticated Soviet missile attack.

My objection to the deployment of the proposed ABM system is not based on any difference with the DOD’s evaluation of the system’s technical capabilities. Although one cannot rule out the possibility of catastrophic failure of such a complex system, I know of no specific reason to question the conclusions that the proposed system is probably capable of providing effective defense against early Chinese ICBMs and of increasing the survivability of our Minuteman force. The DOD has accurately stated the limitations of such a system against a massive sophisticated Soviet attack. While I believe that the weight of evidence indicates that the Soviets are not undertaking a massive ABM deployment but only a rather pedestrian effort around Moscow, I consider the DOD’s somewhat more cautious appraisal entirely reasonable in the circumstances. In any event, I am in full agreement with the DOD’s conclusion that the appropriate U.S. response to a Soviet ABM deployment is an improvement of our penetration capabilities and not an ABM deployment.

Accepting then the stated limited objectives of the proposed system, I believe that it is by no means demonstrated that it is in fact necessary to initiate deployment of such a system in FY–68.

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  • Protection against China. I am not convinced that there is a real military case for deploying a system at this time against a future Chinese ICBM threat. While a limited ABM deployment would have an IOC of less than four years and could be fully deployed in six years, it is unlikely that the Chinese will have even a token ICBM capability before the mid–70s. If the Chinese seek to achieve an earlier direct nuclear threat to the United States, it will probably come in the form of short–range submarine–launched ballistic or aerodynamic missiles. Against this threat, the proposed “light” ABM deployment would be relatively ineffective since short–range ballistic or aerodynamic missiles could be directed against undefended targets on the coast or fly under the ABM defenses. More fundamentally, it is by no means clear that there is a military requirement for such a system even when the Chinese ICBM force comes into being. Our massive strategic forces provide us with a very high confidence capability to conduct a pre–emptive strike against a small force of soft ICBMs with relatively slow reaction times. Therefore, as a “blackmail” weapon against the U.S., such a Chinese force would appear to have little value and would in fact be an open invitation to a catastrophic disarming attack by this country against China. As a deterrent, such a Chinese force would also appear to have little value since the Chinese could not hope to use it without assuring the total destruction of China. We have pursued our policies in the past in the face of a tremendously larger Soviet deterrent force, and there does not appear to be any clear reason why we would not continue to do so in the future in the face of a very small early Chinese ICBM capability.
  • Protection of our Minuteman Force. Although I believe there is no question that such a system would improve the survivability of Minuteman, it is by no means clear that there is any requirement to accomplish this on the proposed time scale. We are making a major investment in Poseidon and the upgrading of Minuteman to assure our penetration capabilities against the worst plausible Soviet missile and ABM threats through the mid–70s. The Soviet threat will in all likelihood not evolve this rapidly; and, even if it does, there will still be adequate time in the future to deploy defenses for our strategic forces. In this connection, it is by no means clear that the proposed system is in fact the most cost effective way to defend hard sites such as Minuteman. This question should be examined in detail as part of the broader study that is now under way to determine appropriate follow–on systems to Poseidon and Minuteman to maintain our strategic posture in the period after the mid–70s.

    If the above were the only considerations, it might still be argued that the expenditure of $6 billion over the next five or six years would be a relatively small price to pay for the added insurance that such a system might give in the event that we have seriously misjudged [Page 523] Chinese or Soviet capabilities or intentions. I believe, however, that a decision to deploy would probably have the following highly undesirable consequences that will be to our net disadvantage.

  • Soviet–U.S. Relations. Despite our efforts to explain the limited objectives of our ABM deployment, the decision would very probably lead to a substantial escalation in Soviet strategic offensive and defensive armaments, which in turn would almost certainly escalate the level of our own forces. The latest NIE concludes that the future of the Soviet ABM deployment will in part depend on the Soviet reaction to our own strategic decisions.2 Whatever the true nature of the present Soviet ABM deployment, I believe that a decision on our part to deploy an ABM system would assure that they will undertake an extensive ABM deployment. Moreover, this decision will put pressure on the Soviets to increase the level of their missile forces beyond whatever their present plans may be and to upgrade the penetration capability of their existing missile forces. This would in turn put pressure on us to increase our strategic forces and upgrade the capability of our ABM system. Even if such an arms race does not actually increase the immediate danger of war, it would certainly increase the tensions between the U.S. and the USSR. Although it is difficult to evaluate the impact of this development on internal Soviet affairs, the increasing demands of a major build–up in Soviet military expenditures will put increasing pressure on the present civilian Soviet leadership with the danger that there will be a trend back to Stalinist attitudes.
  • Western Europe. The decision could have a very divisive effect on our relations with Western Europe. Despite our efforts to explain the limited purpose of our “light” deployment, it would probably prove very difficult to explain to Western Europeans why a similar deployment could not be helpful in protecting them from Soviet “blackmail,” particularly since such a system might be technically quite effective against existing Soviet IRBMs targeted on Western Europe. If the Europeans should press us to assist them in developing their own ABM, there would appear to be real political problems in denying them this defense; and, despite any plans to the contrary, we would probably end up paying most of the bill. A more likely consequence, however, would be that the decision would feed the forces of neutralism in Western Europe to the detriment of NATO since it would be argued that Europe is now a defenseless pawn in an arms race in which they could not meaningfully participate.
  • Far East. A decision of this magnitude based in large part on the Chinese threat would greatly enhance the image of Chinese military [Page 524] capabilities in the Far East. Despite our arguments that this will increase our flexibility in dealing with China, the net effect would probably be to increase substantially Chinese prestige with its neighbors. It would be extremely difficult to explain to Japan and India why they should not also have an ABM system to protect them from Chinese “blackmail,” and there is little question that we would have to subsidize most, if not all, of the cost of such systems in these countries.
  • U.S. Domestic Relations. Although it will be argued that any decision on this problem will remove it as a political issue, I believe that the proposed “light” defense will actually be a very poor solution from the point of view of domestic politics in that it will satisfy no one. On the liberal wing, the decision will be widely attacked as an unnecessary and dangerous expense further undercutting the prospects of the Great Society. On the conservative wing, the decision will be attacked as inadequate and as a devious device to avoid coming to grips with the real problem of providing real protection for the U.S. population against a Soviet attack. The majority of people, who are not really particularly interested in this problem anyway, will be presented with a spectacle of a major Administration decision which is attacked on all sides.

    The effect of this decision on the plans for the Great Society may in fact be much greater than is now apparent. Although the estimated cost of $6 billion for the “light” defense (even if it in fact increases by a factor of two, as could easily be the case on the basis of past experience) would appear to be easily absorbed over the next six years, I believe that this is simply the first installment on a much larger system. I believe that the system at the proposed level is politically unviable and that it would be very difficult to prevent it from expanding over the next few years into the complete Nike–X defense system that the military really wants. It will be extremely difficult to explain to some parts of the country why they are not defended while other parts of the country are. Despite protestations as to the inherent limitations of such a system, there will be a major military–industrial lobby to explain the potential defense capabilities of an expanded system. It is estimated that the cost of such a system would be on the order of $20 billion, which again could easily increase by a factor of two. To this would have to be added the cost of a nationwide shelter program, an improved air defense program to balance the capabilities of the ABM system, and eventually radically improved strategic forces to compensate for the almost inevitable increases in Soviet strategic forces to compensate for our defensive effort.

  • International Arms Control. The decision would come at a particularly unfortunate time from the point of view of arms control. There appear to be real prospects that in the next month or so we will come to [Page 525] agreement with the Soviet Union on a Non–Proliferation Treaty which is acceptable to our allies.3 This treaty will be meaningless unless the major non–nuclear countries sign it. The fact that the United States and the Soviet Union concurrently undertake another major step in the escalation of nuclear armaments may well be seized upon by such countries as India and Japan as a reason for not signing the treaty. Beyond this, as the pace of the ABM development accelerates, I believe that a serious question will develop as to whether the Limited Test Ban Treaty4 can survive since it will be argued with increasing vehemence that many of the problems associated with the effectiveness of such a system cannot be fully answered without further atmospheric testing.

In view of the above considerations, I recommend that—

We should not make a formal decision to deploy a “light”ABM defense in connection with the FY–68 budget.
We should state in the budget message that the subject is under continuing study and that, if a positive decision to deploy is reached, a supplemental request will be submitted.
We should encourage a continued Congressional and public discussion of this entire issue.
We should continue an intensive effort to involve the Soviets in serious discussions of this issue—with the objective of clarifying the nature of their present ABM system and obtaining agreement to freeze further deployment of ABMs for an agreed period of time.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, Office of Science and Technology, Vol. 1 [1967], Box 42. Secret. Copies were sent to Rostow and Moyers. In an attached January 4 note to Rostow, Keeny noted that he prepared the memorandum to Hornig for his meeting with the President on the ABM problem at 5:30 p.m. that day. For Rostow’s account of the meeting, see Document 166.
  2. Document 146.
  3. Documentation on the negotiations leading to this multilateral treaty, which was signed by several nations on July 1, 1968, is in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XI.
  4. Entered into force on October 10, 1963. (14 UST 1313)