19. Memorandum From Secretary of State Kissinger to President Ford1


  • SALT


The progress of SALT is a key element both in our relations with the Soviet Union and in determining our future defense programs. Although USUSSR relations have withstood the lack of progress in SALT quite well over the past two years, a breakdown in SALT and an unchecked Soviet arms buildup would jeopardize the entire range of US-Soviet political relations. Furthermore, if the Soviet buildup continues, and the prospects for a long-term agreement fade, we will have to consider seriously major budget commitments to new strategic weapons.

While we must take care to avoid giving the Soviets any indication that we are anxious for additional SALT agreements, we must realize that unnecessary delays in concluding further agreements may work against us. Without new agreements, the Soviets could easily move ahead of the US in most measures of strategic capability by 1985, even if we move forward with all our present strategic programs (and it will be difficult to convince Congress to do even this). Numerically, the Soviets could catch up in total numbers of strategic nuclear weapons (at about 15,000 each). They could have 16 million pounds of throw weight to about 10 million for the US and 2700 total strategic launchers to about 2200 for the US. A buildup to such a level of forces, which would represent a total destructive potential of three to four times that present on both sides today, could present a major threat to the essential equilibrium that now exists.

The Soviets, on the other hand, undoubtedly have a contrary perception of these issues. From their perspective the United States has a lead in number of warheads, MIRV technology (particularly in the submarine area) and bomber development and deployment. They see themselves as engaged in a program to redress these imbalances. These [Page 50] fundamental differences in perceptions on the two sides are an underlying factor in the difficulties we have encountered in SALT.

Since the first SALT agreements were concluded two years ago, we have concentrated our efforts on limiting the development and deployment of new MIRVed missiles. The new Soviet MIRVs represent the major threat to the present balance; they also constitute the most significant threat to the survivability of our land-based Minuteman ICBMs. Thus, in attempting to limit these programs, we were hoping to reduce or delay Minuteman survivability problems, to slow the Soviet buildup, and retain some bargaining flexibility as a result of our large advantage in warhead numbers.

To date, this approach has not been successful. While the Soviets have acknowledged the central importance of MIRVed missiles, the two sides have not been able to agree to a formula seen as equitable by both sides. For example, given their large ICBM forces, the Soviets clearly plan to offset a strong US superiority in SLBM MIRVs with a larger ICBM MIRV program than that undertaken by the US. However, since ICBM MIRVs represent the major threat to the survivability of our Minuteman force, we have pushed for stringent limits on the size of the Soviet ICBM MIRV buildup. But such limits are unacceptable to the Soviets since they would leave the Soviets in a clearly inferior numerical position to the US during the next five to seven years.

There are other similar asymmetries in our approach and objectives. Our present task is to find concepts and approaches which will permit us to reconcile our different viewpoints. This may become easier now that the uncertainty caused by Watergate is ended. (There have been intelligence reports which, while inconclusive, tend to confirm Soviet hesitancy in their exchanges with us before and during the last Summit.)


By 1969, the US had lost the clear-cut superiority in overall strategic capabilities it had maintained since the end of World War II and a state of parity was emerging. In particular:

—The US had stopped building additional ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers, and was concentrating on qualitative improvements such as MIRVs. US MIRVs were intended both as a counter to projected Soviet ABMs and to provide targetting flexibility.

—The USSR, on the other hand, was engaged in a dynamic buildup of both ICBM and SLBM launchers, which would give them a numerical lead in these forces by the early 1970s. While the US had a more effective SLBM force and a substantial advantage in heavy bombers, the Soviet ICBMs were generally much larger and could carry significantly heavier payloads (i.e., they had a significantly greater “throw [Page 51] weight”). With MIRV technology, the Soviets would eventually be able to use this throw weight advantage to eliminate the present 3 to 1 US lead in total strategic warheads. Furthermore, Soviet weapons would generally be of higher explosive yield than US weapons.

—Both sides were engaged in the initial stages of ABM deployment. The US planned to give priority to the defense of ICBM sites, while the Soviets were building only a defense of Moscow. In general, the US ABM program was more dynamic and gave the US leverage with which to negotiate limitations on ICBMs and SLBMs.

—The US and USSR also had asymmetries in their so-called “non-central” systems. The US had SLBMs based at Holy Loch and Rota and nuclear-capable aircraft deployed at both bases abroad and on aircraft carriers. These are the so-called “forward-based systems” (FBS) which are within reach of the USSR. The Soviets had medium and intermediate-range missiles and bombers capable of attacking our bases abroad and our allies.

Results of SALT I

These various asymmetries between US and Soviet deployments shaped the outcome of the first set of SALT agreements, reached in 1972:2

—Since both sides were in a very early phase of ABM deployment, an effective limit was possible and, by precluding large-scale area and city defenses, was in the interest of greater strategic stability. The ABM Treaty limited each side to two sites, one for ICBM defense and one for defense of its capital. (The 1974 ABM Protocol further limits each side to only one site.)3

—Despite Soviet resistance to linking ABM limits with constraints on offensive forces, we succeeded in getting the five-year Interim Agreement, which froze ICBM and SLBM levels. While this placed a check on the momentum of the Soviet programs as we estimated them, no US deployment programs were affected. Specifically, the deployment of the very large SS–9 ICBM was stopped at about 300, although replacement missiles such as the SS–18 were permitted. Soviet SLBM forces were subjected to a ceiling which, while quite high, was below indicated Soviet capabilities and required scrapping of older Soviet ICBMs to be reached. US and Soviet strategic forces at the time the Interim Agreement was signed were as follows:

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ICBM Launchers 1054 1618
SLBM Launchers 656 7404
Total Missile Launchers 1710 2358
Heavy Bombers 525 140
Total Strategic Launchers 2225 2498

FBS and heavy bombers were not limited by the Interim Agreement and remained to be dealt with in a follow-on comprehensive agreement on offensive forces.


The US attempted two basic approaches to a SALT II agreement: a permanent agreement based on equal numbers of ICBMs, SLBMs and bombers, and a separate MIRV agreement with an extension of the Interim Agreement. Both approaches were hampered by basic differences in strategic perceptions on the two sides.

The Interim Agreement numbers registered the existing Soviet advantage in total launchers (ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers) of some 2500 to 2200. The US wished to equalize these figures for the period after 1977, but finding an appropriate level was difficult. At the lower number the Soviets would have had to undertake unilateral reductions to come down to our level. The US, on the other hand, had no programs to build up to the Soviet level—and the Soviets knew it. Our proposal for equality was therefore met by a Soviet proposal to carry over the Interim Agreement numbers into a permanent agreement.

The second major problem in reaching a permanent agreement was the treatment of forward-based systems. Although these systems represent no more than about 10–15 percent of US capability versus the Soviet Union, the Soviets took the position that they should be withdrawn and their bases liquidated on the grounds that they were strategic systems that could attack the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads. Any approach to a solution on our part proved extremely complex and difficult because of the dual mission (conventional and nuclear) of many of these systems, their role in our NATO and other alliance commitments, and the problem of how to treat Soviet medium-range missiles and aircraft targetted on our allies.

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1972, as preparations for SALT II were underway, the Soviets had begun testing a new family of ICBMs, some with MIRVs. In the succeeding months it became clear [Page 53] their ICBM MIRV program was both faster-paced and more extensive than we had originally anticipated. It involved four systems:

—The SS–X–16, a Minuteman-size, unMIRVed missile that may be intended for use as a mobile ICBM. It will be ready for deployment next year.

—The SS–X–17 (in MIRVed and unMIRVed versions) and the SS–X–19 (MIRVed). These missiles have about three times the throw weight of Minuteman and will begin deployment either this year or next. They are rival follow-on candidates to the 1000 SS–11s, the major Soviet “medium” missile.

—The SS–X–18 (MIRVed and unMIRVed versions), with about six times greater throw weight than Minuteman. This is the follow-on system for the 300 SS–9s.

If these systems were deployed in large numbers, we would face the prospect that the Soviet launcher and throw weight advantages, acceptable in the context of the five-year Interim Agreement, could be translated into a large force of heavy and accurate MIRVs capable of threatening the survivability of Minuteman.

We therefore began concentrating on a second track in the negotiations—the limitation of Soviet MIRVs. Our basic goals were to prolong the period in which the Minuteman force would be survivable against a Soviet first strike and to stop the most dynamic aspects of the Soviet strategic buildup. Our proposals went through several successive stages:

—We first proposed an interim freeze on the MIRV programs on both sides, which would have held the Soviets to no MIRVs, since their deployment had not started.

—Second, after the Soviets rejected this, we proposed permanently limiting each side to equal MIRVed ICBM throw weight. With expected Soviet deployments this would have given us an advantage of about 550 MIRVed ICBM launchers to 360 for the Soviets, but would have given each side about the same number of ICBM re-entry vehicles (RVs or warheads), since the heavier Soviet missiles could each carry a larger number of RVs. However, the US would have retained a very large SLBM advantage.

—Finally, we explored the possibility of a separate MIRV agreement based on a numerical difference in MIRV launchers in our favor, combined with a 2 to 3 year extension of the Interim Agreement to 1980. We also asked for some adjustment in the U.S. numerical limit under the Interim Agreement to permit us to deploy the initial Trident submarines. Our rationale for this approach was to cap the Soviet MIRV program in return for a limited continuation of the numerical disparities in the Interim Agreement.

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Under the last concept we advanced various numerical combinations and various ways of dividing the numerical MIRV limits between land-based MIRVs and sea-based MIRVs. Our own forces were divided about 50–50 between MIRVed ICBMs and MIRVed SLBMs. We attempted to gain Soviet agreement to a similar balanced deployment, so that a large portion of the Soviet MIRV force would be in relatively light and inaccurate SLBMs. The Soviets, however, would not accept this concept since they did not have a successfully tested SLBM MIRV ready for deployment and were unwilling to commit themselves to stop their ICBM MIRV program short of planned levels, in exchange for paper rights to numbers of sea-based MIRVs they had no intention of deploying during the period of the agreement.

The only concrete Soviet MIRV offer, made in March of this year, was 1100 US MIRVs to 1000 Soviet MIRVs, with no sublimit for ICBMs. This was unacceptable to us because it would have cut off our Trident program, except as a replacement for Poseidon, provided too small a numerical disparity, and had us standing still on MIRVs while the Soviets built up. The absence of a sublimit on ICBM MIRVs would have meant the Soviets could have taken the bulk of their 1000 limit in large ICBMs and proceeded to deploy large numbers of submarine MIRVs after 1980.

Our efforts to find a compromise culminated in the proposal President Nixon presented to Brezhnev at the June Summit:5

—An extension of the Interim Agreement to 1979, rather than 1980. This would eliminate the US need for changes in the Interim Agreement numbers.

—A limit of 1150 MIRV missiles for the US (our programmed force) and 750 for the Soviets (our estimate of their approximate program).

—A ban on MIRVs deployed on heavy ICBMs (the SS–18). This would somewhat reduce the importance of the Soviets’ throw weight advantage.

The Present Situation

The Soviets have had three fundamental perceptions that prevent them from accepting our approach to the MIRV problem. First, they want to gain the developmental and operational experience that will permit them to match the US in this major technology. Second, they wish to correct the existing three-fold US advantage in warheads, which can be accomplished only by MIRVing. Third, they do not want their ICBM MIRV program stopped short of planned levels.

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As the June Summit drew to a conclusion, we faced the fact that our two major approaches to a SALT agreement—a permanent agreement and an extension of the Interim Agreement combined with MIRV limitations—had both been unproductive.

Both sides were aware that a summit communiqué with no substantive results on SALT would be seen very unfavorably throughout the world. Thus, in order to provide some substance to the results, the two sides agreed to a change in approach. We would no longer try either for a permanent agreement or for a short-term extension of the Interim Agreement. Rather, we would work toward a new Interim Agreement expiring in 1985.6

This agreement—to work toward an agreement with a 1985 expiration date—was not purely cosmetic. A 10-year time period offers several advantages over either a permanent agreement or short-term extension of an Interim Agreement. The 10-year period avoids the long-term technological uncertainties and innumerable complex trade-offs which make negotiation of a permanent agreement almost impossible. A short-term extension of the Interim Agreement also avoids this problem, but creates other difficulties. In particular, such a short-term extension would expire in the middle of each side’s current modernization program, making it difficult to consider the total current plans of either side. Through a ten-year agreement we would attempt to stabilize the strategic relationship toward the end of the present deployment cycle, reducing the incentive for another round of force improvements and deployments.

Next Steps

The interagency review of SALT now underway is focusing on several key issues:

—At what levels can total numbers be limited so that we will not have to build up or the Soviets take excessive reductions?

—How should we approach the asymmetrical advantages each side has in various strategic measures, e.g., the US lead in warheads (5 to 2 by 1977) and the Soviet lead in missile throw weight?

—What constitutes “essential equivalence”? This question embraces both of the two problems above—overall numbers and asymmetries. It goes to the issue of political perceptions expressed in the joint congressional resolution to the SALT I agreements calling for an agreement that “would not limit the US to levels of intercontinental strategic forces inferior to limits provided for the Soviet Union.”

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—How can MIRVs be limited in a 1985 agreement?

As these issues are clarified, we will develop options for your decision. The SALT delegations will then return to Geneva in mid-September for an exploration of broad concepts. Then, during my planned trip to Moscow, I would seek to establish enough common ground to permit detailed negotiations in Geneva of a concrete agreement.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 81D286, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Box 6, SALT, June–September 1974. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. The memorandum is an uninitialed copy. Although no drafting information appears on the memorandum, Sonnenfeldt and Lodal forwarded it to Kissinger on August 15 “for use in your series of foreign policy briefings.” No evidence has been found to indicate whether or not Kissinger gave it to the President.
  2. For the English texts of the agreements, the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (23 UST 3435; TIAS 7503), the Interim Agreement on Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, and the Protocol to the Interim Agreement, see Department of State Bulletin, June 26, 1972, pp. 918–921.
  3. For the English text of the protocol to the ABM treaty (27 UST 1645; TIAS 8276), signed by Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow on July 3, see ibid., July 29, 1974, pp. 216–218.
  4. (Up to 950 allowed if 210 older ICBM launchers were dismantled) [Footnote in the original.]
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XV, Soviet Union, June 1972–August 1974, Documents 185 and 186.
  6. For the text of the joint communiqué signed by Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow on July 3, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1974, No. 209.