226. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon1

I am deeply concerned over the status of SALT. I believe our present proposal has some definite shortcomings. Safeguard deployments at only Grand Forks and Malmstrom, limited to only 100 to 200 interceptors, are inadequate for the defense of Minuteman, bombers or command centers against potential Soviet threats. This will make it most difficult to defend our position before the Congress and the American people. From the Soviet point of view, our proposal is unacceptable since they adamantly insist on an ABM agreement which gives each side equal rights, based on the May 20th understanding.2

The timing of any SALT agreement also gives me concern. Each month that passes Soviet forces grow and the strategic offensive balance, which an agreement is likely to freeze, shifts more in the Soviet’s favor. Moreover it takes time to negotiate the essential details of an acceptable agreement, and rising U.S. expectations and Soviet pressures may push us towards a hastily negotiated agreement with inadequate provisions.

There is always a temptation to link progress in SALT to the transience of foreign affairs. I feel strongly that strategic arms control is of greater long-range importance and that we should resist any temptation to couple SALT with other unrelated issues.

A SALT proposal can be formulated which is more strategically and politically desirable and also more negotiable. Briefly, such a proposal would be:

1. ABM

The U.S. would be permitted the Safeguard deployment at Grand Forks. The Soviets would be permitted to complete the Moscow system. Each side would be limited to 100 launchers/interceptors and [Page 674] 4 modern ABM radar complexes. There would be strict control of other large radars.
After three years, or earlier by mutual agreement:

The U.S. would be permitted to deploy ICBM defenses at Grand Forks and a defense of Washington with 100 launchers/interceptors and 4 modern ABM radar complexes.

The Soviets would be permitted to deploy ICBM defenses at an ICBM site which meets agreed geographic limitations.

For each side the ICBM defense interceptors would not be larger than Sprint and the ICBM defense radars would be less powerful than the Safeguard missile site radar (MSR).

2. Offense

Each side would be permitted the number of ICBM silos and SLBM launchers that it had operational and under construction on an agreed date not later than that on which the agreement goes into effect.

No modern large ballistic missile launchers could be completed after the agreed date.

Old SLBM launchers and ICBM silos could be replaced with new SLBM launchers. The number of ICBM launchers on soft pads would be frozen.

ICBM silos could be replaced by mobile ICBM launchers.

3. Duration and Withdrawal

The offense agreement remains in force for at least 5 years unless replaced by a follow-on agreement. Either side may withdraw from the defense agreement upon lapse of the offense agreement.

Our analysis shows that against a very considerable growth in counter-force capability, the defenses allowed by this agreement could assure the survival of 220 to 300 Minuteman, which is a sufficient force for a very extensive retaliatory strike. On the other hand, no constrained defense can be adequate against unconstrained technological improvement in the offense, and that is one of the reasons we need a withdrawal clause.

When we present this proposal to the Soviets we should explain our thinking regarding exercise of the ICBM defense option and the withdrawal right as follows:

If the Soviets curb the growing counter-force capability of their offensive missiles (or if we negotiate suitable reductions in the offensive threat in the follow-on agreement), we would not plan to exercise either option.

If the Soviet counter-force capability continues to evolve substantially, we would exercise the ICBM defense option to a level which depends upon the threat.

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If the Soviets show a clear intent to develop the capability to destroy Minuteman, we would plan to withdraw from the agreement (or negotiate a modification allowing extensive defense of our retaliatory forces).

This proposal makes strategic sense for the U.S. because:

It allows us to defend Washington, D.C. The National Command Authority is the Achilles Heel of our strategic command and control. This defense allows us time to get the President and his chief advisors airborne and therefore assures us of time to make critical national decisions carefully and deliberately. Defense can also raise the threshold for damage to our capitol above the level posed by threats which might go undetected (e.g., a lone submarine) and above the level of any plausible unauthorized or third country attack. I am now convinced that defense of Washington is politically feasible if it is part of an Arms Control agreement and is accompanied by a reduction in the currently authorized Safeguard program.

It allows us to defend some of our ICBMs in the future if the threat makes such defenses necessary.

It allows us to modernize our offensive forces and to move more of our forces from land to sea if we choose.

It stops the numerical growth of the Soviet strategic ballistic missile forces.

It inhibits further Soviet population defense.

It calls for follow-on negotiations on defensive levels as well as offensive levels, so that it keeps the U.S. system the Soviets most want to limit in balance with the Soviet system the U.S. wants most to limit. It also leaves the door open to follow-on negotiations towards offense reductions and low ABM levels.

The proposal makes political sense because:

It makes strategic sense.

It is fair to the Soviets.

It allows us to keep what we have built (including the Safeguard components so far deployed).

Further ABM deployments are delayed for 3 years to allow time for follow-on negotiations to reduce the need for such deployments:

It saves the U.S. money by dropping 10 Safeguard sites.

It stops the numerical growth in Soviet offensive missiles.

The proposal should be more negotiable because:

It permits both sides the same eventual ABM deployments.

It allows the Soviets to continue production of Y Class submarines and modernization of their missile forces, subject only to numerical ceilings on the total of ICBM silos and SLBM tubes and on modern large missile launchers.

Before abandoning our present proposal, we should explore the Soviet views on four points, to determine whether a move in the direction I have indicated is feasible. First, we should explore whether, [Page 676] in the context of a more symmetrical ABM proposal, the Soviets would agree to geographic limits to make sure that ICBM fields defended were far from population centers, and would agree to strict limits nationwide on large modern radars. Then we should seek Soviet acceptance of two further points: placing limits on ICBM defense components to limit their capability for population defense, and leaving open the levels of defense at the selected ICBM fields after a given period unless limited by follow-on agreement.

I recommend that the U.S. delegation be directed in the near future to inform the Soviets that the U.S. would be interested in negotiating towards an agreement which would permit an equal defense of national capitals and ICBM fields for each side, providing that the Soviets agree to these four principles.

I also recommend that the delegation be authorized to modify our current offense proposal to a freeze on the total number of ICBM silos and SLBM tubes with freedom to modernize as I have outlined.

Once we have the Soviet reaction to these steps, we can consider putting forward the new proposal outlined above.

I urge that these steps be taken without delay.

Melvin R. Laird
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files:FRC 330–77–0095, Box 7, USSR, 388.3. Top Secret; Sensitive. On February 8 Kissinger sent Laird’s memorandum to Nixon under a covering memorandum in which he concluded that “on the offensive side, his proposal largely corresponds with our present one or makes recommenations on issues which we were already planning to consider during the recess.” Kissinger also sent Nixon a draft response, which reads in part: “I appreciate your thoughtful letter of January 18 on our SALT position. I will want to consider your ideas carefully between now and the resumption of the talks. Accordingly, your suggestions will be considered by the Verification Panel in preparation for an NSC meeting on the next phase of SALT.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 882, SALT, SALT talks (Helenski) [sic], Vol. 17, January–April 1972)
  2. See Document 160.