43. Editorial Note

With the approach of preliminary strategic arms limitations talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union, which were scheduled to begin on November 17, 1969, in Helsinki, Finland, some members of Congress began to consider the negotiating option of prohibiting flight tests of multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Senator Edward W. Brooke (R–Massachusetts) sent President Nixon a letter on April 16 calling for a unilateral United States moratorium on the testing and deployment of MIRVs, a move that he argued would indicate restraint in the arms race, thereby facilitating an arms control agreement. The Senator suggested in his letter that he and other lawmakers would support Safeguard if Nixon reciprocated by endorsing Brooke’s plan to introduce a resolution in the Senate calling for a MIRV moratorium. Brooke’s letter is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 845, ABMMIRV, MIRV Test Program, Vol. I. The President delayed, sending Brooke a noncommittal reply on May 5 and refusing to discuss the matter with the Senator over the telephone. Nixon’s letter is ibid. Brooke filed his resolution in the Senate on June 17, a measure co-sponsored by 40 others, including Senators Mike Mansfield (D–Montana) and Edward M. Kennedy (D–Massachusetts).

Such Congressional pressures helped spur the administration to address the larger issue of MIRVs. Under Secretary of State Elliott L. Richardson, in a May 22 memorandum to the President, generally agreed with Brooke’s position, recommending either a stretch out of, or a moratorium on, MIRV testing. According to Richardson’s memorandum, seen by Nixon after the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry A. Kissinger forwarded it to him on May 27, the United States MIRV flight testing program had reached a “crucial stage,” approaching the point at which reliable, accurate MIRVs could be deployed in Minuteman III and Poseidon missiles. “If, by the time SALT talks begin, we already have—or the Soviets think we have—substantially completed MIRV testing, any limitation of MIRVs will be difficult to achieve,” Richardson wrote. Richardson’s memorandum is in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXII, SALT I, 1969–1972, Document 8. The Pentagon disagreed. Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard, on May 30, sent Kissinger a memorandum in which he expressed his opposition to any unilateral deceleration of MIRV testing, which he believed would erode confidence in the United States deterrent and encourage the Soviets to be dilatory in SALT negotiations. Rather, he argued, continued MIRV testing would “prove ultimately beneficial” in arms control talks by strengthening the United States negotiating position and by putting additional pressure on the Soviets to reach a deal. Packard’s memorandum is in the National Archives, [Page 166]Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 845, ABM/MIRV, MIRV Test Program, Vol. I.

In his memoirs, Kissinger recalled that he agreed with Packard. Congressional opposition to both Safeguard and MIRVs, he wrote, was occurring “while the Soviet missile arsenal was growing at the rate of two to three hundred missiles a year. If the Soviets were building while we abandoned our programs, what would be their incentive to negotiate limitations in an agreement? Our unilateral restraint would be an incentive for the Soviets not to settle but to procrastinate, to tilt the balance as much in their favor as possible while we paralyzed ourselves. To abandon ABM and MIRV together would thus not only have undercut the prospects for any SALT agreement but probably guaranteed Soviet strategic superiority for a decade.” Ultimately, Kissinger added, “Neither our ABM program nor MIRV testing created difficulties for SALT. On the contrary, they spurred it.” (Kissinger, White House Years, pages 210–212) Accordingly, he sent the President a memorandum on May 23 urging him to resist Congressional pressures for the moratorium, arguing that it was probably not in the United States’ interest to do so. Kissinger’s memorandum is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 845, ABM/MIRV, MIRV Test Program, Vol. I. Nixon followed his advice. Assistant to the President H.R. Haldeman, sent a memorandum to Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird and Secretary of State William P. Rogers on June 2 with the following instructions from Nixon: “I have decided to move ahead on MIRV testing regardless of Senatorial opposition. Inform all hands that there will be one Administration line.” Haldeman’s memorandum is ibid.

According to a June 17 memorandum to Kissinger from Alexander M. Haig, Jr., the moratorium controversy also had the effect of bringing “the technical details of the MIRV test program and the status of the Soviet MRV program” to the attention of top policymakers. To them, “it began to appear as though the Soviets might have already embarked on a program which would seriously threaten our Minuteman complexes” and that the Soviets “had already progressed considerably along the road to a MIRV or equivalent counterforce capability.” Haig’s memorandum is ibid. As a result, Kissinger formed a special panel to investigate MIRV technologies, the Soviet program, and the issues involved in including MIRVs in an arms control agreement. The MIRV Panel, sometimes called the MIRV Working Group, met on multiple occasions from June 19 through July 17. Members of the panel, chaired by Kissinger, included Frank H. Perez, representing the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Roland F. Herbst and Ben T. Plymale of the Department of Defense’s Directorate of Defense Research and Engineering, the Central Intelligence Agency’s David Brandwein, Edward Ifft of the Arms Control and Disarmament [Page 167]Agency’s Science and Technology Bureau, and Helmut Sonnenfeldt and Laurence E. Lynn of the National Security Council staff.

In addition to discussing various MIRV technologies, test ban packages, and the United States intelligence community’s ability to verify Soviet compliance, the panel addressed two points relevant to national security policy: the status of the Soviet MRV program and the impact of a potential MIRV flight ban on United States and Soviet weapons systems. According to the minutes of the July 16 meeting, the panelists, after being closely questioned by Kissinger, generally agreed that the United States test program had advanced to the point where the United States was already equipped with MIRVs reliable and accurate enough to employ in an assured destruction mode, i.e. against “soft” targets. They also agreed that, while a flight test ban would certainly hinder the United States from making the improvements in accuracy necessary for the system to have a counterforce (or hard target) capability, it would only negligibly lessen confidence in the current system. The minutes of the meeting are ibid., Vol. II.

The panel’s final report, entitled “The Technological Consequences of a MIRV Flight Ban,” was forwarded to Kissinger by Perez on July 23 and reflected this consensus. The panel, according to Perez’s covering memorandum, was “confident” that MIRV-equipped Minuteman III and Poseidon missiles “could now be deployed in an assured destruction role without further flight testing with a reliability greater than 75 percent.” However, the “confidence in achieving the design accuracy of the Poseidon and Minuteman systems would be subject to larger uncertainties if MIRV flight testing were suspended. Therefore, we would be less confident of our ability to employ them in a counterforce role against hard targets without additional full systems flight tests.” The panel’s report and Perez’s covering memorandum are ibid., MIRV Panel Meeting, 2:30 p.m., Jul 16, Situation Room.

The following excerpt from the minutes of the July 16 panel meeting indicate how elusive agreement on Soviet capabilities proved to be:

HAK: DOD believes that the Soviets could deploy without further testing with capability to destroy more than one target (i.e., 2 out of 3). If you don’t believe that the Soviet system is a MIRV, what is it targeted against?

Herbst: It could aim one RV at MM.

Brandwein: It makes no sense to aim at other than one target, that is, to target one RV against the MM and have the other two go off into cornfields.

HAK: If it is not really a MIRV then the question of operational deployment is academic. How long would it take to turn it into a MIRV, if not already done?

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Brandwein: About twenty tests would do it; they have already had seven, so about fifteen more, which would mean more than a few months; the key word is ‘reliable’ for deployment.

Plymale: If there is a MIRV ban, then there is no reason not to deploy the MRV.

HAK: Is the DOD position that the Soviets might have a deployable MIRV now?

Herbst: Yes, the key word is might, or could.

HAK: Summarizing the discussion, then, if the Soviet system is not a MIRV it is aimed at a soft target and could be deployed; similarly, our system could be deployed with confidence against soft targets; the remaining issue is confidence of deployment against hard targets. Is this agreed?”

After the panelists indicated their general agreement, the discussion turned toward the Soviets’ ability to evade a flight ban and to conduct tests clandestinely.

The MIRV Panel’s final report reflected these divisions as well. According to Perez’s July 23 covering memorandum, the representatives of the Department of State, ACDA, CIA, and the Department of Defense’s Office of Systems Analysis believed that the “Soviets have not yet progressed far enough in their testing, even assuming that the current SS–9 MRV test program is directed at MIRV development, to operationally deploy a reliable MIRV system.” [3 lines not declassified] On the other hand, the representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense’s Directorate of Defense Research and Engineering believed “that the Soviets could deploy a MIRV system without further flight testing, that full-system flight tests would not be required, and that the Soviets could design and carry out a MIRV test program which could circumvent United States intelligence capabilities.”