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Context of 'January 25, 1995: Suspected US Missile Strike Alarms Russians'

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The US and the Soviet Union sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM) Treaty. It will be ratified by the US Senate in August 1972, and will go into force in October 1972. Originally, the treaty agrees that each nation can have only two ABM deployment areas, located so that those areas cannot provide a nationwide ABM defense or become the basis for developing one. In essence, the ABM Treaty prevents either nation from developing a missile defense system (see March 23, 1983), and allows each country the likelihood of destroying the other with an all-out nuclear barrage. The treaty puts in place the doctrine of MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction, which states that because both nations can obliterate the other in a nuclear exchange, neither one will trigger such a strike. In 1976, an addendum to the treaty further limits the number of ABM deployment areas from two to one; the Soviets will deploy a rudimentary ABM system around Moscow, but the US never does, and even deactivates its single ABM site near Grand Forks, North Dakota. In 2001, US President George W. Bush will unilaterally withdraw from the treaty (see December 13, 2001 and June 14, 2002). (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

Strategic Defense Initiative logo.Strategic Defense Initiative logo. [Source: United States Missile Defense Agency]President Reagan announces his proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, later nicknamed “Star Wars”), originally conceived two years earlier (see 1981). SDI is envisioned as a wide-ranging missile defense system that, if it works, will protect the United States from nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union or other countries with ballistic missiles, essentially rendering nuclear weapons, in Reagan’s words, “impotent and obsolete.” Reagan says, “I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s response is unprececented in its anger (see March 27, 1983); Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinyn says SDI will “open a new phase in the arms race.” (PBS 2000; Scoblic 2008, pp. 129)
US Hardliners 'Ecstatic' - Hardliners in and out of the Reagan administration are, in author J. Peter Scoblic’s characterization, “ecstatic, seeing SDI as the ultimate refutation of [the principle of] mutual assured destruction and therefore of the status quo, which left [the US] unable to seek victory over the Soviet Union.” The day after the speech, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) sends Reagan a one-sentence letter: “That was the best statement I have heard from any president.”
'Less Suicidal' Adjunct to First Strike - Scoblic will write that if SDI is implemented as envisioned, “[a]lthough the Soviets would still be able to inflict enough damage that a first strike by the United States would be suicidal, it would be ‘less suicidal’ to the extent that such a concept made sense, which some Reagan officials believed it did. In short, SDI was a better adjunct to a first strike than it was a standalone defense. That made it critically destabilizing, which is why missile defense had been outlawed by [earlier treaties] in the first place.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 129-130)

National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, speaking for the Reagan administration, proposes a new, “broad” interpretation of the US-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (see May 26, 1972) on national television. McFarlane proposes that space-based and mobile systems and components based on “other physical principles,” i.e. lasers, particle beams, etc., should be developed and tested, but not deployed. (The traditional, “narrow” interpretation of the treaty is more restrictive.) Days later, President Reagan announces that while he and his administration support this “broad” interpretation, as a matter of national policy, the US’s Strategic Defense Initiative (see March 23, 1983) will continue to observe the more traditional interpretation. (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

An ‘exo-atmospheric kill vehicle,’ or EKV, part of the ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ space-based missile defense system.An ‘exo-atmospheric kill vehicle,’ or EKV, part of the ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ space-based missile defense system. [Source: Claremont Institute]In his State of the Union address, President Bush announces a drastic revision of the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) missile defense system (see March 23, 1983). The system, still in its research and development stages, will no longer attempt to protect the majority of the US population from nuclear assault. Now, Bush says, SDI will be retooled to “provid[e] protection against limited ballistic missile strikes—whatever their source.” The system, called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), will include some 1,000 space-based “Brilliant Pebbles” interceptors, 750 to 1,000 long-range ground-based interceptors at six sites, space-based and mobile sensors, and transportable ballistic missile defenses. (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008) The concept is based on an earlier proposal by nuclear weapons experts Edward Teller, Lowell Wood, and Gregory Canavan of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who came up with the idea of a “Smart Rocks” defense system based on thousands of small rocket-propelled canisters in Earth orbit, each capable of ramming an incoming ballistic missile and exploding it outside the lower atmosphere. The “Smart Rocks” concept was one component of the original SDI concept, but was retooled, upgraded, and renamed “Brilliant Pebbles” to be the main component of the program. It will never be deployed, and will be defunded entirely during the first year of the Clinton administration. (Claremont Institute 12/24/2007)

President-elect Bill Clinton announces that his administration rejects the idea of a US-only space-based defense system (see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991) and would instead support the development of what he calls “a limited missile defense system within the strict framework” of the ABM Treaty (see May 26, 1972). He announces that his administration also supports the development and deployment of theater missile defense (TMD) systems “to protect our troops from short- and medium-range missiles.” (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

The Clinton administration rejects the Reagan/Bush “broad interpretation” of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (see May 26, 1972 and October 6-11, 1985) in favor of the narrow, “traditional” interpretation. A senior government official informs Congress that “it is the position of the Clinton administration that the ‘narrow,’ or ‘traditional,’ interpretation of the ABM Treaty is the correct interpretation and, therefore, that the ABM Treaty prohibits the development, testing, and deployment of sea-based, air-based, space-based, and mobile land-based ABM systems and components without regard to technology utilized.” (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

A total of 350 Republican candidates for Congress announce their support for the so-called “Contract with America,” a broad platform of hardline conservative positions which includes a call for the US deployment of both an anti-ballistic missile defense system (SDI or “Star Wars”—see March 23, 1983 and January 29, 1991) and more limited theater missile defense systems (TMD—see November 3, 1992). (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

Yeltsin and Clinton share a laugh.Yeltsin and Clinton share a laugh. [Source: Associated Press / BBC]US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin issue a joint statement that they have “agreed on the fundamental importance of preserving the viability and integrity of the ABM Treaty” (see May 26, 1972). In the statement, Clinton and Yeltsin state: “Both sides have an interest in developing and fielding effective theater missile defense systems on a cooperative basis. The presidents agree that the two sides will conduct a joint exercise of theater missile defenses and early warning. This exercise would contribute to providing a basis for US and Russian forces to operate together, for example, in peacekeeping operations.” (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)

The new peace accords and arms reductions negotiations between the US and Russia (see November 3, 1992, July 13, 1993, and September 28, 1994) are severely tested when the Russian military informs President Boris Yeltsin that it has detected a missile launch bound for Russian territory—possibly a nuclear missile from a US submarine launched to destroy the Russian government in Moscow. With the missile in flight, Yeltsin convenes an emergency teleconference of his senior defense officials and discusses launching a nuclear counterstrike against the US. Two minutes before the missile is to detonate on Russian soil—and the Russians are to launch the counterstrike—the Russians realize the “missile” is actually a Norwegian scientific rocket that poses no threat to their nation. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 175)

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