Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

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The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty or ABMT) was a treaty between the United States of America and the Soviet Union on the limitation of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems used in defending areas against missile-delivered nuclear weapons.

Signed in 1972, it was in force for the next thirty years until the US unilaterally withdrew from it in June 2002.



Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the United States had been developing a series of missile systems with the ability to shoot down incoming ICBM warheads. During this period the US maintained a lead in the number and sophistication of their delivery systems, and considered the defense of the US as a part of reducing the overall damage inflicted in a full nuclear exchange. As part of this defense, Canada and the US established the North American Air Defense Command (now called North American Aerospace Defense Command NORAD).

By the early 1960s, US research on the Nike Zeus missile system (see Project Nike) had developed to the point where small improvements would allow it to be used as the basis of a "real" ABM system. Work started on a short-range, high-speed counterpart known as the Sprint to provide defense for the ABM sites themselves. By the mid-1960s, both systems showed enough promise to start development of base selection for a limited ABM system dubbed Sentinel. However, due to political debate, Sentinel never expanded beyond defense of missile-bases.

An intense debate broke out in public over the merits of such a system. A number of serious concerns about the technical abilities of the system came to light, many of which reached popular magazines such as Scientific American. This was based on lack of intelligence information and reflected the American nuclear warfare theory and military doctrines. The Soviet doctrine called for development of their own ABM system and return to strategic parity with the US. This was achieved with the operational deployment of the A-35 ABM system and its successors, which remain the only operational ABM systems.

As this debate continued, a new development in ICBM technology essentially rendered the points moot. This was the deployment of the Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) system, allowing a single ICBM missile to deliver several warheads at a time. With this system the USSR could simply overwhelm the ABM defense system with numbers, as the same number of missiles could carry ten times more warheads. Upgrading it to counter the additional warheads would cost more than the handful of missiles needed to overwhelm the new system, as the defenders required one rocket per warhead, whereas the attackers could place 10 warheads on a missile with more affordable cost than development of ABM. To further protect against ABM systems, the Soviet MIRV missiles were equipped with electronic countermeasures and heavy decoys, with heavy missiles like R-36 carrying as many as 40 of them.[1] These decoys would appear as warheads to ABM, effectively requiring engagement of 50 times more targets than before and rendering defense ineffective.

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