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Time to implode myths about an arms race

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With a stridency reminiscent of the Cold War, outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin charged last month that with U.S. plans for a limited defense against ballistic missiles, "a new arms race has been unleashed in the world." He vowed to field new weapons, which have been under development for years, "in response."

The same day, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he anticipated "hundreds of thousands of missile interceptors all over the world ... in the foreseeable future."

Both claims are wrong. Despite a near universal belief to the contrary, the "action-reaction-upward-spiraling strategic weapons race" of the Cold War never really happened. And Lavrov's hundreds of thousands of missile interceptors won't happen either.

The idea that the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an arms race that led to reciprocal increases in nuclear weapons, steadily rising strategic budgets and an escalating danger of nuclear war was widely accepted during the Cold War. Its most vivid metaphor was spun by Paul Warnke, Jimmy Carter's director of arms control, who portrayed the United States and the Soviet Union as "apes on a treadmill," mindlessly piling weapon upon weapon. Warnke and others called for arms control treaties to control the "mad momentum" of the race.

But as is often the case with conventional wisdom, little serious research was done to establish whether it was true. The most important exception was the work of the late Albert Wohlstetter, America's pre-eminent strategic thinker, who approached the subject with his customary rigor.

In a 1976 article — "Racing Forward? Or Ambling Back?" — Wohlstetter demonstrated that U.S. and Soviet strategic weapons programs were largely independent of each other and that the number, explosive power and cost of American nuclear weapons had peaked 15 years earlier (under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara) and had been declining ever since, even as Soviet programs had expanded significantly.

Using the same data that had been available to the many academics and politicians who unquestioningly accepted the existence of a deadly arms race, Wohlstetter argued that it would be foolish in principle for us to respond in kind to every Soviet development — and that in practice we had not done so.

He argued for building only the strategic forces we needed, reducing their number and explosive power, and making them as precise as possible. He believed that nuclear weapons had only a limited, defensive role to play in a carefully designed strategic posture and that a policy of seeking safety in threats to destroy whole countries in retaliation was neither credible nor moral.

With his rhetoric, Putin hopes to excite the opponents of a limited U.S. missile-defense system and those politicians here and abroad who will be unnerved by Russian threats of a new "arms race."

They — and he — should relax. For one thing, the greatly diminished American nuclear force still has many more weapons than it needs. Far from responding in a way that lends credence to Putin's false claim, we should be looking for ways to reduce our nuclear forces still further. We should greet Russian threats to race with amusement and a big yawn: They would be competing against themselves.

If Putin wishes to pour petro-rubles into building more missiles, our response should be limited to sympathy for the ordinary Russians whose taxes will be squandered, much as they were with catastrophic consequences during the Cold War.

As for Lavrov's "hundreds of thousands" of missile interceptors, dividing by a thousand would be a reassuring start. U.S. plans call for a modest number of interceptors, dozens at first, a hundred or so later, maybe 200 or 300 after that. The program is limited because the threat is measured in tens of missiles, not hundreds and certainly not thousands. With North Korea and Iran building ballistic missiles with significant and increasing range, a modest defense is a prudent first step toward countering a known threat.

Without any missile defense — our current situation — we are vulnerable to any country or movement that manages to obtain even a single missile capable of reaching the United States. Our allies and troops abroad are in greater jeopardy because shorter-range missiles, which are already available, can reach them.

In a future that may well include several new nuclear-armed states or perilous changes to existing ones (can we be certain that Pakistan's missiles will not wind up in extremist hands?), containing the spread of nuclear weapons will be as difficult as it is urgent. Possession of even a limited defense should be a powerful discouragement to would-be proliferators — and if they persist, well, I'd rather see a missile shot down than feel it land.

Richard N. Perle is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Perle had responsibility for the Strategic Defense Initiative as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.