In March 1976, the Soviet Union began deploying a new missile, the SS-20, that upset the balance of power in Europe. It was one of the pivotal events of the Cold War, igniting a confrontation between NATO and the USSR over medium-range “Euromissiles.”
The multiple-warhead SS-20 differed significantly from its outmoded predecessors, the SS-4 and SS-5. It had a range of 5,000 kilometers—just short of the 5,500 that would have made it subject to SALT treaty arms control—and could hit any point in Western Europe from launch sites in the Soviet Union. It was more accurate than the older missiles. It was also mobile and easily concealed.
NATO had nothing comparable. Its forward-deployed nuclear forces in Europe were relatively short range, intended for operations along or just behind a European battlefield. They could not easily reach targets in the Soviet Union.
For strategic deterrence—holding the Soviet homeland at risk—NATO relied on the promise of extended protection by US intercontinental weapons, but the Europeans were not certain the US would use them in response to a limited attack.
“Every Soviet leader since Khrushchev saw the lesson that Khrushchev had been deposed in 1964 because he had lost the Cuban Missile Crisis against Kennedy in October 1962.”NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges Jamie Shea
The Soviets hoped that even without an actual military conflict, the SS-20s would intimidate the Europeans, erode NATO cohesion, and perhaps lead to “decoupling” Europe from the US deterrent.
The Europeans were alarmed, especially the West Germans, who wanted the United States to take action to restore NATO’s “flexible response” strategy in which weapons based on European soil were supposed to be a credible deterrent against a limited attack.
The United States was initially reluctant to make any big changes, but to reassure the Europeans and head off Soviet intentions, agreed to support the “Dual Track” policy that NATO adopted in 1979.
One track sought to resolve the issue through negotiation. The second track was to deploy US intermediate- range weapons—ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles—if arms control failed.
The Soviets would not give up the SS-20s, so NATO began deployment of the US missiles in 1983. There was great furor on the European left, accusing the United States of fomenting an arms race. The US, which had acted in response to European concerns, had gained ownership of the problem. As a consequence of the NATO deployments, the Soviets walked out of the arms talks.
Negotiations did not resume until 1985. Finally in 1988, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated all ground-launched missiles on both sides with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The INF Treaty endured for 30 years before it was undercut by blatant violations by the Russians. The United States pulled out of the treaty in 2019, and shortly thereafter, so did Russia.
Stirring the Balance
There was no compelling reason for the Soviets to introduce the SS-20. It was a provocative step when things were already going their way. Soviet missile forces, once clearly inferior to those of the West, had moved to a position of equality.
In the mid 1960s, the United States abandoned the goal of strategic superiority, canceled weapon systems, imposed a ceiling on missile and bomber forces, and sought parity with the Soviet Union. In 1969, the objective of détente—the relaxation of tension—was adopted, with the planning principle of “strategic sufficiency.”
By 1974, the Soviets were substantially ahead of the United States in ICBM launchers and reentry vehicles. The US and NATO were outnumbered in conventional forces as well.
The decision to deploy the SS-20 was made by Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev on the advice of Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, a future chief of the general staff, counseled against it.
In the opinion of Brezhnev’s eventual successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, the deployment was “an unforgivable adventure” that “reflected the style of the Soviet leadership at the time” and “decision-making fraught with grave consequences for the country.”
There was some belief that the SS-20 was simply modernization of the aging Soviet medium-range force, but that does not seem to have been the primary reason.
“Every Soviet leader since Khrushchev saw the lesson that Khrushchev had been deposed in 1964 because he had lost the Cuban Missile Crisis against Kennedy in October 1962,” said NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges Jamie Shea. “Everybody feared failure above everything else.”
Brezhnev had been part of the coalition that ousted Khrushchev. Looking back, Brezhnev made two big miscalculations. He underestimated the NATO reaction to the SS-20, and he did not believe the Alliance would deploy its own missiles to counter it.
The SS-20 was brought to public notice by West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt in a speech in October 1977. His references were general and indirect—he cited “disparities between East and West in nuclear tactical and conventional weapons”—but the US State Department and informed observers took notice and got the message.
The Europeans looked to the United States to take a central role. One choice was to deploy new missiles to counter the SS-20. President Jimmy E. Carter hoped to avoid that, having come to office earlier that year with nuclear arms reduction as one of his principal themes.
The Soviets were unrelenting, however, and two possibilities were advanced. The US Army’s Pershing missile could be upgraded to Pershing II status with better range and accuracy, and the Air Force could adapt the Navy’s sea-launched Tomahawk as a mobile ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with even longer reach.
The perception of the Carter White House was that “the Soviets would not risk launching SS-20s against Western Europe, but they would play upon European fears of vulnerability in order to obtain valuable political concessions from the West Europeans,” said William Leonard in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Carter went ahead with Pershing II and GLCM to reassure the Europeans of the US commitment, to restore the credibility of NATO’s flexible response, and as bargaining leverage as arms control efforts continued.
Brezhnev reacted with threats and bluster. He offered to freeze SS-20 deployments at a total of 120 but only if NATO turned down the US missiles.
Despite hesitation by several member nations, notably the Netherlands and Belgium, the NATO ministers unanimously approved the Dual Track strategy Dec. 12, 1979. The Soviet Union was put on four-year notice. Unless the Soviets agreed to a negotiated solution, NATO would begin the deployment in December 1983 of 108 Pershing II launchers and 464 GLCMs. To preclude an escalation in numbers, the US would more than compensate by a reduction of 1,000 in tactical nuclear warheads already in place.
The missile known to NATO as the SS-20 Saber was officially called the RSD-10 Pioneer by the Soviet rocket forces. It was a big improvement on the SS-4 and SS-5, which were described by The New York Times as “decrepit.”
The older missiles were not very accurate, liquid fueled, and slow to launch. The solid fuel SS-20 was highly accurate. Its range was 5,000 kilometers, a substantial gain on 2,000 for the SS-4 and 4,000 for the SS-5. It was shuttled around on a multi-wheeled transport vehicle and accompanied by extra missiles so it could be reloaded.
Most of the SS-20s were based in the Western Soviet Union opposite NATO. From sites in the Urals, they could reach London with range to spare.
As decision time on the Dual Track policy approached in 1983, the Soviets were deploying SS-20s at the rate of one a week. More than 300 of them had been fielded, with 900 warheads.
The SS-4 and SS-5—like Pershing II and GLCM—had one warhead each. The SS-20 carried three independently targeted warheads.
The US Pershing II was a ballistic missile with fast launch and good accuracy. It could strike points in the Soviet Union in six to eight minutes. Its operational range was 1,770 kilometers, not enough to hit the USSR from England or Italy, so it had to be forward-based in Germany.
The Air Force’s BGM-109G GLCM flew a course like that of an airplane. With an operational range of 2,500 kilometers, it could reach the Soviet Union from bases in Britain.
GLCM was transported by a huge tractor-trailer. It was blasted out of the launch tube by a rocket booster. Seconds later, the stubby wings and control fins snapped into place and a turbofan engine took over to fly the GLCM on a planned path to its target. Sensors in the guidance system constantly matched the contour of the ground below with a digital map in the missile’s computer. It entered hostile territory at an altitude of about 50 feet. The GLCM’s capability to fly under the radar was a problem for the Soviets.
The Soviets refused for almost two years to engage in INF arms discussions unless NATO revoked its deployment decision, but then relented. Between 1981 and 1983, US and Soviet negotiators met repeatedly without any results.
In November 1981, President Ronald W. Reagan proposed the “Zero Option”: The United States would eliminate all of its Pershing IIs and GLCMs if the Soviet Union would dismantle all of its SS-20s, SS-4s, and SS-5s. The Soviets declined.
Brezhnev’s idea of a deal, which he put forth in 1982, would have included the British and French weapons—mostly submarine-based missiles not under NATO control—in the count. The Soviets would keep the 300 SS-20s already deployed, but none of the US missiles would be permitted.
Another Soviet offer would have included removing from Europe US tactical aircraft that could carry nuclear weapons. The Soviets wanted to count several hundred F-4, A-6, and A-7 American fighter-bombers, but not 2,700 of their own Su-17s, Su-24s, and MiG-27s.
Brezhnev died in November 1983 and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov. If anything, the Soviet position became more belligerent. Seeking to frighten the Europeans, the Soviets threatened to shift to a hair-trigger, launch-on-warning strategy if NATO deployed the Pershing II and GLCM.
Soviet threats had some effect in Europe, leading to large protests and demonstrations. “The leaders of the peace movement tend to ignore the fact that by deploying these new missiles, the West is responding to an existing Soviet challenge,” said Bernard Kalb of NBC TV. Critics in the West predicted that the Soviets would never agree to zero-zero and urged NATO to take the best deal it could get.
Helmut Schmidt was isolated within his own Social Democratic Party and swept from office. However, Helmut Kohl and the Christian Democrats, solidly aligned with the US deployment, won the 1982 German elections. In Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, also a strong supporter, led the Tories to a decisive victory in 1983.
In March 1983, NATO defense ministers endorsed Reagan’s Zero Option as the primary objective in arms talks, and in June, NATO foreign ministers gave formal approval to deploy US missiles. Only the Socialist government of Greece refused to agree.
In November, with the first Pershing IIs and GLCMs arriving in Europe, the Soviets walked out of the negotiations.
The Missiles Arrive
The British anti-nuclear protesters got to the first GLCM base, RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire, before the missiles did. A clutter of tents, house trailers, and rough facilities known as the “Women’s Peace Camp” had been set up outside the main gate since 1981.
The first GLCMs arrived Nov. 14, 1983, aboard an Air Force C-141. The first Pershing IIs were delivered by truck to the Army base at Mutlangen, West Germany, on Nov. 26. Protesters did not manage to interfere with either deployment.
NATO decided to withdraw another 1,400 nuclear warheads. This was in addition to the 1,000 removals that had been part of the original Dual Track package, a net reduction of 2,400 warheads since 1979. This would bring NATO’s nuclear stockpile to the lowest level in many years.
All of the Pershing IIs went to West Germany, but the GLCM was based in Italy, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands in addition to two locations in Britain. Deployments of both the US missiles and the SS-20s continued, as did anti-nuclear activity.
The women at Greenham Common came from all over the world. At one point, their numbers were sufficient to completely surround the base. In another instance, thousands of protesters formed a human chain that stretched 14 miles across the English countryside between Greenham Common and a nuclear weapons factory at Burghfield.
The demonstrators were often disruptive, but they did not have a serious effect on operations or readiness of Pershing II or GLCM.
In February 1984, the Oxford Union staged a debate spun off the Euromissile issue. The proposition, as stated, was that “there is no moral difference between the US and USSR.” A noted Marxist argued for the resolution but to the surprise of the leftists, the debate was won—by a 271-232 vote of those attending—by US Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who spoke against it.
The INF Treaty
The INF talks, suspended with the Soviet walkout in 1983, were resumed in 1985, concurrent with sweeping changes in the leadership of the Soviet Union. The new general secretary was reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, following the brief regimes of Andropov (1982-1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985).
Success of the negotiations was not immediate. The Soviets tried their old line one more time, proposing that the number of SS-20 warheads allowed be equal to that of the GLCM and the British and French forces combined. NATO did not agree.
In December 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty and it went into effect in June 1988. It provided for all US and Soviet ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers to be eliminated.
In effect, it was Reagan’s Zero Option. A total of 2,692 US and Soviet missiles were taken out: Pershing I, Pershing II, and the GLCM for the United States, and for the USSR, the SS-20, SS-4, SS-5, SS-12, and SS-23.
The last of the cruise missiles left Greenham Common in 1991, but the Women’s Peace Camp was not disbanded. It was maintained as a general protest against nuclear weapons until 2000, when it became a commemorative and historic site.
The INF Treaty had a long run but it did not last. The Russians, again dissatisfied with the balance of power, began covert development in 2008 of a short-range cruise missile, the 9M729. Road mobile and ground launched, it was tested in 2014 and entered service in 2017.
The new missile, called the SSC-8 in the West, was a violation of the INF Treaty. The Obama administration in the United States protested repeatedly to Russia but was not willing to take the major step of withdrawing from an arms control treaty.
The Russians claimed the 9M729 had a range of only 490 kilometers—conveniently short of INF constraint by the whisker margin of 10 kilometers—but US intelligence reported flights longer than that from the Russian base at Kasputin Yar.
In October 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration announced that the United States would leave the treaty and formally suspended compliance Feb. 2, 2019. US withdrawal would follow in six months unless Russia returned to compliance by eliminating the 9M729. The next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin also declared suspension.
On Aug. 2, 2019, the State Department said Russia was still in “material breach” of the treaty and announced that the United States had formally withdrawn. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that “the US has embarked on destroying all international agreements that do not suit them.”
There was considerable speculation that the end of the INF Treaty would bring on a new arms race. If so, the Russians began early. They already have four battalions of 9M729s, nuclear-capable but probably conventionally armed so far.
Concerned about the Russian INF violations, the US Congress in 2017 and since has given approval and funding for development of conventional ballistic and cruise missiles to counter the 9M729. The ground-launched cruise missile, a modified Tomahawk, was test fired in August 2019 and again in December 2019.
Even so, the Russian missile is not equal to the SS-20 by a long shot, and both sides have substantial numbers of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles operating at intermediate ranges. The immediate threat of destabilization is not nearly as great as it was during the Euromissile crisis in the 1970s and 1980s.
A key question is whether withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a preview of things to come. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty—New START—expires in February 2021 unless the US and Russia agree to extend it.
New START limits the numbers of long-range missiles and bombers and the warheads they carry, but the demise of the INF Treaty has done major damage to the spirit of arms control.
“Without New START, there would be no legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972,” the Arms Control Association said in a recent issue brief.
John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is a frequent contributor. His most recent article, “The Ups and Downs of Close Air Support,” appeared in the December issue.