Current as of: May 20, 1996
Created May 25, 1994


The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is a fundamental element of U.S. arms control policy. This fact sheet reviews the basic purposes of the ABM Treaty, describes recent ABM Treaty developments, and lists the central elements of the Clinton Administration's approach to the ABM Treaty.

President Clinton is strongly committed to the viability of the ABM Treaty. Efforts on the part of this Administration to reaffirm the significance of the Treaty are described below. First, however, it is important to recall the basic framework of the Treaty

Basic Framework of the ABM Treaty

The ABM Treaty, which was signed in 1972 by the United States and the Soviet Union, prohibits deployment of a nationwide defense against strategic ballistic missile attack. In the Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed that each may have two precisely limited ABM deployment areas (later limited by mutual agreement to one): to protect its capital or to protect an ICBM launch area.

To promote the objectives and implementation of the Treaty, the Parties established the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC), which meets at least twice a year. Also the terms of the Treaty specify that a review of the Treaty shall be conducted every five years.

In 1974, the Parties to the Treaty agreed by means of a Protocol to reduce the number of permitted ABM deployment areas to one for each side. The Soviet Union chose to maintain (and Russia continues to maintain) an ABM defense of its national capital, Moscow. The United States chose-Lose to complete its Safeguard ABM system designed to defend its ICBM silo launcher area near Grand Forks, North Dakota; however, this system was operational for a very short time and has been inactive since 1976.

Recent ABM Treaty Developments

In 1993, the Clinton Administration conducted a review of U.S. policy towards Ballistic Missile Defense and the Future of the ABM Treaty The Administration made a determination that the "traditional" or "narrow" interpretation of the Treaty is the correct one. The Administration therefore reaffirmed 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 the technology utilized.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the question of treaty succession arose. The United States has made clear its position that it is willing to accept as Treaty Parties any of the New Independent States (NIS) that want to be Party to the Treaty.

At the same time, the growing threat posed by theater ballistic missiles, and the need to combine effective protection against such threats while avoiding development of an ABM capability, has prompted the U.S. to propose that the demarcation between ABM and non-ABM defenses be clarified. The ABM Treaty itself does not provide clear guidance on this question. This clarification is being negotiated in the Treaty's implementing forum, the Standing Consultative Commission.

The Fourth Review of the ABM Treaty

During the regular five-year ABM Treaty Review that took place from September 27 October 1, 1993, in Geneva, the United States explored the issues of ABM/non-ABM demarcation and succession with Russia and the other participating states, Ukraine and Belarus. The United States was reassured during this review that other states shared the view of the Treaty's principal obligations and of the need to strengthen the Treaty. In the Joint Communique that was adopted at the Treaty Review, the participating states concluded that:

The Standing Consultative Commission (SCC)

In the past, many issues related to theater and strategic defenses have been vigorously debated within a number of different fora, including the Standing Consultative Commission. The Standing Consultative Commission, established by the ABM Treaty, remains the forum for negotiation of and agreement on ABM Treaty issues. The United States and Russia, along with other potential successor states, are working together to develop an effective ABM Treaty regime that will provide for multilateral succession to the ABM Treaty, as well as clarify the dividing line between ABM and non-ABM defenses.

At recent sessions of the SCC, which were held in Geneva from November 29 - December 17, 1993, January 24 - February 4, 1994, and March 21 - April 21, 1994, the United States presented proposals designed to preserve the viability of the Treaty in light of the political and technological circumstances of the present day The other participating delegations have also introduced their own positions and ideas.

Despite some differences of view, the negotiations have demonstrated that there exists a significant degree of commonality in the approach to theater missile defense among SCC participants. There is general agreement (1) that the threat of ballistic missile proliferation is real; (2) that there is a shared interest in being able to defend against this threat; and (3) that the ABM Treaty must be clarified to allow for the fielding of adequate theater missile defenses.

The Clinton Administration's ABM Policy

The central points of the Administration's ABM policy are as follows:

President Clinton has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the ABM Treaty. The Administration considers it indispensable to stability, to the START I and START II reductions, and to longer-term reductions in strategic offensive arms.

The Clinton Administration has reaffirmed the "narrow" or "traditional" interpretation of the ABM Treaty as the correct interpretation, i.e., the ABM Treaty prohibits the development, testing, and deployment of sea-based, airbased, space-based, and mobile land-based ABM systems and components without regard to the technology utilized.

The Administration has withdrawn the broad revisions to the Treaty previously proposed in the SCC which were intended to permit expanded deployment of strategic ABM defenses.

The Administration has recognized the need to specify a dividing line between ABM systems limited by the Treaty and non-ABM systems. When the Treaty was negotiated, both parties understood that this demarcation was left undefined. The time has come to define it. This will be accomplished by agreement in the SCC, not unilaterally. How the final agreement is formalized, as a legal matter, must properly await the outcome of the negotiations. Finally, the President has directed the Administration to consult closely with Congress on these issues.


July 13, 1993: Narrow Interpretation of the ABM Treaty Endorsed by the Clinton Administration

September/October 1993: Fourth Review of the ABM Treaty

December 1993: U.S. Decision on ABM Treaty Succession

December 1993: U.S. Position on Theater Missile Defense

November 29 - December 17,1993; January 24 - February 4, 1994; and March 21 April 21, 1994: