National Security & Defense

New Directions in Arms Control

Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile systems at the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
Any future treaty must limit all Russian and Chinese nuclear forces.

With the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty rapidly approaching, public discussion is shifting to the question of whether to extend New START, the 2010 treaty that will soon be the only remaining agreement limiting the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. Under its terms, New START will expire in February 2021 unless both parties agree to an extension of up to five years. Advocates — in the arms-control community, in Congress, and reportedly some in the administration — argue that there is an urgent need to endorse extension now. Their principal argument is that if New START expires, the entire fabric of the Cold War arms-control structure crafted with the Soviet Union will unravel and ignite a nuclear-arms race. The question of extending New START, however, is far more complex and must be assessed in light of fundamental changes in the geostrategic environment since the treaty was negotiated a decade ago.

A good beginning is to acknowledge the logic of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Here the facts are clear. Russian violations of the treaty — followed by years of failed diplomatic efforts by both the Obama and the Trump administrations to bring Russia back into compliance — left withdrawal as the only viable option. It makes no sense to maintain an agreement that bans two countries from a particular military capability if only one is abiding by the terms and the other is cheating, all while China, North Korea, and Iran are developing their own formidable arsenals of intermediate-range missiles. Failure to impose costs on Russia for its ongoing violations would undercut prospects for future, meaningful arms control by establishing that there are no consequences for breaching the central provisions of agreements.

Moreover, the security situation in Europe and Asia has changed considerably with Russian deployments of modern INF capabilities and China’s large-scale buildup of dual-capable mobile missiles (i.e., those that can carry either a nuclear or a conventional payload). As the National Defense Strategy suggests, the U.S. deterrent in both regions has deteriorated significantly over the past decade. In the absence of countervailing U.S. military capabilities, the prospects for deterrence failure and the likelihood that our adversaries will test U.S. resolve by using their capabilities to intimidate and coerce U.S. allies increase dramatically. While most, if not all, of the needed capabilities are likely to be conventional rather than nuclear, these deployments would have been precluded by remaining in the treaty.

It is also important to revisit the fundamental flaws of New START. In 2010, both of us testified against ratification, highlighting the treaty’s shortcomings and providing our prediction, now proven accurate, that U.S. forces would go down and Russia would build up under the agreement. This was consistent with longstanding Soviet tactics that consistently used arms control to limit U.S. nuclear forces in a manner intended to gain unilateral advantages. We also emphasized the failure to limit theater nuclear forces, based on the fiction that nuclear attacks employing weapons with ranges less than 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) would not be strategic. For those who cared about whether agreements actually reduced the number of nuclear weapons on each side, we pointed out that the new bomber-counting rule contained in the fine print of New START allowed the deployment of more strategic warheads than the nominal 1,550 treaty limit, since it counted each bomber as one without regard to the actual weapons load. And we noted that Russia would likely deploy offensive strategic forces that were not explicitly restricted by the agreement, which it has now done. Finally, we warned that the treaty, in principle and practice, seemed to accept at least some limits on missile defenses and conventional, prompt global-strike capabilities.

While these flaws were likely fully understood by the U.S. negotiators, the view of the Obama administration, reflected in its 2010 nuclear posture review, was that preventing nuclear proliferation was the overriding priority, which, the administration asserted, would be advanced by leading through example, taking steps toward a nuclear-free world, including measures that amounted to unilateral disarmament despite the fact that there has never been any empirical evidence to support this proposition, as a recent study by Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig has persuasively demonstrated. And the administration’s view of Russia was that, while it could be difficult to deal with, it was more of a partner than a threat that needed to be deterred. This benign view of Russia would change only with Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, followed by Putin’s support for Assad in Syria and his determination to challenge the U.S. at every opportunity.

Looking forward, any new negotiations with Russia must consider the realities of today’s security setting. These include the facts that:

1) With our loss of technical, policy, and operational competence in nuclear weapons, which is only now beginning to be recovered, Russia has likely succeeded in its determined drive to achieve superiority in nuclear forces at both the theater and the strategic level. Moscow has for years invested heavily in its nuclear-modernization program, developing and now deploying new mobile and heavy ICBMs, new submarine platforms and ballistic missiles, and an array of novel weapons, from longer-range underwater drones with megaton yields to air- and ground-launched cruise missiles based on new technologies to a family of hypersonic weapons. Russia’s position is that many of these weapons are not covered under New START, which demonstrates either another fundamental flaw of the treaty or the intention of Moscow to cheat on yet another arms-control agreement — or both.

2) Russia has moved to a doctrine that emphasizes the centrality of nuclear weapons at all levels of conflict, including nuclear threats in peacetime to deter the U.S. and coerce our allies and the use of theater nuclear weapons to prevail in conventional conflicts; and

3) While Russia today has active production lines for a wide range of platforms and new warheads, the U.S. is only slowly moving forward to modernize its nuclear triad with uncertain funding and political impediments. Those who fear an arms race without New START ignore the race that started more than a decade ago, when Russia began aggressively enlarging and modernizing its nuclear forces, even with New START in place, while the U.S. largely stood still.

Given that Russia today is a clear threat to the U.S. and our allies, and given the detrimental changes in the nuclear balance, any future arms-control negotiations clearly must include all nuclear-weapons types. The Senate’s 2010 ratification of New START made clear that any future agreement with Russia must take into account the huge disparity in theater capabilities. As Russia has expanded its nuclear forces at all ranges and in all theaters, making the distinction between strategic and non-strategic increasingly meaningless, this Senate-imposed condition has become even more important. This is especially the case for assuring U.S. allies and deterring Russia in Europe, where Russia reportedly holds a ten-to-one advantage in theater systems.

China’s nuclear forces must also be included in any future negotiations. Like Russia, with which it has greatly expanded its military relationship, China has been modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal for the past decade. It has developed and deployed new, mobile ICBMs and SLBMs and may be building a new heavy bomber. Beijing can no longer credibly make the case that its forces are so small — and intended only for a secure, retaliatory deterrent — that they need not be included in arms-control negotiations. China, as President Xi has made public, is embarked on becoming a world power. Beijing is challenging the U.S. throughout the Asia-Pacific, and nuclear weapons are a central component of its plans and increasingly pose a challenge for U.S. extended deterrence in Asia. It is imperative that, if U.S. nuclear forces are to be limited, Chinese forces must also be limited.

Arms-control disciples have long treated arms-control agreements as ends in themselves and, once negotiated, as sacrosanct, as with the now defunct ABM treaty. Perhaps for this reason, too often negotiations have produced unsatisfactory treaties that have channeled strategic arms competition in ways that have proven inimical to U.S. security interests. We can no longer base our positions on disarmament ideology or misplaced nostalgia for the familiar ways of the Cold War. Arms control can contribute to our national security, but only if it reduces the dangers of the current security setting. Arms control must look forward, not backwards — unlike New START, which, although negotiated 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, continued the traditional pattern of Cold War treaties.

Today’s disciples will reject the desiderata described above as “nonnegotiable” while frantically calling for the immediate extension of New START, warning, like Chicken Little, that the sky will fall if we don’t act immediately. The U.S. needs a pragmatic approach that considers arms control as one of a number of tools that, in combination, support a broader strategy that includes developing the new nuclear and missile-defense capabilities prescribed by the recent DoD posture reviews. Only in this way can arms control serve our national interests. That we must move beyond the tired nostrums of Cold War arms control to address today’s dangerous nuclear environment should surprise no one.

Robert Joseph was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007. Eric S. Edelman was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.


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