The Russian government just announced its Avangard hypersonic missile to the world—intensifying the dispute about the future of U.S. arms control agreements with Moscow. The debate playing out among national security professionals, in the media and in select precincts of Congress is over whether to extend New START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia that was signed and ratified in 2010 and is up for renewal in 2021.
The problem with the squabble over the fate of New START, however, is that it assumes only two potential courses of action: either extend the treaty for five years unconditionally or allow it to expire in the hope of pursuing a more far reaching pact. Members of the disarmament community are pushing for the former option while some defense hawks have expressed interest in the latter.
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There is a third, more realistic and more achievable approach: The U.S. should renew the treaty, but only if Russia agrees to negotiate a new one.
New START is a product of its time, reflecting the heady hopes of the early Obama years that both the U.S. and Russia wanted to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. Although the treaty—by resurrecting a Reagan-era discount for bomber carried weapons—actually increased the number of nuclear weapons allowed to both sides compared to its predecessor (the 2002 Moscow Treaty), it arguably made a modest contribution to stability: It continued limits on traditional U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons and allowed the resumption of onsite verification inspections.
Today’s security situation is vastly different from the one that faced the United States and its allies a decade ago. In addition to modernizing its strategic nuclear forces over the past nine years—a task upon which the U.S. is only now embarking—Moscow has fielded a wide array of air-, sea- and ground-launched shorter-range nuclear forces that threaten our NATO allies but aren’t limited by New START. Indeed, the Senate, in its resolution ratifying the treaty in 2010, called explicitly for future negotiations with Russia to address the asymmetry between the two sides in shorter-range nuclear weapons. Those negotiations still haven’t taken place. Russia has also devised a military doctrine that appears to call for the use of these weapons on the battlefield against NATO to achieve an early victory in wartime.
Additionally, Moscow is developing new and exotic intercontinental nuclear weapons—including a transoceanic torpedo, a nuclear-powered cruise missile and an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle. These weapons, which don’t have U.S. equivalents, are not constrained by New START either, even though they clearly present a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.
A simple extension of New START therefore would ignore these new, growing nuclear threats and would even enable their unconstrained expansion. In other words, it would undercut Western security while providing an illusion of stability. But New START’s impending expiration could provide leverage for negotiating a new treaty, one that would eventually address the new threats.
To this end, the administration should propose to extend the current version of New START on a renewable basis subject to Moscow’s acceptance of two conditions.
First, Russia will agree to begin immediately meaningful negotiations on a new treaty that would capture all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons regardless of range and would eventually replace New START. One approach to this might be to set an overall limit on each side’s nuclear arsenal accompanied by a sublimit on the number of intercontinental-range nuclear weapons of all types.
Second, to avoid dilatory negotiating tactics by Russia, the United States will reserve the right each year to condition its continued adherence to New START based on the progress—or lack thereof—made at the negotiating table during the previous year.
Some skeptics doubt that Moscow would be inclined to accept these conditions. But the Russian government appears concerned that the Trump administration will allow New START to expire. Scarcely a day passes without a statement—designed to influence U.S. and Western opinion—by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or another senior Russian official about the perils of the treaty’s expiration and Russia’s willingness to extend it. The Russian government is also well aware that the U.S. strategic modernization program is finally going to begin producing new platforms in the next few years and is concerned that those open production lines, if unconstrained, could produce numerically superior U.S. nuclear weapons in the decades ahead. When President Donald Trump spoke with Putin on Sunday, the two reportedly discussed “future efforts to support effective arms control.” Moscow has an obvious self interest in taking this proposal seriously.
There are some who argue that the U.S. should scrap New START in 2021 and replace it with a new treaty with Russia. But there are downsides to that approach. First there is a nontrivial risk that—as soon as the New START limits lapse—the Russians will use their hot production lines for two new road-mobile missiles as well as a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile to rapidly increase their ICBM inventory—all while the U.S. has yet to begin production on its own new generation ICBMs. There’s also the fact that in the past, the Russians have insisted that any new negotiations would need to include China, Britain and France, which would surely slow any new treaty process way down—if not make a final agreement next to impossible. Lastly, Moscow has yet to agree that their new weapons should be included in any new negotiations. As a result, trying to leverage their interest in New START extension is likely to yield a better outcome for the U.S. than simply allowing the treaty to expire.
An alternative approach raised by some, including Trump, suggests the U.S. should scrap New START and instead aim for a new arms treaty that includes China as well as the United States and Russia. But the prospects for trilateral arms control are relatively slim. China’s nuclear forces are much smaller than those of the U.S. and Russia, and both Moscow and Washington would look askance at an agreement that ceded equality to Beijing. This would risk activating China's traditional rejection of “unequal treaties.” China, with its aversion to transparency, is also unlikely to accept intrusive verification inspections. And that’s all before you consider the inherent difficulties of negotiating a tripartite agreement, with any three countries. As a result, a three-way deal should not stand in the path of the more immediate task of putting limits on all Russian nuclear weapons.
All that being said, both the U.S. and Russia should seek China's inclusion in arms control talks at some point. Despite persistent attempts through three administrations to increase dialogue and transparency with regard to nuclear weapons, the China's approach remains largely opaque—and that is as disquieting to Moscow as it is to Washington. What we do know is that China, stimulated by technological developments and the emergence of regional rivals like India, has begun a quantitative and qualitative nuclear modernization program that includes new road-mobile ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and an air-launched cruise missile. The advent of these new systems is prompting a reconsideration of China’s traditional strategy of minimal deterrence. China’s nuclear build-up, if allowed to continue unchecked, could undermine U.S. extended deterrence guarantees to treaty allies in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
What might make such a multilateral negotiation easier to contemplate in the future? A good first step might be to have the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China join a politically binding—i.e., nonverifiable—statement that declares each nation’s nuclear stockpile size and commits them to freeze the arsenals at that level for a given period of time.
We are entering an age of great power competition in which all three major nuclear powers are modernizing and new capabilities are adding complexity to an already unprecedented multipolar nuclear arms competition. It stands to reason that new approaches rather than a reflexive reliance on Cold War arms control approaches will be necessary to meet this challenge.