Arms Control after New START

On April 8th 2010, President Obama and President Medvedev signed New START, a nuclear weapons treaty designed to increase transparency and decrease deployed nuclear forces. While tension between Russia and the U.S. has inhibited diplomatic engagement on most issues, both countries are still working towards the agreed goal of 1550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads by February 2018. But as we celebrate the national security benefits of New START, looking past the agreement towards the future of nuclear arms control requires a crystal ball.

Reduce deployed strategic warheads by one-third:

President Obama and the Pentagon have already provided an insight into what may come next for arms control. As part of the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy, the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Energy, and the intelligence community determined that:

“The United States could ensure the security of the United States and our allies and partners and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent while safely pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed strategic nuclear weapons from the level established in the New START Treaty.”

Although these reductions could be taken unilaterally without undermining the United States’ nuclear deterrence, the administration, faced with domestic political reality, stated its intention to coordinate these cuts with Russia.

Benefits of new Arms Control:

Lately, President Putin has shown little interest in further arms control negotiations, breaking the long-established pattern of cooperating on nuclear issues during even the most tumultuous periods of US-Soviet relations.  While progress on this issue has slowed, further nuclear reductions remain in both countries’ interests.

Russia is currently in the process of modernizing both conventional and nuclear forces and it is unclear whether these plans are affordable in the wake of stunted oil prices and economic sanctions. The United States is similarly strained by competing modernization needs and the federal budget caps that require difficult defense budget trade-offs between nuclear and conventional forces, as reported by the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Panel Review. Current nuclear modernization plans could cost the United States as much as $1 trillion over the next 30 years, leaving the Pentagon’s top weapon buyer to deem the plans unaffordable. By lowering the ceiling on deployed nuclear forces, both the United States and Russia will free valuable budget space for other priorities.

The next arms control agreement could also help balance some emerging concerns regarding nuclear force structure between the two countries, particularly the disparity in deployed launchers (missiles and bombers that carry nuclear warheads to their targets). While the United States plans to meet the New START ceiling of 700 deployed nuclear launchers, Russia is closer to 500 launchers with no realistic strategy for building to the New START level. To compensate, Russia loads multiple nuclear warheads onto their launchers, which creates a destabilizing incentive to “use them or lose them” in the time of a crisis. A new arms control agreement with fewer deployed nuclear weapons could address this concern by lowering the ceiling on launchers, thereby obviating the need for Russia to place multiple warheads on its missiles.

Another disparity that will need to be addressed in future arms control agreements is the imbalance of tactical nuclear weapons (also known as nonstrategic or battlefield nuclear weapons). While the United States has about 500 tactical warheads, including around 200 warheads stored in Europe, Russia has an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads in storage, including nuclear-tipped torpedoes and depth charges. According to Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, the U.S. weapons serve no direct military purpose in US military doctrine. Russian plans, however, indicate that its tactical nuclear weapons could be used in an “escalate to deescalate” capacity to defend against an overwhelming conventional attack.

The next arms control agreement will likely need to address this disparity and include tactical nuclear weapons in future negotiations and revised counting rules. Increasing transparency of U.S. and Russian tactical weapons stockpiles is a necessary first step in this process.

What about China?

China is believed to have a total of around 250 nuclear weapons dispersed on a triad of bombers, nuclear submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but accurate data on its arsenal is limited. While these estimates are significantly below the U.S. and Russian stockpiles of around 4,000 nuclear weapons, opponents of arms control argue that further U.S. and Russian reductions will incentivize China to increase its arsenal to achieve parity. In addition, China’s unchecked proliferation of intermediate-range nuclear forces, cruise missiles, and missile defense capabilities remains a factor in Russia’s regional military strategy.

These concerns would best be addressed by a multilateral approach to arms control , but China is reluctant to engage in nuclear negotiations until the U.S. and Russia further reduce their stockpiles. The next round of nuclear talks will likely not include China, but to truly address the proliferation of nuclear capabilities, China will need to join the arms control process.

Worthy Goal:

While the future of arms control is both complex and uncertain, the value of arms control is not. By increasing transparency and verification measures, and limiting the size and capabilities of nuclear arsenals, arms control efforts remain critical to national security. Reducing the excess nuclear weapons from our arsenal, and coordinating these efforts with other nuclear states, will save billions in federal spending and reduce the threat of the world’s most deadly weapons.