The Last Remaining Nuclear Arms Control Treaty Between the U.S. and Russia Could Expire in One Year, Here’s Why That’s Dangerous

February 5, 2020
Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories
Eryn MacDonald

One year from today, on February 5, 2021, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is scheduled to expire, leaving the United States and Russia without a single bilateral nuclear arms control agreement for the first time in nearly 50 years. This would mean the end of constraints on either country’s nuclear arsenal which, especially when combined with worsening relations between the two, could be a recipe for a new nuclear arms race. It will also end the intrusive verification measures that have provided both countries with substantial confidence in their assessments of each other’s arsenals over the past several decades.

The United States and Russia can agree to extend the treaty for another five years; it would only take an exchange of memos between their presidents. This would give the countries time to talk about a follow-on treaty that could include further reductions or cover a broader range of weapon types.

But this does not seem likely to happen. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is open to extending the treaty with no preconditions, President Trump has other ideas. He does not want to extend the treaty as-is but has said he wants a “better” deal, one that would include China as well.

The China Factor

But China, despite President Trump’s claims to the contrary, is not interested. This lack of interest is understandable–China has roughly 300 nuclear warheads, while the United States and Russia are each limited under the treaty to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads (and each country has several thousand more non-deployed warheads that are either in reserve or have been retired and are awaiting dismantlement). China may also object to the idea that it would be pulled into limits while France and Britain, which have similar sized nuclear arsenals, are not. Or wonder why it should discuss nuclear limits without including its neighbor India.

Despite these reasonable sources of hesitation on China’s part, my colleague Gregory Kulacki has argued forcefully that it should still take the opportunity to participate. Doing so, he argues, would give China a prominent platform from which to point out the significant disparity between the size of the US and Russian arsenal and that of China and every other nuclear power.

China has also pledged that it will never be first to use nuclear weapons—a position it adopted at the time of its first nuclear test and which it has consistently reaffirmed ever since. It did not participate in the Cold War nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. That race led to the accumulation of more than 60,000 thousand nuclear warheads between the two countries—including about 12,000 US and 11,000 Soviet deployed strategic warheads. And eventually it led both sides to recognize how dangerous and unstable this situation had become, necessitating moves to negotiate the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty along with several other arms control treaties.

Still a Good Deal for US Security

What Trump and others in his administration seem to forget is that New START, like the series of bilateral arms control treaties that preceded it, was not negotiated as a favor to Russia. It benefits US security just as much as it does Russia’s. The treaty verifiably limits the number of long-range nuclear warheads each side can deploy to 1,550 and also limits delivery vehicles to a total of 700 deployed (800 deployed and non-deployed) each.

At least as importantly as the reduced numbers of weapons, it creates transparency by establishing an intrusive inspection regime and requirements for data exchanges that provide vital information about each side’s nuclear arsenal that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to acquire.

One key group that has not forgotten the real rationale behind such agreements is US military leaders, who strongly support the deal. As Paul Selva, an Air Force general who served until his recent retirement as vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, New START “gives us some degree of predictability on what our potential adversaries look like.” This is a significant benefit for the military, which has to plan for a huge range of potential threats and values whatever predictability it can get to make that job a little bit easier.

Let’s Not Go from Bad to Worse

The US-Russia relationship has been anything but predictable lately and, in the realm of nuclear arms control at least, the situation only seems to be getting worse. Last year saw the collapse of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty—another longstanding backbone of the US-Russian arms control regime. And just yesterday the Pentagon confirmed that the U.S. Navy has now deployed the W76-2—a new, lower-yield tactical nuclear warhead that is launched from submarines—in response to a non-existent “gap” that the Trump administration asserted hurt the US nuclear arsenal. Deployment of this warhead, which blurs the lines between conventional and nuclear forces, is a step back toward the dangerous idea that nuclear weapons are not just for deterrence but can actually be used in war.

Letting New START expire would be another dangerous step back to a world where the United States and Russia could once again indulge in an unconstrained nuclear arms race, wasting trillions of dollars on unneeded weapons and endangering not only their own citizens, but the entire world.

President Putin has already indicated his willingness to extend the agreement without further negotiations. President Trump should take him up on this offer before time runs out.

Featured image: New START mandates an intensive monitoring and verification regime that provides the U.S. and Russia with vital transparency into each other’s nuclear arsenals. Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories.