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

, analyst

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. Photo: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories.

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.

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Setting the Record Straight on Hypersonic Weapons

, Kendall fellow

Recent reports would have you believe that hypersonic weapons—an emerging class of low-altitude, high-speed missiles—are poised to revolutionize modern military strategy. A recent op-ed in the New York Times characterized these “game-changing” missiles as the “apotheosis” of airborne weaponry, capable of feats that “no missile can currently achieve.” This fantastical depiction, which underpins a race among the major military powers to develop these weapons, is part of a long pattern of media hype.

But are these weapons really so revolutionary? Will they upend the global security environment? And does their arrival make conflict between United States, Russia, and China inevitable?

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Russia’s Small Maneuvering Satellites: Inspectors or ASATs?

, senior scientist

In May, Russia announced it had launched three Russian communications satellites, Kosmos-2496, -2497, -2498. An additional object was along for the ride, orbiting a few kilometers away from the declared payloads. Without a declared name, this satellite was subsequently classified as debris by the U.S. space surveillance system. Read more >

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It’s a Mad, MAD World

In the June 15, 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the New START agreement, Senator DeMint (R-SC) again lamented that, as he argued, the United States has ruled out attempting to develop a missile defense system that could defend against a full-scale Russian nuclear attack. He said he didn’t like and didn’t think the American people would like the fact that we continue to live in a world of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with Russia.

He certainly is right—no one likes the fact that, in a very real sense, every American is threatened by the enormous and inconceivably powerful Russian nuclear arsenal. Or that, however unlikely a Russian nuclear strike is, our defense relies on the American ability to retaliate and destroy Russia with our nuclear arsenal. The Senator is also right that we should want to escape that MAD world, and in fact we can.

But we can’t escape that world by developing a missile defense system that attempts to stop a Russian nuclear attack. As Secretary Gates previously reminded Sen. DeMint, not since the early days of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative—commonly known as Star Wars—has any U.S administration sought to unilaterally neutralize Russia’s offensive capabilities, and for very good reasons.

What would happen if the United States decided to deploy an anti-missile system aimed at neutralizing Russia’s long-range nuclear-armed missiles? The first thing to note, one can be sure, is that Russia wouldn’t simply accept this development. It could not accept the loss of its nuclear deterrent, and has a number of options to counter such a U.S. initiative.

What could Russia do? It could substantially increase its nuclear arsenal, deploying additional missiles and warheads to overwhelm the defense (like the U.S., Russia has large numbers of warheads in storage). As Gen. Patrick O’Reilly testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 16, for every Russian warhead, an anti-missile system would want two to four interceptors to attempt to shoot it down.

And since one missile can launch many warheads, this makes it even easier and cheaper to deploy additional warheads than it is to expand a missile defense system to keep up. Any missile defense system can be overwhelmed by a rapid increase in missile and warhead numbers.

Add to this the fact that Russia can deploy highly effective countermeasures that would render the U.S. anti-missile system completely ineffective. In 2000, UCS published a report, Countermeasures, outlining the vulnerability of long-range anti-missile systems to countermeasures, and those problems are every bit as real today as they were then. Some of these fool the interceptors with decoys using a more elaborate version of a Mylar “Happy Birthday” balloon. We put together a short animation explaining the science. As the U.S. national intelligence community concluded in a 1999 NIE, even countries like Iran and North Korea could use available technologies to defeat a U.S. anti-missile system. Russia, as it has repeatedly bragged (and the above NIE confirmed), already has the technology to deploy countermeasures capable of defeating an anti-missile system.

Finally, Russia could deploy nuclear warheads on cruise missiles, short-range missiles launched from ships, depressed trajectory submarine-launched missiles with short flight times, or any number of other alternatives to overwhelm, defeat, or go around a U.S. long-range, anti-missile system.

For all these reasons, the United States abandoned the idea of developing an anti-missile system that sought to defend against a Russian long-range nuclear attack. Even Ronald Reagan in the end understood that seeking such a unilateral defense was hopeless.

The bottom line is this: in today’s world of terrorist threats, nuclear proliferation, and the continuing existence of enormous Cold War arsenals, nuclear weapons are a greater liability than an asset for the United States. Nuclear deterrence will be with us as long as nations possess nuclear arsenals, and attempts to undermine that balance will only increase the danger of disaster. To end Mutually Assured Destruction, the only way forward is reducing nuclear arsenals, eventually to where no country possesses the ability to destroy another with nuclear weapons. That process begins with the New START agreement.

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More on Missile Defense

, former co-director

The reaction of missile defense advocates to the START treaty and their claims that  the administration is limiting defenses shows how volatile the issue of missile defense remains in U.S. politics. So it’s not surprising the administration laid out an ambitious missile defense plan last September when it replaced the Bush missile defense plan for Europe, hoping to mute such criticism.

But the administration’s plan is likely to cause problems down the road—if not sooner—for issues the administration clearly cares about: deep reductions in nuclear arsenals and stable relations with Russia and China.

The administration’s plan, based on the Aegis sea-based missile defense system, seems to have gained some acceptance even among traditional missile defense skeptics for two reasons. First, Aegis is seen as the missile defense system that “works” since its test record is better than that of the Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system fielded in Alaska and California. Second, a system based on Aegis is seen as unlikely to cause strategic problems with Russia and China. This is because the current Aegis interceptor (“SM-3 Block IA”) is relatively slow and is designed to intercept missiles with ranges of 1,000-1,500 km, which is much shorter than intercontinental range missiles.

Unfortunately, both of these perceptions are wrong.

First, while the Aegis system has worked well in tests, those tests say essentially nothing about how the system would “work” against a real-world attack. Aegis, like the GMD system, is intended to intercept above the atmosphere, which is also where it can be fooled by decoys and other countermeasures that any country that can build a ballistic missile and nuclear warhead could and would add to its missiles. None of the Aegis tests have included realistic countermeasures.

(There is also a common misperception that the Aegis system can intercept during boost phase, when the missile’s engines are still burning, if it’s based close enough to the launch site. However, the SM-3 interceptor does not have the speed, maneuverability, or sensors to intercept in boost phase, and that capability is not planned for the follow-on systems either.)

Second, in its September announcement the administration laid out an ambitious ten-year plan that would lead, if successful, to a large, globally based missile defense system with faster interceptors intended to destroy long-range missiles. In fact, according to the Chinese press, the main significance of the announcement was that it demonstrated a long-term U.S. commitment to missile defense.

The specifics of the U.S. plan are likely also a concern to China. Current plans are to equip a large number of ships with the Aegis missile defense system, raising the number of such ships from fewer than 20 now to nearly 70 within a few years. And the faster, next-generation Aegis interceptors currently being jointly developed with Japan (see diagram) are designed to be launched from the same launch tubes on these ships. Since each ship could in principle carry more than 100 interceptors, China could easily see this as building the base for fielding many hundreds or thousands of mobile, strategic-capable interceptors.

Such a view was likely reinforced by comments at the September 17 press conference by Secretary of Defense Gates and General Cartwright, vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs. They noted repeatedly that the goal is to develop a global network of mobile interceptors and sensors. Cartwright said explicitly that the goal was to have “a sufficient number of ships to allow us to have a global deployment of this capability on a constant basis, with a surge capacity to any one theater at a time.”

Some may question why, if countermeasures can foil Aegis interceptors, China would worry about these defenses. The answer is that while Chinese scientists understand the countermeasure issue, Chinese political and military leaders likely do not—just as many U.S. political and military leaders apparently do not. China will therefore likely build decoys but also take other measures in reaction to the system. As a result, U.S. plans may be affecting decisions Chinese military planners are making now about the scope and pace of Chinese nuclear modernization. They may also sour China’s view of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which would limit the number of warheads it could build in the future.

Moreover, Chinese analysts have told us there is an additional concern about this system. The current Aegis interceptor has a demonstrated ability to intercept satellites. In fact, since satellites don’t carry countermeasures, current missile defense tests are more relevant to intercepting satellites than intercepting missiles. While the current Aegis interceptor could only reach satellites at low altitudes, the next-generation interceptors could reach satellites throughout low Earth orbit. The deployment of a large number of mobile interceptors that could be moved to optimal locations for attacking particular satellites would be seen as a significant defacto anti-satellite capability

Some within the administration are no doubt aware of all these issues. It would be ironic if the administration’s real steps to reduce nuclear threats to the United States were derailed by its pursuit of a system that has yet to undergo realistic testing. If the administration believes developing such a missile defense system is important, then it needs to have an equally ambitious plan for mitigating the potential reactions of Russia and China to such a system.

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