The United States welcomed February with an announcement to formally withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a decision that will allow both Russia and the United States to greatly expand their arsenal of nuclear weapons. However, the deployment of any new weapon is limited by the last extant treaty between the two countries: New START, or the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Following the unceremonious breakup of the INF Treaty, New START’s future is now uncertain. Its demise would result in a more precarious future. A future predicated on nuclear instability and an impending arms race driven by Russia and the United States’ most recent nuclear developments and reformed nuclear doctrines. Yet given the INF’s dissolution and the likelihood that New START will not restart, nuclear capable countries should construct a wider arms control architecture for the future.
New START, signed by former U.S. and Russian Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, is up for renewal in 2021. The treaty caps deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550, deployed intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (ICBMs and SLBMs) and bombers at 700, and deployed and non-deployed launchers at 800. The treaty also provides robust on-site verification measures allowing each party great oversight of the other’s nuclear arsenal. Losing the treaty means losing the trust built through verification. Both nations, free of constraint, will expand their arsenals, potentially unsettling the relative balance this treaty affords. Provided U.S. President Donald Trump’s own proclamations to “outspend and out-innovate all others,” this is precisely the future we should fear.
Yet the treaty’s prospects look grim. Trump is on record denigrating the treaty and calling for its termination. Prior to the initiation of the INF withdrawal, discussions between the United States and Russia were plagued by distrust. In a PR stunt, Russia invited diplomats and journalists to view the launcher of the alleged treaty violating missile, but never presented the missile itself. The United States, for its part, refused to entertain Russia’s concerns over its NATO-operated AEGIS missile defense system while insisting that Russia destroy its treaty violating missile. The murkiness surrounding these negotiations will likely sap the momentum necessary for renegotiating New START in good faith.
Already, both the United States and Russia plan to expand their arsenals. The Trump administration published its Missile Defense Review in January, outlining a dramatic expansion in ground-, air-, and space-based ballistic missile defense. Russia, in the last year, has announced development and testing of a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV), two new ground-based missile systems, and development of an underwater drone-launched nuclear weapon dubbed Poseidon.
Furthermore, China is likely to respond to this build-up of intermediate-range conventional and nuclear missiles by expanding its own arsenal. Extension of New START would mitigate these risks somewhat as Russia and the United States would be limited to the amount of nuclear warheads they could deploy. Thus, China would have no legitimate reason to build up its existing arsenal.
Extension of New START, however, will not be some panacea for our nuclear fears. Arms control agreements by themselves or even together do not solve the nuclear issue. As a web of agreements, they do provide stability by closing the gaps in missile and weapon systems, pre-empting arms races, and reducing tensions, through transparency measures, both between nations and in the lives of people who once were or may be the targets of such weapons.
If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that future governments might consider how to forge a nuclear arms control architecture that goes beyond the United States and Russia. As the INF case demonstrates, both made decisions based on each other and China. And while the United States has backed out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, the deal has survived because of the inclusion of four other nuclear powers, a testament to nuclear multilateralism.
We should not expect comprehensive treaties to mirror any iteration of the START, INF, or Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaties. Instead we might look at regional architectures that include more than two parties — namely China, India, Pakistan or China, Russia, United States — which work to address surface concerns through comprehensive verification and transparency regimes. For the United States and Russia, theater specific agreements, for example excluding Europe from deployments, should be negotiable. Looking back at the JCPOA, it falls to these nuclear powers to begin a global nuclear framework beginning with simple steps — such as annual verifications, total warhead limits, and geographic deployment restrictions — that are easily agreed on before slowly expanding to include other countries and narrower controls. Perhaps the next nuclear weapons treaty will be multilateral. Until then, we can only hope that the next nuclear bomb threat is like that of Hawaii’s last year: false.