If the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires as scheduled on Feb. 5, 2021, it will mark the first time since the end of the Cold War the world’s two largest nuclear powers will be free to expand their arsenals without restraint or verification.
New START entered into force nearly 10 years ago and included an option to extend the treaty for up to five more years. But while Russian President Vladimir Putin said in December 2019 his country would extend the treaty “without any preconditions,” the Trump administration argued to expand the scope of the treaty to include:
- Russia’s buildup of short- and medium-range systems, which fall outside the current scope of New START;
- Stronger verification measures;
- Bringing China into the accord.
It’s not that the Trump administration was not interested in an extension, said Robert M. Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy during an AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event in September. But the administration wants to ensure the treaty includes a “broader framework.”
Joe Biden, the projected President-elect who was vice president when the treaty was negotiated, promised during the campaign to pursue a New START extension, “and use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements,” according to his campaign website.
Russia has expanded the number of circumstances under which they would consider … nuclear weapons, or at least they’re now willing to say it publicly.Adm. Charles “Chas” Richard, USSTRATCOM commander
“President Biden would take other steps to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons. As he said in 2017, Biden believes the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As President, he will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military,” states his campaign website.
Under New START, the U.S. and Russia are limited to 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 of any combination of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear-capable bombers. The pact allows for up to 18 on-site inspections a year.
Over the treaty’s 10-year life span, the two sides conducted 328 inspections and exchanged more than 20,000 notifications, according to the U.S. Department of State.
New START never addressed tactical weapons, a point that Russia aggressively sought to exploit by building up its arsenal and gaining an advantage over the United States.
When asked in a September press conference if the U.S. can limit a nuclear exchange to tactical weapons, or if there is even such a thing as tactical nuclear weapons, U.S. Strategic Command boss Adm. Charles A. “Chas” Richard replied: “Sir, you’re asking one of the greatest unanswered questions in military theory—deterrence theory—of all time, right? The answer is nobody knows if that’s the case, but I do think it’s an obligation for the United States to do everything in its power should a nuclear weapon be used by somebody else to stop the exchange as soon as possible, to limit damage to the U.S. to the maximum extent possible, and to end it on terms favorable to the United States. … Fortunately, we don’t have any real-world experience in that, and I would just as soon keep it that way.”
Russia is also modernizing its strategic weapons. Peter Huessy, director of strategic deterrent studies at AFA’s Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies, said Russia will have introduced 31 new types of strategic nuclear systems from 2010 to 2027, including new bombers, submarines, cruise missiles, ICBMs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). By contrast, U.S. modernization efforts have been slow for all three legs of its nuclear triad. The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, which will replace 50-year-old Minuteman III ICBMs, won’t enter service until 2029, and the program won’t be completed until 2035; the Air Force’s B-21 Raider bomber isn’t planned to come online until 2026 or 2027 and won’t be nuclear-capable for at least three years after it reaches initial operational capability; and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, the replacement for the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class subs, won’t enter service until 2032 or later, Huessy said.
Richard estimated in October that Russia is “close to 75 percent complete” with its nuclear modernization efforts, and that, along with its conventional weapons advancements, is still very much a “pacing threat.”
“Russia has expanded the number of circumstances under which they would consider the employment of a nuclear weapon, or at least they’re now willing to say it publicly,” Richard said in an Oct. 21 prerecorded speech for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ virtual nuclear security conference. “Although this circumstance is distressing, it should not come as a surprise.”
His comments came one day after Russia agreed to freeze its entire nuclear arsenal for a year—including tactical weapons—as long as the U.S. did not bring up additional conditions. Extending New START would provide time, the Russians said, “to hold comprehensive bilateral talks on the future of nuclear missile control, with the mandatory discussion of all factors that can influence strategic stability.”
Robert O’Brien, President Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser, told Politico days later both sides still needed to agree to verification procedures.
Meanwhile, U.S. allies are on edge. Twenty European countries called on the United States to extend the treaty, saying it has “directly contributed” to stabilizing European security.
“While we support the call to discuss the next generation of arms control and the need to consider the role of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, extending New START and engaging in good faith dialogue with other nuclear powers are not mutually exclusive,” wrote the 82 signatories from the nearly two dozen countries in an Oct. 13 letter to U.S. congressional leaders. Countries represented in the letter included: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland.
“As was evident in the process that led to New START, time is needed to negotiate solutions that meet the laudable goals put forward by both the United States and Russia during their strategic stability talks this year. In short, extending the duration of New START is not an end. It is a mutually beneficial tool for maintaining stability, transparency, and predictability while we write a new chapter of arms control together,” states the European letter.
In prewritten answers submitted before his October 2019 confirmation hearing, Richard called New START an “important transparency mechanism for maintaining U.S.-Russian stability,” providing “insights into the Russian strategic triad, which significantly contributes to our understanding of their force posture.”
But he added that Russia’s development and fielding of tactical nuclear capabilities outside of New START limitations warrants “further analysis, dialogue, and interagency review prior to making a final determination of a five-year extension.”
STRATCOM Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere said the U.S. military is “agnostic” as to whether the treaty should be extended.
“We can perform our military mission with or without the New START Treaty,” he said in an August 2020 press briefing alongside Marshall S. Billingslea, special presidential envoy for arms control, following discussions with Russia in Vienna. “We do believe, however, that it does provide increased international security. But there’s a difference between the arms control protocols and the military necessity and operational utility.”
STRATCOM has repeatedly said it is ready and able to respond to threats to the homeland whether the treaty is extended for one year, five years, or allowed to lapse.
There are some 14,000 nuclear weapons owned by nine countries across the globe, but the vast majority of those weapons belong to the U.S. and Russia. As of Sept. 1, 2020, the United States had 675 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers, while Russia had 510—each well below the ceiling set in New START. The State Department said the U.S. had 1,457 warheads on deployed U.S. SLBMs and heavy bombers, versus 1,447 warheads on deployed Russian SLBMs and heavy bombers.
Overall, the world’s nuclear weapons have been reduced by 75 percent since the height of the Cold War. But the calculus on whether nuclear weapons should be employed continues to evolve, wrote three lions of national strategy—former Secretary of State George P. Shultz; former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) in an Oct. 22 commentary in The Washington Post.
“Many of these arms are on high alert, ready to be launched in only a few minutes, based on the decisions of a handful of fallible humans and their fallible computers,” they wrote. “Cyber-interference with command and control and the warning systems of any nuclear-armed nation significantly increases the risks of false warnings and nuclear war-by-blunder.”
U.S. Strategic Command is conducting an “exhaustive assessment” of current global threats, as adversaries such as Russia and China force the U.S. to rethink the way it approaches strategic deterrence, Richard said.
“I’ve challenged my command to revise our 21st-century strategic deterrence theory that considers our adversaries’ decision calculus and behaviors and identifies threat indicators or conditions that could indicate potential actions,” he noted.
The analysis will include a look at emerging capabilities, changing norms, and potentially unintended consequences of conflict. Pentagon officials say other world powers have “blurred the lines” when it comes to conventional and nuclear conflict, creating a challenge for the U.S. military, which tends to organize, train, and equip its forces based on whether their mission is nuclear-related or not.
That shift in thinking is driven by newer tactical nuclear weapons, which aren’t controlled by New START. Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, then USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said in August the service had started to shape policy around the concept of “conventional and nuclear integration,” viewing them as two points on a spectrum instead of as separate concepts.
“We have to be able to reconstitute our capability. We have to be able to plan and execute integrated operations, multidomain, whether conventional or nuclear, and most importantly, we have to be able to fight in, around, and through that environment to achieve our objectives,” Clark said.
Richard argues the ultimate goal—ensuring that the benefit of restraint outweighs the benefit of possible action—has not changed. However, “We have to account for the possibility of conflict leading to conditions that could seemingly very rapidly drive an adversary to consider nuclear use as their least-bad option,” he said.
China’s Growing Threat
By the end of this decade, the U.S. will face two nuclear-capable competitors, each of which requires a different deterrence strategy. Richard said it’s important not to underestimate China’s capabilities or nuclear ambition.
“They always go faster than we think they will, and we must pay attention to what they do and not necessarily what they say,” he said. China, for its part, has said it will match U.S. nuclear strength by 2030.
Richard said China’s investments in “sophisticated” command and control capabilities and ongoing efforts to build up its own nuclear triad seem to contradict its general claim that deterrence should require as small an arsenal as possible.
The need for transparency from China with regard to its nuclear capabilities is the main driver for the U.S. push to bring China into the New START negotiations, Huessy said.
“They say … ‘we don’t even have the warheads on the missiles,’” he said. “The question is, ‘Why are you building submarines if you’re not going to have warheads on the missiles?’ You aren’t going to send the submarines to sea empty. That doesn’t make any sense at all.” China has about 300 nuclear warheads, less than one-fifth as many as the U.S. and Russia. The disparity will complicate any trilateral agreement.
“Neither Washington nor Moscow would agree to reduce to China’s level,” writes Steven Pifer, a nonresident senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “Nothing suggests either would agree to legitimize a Chinese build-up to match their levels … Beijing presumably would not be interested in unequal limits.”
Without an agreement in February, the U.S. and Russia could each respond by “maintaining the status quo,” according to an August 2020 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the potential cost of expanding U.S. strategic nuclear forces. But it’s also possible either or both sides “could take various actions to compensate for the lack of treaty limits, perhaps to address a real or perceived buildup of forces by the other party,” the report said.
The CBO looked at the potential cost of expanding the number of warheads from no more than 1,550 allowed under New START to levels specified in previous arms control agreements.
Increasing the number of warheads to the 1,700 to 2,200 allowed under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty, which was signed on May 24, 2002, and was later superseded by New START, “would not increase the Department of Defense’s costs” relative to current modernization plans, which call for fielding a new generation of strategic delivery vehicles. CBO estimates both would cost about $240 billion over the next few decades.
The U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START I, signed on July 31, 1991, and expired on Dec. 5, 2009, allowed for 6,000 warheads. The cost to increase the total number of U.S. warheads to that level would be about $88 billion, plus $4 billion to $10 billion annually. Increasing the number of delivery vehicles, which the CBO deemed “the more flexible approach,” would cost $410 billion, plus $24 billion to $28 billion a year.
Even if funding was not an issue, however, it would take time for the U.S. to build back its arsenal.
The Minuteman III missile could support two warheads, Huessy said, but it would take three and a half years to complete that project.
When it comes to uploading additional warheads to launchers, Mark Schneider, senior analyst with the National Institute of Public Policy, said, “In the short-term everything depends on how much tritium [a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used in nuclear weapons] we have available, and if it is in the containers used in warheads. If we have it, we can upload bomber warheads in days or weeks, SLBM warheads over months, and ICBM warheads in years. If we don’t have enough tritium, we can upload the warheads as low-yield.”
Expanding the nuclear arsenal isn’t the only response if New START expires. The U.S. also could expand its intelligence capabilities, which likely would require launching more satellites into orbit or purchasing more commercial satellite imagery—both expensive options, according to the CBO. For example, it cost $1.1 billion to produce the fifth and sixth Space-Based Infrared Satellite-High missile detection systems.
Other options include expanding missile defenses, expanding conventional forces—such as hypersonic weapons and conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles—and/or expanding nonstrategic nuclear forces.
The 2019 Missile Defense Review noted that the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, which is made up of silo-based long-range interceptors, could be expanded in Alaska if necessary. It would cost about $5 billion to build 40 new silos and purchase the interceptors, by CBO estimates. However, the program is undergoing a “complete redesign,” which could significantly change those figures.
The B61 bomb, which is carried by the F-15E as well as some NATO aircraft, is the United States’ only nonstrategic nuclear weapon.
“According to one report, about 150 of those bombs are based in Europe in support of NATO, and some are stored in the United States. Unclassified sources estimate that Russia, by comparison, maintains a substantially larger stockpile of about 1,800 nonstrategic warheads that can be delivered by several different vehicles,” according to the CBO.
The Defense Department is looking to even this field by developing a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile, which is expected to cost about $9 billion to develop, as stated by the CBO.
“I recognize that great power competition doesn’t equal conflict, or that we’re on a path to war,” Richard said. “But as the commander in charge of employing strategic deterrence capabilities for the nation, and for our allies, I simply don’t have the luxury of assuming a crisis, conflict, or war won’t happen.”