April 3, 2020

The Future of U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control: Why New START Should Not Be Permitted to Lapse?

By Anastasia Efimova

Following the collapse of the landmark Intermediate-Range Treaty (INF) banning an entire class intermediate-range nuclear weapons in August 2019, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) remains the only treaty that is partially limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The treaty commemorating the 10th anniversary of its signing on 8 April 2020, is however due to expire in less than a year on 5 February 2021. If both parties do not decisively embark on strategic security dialogue on the future of the nuclear risk reduction and arms control permitting the treaty to expire without any replacement, there will not be any legally binding framework imposing limits on the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals. This might trigger a risk of the uncontrolled U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race.

As the treaty enters its final year, Washington and Moscow have to opt for one of the three possible scenarios laid out for the future of the bilateral arms control: replace New START with a new follow-on accord on strategic nuclear arms, extend the existing treaty by five more years as envisaged by its provisions, or let the treaty collapse opening the door to the uncontrolled nuclear arsenal build up.

 The New START Treaty Expansion Issue

Signed in 2010, the New START Treaty continued the long-standing initiatives between Russia and the U.S. in the field of arms control and nuclear weapons reduction. The Treaty has obliged its parties to reduce the strategic nuclear forces through capping the number of the deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1.550, deployed strategic delivery systems to 700, and deployed and non-deployed missile launchers and heavy bombers to 800. Furthermore, the treaty has established a rigorous verification regime through authorizing the on-site inspections of the facilities operated by its parties thus permitting to maintain strategic stability and transparency.

So far, the treaty’s both parties remain indecisive about the bilateral nuclear arms reduction agenda leaving the future of the nuclear arms control regime uncertain. Russia’s recent proposal of the unconditional extension of New START has clashed with the Trump administration’s unwillingness to extend the treaty without any preconditions. The administration has repeatedly emphasized the need for a more comprehensive arms control treaty, which would cover more types of weapons and would bring China into the bilateral arms control framework.

However, the U.S. decision to forestall the strategic security dialogue on the treaty’s extension unless the decision to proceed with a trilateral nuclear arms reduction agenda is taken, is likely to prevent the talks from getting started. While incorporating China as well as the other nuclear-weapon states into a legally binding framework on arms control is a viable long-term goal, the plausibility of achieving a new broader agreement in a near term is, however, weak as no negotiations on such an initiative are underway.

Although Trump has repeatedly urged China to join the trilateral arms control talks, China does not seem very enthusiastic about sealing a deal on the trilateral cap of the arsenals. Despite China’s gradual nuclear arsenal build-up, the overall country’s estimated stockpile is about 300 nuclear warheads. While the United States and Russia have more than 6.000 total nuclear warheads each (of which 3.800 and 4.330 respectively are warheads in the military stockpile).

Therefore, considering a significant gap between their nuclear arsenals as well as China’s concerns about the disclosure of its nuclear weapons, which would jeopardize its deterrent value, it is unlikely that Chinese officials will join the already existing U.S.-Russian bilateral framework on arms control. Especially in a situation when the future of New START is at stake, the plausibility of China joining the arms control negotiations is incredibly low. At the same time, keeping the treaty alive might create the foundation for future arms control initiatives with China as well as with the other nuclear-weapon states.

Russia’s Nuclear Weapons Build-up

The situation of overall insecurity about the future of the arms control is further compounded by Russia’s ongoing efforts to build up its nuclear and non-nuclear arsenals and both states’ nuclear weapons spending surge.

Russia’s efforts to develop and deploy a new generation of nuclear weaponry, have resulted in the development of five new systems under its modernization plan. The two new long-range nuclear systems – the Sarmat heavy ICBM and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) were unveiled by Moscow in 2018 and can be deployed before the treaty expires.  So far, New START is limiting the deployment of the new long-range nuclear systems embedding them into the treaty’s accountability and making them inspectable as envisioned in its provisions. This makes the extension of the treaty crucial in terms of preventing unconstrained deployment of the new long-ranged nuclear-armed weapons, which will be, furthermore, subject to the transparency arrangements.

As for the other new systems, the Poseidon undersea autonomous nuclear delivery vehicle, and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile are unlikely to become operational during the New START lifespan.  Their preparedness is expected by 2027 at the earliest after an extended New START would expire. These systems thus do not pose a near-term threat to strategic stability and should be viewed in the context of negotiating a potential successor agreement. Another system, the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) in its current configuration cannot be subject to the treaty’s restrictions yet since it is not an intercontinental-range system, which nonetheless can might change once deployed on the long-range delivery system.

The U.S. Nuclear Spending Surge

The ambitious projects for the nuclear weaponry modernization are also planned by Washington, which is reflected in the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request for the Defense and Energy Departments. The administration is requesting $44.5 billion, which would constitute an increase of $7.3 billion (or 19%) comparing to the fiscal year 2020.

Large sums are expected to be mustered to modernize the nuclear delivery systems, warheads and their infrastructure and are aimed to rebuild the U.S. nuclear triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers. The organization’s current plans for the nuclear forces ramp up are expected to run almost $500 billion over the 2019-2028 period, that is $94 billion increase comparing to the previous estimate of the 10-year costs of nuclear forces throughout 2017 – 2026 period.

So far, New START is not only capping the number of launching systems its parties’ nuclear triads are allowed to have, but it also permits both parties to raise concerns over the development of the new kinds of the strategic arms, and particularly it relates to the long-range nuclear-armed weapons that are not ICBM or SLBM, or heavy bombers. As Russia’s nuclear modernization program is underway and the U.S. is planning to modernize, the numerical limits imposed by New START are extremely important.  The extension of the treaty would permit to put under constraint the newly developed nuclear systems and would give time to discuss the new provisions, which would address the weaponry not enshrined in the current agreement. While walking away from New START would result in considerable losses in terms of both states’ strategic stability and transparency guaranteed by the treaty through its verification regime.

Conclusion

New START has been a strong example of bilateral cooperation, mutual compliance, and verification between Russia and the United States. It has not only reduced the two largest strategic nuclear arsenals to the lowest level since the early 1960s but has also contributed to the global strategic stability and transparency through establishing a robust verification regime keeping the remaining nuclear arsenals in check.

However, the time is running short for deciding on the treaty’s future. So far, no serious efforts to negotiate the follow-on deal on arms control have been undertaken. Given the current geopolitical environment and lack of ongoing dialogue, an agreement on the new more comprehensive strategic arms reduction treaty is highly unlikely. In a situation when both countries are investing in the modernization of their nuclear capabilities, the treaty’s extension would help to prevent any new quantitative nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia. At the same time, New START’s extension by 5 years would provide security guarantees for the remaining nuclear-weapon states and would give time to elaborate on more comprehensive agreements on arms reduction.  While walking away from the Treaty will wipe out the previous bilateral efforts on nuclear disarmament and will endanger the possibility of creating a multilateral framework for nuclear arms control and non-proliferation including the other nuclear states. Furthermore, it will create a legal vacuum marked with the lack of any legally binding instrument which would limit the world’s largest strategic nuclear arsenals for the first time since the early 1970s, thus creating the likelihood of a dangerous scaling back to nuclear brinkmanship.

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