The US Doesn’t Need a New New START

 In China, Iran, GDI, Defense, Air

There is no reason to believe that with­draw­ing from the cur­rent one would improve U.S. secu­ri­ty.

When Donald Trump assumed the pres­i­den­cy, there were two major nuclear arms con­trol treaties in force between the United States and Russia. Trump with­drew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, last year, and his admin­is­tra­tion appears unlike­ly to renew New START before it expires in February 2021, despite Russian will­ing­ness to extend the treaty for five years. That would be a mis­take — and the col­lapse of the INF illus­trates why. 

Although debate con­tin­ues over whether President Trump’s deci­sion to with­draw from the INF was wise, there were at least three good rea­sons for doing so. None of these ratio­nales apply to New START

The China Factor and Limits versus Bans 

One log­i­cal reason to with­draw from the INF was that it banned the U.S. and Russia from having land-based inter­me­di­ate-range mis­siles even as China and other coun­tries built large stock­piles of these weapons. In fact, about 95 per­cent of Chinese mis­siles would vio­late the INF if China were a sig­na­to­ry. The INF thus put the U.S.(and Russia) at a rel­a­tive dis­ad­van­tage com­pared to China — one that could be rec­ti­fied by pulling out of the agree­ment and devel­op­ing ground-launched inter­me­di­ate-range mis­siles, which is exact­ly what the U.S. is doing today

Related: If New START Dies, These Questions Will Need Answers

Related: New New START a Nonstarter: Russian Ambassador

Related: Top Nuke General: Russia Is Exploiting Gaps In Key Arms-Control Treaty

New START gives China no such advan­tage. First, New START is a more flex­i­ble treaty than the INF. Instead of ban­ning an entire class of weapons, New START sets a limit on the number of strate­gic nuclear war­heads and deliv­ery vehi­cles the U.S. and Russia can deploy. Specifically, it limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strate­gic nuclear war­heads and 700 deployed deliv­ery vehi­cles (inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles, sub­ma­rine-launched bal­lis­tic mis­siles, and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons). The “lim­it­ed” number of nuclear weapons the U.S. retains under New START could still inflict unimag­in­able damage and is more than suf­fi­cient to threat­en com­plete destruc­tion of China, Russia, or any other coun­try in the world many times over. 

More impor­tant­ly, although China is not sub­ject to New START restric­tions, it has a much small­er strate­gic nuclear arse­nal than the U.S. or Russia. While the U.S. deploys almost 1,500 strate­gic nuclear war­heads and has thou­sands more in reserve, China has only about 290 total nuclear war­heads. Consequently, there is no need for China to join New START in the short or medium term, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for and promi­nent sen­a­tors such as Tom Cotton have demand­ed as a pre­con­di­tion for an exten­sion of the treaty. Even if China dou­bles its nuclear stock­pile in the next decade, as the U.S. gov­ern­ment expects, it will still not come close to the limits out­lined in New START. And if for some reason China decides to engage in a nuclear arms race in the next five years, the United States can always with­draw from the treaty, though our exist­ing arse­nal under New START would still be capa­ble of deter­ring a Chinese attack. 

Inadvertently, press­ing Beijing to join New START could actu­al­ly spur a Chinese nuclear buildup. As one high-level Chinese diplo­mat said, “Do you want to bring your arse­nal down to our level, or our arse­nal up to yours?” 

Russian Compliance and On-Site Verification

Another reason the Trump Administration cited for with­draw­ing from the INF was that Russia had built and deployed a pro­hib­it­ed inter­me­di­ate-range mis­sile. The U.S. detect­ed Russian vio­la­tions by nation­al tech­ni­cal means, like satel­lite sur­veil­lance and elec­tron­ic intel­li­gence, rather than by on-site inspec­tions, which were phased out of the INF regime in 2001. Without on-site proof, how­ev­er, Russia could more cred­i­bly deny U.S. claims. Unlike the INF, on-site inspec­tions remain in place under New START. Specifically, New START allows the U.S. and Russia to con­duct 18 short-notice, on-site inspec­tions per year, with addi­tion­al pro­vi­sions for data exchange and dia­logue. Since 2011, when the treaty came into force, over 300 on-site inspec­tions and almost 20,000 noti­fi­ca­tions relat­ed to the pro­duc­tion, deploy­ment and move­ment of nuclear weapons have taken place between the United States and Russia. Inspections, exhi­bi­tions, and data-shar­ing under New START give the U.S. a com­pre­hen­sive view of Russia’s strate­gic nuclear force pos­ture. As the gen­er­al in charge of America’s nuclear arse­nal said, these insights are “unbe­liev­ably impor­tant for me to under­stand what Russia is doing.” Plus, with on-site inspec­tions, vio­la­tions of New START will be easier to detect, and claims of vio­la­tions will be more cred­i­ble because proof will come in the form of direct, visual evi­dence.

Even more impor­tant­ly, where­as Russia was vio­lat­ing the INF, it is not vio­lat­ing the New START agree­ment. Over the life of New START, the U.S. and Russia have both met reduc­tion tar­gets. Today, U.S. offi­cials pub­licly main­tain that Russia is in com­pli­ance. In fact, Russian offi­cials have even used exhi­bi­tions under New START to demon­strate new deliv­ery sys­tems, like a hyper­son­ic glide vehi­cle, to U.S. inspec­tors. Without New START, the U.S. would there­fore have less intel­li­gence about Russia’s state-of-the-art weapon­ry. 

Some of the new deliv­ery sys­tems Russia is devel­op­ing do present a legit­i­mate chal­lenge in the medium term. For exam­ple, the Poseidon under­wa­ter drone and the Burevestnik cruise mis­sile are to carry nuclear war­heads, yet do not tech­ni­cal­ly count as “strate­gic” deliv­ery vehi­cles sub­ject to New START’s limits. The U.S. should cer­tain­ly work with Russia to include these new kinds of weapons in future iter­a­tions of New START. However, these new sys­tems should not pre­vent a five-year exten­sion of the treaty, as they will very likely not enter ser­vice until after 2026, if at all. (A recent test of the Burevestnik killed at least seven people.) And even when some of these new tech­nolo­gies are deployed, the United States’ cur­rent arse­nal will still be suf­fi­cient to deter the Russians from a nuclear attack. 

At the INF’s sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny in 1987, Ronald Reagan praised its com­pre­hen­sive ver­i­fi­ca­tion pro­ce­dures as uphold­ing the old Russian maxim of “trust but verify.” Unfortunately, Russian cheat­ing and the expi­ra­tion of on-site inspec­tions eroded both aspects of this for­mu­la and led to the INF’s col­lapse. In con­trast, the fact that Russia is com­ply­ing with the terms of New START, active­ly par­tic­i­pates in inspec­tions, and offered to extend New START for five years with­out pre­con­di­tions sug­gests that it is com­mit­ted to the agree­ment.

Nuclear vs. Conventional 

Finally, a third legit­i­mate reason the U.S. with­drew from the INF was because it banned both nuclear and con­ven­tion­al mis­siles, the latter of which coun­tries like China and Iran have been build­ing exten­sive­ly. As a result, the INF was much less flex­i­ble than New START, which only covers strate­gic nuclear arms. The prob­lem with a treaty that covers nuclear and con­ven­tion­al weapons is that con­ven­tion­al weapons are much less pow­er­ful and have more rou­tine uses in an era of height­ened inter­state com­pe­ti­tion. It is vital to limit the number of deployed nuclear weapons given their mas­sive destruc­tive capac­i­ty and the poten­tial for acci­dents or unau­tho­rized launch. But by ban­ning con­ven­tion­al weapons as well, the INF put the U.S. at a dis­ad­van­tage in com­pe­ti­tion with region­al powers in East Asia and the Middle East, and dimin­ished America’s abil­i­ty to respond to and deter poten­tial threats at lower rungs of the esca­la­to­ry ladder.

Unlike the INF, New START is a more flex­i­ble treaty because it only limits nuclear weapons, while allow­ing mod­ern­iza­tion of dual-use conventional/nuclear deliv­ery sys­tems. This means that New START allows the U.S. to remain com­pet­i­tive with other great powers in terms of con­ven­tion­al deliv­ery options, while pro­vid­ing high-level sta­bil­i­ty by lim­it­ing strate­gic nuclear deploy­ments. The U.S. can keep pace with Chinese mis­sile, sub­ma­rine, and hyper­son­ic devel­op­ments under the New START frame­work, where­as it could not under the INF

Conclusion 

New START is not a per­fect treaty. It does not limit non-strate­gic (i.e., tac­ti­cal) nuclear deploy­ments, for instance. But strate­gic nuclear weapons pose the most direct threat to the con­ti­nen­tal United States, and by lim­it­ing the two largest strate­gic arse­nals on the planet, New START has helped remove redun­dant and extra­or­di­nar­i­ly deadly weapons from the bat­tle­field. The destruc­tive power the U.S. retains under New START is more than suf­fi­cient to deter any state actor or coali­tion of states in a future con­flict. If New START is not renewed, the U.S. and Russia may be coaxed into an unnec­es­sary arms race. A return to the huge num­bers of nuclear weapons deployed during the Cold War — as many as 70,000 between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the mid-1980s — is nei­ther nec­es­sary for deter­rence nor fis­cal­ly respon­si­ble. As it is, the U.S. arse­nal under New START will cost $1.2 tril­lion to mod­ern­ize over the next 30 years.

The per­fect should not be the enemy of the good. New START is a good treaty, and con­tributes to U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty in impor­tant ways, most of all by ensur­ing the strate­gic nuclear bal­ance between the U.S. and Russia is main­tained at rea­son­able levels. Withdraw from the INF was jus­ti­fied because of a number of impor­tant flaws in the treaty. Those flaws are not present in New START. The Trump Administration, then, would be wise to rec­og­nize this fact and extend New START now, while nego­ti­at­ing a more com­pre­hen­sive arms con­trol treaty for the future. Nuclear arms con­trol is cur­rent­ly fail­ing with North Korea and Iran, but it need not with Russia.

Source: Defense One

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