U.S. policy makers have lost sight of the crucial link between arms control and deterrence.
U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and U.S. nuclear arms-control policy have become dangerously disconnected.
Longstanding deterrence policy requires that the U.S. have sufficient capacity to target what potential enemy leaders value most. Arms control is supposed to augment deterrence by limiting, and if possible reducing, the threats while allowing the U.S. to deploy a force that deters an attack on America or our allies. The policies were tightly linked throughout the closing decades of the Cold War, providing the U.S. and its allies with a credible deterrent and producing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, known as Start 1 and Start 2, which were signed in 1991 and 1993 respectively and reduced the levels of U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons.
Today the U.S. is bound by the “New Start Treaty,” an accord signed in 2010, a time when Russia was seen as a competitor rather than a threat, and China was hardly a factor. The world is different now: darker, more dangerous and getting worse.
The Biden administration’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance notes starkly that “both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world” and describes China as “increasingly assertive” and Russia as “destabilizing.” That was before the invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling.
New Start limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 accountable traditional strategic nuclear weapons each. Since the treaty’s signing Russia has deployed between 2,000 and 2,500 modern shorter-range nuclear systems—the weapons Mr. Putin would use for a nuclear escalation in Ukraine. New Start doesn’t constrain these, nor does it cover “nontraditional” strategic nuclear weapons, such as the Poseidon transoceanic nuclear torpedo, which Russia also has.
Meantime, China’s nuclear arsenal has grown significantly, and is projected to grow much larger. In 2011 Beijing was estimated to have about 20 single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, another 100 or so shorter-range nuclear missiles, and no operational ballistic-missile submarines. Today Beijing has nearly 100 ICBMs, many carrying multiple warheads and some that are road-mobile, and is building silos for several hundred more. The Chinese navy has six ballistic-missile subs, and the Chinese air force is equipping long-range bombers with an innovative air-to-surface ballistic missile. A large and growing force of nuclear-capable short- and medium-range missiles supports China’s strategic nuclear forces.
Simple logic and arithmetic make clear that the 1,550 accountable warhead cap agreed on in 2010 is inadequate to deal with the growth in Russia’s strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces, let alone the vast increase in China’s nuclear arsenal. Since effective deterrence requires targeting what potential enemy leaders value, we must be able to threaten, separately and in combination, both Russia’s and China’s key assets—including their leaders’ ability to command and control the state, their military forces, and the industrial potential to sustain war. New Start constrains U.S. forces below the levels needed in the near future to accomplish this. Arms control, rather than augmenting our ability to deter, is undercutting it.
Fortunately, with the U.S. strategic-forces modernization finally about to begin fielding new forces, Washington is in a position to reset the table, as it was in the 1980s when the Reagan administration began its nuclear-triad modernization effort.
To do so, however, the Biden administration needs to recognize some new realities. The numerical cap of New Start won’t serve U.S. national-security interests in a world with two nuclear peer states as potential enemies—a first in the nuclear age. Because of the growth of Russian shorter-range nuclear forces in the past 10 years, New Start no longer serves U.S. security interests even in a bilateral U.S.-Russian context.
The administration should provide a year’s notice of U.S. intent to exit the treaty to preserve American national interests. That in turn presents two alternatives:
If the U.S.-Russian arms-control dialogue survives Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—a big if—and assuming Mr. Putin doesn’t detonate a nuclear weapon, the administration could propose a new U.S.-Russian treaty with a ceiling of 3,000 to 3,500 total nuclear weapons for each side. This would limit the threats to our allies and homeland and also permit a U.S. strategic nuclear capability that would deter both Russia and China. (Including China in a trilateral nuclear arms-control accord is unrealistic. China has rejected participation in such talks as well as the transparency and verification vital to a successful treaty.)
If a new arms-control dialogue is politically unacceptable, the Biden administration should exit New Start after a year and begin building toward the 3,000 to 3,500 force levels to maintain a credible deterrent against Moscow and Beijing. Many members of the Western arms-control community would complain of a “new arms race.”
But as former Defense Secretary Ash Carter has observed, that race is already under way; the U.S. simply isn’t running. Russia and China have been increasing their new nuclear systems for a decade while the first products of the U.S. triad-modernization program won’t be deployed until the mid-2020s. Critics will claim raising the 1,550 limit will send the wrong signal—but continuing to turn a blind eye to the nontraditional and shorter-range Russian systems sends a much worse signal.
Finally, the critics will assert that these steps will hurt arms control. But arms control isn’t an end in itself; it is a means to enhance stability. The major reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic arms in 1989-1992 and again in 2002 weren’t designed to create arms reductions for reductions’ sake but were justified by what the U.S. believed we needed to deter the threats of those times. Times and threats have changed, and our first responsibility must be to ensure we can deter both today’s threats and those of tomorrow.
Mr. Miller served for three decades as a senior nuclear policy and arms control official in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council staff.
Appeared in the April 22, 2022, print edition as ‘Outdated Nuclear Treaties Heighten the Risk of Nuclear War’.
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