The United States’ nuclear deterrence and arms-control policies have grown dangerously disjointed, writes Franklin C. Miller, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush, in his article for WSJ.
Long-standing deterrence policy necessitates the United States’ ability to target what potential adversary leaders value most. Arms control is designed to bolster deterrence by restricting, and if possible, lowering threats while permitting the US to deploy a force capable of deterring an attack on the US or its allies. Throughout the final decades of the Cold War, according to him, the policies were intertwined, providing a credible deterrent to the US and its allies and resulting in 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 US and Soviet strategic nuclear weapons.
The “New Start Treaty,” signed in 2010, binds the United States today, at a time when Russia was considered a rival rather than a danger, and China was hardly a player.
“The world is different now: darker, more dangerous and getting worse,” he says.
“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,” according to the Biden administration’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which also labels China as “increasingly assertive” and Russia as “destabilizing.” That was before Ukraine’s invasion and Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats.
The United States and Russia are each limited to 1,550 responsible conventional strategic nuclear weapons under New Start. Since the signing of the treaty, Russia has installed between 2,000 and 2,500 contemporary shorter-range nuclear systems, the weapons Mr. Putin would use in a nuclear escalation in Ukraine. New Start has no restrictions on them, nor does it cover “nontraditional” strategic nuclear weapons like Russia’s Poseidon transoceanic nuclear torpedo.
Meanwhile, China’s nuclear arsenal has increased greatly and is expected to grow significantly more in the future. Beijing has roughly 20 single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, another 100 or more shorter-range nuclear missiles, and no active ballistic missile submarines in 2011. Beijing now has about 100 ICBMs, several of which can carry multiple warheads and are road-mobile, and is developing silos for hundreds more. The Chinese navy has six ballistic missile submarines, while the Chinese air force is arming long-range bombers with an advanced air-to-surface missile. China’s strategic nuclear forces are supported by a huge and expanding arsenal of nuclear-capable short- and medium-range missiles.
The 1,550 responsible warhead cap agreed upon in 2010 is clearly insufficient to deal with the growth of Russia’s strategic and nonstrategic nuclear capabilities, let alone the huge expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal.
“Since effective deterrence requires targeting what potential enemy leaders value,” according to the former official, “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 keeps US forces below the levels required to achieve this in the foreseeable future. Instead of enhancing our power to deter, arms control undermines it.
Fortunately, with the United States’ strategic-forces modernization program ready to start fielding new forces, Washington is in a position to reset the table, as it was during the Reagan administration’s nuclear-triad modernization effort in the 1980s.
“To do so, however,” he recommends, “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.”
He further adds: “The administration should provide a year’s notice of U.S. intent to exit the treaty to preserve American national interests.”
This leaves two options:
“If the US-Russian arms-control dialogues survive Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” according to Mr. Miller, “a big if—and Mr. Putin doesn’t detonate a nuclear weapon, the administration could propose a new US-Russian treaty with a total nuclear weapons ceiling of 3,000 to 3,500 for each side.”
This would reduce threats to our allies and country while also allowing the US to develop a strategic nuclear capability capable of deterring both Russia and China. (It’s impossible to expect China to join a trilateral nuclear arms control agreement.) China has ruled out taking part in such discussions, as well as the transparency and verification that are required for a successful pact.)
If a new arms-control debate is politically unpalatable, the Biden administration should pull out of New Start after a year and start building up to 3,000 to 3,500 troops to maintain a credible deterrence against Moscow and Beijing. Many in the Western weapons control community would bemoan the start of a “new arms race.”
However, as former Defense Secretary Ash Carter has pointed out, the race is already underway; the United States is simply not participating. For the past decade, Russia and China have been increasing their new nuclear systems, whereas the first products of the United States’ triad-modernization program will not be deployed until the mid-2020s. Critics may argue that raising the 1,550 limit will send the wrong message, but continuing to ignore Russia’s unconventional and shorter-range missiles sends a much worse message.
Finally, detractors would argue that these actions will jeopardize weapons 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,” concludes the author.
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