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Time to restart nuclear arms negotiations with Russia

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The Associated Press reported on April 17 that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, discussed nuclear arms control issues. Minister Lavrov reportedly expressed a desire to extend the New START Treaty, which expires next year.  Separately, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov added that Russia’s new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle could be counted along with other Russian nuclear weapons under the treaty. The U.S. already considers these systems subject to New START limitations. 

Minister Lavrov was specific that Washington must agree to extend New START before Russia would agree to include new Russian systems in future negotiations. Secretary Pompeo reiterated the U.S. position that future arms control talks must embrace the White House desire to include China in a trilateral arms control agreement.

Frankly, holding New START hostage to Chinese agreement to join a trilateral negotiation makes no sense. Under New START, Russia and the U.S. are permitted to deploy up to 1,550 nuclear warheads. China maintains a minimum deterrence force that the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency recently stated to be a couple of hundred nuclear warheads. Given this large disparity, China has little to gain from negotiating and has shown little interest in doing so. If Russia and the U.S. can bring their numbers down significantly through a new round of negotiations, there could be a basis then to persuade China to join a trilateral negotiation.

The Trump administration should immediately accept the Russian offer to extend the New START Treaty and to engage in a new round of strategic arms negotiations. New START is the only U.S.-Russian nuclear treaty still in effect. If the pact is permitted to expire in February 2021, there will be no limits on Russian strategic systems and no inspection regime to verify what types and numbers of systems the Russians are deploying. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Intelligence Community are solidly in favor of extending New START because they know what the adverse impact will be on our ability to assess the threat to U.S. interests and our planning to address that threat.

A bold approach the U.S. should consider is to enter into a negotiation now with Russia to extend New START at a lower level of 1,000 deployed warheads from the currently authorized 1,550. During the 2010 negotiations on New START, the Joint Chiefs certified that 1,000 would be adequate to support our deterrence strategy. Most of the rest of the New START text could remain the same, and the goal should be to extend the treaty at the lower level quickly and immediately enter into another negotiation to include new systems as the Russians suggest, possibly at even lower levels. The Office of the Secretary of Defense should be tasked to do an analysis to determine how low we could go under 1,000 deployed warheads.  

Some caution is warranted concerning the Russian proposal. We should be careful about agreeing to include hypersonic glide vehicles in follow-on negotiations. The U.S. needs a long-range, conventional missile using this technology and it is currently a high-priority Department of Defense program. We need a conventionally armed, hypersonic missile in the range of 8,000 to 10,000 kilometers that can be launched from U.S.-controlled territory on short notice. Why? If we had hard intelligence today that North Korea is preparing nuclear armed missiles with sufficient range to reach U.S. territory for launch, the only systems we have that can strike that target promptly are nuclear. A conventional long-range, prompt-strike system provides a much-needed option.   

Russia and China fear such a system because, if deployed in large numbers, it could provide a conventional first-strike capability against their nuclear systems. Currently, we do not plan to build a nuclear version and we could agree to limit the number of the conventional versions to be deployed. But the definition of hypersonic glide vehicle would have to be crafted carefully so an agreement doesn’t capture our planned conventional version. A policy statement also should be included in the agreement text concerning our intent not to consider a conventional version subject to the treaty.

Extending New START and entering into negotiations to reduce the numbers of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic systems are both in the U.S. national interest. The Trump administration should seize this opportunity to do so.

John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel with a military career spanning 45 years, with significant time in Joint Service assignments where he taught nuclear strategy and helped to formulate arms control agreements.  

Tags Mike Pompeo New START Nuclear strategies Nuclear warfare Russia and weapons of mass destruction Sergey Lavrov

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