Nuclear 'cruise control' can stop a spiraling new arms race

Nuclear 'cruise control' can stop a spiraling new arms race
© Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

The genius of the mortally wounded Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was that it sharply reduced the risk of nuclear war. It made Europe more secure by eliminating an entire class of surprise-attack nuclear weapons designed for use on its territory. We are now on a glide path to repeat the existential nightmare that such weapons created.

Russia and the United States once again are investing heavily in sea-, air- and ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles, and talking cavalierly about using them in “limited,” “low-yield” nuclear attacks. What makes this type of nuclear weapon so dangerous is that it can be launched without warning in decapitating sneak attacks.

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These cruise missiles also can be armed with conventional explosives, and there is no way to distinguish nuclear from non-nuclear ones when they are in flight. Such ambiguity erases the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, and increases the likelihood of accidental Armageddon. This is precisely why, in 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev urgently made progress in eliminating them.

We can, and must, seek to repeat their historic achievement today. We need to remember that arms control is not a pollyannaish exercise, but rather a potent tool of hard national security.

Like Reagan, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE has accelerated a massive nuclear buildup. The United States, therefore, is extremely well-positioned to drive a new hard bargain with Russia and other nuclear-armed countries. As Trump declared recently: “I hope that we’re able to get everybody in a very big and beautiful room, and do a new treaty that would be much better.”

Recently, Russia’s top arms control diplomat said Russia stands ready for talks on a possible successor to the INF Treaty. “We are ready for dialogue,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. “If the U.S. is interested, it should spell out its proposal.”

Since it appears nobody has done so, let’s spell it out. Our next agreement should focus less on overall numbers and, instead, seek to cap and eliminate the single most dangerous and destabilizing class of nuclear weapons: all nuclear-tipped cruise missiles of any range. We should start “cruise control” negotiations bilaterally between the United States and Russia, and leave room for other countries that have not yet deployed such systems — including China, India and Pakistan — to join now or later.

For three years, my colleagues and I have been laying the groundwork for such an ambitious global effort to cap and eliminate nuclear cruise missiles. In private talks with current and former senior officials from the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany, Japan and other key countries, we have found broad support and enthusiasm for this approach.  

A lot of work on verifying the absence of nuclear warheads on cruise missiles was done during the Cold War, and such work has been updated recently. It is challenging but doable. More work should be done on this, at our national laboratories, with top experts who understand which old and new technologies and methods could be applied to this task.

While government negotiations on a new agreement commence, we should give another push with our NATO allies to compel Russian compliance and preserve INF. Pulling out of the INF Treaty, as we are doing, gives Vladimir Putin a legal license to keep deploying banned missiles. Extending the duration of the New START Treaty to 2026 also should be a priority.  

Some will say that Trump has neither the fortitude nor the savvy to negotiate a “cruise control” treaty with Russia, China and others. Such a historic undertaking would require tough face-to-face talks with Putin and other leaders, and the politics of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE’s Russia investigation may sidetrack or prevent such summitry. Yet a failure to act will pull the United States further into a costly, perilous nuclear arms race.

Andrew C. Weber is a senior fellow with the Council on Strategic Risks. From 2009-2014, he served as assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs. He previously held assignments with the Department of State and Office of the Secretary of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @andyweberncb.