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Arms control agreement with Russia should cover more than nuclear weapons

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With the Russia investigation and impeachment behind him, President Trump finally may feel empowered to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin and pursue an arms control deal.  Arms control experts are focused on whether the U.S. and Russia can save the 2010 New START Treaty, which limits strategic nuclear weapons. On Feb. 5, national security adviser Robert O’Brien announced that he was dispatching officials to Moscow to “start negotiations soon on arms control.” The same day, the Arms Control Association published an Issue Brief urging the extension of New START, which is due to expire in January 2021. Other experts argue we cannot trust Russia to obey the treaty.

Russia and the U.S. have said they want to extend the treaty, but with changes to address new strategic weapons and capabilities each claims the other side is developing. Experts fear a dangerous era of escalation if Russia and the U.S. fail to save their last remaining bilateral nuclear arms control agreement. But START, and Cold War model treaties like it, cannot protect America from strategic attack anymore.   

When the best American and Russian scientific minds of the 1960s created our Cold War strategic arms control regime, they could not balance even the two variables of defensive and offensive nuclear missiles in the strategic arms equation. So, they banned one variable outright — missile defenses — with the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. This enabled the two sides to establish strategic stability by counting offensive nuclear weapons. This has been the treaty model for strategic arms control ever since. 

START follows that model by counting nuclear warheads and their delivery systems — missiles and bombers. Under START, both countries commit to having no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads on 700 deployed missiles and bombers. 

But, America’s strategic security no longer is solely a function of how many missiles and nuclear warheads we have in relation to Russia or other countries. In today’s world of rapidly emerging technologies and capabilities, many with strategic effects, we no longer can be confident in our security by simply counting nuclear systems.

Take the example of the recently deceased INF Treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty). In the 1980s, the U.S. and Russia were in a dangerous nuclear standoff in Europe with hundreds of nuclear-tipped, immediate-range missiles able to destroy Europe’s capitals in minutes after launch. The solution, a good one at the time, was to eliminate the intermediate range ground-launched missiles. But over the three decades that followed, the U.S. developed and deployed new capabilities which, while not technically violating the treaty, made it superfluous.  Today, the U.S. can launch drones and sea-based cruise missiles, which could be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads, and strike the same targets that Russia sought to protect in 1987.  

By the time Russia violated the INF Treaty in the 2000s the treaty already had ceased protecting Russia and was on the verge of failing to protect us and our allies. Continuing that treaty, while it might have demonstrated mutual trust, would have done nothing to stop the progression of new weapons undermining the security once provided by the agreement. 

Today, new technologies and capabilities are having a similar effect on our last remaining strategic nuclear arms agreement: New START. Saving the existing START Treaty would be a sign of good faith, something that is sorely needed and should be supported.  

But extending START won’t solve our problem. New capabilities and technologies complicate the strategic stability math. How do we integrate missile defenses into our strategic equation?  No one knows. What is the impact of cyber on our strategic stability? We aren’t sure. What is the impact of China on strategic balance? What about Russian nuclear torpedoes or American nuclear-armed drones? We don’t know. New technologies such as lasers and space-based weapons are coming soon, and they are not even under discussion. Artificial intelligence is around the corner.

Whether we save START or not, our real efforts must be focused on creating a new paradigm for strategic arms control — one that is based not on counting weapons but on preventing their use.  We should not refer to the agreement as a nuclear treaty because it needs to cover much more than just nuclear weapons. It should address weapons with strategic effects. And our effort must include more states than just Russia. It’s time to dedicate real brains and real money to creating a new model for preventing strategic attack on America.  

Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan is an associate fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He served as U.S. defense attaché to Moscow and chief of staff of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. 

Tags Donald Trump Great power competition Missile defense New START Strategic nuclear weapon US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin

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