Bring back the Arms Control Agency

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States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

One of the big mistakes after the Cold War ended was the abolition of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).  But unlike other mistakes the United States made, this one could be fixed easily. We should bring back the agency, which was abolished in 1999, because we are once again in a dangerous arms race that we don’t really understand, and because we will face future problems that we can’t even imagine today. 

President Kennedy created the ACDA in 1961 as the United States and the Soviet Union were accelerating their arms race. The timing was significant. The Cold War arms race started in the 1950s and by the early 1960s, policy had degenerated into a jumble of political, operational and technological issues. There were plans for a massive nuclear build-up beyond what already had occurred, “spasm” nuclear retaliation, and doomsday machines. The danger of accidental war triggered by faulty radars and computers was growing.

What was needed was a big-picture view that put these problems into a broader context that went beyond narrow military strategy. Like today, no one knew where the arms race might lead. It could lead to war, as World War I had shown. Or, there might be real opportunities for slowing it down by avoiding the most provocative moves. JFK was deeply influenced by both of these possibilities, but his immediate challenge was that such important, but not necessarily urgent, issues would be overlooked, as they were in the 1950s. The bureaucratic scrum for resources would drive policy. This would leave out the important questions, such as how to talk to Moscow in a nuclear crisis. The Pentagon for years had sidelined the “hotline,” as well as improved nuclear command and control to prevent accidental war.

ACDA was created to rise above the inside experts in strategy, technology and war to examine the challenges that were becoming all the more dangerous with new military technologies at the time, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines and faulty warning radars.  JFK’s response was to make ACDA an autonomous agency, one that couldn’t be ignored or sidelined because it wasn’t controlled by the Pentagon, State Department, or CIA. These departments despised it for this reason. 

Sixty years later, we are in a second nuclear age. The United States, China and Russia have lost the monopoly they once had on the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have spread to nine countries, and this number is more likely to go up than down.

It’s a different world than 1961, but one thing hasn’t changed: The need to rise above the narrow, “urgent” issues of national security is still critical, and too often overlooked. We need to foresee as best we can the challenges of an arms race, this one with new technologies such as artificial intelligence, a space war and cyber attacks, in addition to nuclear weapons.

This is why President Biden should bring back the Arms Control Agency. No one in government is asking how, or even whether, this new world of multipolar nuclear deterrence is going to work. Urgent budget issues drive out such questions. We need a lobby for these questions, one that’s inside the government — and independent from other powerful agencies — to shape the debate in ways that rise above budget fights. 

In recent years, arms control has lost traction in Congress, the Pentagon, universities, and with the public. My students at Yale haven’t heard of the debates over new weapons in the Cold War because arms control is rarely taught in our colleges today. It is extremely dangerous for the national security of the most powerful country in the world not to have a serious lobby for arms control. We are headed into a new arms race with little more than military rationales for policies that require a political and moral foundation.

The cost of re-establishing ACDA is trivial. The United States is set to buy 600 new missiles to modernize our nuclear force. If we reduce this number by just one, to 599 missiles, it would cover the cost of an agency whose job it was to look at where the arms race could go and to lobby for ways to control it.

The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency needs to return because no other group inside the government takes its perspective. Thinking about where we’re going, and how to cope in imaginative ways with the dangers ahead, is worth the price of one missile.

Paul Bracken is a professor of management and political science at Yale University. He testified on this topic to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 28, 2021. 

Tags Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Joe Biden Nuclear disarmament Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons

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