When Donald Trump assumed the presidency, there were two major nuclear arms control treaties in force between the United States and Russia. Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, last year, and his administration appears unlikely to renew New START before it expires in February 2021, despite Russian willingness to extend the treaty for five years. That would be a mistake — and the collapse of the INF illustrates why.
Although debate continues over whether President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF was wise, there were at least three good reasons for doing so. None of these rationales apply to New START.
The China Factor and Limits versus Bans
One logical reason to withdraw from the INF was that it banned the U.S. and Russia from having land-based intermediate-range missiles even as China and other countries built large stockpiles of these weapons. In fact, about 95 percent of Chinese missiles would violate the INF if China were a signatory. The INF thus put the U.S.(and Russia) at a relative disadvantage compared to China — one that could be rectified by pulling out of the agreement and developing ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, which is exactly what the U.S. is doing today.
New START gives China no such advantage. First, New START is a more flexible treaty than the INF. Instead of banning an entire class of weapons, New START sets a limit on the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles the U.S. and Russia can deploy. Specifically, it limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons). The “limited” number of nuclear weapons the U.S. retains under New START could still inflict unimaginable damage and is more than sufficient to threaten complete destruction of China, Russia, or any other country in the world many times over.
More importantly, although China is not subject to New START restrictions, it has a much smaller strategic nuclear arsenal than the U.S. or Russia. While the U.S. deploys almost 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads and has thousands more in reserve, China has only about 290 total nuclear warheads. Consequently, there is no need for China to join New START in the short or medium term, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for and prominent senators such as Tom Cotton have demanded as a precondition for an extension of the treaty. Even if China doubles its nuclear stockpile in the next decade, as the U.S. government expects, it will still not come close to the limits outlined in New START. And if for some reason China decides to engage in a nuclear arms race in the next five years, the United States can always withdraw from the treaty, though our existing arsenal under New START would still be capable of deterring a Chinese attack.
Inadvertently, pressing Beijing to join New START could actually spur a Chinese nuclear buildup. As one high-level Chinese diplomat said, “Do you want to bring your arsenal down to our level, or our arsenal up to yours?”
Russian Compliance and On-Site Verification
Another reason the Trump Administration cited for withdrawing from the INF was that Russia had built and deployed a prohibited intermediate-range missile. The U.S. detected Russian violations by national technical means, like satellite surveillance and electronic intelligence, rather than by on-site inspections, which were phased out of the INF regime in 2001. Without on-site proof, however, Russia could more credibly deny U.S. claims. Unlike the INF, on-site inspections remain in place under New START. Specifically, New START allows the U.S. and Russia to conduct 18 short-notice, on-site inspections per year, with additional provisions for data exchange and dialogue. Since 2011, when the treaty came into force, over 300 on-site inspections and almost 20,000 notifications related to the production, deployment and movement of nuclear weapons have taken place between the United States and Russia. Inspections, exhibitions, and data-sharing under New START give the U.S. a comprehensive view of Russia’s strategic nuclear force posture. As the general in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal said, these insights are “unbelievably important for me to understand what Russia is doing.” Plus, with on-site inspections, violations of New START will be easier to detect, and claims of violations will be more credible because proof will come in the form of direct, visual evidence.
Even more importantly, whereas Russia was violating the INF, it is not violating the New START agreement. Over the life of New START, the U.S. and Russia have both met reduction targets. Today, U.S. officials publicly maintain that Russia is in compliance. In fact, Russian officials have even used exhibitions under New START to demonstrate new delivery systems, like a hypersonic glide vehicle, to U.S. inspectors. Without New START, the U.S. would therefore have less intelligence about Russia’s state-of-the-art weaponry.
Some of the new delivery systems Russia is developing do present a legitimate challenge in the medium term. For example, the Poseidon underwater drone and the Burevestnik cruise missile are to carry nuclear warheads, yet do not technically count as “strategic” delivery vehicles subject to New START’s limits. The U.S. should certainly work with Russia to include these new kinds of weapons in future iterations of New START. However, these new systems should not prevent a five-year extension of the treaty, as they will very likely not enter service until after 2026, if at all. (A recent test of the Burevestnik killed at least seven people.) And even when some of these new technologies are deployed, the United States’ current arsenal will still be sufficient to deter the Russians from a nuclear attack.
At the INF’s signing ceremony in 1987, Ronald Reagan praised its comprehensive verification procedures as upholding the old Russian maxim of “trust but verify.” Unfortunately, Russian cheating and the expiration of on-site inspections eroded both aspects of this formula and led to the INF’s collapse. In contrast, the fact that Russia is complying with the terms of New START, actively participates in inspections, and offered to extend New START for five years without preconditions suggests that it is committed to the agreement.
Nuclear vs. Conventional
Finally, a third legitimate reason the U.S. withdrew from the INF was because it banned both nuclear and conventional missiles, the latter of which countries like China and Iran have been building extensively. As a result, the INF was much less flexible than New START, which only covers strategic nuclear arms. The problem with a treaty that covers nuclear and conventional weapons is that conventional weapons are much less powerful and have more routine uses in an era of heightened interstate competition. It is vital to limit the number of deployed nuclear weapons given their massive destructive capacity and the potential for accidents or unauthorized launch. But by banning conventional weapons as well, the INF put the U.S. at a disadvantage in competition with regional powers in East Asia and the Middle East, and diminished America’s ability to respond to and deter potential threats at lower rungs of the escalatory ladder.
Unlike the INF, New START is a more flexible treaty because it only limits nuclear weapons, while allowing modernization of dual-use conventional/nuclear delivery systems. This means that New START allows the U.S. to remain competitive with other great powers in terms of conventional delivery options, while providing high-level stability by limiting strategic nuclear deployments. The U.S. can keep pace with Chinese missile, submarine, and hypersonic developments under the New START framework, whereas it could not under the INF.
New START is not a perfect treaty. It does not limit non-strategic (i.e., tactical) nuclear deployments, for instance. But strategic nuclear weapons pose the most direct threat to the continental United States, and by limiting the two largest strategic arsenals on the planet, New START has helped remove redundant and extraordinarily deadly weapons from the battlefield. The destructive power the U.S. retains under New START is more than sufficient to deter any state actor or coalition of states in a future conflict. If New START is not renewed, the U.S. and Russia may be coaxed into an unnecessary arms race. A return to the huge numbers of nuclear weapons deployed during the Cold War—as many as 70,000 between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the mid-1980s—is neither necessary for deterrence nor fiscally responsible. As it is, the U.S. arsenal under New START will cost $1.2 trillion to modernize over the next 30 years.
The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. New START is a good treaty, and contributes to U.S. national security in important ways, most of all by ensuring the strategic nuclear balance between the U.S. and Russia is maintained at reasonable levels. Withdraw from the INF was justified because of a number of important flaws in the treaty. Those flaws are not present in New START. The Trump Administration, then, would be wise to recognize this fact and extend New START now, while negotiating a more comprehensive arms control treaty for the future. Nuclear arms control is currently failing with North Korea and Iran, but it need not with Russia.