A view from above the silo housing a Titan II missile at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona.

A view from above the silo housing a Titan II missile at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona. Titan Missile Museum / Katie Lange

Top Nuke General: Russia Is Exploiting Gaps In Key Arms-Control Treaty

The leader of U.S. Strategic Command sees New START as vital, flawed, and in danger.

In the loving, grieving tones you might use at the deathbed of a dear friend, the commander of  U.S. nuclear forces conveyed at once the importance of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its current state of peril.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who leads U.S. Strategic Command, was testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. He said that while Russia isn’t technically in violation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also called New START, he says that Russia is building new nuclear weapons that should be included, but aren’t. That’s a “concern” and he has little hope of the situation turning around by 2021 when the treaty expires.

And though Hyten didn’t say so, the threat to the treaty isn’t just from Moscow. In a 2017 interview with Reuters, U.S. President Donald Trump derided the pact as “one-sided” and deemed it “Just another bad deal that the country made” under Barack Obama.

Since 2011, New START has limited both sides to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 800 intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-based missile launchers, and bombers. Its expansive inspection regime allows the parties to routinely check each other’s nuclear facilities for violations.

I want, ideally, all nuclear weapons to be part of New START, not just the ones that are in the Treaty now
Gen. John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command

“I want, ideally, all nuclear weapons to be part of New START, not just the ones that are in the Treaty now,” he said. He said and extolled that value of the treaty in terms of capping the number of conventional Russian nuclear weapons and warheads. More importantly, because New START requires both parties to submit to verification of their stockpiles and nuclear capabilities, it also gives the United States — and Strategic Command in particular — insight into Russian capabilities, which he described as “hugely beneficial.” He said that while U.S. forces can gather intelligence on Russian nuclear capabilities using satellites or other means, the ability to show up at a port of entry and request up to 18, on-site, short-notice inspections per year, would not be easy to replace. He noted that the Russians have the same rights under the treaty, and frequently exercises them by showing up in San Francisco (close to Lawrence Livermore National Lab.)

Those benefits now must be measured against other factors such as the new nuclear weapons that Russia is developing that aren’t covered in the treaty. Those include the Poseidon nuclear-armed submarine drone. Russia has said it intends to deploy 32 of them, each one potentially armed with a 2-megaton nuclear weapon. Russia has also conducted tests of a nuclear-powered cruise missile called the Burevestnik that could fly for much longer than a conventional missile (longer than a day, by some estimates) executing advanced maneuvers to allow it to evade enemy air defenses — assuming, of course, that it works as the Russian government advertises.

To Hyten, the problem is that those new weapons aren’t covered by New START. Result: the Russians have found a loophole.

“There’s also a clause in the treaty that says… if one of the parties of the treaty sees the development of new strategic arms, they can come to the bilateral consultative commission and bring those things forward. I have not seen that happen. But we have seen them developing capabilities that are outside of that treaty, which is concerning to me,” he said.

That clause is Article V: “When a Party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party shall have the right to raise the question of such a strategic offensive arm for consideration in the Bilateral Consultative Commission.”

You have to have a partner who wants to participate. It's going to be like INF
Gen. John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked Hyten whether he supported the extension of New START. The general answered with ambivalence. “You have to have a partner who wants to participate. It's going to be like INF,” the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that the Trump administration is in the process of withdrawing from, citing Russian non-compliance. “If the Russians continue to build the capabilities outside of the New START Treaty that aren’t accountable and [they] won’t come to the table…If they won’t do that, that causes me to have concern.”

Under the treaty, the United States can raise the issue of new nuclear weapons with a bilateral commission, but Russia doesn’t have to acknowledge the U.S. position. And Russia isn’t under any obligation to bring the Poseidon or any other new weapons to the commission before deploying them.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation for American Scientists, says he was “struck by how important [Hyten] thinks New START is,” both for keeping a lid on Russian forces but also by allowing on-site inspectors to learn things about capabilities that reconnaissance satellites and eavesdropping gear cannot. “He also said he wanted all nuclear weapons to be included in a treaty, a proposal the Obama administration was pushing but that I haven’t heard the Trump administration follow up on,” Kristensen said.

Kingston Reif, who directs Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, said, “In my view, these new Russian weapons are strategic weapons and we should engage with Russia on the matter to seek to capture them” — that is, to regulate them under New START. “Indeed, there might be trade space here to address both our concerns about Russia's development of new kinds of weapons and Russia's concerns about the procedures the United States has used to remove some [sub-launched ballistic missiles] and B-52H bombers from accountability under the treaty, Reif said.”

Hyten said he has discussed new weapons that fall outside of the treaty with Trump. But the StratCom commander says New START shares another flaw with the INF treaty: it does not include China. “I have talked about New START to the president. We want Russia in that treaty. We want them to participate. But if they won’t, we’re tying our own hands to deal with the adversaries in the world including China,” he said.

The Trump administration is broadly reviewing the country’s arms-control obligations: “where they stand, what we’re doing, what the other treaty partners are doing, next steps as necessary,” Andrea L. Thompson, the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security at the State Department, said in February. But she declined to address speculation that the United States is laying the groundwork to withdraw from the New START Treaty. “We’ve started discussions on New START but we have two years,” Thompson said in an interview.  

A senior administration official told reporters earlier this month that the United States is “committed to the implementation of the New START treaty but we have not made any decisions about its extension.”

Reif said that White House interest in fixing the gaps seems to lag behind their enthusiasm for getting rid of it. “Unfortunately, the White House doesn't appear in any hurry to begin talks with Russia to address these issues or an extension of the treaty. Bolton, who is leading the interagency review to develop the U.S. position on whether to extend New START, has long lambasted the treaty,” he said. “Without the treaty, Russia's strategic nuclear forces would be unconstrained and we'd have less insight into those forces. We would be crazy to throw away these national security benefits. The cost to replicate the information provided by the treaty would be significant and the incentives to grow the force beyond the treaty limits could grow, thereby increasing the already crushing projected cost to sustain and replace the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

Hyten, meanwhile, said he doubts that future negotiations with Russians on New START will go any better than recent talks over Russian INF violations. The State Department, he said, is “reaching out to the Russians and the Russians are not answering favorably,” he said.

Katie Bo Williams contributed to this article.