Airmen from the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron prepare a reentry system for removal from a launch facility, Feb. 2, 2018, in the F. E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex.

Airmen from the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron prepare a reentry system for removal from a launch facility, Feb. 2, 2018, in the F. E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams

Nuclear Modernization Questions Loom After New START Extension

The treaty’s extension highlights its limits as well as its strengths.

The Biden administration’s decision to extend the New START treaty wards off a strategic nuclear arms race — at least for the next half-decade — but plenty of other challenges remain in Russia’s new hypersonic missiles and smaller tactical nuclear weapons. 

“This extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial, as it is at this time. New START is the only remaining treaty constraining Russian nuclear forces and is an anchor of strategic stability between our two countries,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman, said: “Extending the treaty’s limitations on stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons until 2026 allows time and space for our two nations to explore new verifiable arms control arrangements that could further reduce risks to Americans. And the Department stands ready to support our colleagues in the State Department as they effect this extension and explore those new arrangements.”

Signed in 2011 and set to expire on Feb. 5, the agreement limits the U.S. and Russia to 700 deployed ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers; 1,550 deployed warheads; and 100 non-deployed launchers. Importantly, military leaders say, it gives both sides the right to inspect each other’s arsenal. The agreement does not cover newer weapons, such as Russia's under-development Poseidon nuclear-armed drone submarine.

It also doesn’t cover lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons. Russia has up to 2,500 of these, according to Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, and its military doctrine suggests using them to overcome a battlefield disadvantage. Russian politicians have said publicly that Moscow would consider using them against U.S. or NATO forces sent to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed fighters.

The move was blasted by Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration envoy who was running arms-control negotiations until Wednesday. “A far better approach would be a short, 6 month extension conditioned on finalizing the warhead cap to which Putin agreed. That would stop the massive Russian build-up of ‘non-strategic’ warheads & also keep the world focused on China. Instead we are getting nothing for extending,” Billngslea said on Twitter. 

Russian officials have denied that they agreed to any such cap. 

Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said Biden made the right decision. “The success of possible talks on a new deal will depend on whether they address U.S. and Russian objectives and concerns in a mutually beneficial manner — not whether New START expires in 2022 or 2026,” Reif said. The full five-year extension “provides the most time for the two sides to pursue talks on possible follow-on steps, which are likely to be complex and time-consuming.” 

But Tim Morrison, a Hudson Institute senior fellow and former top White House arms control official, said that future treaty may never arrive. "By going for the safe option of a five-year extension, President Biden is likely calculating he has his hands full with too many other priorities to attempt to negotiate an arms control treaty of his own,” Morrison said in an email. “Russia will likely pocket this and say, ‘See you in 2026, Americans.” If the Biden team is thinking of trying to negotiate any deal of their own, the first test of their seriousness will be” their 2022 budget requests for the Defense Department  and National Nuclear Security Administration.

Some folks close to Biden indicated that nuclear modernization, particularly the new ICBM, would be a low budget priority, and some tactical programs, like a sub-launched missile capable of carrying a variable-yield nuclear warhead, might get cancelled.

Said Morrison: “If they cut the bipartisan Obama-Trump nuclear deterrent modernization program in any meaningful way, expect 50 Senate Republicans to be a very cold audience for any Biden New START follow-on treaty.”