Dealing Huge: A Trumpian Arms Control Agenda

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un look at each others before signing documents that acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. They are flanked by Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The White House knows that any denuclearization agreement with Pyongyang must assure North Korea ends its enrichment and reprocessing activities.

Assuming negotiations with Pyongyang will take some months, and possibly more, it would be helpful to spotlight the advantages of at least shuttering reprocessing in the region. China’s nuclear-power expansion is slowing down. Beijing is talking about building a commercial reprocessing plant, but it hasn’t found a construction site that its public will accept. Japan won’t start its costly reprocessing plant at Rokkasho for at least another three to four years and South Korea says it will build no new additional reactors and plans to get out of nuclear power entirely. President Trump, meanwhile, has called for terminating the Department of Energy’s costly effort to fabricate surplus weapons plutonium to fuel U.S. commercial power reactors. Securing decisions to pause the recycling of plutonium in each of these countries would make sense.

This, then, brings us to Trump’s other nuclear initiative that could foster greater strategic restraint—the Pentagon’s planned upgrades to our strategic forces. Given the growing number of new Russian and Chinese missiles and Moscow’s and Beijing’s deployment of new, offensive military-capable satellites, the Pentagon aims to catch up with nuclear and nonnuclear missiles and an assortment of stealthy, maneuverable and offensive satellites of its own. The general idea is to keep our military competitive with the Russians and Chinese. What precisely we are competing for, however, is less clear.

One answer floated in the President’s Nuclear Posture Review is that enhancing our strategic capabilities can afford us leverage to get the Russians and Chinese to reduce theirs. The review spotlighted America’s deployment in the 1980s of ground-launched intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles in Europe, which persuaded the Russians to eliminate their intermediate ground-launched missiles with the United States under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987.

How might we compete to cap or close out strategic military competitions today? With new, more capable missiles, the United States could get the Russians and Chinese to consider useful missile limits; with more capable satellites, needed space control rules.

China’s growing arsenal of nuclear and conventional ground-launched missiles can target our aircraft carrier task forces and overseas military bases. Our missile defenses alone cannot deal with the ever increasing number and quality of these missiles (China has the largest number of ground-based, long-range missiles in the world). Russia, meanwhile, has been modernizing its nuclear missile force and has violated the INF Treaty to threaten our European allies.

These challenges help explain why the Pentagon is pushing the development of new nuclear and nonnuclear missiles along with high-speed hypersonic missiles that can punch through Chinese and Russian missile defenses—developments Moscow and Beijing oppose. Russia, however, fears Chinese influence over Siberia, is redeploying Russian missiles to its Pacific region, and has quietly suggested that any “new” INF Treaty has to account for Beijing’s growing arsenal of missiles. China, meanwhile, wants Russia to reveal and limit its nuclear missile holdings and is eager to reduce U.S. missile capabilities.

It would make sense for Washington to work these Chinese and Russian worries by proposing an INF-like treaty that would include China or by cutting a separate deal with Moscow that would prohibit INF missiles in Europe but allow them in Asia. The later ploy, which could be floated in a summit Trump has proposed with Putin, might increase Chinese interest to secure a new INF-like agreement.

Roughly, this same approach could be taken to forge needed international space controls to help prevent China or Russia from threatening space Pearl Harbors against critical U.S. and allied satellites. These satellites serve as the eyes, ears and nervous system for the operation of U.S. and allied conventional and American strategic nuclear forces. Of particular concern are new Chinese and Russian maneuvering satellites (with “claws”) that will soon be deployed to clean up space debris and service existing satellites. Useful for peaceful purposes, these also could stalk crucial U.S. and allied satellites and move in to destroy them before our military could take effective defensive or counter-offensive actions. President Trump’s just released space policy recognizes these threats and reserves the right for America to “counter” these threats if “deterrence” against them “fails.”