The United States and Russia are reportedly close to an agreement to temporarily freeze the number of nuclear warheads on both sides and extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) treaty for one year, in a move that could be disastrous for America’s nuclear deterrent.
The Trump administration had previously refused a nuclear freeze, insisting China be party to any New START extensions. But officials walked back that demand in August, probably seeking to reach an agreement before the Presidential election in November. The current agreement would extend New START for one year, and then allow for a potential future treaty to replace New START and include China.
Russia has previously resisted a nuclear weapons freeze.
New START caps the number of strategic missiles and heavy bombers to 800 total. Both countries could only deploy 700 launchers and 1,550 nuclear warheads at a maximum.
Russia has to built up its nuclear force since the treaty was signed in 2010 as the U.S. reduced deployed nuclear forces in every category.
The treaty suffers from a number of loopholes. For example, the treaty presumes bombers to carry only one warhead, while they actually can carry many more. This allows Russia to have an estimated 2,690 deployed nuclear warheads in its strategic forces as of 2019. The treaty was also criticized when it was negotiated for its weak verification mechanisms.
Russia has also been developing a range of strategic “superweapons” not covered in New START. One, called the Poseidon, is a drone which would detonate a nuclear weapon near an enemy coast creating a radioactive tsunami.
New START also did not include tactical nuclear weapons where Russia has a 10:1 advantage. Tactical nuclear weapons are central to Russia’s “escalate to deescalate” strategy. Russia could invade a neighboring country (as they did in Ukraine in 2014) using a tactical nuclear weapon that would kill a few thousand people.
The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) do not have comparable tactical weapons. The choice would be using a strategic weapon—and risking full scale nuclear war—or giving in to Russian demands. Surrender would be more likely if Russia, after showing willingness to use smaller tactical nuclear weapons, threatened to use a superweapon.
Russia’s nuclear deterrent policy, unveiled by Putin in June 2020, allows for nuclear response to a conventional weapons attack. Since 2000, all large-scale Russian military exercises have featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes. Putin has repeatedly threatened the United States and Europe with nuclear weapons, most recently in February 2019.
Given the weaknesses of New START, a nuclear freeze may seem like a win for the United States—but it is not.
Russia began modernizing their nuclear forces in 2006. In 2019, Air Force General John Hyden told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russian modernization was about 80 percent complete, and would likely be complete “next year.”
The United States is just beginning nuclear modernization—something that has not been done in forty years. U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure dates to the 1950s or earlier. During that time, North Korea, India, Pakistan and China have become nuclear powers.
Nuclear submarines designed for a thirty-year service life have been extended to forty years and “have no more margin,” according to Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, director of the Navy Strategic Systems Programs. The nuclear triad is “aging into obsolescence,” according to David Trachtenberg, the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for policy.
Russia is only open to a nuclear freeze because they are nearly done modernizing their nuclear force. Freezing the U.S. nuclear force as-is would be catastrophic.
Even a one-year temporary freeze may have detrimental consequences as the Defense Department warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that nuclear modernization was at a “tipping point” in September.
The latest New START negotiations have mirrored the Soviet Union’s strategic use of arms control. The Soviets would threaten aggression when the United States began outpacing their technology, scaring the West into negotiations. The negotiations would drag out or result in the West reducing their forces. Once the Soviets caught up, talks would fall apart, or they would simply cheat on an existing agreement.
Arms control is worth pursuing if it serves American national-security interests. Since Russia has continued the Soviet tradition of cheating on almost every-arms control agreement to date, that is unlikely. A nuclear freeze is not a diplomatic victory, it could be the death knell of the U.S. nuclear triad.
Morgan Wirthlin is the Chief of Staff at the Center for Security Policy, a national security think-tank in Washington, D.C. Follow her @morganwirthlin on Twitter. Image: Reuters