A Pivotal Moment in US-Russian Arms Control

Daniel Puentes, Ph.D. candidate and Chelsie Boodoo, Ph.D. student, , UCS | July 17, 2020, 5:09 pm EDT
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Nuclear weapons have plagued the international security environment since the first atomic weapon was successfully detonated at the Trinity test site in July 1945. Today, the situation has grown more complicated as arms control agreements and treaties are dismantled in an “America First” attitude adopted by the current administration. In the last four years, the United States has pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal) and the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. After multiple accusations by the US against Russia for non-compliance, the current administration has signaled its intention to exit the Open Skies Treaty this past May. Internal discussions about resuming nuclear weapons testing add to the ongoing tension.

These actions are worrisome for the future of the final bilateral nuclear arms control between the US and the Russian Federation: The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). New START will expire on February 5, 2021, unless President Trump and President Putin agree to extend it for up to five years. If New START expires, it will be the first time since 1972 that both the US and Russia will have no restrictions on expanding their nuclear arsenals. This means that Russia may increase the number of deployed nuclear warheads without any verifiable evidence. This will create pressure for the US to also increase its nuclear arsenal, spiraling up an unnecessary, hugely expensive arms race, and destabilizing international security as a whole, making nuclear war more likely.

New START negotiations and verification

Verification is the mechanism that provides a confirmation that legally-binding treaty commitments are being honored and not being eluded by the treaty or agreement between treaty party members. Verification is an important feature that exists in any effective arms control instrument and was hotly debated during the New START negotiations. Both sides wanted to make sure that cheating was not feasible without getting caught. As a result, both sides were able to come to an agreement that provided a detailed plan that would allow verification to be whole and complete. This included streamlining how inspections are performed, and the types of inspections to verify reported numbers by both the US and Russia.

Two types of inspections were developed as a result of these negotiations: Type I and Type II inspections. Type I inspections allow the treaty member to send inspectors on short notice (at least 36 hours) to a base housing deployed nuclear warheads and delivery systems. These delivery systems include intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. The inspections included picking a missile at random and determining through radiation detection how many reentry vehicles with nuclear warheads are housed at the top of the missile without revealing technical information about the warhead. The US and Russia can each perform 10 Type I inspections per year.

Type II inspections allow treaty members to inspect facilities that house non-deployed nuclear delivery systems. These inspections can also include maintenance and storage stations. Each state is allowed 8 of Type II inspections per year. This verification regime was created with the idea of simplifying past arms control architectures and recognizing the global climate at the time. Since New START has entered into force, both the US and Russia have met the treaty-specified limits.

In February 2018, both states became compliant with the treaty reduction limits outlined in 2010. Through verification, both states have met the deployed nuclear warheads limit of 1,550 each. Deployed and non-deployed delivery systems have also dropped below 800, with deployed systems under 700 for each side. New START, however, does not cover non-strategic or hypersonic delivery systems, which has been a continued criticism by the US.

An uncertain future

With the recent announcement to leave the Open Skies Treaty, many strategists are beginning to doubt the likelihood of a New START extension. With limited time left, there are only two options that both nations could pursue. The most desirable option would be extending New START for a period of up to five years. The Trump administration is considering a shorter extension. A five-year extension is by far the best option. Either way, an extension would signal to the world that both the US and Russia are committed to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

The other option is to let New START expire on February 5, 2021. Without a verification regime, the US would lose any insight on Russian nuclear forces, especially after a period of Russian weapon systems modernization. Departure from New START would also further strain relations between the US and Russia for future arms control endeavors, if any future ones are taken on at all.

This would also lower the probability of a successful Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference scheduled to take place in 2021. Failure to extend New START could even spell disaster for other treaties related to the NPT, including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which has still not entered into force. A world without the New START can be disastrous for international and domestic relations.

So, what now?

To spread awareness about this issue, we worked with three other graduate students to draft a white paper, which has been successfully published in the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. In this white paper, we outline multiple policy recommendations, including a call to US federal leaders to support legislation that is currently sitting in Congress right now that support New START extension. H.R.2529 and S.2394 are bipartisan laws that have been cosponsored by both Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress. While the laws do not have a direct impact on the extension of New START, passing this law would show Congress’ support to extend New START. The details of the “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” also include reports that the president would have to provide by law to explain why the US pulled out of New START. If your representative or senator has not co-sponsored the bill, call their offices, and voice your opinions about it!

Both sides need to work together, and more importantly, rebuild trust if nuclear weapons are ever going to vanish from the world. It is our responsibility to choose progress over conflict and push our leaders towards reducing our nuclear stockpile. Together, we need to show our support for continuous weapons reductions and eventual denuclearization. America and the world will become a safer place for future generations as a result.

Daniel Puentes is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University. Daniel is a founder and member of the MSU SciComm executive board, and a member of the National Science Policy Network. With Chelsie, he co-hosts the award-winning radio show/podcast known as “The Sci-Files.” You can follow him on Twitter @NuclearPuentes.

Chelsie Boodoo is a Ph.D. student in the College of Engineering at Michigan State University. She co-hosts “The Sci-Files” with Daniel Puentes on WDBM and she is President of MSU SciComm. You can follow her on Twitter @SciWithChelsie.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone. 

U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kamaile O. Long

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