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Don’t Stop Believing in Arms Control

Words: Aaron Richards
Pictures: Henry Hargreaves/Caters News

For those following recent events, it may be difficult to be optimistic about the future of arms control. The most notable headlines include President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia and its potential impact on the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and future nuclear weapons disarmament. Arguments have been made for the US to remain in the treaty, yet it seems all but certain that withdrawal will occur in August 2019.

While the end of the INF Treaty may appear to create a potential arms race, all is not lost. The future of arms control should not be abandoned altogether, as some have argued. But we must take a new approach.

In order for there to be momentum in pursuing expansive arms control agreements, it is likely that the US and Russia will need to settle their affairs first.

The US cannot continue to address arms control through the same lens it had when addressing the threat of the Soviet Union. The security environment in the 21st century includes more advanced technologies and weaponry and emerging threats, creating a more challenging problem set for maintaining international security. To that end, elements of a more inclusive, contemporary type of future arms control include:

  1. Inclusion of other states besides the US and Russia. Involving other nuclear weapons states, specifically China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan who are continuing to advance their nuclear forces, can support improving international security and de-risk nuclear escalation. While these nations may be unwilling to discuss limitations on certain nuclear weapons systems they believe guarantee their security, the US and Russia should coordinate with these partners to find common ground and build a framework of norms and confidence-building measures. The US needs to shift its view on arms control away from the Cold War-style of thinking, and identify opportunities for more states to be involved.
  2. Focus on weapon types, not only on quantities. The United States and Russia each possess nuclear weapons stockpiles totaling in the thousands, whereas the other great power in China maintains around 300 nuclear weapons. Given the unlikelihood of the US and Russia reducing their stockpiles to the low hundreds, the US can lead efforts in coordinating with states like China and Russia on arms control focused on new nuclear capabilities of concern (e.g., hypersonic glide vehicles, air-launched cruise missiles, nuclear-armed undersea autonomous torpedoes). These are the types of weapons also not covered by New START, which remains a concern for senior US military leaders and demonstrates the need for new discussions on these classes of weapons.
  3. Leverage the power of diplomacy. Continuous international dialogue with allies and partners, with leadership from the White House, can provide the US with an avenue to better understand the threat perceptions of other nuclear-armed states and determine opportunities for arms control. Additionally, the US will need to communicate with non-nuclear weapons states and allies directly impacted by future arms control agreements with those such as Russia and China (e.g., South Korea, Japan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). The academic and think tank community can also play a role in defining America’s strategic posture to decrease the threat of nuclear escalation, while securing US interests and allies.

In order for there to be momentum in pursuing expansive arms control agreements, it is likely that the US and Russia will need to settle their affairs first. By extending New START, which currently expires in February 2021 and allows for an extension up to five years, the two nuclear powers can maintain transparency regarding each of its stockpiles without altering the strategic environment to a dangerous level. Extending New START also provides the opportunity to expand US-Russia arms control discussions on technological advancements, focusing on the need to address the technological and destabilizing advancements of new nuclear weaponry, not just the number of weapons in a stockpile.

The success for future arms control requires years of planning and diplomacy, in order to address the myriad of challenges posed with multilateral arms control agreements. The INF Treaty and New START were not created in a matter of months, nor will those agreements that follow. Also, America’s withdrawal from arms control agreements is not a new phenomenon. President George W. Bush decided to opt out of the Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in December 2001, stating the treaty was signed “at a much different time, in a vastly different world.” Now we will see if today’s “vastly different world” will result in a new wave of future arms control and disarmament accords.

Aaron Richards is a Policy Analyst with SAIC focusing on nuclear weapons policy and nuclear cooperation with US allies. Aaron is a graduate from the Defense and Strategic Studies master’s program at Missouri State University.

Aaron Richards

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