How the Biden administration can secure real gains in nuclear arms control

By Sharon Squassoni | March 30, 2021

President Biden and Vice President Harris with US Armed Forces generals. Credit: The White House via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.President Biden and Vice President Harris with US Armed Forces generals. Credit: The White House via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Less than two months into his term of office, President Joseph R. Biden signaled a renewed commitment to US arms control leadership. As expected, he extended the New START Treaty by executive action in his first week in office, securing a five-year cap on the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons in the US and Russian arsenals. More surprisingly, the White House issued an Interim National Security Strategy Guidance in early March that planted arms control firmly in the Biden administration’s national security strategy:

We will head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control. That is why we moved quickly to extend the New START Treaty with Russia. Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control arrangements. We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible. And we will engage in meaningful dialogue with Russia and China on a range of emerging military technological developments that implicate strategic stability.

The phrase “Where possible” is an important caveat that suggests the Biden administration has not underestimated the difficulty of next steps in arms control. Strained relations with Russia or China constitute one hurdle but can be ameliorated by mending or building some fences. Different perspectives on how to achieve strategic stability, some of which are deeply embedded, constitute another obstacle. Still other hurdles are more structural in nature and might require eliminating fences erected between, for example, strategic and tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear and conventionally armed long-range precision missiles.

Despite warnings that the era of bilateral, quantitative reductions is over, and that nuclear arms control has entered a new and infinitely more complex phase, there is undoubtedly more to squeeze from US and Russian arsenals. Whether the Biden administration seeks to address some of the other barriers to sustainable arms control may matter less than whether it is able to impart a sense of urgency to arms control as a whole. Potential next steps in arms control with Russia or China in the short term, followed by some mid-to-long-term options for sustainable progress, are achievable.

Possibilities with Russia. The extension of New START was necessary, useful, and timely—in the vernacular, a “no-brainer.” Presidents Biden and Putin should now seek a joint understanding to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads by a third.

While this seems like a significant reduction, it’s not. The US and Russia could easily lower the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads within the context of New START. In fact, both Russia and the US in previous years dipped below the New START threshold of 1,550 deployed warheads. In 2018, Russia deployed 1,444 and the US deployed 1,350 nuclear warheads.

Drawing down to 1,000 or 1,100 deployed warheads has been discussed for at least a decade and was informally endorsed by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013. The most obvious approach would be to reduce warhead loadings on submarine-launched ballistic missiles or reduce the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force . Nothing in the treaty precludes either side from fielding forces below the agreed ceilings. A joint statement or memorandum of understanding between the two presidents could accompany the cuts without further legislative action.

New START verification measures could simply be applied to the lower limits. Launcher limits could remain the same unless both sides agreed to reduce those numbers. Arguably, if warheads are simply moved from deployed to active stockpile status, the gain is small. Reclassifying active stockpile warheads as slated for dismantlement, along with another agreement to place additional fissile material under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, could solidify gains. If both sides chose to move warheads into the dismantlement process, they could explore whether declarations were sufficient or monitoring measures are necessary. A joint technical working group could explore the feasibility of monitoring.

Limiting other types of deployed nuclear warheads—that is, nonstrategic nuclear warheads—is more problematic. Russia has repeatedly rebuffed US efforts to address nonstrategic nuclear weapons, in part because it has come to see them as compensating for conventional force deficiencies, a perspective similar to NATO’s during the Cold War. More importantly, Russia has never viewed the strategic-nonstrategic divide in the same way as the United States. It makes little sense to Russians in the European theater, where US nonstrategic nuclear weapons can threaten Russian territory. The enlargement of NATO has reduced important geographic buffers for Russia. Unless the United States is willing to trade something Russia wants very much—for example, concessions on missile defenses—Russia is unlikely to agree to reductions. Russia might consider constraining its forces geographically, but likely in exchange for reciprocal measures on US nuclear weapons currently deployed in Europe.

More importantly, Russia’s deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles known as 9M729 missiles potentially threatens European capitals once again with intermediate-range, nuclear-tipped missiles. Once solved by the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the category of intermediate-range missiles may once again be up for negotiations. Without admitting Russia’s violations of this treaty, Russian President Putin offered in October 2020 to hold off deploying 9M729 missiles in the European part of Russian territory in exchange for reciprocal restraint on the part of NATO, or at least until “US-manufactured missiles of similar classes appear in the respective regions.” The United States should pocket the moratorium with joint transparency measures and seek negotiations on a global treaty to ban both nuclear and conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles of that range.

The false equivalency of nuclear disarmament and nuclear abolition

Possibilities with China. Although US and Chinese strategic nuclear forces are nowhere near parity, they are not immune from the kind of action-reaction cycles to which US and Soviet forces fell prey during the Cold War. To enhance the survivability of its forces, China has placed newer ICBMs on road-mobile launchers and is developing multiple independently targetable warheads to increase penetration through US missile defenses. The size of China’s nuclear arsenal to date has reflected its policy of minimal deterrence, but this is by choice, not necessity. Current speculation that China could double the number of warheads in the next decade assumes China is either harboring stocks of fissile material it has not declared or that it could produce, in short order, additional material.  Unlike other states with nuclear weapons, China has never formally declared a moratorium on producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.  The United States should encourage China to join the other permanent members of the Security Council (P-5) in a moratorium, along with a plan for eliminating fissile material stocks not in weapons (excluding civil, safeguarded stocks). At a minimum, this would provide assurance that China would not build up to US and Russian levels. The UK and France, with their many tons of plutonium, should join such a regime, whether immediately or in a second round. Addressing fissile material capabilities in a multilateral forum is necessary anyway, particularly to boost P-5 credibility at the upcoming 2021 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, but also redirects Chinese deflection of bilateral and trilateral negotiations. Other potential collaboration with China could focus on getting North Korea to adhere to a production moratorium.

Is it possible to persuade China to overcome its reluctance to engage in any restrictions on its nuclear weapons program? The Trump administration’s gambit to expand bilateral strategic nuclear negotiations with Russia to trilateral negotiations predictably failed when the Chinese refused to show up. Yet the US had made progress in engaging the Chinese slowly over time prior to the Trump administration, both bilaterally and in P-5 fora, on nuclear issues. The Biden administration should return to that kind of format, although no negotiations will result in the short term.

A US commitment to minimal nuclear deterrence (not to exclude deterrence of attacks on allies) could help, but measures to allay Chinese fears about US missile defenses would likely be necessary. As with Russia, China perceives US missile defenses as threatening the retaliatory value of its nuclear force. And with good reason: as early as 1967, the United States explained that its limited anti-ballistic missile system was designed to defend against emerging Chinese missile capabilities, even though China was not expected to field ICBMs until the mid-1970s.

Modest confidence-building measures could include talks on US and allied missile defense capabilities in East Asia in exchange for China adhering to The Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation without officially joining the effort.

Approaches with Russia, China, and beyond. The Biden administration has noted it would address emerging technological developments with both Russia and China as they implicate strategic stability. Good candidates for discussion would be antisatellite weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles, artificial intelligence, cyberstability, and precision, long-range munitions. It is unlikely that the US would consider adding missile defenses into that particular equation, but any effort to consider asymmetrical tradeoffs could be helpful. In the best case, successful limits in areas that affect nuclear weapons—like space and cyber—could potentially make additional nuclear restraints easier to consider.

Long-languishing agreements and negotiations like the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a potential fissile material cutoff treaty still remain too important to neglect despite being, for now, too hard to accomplish. In the case of the CTBT, ratification by eight states (including the US, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and Iran) is required before the treaty can enter into force. If limiting the arsenals of China and North Korea enhance US national security, then a treaty that bans additional nuclear tests and one that freezes (or even rolls back) production of fissile material for weapons are essential. These two treaties play to US strengths, especially since the United States tested more nuclear weapons than most other states combined and holds the lion’s share of fissile material stocks with Russia. Putting these two treaties back at the top of the agenda with fresh enthusiasm could reap benefits for the United States.

Toward sustainable arms control. If one or more new nuclear arms races are to be halted, the Biden administration will need to manage larger obstacles beyond the current political tensions. What follows are recommendations for confronting, rather than ignoring, the concerns.

Deconstruct divisions between the US, Russia, and China on missile defenses and their role in strategic stability. The text of the New START Treaty explicitly referenced the importance for Russia to ensure the viability of its deterrent force against missile defenses. Yet, the 2010 Senate resolution expressing consent to ratify New START made clear the US commitment to building missile defenses, including a ten-page laundry list of layered protections for missile defenses. Both Russia’s and China’s nuclear modernization programs included new capabilities designed specifically to evade US missile defenses. It may be time to compromise on missile defenses.

Can minimum deterrence save nuclear arms control?

No one believes a return to the ABM Treaty is likely or desirable, but simply repeating that US missile defenses are designed against smaller nuclear forces like those of North Korea or, potentially, Iran, is not a strategy. Given American ingenuity, the Russians and Chinese may find it hard to believe that a half-century and billions of dollars spent developing ballistic missile defenses has yielded little more than a capability to defend against small nuclear forces. If the evolution of nuclear forces is towards smaller, less vulnerable forces, then defenses become even more destabilizing and should be scrapped.

Understand what deep cuts look like.  The point at which a multilateral nuclear arms control treaty becomes feasible is well below the level of 1,000 deployed nuclear warheads. Eventually, the United States needs to address the significant operational and political implications for land-based ICBMs in that scenario—simply put, it will need to reassess the perceived need for a triad of sea-, air-, and land-based nuclear weapons. Bureaucratic and political resistance will play as large a role as any arms control theory here and therefore, policymakers need to plan for in advance.

End the strategic and tactical divide between nuclear weapons. Whether this division is based on range or uses (strategic versus battlefield), it is unhelpful to perpetuate and in some ways, peculiarly American. Future agreements could seek ceilings that include both, something Russian experts like Sergei Rogov and Pavel Podvig have already suggested.  China considers all of its nuclear weapons to be strategic, regardless of their range.  Including all such weapons in a single category, however, elevates the problem of discriminating between dual-use launch vehicles, which can be used to deliver nuclear or conventional warheads.  Simply counting them all as nuclear-armed may not be an attractive option.

Capture reserve stockpiles. Deployed warheads for both the United States and Russia represent a fraction of total warhead stockpiles. Both countries have thousands of nuclear warheads that are not deployed as well as thousands in the dismantlement chain.  Addressing these stockpiles eventually will be necessary, regardless of what form the fissile material takes (warheads, pits, weapons-usable fissile material or blended-down fissile material).  Nuclear archeology techniques can help make sense of these stockpiles.

Rein in missile proliferation. For decades, missile supplier controls under the now-35-member-state Missile Technology Control Regime focused on nuclear-capable missiles. The Hague Code of Conduct—now 143 countries strong—cast a wider net in an effort to improve transparency about ballistic missile and space launch vehicle developments. However, key countries like China, North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan are missing from the mix. Apart from the landmark and now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned an entire class of US and Soviet missiles with ranges from 500 to 5500km, missiles have proliferated free of treaty restrictions.  As seen in cases of nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Iran), it has been difficult to find a foothold for missile restrictions in the absence of any treaties or mandatory inspections. And yet missiles are threat multipliers. Major improvements in accuracy and guidance, along with problems discriminating between nuclear and conventional warheads, make missile restrictions necessary, if unpopular.

Consider cross-domain tradeoffs. US reliance on space and cyberspace to enhance its military effectiveness is well-known, as is its reluctance to limit freedom of action in those spheres. However, the US should consider more seriously how to use codes of conduct in space and cyberspace to preserve its advantages. Particularly since nuclear weapons are meant never to be used, tradeoffs in nuclear weapons may be able to secure advantages in other strategic spaces. Closing the door on traditional, linear reductions might create a new set of options for reducing nuclear risks across domains.

Arms control leadership. With serious health, economic, and governance challenges on the US domestic policy front, it is hard to see major nuclear arms control agreements rising to the top of a crowded presidential agenda. After all, the five-year New START extension leaves room for the next president to negotiate a new treaty. It may also be politically easier to allow some nuclear modernization elements to fall prey to budgetary constraints rather than cancel them on principle or in exchange for Russian concessions. The Senate’s hyperpartisan political environment suggests it may be difficult to win enough votes for consent to ratification of a new treaty.

In the current international climate, reestablishing leadership in arms control might be as simple as articulating goals, much as whispering “vermouth” over gin makes a credible dry Martini for some. President Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in part because he articulated a US commitment to nuclear disarmament that had not been seriously considered for decades. But President Obama specifically cautioned that the goal would not be reached quickly—“perhaps not in my lifetime”—and there seemed little urgency at the time. Today, more urgency is attached to arms racing than arms control. The United States, as the indispensable leader, must reverse this.


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alice slatrt
3 years ago

These suggestions are so inadequate and out of tune with what Russia and China have been asking for over all these years to really get to nuclear disarmament. There is NO reason why we can’t go back to the ABM treaty, take up the Russia and Chinese draft treaties to negotiate a ban on weapons in space, take up Putin’s proposal to Obama to negotiate a cyberwar ban treaty, and sign the new Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, inviting all the others to sign as well and setting up a timetable for negotiations and the accomplishment of nuclear… Read more »