The future government of Biden must quickly renew the new START nuclear pact before it expires on February 5th. Russia previously offered a five-year extension in line with the terms of the treaty. However, this expansion will only be the first step in a long process to bring nuclear arms control back from the fringes.
The Trump administration tentatively agreed to an extension of one year for Moscow, which included a freeze on all nuclear warheads. However, these efforts failed on review issues. The Biden team have indicated support for an unconditional renewal and appear to prefer a longer period. Given the complexity, providing a full five-year deadline for negotiators would avoid setting an early deadline that could put pressure on Washington. The negotiators have to deal with several complex interrelated issues.
The current restrictions on deployed strategic warheads and launchers should be lowered. The current warhead limit of 1,550 has been reached by both sides and there is parity in this category. In new negotiations, the cap could be lowered to around 1,000, which is close to the number the US military announced in 2013. This would further reduce the risk for either side of a deactivating first strike.
The launch limit of 700 deployed (including ICBMs deployed, ballistic missiles launched from submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers) could also be lowered, but not too far as a small number would be attractive targets for first strike.
These strategic systems in use are perhaps the most destabilizing and easiest to review, so priority should be given to them.
Russia’s agreement to temporarily freeze all warheads has led some to insist that a subsequent START agreement should also cover warheads that are in storage. There are imbalances in this category, with Russia storing around 3,000 warheads and the United States around 2,400. Within these sums, Russia has a strong advantage in non-strategic warheads that can destabilize regional security.
Simply freezing these systems would not be a credible long-term solution as it would lead to American disparity. However, the imbalance in non-strategic systems has worried our European allies, especially after the end of the Medium-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which opens the door to the use of Russian medium-range missiles that can hit them. Far-reaching cuts in warheads in storage to a common upper limit of around 1,500 each with possible lower limits for non-strategic warheads would therefore also be a good result for the United States and its allies. However, checking the warheads stored would require more intrusive measures that Russian negotiators are reluctant to accept.
To realize these nuclear reductions, negotiators will have to tackle a series of destabilizing events over the past two decades that together have broken the previous consensus on what constitutes strategic stability – namely, that each side retains a retaliatory capacity for the second blow .
The United States, responding to nuclear proliferation and terrorist threats, abandoned the Ballistic Missile Control Treaty in 2002 and is considering options for a conventional hypersonic instant strike capability.
Russia fears that this combination of a conventional global strike and missile defense could give the US the opportunity to strike first and divert any retaliatory strike. As a result, Moscow is developing six new delivery systems to defeat the US defense, including a deployed hypersonic glide vehicle (Avangard), a nuclear-powered cruise missile (Skyfall) and a hypersonic cruise missile (Tsirkon). Some analysts in the US see these new Russian systems as destabilizing.
These changes will undermine efforts to further reduce warheads and create a dangerous sense of strategic vulnerability on both sides. However, reversing these developments will be difficult.
The limits of missile defense need to be discussed, but the ratification of a second ballistic missile treaty by the Senate is very doubtful. If more ballistic missile limits were agreed, those limits would have to provide adequate U.S. interceptors to cope with the proliferation threats posed by states like North Korea and Iran. The approval of the Congress could be achieved with a simple majority of both chambers, as was the case with the Treaty on Strategic Arms Restriction I.
Limits may also need to be reached for Russia’s new systems and America’s conventional global strike program, either in the START negotiations or in a separate agreement.
In the context of limiting non-strategic weapons, negotiators could also seek ways to revive elements of the abandoned INF treaty. One option is to ban all medium-range (500-5,500 kilometers) ground-based missiles that are armed with nuclear warheads. Alternatively, medium-range missiles could be excluded from a zone that is within range of NATO targets. Russia has tabled a review proposal that could allow a revised INF treaty.
After all, as China’s nuclear capacity grows, there is pressure to include China in any future START Pact. However, it is unlikely that China will want to get involved, as it has just over 300 nuclear warheads, or less than 10 percent of the number of warheads deployed and stored by Russia and the US. If China is included, there will be further pressure on Britain and France to limit the number of their warheads as well, which our close allies may resist. A good outcome could be if the United States and Russia join forces to urge China to freeze its current nuclear warhead numbers as long as the two START parties stay within their new reduced limits.
In order to create the conditions for successful negotiations with Russia, the US should first propose bilateral talks in order to achieve a common understanding of what constitutes strategic stability. In addition to the issues discussed above, these talks would need to examine both sides’ nuclear doctrine. Russia’s “escalation to de-escalation” doctrine implies Russia’s willingness to be the first to use nuclear weapons, which further destabilizes things in times of crisis.
The Russians may have similar concerns about the United States after the 2018 nuclear review. These conversations could also discuss a code of conduct and other steps related to the security of each side’s command and control arrangements to ensure that critical cyber systems remain secure and are not compromised.
And to create the conditions for Congress to approve an agreement at a later date, the Biden administration should assemble an arms control observer group in Congress to oversee the negotiations and hopefully act as validators when Congress finally reviews the agreements.
President-elect Joe Biden will have an experienced team to solve these intricate problems. But it takes time and creativity to be successful. Given the poor state of US-Russian relations, success here could be an important step in the right direction.
Hans Binnendijk is a respected member of the Atlantic Council. Prior to that, he was Senior Director of the National Security Council for Defense and Arms Control and Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University.