A New Age for Arms Control

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Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.

OPINION — It’s time for serious planning to re-engage in nuclear arms control talks with Russia, China and other nuclear powers.

“Arms control has lost a lot of traction,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last Wednesday at a subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing on U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and strategy. “It used to be every president who was elected had as a foreign policy objective, to secure an arms control agreement. Some were more superficial than real…I still think we need an arms control effort, which I don’t see being promoted anywhere.”

Potential background work is being done.

The Biden Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is underway to determine what this administration’s policy and resultant needs are for the next five to ten years “to sustain deterrence and defense,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it during a virtual press conference in March in Tokyo.

He added that the Biden NPR could possibly “continue to reduce reliance on the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy.” Meanwhile, a Democratic-controlled Congress will soon take up continued funding for across-the-board rebuilding of the Triad’s strategic nuclear delivery systems – a new fleet of 12 Columbia strategic submarines, the new B-21 Raider bomber, and a new ICBM, the so-called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Questions leveled at STRATCOM Commander Adm. Charles A. Richard during congressional hearings two weeks ago, indicate there will be challenges to the GBSD, but despite the overall program’s trillion-dollar cost, it should survive.

At last Wednesday’s hearing, one of the expert witnesses, Dr. Paul Bracken, professor of Management and Political Science at Yale School of Management and a consultant to the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, agreed with Chairman Reed that there was a need for arms control discussions. However, Bracken pointed out, “There is no arms control lobby inside the U.S. Government;” referring to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), which was eliminated in 1999, and its function merged into the Department of State. He described ACDA as “a very valuable source of ideas and innovation.”

The Wednesday hearing illustrated some of the new problems such negotiations would face.

Bracken, for example, said, “More and more countries are basing their fundamental security existence on nuclear weapons. All nine countries with nuclear weapons are either modernizing or expanding their forces.” He said the bolt-from-the-blue nuclear strike or accidental nuclear releases are less likely than “a wider band of scenarios in which conventional react with nuclear forces needs a lot more consideration.”

Bracken also said that traditional “arms control concepts were ideal for the Cold War, but not for the second nuclear age that we’re in. It has to be multi-polar now.” He said when the U.S. fails to adopt no first use of nuclear weapons “we are painting in ten-foot-high red letters ‘Nuclear weapons are really, really useful’” He said the message was, “You might try them other countries, and they are.” Bracken added, “In ten years, we’re going to have a world chock-a-block with nuclear weapons where we expect to be fighting in Asia or against Russia, and I don’t think we’ve taken that into account – that North Korea could have 150 nuclear weapons and Pakistan could have 300. It’s going to be a different world.”

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Frank Miller, currently a Principal with The Scowcroft Group and formerly a Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and as Senior Director for Defense Policy and Arms Control on the National Security Council staff, picked up on the nuclear proliferation issue and said, “Countries proliferate because they want to dominate their region; or their regional adversary has a nuclear weapon; or they want to deter U.S. conventional forces like North Korea.” He then raised a different issue: “With arms control,” he said, “We Americans always look at these things in an altruistic manner and the Soviets and now the Russians look at it in a very transactional manner.”

He used as an example, Russia’s possession of some 2,000 non-strategic, shorter-range nuclear weapons that are not covered by any arms control agreement. “We don’t have anything to trade with regard to getting our arms around their [Moscow’s] short-range nuclear weapons. I think that’s essential. I think we need to get an arms control agreement about that. If there is a war in Europe, that is where things are going to start and we have to get our arms around that threat to our NATO allies,” Miller said.

General Claude Kehler (Ret.), former STRATCOM Commander, said, “We’ve gotten the benefit out of arms control if you just look at the sheer number of weapons that were deployed in the Cold War and the numbers deployed today.” He also saw a benefit in the dialogue associated with the arms control process. “We learned a lot about what the Soviet Union and the Russians were doing and what they thought, how they felt and vice versa. That helps a lot however, I don’t believe in arms control at all costs…It has to fit the 21st century. There are new things [nuclear weapons] out there that have to be included and I don’t think there is any value if they’re not verifiable and if the other partner decides to cheat.”

The fourth witness was Dr. Brad Roberts, currently director of the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who, during the Obama administration, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy. In that latter role, he served as policy director of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and said he believed such reviews offer an opportunity every four years to reassess strategic policies.

As for today, Roberts said, “We have a new threat facing us: the threat of regional conventional wars against nuclear-armed powers that could go nuclear as they face regime-threatening circumstances.” He said, “Such wars present a series of particular nuclear risks involving the limited use of nuclear weapons by our adversaries,” which cannot be responded to with a massive nuclear strike. As for arms control, Roberts said, “I think all three of the main actors from an arms control perspective, the United States, Russia and China, believe at this moment in the multi-polar, multi-domain complex world that competition serves their interests more than cooperation in this area.”

Based on his past experience, Roberts did offer his personal view of how China looks at arms control.

He said, “China sees arms control as a trick, a trick to draw them into a competitive 1980s U.S.-Soviet arms race in which we come out ahead — somewhat with the expectation that they spend their way into oblivion.” He said, “They see arms control as a way to engage them in a form of transparency that they see as not just uncomfortable, but dangerous. Their traditional thinking about transparency is that the obligation in transparency falls unevenly on the two partners. It falls unevenly on the stronger partner because it’s the stronger one that can harm the weaker one with hidden intent.”

As an example, Roberts recalled during the Obama administration, the Chinese were offered a chance to observe U.S.-Russia new START negotiations, but refused, indicating they did not want to get too close to verifiable concepts. To Roberts, that meant there would be no verifiable arms control with China.

With last Wednesday’s hearing in mind, look at what Rose Gottemoeller, Obama’s chief negotiator on the New START Treaty, said during an April 20 webinar run by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She discussed not only her new book, “Negotiating the New START Treaty,” but also talked about the current arms control situation.

She praised the Biden administration for its quick agreement to extend for five years, the New START agreement, saying that amount of time provides a “predictable environment” in which to negotiate a new agreement while at the same time, continuing the U.S. modernization of its nuclear delivery systems and warhead modernization. She described that continuum as “very much in the U.S. national security interests.’”

Next, she said, “We do have to go after war heads and I’ve given [former] President Trump a huge amount of credit for putting on the table the notion of a freeze on all nuclear warheads that, for the first time, would establish the principles that we should directly limit warheads and put in place monitoring and verification of limits on warheads.” She said she is concerned that the Russians have said the freeze is off the table but supported the idea that future negotiations should “directly limit warheads.”

Gottemoeller disclosed that in recent “second-track” discussions with Russians they showed interest in reviving arms control of intermediate and shorter-range nuclear systems and “new ways to constrain such systems.” Because Moscow is looking to put its systems east of the Ural Mountains, she said that obviously meant they would be aimed at China. That, for Gottemoeller, opened up the idea of seeking to involve the Chinese who, she said, “are keeping a sharp eye” on what both the U.S. and Russia are doing with both conventional and nuclear ground-launched cruise missiles.

“Here is an area where we might successfully engage the Russians and Chinese on some limitations on ground-launched intermediate-range systems in Asia and that should be one of our priority goals in the upcoming negotiations,” Gottemoeller said. She added that talks with Beijing could also look at hypersonic missiles and anti-satellite weapons, two other areas where there are U.S. equivalencies. She said the U.S. should not try to “shoehorn them [the Chinese] into strategic arms limitations and reductions.”

A rather full and complex arms control agenda is out there. We shall see what the Biden administration can make of it.

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