The Future of Nuclear Weapons in the U.S.

Sydney Hamilton, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Since the end of the Cold War, an uneasy peace has settled between the US and Russia, thanks in no small part to a variety of nuclear weapons treaties. These treaties are imperfect, but they have arguably served their purpose: stopping the world from descending into nuclear war. Today, these treaties are at a severe risk of falling apart; the US has already pulled out of one crucial agreement, and a second is not far behind.

History of Treaties

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U.S.-Russia Arms Control in Peril from the Nuclear Threat Initiative

In order to understand the current state of US nuclear weapons treaties, it is important to understand the history of said treaties. In 1988, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty entered into force. This treaty required the US and the Soviet Union to destroy all land-based missiles with ranges of 500 and 5,500 kilometers, as well as their launchers and other associated equipment. In 2019, the US pulled out of the INF Treaty, accusing Russia of violating the terms of the agreement; however, there has been an extensive debate over the veracity of these claims.

New START provides transparency to both Russia and the US by providing for 18 on-site inspections each year. New START will expire in 2021 unless the US and Russia come to an agreement to extend this treaty. Experts are torn on whether or not New START will be extended; most agree that it is an imperfect treaty, but disagree on how to proceed.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is another treaty designed to replace and update the LTBT. However, many countries have refused to ratify it, including the US, China, and North Korea. This treaty prohibits its signatories from any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion anywhere in the world. The CTBT would also establish a network of monitoring facilities, and compels member countries to participate in on-site inspections of suspicious events.

Current State

The United States and its NATO allies have long accused Russia of developing nuclear weapons that violate the INF Treaty. In August 2019, President Trump officially withdrew from the INF Treaty, stating, “If Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it, and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable.”

New START is slated to expire in 2021. President Trump has not explicitly stated his desire to withdraw from the treaty, but members of the Trump administration have signaled their dislike for it in its present form. The administration would ideally want to see a new agreement between the US, Russia, and China. China presently is not a party to the INF or New START.

Arms control advocates believe that withdrawing from these agreements risks reigniting an arms race not seen since the Cold War – and this time, China is an active participant. Bonnie Jenkins, a former State Department coordinator for threat reduction programs, recently stated, “We are opening up the possibility of a new arms race by destroying limitations set forth in the treaty.” If New START is abandoned in 2021, it will be the first time the two leading nuclear powers in the world will not have a nuclear agreement since 1972.

Yet, others claim that there is no sense in adhering to a treaty that the other party is violating. If the US stays in the treaty, China has an advantage for developing nuclear weapons without being held to any agreements. Other experts say that New START is outdated, and does not address advanced technologies that either country has developed, like hypersonic missiles. Matthew Kroenig, a defense expert at the Atlantic Council, said, “They’re building new strategic systems that were not even imagined when New START was first negotiated. So we need to have a tough conversation with them on whether these things are included or not… before extending.”

Future Implications

In the first year, not much new weapon development is expected to come from the end of these treaties. Nuclear weapons, especially types that were not previously used by either country, are not made in a day. For some time, nothing would change drastically. But currently, the US and Russia have a verification process that compels the two countries to notify the other when weapons are moved, and on-site inspections to verify warhead counts are required as part of New START. These systems will likely end as soon as New START expires.

Even more, will change in the coming years. The US military is seeking funding to begin developing intermediate-range missiles — the type currently banned by the INF Treaty, and that the US has accused Russia of developing. These missiles could be ready for deployment within the year. Russia will likely start to fortify its European borders with nuclear (and conventional) missiles, threatening the security of European countries.

In the long term, the expiration of the INF Treaty and New START will likely set off a global arms race not seen since the Cold War. The stakes will be higher this time because other countries like Iran and Israel have also developed nuclear weapons, and these countries will develop their arsenals rapidly to keep up with the US, Russia, and China.

Way Forward

The majority of experts in military and arms control agree that all nuclear powers need to disarm and get rid of nuclear weapons; even President Trump and the Russian government agree on this point. But, no country or expert can agree on how to proceed from this fractured point in our relations with other nuclear powers.

In a perfect world, the US would say that a no-first-use policy would be implemented, taking a cue from China and India. This policy takes the pressure off the table for other countries, reassuring them that the US will never instigate a nuclear war using nuclear weapons. The US would need to trust Russia to eventually give into global peer pressure and do the same, further de-escalating tensions. The US would also ratify the CTBT, which would potentially push China to do the same; Russia has already ratified the treaty. The main goal would be to form a trilateral agreement with Russia and China, limiting the number of warheads and delivery systems that each of the countries could have, ideally leading to the disarmament of all three countries. If these three countries disarmed, other countries would likely follow suit.

But the world is not perfect. The Trump administration, per the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), states that it has no plans to pursue ratification of the CTBT. The administration has said that the US will not resume nuclear explosive testing (unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the US nuclear arsenal) and will call on all nuclear weapons states to declare a moratorium on nuclear testing.

China wants nothing to do with a treaty because its nuclear arsenal is much smaller than that of the US or Russia, as it has approximately 300 warheads, while the US and Russia have roughly 6,000 each. They do not believe there is a justification for singling them out for a treaty when many other nations also have nuclear weapons.

In short, ending the INF Treaty opened Pandora’s box, and this chain reaction could set off a new Cold War, plunging the world into uncertainty. Countries can take steps to avoid this outcome, but it would require a certain amount of trust from major nuclear powers. It is unclear if any of the countries in question will step up and be the first to begin the process of disarmament.

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