By Ariel Schwartz

It’s time to change arms control. For 30 years, the United States has been committed to bilateral agreements with Russia with varying degrees of success. With the upcoming presidential election in November, it is doubtful that new arms agreements will be concluded in the remaining months. The Kremlin is currently facing a U.S. president that attaches as little priority to arms reduction as it does, possibly even less. Those who are pushing for a continuation of bilateral treaties with Russia, including many Democrats in Congress, believe the United States is a large part of the problem and frankly, there is no need for more nuclear weapons. Regardless of who is elected in November it will be important to enter into a new era of arms control, with a vision that goes beyond the simple bilateral treaties of the past.

To get arms control right, bilateral agreements must be replaced with multilateral agreements. Russia has broken out of multiple treaties by simply disregarding what it has previously agreed and has dared the U.S. and others to call them out for their behavior. A bilateral agreement with only one side, the U.S. playing by the rules, undermines U.S. national security. From SALT I to New START, Russia has violated treaties, all the while improving their nuclear arsenal and delivery vehicles, while the United States limits its own capacity.

Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) produced the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which marked the beginning of failed agreements. Under ABM, the United States was limited to 1,054 ICBM silos and 656 SLBM launch tubes, while the Soviet Union was limited to 1,607 ICBM silos and 740 SLBM launch tubes. The agreement failed to address warhead numbers and strategic bombers, leaving both sides free to enlarge their nuclear forces. In addition to a multitude of other violations, the reload capabilities of the SS-18 ICBM caused concern among U.S. intelligence and arms control communities. The United States withdrew from the agreement in June 2002.

SALT II limited U.S. and Soviet ICBM, SLBM, and strategic bomber-based nuclear forces to 2,250 delivery vehicles and placed other restrictions on deployed strategic nuclear forces. However, the treaty never entered into force. President Ronald Reagan later said that future decisions on nuclear forces would not be based on “a flawed SALT II Treaty.” The main violations included Soviet deployment of the SS24 and SS25 missiles. The treaty allowed for only one “new missile.” The Soviets declared the SS24 as the “new missile.” Therefore, the SS25 was a second “new missile” and in violation of the treaty. The second violation was Soviet encryption of electronic data from ballistic missile tests.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was a Cold War-era agreement that required the United States and the Soviet Union to verifiably eliminate all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. In 2018, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the INF due to Russian noncompliance and concerns about China’s missiles, in addition to “material breach” of the treaty, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed. Evidence revealed that Russia cheated by connecting two missile launch tests together and was able to develop an intermediate-range missile that could be launched from a “ground-mobile platform.” The withdrawal was made official on August 2, 2019.

The New START is the only pact constraining arsenals of the world’s two major nuclear powers. The agreement limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers) and limits deployed and nondeployed launchers to 800. Arms control experts such as Robert Joseph, and Eric Edelman remain critical of the treaty, claiming that it weakens the U.S. defenses. The New START is set to expire on February 5, 2021.

In the past, Russia has reportedly violated New START a number of times. The Russian KH-101, a 5,000-km range air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which is supposed to be conventional only, has nuclear capabilities. This is problematic because under New START, any aircraft that launches a nuclear-capable ALCM of over 600 km range becomes accountable as a heavy bomber. Colonel-General Alexander Zelin of the Russian Air Force stated that the Su-34 strike fighter would be given long-range missiles. Outfitting one of these planes with nuclear-capable long-range missiles would turn all Su-34s into heavy bombers under New START. This would dramatically increase the amount of delivery vehicles Russia must destroy in order to comply with the agreement. In addition, it is clear that Russia has no intention of declaring the Su-34 a heavy bomber. Russia has also increased the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to about 185 above the treaty limit.

On June 22, the dialogue between the United States and Russia came up empty without an agreement to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said the United States will be “leaving all options available” regarding the treaty. In addition, there is a willingness to extend the agreement under select circumstances which includes progress toward a trilateral agreement with China. China, however, refused to attend trilateral talks with Russia and bilateral talks with the United States. Billingslea stated that the United States will proceed without China, returning to an outdated bilateral agreement, as the Trump administration referred to the New START.

In a recent statement released by Fu Cong, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s arms control department, China would be “happy” to participate in trilateral talks if the United States is ready to decrease its amount of nuclear weapons to that of the Chinese (about 320 nuclear weapons). While this is a ridiculous prerequisite on China’s end, the Trump administration has yet to submit a concrete proposal for what a trilateral agreement would look like and is running out of time unless President Trump is reelected. However, an increased urgency due to the upcoming election coupled with pressure from the U.S. will likely not change China’s view on joining the talks.

While pinning much emphasis on a deal with Russia and China, the U.S. is neglecting other nations forceful postures with nuclear weapons. (Pakistan, India, and North Korea). Of the nine states with nuclear capabilities, India, Israel, and Pakistan have never signed the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), from which North Korea withdrew in 2003. India and Pakistan are pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. In addition, Pakistan has developed tactical nuclear weapons capabilities to counter Indian conventional military threats, which has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use. Further, North Korea continuously violates its past denuclearization pledges with its nuclear pursuits. Actions must be taken to ensure that the United States is not diminishing its nuclear capabilities while younger nuclear states continue to grow and enhance their stockpiles.

Therefore, there is no value in a renewed treaty with Russia alone. If Russia has already increased the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads above the treaty limit, why should the United States continue to limit itself while others continue to grow? Considering Russia’s history of noncompliance, there should be no other opportunity for Russia, or any country with nuclear capabilities, to shortchange the United States. President Trump has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. must be the leader on the push towards long-term peace and limiting spending on nuclear weapons, and an agreement with Russia is no longer the viable solution. Without a multilateral deal, the United States should not consider renewing New START with Russia alone. If the deal is right, the U.S. can ensure stable arms control far beyond 2021.


Ariel Schwartz is a Research Assistant at the Transatlantic Leadership Network.