A New Era of Arms Control: Myths, Realities and Options
Only the continuation of nuclear arms control can create the political and military conditions for eventual limitations of innovative weapons systems and technologies, as well as for a carefully thought through and phased shift to a multilateral format of nuclear disarmament.
The United States’ withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) threatens to dismantle the entire nuclear arms control system built over the last fifty years. It may lead to an uncontrolled multilateral arms race involving strategic, intermediate-range, and tactical nuclear and non-nuclear offensive and defensive weapons, as well as space and cyber warfare systems, laser weapons, and other arms innovations. As a consequence, international armed conflicts are more likely and may instantly escalate into a global nuclear war.
A Herostratic Nuclear Complex
This extremely dangerous turn of events has been long in the making and wasn’t at all accidental. Military industrial complexes and nationalist factions dreaming of revenge for concessions and real or imaginary losses in recent decades have been exerting a growing pressure. These processes have been facilitated by the military and political ideology that has recently gained popularity in some political and professional circles in the United States, Russia and a number of other countries. This ideology—like any other—is based on an agglomeration of different myths about the past, present, and future of strategic relations between the nuclear powers.
One of them (which may be called “nuclear revanchism”) is that following major nuclear weapons reductions during the last thirty years, their use would no longer be a worldwide catastrophe, so a nuclear war can now be waged and won. Moreover, it is claimed that the limited and selective use of nuclear weapons through integrated operations with conventional arms, armed forces, and innovative technologies may deliver victory or success without escalation to a massive nuclear exchange.1
Another ideology may be labeled “nuclear revisionism,” and postulates that the bipolar world of the Cold War era has given way to multipolarity, so bilateral nuclear weapons restrictions should be replaced with multilateral agreements.2 This assumption is supplemented by a hypothesis that it’s impossible to control the newest weapons and military technologies using previous methods of negotiations and agreements, so those methods should be abandoned. The focus should allegedly shift to various multilateral forums on creating an “environment for nuclear disarmament” and enhancing nuclear deterrence, transparency, and predictability.3
Although these theories appear to differ at first glance, their common premise is that the current arms control crisis is unavoidable and doesn’t pose much danger: it’s possible to do without formal nuclear arms reduction, limitation and non-proliferation agreements.
All of these arguments merit separate discussion, especially the last two. After all, they’ve been promoted in Russia by INF critics and opponents of extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and of a follow-on agreement at both expert and government levels. Now they have been used as the official pretext for the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty (in addition to accusing Russia of violating it). Washington also uses these arguments to oppose the extension of the New START and bilateral negotiations with Russia on the next strategic treaty.
Is There Emerging Nuclear Multipolarity?
Traditionally, nuclear arms control was based on a bipolar world order and an approximate general balance of power between Soviet military forces and those of the United States and their allies. But we now live in a multipolar world with an asymmetric balance of power. However, the legal framework for limiting and reducing nuclear weapons has never become multipolar, even though most other nuclear and non-nuclear states participate in key multilateral nuclear agreements (for instance, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), the prohibition on deploying weapons of mass destruction in space, and on sea and ocean floors, and the agreements of nuclear-free zones in Antarctica, Latin America, Africa, and some parts of Asia Pacific).
Since the topic of this article is nuclear weapons, it will focus not on multipolarity as a whole, but on its nuclear dimension. In this respect, it’s worth noting that as the Soviet Union’s successor, Russia maintains approximate equilibrium with the United States in terms of nuclear weapons, and is even ahead by certain parameters.4 Moreover, there have been no radical changes in the global nuclear balance of power that would make the continuation of the bilateral process unacceptable.
Filling in the gaps in accessible official Soviet/Russian and U.S. data with expert assessments (for instance, from the renowned Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI),5 it can be calculated that by the early 1990s, the seven nuclear powers of that time possessed a total of approximately 45,700 nuclear weapons, 98 percent of which could be attributed to the two superpowers. In 2010, when the last bilateral treaty on nuclear weapons (the New START) was concluded, the nine nuclear states6 had a total of about 20,500 nuclear weapons, of which the two leading nuclear powers accounted for about 95 percent. Currently, there is a total of 14,500 nuclear weapons in the world, including those in storage reserve or awaiting dismantlement. The United States and Russia own 92 percent of those weapons.
So while the reductions in nuclear weapons over the last thirty years are quite impressive, the proportion of those controlled by the two leading nuclear powers has barely declined at all. If the U.S. and Russian governments or independent experts have data that suggests otherwise, that would be an interesting subject for discussion.
As for deployed strategic nuclear weapons covered by the New START, the U.K., France and China have a total of 500 such weapons,7 while each of the two superpowers possesses over 2,000.8 Other states have only intermediate-range and tactical weapons (i.e. those with a flight range of less than 5,500 km). Taking into consideration all types of nuclear weapons, each of the two superpowers has three to four times more weapons (4,000–5,000 warheads) than all of the seven other nuclear states combined, let alone the advantage of the quality of the weapons.
In the next decade, the other nuclear states are either not planning to increase their nuclear forces (the U.K., France, and Israel), or may increase them very insignificantly, by a few dozen or a few hundred weapons (India, Pakistan, and North Korea). Only China’s plans are uncertain: the country keeps its nuclear forces and development programs secret and has the financial and technological capability to significantly increase the size of its nuclear arsenal in the next ten to fifteen years.
Russia and the United States don’t, therefore, need to maintain a nuclear deterrence arsenal against the aggregate nuclear force of the other states. The arsenals of the leading powers are sufficient to intimidate the rest of the nuclear states. It’s impossible to imagine a collective or individual attack against either superpower. Hence, from the deterrence stability and security standpoint, the rest of the nuclear states won’t need to limit the size of their nuclear forces to pave the way for further reductions and limitations on the part of Russia and the United States.
The Poetry and Prose of Multilateral Disarmament
Of course, it would be wonderful if other nuclear states adopted the restrictions and subsequently reductions on nuclear weapons after thirty years of such steps being taken overwhelmingly by Russia and the United States. For instance, it’s frequently suggested that the three other nuclear signatories of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)—the U.K., France, and China—be included in the process first, followed by the four non-signatories: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. This would have a positive political impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime, especially given the fact that the five NPT members are bound by direct obligations on this issue as per Article VI of the NPT.9
Nonetheless, the poetry of nuclear disarmament differs starkly from its grim prose. Practical limitations, reductions, and the dismantlement of such complex, costly weapons of such critical importance for national security never come about as the result of general good intentions alone. As demonstrated by the fifty years of negotiations and a dozen serious and politically binding agreements in this sphere between the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States, such steps are only taken on quite pragmatic, material terms.
First, a state adopts these measures if it’s guaranteed tangible security improvements, i.e. limitations and reductions of weapons by the other side. Such an arrangement assumes the two states are operating within a framework of mutual nuclear deterrence. In other words, they are not allies, nor are they in a state of military confrontation; they aren’t planning to start and win a war, but have the political will and intellectual capacity to jointly reduce the mutual threats and costs of maintaining deterrence.
Second, such steps are possible if the states’ nuclear forces are approximately equal: not because such parity is required for deterrence, but because it makes the parties equally interested in reaching an agreement and provides the starting point for it. In this case, both parties will have to adhere to the same numerical ceilings: again, not for deterrent purposes, but because neither of them will agree to legally validate the opponent’s advantage.
Third, only comparable types of weapons systems are subject to agreements: if an agreement covers a particular type of weapon by one side, it must include the same system of the other. However, if the parties’ nuclear forces are asymmetric, agreements often provide for a trade-off in which some weapons systems are limited on one side in exchange for different systems on the other.10 Finally, no one will just trust their opponent’s word on such issues, which calls for an adequate verification system, whose capacities in many ways determine the limits of possible agreements.
Based on all of the above factors, the other seven nuclear powers can’t simply join U.S.-Russian negotiations on nuclear weapons reductions, either individually or collectively. Although they refuse to disarm under the political pretext of the nuclear superiority of the two leading states, the real reasons for their position are the lack of mutual nuclear deterrence and parity in the multilateral nuclear world order. For example, India and Israel don’t care about the nuclear forces of Russia, the United States, the U.K., or France. India is concerned by China and Pakistan, while Israel is focused on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and Iran’s nuclear program. Russia aims its nuclear forces at NATO states and possibly Pakistan, but not at China (allegedly) or India. China is engaged in nuclear deterrence with the U.S. and India, but not with Pakistan or (supposedly) with Russia. Other factors clouding the prospects of arms control are asymmetry in weapons, and the impossibility of reliable verification for technical or political reasons. Conditions for such negotiations (primarily mutual deterrence and parity) are only present in the Russia-U.S. strategic relationship, and theoretically (with caveats with respect to parity), in U.S.-Chinese relations, as well as in relations between India and Pakistan, and between India and China.
The China Syndrome: A New Version
Getting China involved in limiting intermediate-range and strategic weapons is now at the forefront of the arms control agenda. It has become the official position of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration in connection with the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty and the possibility of replacing it with a new agreement, as well as over issues of extending the New START Treaty and the prospects for the next strategic agreement.
So far, Beijing has categorically rejected Washington’s proposals on both subjects, and joined Moscow in condemning U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty and promising a harsh response to the deployment of new U.S. intermediate-range missiles. It’s interesting to note a substantial change in Russia’s traditional position: for the last ten years—more or less up until late 2018—the country had been skeptical about the INF Treaty and had been insisting that other nuclear states should join it and the next START treaties.
Beijing’s attitude to this issue is seemingly determined by the sluggish and highly conservative position of China’s Communist Party and military apparatus. Its powerful propaganda machine portrays China to the outside world as a non-aligned country rather than a member of the nuclear super-club. Evidently, the country is also reluctant to disclose information about its nuclear forces, which could possibly indicate a far more significant nuclear potential than is generally believed on the outside.11 Beijing asserts that it can be transparent on this issue once the United States and Russia commit to non-first-use of nuclear weapons: a condition that has no basis in strategic logic, and which is firmly rejected by both superpowers.
Nonetheless, if China were to change its traditional stance, it could earn substantial political and possibly strategic dividends. According to SIPRI data (in the absence of official information from China), the country now has about 100 ground-launched nuclear missiles of types prohibited by the INF treaty.12 The United States is no less concerned about China’s high-precision medium- and short-range non-nuclear missiles (of which it allegedly has up to 2,000), which are capable of striking U.S. aircraft carriers and sites in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Guam.13 These missile types were also covered by the INF Treaty, since the treaty prohibited weapons systems according to their range (500–5,500 km), but didn’t distinguish between the types of their warheads (nuclear or conventional). Having withdrawn from the INF Treaty, Washington is officially talking about deploying non-nuclear intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles in Asia.14
This means that the hypothetical new treaty that Washington is calling for should cover both nuclear and non-nuclear ground-launched missiles. As noted above, arms control negotiations demonstrate that none of the parties would agree to legally validate their opponent’s advantage. Therefore, negotiations should be aimed at setting equal ceiling levels for comparable weapons systems.
If such an equilibrium is set at the current number of China’s ground-launched intermediate and short-range missiles, it would mean China agreeing to limit its existing systems in exchange for the United States and Russia’s right to deploy 2,000 such weapons. What interest would such a treaty hold for China? If intermediate and short-range missiles are limited at lower levels (or even prohibited entirely), what would China gain in exchange for reducing the number of its deployed missiles? It’s unlikely that China would agree to such uneven exchanges, especially in light of the overwhelming advantage of the other two states in strategic weapons.
Even if China departs from its current demand of commensurate reductions in the strategic forces of Russia and the United States, it will most likely want the overall ceiling for intermediate-range missiles to include both ground and sea-launched cruise missiles (air-launched cruise missiles are deployed on heavy bombers, which are subject to the New START Treaty). The United States has over 6,000 cruise missiles on all of its fleets,15 and Russia apparently possesses many hundreds of them as well (according to official reports, it has recently increased its cruise missile arsenal thirty-fold).16 Verifying the total number of such missiles would present an enormous challenge. They are deployed in ships' universal missile launchers along with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and on refitted strategic and multipurpose submarines, as well as in attack submarines’ torpedo tubes. Unlike ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, mobile sea-launched systems aren’t restricted to a particular region, so China will insist on global ceilings.
It should be remembered that even in the time of the SТАRT I Treaty and throughout the 1990s—the golden age of arms control cooperation—the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States were unable to separate nuclear and conventional sea-launched cruise missiles, or to limit their total number in a verifiable way.
Nevertheless, the hypothetical position for China outlined above would be quite reasonable from the standpoint of arms control, and would put the United States—and to some degree, Russia—in an extremely awkward position. China would score a major political bonus, even if the negotiations led nowhere through no fault of its own. Successful negotiations, meanwhile, would be a big strategic victory for China.
Chinese participation in the next START treaty, which the White House is also talking about, could create even greater problems for the two superpowers. For instance, China could ask for parity in strategic weapons at its current levels, which would require a seven to eight-fold reduction in the New START ceilings. Alternatively, it could insist on making use of the allowance to increase its weapons of this class seven to eight-fold, taking it up to the numbers held by Russia and the United States. It’s hard to say which of these possibilities would terrify Washington more. The same is true of Russia, even if concurrently its long-standing dream of including the U.K. and France in nuclear arms limitations had come true.
Theoretically, a compromise is possible. For instance, the next START Treaty could be a trilateral agreement with the current ceiling for deployed weapons,17 which would include land-based intermediate and short-range ballistic and cruise missiles in addition to strategic land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, bombers and air-launched cruise missiles. It should also include boost-glide intercontinental and medium-range systems. All the above systems should be limited if they have a range in excess of 500 km (the lower bracket of the INF Treaty). Just as now, the treaty wouldn’t distinguish between nuclear and non-nuclear missiles of various classes.
In this case, China would be allowed to increase its strategic forces (currently around 140 delivery vehicles and weapons), while reducing its intermediate-range systems that worry the United States so much. For their part, the two nuclear superpowers would have some latitude in deploying intermediate and short-range missiles, conditioned on corresponding reductions of strategic systems. All three parties would thus have sufficient flexibility in planning their strategic and intermediate-range forces. To prevent the rapid build-up of Chinese strategic arms, a sub-ceiling of 500-600 for strategic delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers) and some other structural and qualitative limitations might be introduced.
From the standpoint of nuclear disarmament ideals, it would be a step backward compared with the situation before the termination of the INF Treaty. But it’s still better than the situation that could emerge in the absence of the INF Treaty if the New START is not extended, and the next strategic agreement doesn’t materialize.
Other states, with their relatively modest nuclear arsenals and capabilities, may come up with even more exotic conditions for joining the bilateral disarmament processes.
Expanding the nuclear arms control format is therefore hard, but hypothetically possible. However, advocates of the multilateral process need to realize that it requires more than simply revising the current positions of third countries. The two nuclear superpowers would pay a much higher price in that case: both in terms of military strategy, and politically.
So far, the multilateral nuclear arms control idea has generated nothing constructive. On the contrary, due to its deceptive simplicity, politicians and the public in general easily accept it and do not object to the termination of bilateral arms control processes or, worse still, to withdrawal from previously concluded agreements (like the INF Treaty) or to the non-extension of current treaties (like the New START).
The False Conundrum of Military Innovations
Another argument against continuing the gradual arms limitation and reduction process is that the newest weapons systems and military technologies cardinally change strategic stability concepts and are not subject to traditional arms control.18
This primarily concerns various long-range high-precision strike systems (with a range of over 500 km), which are capable of hitting targets previously accessible only to nuclear weapons.19 The next generation of high-precision weapons is being created: Russian nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missiles (9M730Burevestnik) and Russian, U.S., and Chinese nuclear armed and conventional hypersonic systems.20 More powerful aerial and sea-based unmanned vehicles are being developed and can potentially operate with the use of artificial intelligence.21
Other processes underway are the rapid expansion of cyber warfare technology, the militarization of space, and modernization of missile defense systems, which are gaining offensive (including anti-satellite) capabilities.22 Many offensive weapons have dual use, and it will be impossible to distinguish them from nuclear ones until an actual impact. Such weapons and automated command-control and information systems could trigger an uncontrollable escalation of a local conflict. Incidentally, this danger was implicitly exposed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu when he said: “With the current level of automation and informatization, there is a high probability of error in the command-control system over the military forces.”23 At the same time, concepts and means of conducting a limited nuclear war are eroding the “nuclear threshold,”24 a danger recently mentioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin.25
New weapons systems and technologies are cited to assert that the former strategic stability concept, which was at the core of the 1991-2010 START treaties, is now outdated. The concept was first formulated in the 1990 Soviet-American declaration,26 which defined strategic stability as a state of strategic relationship in which the incentives to launch the first nuclear strike are removed. At that time, such an incentive was the ability to launch a disarming nuclear strike, thus avoiding a retaliatory strike or reducing its consequences to an acceptable level. In a crisis, such a capability might encourage nuclear aggression or preemption. The concept of a launch-on-warning strike is a slightly less dangerous alternative in this situation, although it does create a high risk of an inadvertent nuclear war in the event of an error by the early warning systems, miscalculation or unauthorized actions of the military.
Strategic arms reduction agreements didn’t just seek to reduce the size of nuclear forces, but were also—along with limitations on missile defense systems—designed to eliminate the possibility of a first disarming strike by either of the two states, which was accomplished by the 1991–2010 START treaties.
There is currently an idea going around that commitment to refrain from a first nuclear strike may invite a disarming strike using high-precision non-nuclear long-range offensive and defensive arms, cyber warfare systems, and space weapons. Another concept of a similar kind is that the impossibility of a disarming strike at a strategic level doesn’t rule out the selective use of nuclear weapons on a global and regional scale.27 This concept is often called "escalate to de-escalate:” selective intimidating use of nuclear weapons to prevent the opponent from achieving success in a conventional conflict. Hence the nuclear revanchists are striving to make nuclear weapons more usable, while the revisionists call for discarding traditional methods of arms control in favor of entirely new ways of enhancing nuclear deterrence and forging a new concept of strategic stability.
The Realities of Arms and Arms Control
All possible dangers and uncertainties notwithstanding, rational strategic analysis should not be colored by emotions and sweeping generalizations. The revolutionary impact of military technological progress is not something new, but is a logical phenomenon that has occurred regularly throughout history. It’s enough to recall the creation of long-range ballistic missiles in the late 1950s, followed by the equipping of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) in the 1970s and 1980s. That led to a five-fold increase in the number of nuclear warheads, while the number of delivery vehicles remained unchanged. Worse still, despite the parity, multiple-warhead missiles created a hypothetical possibility of launching a first disarming strike without being subjected to a retaliatory strike.
The 1991 START I and subsequent START treaties managed to resolve this issue, however. The parties agreed on unprecedented control measures, which included examining warheads in the missiles' upper stage, reducing their throw-weight, and prohibiting the encryption of telemetric information during testing. Eventually, the total number of warheads in the strategic forces was reduced to approximately the same level as before the deployment of MIRV systems in the late 1960s.
Another revolution came about as the result of the creation of compact high-precision intermediate-range cruise missiles in the late 1970s. These were air-launched, sea-launched, and ground-launched cruise missiles (ALCM, SLCM, and GLCM, respectively). Together with MIRV systems, they further increased the number of nuclear weapons on strategic delivery vehicles (heavy bombers), as well as on sea and ground-based intermediate-range forces. These weapons devalued missile defense systems and created the threat of a nuclear strike with minimal warning time due to their low-altitude and zigzagging trajectory.
Nevertheless, it proved possible to manage this threat as well. First the 1987 INF Treaty completely eliminated GLCMs (along with intermediate and short-range ballistic missiles). Then the 1991 START I Treaty limited the number of ALCMs. Nuclear SLCMs were capped at a ceiling of 880 without verification, but under a politically binding agreement and notification measures that the parties never breached.
Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI/Star Wars), formulated in 1983, called for an even greater revolution in military technology than all of the current technological innovations combined. At the time, it seemed that the new program would inevitably destroy the ABM Treaty and the entire arms control process based on it. However, the U.S. Senate special committee chaired by Sam Nunn carried out an enormous amount of work and concluded that testing exotic systems in space contradicts Article V and Common Understanding D of the ABM Treaty. At that time—unlike today—the great powers showed far more responsibility in their treatment of such agreements. The ABM Treaty survived the 1980s, despite powerful pressure from the U.S. military industrial complex and President Reagan’s fantasies, and lasted for thirty years, while the SDI was eventually curtailed.
These decades of experience clearly demonstrated that arms control can be incredibly successful, provided there is political will at the highest government level. But success requires a combination of flexibility in adjusting negotiations and agreements to progress in military technology, as well as elaborating innovative verification processes and combining them with politically binding commitments, confidence-building measures, and transparency regimes. There is no doubt that with the political will of state leaders and national elites and sufficient intellectual efforts from both sides, the most important elements of arms control can be saved even now.
Rash conclusions are even less warranted when it comes to the concept of strategic stability. It’s wrong to simply discard this perfectly viable concept; rather, it should be adjusted to the new technical realities. In particular, in addition to the threat of a disarming first nuclear strike, the use of long-range non-nuclear weapons systems in conjunction with missile defense systems, space weapons, and means of cyber warfare should be considered as provoking (i.e. providing incentives for) a first nuclear strike. Consequently, such systems and technologies should be deemed destabilizing and limited as much as possible. The stability formula should now be reformulated as “a state of the strategic relationship in which there are no incentives for any use of nuclear weapons.”
A first (or preemptive) nuclear strike generally assumes the massive use of nuclear force. But a limited nuclear strike should also be considered when eliminating incentives for a first strike. In this case, the discussion should not just be about control over the relevant nuclear weapons systems, but also about reducing and geographically separating conventional forces. These measures seek to remove the threat of defeat for any party in a local or regional conventional war. Such a threat may prompt a party to use nuclear weapons to prevent the opponent’s victory or to solidify its own initial gains in a conventional war. This is not an unattainable goal: such measures were taken pursuant to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (the 1990 CFE), which concurrently paved the way for major cuts in tactical nuclear weapons on both sides. Unfortunately, this treaty and its 1999 adaptation to the new European conditions are no longer valid.
A closer look at innovative weapons systems reveals that they are not so revolutionary after all. Even back in the late 1970s, high-precision long-range non-nuclear cruise missiles were capable of striking fixed, unhardened strategic sites (i.e. excluding missile silos, ground-mobile ICBMs, and underground command centers), and other military targets, not to mention civilian facilities.
Arms control measures make it possible to substantially reduce the threat posed by such weapons systems. For instance, it’s possible to limit air-launched cruise missiles with a range of over 600 km in the next START Treaty by returning to the old counting rules and airfield inspections. In the past, air-launched missiles were counted under warheads ceilings. Such measures for ALCMs were included in the 1991 START I Treaty, and even stricter ones were introduced in the 1993 START II Treaty.28 Even with the current New START weapons ceilings, such ACLM counting rules would translate into major reductions of hundreds of strategic weapons. Still greater reductions would result from including dual-use or conventional air-launched cruise missiles in the count.
Those arguing against such changes generally point out that a large number of non-nuclear ALCMs is required for local military operations, like those that the United States and Russia recently conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. However, such strikes hardly require ACLMs with a range of over 600 km, given the small territory of those countries and the unimpeded access the major powers have to the military theaters. But even if they decide to use longer-range ACLMs, a large number is not required, as the above-mentioned operations demonstrated. Such weapons can be borrowed from strategic stockpiles and later replenished through new production. Large arsenals of non-nuclear ALCMs and other cruise missile types could only be required by the great powers to launch strikes against each other. It is these forces and plans that arms control measures should seek to forcefully restrict, since they destabilize the balance and lower the nuclear threshold.
Ground-launched missiles with a flight range of over 500 km, including Russia’s Burevestnik intercontinental nuclear missile, are even easier to numerically limit in a future agreement through the verification measures provided for by the 1987 INF Treaty. The mutual accusations of violations that destroyed the treaty were just a pretext for terminating it. If the parties had wanted to, they could have swiftly resolved all the disputes at a technical level through on-site inspections.29
Ship-launched cruise missiles present a much more serious challenge due to the mobility of their delivery vehicles and the universality of their launchers. But the initial solution may be to extend confidence-building measures to these missiles, regardless of the weapons they carry. These measures could include notifications of activities and destinations for the large-scale unscheduled departure of SLCM-equipped ships and submarines from ports. This would alleviate the other side’s fears of a sudden sea strike and of a disproportionate reaction to that threat.
The biggest hype right now is around hypersonic gliders (the Russian Avangard system and the U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program). Their strategic significance is not yet fully known and is quite unpredictable.30 Yet verifiable limitations of these systems would be possible if they are provided with agreed definitions. They are accelerated by ICBM ballistic stages, and in terms of verification, there are no obstacles to including them in future START ceilings. It should be noted that according to START/INF practices, the above-mentioned systems should be included regardless of warhead type (nuclear or conventional), which greatly facilitates verification.
The subject of space weapons not a new one; it has been around for decades. At this time, space-based offensive and defensive systems are facing a somewhat uncertain future for technical and economic reasons. However, the United States, Russia, China, and India have already tested anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) that incorporate non-nuclear missiles, lasers, and electronic warfare. It’s still unclear how exactly they could be banned, but it’s possible to partially weaken the threat of the space arms race by first prohibiting further tests of any anti-satellite systems against real targets in space.31 This would significantly increase the survivability of key U.S. and Russian space-based missile attack early warning systems, as well as slowing down the dangerous proliferation of space debris.
The issues of agreeing and verifying prohibitions and limitations on cyber warfare systems seem irresolvable at this time. Just as strategic certainty contributes to stability, means of cyber warfare create uncertainty and thus have a potentially destabilizing effect. But it’s not at all clear now what impact they may have on the military field; nor is it known how the competition between offensive and defensive technologies will unfold. For instance, it can’t be ruled out that cyber-attacks on strategic forces’ information and command-control systems may be more detrimental to plans for a first disarming strike than to a retaliatory one. This is because a first strike requires far better coordination and precision of attack than a retaliatory one. On the other hand, a cyber diversion against early warning satellites may increase the effectiveness of the first strike and reduce the strength of retaliation. Either way, the most that can be hoped for just now is a purposeful dialogue between the United States and Russia on a mutual commitment (even if it is unverifiable, like the past commitment not to target missiles at each other) not to launch cyber-attacks on each other’s strategic information and command-control systems. There is mutual interest in preventing an inadvertent exchange of nuclear strikes, as well as jointly coping with the threat of provocation by third countries or cyber terrorists.
As for aerial and sea-based unmanned weapons systems, including those equipped with artificial intelligence, they should be controlled according to the nature of the delivery vehicles and maximum tested range. It’s extremely difficult to ban unmanned aerial weapons systems, but they don’t yet play a significant role at the strategic arms level. Russia’s Poseidon unmanned underwater vehicles can be verifiably controlled just like sea-launched ballistic missiles. A political decision must therefore be made on whether to continue the program, whose expediency is not entirely clear,32 or cancel it in exchange for some concessions from the other side.
Of course, the definition of terms and systems outlined in the New START will have to be expanded to ensure the control of hypersonic systems and underwater super-torpedoes. Space arms and cyber methods are a tough case: their technical characteristics and strategic effects are far from clear, and their control is at best a matter for the more distant future. However, this does not mean that there is no sense in addressing weapons and technologies, which should and could be managed by arms control under the follow-on to the New START.
No doubt, arms control agreements do have their limits. In the past, for strategic or technical reasons the parties could not limit the precision of nuclear weapons, their yield or speed (flight time). Nor were solutions found for distinguishing between nuclear and conventional dual-use systems, limiting anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defense systems, controlling sea-launched cruise missiles and tactical nuclear weapons, or banning anti-satellite systems and directed-energy means of war. In the areas where they couldn’t reach an agreement, the states complemented agreements with unilateral defense programs, as was the case in the 1990s and up until recently. In the context of the arms control process and regimes, these programs enhanced the potential of reasonable sufficiency and the state of strategic stability.
Overall, it must be acknowledged that despite certain gaps and failures, the arms control process has scored a number of historical victories during the past fifty years, and it should remain at the core of international security, even if many problems cannot be resolved quickly or all at once.
Arms Control Options and Prospects
So far, it’s not at all clear whether or when the two superpowers will be ready to make major political and strategic concessions for the sake of the transition to a multilateral arms control format or in order to adapt it to cutting-edge systems and technologies. However, the bilateral arms control model certainly can’t be replaced by surrogates consisting of amorphous discussion forums on “strategic stability and predictability.”
The proponents of this approach have very approximate knowledge of the subject matter and its history, and they do not understand that various ceilings, sub-ceilings, and qualitative limits of arms enshrined in the INF and SALT/START treaties, as well as their verification regimes, were not ends in and of themselves. Their main role was to serve as the most reliable material guarantee of stable mutual deterrence, predictability, transparency, and consequently, mutual trust.
Arms control negotiations that don’t focus on specific forces, types of weapons, and reliable verification regimes are doomed to be mere academic (or even scholastic) exercises. Mutual trust is impossible without verifiable arms control regimes, as was clearly demonstrated by the lengthy wrangling between the United States and Russia over the range of Russian ground-launched 9M729 missiles and the class (offensive/defensive) of U.S. missiles in Mark 41 vertical launchers in Poland and Romania, the former having become one of the two pretexts for Washington’s termination the INF Treaty. Those arguing for predictability in the absence of concrete agreements should also recall Russian concerns regarding the U.S. missile defense program, which the United States justified by citing the threat posed by Iran and North Korea, but Russia saw as a threat to its nuclear deterrence. Neither conflict with their destructive effects on strategic stability would have been possible had the ABM and INF verification regimes remained in place.
Unfortunately, theoretical debates on ostensibly attractive subjects such as “creating an environment for nuclear disarmament” and “stable rules for military competition” are already taking place at a political level.33 The revisionists advocating this major departure from the traditional practice of the arms control process and its consistent adjustment to technological change are more harmful to international security than the open-minded nuclear revanchists. Their double negative impact is, first, that their proposals may seem attractive to the political leaders of the second post-Cold War generation.34 Such a “new look” does not require detailed knowledge of the subject matter and its history. It also allows parties to avoid lengthy and often exhausting talks to resolve complex disagreements at the negotiating table, and to avoid dealing with acute domestic controversies among governmental and industrial participants of the decision-making process. History has shown that during the course of this process, top political leaders sometimes have to take personal responsibility for tough choices with major political implications, which is seldom an attractive test.
However, the promoted alternative methods will never yield practical results, as the recent strategic stability talks between Russia and the United States and between China and the United States demonstrated. The second negative impact of the revisionist philosophy, therefore—whether conscious or not—is its role as a smoke-screen for dismantling all arms control and thus opening the door for the nuclear revanchists to plunge into an uncontrolled multifaceted and multilateral arms race, which will sooner or later inevitably lead to a nuclear catastrophe.
It would be completely absurd for the parties to withdraw from existing arms control treaties like the INF and New START and freeze follow-on talks simply because some of the newest military technologies are hard to control. The current inability to limit or ban cyber weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles doesn’t mean there is no longer a need to limit nuclear weapons and dual-use systems.
Moreover, eventually it will certainly be easier to search for ways to control new military systems and technologies by working within the framework of continuing nuclear arms control, while it will be unthinkable to do so in its absence. Likewise, it will be less difficult sooner or later to attract third counties to the nuclear disarmament process if strategic dialogue between the United States and Russia is continued, while it will be impossible if that dialogue is terminated.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Washington face a number of serious issues that should be the subject of continuing negotiations. After the abandonment of the INF Treaty, the two states should at least commit to not deploying INF-prohibited missiles in Europe and, no less importantly, agree on appropriate transparency measures. Next, they should extend the New START treaty for a five-year period and immediately start discussing the next treaty using this breathing space. A reduction in numerical levels is secondary. Far more important is that the next treaty include limits on the newest nuclear and conventional strategic weapons systems and adopt realistic counting rules (in particular on bomber weapons) and a strict verification regime. In addition, to fortify the background of central strategic arms control it’s necessary to jointly prevent yet another failure of the 2020 NPT Review Conference and protect the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty from attempts to discredit and discard it. Last but not least, it would be highly desirable to revive some elements of conventional arms control, such as the geographical separation of armed forces and their exercises, and confidence-building and accident prevention measures, in particular in areas of direct military NATO-Russian juxtaposition.35
Only the continuation of nuclear arms control can create the political and military conditions for eventual limitations of innovative weapons systems and technologies, as well as for a carefully thought through and phased shift to a multilateral format of nuclear disarmament. Alas, during the last three years nothing has been done to revive this process and prevent its further disintegration. The great powers are distracted by their domestic calamities, various foreign controversies, and development of weapons programs, while arms control remains nothing more than a bargaining chip. As Ernest Moniz and Sam Nunn, two authoritative American statesmen and public leaders have observed: “…Today, watching as the edifice of strategic stability slowly but surely collapses, Washington and Moscow are acting as if time is on their side. It is not.”36
1 Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 1 2019, pp. III-3, V-3. https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_72.pdf; Yevgeny Akhmerov, Marat Valeev, and Dmitry Akhmerov, “The Balloon Is a Friend of ‘Sarmat,’” Military-Industrial Courier (in Russian), October 12, 2016, https://vpk.name/news/165525_aerostat__drug_sarmata.html , accessed February 2, 2018; Alexander Shirokorad, “The Doomsday Weapon” Independent Military Review (in Russian), no.19, August 13, 2019, 6-7.; and Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 11, 2019, pp. III-3, V-3. https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_72.pdf
2 Andrey Kortunov, “The End of the Bipolar World. How U.S. Withdrawal from INF Treaty Changes the World Order” Carnegie Moscow Center (in Russian), October 23, 2018, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/77551, accessed September 24, 2018.
3 Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament (CCND). Working paper submitted by the United States of America. Available at: https://undocs.org/NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/WP.30, accessed January 25, 2019; Speech by Ms. Alice Guitton, Permanent Representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament, Head of the French Delegation. Geneva, April 23, 2018. Available at: http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/18559222/france-newl.pdf, accessed February 25, 2019; and Sergey Karaganov, “On the New Nuclear World: How to Strengthen Deterrence and Maintain Peace”, Russia in Global Politics (in Russian), no. 2, 2017.
4 Manzo V., “Nuclear Arms Control without a Treaty? Risks and Options after the New START”. CNA’s Strategy, Policy, Plans, and Programs Division (SP3). Deterrence and Arms Control Paper no. 1. April 2019, 66-67.
5 The calculations are based on: SIPRI Yearbook 1990: World Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 3-54; SIPRI Yearbook 2011: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. Oxford University Press, 2011, 320-353; and SIPRI Yearbook 2018: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. Oxford University Press, 2018, 235-287.
6 India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined the nuclear club, while South Africa has left it.
7 French and Chinese intermediate-range and tactical nuclear weapons aren’t included in this count.
8 The number exceeds the New START threshold of 1,550 warheads because cruise missiles and gravity bombs on heavy bombers are counted as one weapon according to the terms of the treaty, even though each of the bombers can actually carry 6–20 cruise missiles and bombs.
9 According to Article VI, “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
10 In the 1972 SALT I agreements, for example, the Soviet Union limited its strategic missiles in exchange for the United States limiting its missile defense system, and START I, signed in 1991, traded a reduction in Soviet heavy missiles with limiting U.S. nuclear air- and sea-launched cruise missiles.
11 This is particularly true of enormous hardened tunnels, several thousand kilometers long, that may host ground-mobile missiles built by Chinese Strategic Rocket Forces engineer troops in recent decades.
12 SIPRI Yearbook 2018: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. Oxford University Press, 2018, 262.
13 Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on Threats to International Peace and Security. New York City, August 22, 2019. https://usun.usmission.gov/remarks-at-a-un-security-council-briefing-on-threats-to-international-peace-and-security/, accessed April 9, 2019; and Cohn J., Walton N., Lemon A., Yoshihara T. “Leveling the Playing Field. Reintroducing U.S. Theater-range Missiles in a Post-INF World.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. 2019, 5.
14 Thompson, Andrea. “The Future of Arms Control Post-Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Statement for the Record Testimony Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, May 15, 2019.
15 They аre deployed on four modified Ohio-class strategic submarines (154 cruise missiles on each, making a total of 616 cruise missiles), and on 20 attack Virginia and Sea Wolf-class submarines (500 cruise missiles), as well as on 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers and 76 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (4,560 cruise missiles). Myasnikov, E. “The Air-Space Threat to Russia.” Missile Defense: Confrontation and Cooperation, edited by Alexey Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, and Natalia Bubnova. Carnegie Moscow Center. 131. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/Missile_Defense_book_eng_fin2013.pdf
17 According to the New START, this ceiling is 1,550 weapons, but considering the actual cruise missile load on heavy bombers, it is in fact around 2,100–2,200 weapons.
18 Karaganov S., Suslov D. “Sderzhivanie v novuyu epokhu” [Deterrence in the New Era]. Russia in Global Affairs, 2019, no. 4. https://globalaffairs.ru/number/Sderzhivanie-v-novuyu-epokhu-20174, accessed September 13, 2019: and Kortunov, “The End of the Bilateral Era. How the U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty Changes the World Order”, Carnegie Moscow Center (in Russian), October 23, 2018. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/77551, accessed October 24, 2018.
19 For instance, U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles, and ship-launched (BGM-109) and air-launched missiles (AGM-84, AGM-158B, JASSM-ER, ARRW). Russia is also increasing its non-nuclear cruise missile arsenal with 3M-14 Kalibr sea-launched missiles, Kh-55CM, Kh-555, and Kh-101 air-launched missiles, and 9M728 Iskander and 9M729 Novator missiles.
20 The U.S. is testing such systems under its Prompt Global Strike program. In addition to that, the Americans are testing the X-51A WaveRider hypersonic missile for heavy bombers and have launched programs for developing ground-launched intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles. Russia is ahead of the United States in developing a nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile (this missile—the Burevestnik (Skyfall)—was allegedly involved in a recent accident at the White Sea testing range). It’s also developing the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle that can be carried by the UR-100UTTKh (SS-19) or by the new Sarmat heavy missile (SS-X-30), which will be ready for deployment after 2020.
21 This is true of Poseidon, a Russian nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed intercontinental torpedo, as well as U.S. long-range unmanned aerial vehicles.
22 For instance, Russian Nudol missile defense systems and the S-400 and S-500 missile systems, and the U.S. ship-based Aegis SM-3 missile defense system.
23 Interview with Shoigu. September 22, 2019. “Sergey Shoigu told how the Russian army was saved” (in Russian). https://www.mk.ru/politics/2019/09/22/sergey-shoygu-rasskazal-kak-spasali-rossiyskuyu-armiyu.html
24 For instance, the U.S. is developing Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles with low-yield warheads (W-76-2), aircraft-launched long-range cruise missiles (LRSO type), guided variable-yield gravity bombs (B-61-12), and new sea-launched nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Nuclear Posture Review. Office of the Secretary of Defense. February 2018, Washington, DC. 23. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL , accessed March 15, 2019.
26 Soviet-United States Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability (in Russian), June 1, 1990. URL: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=18541 . (accessed 15.03.2018); and Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability, visit to the United States of America, 30 May–4 June, 1990. Documents and materials. Moscow: Politizdat, 1990, 335 (in Russian).
27 Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 11 June 2019, pp. III-3, V-3. https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_72.pdf; Colby E. “If You Want Peace Prepare for Nuclear War”. Foreign Affairs, 2018, vol. 6, no. 97, 25-32. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-15/if-you-want-peace-prepare-nuclear-war, accessed February 2, 2019; and Yevgeny Akhmerov, Marat Valeev, and Dmitry Akhmerov, “The Balloon Is a Friend of ‘Sarmat,’” Military-Industrial Courier(in Russian), October 12, 2016, https://vpk.name/news/165525_aerostat__drug_sarmata.html , accessed February 2, 2018.
28 Only the 2010 New START Treaty adopted liberal count rules for each bomber: one delivery vehicle = one warhead, although in reality, it could carry up to 20 missiles.
29Arbatov, Alexey, “What Makes the U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty Dangerous to Russia”, Carnegie Moscow Center (in Russian). October 23, 2018. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/77543, accessed October 23, 2018.
30 Arbatov, Alexey “Doomsday Dialectics: Arms Race with Arms Control”, Polis, Political Studies (in Russian), no 3, 2019. 27-48.
31 Arbatov, Alexey “Intangible Matter Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space”, World Economy and International Relations (in Russian), vol. 63, no. 1, 2019.
32 Arbatov, Alexey “Doomsday Dialectics: Arms Race with Arms Control”, Polis, Political Studies (in Russian), no 3, 2019. 27-48.
33 For instance, a discussion on creating an environment for nuclear disarmament took place in Washington on July 1 and 2, 2019. It attracted participants from 34 countries, including high-ranking officials from Russia and the United States. Kimball D., Arms Control Today report on the CEND meeting: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-07/news/us-host-disarmament-working-group; “Operationalizing the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) Initiative”. Working paper submitted by the United States of America. https://undocs.org/NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP.43 , accessed May 26, 2019.
34 The definition of this generation does not necessarily imply a younger age, but rather a lack of first-hand experience of the arms race and arms control.
35 For an excellent analysis of the current state and origins of the main security problems and a list of practical proposals to manage them, see: Moniz E, Nunn S. “The Return of Doomsday”. Foreign Affairs, 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2019-08-06/return-doomsday.
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Alexey Arbatov is the head of the International Security Center at the Russian Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO).
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gary Granger Jr. available in the public domain.