U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Arms Control—Extending New START, Preserving INF, Supporting Further Reductions, and Strengthening Verification

This paper is part 5 of the 6-part series, U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Core Steps, 2018–2020.

The United States should continue to support and advance practical, concrete steps that meet the test of reducing nuclear dangers, increasing security, and sustaining progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Historically, bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control and confidence building measures have played a significant role in advancing these objectives. However, the foundation of arms control and confidence building that has curbed the nuclear arms race and enhanced strategic stability between the nuclear superpowers during and after the Cold War is eroding and in danger of collapse.

Preserving and revitalizing this foundation is critical to continue progress in verifiably reducing global nuclear stockpiles, preventing proliferation, and increasing stability—including specific steps that would not require new legally binding treaties but could help facilitate treaties where necessary. To this end, the United States should extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia; continue efforts to preserve the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) by urging Russia to return to compliance; reinvigorate dialogues with Russia and with the wider group of states with nuclear weapons to advance the reductions and limitation process; and collaborate with others to develop the verification tools needed for agreements that should in the future address not only delivery vehicles, but also nuclear warheads and the entire nuclear fuel cycle.

Possible steps include

1. Extend the New START Treaty. New START entered into force on February 5, 2011, and has a duration of 10 years, but by its own terms can be extended for an additional five years. The Treaty requires the United States and Russia to meet their central limits of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads; 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments by February 5, 2018. It includes robust verification and transparency measures including numerous on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the Treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for Treaty monitoring. Both countries are complying with the agreement and are on track to meets its central limits as required by February 5, 2018.

The Treaty will expire on February 5, 2021, unless the parties agree to extend it. Extending New START is strongly in their mutual interest and the United States and Russia should agree early in 2018 to extend the Treaty to enhance predictability and eliminate uncertainty about whether the Treaty’s limits and verification provisions will remain intact after 2021. New START provides an essential foundation of limits and verification upon which additional measures can be pursued, and it can be supplemented or superseded by a future agreement.

Extending New START now would ensure a significant degree of predictability and stability in an increasingly complex and dynamic world. New START’s robust verification regime provides the United States and Russia with a critical source of information about their respective nuclear forces. This allows the United States to make better decisions about its own nuclear arsenal. Verification measures—including on-site inspections, mutual notifications, and data exchanges—reduce incentives for either party to cheat on their obligations or engage in an arms race due to a lack of information about the other party’s nuclear forces. No other treaty currently allows for such access to the Russian nuclear weapons program and vice versa. Without the agreement, Russia’s strategic forces would not be subject to limits and U.S. defense planners would face growing uncertainties about future Russian capabilities. The predictability and limits New START provides help to discourage the reemergence of a nuclear arms race. New START was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support and its successful implementation and extension merit continued bipartisan support.

2. Preserve the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The INF Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union entered into force in 1988 and is of indefinite duration. It banned the possession, production, or flight-testing of all U.S and Russian intermediate- and short-range (500–5500 km) ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles (GLBMs and GLCMs), and production or possession of launchers of such missiles. The Treaty resulted in the complete and verified elimination of this class of U.S. and Russian weapons by 1991. It was a foundational treaty, including its groundbreaking intrusive verification provisions (now expired) that were later adapted for future treaties including New START, and has made a significant contribution to mutual security in the Euro-Atlantic region.

Unfortunately, the INF Treaty’s status and future is in doubt. In 2014, the United States made public its determination that Russia was in violation of its INF Treaty obligations with respect to GLCMs and their associated launchers, and subsequent press reports indicate Russia has flight-tested and deployed intermediate-range GLCMs. Russia denies the violation and has failed to respond substantively to questions raised by the United States regarding the GLCM in question. Instead, Russia has responded with allegations of its own concerning U.S. compliance with the Treaty. The United States does not view these allegations as equivalent, but has endeavored to provide substantive responses to Russian’s concerns.

The United States and its allies should continue to raise the issue and strenuously encourage Russia to return to verifiable compliance. The erosion of the INF Treaty regime is damaging to security and mutual trust in the Euro-Atlantic, a development detrimental to the interests of European nations, the United States, and Russia. Failure to resolve the issue is an obstacle to restoring trust and reducing nuclear dangers. 

The United States should respond to Russia’s violation by ensuring that Russia gains no military advantage from its violation. This can be done without reintroducing U.S. INF-banned systems in Europe. The United States does not need to and should not withdraw from or suspend its participation in the Treaty, as this would give Russia a legal option to do the same. It would take the onus off of Russia for the demise of the Treaty, and would enable Russia to freely deploy INF-prohibited systems without constraint, removing any incentive to return to compliance or limit the numbers of INF-range systems it deploys. Because the United States has other means to prevent Russia from gaining a military advantage from its violation, it should not go down the destabilizing and costly path of research, development, and potential deployment of INF-prohibited systems in Europe. This is militarily unnecessary, would be divisive in NATO, and is counterproductive to the security environment in Europe. The message needs to be clear: a flexible nuclear deterrent is available to respond to any form of nuclear use against the United States or its allies. 

In this environment where the INF Treaty is at risk and its future uncertain, the extension of the New START is all the more important. So long as Russia continues to comply with New START, it is in the United States’ interest to maintain its limits, verification, and predictability. Extension of New START should not be seen as a reward to Russia, or something to withhold in the face of its INF violation. Rather, New START should be viewed as an essential foundation of mutual nuclear regulation between the United States and Russia whose preservation is important to reducing existential nuclear risks and establishing a floor under the negative spiral in U.S.-Russian relations. 

3. Support Further Reductions. Reducing nuclear dangers and advancing nuclear nonproliferation requires that the United States continue to lay the groundwork for and pursue additional bilateral and multilateral measures and agreements to reduce nuclear weapons and materials. The United States should continue to plan for, pursue, and help create the conditions conducive to further bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms reductions and limitations, and other measures such as a multilateral fissile material cut-off treaty, to advance step-by-step progress toward the ultimate goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Further progress on nuclear reductions with Russia will require addressing a broader set of issues affecting strategic stability. As the reductions process proceeds, it will be necessary and desirable to involve additional countries with nuclear weapons and to address not only nuclear weapons delivery vehicles but also nuclear warheads and materials. 

4. Strengthen Verification. Verification is a critical component of the nuclear reductions process, and the challenges and requirements for verification become more demanding as reduction agreements call for lower numbers and seek to regulate not only weapons delivery vehicles but also nuclear warheads and the materials required for producing and maintaining them. Significant effort and resources are being devoted to these matters across governments, academia, and other non-governmental organizations. This work should be intensified and allocated sufficient resources to ensure the verification challenges are understood and met as progress on bilateral and multilateral reductions and limitations proceeds. 

NTI is engaged with the U.S. Department of State in leading efforts with a group of more than 25 States with and without nuclear weapons on the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV). This collaborative effort is focused on identifying the challenges associated with nuclear disarmament verification and identifying potential procedures and technologies to address those challenges. The IPNDV is an example of how the public and private sectors can join together on a global basis to make practical contributions to the field of disarmament and its essential verification component.

February 1, 2018
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Preserving and revitalizing arms control agreements is critical to continue progress in verifiably reducing global nuclear stockpiles, preventing proliferation, and increasing stability.