September 28, 2020

A New Nuclear Arms Race: It’s Not Too Late

Guest Opinion
By Jack Segal | Aug. 15, 2020

The memory of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago is fading as the last survivors die off. The global anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that used to bring massive crowds into the streets is long forgotten. Most people today do not even give a thought to the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose. But our lives rely on a hair-trigger nuclear-command system and on the hope that our leaders have the wisdom to ensure that an accidental or impulsive decision never occurs.

With each passing year, the potential for nuclear war increases. India-Pakistan, Israel-Iran, India-China. Nuclear-armed states are developing new, more powerful weapons but have neglected to develop confidence-building measures and a level of cooperation that has, until now, helped prevent conflicts from becoming nuclear war.

Indeed, both the U.S. and Russia seemingly have chosen to undermine the framework of stability developed since the 1960s. President-elect Donald Trump tweeted in December 2016 that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and that we should “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. That vision of nuclear superiority didn’t start with President Trump. The across-the-board trillion-dollar modernization of our nuclear weapons systems began under President Obama. President Trump’s top arms control negotiator, Marshall Billingsley, described the administration’s approach. “We know how to win these [arms] races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion … If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

That last remark sounds like an open invitation to negotiate with our adversaries. But President Trump’s skepticism about the value of arms-control agreements has so far led elsewhere. The administration has systematically dismantled decades of arms-control agreements: The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty have been terminated, the president intends to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty in November, and now the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, aka New START, is on life support.

Unconstrained by arms control, our main competitors are now actively researching new, destabilizing technologies. In response, we seek to match or defeat the technologies about which Moscow has boasted and which Beijing has more quietly pursued. As the president promised, the Pentagon is determined to ensure that U.S. nuclear forces will not be overmatched. Pentagon planners are seeking faster-flying hypersonic missiles that will shorten the reaction time of decision-makers. New nuclear warheads with a “dial-a-yield” option offer the choice of “small” (as in Hiroshima-sized) nuclear explosions — a development that will surely eliminate the “firebreak” that has deterred using nuclear weapons for 75 years.

But no one seems willing to ask why. Why do we “need” thousands of new warheads, hundreds of new land-based and submarine-based missiles, hypersonic missiles, and new stealth bombers? No effort has been made to seize the opportunity of our huge modernization effort to try to reduce the numbers or to question whether we “need” pretty much the same weapons that emerged from the arms races of the 1950s.

Neither Moscow nor Beijing can afford this burgeoning new arms race. And neither can we. With new COVID-19-related multi-trillion-dollar demands on our “federal budget” (I use that term loosely), it seems that we should be exercising some fiscal responsibility.

One avenue that is still open is to renew our arms-control efforts. The last, and arguably most important arms-control agreement, “New START,” expires in February. The strategic stability that this treaty provides, its visibility on Russian strategic forces, and the transparency built into its verification measures will be lost. But it is not too late. Putin wants to extend New START while we negotiate over the flaws that both sides see in the treaty. Extending New START, would preserve its verifiable constraints on the other side’s arsenal, buy time to negotiate a better agreement, and pave the way for talks about intermediate-range missiles.

Was the treaty perfect? Of course not. Former chief negotiator Dr. Rose Gottemoeller said recently that the treaty needs to be revisited, and she agreed with the president that China needs to be brought into the arms-control arena. But she strongly disagrees that the treaty should be allowed to die. Everyone would lose — except perhaps the arms merchants.

Letting New START lapse next February, with nothing in its place, leaves the door open for an unconstrained arms race that serves no one’s interests and would surely increase the risk of nuclear confrontations. A mechanism for resolving disputes between us exists in New START. Dismantling that mechanism is unconscionable.

There are many crises today — the global pandemic, U.S.-China tensions, the Middle East, Ukraine … the list is long. We should not add nuclear weapons to that list. The solution is simple: Extend New START now, before the February 5, 2021, deadline. This would allow all the parties time to resolve their differences without the pressure of an artificial deadline.

Jack Segal is a retired senior US and NATO diplomat. He was a State Department representative to the START negotiations and authored what became the “US-USSR Agreement on Nuclear Risk Reduction.” (Learn more about it and other treaties and agreements at https://www.state.gov/about-us-nuclear-risk-reduction-center/ ) He now teaches graduate students at Norwich University and extended education classes at NMC.

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