Should New START Be Extended?
Arms control advocates are increasing pressure on the Trump administration to extend the New START arms control treaty with Russia beyond its scheduled expiration date of February 2021. Aside from the usual arguments that focus on the purported benefits of New START for transparency and predictability, and how the treaty allegedly serves as a useful brake on a renewed “arms race” with Russia, some now assert that extending New START supports the National Defense Strategy’s goal of “expanding the competitive space” in an era of renewed great power competition.
For example, AEI Jeanne Kirkpatrick Fellow John Maurer argues, “The Trump administration must extend New START to enhance its competitive strategy in an era of renewed great power competition, just as the United States did during the Cold War.”[i] Unfortunately, his arguments ignore and mischaracterize both history and reality.
Maurer repeats a common refrain of treaty supporters that New START “limits the strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russia to relatively low and equal levels.”[ii] Yet this contention is patently false, as is former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller’s assertion that New START extension “will continue to cap Russian deployed warheads.”[iii] The New START Treaty only limits “accountable” weapons; however, due to its counting rules (where one bomber is counted as one weapon no matter how many nuclear bombs it carries), Russia deploys more strategic nuclear weapons than those actually counted by the treaty. In fact, some estimate the total number of Russia’s deployed strategic nuclear weapons today may exceed the higher limits established by the Moscow Treaty nearly two decades ago.[iv] Indeed, New START owns the dubious distinction of being the only arms control treaty that forced the United States to reduce the number of its deployed weapons while allowing the other side to build up to meet the treaty’s supposedly “equal” numerical limits.
In addition, asserting that extending the treaty would “serve American competitive strategy” by preventing Russia from “pulling ahead in the arms race” downplays several pertinent facts. First, Russia continues to build and deploy new nuclear weapons while the United States stopped building them after the end of the Cold War nearly three decades ago. Second, Russia, by its own admission, has already modernized and upgraded more than 80 percent of its nuclear arsenal while the United States continues to rely on an aging nuclear deterrent deployed in many cases nearly half a century ago.[v] Third, a number of Russia’s new strategic “superweapons” touted by Russian President Vladimir Putin over a year ago would not be accountable under New START, and Russian officials have stated publicly that Moscow will not accept new arms control limits on these new nuclear weapons.[vi] And fourth, unlike the United States, which has scrupulously abided by its arms control treaty commitments, Russia has chosen to selectively comply with those arms control treaties it finds useful while violating those that stand in the way of ensuring its own “competitive advantage” (the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Open Skies, and Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty to name just a few). New START does nothing to rectify any of these asymmetries.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal is rapidly trending toward obsolescence, while Russia’s extensive nuclear modernization program continues. These divergent trends have only accelerated under the New START Treaty. Nevertheless, those favoring extending New START contend that Russia’s advantage would be much worse if the treaty were allowed to lapse. By extending the treaty, Gottemoeller asserts, Russia “will not be able to outrun us.”[vii] On the contrary, simply extending an agreement based on flawed counting rules, that fails to capture all of the new nuclear systems Russia is now developing, that ignores the significant and growing Russian advantage in non-strategic nuclear forces, and that does nothing to discourage further Russian arms control violations, will place the United States at a distinct competitive disadvantage at a time when nuclear threats are growing. Supporters also argue that allowing New START to lapse would mean the end of important transparency fostered by the treaty’s verification regime. Yet, they discount the reality that New START’s verification regime is less robust, less intrusive, and less useful than the verification provisions contained in the original START Treaty that expired a decade ago.[viii]
Maurer, in particular, argues, "Arms control negotiations played an important role in the United States' ultimate Cold War triumph, allowing American leaders to forestall further Soviet missile deployments and buy time to develop a competitive response."[ix] In fact, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) process he praises was a complete failure at halting the Soviet nuclear buildup, which placed the U.S. deterrent at increasing risk. This reality is what led Presidents Carter and Reagan to push for a comprehensive nuclear modernization effort nearly four decades ago – the last significant U.S. modernization cycle.
Rather than extending New START on the pretense that it is better than nothing, perhaps it is time to consider renegotiating it in favor of an agreement that truly serves American security interests. Arms control is not an end unto itself. As I testified to Congress last year, New START should not be viewed in isolation from Russia’s overall arms control behavior and nuclear weapons activities.[x] While arms control can play a useful role in helping to manage strategic competition, New START in its current form fails this critical test.
David J. Trachtenberg is Vice President of the National Institute for Public Policy. He served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from October 2017 to July 2019. The views expressed here are his own.
[i] John Maurer, “America’s strategic interest in New START,” 5 November 2019, available at https://www.aei.org/foreign-and-defense-policy/americas-strategic-interest-in-new-start/.
[iii] Rose Gottemoeller, “Don’t Let the New START Treaty Lapse,” The New York Times, 9 November 2019, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/08/opinion/dont-let-the-new-start-treaty-lapse.html.
[iv] See, for example, Mark B. Schneider, “Russia Has Thousands of Nuclear Weapons (And They Can Kill Billions),” The National Interest, 26 October 2019, available at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/russia-has-thousands-nuclear-weapons-and-they-can-kill-billions-91136. Also see Mark. B. Schneider, “Russian Nuclear Force Expansion and the Failure of Arms Control,” RealClear Defense, 24 October 2019, available at https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2019/10/24/russian_nuclear_force_expansion_and_the_failure_of_arms_control_114810.html.
[v] In December 2018, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu declared, “The modernity level of the Strategic Nuclear Forces has reached 82 percent." See Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, "Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Federation attends an extended session of the Russian Defence Ministry board session," 18 December 2018, available at http://eng.mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12208613@egNews.
[vi] Joe Gould, "U.S. nuclear general worries over Russia's weapons outside New START," Defense News, 26 February 2019, available at https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nuclear-arsenal/2019/02/26/us-nuclear-general-worries-over-russias-weapons-outside-new-start/. Also see, for example, the comments of Anatoly Antonov, cited in Patrick Tucker, “New New START a Nonstarter: Russian Ambassador,” Defense One, 12 March 2019, available at https://www.defenseone.com/politics/2019/03/new-new-start-nonstarter-russian-ambassador/155474/.
[vii] Gottemoeller, op. cit.
[viii] “New START: Potemkin Village Verification,” Report of The New START Working Group, The Heritage Foundation, 24 June 2010, available at https://www.heritage.org/node/13550/print-display. Also see Schneider, RealClear Defense, op. cit.
[ix] Maurer, op. cit.
[x] See testimony on “The State of Arms Control with Russia” before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 18 September 2018, available at https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/091818_Trachtenberg_Testimony.pdf.