If U.S. and Russia Can't Make A Nuclear Deal, Arms Control Efforts Could Be Reversed, Experts Say

The United States and Russia now have less than a year to renew their final bilateral nuclear treaty but both countries are instead actively developing new, more advanced delivery platforms that experts said could reverse decades of arms control efforts.

Washington has so far rebuffed Moscow's call to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the latest and last remaining non-proliferation agreement between two nations once locked in a nuclear-fueled arms race. The pact mandates the U.S. and Russia maintain limits, mutual verification and inspection regimes and, perhaps most importantly, channels of communication regarding their nuclear stockpiles and its expiration could lead the pair to once again enter into a dangerous cycle of amassing new, more powerful weapons of war.

"You're back to a Cold War situation, both sides not talking and making assumptions about one another," David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program, told Newsweek. "You have to keep talking to your adversaries."

The U.S., Russia and other nations are also progressing in new domains such as space and cyberspace. With more complex and advanced systems being introduced, response time is rapidly diminishing and Wright said that it's "that decaying timeline, the fact that things might happen more and more quickly that worry me."

"We get closer and closer to the edge something getting tripped off," he added. "It's something that keeps me up at night."

us, military, minuteman, nuclear, icbm, test, start
Air Force Global Strike Command conducts an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, October 10, 2019. The Minuteman III comprises the land-based leg of the U.S. military's nuclear triad. U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant J.T. Armstrong/30th Space Wing Public Affairs/U.S. Space Force

The first START was signed in 1991 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. It was later followed by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2003 and New START in 2011. All these agreements are designed to restrict the number of warheads and launchers both Washington and Moscow can possess.

New START, which is set to expire next February, establishes strict processes to allow both countries to monitor one another's nuclear activities. This includes a biannual exchange of nuclear arsenal data.

As of their last exchange last September, the U.S. possesses 668 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers and Russia has 513 such deployed platforms out of a limit of 700.

The introduction of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) means that each nuclear-capable missile may carry a number of warheads. As a result, New START also restricts the number of deployed warheads to 1,550, with the U.S. currently deploying 1,376 and Russia deploying 1,426. Finally, the U.S. meets the cap of deployed and non-deployed launchers of ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers exactly at 800, while Russia maintains 757.

President Donald Trump has so far rejected Russian overtures to renew the treaty in its current form. The U.S. leader wants to see a wide-ranging agreement involving multiple countries and new weapons platforms, something for which arms control analysts have also advocated—but not at the cost of losing what has already been won.

"I don't understand the logic," Wright said. "I think that it makes a lot of sense to try to think about a future arms control regime with, not just China, but England and France, which have roughly the same amount of nuclear weapons as China, we all try to think what a multilateral framework would look like."

"Why you'd need to get rid of a working bilateral treaty with Russia makes no sense," he added.

China has, for its part, refused to join such an agreement to subject its far-smaller nuclear arsenal to any START-style restrictions, especially as the U.S. and Russia continue to invest in emerging weapons technologies that have already begun to redefine today's battlefield.

russia, avangard, boost, glide, vehicle, hypersonic
Russia test-launched its Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle from the western Dombarovsky region toward the Kura training ground in the far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, December 26, 2018. Russia President Vladimir Putin said at the time that the weapon was his "answer" to the U.S. global missile shield. Russian Ministry of Defense

Among the most notable developments in recent years has been the introduction of highly maneuverable, nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons. In March 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the Avangard boost-glide vehicle that has been said is capable of attaining speeds of Mach 27. In the Russian leader's latest annual address earlier this month, Putin boasted of it being the first time in history his country had outpaced the U.S. in deploying a state-of-the-art platform.

"Yes, it's true they have Avangard," Thomas C. Moore, a consultant on Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons and associated issues and a former senior Republican Professional Staff Member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Newsweek.

"I am familiar with the program, and I can affirm they may be able to say they were the first, but to what great effect on arms control or the conduct of a potential war, I am dubious," he added.

Both Wright and Moore pointed out potential shortcomings in the Avangard system, such as the fact that mid-flight maneuvering would slow down the vehicle. Still, the Pentagon is racing to develop and deploy such weapons of its own and defenses to counter them, especially in a world where bilateral treaties between Washington and Moscow have collapsed.

When Putin first revealed his new hypersonic arsenal, he argued such tools had become necessary in the wake of the U.S. exit from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Last year, the Trump administration left the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, again defying Russian protests, and now the White House appears to be adopting a similar stance toward New START.

If New START fails and no treaty replaces it, Moore said the major effects may not be felt for nearly a decade but could favor Moscow's military-industrial strategy. "Russia can generate a larger force of warheads in the future, after 2030, now based on projections, than we might be able to if our own modernization doesn't pan out," he told Newsweek.

"There I worry about our Columbia-class SSBN program," Moore said, referring to the upcoming class of nuclear-powered, SLBM-carrying submarines. In a post-New START world, he said such vessels "would be busier" and low-yield nuclear warheads like the recently-deployed W76-2 would be sidelined in favor of modernized MIRVs to challenge heavily-fortified Russian missile silos.

Moore also expressed some doubts about the capabilities of the proposed B-21 U.S. strategic stealth bomber, although at the same time he notes that "Russia has shortfalls in its own air-based triad leg, too." Still, when it comes to Russia's ability to produce warheads, he told Newsweek, "We do worry about upload when it's unconstrained."

A graphic provided by Statista shows how the stockpiles of each nuclear weapons country as estimated by the Federation of American Scientists in December 2017. Russia, the United States, France, China and the United Kingdom are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is designed to prevent other nations from going nuclear. Statista

Experts said they are also concerned about how much more capable emerging offensive platforms have been in relation to defenses. Currently, the Pentagon's chances of intercepting even a single incoming enemy ICBM are at best an even split.

"We've done a lot of analysis on U.S. defense systems and testing of it and even under artificial testing conditions, you get about a 50 percent success rate," Wright told Newsweek.

Both Washington and Moscow are pushing to revamp their ability to thwart enemy attacks and the Trump administration announced for the first time last year that it was pursuing space-based capabilities. The development drew criticisms from Russia and China who have called for a United Nations ban on militarizing space but have also worked on anti-satellite systems that could prove devastating should conflict erupt in the modern era.

Despite these protests, Moore said any deal to limit defensive systems in the current climate "is off the table now for a long time."

As for a new arms control treaty, Moore told Newsweek that this was likely only once Washington and Moscow felt their arsenals had been sufficiently updated. Such an agreement would probably have "even more verification questions, and fewer limits," he added.

For the time being, however, he attributes the slow death of arms control as we know it to the state of affairs within the policy community.

"One part of our policy community has taken it into their heads that it's not verification but a reduction of forces that matters, so for them, throwing missile defense under the bus along with modernization makes sense." The other, he said, "seems oblivious to the contradictions in their fairly mundane, pedestrian and poorly-crafted half-arms-control-isms constructed to avoid saying they just hate arms control, period."

"Between them," Moore said, "we end up where we are."

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