The Potential U.S. Security Threats in Letting New START Lapse

As America navigates unprecedented health, economic, and international challenges, U.S. leaders should grab the opportunity to avoid an easily foreseeable disaster. Extending the New START nuclear arms treaty, which Russia and the United States ratified and have both respected since it went into force in 2011, is exactly that kind of smart step.

The treaty expires in about eight months, but it contains a provision that would extend the terms an extra five years if both sides agree. Russia has offered to do so, but the Trump administration has yet to agree, saying instead that it wants to negotiate a new, much more ambitious agreement that would include China and address other issues not covered by New START. This would be a Herculean task to pull off in less than a year, especially given China’s strong opposition to joining the START process at this stage.

Extending New START and then tackling the diplomatic and military heavy lifting required to achieve the more comprehensive strategic arms agreement the administration envisions offers a safer path forward in today’s troubled world. By contrast, letting New START expire would create serious and avoidable problems for U.S. security by:

  • Wreaking havoc on the U.S.’s ability to gather essential “ground truth” and other intelligence on Russian strategic nuclear forces.
  • Damaging U.S. credibility and leadership of the Western alliance.
  • Allowing Russia to retain, instead of dismantling, existing nuclear missiles, as it deploys new ones.
  • Undermining the logic and survivability of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is due to replace the U.S.’s aging Minuteman missiles.
  • Aggravating legitimate concerns about the future Russian nuclear threat.
  • Delaying the achievement of a broader successor arms agreement that would include China.

Vital Source of Intelligence

Failure to extend New START will damage a vital source of intelligence on Russian nuclear weapons at a time when this information will be more important than ever because Russia is in a major modernization cycle for its strategic arsenal, and it will be vital for the United States to gather information on the new systems. New START requires Russia and the United States to allow onsite inspections and prohibits interference with U.S. space-based information-collection systems.

If New START disappears, so does that invaluable prohibition on interference. The demand for such spaced-derived intelligence would place major new requirements on the Intelligence Community’s limited resources, to mitigate the loss of this previously available information. A recent report from the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center on space-related science and engineering, recently outlined the potential blow to U.S. national security. No wonder Air Force General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in 2017, “I’m a big supporter [of the treaty] … When it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.”

Another important reason not to allow New START to expire is the key role it plays in strengthening U.S. relations with our allies. Allied support for New START makes it easier to build allied support for U.S. nuclear deterrence policy. The United States should avoid actions that would undermine this support and the U.S. leadership role. This is why former Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz and current NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg support extending New START.

The Crucial Stabilizing Limits of New START

Furthermore, with Russia already deploying new ICBMs and strategic submarines, the United States should want leaders in Moscow to be forced to dismantle existing weapons to stay under New START limits, rather than allowing the treaty to expire and paving the way for Russia to increase the net size of its arsenal. Once the treaty expires, Russia would be better able to upload additional nuclear warheads on its ICBMs than the United States, given Russia’s ability to upload additional warheads on its existing ICBM force, and the fact that Russia has open production lines for several nuclear weapons systems and the U.S. does not.

Why would the United States want to allow this? Not surprisingly, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Navy Vice Admiral David Kriete, states, “When it comes to the New START Treaty, from a STRATCOM perspective, we like the idea of arms control agreements, particularly with Russia, that provide us with some level of assurance that at least a portion of their nuclear forces are capped.”

The question of limiting warhead numbers is especially important because, without those limits, the United States would be sabotaging the success and the underlying strategic rationale behind its new ICBM that is under development, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Under this GBSD program, the Air Force plans to deploy 400 new single-warhead ICBMs in silos to replace 50-year-old Minuteman missiles. GBSD survivability, defined here as being unlikely to be attacked in a nuclear conflict and being able to carry out its mission, is unusually sensitive to New START limits being in place, because it is rooted in the logic that an adversary would need to expend one or more warheads to destroy just one warhead in each missile silo. When warheads are numerically capped, it would be foolish for an adversary to take such action, because doing so would mean fewer warheads to attack other targets.

With no New START and, therefore, no warhead limits, all bets are off for GBSD survivability. Russia could easily deploy additional warheads — it would just add the needed warheads to its arsenal. GBSD’s single-warhead nature is thus a powerful feature, one that disappears if New START goes away. The case for the new ICBM is significantly weakened if this happens.

The GBSD problem illustrates a larger truth that treaty critics seem unwilling to face: almost every problem cited that New START does not solve would be aggravated if the treaty expires. Russia is deploying a huge new ICBM and a new hypersonic missile. At least their ability to exploit these new weapons is limited under New START, and the agreement forces them to make offsetting reductions.

How would letting Russia run free, without limits, make these weapons less of a problem? The survivability of the new U.S. ICBMs would be threatened. Strategic nuclear intelligence-gathering would become more difficult. U.S. relations with allies would be damaged further. The Russian nuclear threat would be free to increase. Tactical nuclear weapons would still be unconstrained, and China would still not be a party to strategic arms talks.

It is clear why the former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, said in an April webinar for the Arms Control Association, “Allowing New START to lapse without replacement would be a grave mistake in terms of our national security.” Similarly, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen declared in the same online discussion: “Put me down in the column of extension [of New START].”

Not extending New START‘s limits makes the issues raised by critics of the treaty much worse, not better, it would not bring us any closer to achieving additional objectives, and it would make their achievement less likely, with no limits and verification rules in place. Far better to address these important issues in an environment of stabilizing limitations on strategic weapons than of no restraints at all. That’s why U.S. military leaders past and present strongly support extending New START for another five years while the United States tackles additional nuclear concerns. Let’s follow their good advice.

IMAGE: An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a developmental test, Feb. 5, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Hanah Abercrombie)

 

About the Author(s)

Bruce MacDonald

Editor and co-author of the 2016 book "Crisis Stability in Space: China and Other Challenges." Former Senior Director to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. Has taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on Nuclear Nonproliferation and consults on nuclear, military space, and cyber security policy issues.