Old Myths and New Realities
The past few months have been difficult for the so-called arms control community. Cherished myths and deeply held beliefs have been shattered by Russian, Chinese and North Korean behavior. Reciprocity has been shown to be a meaningless concept. And yet, the seductive illusions persist. It’s time to sweep away the old folktales and face the new realities.
First, the idea that US restraint in nuclear armaments and modernization will produce similar policies and actions by the three life presidents who govern our nuclear adversaries should be discarded. We should have recognized this when we imposed a “modernization leave” on our strategic forces starting with the Bush administration 43; rather than showing reciprocal US restraint, Russia, China and, yes, even North Korea proceeded rapidly to build and deploy new nuclear forces. We should have recognized that while we scrupulously abided by no less than nine “post-Cold War” arms control treaties and executive agreements, Russia was actively violating each of them while still claiming to abide by their provisions. And, most recently, when the Biden administration first postponed and then canceled a test of a Minuteman III ICBM, Putin’s response was a test of Russia’s gigantic new Sarmat ICBM, capable of carrying 10 independently targeted warheads – the diplomatic equivalent of giving the West a middle finger.
Secondly, the Pentagon, the United States Department of Defense, has done everything possible to characterize the Sarmat test as “not posing a threat to the United States or its allies”. Perhaps that was true on an extremely narrow and literal reading. But the test was intended as a clear reminder and warning to the West by Putin of Russia’s nuclear capabilities against the backdrop of Russian anger at NATO’s continued increased material support for Ukraine (a point made absolutely clear by Russian media coverage in which the weapon was described as the “killer of Americans” and graphic images of flight times to European capitals were on display). But, more fundamentally, the Sarmat is intended to be a threat to US nuclear deterrence; it’s a dinosaur-like throwback to the heavily MIRVed ICBMs the USSR deployed in the 1970s that were created explicitly to destroy our Minuteman force and threaten the most responsive element of the US nuclear deterrent. (MIRV stands for multiple independent re-entry vehicles – each ICBM can carry multiple warheads that can hit different targets.)
Even some of those who might have understood the threat behind the test felt compelled to argue that the Sarmat test demonstrated the value of arms control because the Russians informed us in advance of the launch of the test in accordance with the provisions of the new START. Arms control is supposed to circumscribe and limit threats. Test notifications are a third or fourth tier perk, not at all essential to the goal of arms control.
Events of the past few months have also revealed that the administration’s policy of “reducing the role of nuclear weapons” – which it used to justify the cancellation of the submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile (SLCM- N) – was a complete failure. Putin has engaged in the most egregious forms of attempted nuclear blackmail since the end of the Cold War. Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric, missile tests and missile parades are cut from the same cloth. And Beijing continues to deploy new ICBMs at a rapid pace. On the contrary, the role of nuclear weapons has increased, we just seem unable to recognize it.
Recognizing the realities of our current nuclear situation leads in a different direction. The current trajectory of growing threats of nuclear escalation by U.S. adversaries does not call for more arms control, but for more deliberate thinking about nuclear deterrence and the imperative to modernize the aging nuclear arsenal of the United States. United. We have written in the past about the qualitative dimension, but the dramatic events of the past year – China’s nuclear build-up and Russia’s efforts to cripple US decision-making on Ukraine with nuclear threats explosives – place the United States in a completely new situation: strategic competition with two close nuclear powers. In the past, stable deterrence required the ability to withstand a nuclear first strike while retaining sufficient capability to inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary with guaranteed second-strike retaliatory capability. During the Cold War, the United States was able to ensure that it could measure “what is sufficient” to maintain a stable equilibrium. Today, as the Commander of STRATCOM, Admiral Charles Richards recently noted, “the war in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory – their strategic breakthrough – demonstrate that we have a lack of deterrence and assurance based on the threat of limited nuclear use”.
As things stand, it is by no means certain that within a few years the United States will retain enough to deter two well-armed nuclear competitors. Despite years of efforts to ensure “strategic stability,” the United States may need to rethink its approach. De-MIRVing American ICBMs (as we did in the 1990s) because some said they were inherently destabilizing had no effect on Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization programs. In the short term, the US may need to procure more AGM 181 Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missiles and upload US bombers to take advantage of the bomber count rule under the New START treaty. to increase the arsenal for enhanced deterrence.
With New START set to expire in 2026, the US may want to upload its Minuteman III missiles up to three warheads each to rapidly increase its warhead count. As the ground-based strategic deterrent/Sentinal ICBM program progresses, US policymakers will have to grapple with whether it should have one or more warheads. In the longer term, an increase in the purchase of Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines may also be necessary. Ironically, these steps can do more to promote the prospects of future arms control agreements than simply recite the robust perennial bromides of the arms control community.
Eric S. Edelman and Franklin Miller have held senior positions in national security affairs in the administrations of both parties.