Michael KreponUnilateral or Bilateral Reductions?

The next US president faces lots of questions relating to nuclear weapons and nuclear threat reduction. Here’s one: Should the United States unilaterally reduce strategic forces deemed to be in excess of the Pentagon’s needs, or wait instead for an agreement to proceed in parallel with the Russian Federation?

The arguments to proceed unilaterally with deeper cuts are straightforward. The Obama Administration has determined that the United States can drop below New START limits without harming US national security, so why not save money now, rather than later? We’re all familiar with the “bargaining chip” phase of arms control, when expensive chips were deployed rather than cashed in. So why repeat this sorry history? Unilateral reductions could also affirm Washington’s commitment to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in US defense posture, while reinforcing the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s grand bargain, which calls on the nuclear “haves” to move toward zero and the “have-nots” to continue their abstinence.

The counterarguments to wait for Russian President Vladimir Putin are as follows: Friends and allies are reassured by the United States having a nuclear arsenal “second to none.” Numbers may be a lesser indicator of capability than qualitative aspects of the competition, but they still matter, which is why treaties spell them out. Another reason to wait is to avoid sending the wrong signal to Mr. Putin, who is engaged in bullying tactics that harken back to an earlier era when Kremlin leaders brandished the Bomb. Unilateral reductions might inadvertently reinforce Putin’s belief system that nuclear weapons are useful for leveraging others. In this event, cutting unilaterally might even delay Russian reductions, rather than accelerating them.

While New START allows for and even anticipates deeper cuts, President Barack Obama has decided to hold off on further reductions until Mr. Putin decides to downsize Russia’s ambitious and costly strategic modernization programs. What might the next U.S. president decide? I come down on the side of waiting, primarily because unilateral reductions below New START levels would be a tone-deaf response to Russian warplanes buzzing US surface ships and simulating nuclear attacks on Sweden. Plus, there’s the matter of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and what’s going on in eastern Ukraine, Georgia, etc. The United States will not succeed in reducing the salience of nuclear weapons by unilateral reductions if Putin keeps doing what he’s doing. Nor would unilateral U.S. reductions be likely to make the next NPT Review Conference any easier.

Responding to egregious Russian behavior with unilateral increases in U.S. nuclear force structure or deployed warheads is even more off the table than pursuing unilateral reductions. There’s no need. The United States has more than enough capability, as is.

The current U.S.-Russian nuclear competition is about replacing old stuff with new stuff (and refurbishing warheads). This isn’t the kind of arms racing I witnessed in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, which resulted in build-ups in force structure and then big increases in deployed warheads. Arms racing back then was fueled by technological advances — ICBMs, SSBNs, SLBMs, cruise missiles, and MIRVs. Force structure is now capped, and the most interesting new technologies are conventional, not nuclear-weapon related.

Deeper reductions in US and Russian nuclear forces will happen because both face budget crunches. Russia’s is compounded by the low price of oil, international sanctions, and a contracting economy. If deeper cuts eventually happen by unilateral, reciprocal steps, it will be because relations between Washington and Moscow remain in the dumps for a long time. It would be far better, however, if deeper cuts happen bilaterally under New START. Why? Because nuclear risk-reduction succeeds most when pursued in parallel with treaty obligations. A strong foundation allows for more ambitious construction projects. It’s worth waiting a bit for this better outcome.

How long a wait? Moscow and Washington aren’t obliged to begin negotiations on deeper cuts until, perhaps, the year before New START obligations are set to expire in February 2021 – in other words, toward the end of the next administration. Negotiations could be resumed earlier, depending on Moscow’s budget squeeze and the state of play in U.S.-Russian relations. New START and its monitoring provisions could be extended into 2026 to accommodate prolonged negotiations or deeper cuts. The Senate agreed in advance to this possibility when it provided advice and consent to ratify New START.

A second tranche — and maybe even a third — of bilateral reductions under New START can compensate for the Treaty’s initial, modest cuts. Maintaining the New START framework and its monitoring provisions for as long as possible could also help lay the foundation for multilateral negotiations over numerical limitations for the Big Boys and leveling-off for the arsenals of mid-sized nuclear weapon states. This transition to multilateral nuclear arms control, which Moscow and defense hawks in the United States have called for, will be hard to pull off under the best of circumstances. It will be harder in the absence of formal restraints on US and Russian force levels.

Acknowledging the virtues of a short waiting game for the next tranche of strategic force reductions is one thing; paying the bills to recapitalize excess force structure is another. US funding streams for a new bomber, a new ICBM (or an upgrade to the Minuteman), and a lesser-than-full replacement for the Trident boats are sufficient to hold Mr. Putin’s attention – when he is not otherwise focused on US conventional long-range strike capabilities and missile defense upgrades. The next administration’s challenge will be to incentivize the Kremlin to accept deeper cuts without mortgaging the Pentagon’s budget on weapon systems that haven’t been used in combat since 1945 — and ought never to be used again.

If waiting and negotiating seem too tiresome, and the expected result too modest, then the alternative is to de-link from Russia and pursue far deeper, unilateral cuts. This may seem like a shortcut, but the odds are it won’t be a successful one.


  1. John Schilling (History)

    “This transition to multilateral nuclear arms control, which Moscow and defense hawks in the United States have called for, will be hard to pull off under the best of circumstances”

    This, I think, is critical. The next round of cuts could be done safely on either a unilateral or bilateral basis, but if that’s the end of the story then all we get are modest cost savings and a persistent risk of apocalypse. Moving forward beyond the next round will require bringing at least China on board, so I would suggest that whatever we do in this round should be judged heavily on whether it makes that task easier or harder – and the easiest way to do that might even be to bring China in on this round when we wouldn’t be asking them to give up anything they have already invested in.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      With respect to China and the mid-sized nuclear powers, I do think it may be time to take another look the old “stop where we are” concepts from the old days. There’s room, in my view, for the US & Russia to safely reduce another tranche without widening the net, but beyond that, China (at a minimum) belongs in the conversation. This will be hard, as we all know, especially as Beijing begins to place multiple warheads atop some of its missiles.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The goals of nuclear arms control should be 1) reduce risk of nuclear war, 2) reduce number of nuclear weapons, 3) reduce cost. Priority #1, reducing the risk of apocalypse, far outweighs #2 and #3 combined. Arms controllers sometimes dwell too much on goals #2 and #3, while ignoring obvious ways to achieve goal #1, reduce the risk of nuclear war.

      There are many ways of reducing nuclear war risk, both unilaterally and multilaterally. For example, the U.S. could unilaterally take its land missiles out of launch-ready mode, and completely abjure any form of launch on warning. Other ways include encouraging Russia to turn away from its provocative behavior with nuclear-capable military assets, or encouraging China to refrain from deploying MIRVs. Even if goals 2 and 3 may be stalled for now, priority #1 is still available to be worked on.

  2. Carl Robichaud (@CarlRobichaud) (History)

    Should the US have de-linked earlier, when relations with Russia were better? The US chose instead to embark on a lengthy New START arms control negotiation–was this the right move? Interested in your thoughts.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      The Obama administration’s initial choice was to reconstitute an intrusive monitoring system and to replace the flimsy strategic offensive arms reduction treaty negotiated by the George W. Bush administration — a treaty that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. I think the Obama administration was right in making this its top N-related priority for the reasons mentioned in this post: It’s really hard to do nuclear risk reduction across the board without a treaty-based arms reduction process for the Big Two. But once deciding to go down this path, the administration could only go as deep as Putin would allow, and then got shaken down on Capitol Hill during ratification hearings, committing to more strategic modernization programs than the defense budget and common sense allows.
      Had the administration decided to de-link reductions, the incentives for Moscow to agree to even modest cuts would have lessened. And Team Obama would have had a harder time shoring up friends and allies when Putin started brandishing the Bomb.
      Less than ideal choices, I know. For me, the issue looking ahead is how to make the most of the framework that Team Obama negotiated. And since President Obama left all the hard choices to cut strategic modernization programs to his successor, to focus in the near term on an affordable strategic modernization program. I would also seek to distinguish between budget-busting Hawks in the Republican Party and those who demonstrate sensible Republican principles. Tarnishing all Republicans with the same brush doesn’t help with recruitment.
      Also looking ahead: Raise the priority of the CTBT, the agenda item that got lost when New START was prioritized. Team Obama can use the time available most usefully by teeing up the CTBT for a national debate early in the next administration. I’ll keep beating on this drum in the run-up to the President’s trip to Japan.

  3. Pavel (History)

    It may well be that a threat of the U.S. going unilateral is the best way to convince Russia to agree to have a post-New START agreement. There are many reasons Russia would want to keep the bilateral reduction process alive. I tried to make this case some time ago http://thebulletin.org/case-unilateral-us-nuclear-warhead-reductions

  4. anon (History)

    On the pros and cons of unilateral vs. bilateral: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R43037.pdf

  5. Alexis TK27 (History)

    Multilateral negotiations on nuclear weapon reductions are desirable in principle, but I think both the US and Russia are quite far from force levels where other nuclear weapons states would be ready to join in negotiations.

    Each of the Big Two has presently approximately 7,000 NW, including strategic and tactical, deployed and not. This is to be compared to less than 300 weapons for the other official nuclear-weapon States, probably less than 200 for Israel, India and Pakistan, and definitely less than 100 for NK.

    Hollande is on record saying that France would consider joining in when the two big arsenals are down to “hundreds” of weapons each. I find it hard to believe that China would take a more compromising stance. So, yes, multilateral reductions might happen someday, but it wouldn’t be prudent to hold one’s health for it.

    I would argue that other bilateral reforms should be negotiated before that, and are actually more urgent. First of all the definite and total abandonment of the crazy strategy known as “launch on warning”. Then fissile production cutoff and dismantlement of nuclear test sites would also be useful to negotiate and implement.

    If security against an “accident” leading to nuclear war is the aim – and it should be paramount – abandonment of launch on warning is much more urgent than any reduction in weapons numbers, no matter how desirable the latter may be.

  6. virgilfenn (History)

    We, the USA, should take the high road by unilaterally announcing that we will never use nuclear weapons again under any circumstance. We back that up with an open invitation to discussion of what to do with the nuclear weapons that we have. All options should be on the table: destroy, sell, lease, salvage the nuclear material, … whatever.
    Instantly, everybody else loses the argument that they need nuclear weapons to deter the USA.

  7. Uban_Singh (History)

    Unrelated (publish only if you see it useful).


    Best Regards