Michael KreponAfter New START, What?

Quote of the week:

“We must resist the childish impulse to do and have everything that the adversary has or is pursuing.” — David Singer, Deterrence, Arms Control and Disarmament (1962)

One good reason to extend the Obama/Medvedev New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for five years is that it might take that long to negotiate and put in place what might come after its expiration. Since New START might not be extended, it makes sense to start brainstorming now about our nuclear future. The Stimson Center is convening a series of panels on this subject, the next being a luncheon event on March 20th with Linton Brooks, Brad Roberts, Kristen Ven Bruusgaard and Heather Hurlburt. Feel free to tune in if you can’t attend.

As I see it, there are four options. One is a continuation of a numbers-based arms control and reduction regime. We’ve had one since 1972, beginning with the first Strategic Arms Limitation Accord, and it would seem strange and uncomfortable to be without one. This path isn’t easy: it’s likely that extending any numbers-based formula beyond New START would have to be far more complex and inclusive, both in terms of delivery vehicles and participating states. More on this below.

A second option is a combined numbers and norms based regime. This, too, would be more complex, inclusive, and difficult to do. A third option would be a norms-without-numbers based regime. Not easy, but way less complex. This regime, like those above, would need to be more inclusive to be more effective.

The fourth option is to have no replacement for New START.

Why is it likely that any post-New START regime might have to be more inclusive? To begin with, the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone. Even “mid-sized” nuclear powers now possess three-digit-sized arsenals — and some of these arsenals are growing. What one nuclear-armed state does has ripple effects on others, resulting in cascading nuclear requirements. Both the Kremlin and the Senate have said they want a more inclusive regime. .

Another reason is that the more widely shared obligations are, the more effective a post New START regime will be. It’s high time to extend restraints to the nuclear arms competition in Asia. China, India and Pakistan have so far refused to do so, and their national security has been diminished as a result. Reducing nuclear dangers in Asia as well as Europe demands a formula that covers all seven of the largest nuclear arsenals — the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, China, India and Pakistan.

Finding the right counting rules for a seven power agreement won’t be easy. Let’s presume to count, as we have become accustomed, each deployed intercontinental ballistic missile, submarine-launched ballistic missile and long-range bomber as adding “one” to each nation’s total. The baseline range here, dating back to SALT, has been 5,500 kilometers.

What about intermediate-range ballistic missiles? Do we count them, as well? And does each missile beyond a certain, agreed range within this category count as one? I would be inclined to say yes.  One reason is because intermediate-range missiles are considered strategic delivery vehicles in Asia and Europe. Moreover, if we don’t count missiles of intermediate range and weigh them equally to longer-range missiles, we just invite an accelerated  competition at lower ranges. Negotiators would have to arrive at an agreed range threshold for counting purposes, and this could be a serious bargaining issue.

Another complication: If we count intermediate-range ballistic missiles beyond a certain range, do we count intermediate-range cruise missiles? Again, for the reasons noted above, I would argue in the affirmative. Do we include conventionally-armed cruise missiles as well as nuclear-armed cruise missiles meeting our range threshold? My tentative answer is no — as long as states are willing to accept intrusive monitoring that confirms that certain classes of cruise missiles do not carry nuclear weapons.

Do we count new types of weapon systems in national aggregates, such as hypervelocity “glide” delivery vehicles (regardless of their payload), other types of prompt global strike systems beyond an agreed range, and long-range, nuclear-armed torpedoes? Again, I’d answer in the affirmative. These weapon systems have strategic consequences, so they deserve to count. Moreover, to keep their numbers down and to reaffirm their “niche” status, it might make sense to count them equal to other strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. Otherwise, their deployment would not come at the expense of other weapon systems in national aggregates.

What about missile defense interceptors? Do we count them, as well, if they meet certain performance parameters? In my view, the answer is, once again, yes, using the very same unit of account. That way, for every defensive interceptor a country deploys exceeding certain parameters, it would need to subtract one unit of offensive capability.

Under my notional and highly tentative thought process, states would be free to choose between offense and defense, and choose again within offensive categories according to their perceived national security interests. Cooperative, intrusive monitoring would presumably be required to affirm exclusions and agreed parameters. One possible way to deal with states that wish to avoid intrusive monitoring is to make them ineligible for exclusions.

What might the national aggregates look like? They would depend in part on the ranges we might assign for accountable missiles below intercontinental range and what parameters would be set for counting missile defense interceptors. Those who are so inclined can help us all by doing the math using various parameters.

A multilateral, numerically based extension of New START would thus harken back to the naval arms limitation treaties between the first and second world wars. These treaties were bedeviled by workarounds, violations, exclusions, and — most of all — by the clear intent of two of the signatories — Japan and Italy — to disregard the national sovereignty of other states. Germany wasn’t a party to the Washington and London Naval treaties. It was supposed to forego having a navy by the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty. That didn’t work out so well. Naval armament controls couldn’t possibly be sustainable when two major powers, Germany and Japan, were intent on dramatically changing the status quo in Europe and the Pacific.

This thumbnail excursion raises central questions. First, what are U.S., Russian and Chinese intentions toward the status quo in Europe and in Asia? Does any major power seek changes in the status quo by means of aggressive or unconventional war? How instrumental are nuclear weapons to U.S., Russian and Chinese risk taking? And would the United States, Russia and China view multilateral arms control and reduction compacts to be in their national security interests?

If answers to these questions are not reassuring, then multilateral arms control and reduction compacts will not be reassuring, either. If, however, our assessments suggest that, at least in a preliminary way, these compacts are worth exploring, then let’s put our thinking caps on.

If agreements are reachable, they would likely take the form of political compacts rather than treaties, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages.

Even if agreements are not reachable or inclusive, preliminary discussions with free riders could still be useful:  If any of the major nuclear-armed states do not wish to be a part of a multilateral regime, what other steps are they willing to take to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons?

If preliminary multilateral talks begin, several very hard problems would need to be addressed. Would a single unit of account be possible, or would states insist on different units of account for various offensive and defensive weapon systems? Which weapon systems would be counted and which ones would be excluded? And what seven-power ratios do the chosen units of account suggest?

Ratios could serve as a baseline to establish the principle of no aggregate increases of capability while modernization programs continue. Ratios could also serve as ceilings for proportionate reductions over time. Constraints on placing interceptors in space would seem necessary to make terrestrial limits and reductions possible.

My view is that comprehensive is better than partial constraints and that complexity invites workarounds, allegations of cheating and erosion of trust in any compacts reached. In other words, the simpler and broader the better.

This thought exercise leads me and perhaps you to the following conclusion: Negotiating multilateral, numerically-based arms control and reduction compacts will be a difficult and time consuming task. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t hurt to begin thinking through this approach and assessing different parameters and numbers.

This thought exercise might also lead us to think about a simpler but still inclusive approach. This might take the form of a norms-based regime — the subject of a future post.


  1. Alexis TK27 (History)

    A very interesting “thought exercise”. I would like to add in a few points:

    1. I have trouble imagining other nuclear-armed countries joining the US and Russia in a nuclear weapon “compact” before a further round of reduction between Washington and Moscow. FAS estimates inventories around 4,300 and 3,800 in Russia and the US, including “stockpiled” weapons, and in excess of 6,000 when including “retired” weapons which have not been dismantled. By contrast, France, China and the others all have a maximum of 300 weapons each. As long as US and Russia have not effected further inventory reduction – I would say below 1,000 weapons for each – I can’t see China being interested in entering arms reduction talks, and I don’t think France, Britain or others should be included either

    2. If and when Washington and Moscow have succeeded in decreasing their respective arsenals to the vicinity of 1,000 weapons each – including “stockpiles” and other “not yet dismantled” weapons – I would find it difficult for further talks to not include ALL other nuclear powers. Which would bring the total to 9 countries, including North Korea and Israel. I am well aware of the legal challenge for the US Congress to officially acknowledge that Israel is a NW State, but this is a specific US issue, within Washington’s responsibility to solve. Other countries have no problem acknowledging that Tel Aviv has a nuclear force

    3. Proportional reduction in arsenals may be difficult beyond a certain point for the more modest nuclear powers, because effective deterrence needs the ability to effect an amount of damage that is dreadful enough even to a very large potential adversary. There is a reason why those countries which aim for a minimum “existential” global range deterrence all have between 200 and 300 nuclear weapons (China, France and Britain). They may find it be difficult to go much below that level while maintaining deterrence

    4. Taking into account existence and instability of alliances in a nine-country nuclear reduction compact would be a challenge. While two countries have between them 90%+ of the global nuclear weapon inventory, balance is quite simple to define: it’s the balance between them, given that all the others are but little afterthoughts. Not so if French and British arsenals were no longer neglectible next to the US one: might not Russia insist understandably that alliance between those 3 countries means Moscow has to balance their combined arsenal? While if the Chinese arsenal is no longer neglectible next to the Russian one, Washington may well insist that it has to balance the total of those two. Then what about India in that picture?

  2. Thomas G. Mitchell, PhD (History)

    There was some anticipation after the Cold War ended among diplomatic historians that the naval arms control regime of the interwar years might serve as a model for multilateral qualitative nuclear arms control and as a result several good histories were written in the early 1990s. One precedent that might be useful from this earlier era is the idea of stacked or layered limits such as those from the Washington Naval Treaty with the ratio of 5:3:1.75 for the U.S. and Japan, Britain, France and Italy. There might be one set of limits for the U.S. and Russia, and another for China, France and Britain and a third for India and Pakistan. This would reflect both the size of their respective arsenals but also the fact that China is involved in the calculations of India, the U.S. and Russia. Cheating or non-participation by several key players particularly China could be fatal to the new regime, just as withdrawal by Japan and non-participation by Germany effectively ended the interwar arms control treaty regime in 1935, even though it staggered on in Europe into 1939. Non-participation by either Israel or North Korea or both would not be fatal as their arsenals are regional and mostly to safeguard regimes against foreign conventional threats. The last time Jerusalem (not Tel Aviv) threatened the use of nuclear weapons was in 1973 and this was covert not overt.

  3. William Moon (History)

    A very useful and well thought out analysis. Some additional points to consider:
    -There is already an existing multilateral forum that includes the US, Russia, China, UK, and France – the P5. Perhaps the forum could be expanded to include preliminary discussions on nuclear weapons stockpiles. It could also be expanded to a P5+2 (India and Pakistan), and perhaps P5+2+1 (Israel).
    -Under such a forum, more wide ranging discussions could be possible to address not just delivery systems, but also actual warhead inventories. Technical exchanges on nuclear security capabilities among these nations could be a way to initiate any number of future agreements.
    -The potential may not be as far fetched as it seems. Under our CTR program we visited nuclear weapons storage sites that contributed to transparency and encouraged significant reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles without requiring a treaty.

  4. Alexis TK27 (History)

    It’s true that this P5 forum may be a useful framework for preliminary discussions, especially if extended to the other NW States. I could imagine preliminary steps to include:
    – Transparency by all on total numbers of weapons, both deployed & stockpile, in a manner only US, Russia, France and UK have provided to date
    – Dismantlement of nuclear test sites, a step to date only taken by France and the UK, while the others are keeping their option to resume nuclear testing. At the same time, the US and China could ratify the CTBT, enabling it to enter into force
    – Potentially, negotiation on the upper threshold for US and Russian nuclear stockpiles which China, France, the UK, India et al would agree to consider for entering negotiations on a multilateral NW limitation treaty. I have imagined that this threshold would be around 1,000, but that’s just me… and if the other NW States took an open commitment to enter such multilateral treaty negotiation provided US and Russia had gone down to X total number of nuclear weapons, this might help motivate Washington and Moscow to reach that objective