While people across the globe have been hyper-focused on the COVID-19 outbreak and how best to handle it, the world has not stopped turning. One of the news stories that hasn’t gotten much attention, but could have a real impact on international security, is the coming expiration of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty).
What is New START?
New START is a 2010 arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia that reduces and limits deployed strategic offensive nuclear weapons. New START replaced the SORT (Treaty Between the [US and Russia] on Strategic Offensive Reductions) Treaty and gets its name from the Cold War-era START I, signed by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbahev in 1991.
New START lays out three different limits on strategic nuclear weapon deployment:
- 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
- 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
- 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments
New START also includes verification and transparency measures. Verification measures include “on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the Treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for treaty monitoring.” The treaty also provides for an annual exchange of recorded data on an agreed upon number of ICBM and SLBM launches.
What’s the Big Deal?
The New START treaty is set to expire in February 2021, leaving less than a year for U.S. and Russian diplomats to agree on an extension or else negotiate a new treaty. Given the volatile nature of U.S.-Russia relations, a new treaty is little more than a pie-in-the-sky hope. Extension is the best option. In December 2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country is open to extending the New START treaty unconditionally, but the Trump administration is undecided about the future of the agreement.
Arms control agreements like New START are a cornerstone of international security policy. During the Cold War, a time when superpower competition and a nuclear arms race held the entire world hostage for decades, the U.S. and Soviet Union negotiated key arms control treaties that placed limits on strategic weapons and subsequently allowed the two countries to ratchet down the tension. Such dialogue is of paramount importance today, even though the “duck and cover” fears of the Cold War era might be forgotten.
Why Renew New START?
Today, with a return to great power competition as the focus of U.S. defense policy, a lack of arms control agreements could incentivize the U.S., Russia, and perhaps China to engage in another expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race. The expiration of New START would mean there are no nuclear arms treaties in place between the U.S. and Russia, leaving both countries to deploy unlimited numbers of nuclear weapons.
A critical part of New START is the verification and transparency measures. These provide data and knowledge on the nuclear arsenals of each state, which can be invaluable in assessing not just their capabilities, but also their intentions. Without this kind of information, militaries are forced to assume the worse. This assumption can lead states into conflicts that could otherwise have been prevented by increased information exchange.
Illustrating this, Iraq’s expulsion of weapons inspectors in 1998 began a years-long situation of growing suspicion. When the inspections ended, the single best means of vetting information gathered by intelligence agencies died with it. Without the hard evidence generated by inspections, the U.S. intelligence community fell back to the underlying assumptions that they had begun with: that Saddam was determined to preserve existing WMD capabilities and develop new ones.
Serving U.S. Security Interests Despite Hostile Relations
The U.S. has labeled Russia an adversary, most notably in the 2018 National Defense Strategy which describes Russia as a “revisionist power” seeking to undermine NATO and other U.S.-led global security architectures. It’s clear that U.S.-Russia relations have reached a dangerous low point. But extension of New START serves American strategic interests, and therefore should be a major policy focus towards Russia. The limitations on the number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems New START imposes benefits the U.S. because they decrease the threat posed by a new arms race, and conserve the resources that would be spent on expensive weapons that cannot be used.
Should the U.S. choose not to renew New START by February 2021, the U.S. loses the most important thing for making sound national security decisions: information. A lack of information played a central role in U.S.-Iraqi relations at the turn of the century, and that had a devastating impact on international security.