The Biden presidency that begins in January will adopt some very different directions from its predecessor in foreign policy. One such area is arms control, particularly nuclear arms control with Russia—the one country capable of physically destroying America.
President-elect Biden understands that arms control can contribute to U.S. security, something that President Donald Trump never seemed to fully appreciate. Biden will agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the sole remaining agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. His administration should aim to go beyond that and negotiate further nuclear arms cuts. That will not prove to be easy. Doing so, however, could produce arrangements that would enhance U.S. security and reduce nuclear risks.
Little to Build On
The outgoing administration will leave behind an unimpressive record on arms control. Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty without trying political and military measures to press the Kremlin to end its violation and come back into compliance. Trump administration officials also considered conducting a nuclear test that would have ended a long-standing moratorium and triggered nuclear tests by other countries, eroding the U.S. nuclear knowledge advantage.
The Trump administration unilaterally abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that reduced Iran’s ability to produce fissile material, then found itself isolated when calling for more sanctions on Tehran. While Kim Jong-un exchanged “beautiful” letters with President Trump, North Korea increased its nuclear weapons stockpile and produced larger and larger missiles.
The one bit of good news: the Trump administration did not withdraw from New START. That said, the administration failed to extend the treaty. It can be extended for up to five years, and the Russians offered the full extension. Instead of agreeing, the Trump administration miscalculated the degree of Moscow’s interest and demanded conditions for a one-year extension. The Russians refused, and negotiations collapsed in late October, 2020.
New START and Strategic Stability Talks
With U.S.-Russia relations at a low point, arms control offers a means to constrain some of the more adversarial aspects of the relationship. When Biden takes office on January 20, he will have to move quickly to extend New START, as only two weeks will remain until the treaty will expire. It would be politic to consult first with Congress, but the new administration should rapidly communicate an extension offer to Moscow—for five years and with no conditions.
New START limits the United States and Russia each to no more than 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and nuclear-capable bombers, as well as no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, the lowest levels since the 1960s. Extension of the treaty would constrain Russian strategic forces until 2026, and the verification measures would ensure that the U.S. military and intelligence community would continue to receive important information about those forces. New START extension would not require the Pentagon to change its modernization plans, as they fit within the treaty’s limits.
Extending the treaty also would continue the Bilateral Consultative Commission, which meets periodically to discuss the treaty’s operation. The Biden administration could use that body to address new kinds of Russian strategic arms not currently covered by New START, such as a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed drone torpedo.
The Biden administration should early on conduct a nuclear posture review. One issue for the review is whether the United States should make deterrence of a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons. Biden has endorsed this idea in the past, though adopting it should only follow consultation with U.S. allies.
The nuclear posture review should also examine current and planned U.S. strategic forces. In 2013, the Pentagon concluded that about 1,000 deployed strategic warheads would suffice. Does that hold true today? Numerous experts question the need for a triad of ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear-capable bombers, suggesting that ICBMs be retired. There are reasons to maintain ICBMs in the force mix, but the current number of 400 deployed missiles is unnecessary. A smaller ICBM force, as well as perhaps delaying a new missile, could save precious dollars for other defense needs, particularly conventional forces.
Even while conducting the review, the administration should launch strategic stability talks with Russia. Those should have a broad agenda, including doctrine, strategic nuclear forces, non-strategic nuclear weapons, missile defense, long-range precision-guided conventional strike systems, hypersonic weapons and third-country nuclear forces. The talks could also consider how developments in space and the cyber world affect strategic stability.
Such talks would provide a useful venue for U.S. and Russia officials to discuss doctrine. The Pentagon believes that Russia has adopted an “escalate to deescalate” doctrine that lowers the nuclear threshold. Elements of the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review, such as the low-yield warhead for the Trident SLBM, could well suggest to Moscow that the U.S. military is lowering its nuclear threshold. The two countries share an interest in understanding when and under what circumstances the other might consider using nuclear weapons.
Strategic stability talks would not aim to produce agreements. But they could help each side better understand the other’s doctrines and concerns. Ideally, they would prepare subjects to take up in formal negotiations.
Extending New START for five years would give the Biden administration and Russian officials time to work out what might come next. One approach would essentially build on New START and include new kinds of long-range weapons that essentially replicate the capabilities of current strategic forces but are not now captured by New START. Such an agreement would offer a structure familiar to both sides and prove easier to negotiate.
However, the Biden administration should try, at least initially, for something more ambitious: an agreement with a single limit covering all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, strategic or non-strategic, deployed or in reserve. Within an overall limit of, say, 2,000 to 2,500 nuclear weapons for each side, there could be a sublimit (1,000 each) on the number of strategic warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and like systems that could be quickly launched. The agreement should have a separate limit on strategic delivery systems, as does New START.
Limiting all nuclear weapons is the logical step after New START. President Barack Obama favored it in 2010. The Trump administration, when it belatedly engaged in nuclear arms talks in 2020, also sought Russian agreement to limit all nuclear weapons.
Negotiating such an agreement would raise a host of difficult issues. Some relate to verification. Monitoring limits on all nuclear warheads will require new procedures to check on weapons kept in storage facilities—some of the two militaries’ most sensitive sites. While not an insoluble problem, working out verification provisions would take time.
In the past, Russian officials demanded that the United States withdraw its nuclear bombs from Europe before they would discuss non-strategic nuclear weapons. If Moscow holds to that, the negotiation would make little progress. In the context of the right treaty, Washington might agree that all nuclear arms be based on national territory, but not as a precondition.
On a related issue, reviving the INF Treaty would prove to be difficult, in part because the U.S. and Russian militaries show strong interest in conventionally armed intermediate-range missiles. The Biden administration might, however, consider proposing an agreement to ban nuclear-armed variants of such missiles.
In the past, Russian officials have conditioned their readiness to include non-strategic nuclear arms on U.S. agreement to address missile defense, precision-guided, conventionally armed strike systems and third-country nuclear forces. The Russian military over the past five years has developed precision-guided air- and sea-launched cruise missiles and has begun to close the quality gap with the U.S. military in such systems. That could temper Moscow’s interest in constraining precision-guided conventionally armed systems.
Given past Russian concerns on missile defense, the Biden administration could face a difficult decision: Is it prepared to consider some constraints on missile defense in order to get Moscow to negotiate limits covering all nuclear arms? That would be a delicate issue in Washington, where Republicans have made clear their opposition to constraints on missile defense.
Forty-four ground-based interceptors (GBIs) based in Alaska and California currently provide the U.S. homeland a degree of protection against attack by an ICBM or SLBM warhead. How much protection is debatable: the GBIs have proven successful in only about 50% of their tests. Meanwhile, Russia and China have modernized and expanded their strategic offensive forces, in part to ensure that they could overcome any possible U.S. defense, even if a U.S. first strike decimated their strategic forces.
The United States should seek to avoid a race between missile defenses and strategic offensive forces. Future technologies might alter the calculation, but now and for the foreseeable future, defense will lose. Russia, China and, for that matter, North Korea can deploy additional nuclear warheads and decoys far more cheaply than the U.S. military can add additional GBIs.
The Biden administration thus should be prepared to put missile defense on the table if Moscow agrees to negotiate limits on all nuclear weapons. Constraints on missile defenses could be negotiated that would permit some capability to defend against North Korea or another rogue state but would not threaten the ability of Russia (or China) to retaliate against a U.S. attack. The agreement constraining missile defenses could be time-limited, as any new U.S.-Russia treaty on nuclear weapons presumably would be.
Third-Country Nuclear Forces
The Trump administration spent much of 2020 seeking a trilateral nuclear arms negotiation with Russia and China. The Chinese, whose nuclear arsenal is less than one-tenth the size of those of the United States and Russia, adamantly refused. Russian officials said they would not press Beijing and instead called for bringing into account the nuclear forces of Britain and France. Those countries’ nuclear arsenals also are less than one-tenth the size of either of the two superpowers’ arsenals.
Those (and other) nuclear weapons-possessing states should not sit on the sidelines forever when it comes to reducing nuclear forces. That said, a negotiation seeking a trilateral or five-way treaty now is doomed to fail. Neither Washington nor Moscow would agree to reduce to the levels of the other three countries, nor would they be prepared to agree that the others could build up to their levels.
The Biden administration should pursue a more nuanced approach. It should discuss with Russia, China, Britain and France nuclear risk-reduction measures (such as the U.S.-Russia agreement on prenotification of ICBM and SLBM test launches) and greater transparency regarding nuclear forces. If the administration can reach another bilateral agreement with Russia on further cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, Washington and Moscow could then ask Beijing, London and Paris not to increase their total number of nuclear weapons so long as the United States and Russia were reducing. That could be reflected in unilateral commitments, which should also include a degree of transparency regarding weapons numbers.
Washington has long sought to engage Beijing in a meaningful strategic stability discussion. The Biden administration should continue to seek that. A readiness to put some constraints on missile defense (in a U.S.-Russia context) and/or move toward a sole-purpose policy would increase the chances for a fruitful dialogue.
All of this would combine to make an ambitious agenda for nuclear arms control, one that would enhance stability and U.S. security. There is, of course, no guarantee of achieving it. Success in any negotiation depends in part on the other side. Success in this endeavor would require that Russian officials see commensurate security benefits for their country.
Still, the Biden presidency should try for something far-reaching. Extending New START for five years would allow time to work out some very knotty questions. If, in the end, an agreement to limit and reduce all U.S. and Russian nuclear arms proves to be a bridge too far, the administration could fall back to negotiate an agreement similar to New START and maintain caps on U.S. and Russian strategic forces. It would be a shame, however, to pass up the opportunity to take a stab at a more ambitious and meaningful result.
Originally for American Ambassadors Review