Warrior Maven

New Nuclear Challenges and Nuclear Arms Control Options

The United States wants to secure an arms control framework providing Washington with an understanding of the future dimensions of both the Russian and Chinese nuclear forces.

Visitors walk past China's second nuclear missile on display as they visit the Military Museum in Beijing, on July 23, 2007. (Teh Eng Koon/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States wants to secure an arms control framework which would provide Washington with an understanding of the future dimensions of both the Russian and Chinese nuclear forces. And to create a strategic stability where the first use of nuclear weapons against the US or our allies is totally deterred. To achieve this would require at least two major discoveries including (1) identifying the nuclear weapons that Russia and China have which they are deploying; and (2) the reasons these two countries would use nuclear weapons in the first place, which the West has long assumed were only weapons of deterrence not war.

Nuclear Weapons and War
Without knowing what weapons a treaty would have to control, one cannot have arms control. And without knowing the nuclear forces a country has, one cannot verify that a treaty is being observed. Given there is near zero transparency with respect to any of China’s nuclear forces, and Russia’s theater or regional nuclear forces could be anywhere from the DIA estimate of 1900 to Mark Schneider’s calculation that the number is closer to 4000, no further arms control deals should be undertaken let alone ideas put on the table until such time as full transparency and verification are in place or are in process of being fully implemented prior to a treaty coming into force.

The lack of transparency and verification is not a trivial matter. If numbers of nuclear weapons matter, it is not of little consequence that even the low estimate of Russian theater or regional nuclear forces exceeds the “allowed” strategic or long-range nuclear warheads under New START. *

In addition, whatever the US puts on the table, Washington should not let arms control proposals or possible deals prevent the US from having a strong and credible deterrent with which to keep our adversaries from ever using nuclear weapons against the US or our allies. To achieve this requires a sound and unflinching understanding of why both Russia and China would use nuclear weapons and thus what they would seek in any arms control deal or regimen. And to deflect Congressional opponents of nuclear modernization from proposing to “jump start” arms negotiations through such ideas as a nuclear freeze or a pause in deployment.

Most importantly, the United States needs to heed the multiple warnings from our senior military professionals that both Peking and Moscow believe nuclear weapons can be used coercively not to prevent any use of nuclear weapons—as traditional deterrent theory holds—but to actually allow Russia and China to commit aggression under the umbrella of nuclear weapons threats that would, for example, prevent the United States from coming to the defense of her friends such as Taiwan or the Republic of Korea in the western Pacific or the Baltics in Eastern Europe.

As a recent essay in Foreign Affairs explained, many in western Europe had previously refused to believe that China and Russia thought war was possible, particularly that nuclear weapons were instruments on the battlefield. For sure, some of the recent Russian nuclear threats are bluff. But the US and its NATO allies cannot make the mistake of mistakenly thinking all such nuclear threats are bluff. The HASC added funding for a Navy nuclear armed cruise missile precisely to deter such Russian or Chinese behavior.

The new Belarus declaration that they are no longer neutral and are now a nuclear armed state, can be dismissed as pure nonsense. The Russians are not going to give another country control over any of its nuclear weapons. If indeed, however, Russian nuclear weapons are now in fact deployed on the territory of Belarus, but remain under Russian control, the weapons are not to deter threats from NATO as Lukashenko claims.

On the contrary, Putin is taking a page out of the old Soviet playbook, similar to the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles starting in the 1970s. Putin is not just adding to the Russian designed mosaic of nuclear coercion and blackmail, that seeks to keep NATO from arming Ukraine or joining in the war with Russia.

Putin is claiming that of course the nuclear weapons in Belarus can readily be withdrawn if the US reciprocates and withdraws its regional or theater nuclear weapons in Britain and other NATO nations. But the US nuclear forces are in Europe as part of an extended nuclear deterrent preventing Russian aggression against NATO. Withdrawing them from Europe ends their extended deterrent role for NATO and could very well break the NATO alliance, an obvious long-term goal of Moscow going back to the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, Russian theater weapons deployed only on Russian territory still can target most of Western Europe, while US theater nuclear weapons deployed only in the continental United States can reach Canada and Mexico. Targeting Russian territory is a 5000-mile endeavor from CONUS, hardly a credible deterrent compared to Russian nuclear weapons that can target Western Europe in a matter of minutes. It is thus obvious Putin’s Belarus gimmick is straight out of the old Soviet playbook.

Putin seeks to equate the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe as parallel to the long-time deployment of US theater nuclear weapons in Europe as part of Washington’s extended nuclear umbrella over our NATO allies. And that is why Putin has proposed an old Soviet trick: if the US removes its theater nuclear weapons from England and other European allied nations, Russia will remove the nuclear weapons from Belarus.

Putin’s strategy is similar to that undertaken by China. The building of the North Korean nuclear forces was preceded by DPRK diversion of nuclear material from its nuclear reactors. Inspections by the UN’s IAEA was according to PRK demands, dependent upon the US withdrawal of our theater nuclear systems from the ROK, action taken by President Bush in 1991 which the Washington Post at the time praised as a smart move that would end the North Korean nuclear bomb program. However, while the US theater nuclear weapons were withdrawn, the North Korean nuclear program continued and the North Korean “empty promise” was quickly forgotten as the US moved to the Agreed Framework and then to the Six Party Talks.

At the time, the US was apparently unaware of the late 1982 secret call by Chinese communist party leader Deng Xiaoping and Soviet General Secretary Andropov to arm their friends with nuclear weapons technology, from which nuclear arsenals could grow. The strategy was not for deterrence but the opposite-proliferating nuclear weapons in order to use such weapons as tools to support coercive aggression and armed conflict.

Thus, any arms control proposal or framework has to take this into account as the central purpose of Russian and Chinese nuclear forces. That leads to a number of questions such as: What compels the Russians to threaten the use of nuclear weapons? An attack, a planned attack? A delivery of weapons or planned delivery? What redlines does Russia say it has adopted? Answering these questions will give us a clearer view of Russia’s deterrent strategy.

“Further, what does Russia say they will use nuclear weapons for and against what country? Stop an attack? Repel the enemy and further punish that country? “Win” the war? The answer to these questions will give the US a better idea of how Russia may escalate a fight up to and including the use of nuclear weapons.

Next, Washington has to judge how long will Russia use such weapons—what do they say they are looking for? No further weapons delivery to Ukraine? Withdrawal of financial/military support? Compelling a ceasefire or surrender? And if the latter, for what objective? Status quo ante? Change in Ukraine government?

The arms control framework is further complicated by 55% of Russian nuclear weapons remaining outside of the current New START agreement; while for the US, 88% are within the New START treaty of 2010. There are also a number of additional Russian strategic long range nuclear systems which John Howe projects will have 500 deployed weapons by 2025 that Russia claims are NOT under New START caps.

If the US Senate is going to approve an arms agreement with Russia, the Senate will most likely require any future nuclear arms control deal must take into account China’s nuclear systems plus any Russian theater systems. China is projected to have 1000 warheads in 2030 and 1500 in 2035; a build-up Admiral Richard called the China “breathtaking.”

Russia has some 1900 theater nuclear warheads on top of its notional 1550 strategic long range nuclear warheads, and when its “outside START” strategic systems are added, puts the US compared to China and Russia in a 5500-1650 strategic warhead imbalance assuming the US would remain within the New START framework even after its expiration.

That of course must not happen. But the US now knows roughly the dimensions of the problem and thus the US needs to begin the process of deciding exactly what should be the right response as SASC’s Senator Fischer and HASC’s Representative Lamborn have urged.

That is why National Security adviser Jake Sullivan correctly noted the US has to respond with some additional nuclear capability, although as nuclear experts Frank Miller and Eric Edelman explained in an 2022 essay urging such a discussion, the US certainly needs to build but not necessarily match Russian and Chinese forces warhead for warhead.

While building up its nuclear forces the US could also undermine Russia and China strategies to fight nuclear wars with three new types of arms control limits that could work to create stronger strategic stability and deter the massive use of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, short of abolition, such deals would still not prevent the possible use of a limited number of regional nuclear forces to forestall conventional military defeat. But such measures could be useful.

For example, one could seek to again limit or ban multiple warhead land-based missiles (secured under START II) as a percentage of all deployed systems or fast flying strategic missiles.

Portal monitoring of production facilities as secured under START I could give Washington better transparency on submarines, missiles and bomber production.

Overall limits could include all deployed weapons, strategic or regional, but for the submarine leg, only deployed at-sea nuclear forces would count toward that ceiling, making the maintenance of a robust TRIAD much more doable. And as allowed by New START, strategic bombers would only count as one warhead.

Another important idea would be to ban the testing of FOBs or fractional orbiting weapons which if deployed most see as highly destabilizing. The China has undertaken one test of such technology but would probably not deploy such a military weapon without further testing. Banning such tests would hopefully forestall such a development.

Arms control then would no longer be primarily about a total number on the way to zero, but channeling acquisition of weapons that maximize strategic stability.

Unfortunately, even this “arms control,” assuming top-notch verification and transparency, does not address the “escalate to win” strategy of Russia and China, as it involves the US need to integrate conventional-nuclear forces, and the Russian and Chinese threat of limited use of regional nuclear weapons, both of which cannot be solved through any notions of arms control.

This is the new reality which the US now faces after a 1987-2010 era of extraordinary reductions in strategic nuclear weapons where a cumulative 21000 Soviet and United States strategic nuclear warheads were eliminated from global deployed or in the field arsenals.

In particular, most importantly, if the US does not modernize its nuclear deterrent in hopes its “restraint” will secure reciprocal actions from its adversaries, the US will go out of the nuclear deterrent business when our legacy nuclear systems don’t work anymore. As the former head of the Program on Nuclear Initiatives Clark Murdock once warned, “Rusting to obsolescence.”

*With the understanding that special bomber counting rules allow the parties to the treaty to deploy or put into the field more than the notional 1550 warhead limit in the treaty. But even with that factor taken into account, 1900 Russian theater nuclear weapons is equal or greater than the actual number of warheads the US could deploy under the terms of the New START agreement.

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