Unilateral 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.

The article was originally published on Arms Control Wonk