The Future of Arms Control: Keynote Address by Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE)
April 3, 2019
REBECCA HERSMAN: With that, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you Senator Deb Fischer. She’s the senior senator from Nebraska. She’s a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which as you all know has primary oversight responsibilities for nuclear and strategic forces, arms control and nonproliferation, space programs, Department of Energy defense nuclear programs, and defense environmental management, as well as ballistic missile defense – a full plate indeed. This also includes the direct oversight responsibility of U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, a place that PONI knows well.
REBECCA HERSMAN: As such, if it has to do with nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons policy from modernization to arms control, it seems it will wind up on her desk and in her hearing room. So, as such, no one could be in a better place to help us start today’s event. So please join me in welcoming Senator Fischer. (Applause.)
SENATOR DEB FISCHER (R-NE): Well, good afternoon, everyone. And I’d like to thank Rebecca for the kind introduction. I appreciate the invitation to be here with you today. My apologies; right now we have votes called, so after my remarks I’m going to have to head back to the Capitol for votes. But I do appreciate the invitation and look forward to following your discussion that you have after my remarks.
SENATOR FISCHER: I also want to express my appreciation for CSIS for hosting the event. We’re seeing, I think, renewed interest from many think tanks in strategic forces-related issues, and I think this is extremely timely. I want to thank PONI specifically for their work to educate the next generation of scholars in this field.
SENATOR FISCHER: We are here today to discuss the future of arms control. I’m sure one of the issues that the panelists will be exploring is what we mean by arms control and what its goal should be. For the purposes of my remarks, when I refer to arms control I mean treaty-based reductions in nuclear arms, which is what I believe most people today think of when they hear that phrase “arms control.”
SENATOR FISCHER: I’ll be very frank with you: I think the future of arms control has a lot of challenges. I hate to start on such a negative note, but I tell myself that Rebecca wouldn’t be hosting this event if she thought the outlook was going to be rosy. We are all here because we do know that there are more questions about the future of arms control than there are answers, and right now there are more problems than there are solutions.
SENATOR FISCHER: Today I will discuss a few of these challenges with you and offer my thoughts about their implications and just what can be done. I believe the most immediate challenge to the arms control regime is Russia’s behavior. Since its annexation of Crimea in 2014, which took place seven months after President Obama offered an additional round of strategic arms reductions in his Berlin speech, Russia has aggressively sought to undermine the current rules-based international order. Over the last decade, Russia has grown into a competitive revisionist power actively pursuing its regional ambitions. Its geopolitical strategy is one of risk-taking and adventurism, not restraint, which of course is contrary to the spirt of arms control.
SENATOR FISCHER: Russia’s nuclear policy also reflects very different views towards nuclear weapons than those held by us here in the United States. Its production complex produces hundreds of warheads each year, and that is expanding. It is deploying new weapons and new systems such as the nuclear-powered cruise missile and the Poseidon underwater vehicle. It’s investing in low-yield and very low-yield weapons as part of a diverse arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons that include nuclear landmines, artillery shells, depth charges, among a variety of other weapons. It has a doctrine that reflects a belief that nuclear first use could be to its benefit.
SENATOR FISCHER: This has a variety of implications for U.S. nuclear policy and posture. But for the purpose of my remarks today, I would only observe that this activity reflect a very different level of prioritization and attitude toward the importance of nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States. These are symptoms of a different mindset.
SENATOR FISCHER: This complicates the prospect of future bilateral arms control because the more the United States and Russia disagree on the value of nuclear weapons, the more difficult it will become to forge an arrangement that both sides would view as equitable. And of course, Russia has violated the INF Treaty, bringing about its collapse.
SENATOR FISCHER: This does more than simply erode Russia’s credibility. I worry that it indicates that Russia no longer sees value in arms control, and that is a far more dangerous thing. Strong verification provisions can overcome a lack of trust, but nothing – nothing – can paper over the gap between two parties if one simply does not believe in the process.
SENATOR FISCHER: Russia’s approach to the New START Treaty reinforces this concern. It is investing in novel, strategic-range nuclear systems that are not captured by the treaty’s limits, such as the cruise missile and the underwater drone that I mentioned earlier.
SENATOR FISCHER: Setting aside for the question of extending the agreement, we should be asking ourselves why Russia is investing in these systems. Unquestionably, they erode the value of the New START Treaty. An agreement limiting only ICBMs, SLBMs and long-range bombers simply becomes less valuable as Russia deploys other strategic-range nuclear systems.
SENATOR FISCHER: The question as it relates to the extension of the agreement is to what extent. But let’s come back to that issue.
SENATOR FISCHER: There are also a number of other longer-term challenges of future arms control. Russia’s unwillingness to discuss its non-strategic nuclear weapons is a significant obstacle to any future arms agreement dealing with reduction.
SENATOR FISCHER: China’s rise will likely drive the traditional bilateral treaty structure towards multilateralism. And giving Russia – or given China’s complete disinterest in arms control and the general opaqueness with which it approaches its nuclear forces, this will make building consensus far more difficult.
SENATOR FISCHER: New domains of warfare, such as cyber and space, may offer new opportunities to achieve strategic effects through non-nuclear means, reducing the value of nuclear arms control. Future negotiators will face difficult decisions about attempting to include non-nuclear capabilities and arms-control agreements or forging ahead with narrower measures that simply make more modest contributions to global stability than previous agreements. I’m sure today’s panels will explore these dynamics in greater detail.
SENATOR FISCHER: Given the challenges facing treaty-based reductions, it’s easy to adopt a fatalistic outlook on the future of arms control. This is a logical reaction. But it bears out my next point. The way we think about arms control today is not serving us well. If arms control is simply about treaty-based reductions, then it’s hard to see where we go from here. But arms control is not just a treaty or a group of treaties. It is a process. It includes a number of activities, both formal and informal, overt and subtle. This is the history of arms control, and the accomplishments it achieved in far darker days teaches us to be a bit skeptical of these declarations that arms control is dead.
SENATOR FISCHER: Taking another lesson from history, I believe we must refocus the purpose of arms control to strategic stability. Numbers matter, but reductions cannot be the sole purpose of arms control. Otherwise, in times like these, when the task at hand is to manage escalating tensions, and therefore we’re at no obvious path to be seen for future reductions, arms control really wouldn’t have a purpose. In fact, arms-control efforts of the Cold War demonstrate that it can make for valuable contributions, even as nuclear force levels rise.
SENATOR FISCHER: I think we must also rethink the linkage between arms control and nuclear modernization. Any quick summary of the New START Treaty’s ratification debate describes it as a product of political compromise between supporters of modernization and supporters of arms control. The legacy of this narrative is to treat these two issues as competing political priorities to be exchanged through a political transaction.
SENATOR FISCHER: There are two main problems with that view, I think. First, I think characterizing modernization and broader arms control as opposing forces is false. They can and they do reinforce each other. For example, without modernization, our diplomats will have no leverage to secure reductions in any foreign arsenals. And I’m sure most of you have heard the comment on making this point.
SENATOR FISCHER: What we have is relatively new. Some say that the U.S. have not conducted any upgrades for a long time. If we have a failure to modernize, doesn’t that reduce the incentives to continue participating in arms control at all? I think Russia would likely conclude that treaty caps contribute little to its security as the U.S. force posture shrinks with age, and reason that it would enjoy an advantage in an unconstrained environment.
SENATOR FISCHER: Broader arms-control concepts have a role to play in modernization as well. For instance, our nuclear command-and-control enterprise is in need of recapitalization. Are there characteristics that would enhance stability? Is there new technology that would enhance resilience and reduce first-strike incentives?
SENATOR FISCHER: Russia and China are investing in capabilities that decrease warning times. Can we account for this, nullifying the investments they’ve made and discouraging them from continuing to pursue these capabilities? Are there other ways to increase senior-leader decision-making time?
SENATOR FISCHER: I want to be clear. I am not talking about changes that would effectively prevent our forces from being responsive, as some would propose. I’m referring to increasing our ability to detect and characterize the attacks, which would provide the president more time to consider those responsive actions and options that he or she is presented with.
SENATOR FISCHER: Additionally, what message would failing to invest in our command-and-control network send? The primary value of resilient command and control is in facilitating a response to a nuclear attack. Would a lack of investment in the command-and-control systems for our ICBMs risk signaling to adversaries that U.S. planners view these as first-strike weapons? Would it send the message that we see no need for hardened communication networks to siloes that will already have launched their missiles in the event of hostilities?
SENATOR FISCHER: We will need creative minds working on how to encourage stability in a world of increasing tensions where bilateral arms reductions appear unlikely and unilateral reductions would be impeded.
SENATOR FISCHER: Second, treating modernization and arms control as elements of a political transaction encourages both to be viewed as political problems with political solutions. This draws our focus away from national-security equities that are associated with each. Here I have an opportunity to highlight an area where Chairman Adam Smith and I agree.
SENATOR FISCHER: At the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference last month, he was asked whether funding for modernization should be withheld in exchange for an extension of New START. He explicitly stated no, and noted that, quote, that’s like giving foreign powers veto control over your national security, and that would not be a smart thing to do, end quote.
SENATOR FISCHER: I completely agree with the congressman. But I think that question reflects just how deeply this association has taken hold. The discussion should not be about how – leveraging one for the other; it should be about the national security benefits of both. When we portray these issues as political and the way forward as depending upon a political bargain, we enable the debate on the politics to overshadow the debate on the policy.
SENATOR FISCHER: Instead of focusing on this administration’s temperament or speculating about John Bolton’s feeling about treaties, I believe we should be having a more candid discussion of New START’s national security benefits. All too often, proponents of extending the treaty have treated this issue as though the reasons to do so are obvious and they require no explanation. A witness before the Senate Armed Services Committee described the question of extension as a simple matter of saying yes. I disagree. There are pros and cons that must be considered.
SENATOR FISCHER: Up until recently, Russia’s development of strategic-range systems that are not captured by the treaty’s limits was completely absent from this discussion. While I appreciate the value the treaty provides in terms of limiting major categories of strategic-range offensive arms and transparency benefits associated with the inspections regime – General Hyten has testified on how important these are – I am concerned by Russian behavior that is undermining the spirit of the treaty. I am also concerned by Russia’s continued accusations that the United States is not in compliance with New START limitations. Given Russia’s reliance on counter-accusations to distract from its own noncompliance, its preparation of a false narrative is extremely worrying.
SENATOR FISCHER: As much as most of us in this room want to see the treaty extended, we have to acknowledge that Russia’s behavior over the last few years has made this question much more difficult. Based on its actions that erode the treaty’s value, its preparation of a false narrative of the United States’ noncompliance, and its violation of the INF Treaty, I think a rational case can be made that a five-year extension will effectively serve only to limit the United States while Russia bends and breaks rules to achieve an advantage.
SENATOR FISCHER: This is not unthinkable, and it should prompt serious discussion about what parity and hedging mean today. The administration is going through its interagency process right now and they’re considering these issues, but that I hope that CSIS and others will add to the debate.
SENATOR FISCHER: Lastly, I will point out – I will point out that focusing on the individual national security benefits of both arms control and modernization will be necessary to sustain long-term bipartisan support for both. Again, treating each as competing ingredients in a political transaction fosters the view that one can be held hostage for the other. While I still believe there are bipartisan issues, only 44 senators who were around for the New START debate remain in office. And that’s another reason why I think it is so very important that we are thinking and talking about these issues the right way to ensure that new generations of leaders do not view them as political bargaining chips, but these are separate tools that can contribute to our national security.
SENATOR FISCHER: I’ll end by summarizing my view that the treaty-based arms reductions are unlikely in the foreseeable future. I believe that arms control still has a role to play, but that role depends on looking past treaties, beyond strategic arms reductions, and being able to make a strong case for proposals based on their national security merits. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
SENATOR FISCHER: Thank you.
MS. HERSMAN: I know you have to dash off to votes. Would you mind if I just asked you a quick follow-up on one of your questions so we can sort of provide some guidance to the group as they meet for the rest of the afternoon?
SEN. FISCHER: OK.
MS. HERSMAN: I’m very taken with the comment about not wanting to make modernization in arms control sort of a political transaction, but both face, you know, some pretty stiff uphill battles as well in terms of kind of their future on the Hill – funding, elsewhere. And I would think areas – finding areas of common ground, areas of bipartisanship, areas where we can come together would be useful.
SENATOR FISCHER: When you look at the landscape that you described in such detail, do you have certain areas that you would sort of point toward and say that looks promising, let’s work on that, we see a promise for some bipartisanship, for some coming together of people who care about both modernization and arms control? Could you steer the group in a couple of those areas, if you don’t mind?
SEN. FISCHER: No, I’d be happy to. We see, I believe, very strong support for modernization. It’s been included in the NDAA. We have had the appropriations funding for it. We’re moving forward. Hopefully, we’ll – we cannot afford to have any more detours on this path because the dates of 2030 are rapidly approaching, so we need to make sure we continue on modernization.
SENATOR FISCHER: We have seen support with this current administration and with the previous administration when it does come to modernization. But when we talk about arms control, I do – I do worry about the future in being able to reach agreement. We have always been, I believe, very fortunate in this country to have every president, every administration, every secretary of defense supportive of our nuclear triad, for example, understanding the importance of the three legs of the triad, understanding the importance of deterrence in keeping not just our homeland safe, but to keep this world safe as well when you have a strong deterrent. Hopefully, that support will continue to be there.
SENATOR FISCHER: When you – when you’re discussing these issues with colleagues, there is – there is a strong support there. But I believe what is extremely important are gatherings like this and the conversations that you will have and that people across this country are going to listen to and be informed about. The better educated people are on any issue, obviously, the better decisions will be made. But I think – I think the sooner we start our discussions on arms control, the better. I think it’s a process that is important, as I said in my remarks, to have those conversations, to have that avenue that’s open where we can talk, obviously, about extremely important issues, but also to be able to have a dialogue with many we may view as adversaries and to be able to connect there.
SENATOR FISCHER: But we also need to always remember that arms control has to be bilateral. It has to – and being able to work with the Chinese, which I don’t see that happening, but to be able to work with other countries in the future has to be a part of that discussion as well. But the focus, obviously, now is between the United States and Russia.
MS. HERSMAN: Well, thank you very much for being here. We appreciate it.
SEN. FISCHER: Thank you.
MS. HERSMAN: We’ll let you get back to the business of the country and Nebraska, and we’ll try to take up the charge here.
SEN. FISCHER: Thank you very much.
MS. HERSMAN: All right. Thank you.
SEN. FISCHER: Thank you. (Applause.)