The New Start Arms Control Treaty: Extend it, Go for More, or Let it Lapse?

The clock is ticking: the New Start Treaty will expire in less than 20 months, a deadline which presents the administration with tough choices.
What Is New Start?
New Start is a nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, which came into force on February 5, 2011. It limits both countries to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, which are to be carried by no more than 700 deployed strategic delivery systems—intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and heavy bombers. It also puts in place an inspection regime, which enables each side to check the other is abiding by the deal.  The treaty runs for one decade, until 2021, with a provision that allows it to be extended once, for a further five years. 
Very soon, the Trump administration will need to choose one of three paths: it can let the deal die, negotiate a more ambitious and comprehensive arms control agreement, or extend the U.S.-Russia Treaty for another five years. Realistically, that choice needs to be made in the coming weeks or, at most, months—to postpone a decision is to foreclose some of the options and would be a choice in itself. 
The Options: 
  1. Let the deal die.
 From their 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea to the use of chemical weapons abroad, Russia has breached more than eight international treaties over the past decade. One of the country’s most serious violations relates directly to nuclear arms control: their violation and abandonment of the landmark 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement. As Russia experiments with new strategic capabilities, such as nuclear-driven cruise missiles and fields novel devices, such as very low yield warheads, the underlying threat perception, which inspired the New Start Treaty and set out in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, has been proven false: it didn’t account for Putin’s mendacious turn. 
For the moment, it appears that New Start is one of the few treaties Russia still adheres to. This is not so much out of respect for the deal but because the treaty remains in Russia’s interests, since it allows Moscow to keep its defense costs in check. 
The Trump administration may be tempted to not extend New Start as a way to punish Moscow for their arms control transgressions. But abandoning New Start would mean sacrificing a valuable tool for verifying Russia’s actions, and assessing their nuclear arsenal. Also, allowing New Start to lapse with nothing to replace it risks creating a destabilizing vacuum in nuclear arms control, which, in turn, may bring more dangerous initiatives to the fore. The proposed Nuclear Ban Treaty, for example, undercuts the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and impacts asymmetrically on democratic nuclear powers: third countries, including several allies of the United States, may be tempted to endorse the Nuclear Ban Treaty if it became the only viable strategic arms reduction initiative. This would impact negatively on the United States’ nuclear security options and broader non-proliferation efforts.
  1. Negotiate a more ambitious and comprehensive arms control agreement.
Although Russia has some 15 times more strategic weapons than any other U.S. military competitor, it is not the only nuclear power challenging the rules-based international system. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has warned that China may double its nuclear stockpile in the coming decade, and, unlike Russia, there is no history of arms control, inspection or verification regimes between China and the United States. Beijing has never accepted an offer to engage in substantial negotiations about its nuclear arsenal before.   
Bringing China into the arms reduction and transparency business is important—a fact recognized by Secretary of State Pompeo when giving evidence to the Senate in April. But his overtures were rejected by Beijing; one Chinese diplomat is alleged to have said, “Do you want to bring your arsenal down to our level (estimated at some 290 warheads), or our arsenal up to yours?” Even the gambit of a new Sino-U.S. inspection regime seems, for now, to be a non-starter with President Xi. U.S. and Chinese interests on arms control begin from very different places, and the impetus to bridge the gap appears much too great for the moment.
It is difficult to believe that a new treaty would be ready and ratified by the Senate in time for the February 2021 deadline, even if there was an overwhelming political will by all sides; nineteen months is simply too short a time. Similarities between the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals—their scale and main delivery systems—made New Start a much more straightforward and equitable prospect. A new, more comprehensive deal covering three countries would also have to factor in new technologies, from hypersonic glide vehicles to low-yield devices. This negotiation would also happen against the backdrop of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. It would be unlikely that President Trump would be inclined to make strategic concessions ahead of November 2020, meaning the real window to forge a more ambitious nuclear accord would be just 13 busy weeks in the winter of 2020-21. Discussions could begin, but they would not be concluded by the time the treaty would expire.    
  1. Extend New Start for five years.
Extending New Start buys the United States 60 more months, which should make the prospect of new, more comprehensive talks realistic. The six-and-a-half years until February 2026 is enough time to determine whether China will meaningfully engage in an arms control discussion, decide which new technologies should be in the scope of a new agreement, and agree on a new inspection regime. If potential Russian violations are of concern, an extension could be made conditional on Moscow’s compliance and engagement with the new process.
However, the extension is not a substitute for other necessary steps that maintain the nuclear balance, including investing in nuclear modernization—recapitalizing the infrastructure to keep the U.S. triad safe and reliable.   
Extending the New Start Treaty until 2026 is the choice that will best serve long-term goals, as the extension can be used to improve the nuclear arms reduction regime, strengthen nuclear control and verification systems, and deliver important U.S. national security goals. 
Iain King CBE is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Iain King