February 5, 2020, marks one year left on the U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START. Washington and Moscow face three choices: to develop a new treaty, extend the terms of the existing treaty for five more years, or go treaty-less on strategic nuclear arms. In the current foreign policy environment, achieving a new strategic arms treaty with Russia in the next twelve months is very unlikely. To avert the abandonment of New START, an extension appears to be the easy choice.
A five-year extension would provide the United States and Russia with breathing space for future negotiations, project a sense of stability in a volatile world, and support U.S. plans to modernize its land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear systems, often referred to as the nuclear triad. Most importantly, it would maintain the current nuclear deterrence posture, a core national security priority.
What is New START?
New START, which was signed in 2010 and took effect on February 5, 2011, aimed to continue long-standing efforts by the United States and Russia to control the size of their nuclear arsenals. It significantly reduced deployed nuclear warheads down to 1,550 from the 2,200 allowed by the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Before that, the 1994 START I Treaty had capped warheads at 6,000. New START also limits the number of launching systems the nuclear triad is allowed to have, including submarine- and land-based ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.
Unlike the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which recently crumbled due to Russia’s noncompliance, New START has been a strong example of bilateral cooperation, compliance, and verification. One underpinning of strategic deterrence is transparency. The United States and Russia have embraced this throughout the New START period by adhering to the treaty verification procedures, highlighted by rigorous and cooperative inspections.
What are the benefits of an extension?
The U.S.-Russia relationship has not been smooth of late. U.S. grievances include election interference, Russian influence in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics, INF violations, cyber threats, and the war in Syria. This has resulted in tensions that likely need to calm before diving into renegotiating a strategic arms control agreement, and a five-year New START extension would allow for that.
It would also reinforce assurances to U.S. allies, by demonstrating that the U.S. strategic arsenal will continue to protect them, as it has steadfastly over the last three decades. An extension would show the world that Washington and Moscow are committed to a verifiable, effective arms control agreement for the benefit of global stability. And it would allow the United States to continue meaningful leadership roles in other areas of nuclear weapons policy, including with India, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.
How do other nuclear powers factor in?
China will continue to be a formidable nuclear-armed adversary, but its current stockpile of nuclear warheads is assessed to be one-fifth the size of that of the United States and Russia—and not likely to approach the New START limit of 1,550 deployed warheads in the next decade. Thus, a New START extension would lead to no numerical disadvantage with regard to China’s arsenal. On the contrary, showing China and the rest of Asia that the United States can take a pragmatic approach with Russia could help with future arms control negotiations around the world.
What’s the future of U.S. deterrence policy?
The U.S. strategic deterrence modernization plan, expected to run nearly $500 billion over the next ten years, is based on the capabilities and nuclear warhead levels established by New START. This includes the development of the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, an updated intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, and a new bomber, the B-21. Walking away from New START next year could lead to another strategic nuclear arms race, which will mean higher costs, a higher rate of weapons production and refurbishment for the U.S. Department of Energy, and a defense industrial base that could struggle to meet accelerated production timelines.
As the world bounces from one crisis to another, and with a U.S. presidential election limiting the executive branch’s bandwidth for a new arms control regime, time is running out. A five-year extension on New START is the right move.
Captain Brian L. Sittlow is a naval officer specializing in submarines and a military fellow at CFR. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect any official policy of CFR or the U.S. government.