August 12, 2020

Current Affairs in Nuclear Arms Control


  • Russia and China are in the midst of programs to expand and modernize their nuclear arsenals, including with new and destabilizing capabilities.
  • The New START treaty between the U.S. and Russia is due to expire in February 2021, and the Trump administration has said that any future arms agreement should include China.
  • Support from Congress for U.S. nuclear modernization is essential to U.S. national security and will strengthen our arms control negotiating position. 

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which was ratified by the Senate in 2010, is set to expire in February 2021 unless the two parties agree to an extension. The countries are holding discussions about the future of nuclear arms control. As part of those talks, the Trump administration is pushing to include China in any future agreement, to expand the scope of nuclear weapon systems covered, and to address other shortcomings of New START. 

U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Control Agreements

Arms Control

Brief History of Arms Control

Modern strategic arms control dates back 75 years to America’s use of the first atomic weapons. The Russians quickly developed their own capability, which sparked an arms race. The Cuban Missile Crisis prompted President Kennedy to announce a unilateral nuclear weapon test moratorium in a 1963 speech that resulted in the Limited Test Ban Treaty. In the decades after this, the U.S. and USSR signed various treaties and worked to reduce nuclear tensions.

All of this set the framework for comprehensive strategic arms treaties that have governed nuclear forces since the 1990s, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty – also known as the Moscow Treaty – and New START. 

Current State of agreements

The administration can extend the New START treaty, with Russia’s agreement, up to five years. U.S. arms negotiators are seeking a larger agreement that includes China. They have begun comprehensive discussions with Russia and invited China. The administration appears to believe that making New START itself a trilateral treaty is highly unlikely and instead seems focused on achieving a political agreement on trilateral or U.S-China discussions as a consideration for its decision regarding New START extension.

Many Republicans in Congress pointed out flaws with the Obama administration’s approach to arms control and the New START treaty, which the Senate ratified 71 to 26 in December 2010. The Senate did not adopt Republican amendments to strengthen the treaty, and in the end only 13 Republicans voted for ratification, after administration promises to pursue nuclear modernization.

Among the complaints at the time, New START’s verification mechanisms are much weaker than previous arms control treaties. The treaty also allows Russia to maintain a large numerical advantage in tactical nuclear systems, presenting a challenge to the security of the U.S. and Europe.

As a bilateral treaty, New START did not include China. Experts believe that Chinese strategic nuclear forces are small compared to Russia and the U.S., but they are growing. The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency said in a speech last year, “Over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile.” He also noted that Russia “is upgrading the capacity of its nuclear forces.” Future arms control talks present a chance to bring China to the table and find ways to increase the security of all three countries and lower the risk of a nuclear disaster or a new nuclear arms race.

Critics of New START also argue that the treaty no longer reflects the nuclear threat landscape, as outlined in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. They believe any future agreement needs to ensure the U.S. can protect itself and its allies from modern nuclear threats. During New START negotiations, Russia argued that U.S. ballistic missile defenses constitute a threat to Russia’s arsenal, and they pushed the U.S. to include limits on missile defense. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and 2019 Missile Defense Review noted that U.S. missile defense is not intended to defeat strategic attacks from Russia or China, but is instead meant to defeat threats from rogue states such as North Korea. Missile defense continues to be a top priority for the Department of Defense.

Senate Considerations

The Senate would need to provide advice and consent on future arms negotiations that result in a new treaty. The Senate also plays a role through its support of the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program.

The United States has begun to modernize its nuclear triad, which is made up of airplanes carrying nuclear bombs or cruise missiles; submarines carrying ballistic missiles; and land-based ballistic missiles housed in silos. DOD is developing new delivery systems for all three legs of the triad, as all of the current delivery options were designed before the end of the Cold War. Fully supporting these programs and keeping the triad intact is critical to U.S. national security. China and Russia are well ahead of the U.S. in their modernization programs..

Modernizing the Nuclear Triad

Nuclear Triad

The National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Energy Department, is responsible for developing and maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. After years of atrophy and a rapidly changing geopolitical environment, NNSA is now modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile and infrastructure. Fully funding NNSA’s efforts is vital to completing that program successfully. Congress provided $12.46 billion for weapons activities at the NNSA in fiscal year 2020. The Senate version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act would fully fund NNSA weapons activities at $15.6 billion.

The Senate also weighs in on arms control issues by confirming administration nominees to fill key roles in the negotiations. Currently, Marshall Billingslea is awaiting confirmation to be the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. The Senate received the nomination on May 4, the Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on July 21, and it reported the nomination on July 29 by a vote of 11-10-1. The president appointed Billingslea in April to be a special presidential envoy for arms control, which does not require Senate confirmation. While he can engage in discussions with other countries in this job, a Senate confirmation would add weight to the talks and improve America’s negotiating position. 

Modernizing the Nuclear Triad

Issue Tag: National Security