A budding nuclear threat, from more than just the usual suspects

Karen Norris/Staff
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As the U.S. and Russia back away from the Cold War arms control regime, a new arms race looms. And this time, it wouldn’t just be the two largest nuclear powers. The recent India-Pakistan flare-up is a reminder that even regional conflicts can pose a global threat when the antagonists possess nuclear weapons. Moreover, cybersecurity risks and the specter of hacking nuclear arsenals add an element of uncertainty and instability to a post-arms control world.

Still it’s largely the U.S. and Russia that are setting the tone. In February the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. More worrying still for many in the arms control community: The White House is debating whether to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which expires in 2021. If New START lapses, it will be the first time since 1972 that the world’s two nuclear-weapons behemoths have no arms control constraints holding them back.

What would it take to extend it? The provision for a five-year extension of the treaty’s terms is already in the document, so “it would just take Putin and Trump sitting down and signing an agreement,” says Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. “But it does require the will to sign something that is not just in your interest but is in the other side’s as well.”

Why We Wrote This

As the U.S. and Russia back away from arms control, how worried should the world be? Says an expert in China, which has the world’s largest arsenal of ground-launched missiles: ‘We are looking at a global arms race now.’

Over the summer of 2017, as President Trump was promising “fire and fury” in response to North Korea’s provocations and a nuclear confrontation seemed closer than it had in decades, a funny thing was happening in American backyards. Personal bomb shelters, all the rage at the height of U.S.-Soviet nuclear tensions in the 1960s and ’70s, were suddenly once again a hot item – perhaps as some Americans recalled the frequent photos of mushroom clouds and nuclear-blast drills in the classrooms of their youth. 

Since then Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has mellowed as Kim Jong Un has gone from being public enemy No. 1 to occasional summit buddy. After two meetings between the two leaders, a nuclear conflagration initiated by Pyongyang seems less of an imminent threat – even though the most recent parley, in Vietnam in late February, ended in an impasse over Mr. Kim’s nuclear arsenal.

As a consequence, the spike in interest in backyard bunkers to protect from nuclear fallout has abated.

Why We Wrote This

As the U.S. and Russia back away from arms control, how worried should the world be? Says an expert in China, which has the world’s largest arsenal of ground-launched missiles: ‘We are looking at a global arms race now.’

Yet despite the pacifying of still-complicated relations between the United States and North Korea, some Americans might find their interest in fallout shelters rekindled. As the U.S. and Russia back away from the Cold War arms control regime that banned some weapons systems and reduced their nuclear stockpiles, a new arms race threatens on the horizon. And this time, it wouldn’t just be the two largest nuclear powers, but would likely extend to China and other lesser nuclear powers – and perhaps to some new members drawn into the nuclear club.

Nicole Neri/Reuters
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pose at their recent summit in Vietnam that ended in an impasse over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The recent flare-up of tensions between India and Pakistan has served as a reminder that even conflicts between regional rivals can pose a global threat when the antagonists possess nuclear weapons. A growing alarm has spread across Asia as an increasingly assertive China expands its nuclear arsenal and deploys missiles around its periphery at a pace that has given it the world’s largest ground-launched missile arsenal.

Moreover, the advent of cybersecurity risks and the specter of nuclear powers hacking into and controlling adversaries’ arsenals adds a new element of uncertainty and instability to the already worrisome prospects of a post-arms control world.

Still it’s largely the U.S. and Russia, which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, that are setting the tone. And the two nuclear giants appear to be dismantling, step by step, the arms control regime that has limited their deployment of new weapons systems and indeed had them reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles over recent decades. The risk is not just that the two major nuclear powers get back into an arms race, but that other states respond to rising tensions by joining the buildup. A Japan rattled by a nuclear buildup already has the technology and material to “go nuclear” with a weapon in a matter of months, experts say, while the decades-old specter of a Middle East nuclear arms race has been revived by Trump administration efforts to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia that could be used to build a bomb.

“We’re pulling down the last pillars of the arms control building that has provided us with some degree of security and stability for five decades,” says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund in Washington and a longtime nuclear policy expert. “If the small and medium states decide to take their cue from the big boys,” he adds, “it’s ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’ ”

After dropping hints for months, the U.S. announced in February its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which since 1987 has banned the deployment in Europe of all intermediate-range nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. These are considered among the most destabilizing weapons systems because of the short time it takes (average six minutes) from launch to hitting their target. 

The U.S. said it was pulling out of the Cold War-era accord over Russian violations. While arms control experts agree that Russia has been violating the treaty for a half-decade, most also say the U.S. withdrawal hands President Vladimir Putin the double-headed political victory he wants – an excuse to free Moscow from the INF Treaty’s limitations while blaming its demise on Washington.

Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a state of the nation address in Moscow, sternly warning the United States not to deploy new missiles in Europe.

Indeed, Mr. Putin wasted no time in ratcheting up the Cold War “we will bury you” rhetoric. In his Feb. 20 state of the nation address, he told members of the Russian Duma that if the U.S. deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will not only do the same – but will deploy its new Zircon hypersonic missile to target “those regions ... where decisions are taken on using those missile systems threatening us” – meaning, of course, the U.S.

More worrying still for many in the arms control community, both in and out of government and among America’s allies, is what follows INF’s demise. A White House that came into office withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal is now debating whether to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia beyond its expiration in 2021.

If New START – which puts a cap of 1,550 on the long-range nuclear weapons each power can deploy – is also allowed to lapse, it will be the first time since 1972 that the world’s two nuclear-weapons behemoths have no arms control constraints holding them back from a new arms race.

“We have destroyed the old framework of arms control without having anything to replace it with,” says Andrey Kortunov, director of the foreign ministry-linked Russian International Affairs Council. “It’s my hope that big powers will realize that they need arms control, perhaps in a multilateral rather than the old bilateral form, but something that will roll back the most destabilizing weapons and build trust.”

Russia, which in many respects is a receding power, is likely to seek to hold on to its nuclear parity with the U.S. at all costs. That’s because its nuclear arsenal represents one of the last vestiges of a bygone superpower status. It’s a prime reason Moscow responds so vehemently to any violations (perceived or otherwise) by the U.S.

Moscow is also likely to respond to the end of INF’s ban with diplomatic overtures aimed at dividing Western Europe from the U.S., some experts say. While the move is unlikely to bring about a separate nuclear deal between Europe and Russia, Moscow could nonetheless sow the seeds of division in the transatlantic partnership just by trying.

For most experts, the overarching risk is that an increasingly multipolar world with no guardrails on nuclear weapons will lead to a dangerous new arms race before nations can ever get serious again about limiting them. “Until then, we just have to go through this dead zone,” Mr. Kortunov says. “We are headed for completely uncharted waters.”

It was never going to be easy to renew the INF Treaty to begin with. For some, the return of big-power competition in the world – which now includes an ascendant China – ended any hope for arms reduction and nonproliferation efforts. Yet while the security blanket of Cold War arms control agreements may be unraveling, some believe the era of shrinking nuclear arsenals isn’t over.

Bob Daugherty/AP/File
President Ronald Reagan (r.) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchange pens during the signing of the INF Treaty in 1987.

“There’s a reason why [President] Ronald Reagan came to the conclusion in 1984-85 that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought, and there are many people – on both sides of the aisle in Congress, at the Pentagon, among our allies and partners around the world – who still hold that conviction and believe that arms reduction through dialogue and controlling proliferation is the best path to security,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. 

The next big test of arms control diplomacy’s flagging fortunes will be New START and whether the U.S. and Russia decide to extend the decade-old treaty or let it die. The provision for a five-year extension of the treaty’s terms is already in the document, so “it would just take Putin and Trump sitting down and signing an agreement,” Mr. Kimball says. “It could be done with a big Sharpie pen. But it does require the will to sign something that is not just in your interest but is in the other side’s as well.”

Beyond agreements between the U.S. and Russia, experts say ways must be found to convince China and other regional powers that nuclear reductions are in their interest as well. Moreover, perhaps the biggest challenge on the horizon will be bringing emerging technologies such as cyber- and space weaponry under the umbrella of international limits and prohibition.

In the short term, much will depend on the Trump administration. And that has many arms control advocates worried, largely because they see the White House national security adviser as a ferocious opponent of any international constraints on American power.

“John Bolton thinks the constraints of arms control agreements weaken the U.S., and do not strengthen its security, and he has been busy killing off our agreements one by one” at least since the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty the U.S. withdrew from in December 2002, Mr. Cirincione says. 

Leah Millis/Reuters
A decommissioned Titan missile, once part of the US nuclear arsenal, is displayed at a museum in Sahuarita, Ariz.

Yet others believe no one should assume the treaty is dead. “All indications are that there is a strong debate in the White House on extending New START, but if you listen to what senior officials are saying, it shows that the administration as a whole is committed to arms control,” says Thomas Callender, a senior fellow for defense programs at The Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But as [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo has said, there has to be compliance by both parties, and it has to be verifiable.”

The U.S. might seek to modify New START as a condition for extending it, Mr. Callender says – for example by including limits on hypersonic weaponry. The U.S. does not yet have such weaponry, while Russia claims its hypersonic missiles are operational. But both powers could see an interest in at least limiting such weapons, he says, “because they are very expensive systems to develop and deploy.”      

As for the demise of INF, Mr. Callender says that more than anything else it reflects how much the world has changed in the 30 years since the treaty went into effect. “INF was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia,” he says, “but since then 30 countries have [deployed] either ballistic or cruise missiles in the range” banned by the 1987 accord.

Mr. Callender notes that Congress has already approved funding for the U.S. to “catch up” with Russia and other powers by developing new ground-based defensive and offensive cruise missile capabilities. More problematic – and potentially divisive – would be getting European allies to agree to stationing the new weaponry on their soil.  

Europe has been the biggest beneficiary of the INF Treaty. It eliminated thousands of nuclear missiles from the continent and helped end the Cold War. Even so, European governments have made remarkably little fuss about the treaty’s imminent demise. 

This is partly because its eradication would have little immediate impact on European security. The U.S. and its NATO allies have put in place a variety of air- and sea-launched nuclear weapons that don’t fall under the INF umbrella, which means Europe wouldn’t be left vulnerable.

“This won’t change anything profound in the operational environment,” says Ian Lesser, head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.

As a result, NATO sees no need to counter what it calls Russia’s illegal deployment of intermediate range missiles with its own ground-launched nuclear weapons. By not putting in such batteries, Europe avoids something else: the prospect of another divisive debate like it had 40 years ago over the deployment of missiles that turned the continent into a potential nuclear battlefield.

North Korea conducts a missile test in an undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency in August 2017.

Europe’s relative quietude can also be explained by one other dynamic: Its leaders simply don’t think they can do much to forestall the INF’s demise. European nations are not parties to the treaty, Moscow deals only with Washington on nuclear issues, and Mr. Trump has not demonstrated much enthusiasm for the sort of diplomatic engagement that Europe would advocate.

Still, if the end of the INF would have only limited implications for Europe’s security, its symbolic impact could be huge. Many Europeans associate the INF with the end of the Cold War, and “this is seen as a step back in time towards a Cold War,” says Oliver Meier, a security expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The timing of a unilateral U.S. withdrawal could also be problematic. This may not be the best moment for Western allies to be rehashing such a fraught issue. “Debating something as dramatic as nuclear deployments in today’s more nationalistic atmosphere ... with growing European concern about Washington’s reliability as a strategic partner ... could have a corrosive effect on the alliance,” Mr. Lesser worries. 

And then there’s the country that isn’t a party to the INF Treaty but is influencing a lot of the U.S. and Russia’s posturing over it – China. One of the Trump administration’s arguments for pulling out of the treaty is that it is largely meaningless without Beijing’s involvement. Mr. Trump has said that China would have to be part of any “big, beautiful” new treaty to replace the accord.

China opposes U.S. withdrawal from INF, saying the agreement bolsters global security and stability. Beijing also rejects Washington’s argument of a growing Chinese nuclear arsenal as a rationale for quitting the pact.

For Beijing, moves to end the INF Treaty – and the possible expiration of the New START – signal a post-nuclear arms control world that is ominous for many countries, especially China. “We are looking at a global arms race now,” says Guo Xuetang, director of the Institute of International Strategy and Policy Analysis at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. From Europe to South and East Asia “this makes more countries worry about their safety and security,” and in particular the threat of short- and intermediate-range missiles, Mr. Guo says.

Since the mid-1990s, China has built the largest arsenal of ground-launched missiles in the world, including more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, according to US intelligence reports. China asserts its arsenal is defensive.

Andy Wong/Reuters/File
Chinese vehicles carrying anti-ship ballistic missiles roll by during a military parade in Beijing.

Yet in that context, what appears to worry Beijing more than anything is how “the demise of the existing bilateral arms control regime could impose extra security threats on China, if the U.S. and Russia started to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific theater,” says Tong Zhao, an expert in nuclear arms control and a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. Moreover, “if the New START treaty ends in 2021 and the US and Russia increase the number of deployed nuclear warheads, that will worsen the environment for China,” Mr. Zhao says.

This might prompt Beijing to step up its own missile development – or even reconsider its long-standing policy of maintaining only a limited nuclear deterrent. 

China remains suspicious of U.S. and Russian motives for shifting away from arms control. Beijing believes the U.S. withdrawal from INF signals a new hostility in Washington’s efforts to contain China. The takeaway for Beijing, experts say, is that the Trump administration’s “America first” approach seeks to expand the U.S. military advantage free from arms control restraints while leaving the world uncertain what to expect next.

Russia’s intentions are clearer to China. Beijing views Moscow’s motive as seeking to counterbalance U.S. aggressiveness in Europe and Central Asia, says Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “Russia is a declining power, but it is not staying away from its great power ambition,” says Dr. Zhu.

China and Russia may draw closer militarily, particularly “if the U.S. places more pressure on ... the east and west of the Eurasian continent,” says Mr. Guo, although he does not anticipate a military alliance between the two powers. 


Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Federation of American Scientists

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Given the somewhat cynical view of both U.S. and Russian motives, China is currently not open to engaging in a new multilateral agreement aimed at limiting ground-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles. An estimated 95 percent of China’s missile arsenal would violate the current INF Treaty if China were a signatory, according to U.S. intelligence. “We are opposed to the multilateralization of INF,” Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese foreign-policy official, told the Munich Security Conference in February.

Yet in the long term, China could be open to joining new arms control accords if they included areas of U.S. and Russian superiority. “If they were willing to include sea- and air-based missiles into the discussion, there is a chance that China will be willing to look at it,” Mr. Zhao says. 

For some, there’s a good reason for greeting the INF’s demise, and perhaps even New START’s, with a bit of a shrug: Those Cold War-era treaties, while they may be important, do nothing to address the emerging warfare challenges of the 21st century.

Technology “obsolesces most arms agreements, so what mattered in the ’80s is not what we should be focusing on today,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Sokolski is concerned that by withdrawing from conventional agreements like the INF the U.S. could prompt rattled allies – particularly Japan and South Korea – to consider going nuclear themselves. 

But he says focusing on limiting 20th-century technologies risks leaving unaddressed emerging threats – chief among them the militarization of space and cyberspace. “Even if you had the biggest arms and the strongest legs, what kind of athlete could you be if your opponent knew how to put your brain at risk?” Mr. Sokolski says.

Ploughshares’s Mr. Cirincione agrees that the cyber realm poses a threat to global security by how it can be used to expose weapons systems to hostile disruption and takeover. “The nuclear-cyber connection that’s already a reality is the worst of all,” he says. “Remember Stuxnet. What did it take control of? Centrifuges,” he says, referencing the malware that is believed to have disabled thousands of centrifuges in Iran’s Natanz nuclear complex in 2010. “If you think we can’t do that with nuclear weapons, you haven’t been paying attention.” 

Still, Mr. Cirincione says that is not an argument for abandoning conventional arms control efforts as obsolete, but rather for redoubling those efforts given the vulnerabilities cyberthreats pose to the world’s most destructive weapons systems. He believes the U.S. and Russia should not just extend New START, but should begin negotiating further reductions in their strategic nuclear arsenals down to levels that could entice China and other nuclear powers to join a broader disarmament effort.

“Reducing these arsenals while enhancing not just one country’s security but everybody’s is possible,” he says. “But it means we don’t just stop tearing the house down, but we find new ways to build it back up.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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