John-Tyler Iacovetta. JT is a JD candidate (2023) at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and is an IRLS Fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year. He has ten years of experience in U.S. Navy nuclear operations and earned his BSE in Nuclear Engineering with the Detection for Nuclear Non-Proliferation Group at the University of Michigan.
For four years, the Trump administration made clear that it saw little use for nuclear arms control treaties, as shown by its withdrawals of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the Treaty on Open Skies.
New START follows a long line of nuclear disarmament agreements between Russia and the United States dating back to 1972. This treaty was negotiated and entered into force during the Obama administration; it limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 warheads each and the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and heavy bomber delivery vehicles to 700 each. It also provides a framework for each side to inspect and verify the other’s stockpile. The treaty is specific to strategic weapons, typically of a larger yield (or energy release upon detonation) and are intended for use against “soft targets” such as civilian city centers. The treaty, however, does not provide any limitations on tactical weapons, which are of a smaller yield and are intended for battlefield applications. The treaty was set to expire on February 5, 2021, but President Biden and Russian President Putin took the option available in the treaty to extend it until 2026.
President Trump was critical of the treaty even before taking office, claiming in the 2016 Presidential debates that the Obama administration had been “outsmarted” by Putin. President Trump stated incorrectly that the treaty allowed Russia, but not the U.S., to create more nuclear warheads. This critical stance of the treaty was shaped by President Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who has been an opponent to arms control since the Bush administration. He has advocated against various agreements, including a United Nations (UN) proposal to enforce biological weapons non-proliferation. His opposition continued during his tenure as President Trump’s National Security Advisor, with claims that New START was flawed because of its silence on tactical weapons, future delivery vehicle development, and other countries with nuclear weapons, specifically China.
The Trump administration’s negotiators sought additional measures in any extension of New START. Their demands included the addition of China as a party, expansion of the treaty to include tactical warheads, and potential changes to verification procedures. The desire to bring China into the fold can be confusing given that China only has around 300 deployed nuclear weapons. China would not have much incentive to enter into an agreement at a lower inventory level requirement than that of the U.S. or Russia, and giving China a limit of 1,550 weapons seems counterproductive to arms control as its weapons inventory is already well below that number. If China wanted the U.S. and Russia to come down to their current inventory state, the national security and economic consequences of reducing the U.S. stockpile to 20% of its current state would not be palatable to the U.S. The inclusion of tactical warheads in the treaty would cause significant changes to the verification process and likely would be considered excessively intrusive by Russian agencies.
President Biden ran with the goal of extending New START, but the timeline to work out an agreement with Russia was very short as the treaty’s expiration date was a mere 16 days after Biden took office. If the treaty were to expire, any new agreement would require a ratification by two-thirds of the Senate, which the Biden administration may not have been able to depend on. Therefore, the Biden administration made an extension a priority for the first few days to avoid requiring Senate approval. On February 3rd, 2021, two days before the treaty was set to expire, the Biden administration announced that it had come to an agreement with Russia to extend the treaty for five years. No additional considerations were added to the original agreement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, stated that this was only the beginning of nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia.
The extension to New START by the Biden administration is a step towards a constructive follow-on arms control treaty. The U.S. Department of State could look to include limitations on Russia’s tactical inventory and vehicle delivery technology. Russia may ask for the treaty to include constraints on the U.S. anti-ballistic missile technology program. Verification processes are also likely to be a topic of discussion. China is not likely to have a role in a follow-on treaty as neither Russia nor the U.S. has any means to compel China to join an agreement.