By Bernadette Stadler and Helen Thompson
Recent media reports that President Donald Trump denounced the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin have caused major concern within the nonproliferation community. When Mr. Putin raised the possibility of extending the treaty, which expires in 2018, President Trump reportedly called it a bad deal for the United States. Russia has traditionally showed less enthusiasm for arms control treaties than the U.S., and by dismissing Mr. Putin’s offer out of hand, President Trump may have missed a critical opportunity to extend U.S.-Russian collaboration in this area.
New START continues the longstanding tradition of U.S.-Russian cooperation to verifiably reduce nuclear arsenals. The treaty requires both countries to limit their nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers) by February 2018. Though Russia currently deploys more than 1,550 warheads, all evidence suggests they will easily meet their obligations under the treaty. The United States is also on track to meet this objective.
In addition to the modest reductions, the treaty also includes critical verification and transparency measures that give Americans better insight into Russia’s nuclear weapons forces. Under the treaty, each country’s progress is measured by two types of verification measures: data exchanges and on-site inspections. For data exchanges, the U.S. and Russia are required to report the number of deployed warheads and both deployed and non-deployed missiles and delivery systems of strategic weapons, which are compiled into a database. Eighteen on-site inspections are allowed per year, and the U.S. and Russia have used all of their inspections each year that the treaty has been in force.
New START was ratified by the U.S. senate and entered into effect in February 2011. The treaty received bipartisan support, easily passing in the Senate with a majority of 71 to 26 that included 56 Democrats, 13 Republicans and both independents. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) argued that “it is vital that the START Treaty with Russia be renewed… It provides important assurances to both sides.”
New START also received support from the military community. Admiral Michael Mullen wrote a letter to the Senate stating, “this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we in the military have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States.” Significant support for the treaty also came from seven former commanders of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the form of a letter, in which they conveyed that “the New START Treaty will contribute to a more stable U.S.-Russian relationship.” Despite President Trump’s remarks, many of his foreign policy advisors, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, support New START and continued negotiations with Russia.
Allowing the treaty to expire without negotiating a new agreement would not benefit U.S. interests. Failing to extend or replace New START with another arms control treaty would be detrimental to U.S. national security by removing the cap on Russia’s deployed nuclear warheads and eliminating verification and inspection measures that significantly improve our understanding of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The end of New START would likely begin a new nuclear build-up, while reducing transparency and communication between the U.S. and Russia. Under these circumstances, a nuclear incident would be much more likely to occur.
Since the SALT I negotiations began in 1969, American and Russian leaders and policymakers have consistently devoted themselves to reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. These policies have contributed to increased U.S. national security, and strong bipartisan support remains for bilateral nuclear arms control. Withdrawing from New START would not only threaten U.S. national security, but would also unravel four decades of U.S.-Russian nonproliferation cooperation.
Bernadette Stadler is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Helen Thompson is a Policy Intern at the Center.