The U.S. Congress is on the verge of authorizing new nuclear weapons, trashing a major Reagan-era arms control agreement and putting us on the road to a new arms race with Russia. This is a huge mistake that would put U.S. and global security at risk, and proves the old saying: Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
The number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined significantly since the end of the Cold War, and we continue, slowly, to progress toward disarmament. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Sunday, the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Japan would “firmly advance the movement toward a world without nuclear weapons.” Today, there are about 15,000 weapons left. Still far too many, but at least we are heading in the right direction.
And yet many in the Republican-controlled Congress now seem to have forgotten what got us this far: nuclear arms reduction agreements with Russia, negotiated mainly by Republican presidents. President Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, and President George H.W. Bush signed the START Treaty in 1991. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama continued the process, most recently with the 2010 New START Treaty bringing U.S. and Russian arsenals down to levels not seen since the 1950s.
These agreements provide the “rules of the road” so arsenals can be reduced in a safe, stable and predictable way. No one wants surprises when it comes to nukes. They set equal limits on weapons, and allow for inspections so both sides can trust, and verify, the process.
Now, all of this is at risk. Republicans in both the House and Senate are promoting legislation to authorize a new nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missile that would, if tested, violate the INF Treaty. The House language goes so far as to set a time limit for U.S. withdrawal from INF and, if Russia does not comply, to prevent extension of New START in 2021. Linking INF to New START—which still clearly serves U.S. security interests—reveals the true intentions of those behind this legislation: destroy the bipartisan arms control process.
Make no mistake, the major blame for this mess lies with Moscow, which both the Obama and Trump administrations have found to be in violation of INF by deploying a small number of prohibited ground-launched cruise missiles in Russia. President Vladimir Putin could solve this whole thing tomorrow by dismantling these missiles and getting back into compliance. He should do so.
But the smart play here is to figure out how to get Russia back on the reservation, not provoke it to formally withdraw and start producing weapons in large numbers. And if the INF Treaty fails, we certainly don’t want the blame to fall on the United States.
The first thing to realize is that this is primarily a political problem, not a military threat. As Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate in July, “we’re not restricted from fielding ballistic missiles or cruise missile systems that could be launched from ships or airplanes under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, it is specific to land-based missiles.” So, any potential military gap could be filled by weapons that are not covered by INF.
"Given the location of the specific missile and the deployment, [the Russians] don’t gain any advantage in Europe," Selva said.
Second, the Trump administration itself is opposed to the House language, saying it “unhelpfully ties the Administration to a specific missile system, which would limit potential military response options."
Third, even if the United States were to build a new ground-launched cruise missile, it would be next to impossible to get NATO to agree to deploy it. It would be a nuclear bridge to nowhere.
There are better ways to nudge Russia back into the fold, such as addressing its underlying concerns. Russia has always felt it got the short end of the stick with INF. China, which is not bound by INF, has hundreds of intermediate-range missiles that can reach Russia but not the United States. Russia is also worried that U.S. missile interceptor facilities being built in Romania and Poland, right on its western border, could be used—you guessed it—to fire ground-launched cruise missiles. There is a deal to be had here, if both sides are motivated.
Given the abysmal state of US-Russian relations, such a deal would take some time. Meanwhile, the United States should maintain diplomatic pressure and if needed could increase sanctions or beef up conventional military forces in or around NATO.
But Congress’ tit-for-tat response to Russia’s INF violation is counterproductive. This is not a military threat, but overreacting to it might make it so. The INF Treaty is the foundation of all subsequent arms reduction agreements, like New START. Let’s leave the INF brick in the wall, not throw it through Russia’s window.
Tom Z. Collina is policy director, and Rose Blanchard is a research analyst, at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, .DC.