Former Dean James Stavridis: “Russia and the U.S. Need a Timeout on Nuclear Weapons”

With New START about to expire, the U.S. should accept Moscow’s offer of a one-year extension.

I’ve never sat down and negotiated a nuclear arms agreement, but I spent much of my military career acting on the decisions made at those tables. And with a landmark deal between the U.S. and Russia set to expire in a few months, the topic has a new urgency.

My first job in the Navy, at the height of the Cold War, included management of the nuclear-tipped antisubmarine rockets onboard a destroyer in the U.S. Pacific Fleet. I could see both the incredible destructive power of these tactical nukes, which were under the direct control of a captain in his late 30s, and the destabilizing effect such systems can have.

The stakes are vastly higher when it comes to negotiations involving the possible use of strategic nuclear weapons, such as those on intercontinental ballistic missiles, which have the potential to end civilization as we know it. In my final military job, as supreme allied commander at NATO, I argued contentiously with senior Russian officials that U.S. Aegis missile systems in Eastern Europe — which are intended primarily to avert an Iranian attack on the continent — could not threaten their strategic nuclear force. It was a debate that went around and around in circles.

The simple truth is that both sides have a vital interest in reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons systems — and likewise moving away from tactical nukes, the less-powerful weapons geared to use on the battlefield. Now the U.S. and Russia are performing a complicated negotiating dance around replacing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires next February. For the sake of the entire world, Washington and Moscow have to be able to get to “yes” and “da,” respectively.

If the limits expire, things could get dangerous. Obviously, either side could immediately start building more of its existing systems, breaking the sensible limits painstakingly negotiated by my good friend Ambassador Rose Gottemoeller, the former deputy secretary general of NATO. Those currently allow a strategic nuclear arsenal of no more than 1,550 deployed warheads, and 700 missiles and heavy bombers each to carry them. (Both sides are able to store more warheads in stockpiles.)

Russia and the U.S. have the ability to make more-advanced systems as well, all of which would be very destabilizing. Failure to extend New START would continue the march to an unnecessary new Cold War. And it would bring us closer than ever to midnight on the Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Simply extending the treaty on current terms for one to three years would be the best start, along with a pledge from each side to eventually re-negotiate. Such a breather would give time to avoid the rush to improve and upgrade nuclear arsenals. And it would signal to the world that the two nuclear superpowers can agree to come to the table.

Russia has now offered a one year-extension of the status quo on strategic weapons, while the Donald Trump administration favors a longer period of up to five years, along with several preconditions such as adding limits on tactical nuclear weapons and even insisting China be part of any such deal. (China has a relatively small number of intercontinental nuclear weapons, perhaps 300.)

The administration’s goals are overambitious for now — particularly given that Trump may not be in office in three months — so it would be smart to take up Russia’s offer.

Eventually, Washington should seek an agreement that includes, most fundamentally, even tighter limits on the warheads aboard intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach each other’s shores. Then there are new systems coming into play — notably nuclear-powered torpedoes with strategic nuclear warheads, and boost-glide, ultra-high-speed versions of ICBMs — that will require new kinds of restrictions and possible inspection regimes.

Another obvious element involves limiting the technological advancement of nuclear-powered cruise missiles that could (theoretically) fly around the world before striking. Additionally, new boost-glide weapons could perhaps be deployed on long-range bombers and nuclear submarines, capabilities that would have to be put up for negotiations.

Assuming all these issues can be hashed out, that would cover only strategic forces. There is an equally strong need to put in place some effective limits for tactical nuclear weapons. Long-range tactical systems at sea (aboard either surface ships, like my old destroyer, or attack or ballistic-missile submarines) are highly destabilizing. This is because it is impossible for the enemy to tell whether the weapon coming off the deck of the ship or from under the sea is a strategic or a tactical nuke, or even a conventionally armed cruise missile like the Tomahawk.

Finally, as President Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify.” All of the modifications, limits and deployment agreements that emerge from a new pact will require attendant inspection regimes. Perhaps it is time for the two nations to move at least partly to a third-party verification concept, although both sides will resist that because they will be suspicious of motives and impartiality of the inspectors. But it would be worth exploring whether one of the United Nations agencies that oversee international weapons controls, such as the Office of Disarmament Affairs, could play that role.

Based on my own experience over decades of involvement in inspection regimes, I’d assess them in general as imperfect but certainly better than the alternatives. Should the U.S. press for tighter inspections than in the past? Of course. But Washington cannot let that be a pre-emptive deal breaker.

Each side will find arguments to slow down or even stop the negotiations in hopes of pressuring the other into concessions. A second Trump or a Joe Biden administration might insist on making China a third party, but that simply won’t happen. Likewise, Russia’s unwarranted obsession with ballistic-missile defenses and the American antimissile systems in Eastern Europe will present another stumbling block.

All this makes for one long list of tricky issues to be hashed out if New START is to get a new life. It would be in America’s interest to agree to at least a one-year timeout to continue the conversation — regardless of which party ends up in the White House.

This piece was republished from Bloomberg Opinion.

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