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Will The US-Russia Arms Control Be Continued After The Biden-Putin Geneva Summit?

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Authors: Alexander G. Savelyev and Olga M. Naryshkina*

On February 3rd, 2021, Russia and the United States exchanged diplomatic notes of an agreement extending the New START Treaty (Russia calls it START-3) for the next five years. The Treaty was signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama in April 2010 and entered into force on February 5, 2011. The Treaty itself, in Article XIV, provides for the possibility of a one-time extension for a period “not exceeding five years” following joint consideration and agreement. It should be noted that until the end of the US presidential election and the Biden administration came to power, the prospects for extending the Treaty looked more than dubious. Throughout most of 2020, the Trump administration linked its consent to the extension on such terms that even optimists came to the sad conclusion that Russia and the United States would be left without the last agreement in the field of strategic nuclear arms control for an indefinite period of time in the future. Now, at least for the next five years, the parties will have a high degree of predictability in the development of their strategic nuclear arsenals, with a real opportunity to verify that their commitments under the current Treaty are being fulfilled.

The extension of the New START raised new questions for politicians and experts in the two countries. The main one is whether this achievement should be regarded as the beginning of a new period in Russia-US relations in the field of arms control, or whether it should be regarded as the end of the process and no new agreements in this area should be expected. There are opposing views on this issue. Without claiming to cover all the nuances of the problem, we will try to assess what approaches might underlie future nuclear arms control agreements and how acceptable they might be to each of the participants.

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Arguments against the extension of the New START in the US

The extension of the New START has drawn a line under the debate about the extent to which the United States was interested in maintaining the agreement. However, the fact itself does not mean that the arguments of the New START opponents have completely lost their force and ceased to have an impact on US security policy. On the contrary, the Biden administration may have to take into account the sentiments of part of the political and military establishment in the near future when elaborating its position on further steps in the nuclear arms control area, taking into account that the new US administration made it clear from the very beginning that arms control would be among its priorities. Both President Biden and Secretary of State A. Blinken have stated this [Blinken 2021].

It should be noted that while in Russia the extension of the New START was generally received positively both in official and expert circles, in the United States doubts were expressed as to whether it was worth agreeing to its unconditional extension without any additional demands. On 3 February 2021, the US Department of State published a document in which the arguments of those opposed to the extension of the Treaty were referred to as “myths” [The New START…2021]. Among the list of such “myths” which were cited and “debunked” by the State Department, there are clearly far-fetched and incomprehensible opinions, such as that the New START is allegedly a Cold War relict and does not correspond to the current strategic situation. In addition, the State Department argues with the argument of the treaty’s opponents that the extension of the treaty allows China to continue building up its nuclear arsenal while allowing Russia to retain superiority in non-strategic nuclear weapons. It is not difficult to see that such “myths” have nothing to do with the New START Treaty itself or with the fact of its extension. It is therefore not difficult for the US diplomatic establishment to debunk them.

Nevertheless, a number of arguments of the Treaty opponents demanded from the State Department fairly reasonable objections and even a partial acknowledgement of their validity. One of these serious objections was the reproach to the American leadership for not making full use of the Russian Federation’s agreement to freeze all of the parties’ nuclear arsenals “in exchange” for a one-year extension of the New START. As it is known, such a consent was expressed in a Russian Foreign Ministry document published on October 20th 2020 [Foreign Ministry Statement…2020]. Russia made it quite clear that on its part it was a political commitment that should not be accompanied by any additional requirements. Despite Moscow’s position, the US side interpreted it as Russia’s willingness in principle to conclude a separate agreement to “freeze” the number of all nuclear warheads of the parties. This agreement, according to the United States, should have included the provision of the relevant exchange of information and the elaboration of the measures to verify the fulfillment of such an obligation. The refusal of the Biden administration to continue pressure on Russia in favor of such an agreement is now being blamed by its rivals.

The US State Department claimed that there was not enough time to work out such an agreement, as there were only a little more than two weeks between the inauguration of the new US president and the expiration of the New START. The State Department also said that Russia had refused to negotiate on the issue, arguing that a verification agreement was “an additional condition” for reaching an agreement on the New START extension, which was “unacceptable” to Russia. According to the State Department, the New START extension gives the United States the necessary time to address the concerns in this area.

Interestingly enough, the State Department makes no mentioning of the issues that may be (and are) of concern to the Russian side. All the “myths” it exposes are directly related to US security interests. The State Department does not even hint that the U.S. side would be willing to at least consider the Russian position on a number of issues that Moscow has repeatedly raised in official and unofficial contacts over the years. These concerns are reflected in a number of official Russian documents – the Military Doctrine, National Security Strategy, and others.

It is not yet clear how seriously the US leadership is prepared to engage in constructive negotiations on the whole range of strategic stability issues. Nevertheless, if any discussions on possible new nuclear arms control agreements do begin with the new U.S. administration, the sides will in any case have to not only discuss, but also take seriously mutual interests and concerns in order to find the necessary compromise in order to achieve practical results. Otherwise, there is no prospect for a successful continuation of the arms control policy.

Possible approaches to nuclear arms control by the Biden administration

According to initial statements by the representatives of the new US administration, it intends to focus its nuclear arms control policy on two main issues. The first one is to reach an agreement with the Russian Federation on the control of all nuclear arsenals of the parties, including tactical (or, more correctly, non-strategic) nuclear weapons. The second is to engage China in bilateral or multilateral nuclear arms control negotiations in order to establish control over China’s nuclear arsenal in some form ensuring full information about its status and prospects for development. [Renewing America’s … 2021].

It is symptomatic that neither the first, nor the second option yet have the objective of reducing nuclear arsenals. It is primarily a question of agreeing on a verification system and ensuring predictability of the development of Russia’s and China’s nuclear forces. In his seminal paper ‘Binarization of Foreign Policy Conduct’, although discussing the other world’s theater, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic gives an accurate diagnosis for this issue too: “Confrontation is what you get, and cooperation is what you are fighting for.“

US-Russia

Despite the apparent logic and even simplicity of the approach to controlling all Russian and US nuclear arsenals, success in reaching such an agreement is more than doubtful. Before entering into a formal dialogue with the Russian Federation, the United States will have to address a number of difficult issues directly related to the country’s initial position to be brought forward as the subject of discussions.

Putting aside the political context of the issue and assuming that Russia and the United States agreed in principle to establish control over all nuclear warheads in their arsenals, the parties will have to solve a number of extremely difficult problems. These problems are not only of a technical nature but also of a military-political and military-strategic nature. In particular, the authors believe that before the beginning of negotiations the sides should agree on whether tactical (or non-strategic) nuclear weapons should be “equated” to strategic ones in a new agreement and if not, by what criteria should these weapons be divided into the two categories? On the basis of the yield of the warhead, or on the characteristics of the vehicle on which this warhead can be deployed?

In all previous nuclear arms control treaties, including the New START, the reference was primarily made to delivery vehicles, which from a military strategic point of view is quite reasonable and accepted by both sides. But the question remains open; whether the same logic can be applied to non-strategic systems. In the field of strategic weapons, parties have identified intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers (HB) as such carriers. These systems are mainly the ones to be controlled. In the case of NSNWs, the range of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles to be controlled will expand dramatically and may include many missiles (both ballistic and cruise missiles) and a significant list of aircraft which normally perform conventional missions, i.e., are “dual-use”. Until a certain period of time, heavy artillery could also perform “nuclear functions”. Thus, control of NSNWs should imply control over a wide spectrum of conventional arms of the parties capable of carrying nuclear weapons. From a practical point of view, the approach seems unrealistic.

Proceeding from the above, the authors of this article come to the logical conclusion that there is only one way for the parties to establish control of NSNWs – to control only nuclear warheads and to give up the control over delivery vehicles. In such a case it would be no longer a control of “nuclear weapons”, but the control of nuclear warheads. Hence, the whole system of “nuclear arms control” breaks down into at least two parts – strategic arms control and nuclear warheads control. Clearly, the transition from the control of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles to the control of nuclear warheads represents rather a complex task, which would require considerable time to generate and agree upon specific measures allowing the parties to be fully assured of compliance with their obligations.

Even with the strategic arms covered by the New START, issues are not straightforwardly sorted out. Thus, in accordance with the established practice of US-Russian arms control agreements, all of the parties’ nuclear weapons are divided into two major categories: deployed (i.e. ready to use) and non-deployed.[1] Separate limitations are imposed on each of these categories. For example, the New START Treaty sets 700-unit levels for deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and deployed heavy bombers, as well as a separate 800-unit level for deployed and non-deployed delivery vehicles. There is also a level of 1,550 for warheads on deployed strategic launchers. However, the Treaty is silent about the permitted number of non-deployed warheads. This raises another question: which nuclear warheads are to be controlled: all, separately strategic and separately non-strategic, or separately deployed and separately non-deployed? Or is it necessary to introduce separate sub-levels for these categories of nuclear warheads? The Russian side proposes to focus on the “deployed part” of the nuclear arsenals of the sides [Introductory remarks … 2021]. The US position on this issue is still unclear.

The issue of drawing the line between strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads seems likely to be the most difficult. Probably it is impossible to do this at all. For example, the same nuclear bomb can be deployed on both heavy and other types of bombers that are not strategic. It should be added that low-yield nuclear warheads are already deployed on strategic nuclear weapon carriers, the Trident II SLBMs. In addition, the United States arsenal contains nuclear warheads with a variable yield. Hence, the criterion of yield to divide warheads into “strategic” and “non-strategic” is unacceptable. Therefore, dividing nuclear warheads into these two categories could only be done on the basis of other parameters.

In case the parties agree on controlling nuclear warheads on a deployed – non-deployed basis, they also would have to solve a number of important problems. One of them is how to count nuclear bombs and cruise missiles ready for deployment on the parties’ heavy bombers. In “real life”, these weapons are not deployed. Russian and US heavy bombers implements their missions on a regular basis in various regions of the world. According to public reports, they do not carry nuclear weapons on board. In other words, weapons that can be deployed on HBs should be included in the category “non-deployed nuclear warheads”. The same should apply to US NSNWs stored at bases in five European NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey), although they are ready for immediate deployment on combat aircraft. The appropriate drills for transporting U.S. nuclear weapons from underground bunkers and placing them on aircraft are regularly conducted by NATO forces as part of the Steadfast Noon military exercise. [Samozhnev 2020].

On the other hand, under the New START, each heavy bomber is counted as one launcher and one warhead and is thus “partially” included into the “deployed” category in terms of the number of warheads allowed. This seemingly unimportant issue still needs to be resolved and could have an impact on the success of a future agreement. It is directly related to the issue of “upload capacity” – the ability to quickly build up the number of deployed nuclear warheads on strategic and other carriers through the availability of nuclear bombs and missile warheads in storage facilities ready to be mounted on carriers. Thus, if the “deployed – non-deployed” nuclear warheads approach is adopted for the purpose of an agreement, the parties will most probably have to introduce at least one more sub-level of warheads that are “in active reserve”, which would further complicate such negotiations.

In our view, there is no point in saying that an agreement can be reached on the overall level of nuclear warheads without dividing them into deployed and non-deployed ones. After all, according to the U.S. side, such an agreement must be “verifiable,” that is, accompanied by an appropriate control system. However, such a system will differ sharply in relation to the same deployed and non-deployed nuclear warheads, to the warheads that are in “active reserve” and to those that are in storage (in storage facilities) awaiting shipment to the troops or to the plant for dismantlement. Accordingly, parties will in any case have to introduce separate categories for “non-deployed” systems, both according to their individual types (warheads, bombs, etc.) and according to the stage of the life cycle they are in. In addition, it will be necessary to develop a system for controlling the movement and transportation of nuclear warheads to different destinations and by different modes of transport.

Again, we emphasize that the above reasoning refers to a scenario where both sides have reached a full understanding of the desirability of working out a “verifiable” agreement on the control of the nuclear warheads. It should also be noted that the authors have touched upon only a small part of the problems that the sides will face in trying to achieve this goal. Not to mention a host of technical issues, the sides will have to overcome many organizational hurdles related to the high level of secrecy in the nuclear sphere, as well as to achieve an unprecedented level of trust, which was not present even in the “best days” of U.S.-Russian relations.

Consequently, the enthusiasm of the previous US administration, who thought that such an agreement could be worked out in two or three months, is completely incomprehensible. In our estimation, two to three years would not be enough, given the fact that the basic control provisions have to be tested by experimentation and only then fixed “on paper”. All negotiations are likely to take even longer. Thus, statements by the new US administration regarding a five-year extension of the New START (which it believes gives enough time to prepare a new agreement) can also be considered overly optimistic. Under the current circumstances, the authors believe that parties could return to the idea of freezing their nuclear arsenals in the form of a “political commitment without additional conditions”, as Russia proposed in 2020. Such statements by the United States and Russia are the realistic maximum that the parties can count on in the foreseeable future in moving towards nuclear arms control.

US-China

The prospects for the second, the Chinese track of nuclear arms control policy announced by the new US administration, are not encouraging for a considerable part of the expert community. It should be noted that despite the best efforts of the previous US administration Russia refused to join the US in pressuring the Chinese leadership to engage the PRC in the nuclear arms negotiations. In his speech in February 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated this position: “We will never persuade China”. He also said that Russia could not imagine multilateral talks without the participation of Britain and France. [Speech by the Minister … 2021].

As for the United States, it remains to be seen what approach it might take to meet the challenge. The Trump administration mainly tried to use “forceful” methods in its attempts to “bring China to the negotiating table”. The U.S. accused China of seeking to dramatically increase its nuclear arsenal, to acquire the capability to wage a “controlled” nuclear war, to increase the counterforce capabilities of its nuclear forces, and to be reluctant to disclose information on the status and plans for development in this area. In the United States there existed (and still exists) a view that the creation of additional military threats to China, such as the threat of the deployment of US medium-range missiles in the region, may play a role in changing China’s position on the negotiations. The United States also put pressure on Russia, literally demanding that it “force” the PRC to enter into negotiations (Gertz 2020). Some experts suggested other “soft” ways to put pressure on China, including recognizing its “great power” status, opening up the prospects of improving strategic relations with the US while negotiating on nuclear arms, and making attempts to prove that China’s joining the nuclear arms control system could generate serious military and political benefits for the country.

As it is known, all the US attempts have yielded no success. China stubbornly refused not only to engage in nuclear arms control talks, but also to be transparent in that area, including in sharing data on the conditions of its nuclear arsenal and even in providing official information on the number of its nuclear forces. China’s leadership did not give reasons for its refusal, but it may be assumed that it has its roots in the decades-long nuclear policy of the country dating back to the time of Mao Zedong. In particular, there is the principle of no first use of nuclear weapons, which China would most probably have to abandon if it chooses to negotiate and to disclose full information about its nuclear forces, thus sharply increasing their vulnerability to a hypothetical nuclear strike [Savelyev 2020].

China’s condition for joining the talks has been repeatedly expressed by its officials – to further reduce the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US to a level comparable to that of China[2]. It appears that China will continue to adhere to this position, and it is unlikely that the US could find serious tools to fundamentally change this situation. Therefore, one can conclude that the nuclear arms control priorities announced by the new US administration, both in the Russian and Chinese sectors, do not yet have serious prospects. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Russia has its own views on arms control priorities, which in many cases do not coincide with the American vision of the problem.

Russia’s priorities

After the New START was extended, there were almost no spheres of “congruent” interests left in the field of arms control in terms of their priorities between Russia and the US. However, this discrepancy does not appear to be an insurmountable obstacle for continuing nuclear arms control dialogue, or even negotiations, with the Biden administration. In any case, both Russian and American sides do not rule out this scenario.

The basic contours of a possible Russian position on nuclear arms control negotiations were outlined in the abovementioned statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry of October 20, 2020 and in a number of other documents published after the new US administration came to the White House [Opening address …2021; Statement by the Minister …2021]. These and other official documents talked about the possibility of “comprehensive bilateral negotiations on future nuclear missile arms control, with mandatory consideration of all factors affecting strategic stability” [Statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry …2020]. This wording cannot be said to give complete clarity about the possible negotiating position of Russia, especially since the statement was “linked” to the proposal to extend the New START for one year and the “freezing” of nuclear arsenals of the parties. Since the issue of “freezing” was virtually removed from the agenda of U.S.-Russian relations, and the New START was extended for five years without additional conditions, the said position of the RF, according to the authors, can be substantially adjusted in the future. Nevertheless, one can make a number of conclusions on the basis of the Foreign Ministry’s Statement, albeit tentatively.

First of all, we should note that in contrast to Russia’s position stated earlier that after the New START “further steps in nuclear disarmament should be comprehensive in nature and all nuclear-weapon states should be involved in the process…” [Vladimir Putin…2012], Russia now also allows for bilateral negotiations with the United States. However, the wording “talks on future control” is not quite clear. If to approach it “strictly”, we cannot talk about the negotiations themselves with the aim of working out a specific agreement, but about “negotiations about the future negotiations”. In our view, it would then be appropriate to speak of bilateral consultations or discussions on the parameters of such negotiations.

Nor does the wording “nuclear missile arms control” provide complete clarity. This category could include both strategic and non-strategic means of nuclear attack. However, it does not cover all nuclear weapons, e.g. nuclear torpedoes, bombs, nuclear-armed underwater drones, which the Russian President spoke about on March 1st, 2018. [Address…2018]. Consequently, one can conclude that the question of the Russian Federation agreeing to control all of the parties’ nuclear weapons remains open.

It is not quite clear what meaning is embedded in the notion of “comprehensive negotiations”, and in what exactly should this “comprehensiveness” manifest itself? The country’s official position on these issues is formulated only in very general terms. Still, examples of a comprehensive approach to security issues can be found in the history of Soviet-American negotiations. Thus, the very first strategic arms limitation treaty, SALT-1, was so comprehensive. From 1969 to 1972, the parties simultaneously worked out two agreements: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Treaty (ABM Treaty) and the Interim Agreement on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Both documents were signed at the same time, on 26 May 1972, and went down in history as SALT-1.

This is not the only example. Thus, in the second half of the 1980s, the USSR and the US were engaged in comprehensive negotiations in three areas – strategic offensive weapons (START), intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles (INF) and defense and space. The Soviets insisted that all three agreements must be signed simultaneously, establishing a clear link between the three “building blocks” and stressing the need to reach agreement on defense and space as a condition for signing the START-1 and the INF treaties. Initially, the US accepted this condition, on which the negotiations themselves were dependent. However, as we know, the INF Treaty was negotiated much earlier than the other documents. After serious consideration, the USSR leadership decided to withdraw this treaty from the general “package” and sign it earlier, in 1987. Then, a few years later (in 1991), the START-1 was negotiated, while the defense and space negotiations saw no progress. Given the lack of any prospect of an agreement on space-based missile defense systems and “space strike weapons”, and the fact that the ambitious SDI program by that time was virtually ceased to exist and had been replaced by the more modest Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), the USSR once again removed the “linkage” of the remaining two parts of the negotiating “package”. At the same time, the Soviets made a statement regarding the need to retain the ABM Treaty as a condition for reductions under START I.

Thus, there do not appear to be any formal obstacles to holding “comprehensive bilateral negotiations”. All that remains is to determine what part this “complex” might consist of. In the aforementioned statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry puts forward a condition for future negotiations on “nuclear missiles”. They can only take place “with mandatory consideration of all factors affecting strategic stability”. As in previous cases, the above wording does not give complete clarity about how Russia believes the talks should be conducted. After all, any arms control negotiations have an explicit subject matter. In this case it is “nuclear missiles”. Strategic stability does not fit within the framework of such talks. The only thing that can be done is to agree on the wording that the concluded agreement promotes strategic stability and to fix it in the preamble of the future treaty. It seems unlikely that this approach would suit the Russian side.

Another option would be to insist on a comprehensive approach to negotiations that would cover the whole range of factors that, in Russia’s view, affect strategic stability. Once again we emphasize that what has been written above does not constitute a specific proposal by the authors on the formulation of Russia’s approaches and position on this issue. The authors’ reasoning is just an attempt to follow the logic of statements made by Russia’s top leadership on the issues of strengthening security and strategic stability, including those represented in official documents adopted at the highest level, including the Military Doctrine and the National Security Strategy of the RF (as mentioned above). It follows from these documents that the main factors affecting strategic stability, apart from nuclear weapons, include missile defense, strategic long range high-precision non-nuclear weapons (including non-nuclear prompt global strike weapons) and space weapons. Thus, an “integrated” approach to negotiations could be to conduct several negotiations in parallel – in each of these areas under a single title. For example, “Negotiations on (missile and) nuclear arms limitation and strengthening strategic stability”.

The likelihood of such negotiations is negligible, which refers primarily to the three “building blocks” of factors affecting strategic stability. Nevertheless, it seems to make sense to consider, at least in general terms, some aspects of imposing limitations on the named weapons systems in order to assess the possibility of such negotiations, if not at present, then in the future.

Strategic high-precision non-nuclear weapons

From the verification point of view, the most “promising” is the resolution of the issue of strategic high-precision non-nuclear weapons. With the extension of the New START, a number of such systems are directly subject to it. This is particularly true for the replacement of nuclear warheads with non-nuclear warheads in existing ICBMs and SLBMs. In other, less clear-cut cases (e.g., deployment of new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles in open positions, which has been suggested as one of the options for building a non-nuclear US prompt global strike system) [Myasnikov 2010], the issue may be addressed in the Bilateral Consultative Commission operating within The New START framework. In any case, according to the authors, the conclusion of a separate treaty on strategic non-nuclear weapons is not required, since many limitations of such weapons are already covered by the provisions of the acting New START Treaty.

Space weapons

With regard to the issue of space-related arms control, it is even more problematic, in our view, than for non-strategic nuclear weapons, to reach any comprehensive agreement in this area. What the authors have in mind here is not the difficulty of making a political decision to carry out such negotiations, but rather the definition of the subject matter of the negotiations themselves and the issues of verification. For example, whether such negotiations will deal with “space weapons” issues in general or go through three possible tracks: anti-satellite weapons, space-to-Earth weapons and the space element of advanced BMD systems.

If it comes to “space weapons,” the parties should understand that a complete ban on “space weapons” is unfortunate due to the fact that many existing weapons systems (for example, ICBMs and SLBMs) have the potential to engage satellites in orbit. But before that the parties must come to a joint vision of what they understand by the terms “space weapons,” “weapons in space” and a number of other concepts, including “weapons” as such. Without such an agreement, it is almost impossible to negotiate any restrictions or bans on an activity when the subject matter of the negotiations itself is not clearly outlined.

Here it should also be kept in mind that a number of possible “space weapons” systems, unlike NSNWs, do not currently exist, and such negotiations can only talk about preventing (prohibiting) their creation or development. But here the negotiators can expect another “technical trap”, which the Defense and Space Talks fell into in the second half of the 1980s. The parties spent quite a lot of time trying to draw a clear line between “creation” and “development”. The parties tried to became clear what is “experiment” versus “test”, “experimental device” versus “prototype”, what is a “laboratory” (a room with or without walls) and whether it could be in space, as well as a host of other technical issues. Solving a set of these questions is an extremely difficult task. In any case, many of these remained open after six years of concrete discussions in Geneva (1985-1991). As the practice of such negotiations shows, it is impossible to avoid discussing all these technical problems. Otherwise, lack of clarity on certain aspects of a future agreement leads to increased suspicions between the parties and, as a consequence, undermines the treaty itself.

The list of problems to be solved if an agreement to enter into “space negotiations” is reached could go on and on. Not all of them will be easy to solve, even if the parties have the political will to conclude such an agreement. Inevitably there will be the issue of “space weapons” of the third countries, in particular China and some NATO states, of “dual-use” assets such as “space debris collectors” and maintenance and repair satellites, and a whole range of others. It remains to be seen whether it is even possible to agree on all these issues from a purely technical point of view.

Missile defense

It is obvious that for Russia the problem of missile defense is the most pressing in terms of ensuring its national security. Almost immediately after the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Russia made persistent attempts to return to at least some limitations on defensive means or to neutralize the effectiveness of US missile defense systems, increasing the potential for missile defense penetration during the development and modernization of strategic offensive systems. It appears that should the U.S.-Russian arms control dialogue resume, the Russian position will in some form require that defensive systems to be taken into account in the strategic balance of the parties. Such limitations are believed to contribute to strategic stability, and consequently to security at all the levels of confrontation – from regional to global.

The ABM Treaty was supposed to place restrictions on systems “to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight paths”. All other missile defense systems were not subject to limitations. In 1997, the parties were able to agree on specific characteristics of BMD systems (the so-called “New York Protocols”) that would allow these systems to be classified as “strategic” and “non-strategic”. That had to be done in order to strengthen the ABM Treaty regime, which the Russian side viewed as a prerequisite for the entry into force of START II. And while both sides did not formally accept this “separation” of strategic and non-strategic BMD systems, it was nevertheless present in discussions of issues connected with the consequences of US deployment of BMD in Europe and Asia. In any case, US representatives have repeatedly stated that “theatre missile defense” in Europe “does not threaten” the deterrence potential of Russian strategic forces, is not capable to intercept ICBMs and SLBMs, and is intended exclusively to protect US allies from threats from such countries as Iran and North Korea.

However, the situation with the issue of this “separation” changed dramatically in November 2020 after the successful test of the US SM-3 Block IIA anti-ballistic missile, which for the first time shot down an intercontinental ballistic missile target from a ship equipped with the AEGIS anti-missile system [US Successfully….2020]. The anti-missiles are being built as a part of a joint US-Japanese project [Tosaki 2019]. They are designed to be fired from the Mk 41 all-purpose launchers that equip US cruisers and destroyers of certain classes and Aegis Ashore ground systems in Poland and Romania.

This test made it very difficult, if not impossible, for Russia and the U.S. to reach any kind of agreement on limiting their missile defense systems. Thus, Russia had every reason to demand that theater missile defense systems be taken into account in the overall balance of such armaments of the parties. Russia’s position could apply not only to missile systems directly tested as strategic missile defense, but also to missile launchers without regard to what kind of missile system they contain. In addition, the system of control of such weapons is dramatically complicated because they are deployed not only on US ships, but also on the territories of other countries. One can only speculate whether the U.S. conducted this test solely to test the technical capabilities of the new anti-missile system or whether it was a deliberate step aimed at eliminating any prospect of reaching an agreement in this field.

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The above brief overview of the main arms control areas that can contribute to confidence-building, strategic stability and international security shows the dramatic complexity of the “technical side” of control, which may require enormous effort by the parties and a considerable period of time to agree on all provisions of the future agreements. The divergence of Russian and US interests regarding arms control priorities is quite obvious. Thus, for the US, the main focus is on establishing control of all nuclear arsenals of the parties (including China). For Russia, it is the control of strategic offensive and defensive weapons (both nuclear and non-nuclear), addressing the problem of “space weapons” and some others. In such a situation, it would seem possible to seek a compromise solution, including comprehensive and interrelated negotiations on a number of the above areas simultaneously. Consequently, both Russia and the United States would have to make mutual concessions, the nature of which could be determined both during the negotiations themselves and even before they began. However, in the current situation of strained relations between the two countries, one can hardly expect any progress in this area in the near foreseeable future.

We can conclude, that arms control can no longer play the role of a “driving force” to improve international relations. On the contrary, without such improvement, arms control negotiations are hardly feasible, since arms control steps require a very high level of trust between the parties. Hence, the focus should, in our view, be on the unconditional fulfillment of all the obligations undertaken by the parties under the extended New START, using this agreement as a “point of reference” in US-Russian relations and without waiting for its expiration date, trying to continue on the nuclear disarmament path.

* Olga M. Naryshkina – Senior Tutor, Department of International Security, Faculty of World Politics, Moscow State University.

(This text was originally published in Russian language in “SOCIAL SCIENCES AND CONTEMPORARY WORLD” magazine, 2021, № 2, pp. 7–20: A.G. SAVELYEV, O.M. NARYSHKINA. “The New START Extension: The End or the Beginning?”)


[1] Hereinafter the authors use the terminology adopted in international treaties. It differs slightly from the “military” terminology, which, for example, adopts the term “rapidly deployed” weapon systems.

[2] Another option is a dramatic buildup of China’s nuclear arsenal to the level of Russia and the US. Such an option is in principle not excluded if China implements a major program for the deployment of additional nuclear weapons, while Russia and the US continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals.

Chief Research Fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Moscow, Russia). In 1989-1991 was a member of Soviet negotiating team at START-1 negotiations (Defense and Space Talks).

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Defense

The Nuclear future of East Asia

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In the face of North Korea and China’s continuous expansion and advancement in their nuclear arsenal in the past decade, the nuclear question for East Asian countries is now more urgent than ever—especially when U.S.’s credibility of extended deterrence has been shrinking since the post-cold war era. Whether to acquire independent nuclear deterrent has long been a huge controversy, with opinions rather polarized. Yet it is noteworthy that there is indeed gray zone between zero and one—the degree of latency nuclear deterrence.

This paper suggests that developing nuclear weapons may not be the wise choice for East Asian countries at the moment, however, given the fact that regional and international security in the Asia-Pacific is deemed to curtail, regardless of their decision to go nuclear or not, East Asia nations should increase their latency nuclear deterrence. In other words, even if they do not proceed to the final stage of acquiring independent nuclear deterrent, a latent nuclear weapons capability should at least be guaranteed. Meanwhile, for those who have already possessed certain extent of nuclear latency—for instance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—to shorten their breakout time whilst minimize obstacles for a possible nuclearization in the future.

The threat is ever-present—The Nuclear North Korea

Viewing from a realist perspective, the geographical locations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have always been a valid argument for their nuclearization—being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors, namely China and North Korea—these countries have witnessed an escalation of threat on an unprecedented scale since the cold war.

Having its first nuclear weapon tested in 2006, the total inventory North Korea now possess is estimated to be 30-40. With the misstep of relieving certain sanction during the Trump era, North Korea was able to revive and eventually expand its nuclear arsenal, making future negotiation between the Biden administration and the Kim regime much harder and less effective. Not only has North Korea’s missile test on March 25—which is the first since Mr. Biden’s presidency—signaled a clear message to the U.S. and her allies of its nuclearization will and stance, Pyongyang’s advancement in nuclear technologies also indicates a surging extent of threat.

For instance, North Korea state media KCNA claimed that the latest missile launched was a “new-type tactical guided projectile” which is capable of performing “gliding and pull-up” manoeuvres with an “improved version of a solid fuel engine”. In addition to these suspected “new type of missiles” that travels in low-attitude, the diversity of launches Pyongyang currently possess—from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as well as the transporter erector launchers (TELs) and the cold launch system—increase the difficulty in intercepting them via Aegis destroyer or other ballistic missile defense system since it is onerous, if not impossible, to detect the exact time and venue of the possible launches. Indeed, the “new type of missile” could potentially render South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) useless by evading radar detection system through its manoeuvres, according to a study from 38 North at The Henry L. Stimson Center.

Moreover,  the cold launch (perpendicular launch) system used by the North also indicates that multiple nuclear weapons could be fired from the same launch pad without severely damages caused to the infrastructure. Shigeru Ishiba, the former Defense Minister of Japan, has noted that not all incoming missiles would be able to be intercepted with the country’s missile defense system, and “even if that is possible, we cannot perfectly respond to saturation attacks”.

The Chinese nuclear arsenal

According to the SIPRI yearbook 2020, China’s total inventory of nuclear deterrent has reached 320, exceeding United Kingdom and France’s possession of nuclear warheads, of which London and Paris’s nuclear deterrent were considered as limited deterrence. In spite of the fact that China’s current nuclear stockpiles is still far less that what the Russians and Americans have, its nuclear technologies has been closely following the two military superpowers. For instance, the Chinese have successfully developed Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRVs) and Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle (MARVs)—its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) DF-41 is capable of equipping up to 10 MIRVs while its Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) DF-21D could carry MARV warhead that poses challenges to the BMD systems—these advancement in nuclear technologies are the solid proof that the Chinese nukes are only steps away from Moscow and Washington. Yet China’s nuclear arsenal remains unchecked and is not confined by any major nuclear arms reduction treaty such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), of which US and Russia has just reached a mutual consensus to extend the treaty through Feb 4, 2026.

In addition to China’s expansion of military capabilities and ambition in developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and new MARVs, there is no lack of scepticism of its no-first use policy, especially with Beijing’s coercive diplomacy and provocative actions in the East and South China Sea, regarding “freedom of navigation” and other sovereignty rights issues. These all raise concerns and generate insecurity from neighboring countries and hence, East Asia states i.e. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would inevitably have to reconsider their nuclear option.

In spite of having advanced BMD system, for instance, Aegis Destroyer (Japan), THAAD (South Korea), Sky Bow III (Taiwan), the existing and emerging nuclear arsenal in Pyongyang and Beijing still leave East Asian states vulnerable under a hypothetical attack as mentioned above. Future could be worse than it seems—merely having deterrence by denial is not sufficient to safeguard national security—particularly with a shrinking credibility of U.S.’s extended deterrence since the post-cold war era.

America’s nuclear umbrella and the Alliance Dilemma

Theoretically speaking, alliance relations with the U.S. assure a certain extent of deterrence by punishment against hostile adversaries. For example, U.S. is committed to defend Japan under the 1960 Mutual Defense Treaty. Yet in reality, security could never be guaranteed. In a realist lens, state could not rely on others to defend their national interests, especially when it puts America’s homeland security at risk. Is U.S. willing to sacrifice Washington for Tokyo? Or New York for Seoul?

Strong rhetoric or even defense pact would not be able to ensure collective security, let alone strategic ambiguity, which is a strategy adopted by Washington for Taipei that is neither a binding security commitment nor the stance is clear. Regardless of the prospect of a better future than mere war and chaos, state should always prepare for the worst.

Besides, with Trump’s American First policy continuously undermining alliance relations in the past four years, East Asian countries may find it hard to restore mutual trust since diplomatic tracks are irreversible, despite Biden’s administration intention and effort to repair alliance and U.S.’s integrity as the global leader.

Moreover, even if alliance relations and credibility of extended deterrence is robust at the moment, but the bigger question is—could and should East Asian countries shelter under America’s nuclear umbrella forever? If they choose not to go nuclear, these states would be constantly threatened by their nuclear-armed neighbors, without a credible direct (nuclear) deterrence to safeguard national security; and forced to negotiate, or worse, compromise in the face of a possible nuclear extortion.

Undeniably, horizontal nuclear proliferation is always risky. Not only is it likely to deteriorate diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, but also generates a (nuclear) regional arms race that eventually trap all nations into a vicious circle of security dilemma due to the lack of mutual trust in an anarchical system, which will consequently lead to a decrease in regional, as well as international security.

Yet with the expansion and advancement of Pyongyang and Beijing’s nuclear arsenal, regional and international security is deemed to curtail, regardless of East Asian countries’ decisions to go nuclear or not. As the official members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Japan’s and South Korea’s withdrawal may encourage other current non-nuclear weapon state to develop nukes. However, current existence of the NPT has already proven futile to prevent North Korea from acquiring its own nuclear weapons; or Israel, India and Pakistan, who are UN members but have never signed any of the treaties, to join the nuclear club.

The major concern about nuclear proliferation is never about the amount of warhead one possesses, but if they are in the wrong hands; for instance, a “rogue” state like North Korea. It is almost certain than none of the latent nuclear East Asia states would be considered “rogue” but just developed nations with rational calculation. In fact, the actual risk for these states joining the nuclear club in reality is not as high as most imagined. It may, indeed, help further bolster alliance relations between U.S., Japan and South Korea if they are able to come to some mutual consensuses in advance—developing independent nuclear deterrent is not an approach of alienating America’s presence as an effective ally but to strengthen security commitment with each other, and that US would support her allies in the Asia-Pacific in such attempt. The current existence of extended deterrence should not be a barrier for nuclearization. Rather, it should act as an extra protection for allied states.

Pave the way for future nuclearization

Admittedly, the road for any East Asia countries to go nuclear would be tough. Taipei’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons would imaginably trigger provocative response from Beijing, if not impossible, a pre-emptive strike that could lead to an escalation of war. Same situation goes for Seoul and Pyongyang even though the risk is relatively lower. As for Japan, although direct military confrontation is less likely comparing to Seoul and Taipei, the challenges Tokyo face for its nuclear option is no easier than any of them.

As the sole nation that has suffered from an atomic bomb explosion, Japan’s pacifism and anti-nuclear sentiment is embedded in its culture and society. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Sankei News in 2017, 17.7% of the respondents agreed that “Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons in the future” whilst 79.1% opposed to that idea. Despite having the imperative skills and technologies for an acquisition of independent nuclear deterrent (the breakout time for Japan is estimated to be about 6-12 months), Japan also lacks natural resources for producing nuclear warheads and has to rely heavily on uranium imports. Upholding the three non-nuclear principle since WWII, Japan’s bilateral nuclear agreements with the U.S., U.K, France and Australia specified that all imported nuclear-related equipment and materials “must be used only for the non-military purposes”. Violation of these agreements may result in sanctions that could cause devastated effect on Japan’s nuclear energy program, which supplies approximately 30% of the nation’s total electricity production. These issues, however, are not irresolvable.

Undeniably, it may take time and effort to negotiate new agreements and to change people’s pacifism into an “active pacifism”, yet these should not be the justifications to avoid the acquisition of independent nuclear deterrent as ensuring national security should always be the top priority. It is because in face of a nuclear extortion, the effectiveness of a direct nuclear deterrence guaranteed by your own country could not be replaced by any other measures such as deterrence by denial via BMD system or deterrence by punishment via extended deterrence and defense pact. Therefore, if there are too many obstacles ahead, then perhaps the wiser choice for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at the moment is to increase their nuclear latency deterrence, shorten the breakout time and pave their way clear for future nuclearization. In other words, to keep their nuclear option open and be able to play offense and defense at its own will when the time comes.

Nevertheless, in addition to strengthening one’s latency nuclear deterrence, as well as obtaining a more equal relationship in the official and unofficial alliance with America, East Asian countries that have similar interest and common enemies should united to form a new military alliance which included security treaty regarding collective defense like the NATO; and focuses more on countering hybrid warfare like the QUAD. If Japan, South Korea and Taiwan ever choose to go nuclear, a common mechanism could be established to ensure that these states would pursue a minimum to limited deterrence capability that do not endanger each other’s security but rather to strengthen it, which would help minimizing the destabilization brought to regional security while constituting a more balanced situation with nuclear-armed rivalries.

After all, proliferation may not be the best solution, it is certainly not the worst either.

From our partner International Affairs

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Test of Agni Prime Missile and India’s Counterforce Temptations

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South Asia is widely regarded as one of the most hostile regions of the world primarily because of the troubled relations between the two nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan. The complex security dynamics have compelled both the countries to maintain nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis each other. India is pursuing an extensive and all-encompassing military modernization at the strategic and operational level. In this regard, India has been involved in the development of advanced missiles as delivery systems and improvement in the existing delivery systems as well. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are solely aimed at India; however, India aspires to fight a ‘two-front war’ against Pakistan and China. Therefore, the size and capability of its nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are aimed at countering both threats. However, most of the recent missile delivery systems made by India appear to be more Pakistan-centric. One recent example in this regard is the recently tested nuclear-capable cannisterized ballistic missile Agni Prime, which is insinuated as Pakistan-centric. These developments would likely further provoke an action-reaction spiral and would increase the pace of conflict in South Asia, which ultimately could result in the intensification of the missile arms race.

Just quite recently, on 28th June 2021, India has successfully tested an advanced variant of its Agni missile series, namely Agni Prime or Agni (P). The missile has a range between 1000-2000 kilometers. Agni Prime is a new missile in the Agni missiles series, with improved accuracy and less weight than Agni 1, 2, and 3 missiles. It has been said that the Agni-P weighs 50 % less than the Agni-3 missile. As per the various media reports, this missile would take the place of Agni 1 and 2 and Prithvi missiles, however officially no such information is available. This new missile and whole Agni series is developed as part of the missile modernization program under the Defence Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) integrated guided missile development program. 

Agni-P is a short missile with less weight and ballistic trajectory, the missile has a rocket-propelled, self-guided strategic weapons system capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Moreover, the missile is cannisterized with the ability to be launched from road and rail. The DRDO claimed that the test flight of the missile was monitored by the telemetry radar stations and its trajectory met all the objectives of the mission successfully with high level of accuracy. Agni-P missile because of its range of 1000 to 2000 km is considered a weapon against Pakistan because within this range it cannot target China. Although, India already has different missiles in its inventory with the same range as the newly developed and tested Agni-P missile, so the question arises what this missile would achieve. 

Since the last few years, it has been deliberated within the international security discourse that India’s force posture is actually more geared towards counterforce options rather than counter-value options. Although, India’s nuclear doctrine after its operationalization in 2003, claims  “massive retaliation” and “nfu” but in reality with developing cannisterized weapons like Agni-P, Agni 5, and testing of hypersonic demonstrative vehicles, India actually is building its capability of “counterforce targeting” or “splendid first strike”. This reflects that India’s nuclear doctrine is just a façade and has no real implication on India’s force modernization.

These developments by India where it is rapidly developing offensive technologies put the regional deterrence equation under stress by increasing ambiguity. In a region like South Asia, where both nuclear rivals are neighbors and distance between both capitals are few thousand kilometers and missile launch from one side would take only a few minutes in reaching its target, ambiguity would increase the fog of war and put other actors, in this case, Pakistan in “use it or lose it” situation, as its nuclear deterrent would be under threat.

In such a situation, where Pakistan maintains that nuclear weapons are its weapons of last resort and to counter threats emerging from India, its nuclear deterrence has to hold the burden of covering all spectrums of threat. It might be left with no choice but to go for the development of a new kind of missile delivery system, probably the cannisterized missile systems as an appropriate response option. However, as Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence is based on principle of “CMD” which allow Pakistan to seek deterrence in a cost-effective manner and also by not indulging in an arms race. Therefore, other than the threat of action-reaction dynamic developments like Agni P by India, would make weapons more accurate and lethal, subsequently conflict would be faster, ambiguous, and with less time to think. In such a scenario, as chances of miscalculation increase, the escalation dynamics would become more complex; thus, further undermining the deterrence stability in South Asia.

India’s counter-force temptations and development of offensive weapons are affecting the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia. The deterrence equation is not getting affected just because India is going ahead with the development of offensive technologies but because of its continuous attempts of negating the presence of mutual vulnerability between both countries. Acknowledgement of existence of mutual vulnerability would strengthen the deterrence equation in the region and help both countries to move forward from the action-reaction spiral and arms race. The notions such as the development of offensive or counterforce technology or exploiting the levels below the nuclear threshold to fight a war would not be fruitful in presence of nuclear weapons. As nuclear weapons are weapons to avert the war and not to fight the war.

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Unmanned Aircraft Systems & The Annihilistic Future

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The unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones were introduced as a useful means to military, commercial, civilian and humanitarian activities but yet it ends up in news for none of its original purposes. Drones have rather resulted as a means of mass destruction.

The recent attacks on the technical area of the Jammu Air Force Station highlights the same. This was a first-of-its-kind terror attack on IAF station rather the Indian defence forces that shook the National Investigation Agency to National Security Guard. The initial probe into the attacks directs to involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based out of Pakistan, in the drone attacks as the aerial distance from the point of attack was just 14 kilometers. The attacks took place via an Electric multi-rotor type drone between 11:30 P.M to 1:30 A.M on 27th June, 2021.

The above incident clearly points out the security issues that lie ahead of India in face to the asymmetrical warfare as a result of drones. The Indian Government after looking at the misuse of drones during the first wave of the pandemic realised that its drone regulations were nowhere sufficient and accountable and hence passed the Unmmaned Aircraft Rules, 2021. These rules imposed stricter requirement for obtaining license and authorisations by remote pilots, operators, manufacturers or importers, training organisations and R&D organisations, thereby placing a significantly high burden on the applicants but at the same time they also permit UAS operations beyond visual sight of line and allowing student remote pilots to operate UAS.

But these rules still don’t have any control on the deadly use of drones because multi-rotor drones are very cheap and readily available and what makes them lethal is their ability to be easily detected, additionally the night time makes it even worse. Their small size grants them weak radar, thermal, and aural signatures, albeit varying based on the materials used in their construction.

The pertinent issue to be understood here is that these rules can never ensure safety and security as they cannot control the purpose for which these drones maybe used. There are certain factors that are to be accounted to actually be receptive to such imminent and dangerous threats. Firstly, significantly increasing urban encroachments  in areas around defence establishments, particularly air bases, has proved to be fatal. If frontline bases like Jammu or be it any other base when surrounded by unbuffered civilization poses two pronged problems, first it acts as high chances of being a vantage point for possible attackers and second, it also hampering the defence mechanism to come to an action. It is not limited to drone concerns but there have been cases of increased bird activity that has once resulted in engine failure of an IAF Jaguar and has caused similar problems all along.

Another important factor is that of intelligence. The Anti-drone systems will take their time to be in place and it is still a distant call to ascertain how effective will these systems be, so in the time being it is pertinent to focus on intelligence which may include sales and transfers of commercial drone, or the hardware that is required to build a basic multi-rotor drone. These are not something extraordinary because it is even in news when Pakistani drones were being used to supply weapons and ammunition to terror networks on Indian soil. Also, the past experience in handling ISIS have shown the weightage of intelligence over defensive nets.

Intelligence is no doubt a crucial factor in anticipation of drone attacks but what cannot be done away with is the defense mechanism. Efficient counter-drone technology is the need of the hour. DRDO has developed such technology that could provide the armed forces with the capability to swiftly detect, intercept and destroy small drones that pose a security threat. It is claimed that solution consists of a radar system that offers 360-degree coverage with detection of micro drones when they are 4km away, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors for detection of micro drones up to 2 km and a radio frequency (RF) detector to detect RF communication up to 3 km and is equipped for both soft kills as well as hard kills.

Hence, the above analysis brings out the need of the application of an international instrument because the technology used in such drone attacks is at an evolving stage and the natural barriers still have an upper hand over be it either flying a pre-programmed path aided by satellite navigation and inertial measurement units (IMUs), or hand controlled to the point of release or impact, both methods have significant limitations as satellite and IMU navigation is prone to errors even when it comes to moderate flight ranges while manual control is subject to the human limitations such as line of sight, visibility as well as technical limitations such as distance estimation of the target, and weak radio links. An example of this could be the Turkish-made Kargu-2 model of killer drone can allegedly autonomously track and kill specific targets on the basis of facial recognition and Artificial Intelligence (AI). As the AI becomes better and better, these drone attacks become more and more terminal.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an eye opener for India as well as the world as none of the countries considered the possibility of bio-defenses or made a heavy investment in it even when there was awareness about lethal effects of genetic engineering. Hence, it should be the priority of the government to invest heavily in research and make the development of defensive technologies a national priority else the result of artificially intelligent killer drones would be much more catastrophic.

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