Gap in the New START: New START does not address hypersonic missiles

Since the dawn of the atomic age, Russia (ex-Soviet Union) and the United States have been locked in an intense geopolitical and military competition, resulting in various new technological and military developments over the last seven decades. The United States was the first to acquire atomic weapons, followed by the Soviet Union. This new realisation in the White House and Pentagon that their former ally in world war II has become their most significant threat resulted in a nuclear arms race between them. The era which started with the nuclearisation of the Soviet Union, since its ultimate demise, is known as the Cold War Era.

The cold war era is a unique combination of conflict and cooperation. Usually, this kind of cooperation was never seen between the two powerful adversaries, in World War I and World War II; the reason for that is the non-existence of nuclear weapons at that time, as the nuclear weapons could cause irreversible destruction of the human race. The first decade of the nuclear rivalry between the two sides saw some of the most ferocious nuclear strategies from both sides as the United States, with its massive retaliation strategy, threaten to annihilate the Soviet Union, other such strategies which emerged in the backdrop of this nuclear rivalry was the formulation of MAD, the Mutual Assured Destruction, a strategy that tried to pursue some kind of balance in a nuclear world, that would deter the opponent from launching an attack in the first place.

All these initial theories and strategies were related to the war-fighting aspect of nuclear weapons, but as the nuclear sabre-rattling reached its zenith, the need was felt to construct a framework through which both powers can negotiate necessary terms to lower the nuclear threshold and thus limit the dangers emanating from nuclear weapons. Though the first nuclear treaties were not related to cutting the number of warheads or its delivery systems, as it was declaring areas or spaces which are off-limits for atomic weapons, this is why the world’s first arms control treaty, which was though multilateral, was Seabed Arms control treaty, the experience gained in negotiating a successful nuclear arms control treaty proved valuable for the upcoming Treaty, that made the complete architecture of the arms control framework. In this study, we will explore the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty, its recent extension and the missing link of hypersonic missiles in the Treaty. Russia is now in the advanced stages of deploying these weapons.

At the same time, the United States, even after decades of hypersonic missiles program, has thus far been in the advanced stages of testing the superfast missiles. The hypersonic missiles induction in the New START treaty is too early to perceive when the extension of NEW START itself was in limbo due to the highly controversial standpoint of Trump regarding arms control treaties. Donald Trump announced US withdrawal from the INF treaty, The Open Skies Treaty, and was mulling an idea to end the New START treaty due to non-compliance from Russia. Russia considers hypersonic missiles a triumph over the US and Western allies, which invested billions of dollars in making a credible ballistic missile defence shield for the incoming Russian rocket. For this to happen, Republican President George W. Bush announced an abrupt withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

This decision added to the mistrust between Russia and the United States, as Moscow accused the US of the double game on the nuclear issue. At the same time, the United States, on the other hand, rejected the Russian stance. It highlighted new challenges such as the Iranian growing ballistic missile program and the threat from North Korea to the US and its allies, which prompted this US withdrawal from the ABM treaty. The Russian arsenal of hypersonic missiles is threatening to introduce a new strategic instability among the two leading nuclear powers; with a treaty like New START in place, there is a need to incorporate these weapons into the Treaty, and as the only surviving atomic arms treaty between the two nuclear powers. Both US and Russia can plug the gap on this costly arms race, which will bring a huge instability in the current deterrence equation between the two countries adding to the nuclear miscalculation, and also on the part of Russia a new belligerent or nuclear brinkmanship as the United States up until now failed to field its version of the hypersonic missile.

Timeline of the Nuclear Weapons Treaties between the US and Russia

The demise of arms control frameworks started at the beginning of the new millennium. Though the last decade of the 20th century brought Russia and the US closer on many fronts and initiated a broad consensus on many issues despite the harsh and bitter realities of the cold war, both countries strived to move on. The US was instrumental in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons to ex-soviet territories, and thus, with Russia, it completed the denuclearisation of three states, namely, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. This denuclearisation was perceived as an important milestone to avoid a second world war like situation. The CFE treaty was signed between European countries and Russia, whose main task was to avert a large-scale ground invasion by conventional means. After the pre-dissolution era of the Soviet Union, in which President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a historic INF treaty with the United States that capped the missile proliferation between the two countries and dismantled all the deployable stock, all the nuclear arms control treaties had a distinctive feature of verification and inspection. This aspect of the treaties was because of President Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase – “Trust but Verify”, meaning that we value over relation and commitment with Russia, however both countries would stick to the verification and inspection process to make it an efficient treaty.

There are two classes of treaties between the United States and Russia; one is the Nuclear Weapons Explosion Treaties, while the other is Nuclear Arms Limitation Treaties. The nuclear explosion treaties are now obsolete, but it resulted in a norm through which both states never conducted a hot nuclear test for over half a century.[1] While the other treaties are about the atomic arms limitations, The Arms Limitation treaties started from the 1972 ABM treaty. The same year the SALT I interim agreement was also signed between the two sides, followed by SALT II agreements in 1979.[2]

All these initial arms control limitations agreements were carefully crafted to amend the rising mistrust between both nations. Both Russia and the US were fighting for dominance and influence across the regions. o the United States was battling Communism and was doing anything through wars and by other means to red scare advancement in the world. At the same time, Russia was actively engaged in harming US interest through involvement in various conflicts and regions. This level of mistrust and the hair-trigger environment of the nuclear weapons was scary enough for the officials, the general public, and the leadership in both countries. Keeping in view the fate of Japan after the use of atomic devices, the same visuals were awaiting the US, Europeans and Russian citizens; in the run-up to the arms control treaties, both sides experienced a nuclear war scenario in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Though the threat was finally capped, using the top leadership direct conversations and understanding of situations. Thus both states reverse from the brink of a nuclear war.

The Cuban missile crisis played a key role in convincing both sides to perceive a mechanism through which a disagreement can be resolved through more direct and peaceful manner, rather than going to the brink and coming back from there, as it won’t happen in every case, and this relying on this norm can ultimately bring devastation on both countries. As any slight miscalculation, or situation born out in a highly charged environment with peak mistrust from both sides, will kill any purpose of last-minute negotiations or conversations even at the top leadership level. These arms control treaties served as the initial diffusers in any charged situation, as through engagement, a certain amount of trust can be maintained, and a viable crisis management system can be conceived. The ABM treaty was instrumental in eliminating the mobile-based ballistic system, sea-based system, space and air-based systems; it was a major confidence-building measure for both countries. The mobile-based system scrapping was of vital importance as it allowed the system to go near the national border of Russia, as they are extendable systems beyond their permitted sides.

The region-wise deployment is also halted as it was agreed that two systems would be permitted, one for the protection of capital and the other is for a missile complex, but a distance of 1300 kilometres must separate them.[3] The term ‘ABM system’ was defined in the Treaty as a system designed to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in-flight trajectory.

The ABM treaty gave rise to fixed missile systems, as it was allowed under the Treaty to modernise other systems. But the announcement of the SDI which later became the Star Wars, made a massive dent in the ABM treaty as the Russian accused the US of acquiring technology which can ensure a mass strike at the Soviet Union without fear of retaliation from Moscow. Russia bolstered its radar system in Serbia, while at the same time, the United States pursued its radar programme in Greenland. On the ABM treaty, the agreement signed after the cold war, President Yelstin agreed to deviate from the standard Soviet standpoint and thus accepted the United States right to develop a global anti-ballistic system, to which Russia at first objected and was curious and angry over the developments in the United States.

The ABM treaty was constantly updated, and a consultative summit was arranged in Helsinki in 1997 to update the Treaty.[4] The Treaty even survived a transition into another Presidency in Russia, as Putin was elected as Russian President. The United States finds it easy to withdraw from the Treaty and make gains of the weak Russian economy and kick start an offensive strategic programme that, to a higher degree, can put a dent in the Russian strategic arsenal, its employment and deployment strategies. After a US withdrawal from the ABM treaty Moscow mulled a range of responses to level the strategic parity by gradually receding its compliance with the CFE treaty.[5] The Russian end of compliance was largely seen as a preparation for adventure. As feared, Russia entered Georgia and overran a country in a matter of days occupying its capital, which invited stark criticism from the West. The ABM treaty’s successive modernization efforts bear more incredible fruits for both sides.

It could have been more viable in the current times, but strategic compulsions and a newly found place in global affairs influenced US behaviour. After the Cold War, Russia remained a top ally of the United States in the war on terror. Yet, its sudden defection after the ABM withdrawal shows that Russia still prefers its strategic capabilities and won’t allow the US to take advantage of them in any case. This is why Russia is now referred to as the bully or revisionist power by many Western experts. Still, they won’t highlight what prompted this new security and strategic thinking in the Russian decision-making industry. The INF Intermediate nuclear forces treaty recently scrapped by Donald Trump was a cornerstone of cooperation between the Soviet Union and Russia.[6] It later became a viable tool for European Security in renewed Russia’s strategic assertion over the EU and NATO.

The INF Treaty obligations required eliminating all classes of the Intermediate and short-range ballistic missile system. Yet, the Treaty was highly in favour of the US as the Soviet Union agreed to destroy record numbers of missiles. The SORT treaty or Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty was a prelude to the New Start Treaty SORT called for limitation on the number of operational nuclear warheads ranging between 1700 to 2000.[7] SORT Treaty was a signed agreement between the two countries, as according to experts, the United States and Russia are not equal partners. The United States thus has considerable influence over Russians, so such a Treaty will only bolster the image of Russia as a primary nuclear weapons state. The Treaty was not an arms reduction treaty, as there was no provision for the destruction or elimination of nuclear warheads and weapons systems. Still, both the countries can keep it at the storage facility or non-operational base.

New Start Treaty an Overview

The New Start treaty was signed in Prague on the 8th of April in 2010; the treaty was the first significant arms reduction treaty since the cold war and played a huge role in strengthening overall arms control architecture. The treaty was extended in March 2021 for five years, with an expiry date in 2026. The New Start has sixteen articles:

Article 1. It is about the obligation of both parties to reduce nuclear warheads.

Article 2. Calls on each Party to reduce and limit its ICBMs and ICBM launchers, SLBMs and SLBM launchers, heavy bombers, ICBM warheads, SLBM warheads.

Article 3. is about the parity of SLBM and ICBM systems

Article 4. It is about the deployment at bases

Article 5. It is about the Bilateral Consultative Commission to raise any objection and find its resolution.

Article 6. It is about the Verification of the conversion of weapons systems

Article 7. It is about the databases of warheads (destroyed) .

Article 8. It is about advance notification of any development

Article 9. It is about the exchange of telemetric information.

Article 10. It is about Verification and compliance and calls for non-concealment of facts and details by adhering to the international law of treaties.

Article 11. It is about the right of inspection of weapons facilities

Article 12. It is about acceptance of the authority of the Bilateral Consultative Commission.

Article 13. Prohibits the sharing of information obtained from each Party with any third party that is not part of this treaty.

Article 14. Treaty must be a part of the national law, ratified by the senate.

Article 15. It is about amendments and extensions.

Article 16. This treaty is registered pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations.

New START’s core articles addressed the complexities of nuclear weapons technology.  However, It does not directly limit the number of nuclear warheads either nation may possess, (largely because warheads are difficult to track and account for after a country has developed the ability to create nuclear weapons and in sizeable quantities) instead, New START focuses on the nuclear warhead delivery systems—ground-launched missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and heavy bomber aircraft—by which these destructive payloads can be carried intercontinental distances.  New START limits the number of these systems each nation may possess (up to 800) and deploy (up to 700), as well as the number of warheads that can be mounted on them (up to 1,550).

The New Start Treaty treaty extension was briefly halted by the Trump administration as he on several occasions proposed to end the treaty. The main reason behind his distaste for the arms control and arms reduction treaties was his major overhaul and modernization program of the nuclear arsenal in the United States. Apart from that, he had a controversial plan to start hot atomic testing.

The resumption of nuclear tests will weaken the arms reductions efforts but have more significant consequences for global climate actions. Trump also withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, giving more space to new powers like China to utilise the forum in the absence of American leadership.[8]

Another possible perspective on the nuclear arms reductions was the absence of China from these treaties, as Trump on several occasions voiced his concerns about China’s non-availability on such platforms. The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected this claim by calling on the US to limit its arsenal to the level of the Chinese nuclear arsenal.[9] Then China will enter talks with the US and Russia, though satirical. Still, it’s a fact that Russia and the United States have nuclear warheads that number hundreds of thousands, while China has a very modest nuclear arsenal in terms of the warhead. However, its delivery systems are far more lethal and available in large numbers. However, there is still no parity between China and the United States regarding nuclear warheads and nuclear delivery systems. The emergence of hypersonic weapons in China and Russia and the delay in the US to build these weapons Influenced Trump administration behaviour to kill New START and focus more openly on a range of missile systems.

In total, Trump announced withdrawal from over 12 treaties and accords in his four-year terms; three of those treaties are related to nuclear weapons and European security architecture. The Trump administration, keeping in view the Russian hypersonic missiles, wanted to negotiate the terms of the treaty but failed. His highly arrogant approach towards reviving the treaty left Russian unhappy, and they walked away, leaving the treaty at the brink of collapse. Still, as soon as Biden is elected to office, he announced his plans to renew it for another five years, as it is in the greater interest of the United States.[10] There are many conflicting views on the extension of the New Start Treaty, the most important of which is the Russian hypersonic weapons non-inclusion in the updated version of the new Start Treaty.

The Biden administration announced that due to the short time available to renew the treaty, the issue would be taken in the coming meetings with Russia to include these weapons systems in the New Start. Still, it will be done keeping in view the US national interests because the US itself is actively pursuing a hypersonic missile programme. On the eve of the extension of the New Start treaty, the Russian Foreign minister expressed their willingness that Russia will welcome any such initiative to put a hypersonic weapons system into the New Start fold. Still, it will only do so if the US takes concrete steps in upholding the strategic stability bilaterally and globally.[11]

Why hypersonics are not included in the New Start Treaty

The reason why Hypersonics were not included in the New Start has three primary reasons.

  • Military aspect
  • Ongoing Nuclear Arms Race
  • China factor.
  • The Military aspect.

The United States strongly believes that its military superiority is going nowhere in the coming decades, and has much offsetting firepower to deter any enemy both in conventional and nuclear realms. It traditionally dominated the global military technology supply chains, due to its alliance with Europe, where most countries produced high-end military technologies. The US controls most of the trade, with its export control restrictions, on both military as well other new technologies that can give their adversaries an edge in any future conflict.[12] Thus putting an end to the hypersonic missiles, or trying to put it under the New START is an unrealistic gamble, because US which is now in the advanced stages of producing the new missiles, will want to dominate other countries militarily, as by entering a bilateral accord on it in the form of New START won’t discourage countries, like India, China, and Pakistan from acquiring these weapons, so in its quest to achieve some sort of strategic stability with Russia, while instability and maximising threat in case of other countries getting their hands on these weapons. Currently, under article 4 of the New Start Treaty, the US is under obligation to keep the offensive arms out of any third territory, these provisions apply vis a vis Russia, while it directly nullifies the overall strategic advantage of the US in comparison to other adversaries. Though some of the officials think that it is in the best interest of the United States to compel Russia to enlist the Hypersonics in the NEW START, this position is likely to backfire in the short term keeping in view the rising strategic competition with Russia in other sectors such as space and in the naval domain.

The Nuclear Arms Race

The United States is in the advanced stages of modernising its nuclear submarines SSBN fleet, the Ohio class submarines, which up until now served as the most credible second-strike capability spread out in the depth of Oceans.[13] The US trillion-dollar Triad program is a crucial link in its nuclear modernization. The US policy as of now is to wait and watch as many Russian claims regarding the Hypersonic missiles are yet to be verified, on the other hand New START renewal gave the United States a chance to save the only existing nuclear arms control treaty, while the entire architecture of arms control is now in tatters. The vertical proliferation between the major powers is now in full swing. It needs careful deliberations from all the stakeholders, bilaterally perceiving the cap on hypersonic missiles will devoid US of vital military tools, to defend itself and its allies. Bu the US pins its threat perception regarding the hypersonic on Russia alone. In that case, it may be helpful in resurrecting a fallen arms control regime. Still, it will lose a certain degree of advantage in dealing with other nuclear powers that are free of any obligations.

China factor

Trump’s fixation on China regarding the new start treaty shows a real strategic mindset of the United States, as China usually hides behind the parity paradox but never shows its true strength in the delivery systems, including the hypersonic missiles.[14] Any inclusion or capping of the hypersonic capability will give China immense power to double its effort and in the span of a few decades reverse the very notion of damage limitation and altogether kill the US nuclear superiority, Russia too will face the same fate, as both US and Russia will be in concert to achieve such scenario. Trump assertions are that when China is expanding its ICBM forces and directing more missiles towards the US cities, at the same time, the United States, along with Russia, is trying to scrap its ICBMs.

Proposed Policy

The United States needs to adopt a coherent approach towards limiting the spread of hypersonic missiles; the missiles are still perceived as a mirage in the strategic community. According to most experts, the missile efficiency is falsely exacerbated to create a hype of hypersonic missiles. There are substantial proliferation concerns of these missiles; even in conventional terms, any future proliferation will have grave implications for US national security. Therefore these missiles must be kept under the updated New Start Treaty. The recent economic sanctions can be used as leverage in this case. Russia, desperately waiting for an olive branch, can give the United States what it wants and bring the loss of arms control into this world.[15] Trump’s highly radical approach was contrary to proliferation concerns as he was entirely fixated on China in this regard.[16] An inside dispute resolution mechanism in the form of the Bilateral Consultative Commission can address the terminology of hypersonic missiles. More outstanding leadership commitment is needed to achieve an INF style breakthrough when all of the SRM and IRBM missiles were scrapped, in which the highest numbers were from Russia. Before the INF, those weapons were mostly directed at the European capitals, but a few years after the INF, the missile bodies were mostly in museums. Decades of arms control engagement between the two countries helped both sides to assess and verify each other’s intent in the face of readily available capability. The gravest risks of a surprise nuclear attack is now a thing of the past, as credibility shown by the Russian strategic forces in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Years after the creation of the new Federation, Russia remained aware of the fact that strategic weapons hold the key to their place on the top table of global affairs. Thus the United States, with a series of high-level summitry engagements, can start a negotiation process on the inclusion of hypersonic weapons into the New Start Treaty. The Negotiation process needs no new blueprints as the treaty is already in place; it needs only a consultation process on all the levels of the military, diplomatic and economic levels to assure a much-needed entry of the hypersonic missiles in the New Start Treaty.

[1] “Nuclear Tests Violate International Norm | Arms Control Association.” n.d. Accessed May 4, 2021.

[2] “Arms Control.” 2021. SAGE Publications Ltd. May 4, 2021.

[3] 2 ibid

[4]  2 ibid

[5] Complutense De Madrid, Universidad, and España Savelyev. n.d. “”. Accessed May 4, 2021.

[6] Welle (, Deutsche. n.d. “Opinion: Scrapping the INF Treaty Is Risky — and a Lost Opportunity | DW | 02.08.2019.” DW.COM. Accessed May 4, 2021.

[7] “The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) at a Glance | Arms Control Association.” n.d.

[8] Zhang, Hai-Bin, Han-Cheng Dai, Hua-Xia Lai, and Wen-Tao Wang. 2017. “U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement: Reasons, Impacts, and China’s Response.” Advances in Climate Change Research 8 (4): 220–25.

[9] Piliero, Raphael J. 2020. “China and the INF: Is There a Future for U.S.-China Arms Control?” U.S.-China Perception Monitor. November 5, 2020.

[10] Hudson, John. n.d. “Biden Administration to Seek Five-Year Extension on Key Nuclear Arms Treaty in First Foray with Russia.” Washington Post.

[11] “Russia Ready for Hypersonic Missile Talks with US, Says Lavrov.” n.d. Accessed May 4, 2021.

[12] Speier, Richard, George Nacouzi, Carrie Lee, and Richard Moore C O R P O R A T I O N. n.d. “Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons.” Accessed May 5, 2021.

[13] “MIRVs from the First to the Second Nuclear Age.” n.d. Accessed May 5, 2021.‌

[14] Detsch, Robbie Gramer, Jack. n.d. “Trump Fixates on China as Nuclear Arms Pact Nears Expiration.” Foreign Policy.

[15] Ibid 17

[16]James, Guy Faulconbridge, William. 2017. “Trump’s Offer to Russia: An End to Sanctions for Nuclear Arms Cut – London Times.” Reuters, January 16, 2017.

Waqas Jan
Waqas Jan
The writer is a graduate of National Defence University Pakistan. His research interests include Arms Control Verification, Compliance and Enforcement, Humanitarian Arms Control, Export Controls and Disarmament Machinery.