Nuclear Poker

In the State of the Union (SOTU) President Trump addressed a key security concern of his administration: strategic defense. Nuclear weapons have been used for many years to deter aggression by other nuclear powers. Russia has recently issued a new threat to reintroduce shorter range nuclear missiles that could reach Europe in just a few minutes. America’s nuclear forces are aging, command and control systems are antiquated, and the threat of retaliation is losing its teeth. Russia and China are modernizing and increasing their nuclear arms. How is the Trump Administration approaching this diplomatic crisis?

The President’s Comments

During the SOTU, President Trump had this to say:

“As part of our military build-up, the United States is developing a state-of-the-art missile defense system. Under my administration, we will never apologize for advancing America’s interests. For example, decades ago, the United States entered into a treaty with Russia in which we agreed to limit and reduce our missile capability.  While we followed the agreement and the rules to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms.  It’s been going on for many years.  That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty. Perhaps we really have no choice.  Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”

President Donald Trump, State of the Union Address February 5, 2019

It did not take long for Moscow to react to the President’s statements. President Putin issued a threat that if US Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) were stationed in Europe, Russia will rebuild their fleet of IRBMs and will aim them at European targets. The US has no plans to reintroduce such missiles at this time. The treaty abrogation is President Trump’s way of upping the ante; raising the stakes. The President also reaffirmed America’s commitment to the missile shield or missile defense, which has long been a nuisance to Russia. The ability to intercept incoming nuclear missiles alters the deterrent environment where an attack upon the United States might be blunted or averted all together. In a world with dangerous regimes like those in North Korea and Iran, a missile shield may prove invaluable if one of these “irrational players” were to launch against US targets.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Courtesy

The President’s attack on Russian non-compliance with nuclear arms limitation agreements is crucial here. Russia makes wonderful promises and commitments in writing when it comes to arms reduction, but then they fail to live up to those agreements. If the United States cannot trust Russia, then there is no way to negotiate arms reduction in good faith. The United States can afford a small degree of unilateral arms reduction without sacrificing security, but we are already at this point today due to Russia’s malfeasance.

To punish Russia for bad faith with these agreements, the President announced that the US is withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which was made with the Soviet Union in the 1987. At that time, the Soviet leadership saw the deployment of US Pershing Missiles (IRBMs) in NATO countries as a provocation. American leaders saw it merely as an answer to Russian missiles in western Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries. These short-range missiles can strike their targets in five to ten minutes, whereas other missiles take longer to reach their targets. In an atmosphere of increasing cooperation, the Reagan administration agreed to remove the missiles and dismantle the program in exchange for similar Russian concessions. With the treaty abrogated, in theory, US Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) could be reintroduced to Europe, a short, few-minutes flight time from Russia. This has already elicited the aforementioned threat from Russia and should encourage them to come to the table ready to negotiate in good faith. If Russian leaders sense weakness, if they believe America lacks the will or the means to follow through, they will not change their course.

The President’s mention of China is refreshing. China is the world’s third largest nuclear power, yet they have gone largely ignored in arms reduction and limitation talks. It is true that US and Russian arsenals are many times those of China, that does not excuse them from the nuclear club. These three countries constitute the big three. Negotiations among nuclear powers should not ignore the dragon in room. China has been aggressive lately in trying to seize control of the South China Sea and they are building up their conventional forces. The prospect of a US – China confrontation has increased. It is time to make certain China takes responsibility for its station in the nuclear club and ceases its provocative behavior.

Reduction or Renovation

The United States, Russia, and China who hold the vast majority of nuclear forces between them, could negotiate a serious reduction in nuclear arms. The US and Russia have agreed to such treaties before, although the latter has been negligent in the implementation. An agreement could be reached to reduce nuclear forces to a significant degree along the lines of the SORT treaty (Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) that the Bush Administration negotiated with Putin in 2002 and the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – hailing back to the START II treaty of 1993) negotiated by the Obama Administration in 2011. Again, Russia did not fully implement these agreements even as the United States fulfilled its obligations. A trilateral “START IV” agreement (including China) to reduce nuclear arms would lessen nuclear tensions, increase cooperation among the three powers, reduce the likelihood of accidental use of nuclear munitions, and diminish the likelihood of their falling into the hands of terrorists. The security of mankind would be greatly improved.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Left) and US President George W. Bush sign the SORT Treaty May 24th, 2002 (Wikipedia)

What happens if Russia and/or China are unwilling to negotiate, or do not negotiate in good faith? The US must maintain a nuclear deterrent. If negotiations aimed at nuclear arms reduction are to be successful, Russia and China must believe the US is committed to upgrading its full arsenal into a modern and deadly retaliatory capability. President Trump affirmed that commitment by stating the willingness of the US to pay whatever the cost to make such upgrades. With the INF Treaty abrogated and given the very real threat that the US will fully upgrade its entire nuclear force and infrastructure, it would very much behoove Russia and China to come to the table. Click here to learn more about America’s aging strategic nuclear forces and the costs of renovation.

The Russian economy is weak and its government can barely afford its high defense costs. Russia relies heavily on oil and gas exports. As the United States has become an exporter of both to Russia’s primary market in Europe, Russia faces troubled times ahead. Russia’s overall weakness is the reason they have focused more directly on their nuclear arsenal.

China’s economy is also slowing. It has had to invest significantly in shoring up key sectors of their economy. Neither country can afford to match the United States should the latter commit to spare no expense in the upgrade of its nuclear forces. A renewed arms race would be more painful to Russia and China than to the US, but it would be a blessing to no one. Upgrading the US nuclear forces could cost between $300 and $400 billion (in 2017 dollars) over twenty years. Some of these weapons, like Air Force’s proposed new B-21 bomber could be used for conventional missions, but most of this expenditure would be for weapons systems that can only be employed in nuclear combat. These costs will come on top of the current $700 billion annual defense budget and in excess of existing plans to expand and renovate US conventional forces. In a time when the US holds over $21 trillion in debt and there is a structural deficit of about half a trillion dollars; any cost savings would be a true blessing.

Arms Control Association

It is time for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping to sit down with President Trump for a very frank discussion of nuclear capabilities. As the President boldly stated in the State of the Union address, the United States will not apologize for placing our security needs first and we will far outspend our competitors. The strategic defense of the United States through nuclear deterrent is worth every penny. If Russia is not willing to cooperate, they will be outclassed. Russia no longer holds the power to intimidate. If the three powers cooperate, they can reduce defense costs and the danger of a nuclear war.

The ball is in Putin’s court. What will be his play?

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