A threat to nuclear arms control
A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still possess thousands of nuclear weapons. Even so, some administration officials and members of Congress are pushing wasteful and dangerous plans to expand the numbers and capabilities of those weapons, threatening a web of arms control agreements that have ensured the stability of Russian and American arsenals that contain fully 90 percent of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons.
Congress is considering whether the U.S. should develop a new ground-launched cruise missile and withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banning missiles with a range of up to about 3,000 miles, which give leaders little time to react. Signed by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the treaty ended a major threat to Europe.
The treaty worked well until Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, angry at America’s deployment of missile defenses in Europe, declared in 2007 that it no longer served Russia’s interests and proceeded over the next decade to develop a new cruise missile. In 2014, the Obama administration said such a missile was tested in violation of the treaty, but failed to persuade Moscow to come back into compliance. Earlier this year, the Pentagon said Russia secretly deployed the missile, an even more serious violation.
To match Russia, some lawmakers have added funding for such missiles to the defense bills now working their way through Congress, even though Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress recently that missiles on American aircraft and ships can counter the new Russian weapons if needed. The House bill, approved 34481 on July 14, also states that if the president finds Russia in violation of the treaty 15 months after the defense bill becomes law, the United States will no longer be bound by the treaty. The Senate has yet to act on its version of the bill.
The INF Treaty violation is complicated by the 2016 election hacking and other tensions. But the United States and its NATO allies can respond to it without a costly and unnecessary new missile that allies are likely to oppose.
Further, a decision by the U.S. to abandon the treaty would destroy a pillar of arms control, erode support for other treaties and raise further doubts about Washington’s commitments, already damaged by President Donald Trump’s repudiation of the Paris climate accord. The INF Treaty has a mechanism for resolving disputes, and the U.S., backed by its allies, should pursue a solution in that forum.
The House and Senate bills also include billions of dollars as a down payment on an excessive program to modernize other nuclear weapons systems, including bombers and submarines, that is expected to cost $1 trillion over 30 years. Meanwhile, some lawmakers want to cut funds for the international organization monitoring nuclear testing, in a shortsighted attempt to weaken support for a global test moratorium, which has kept all nations but North Korea from testing since 1998.
This comes as the increasingly hawkish Trump administration is conducting a review of nuclear policy, expected to be finished later this year, that officials hint could reverse President Barack Obama’s efforts to shrink the number and role of nuclear weapons in security strategy.
Since setting off the nuclear age, America has been the major force behind the restraints that exist. If it abandons that role, there will be little to stop Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea from plowing ahead.