RIP: The Era of Arms Control Is Over

RIP: The Era of Arms Control Is Over

Daniel R. DePetris

Security,

There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it: the era of arms control is slowly unraveling underneath our noses.  And U.S. national security officials don’t appear to have any intention of doing much to stop it.

There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it: the era of arms control is slowly unraveling underneath our noses.  And U.S. national security officials don’t appear to have any intention of doing much to stop it.

In a span of 15 months, the United States has unilaterally withdrawn from two major arms control agreements. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty are two completely different pacts meant to address two completely different problems—the first was a multilateral solution to a potential nuclear proliferator; the second a legacy of the Cold War—but both were quite effective at putting some guardrails on what could have very well been a period of further proliferation. With the JCPOA barely holding water, the INF as dead as disco, and the Open Skies Treaty reportedly next on the chopping block, it’s increasingly looking arms control is a dying concept.

Today, there is only one agreement between the United States and Russia that is preventing the two nuclear-armed superpowers from going their own way and building as many nuclear weapons as they wish. The New START treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate nine years ago, restricts the number of nuclear warheads both sides can deploy at any one time to 1,550 and caps the number of deployed launchers (ICBM’s, SLBM’s and bombers) to 700. The treaty keeps Washington and Moscow honest by allowing both to conduct on-site inspections and verification missions on each other’s territory. Information exchanges are formalized under the treaty as well, which in turn gives U.S. and Russian intelligence officials additional confidence that the nuclear restrictions spelled out in the treaty are being met.  

There is only one problem: if Washington and Moscow don’t get to work soon and extend New START for another five years, the entire treaty—and all of the restrictions, caps, and verification protocols embedded within it—will disappear by February 2021.  

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