The peril of repealing arms control treaties

The danger of all-out nuclear war is two-fold.  One is that a leader of a nuclear-armed nation may launch a first strike in hope that the target nation will not be able to retaliate.  The other is that the leader of a nuclear-armed nation may think another nuclear nation has launched or plans a first strike.

Although neither the American and the Soviet/Russian governments has been willing to give up the option of all-out war, the two governments have over the years made treaties to make all-out war less likely.

But since the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. government has moved backwards.  President George W. Bush withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002.  President Donald Trump has announced the U.S. will withdraw from the INF (intermediate nuclear force treaty.  There is a possibility that the strategic arms reduction treaty) will not be renewed in 2021.

Arms control treaties can give a false sense of security.  They do not eliminate nuclear weapons, only stabilize them.  But without such treaties, the danger would be much greater than it is.

ABM Treaty.   The anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, after nearly 10 years of negotiation.  The USA and USSR agreed to limit themselves to 200 anti-ballistic missiles—missiles intended to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles—at two sites.. Later this was reduced to 100 ABMs at one site.  Missile defense against short-range and intermediate-range missiles was allowed.  After the breakup of the USSR, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan agreed to abide by the treaty.

The purpose was to preserve the principle of mutual assured destruction, which was considered a guarantee of peace.  If either American or Soviet leaders thought they had a reliable defense system, they might think they could attack the other nation and then be able to repel whatever weapons weren’t destroyed in the attack.

President George W. Bush canceled the treaty in order to place ABM systems in Poland and Romania.  He said such systems were necessary not just to protect against attack by Russia, but by “rogue nations” such as Iran.

There are grave doubts as to whether these ABM systems would work.  Maybe the best outcome would be that Russian leaders will fear that they might work and NATO leaders will fear they won’t work.

INF Treaty.  Negotiations of the intermediate nuclear force treat were begun by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and completed in 1987 during the George H.W. Bush administration.  The purpose of the treaty was to eliminate Soviet or Russian missiles aimed at European targets and Europe-based missiles aimed at Russia.

The treaty called for a ban on land-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,420 miles).  It did not affect missiles fired from airplanes, ships or submarines, which was to the advantage of the United States, as the leading air power and sea power.  Under the treaty. the U.S. destroyed 346 nuclear weapons and the Soviets destroyed 1,346.

In the early 21st century, Vladimir Putin called for renegotiation of the treaty on the grounds that it did not set limits on other powers, particularly China, with its long land frontier with Russia.  Later Russia reportedly developed and tested an intermediate-range missile, the 9M729, and may have deployed some of them.  Putin claimed that the U.S. ABM system violated the treaty, arguing that nuclear warheads could be fitted on the supposedly defensive missiles.

President Donald Trump announced cancellation of the treaty, based on Russia’s violations.  Critics say that’s what Putin wanted him to do, since it frees Russia from any treaty obligation.

START Treaties.  Negotiations of the first strategic arms reduction treaty began with Reagan and Gorbachev, were completed by George H.W. Bush in 1991 and went into effect in 1991.  Under this treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to limit themselves to deploying 6,000 nuclear warheads to be delivered by 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines or nuclear bombers.

Under the new START treaty, negotiated by Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev, which went into effect in 2011, the limit was reduced 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads on 700 ICBMs, nuclear subs or nuclear bombers.

This treaty is up for renewal in 2021, and there’s talk that it may be allowed to lapse.  The argument is that the treaty only binds the United States and Russia, and leaves the U.S. vulnerable to a nuclear arms buildup by China or other countries.

One answer is to negotiate a nuclear arms control treaty with China.  But I don’t think China or any other country will agree to limits that lock in American and Russian nuclear superiority and leave them possibly vulnerable to a nuclear first strike.

The START limits, on the other hand, would allow room for a comparatively large Chinese buildup.

The path ahead isn’t clear.  But a new nuclear arms race would be bad for everybody.

The nations of the world are comparable to tenants of an apartment building in which there are tons of TNT in the basement, and a few of the tenants own detonators.  Arms control agreements mean reducing the amount of different types of TNT and getting rid of certain kinds of detonators, while leaving enough of both to blow up the building.  This is not an answer.  No sane person, however, wants to add more TNT.


U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Agreements at a Glance by the Arms Control Association.

Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance by the Arms Control Association.

Russia bids farewell to INF Treaty with fresh nuclear development plans by Matthew Bodner for Defense News.

US withdrawing from a nuclear arms treaty with Russia | An arms race may be next by Alex Ward for Vox.

Arms Race: Will Europe By Victim of Nuclear Power Plays? by the staff of Der Spiegel.

Jon Wolfsthal on the link between nuclear strategy and the nuclear modernization budget, an interview of a former special assistant to President Obama on national security policy for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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3 Responses to “The peril of repealing arms control treaties”

  1. Fred Says:

    Repealing arms control treaties is a really bad idea.

    Installing limited ABM systems in Poland and Romania won’t affect the balance of power at all but it does make for fine kabuki. At least US ABMs aren’t nuclear anymore.

    “Maybe the best outcome would be that Russian leaders will fear that they might work and NATO leaders will fear they won’t work.”

    You have hit that nail squarely on the head.

    If either party doesn’t adhere to a treaty, the treaty is void. If Putin breaks it, IMHO, Trump doesn’t need any justification to withdraw. But why would we?

    Withdrawal from INF is a really bad idea. Just because Putin does something doesn’t mean we have to follow him down the rabbit hole to duplicate it. I don’t see any gain for us if we do. We have enough nukes to send the Russians back to the stone age a couple times over. Bouncing the rubble a couple more times won’t accomplish anything.


  2. electqualfiedmiddleclass Says:

    Reblogged this on Political movement to elect qualified middle class in the USA and commented:
    Is this evidence that Trump is on Putin’s side or that trump fights against Putin? I, personally advocate for nuclear reduction and I think that that the US should take lead on this. I have made it a point on my suggested party movement/party.


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