A Crumbling Foundation: The Future of Arms Control

President Barack Obama signs the instrument of ratification of the New START Treaty in the Oval Office, Feb. 2, 2011. Participants include, from left: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen; Energy Secretary Steven Chu; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.; Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and Vice President Joe Biden. Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

By: Madison Creery, Columnist

Unshackling the World’s Largest Nuclear Powers?

Amidst U.S. decision to withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the world is being forced to contemplate if arms control treaties are losing their value. While the world around the U.S. and Russia has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union, arms control treaties have not. Nuclear powers such as China have been allowed to enhance their nuclear capabilities, while the U.S. and Russia remain obliged to set arsenal limits and conduct arms reductions.[i] The world has also seen advancements in nuclear missile technology such as hypersonic missiles that are not covered in present-day arms control treaties. Today, the future of remaining treaties like the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) hang in the balance. If this treaty is the next to go, arms control as a means to constrain a militant world may be standing on more than just a crumbling foundation: it may become obsolete.

If the INF Treaty is terminated, it would not be the first to get the ax, but it may not be the last. In 2021, the New START is on the chopping block, which limits the U.S. and Russia each to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles.[ii] Without New START, the U.S. and Russia would finally be able to break free from the shackles of nuclear missile constraints, a situation the world must avoid. To ensure the future viability of arms control treaties, the U.S. and Russia need to act now to bring these treaties into the 21st century.

No Longer a Cold War: Outdated Bilateral Agreements

During the Cold War, the two principal superpowers were also the principal producers of nuclear weapons. Today, this gap in arsenals between the U.S. and Russia and the rest of the world is diminishing.[iii] The U.S. and Russia are no longer the only major players in the game, but they are the only players bound by fixed missile limits.[iv] President Putin, and most recently President Trump, have cited this as a factor to the ultimate untenability of the INF Treaty.[v] Russia has justly contended that the treaty unfairly prevents it from possessing weapons that its neighbors are currently developing and fielding.[vi] What is especially concerning is China’s nuclear missiles. Harry Harris, the former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, has estimated that intermediate-range systems make-up around 95% of the People Liberation Army’s missile force.[vii] Due to it not being bound by the INF Treaty, China has been able to deploy these weapon systems in significant numbers.[viii] For Russia, a nation that faces nuclear powers at its backdoor, this is a major cause for concern. Another challenge inherent in Cold War-era arms control treaties is that they do not consider the increasing sophistication of nuclear weapons systems.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative: Nukes Aren’t What They Used to Be

Current bilateral arms control measures do little to limit the U.S. and Russia’s pursuit of a qualitative edge in nuclear weaponry.[ix] While missile defense shield technology has lagged behind, offensive missile capabilities have advanced, threatening nuclear stability.[x] Specifically, this offensive technology are hypersonic missiles, weapons that are not covered by any existing arms control treaties, but pose a serious threat to the survivability of a nation’s nuclear forces.[xi] These missiles possess the ability to travel at Mach 5, allowing a state to hit any target in the world within an hour and dramatically decrease an adversary’s reaction time.[xii] Moreover, they are able to maneuver mid-flight, allowing them to avoid a target nation’s missile shields and interceptors.[xiii] With this growing disparity between defensive missile shields and advancements in offensive missile technology, arms control treaties are struggling to keep up.

Part of why it is difficult to accommodate technological advancements into arms control treaties, such as the INF Treaty, is that there are no expiration dates.[xiv] If arms control treaties have an unlimited duration, participant states are less pressured to sit down and review past treaty requirements, and are less likely to acclimate advancements in technology.[xv] Further, the INF Treaty focused on limiting the number of nukes, but not on the quality of the nuclear missiles. Today, this distinction can no longer be ignored. Russia has repeatedly urged the inclusion of hypersonic missile systems under the central limits of a successor to the New START.[xvi] The results of their efforts remain to be seen.

Looking to the Future: New START, New Beginnings?

The Cold War ended nearly 30 years ago, but arms control treaties have failed to reflect this reality. To prevent a modern era without constraints on nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Russia need to focus on keeping New START alive. At a time when there are already so few lines of communication open between Moscow and Washington, preserving New START is critical. By not only remaining in this treaty, but also working to extend it to 2026, the U.S. and Russia would be able to continue the flow of information and transparency that the two countries gain from the treaty’s verification process.[xvii] In addition, New START’s expiration date in 2021 provides the opportunity to expand the conversation on technological advancements, focusing on the need to capture the qualitative aspects of new weaponry, not just quantitative. Amidst the fallout of President Trump’s statement on the INF Treaty, if New START also dies, it would be the first time in nearly 50 years that the world’s two largest nuclear powers were completely unshackled.[xviii] The world might not like the results.













[i]Eugene Rumer, “A Farewell to Arms…Control,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/04/17/farewell-to-arms-.-.-.-control-pub-76088.

[ii]Steven Pifer, “After INF, is New START Next to Go?” Brookings, October 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/10/29/after-inf-is-new-start-next-to-go/.

[iii]Rumer, “A Farewell to Arms,” 2018


[v]Steven Pifer, “The Looming End of the INF Treaty,” Brookings, December 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/12/08/the-looming-end-of-the-inf-treaty/.


[vii]Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. (statement, House Armed Services Committee on U.S. Pacific Command Posture, February 14, 2018).

[viii]Cameron, “What the INF Treaty Means,” 2018

[ix]Rumer, “A Farewell to Arms,” 2018

[x]Amy F. Woolf, “Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues,” Congressional Research Service, 2018, 1.

[xi]Andrew E. Kramer, “The I.N.F. Treaty, Explained,” The New York Times, October 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/23/world/europe/inf-treaty-russia-united-states-trump-nuclear.html?module=inline.

[xii]Woolf, Conventional Prompt Global Strike, 1

[xiii]Kramer, “The I.N.F. Treaty,” 2018

[xiv]Nikolai Sokov, “Are Arms Control Agreements Losing Their Value?” The National Interest, December 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/are-arms-control-agreements-losing-their-value-23533?page=0%2C1.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi]Kingston Reif, “Hypersonic Advances Spark Concern,” Arms Control Association, January/February 2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-01/news/hypersonic-advances-spark-concern.

[xvii]Rumer, “A Farewell to Arms,” 2018.


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