The Trump administration has softened its demand that China immediately participate in trilateral nuclear arms control talks with the United States and Russia and says it is now seeking an interim step: a politically binding framework with Moscow that covers all nuclear warheads, establishes a verification regime suitable to that task, and could include China in the future.
Still, the administration continues to oppose an unconditional five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and wants Moscow’s support for limiting all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and strengthening the New START verification regime as a condition for prolonging the treaty.
Russia supports an unconditional extension and says that it will not agree to any changes to New START.
The impasse continues to cast an ominous shadow over the future of the last remaining arms control agreement limiting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals five months before it is slated to expire.
U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said on Aug. 18, following a round of talks in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, “that New START is a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration, and it has significant verification deficiencies.”
According to Billingslea, these deficiencies include the absence of sufficient exchanges of missile telemetry and the limited frequency of on-site inspections.
He said that he would recommend that President Donald Trump consider extending the treaty only “if we can fix” the flaws “and if we can address all warheads, and if we do so in a way that is extensible to China.”
“[I]f Russia would like to see that treaty extended, then it’s really on them to come back to us,” he added, citing a mandate from Trump. “The ball is now in Russia’s court.”
New START expires next February but can be extended by up to five years if the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to do so. The treaty caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.
Billingslea met with Ryabkov in Vienna from Aug. 17–18. A July 23 call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and as working group discussions between U.S. and Russian technical experts later that month, paved the way for the August meeting, according to Billingslea.
The working groups met in Vienna from July 28–30 to discuss issues such as nuclear doctrine, unconstrained nuclear warheads, transparency, and verification.
Trump said on July 30 that the United States is in “formal negotiations with Russia on arms control.” Although the U.S.-Russia discussions this summer have marked the most sustained period of dialogue on arms control issues since the Trump administration took office, they would be more accurately described as the continuation of a longer standing, less concrete dialogue on strategic security.
National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien suggested on Aug. 16 that Putin could visit the White House to seal a new bilateral arms control understanding. “We’d love to have Putin come here to sign a terrific arms control deal that protects Americans and protects Russians.”
Billingslea, however, said that the two sides “remain far apart on a number of key issues.”
Ryabkov told the Russian news agency Interfax following his meeting with Billingslea that “any additions” to New START “would be impossible both for political and procedural reasons.”
He added that Russia would not support an “extension at any cost.”
“If the U.S. embellishes its possible…decision in favor of extension with all sorts of preconditions and burdens this work with all possible additional requirements, then I think the problem of extending the treaty won’t be that easy to resolve,” he said.
When Billingslea and Ryabkov last met on June 22 in Vienna, the United States pressured China to join, but Beijing declined and remains strongly opposed to trilateral talks with the United States and Russia. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)
China’s unalterable opposition appears to have convinced the administration that the only hope for progress lies in bilateral engagement with Russia, at least at the outset.
Trump told reporters on July 30 that “China right now is a much lesser nuclear power…than Russia.” He said that he would focus on arms control talks with Russia and then “go to China together.”
Billingslea said in Vienna that “we’re not going to negotiate another bilateral arms control treaty.”
He added that “the framework that we are articulating” with Russia “will be the framework going forward that China will be expected to join.”
The Trump administration has yet to detail its specific objectives for arms control with China, a fact that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized on July 29. “Let them at least document what they have in mind,” he said.
CBO Weighs Cost of New START Expiration
The U.S. Defense Department could incur modest to staggeringly high costs if the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in February 2021 and the United States increases its arsenal above the treaty limits, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found in an August report.
On the modest end, expanding forces to reach the limits set by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) would not increase the Pentagon’s cost relative to its current plans, since the New START limits are comparable to the SORT limits.
At the high end, the Pentagon could pay $410 billion to $439 billion as a one-time cost and $24 billion to $28 billion annually in pursuit of a more flexible approach that involves buying more delivery systems.
CBO estimated the cost if the United States increases its deployed strategic nuclear forces to the levels of three previous arms control treaties: the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which capped warheads at 6,000 for each side; the 1993 START II agreement, which sought to limit warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 but was never entered into force; and SORT, which limited warheads to 1,700 to 2,200.
New START limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. The Trump administration’s plans to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal are likely to exceed $1.5 trillion over the next several decades after including the impact of inflation.
CBO examined two approaches for expanding U.S. forces to reach each of the three treaty’s levels. The lower-cost and less flexible approach would involve increasing the number of warheads allocated to each missile and bomber and minimize any potential purchase of additional delivery systems. The more flexible yet more expensive approach would purchase more delivery systems to reach the number of desired warheads.
The United States could also take an approach that lies between those two approaches, CBO noted.
CBO said that the projected cost to increase the arsenal could be even higher, as the office’s estimates did not include the cost of producing additional warheads by the Energy Department, any new operating bases or training facilities if needed, or an expansion in delivery system production capability.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, requested the report in September 2019.
The CBO report comes on the heels of a July 30 report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have not considered how the potential expiration of New START may affect their nuclear modernization plans and spending.
“DOD is basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its force structure,” the GAO said in a July 30 report.
“NNSA similarly has not considered the implications of the potential expiration of New START on the assumptions underlying its overall program of record and future-years funding projections as described in the fiscal year 2021 budget justification,” the GAO noted. (See ACT, March 2020.)
Following U.S.-Russian arms control talks in Vienna in mid-August, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, Deputy Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that the U.S. military is “agnostic” on the question of whether extending New START is in its best interests.
Bussiere added, “We do believe, however, that it does provide increased international security.”—SHANNON BUGOS
Billingslea claimed that many “countries have already called out the Chinese for their failure to negotiate with us in good faith, and that chorus of calls…would accelerate dramatically once we have created an architecture to control all nuclear weapons.”
Fu Cong, China’s director general of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, said on July 8 that “it is unrealistic to expect China to join the two countries in a negotiation aimed at nuclear arms reduction” given the differences in the sizes of nuclear arsenals of three countries. The United States and Russia have about 6,000 total nuclear warheads each, China is believed to have about 300.
Fu also accused the United States of using Beijing’s refusal to join trilateral talks as “a ploy to divert world attention and to create a pretext under which they could walk away” from New START.
Fu added “that China stands ready to discuss all issues related to strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction in the framework of P5, i.e. among China, Russia, U.S., UK, and France.”
Russia continues to say that it will not force China to come to the table and that if a multilateral nuclear agreement is to be negotiated then nuclear-armed France and the United Kingdom must be part of it as well.
Although the Trump administration is now willing to negotiate with Russia before bringing China into talks at a later date, it has not specified what a politically binding framework with Russia should contain and what it would be willing to put on the table to incentivize Russia’s agreement.
Billingslea told Axios on Aug. 20 that Russia raised “a range of issues with U.S. capabilities” in Vienna, but that Moscow’s non-nuclear concerns about for example U.S. missile defenses are not on the table as part of a possible framework deal.
Billingslea has offered few clues about how a new agreement should capture U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons that have never before been limited by arms control, such as shorter-range tactical nuclear warheads and warheads held by each country in reserve.
He hinted, however, that the preferred U.S. approach would not necessarily hinge on counting individual unconstrained warheads.
“What we likely will see is a hybrid approach that would maintain limitations on the strategic systems but which would provide for a method of ensuring that the overall inventory of warheads writ large is static,” he said.
Committee Advances Billingslea Nomination
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced Marshall Billingslea’s nomination to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security on July 29. The committee voted in favor of the nomination on a 11–10 party line vote, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) abstaining. The full Senate has yet to schedule a date to consider Billingslea’s nomination.
Billingslea, currently the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, sat before the committee on July 21 for his nomination hearing.
In his opening remarks, Billingslea touted his “support for arms control that advances U.S. security, and which is both enforceable and verifiable.”
Billingslea was formerly an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of many arms control agreements.
Committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Billingslea for his “thoughts on the fact that” the administration’s arms control efforts are “probably going to be bilateral as opposed to trilateral,” referring to the administration’s desire for a new nuclear arms control agreement with not only Russia but also China.
Billingslea responded that efforts with Russia and China “need to converge in the direction of a trilateral arms control arrangement that brings back many of the most effective verification mechanisms that we once had in the original [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] and which also address the unconstrained warheads that Russia is now building.”
Asked about the Trump administration’s view on extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), due to expire in February 2021, Billingslea said, “We have not arrived at a decision one way or another on extension of the agreement and, if so, for what period of time.”
In addition to New START, Billingslea also faced questions about hypersonic weapons from Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
Billingslea said that some of the new strategic nuclear weapons Russia is developing, such as the hypersonic glide vehicle called Avangard, would be covered under New START. “But other of these weapons, I would not want to say they should be captured because we frankly don’t think these weapons should exist at all,” he said, referring to weapons such as the nuclear-powered cruise missile named Burevestnik.
Billingslea also said the United States would not “restrict” its missile defense options in any arms control negotiations. Moscow has previously said it would only limit its nonstrategic nuclear weapons if Washington were to limit its missile defenses.
Addressing his earlier Pentagon service, when the George W. Bush administration promoted interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture, Billingslea said, “I never advocated for any technique that was characterized to me as torture.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) cited Billingslea’s record on torture as a major concern with him potentially taking up the top arms control job at the State Department.
“When I come to ask you in your new position whether you argue for taking human rights into account before approving the export of more bombs to Saudi Arabia to drop on Yemen or whether you advocated for stronger U.S. protections in an arms treaty with Russia, I’m wondering whether we’ll get the truth,” said Menendez.—KINGSTON REIF and SHANNON BUGOS