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May 19, 2021
Responses to Audience Questions from April 29 New START Briefing

Arms Control NOW


Top former U.S. administration officials last week expressed support for a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining arms control agreement between the United States and Russia that is set to expire in February 2021.

“Put me down in the column of extension, and the reason for that is the clock is running,” said Admiral (ret.) Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April 29 event hosted by the Arms Control Association.

Rose Gottemoeller, lead U.S. negotiator for the treaty, and Lt. Gen. (ret.) Frank Klotz, former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, joined Mullen in calling for an extension.

Gottemoeller emphasized the importance of extension particularly given the novel coronavirus pandemic. Extending New START, she said, “would be an act of global leadership, reassuring our publics as they grapple with sickness and uncertainty.”

Klotz stated that “allowing New START to lapse without replacement would be a grave mistake in terms of our national security.”

New START limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads, 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers and heavy bombers, and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. It can be extended by up to five years if both President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree. While Moscow said at the end of 2019 that it was ready to extend without any preconditions, the Trump administration has yet to make its decision about the future of the accord.

The full video of the April 29 event, as well as key quotes and resources, can be found on the Arms Control Association’s website. Below are some answers to additional questions that participants submitted but that the speakers were unable to address due to time constraints.

Can a broad strategy be devised to align and coordinate three parts involving bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral talks, including their interactions and involving resolution of New START extension?

The United States and Russia have recently pursued a bilateral dialogue through what Washington terms a “strategic security” dialogue and Moscow calls a “strategic stability” dialogue. The two sides last met Jan. 16 in Vienna and July 2019 in Geneva. The dialogue is designed to cover a range of issues, including arms control, space security, and hypersonic weapons. Specific discussion over the potential extension of New START has reportedly been a topic.

The date and location of the next round of this dialogue remains undetermined, though the United States and Russia agreed to resume the talks and pursue next steps during an April 17 call between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

In December 2019, the United States proposed to begin a bilateral dialogue with China. Beijing has thus far not responded to the offer, as the State Department made clear in an April 6 paper.

The Trump administration stated in April 2019 that it would seek a broader trilateral arms control agreement with both Russia and China. The administration has yet to put forward a specific proposal or framework for reaching what would be an unprecedented agreement.

China has repeatedly opposed the idea of a trilateral arms control deal. Russia has said that it will not endeavor to try and force Beijing to change its position.

Given the mixed record of progress to date on these bilateral and trilateral dialogues, it is highly unlikely that Washington will be able to establish an effective strategy to coordinate the lines of communication and successfully negotiate, let alone ratify, a new trilateral arms control agreement before New START expires in February 2021.

Consequently, it makes the most sense to extend New START for five years now and then work on bringing additional weapons and actors into the arms control process.

What is the current status of negotiations for an extension of New START or for a new arms control treaty?

The United States and Russia have discussed the future of New START, but the Trump administration continues to deflect Russia’s offer to unconditionally extend the treaty and discuss the technical aspects of the extension process. Russia has said it might need months to process a “technical extension” of the treaty through its Federal Assembly.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently held a call on April 12, during which they discussed “current issues of ensuring strategic security,” according to a statement from the Kremlin. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later clarified that New START was a point of discussion but did not provide any additional details. The White House did not issue a statement following the call.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan commented on April 22 that the administration is still reviewing a possible extension of New START. “There will be movement and discussion soon that will illuminate this issue more for all of us,” he added.

As for negotiations on a new arms control treaty with Russia and China, no formal talks have begun.

Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford outlined the Trump administration’s priorities for “next-generation arms control” with Russia and China in an April 6 paper.

Ford, who is currently performing the duties of the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that the next stage of arms control must continue to control Russia’s deployed strategic weapons currently limited by New START as well as address new Russian strategic delivery systems and Russia’s large and growing arsenal of nonstrategic weapons. Ford also said that a future agreement must “rein in” China’s “destabilizing nuclear buildup.”

Ford, however, did not explain how the administration plans to convince Russia to limit additional types of nuclear weapons, convince China to participate in arms control for the first time, or describe what the United States would be prepared to include in a new agreement.

Is it possible for New START to be extended for a period shorter than five years, possibly even for a one-year increment? If so, what are the potential ramifications of a shorter period if that were to be the maximum that the Trump administration would be willing to agree to?

In August 2019, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told the Russian news agency TASS that it was possible to extend New START for a period of less than five years.

“The Treaty could be extended not for five years but for a shorter period. It is possible from the legal standpoint,” said Ryabkov.

Article XIV of New START states: “If the Parties decide to extend this Treaty, it will be extended for a period of no more than five years unless it is superseded earlier by a subsequent agreement on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.”

The Trump administration has not indicated whether an extension of a shorter period of time is under consideration.

The great value of New START comes from the strict limits it places on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear missiles, bombers, and delivery systems, as well as the thorough verification and monitoring regime it established. The continuation of the treaty so long as there is nothing to replace it, therefore, is vital, especially given that—due to the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019—New START is the only remaining arms control agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

If the United States and Russia decide to extend the treaty for less than five years, then they must aggressively pursue negotiations on what arms control agreement will come into effect upon New START’s expiration. A five-year extension provides sufficient time to do so, but a period of a year or two would require the two countries to conduct negotiations at a much faster pace.

Negotiating and bringing into force a first of its kind trilateral arms control treaty is likely to take years. Extending New START by the full five years would ensure that U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals remain limited and that there is sufficient time available for negotiations on the next stage of arms control to be carried out effectively.

For context, the New START negotiations, which was far less ambitious in its goals than what the Trump administration is proposing, took more than 10 months, from the first round of talks in May 2009 to the treaty’s signing in April 2010. This was a relatively short amount of time, as far as arms control agreements go. The Senate voted to provide its advice and consent to ratification of the treaty in December 2010. New START officially came into effect in February 2011.

Some experts have argued that shorter-term extensions would provide the United States with leverage to secure concessions from Russia and China in trilateral talks. But New START is too important to be gambled away, and there is little evidence that shorter-term extensions would provide such leverage. 

A five-year extension of the treaty would benefit U.S. security and the security of our allies by prolonging the verifiable limits on Russia’s enormous arsenal of existing deployed strategic nuclear weapons, continuing an otherwise unobtainable flow of information about those forces, and providing a necessary foundation from which to seek a more far-reaching deal. It would not be prudent to gamble with these benefits on a low odds of success bet.

What is the role of Congress? Can President Trump abrogate a ratified treaty?

Under Article XIV of New START, “Each Party shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from this Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.” If either the United States or Russia decides to withdraw from the treaty, the withdrawing country must formally notify the other, and the treaty will be terminated three months later.

Fortunately, there have been no reports that the Trump administration is contemplating withdrawing from New START before it expires in February 2021. The State Department in February confirmed both U.S. and Russian compliance with the accord, though there are “some implementation-related questions” being addressed by the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the treaty.

Specific Congressional approval is not required to secure an extension of New START. President Trump can extend the treaty with the stroke of a pen.

In the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress did require that the Trump administration to notify Congress and allow for a 120-day waiting period before the provision of notice of any intent to withdraw from New START.

There is a bipartisan, bicameral effort underway in Congress to express support for an extension of New START so long as Russia remains in compliance. Last year, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced in the House the “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” (H.R. 2529) bill. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced a companion bill in the Senate by the same name (S. 2394). Neither bill has passed out of its respective committee.

To what extent do the current modernization plans (and budgets) meet or exceed the commitments made during the New START ratification debate in 2010?

As part of his effort to win Senate support for New START in 2010, President Obama submitted to lawmakers a 10-year plan to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads, strategic delivery systems, and their supporting infrastructure. At the time, the administration pledged to spending $100 billion on nuclear delivery systems at the Defense Department and roughly $85 billion on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The scope and projected cost of the modernization plans grew significantly over the ensuing decade. Over the next 30 years, the price tag is likely to top $1.5 trillion and could even approach $2 trillion.

Spending on NNSA weapons activities over the 10-year period between fiscal years 2011 and 2020 exceeded what was projected in 2010. The Obama administration initially kept pace with the pledged levels, then had to cut back due to the unwillingness of House Republican appropriators to fund the requested amounts and later the 2011 Budget Control Act, but it returned to the pledged levels in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The Trump administration for its part has blown way above the levels projected in 2010. The Trump administration’s request for $15.6 billion for FY 2021 for NNSA weapons activities is an increase of $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the FY 2020 budget request released just last year.

Spending on nuclear weapons by the Defense Department has greatly exceeded $100 billion since FY 2011.

These steep increases are partly due to the Trump administration’s pursuit of warheads and weapons that were not planned in 2010. These add-ons include a new low-yield nuclear warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (which was fielded at the end of 2019), a new submarine-launched cruise missile and warhead, and a plutonium pit production capacity of at least 80 pits a year by 2030.

If New START lapses with no replacement and there are no limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, the costs of nuclear sustainment and modernization could increase even more.

What can European allies do to convince the Trump administration to extend New START?

The most important thing that European allies, as well as allies across the world, can do is to express support for an immediate five-year extension of New START.

In October 2019, Sauli Niinistö, president of Finland, became the first world leader to express his support while standing directly beside President Trump at a press conference. “It is important to try to negotiate new agreements and to continue the New START Agreement,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and others have echoed Niinistö’s call. For a full listing of these statements of support, visit: “Select Statements of Support for New START.”

How could the extension of New START affect the 10th Review Conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Originally scheduled to begin in April 2020, the NPT review conference has been postponed. President-designate of the conference Gustavo Zlauvinen wrote in an April 17 message to the treaty’s states-parties that he will seek a formal decision to hold the conference from January 4-29, 2021. The new date has yet to be formalized.

It is tough to say how New START will affect the conference as there are a few possible scenarios that could play out between now and then.

The U.S. presidential election will take place on November 3, 2020. President Trump could choose to extend the treaty before then. Or he could not extend New START and either be re-elected or defeated in the election.

If President Trump is re-elected and the treaty has not been extended by the NPT conference in January, only a month would remain before New START expires on February 5, 2021. Time to secure an extension, in that case, would be extremely tight. If President Trump loses the upcoming presidential election, the new president will be inaugurated on January 20, 2021, and have roughly two weeks before New START’s expiration. Time, again, will be tight.

In either of the latter two scenarios in which New START is not extended by the time the NPT conference potentially takes place in January, all states-parties must use the time leading up to the NPT review conference to strongly demand that the United States move to extend the treaty immediately—especially if, as expected, no new bilateral or trilateral arms control agreement has been negotiated to take its place.