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June 6, 2016
Kingston Reif

U.S. Shifts Arms Control Strategy with Russia | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch

U.S. Shifts Arms Control Strategy with Russia 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 of a politically binding framework with Moscow. But the administration continues to reject Russia’s offer of a clean five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ) and has said that President Trump will not consider an extension until several conditions are met. According to Trump administration officials, the...

U.S. Modifies Arms Control Aims with Russia

September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump speak at the 2019 G20 summit in Japan. U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien recently said "we'd love to have Putin" come to the White House to sign a nuclear arms control accord, but the lead U.S. arms control negotiator said the two nations "remain far apart on a number of key issues." (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)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

The Trump administration eases demand for Chinese participation in new arms control talks.

U.S. Withdrawal Raises Open Skies Questions

September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The remaining members of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty are moving forward with determining how the treaty will function following the planned withdrawal of the United States, but significant questions remain about how the treaty would function with the U.S. absence.

A Romanian AN-30B aircraft is used for an Open Skies Treaty observation mission in 2004. (Photo: OSCE)On July 6, the states-parties gathered for a videoconference to discuss the May announcement by the Trump administration that the United States will withdraw from the accord in November, citing issues with Russian compliance with and implementation of the treaty. (See ACT, June 2020.) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 21 that Washington might reconsider its decision should Russia return to compliance. Signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

Hosted by treaty depositaries Canada and Hungary, the videoconference brought together 188 representatives from all 34 member countries, including the United States, according to a July 7 statement from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The representatives discussed “the overall impact on operational functionality of the treaty, the impact on the allocation of observation quotas and on financial arrangements within the treaty, and other potential effects on the treaty,” said the OSCE statement.

After the conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation, told Russian news agency TASS that “many participants in the videoconference spoke about the United States’ withdrawal in November as something foregone.” He further commented that Russia does not view the United States “as a partner who is able to negotiate.”

On July 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement alleging that the remaining states-parties “have not yet shown their willingness to assume responsibility for the treaty, to give a principled assessment of the actions of the U.S. administration, and to engage in a truly meaningful dialogue with Russia in order to resolve mutual claims.”

Russia has not definitively stated how it will respond to the U.S. withdrawal and has broadly conditioned its continued participation in the treaty on its national security interests.

“Russia will continue to assess its partners’ willingness to fully comply with their obligations under the treaty and seek mutually acceptable solutions to emerging problems,” but ultimately “no scenario can…be ruled out,” according to the foreign ministry statement.

The United States did not release a statement following the conference.

U.S. allies have continued to express their regret at the U.S. decision to withdraw and indicated their intention to remain a party to the treaty.

“We believe that the withdrawal by the U.S. is wrong,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Aug. 10. “Germany will continue to implement the Treaty on Open Skies and to do everything it can to preserve it.”

The states-parties will next convene in October, when flight quotas for 2021 will be determined.

How those quotas will be distributed in the absence of the United States is uncertain. Under the treaty, the United States can conduct 42 overflights a year. Most Canadian and European flights take place over Russia. Multiple states-parties are able to take part in an overflight, which has been beneficial to U.S. allies who do not possess properly outfitted aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force on July 14 officially cancelled the recapitalization program for the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for treaty overflights. Congress appropriated $41.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Another unresolved issue is to what extent, if at all, states-parties, particularly Russia, can continue to conduct overflights of U.S. military bases in Europe after the official U.S. withdrawal.

In a May 22 letter to Esper, 21 Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed concern that “the United States has over 35,000 forward deployed troops and critical military equipment deployed in countries that will remain subject to Russian overflight under the treaty.”

Defense officials “have stated that there are currently no agreements in place with each of our partners that establish notification requirements in the event of a Russian overflight of U.S. forces and equipment,” the lawmakers said.

Some treaty flights resumed in August after all flights were halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. During Aug. 10–13, Russia conducted an overflight of Germany, the path of which included Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, and Spangdahlem Air Base, a NATO base.

Also uncertain is how imagery gathered from overflight data will be handled with respect to the United States and its allies. Under the treaty, all imagery collected from overflights is made available to any of the states-parties. Once Washington likely departs from the treaty in November, it will lose access to that data.

Russia has indicated that U.S. allies should not continue to share information gathered from Open Skies flights with the United States after its departure from the treaty.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on May 26 that “Washington itself should not harbor too much hope of maintaining access to all data received under the treaty if it withdraws from it.”

Meanwhile, the House version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) expresses the sense of Congress that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty did not comply with the fiscal year 2020 NDAA, which required the administration to notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the treaty.

The bill also requires a plan for how the United States will be notified of treaty flights over parties that host U.S. military and assets and an assessment of the potential effects of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty on how the United States will obtain unclassified imagery and other information that it currently obtains under the treaty.

The House Appropriations Committee included a provision in their version of the fiscal year 2021 defense bill that would rescind $158 million from fiscal years 2019 and 2020 in funding for the program and prevent it from being reprogrammed.


Treaty parties have begun to discuss how the agreement will work if the United States withdraws in November.

Russia Tests ASAT Weapon, U.S. Says

September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Space Command alleged that “Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon” on July 15, ahead of lengthy but inconclusive talks between Washington and Moscow in Vienna on space security. Moscow disputed the claim that it conducted such a test.

A Russian rocket topped with the Cosmos 2543 satellite is erected in November 2019. Successfully launched in December, the satellite flew "in abnormally close proximity" of A U.S. satellite in July, according to U.S. officials. (Photo: Russian Defense Ministry)In a July 23 statement, Gen. John Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command, said that the test “is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

Space Command said a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, “operated in abnormally close proximity to a U.S. government satellite in low-earth orbit before it maneuvered away and over to another Russian satellite, where it released another object in proximity to the Russia target satellite. This test is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the satellite as an inspector system, as described by Russia.”

The United States has previously suggested that such an object can be used as a weapon to target other satellites.

Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, head of the United Kingdom’s Space Directorate, also expressed concern of the launching of “a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon.”

“Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends,” he said on July 23.

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the statements by the United States and UK and said that the test had “not endangered any other space object” or “infringed on any norms and principles of international law.”

“The inspector satellite was launched to inspect a Russian satellite at close range, using special equipment for this purpose,” said the ministry on July 24. “This mission has collected valuable information about the technical maintenance status of the inspected spacecraft and transmitted it to the ground-based command system.”

This latest test comes after Space Command alleged that Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile in April and two Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and 2543, made maneuvers near U.S. government satellites in February. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Delegations from the United States and Russia met in Vienna on July 27 for a dialogue on space security. Officials from the State, Defense, and Energy departments and the National Security Council made up the U.S. delegation.

“While our efforts are aimed at finding constructive paths forward for space security, we will certainly emphasize our great concern with ongoing Russian as well as Chinese efforts to weaponize the space domain,” said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and international security, ahead of the talks.

Ford said that “our hope is that this meeting will allow us to explore ways to increase stability and security in outer space, as well as to advance the cause of developing norms of responsible behavior in that vital domain.” He later mentioned applying “the usual international humanitarian law or Law of Armed Conflict rules” to space and establishing “operator-to-operator engagement” as specific potential goals.

That same day, Ford also released a paper on arms control in outer space in which he urged Russia and China to “abandon [their] dreams of counterspace warfighting, and [their] unverifiable, ineffective, and disingenuous arms control proposals, and join with the United States in a new space security initiative.”

In June, the Defense Department released the Defense Space Strategy, outlining its goals for desired conditions in space over the next 10 years, which said that “China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space.”

The State Department issued a statement at the conclusion of the space dialogue, which lasted for more than 13 hours. “The two sides exchanged views on current and future space threats, policies, strategies, and doctrine, and discussed a forward-looking agenda to promote safe, professional, and sustainable activities in space,” said the department. Statements from the State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the countries will aim to continue discussions on space security.

Russia maneuvered a satellite in July to within “abnormally close proximity” of a U.S. satellite, according to the U.S. Space Command.


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