A new House of Representatives has taken power. And with it comes much needed change to how the U.S. approaches nuclear weapons. It’s about time.
Over the course of the last two years, the U.S. has been on a perilous path when it comes to nuclear weapons policy. President Trump moved to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a 1987 milestone agreement with the Soviet Union that prohibited a comprehensive class of nuclear weapons and helped usher in the end of the Cold War. At the same time, a long-term project of nuclear weapons modernization is under way, and likely to expand once the INF Treaty is abandoned, during which nuclear forces will undergo “upgrading.”
Together, these developments point to a dangerous future, one where nuclear conflict is looking increasingly likely.
Yes, the INF treaty is not perfect. But it banned the Soviet Union and the U.S. from retaining, testing and deploying ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. Since the Obama administration, Washington has censured Moscow for violating the terms because of its deployment of cruise missiles. Actually revoking the agreement though will ignite a new era of nuclear proliferation by permitting the United States to acquire comparable missiles.
That opens the door to host of dangerous developments.
Russia’s expansion of its Novator 9M729 cruise missile program is already in a more mature state, so it can be utilized broadly once the agreement is ended. Russia will also have autonomy to deploy an intermediate range ballistic missile without restriction. The U.S. decision to withdraw from the INF could even speed up the expansion of this capacity.
Moscow maintains that abandoning the pact might also restart the Cold War nuclear arms race. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that Russia will react “in kind” if new American missiles are positioned in Europe. And he warned that any European states accommodating these weapons would be in danger of Russian attack. That could lead to serious international confrontations, which will jeopardize future national security concerns and test the support of U.S. allies in Europe at a time when support for Trump’s policies is already low on the continent.
Withdrawal from the agreement will probably also damage the 2010 START Treaty regulating Russian and American long-range nuclear missiles. START will automatically terminate in 2021 unless Washington and Moscow decide to prolong it. Without the INF treaty in place, the chances of it dissolving are increasing.
To go along with these concerning moves, the Trump administration has initiated an alarming new program of nuclear weapons acceleration. Trump has supported his predecessor’s weapons modernization agenda. But he has also pledged to significantly enlarge current nuclear resources. America is now engaging in the most excessive nuclear weapons expansion since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In abandoning another nuclear pact, the Trump administration is showing a lack of long-term strategy. The INF Treaty, accompanied by the New START accord, holds at bay a renewed great power nuclear arms competition. Since one of the objectives in withdrawing is to modernize U.S. nuclear capabilities, this will only accelerate the expansion of a more hazardous world.
Nations possessing nuclear weapons are already modernizing their stockpiles all across the globe. Russia, China, and America are embarking on vast modernization agendas that involve new warheads and forms of delivery systems that are more destabilizing since they incentivize an adversary to strike first to immobilize the foe at the beginning of warfare. Any additional fodder for nuclear proliferation is likely to increase these efforts.
Thankfully, the new Congress has some ability to push back on this nuclear agenda. With Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) running the House Armed Services Committee there is a new voice in power pushing for the downsizing of our country’s nuclear program.
One way to accomplish this would be to abolish the most hazardous element of the nuclear weapons system—one leg of the nuclear triad—Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. These are susceptible to unintended nuclear conflict if they are released as a result of miscalculation by a leader functioning under intense pressure to make a decision, or by accident.
While the House’s power is limited in making these types of changes, we can only hope that these new, reasonable voices at the table will help steer our country away from a dangerous, and costly, nuclear arms race.
Kenneth Keulman is Provost Distinguished Professor emeritus at Loyola University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.