Second in a series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.
By John Carl Baker
Takeaway: Pass the No First Use Act, cancel the new ICBM, and begin negotiating with Russia toward deep reductions in both countries’ outsized arsenals.
The world faces a renewed nuclear arms race. All nine nuclear-armed states–China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US—are modernizing their arsenals and adding new capabilities. Nuclear superpowers the US and Russia control 91% of the world’s 13,000 nuclear warheads and together keep well over 3,000 deployed – more than enough to end human civilization.
The US nuclear posture needlessly inflames this volatile international situation. The president holds unilateral launch authority and the US still reserves the right to launch a nuclear first strike. The US possesses hundreds of ground-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that are kept on alert in anticipation of a completely unrealistic surprise attack. These ICBMs drastically reduce presidential decision time (approximately ten minutes) and increase the chance of a mistaken launch. Close calls have happened in the past.
US policy has also done little to keep the guard rails from falling off the international arms control regime. The US left the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 2019. It announced its intent to leave the Open Skies Treaty the following year. If New START is not extended by February 2021, there will be no constraints on the US and Russian arsenals for the first time since 1972.
At the same time, the United Nations review process created by the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) remains broken. Article 6 of the NPT obligates the nuclear-armed signatories to pursue disarmament, a provision they are not upholding. Global frustration with the lack of progress has led in part to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will ban nuclear weapons under international law in January 2021.
Renewing US Leadership on Disarmament
The US can increase nuclear stability and lead the world back toward disarmament by taking the following bold actions:
Reform the Nuclear Posture: The US should declare that deterrence—not warfighting—is the sole purpose of the nuclear arsenal. Congress should establish that the US will never use nuclear weapons first by passing the No First Use Act introduced by Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Congress can also develop legislation to distribute launch authority among more individuals than just the US president. Nearly any alternative is preferable to the current unilateral arrangement.
Negotiate Arsenal Reductions: The US and Russia should extend New START and immediately begin negotiations toward a follow-on agreement that seeks major mutual reductions. There is simply no reason for each country to have thousands of warheads when their nearest peer competitor (China) has only a few hundred. Addressing this disparity could bring China into the arms control regime and would demonstrate to the world that the US takes its disarmament obligations under the NPT seriously.
Retire Missiles: Congress should cancel the new ICBM, also called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), and begin phasing out land-based missiles for good. This will save substantial public dollars (an estimated $264 billion over the lifetime of the GBSD) and dramatically lower the risk of nuclear war. A system without land-based ICBMs will be far more stable, with increased decision time if there are reports of an incoming attack. Submarines and bombers will still be available to launch retaliatory strikes if need be. Phasing out ICBMs is also popular: a University of Maryland study found that 61% of Americans, including 53% of Republicans, support the idea.
The US has a unique opportunity to put the world back on the path to nuclear zero. Through common sense policy changes, the US can lower nuclear risks, demonstrate a commitment to disarmament, and repair relations with the international community. The stakes could not be higher and the time for action is now.
John Carl Baker is a senior program officer at Ploughshares Fund. Baker’s writing on nuclear weapons issues has appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, New Republic, Defense One, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @johncarlbaker.