This is an opinion piece by unitedlover14, former MoS for Security.
On the 5th of February 2021, the nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation, popularly known as New START, expires after a decade in force. The treaty limits the amount of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers assigned to nuclear missions to 700 per country, deployed and non deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and bombers to 800 per country and deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs to 1550 per country. Although this may seem like a large amount, and it is still more than enough to cause a nuclear apocalypse if war were to break out between these great powers, it is still a significant decrease on previous nuclear arms reduction treaties and a step in the right direction. The number of nuclear warheads allowed is down by 30% from the 2,200 limit set by 2002’s SORT (also known as the treaty of Moscow) and down a major 74% from the original 1994 START limit of 6000.
The treaty is undeniably working. Despite allegations from Washington and NATO that Moscow has been violating other arms control agreements, the INF being the primary source of conflict, the Trump administration has admitted that the Russian Federation is keeping to the terms agreed under New START. A report from the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance published on the first of October 2020 (current as of the first of September 2020) states that the Russian Federation has 510 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers, 1447 deployed nuclear warheads and 764 deployed and non deployed nuclear launchers and heavy bombers. These numbers are well within the range allowed for under New START limitations. The US has shared similar numbers (verified by Moscow) that show they too are abiding by the restrictions.
It would be fair to say that the success of this treaty is down to the rigorous inspection procedures allowed for both signatories. New START is protected by national technical means and 18 annual short notice on site inspections. National technical means, or NTMs for short, are the primary methods for ensuring compliance with international treaties and counterproliferation work. Satellite imagery, telemetry intelligence, geophysical intelligence and classic human intelligence all work together to provide international watchdogs with accurate information to ensure that states are complying with agreements they’ve signed or other restrictions on their nuclear arms programmes. In the case of New START, both signatories contribute to an extensive database on the numbers, types and locations of treaty limited nuclear devices to be confirmed with intelligence and inspections. For example, the Russians must notify the United States whenever a new ICBM or SLBM leaves the Votkinsk production plant and when it reaches its destination, which is monitored by satellite imagery. Verification of the restrictions is carried out by 18 annual on site inspections which can begin with as little notice as 32 hours beforehand. 10 inspections are allowed at Type One facilities that house deployed warheads and delivery systems whilst 8 are allowed at Type Two facilities that house non deployed delivery systems. These short notice inspections allow both signatories to check that they are abiding by the limits in place and cannot dispose of evidence of non compliance before the inspection.
If New START is working so well, why is it at risk for expiration and why does it matter? Like most things in life, politics is getting in the way. From a national, and even world security perspective, the extension of New START is a no brainer for both the United States and Russia. This is something that’s recognised by the Russian Federation, who raised its extension as early as the first year of President Trump’s time in office. The US deferred the issue, wanting to ensure that the Russians were fully compliant before negotiating a renewal. They now know this to be true and yet we are still hurtling towards a dangerous nuclear arms race. Make no mistake, the expiration of this treaty is a very dangerous and scarily realistic outcome. New START’s expiration would be the first time in decades that restrictions on the aforementioned types of nuclear weapons were relaxed and would almost certainly lead to a nuclear arms race at a time where both countries are already undergoing significant nuclear modernisation programmes. We would also lose the vital information on the Russian Federation’s nuclear program that the treaty provides, raising the stakes of the arms race significantly. More intelligence resources would have to be redeployed to fill that gap of information, taking money and people away from vital missions in the Middle East and East Asia. It’s unclear as to the real reasons behind the Trump administration posturing over New START, although they’ve made some vague statements about China and unhappiness with the verification methods. What we do know is that the major players in the Trump administration do not seem to be fond of this treaty and that we may very well be reliant on immediate action from the incoming Biden administration.
The United Kingdom has a responsibility to avoid a nuclear arms race between two great powers and we have options available to us. As former Minister of State for Security, I attempted to make this a key defence policy for our government. Unfortunately, negotiations between myself and senior Conservative leadership did not complete before the governmental collapse, but I will lay out my arguments in the hope that the Defence Secretary is spurred into action by this article. First and foremost, we could offer to join the treaty as a nuclear power allied with the United States. When the United States brought up the issue of China during negotiations, the Russians indicated that they would like to see the United Kingdom and France sign the treaty too. This would go a long way into showing our good faith and desire to keep the treaty in place whilst not restricting our aims to modernise and renew Trident. We could also set up a diplomatic back channel between Moscow and Washington, allowing a country with a long history of high class diplomacy to act as a third party arbitrator whose sole aim is to see the renewal of the deal. Finally, we can encourage the Biden administration to make the extension an immediate priority, ensuring that New START does not expire before they are able to negotiate a new deal.
It is clear that New START has been a resounding success, and is one step in the long path of global denuclearisation. It is also clear that the extension of this deal, whilst attempts are made to negotiate a lower number of allowed warheads, should be a policy aim for any government intending to prevent a nuclear arms race between two great powers. It is my hope that this article will encourage our government to make this an immediate defence policy and begin talks with the Trump administration, the Biden transition team and the Kremlin in order to facilitate the renewal of the treaty. Without it, the world would be a less safe place for the United Kingdom and its people.