In the second half of the twentieth century, the competition for nuclear weapons was primarily limited to the US and USSR. During the Cold War, the US and USSR were having tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. Later, notable arms control agreements that took shape include SALT I, SALT II and the INF Treaty. In fact, START I Treaty ensured global peace and stability. The New START Treaty was signed in 2010 by the US President Obama and his Russian counterpart. However, since 2011, Russia under President Putin has become more assertive. He has viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
In a swift 2014 military action, President Putin annexed Crimea. The Western block was unable to react primarily due to the reluctance of President Obama. The relationship between the West and Russia has deteriorated in the post-Crimea period. In the aftermath of the February 24, 2022 Russian ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine, there has been a complete rupture of the relationship between the West and Russia. Hence, it was not surprising that on February 21, 2023, President Putin announced suspension of the Russian participation in the New START Treaty. Interestingly, it was clarified that Russia did not intend to ‘withdraw’ from the treaty.
President Putin has strongly felt that the Western goal is to defeat Russia in the Ukraine conflict. As one of the fallouts, Russia will not allow the US inspectors inside its territory. On the other hand, China is not inclined towards arms control architectures because its nuclear arsenal falls short as compared to the US. In addition, the Taiwan question, US ballistic missile defence etc., Beijing is unwilling for any kind of arms control talks with the US.
US-Russia Arms Control
In the wake of the Russian suspension of the New START treaty, the path to negotiate a new treaty or any successive arrangement will not be easy. The shadow of the Ukraine conflict looms large. The US desires to incorporate all types of armaments, including those that the treaty does not limit. New armaments include the latest Russian strategic weapons, and tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). Any successor treaty has to ensure limits and verifying mechanisms on ICBM, SLBM, heavy bombers.
The next arms control treaty would also observe some kind of a change in force postures of nuclear weapons. They could be a harbinger of stability so as to reduce the risk of using nuclear weapons though there may be pressure on leaders to launch an early nuclear strike in a crisis. A treaty might restrict long range hypersonic missiles that due to speed and manoeuvrability leads to a reduction in time for a decisions to be made by a Head of State. It might reimpose a ban for silo-based ICBMs along with MIRV or restricting the number of nuclear warheads for each missile. Thus, there can be a reduction in the ‘use it or lose it’ dilemma during any war like situation.
The Russians, in their own interest, have long thought of trying to limit US long-range conventional capabilities as well as missile defences and are not interested in restricting TNWs. Nor do they want to observe an intruding type of mechanism in order to have warhead verification. Space and cyber, both have been militarised. There are other factors that influence the thinking for strategic stability of both the sides. Thus, it may be prudent to ensure that the US and Russian nuclear weapons are capped, even beyond 2026. For any kind of a successor agreement (to the New START Treaty), the US would prefer to retain the New START limit of 1550 deployed nuclear warheads. It could provide a deterrence with respect to Russia and China, notwithstanding the wariness about increase in the quantity of the Chinese nuclear weapons.
Dealing with China
The Chinese expansionist streak has taken an upswing especially during the Presidency of Xi Jinping. The dream to showcase its big power status has made China more aggressive. For instance, in 2014, China insisted upon a nine-dash line to justify its territorial claims in the South China Sea. On the borders with India too, the Chinese belligerence has led to a series of flare ups. China took it a notch higher during the Doklam crisis in 2017, and the ongoing Ladakh standoff since 5 May, 2020.
Unlike the US-Russia stand-off on the nuclear issue, no parallel exists with China. The US needs to take incremental steps to induce China to reduce its nuclear inventory and avoiding an arms race. The biggest risk is not communicating enough, particularly with respect to a localised conflict. For instance, the situation in Taiwan can lead to an unintentional ladder of escalation. It might also result in use of a nuclear weapon either by accident or design. This calls for intense diplomacy to lay the ground for transparency and confidence building measures. This ultimately might lead to some form of an arms control treaty. A Chinese scholar, Dr. Tong Zhao, has opined that increased threat perception is driving China towards building silos. In fact, he believes, China is building them to keep its adversaries guessing. Hu Xijin, an editor-in-chief of State-owned tabloid, thinks having a bigger nuclear arsenal will make China’s adversaries exercise self-restraint in dealing with Beijing. The speed of China’s nuclear weapons program seems to have grown in recent years. Therefore, initiating a dialogue on nuclear issues and to resolve problems will entail delicate diplomatic manoeuvring.
In order to establish a credible and effective dialogue with China, it needs to comprise of a basket of issues to include emotive issues like Taiwan. The agenda could at the very least include nuclear capability as well as doctrinal nuances, space being weaponized, ballistic missile defence, longer range conventional tipped missiles, cyber-attack abilities and the overall offence-defence balance of the US and China. The talks must also include regional situations, which indirectly have a bearing on strategic stability, such as the North Korea’s nuclear tipped missile threats. These talks might yield rudimentary measures comprising an agreement for advance notification of missile launches as well as for reduction in risk of miscalculation with respect to any kind of false warning.
It is a truism to state that only trust can attain a good and just arms control agreement for the USA and Russia. In a significant work, Rose Gottemoeller has described as to how difficult it was to attain the New START Treaty. Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine has revived the Cold War type of adversarial relations between Russia and NATO. Gottemoeller was the point person from the US side to conclude the 2011 New START Treaty with Russia. She has mentioned that a good working relationship with the Russian counterpart was critical to move forward with the negotiations on arms control.
As far as the Chinese nuclear program is concerned, it has been hyphenated with the tense China-US ties. It seems, the US nuclear posture and doctrine as well as arms control measures are all in a state of flux. The Chinese nuclear warheads are likely to increase in the future, though not as rapidly as projected by the US. In view of this scenario and regardless of arms control possibilities between these great powers, India has to maintain a credible minimum deterrent capability (the NFU doctrine). The current approach should be premised on adding numbers of the long-range ballistic missile AGNI-V, as the sea-leg of the nuclear triad will take time to evolve and mature. The sea leg of the nuclear triad is the most secure and cannot be taken out in a pre-emptive strike by the adversary. Hence, it appears, India shall have to embark upon a very pragmatic, hard-nosed and futuristic approach in consonance with her own national interest.
Centre for Air Power Studies