The United States and Russia recently agreed to extend the New START treaty for 5 years, limiting each nation to 1,550 nuclear warheads on ballistics missiles and strategic bombers. The treaty was due to expire on February 5, 2021, as President Trump wanted the Chinese to join the pact, which they declined to do. Thankfully, President Biden recognized the strategic reality: the United States and Russia both have upwards of 3500 nuclear warheads in service, while China has fewer than 400. There is no need to include them in such an arms control pact at this time.
But there are also worrying signs that the Biden administration is motivated not by calculating the risks and reward of arms control on a case-by-case basis but a desire to transform the policies surrounding America’s nuclear deterrent. An early indicator is the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which prevented Russia and the United States from producing nuclear weapons with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. President Trump wisely withdrew from the agreement in 2019 after repeated Russian violations, which rendered the treaty a form of unilateral disarmament. In fact, NATO allies unanimously agreed that “Russia developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violate[d] the INF Treaty”, and “Russia [bears] sole responsibility for the end of the Treaty” because of it. President Trump allocated $181 million dollars to designing and building new intermediate-range weapons, but the current Administration has not committed to continuing the program.
In this case, the consideration with China should take precedence, as they have produced more than 2000 missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads in the ranges that the INF prohibited. American treaty allies such as the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea, along with tens of thousands of American troops and 7 major air bases are currently susceptible to an intermediate nuclear strike with no parallel on the American side. China plans to more than double its nuclear capabilities by the end of this decade, so the United States must continue to rearm to provide a credible deterrent to this revisionist and aggressive power.
The broader question of nuclear arms modernization also comes into play here. Under plans from the Obama and Trump administrations, the country is set to spend $1.2 trillion by 2046 on developing new weapons and systems for the land, sea, and air branches of the nuclear triad. The price tag is hefty because modernization has been delayed for decades, with the Minuteman III ICBM about to turn 50 and the B-52 bomber having flown since the 1950’s. As foreign adversaries develop more sophisticated air defense systems, it is critical that the nation maintain the capability to strike any target at any time to prevent large-scale conflicts from breaking out.
However, the Biden administration is full of people who do not accept the enduring value of the nuclear deterrent. Multiple high-level officials “have ties with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the research arm of the liberal Council for a Livable World, which aims to “reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons,’” a ludicrous prospect so long as any nation resembling a peer adversary to the United States continues to exist on the planet. Even Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, declined to support the modernization program in his confirmation hearing. With the budget deficit spiraling out of control and the President’s desire for climate and coronavirus legislation taking center stage, it is easy to imagine the nuclear forces being allowed to fall into disrepair. But Joe Biden also made another promise during the campaign: to stand steadfast with America’s allies. And America’s allies remember that it was the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction that safeguarded them during the Cold War and must do so again in the Pacific. American hubris prevented the nation from making the hard choices for the past thirty years. But the unipolar moment is over. Fighting pointless wars in the desert was a hell of a ride–it’s time to get back to the basics. For the sake of strategic stability, and for the sake of the nation’s security, Joe Biden must continue to modernize and equip the nuclear forces to remain credible deterrents in the 21st century. As former United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it when asked about the trillion-dollar price tag: “America can afford survival.”