As the Biden administration and 117th Congress begin ranking their priorities on U.S. nuclear modernization and arms control, the United States stands at a critical juncture where decisions made now will affect the U.S. nuclear force well into the 2070s and 2080s — the expected service lives of several nuclear delivery systems in development.
The Biden administration could follow the Obama administration’s model and pursue further nuclear arms control agreements while modernizing the U.S. nuclear triad. The other option, the one supported by many progressive think tanks, is to vastly scale back U.S. nuclear modernization and unilaterally eliminate hundreds of U.S. nuclear weapons in an attempt to persuade Russia and China to come to the negotiating table.
The latter position seeks to capitalize on the Democratic interest in spending less on defense by cutting U.S. nuclear weapons while burnishing international credentials as being committed to reducing global nuclear weapon stockpiles through arms control agreements.
What many of these proposals for unilateral U.S. nuclear reductions fail to recognize, however, is that a fully modernized nuclear arsenal — not a degraded one — is the means most likely to reach the Democratic goal of reduced global nuclear arsenals. Many reports do not address this point at all, and the very few authors who do have done so only in passing.
But now is the time, early in the U.S. nuclear modernization process, to recognize a modernized U.S. nuclear triad would provide far greater leverage over Russia and China for negotiated reductions — while also being supported by Republicans for its contribution to deterrence and assurance.
Why should the Biden administration consider favoring the tactic of retaining leverage in negotiations over persuasion via unilateral action? The history of unilateral U.S. nuclear actions that have not been reciprocated by others is instructive.
For example, previous U.S. policy was to not develop new nuclear warheads, but the U.S. Department of Defense notes that Russia is still developing new nuclear warheads, while China “probably intends to develop new nuclear warheads.” The United States refrained from deploying mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, while Russia and China have not. The United States does not have a nuclear-capable, air-launched ballistic missile, while Russia and China appear to be pursuing that capability.
Nor does the most significant unilateral U.S. nuclear reductions in its history, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991 and 1992 — which eliminated many nonstrategic nuclear weapons from the U.S. arsenal — offer much support for the power of persuasion. Russia retained and modernized up to 2,000 of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons, while also retaining ship-based, nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missiles (which the United States ultimately eliminated under the Obama administration).
The unfortunate conclusion is that U.S. unilateral restraint simply does not appear to induce reciprocal restraint on the part of Russia or China.
The other course of action is that of gaining leverage for future arms control negotiations — a tactic that has a record, though not perfect, of being a much more reliable means to the end of lower nuclear weapons levels overall. The roughly comparable sizes and capabilities of U.S. and Soviet/Russian missile defenses and nuclear weapons have over the previous five decades, nearly, proven to be a catalyst for entering into and concluding arms control agreements.
From the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to START to New START, it is undeniable that states have viewed the opportunity to influence the size and capability of the other’s arsenal as a way to improve their own security and the major driver for agreements — and in some cases, nuclear reductions.
In short, leverage mattered greatly in negotiations in the past, and there is no persuasive evidence that leverage is on the brink of ceasing to matter either in the present or near future.
As a concrete example, multiple progressive groups favor unilaterally eliminating U.S. ICBMs, but they give no thought to how those same U.S. ICBMs might be a key leverage point to pressure Russia and China to eliminate part of their nuclear arsenals. If U.S. diplomats came to the negotiating table asking Moscow and Beijing to eliminate their ICBMs, but have none in hand themselves, they can expect to be laughed out of the room.
U.S. nuclear modernization has enjoyed bipartisan support since it began under the Obama administration, as evidenced by the fact that the Trump administration made only minor adjustments and clarifications in forces and policy that were needed to stay current with the threat environment. Unilaterally eliminating significant numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons now in the early stages of U.S. nuclear modernization would upset that bipartisan support, endanger deterrence, anger allies and imperil the Democratic goal of global nuclear reductions.
Matthew Costlow is a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy. He has experience researching cybersecurity, emergency management and foreign air power acquisition for the Congressional Research Service. He previously worked at SAIC.