WASHINGTON — As the Trump administration moves closer towards exiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, experts are left to wonder whether another nuclear treaty may be in the administration’s crosshairs.
Signed in 2010 between the U.S. and Russia, the New START treaty limits the deployed forces of both nations to 1,550 nuclear warheads over 700 delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers.
Asked about New START’s future while in Moscow, John Bolton. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, said the government is “currently considering” its position on the agreement, but then added that the administration “does not have a position that we’re prepared to negotiate.”
This isn’t the first time the administration has raised fears about the future of New START. In February 2017, Trump called the agreement “a one-sided deal” and a "bad deal.”
However, nothing came from those comments, and a month later, Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, then the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said the agreement was of “huge value” to the U.S., adding that it has “been good for us.”
Advocates for the treaty say New START benefits both directly by limiting the number of weapons deployed, and in indirect ways through information gathered.
Jim Miller, who served as an undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration, said during a Monday Atlantic Council event that the treaty provides 18 on-site inspections of Russian weapons a year, “valuable” information for America’s military.
"The Russians need to see consequences from noncompliance on INF, I fundamentally agree with that,” Miller said. But “if the Russians don’t see us as reliable partners in arms control agreements and think they are likely to be surprised by us, as they were by some degree from the withdraw of the ABM treaty and by the abrupt nature of the withdraw from INF, they may begin to hedge and they may be more inclined, rather than less inclined, to prepare themselves for a [nuclear] breakout.”
Speaking at the same Atlantic Council event, Richard Burt, who served as chief negotiator in the original START talks between the U.S. and Russia, said the INF decision is “very bad news for anybody who is a supporter of extending New START.”
“That decision doesn’t have to be formally taken until 2021, so a lot will depend on the outcome of the 2020 elections. I would say that if you do see Donald Trump re-elected and his national security adviser remains John Bolton, I think it’s a better than even chance that New START is not extended," he said.
Notably, Bolton highlighted in his comments that the treaty doesn’t expire until 2021, so “we have plenty of time,” perhaps a hint that the administration does not plan to leave the agreement prematurely.
But James Acton of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program sees few ties between the INF move and the future of New START — not that he’s optimistic about the latter.
“New START is in deep trouble, but not because of this,” he said. “Russia, I think, would agree to extending New START even if the US withdraws from INF. The problem is that it’s increasingly clear that this administration doesn’t want to extend New START.”
For the defense industry, the death knell of the INF agreement doesn’t move the needle much, said analyst Byron Callan, of Capital Alpha Partners. But New START could be “another matter,” he said.
“New START’s demise could support a larger strategic weapons force, so it’s possible that programs such as Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent [Boeing vs Northrop] and LRSO [Lockheed Martin vs Raytheon] competition are upsized, and there would be more work on nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy,” Callan wrote in a note to investors.
“Hypersonic weapon delivery platforms and missile defense could also play well in this environment, particularly with the possible loss of inspection/verification provisions of New START.”
Acton does wonder if domestic reaction to the INF withdrawal could change how the administration tackles New START, depending on potential blowback. But Callan notes that trying to project the political realities of 2021 is tough, given the U.S. is still two elections away.
“It remains conceivable that there are political changes (domestic and diplomatic) that result in major changes from current trajectories,” he wrote. “For now, that does not appear likely, but then it didn’t appear all that likely in the early-mid 1980s either.
“We’d take the nuclear theme a year or two at a time, for now.”
Daniel Cebul in Washington contributed to this report.
Correction: The original version of this story attributed quotations from Jim Miller, made at the Atlantic Council event, to Frank Miller, also at the event. This story has been updated to correct that.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.