April 29, 2021

War on the Rocks:

What will it take for Russia and the United States to make progress on arms control? In announcing the Biden administration’s intent to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) for another five years, Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin offered a hint. He noted that the next negotiation must include all of Russian and American nuclear weapons, not just the long-range strategic systems limited by New START. Since New START was ratified in 2010, Russia has been unwilling to discuss limits on its shorter range systems. When it does address the subject, it immediately lays down a number of pre-conditions, including limitations on U.S. missile defense systems.

Some analysts suggest that the United States should place limits on its missile defense systems to entice Russia — which publicly opposes U.S. missile defense plans — back to the negotiating table. According to one recent commentary, “limiting defenses would therefore be an essential first step to constraining the nuclear arms race.” In War on the Rocks, Naomi Egel and Jane Vaynman recently argued that U.S. officials should “reassess whether the gains from preserving missile defense are worth the tradeoffs.”

These arguments sound reasonable enough. After all, the Russian side never misses an opportunity to register its opposition to missile defense anytime arms control is mentioned or when the United States deploys a new missile defense system at home or abroad. And there is a large body of literature stretching back to the early days of the Cold War arguing that missile defense is the leading cause of the action-reaction arms race. But is this correct in practice? Do limits on missile defense secure restraints on offensive nuclear forces? Does the United States really have to limit its homeland missile defenses as a precursor to nuclear force reductions? …

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