Decades after the Cold War, the risk of nuclear war is again a serious concern. Russian President Putin and others have stated that the prospect of a nuclear war is higher now than it has been in decades.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is concerned that a U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange could occur “by accident, miscalculation, conflict escalation or intent” and recently joined some 85 other mayors and legislators around the world in sending a letter to Presidents Trump and Putin, as well as members of Congress and the Russian Duma, urging them to forego new nuclear weapons and reengage in arms control talks.
The United States has a proud, bipartisan legacy of nuclear arms control, which led to a steady reduction in both countries’ nuclear arsenals – from a peak of 63,000 weapons in 1986 to roughly 8,000 today (many of which are in storage). The largest reductions occurred under Republican administrations. Some of these agreements were negotiated during the Cold War – and helped reduce tensions while the U.S. and Soviet Union were avowed adversaries.
As the Trump administration itself noted in 2018, such agreements “increased transparency, moderated competition, codified rough parity in strategic nuclear areas, and closed off areas of competition.”
Yet the administration is rejecting arms control just when we need it most. It is withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits all intermediate-range missiles. That treaty, negotiated by President Reagan, resulted in the elimination of 846 US and 1,846 Soviet missiles.
Even more significant, the New START agreement, which reduced US and Russian deployed long-range weapons to 1,550 each, is under threat. It is set to expire in February 2021, but can be extended for an additional five years.
The agreement has strong Pentagon support. At a Feb. 26 congressional hearing, Air Force General John Hyten, the commander of U.S. nuclear forces, stated that he was “a big supporter” of the agreement.
Yet President Trump has made disparaging remarks about New START, and even if the United States doesn’t withdraw from the treaty, its extension is uncertain.
Moreover, during the past year, the administration built a new type of nuclear weapon, slated for near-term deployment on submarine-launched missiles. This W76-2 “low-yield” warhead has a relatively small explosive power and will replace some of the high-yield nuclear weapons these subs carry.
These weapons would undercut U.S. security for several reasons.
In a 2018 letter, former military and administration officials called this weapon “a gateway to nuclear catastrophe,” arguing “the greatest concern … is that the president might feel less restrained about using it in a crisis,” which could start a nuclear war.
If the United States launched this weapon, it would invite Russian miscalculations since Russia would likely assume the missile was carrying a standard high-yield warhead and respond accordingly. Ironically, the United States already has other nuclear weapons with low-yield options if the president saw a need for such a weapon. No wonder these former officials called this weapon “dangerous, unjustified, and redundant.”
But it’s not too late to block deployment of this weapon because Congress must provide funding for it. Rhode Island has an outsized role when it comes to deciding what the Pentagon spends money on. The state’s senior senator – Jack Reed, who has spent decades effectively working on natural security issues – serves as the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Rep. Jim Langevin sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
Meanwhile, while Congress does not negotiate treaties, it can exert pressure on the administration to extend the New START agreement. Reed has already taken an important step by co-sponsoring legislation stating that it is the policy of the United States to extend New START.
With more congressional engagement, we can turn things around by preventing deployment of the new “low-yield” weapon and making it clear that there is strong congressional support for extending the New START agreement.
Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese, is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport. Macky McCleary is a former administrator for the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, serves on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists and lives in Providence.