Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control: Old Myths and New Realities

It’s been a difficult few months for the so-called arms control community. Cherished myths and deeply held beliefs have been dashed by Russian, Chinese, and North Korean behavior. Reciprocity has been demonstrated to be an empty concept. And yet the alluring illusions persist. It’s time to sweep the hoary old folktales away and confront the new realities.

First, the idea that U.S. restraint in nuclear armaments and modernization will produce similar policies and actions by the three presidents for life who rule our nuclear adversaries should be discarded. We should have recognized this when we imposed a “modernization holiday” on our strategic forces beginning in the Bush 43 administration; rather than demonstrating any in reciprocating U.S. restraint, Russia, China, and, yes, even, North Korea proceeded apace to build and deploy new nuclear forces. We should have recognized that while we were scrupulously abiding by no fewer than nine “post-Cold War” arms control treaties and executive agreements, Russia was busily violating each one while still claiming to be abiding by their provisions. And, most recently, when the Biden administration first postponed and then canceled a test of a Minuteman III ICBM, Putin’s response was a test of Russia’s new mammoth Sarmat heavy ICBM, capable of carrying 10 independently targeted warheads—the diplomatic equivalent of giving the West a middle finger.

Second, the Pentagon, the Defense Department of the United States, went out of its way to characterize the Sarmat test as “not a threat to the United States or its allies.” Perhaps that was true by an extremely narrow, literal reading. But the test was intended as a clear reminder and warning to the West by Putin of Russia’s nuclear capabilities in the context of Russian anger at NATO’s increased and ongoing material support to Ukraine (a point made absolutely clear by Russian media coverage in which the weapon was described as the “killer of Americans” and graphic images of flight times to European capitals were on display). But, most fundamentally, the Sarmat is intended to be a threat to the U.S. nuclear deterrent; it is a dinosaur-like throwback to the heavily MIRVed ICBMs that the USSR deployed in the 1970s and that were created explicitly to destroy our Minuteman force and threaten the most responsive element of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. (MIRV stands for multiple independent reentry vehicle—each ICBM can carry multiple warheads that can strike different targets.)

Even some of those who might have understood the menace behind the test felt compelled to argue that the Sarmat test demonstrated the value of arms control because the Russians notified us in advance of the test launch in accordance with New START provisions. Arms control is supposed to bound and limit threats. Test notifications are a third- or fourth-level ancillary benefit, not at all central to the purpose of arms control. 

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