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"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control

U.S., Russia Strategic Stability Meeting Held in Geneva

The United States and Russia restarted in July a bilateral dialogue to discuss strategic stability and the future of arms control and agreed to meet again in late September. U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to relaunch the dialogue during their June summit to begin what will likely be a long, contentious process to make progress on nuclear arms control before the last remaining arms control agreement between the two countries expires in under five years. During the “professional and substantive” talks July 28 in Geneva, “the U.S. delegation discussed U.S...

If a Nuclear War Must Never Be Fought, Then What?


July/August 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two largest nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at their June 16 summit to engage in a robust “strategic stability” dialogue to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden prior to the US-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)Just as importantly, the two men also reaffirmed the commonsense principle, agreed on by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The summit communiqué, albeit modest and overdue, is a vital recognition that the status quo is dangerous and unsustainable. It is a chance for a course correction that moves the world further from the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

Now, each side must walk the talk. The first step is promptly beginning a robust, bilateral, results-oriented nuclear risk reduction and disarmament dialogue. With the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms control agreement, expiring in 2026, there is little time to negotiate new arrangements necessary to further reduce the bloated U.S. and Russian strategic and nonstrategic nuclear stockpiles.

Second, if the two presidents are serious about nuclear wars being unwinnable, they need to formally declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or respond only to a nuclear attack, not non-nuclear threats. Once a nuclear weapon is used first by design, accident, or inadvertence, there is no guarantee that all-out nuclear war can be averted. Given the catastrophic effects of even limited nuclear use, neither side would be the winner.

Unfortunately, current Russian and U.S. nuclear use doctrines suggest that each side believes regional nuclear wars can be fought and won because such wars somehow can be kept limited.

In its 2020 iteration of policy, Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons…in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Whether Russia might contemplate an even lower threshold for use in a regional conflict has been the subject of much debate.

In 2018, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) expanded the “extreme circumstances” under which the United States would contemplate first use of nuclear weapons to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” The document
says “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” could include chemical and biological attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks.

These U.S. and Russian nuclear use policies are far too permissive and risky and must change. In a March 2020 Foreign Affairs essay, Biden said, “I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack.” As president, Biden must put those words into practice.

Third, if a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought, the United States and Russia should not be expanding their capabilities to fight and prevail in such a war.

Russia has an obscene arsenal of some 1,500–2,000, lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, and the United States believes this arsenal is poised to grow in the years ahead. The Trump administration meanwhile proposed to double the types of lower-yield nuclear options in the U.S. arsenal.

Even though Biden, as a presidential candidate, said “[t]he United States does not need new nuclear weapons,” his fiscal year 2022 budget proposes funding for a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile,
one of the two new low-yield options pursued by Trump to provide additional strike options in a regional war.

Another way in which the “nuclear war cannot be won” statement can serve as a steppingstone to global risk reduction would be for all five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) to support that principle. At a P5 meeting last year, China proposed a joint statement along these lines, but the United States vetoed the idea. Shortly before the Biden-Putin summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi revived the proposal.

When the Security Council’s permanent members meet in France later this year on nuclear matters, it should endorse the Biden-Putin statement to signal a shared interest in avoiding nuclear war and agree to launch an expanded set of talks on nuclear risk reduction and arms control. In addition, Washington and Beijing could launch their own bilateral strategic stability dialogue to explore practical ideas for heading off destabilizing nuclear competition.

Luckily, nuclear weapons have not been used in combat since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But someday, our collective luck is certain to run out, with catastrophic consequences, unless the leaders of the world’s nuclear-armed states act now to forestall a new nuclear arms race and rediscover the path to a world free of nuclear weapons.

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two largest nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at their June 16 summit to engage in a robust “strategic stability” dialogue to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

U.S., Russia Agree to Strategic Stability Dialogue


July/August 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during their June summit to relaunch a bilateral strategic stability dialogue focused on “ensuring predictability,” reducing the risk of nuclear war, and setting the stage “for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

During their June 16 summit in Geneva, U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to relaunch a strategic stability dialogue aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war. (Photo by Peter Klaunzer—Pool/Keystone via Getty Images)The announcement marked the first step in what could be a long, contentious process to make progress on nuclear arms control after more than a decade of deadlock and before the last remaining arms control agreement expires in five years between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

In a joint statement released following their June 16 meeting, the two presidents said the strategic stability dialogue their countries planned to initiate would be “integrated,” “deliberate,” and “robust.”

Biden added at a press conference after the summit that the dialogue would “work on a mechanism that can lead to control of new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons that are coming on the scene now that reduce the times of response, that raise the prospects of accidental war.” Biden did not detail what specific weapons systems he has in mind.

He said that “we’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”

The date and location of the dialogue is not set, but will soon be determined by officials at the U.S. State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry, Putin noted during his postsummit press conference.

On June 22, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference that Moscow has proposed as “a first step, a joint review of each other’s security concerns.” The next step, he said, would be to “outline possible ways how to address these concerns,” with the goal being an agreed framework that “will be instrumental for further engagement in actual negotiations on eventual, practical agreements and arrangements.”

A strategic stability dialogue was last held in August 2020 under the Trump administration in the lead-up to the expiration of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in February 2021. (See ACT, September 2020.) But two days before the treaty’s expiration, Biden and Putin agreed to extend New START by five years, until 2026. (See ACT, March 2021.)

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) welcomed the dialogue’s planned resumption. “President Biden made clear his administration understands the critical principle that we have to engage with Russia on arms control issues to ensure a nuclear war never happens,” Menendez said in a June 16 statement.

But Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the committee’s ranking member, expressed his disappointment in the outcome of the summit, stating that “Biden made no efforts to address Russia’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty violations.” The United States withdrew from the 1987 INF Treaty in 2019, claiming that Russia had violated the treaty by testing and deploying a banned missile system. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The two presidents in their joint statement reaffirmed the 1985 statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Dozens of international nuclear policy experts and former senior government officials encouraged the two presidents to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev principle and announce the resumption of a strategic stability dialogue.

But the United States and Russia appear to have different priorities for the dialogue. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on June 10 that the administration will aim to discuss “the very complex set of nuclear arms issues that face our two countries,” such as what may come after New START, “how…we deal with the fact that the INF Treaty is no more, [and] how…we deal with our concerns about Russia’s new nuclear systems.” Washington has also previously expressed its desire to address Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process.

Sullivan added that “whether additional elements get added to strategic stability talks in the realm of space or cyber[space] or other areas, that’s something to be determined as we go forward.”

As for Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on June 9 that “anything that affects strategic stability must be discussed during a dialogue,” including “nuclear and non-nuclear and offensive and defensive weapons.” Russia additionally has suggested the inclusion not only of China in arms control but also France and the United Kingdom.

Ryabkov added on June 22 that “[t]he parties may decide to adopt a package of interrelated arrangements and/or agreements that might have a different status if necessary. Moreover, it might be possible to design some elements in a way to make the room for others to join.”

China welcomed the U.S.-Russian decision to launch a strategic dialogue.

“China always actively supports international efforts in nuclear arms control, and will continue to hold discussions on a broad range of issues bearing on strategic stability with relevant parties within such frameworks as the cooperation mechanism of the five nuclear-weapon states, Conference on Disarmament, and the [UN General Assembly] First Committee. We also stand ready to have bilateral dialogue with relevant sides with mutual respect and on an equal footing,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said June 17.

During a round of the strategic stability dialogue in June 2020, the two countries agreed to form three working groups, which met the next month. (See ACT, July/August and September 2020.) A U.S. official at the time said the topics for the working groups were nuclear warheads and doctrine, verification, and space systems.

Whether those groups have continued their work since then is unclear.

The new strategic stability dialogue would be separate from any future negotiations on a potential arms control agreement to follow New START, but it could help set the foundation for those formal follow-on talks.

Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for New START, emphasized in a June 14 Politico op-ed that the goal for the strategic stability dialogue should be “a good discussion rather than a treaty, although over time the two sides may agree to some measures to build mutual understanding, confidence and predictability.”

Regarding future negotiations on a replacement for New START, Gottemoeller urged Biden and Putin to “issue clear, simple guidance about what exactly the new treaty will cover and when it should be completed.”

The summit between Biden and Putin came at the tail end of Biden’s first international trip as president, which also included the NATO leaders’ summit on June 14. In the communiqué released after that summit, the 30 heads of state expressed “their strong support for [New START’s] continued implementation and for early and active dialogue on ways to improve strategic stability. Allies will welcome new strategic talks between the United States and Russia on future arms control measures, taking into account all Allies’ security.”

The bilateral dialogue could be the first step in making progress on arms control after more than a decade of deadlock.

Will Biden and Putin Restart Talks on Strategic Stability & Arms Control?

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For Immediate Release: June 14, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Shannon Bugos, research associate, 202-463-8270 ext 113

The June 16 summit in Geneva between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin is a pivotal opportunity to begin to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, enhance stability, and get back on track to reduce their bloated and very dangerous nuclear stockpiles.

Amid rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the world’s two largest nuclear-weapon states, nuclear risk reduction and disarmament discussions have been pushed to the back burner. Both countries are spending tens of billions a year modernizing and upgrading their massive nuclear stockpiles. Russia has wantonly violated several arms control and nonproliferation agreements, is developing new nuclear weapons delivery systems that echo some of the worst excesses of the Cold War, and may be increasing its total warhead stockpile for the first time in decades.

The strategic relationship has been further complicated by the development and fielding by each side of emerging technologies, such as offensive cyber and hypersonic weapons, and new advances in U.S. missile defense systems.

In February, Biden and Putin wisely agreed to extend for five years the only remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals: the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). But unless Washington and Moscow make progress in the next few years on new nuclear arms control agreements, there will be no agreed-upon limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons for the first time since 1972.

Mutual Interest in "Strategic Stability"

While there are many areas of disagreement between the two governments, both sides have expressed a common interest in renewing a serious dialogue on maintaining “strategic stability.”

As established in earlier bilateral agreements and previous summit communiques, such dialogue aims to ensure that neither side has an incentive to use nuclear weapons first or has an incentive to build up its nuclear forces.

Today, however, each side has a different view on what threatens strategic stability and what issues should be the focus of such talks and future potential arms control arrangements.

On June 10 National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said: “We believe the starting point for strategic stability talks should be the very complex set of nuclear arms issues that face our two countries….Whether additional elements get added to strategic stability talks in the realm of space or cyber or other areas, that’s something to be determined as we go forward.”

Conversely, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated this month Russia’s support for “a comprehensive approach and taking into account all, without exception, factors influencing strategic stability in our dialogue with the United States. I mean nuclear and non-nuclear, and offensive and defensive weapons.”

To be effective, the discussions need to amount to more than brief exchanges of grievances, as was the case during the Trump years. Instead, as many nuclear security and disarmament experts and organizations, including the Arms Control Association, have suggested, the dialogue needs to be regular, frequent, and comprehensive. It should set the stage for actions and agreements that meaningfully reduce the nuclear risk.

As a tangible step to help defuse tensions and provide some positive momentum, a wide range of experts and former senior officials are also calling on the two presidents to reaffirm the common-sense statement issued by Gorbachev and Reagan at their 1985 summit that: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Next Steps on Arms Control

Initiating strategic stability talks is overdue and essential. Achieving new agreements to reduce nuclear excess will be even more challenging.

To make progress before New START expires in 2026, they will need to pursue solutions that:

  • achieve deeper, verifiable reductions in the total number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems;
  • address nonstrategic (i.e., tactical) nuclear weapons;
  • put in place constraints on non-nuclear weapons that impact the strategic balance, such as long-range missile defenses; attempt to mitigate the negative impacts on stability that could ensue from the collapse of the INF Treaty; and
  • seek to broaden the arms control and disarmament dialogue to include other nuclear-armed states, particularly China, France, and the United Kingdom.

In 1979, during the depths of the Cold War, then-Senator Joe Biden told an Arms Control Association gathering that “pursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.”

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Background for Reporters Covering the Geneva Summit

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High-Level Group Issues Appeal to Biden and Putin to Reduce Nuclear Weapons Dangers

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For Immediate Release: June 8, 2021

Media Contacts: Ira Helfand, past president, IPPNW (1-413-320-7829); Sergey Batsanov, Pugwash Conferences (+41-791-554-610); Rachel Bronson, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1-312-404-3071); Daryl Kimball, executive director, Arms Control Association (1-202-463-8270 ext. 107).

(Washington, D.C./Moscow)—In advance of the first summit between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joseph R. Biden in Geneva on June 16, a group of more than 30 American and Russian organizations, international nuclear policy experts, and former senior officials have issued an appeal to the two Presidents calling upon them to launch a regular dialogue on strategic stability, to take meaningful steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war, and to make further progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament.

The statement was organized by leaders of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Pugwash Conference on Science and Global Affairs, the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Peace, and the Arms Control Association.

In the statement, which was delivered to the two governments on June 7, the signatories urge the two presidents to: "Commit to a bilateral strategic dialogue that is regular, frequent, comprehensive and result-oriented leading to further reduction of the nuclear risk hanging over the world and to the re-discovery of the road to a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Sergey Batsanov of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs emphasized that the summit "could be a launching point for talks on strategic stability in all its aspects. Stability is being eroded by multiple factors—geopolitical, technological, military, doctrinal, and others—raising the threat of nuclear war and undermining the security of all states. Addressing this issue would also facilitate new nuclear arms control and disarmament negotiations.”

Ira Helfand, past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, said: “It is urgent that President Biden and President Putin reaffirm the ground-breaking statement issued by Gorbachev and Reagan in 1985 that 'a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’”

“U.S. and Russia are still armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. It is by no means certain that the two sides will continue to have enough good luck, responsible leadership, and managerial competence to avoid catastrophe,” warned Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “We urge the two presidents to seize the opportunity their summit provides to put us back on the road toward a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Among the other signatories of the Appeal are: Peter Buijs, M.D., chair of the Netherlands IPPNW, who initiated the Appeal; Igor Ivanov, former Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation; Academician Alexandre Dynkin, Chair, Russian Pugwash Committee; William J. Perry, former U.S. Secretary of Defense; Amb. Sergio Duarte, president of the Pugwash Conferences; General Vyacheslav Trubnikov, IMEMO (Institute of World Economy and International Relations); Joan Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative; Edmund G. Brown Jr., former Governor of California Executive Chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; and Colonel General Victor Esin, former chief of staff, Russian Strategic Missile Forces.

The full text of the appeal and the complete list of signers is available online at the websites of the Arms Control Association, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the Pugwash Conference.

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In advance of the June 16 summit between Presidents Biden and Putin, more than 30 American and Russian organizations, international nuclear policy experts, and former senior officials have issued an appeal to the two Presidents calling upon them to launch a regular dialogue to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

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U.S. Will Not Rejoin Open Skies Treaty

June 2021

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

A U.S. OC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. (Photo: Department of Defense)Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov of the administration’s final decision on May 27, the Associated Press reported. A State Department spokesperson later confirmed the news and attributed the decision to “Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance” with the treaty.

Washington had raised concerns that Moscow is in violation of the treaty because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers from the border and prohibited missions over Russia from flying within 10 kilometers of its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Ryabkov criticized the U.S. decision as “another political mistake, inflicting a new blow to the European security system” in remarks on Friday to the Russian news agency Tass. “We gave them a good chance, but they failed to take it. They continue to circulate fallacies about Russia’s alleged violations of the treaty, which is completely absurd,” Ryabkov said.

When the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the accord in November 2020, President-elect Joe Biden condemned the withdrawal and expressed support for the treaty, although he stopped short of committing to reenter the agreement. Once he took office, the Biden administration opened a review of “matters related to the treaty” and held consultations with U.S. allies and partners earlier this year. (See ACT, March 2021; December 2020.)

Moscow, meanwhile, launched domestic procedures in January for withdrawing from the treaty. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, approved legislation supporting the move May 19; the upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to vote on the bill June 2. The bill will require Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature. Once submitting official notice to states-parties, Moscow would kick-start the six-month period before the withdrawal takes place.

Entering into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.—SHANNON BUGOS

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

Biden, Putin to Meet in June

June 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

“The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on May 25. “We expect they will spend a fair amount of time on strategic stability, where the arms control agenda goes following the extension” of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), she said.

The Kremlin statement also emphasized that the two will discuss “problems of strategic stability.”

Washington and Moscow agreed in February to extend the treaty for five years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Biden expressed in April his hope that, after the two leaders meet, “the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security” that would build on the New START extension. 

The United States will pursue “arms control that addresses all Russian nuclear weapons, including novel strategic systems and nonstrategic nuclear weapons,” Robert Wood, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, told the conference on May 11. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented the same day that discussions must “consider the problems of strategic stability, taking into account all factors and systems without exception, offensive and defensive, which have a direct influence on this strategic stability.”

Biden first proposed the idea of a summit with Putin in April. (See ACT, May 2021.) A May 19 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov in Reykjavik and a May 24 meeting between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev in Geneva helped pave the way for the official summit announcement.—SHANNON BUGOS 

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

Responses to Common Criticisms of Adjusting U.S. Nuclear Modernization Plans

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Volume 13, Issue 3, May 18, 2021

With the Biden administration set to release its fiscal year 2022 budget request May 27 and conduct a more comprehensive review of nuclear policy later this year, the debate about how the United States should approach nuclear modernization has reached a fever pitch.

The nation is planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to maintain and upgrade nearly its entire nuclear arsenal. This explosion of spending comes at a time when a devastating global pandemic has redefined how many Americans think about security, China’s growing role on the global stage poses multifaceted challenges, and most experts believe that the U.S. defense budget will remain flat over the next several years.

While the Trump administration expanded the role of and spending on the arsenal and turned its back on arms control as a national security tool, the Biden administration in its interim national security strategic guidance released in March said that it “will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

The Biden administration smartly and quickly agreed with Russia to a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) without conditions and pledged to “pursue new arms control arrangements.”

But there is more work to do. Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast.

The Biden administration’s topline discretionary budget request released in April said that “While the Administration is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture, the discretionary request supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable.” But there are several modernization efforts that do not meet the “sustainable” criterion.

The administration can and should move the United States toward a nuclear strategy that will continue to ensure an effective nuclear deterrent, reflects a narrower role for nuclear weapons, raises the nuclear threshold, is more affordable, and supports the pursuit of additional arms control and reduction measures designed to enhance stability and reduce the chance of nuclear conflict.

Below are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 


Claim: Nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much.

Response: The reality is that the financial cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is growing increasingly punishing. President Trump’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons was a 19 percent increase over the previous year.

Though the sunk costs to date have been relatively minimal, spending on nuclear weapons is slated to increase dramatically in the coming years. In contrast, the topline national defense budget will likely be flat at best. (The Biden administration’s FY 2022 defense topline request does not keep pace with inflation.) Nearly the entire arsenal is slated for an upgrade and/or replacement at roughly the same time, and the bulk of the modernization portion of the cost will occur over the next 10 to 15 years.

One oft-heard claim in support of the status quo is that even at its peak in the late-2020s, spending on nuclear weapons is affordable because it will only consume roughly 6.4 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this figure is misleading for several reasons. The estimate, which was prepared to inform the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, is now nearly 4 years old. The projection also does not include spending on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous Energy Department agency whose nuclear weapons activities are part of the national defense budget. Since the end of the Obama administration, NNSA weapons activities spending has grown by roughly 70 percent. When NNSA spending is included, nuclear weapons already accounted for 6 percent of the total FY 2021 national defense budget request.

Program cost overruns and likely schedule delays are poised to exacerbate the financial challenge. Last year, the NNSA requested an unplanned increase of $2.8 billion relative to earlier planning. The agency’s 25-year plan published in December showed that projected spending on nuclear weapons activities has risen to $505 billion. That is a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

The scope and schedule goals for the nuclear modernization effort are highly aggressive and face major execution problems. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published in May, “every nuclear triad replacement program—including the B21, LRSO, GBSD, and Columbia class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and” Defense and Energy Department “wide risk factors.” Extending the schedule for these programs will increase their cost.

The growing price tag of the nuclear mission is coinciding with Pentagon plans to recapitalize large portions of the nation’s conventional force. The last time the United States simultaneously modernized its conventional and nuclear forces in the 1980s, it did so alongside an increasing defense budget, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work recently noted. “With such increases, the Pentagon did not have to trade conventional capability for nuclear forces,” Work points out, but “unless something changes, that will not be the case this time.”

Indeed, in order accommodate the multi-billion dollar unplanned budget increase in FY 2021 for the NNSA, the Navy was forced to cut a second Virginia-class attack submarine from its budget submission. Congress ultimately added the second Virginia back to the budget, but the episode illustrates the significant threat that spending nuclear weapons spending poses to other national security and military priorities.

As the cost of nuclear weapons continues to rise, the choices that are made about what not to fund to pay for them are going to get more difficult, especially amid a flat defense budget. And the longer the government waits to make those hard choices, the more suboptimal they are going to get.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear force structure and modernization plans in the face of growing Russian and Chinese nuclear threats would be unwise.

Response: The Biden administration is undoubtedly inheriting a less hospitable security environment than what existed when President Obama left office in 2016. On the nuclear front, Russia and China are modernizing their arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

But this does not mean the United States should follow suit – or maintain a nuclear arsenal in excess to what is needed for deterrence.

China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal has grown only modestly over the past decade. While the Defense Department projects that China may at least double its arsenal over the next decade, it estimates Beijing’s current arsenal to be in the low-200s. Should China’s nuclear stockpile double, it would still be many times smaller than the current U.S. stockpile of about 3,800 warheads. Relative to the many challenges China poses to the United States and its allies, the Chinese nuclear challenge is not among the most pressing.

With respect to Russia, in 2013, the Obama administration determined the security of the United States and its allies could be maintained while pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons below the level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems as stipulated by New START.

The case for a one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces remains strong. The size of the Russian strategic nuclear force has not changed since then and remains lower than that of the United States. What nefarious opportunities would Moscow be able to exploit in the face of a U.S. nuclear arsenal by 2030 consisting of, for example: 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads on 10 ballistic missile submarines, 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and at least 60 long-range bombers; two low-yield warhead delivery options; and 1,500-2,000 warheads in reserve?

The Biden administration should seek to make further reductions in the U.S. arsenal in concert with Russia, as well as bring China off the arms control sidelines. But it should not give Moscow or Beijing veto power over U.S. force adjustments as further reductions will not compromise U.S. national security. Decisions about force needs must take into account the long-term funding challenges posed by maintaining the U.S. arsenal at its current size and consider the opportunity costs.

After all, planned U.S. spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.

As Adm. Philip Davidson, the former head of Indo-Pacific Command, put it earlier this year: “The greatest danger to the future of the United States continues to be an erosion of conventional deterrence.” How does cutting attack submarines to pay for cost overruns at the NNSA address this greatest danger? How does replacing conventional sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines with a planned fleet of new nuclear cruise missiles address this greatest danger?

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans won’t save money.

Response: Supporters of the current modernization approach claim that the only choice is to proceed full steam ahead with the status quo or allow the U.S. nuclear arsenal to rust into obsolescence. This is a false choice. Adjusting long-standing and more recently adopted nuclear planning assumptions would enable changes to the current nuclear modernization effort and could produce scores of billions of dollars in savings to redirect to higher priority national security needs.

Of course, pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending, as a significant portion of the overall cost of nuclear weapons remains fixed. That said, changes to the nuclear replacement program could make it easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise.

For example, reshaping the spending plans consistent with an up to one-third reduction in deployed nuclear warheads could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Claim: The Minuteman III missile system can’t be life extended again.

Response: ICBMs are the least valuable, least essential, and least stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. What the nation invests to sustain ICBMs should reflect this reality. Spending approximately $100 billion to buy a new ICBM system over the next 10-15 years and billions more on an upgraded ICBM warhead and the production of plutonium pits for the warhead fails to reflect the limited utility of ICBMs.

The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs across five states. Supporters argue that the ICBM force presents an attacker with hundreds of targets on the U.S. homeland and is a hedge against a potential future vulnerability in the sea-based leg of the triad. However, even if one supports these arguments, there are cheaper options than going forward with the ICBM replacement program, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.

Past independent assessments indicate that it is possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III missiles beyond their planned retirement in the 2030 timeframe, as the Defense Department has done before, by refurbishing the rocket motors and other parts.

In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that deferring the new missile portion of GBSD by two decades, extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles, and proceeding with refurbishment of the system’s command and control infrastructure as planned could save $37 billion (in 2017 dollars) through the late 2030s. The option value of this approach would be significant as the Pentagon seeks to navigate the daunting conventional and nuclear modernization bow wave that is now upon it.

Defense officials have put forward several arguments against extending the Minuteman III based on the program analysis of alternatives conducted in 2014, but all of the arguments merit greater scrutiny.

The Defense Department claims that the price to build and operate a new missile system would be less than the cost to maintain the Minuteman III. But it seems the Pentagon arrived at this conclusion by comparing the total life-cycle cost of the two options through 2075. Since Minuteman III missiles cannot be extended for the full period, the department assumed a new missile eventually would be needed. Might comparing the two options over a shorter period produce a different answer? The CBO’s analysis suggested the answer is yes.

The Pentagon also argues that a new missile is essential to maintain the current force of 400 deployed ICBMs. While true that there eventually will not be enough Minuteman III motors to maintain a force of 400 ICBMs at the current rate of testing, this problem can be solved by reducing the number of deployed missiles to, say, 300. How did 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075 become a sacrosanct requirement for a modernization decision covering half a century? Furthermore, future arms control agreements could result in the need for fewer ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal, and presidents can also change military requirements to call for fewer ICBMs.

In addition, defense officials say that the ICBM leg of the triad requires new capabilities that the Minuteman III cannot provide, such as additional target coverage and the ability to penetrate advancing adversary missile defenses. These are curious claims.

First, what and how many targets are Minuteman III missiles unable to hit? Targets in China or North Korea that would require overflying Russia? Can these targets not be hit by other U.S. nuclear capabilities, notably the best mobile intercontinental-range missile on the planet: the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile?

Regarding the missile defense concern, is this a 2030 problem or a 2075 problem? Are the Russians and Chinese on the verge of unlocking the secret to intercepting scores of hypersonic ICBMs armed with decoys and countermeasures – a secret the United States has been unable to unlock? When the Russians express similar concerns about unconstrained U.S. missile defenses posing a threat to the credibility of their nuclear deterrent, U.S. officials dismiss their concerns as paranoia.

These are questions that need far more compelling answers before proceeding full steam ahead with GBSD. There is no evidence the Pentagon has studied the extension option across a wider range of parameters than those considered in 2014. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, conceded in April that the Pentagon “may be able to chart,” a life extension of the Minuteman III, “but there is an enormous amount of detail that has to go into that.” The Pentagon appears to have no choice but to consider alternatives. According to the GAO, GBSD “program schedule delays are likely.”

Might continuing to rely on the Minuteman III system beyond the 2030s entail some technical risk? Yes. Would it be preferable to replace the aging Minuteman III supporting infrastructure, which in many cases relies on parts that are no longer made, in one fell swoop rather than via incremental upgrades? Probably. Would a common configuration for all launch facilities, which GBSD would provide, make maintenance easier? Yes. Would new missiles built to accommodate future technology upgrades be easier to maintain in the long run? Yes.

But while building a new ICBM system might be preferable, it is not essential. Not given the limited utility of ICBMs. Not given the enormous cost of the GBSD program. Not given the availability of the extension and the incremental upgrade option. Not given other pressing priorities amid a flat defense budget. And not given that future arms control agreements could reduce U.S. nuclear forces.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would undermine the assurance of allies amid allied concern about the threats posed by Russia and China and the strength of the credibility of the U.S. commitment to their security.

Response: The Trump administration attempted to buttress extended deterrence with new nuclear capabilities and more ambiguous language about when it might consider the use of nuclear weapons. These changes do not appear to have assured allies, which suggests that the assurance challenge is more of a political “software” than a military “hardware” problem. Moreover, the most proximate threat Russia and China pose to allies comes from non-nuclear and asymmetric “grey-zone” capabilities that are harder to deter and more likely to lead to conflict escalation. Improving conventional deterrence and alliance cohesion would be more appropriate for this problem than greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

The United States can continue to assure its allies and partners as it reduces the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy, maintains second-to-none conventional military forces, and, most importantly, strengthens political relationships through reaffirmations of the value of alliances, stronger economic and cultural ties, and stepped-up dialogue that tie the United States more closely to the security of its allies.

As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Elaine Bunn recently put it:

“The precise make up...of the nuclear force [is] not likely to have the greatest impact on allies’ views of extended nuclear deterrence. That's about the overall relationship, the peacetime consultations, the crisis management exercises. It’s about that whole web of interactions that we have with allies. And so as long as there’s a baseline of an effective nuclear arsenal, I think if we are confident in our nuclear deterrence capabilities then with right consultation allies will be too.”

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would reduce U.S. leverage to achieve new arms control agreements.

Response: First, a close examination of the history of U.S.-Russian arms control raises doubts about the strength of the link between increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons and arms control success. For example, the U.S. and NATO decision to field new ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s is often cited as being essential to convincing Moscow to agree to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty prohibiting such weapons. But the actual fielding of the new weapons beginning in 1983 prompted Moscow to walk out of arms control talks. The talks did not resume until 1985 following the major political change in the Soviet Union that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to leader.

Second, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce an appreciable number of new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Third, the Trump administration’s repeated threats to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal did not force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands for a new arms control agreement.

Fourth, an up to one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces would still leave the United States with ample nuclear capability with which to trade as part of new arms control arrangements with Russia (or in the future China). Even after such a reduction, the United States would retain rough parity with Russia in the number of strategic delivery systems and warheads. Moreover, while past strategic nuclear arms control agreements have included equal ceilings on strategic forces, some agreements have included ranges for the ceilings.

Fifth, Moscow has identified constraints on U.S. non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts, especially cuts to Russia’s new “novel” strategic range delivery systems and large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads. The success or failure new arms control talks will rise or fall in large part based on how these issues are addressed, not whether, for instance, the United States builds a new ICBM.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research associate

Description: 

Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast. Here are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 

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Back From the Brink? Next Steps for Biden and Putin


May 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two major nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled he will confront Russia when necessary. But, he also stressed, “where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should, and we will”—specifically on reducing the risk of nuclear conflict.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks from the White House on April 15, 2021 and calls on Russia to engage in "a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security." (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)In remarks April 15, Biden said his proposed summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin could be a launching point for talks on strategic stability and nuclear arms control. Serious, sustained disarmament diplomacy is overdue and essential, but achieving new agreements will be challenging.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean region in 2014, long-simmering U.S.-Russian tensions have risen to a boil. Disarmament discussions have been pushed to the back burner. Instead, treaty compliance disputes have dominated bilateral engagements. Meanwhile, each side is rushing to replace and upgrade its bloated nuclear arsenal. China and the United Kingdom, among other nuclear-armed states, are also increasing their nuclear capabilities.

As Melissa Dalton, acting assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities, recently told a House committee, “The range of Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization makes the task of making progress on further arms control all the more necessary.”

Early this year, Biden and Putin wisely agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years. As a new bicameral congressional working group on nuclear arms control noted in its April 20 letter to the president, “Although New START is necessary, it is not by itself sufficient to tackle the threat that nuclear weapons present.”

The two sides can and must move quickly to find effective new solutions before New START expires in 2026. To make progress, they will need to tackle four difficult but resolvable issues.

Reducing strategic arsenals further. A key objective of the next round of talks should be deeper, verifiable reductions in the total number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems. In 2013 the Obama administration, with input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, determined that the United States and Russia could further reduce their strategic nuclear forces by up to one-third below New START levels, to approximately 1,000 warheads, and still meet core nuclear deterrence goals. These limits will need to factor in new systems being developed by both sides, including hypersonic weapons.

Tackling tactical nuclear weapons. New START follow-on negotiations should also address nonstrategic nuclear weapons, beginning with a transparency agreement requiring detailed declarations on tactical nuclear stockpiles, including warheads in storage. Making progress on tactical nuclear arms control, however, should not become a prerequisite for lower ceilings on the two sides’ strategic nuclear arsenals.

Limiting strategic interceptors. U.S. efforts to further limit Russian nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process are unlikely to gain traction unless Washington agrees to seriously discuss constraints on its long-range missile defense capabilities. Fielding sufficient numbers of U.S. missile interceptors to mitigate the threat of a limited ballistic attack from North Korea or Iran and agreeing to binding limits on the quantity, location, and capability of missile defense systems should not be mutually exclusive.

Averting a race on intermediate-range missiles. In the absence of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the risk of a new missile race is Europe will grow. Biden, in coordination with NATO, should counter Russia’s 2020 proposal for a verifiable moratorium on the deployment in Europe of missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty. Although imperfect, the Russian proposal is a starting point. Another option would be to verifiably ban nuclear-armed ground-launched and sea-launched cruise and ballistic missiles.

To broaden the disarmament effort, Biden and Putin could call on China, France, and the UK to report on their total nuclear weapons holdings and freeze their nuclear stockpiles as long as the United States and Russia pursue deeper verifiable reductions in their far larger arsenals.

New crises, such as the Kremlin’s mistreatment of Russian political dissidents or further Russian meddling in Ukraine, could make U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation even more difficult. Still, as Biden notes, “[t]hroughout our long history of competition, our two countries have been able to find ways to manage tensions and to keep them from escalating out of control.”

It is by no means certain that the two sides will continue to have enough good luck, responsible leadership, and managerial competence to avoid catastrophe. Once a nuclear weapon is used by accident or miscalculation or in response to nonnuclear aggression, there is no guarantee that all-out nuclear war can be averted. Sustaining progress on disarmament is not a choice but a necessity for human survival.

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two major nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled he will confront Russia when necessary.

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