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News | Oct. 20, 2021

Future Directions for Great Power Nuclear Arms Control: Policy Options and National Security Implications

By Lt Col T. Justin Bronder, USAF

Occasional paper cover with abstract orange background
Future Directions for Great Power Nuclear Arms Control: Policy Options and National Security Implications
With New START expiring in 2026, this Occasional Paper by 2020 National Defense University-U.S. Strategic Command Scholar Lt T. Justin Bronder, USAF, provides an assessment of several possible nuclear arms control/risk reduction approaches for the United States to consider. The author evaluates each approach for its possible impact on U.S.-Russia strategic stability, extended deterrence, budget costs, and other key factors, and recommends that in the near-term the United States engage other major nuclear powers in talks on new risk reduction and confidence-building measures.
Photo By: Brianna Harwart
VIRIN: 211020-D-RX634-1001

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which represents the sole treaty currently limiting nuclear arms arsenals between the United States and Russia, will expire in 2026. What approach should the United States take as it seeks to maintain a “safe, secure, and effective” nuclear deterrent while also considering possible future negotiations on nuclear arms control and risk reduction agreements?

This monograph by 2020 National Defense University-U.S. Strategic Command Scholar Lt Col Justin Bronder, USAF, assesses four different approaches for the United States to consider: 1) seek a bilateral U.S.-Russia agreement that maintains strategic nuclear forces at New START levels with some additional transparency measures on missile defenses and “tactical” nuclear weapons; 2) attempt to negotiate a multilateral legally-binding treaty aimed at significant reductions of nuclear weapons; 3) hold separate talks with Russia and China on bilateral, politically-binding agreements seeking to manage nuclear risks; or 4) unilaterally pursue nuclear superiority. The paper provides a detailed evaluation of each of these potential options across five categories: strategic stability (How might this approach affect arms race stability and first-strike stability?); proliferation (Will this affect whether other states consider developing or otherwise attempting to acquire nuclear weapons?); extended deterrence (How might U.S. allies respond? Will it affect their views of U.S. nuclear security guarantees?); cost (How might it affect the U.S. budget?); and competitive advantage (How might it affect the “direction and velocity” of strategic competition with Russia and China?).

The author concludes that a number of obstacles may preclude the successful negotiation and ratification of future legally-binding accords reducing U.S., Russian, and Chinese nuclear forces, but also finds there are significant risks and costs associated with attempting to realize some form of U.S. nuclear superiority over other major nuclear powers. In the near-term, the paper suggests that “arms control discussions at all levels should include a review of measures that could be taken as backups or “offramps” from ratification that still secure as binding of an agreement as possible … an agreement [that] addresses priority issues and helps motivate mutual restraint may prove to be an effective paradigm for major arms control breakthroughs in the future” (60).

NDU Scholars develop and complete rigorous individual study projects responding to research requests from the Department of Defense (to include the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Combatant Commands) and other Departments of the U.S. Government. Scholars thus aim to provide papers that can inform deliberations on present and near-term strategy and policy questions. Conducting their research during their time as a student at NDU and in addition to their University degree requirements, Scholars’ views are their own and do not represent those of their home Service, Department, or Agency. This Occasional Paper is based on research Lt Col Bronder completed as a member of the 2020 Scholars class. As NDU Distinguished Fellow Paul Bernstein notes in his introduction to the publication: “The product of both deep research and incisive thinking, this paper will help those looking for approaches to reduce nuclear risks while sustaining deterrence and managing Great Power relations” (vii). 

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