Why A New US Missile is the Start of a New Arms Race

Since their invention in the mid-20th century, nuclear weapons have been a threat to global peace. An arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and people were told how to react should the worst happen. The Cold War was a time of great tension, with the two nations ready to strike hard and fast at any provocation from their rival. 30 years ago, a treaty was signed between the two powers that limited development of new nuclear weapons –– playing a key role in preserving peace. That tenuous peace, however, may be eroding in the face of new nuclear activity taking place within the two countries.

A New Cruise Missile, a New Arms Race

Today, 94% of the world’s nuclear weapons are owned by Russia and the U.S. Though nuclear war has not come to pass in the intervening years, there are concerns that a new arms race may be underway. Since 2014, Russia has been developing and testing a new ground-launched cruise missile each year. These missiles violate the terms of the original treaty, as they are longer-range than the treaty permits. In 2014, the Russian Federation also took a new, more aggressive stance on nuclear arms than in previous years, stating that they would now strike first in nuclear conflict, even against countries without their own nuclear programs.

The United States, being the other global nuclear power, had a choice in how to respond to this violation of the treaty. Congress’s choice was to fight fire with fire and fund research and development of road-mobile, ground-launched missiles as well. This has the potential to turn into a new arms race, not unlike the one that took place in the 1950’s and throughout the Cold War. Upgrading nuclear weapons pushes back the original values of the treaties and creates new tension and uncertainty around the globe.


Goals of Nuclear Policy and Treaties  

Nuclear weapons are the most powerful and lethal instruments of war that humans have created, and nations all over the globe are aware of the need to regulate and control them in order to avoid major conflict, loss of life, and even a nuclear apocalypse.

The United States has historically structured its nuclear policies around principles of responsibility and keeping the stockpile of weapons as low as possible. Unlike recent Russian policy, the backbone of American nuclear policy has been to protect the globe against nuclear terrorism by keeping the number of nuclear weapons low, and controlling these weapons tightly. Nuclear policy in the U.S. is designed to decrease reliance on the use of nuclear weapons, while still maintaining a stable deterrence strategy.

In the difficult position of responding to the Russian Federation’s new, more aggressive policies by developing new nuclear weapons, the United States is going against some of its own values regarding nuclear weaponry and potentially facilitating even more global tension. However, deterrence measures benefiting not just American states and territories, but allies as well are necessary in order to protect against a nuclear attack and preserve global peace. Balancing the values of reduced reliance on nuclear weaponry and the need to prevent Russia from becoming the world’s biggest nuclear power unanswered is a difficult situation, highlighting the need for new diplomatic efforts.

Current Stockpiles

Today, there are still around 16,000 nuclear weapons that exist worldwide. Russia leads in deployed warheads—as of 2016, the Federation had 1,796, while the United States maintained 1,267. According to then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2017, 2,800 warheads had been retired and were awaiting dismantlement. Both countries are once again increasing their nuclear stockpiles, despite repeated pledges to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and recognizing the potential devastation.

The development of intercontinental ballistic missiles mean that strikes can occur from far away, both from the ground and the sea, with nuclear attack submarines. One of Russia’s most important ground-based weapons has around a 60-65% chance of evading defense systems and has a range of up to 11,000 kilometers. The United States maintains weapons that can be launched from the ground, sea, and air in order to reduce the chances of a Russian attack. These defenses include around 400 Minutemen III ICBMs, 12 nuclear submarines, and B61-12 model, which is a highly precise and customizable weapon with the power of up to 50 kilotons of TNT.

The Future of Nuclear Arms

In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of the Russian Federation initiated a treaty to cut down on nuclear arms by about 30%. To hold each other accountable, the treaty described a scheduled inspection process that would prevent either from straying from the agreement and building up a new arsenal. Despite that process, this recent re-initiation of the arms race and enhancement of both countries’ nuclear arsenals shows it is crucial that the two countries stay committed to positive and productive diplomatic relations. Treaties have not had lasting effects on accountability and reduction of nuclear programs as hoped. Without new treaties and enhanced trust forged between the nations, we could find ourselves in a new era of tension—just as we did more than a half century ago.

-Audrey Willis

Source: Norwich University’s Online Master of Arts in Diplomacy degree program

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