On February 3, two days before the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was set to expire, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a five-year extension. Although the extension was heralded by arms control and nuclear disarmament activists, it cannot, as it exists now, be extended again. Should the treaty go out of effect in 2026 without a replacement, it would be the first time since the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) in 1972 that the United States and Russia have no arms control treaties between the two countries. Although the decision to extend the treaty should be applauded, it is imperative that the United States now prioritizes replacing and improving upon the treaty before its expiration.
An arms control agreement between only Russia and the United States is no longer sufficient for global security. Although the United States and Russia control roughly 90% of the world’s supply of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), China possesses the third largest stockpile. China states it has no desire to engage in a nuclear arms race with any country and it desires only the minimum number of nuclear weapons necessary for self-defense. The Chinese government clearly feels that that minimum number has not yet been met, as the Chinese nuclear arsenal continues to grow--their stockpile now includes 320 weapons, up from 260 in 2015. It would be reasonable to conclude that China is aiming for a number of deployed warheads on par with the United States and Russia (currently capped at 1,550 under the terms of New START). Fewer warheads would likely be sufficient to defend China from an external nuclear threat, but a number of warheads equal to (or greater than) that of Russia and the United States would clearly prove China is a world power here to stay.
It might be argued that although China’s nuclear arsenal is growing, it is growing slowly and should not be considered a major threat. Despite a precipitous increase in warhead numbers between 2015 and 2020, China’s arsenal is still only about 5% of that of Russia’s and the United States’. With such a large disparity, detractors would argue that a successful treaty between the United States and Russia alone is better than a tripartite agreement which would be significantly harder to negotiate. Indeed, the Biden administration has signalled a preference for bilateral agreements with both China and Russia instead of a trilateral agreement. Dual bilateral agreements may be easier to negotiate in theory, but American, Russian, and Chinese advancements in weapons technology over the past decade have fundamentally changed the calculus of nuclear war.
The use of a nuclear weapon is presumably, and rightly, understood by all the leaders of nuclear states as an evil which must not happen again. Less attention has been paid in recent years to the method of delivery for those weapons. Nuclear tipped ICBMs were historically seen as the greatest threat to global security because there existed no technology capable of destroying the missiles before they reached their target. Although ICBMs were engineered to travel along a known ballistic path and could theoretically be intercepted, ICBMs moved too fast after reentering the atmosphere for an interception to be successful. Technological improvements now allow defensive missiles sufficient speed and agility to intercept ICBMs returning to earth. Unsurprisingly, offensive missile technology is now focused on creating a weapon that travels at so-called hypersonic speeds (faster than Mach 5) without a known trajectory.
Currently, the United States, China, and Russia are engaged in an arms race to build a hypersonic weapons system (either a traditional missile or a hypersonic glider). So far, China and Russia have both successfully tested and deployed hypersonic weapons. Little is known about hypersonic development in the United States, except that a 2020 test of the system hit its target within six inches, and that one U.S. Army unit has been equipped with a hypersonic battery. The danger presented by hypersonics to global security cannot be understated; they cannot be targeted by existing missile defense systems, they can reach a target thousands of miles away in a matter of minutes, and they can potentially be armed with nuclear weapons. In the grand scheme of global security, hypersonics have the potential to make Mutually Assured Destruction a thing of the past. Global policymakers have so far failed to theorize what a hypersonic future might look like, yet it is imperative that they do so before these weapons are used in a conflict that might once again tip the world out of balance.
The vehicle to address this problem already exists: international treaties with codified systems of enforcement. Problematically, however, previous treaty negotiations have focused on sheer numbers of nuclear weapons, rather than delivery systems. Because hypersonic weapons are so cutting edge, restrictions based on numbers are not likely to be useful. More beneficial to global security would be a treaty which limits the usage of hypersonic weapons or the types of use (for example, prohibiting anything other than conventional warheads to be installed on such devices).
Critics of such a treaty might argue that such a treaty does great harm to the United States. Although the United States may abide by the stipulations of such a treaty, ensuring compliance in Russia or China would be far more difficult. Should China or Russia renege on such a treaty, the United States would be at a comparable strategic disadvantage. Because of these concerns, ratification of such a treaty in the United States Senate may be especially difficult to achieve (assuming, of course, that such an agreement could be struck with China and Russia in the first place). However, these challenges and perceived disadvantages do not mean that the effort is not worth it for the United States.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has operated as a global hegemon. In realist and neorealist theories of international relations, a hegemonic world order is defined by a single state possessing enough power to dominate other states (either economically or militarily) and having the will to do so. Yet, nearly all theorists would agree that a hegemonic system cannot, and will not, be sustained indefinitely. The hegemon will be challenged, first subtly and then openly, by states which seek to either be the hegemon or to create a balance of power. Examples of such challenges are numerous, but one each from Russia and China illustrate the idea well: the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing genocide in China of Uighurs, both happening despite international condemnation and U.S. sanctions. Following these challenges, the hegemon then engages in arms buildup and alliance creation with other states. Although this cycle cannot be permanently ended, the United States may still slow its speed at the current stage through arms control agreements (for a complete overview of this theory, see Schweller and Pu’s “After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline”).
Although the United States has enjoyed hegemonic power for several decades now, this status will, inevitably, come to an end. Indeed, many have argued that this era has already passed. Nevertheless, we are not yet impotent. A tripartite arms control agreement between the U.S., Russia, and China is difficult, but not impossible. For success to be found, however, the Biden administration must force the issue with China and Russia.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.