US-Russia Arms Control: Is Biden off to a Good Start?

By Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury
SINGAPORE, Feb 8 2021 (IPS-Partners)

President Joseph Biden of the United states and President Vladimir Putin of Russia vide a telephone talk have agreed to extend the New Start treaty beyond the expiry date of 5th February of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New-START by another five years. By ageing to do so, President Biden was reversing the decision of his predecessor, President Donald Trump. It is actually the only remaining agreement that curtails US and Russian nuclear forces.

Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury

The New Start limits both sides to no more than 700 ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear-capable bombers, and 1500 deployed strategic warheads. The numbers are the lowest since 1960s. Sheer numbers, more often than not, do not tell the whole story. Within the treaty framework one could introduce qualitative improvements, or new weaponry that could add capabilities and upset the equilibrium. This has always been an apple of discord between the parties.

An immediate positive spin-off of the extension would be the continuation of the Bilateral Consultative Commission to discuss the aforementioned issues, among other things. The Commission meets periodically to discuss all matters of treaty operations. Of late both parties have been concerned about certain doctrinal adjustments on either side: the US over the perceived ‘”escalation for de-escalation” and associated ‘hybrid war’ policies of the Russians, and Russia over the defensive measures undertaken by the US , as well as addition of low-yield weapons to US arsenal, both of which they assess as destabilizing.

It would be appropriate here to discuss some element of the Russian nuclear doctrine that western and non-Russian readership might not be familiar with. Briefly this is encompassed in the two concepts of SDERZIVANIE (“nuclear restraint”) and USTRASHENIE (“intimidation”).This combination is meant to persuade the adversary that it has no chance of achieving its strategic goals by force, and this policy, which implies use of conventional and strategic weaponry, remains in operation in peacetime and war , nuclear weapons being only one tool in the broad tool-kit of warfare. It, therefore, encompasses the western concept of deterrence, as well as coercive warfare and compellence, and is designed to be a multi-domain cross-cutting effort using both soft and hard power. Hence the western perception of Russian doctrine as “’hybrid”.

On 2 June 2020, President Putin signed off (Executive Order 355) on an important document that outlines Russia’s current strategic doctrine. It entails a systematized asymmetric approach, underscoring the severity and certainty of ‘’ punishment”. The document lists a whole series of activities by the adversary that may be constituted as a threat to Russia, and/or its “allies” to be “neutralized by the implementation of nuclear deterrence” (translation: ‘’by use of nuclear weapons”). The order also allows for the use of nuclear weapons not only to counter the enemy’s similar capabilities, but also ‘other types of weapons of mass destruction or significant combat potential of general purpose forces”. Western analysts read this as a wide range of options to introduce nuclear weapons at an early stage of conflict to prevent its spread, reconfirming the so-called “escalate to de-escalate” strategy.

One criticism of the New-START, and the Trump Administration made much of it, was the non-inclusion of China. While the Chinese armoury is barely one-tenth of that of the US, it possesses very advanced hypersonic platforms. Its DF 17 (“Deng Feng” or East wind) missiles can be mounted on hypersonic glide vehicle, which the Chinese are said to claim that could render the US Air defence systems in the Near East obsolete. At the 2019 October Revolution Anniversary parade, it displayed what was designated as DF 100, a very advanced hypersonic rocket that can “kill” large enemy ships, and even Carriers. A significant point about hypersonic vehicles is that even without weapons payload, it can unleash enormous destructive kinetic energy while impacting on targets because of its sheer speed! It is, however, difficult to see why China would, quite unnecessarily in its perception, subject itself to any agreement on constraining its capacity to be a comparable military rival to the US (or even Russia, for that matter).

The Biden Administration could use the New- START discussions to negotiate limits on new types of platforms such as Russia’s ‘’Avangard’’ hypersonic glide vehicles with speed of Mach 20 to 27, which means that many times the speed of sound ( any propulsion over Mach 5 is normally classified as ‘hypersonic’; only Russia and China possess such capabilities). This is one of six new strategic weapons unveiled by Russia in 2018. The Russian side can bring to the table their concerns about US missile defense; for instance, the 44 Ground based Interceptors or GBIs based in Alaska and California. It is important to note that the 1972 ABM Treaty was predicated on the theoretical proposition that since defensive measures of this kind erode retaliatory strike-capability of the adversary, is hence destabilizing, the assumption being that vulnerability encourages good strategic behaviour. The Republican legislators in the US, as a rule, tend to be “pro-defense” (recent voting patterns of Senators such as Messrs Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Joshua Hawley can be cited as a case in point). This factor may prove a modicum of constraint for Biden. The New Start would facilitate Strategic Stability Talks which will not perhaps produce agreements but will enhance understanding of each other’s doctrines and concerns. Particularly as the Russian concept of strategic SDERZIVANIE is more complex, using soft and hard power tools in peace and war.

The Trump Administration was said to be toying the idea of testing, which would have well and truly put the genie out of the bottle around the world. Experts view that the US, which has not tested since 1992 can make do with what is called ”Stockpile stewardship”. It is a process by which reliability is determined through simulations and supercomputers without having to conduct tests.

The Obama Administration had made a deal with the Senate to win New-Start ratification with a commitment for modernization of the US deterrent. So, Biden will have to continue with this over USD 1 tr programme. The so-called triad on which this deterrence is based has three legs: bomber aircraft, the land-based ICBMs, and the sea-based SLBMS.

The strategic bombers, 60 under the START Agreement, comprise such aircraft as the venerable B 52 and B-2 Stealth, highly mobile, and effective as both first and second strikers. As for ICBMS, Start permits 400 Minutemen 111 to be deployed. Some experts see these in immobile silos as more vulnerable and also due to their targeting inflexibility as of reduced strategic value and would argue for their elimination. The third and most effective leg, SLBMs, is also the smallest, only 14 deployed Trident Submarines. Since submarines are more difficult to track and destroy, they are most useful for second strike, which is the critical component of deterrence, and for this very reason, seen as a stabilizing factor in any nuclear balance. The US Navy will replace the current Ohio Class with Columbia Class. The latter will be interoperable with the British Dreadnaughts Class of submarines, poised to be deployed as British deterrence. This will signify further enhanced partnership between the two.

At some point in time the bilateral agreement could possibly be widened, but it will not be easy. China stands little to gain by constraining its capabilities in realpolitik terms. Also, nations who have the capability, and perceive security being linked to nuclear weaponization will do so. North Korea, for instance. Some others, who are also capable but see more current benefits in avoiding or delaying it would hedge, as Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, and Iran. Happily, proliferation has not been as rampant as earlier feared. Some credit is owed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 for this. So, this would be a good time for the US to back the various non -proliferation and arms control negotiations. For instance, the Biden Administration could encourage the reactivation of the nearly-defunct Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, which is the sole existing multilateral disarmament forum, though that could be a tall order. But a good example, its critique notwithstanding, has been set by the Biden team in continuing with the New-START with Russia.

Meanwhile, the push by both the US and Russia, is to increase accuracy, which is measured by Circular Error Probability or CEP. If the CEP of a warhead is 10000 yards, it means 50% of the ordnance will fall within that distance of the target. Theoretically, increased precision is always suspect as it enhances propensity to use, which, in turn, encourages warfighting as opposed to deterrence. Indeed, at one point in 1974, the then US Defence Secretary, James Schlesinger, had propounded a ‘limited options” strategy, known as “Schlesinger doctrine, which was critiqued for just that. Unfortunately, this race to be one-up on the adversary, be it in terms of posture or policy, quality or quantum, will continue. Nuclear Strategists tend to share the same belief, two thousand years ago, of the classic Roman thinker, Cicero: Si vis Pacem, para bellum, if you want peace prepare for war.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at:


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