It has been reported in a number of news outlets (The Washington Post, The Hill, The Guardian) that the Trump administration is considering a test of a low yield nuclear warhead, the first such test since 1992. According to these reports, the action may be designed to motivate the Chinese government to participate in negotiations for an extension of the START II nuclear arms control agreement. The Strategic Arms Reduction (START II) Treaty was negotiated between the United States and Russia in 2010 and is set to expire in February of 2021.
The START II Treaty controls the number of strategic nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia can possess. It is seen as the lynch pin of efforts control such weapons and its expiration could lead to a renewed race to develop and deploy newer and more sophisticated nuclear weapons. The Trump administration argues that the Chinese government should participate because they also are members of the “nuclear club” that possesses nuclear weapons. The Chinese government argues that they should be excluded from the agreement because their nuclear arsenal is much smaller than that of the other signatories of the treaty.
These preliminary discussions are part of a recent chain of events concerning nuclear policy that have occurred during the Trump administration. In August 2019, the United States withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that eliminated short and intermediate range nuclear and conventional weapons (primarily ground launched cruise missiles). Less than two weeks ago, the United States stated its intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty that allows supervised aerial surveillance flights that observe the military activity of signatory countries. In both cases the United States has accused Russia of treaty violations inconsistent with the provisions of each treaty.
It is difficult to ascertain the motivation behind these decisions. From a pure policy perspective, there is little to be gained from these actions. For over 30 years, INF, START II, and Open Skies have been an integral part of the arms control national security paradigm of the United States. These agreements have virtually eliminated one class of tactical nuclear weapons and have reduced the number of warheads that the United States and Russia have aimed at each other. Open Skies, as well as provisions contained in START II and INF, have established a long standing set of protocols that allow inspection and verification in order to insure compliance. Yes, no treaty is perfect and signatories may well attempt to test the boundaries of compliance, but it makes little or no sense to dismantle a system that has worked well, a system that, despite its real or imagined flaws, has kept the peace.
Perhaps the motivation is political, given that this is an election year and President Trump finds himself in a dangerous political situation with respect to the 2020 election. There has been overwhelming domestic criticism of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps the withdraw from Open Skies, the threat to leave START II, and the floating of the trial balloon about testing is an attempt to shore up political support and distract from the domestic political difficulties created by the administration’s handling of the response of the pandemic. Many critics of Mr. Trump also accuse him of being too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition, the Trump administration has also been involved in trade disputes with and has been highly critical of the way China has handled Covid-19. Perhaps leaving Open Skies and threatening to withdraw from START II as well as threatening a nuclear test unless China participates in treaty discussions is nothing more than a way for Mr. Trump to manage this criticism by showing American voters that he is tough on both China and Russia. Perhaps it’s just Trump being Trump, making decisions that can, and sometimes do, change from day to day, depending on what his gut tells him to do.
Solid and verifiable arms control agreements are an integral part of the effort to maintain a stable international arena. The proliferation of nuclear weapons would be accelerated if the structure to manage such proliferation is allowed to fall apart. This isn’t about “America First” or the “Art of The Deal.” The fallout from these actions by Mr. Trump could lead to a sustained arms race between the United States, Russia, and China, threatening geopolitical security in Europe and Asia. These actions could also give permission to North Korea to abandon its pledge of no new testing of nuclear warheads, leading to increased tensions in Korea and northeast Asia. Resumption of testing could also give permission to countries such as India and Pakistan to increase their nuclear arsenals, threatening peace and stability on the Asian subcontinent.
I am old enough to remember living with the threat of thermonuclear war that was a constant presence during the years of the Cold War. Thermonuclear war was a Damoclean Sword that hung over the existence of the planet. During my time in the military, I worked with these weapons. I spent my time in academia studying these issues. I know of what I speak. These actions by the Trump administration to dismantle the current treaty system of nuclear arms control would have grave consequences, threatening the peace, and perhaps the very existence, of the planet itself due to the long “nuclear winter” that would occur after a nuclear exchange. These actions by the Trump administration threaten to destroy decades of efforts to control nuclear weapons and must stop before it is too late. Potentially, these decisions could be as great a threat as novel coronavirus. Once this genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be returned. This issue cannot be lost in the overwhelming clutter caused by the pandemic.