New America Foundation

11/14/2023 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/14/2023 08:15

Future of Arms Control

Future of Arms Control

Informality, Emerging Security Domains, and the Exploration of Shared Interests



Nov. 14, 2023

This brief is part of a series by New America'sNuclear Futures Working Group, which brings together emerging researchers from academic, government, advocacy, and policy spaces to develop research on nuclear security policy problems through the lens of a changing global environment.

Executive Summary

Nuclear arms control has always been a bilateral affair. Nuclear policies adopted by the Soviet Union and the United States drove a significant increase in nuclear weapon stockpiles and a diversification of capabilities. Shared security interests and the ability to make mutually beneficial concessions formed the basis of nuclear arms control. Recently, China's divergent security interests and lack of shared capabilities with either party have called into question the utility of traditional frameworks. Combined with a degrading security environment and emerging security fields, such as space, cyber, and artificial intelligence (AI), it is clear the future of arms control will not only be an uphill battle but also wholly distinct from the past. Near-term objectives should focus on confidence building and delineating rules of engagement in regional and global contexts. Long-term objectives will require significant concessions from all parties and must be reinforced by robust monitoring, detection, and verification (MDV) capabilities.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Move beyond strategic, offensive weapons as the focal point of arms control.
  2. Leverage emerging security fields, such as space, cyber, and AI, to broaden the discussion about deterrence and shared risks.
  3. Invest heavily in MDV capabilities to support future arms control agreements.
  4. Develop clear rules of engagement in emerging security fields (i.e., space, cyber, and AI).


For all its short history, nuclear arms control has been a bilateral affair between two great powers with global ambitions. Amid exorbitant defense budgets and ballooning stockpiles, arms control was meant to ensure stability and increase the predictability of actions. The United States and the Soviet Union partnered in arms control as equals, discovering what trade-offs could be made without sacrificing an effective, credible deterrent. This arrangement is now being challenged by China's rise as a nuclear power.

The Trump administration was adamant about containing China's military aspirations, even going so far as to condition the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction (START) on Beijing's participation. While many believe this reflected President Trump's outspoken opposition to international collaboration, members of the Biden administration have expressed a similar interest. Despite bipartisan curiosity, New START was extended without Chinese participation. Since then, the prospect of arms control with Russia or China has diminished.

If China's growing nuclear arsenal poses the threat American security experts believe it does, it is time to consider alternatives to traditional arms control. Leveraging informality, exploring common ground created by emerging security domains, and strategically investing in MDV technologies will form the basis of arms control efforts in the near term.

Factors Influencing Arms Control

Numerous factors shape successful arms control negotiations including nuclear strategy, operational requirements, and stockpile composition, individually as well as collectively, influence the arms control space.

Nuclear strategy has the dual role of signaling the value of arms control and establishing the objectives the nuclear stockpile must achieve. Even at a time when Russia is assaulting Ukraine and military leaders are signaling China will soon invade Taiwan, President Biden has made arms control and nuclear risk reduction efforts a priority. This is reflected in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review and is further supported by the offer to hold talks with both Russia and China without preconditions. Such initiatives exemplify the impact that leadership and a selected strategy can have on exploring arms control.

Conversely, nuclear strategy solidifies military and political parameters that shape the capabilities and size of the stockpile. The adoption of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War explains why Russia and the United States possess 90 precent of the world's nuclear weapons today. MAD drove increases in numbers and weapon types, allowing both states to operationalize their nuclear arsenals abroad. Russia's "escalate to de-escalate" strategy and the U.S. policy of "strategic ambiguity" and extended deterrence are used to influence international affairs, albeit in distinct ways. By intermingling foreign affairs with nuclear weapons, the two have reinforced the need to maintain larger, diverse stockpiles. These assorted stockpiles had the benefit of increasing the potential to find common ground. China, however, was not concerned with overmatch when it crossed the nuclear threshold. Adopting a minimal credible deterrence policy combined with no first use drove the development of a lean nuclear arsenal. This barebones approach came at the cost of negotiation flexibility, as the limited number of weapons and capabilities reduces the likelihood of finding common ground with third parties.

China's growing nuclear capabilities have caused policymakers to ignore this historical divergence and the factors that presupposed the failure of expanding New START:

  • Numeric dominance by Russia and the United States: Russian and U.S. stockpile numbers equate to roughly 5,000 warheads, while China's stockpile is in the ballpark of 400. Any discussion of including China in these agreements will raise the question of why other nuclear states are also not being included. Russia raised this point in 2021, arguing negotiations should include France and the United Kingdom (U.K.) if they are to include China. This dynamic provides Beijing with diplomatic cover to avoid these discussions.
  • Capability discrepancies: Russia and the United States developed their strategic capabilities out of fear a sudden pre-emptive strike would decapitate either party. As a result, both states developed robust intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capabilities supported by several redundancies. While mitigating risk to their nuclear deterrents, this also created space for the two to make compromises. China, however, developed its nuclear forces in the context of minimal credible deterrence. With a much smaller overall stockpile, and only one fielded SLBM and two air-launched systems, there appears to be no reciprocal capability restrictions that China can make without dramatically shifting its nuclear posture or undermining its stated minimal credible deterrence strategy.
  • Lack of shared security interests: Washington and Moscow's mutual concern with offensive, strategic arms created an opportune environment for collaboration. China has not expressed similar concerns, making historical arms control frameworks ineffective in eliciting interest from Beijing. The same holds for today's security environment.

Any future, formalized arms control initiative will require negotiators to avoid these pitfalls.

The Next Five Years: Trilateral Informality, Shared Interests, and Confidence Building

Emerging security challenges will define future cooperative engagements. Emerging security issues, while undoubtedly complicating escalation and deterrence paradigms, will create space for negotiation. However, before we can reasonably begin to unravel the various combinations that could bring all three parties to the table, we must find ways to repair the tattered relationship and build consensus.

  • Non-proliferation and export controls: Non-state actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction or the emergence of another nuclear state is collectively recognized as a detriment to the security environment by all three parties. This was one of the motivating factors for these states to aid in negotiating the 2015 Iran Deal. The United States can leverage this shared interest and existing institutions to foster discussions. As one of the only nuclear-related organizations to include all three states, the Zangger Committee provides a formal institution to commence these talks. Centered on improving expert control standards in Southeast Asia, South America, and the Caucus region, discussions on creating standardized lists and notification systems can aid in stifling the trade of illicit material and dual-use technologies that fuel proliferation.
  • Norm building: While there is a clear norm for the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons, there does not exist a clear understanding of the secondary and tertiary fields that intersect the nuclear realm. Ambiguity exists in many of these fields and hard questions remain unanswered. What is the escalation chain? Does the temporality of a cyber-attack matter? Should civilian and military space-based assets be separated? Without answering these questions, the threat of unintentional escalation remains unchecked. Consider a hypothetical anti-satellite test (ASAT) by China that unintentionally destroys a U.S. intelligence satellite tasked with detecting missile launches. How would that situation be interpreted and what level of retaliation would be justified? Russia, China, and the United States have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to clearly articulate the rules of engagement in these areas. A joint memorandum on ASAT testing, for example, could promote an environment minimizing space junk, create identifiers for military systems, and establish a notification system to manage tensions. A cybersecurity summit that shares state views on critical infrastructure and the role temporality plays in retaliation or threat severity would help reduce the potential for escalation. These types of initiatives do not require formal legislative approval, they simply require a desire to discuss shared interests.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI): The three parties should explore a UN resolution banning AI from having full authorization to launch a nuclear weapon without external approval. History has shown that false alarms have led us to the brink of nuclear exchange only for us to be saved by luck and human judgment to ignore seemingly valid alarms. Such an effort would be consistent with U.S. defense policy, which already confirms that AI will never be in charge of launching a nuclear attack. Russia and China could also express interest in this endeavor, as relinquishing this authority takes power away from the head of state. This effort would be a significant contribution to cooperation and strategic stability in the nuclear arena.

The establishment of these norms, information garnered from working together on these issues, and the relationships fostered during such discussions can serve the dual purpose of making us safer today while also setting the stage for future agreements.

Bilateral Negotiations in the Near and Medium Term

A solidified trilateral agreement is unlikely given stockpile discrepancies and the current security climate. Therefore, the United States should seek to leverage the work discussed in the previous sections to develop tailored bilateral agreements in the event trilateral negotiations do not materialize. This arrangement should both seek to revitalize old frameworks based on shared security interests and expand the topics of conversation beyond strategic arms to discover new negotiation trade space.

Bilateral Negotiations with Russia

Progress has flattened despite the shared arms control history between the United States and Russia. Every nuclear treaty negotiated between the two has been dismantled despite being based on shared security interests and common ground. This means the future will likely demand, on the one hand, the development of new mechanisms that can resurrect previously functioning shared security frameworks and, on the other, a serious conversation about new security frontiers previously excluded from nuclear arms control discussions.

  • Resurrect old frameworks: The New START, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, and Open Skies treaties were all based on shared security concerns and capabilities but were consistently laced with accusations of impropriety. New monitoring capabilities can ensure that Russia abides by the agreement and that the intended intelligence is gathered, and can enhance the surveillance, assessment, and verification of specific nuclear forces. This would increase confidence that neither side is preparing for a pre-emptive strike and increase strategic stability and further cooperation in an area that we have already established. To do so, the United States should leverage the Science and Technology Innovation Initiative identified in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review to develop new MDV capabilities. These new capabilities will become the lynchpin of future arms control agreements across the board but, just as importantly, can be shaped to patch holes in the verification regimes that made previous nuclear agreements prone to cheating. The resurrection of some of these agreements would simultaneously improve bilateral nuclear relations and enhance old frameworks to the point where they could become a pillar of larger arms control discussions with China.
  • Inspect missile defenses in Europe: The United States has refused to engage in this long-desired conversation due to enthusiastic objections from its European allies and the associated value of these systems in deterring a strategic nuclear attack and Russian land invasion of NATO. Russia has made clear that the presence of American MK 41s in the Baltics is a serious concern. Although MK 41s are defensive and used to intercept ICBMs, Russia believes they can be retrofitted with tomahawk cruise missiles capable of delivering a pre-emptive strike on Moscow. This threat, according to Russian officials to Russian officials, undermines Russia's deterrent capability. With the historical value Russia has placed on these systems, the real question that needs to be asked is what Russia would give up to gain reassurance. Eliminating a meaningful number of missile defenses in Europe would be an extreme position but developing a mechanism, such as onsite inspections, that confirms the defensive nature of these systems could reassure Russia of its deterrent capability and convince them to consider constraints on previously untouched assets, including its non-strategic forces and emerging hypersonic capabilities. Russia's previous requests for inspections of these capabilities and persistent reference to these systems as a national security threat create a dynamic where the United States enjoys leverage and can drive meaningful concessions.

Broader conversations in these areas are necessary. The lack of cooperation today mandates a comprehensive review of new and old systems, positions, and interests. Resuscitating the cooperative areas developed during the Cold War and introducing new security fields to the discussions is the right mix of old and new that can begin to thaw the current U.S.-Russian relationship.

Bilateral Negotiations with China

Future U.S.-China cooperation is murky given discrepancies in nuclear capabilities, North Korea, and the security environment in the Pacific. China has consistently shunned olive branches from Washington and is currently expanding its nuclear capabilities. Negotiations are dependent on whether such actions are reflective of a true belief in the security environment's degradation or rooted in Western animosity derived from the Century of Humiliation. If the latter holds, and China believes it must expand its nuclear capabilities to gain the level of respect it believes was historically withheld by the Western powers, then it is unclear what inducements may generate concessions. In the interim, there remain several areas of potential cooperation.

  • Establish rules of engagement: Delineating the rules of engagement in the Pacific has become increasingly important, as the intersection of China's regional interests and U.S. extended deterrence has created a situation primed for unchecked escalation. This has created a need to establish a framework of Indo-Pacific best practices. Such a framework could include a mutual understanding of the use of cyber weapons, preserving the sanctity of nuclear communications infrastructure, surveillance, intelligence gathering, space activities, launch notifications, and maritime behavior. Cooperation in such areas promotes strategic stability by managing competition, minimizing the chances for escalation, and utilizing capabilities beyond strategic nuclear weapons to foster a safer environment in the region.
  • Commence missile defense dialogue: Formalized conversations regarding missile defense in the Pacific have been largely dormant, despite Beijing's continued citation of such systems as a national security risk. China has gone so far as to explicitly tie the threat of these systems to its minimal credible deterrent nuclear posture. Policymakers should seriously question whether these systems have contributed to China's nuclear build-up. Just this week, Chinese state media made clear that "China's security situation has changed, and the minimum size of the nuclear arsenal needed to defend China's national security has changed along with it, so it must be much more powerful than it was in the past." Exploring China's view on its security situation would benefit U.S. policymakers as they attempt to develop more formal arms control channels. Increasingly, American missile defense is seen by regional allies as imperative to their protection against North Korea, and North Korea's burgeoning ICBM force has made the systems more important for the security of the U.S. mainland. Such a high-value item for the United States should foster a discussion of what China would bring to the table to constrain, inspect, or eliminate systems. This could include an offer to constrain North Korean nuclear expansion and missile development, limit its nuclear expansion, or permit inspections of Chinese weapons or delivery vehicles. High-value asks that can lead to lesser-value concessions that provide some innate benefit to the arms control space and missile defense in the Pacific is a key area to explore that offers mutual benefit.

Conclusion: Investing in Future Capabilities

The era of arms control siloed to the realm of strategic offensive weaponry is ending, and emerging deterrence domains have created new avenues for nuclear escalation that are not understood. With more negotiating parties and the increasing number of fields that intersect nuclear deterrence, agreements are more likely to include items such as cyber, space, advanced conventional capabilities, and AI. These agreements are inherently going to be more complex and will require support from a robust set of MDV capabilities to ensure compliance. The table below identifies some of the areas the United States should strategically invest in to facilitate future arms control agreements.

Future agreements in an era of three nuclear peers will push the bounds of arms control and require innovation. Innovation in science, and our thinking, are the only way to reduce nuclear risks and avoid unnecessary escalation in an era of evolving great power competition.

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