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The 21st Century Nuclear Arms Race

Image credit: INF inspection (Creative Commons: Wikimedia)

Concerns over a new arms race reminiscent of the Cold War have surfaced since the announcement in October 2018 by the United States of its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty over alleged Russian violations.

On 1 February 2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally announced US withdrawal from compliance with the treaty as well as a six-month window period for Russia to return to compliance before full termination of the treaty. Russia issued its withdrawal from compliance the following day.

Ratified in 1987, the arms control agreement between the US and the Soviet Union saw the class of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5500 kilometres eliminated from their arsenals.

Since 2014, the US has accused Russia of violating the treaty by developing weapons such as the Novator 9M729 missile system, which the US argues has the capability to be ground launched and to reach distances within the banned range.

While European NATO allies have raised fears of a new arms race that would put European security at risk, would a collapse of the INF treaty lead to an arms race similar to the Cold War?

The willingness of both the US and Russia to acquire intermediate-range nuclear weapons has a different strategic goal compared to the Cold War-era arms build-up. During the Cold War, the development and accumulation of nuclear arms by the US and the Soviet Union - as the two states most likely to use these weapons - aimed to ensure mutually assured destruction and nuclear parity. This meant both sides had equal first strike and counter strike capabilities in the event of nuclear war, deterring either side from resorting to nuclear weapons and to create stability and security in the international system.

The aim of arms control agreements such as the INF Treaty was to control and limit this arms build-up while still maintaining deterrence.

In this second nuclear age, however, nuclear weapons have proliferated to a greater number of states that increasingly play larger roles in international security. Both the US and Russia have made it no secret that China’s unrestricted development of intermediate-range weapons is partly behind their willingness to pull out of the INF Treaty.

That the US and Russia might do away with a treaty that limits their responses to a changing security landscape is unsurprising. In 2002 the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so it could start building up homeland missile defences citing the nuclear threat of North Korea and Iran.

An arms race now would not only involve the US and Russia but would encourage other nuclear states to expand their arsenals in a domino effect. Deterrence is lacking with or without the INF Treaty. With the treaty, other states are free to develop intermediate-range nuclear weapons, threatening the US and Russia’s security. Without the treaty, a build-up from the US or Russia could further feed impetus to China modernising its anti-satellite capabilities and missile defence systems, in turn triggering a reaction from India, followed then by Pakistan.

All this creates problems for strategic stability in the international system. This stability is underpinned by disincentivising the use and build-up of nuclear weapons as a response to escalating political crises and military conflicts.

How strategic stability in the 21st century differs vastly from the Cold War era is the rapid development of non-nuclear military capabilities. While the US and Russia still hold 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, several states now have missile defence systems, anti-satellite weapons, non-nuclear precision-guided weapons and cyber capabilities which can counter and mitigate the strategic advantage of nuclear weapons.

It is now the development and build-up of these non-nuclear military capabilities that risk escalating potential political crises and military flashpoints to unhinge strategic stability, particularly in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific regions. The disparity in this respect between nuclear states may encourage some to resort to nuclear options or to use nuclear weapons pre-emptively. This lack of deterrence and the potential for states to lose first strike and counter strike capabilities creates a more unstable international security environment.

Before an arms race arises, the unfolding crisis with the INF Treaty reveals current available political avenues to maintain strategic stability by deescalating crises through diplomacy and trust building.

A range of options are on the table: from increasing mutual inspections between the US and Russia to enforce compliance, to multilateralising bilateral arms control and disarmament agreements like the INF Treaty and the New START Treaty to include other nuclear states, or holding bilateral strategic talks between Russia and the US on security dilemmas with other nuclear states like China.

The biggest hurdle to kickstarting any of these initiatives is that parties are antagonising each other, rather than cooperating to address each other’s concerns. Russia continues to deny the 9M729 violates the INF treaty and has already announced plans to develop more intermediate-range weapons. The US has dismissed Russia’s claims that the Mk-41 US missile defence system in Europe violates the treaty, which is compounded by US Congress approving $AUD 67 million in the 2019 fiscal year for research and development of conventional ground-launched intermediate-range missile systems. As for other nuclear states, China has opposed mutilateralisation of the treaty.

Philip Taleski is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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