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Russia's nuclear explosion shows why John Bolton's plan to kill off arms control treaties is scary

Scrapping the New START agreement will add billions in costs the Pentagon can’t afford just to modernize its aging nukes while Russia builds even more.
Image: John Bolton
National security adviser John Bolton, with President Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 28, 2018.Oliver Contreras / For The Washington Post via Getty Images file

National security adviser John Bolton is not content with having killed off yet another major arms-control agreement this month. He has set his sights on the last remaining treaty keeping a lid on the number of U.S. and Russian nukes — despite the fact that even senior military leaders think it would be a dangerous and costly mistake to scrap it.

This should alarm anyone worried about the growth of nuclear arsenals that can reduce most of the major population centers on earth to radioactive cinders in less than an hour. The explosion in the Russian Arctic that killed five scientists and spiked radiation in nearby areas during what was likely a nuclear-powered cruise missile test Thursday shows the lengths Russia is going to prepare for a new nuclear arms race.

Scrapping New START, which caps large “strategic” nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, will add billions that the Pentagon can’t afford.

Bolton is in Europe this week pushing an aggressive brand of American national security that sees any constraints on U.S. capabilities as a liability that isn’t worth whatever corresponding limits are placed on U.S. adversaries. Fresh off the expiration of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that limited the U.S. and Russia’s use of many medium-range nukes, Bolton has another scalp to claim: a renewable 10-year agreement, known as New START, entered into by the Obama administration in 2011 that restricts the number of still more powerful nuclear weapons deployed by Russia and the United States.

But even senior military leaders have argued against allowing this last U.S.-Russia treaty to expire in 2021. They warn that scrapping New START, which caps large “strategic” nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, will add billions that the Pentagon can’t afford to the cost of modernizing its aging nuclear missiles, submarines and bombers to keep up with Russian capabilities — while likely allowing Moscow to build up a bigger, more effective arsenal than the U.S. in the interim.

In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office projected the United States would spend $1.2 trillion on its triad of nuclear forces on land, sea and air through 2046. Modernization accounted for a third of that spending, including procuring 12 new ultra-quiet Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines and 100 B-21 stealth bombers and either replacing or extending the service lives of 450 Minutemen III intercontinental ballistic missiles in underground silos.

These staggering sums, which may prove difficult to sustain in coming decades, would pay merely for improving the reliability, effectiveness and survivability of America’s arsenal, let alone the further goal of enabling it to increase in size and scope. But Russia would likely quickly look to increase its arsenal if New START — which limits the United States and Russia to each deploying 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons and only 800 bombers and silo- or submarine-based missile launch tubes capable of deploying those nukes — is allowed to lapse.


Thursday’s explosion showed that a paranoid Moscow is proceeding with development of exotic nuclear delivery systems, including hypersonic missiles and nuclear drone torpedoes, that it believes are necessary to circumvent improved American missile defenses.

Bolton has inaccurately claimed that these new Russian weapons would not be covered by New START and has also argued that New START has a “basic flaw” because it doesn’t regulate small, short-range tactical nuclear weapons intended for use on the battlefield. But since Bolton seems sanguine about allowing New START to expire over these concerns, rather than try to address them through additional negotiations, he is implicitly arguing that removing constraints on the size of U.S. nuclear forces will somehow allow the United States to build up greater deterrence compared to its adversaries.

But 1,550 nuclear warheads far exceeds the number required for defensive minimal nuclear deterrence and is more than enough to lay waste to every major city on the planet, meaning an increase in this number would not meaningfully improve deterrence. And make no mistake: These are powerful nuclear weapons that could strike anywhere around the globe, and, in a major nuclear exchange, would likely be intentionally targeted to slaughter millions of civilians in New York and Los Angeles, or Moscow and Beijing, not only remote military bases and troops on the battlefield.

Another benefit of New START is that it allows Russian and U.S. inspectors to monitor the size of each other’s arsenals. Not only does this guarantee Washington the ability to know the extent of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, and therefore accurately assess whether it is preparing for an attack, it also allows Moscow to have more confidence that the U.S. is holding up its end of the bargain — reducing the risk that a misjudgment could lead to the United States being attacked.

Enemies of arms control treaties claim that they are worthless because they don’t include China. But these arguments are arguably in bad faith. Here’s why: China possesses only around 300 nuclear weapons, and unlike Russia or the United States, it adheres to a no-first-strike doctrine that makes it unlikely to initiate an attack. China’s small arsenal means it doesn’t have nearly enough firepower to take out American land-based nukes in a surprise attack — only enough to threaten a retaliatory second strike against population centers and military bases.

Another benefit of New START is that it allows Russian and U.S. inspectors to monitor the size of each other’s arsenals.

In 2018, the United States spent more on its military than the next seven top-spending countries combined — and that’s including Russia and China. That means the Pentagon doesn’t need nuclear weapons to win a non-nuclear conflict—and it certainly doesn’t want to encourage Russia and China to respond by increasing their own deployment of nukes to counterbalance the United States. But that’s exactly what abandoning New START would do.

For decades, Bolton has argued that tearing up arms control treaties that constrain both the United States and Russia from deploying devastating nuclear arms would somehow make America safer. Given rising tensions and heightening anxiety about nuclear conflict across the globe, there now exists ample evidence to the contrary.