(Note: The writer is answering the question: “Should the U.S. beef up its nuclear arsenal to keep pace with Russia?”)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — In December Russia tested a new weapons delivery system that it calls Avangard.
Launched by a rocket, a vehicle that could carry a nuclear payload detaches and glides back to earth at 20 times the speed of sound.
In major fanfare accompanying the test, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the system can evade any existing missile defenses.
In a document titled “Nuclear Posture Review” that it released last February, the Trump administration made its case for mass spending to keep ahead of Russia on nuclear weapons.
The document stated that Russia would “deploy new nuclear warheads and launchers” as part of a “complete modernization of its nuclear arsenal.”
The Trump administration, as stated in the review, plans to continue a nuclear modernization plan initiated by the Obama administration.
Obama’s plan was no small potatoes, calling for over a trillion dollars in expenditures over the next 30 years.
Trump also wants to develop several pricy new nuclear weapons systems: a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM).
Trump’s review acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial,” coming to 6.4 percent of the overall defense budget.
The Arms Control Association, a Washington-based think tank, reports its own projection of the cost as much higher. The Congressional Budget Office, which has also weighed in on the issue, agrees on a much higher likely price tag.
The Obama projections plus the Trump add-ons envisage expenditures well above what Russia is spending. The policy question today is whether the United States should commit to these expenditures.
The answer the Trump administration does not want to hear is a resounding “No.” But that is the answer it needs to hear. We should not keep upping the ante with Russia.
It takes two to wage an arms race, and we, unfortunately, have given impetus to Russia.
That is hardly of Trump’s doing alone. The Obama administration tickled the Russian bear in 2016 by installing a ground-based missile defense system in Romania, supposedly to deter rogue states in the Middle East. But Russia saw it as a threat, calling it an “attempt to destroy the strategic balance” in Europe.
At the same time, Obama was pushing NATO activities closer to the Russian border. In 2017 U.S. and other NATO-country forces began regular deployments in eastern European countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Again, Russia took our action as a threat.
A few months ago Trump said that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty, a 1987 agreement with Russia that has kept both countries from deploying nuclear missiles in Europe for the last 30 years.
Trump says that the withdrawal is a response to Russian violations of that treaty, but the withdrawal fuels Russian trepidations.
While Russia and the United States are far and away the countries with most of the world’s nuclear weapons, the U.S.-Russia tension is not the only element in the overall nuclear weapon picture.
We are trying to force Iran to forgo developing nukes. Iran is a party, as are we, to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aims at dissuading non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons.
As an incentive to non-nuclear powers to stay on the sidelines, the treaty includes a pledge by the nuclear powers to reduce their existing nuclear arsenals. By building up instead of down, we undermine our message to Iran.
Nor does our build-up help as we ask other countries to pressure North Korea to scrap its incipient nuclear arsenal.
Both Russia and the United States are wasting billions that could be put to better use improving the lives of their populations. The only sure outcome of an arms race is that there are no winners.
John B. Quigley is distinguished professor of law at The Ohio State University. A native of St.Louis, he holds a law degree from Harvard University. Readers may write him at Amy Moritz School of Law, 5512 West 12th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210-1391.