WASHINGTON (CN) – Warning that the country could soon find itself lagging behind in an arms race, defense experts told Congress Thursday that it is time to update nuclear treaties with Russia and China, and to give America’s nuclear arsenal a facelift.
“The paradox of the nuclear age is that in order to prevent nuclear war, one must be prepared to use nuclear weapons,” Franklin Miller, nuclear policy expert and former special assistant to President George W. Bush, testified this afternoon before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Miller said the risk of escalation is what stops most world leaders from using nuclear weapons in the first place.
But when it comes to nations like Russia or China, the predictability of long-established norms around deterrence begins to fall apart.
Miller noted that Russia, for example, implements an “escalate to win” strategy by upping the number of weapons in the field and abusing loopholes in agreements like 2011’s New START, short for New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The treaty limits nuclear deployment to no more than 1,550 warheads and 800 intercontinental and submarine-based ballistic missiles and bombers. It also requires parties involved to allow on-site inspections of nuclear facilities, providing treaty members a chance to gather intelligence on competing capabilities.
But in recent years, Russia – while not technically in violation of the treaty – has found a way to expand its arsenal at a pace that could exceed U.S. development by 2020, Miller said.
U.S. Air Force General John Hyten told the committee Tuesday that Russia is still technically in good standing under New START, but the Kremlin has been busy in development with weapons outside treaty terms — specifically with armed submarine drones equipped with 2-megatons of nuclear power.
A clause in New START allows parties to discuss concerns about emerging weapons and how that development can change terms of the treaty, and the U.S. knows Russia is abusing the agreement.
In light of the Trump administration’s decision to torpedo a different program, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, however, nuclear negotiations with Russia are for now on ice.
The administration backed out of the deal citing Russian noncompliance, but Miller said Thursday that Russia fully recognized U.S. capabilities to respond when it began placing new weapons in the field.
By doing so anyway, Russia has indicated that it “simply doesn’t believe the U.S. has the arsenal to match them,” Miller said.
Robert Kehler, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command General, also warned the Senate Thursday what it means for Russia to begin from a place of opposition.
“Deterrence lives in the mind of the adversary,” said Kehler. “If they can’t believe they can achieve their goals, then they aren’t willing to pay the cost.”
Panelists also contrasted the updates that Russia and China have made to their nuclear arsenals over the last 10 years to the decades that have passed since the U.S. deployed a new nuclear-delivery system. Indeed, America’s newest technology won’t be deployed until the mid to late 2020s.
“Any notion that our nuclear program has spurred an arms race is counterfactual,” Miller said.
Of the entire U.S. defense budget, Miller added, nuclear modernization accounts for no more than 7 percent.
Madelyn Creedon, former principal deputy for the National Nuclear Security Administration, spoke to the problem of outdated technology as well.
“Almost all of our delivery systems are old and have been extended to the end of their viable life … all of them must be replaced,” Creedon said.
When it comes to dissuading America’s enemies from launching a nuclear attack, Creedon said the key is better technology and even better strategy.
“We must have serious conversations with Australia, Japan and South Korea about how to be effective in negotiations with China,” Creedon said.
Creedon also warned that China seems less incentivized than Russia to comply with treaties, despite having far fewer warheads and delivery systems.
Miller noted meanwhile that China’s is “the most dynamic ballistic and development system in the world.”
The panel was also unanimous that the most imminent nuclear danger is not necessarily the one that looms largest for the general public.
Tension between India and Pakistan – border-sharing countries each equipped with nuclear bombs – has been steadily increasing for years.
“That’s the most dangerous situation in the world,” Miller said. “The way the two countries react to each other has the potential to create a nuclear war. There’s been outreach for 20 years to talk nuclear policy. We’ve made more headway with India than Pakistan, but both remain a source of significant worry for me.”