Analysis: The end of arms control? - M5 Dergi
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Analysis: The end of arms control?

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On February 5, 2026, the NEW START Treaty, the last Nuclear Arms Control Treaty between the United States and Russia is set to expire.

History shows that arms control negotiations take years if not decades to conclude, and the recent breakdown between Russian and American negotiations indicates New START is running out of time for renewal. Considering Russia’s deteriorating relations with the West after the invasion of Ukraine and its economic shift toward Eurasia, it is uncertain whether this agreement will be renewed. In the era of strategic competition with major powers, the United States may find it necessary to restart the nuclear arms race because it is not dealing with a bipolar struggle of Russia versus the West but a multipolar world of nuclear powers.

America’s allies in the Middle East and East Asia rely on the nuclear umbrella the U.S. provides for security, but they are being threatened by emerging nuclear powers like Iran and North Korea. Additionally, China, which has never agreed to arms limitation, is building up its nuclear reserves with ground, submarine, and air-launched weapons. China currently has more ballistic missile launchers than the United States. China has also developed its technology to provide a credible first-strike capability using its Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) delivering a hypersonic vehicle that would provide little warning and cannot be defended against.

Existing anti-ballistic missile defenses are ineffective against this vehicle, which can change directions and does not follow a predictable path like ballistic missiles. In addition to emerging nuclear powers like Iran and North Korea, the United States will have to simultaneously counter two nuclear powers with large arsenals and increase its own stockpile to continue the strategy of deterrence through Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

To understand how the spirit of cooperation and negotiation required for arms control has evaporated, one must consider the history of arms control. The United States was the first atomic power and the only country to ever use these weapons. This was justified to coerce Imperial Japan into surrender and avoid a costly invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The atomic bomb may have been a signal to the Soviet Union that the United States would determine the post-war order. The Soviet Union had to acquire these weapons to maintain parity with the United States. A successful Soviet espionage effort and Soviet science and industry developed its first atomic bomb in 1946. This set off an arms race seeking more destructive power with each new bomb test. The United States created its first hydrogen bomb in 1952, with the Soviets repeating this feat in 1955. New delivery methods for these weapons were developed with the modern nuclear triad of strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). There were proposals for arms limitation, and even outright disarmament, but these proposals were dismissed until the nuclear triad was introduced in Cuba.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was nearly a flashpoint for nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. On Tuesday, October 16, 1962, photo reconnaissance uncovered ballistic missile launch sights under construction in Cuba. The Soviets were deploying ballistic missiles and bombers to Cuba, and a submarine flotilla armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes was underway. When this news was made public, both President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were under pressure to use a military option.

Knowing this would likely lead to escalation and confrontation elsewhere, the Kennedy administration announced a Quarantine of Cuba that delayed the decision to invade Cuba. Over the next thirteen days, a resolution was negotiated for the removal of Soviet weapons from Cuba and the secret removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. With the crisis averted, both sides began to consider arms control to relieve tensions.

Test Bans

The first step toward arms control was to ban nuclear weapons tests. The United States and the Soviet Union had spent the 1950s outdoing one another with tests of ever-increasing destructive power. The United States peaked with its Castle Bravo test of a 15-megaton warhead in March 1954. The Soviets’ Tsar Bomba test on October 30, 1961 produced a warhead over three times more powerful. It took the near miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis to prompt the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States to negotiate the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) signed in August 1963. This treaty prohibited atmospheric and underwater tests. Underground tests would continue, but the signatories agreed to contain radioactive debris to within their own territories. The PTBT was subsequently ratified by 185 nations.

A lesson from the LTBT is that a crisis can focus parties to come to a quick agreement, but subsequent arms control agreements demonstrate that negotiations can take years or decades. An example of this is the failed Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty signed in 1996. The treaty is not yet in force because all 44 states in Annex 2 of the Treaty have yet to ratify it. A review of subsequent arms control development shows little hope for a quick or easy renewal of New START.

The next major development for arms control was the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This treaty took nearly a decade to come together through negotiations with the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee. The NPT did not eliminate nuclear weapons; it just prohibited the five designated nuclear weapons states from providing them to non-nuclear powers. Article VI of the treaty offered the yet unrealized promise for nuclear disarmament. The rise of India, Pakistan, and Israel, who never signed the treaty, as nuclear powers, and the withdrawal of North Korea from NPT with its nascent nuclear weapons program is concerning. Finally, Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, developed despite being an NPT signatory, adds to the troubling indications of the treaty’s effectiveness.

Arms Limitation

The 1970s were a golden age for arms control. Negotiations from 1969 to 1972 resulted in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) which froze ballistic missile numbers for five years and stopped the construction of ICBM silos. SLBMs could only be increased with a similar decrease in other ICBM or SLBM launchers.

Simultaneous with the signing of SALT I, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. ABMs are a defensive measure that could spark another arms race as each side tries to overwhelm the other’s ABM system by launching more ballistic missiles. The ABM Treaty did not eliminate ABMs, but they were limited to 100 launchers and missiles and could be deployed in only two places: capital cities and one ICBM missile range. Further development of ABM technology was also prohibited.

As time passed, things seemed to be improving. The parties agreed to negotiate an extension to SALT I with the 1974 Vladivostok Agreement which would lead to SALT II. SALT II limited each side to no more than 2,400 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, including heavy (long-range) bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs. SALT II also addressed the problem of Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) which placed multiple warheads on a ballistic missile, thereby sidestepping the cap on bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs. Each side was also limited to 1,320 ballistic missiles with MIRVs. They agreed upon further test bans with the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT) and Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNET).

The problem with these agreements was the lack of follow-through. The TTBT was not submitted for ratification until 1976 when PNET was signed. These treaties would not be ratified and become effective until 1990. SALT II was never submitted to the Senate due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, though both the American and Soviet leadership agreed to abide by its limitations until President Reagan repudiated it in 1986.

Star Wars

The 1980s saw a threat to arms control. On March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI was conceived as a layered series of defenses in orbit that would intercept ICBMs in flight. SDI presented the same arms race concerns that the ABM Treaty raised. SDI would ultimately hinder further arms control with the failure of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit.

The end of the decade did see some success in relieving tensions and preventing misunderstandings. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty removed first-strike capability by banning medium-range missiles with a range of 625 to 3,500 miles. This was the first arms control treaty to reduce nuclear weapons instead of just placing a limit.

Both the Soviets and Americans employed early warning systems to detect ballistic missile launches. On September 26, 1983, a false launch warning of five ICBMs nearly caused the Soviet Union to launch a nuclear strike against the United States. Stanislav Petrov, the watch officer on duty, did not report the warning, concluding it was an error. The Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement of 1988 required notice of at least twenty-four hours of the “date, launch area, and area of impact” of a ballistic missile to prevent such misunderstandings.

START and Stop: End of the Soviet Union

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) took nearly a decade from its proposal to its signature on July 31, 1991. START I limited the number of bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs to 1,600 with a total of 6,000 nuclear warheads for each country. This meant a warhead reduction of 25 percent for the Soviets and 15 percent for the Americans. START I improved the Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement requiring the launch notice to include telemetry frequencies so missiles could be monitored.

The Soviet Union would cease to exist in December 1991, and the Lisbon Protocol was required for successor states Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan to recognize START I. Article V of the Lisbon Protocol made Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan non-nuclear weapons states subject to the NPT. Russia took possession of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal.

Bilateral Cooperation Becomes Bilateral Competition

The time of bilateral cooperation was coming to an end. START II negotiated an additional reduction of 5,000 warheads and banned MIRVs. It expired in 2002 when Russia withdrew from the treaty after the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty.

The parties would negotiate a new Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2002 to replace START II. Nuclear warheads would be limited to 1,700 for the United States and 2,200 for Russia. SORT did not call for the destruction of warheads, just their removal from frontline service.

The last arms control treaty between Russia and the United States was New START in 2011. The total warheads on bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs would be reduced to 1,550. This was nearly three-quarters less than START I, and nearly a third less than SORT. The total number of bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs would be limited to 800. The U.S. State Department has noted concerns with Russia but has determined that there is overall compliance by both parties.

The declining spirit of trust and cooperation is illustrated by the U.S. withdrawal from both the INF Treaty and the Treaty on Open Skies. U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty could see the return of medium-range missiles to Europe with a first-strike capability against Russia. The Treaty on Open Skies allows for unarmed aerial observation flights of signatory parties since 1992. The treaty was threatened in 2014 when Russia refused an inspection flight by the United States near the Ukrainian border.

It is no coincidence that this occurred amidst the fighting in the Donbass. By 2015, the U.S. State Department concluded Russia was not in compliance with the treaty. This was repeated in 2016 and in 2017, both the United States and Russia prohibited observation flights. The United States withdrew from the treaty in 2020, and Russia followed suit in 2021.

The Way Forward

The future of arms control seems bleak considering the declining spirit of cooperation and lack of trust between the United States and Russia. In addition to facing China and its expanding nuclear arsenal not subject to limitations, the United States must face Russian hypersonic missiles delivered by FOBS attacks, which were invented by the Soviet Union. Emerging nuclear powers like North Korea and Iran threaten American allies in the Middle East and Asia.

The United States, and its allies, which may not be able to rest under the American nuclear umbrella, are faced with a choice: restart arms limitation discussions to include both Russia and China, or restart the arms race. American allies might seek to renounce the Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop their own nuclear weapons, adopting a similar approach to France, of deterrence through ambiguity on conditions for the use of nuclear weapons. If this occurs, the unilateral Western form of globalism and the bilateralism of the past will be gone, and the multipolar world will emerge.

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