“It is a clear signal that the cost of not negotiating before the election will rise,” said one of the respondents, who asked for anonymity in order to forward sensitive discussions. The Trump administration “is trying to create an incentive and it is a real incentive for Russians to sit down and actually negotiate.”
The request for the evaluation came in the past two weeks by a group of officials from the National Security Council and the Departments of State, Defense and Energy assisting Ambassador Marshall Billingslea in negotiating with Moscow to try to replace New START before it expires in February.
The evaluation will determine How long would it take to load nuclear weapons, now in reserve, onto long-range bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and land-based silos to bolster US nuclear forces in case Russia increases its arsenal?
It is because Billingslea has publicly raised the possibility of putting more weapons on bombers and submarines in the event New START fails, and has sharpened its rhetoric in recent days to try to get more concessions from the Russians.
“It would surely be a question you would like to ask STRATCOM,” said retired Air Force Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, who oversaw the nuclear forces before serving as head of the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. “You want to fully understand all the possible implications of your approach to negotiation, both when it succeeds and when it fails.”
However, former high-ranking arms control and military officials also view the move as a risky move. It could send a message that the Trump administration, which has already withdrawn from two other nuclear deals with Russia, is no longer interested in capping the world’s largest arsenals. And it could lead the Russians to take similar steps.
“I call it megaphone diplomacy,” said Rose Gottemoeller, who was Deputy Secretary General of NATO until last year and started New State when she was at the State Department. “Do we want to land in a less stable place? Because we would be engaging in a nuclear arms race. “
“It’s very stupid,” added a former GOP arms control officer who refused to be identified because he was still advising the government. “There is absolutely no point in threatening to upload it. It only becomes a valid leverage point when the other side cannot. The Russians can do that too. “
“But more importantly,” added this person, “the systems we have in place today are those we believe are necessary to provide adequate deterrence.” There is no obvious reason, or any reason, not to do this if the threat does not change. It won’t scare the Russians. The probability of success with the Russians is zero. “
A State Department spokesman declined to speak on behalf of Billingslea.
Captain Bill Clinton, a spokesman for Strategic Command, declined to consider the role of the military in the deliberations. “We are not talking about future operations and we really cannot speculate about arms control talks (since they are not).” [our] Responsibility), ”he wrote in an email.
An NSC spokesman declined to comment.
The new START, signed in 2010, stipulated that both sides would fall back on something 1,550 strategic weapons deployed and contains provisions for verification of compliance, including mutual inspections of nuclear bases on site.
The pact expires on February 5, unless both sides agree to extend it for up to five years.
Russia offered to extend the treaty in December without preconditions. The position of the Trump administration, which has withdrawn from both the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies treaties, was that New START is too narrow and requires a replacement that includes more weapon classes such as “tactical “Or battlefields covering nuclear weapons.
At the start of negotiations in June, the US also insisted that China become a party to a new agreement, but dropped that request after Beijing refused.
The US negotiating team has insisted on a number of Russian concessions: commitment to further talks on a new arms deal that includes all US and Russian nuclear weapons; a promise to eventually bring in China, which is expected to double its relatively small nuclear arsenal over the next decade; and strict compliance measures.
Billingslea’s current public negotiating position is that the US and Russia must at least agree on the outline of a new framework that both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin can sign for Washington to consider extending New START.
In an interview published by a Russian newspaper last week when asked if the Trump administration would scrap the treaty if the two sides could not agree on such a “presidential agreement”, Billingslea replied “absolutely”.
“In such a situation we will not renew the contract,” he told Kommersant according to an English translation of the interview. “Given all of New START’s shortcomings, we consider it detrimental for the US. It imposes restrictions on the United States that it does not impose on Russia. “
In the same interview, Billingslea also indicated that the United States would take steps to increase the number of nuclear warheads it uses if the pact is not renewed.
“If that doesn’t happen, we’ll just convert our weapons when the contract expires in February,” he told the newspaper.
Billingslea also said the longer the Russians are late, the less attractive it is for Moscow.
“I suspect that after President Trump’s re-election, if Russia has not accepted our offer, the price of admission, as we would say in the US, will go up,” he said.
The US and Russia already have a much larger number of weapons in stock that could be put on alert if they choose this course.
According to the Federation of American Scientists nuclear safety project3,800 warheads are stored in the USA and 4,310 in Russia.
Some in reserve might be loudly ready to be deployed sooner than others Hans Kristensen, Director of the FAS Nuclear Safety Project.
Of the three legs of the nuclear triad – bombers, submarines, and missile silos – bombers would be the fastest.
“These weapons are only a few hundred meters from the aircraft,” said Kristensen. “They could be loaded in days. Others would have to be transported to the bases. Maybe a week or so. “
Next up is the Ohio-class ballistic missile fleet of submarines, starting with those already in port and the rest when they return from deployment.
Finally, there are ICBMs, which are deployed in underground silos at bases in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.
“The slowest leg would be the ICBMs,” said Kristensen. “They only have so much capacity for that. It’s a very slow process. That would take a long time for 400 silos. Many months.”
Both the ICBMs and the submarines currently only carry one nuclear warhead on each missile, but they are designed for more.
If the US decided to upload all of its reserve force, “it would more than double the force deployed,” added Kristensen. “The question, of course, is why.”
For the Trump administration, the STRATCOM assessment is necessary in order to be prepared for the expiry of the contract, but also to strengthen its hand with the Russians.
“I think there is an element of ‘The Russians may not be making a deal, we have to be ready’.” said a former White House official who is one of three people familiar with negotiating. “The administration plans what to do the next day. They want to be ready, but being ready doesn’t mean they will. “
“Not only do we want to stamp New START, we also need to plan carefully to see what other options there are,” added the first person familiar with the discussions. “You are preparing with options to raise the price.”
But at what price did some nuclear negotiation veterans who said they were alarmed by the government’s strategy ask?
Gottemoeller, who is now a research associate at the Conservative The Hoover Institution at Stanford University expressed concern that the approach could only increase the chances of a new arms race when New START expires.
“We can upload,” she said, referring to the US reserve nuclear supply. “But the Russians can also upload. I would say they could jump on us. “
Klotz, who also acted as defense attaché in Moscow in earlier arms control negotiations and is now an analyst at the state-funded Rand Corporation, agreed.
“Personally, I think the US could be at a disadvantage at first,” he said. “The Russian nuclear modernization program is already well underway, while the US program is at a very early stage. In addition, the systems developed by the Russians can generally carry more warheads than US analog systems. “
The Trump administration, he added, “says pretty clearly,” we’re going to let you be forgotten “on any possible nuclear arms race, but wouldn’t it be far better not to get into that situation at all, especially if there are so many other skills our military needs? “
Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said the prospect of triggering a new competition to expand the arsenal of the two sides “only underscores the need to keep New START in order to keep those numbers in check.”
“Without her, you don’t really know where you’re going.”