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With the Worldwide Nuclear Club Growing, Disarmament Is a Hot Topic

Nuclear proliferation will require rethinking America's strategy.

Nuclear disarmament is more aspirational than realistic. The Chinese, North Koreans, and Russians are not persuaded to accept constraints on their programs, and Iran remains quite enthusiastic to join the nuclear club. Like it or not, the proliferation cat is out of the bag. Where does that leave the United States? A recent statement from the White House National Security Council staff suggests that changes in the disarmament doctrine are percolating.

Nuclear Disarmament Treaty Maybe on the Way Out

The US nuclear posture strategy has been the target of skeptics for some time. Underlying that strategy is the strict adherence to the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, or New START Treaty. It mandated limits on the number of nuclear warheads the United States and Russian Federation could have in their atomic arsenals. In 2010, the treaty established 1,550 nuclear warheads that could be deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and those carried by heavy bombers equipped to deliver nuclear payloads.

The terms and conditions of the New START are set to expire in February 2026. With the US-Russia relationship at its lowest ebb in decades, the successful negotiation of an updated version seems unlikely. Consequently, senior voices are suggesting there are few alternatives left to the United States but to consider increasing the current nuclear warhead inventory. The National Security Council staff indicated this is a direction they are considering. According to The New York Times:

“The comments on [June 7] from Pranay Vaddi, a senior director of the National Security Council, were the most explicit public warning yet that the United States was prepared to shift from simply modernizing its arsenal to expanding it. They were also a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia about the likely US reaction if the last major nuclear arms control agreement, called New START, expires in February 2026 with no replacement.”

If the New START agreement were extended, the bilateral agreement is still fatally flawed. The treaty does not include China or North Korea, the two countries that represent the most significant threats other than Russia. The US Department of Defense, in its latest analysis, reported that the PRC had stockpiled “more than 500 operational nuclear warheads as of May 2023.” The Pentagon analysis revealed that China could be expected to grow its atomic warhead stockpile to more than 1,000 by 2030.

Then there is North Korea. According to the Arms Control Association fact sheet, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is “estimated to have assembled 30 nuclear warheads, as of January 2023,” with enough fissile nuclear material to produce between 50 and 70 additional atomic weapons. With its capability to launch nuclear warheads on a variety of land-based ICBMs that can hit the US mainland, North Korea must be included in the calculus of any global disarmament agreement.

Modern Nuclear Warheads in Sufficient Numbers Establishes Deterrence

Nuclear deterrence rests not only in numbers but also reliable and ready warheads. While the total number of nuclear warheads capable of delivery by strategic missiles and bombers possessed by Russia, China, and North Korea eclipses the US stockpile, the United States has recently invested in a nuclear modernization program. As Liberty Nation News explained: “The Kremlin’s nuclear capability and threat to use it largely depends on a nuclear modernization program roughly 80% completed,” well ahead of US progress. To add to the tension between Moscow and Washington, Putin muddies what he really has in mind in his threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons.

On the one hand, the Kremlin is engaged in tactical nuclear weapons training exercises with Belarus on the border with Ukraine. At the same time, as reported by Reuters, “President Vladimir Putin said on [June 7] Russia had no need to use nuclear weapons to secure victory in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s strongest signal to date that Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War Two will not escalate into a nuclear war.”

A proliferation of nuclear weapons among America’s enemies and the means to deliver them combined with the tensions brought about by Russia’s continuing war on Ukraine forced the United States to re-evaluate its strategic nuclear doctrine, and modernizing the existing stockpile was deemed necessary. If it is a nuclear arms race adversaries want, the United States has demonstrated an atomic weapons industrial base capable of winning such a contest.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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