Sen. Deb Fischer: Russia, China nuclear threats – US must do this to face range of modern challenges

Ten years ago, the New START nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia entered into force. And earlier this month, the State Department announced a five-year extension of the treaty just days before it was set to expire.

The media was quick to praise this decision, with one prominent publication claiming that President Biden had singlehandedly “avoided a renewed arms race” in his first month in office.

New START has been a crucial part of our relationship with Russia for the past decade. But let’s be clear: This single treaty doesn’t protect us from every threat we face. The U.S. must do more to curb the nuclear ambitions of our geopolitical rivals.

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To begin with, New START limits only certain categories of nuclear arms: ground-based and submarine-launched intercontinental missiles, as well as heavy bombers. Since the treaty was signed, the United States has chosen not to invest in new nuclear weapons outside of its limits.

Russia has done the opposite, and in fact maintains an active stockpile of thousands of nuclear weapons not included within New START’s parameters, ranging from short-range ballistic missiles to depth charges. 

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Russia’s investment in its nuclear arsenal since New START was signed demonstrates that Russian leaders view the nuclear domain no differently than they view space or cyberspace – where their nefarious activity is more widely reported. It’s clear that Russia seeks to gain a competitive advantage and will go around limits – as they have with New START – or right through them, as they did with the INF Treaty.

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Moreover, New START includes only the U.S. and Russia. China, the world’s fastest-growing nuclear power, is not a party to the agreement.

Bearing out the seriousness of China’s buildup, Adm. Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, noted earlier this month: “China’s nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double – if not triple or quadruple – over the next decade.”

The fact that nuclear threats continue to grow with New START in place demonstrates that it simply does not address the full spectrum of challenges the free world faces.

As the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which oversees our nuclear arsenal, I believe the renewal of New START offers a critical opportunity to regain perspective and chart a new path forward.

America must focus on addressing the rapid growth of both of Russia and China’s nuclear forces. To accomplish this, some have suggested that the Biden administration should call for another round of talks. But while diplomacy might put some minds at ease, it won’t yield the results we desire.

Under no circumstances can we dismantle our nuclear triad or cancel modernization programs.

In truth, we don’t need another conference in yet another European capital, with delegates gathering for manicured press events in gilded meeting rooms. Negotiating limits on Russia’s tactical weapons and bringing China into the arms control process have long been U.S. diplomatic objectives. Under the Obama and Trump administrations, both countries have consistently refused to substantively engage with us.

Their intransigence shows that neither nation feels motivated to negotiate. Entering into new talks without first addressing that problem would get us nowhere.

Instead, there needs to be a serious effort here at home to incentivize both Russia and China to halt their nuclear buildups. At a minimum, that means rejecting calls from some activists to unilaterally cut our own nuclear forces, or to at least delay their much-needed modernization.

Our senior military leaders have consistently advised against such courses of action, and the past two administrations have rejected them as well.

As most of my colleagues in the Senate recognize, our nuclear forces have aged far beyond their designed lifetime. Delaying their modernization would mean allowing our systems to age into obsolescence without replacement. Our deterrent would quite literally wither on the vine.

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Should that happen, why would our competitors agree to new rounds of arms reductions if they knew the U.S. was cutting its forces anyway, regardless of whether they agreed to do the same? 

Under no circumstances can we dismantle our nuclear triad or cancel modernization programs. Doing so would make our country less safe by cutting the forces needed to deter aggression, and destroy America’s ability to push for real nuclear arms reductions by Russia and China in the future.

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