Revive Arms Control and Start with Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missiles
Debate regarding the future of one type of nuclear weapon — nuclear-armed cruise missiles — is growing in the United States. As interest continues to grow in Congress, top American experts have debated the merits and risks, costs, alternatives, and other factors regarding these weapons in detail in War on the Rocks and other outlets. A global conversation is also beginning to emerge. In May, for example, officials from Sweden and Switzerland recommended to the U.N. Open-Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva “that States initiate or engage in a process to reduce risks associated with nuclear armed cruise missiles.”
Many experts and diplomats consider nuclear-armed cruise missiles weapons that could lower the threshold for nuclear weapons use and increase the risk of inadvertent nuclear conflict. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles may function as a deterrent, like strategic nuclear weapons, but they are certainly tactical and may be viewed in actual warfare as more “usable.” Their lower yield may facilitate political acceptance of real use in operations, including in scenarios often described as limited nuclear war. Yet it is easy to envision how a “limited” nuclear exchange could spiral out of control, causing rapid escalation of the conflict to higher-yield nuclear weapons and resulting in true devastation. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg specifically warned against lowering the nuclear threshold in February, telling The Wall Street Journal, “No one should think it is possible to use nuclear weapons in a limited way as part of a conventional conflict.” Moreover, as with any dual-capable weapon system, these cruise missiles may cause unintended nuclear risks during periods of high tensions from misunderstanding and miscalculation. The impossibility of recognizing whether an incoming cruise missile is nuclear-armed or conventional until the moment of impact may cause countries to respond to conventional cruise missile launches as if they were nuclear.
Today, only Russia, the United States, and France have declared or well-known possession of nuclear-armed cruise missiles capable of launch from air, sea, or land. Others states may possess them, the capability to develop them, or may have tested relevant components. Halting such advancements among any or all of these countries presents an opportunity worth considering.
One central question regarding the future of these weapons has yet to be extensively explored: What might it look like if the world considers pivoting away from these weapons as the next step in promoting strategic stability, arms control, and disarmament? What paths might this take if it is treated as a global issue — not just a U.S. defense budget and policy concern?
After discussing the future of nuclear-armed cruise missiles in our own countries and with others, it became clear that a global movement away from these weapons could follow a number of paths. Here are some of those possibilities.
Bilateral and Trilateral Approaches
One bilateral possibility, as improbable as it may seem, would be for the United States and China to take the lead. The United States and its allies have an interest in China’s agreeing to forego future development of nuclear-armed cruise missiles. China has an interest in the United States pivoting away from its current plan to replace its standoff nuclear air-launched cruise missile. Working with China to reduce nuclear threats is consistent with current policies of the United States and many European allies. For example, the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review emphasizes the goal of strategic stability with China, noting that the countries are “increasingly interdependent” with “shared responsibilities for addressing global security threats.”
A U.S.-China bilateral approach would certainly be difficult, and it would need to overcome hurdles such as Beijing’s long-held stance that the United States and Russia must further reduce their total numbers of nuclear weapons before it will consider joining negotiations. Yet U.S.-China climate agreements in recent years tell us that previously inconceivable achievements in this bilateral relationship are possible.
A Russia-U.S. bilateral approach may initially seem just as unlikely given the current security environment. On the other hand, both countries banned nuclear ground-launched cruise missiles in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and Moscow has openly supported expanding it into a multilateral agreement. It is true that there are serious questions to be asked about Russian compliance. This has led some to argue that it indicates a failure of the treaty, but critics should remember that the INF treaty helped to reduce nuclear threats to Europe for more than two decades.
The United States and Russia have three basic bilateral options for further reducing their remaining nuclear-armed cruise missiles, should they choose to do so: First, they could work together to reduce or forego future investments in these weapons (which may carry the benefit of not altering current deterrence calculations). Second, they could reduce their current stockpiles of these weapons. Third, they could combine these approaches. Current nuclear weapons modernization programs are widely considered not fully affordable for either country, which may increase political interest in exploring a mutual change of plans.
Certainly NATO countries would need to be consulted closely regarding any potential changes to U.S. nuclear plans, but they would likely welcome bilateral negotiations that hold a chance of further reducing Russian nuclear threats. As U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter said while visiting Germany in early May, “Much of the progress we’ve made together since the end of the Cold War, we accomplished with Russia…Not in spite of Russia, not against Russia, not without Russia, but with it.”
Trilateral approaches seem less realistic today given the lack of numerical parity of nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States, on one hand, and all other nuclear countries on the other. A trilateral process by which France joins the United States and Russia is an option, but we would recommend that this group include the United Kingdom as well given that it has already decided to forego nuclear-armed cruise missiles and because it remains part of the full NATO nuclear picture.
There is, however, another trilateral approach that merits close consideration. China, Pakistan, and India could agree together to keep nuclear-armed cruise missiles out of their neighborhood. Given the complex balancing that occurs between and among these countries, they may find it mutually attractive to agree to avoid funding these specific types of weapons. This would be a boon for regional stability. All three countries regularly declare that they are responsible possessors of nuclear weapons. Trilateral work to halt the advance of a specific type of nuclear weapon across Asia would concretely support their claims.
There are countless multilateral options to discuss arms control measures regarding nuclear-armed cruise missiles, including through existing fora and institutions or ad-hoc coalitions.
It would be natural for the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, or P5, which are the five acknowledged nuclear weapon states within the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to serve as a forum for such measures. The so-called P5 Plus Group, in which India and Pakistan also participate, might be an even better forum, boasting seven of the nine acknowledged or suspected nuclear weapon-possessing countries on board. As we noted earlier, a P5 subset of the countries now openly possessing these missiles — France, Russia, and the United States — would most likely be expanded to a multilateral process that includes the United Kingdom.
Though reductions would be ultimately up to the nations capable of building nuclear-armed cruise missiles, nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states can and should find productive ways to discuss these weapons. For an initial exploration phase, various U.N. forums could also be useful to generate ideas and openly share questions and concerns. However, some of these are currently limited by the lack of nuclear weapons states participating, as is the case of the Open-Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament this year. Elsewhere, the Conference on Disarmament may be appropriate for promoting dialogue and fostering informative debates, though it is not the most probable forum for generating action since it has not been able to come to any important decision for years. In any case, an exploration phase could later be followed by agreement by (any number of) nuclear weapon states.
Of course, if none of these multilateral venues are ideal — or if they launch robust international discussions that subsequently need to be built upon in a less restrictive environment — a group of interested countries could create an ad hoc forum that focuses narrowly on the single issue of nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Such a coalition of the willing would be best positioned for success by including both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states at the table.
In addition to multilateral approaches to the overarching question of the future of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, existing international mechanisms might be leveraged to examine key challenges. One of the most difficult challenges in reductions or elimination will be verification. The International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, in which participating states discuss tools and technologies to verify potential nuclear weapons reductions, could be used to explore the question of how states and the international community would confirm a given state’s cruise missiles are conventional-only. An ad hoc group convening with the sole purpose of exploring verification as a technical challenge, setting aside the political and security prerequisites, is another possibility. One could also think of bilateral or multilateral verification agreements between the states involved, like the United States and Russia have developed before to verify the SALT and START agreements. Indeed, these kinds of technical exchanges enjoy decades of precedent in the global arms control and disarmament history, and could be carried forward by government or non-governmental entities, or by experts from both.
Going It Alone
We focus here primarily on pathways to global cooperation to reduce future roles and stocks of nuclear armed cruise missiles, though any nuclear weapon-possessing country could unilaterally commit to foregoing future investment in these weapons or pledge to remove those currently in their stockpiles.
If any country takes a unilateral move, it is most likely to be the United States for several reasons. Despite all the signs of upheaval in the global security environment, the United States maintains conventional superiority against and general nuclear parity with Russia. Historically, a position of strength has been required for progress on nuclear weapon reductions. The United States may have the least to lose and the most to gain from a unilateral approach, as there could be strategic and diplomatic benefits to making a strong global leadership move regarding nuclear affairs. For example, it would likely generate favor among non-nuclear weapon states, such as the 127 states that have supported the humanitarian pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, and it could reduce near-term pressure on the United States for other nuclear weapon reductions.
American leaders would need to do so in close consultation with key allies and partners that rely on security guarantees related to U.S. nuclear weapons. This is critical for preventing surprise. These countries would need to know that such a unilateral move does not affect the strength of any security assurance or the power of U.S. extended deterrence, while it would reduce the risks of inadvertent nuclear catastrophes. Communicating the rationale for and benefits of the move to governments and publics in Europe and Asia would be critical.
Like all changes to the global nuclear chessboard, there is an emerging need to work through pros and cons, risks and rewards, and hurdles involved regarding these and any other pathways the world may take away from nuclear-armed cruise missiles. This process should be conducted in ways that incorporate wide-ranging international perspectives. Government officials and non-governmental experts could start exploring these details in a Track 1.5 process to access the broadest range of ideas and to allow participants to temporarily put aside bureaucratic interests.
The timing is good for this. Other bilateral and multilateral discussions on reducing nuclear weapons threats do not seem to be advancing. Tensions appear to be growing between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states, between countries with nuclear weapons, and among others. Focusing on a single type of nuclear weapon is a practical, relatively low-cost option to address these tensions, and also has the benefit of not materially affecting current defense postures for Europe or NATO.
Eliminating nuclear-armed cruise missiles — multilaterally, bilaterally, or unilaterally — may seem a relatively small step to reducing the risks of intentional and inadvertent nuclear weapons use in the world, but it is an achievable step with immediate and obvious benefits. It would not only decrease the risks of use, miscalculations, and nuclear escalation, but would also show willingness to work on serious steps towards nuclear disarmament. This is especially important today, when many non-nuclear weapon states increasingly criticize the nuclear weapon states for not fulfilling their nuclear disarmament commitments made in the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which may be damaging the fundamentals of the international nuclear arms control system. From this perspective, pivoting away from nuclear-armed cruise missiles is not only a concrete risk-reduction measure, it is also a symbolic step contributing to the strength of global nuclear arms control systems.
Sico van der Meer is a Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. Christine Parthemore is currently working in Japan as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, and was previously at the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any government.
Image: State Dept.