A comparison game: some thoughts on the future of nuclear arms control

By Thomas Müller

When asked today, many people would probably identify climate change and pandemics as the greatest threats that humanity faces. During the Cold War, the answer was usually nuclear war. Arms control was crucial to diminishing this threat. Over time, a web of agreements was established that slowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and led to substantial reductions in the arsenals of the US and the Soviet Union. This web of agreements is currently in peril. The Trump administration proposes to remedy its alleged problems through a new trilateral nuclear arms control agreement between the United States, Russia and China.

What are the US arguments and how do Russia and China react? This blog post reflects on the comparison game – that is, the strategic uses of comparisons – that shapes the debate about the US proposal. The comparison game makes visible considerable challenges that a move from bilateral to trilateral nuclear arms control has to overcome.

The proposal

The web of arms control agreements has a multilateral and a bilateral component[i]. The core of the multilateral component is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), agreed in 1968 and signed by 191 states. The treaty limits the possession of nuclear weapons to five states – China, Great Britain, France, Russia and the US – and commits these five states to work towards nuclear disarmament[ii]. The bilateral component consists in treaties between the US and Russia, the two biggest nuclear powers, that limit the scope and composition of their nuclear arsenals. These treaties are presently in danger. The US withdrew from the INF Treaty in 2019, accusing Russia of having violated the treaty’s ban on ground-based intermediate-range missiles. New START, which limits the strategic, long-range nuclear arsenals of the two states, expires in February 2021 unless they agree to extend the treaty for up to five years. Due to US hesitations, this has not yet happened. Should New START expire without a new treaty replacing it, “there will be no legally binding constraints on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in half a century”, as the Arms Control Association warns[iii].

For the Trump administration, the INF and New START treaties are problematic for three reasons: (1) Russia would violate the treaties (which Russia denies), (2) the treaties would not cover the weapons that fuelled the beginning new nuclear arms race and (3) the new “great power competition” would take place among three and not among two powers[iv]. To remedy these problems, the Trump administration argues, it is necessary to move past bilateral nuclear arms control and to start negotiations on a trilateral agreement between China, Russia, and the USA. This proposal, which has been publicly promoted since April 2019, has gained new momentum in April 2020 when the Trump administration named Marshall Billingslea the Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control and tasked him to begin “a new era of arms control that moves beyond the bilateral treaties of the past”[v].

A comparison game involving three distributions

The bilateral component is based on an “arms control” logic. The goal is not disarmament – which is the ultimate goal of the multilateral component – but making military competition stable by preventing or ending destabilising arms races. Comparisons are the engines that drive arms races. In an arms race, a state reacts to perceived increases in the military capabilities of a competing state by increasing its own capabilities which in turn leads the latter state to further increase its capabilities and so on. Arms control aims to break this spiral by promoting transparency, building trust and establishing limits for the arsenals of the competing states.

The comparison game involves at least three variants of the distribution of capabilities among the competing states:

  • the present distribution of capabilities at the time of the proposals and negotiations,
  • the anticipated distribution that will emerge at some point in the future should no (new) arms control agreement be concluded, and
  • the managed distribution that the (new) arms control agreement would create.

The three variants are interrelated: The ways in which states problematise the present and anticipated distribution shape the negotiations over the managed distribution. Whether states accept the resulting arms control agreement depends on whether they judge the managed distribution to be more favourable than the present and anticipated distribution.

Comparing capabilities

Neither Russia nor China have so far agreed to the US proposal. While in principle open for trilateral arms control, Russia insists that such negotiations are only possible with China’s consent[vi]. China however continues to oppose trilateral arms control. The debate is therefore still in an early and explorative stage. The comparison game has nonetheless already begun and foreshadows the challenges that the three states have to overcome should they agree to start trilateral arms control negotiations.

China argues that nuclear arms control should be bilateral rather than trilateral for the foreseeable future. It emphasises the present distribution of capabilities to substantiate this argument. Chinese officials stress that there is an “order-of-magnitude difference” between its arsenal and that of the US and Russia[vii]. Having the “largest nuclear arsenals in the world”, the US and Russia “should earnestly fulfil their primary responsibility in nuclear disarmament, extend the New START Treaty, significantly slash their nuclear stockpiles, and create conditions for other nuclear states to join multilateral disarmament negotiations”[viii]. From the Chinese perspective, multilateral arms control thus makes only sense after the US and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals to the level of the arsenals of the other nuclear powers.

The present distribution of capabilities can only be estimated. Some nuclear powers are more transparent about their arsenals than others. In fact, putting an end to China’s non-transparency is one of the goals that US officials have proclaimed for trilateral arms control. The most widely cited estimates are published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The FAS statistics underscore the Chinese argument of differently sized arsenals[ix]. According to the FAS, Russia has about 4,300 nuclear warheads in its military stockpile and the US about 3,800. Of these warheads, about 1,570 Russian and 1,750 US warheads are deployed on missiles and at bomber bases, the rest is stored as reserve. China is estimated to have the third largest stockpile of all nuclear powers with about 320 warheads, all of which are understood to be non-deployed.

The US, in contrast, argues that trilateral arms control is necessary because the competition is now trilateral. In its discussion of the new competition, the US emphasises the anticipated distribution of capabilities. For instance, a recent State Department policy paper on “Next-Generation Arms Control” posits that Russia and China are the only of the five nuclear powers recognised by the NPT that currently expand their arsenals[x]. The paper acknowledges that the Chinese arsenal is “smaller” than those of the US and Russia. It argues however that China is expanding its “arsenal rapidly” both “qualitatively and quantitatively” and is “likely to at least double its size in the years ahead”[xi]. By discussing the arms race in terms of the growth of the Chinese arsenal rather than the relative size of the arsenals of the three states, the paper masks that even with China doubling its arsenal the US arsenal would still be considerably larger.

The “arms race” framing means that the comparison game is as much about which state has what capabilities as it is about which state has been first and which second in increasing its capabilities. Whereas the US claims that Russia and China have triggered the arms race with their nuclear programmes, Russia and China insist that their programmes – including the development of hypersonic nuclear weapons – are but reactions to US programmes. When President Putin presented Russia’s new generation of nuclear weapons in March 2018, he framed them as a reaction to the “deployment of the US global missile defence system”[xii]. In May 2020, the Global Times – a newspaper owned by the Communist Party of China – demanded in an editorial that China should increase its stockpile to 1,000 warheads and expand its arsenal of missiles and bombers to counter the “rising strategic threats from the US”[xiii]. To put it differently: While arms races are usually driven by the quest of states to not be second in capabilities to another state, the blame game over arms races is driven by the quest to be seen as the second state that changed its capabilities.

Setting limits

Developing a common understanding of what makes the distribution of capabilities problematic is the first challenge in arms control. The three states have still a way to go to master this challenge. The second challenge is to develop a managed distribution that remedies the problematic aspects and that is acceptable to all three states. While think tanks have started to reflect on possible managed distributions[xiv], none of the three states has so far published a proposal. This challenge adds new dynamics to the comparison game.

The dynamics relate to the equality norm that underpins bilateral nuclear arms control. The first US-Soviet treaty (SALT I) still set unequal limits for the arsenals of the two superpowers. All treaties since then – from SALT II through INF to New START – have been based on the principle of equal limits. China pursues a strategy of minimal nuclear deterrence and has so far not aimed at quantitatively matching the US and Russian arsenals. Yet, it will probably not be politically feasible to discard the equality principle for trilateral arms control. China is unlikely to accept a legal codification of the present inequality through an agreement that establishes unequal limits.

How can the principle of equal limits be translated to trilateral nuclear arms control?  The New START Treaty combines an equal limit on warheads with a twofold equal limit on delivery systems. The US and Russia are each allowed to possess up to 800 long-range missiles and heavy bombers – although only up to 700 of these delivery systems can be concurrently deployed – and these systems are to carry no more than 1,550 warheads. According to the most recent New START data released in March 2020, both countries are below these limits[xv]. The US deploys 655 delivery systems with 1,373 warheads while Russia deploys 485 delivery systems with 1,326 warheads. This data deviates from the above FAS data because of different counting rules.

For trilateral arms control, these limits have to be rethought. For a start, all of China’s stockpile is currently non-deployed. Moreover, equal limits on the number of warheads will not be easy to sell politically. Given the differences in the arsenals, such limits – whether they apply to all warheads or solely to deployed warheads – could only be realised through highly asymmetric measures. A limit at the current New START level would require the US and Russia to accept huge increases in the Chinese arsenal. A limit somewhere between the New START levels and the current Chinese arsenal would require reductions in US and Russian arsenals while allowing China to increase its arsenal. A limit at the level of the current Chinese arsenal would require huge US and Russian reductions. An equal limit on warheads is thus likely to generate a debate about the inequality of the measures needed to equalise the distribution.

Delivery systems are at the centre of the debate about the beginning arms race. Equal limits on delivery systems, though, likewise face the problem of unequal arsenals. What aggravates this problem is that trilateral arms control is expected to address both the long-range delivery systems covered by New START and the intermediate-range missiles formerly covered by the INF Treaty. Dealing with the INF and New START distributions separately would pose the same problems as the warheads given the considerable Chinese advantage in INF missiles and the considerable US and Russian advantage in strategic, long-range bombers and missiles. An equal limit that combines the delivery systems of INF and New START would help to resolve this problem as the quantitative advantages would at least partially offset each other, thus avoiding scenarios in which one side has to considerably reduce its arsenal while the other side can considerably increase it[xvi]. But such a limit would create a new problem, namely how to compare the different delivery systems and, importantly, how to count and compute them for the calculation of the overall limit. Adding more weapons to the equation – e.g. hypersonic weapons not already covered by New START – would further complicate the task. Like the limit on warheads, a limit on delivery systems will thus generate new comparative questions and dynamics.

Still a long way to go

Trilateral arms control is still no more than a proposal. In the comparison game, each state selectively mobilises the comparisons that support its interpretation of, and preferences for, the shape of the distribution of capabilities. The comparison game points to two challenges that the three states have to master should they decide to turn the proposal into an actual arms control agreement: They have to overcome their disagreements on what makes the distribution of capabilities problematic (unequal arsenals vs. new arms race) and they have to converge on a plan for how the distribution should look like (what limits for what capabilities in which computation).

The recognition as equals will probably be a key element in the transition from problematising the distribution to managing it. This transition requires that the three states give up their quest to outmatch each other. The US President has proposed trilateral arms control. But his boosting about the superiority of US weapons – e.g. the new “super duper missile” that the US develops in reaction to Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons[xvii] – suggests that the comparison game is, at least for him, still more about outmatching the US competitors than about recognising them as equals.

Guardian News: “Trump says US is developing a ‘super duper’ missile” (16 May 2020), via YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTZJFNCqvYI.


[i] For a list of nuclear arms control treaties, see Nuclear Threat Initiative: Treaties and regimes, available at https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/treaties/ (last accessed 02 June 2020). 

[ii] Despite the treaty, four additional states have acquired nuclear weapons: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

[iii] Arms Control Association: Responses to common criticisms about extending New START. Issue Briefs 12: 1, 5 February 2020, available at https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2020-02/responses-common-criticisms-about-extending-new-start (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[iv] For the US arguments, see Ford, Christopher: U.S. Priorities for “Next-Generation Arms Control”. In: Arms Control and International Security Papers 1: 1, 06 April 2020, available at https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/T-paper-series-1-Arms-Control-2.pdf (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[v] U.S. Department of State: Marshall Billingslea, of Virginia, to be the Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, 10 April 2020, available at https://www.state.gov/marshall-billingslea-of-virginia-to-be-the-special-presidential-envoy-for-arms-control/ (last accessed 02 June 2020). Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had used the same phrase one year earlier when announcing the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. See U.S. Department of State: U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty on August 2, 2019, available at https://www.state.gov/u-s-withdrawal-from-the-inf-treaty-on-august-2-2019/ (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[vi] See for instance Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation: Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, May 14, 2020, available at https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4122532#6 (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[vii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China: Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on March 6, 2020, available at https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1753086.shtml (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[viii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China: Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on May 15, 2020, available at https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1779579.shtml (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[ix] For the FAS statistics, see Kristensen, Hans M. and Korda, Matt: Status of world nuclear forces, April 2020, available at https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[x] Ford, Next-Generation Arms Control, pp. 1-3.

[xi] Ibid., p. 2.

[xii] President of Russia: Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, 1 March 2018, available at http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56957(last accessed 02 June 2020).

[xiii] Xuanzun, Liu: China urged to expand nuclear arsenal to deter US warmongers. In: Global Times, 8 May 2020, available at https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1187775.shtml (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[xiv] A highly useful report is Kühn, Ulrich (ed.): Trilateral Arms Control? Perspectives from Washington, Moscow, and Bejing. ISFH Research Report #002, March 2020, available at https://ifsh.de/file/publication/Research_Report/002/20200224_IFSH_Research_Report_002_final.pdf (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[xv] See Kristensen, Hans M.: A decade after signing, New START Treaty is working, 8 April 2020, available at https://fas.org/blogs/security/2020/04/newstarttreatyanniversary/ (last accessed 02 June 2020).

[xvi] For a discussion of such a limit, see Zhao, Tong: The Case for China’s Participation in Trilateral Arms Control. In: Kühn, Trilateral Arms Control?, pp. 68-94, especially pp. 79-80.

[xvii] See Pengelly, Martin: Trump says US will beat out Russia and China with “super duper missile”. In: The Guardian, 15 May 2020, available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/15/super-duper-missile-us-trump-military (last accessed 02 June 2020).

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Thomas Müller (2020, 22. Juni). A comparison game: some thoughts on the future of nuclear arms control. SFB 1288-Blog "Praktiken des Vergleichens" Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/v6ff

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