As talks over extending the last remaining strategic arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia remain deadlocked, the Trump administration has reportedly asked the military to assess how quickly it could pull nukes out of storage and load them onto bombers and submarines if the treaty expires in February.
The request was part of a strategy to heap pressure on Russia in renegotiating the New START agreement ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election, Politico reported Monday, citing three people familiar with discussions on the issue.
The Trump White House, which sees Moscow as dragging out the talks, reportedly hopes to underscore that it is serious about letting the treaty expire if Russia fails to meet U.S. demands.
“It’s a clear signal that the costs for not negotiating before the election are going to go up,” the report quoted one of the sources as saying. The U.S. is “trying to create an incentive, and it’s a real incentive, for the Russians to sit down and actually negotiate.”
The request for the assessment came in the last two weeks from a group of officials at the National Security Council and State, Defense and Energy departments that is supporting Ambassador Marshall Billingslea in negotiations with Moscow to try to replace New START before it expires, according to the report.
New START required that both sides cut their deployed strategic weapons to 1,550, and included provisions to verify compliance such as reciprocal on-site inspections. The pact is set to expire on Feb. 5 unless both sides agree to an extension for up to five years.
Russia has offered an unconditional extension of the 2010 treaty, but the U.S. initially balked at the prospect, saying that a new pact is needed to cover more advanced classes of weapons, including “tactical” or battlefield nuclear weapons that Russia is said to possess.
The U.S. had initially hoped to also goad China into joining a trilateral pact to replace New START, but that effort fell flat after Beijing refused to even show up for talks.
The Trump administration had insisted that Russia give in to a number of concessions, including a commitment to follow-on talks on a new deal that includes all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons; a pledge to eventually bring in China; and stronger compliance measures.
This stance — which some critics have insisted is a “poison pill” designed to leave hopes of any agreement dead on arrival — has shifted recently, with Billingslea telling Russia’s Kommersant daily last week that a “presidential agreement” on an outline of a new deal between Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin would be enough for Washington to consider extending New START.
But if a deal is not reached, Billingslea said that the United States would take steps to increase the number of its deployed nuclear warheads.
“If that doesn’t happen, we will simply reconvert our weapons as soon as the treaty expires in February,” he said.
Joshua Pollack, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, described the U.S. threat to load missiles onto bombers and subs as “like playing chess without thinking even a single move ahead.”
“One could be forgiven for suspecting that the real point is to undo post-Cold War restraints on nuclear posture, regardless of how Russia might respond,” he wrote on Twitter.
Billingslea, who was visiting Tokyo from Monday to Wednesday after earlier traveling to Seoul, was scheduled to brief the Japanese side on the issue. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Tuesday that in addition to the arms control discussions, Japan had a strong role to play in the issue as the sole country to experience a nuclear attack.
While in Tokyo, Billingslea was also expected to speak with officials about deploying midrange missiles currently under development to counter what he has called the “immediate threat” of China’s nuclear arsenal.
Billingslea said in an interview last month that the U.S. midrange, non-nuclear, ground-launched cruise missile under development, with a range of about 1,000 km, is “exactly the kind of defensive capability that countries such as Japan will want and will need for the future.”
According to the Pentagon, China has scores of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles capable of targeting U.S. and Japanese military sites in Okinawa and as far away as Honshu.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last year that he hopes to deploy American missiles to Asia “sooner rather than later,” but has conceded it could take “a few years to actually have some type of initial operational-capable missiles.”
China vowed unspecified “countermeasures” in the event of such a deployment.