New Appointee Delineates Trump’s Nuclear Arms Control Vision


By Richard Weitz

In his first public speech on U.S. arms control policy, the newly appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, Marshall Billingslea, offered more details on the administration’s general approach toward the issue, particularly concerns about “unconstrained” warheads and verification.

Billingslea has also been nominated to be the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, with authority to lead all U.S. negotiations on the issue. Before his recent appointment, he had been Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which included countering money laundering, terrorist financing, and WMD proliferation.

By way of background, Billingslea observed that the United States has been reducing its deployed nuclear warheads while modernizing its delivery systems, whereas both Russia and China were projected to increase their weapons totals. He urged Congress to continue to upgrade U.S. systems since “modernization goes hand-in-hand with arms control’ by providing the United States critical leverage in negotiations.

Although Billingslea did not exclude continuing the extant New START accord, which can be mutually extended by up to five years by both presidents before the accord expires in February 2021, he insisted that “any potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control.” In his view, if properly structured and verified, agreements could provide a means to avert unconstrained arms racing. Though “we know how to win these races…we sure would like to avoid it.”

 Billingslea said that the administration would only accept arms control that was “complete, effective, and verifiable.”

Comprehensiveness means that future arms control must encompass “all nuclear weapons, both those currently constrained by arms control and those unconstrained.” The main category of “unconstrained” weapons consisted of Russia’s novel strategic delivery systems under development as well as Moscow’s large holding of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs). Billingslea dismissed the former category of exotic systems as “throw[ing] money down a sinkhole” and focused his remarks on the latter.

The Ambassador insisted that, since the use of “any nuclear weapon would change the nature of a conflict,” it was meaningless to focus only on “strategic” systems while leaving Russia’s increasing arsenal of “tactical” nuclear weapons unconstrained. In this regard, the United States has been especially alarmed that the Russian military was not only improving the quality of its NNSWs—”giving them greater accuracy, longer ranges, lower yields, all to fill various war fighting roles”–but also increasing their quantity.Billingslea also expressed unease how the Russian armed forces “routinely conduct exercises that involve the simulated use of these shorter-range nuclear weapons against NATO” and other countries.

These developments were increasing U.S. alarm that the Russians were pursuing an “escalate-to-win” strategy through a doctrine of early nuclear escalation, using one or more NNSW, of any conventional conflict. To counter this strategy, the administration has been expanding the united States’ own low-yield nuclear options.

As a result, the trump administration insisted on constraining these forces. For instance, it wanted to eliminate all Russian short-range, ground-launched nuclear missile systems, as agreed in the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), a pair of parallel unilateral political commitments by Moscow and Washington to reduce their NNSW holdings after the Cold War.

Interestingly, Billingslea indicated that he was open to discussing missile defense issues with Moscow since Washington had “a lot of questions” regarding Russia’s own BMD systems and intensions.

Regarding the issues of “effectiveness” and “verification,” Billingslea insisted that Washington would demand more effective verification and compliance measures in the future to avert circumvention and violations, provide “timely warning of militarily significant violations,” and “promote real transparency and confidence-building” concerning nuclear plans and intentions.

Billingslea accused Moscow of having “systematically violated nearly every agreement that they’ve made, political or legally binding,” ranging from the INF and Open Skies treaties to the PNIs. He argued that even New START “suffers from some serious verification inadequacies” such as not providing for timely on-site inspections or requiring that Russia transmit its telemetry for new missile systems under development.

Above all, Billingslea indicated that the administration would no longer support nuclear arms control that does not include China since “Beijing, like Moscow, is intent on building up its nuclear forces and using those forces to try to intimidate the United States and our friends and our allies.” We cannot “keep pretending that the two-party construct for nuclear arms control…is able to address satisfactorily the security issues of a multipolar world.”

Billingslea noted that, for the first time in its history, China was about to deploy a triad of nuclear delivery systems—adding strategic bombers and submarines to its robust arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles.

He recalled that, last year, the PLA tested more ballistic missiles than all other states combined. The DIA is projecting that China “will likely at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” in the next decade.

As a result, Billingslea assessed “that China no longer intends to field a minimal deterrent” but strives for “a form of nuclear parity with the United States and Russia. He also argued that “China’s so-called no first use policy” is “so riddled with caveats” as to be inoperable.

Besides imposing quantitative and qualitative limits on China’s nuclear forces, which Billingslea suggested need not be the same limits as applied to Russia and the United States, the administration wanted to end China’s “great wall of secrecy” regarding its nuclear “plans, its capabilities, [and] its intentions regarding its move to a triad of delivery vehicles, a launch on warning posture, and exploration of low-yield nuclear weapons.”

Billingslea also indicated that the administration both worried about, and wanted to exploit, Chinese-Russian nuclear tensions. In his assessment, the Chinese nuclear buildup was partly aimed at Russia, which meant that Russia as well as the United States would have to grow their own nuclear capabilities to compensate. “They can get into a dynamic between the two of them, which then might precipitate us, necessitate us, having to take certain actions.” The administration seeks an effective trilateral agreement to avoid such “an unnecessary and expensive buildup in a three-way arms racing context.”

Of course, securing Chinese participation will be difficult since Beijing has repeatedly rejected such proposals and Sino-U.S. relations continue to deteriorate. Billingslea publicly appealed to Beijing’s self-image as a “responsible” nuclear-weapons state and “great power.”

He also argued that, as a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, it has a legal obligation to negotiate limits on its nuclear forces. Though declining to provide details, Billingslea further indicated that the administration was developing options to employ a combination of direct and indirect pressure to change Beijing’s mind.

Billingslea additionally stated that “Russia must help bring China to the negotiating table.”

Moscow has thus far declined to do so and expressed interest in including NATO members Britain and France in any limits.

Besides repeating previous Russian government proposals for such multinational arms control, the administration also seems prepared to hold New START extension hostage to Moscow’s pressing Beijing to join future negotiations.

“The president has a long and successful career as a negotiator and he’s a master at developing and using leverage. And we’re going to follow his lead in that respect.”

The featured phot shows the Kinzhal air missile system as Vladimir Putin (right) delivers his annual address. Photograph: Tass/Barcroft Images