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Reducing Nuclear Risk During Great Power Competition

Peter Zwack

Over the past decade, overall US and Russian strategic stability and associated arms control measures have atrophied to dangerously low levels.  The withering away of important arms reduction, verification and confidence-building initiatives—based mostly on “trust but verify” measures — has set relations among the United States, Russian Federation and several secondary nuclear states on a dangerous downward trajectory. If the trend continues, our already vulnerable world teeters even more on the precipice of a nuclear disaster.

Complicating an already dangerous situation are new and urgent concerns. Cyber and other technologies are being developed, which cannot be purely separated from nuclear weapons and their C2.  New, difficult to detect and counter long-range precision weapons are being developed. Meanwhile disruptive conflict in the gray zone of today’s 24/7 information space exponentially increases.

And, of course, there are the human and political components of the equation: the growing power of nuclear states that lack structured control measures; these include large nations (China, India, Pakistan), undeclared Israel, and emerging newcomers and aspirants (North Korea and Iran). How does one bring these countries into the arms control fold - especially when they are witnessing older nuclear powers backing away from existing arms control agreements?


Four Decades Observing the Landscape

As a military intelligence officer and later as a Soviet, then Eurasian Foreign Area I saw the creation of the On-Site Inspection Agency (OSIA) following the break-up of the US SR, and t he program’s evolution into the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) that still exists today.

Most treaties since then have fallen by the wayside even before today’s slow-motion crisis.  But it is today’s rapid deterioration of remaining agreements that alarms me most. The crown jewel of strategic stability today—the New START Treaty signed in 2011is all that is left.  Without update, or revision, it expires in February, 2021.  If the New START disappears, without renewal, revision or replacement we are in nuclear freefall, breathtakingly vulnerable to an accident or incident that neither side wants. 

Cold-bloodedly rational “Mutual Assured Destruction’ (MAD) still very much lives today, but shakily so, with the fewer checks and balances of the past. To this author, serious progress in the strategic stability realm must include several interdependent tranches: 

First, any solution must start with the joint leadership of the Russia Federation and the United States. The world is watching what we do and how we work together or against one another. It’s our joint responsibility to set the tone and supply a model of cooperation – no one else will. More established nuclear powers such as France and the United Kingdom should follow suit – perhaps more wishfully along with China, India and Pakistan. Action must include renewed dialogue and negotiation on treaties and verification measures across a range of nuclear and nonnuclear technologies.

Younger generations must be educated. Hundreds of millions of today’s global citizens were born after the end of the Cold War. Many take arms control for granted and assume that their leaders are maintaining a decades-old status quo that keeps the world safe. These younger people need to understand the dangers of allowing carefully crafted agreements to unravel with no modification or replacement in sight. Key to their education is showing them that the United States and Russia recognize the importance of a frank joint reappraisal of the current situation and are seen as committed to taking joint action.

We must recommit ourselves to constructive dialog, both formal and informal, to increase understanding and thereby avoid further demonizing one another. The roll call of canceled treaties and agreements linked to strategic stability is sobering to consider. Important as New START is, other programs we’ve lost are perhaps even more so when added up as a whole. Both conventional and nuclear-focused treaties, ranging from Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF), Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM), to Conventional Force Europe (CFE) and Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) are gone.

With those programs disappeared critical US-Russian personal “contact points,” where near daily eye-to-eye discussion occurred among numerous diplomats, scientists, engineers and military staff from both countries. Those multi-level dialogues demystified and dedemonized one another, built trust even with disagreement and led to major breakthroughs. 


Major remaining confidence building verification measures are at risk especially those linked to New Start, as well as the multi-national “Open Skies,” Non-Proliferation Treaties (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CBCT).


We can’t let new technology lead us down a dangerous path. The trust deficit between our nations grows wider. Without the ongoing contact that accompanies implementation of various treaties, agreements and associated dialogues, the potential for lethal misunderstanding greatly escalates. Crisis decision-making, always immensely challenging, must now be conducted within increasingly ambiguous messy and murky circumstances, thanks to the sheer mass and speed of information enabled by a continuously evolving cyber backbone that barely existed a generation ago. Add to the mix the uncharted territory of artificial intelligence (AI) and other “no-human-on the-joystick-or-button” technologies, and the potential for mistakes in dealing with a fast-breaking crisis between superpowers becomes absolutely frightening to consider. 

Those of us of a certain age well remember several mistakes and incidents that could have led to catastrophe during the “analog era” Cold War. Disaster was averted only by the measured, rational thinking of key persons on both US and Soviet sides, including several operational level officers virtually at the nuclear tip-of-the-spear.

Today, the threat of a mechanical and/or functional glitch in either a weapons or detection sensor system is likely more dangerous than any premeditated national decision to initiate hostilities. Like dominos, a misperceived action or accident could unintentionally initiate a hair-trigger, cyber-fast tit-for-tat escalation that could rapidly engulf both sides and with them the entire planet.


A Few Recommendations

First, and most fundamentally, attack the stifling distrust that will cripple any viable future initiatives. If I were to choose one area to focus our mutual efforts on, it would be improving fundamental TRUST. Right now, extreme distrust exists at every level of our governments and societies. The network of scientists, bureaucrats and diplomats that built past treaties and agreements during the very distrustful Cold War era is but a shadow of its earlier self. Senior-level interaction exists between Moscow and Washington, but these periodic exchanges are not enough and barely scratch the surface. Thanks to lightning-fast cyberspace, a crisis in the Pacific, Arctic, Black Sea or Mediterranean—not just edgy Eastern Europe or Syria—could erupt locally and in the blink of an eye consume our national governments in Moscow or Washington before anyone has time or presence of mind to stop a lethal chain reaction.

Next, look at strategic stability through several different lenses.

  • Are Long Range Precision Conventional weapons a threat to ICBMs?  What to do about uncontrolled IRBMs?
  • How can distrusting nations do credible cyber/AI arms control and regulation? Is it even possible?  How to manage and mitigate cyber-fast crisis, especially the prospect of increasingly automated decision-making.
  • Missile Defense (MD). Is this concept outdated? How does one protect allies such as NATO, Japan and South Korea against regional missile threats? Can updated MD be made relevant for new technologies including long-range precision weapons?
  • How new technologies can paralyze or obfuscate C2 and decisionmaking?


The US-Russian governments and militaries must make this effort a priority.  Presidential statements alone in this difficult, distracting political climate will not do it.  Measures should


  • The US Secretary of Defense should meet with the Russian Minister of Defense 
    to help frame these critical issues from a national defense and security perspective. It has been a long time since they have specifically met in sustained dialogue. 
  • With “eyes wide open” senior military of both nations—including at a minimum leaders and key staff members of the US Joint Chiefs, STRATCOM and NORTHCOM—should meet with Russian counterparts in the General Staff plus Strategic Aviation and Rocket Forces for frank, problem-solving discussions on these issues. Additionally, pragmatic leader-to-leader links should be reestablished between Russian and U.S. regional commands worldwide such as INDOPACOM and the Russian Eastern Military District, European Command with Western/Southern/Northern Fleet MDs (also with NORTHCOM) and Central Military Command with the Central Military District. Such contact—even in the face of official distrust and disagreement— would provide vital understanding of each other’s activities and perspectives between leaders at these echelons, and military commands worldwide. Such personal relationships could be a critical first-phase breakwater in the event of a fast-breaking regional crisis, especially if accidental or incident based. 
  • Where possible, efforts must be made to bring China into some of these dialogues especially in the nuclear realm.  US and Russian progress should not be dependent or held hostage to any Chinese lack of willingness or disagreement to participate.
  • Exchange in 2020 of US bipartisan Congressional and Russian Duma delegations focused specifically on Strategic Stability.
  • Finally expand mutual identification of transnational criminal cyber and other capabilities and activities that could confuse and corrupt strategic decision-making. 

Russia and the US are still preeminent in nuclear issues and both understand better than anyone that a very dangerous new world is emerging. The US and Russia, both experienced nuclear practitioner nations, must find a way together to limit and mitigate these emerging threats or our nations and the entire world will be in freefall.  We succeeded in doing this before, during the Cold War, and we need to do it again, with even more purpose and determination.