Parthemore and Gower on Today’s Nuclear Arms Race

By Christine Parthemore

Last week reporter Dana Lewis hosted me and colleague Rear Admiral John Gower, CB OBE, for a great discussion on the nuclear arms race the world is now experiencing.

His podcast is timely for many reasons. The world is grappling with a nuclear arms race and related missile competitions even as so many nations struggle with the pressures of other threats like COVID-19 and the climate crisis.

Nuclear arms control measures that can help slow or reverse these trends are more urgent than ever. As such, there are two big events coming in the next week:

I and many of my colleagues at CSR have long contended that it is critical to maintain what treaty systems and confidence building measures are left for conventional and nuclear weapons—including New START. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer such agreements remain. Even if they did, upholding the NPT system and norms against nuclear proliferation will require that countries such as the United States, Russia, and others craft new arms control concepts that can continue reducing threats of nuclear conflict and miscalculation as this century carries forward.

In our podcast with Dana, we highlighted trends in nuclear capabilities and doctrine that lower the bar on the use of these weapons, the ongoing blurring of nuclear and conventional deterrence (of which I also wrote a piece for a Chatham House report on nuclear deterrence this year), and shared ideas on what optimal next arms control measures would focus on, including: 

  • Nuclear weapons most likely to lead to miscalculations, especially those that carry significant ambiguity if countries may not know if specific weapons hold conventional or nuclear warheads.
  • Nuclear weapons designed to be politically usable in conflict (e.g., lower-yield nuclear weapons) particularly in areas of conflict outside the territory of either nuclear state in a conflict.
  • Nuclear weapons most likely to be delegated for employment decisions below the highest political level (e.g., battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons). 

Future arms control agreements based on these principles would allow for numerous options that could be attractive to any and all nuclear weapons-possessing nations. Furthermore, this approach to future arms control agreements revives the spirit of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated the types of weapons then viewed as the most likely to be used or drive dangerous miscalculations among nations rather than focusing on numbers of weapons.

We hope to see these principles represented in Billingslea’s discussions with Russian representatives—and that they shape U.S. arms control strategy in the future. Check out our podcast with Dana Lewis and CSR’s website for more information.


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