Washington is on the precipice of a critical arms control debate. The New START Treaty, an agreement with Russia brokered by the Obama administration that capped deployed warheads and delivery systems, is set to expire next year unless Washington and Moscow agree to a five-year extension. Unlike the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, agreements the Trump administration nixed due to concerns about Russian cheating, the debate over whether to extend New START centers on the actual document itself — specifically, who the treaty doesn’t cover.
Administration officials have raised concerns that China, who is not a party to New START, is overseeing a massive buildup of nuclear forces that, according to Defense Intelligence Agency estimates, will at least double in size over the next decade. In an effort to head such a development off at the pass and gain greater transparency into Beijing’s strategic forces, President Trump has conditioned the extension of New START on China’s participation.
As the clock ticks for New START, policymakers shouldn’t lose sight of another, equally important issue: the need to protect the American people from new missile threats.
Evading missile defense
To wit, Russia has, in recent years, built up its arsenal of hypersonic weapons—several of which are not covered under New START—that are categorically different from ballistic missiles. According to the Congressional Research Service, Moscow is developing several variants—from the short-range Tsirkon cruise missile to the intercontinental-range Avangard glide vehicle, as well as the air-launched Kinzhal.
And Russia isn’t alone. Included in China’s vast missile build-up are four types of hypersonic weapons—the nuclear-capable Xingkong-2; the DF-ZF, which China has tested at least nine times in the past six years; the “Guam killer” Dongfeng-26; and the anti-ship CM-401 missile that endangers forward-deployed U.S. Navy ships throughout the Indo-Pacific.
These weapons pose an acute challenge to American defense planners. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons can easily evade Washington’s missile defense capabilities due to their speed, low flight path, and maneuverability. The U.S. originally calibrated its homeland and theater missile defenses to track parabolic flight paths, which provide enough time to get several “shots” at the incoming threat. Not so with hypersonics, which evade every layer of American defenses by flying below the radar line, and which have incredible maneuverability—both features which confound over-the-horizon radar. By the time our ground-and sea-based sensors identify a hypersonic weapon, the engagement window is essentially gone—raising serious questions about America’s ability to defend our friends and allies in Eastern Europe and East Asia.
Tracking hypersonic weapons
One possible work-around to this problem is space-based sensors. According to the Pentagon’s 2019 Missile Defense Review, space-based sensors “can monitor, detect and track missile launches from locations almost anywhere on the globe,” and “can provide ‘birth to death’ tracking that is extremely advantageous.” Moreover, these sensors allow interceptors to engage threats over the horizon, long before existing radar would detect them. Indeed, the US has plans to co-develop such a system with Japan.
The Kremlin’s gambit
But Washington faces a conundrum. The very breakthroughs in missile defense that America needs to neutralize hypersonic weapons cold possibly endanger the viability of the current arms control regime. True, New START has few legally binding limitations on missile defenses, and the preamble contains seemingly innocuous language: "current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the parties (emphasis added).” But Russia made its interpretation of this clause abundantly clear in 2010. Its view is that “the [New START] Treaty can operate and be viable only if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively.”
It is here that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gambit with New START comes into focus. The plan: build up new capabilities outside the treaty’s purview, and limit America’s ability to defend against them within the treaty itself.
This is not mere conjecture. Dr. Christopher Ford, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, raised this possibility nine years ago, shortly before New START came into force: “[T]he treaty's preamble makes any U.S. missile defense deployment beyond current levels something that is clearly related to the subject matter of the agreement… [and] seems to go out of its way to tee up Russian withdrawal threats.” (emphasis original)
Now, whether such threats would be credible is an entirely separate question. Given the macro-benefits Russia has gained from New START, it’s highly unlikely that the Kremlin would cede this advantage. More likely, Russia is seeking to exploit long-held assumptions by some in Washington that missile defenses actually destabilize global security, and that protecting Russia’s nuclear arsenal is somehow more important than defending our interests from those weapons.
Correcting New START’s failure
Congress was right to reject this assumption in 2016, when it expanded America’s missile defense policy to include protecting the U.S. – and our allies – from Russian and Chinese nuclear threats. After all, if leaders like Putin openly boast about their own anti-hypersonic capabilities, what possible excuse could American leaders offer for refraining from developing ours?
Ultimately, Washington must take concrete steps to bolster its defenses and address the treaty’s silence on emerging missile technology. Attempts to bring China into New START, while commendable, won’t solve this larger problem—a point policymakers should take to heart.
Michael Sobolik is Fellow in Indo-Pacific Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.