The Future of Strategic Nuclear Arms Control

  • Published
  • By Stephen J. Cimbala and Adam Lowther

Arguments about arms control are often presented apart from other issues of national security strategy. This article takes the opposite view.1 Despite the many obstacles and challenges to cooperation between Washington and Moscow, there may be value in arms control talks using the New START framework as a point of departure. Including China is also important, notwithstanding Beijing’s prior doubts.

The following discussion assumes no “black swans” or unexpected system-disruptive forces push the United States and Russia over the edge of nuclear coercive bargaining into the first use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s war in Ukraine is a reminder that history has a way of overcoming optimism. Nuclear weapons are not new, and the international system has survived a number of Cold War and post-Cold War crises without breaking the nuclear taboo. It seems- wise to proceed in a context of measured optimism, aware of risks if deterrence fails.

Arms Control and Policy Objectives

Nuclear arms control can aid in stabilizing state behavior. It does so by increasing the trust among state parties to negotiations. Treaties clarify possible areas of agreement and disagreement; establish norms for present and future negotiations; increase transparency concerning military deployments, political intentions, and priorities; and clarify the nature of war should nuclear war occur. Related to this is the increase in awareness of the cultural factors that may affect a leader’s perceptions during periods of tension or conflict.2

The history of Soviet/Russian-American strategic nuclear arms control agreements is an uneven one with notable successes and obvious failures. Nevertheless, the contributions of nuclear arms control to each of the objectives noted above were politically significant and militarily important. A great deal of “nuclear learning” took place despite an ongoing global competition over fundamental values and the balance of power.

Post-Soviet Russia’s political objectives and military policies during the first decade of the twenty-first century seemed compatible with an optimistic future for Russian-American nuclear arms control. The New START agreement signed in 2010 capped each state’s number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 and the number of operationally deployed delivery vehicles at 700.3 Unfortunately, New START was followed by a period of declining political relations between Russia and the United States and NATO. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea in 2014 and his determination to resist or overturn NATO expansion created increasing distrust. When President Joe Biden took office, the United States had withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty. New START was the sole nuclear arms control in effect. The United States and Russia agreed in January 2021 to extend New START for five years in order to avoid its automatic expiration. However, American support for Ukraine led Vladimir Putin to “suspend” Russian participation in New START on February 21, 2022.4

New START or Full Stop?

The durability of New START is highly dependent on political and technological factors. Russia’s prolonged war in Ukraine and NATO’s support for Ukraine make any arms control discussion near impossible.5 China’s refusal to discuss arms control and its clear preparations for an attack on Taiwan also make arms control unlikely.6

New technologies also threaten to destabilize New START, including hypersonic weapons.7 According to recent reporting, President Vladimir Putin is deploying the Avangard hypersonic system for use in Ukraine—possibly with a nuclear warhead.8 Air defenses could also complicate estimates about the second-strike (post-attack) survivability of weapons in various scenarios.9 Drones could be used in swarming attacks against command-and-control targets and delivery platforms. They could also be used as defensive shields against enemy attacks.10 The new information environment for deterrence and warfare raises issues concerning the relationship between cyberwar and nuclear deterrence.11 Even more uncertainty exists with respect to the overall impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on military decision systems and weapons performance.12 Russia and especially China are unconstrained in their efforts to pass the United States in these areas.13

China’s and Russia’s plans for nuclear modernization, and growth in China’s case, are also problematic. As of this writing, Russia has completed approximately ninety percent of its nuclear modernization program, which includes the development and/or deployment of hypersonic weapons, nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed underwater vehicles, and nuclear-powered (allegedly) and nuclear-armed cruise missiles.14 This creates concerns about the durability of New START or a successor agreement the Biden administration may seek prior to the termination of the treaty.15 China, too, is modernizing and dramatically expanding its nuclear arsenal with an eye to deterring the United States from interfering with an attack on Taiwan. Thus, China is focusing on its ballistic missile forces from short to intercontinental ranges. The People’s Republic of China is also expected to more than quintuple the size of its arsenal to achieve parity in numbers with the United States and Russia.16

Employment Policy and Controversy

While Russia and China have already made their decision, the American policy community is currently debating how much is enough. Some call for a considerable amount of trans- and post-attack sophistication in weapons and command systems in order to guarantee escalation dominance relative to the adversary. Others are doubtful that trans- and post-attack escalation control is possible at any level of deployment. The objective of deterrence has priority in this view. Capabilities for nuclear warfighting and escalation dominance are superfluous, peddle false hope, and encourage unnecessary arms spending. Arguments among proponents of optimistic and pessimistic schools of thought about second-strike capabilities for escalation control and favorable conflict termination are unsettled.17 The late Bruce G. Blair, a strong advocate for nuclear abolition, persistently argued that the American command-and-control system was the Achilles heel of the strategic deterrent.18

Some of the disagreements among experts are caused by the uncertainties inherent in the application of deterrence concepts to actual policy contexts. How reliable is nuclear deterrence? The history of conventional warfare shows that conventional deterrence is often unreliable in preventing leaders from starting wars. The idea of nuclear “superiority” or “victory” in nuclear war appears oxymoronic. Yet American policymakers and their military advisors are forced to address the threat posed by other nuclear weapons states and to provide for surety in deterrence. In reality, there is no easy metric for deciding how much is enough. It depends on the intentions, biases, and perspectives of Russian and Chinese leaders.19 As Robert Jervis notes, one of the most challenging aspects of decision-making is the tendency of people to assimilate new information to their existing beliefs. According to Jervis’ reasoning, then, the fact that perceptions are strongly influenced by predispositions makes it very difficult for the United States to convey messages that counter what Russia and China already believe.20

The preceding discussion calls for an improved dialogue between proponents of nuclear arms control and those responsible for the political oversight and military operation of nuclear forces. Arms control “old style” emphasized reducing force sizes, effectively monitoring and verifying agreements, eliminating incentives for nuclear first strike or first use, and limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. All of these were and are noble pursuits. Arms control “new style” must expand this menu to include managing risk before and after crossing the nuclear threshold; identifying escape hatches and “off ramps” in order to expedite de-escalation; incorporating dangers and risks inherent in integrating conventional and nuclear fires into coherent war plans; and addressing the challenges to nuclear crisis management posed by cyberattacks, space attacks, and other potential sources of dysfunctional communication.

China and Nuclear Arms Control

China’s ongoing nuclear modernization clearly points to its desire for parity with the United States and Russia.21 President Xi Jinping is not just modeling China’s nuclear program to match the United States or Russia but developing capabilities to fit strategic requirements. China clearly aspires to be taken seriously as a major nuclear power and to have an effective deterrent if conflict between China and Taiwan occurs.22 The People’s Liberation Army is expanding its portfolio of military preparedness not only in platforms and weapons, but also in the realm of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR)—including cyber and space conflict. Noting American success in Operation Desert Storm (1991), Chinese military strategists concluded a generation ago that the “informatization” of warfare is the essence of conflict.23 China’s growing portfolio of smart capabilities and modernized platforms makes its military more agile while seizing on American weakness. As Paul Bracken explains, agility in this context means “the ability to identify and seize opportunities and to move more quickly than rivals.”24

China is determined to dominate artificial intelligence and cyber development. Chinese mastery of artificial intelligence and quantum computing would massively increase the speed at which the People’s Liberation Army can operate. China would be able to coordinate rapid actions to enhance, dampen, disrupt, or destroy the essential elements of American targeting processes.25 Such advances potentially lessen the desire by American leaders to seek nuclear arms control—particularly if the United States falls behind. 

Another aspect of Chinese military modernization that is significant for nuclear deterrence and arms control is escalation control. The problem of keeping nuclear armed states below the threshold of first use, or containing escalation post nuclear detonation, is difficult enough. Uncertainties are even more abundant with respect to a regional war in Asia, which could feature six nuclear powers: Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United States. With respect to American and Chinese nuclear forces, neither state would have to actually fire nuclear weapons in order to use them. In conventional war between China and the United States, nuclear weapons would be involved in a conflict from the outset. Preventing the two from stumbling into escalation that neither intended is a real concern.

Policymakers and strategists sometimes assume nuclear weapons dampen escalation rather than exacerbate it. This might be a valid perspective under normal peacetime conditions. Once a conflict is underway, however, the other face of nuclear danger appears. Reassurance based on the assumption nuclear first use is unthinkable may give way to the realization it has become very thinkable. According to Michael Chase, miscalculation in the midst of a Sino-American crisis is a particularly troubling possibility. It is heightened by fear of misunderstood messaging or by overconfidence in the ability to control escalation. Some of the signaling activities described in Chinese publications are easily misinterpreted as preparation for actual nuclear missile strikes, decreasing crisis stability, or triggering escalation.26

Although the preceding perspective on the escalation-mitigating effects of nuclear weapons was offered prior to Xi, it anticipates problemswith China’s growing military capabilities and political aspirations and the United States’ determination to maintain the existing order in Asia. China is no more predisposed to use nuclear weapons than any other nuclear power.27 Yet a great deal of improvisation about escalation control during any future nuclear crisis in Asia is likely. China expects such an event and is opposed to arms control.   

Three Nuclear Superpowers?

As China’s nuclear modernization proceeds, how far will it go? Assumedly, relative to the forces of the United States or Russia, China has three basic options: (1) a minimum deterrent; (2) a deterrent capable of assured retaliation and flexible response (inflicting unacceptable damage on variety of targets); or (3) a policy of nuclear superiority relative to the United States—including strategic antimissile defenses and relative advantage in the space and cyber realms. A policy of minimum deterrence seems insufficient to support the rising ambitions of President Xi. The objective of nuclear superiority relative to the United States and Russia would seem threatening and might provoke an arms race. Chinese nuclear modernization includes a strategic triad and theatre weapons.28 China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy privileges preparedness for regional conflict under information-age conditions. Its conventional and nuclear forces are deployed accordingly.29

A strategic exchange with either the United States or Russia is a lower probability event. But China does appear to desire strategic parity for deterring against nuclear coercive diplomacy or first use. The 2022 China Military Power Report on Chinese military and security developments emphasizes China’s potential for expanding its long-range and other nuclear capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army plans to “basically complete modernization” of its national defense and armed forces by 2035. If China continues the pace of its nuclear expansion, it will likely field about 1,500 warheads by its 2035 deadline.30

Projections of Chinese nuclear developments and their relative distribution among land-, sea-, and air-delivered weapons are uncertain. While China tends to rely on its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, it does not come close to rivaling American submarine or bomber technologies. Some ICBMs are silo-based, and others are mobile. China will lag behind the United States and Russia in ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), although this leg of their nuclear triad is also undergoing modernization. China’s airpower is, and will remain, regional in range, but still capable of targeting the territory of American Allies and partners and maritime forces deployed in East Asia.

China and Russia may also combine their strategic nuclear capabilities to present an unprecedented challenge to the survivability of American retaliatory forces. According to Keith Payne and David Trachtenberg, the adequacy of American deterrence must necessarily measure itself against the combined forces of both adversaries. American nuclear forces must be survivable against a potential strike by this prospective combination of forces.31 China’s efforts clearly do not bode well for its inclusion in future arms control negotiations.

Faced with a combination of Russian New START-level forces and a Chinese force of 1,000–1,500 warheads on strategic launchers, the United States has several options:

  1. The United States can increase the survivability of retaliatory forces, especially silo-based ICBMs. Possible approaches to reducing ICBM vulnerability include mobility, concealment, deep underground basing, and point defenses, as indicated in several 1980s studies.32
  2. The United States can deploy improved national and regional missile defenses.
  3. Portions of the strategic triad can be placed on higher levels. For example, bombers can be returned to airborne alert.
  4. American diplomacy can prioritize dividing China and Russia.

Arms Control and New Technology

Advanced technologies have some predictable and unexpected effects on nuclear forces and other weapons. Hypersonic weapons and drones are two examples of putative game changers. Improved technologies for antimissile defenses will strengthen states’ capabilities against short- and medium-range missile attack, and perhaps even against longer-range weapons. Strategic antimissile defenses are still overmatched by offensive ballistic missiles deployed in large numbers by the United States and Russia. China and Russia may combine offensive hypersonic weapons with partially effective missile defenses on the theory that a hypersonics-focused first strike combined with partially successful missile defenses creates a combined capability that is sufficiently effective. Another technological breakthrough might enable missile defenses for silo-based ICBMs which, combined with deception and mobility, make land-based strategic missiles less vulnerable. 

If nuclear arms control becomes untenable, avoiding space and cyber conflict may move to the forefront of the arms-control agenda. Nuclear or long-range conventional missile attacks may be preceded by efforts to disrupt the command, control, and communications systems of the opponent and/or to deny the enemy the effective use of its space assets. Attacking the command-and-control system of the adversary, prior to a kinetic strike, appeals to leaders who wish to limit damage, control escalation, and/or simply win at a more acceptable cost.33 Cyber and space deterrence are not the same as their nuclear counterpart.34 Command of the space and cyber commons cannot be ruled out as an objective for any current or prospective great power in search of a means for “deterrence by denial” in addition to deterrence by threat of unacceptable retaliation. Space and cyber arms control may prove to be more challenging than traditional arms control as approached hitherto by the United States and Russia. Open-ended arms races in the space and/or cyber domains threaten to create a condition of permanent deterrence instability, regardless of the size of terrestrial weapons deployments. In other words, arms control in the cyber and space domains does not look promising either.


Some scholars suggest arms control is a necessary condition for successful nuclear deterrence and arms race stability. But the dynamics of nuclear arms control, especially as they operate among the great powers, must adapt to new circumstances. A multipolar nuclear power system, the maturing of the information age, more advanced offensive and defensive weapons, and the significance of the space and cyber domains for conflict all demand that nuclear arms control move beyond its familiar Cold War moorings for arms control to remain a possibility—all in a more challenging verification environment.35 But prospects are dim, given current levels of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons, China’s refusal to join any arms control agreements until it reaches parity with the United States, and growing hostilities between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and the United States and China over Taiwan.

Undoubtedly, any future arms control efforts will prove more complex than those of the past. The ascendancy of the space and cyber domains—along with technological advancements in delivery vehicles, defense, and computing—make any arms control effort considerably more complicated as the number of variables increase. Seizing small opportunities as they arise may prove the best chance in the decades ahead.    

1 See Stephen J. Cimbala and Lawrence J. Korb, “Reviving Arms Control, Post-Ukraine: Why New START Still Matters,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 13, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/.

2 David A. Cooper, Arms Control for the Third Nuclear Age: Between Disarmament and Armageddon (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021).

3 US Department of State, “New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms,” Fact Sheet, March 1, 2019, https://www.state.gov/ .

4 Phil McCausland, “End of an Era? What Putin's 'Suspension' of the New START Nuclear Treaty Means,” NBC News, February 21, 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com.

5 Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler, “Russia Postpones Nuclear Arms Control Talks with US, State Department Says,” CNN, November 28, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/.

6 Nicole Gaouette and Jennifer Hansler, “China Dismisses US Outreach on Arms Control Talks Saying It Has ‘No Interest,’” CNN, July 9, 2020 https://www.cnn.com/; and Anne Applebaum, “China’s War against Taiwan Has Already Started,” The Atlantic, December 14, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ .

7 Stephen Reny, “Nuclear-Armed Hypersonic Weapons and Nuclear Deterrence,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 14, no. 4 (Winter 2020).

8 Sunny Peters, “Russia Deploys New Avangard Hypersonic ‘Meteorite’ Missile System in Latest Threat to West,” International Business Times, December 19, 2022, https://www.ibtimes.com/ .

9 Michaela Dodge, “Missile Defense Reckoning Is Coming. Will the United States Choose to be Vulnerable to All Long-Range Missiles?”,  Information Series, no. 465, August 20, 2020; and Deverrick Holmes, “Congress is Not Asking the Right Questions about Missile Defense,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 25, 2019, https://thebulletin.org/.

10 Zachary Kallenborn, “Meet the Future Weapon of Mass Destruction, the Drone Swarm,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 5, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/.

11 Andrew Futter, Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons: New Questions for Command and Control, Security and Strategy (London: Royal United Service Institute for Defence and Security Studies RUSI, July 2016), https://www.rusi.org/; and  Erik Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay, “Thermonuclear Cyberwar,” Journal of Cybersecurity 3, no. 1 (2017), https://doi.org/ .

12 George Galdorissi and Sam Tangredi, “Algorithms of Armageddon: What Happens When We Insert AI into Our Military Weapons Systems” (YouTube presentation, Department of Defense, Strategic Multilayer Assessment SMA program, April 27, 2021), https://nsiteam.com/.

13 Arjun Kharpal, “In Battle with US, China to Focus on 7 ‘Frontier’ Technologies from Chips to Brain-Computer Fusion,” CNBC, March 5, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/.

14 Mary Beth Nikitin, Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization, R45861 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service CRS, April 21, 2022).

15 Vladimir Putin, “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly,” March 1, 2018, in Johnson’s Russia List 2018 - #39 – March 1, 2018,also in Russian, http://kremlin.ru/.

16 China Power Team, “How Is China Modernizing Its Nuclear Forces?” ChinaPower, updated October 28, 2020, https://chinapower.csis.org/; and Nicola Leveringhaus, Chinese Nuclear Force Modernization and Doctrinal Change (Paris: French Institute of International Relations, 2022).

17 Cooper, Arms Control; Lynn Eden and Steven E. Miller, ed., Nuclear Arguments: Understanding the Strategic Nuclear Arms and Arms Control Debates (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); and Steven E. Miller, ed., Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence: A National Security Reader (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984); and Fred Kaplan, The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020).

18 Bruce G. Blair, Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 1985); Bruce G. Blair, “Loose Cannons: The President and US Nuclear Posture,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 76, no. 1 (2020), https://doi.org/; and Andrew Futter, “The Double-Edged Sword: US Nuclear Command and Control Modernization,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 29, 2016, https://thebulletin.org/

19 Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976); and Robert Jervis, “Deterrence and Perception,” in Miller, Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence, 57–84.

20 Jervis, “Deterrence and Perception,” 82; Keith B. Payne and David J. Trachtenberg, Deterrence in the Emerging Threat Environment: What Is Different and Why It Matters (Fairfax, VA: National Institute for Public Policy, National Institute Press, 2022); and Keith B. Payne, Shadows on the Wall: Deterrence and Disarmament (Fairfax, VA: National Institute Press, 2020).

21 Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and US–China Strategic Stability,” International Security 40, no. 2 (Fall 2015), https://doi.org/.

22 Anthony H. Cordesman with Grace Hwang, Chinese Strategy and Military Forces in 2021 (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 7, 2021); and Robert P. Ashley Jr., “Russian and Chinese Nuclear Modernization Trends” (remarks, Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, May 29, 2019), https://www.dia.mil/.

23 David Lai, “The Agony of Learning: The PLA’s Transformation in Military Affairs,” in Learning by Doing: The PLA Trains at Home and Abroad, ed. Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Travis Tanner (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, November 2012); and Timothy L. Thomas, Three Faces of the Cyber Dragon (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2012).

24 Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New World Politics (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Books, 2012), 206.

25 Chris C. Demchak, “China: Determined to Dominate Cyberspace and AI,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 75, no. 3 (2019), 102, https://doi.org/.

26 Michael S. Chase, “Second Artillery in the Hu Jintao Era: Doctrine and Capabilities,” in Assessing the People’s Liberation Army in the Hu Jintao Era, ed. Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Travis Turner (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, April 2014), 340.

27 James M. Acton, “Don’t Panic about China’s New Nuclear Capabilities,” Washington Post, June 30, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/.

28 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2020, Annual Report to Congress (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, 2020), https://media.defense.gov/.

29 Jacob Barton, “China’s PLA Modernization through the DOTMLPF-P Lens,” Mad Scientist Laboratory (blog), US Army Training and Doctrine Command, May 24, 2021, https://madsciblog.tradoc.army.mil/.

30 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022, Annual Report to Congress (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, 2022), https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3230516/2022-report-on-military-and-security-developments-involving-the-peoples-republic/.

31 Payne and Trachtenberg, Deterrence, 36.

32 Office of Technology Assessment, MX Missile Basing, NTIS Order # PB82-108077 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, September 1981); and Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Space Systems, ICBM Basing Options: A Summary of Major Studies to Define a Survivable Basing Concept for ICBMs (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, December 1980), https://apps.dtic.mil/.

33 Krista Langland and Derek Grossman, Deterring China in Space (Arlington, VA: RAND Corp, 2021).

34 Stefan Soesanto, Cyber Deterrence Revisited (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2022); and Dean Cheng and John Klein, “A Comprehensive Approach to Space Deterrence,” The Strategy Bridge (website), March 31, 2021, https://thestrategybridge.org/.

35 See Christopher Ashley Ford, “Russian Arms Control Compliance and the Challenge of the Next Agreement” (remarks, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC, June 23, 2020).