Trump, Putin Set Stage for Dangerous and Costly New Nuclear Arms Race

Interview with Robert Rosner, chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board, conducted by Scott Harris

Following earlier warnings from the White House, the Trump administration announced that the United States will “suspend its obligations” under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, ending participation in a key arms-control agreement between the U.S.  and Russia. Washington’s withdrawal, which was followed by Moscow’s own announcement suspending INF treaty compliance, takes effect in six months.

President Trump charges that the Russians are violating the terms of the 1987 INF treaty by building and deploying an intermediate range cruise missile, the SSC-8, which they say exceeds the treaty’s range limitation of 310 to 3,420 miles. The Russians counter that the U.S. has breached the agreement by deploying an anti-missile system in eastern Europe as well as armed drones that can be used offensively against their nation.
With the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty and earlier decisions to exit from the Iran International nuclear agreement and Paris climate accord, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ set its “Doomsday Clock” at two minutes to midnight— due to the rising twin threats of nuclear conflict and climate change. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Robert Rosner, chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, who assesses the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty – which could jeopardize renewal of the New Start treaty that limits the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and delivery systems and expires in 2021.

ROBERT ROSNER: New Start, the treaty that replaced the original Start treaty was a deal that we cut with the Russians to limit the number of strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 maximum on each side. It turns out that there has never been an agreement to limit the number of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. Currently, there is no limit on those whatsoever, and one of the tremendous concerns that we that many of us have about stepping out of the Intermediate Missile agreement is that those missiles included tactical nuclear weapons.

For example, United States use to station Pershing II missiles in Europe, in Germany, and these are missiles that have a fairly short range. They fell under the INF treaty and the rules of engagement for them was rather different than the rules of engagement for the Minuteman missiles, the submarine launch missiles. They’re more on hair-trigger and they’re more under local control and the response time is extremely short. Many of them, from launch to target, fly something of the order of 10, 15 minutes. So you don’t have much time if you make a mistake. You don’t have much time to do much about that. That’s the concern. And the idea that there are no numerical limits in any treaty whatsoever on those really makes us worried that we will have, again, the spiraling up arms race with new nuclear weapons, new delivery vehicles installed over the next few years. That is a major worry. Yes.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Dr. Rosner, who benefits from the Trump administration and now Russia pulling out of this INF nuclear missile treaty, apart from the defense contractors who may get a lot of money to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. Who’s going to benefit from this?

ROBERT ROSNER: Well, it’s hard to see who benefits. I think your listeners probably will remember that the president who, under this aegis these missiles were limited in the first place, was of course, Ronald Reagan. And nobody would ever think of accusing Ronald Reagan as being soft on national defense. So, I think he understood perfectly well that just multiplying the number of these weapons over and over again simply does not make rational sense. And if one looks carefully at the Trump administration’s argument for withdrawing from the treaty, it’s based on the assertion that the Russians have already violated the treaty. “So if they violated, we should just pull out.” And of course the Russians have denied that.

Now the number of ways of going about this, one way is to go back to the negotiation table and have it out at the negotiating table. The other way is the way it’s being done, which is to simply withdraw. We currently, we are not negotiating with the Russians whatsoever on the official level and we think that is definitely really problematic.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How can citizens effectively take action to prevent a costly and very dangerous new nuclear arms race from developing between the United States and Russia at this point?

ROBERT ROSNER: Well, you know, we’ve been here before and the public played an enormous role in this. I think citizens, what we see as an issue here in the United States is that I think not enough people understand the pickle that we’re in. We, in the book call this the new abnormal. We’ve somehow managed to not realize that we slipped into a state in which we really should be concerned about the number of weapons out there, the state of our relations as a country with our former adversaries who are becoming adversaries once again, and that we’re heading into a time of enormous international instability unto the teeth. And as citizens, we have an ability to speak out. This happened during the Cold War. It happened during Vietnam. I think the United States is lucky to have a citizenry that once it’s perceived that there is a problem, it does get politically engaged and the politicians will follow.

So it’s very important for folks to first educate themselves on the current situation and then if they perceive that there’s a problem, to actually join appropriate groups that will further their goals, their political goals. I think that’s very important.

Robert Rosner is also William E. Wrather Distinguished Service professor of Departments of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Physics at the University of Chicago. For more information on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, visit  TheBulletin.org.

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