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Prudence or Folly: A Case for Extending the New START Treaty

During the depths of the 45-year-long Cold War in the early years, neither side believed it had an understanding of what the other side was doing. Both sides feared a sudden bolt from the blue with nuclear weapons which would lay waste to their societies.

The threat was indeed beyond rational description. One U.S. B-52 bomber in those days carried more explosive power than all the bombs dropped by all the sides in World War II. The Soviet Union deployed an intercontinental ballistic missile with a 25-kiloton warhead which could strike the United States with only a few minutes of advanced warning, perhaps 20 minutes. One way of thinking about the explosive capability of just one megaton is to contemplate a freight train loaded with dynamite which stretched from New York to California. Just one Soviet missile had 25 times this capability and the Soviet Union had hundreds of such weapons. The bombs on the U.S. strategic bombers were of the same destructive force. And the U.S. ultimately built a missile force which had a destructive capability three or four times greater, at least, than the Soviet force. Like two strong men fighting each other to the death in a pitch black room with long knives. The principal difference being is that one of the men would eventually win and emerge victorious from the dark room, but in nuclear war there would be no winners, only losers and both contestants would be effectively destroyed.

In those times, appalled at this prospect, President Eisenhower persuaded the leaders of the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain to meet with him at the first East-West Summit in 1955. At that conference Eisenhower seized the initiative and urged the Soviet Union to join the U.S. in trying to move away from the existing unbelievably dangerous hair trigger worst case based nuclear confrontation and as a first step agree to an open skies arrangement. The Soviet Union on one side and the United States on the other would allow an agreed number of monitored overflights of their territory by the other side. The planes would be equipped with cameras taking pictures which could be studied afterward to make it less likely that worst case policies would be followed by either side. This proposal was angrily rejected by Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, as a Western “espionage plot” likely, because such overflights would have disclosed Soviet strategic inferiority.

Fortunately, soon thereafter, the United States developed an aircraft, one version of which was termed the U2, which could fly higher than the reach of much of Soviet air defense. A few initial looks at Soviet nuclear weapon deployments were achieved, but after a few years, one of these planes was shot down by Soviet air defense and its pilot captured in a celebrated incident in 1960 at the end of the Eisenhower administration.

Beginning just two years after the U-2 shoot down from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the end of the Cold War and for a few years thereafter, the thermonuclear confrontation was accompanied by periodic crises of the most dangerous nature which perhaps some half a dozen times brought the world community to within minutes of complete and utter destruction.

By 1962, the Soviet Union had secretly deployed medium range ballistic missiles equipped with very large nuclear warheads capable of destroying the eastern U.S. in Cuba, ninety miles away from the United States. This led to an existential crisis. Desperate but confusing last minute negotiations were underway. Time was running out and the Joint Chiefs as well as Congressional leaders were demanding an invasion to remove the missiles. President Kennedy’s military and intelligence advisors assured him that there were as yet no operational missiles in Cuba. But at the last moment, Kennedy decided not to invade and instead pursue a diplomatic solution. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara spoke about this years later in 2002, “These events seemed dangerous at the time. But it wasn’t until thirty years afterward that we learned…that nuclear warheads for both tactical and strategic weapons systems had already reached Cuba before the quarantine line was established—162 nuclear weapons in all. If the President had gone ahead with the air strike and invasion of Cuba, the invasion forces almost surely would have been met by nuclear fire, requiring a nuclear response from the United States.”

In November 1979, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was awakened in the middle of the night and informed that the Soviet Union had launched 250 nuclear weapon armed strategic ballistic missiles at the United States in a surprise attack. Minutes later he was told that the correct number was 2,000. Brzezinski knew that he now had just a few minutes before he would have to awaken President Carter who would then have ten minutes, really seven minutes given message delivery time, to decide whether to launch U.S. nuclear missiles before the incoming Soviet missiles reached the United States. There was no time to evacuate anyone as Washington would be incinerated in a few minutes. If awakened and informed of these facts, President Carter was likely to have launched the U.S. missile force—as Carter himself stated in a public speech years later—and thereby touched off a strategic nuclear war which would have destroyed civilization. But, as it turned out, Brzezinski did not have to wake Carter as minutes before Brzezinski was to do that, it was discovered that the entire incident was the result of a computer malfunction at North American Aerospace Defense Command.

At 7 p.m. on September 26, 1983, at a time of a very high state of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, Colonel Stanislaus Petrov arrived at his station at a highly classified Soviet missile early warning facility south of Moscow. Petrov was the senior officer present and a practical military man who did not believe nuclear war would happen because it was too dangerous. The assignment of this early warning facility was to monitor five new satellites just deployed—Petrov thought too hastily—specially designed to watch U.S. Minuteman intercontinental nuclear missile fields.

It was a quiet night, but suddenly the word “LAUNCH” flashed on the alert screen just after midnight. Petrov stood to indicate he was in charge. His written orders were simply to report what he saw. Nevertheless, he saw nothing on his optical telescope and he thought to himself, a nuclear war wouldn’t start with the launching of one missile. He telephoned the duty officer at the Command Center who would transmit his message to the Chief of the General Staff and from there to the Politburo. Petrov said to the duty officer, “False alarm,” the duty officer replied “Got it!” As Petrov said that the screen suddenly lit up again and flashed LAUNCH four more times. Petrov had to decide on the spot without any confirming data. He repeated to the duty officer, “This is a false alarm.” His message went up the chain of command. At this time of high tension the Soviet Politburo very much feared a U.S. first strike because of their perceived weakness vis-à-vis the West. The leadership was committed to launch their nuclear weapons preemptively at the slightest indication of danger from the West because they believed it was their only chance to survive. It turned out that the communications that came from the satellites that night were caused by an unusual impact of sunlight on the satellites. But, if Petrov had followed his written orders, the Politburo would very likely have ordered a full scale nuclear attack on the United States and the United States would have done the same thing—an all-out nuclear weapon strike—in return. Thus, it arguably could be said that one man saved the world.

This pattern was not limited to the Cold War. On January 15, 1996, several years after the end of the Cold War, a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched a missile called Black Brant XII to study the Aurora Borealis. It flew in a trajectory comparable to a strategic ballistic missile aimed at Moscow and it had a radar signature similar to the U.S. Trident II submarine—launched strategic missile. Thirty nations including Russia had been informed of this project two weeks in advance but the notice apparently went astray in the Russian bureaucracy.

This missile was seen by an early warning station near Murmansk and labeled by the station as possibly the first stage of a surprise nuclear attack by the United States on Russia. A full alert went up the chain of command. The nuclear briefcase called the “football” in the U.S. and in Russia the “Cheget” (Mt. Cheget is a high mountain in Russia) was brought to President Yeltsin. He was told he had five minutes to decide whether to launch Russia’s strategic nuclear rocket force at the United States. Yeltsin activated the “nuclear keys,” the only time this has happened in the nuclear era. The Russian nuclear weapon submarine force was notified by the military to expect a launch order soon.

But Yeltsin knew U.S. President Clinton and had doubts whether the U.S. would launch such a surreptitious attack and did not take any further steps. The five minutes passed. Soon thereafter the radar crew saw pieces of the rocket fall into the sea and a general stand down order was given. Hours later the Russian leadership learned that this had been a scientific experiment, not an attack.

Returning to the worst-case problem, in a few years after the 1960 U-2 shootdown, the United States was able to develop and deploy reconnaissance satellites with advanced photographic equipment on board which revealed the location and approximate capability of all Soviet deployed strategic weapons. The Soviets accused the United States of spying at the United Nations but in a few years the Soviets had their own observation satellites. This ended the rhetoric at the United Nations, but much more importantly it permitted the beginning of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. These negotiations concluded in 1972 with an agreement which included the first agreed limits on the number of strategic offensive arms: ballistic missiles which can transport and deliver nuclear weapons at intercontinental distances, some of them inconceivably destructive, such as the 25 megaton weapons. This first agreement was a freeze, so no numbers were agreed. These first SALT agreements accomplished another thing of very great importance. Both sides agreed that this SALT I agreement could be verified by National Technical Means or NTM, the treaty term for renaissance satellites. Both countries recognized the operations of these satellites to be legal and agreed not to interfere with their operation or adopt concealment measures from them, a very large step away from worst case.

The negotiations continued and in 1979, a second SALT treaty was achieved known as SALT II. Among its achievements were agreed numbers of strategic offensive nuclear weapons that both sides undertook as established ceilings for these weapons; a ten percent reduction in their levels; the inclusion of all airborne types of nuclear weapon delivery systems including cruise missiles as well as nuclear weapon capable bombers which had strategic range; a ban on new types of strategic nuclear missiles; as well as a rigorous verification system based on type rules to strengthen the performance of NTM.

But even this, while extremely valuable, was not enough. The United States continued to press the Soviet Union to agree to onsite inspection, allow access to missile test signals or telemetry, and permit internal inspections so that each side could fully understand the nature of the other side’s forces and capabilities.

A new phase of strategic arms limitation discussions began in 1981 under President Reagan. It was called the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks or START. The objective was to accomplish deep reductions in the strategic forces of both sides as established by the SALT agreements as well as transparency arrangements which would include onsite inspection. There was initial resistance, but at the U.S.-Soviet meeting at Reykjavik in 1986, the principle was agreed upon by President Gorbachev and President Reagan. This led to, among other things, a START agreement signed by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in 1991, which achieved very substantial reductions and all of the transparency arrangements advocated by the United States, onsite inspection both external and internal of both weapons and associated infrastructure, access to telemetry, agreed designation and location of weapons and more. Since this agreement was signed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the START treaty had to be reformulated as an agreement between the United States and Russia. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus (regions of the Soviet Union where strategic nuclear weapons were also deployed but now newly independent states) agreed to be nuclear weapon free and to return to Russia all strategic weapons on their territory. This was accomplished by the Lisbon protocol of 1992. The United States and Russia both ratified START in the fall of 1992. START entered in force on December 5, 1994 and its required reductions were accomplished in 2001 as called for by the treaty. With the advent of START, all need for hair trigger weapon policies went away and after the nuclear weapon crisis of 1996 there have been no more.

START had a fifteen-year term and thus it expired in 2009. President Obama negotiated a replacement in 2010 built on the START Treaty, referred to as the New START Treaty. All of the verification achievements of START were retained in New START, some modified to bring them up to date and reductions taken even further down to a level more than two-thirds below the level first agreed in SALT I to stop the arms race in 1972. The term of New START is ten years or until February 5, 2021. It has a five-year extension option. President Putin in early 2017 offered to extend the Treaty. This offer has not been acted upon as yet.

This offer should be taken up and acted upon as soon as possible. Do we want to return to a world dominated by hair-trigger worst case based nuclear weapon deployment and launch policies? Do we want frightening almost out of control nuclear weapon crises to return? Letting New START expire could bring them back, we would lose much in terms of our knowledge of Russian strategic nuclear weapon forces. As of now, we have legal access to insider knowledge of Russian nuclear forces. Would we want to give this up under any circumstances? Do we want to create a world in which potentially nuclear war is much more likely?

The answer to these questions is no. New START should be promptly extended. Any other course would be, to put it mildly, inadvisable in the extreme. During the Cold War and immediately afterward when the various terrifying nuclear crises took place they were peaceably resolved because the right man or men were in the right place at the right time. We can’t always be sure of that in the future. This is not a matter subject to a military solution by war, by threats, by stockpile build up and we should not return to relying on luck. The only way to address effectively the problem caused by the still dangerous U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces is through effective and practical diplomacy beginning with the extension of New START.


Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. served for nearly three decades at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, including a decade and a half as general counsel as well as Acting Director of the agency for most of 1993. In 1993 he led the effort to establish a long-term moratorium on the conduct of nuclear weapons tests. From 1994 to 1996, he was a principal figure in the worldwide effort to successfully support the conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations. In 1994 President Clinton appointed Thomas Graham as his special representative for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, with the rank of Ambassador. From 1993 to 1995 Ambassador Graham led the successful U.S. government effort to indefinitely extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He has taught at—among others—Stanford University, University of Virginia, Georgetown University, University of Washington and Oregon State University.

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