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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 in which nuclear weapons 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 that 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 stretching 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 that had a destructive capability that was at least three or four times greater than the Soviet force. The two nations were like two strong men fighting each other to the death in a pitch-black room with long knives. The principal difference was that one of the men would eventually win and emerge victorious from the darkroom; yet 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 Dwight 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 United States 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-upon number of monitored over-flights by the other nation on their territory. The planes would be equipped with cameras to take pictures that 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 likely being a Western “espionage plot” 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 U-2, which could fly higher than the reach of much of the Soviet air defense. A few initial looks at Soviet nuclear weapon deployments were achieved, but after a few years, one of the U.S. planes was shot down by the Soviet air defense, with 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. Perhaps a half a dozen times, those crises brought the world community to being within minutes of complete and utter destruction.

By 1962, the Soviet Union had secretly deployed in Cuba—90 miles away from the United States—medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with very large nuclear warheads that were capable of destroying the eastern United States. This led to an existential crisis. Desperate and confusing last-minute negotiations were underway. Time was running out, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as Congressional leaders were demanding an invasion to remove the missiles. President John F. Kennedy’s military and intelligence advisors assured him that there were no operational missiles in Cuba yet. At the last moment, Kennedy decided not to invade and instead to pursue a diplomatic solution. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara spoke about this years later, in 2002, stating, “These events seemed dangerous at the time. But it wasn’t until 30 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 airstrike 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 Jimmy 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 thousand. Brzezinski knew that he now had just a few minutes before he would have to awaken President Carter, who would then have 10 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 would have touched off a strategic nuclear war that would have destroyed civilization. But, as it turned out, Brzezinski did not have to wake Carter because 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 the early-warning facility was to monitor five new satellites just deployed—too hastily, Petrov thought—and specially designed to watch the 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 that 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 that a nuclear war wouldn’t start with the launching of one missile. He telephoned the duty officer at the Command Center, who would then transmit his message to the Soviet Chief of the General Staff and from there to the Soviet Politburo. Petrov said to the duty officer, “False alarm,” and 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 what to do next without any confirming data. He repeated to the duty officer, “This is

a false alarm.” His message went up the chain of command. At that time of high tension, the Politburo very much feared a U.S. first strike because of their nation’s perceived weakness vis-à-vis the West. Their leaders were 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. However, 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— launching 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 that of the

U.S. Trident II submarine-launched strategic missile. Thirty nations, including Russia, had been informed of the project two weeks in advance, but the notice apparently went astray in the Russian bureaucracy.

The Black Brant XII 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 United States and the “Cheget” in Russia (referring to a high mountain in Russia) was brought to then-Russian President Boris 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 then-U.S. President Bill Clinton and had doubts that the United States would launch such a surreptitious attack. So he 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 it had been a scientific experiment, not an attack.

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

The negotiations continued, and in 1979, a second SALT treaty was achieved that was known as SALT II. Among its achievements were agreed-upon numbers of strategic offensive nuclear weapons, which both sides undertook as established ceilings for those weapons; a 10% 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 and a rigorous verification system based on type rules to strengthen the performance of NTM.

But even SALT II, 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 U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It was called the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (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 that 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 then-Soviet Union Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan. That led to, among other things, a START agreement signed by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and then-Soviet Union President Gorbachev in 1991. That agreement achieved very substantial reductions and all of the transparency arrangements for which the United States had advocated, including onsite inspections, both external and internal, of both weapons and associated infrastructure; access to telemetry; agreed-upon designation and location of weapons and more. Since the START treaty was signed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had to be reformulated as an agreement between the United States and Russia. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus (newly independent states that had been regions of the Soviet Union where strategic nuclear weapons were also deployed) agreed to be nuclear-weapon-free and to return to Russia all strategic weapons on their territories. This was accomplished by the Lisbon protocol established in 1992. The United States and Russia both ratified START in the fall of 1992. START was 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, any need for hair-trigger weapons policies went away, and after the nuclear weapon crisis of 1996 there have been no more such policies.

START had a 15-year term, and thus it expired in 2009. President Barack Obama negotiated a replacement in 2010, built on the START treaty and referred to as the New START Treaty. All of the verification achievements of START were retained in New START, with some modified to bring them up to date and reductions taken even further down to a level that is more than two-thirds below the level first agreed upon in SALT I to stop the arms race in 1972. The term of New START is 10 years, or until February 5, 2021. It has a five-year extension option. Russia President Vladimir Putin in early 2017 offered to extend the New START Treaty. His offer has not yet been acted upon.

But 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, and 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 the potential for a nuclear war is much greater?

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. The various terrifying nuclear crises of the Cold War and years immediately afterward were peaceably resolved because the right people 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 that is subject to a military solution by war, by threats or by stockpile build-up; and we should not return to relying on luck. The only way to effectively address the problem caused by the still-dangerous U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces is through 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 conducting 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 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.


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