Modernization and arms control don’t have to be enemies.

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On a recent panel on nuclear modernization and arms control at Brookings, there were a few points made about the potential synergies between arms control and modernization.

While modernization and arms control seem contradictory, it really depends on what you are trying to do with each. For example, if you want to reduce the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. has in its stockpile, it may actually make sense to improve the ability of the U.S. to produce new weapons. Why would that be you might ask? It’s because current stockpiles are a hedge, a hedge to replace warheads that are too old and to buy time for a future ability to produce warheads again faster rates. Toward the end of the Bush administration, maintenance and production were so bad that officials were worried that nuclear testing would become necessary again to verify that weapons worked.

Stranger yet about this dynamic is that due to U.S. difficulties in production, one of the panelists argued Russia currently has an advantage at warhead production that may incent them to race with the U.S. in the short-run. What are the potential results of this? It may partially explain Russia’s pull-out of the INF treaty: Russian leadership may not have perceived much of a risk to pulling out given lack of current U.S. ability to keep up at warhead production, and a lack of public support in the U.S. for new weapons generally. With the development of new intermediate-range missiles, the Russians will be able to free up some of their longer range nuclear missiles to aim at the U.S. instead of closer targets. If New START isn’t extended in 2021, it doesn’t seem unimaginable that Russia may seek to gain negotiation advantage unconstrained by numbers limits, until the U.S. ramps up its production ability again.

While I am not sure I agree fully with the panel, an implication to be drawn from their arguments is that from an equilibrium of treaty compliance, maintaining the ability to race can disincentivize the other side from treaty violation: it increases the cost to the other side of gaining advantage, and that can be especially decisive if your side has an economic advantage. This just generally seems to be an instance of the idea that it is important to maintain leverage in negotiations.

Speaking more broadly than just about nuclear weapons: a lack of technological development by a leading country is not sufficient to prevent an arms race. If a weaker power finds low hanging technological fruit, that it knows it can exploit due to the political constraints of its competitors, it may have strong incentive to pursue even risky capabilities since the gains in relative power may be large. If on the other hand, a technologically leading country can credibly signal that it would win an arms race or that gains would be minimal, then the incentive to pursue risky capabilities may be diminished. Modernization is how a country can credibly show that it has the will and ability to race. What a country actually decides to deploy is an independent choice.