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.