US tomahawk missile
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COMMENT: Arms Control - The Great Illusion?

"We have not gone to nuclear war because of any treaty," writes Defence Analyst Christopher Lee.

US tomahawk missile

A United States missile being fired on Syria (Picture: US Department of Defense).

The truth about arms control treaties goes something like this: presidents sign up to ban weapons they cannot yet make, weapons they don’t want and weapons they do not want the other side to have.

Having debated and negotiated the arms control trade through two decades, I’ve not seen a gold pen affair that didn’t more or less amount to the above line of realism (AKA cynicism).  

Let us examine the reality. The big weapons signings were SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) I and II.

They were agreed in 1972 and 1979 and drafted to limit strategic (intercontinental) nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

Here was the first nonsense: such complex agreements relied on defining the weapons and, most of all, on verification. 

Verification meant how either side knew if the other side wasn’t cheating and if so how.

Sounds daft if both sides wanted an agreement? Not so.

I worked on an experiment that changed the tyre pressures on MX experimental missile transporters to confuse Soviet Intelligence Satellites attempting to figure when transporters were loaded with the real thing.

Verification and therefore ratification became an impossibility for many apparently perfectly written treaties.

Moreover, watertight treaties have always been vulnerable. Take the anti-ballistic missile treaties. Limitations are so great that the second reason for a treaty - the introduction of military uncertainty as well as reassurance - becomes limited.  

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The US President during a Medal of Honor ceremony on 24 May 2018 (Picture: PA).

Even mind changing is not new. Certainly, President Trump’s thought to scrap one of the major treaties in history is not a first.

The Soviet Union and the USA agreed to limited strategic nuclear missiles in 1979. Both sides said the world was safer. It limited missiles, warheads, multiple warheads, submarine-launched missiles and bombers.

The East-West relations soured. The Soviet Union at the end of 1979 invaded Afghanistan. President Carter asked Congress not to ratify the treaty.

His successor, President Reagan, said he wouldn’t recognize the treaty. Treaty was set aside. Trump’s doing just that.

There’s more to it, including weapon improvement that broke the agreement. The Soviet Union got rid of some weapons to comply with SALT, but they were going anyway.

Whatever the reasoning and rhetoric, as I am writing this no one started a nuclear war.

We have now moved to a new era of arms control. In the early days, all treaties were agreed only by the USA and USSR. The rest of us tagged along.

The superpowers had 9,000 or 10,000 nuclear warheads each. So what we, the French and Chinese had a few each.

We did not count in arms treaties and the USSR and USA never thought we should.

But now we could be trying for a multi-national set of treaties that include signatures of Russia, America, the UK, France, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea and Israel. But everyone has a different issue and no one gives anything.

Yet nuclear weapons are supposed to be deterrents. So far so good in a world that is changing in strategic terms.

The so-called little guys shake nuclear fists so much that the big guys - and you could include the UK - no long matter.

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Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake hands before attending a joint press conference on 16 July 2018 (Picture: PA).

Thus US-USSR nuclear weapon treaties that have survived this far are meaningless. We have not gone to nuclear war because of any treaty.

Both former superpowers are modernising all the time, as is the UK – not even a superpower. 

In the UK’s case there is an irony: if the UK did not have nuclear warheads, it is unlikely they would buy them.

That’s how the strategic balance has shifted and the reasons for treaties have too.

The ones that matter are the ones we never hear about. The outer space treaties that began in the 1960s, which established no missiles and nuclear warheads in space, need to be revisited.

Biological warfare needs an urgent drafting of a treaty that would stop research and stock-piling. Anti-personnel mines need an American signature.

But the two lessons of weapons arms control are found in two modern-day facts.

Firstly, treaties do not bring countries together. They simply reflect the state of international relations that cause the treaty to be signed – so we wait until the White House and the Kremlin will send Christmas Cards once more.

Secondly, if deterrence is still a valid state of military judgement, then the artificial fear of war supposedly inspired by Trump’s action still works: no one goes to war on the basis of such uncertainty.

So why not scrap all the arms control treaties? The truth is, we more or less have. 

No treaty worth having has been verified, so that it cannot be broken.

We’re left with the ones that govern weapons we don’t need, the ones we don’t want and the ones we don’t want the other guy to have.

Trump’s team knows as much.

Christopher Lee is the Forces Radio, BFBS Defence Analyst. He can be heard every week on the only radio programme devoted to discussing matters of defence and security, Sitrep. To listen head here, to download click here.