North Korea’s new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, paraded through the streets of Pyongyang this past weekend, has underscored a worrying reality: The global threat from nuclear weapons and menacing missiles has grown since President Donald Trump entered office, despite his administration’s fitful efforts to control them.
The unveiling of the untested weapon — which appeared to be a larger version of a North Korean missile that can reach the United States — came less than a week after Russia test launched an anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile on President Vladimir Putin’s birthday and a month and a half after China test fired its “carrier killer” and “Guam killer” ballistic missiles into the disputed South China Sea.
The situation presents a broader challenge to the United States. The administration has heralded an era of "great power competition" with China and Russia, resulting in a competitive buildup that arms-control advocates warn is risking a full-blown arms race.
Russia is developing nuclear-armed underwater drones, nuclear-powered cruise missiles and other destabilizing weapons designed to penetrate U.S. missile defenses. China is ramping up its missile force and building out its nuclear capabilities with new nuclear submarines. And the United States is modernizing its own arsenal, while adding low-yield nuclear warheads to submarines and enhancing missile defenses. All the while, Iran and North Korea are advancing as threats.
The result is an escalatory cycle that experts say is threatening decades of progress controlling the world's most dangerous weapons. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that the decline of U.S. global influence and the rise of regional security tensions, coupled with the staying power of authoritarian leaders, will incentivize more nations to pursue nuclear weapons and limit Washington's ability to respond.
The issue looms over the final days of the U.S. presidential campaign, as North Korea demonstrates that, despite Trump's efforts, Kim Jong Un's regime is busy enhancing its nuclear missile arsenal. Trump is also rushing to conclude a last-minute arms control deal with Russia, hoping to secure an agreement he can tout as a diplomatic win before the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Trump's interest in arms control dates to at least the 1980s, when he sought unsuccessfully to engage in nuclear talks with the Soviets on behalf of the Reagan administration. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump described nuclear weapons as the world's biggest problem and has called the issue more important than climate change.
But after nearly four years in office, he hasn't signed any significant new treaties to regulate the world's most devastating weapons and has populated his administration at times with arms-control skeptics, such as John Bolton, the former national security adviser.
"You have the U.S. leaving arms agreements with the Russians, failing to open any kind of meaningful talks with the Chinese, really just succeeding in antagonizing the Iranians and the North Koreans and looking the other way while allies like the Saudis acquire some interesting capabilities," said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control advocate who serves as director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, describing the situation as "bad."
Trends were already moving in a worrisome direction before Trump took office, and any administration would struggle to strike substantive new arms control deals in the current environment, said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Trump has exacerbated the challenges, he argued.
China and Russia are becoming more aggressive in their own neighborhoods; nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are clashing over disputed territory; and the Trump administration is alienating allies in Europe, Narang said. The U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq, he said, has only increased the rationale for Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear programs to safeguard their regimes.
"It's not just we are building and modernizing our nuclear weapons program; we are doing it at a time when states are seeking riskier behavior with each other also," Narang said.
Trump's administration has overseen an arms control rollback that has unnerved antinuclear advocates but cheered hawks who say Washington shouldn't stay in problematic agreements just because prior presidents signed them. Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord that the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, citing flaws with the pact and malign activities by Tehran outside the agreement, and withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and the Treaty on Open Skies, citing violations by Moscow.
Tim Morrison, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who served as the National Security Council's senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense under Trump, said the increasing threat shouldn't be blamed on the president.
"What I have trouble doing is saying that it's Trump's fault, that somehow the Obama administration or a Biden administration would do it better," Morrison said. "I think the problem is this era that we're in — it's an incredibly complicated era."
Trump's critics, however, counter that his brash and undisciplined approach to foreign policy has squandered diplomatic opportunities, undermined work with allies and contributed to global instability.
"It's not just that the U.S. is not playing a leadership role, which it's definitely not, but it's not providing any of the functions that it used to provide," Lewis said. "Everyone is on their own, and there are no rules, and there is no predictability, so I do think things can get a little crazy."
Perhaps Trump's biggest achievement in the arms-control space has been to broker an informal agreement with Kim to pause North Korea's tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads in exchange for a U.S. suspension of military exercises with South Korea. The moratorium reduced tension that flared between Washington and Pyongyang in 2017.
But Kim has continued to advance his nuclear weapons and missile programs in the meantime, according to a U.N. Panel of Experts report and U.S. officials, conducting a ballistic missile test from a submarine last year and more recently threatening to resume the long-range-missile and nuclear tests he agreed to halt.
On Saturday, North Korea underscored the advancing threat its nuclear program poses by unveiling an ICBM on an 11-axle truck. The missile, which hasn't been tested, appeared to be the nation's biggest and most powerful to date, according to analysts, some of whom described it as a larger derivative of the Hwasong-15 tested in late 2017. The larger size suggests North Korea is working on advancing its arsenal by affixing several warheads to one missile.
In the Middle East, Iran has ramped up production of enriched uranium since the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog. The country's regional archrival, Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been working with the Chinese to build production capacity for nuclear fuel, according to a report in the New York Times, and has moved to expand its missile capabilities, raising concerns about the kingdom's nuclear ambitions.
In Russia, Putin unveiled new weapons in 2018 that are designed to penetrate American missile defenses, including the nuclear-armed Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and the nuclear-armed undersea Poseidon drone. Development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile, known as the Burevestnik or Skyfall, led to an accident that killed five people last year in Russia's far north, according to U.S. officials. Washington explored similar technology during the Cold War but deemed it too dangerous.
Putin has said some of the new weapons Russia is developing would fall under the New START agreement if Washington and Moscow agree to prolong the 2010 pact, which expires in early February but includes a five-year extension option. In his platform, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has said that if elected president, he would extend the treaty; Putin has also expressed a willingness to do so.
But the Trump administration wants a broader treaty. According to U.S. officials, the administration is discussing a one- or two-year extension of New START with Russia, pending the negotiation of a new pact. The deal would also freeze both countries' nuclear stockpiles in the meantime, a detail first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The Trump administration previously has demanded Russia put all its nuclear weapons up for negotiation and include China in the framework for a follow-on treaty. If the talks falls apart, Washington and Moscow would have no substantive restraints on their arsenals for the first time since the Cold War.
China, which has refused to take part in the talks, is pursuing a full nuclear triad that can launch nuclear warheads from air, land and sea — and is developing its own stealth strategic bomber. The Pentagon predicts that Beijing's arsenal will double from about 200 to 400 warheads over the next decade. The United States and Russia each have more than 5,000, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
Still, the Chinese military's advancements have raised questions about whether the nation, which has long said it will use a nuclear weapon only after being hit by one, is moving away from that "second strike" doctrine.
Beijing has also developed a formidable missile force that has checked U.S. power in Asia, including the nuclear-capable DF-26 ballistic missile, sometimes called the "Guam killer" because it can reach U.S. military facilities on the island, and the DF-21D, an intermediate-range ballistic missile that has been dubbed the "carrier killer" because it can threaten U.S. aircraft carriers. It is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles that can move more than five times the speed of sound.
The buildups by Moscow and Beijing come as the United States modernizes its nuclear arsenal, with the Pentagon planning to introduce a new nuclear bomber, submarine, intercontinental ballistic missile system and air-launch cruise missile in the coming years. The 30-year effort, when including the sustainment of the current nuclear force, is projected to cost more than $1 trillion.
The Trump administration earlier this year deployed a new low-yield nuclear warhead for Trident ballistic missiles on submarines and is starting work on a new nuclear cruise missile for submarines as well. It's also in the early stages of developing a nuclear warhead known as the W93. The Pentagon is working on a range of hypersonic weapons to keep pace with China, though it says they are conventional rather than nuclear.
The developments have led to growing concerns about a nascent arms race. Trump's recent comments to journalist Bob Woodward about a secret, unidentified nuclear weapons system heightened those fears.
The United States has continued investments in missile defense — which the Russians have said prompted their investments in exotic weapons.
Despite the tension, it's important to put the current state of affairs in broader context, said Rose Gottemoeller, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who served as deputy secretary general of NATO and one of the Obama administration's top arms-control negotiators.
In the late 1960s, Gottemoeller said, the United States had more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union by some accounts had at least 40,000 — far more than today. She said that the Trump administration is right to sound the alarm about Russia's new systems and China's expanded nuclear and missile forces, but that people shouldn't overreact.
"There is no need to panic," Gottemoeller said.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — a Cold War-era pact whereby nuclear nations pledged to reduce their arsenals in exchange for nonnuclear nations not pursuing nuclear weapons — could be strained if New START falls apart, Gottemoeller warned, and there is no follow-on agreement between the United States and Russia to limit strategic arms. But she said she expects Washington and Moscow to come to an agreement.
The other big issue that must be addressed, Gottemoeller said, is the rapid advance and proliferation of missile technology around the globe, which is giving more countries access to very fast and highly accurate missiles.