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Race for Latest Class of Nuclear Arms Threatens to Revive Cold War

The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons. The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century.

It is, in large measure, an old dynamic playing out in new form as an economically declining Russia, a rising China and an uncertain United States resume their one-upmanship.

American officials largely blame the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, saying his intransigence has stymied efforts to build on a 2010 arms control treaty and further shrink the arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers. Some blame the Chinese, who are looking for a technological edge to keep the United States at bay. And some blame the United States itself for speeding ahead with a nuclear “modernization” that, in the name of improving safety and reliability, risks throwing fuel on the fire.

President Obama acknowledged that danger at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit meeting in Washington early this month. He warned of the potential for “ramping up new and more deadly and more effective systems that end up leading to a whole new escalation of the arms race.”

For a president who came to office more than seven years ago talking about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, it was an admission that an American policy intended to reduce the centrality of atomic arms might contribute to a second nuclear age.

One of the few veterans of the Cold War in his administration, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his annual global threat assessment, “We could be into another Cold War-like spiral.” Yet it is different from Mr. Clapper’s earlier years, when he was an Air Force intelligence officer weighing the risks of nuclear strikes that could level cities with weapons measured by the megaton.

Adversaries look at what the United States expects to spend on the nuclear revitalization program — estimated at up to $1 trillion over three decades — and use it to lobby for their own sophisticated weaponry.

Moscow is fielding big missiles topped by miniaturized warheads, and experts fear that it may violate the global test ban as it develops new weapons. According to Russian news reports, the Russian Navy is developing an undersea drone meant to loft a cloud of radioactive contamination from an underwater explosion that would make target cities uninhabitable.

The Chinese military, under the tighter control of President Xi Jinping, is flight-testing a novel warhead called a “hypersonic glide vehicle.” It flies into space on a traditional long-range missile but then maneuvers through the atmosphere, twisting and careening at more than a mile a second. That can render missile defenses all but useless.

The Obama administration is hardly in a position to complain. It is flight-testing its own hypersonic weapon, but an experiment in 2014 ended in a spectacular fireball. Flight tests are set to resume next year. As part of themodernization process, it is also planning five classes of improved nuclear arms and associated delivery vehicles that, as a family, are shifting the American arsenal in the direction of small, stealthy and precise.

“We are witnessing the opening salvos of an arms race,” James M. Acton, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, last yeartold a congressional commission that assesses China’s power.

One fear about the new weapons is that they could undercut the grim logic of “mutual assured destruction,” the Cold War doctrine that any attack would result in massive retaliation and ultimately the annihilation of all combatants. While much debated and often mocked — in classics like the movie “Dr. Strangelove” — MAD, as it was known, worked. Now, the concern is that the precision and less-destructive nature of these new weapons raises the temptation to use them.

A key question that Mr. Obama addressed is whether America’s planned upgrades are helping drive this competition. Or are Russia and China simply using the American push as an excuse to perfect weapons they would build anyway?

Moscow and Beijing, analysts say, are testing space weapons that could knock out American military satellites at the beginning of a nuclear war. In response, Washington is launching space observation satellites meant to deter and help defeat such attacks.

Mr. Obama, speaking at the summit meeting’s closing news conference, acknowledged the tension stirred by the refurbishment of the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal. He noted, for example, that communication links between the weapons and their guardians needed better protections against cyberattack. But when asked if warhead miniaturization and similar improvements could undermine his record of progress on arms control, he replied: “It’s a legitimate question. And I am concerned.”

White House officials say they try to tamp down any worried reactions to the new developments. In an interview, Avril Haines, the deputy national security adviser, said, “When tensions develop, we take steps to avoid unnecessarily raising the temperature.”

Mr. Obama came to office in 2009 eager to “reset” relations with Moscow, reduce America’s reliance on nuclear arms and move toward their elimination. He was the first president to make nuclear disarmament a centerpiece of American defense policy.

The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons. The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century.

It is, in large measure, an old dynamic playing out in new form as an economically declining Russia, a rising China and an uncertain United States resume their one-upmanship.

American officials largely blame the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, saying his intransigence has stymied efforts to build on a 2010 arms control treaty and further shrink the arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers. Some blame the Chinese, who are looking for a technological edge to keep the United States at bay. And some blame the United States itself for speeding ahead with a nuclear “modernization” that, in the name of improving safety and reliability, risks throwing fuel on the fire.

President Obama acknowledged that danger at the end of the Nuclear

Security Summit meeting in Washington early this month. He warned of the potential for “ramping up new and more deadly and more effective systems that end up leading to a whole new escalation of the arms race.”

For a president who came to office more than seven years ago talking about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, it was an admission that an American policy intended to reduce the centrality of atomic arms might contribute to a second nuclear age.

One of the few veterans of the Cold War in his administration, James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his annual global threat assessment, “We could be into another Cold War-like spiral.” Yet it is different from Mr. Clapper’s earlier years, when he was an Air Force intelligence officer weighing the risks of nuclear strikes that could level cities with weapons measured by the megaton.

Adversaries look at what the United States expects to spend on the nuclear revitalization program — estimated at up to $1 trillion over three decades — and use it to lobby for their own sophisticated weaponry.

Moscow is fielding big missiles topped by miniaturized warheads, and experts fear that it may violate the global test ban as it develops new weapons. According to Russian news reports, the Russian Navy is developing an undersea drone meant to loft a cloud of radioactive contamination from an underwater explosion that would make target cities uninhabitable.

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