Formulating the next U.S.-Russian arms control agreement

By Pavel Podvig | December 18, 2008

As the United States waits for a new administration to take office in January, expectations are high that arms control talks with Russia will be revitalized shortly thereafter. Parties in both countries–no matter political persuasion–think Washington and Moscow should move quickly to devise a new disarmament agreement that would replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in December 2009. In my June column, I wrote that the optimism regarding a new treaty might not be warranted–the differences in the U.S. and Russian approaches to the next step of the disarmament process are serious and will be difficult to overcome.

Instead of creating a new arms control treaty, Russia and the United States should keep START and concentrate on a Moscow Treaty-plus agreement that would complement START by providing additional verification procedures applicable only to delivery systems and warheads that would be declared as not ‘operationally deployed.'”

That said, it doesn’t mean that these differences can’t be reconciled. Below, I try to outline the three major points of disagreement and propose potential solutions to them.

Disagreement #1: Counting rules

The United States would prefer to count only “operationally deployed” warheads, giving Washington significant flexibility to assign some of its strategic nuclear systems to conventional missions and reducing its arsenal by “downloading,” i.e., decreasing the number of warheads associated with missiles and bombers. For example, if Washington gets its way, the four U.S. Trident submarines that no longer carry ballistic missiles wouldn’t be counted against the treaty ceiling–same for two of the remaining fourteen U.S. submarines that are expected to be in overhaul at any given time. Furthermore, the missiles on those 14 submarines only would be counted with the actual number of nuclear warheads they carry–about five for nuclear missiles and zero for conventional missiles–even though each of them can carry as many as eight warheads. This would allow Washington to reduce its “operationally deployed” warheads without making any significant changes to its force and giving it substantial “upload potential,” the capability to quickly increase the number of deliverable warheads by bringing back and deploying reserve warheads. The U.S. military, of course, likes having this kind of flexibility, but Russia looks at it with serious suspicion–especially because Moscow doesn’t have a similar capability.

Russia would like to see a limit on the number of delivery systems (land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles and bombers) that can be used to carry nuclear warheads, regardless of the number of warheads these platforms actually carry. This means, among other things, that those delivery systems that have been “downloaded” or converted to a conventional mission would have to be counted in full. For Moscow, this is a way to guarantee that the United States doesn’t have upload potential.

Disagreement #2: U.S. conventional capabilities

It’s all well and good that the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, but Russia is concerned that this reduction will come with an increase in the number of U.S. conventional warheads, which, Russia argues, could be as effective as nuclear warheads if the United States would ever launch a first strike against Russian strategic forces. This premise might be debatable, but it doesn’t change the fact that Moscow is insisting that any new treaty should include measures to limit conventional capabilities.

Disagreement #3: START’s transparency and verification mechanisms

Neither Russia nor the United States say they are happy about these. Overall, both sides believe that the verification system should be much simpler–i.e., some of the current elements, such as continuous portal monitoring at missile production facilities, seem expensive, intrusive, and unnecessary.

Possible solutions

The solution to the counting rules problem could be combining the approaches adopted by the two strategic arms control agreements that are in force today–START and the Moscow Treaty. Russia’s position on counting rules is more or less what START requires–all strategic delivery systems are counted as carrying the maximum number of warheads they can carry regardless of how many they actually possess. The U.S. position is much closer to that of the Moscow Treaty, which takes into account only “operationally deployed” warheads–a designation it doesn’t define with any precision. Not surprisingly, the United States sees the next treaty as essentially the Moscow Treaty with new numerical limits and some token verification measures. Russia has already indicated that it won’t agree to such an agreement.

The Obama administration will probably tweak the U.S. proposal, but I wouldn’t count on any breakthroughs: The current U.S. position isn’t a Bush administration whim, but a reflection of prevailing U.S. thinking on the topic. That’s why most proposals made by independent experts, whether Russian or American, assume that the new agreement would have to accept the U.S. approach and count only “operationally deployed” nuclear warheads. But we shouldn’t expect any dramatic changes in the Russian approach either, as it reflects how Moscow’s military and political leadership thinks about its relationship with the United States.

Thus, my proposed compromise: Keep both counts. This way, Washington and Moscow could extend START’s terms not as a stopgap measure intended to buy time to negotiate a new agreement, but as a way to hold each other accountable to the maximum possible capabilities of their strategic forces. After all, START’s counting rules and verification procedures were structured to make sure that the treaty sets the limit that neither country can cross. It does exaggerate the number of warheads that are actually deployed, but this is hardly a problem–as long as we understand that START gives us the upper limit and not the actual number, we should be able to live with that.

At the same time, it would make perfect sense to count “operationally deployed” warheads as well. This is what the Moscow Treaty was supposed to do, but its counting procedures never materialized since Russia and the United States weren’t able to agree on them–in part because they saw the “operational warhead” counting rules as a substitute to the START rules, not as a complement to them. That’s why if we keep the START rules and procedures in place, agreeing on the definition of “operationally deployed” warheads should be easier.

Specific definitions and verification measures could be negotiated by the Bilateral Implementation Commission, which the Moscow Treaty created. Since these definitions and measures wouldn’t substitute those included in START, negotiating them shouldn’t be difficult. For example, it would be easy to agree that submarines in overhaul shouldn’t be counted as “operationally deployed”–something that’s readily verifiable without intrusive measures. (However, these submarines would still be included in the START count unless they’re liquidated in compliance with its procedures.) If any side would want to lower its “operationally deployed” count, that side would be welcome to do so as long as it’s ready to submit the system it wants to exclude from that count to the agreed verification process. In another example, if the United States wanted to exclude its conventional Trident missiles from the balance, it would have to submit them to inspections. But if Washington decided that the inspections are too intrusive, it would have the option of keeping these systems on the nuclear side of its balance sheet, just as it does today under START.

A double count would be more complex than the current count, but it would reflect reality– the number of actually deployed nuclear warheads isn’t as high as the START counting rules show, which should be reflected in the record. Along those lines, the START rules should be preserved, too, since they reflect another important reality–the maximum number of warheads that the United States and Russia can deploy. Eventually, this is the number that we need to bring to zero, but we could agree for the moment that it will take time to do so.

In practical terms, this means that Russia and the United States should extend START without any changes. And instead of creating something new, the countries should keep START and concentrate on a Moscow Treaty-plus agreement that would complement START by providing additional verification procedures applicable only to those delivery systems and warheads that would be declared as not “operationally deployed.” Such an approach would also help address Russia’s concern about the conventional capabilities of the U.S. force. While not limiting that capability directly, it would provide a way to continue taking all U.S. strategic systems into account in the overall balance–whether they were converted to conventional missions or not.

Dealing with the complexity of the verification and inspection mechanism doesn’t mean throwing away START either. After all, START doesn’t require its parties to carry out all of the inspections, it only gives them the right to do so. It would be perfectly appropriate for the Joint Compliance and Implementation Commission, which manages the process, to agree that the parties have no interest in conducting certain inspections (something Russian and U.S. military professionals could decide), without necessarily forfeiting their rights.

A two-tier approach to nuclear weapons reductions would certainly require some changes in long-established arms control policies. But it would seem to give both the United States and Russia common ground for taking the next step in reducing their nuclear forces in a mutually agreed, legally binding, and verified way.

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