New START: One year later

By Kingston Reif | February 2, 2012

February 5 marks the one-year anniversary of the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty’s (New START) entry into force. Signed by the United States and Russia in April 2010, New START caps each country’s nuclear arsenal at 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles (long-range missiles and bombers), and 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers (long-range missile tubes on submarines, missile silos, and bombers). The treaty also restores an essential means of monitoring and verifying the size and location of these forces, which lapsed when the START I treaty expired in 2009.

Despite New START’s substantive merits and overwhelming support from the US military, the eight-month-long campaign to win over the Senate was a partisan knock-down-drag-out fight, the successful outcome of which was in doubt until the last moment. So how did this hard-won treaty fare over the last year? The New START anniversary is an opportune time to examine progress, as well as to assess opportunities and challenges ahead.

New START implementation. During Senate deliberations, New START supporters maintained that the treaty’s legally binding limits and monitoring and verification provisions would cap Russia’s deployed forces and give the United States an essential window into their composition and location — information the United States would not otherwise have. So far, New START’s implementation has proved this correct: While US satellites and other technical means provide substantial information about Russia’s nuclear forces, the cooperative verification and monitoring provisions in New START afford key insights and facts on the ground that cannot be acquired by any other means.

To date, the United States and Russia have conducted two comprehensive data exchanges regarding strategic nuclear forces, including the number of deployed strategic warheads — a first for an arms control treaty. The exchanges revealed:

  • As of September 2011, the United States had 1,790 deployed accountable strategic warheads and 822 deployed strategic delivery vehicles.
  • Russia had 1,566 deployed accountable strategic warheads and 516 deployed strategic delivery vehicles.

In addition:

  • As of January 2012, the United States and Russia had exchanged 1,800 notifications.
  • The United States has conducted 18 out of an allowed 18 annual onsite inspections in Russia.
  • Russia has also conducted 18 such inspections in the United States.
  • The United States has had the opportunity to view the RS-24, Russia’s new MIRV’d (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) ballistic missile.

In short, New START has yielded invaluable, precise information essential to US national security.

The Pentagon initially planned to meet the treaty limits of 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles by deploying a robust triad of 240 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), no more than 420 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and no more than 60 nuclear-capable bombers. This force totals 720 deployed delivery vehicles; the Pentagon must decide whether to reduce another 20 ICBMs or nuclear-capable bombers. But now, this plan — once seemingly set in stone — is being reexamined. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller told the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee last November, “In the context of the budget situation [in] which we find ourselves, … we are looking hard at those numbers again.” A Pentagon-led review of future nuclear deterrence requirements  mandated by the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review will inform the final decisions, which will be made by the president and which will help determine how and when to structure US nuclear forces.

Meanwhile, Russia is already below the treaty limit on deployed strategic delivery vehicles and close to the limits on warheads and deployed and non-deployed launchers. Why? Moscow is retiring older systems faster than it is adding new weapons. According to Russian scholar and former State Duma member Alexei Arbatov, Russia could reduce its forces even further over the next decade — possibly as low as 350-400 deployed delivery vehicles and 1,000-1,100 New START-accountable warheads. Nevertheless, the Russians are slowly deploying new ICBMs and SLBMs and have said they will develop a new heavy liquid-fueled ICBM with up to 10 warheads.

Some treaty critics argue that, since Moscow planned to reduce its nuclear forces with or without a treaty, New START in effect requires unilateral disarmament on the part of the United States. However, whether or not Russian reductions might have happened anyway misses one of the most important points of the treaty: constraint. As former STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton put it in 2010, “When you look to the future, we certainly don’t want [Russia’s nuclear forces] to grow, and they would have been unrestricted otherwise without these types of limits articulated in the treaty.”

New START and the future. The Obama administration has stated that it seeks additional verifiable reductions with Russia not only in deployed strategic forces, but also in non-deployed strategic warheads and nonstrategic (i.e., tactical) nuclear weapons, which aren’t currently limited by any treaty. This would greatly benefit US security.

For example, a new treaty limit of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads would reduce the number of Russian nuclear weapons pointed at the United States and likely dissuade Moscow from moving forward with destabilizing nuclear modernization programs — such as the development of a new heavy ICBM. Verifiable limits on non-deployed warheads and nonstrategic weapons could enhance stability by addressing Russia’s large stockpile of nonstrategic weapons, ensuring that nuclear warheads are actually eliminated as opposed to merely placed in storage, and providing greater transparency on all types of nuclear warheads instead of only deployed warheads.

Plus, additional reductions would save money — not a minor calculation in this budget climate. As it stands, the Pentagon and Energy Department are planning to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade and beyond to build new nuclear delivery systems and warhead-production facilities. But reductions would stem the need for many of these planned replacement systems.

Challenges. The obvious security and budgetary benefits of a new treaty, however, do not mean it will be an easy process. First, while Russia has expressed interest in more reductions — especially of delivery systems and non-deployed warheads so as to limit the Pentagon’s ability to rapidly “upload” non-deployed warheads to deployed missiles and bombers — Moscow is in no hurry to negotiate a new agreement. Russia is undoubtedly awaiting the results of both the Russian and US presidential elections this year before committing to formal negotiations, meaning that new treaty talks won’t begin until 2013 at the earliest. Moreover, Russia has linked all new reductions or treaties to its concerns about America’s ongoing pursuit of missile defenses and to its own concerns about the conventional force balance in Europe — two issues not easy to resolve.

Second, just as Republicans were skeptical of New START, many are every bit as skeptical of more reductions. The original House version of the fiscal year 2012 defense authorization bill included limitations that would have constrained the Pentagon’s ability to implement New START; it also made changes to US nuclear force levels contingent on onerous conditions. While the final version of the bill did not contain these provisions, some Republicans likely will continue to put up roadblocks.

Third, the negotiation of a new treaty with Russia that limits all nuclear weapons will be far more time-consuming and complex than the New START negotiations. Verifying and ensuring confidence in the location and destruction of non-deployed warheads and nonstrategic weapons presents new challenges that will be difficult to resolve.

Next steps. Despite these obstacles, there are actions the United States and Russia can take now, both unilaterally and bilaterally, to pave the way for formal negotiations on a new treaty that verifiably limits all nuclear warheads. The Pentagon has hinted that additional reductions are possible, but how far-reaching will they be? By fundamentally revising the outdated Cold War targeting and alert requirements upon which US nuclear force posture is still based, the United States could live with a much smaller number of nuclear weapons.

More reductions take on greater salience given the requirement to reduce defense spending. Fiscal pressures could force changes to US nuclear force posture that exceed those recommended by the deterrence-requirements study. As expert Amy F. Woolf asked: “Wouldn’t it make sense … to make the decision about changing how you operate the force before the budget forces you to do it, because the budget has forced you to reduce the number of delivery systems?” Furthermore, if reduced spending necessitates a smaller arsenal, Republicans might find it appealing to lock in Russia at a lower level, too.

New deterrence requirements could present interesting opportunities for reductions. For example, the United States might suggest to the Russians an amendment to New START that lowers the limit on the number of deployed strategic weapons but doesn’t change anything else. Or the United States and Russia could reciprocally but unilaterally reduce their deployed arsenals provided that each side does not exceed the agreed level. Either option ought to be acceptable to Moscow, since its forces are expected to come down over the next decade anyway.

The United States and Russia could also pursue confidence-building and transparency measures that could be incorporated in future negotiations, such as: exchanging more detailed information on nuclear holdings, including non-deployed warheads and nonstrategic weapons; reciprocal visits to nuclear weapon storage, assembly, and disassembly facilities; and joint research and development of verification technologies.

The entry into force and successful implementation of New START are achievements to be celebrated, but it’s vital that the momentum they’ve generated isn’t squandered: 2013 could be the year of reckoning.

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