The new US-Russia agreement to reduce their nuclear arsenals (which reports say they have now concluded) certainly warrants the Joe Biden phrase for major accomplishments – “a big …ing deal.”.[i] But in one sense it is less than meets the eye.
The very fact of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is worthy of celebration. It signals, and locks in, a continued downward trajectory in nuclear arsenals, it gives substance to the Obama/Medvedev commitment to the joint pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons, and it revives essential verification provisions that are absent in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT – also known as the Moscow Treaty), signed by George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.
But when the numbers are fully parsed, some will feel a lot like US health reform enthusiasts, celebrating the reform that was finally accomplished but lamenting that it wasn’t all they had dared to hope it would be.
The New York Times reports that warheads are to be cut to 1,550 and warhead delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers) are to be capped at 800.[ii] And the best source for the numbers behind the numbers is Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists who tabulates current nuclear force levels for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.[iii]
The reduction of warheads to 1,550 is at least a 25 percent cut from the 2,200 allowed for deployment under the Moscow Treaty (the Obama/Medvedev framework agreement signed at the start of negotiations put the target in the range between 1,500 to 1,675 strategic warheads on each side).[iv] The US has already reached the Moscow Treaty target of 2,200 and Russia is close to being there (2012 being the target date for meeting that level), but both maintain warheads in reserve and still have a significant stock awaiting dismantlement (about 6,700, combined, in the US and 7,300 in Russia). In addition, the Americans have about 500 deployed non-strategic warheads and Russia about 2,000.
In other words, unless both sides reduce their reserve and non-strategic warheads and accelerate dismantling of warheads, the 1,550 deployed warheads on each side could still be accompanied by inventories of up to 7,200 and 9,300 warheads in the US and Russia respectively.
That in turn means that after the START agreement is fully implemented, the two could still have huge inventories of warheads: the US with 8,750 (1,550 deployed strategic warheads, 500 deployed non-strategic, 2,500 in reserve, 4,200 awaiting dismantlement); and Russia with (1,550 deployed strategic warheads, 2,000 deployed non-strategic, 7,300 in reserve and awaiting dismantlement). That means, in theory at last, almost 20,000 warheads could still be held by the two big nuclear powers, with a combined total of another 1,000 or more held by the other states with nuclear weapons.
Now, that is a worst-case scenario and the US and Russia will most certainly have dismantled a substantial number of warheads by then, so the totals will in fact be considerably lower. US arms control watchers report that the Obama administration could accelerate the rate of warhead dismantlement from about 250 per year to 400 a year.[v] So, over the life of the new seven-year START agreement, the US inventory of deployed and stored warheads could decline from the current total of 9,400 to about 6,000 (with experts cautioning that dismantlement is a technically difficult process that must be done safely and can’t be rushed).
As regards delivery vehicles, the missiles and bombers from which weapons would be launched, the framework agreement going into the negotiations set the target maximum at between 500 and 1,100, and, as noted above, the New York Times reports that the new START agreement will set the maximum number at 800 on each side, down from 1,600 agreed to in the earlier START agreement (the Moscow Treaty did not address delivery vehicles).
If the agreed level is indeed set at 800, it will not be difficult for either side to comply since they both are already below that level. The US now has 798 deployed delivery vehicles, while Russia is already below 600 – and both are moving toward further reductions.
The new START agreement is a good start, and there are reasons to believe that both the US and Russia could go even lower than the agreement mandates in their actual deployments. In other words, the Treaty does not set a very high bar, or, in this case, a very low bar, but even at that there will be those in the US Senate who will argue (vociferously, as we’ve come to expect of the US Congress) that it leaves the US weak and defenseless. A big issue will be what the Treaty has to say about ballistic missile defence. The New York Times reports that the preamble to the Treaty acknowledges a relationship between offensive weapons and missile defence, but in non-binding language. For some Republicans in a mood to frustrate the current Administration, that will likely be enough to fire up the oppositional rhetoric.
[i] “Biden on ‘F---ing Deal’,” The Huffington Post, 25 March 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/25/biden-on-big-f---ing-deal_n_512555.html.
Hans M. Kristensen, “START Follow-On: What SORT of Agreement?” the Federation of American Scientists Strategic Security Blog, 8 July 2009. http://www.fas.org/blog/ssp/2009/07/start.php.
Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Russian nuclear forces, 2010,” January/February 2010, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. http://thebulletin.metapress.com/content/4337066824700113/.
Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “US nuclear forces, 2009,” March/April 2009, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. http://www.thebulletin.org/files/065002008.pdf.
[iv] “Joint Understanding,” signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, July 2008, 2009. The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Joint-Statement-by-President-Dmitriy-Medvedev-of-the-Russian-Federation-and-President-Barack-Obama-of-the-United-States-of-America/.
[v] Elain M. Grossman, “Obama Team Might Speed Up Disassembly of Older Nuclear Warheads,” Global Security Newswire, 1 March 2010. http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org/siteservices/print_friendly.php?ID=nw_20100301_9520.