Prime Minister Trudeau once famously derided “nuclear accountants” for the arcane counting rules that typically accompany nuclear arms control efforts. He had a point, but the nuclear accountants are back because, happily, nuclear arms control has returned to the public policy agenda with sufficient prominence to once again require their exacting services.

The United States currently has either 5576 nuclear warheads, or it has 2200, or 9400. All three numbers are in fact correct – it’s all in the accounting.

The first number represents the total warheads tallied under the counting rules of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). START accounting is focused on strategic (long-range) delivery vehicles and the US reported in April of this year that it has 550 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, another 432 missiles on 14 submarines, and 216 long-range bombers – and, together, these missiles and aircraft are capable of carrying 5576 warheads. So under START that is the relevant number, whether or not that many warheads are actually deployed – the point is that they could if they chose to.[i]

The 2200 warhead figure is based on the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), also known as the Moscow Treaty. That Treaty has no verification provisions and does not require the reductions to be permanent, so it is less like a Treaty and more like a general US-Russian joint statement of mutual policy intentions to reduce actively deployed strategic warheads to 2200 by 2012. Since the US has reported that through deployment adjustments it is reaching the SORT targets ahead of schedule,[ii] 2200 becomes the relevant number.

That leaves the 9400 number. It includes the large number of warheads in storage, many of which are scheduled to be dismantled but for the time being remain in the nuclear inventory. It also includes all tactical or non-strategic warheads, only some of which are deployed. The details are not officially disclosed, but the best estimates of the nuclear accounting community put the total number of deployed and in-storage warheads of any type at 9400.[iii]

The Russian numbers are roughly similar, but now the United States and Russia have agreed on the ambitious objective of negotiating a new START treaty in time for the December 5, 2009 expiry of the current one. It will succeed the 1991 Treaty, supersede the 2002 Moscow Treaty, and will introduce a whole new set of numbers. To that end, Presidents Obama and Medvedev have signed a joint statement of understanding instructing their negotiators to cut deployed strategic warheads to between 1500 and 1675, and cut delivery vehicles down to 500 to 1100.[iv]

Thus, the new Treaty will replace both the 5576 number and the 2200 number with a maximum of 1675. That’s real progress, but it’s only a beginning because the big number, the 9400 figure that includes strategic warheads in storage and all tactical warheads, will not be immediately affected by a new Treaty. The 9400 number will continue to decline in the normal post-Cold War process of gradually dismantling surplus warheads, but it won’t be seriously reduced until Treaty accounting applies to all warheads – strategic and tactical, deployed and those in storage – and until all warheads are subjected to legally-binding limits.

And all warheads will have to be subjected to Treaty limits for nuclear weapon states to live up to the principle of “irreversibility” that they all agreed to in 2000 at the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Irreversibility means essentially that any warhead or delivery vehicle not specifically sanctioned, and thus counted, in arms control Treaties must be verifiably and permanently dismantled and destroyed.

The achievement of the a new START agreement this year is a daunting undertaking, and if successful it will represent a major reversal of the years of neglect under the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration which advertised itself as actively hostile to arms control. So, there is a lot of lost time and important detail to make up, and elements of the arms control community have recommended that the two countries establish a process for continuous arms reduction talks (something which, in one of the most acronym prone areas of human endeavor, would quickly become CART) and bring other states with nuclear arsenals into the process as well.[v]

Another basic principle that will have to guide nuclear arms control going forward is transparency. A high level of compulsory openness is required to foster confidence as well as accountability. Reliable transparency will also require international monitoring mechanisms to complement US-Russian bilateral verification arrangements as a means of establishing accountability to the entire community of states – and to use accounting methods that spread light, and not fog, over the enterprise.

Both Obama and Medvedev have joined a broad range of prominent public figures, including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, in affirming that the formal goal of nuclear arms control must be permanent disarmament and a world without nuclear weapons. So a new START agreement will necessarily be the start of something new. The first agreement will have to be followed by further agreements and steady reductions in the levels of permitted warheads with commensurate restrictions on delivery systems, but as Mr. Kissinger put it in 2007, arms control action must necessarily be guided by the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. “Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”[vi]

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Notes

[i] Arms Control Association, “The START Follow-On Agreement and Beyond, Background Briefing, 19 June 2009.  http://www.armscontrol.org/node/3711.

[ii] U.S. Eliminations Under the INF Treaty and Additional Reductions: Briefing to the Preparatory Committee Meeting of States Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 8 May 2008

Geneva, Switzerland. http://www.us-mission.ch/CD/0508INFpresentation.pdf.

[iii] Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces 2009,”  http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html.

[iv] The White House, “The joint understanding for the START Follow-On Treaty,” Fact Sheet, 6 July 2009. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/FACT-SHEET-The-Joint-Understanding-for-the-START-Follow-on-Treaty/.

[v] Proposed at this year’s Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs – and ongoing series of conferences that are the ongoing legacy of the 1957 gathering of Soviet and American Scientists in Pugwash Nova Scotia, arranged and financed by the Canadian industrialist Cyrus Eaton, to discuss concerns and issues related to nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction. This first Pugwash conference was in turn a response to the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto. For more details on the origins of the Pugwash movement go to  http://www.pugwash.org/about/origins.htm.

[vi] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2007.

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