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START Anew: The Future of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
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Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association

Presentation for Roundtable Discussion, Carnegie Moscow Center

May 12, 2008

As a result of the landmark U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), our two nations are safer and the world is safer. START helped curb the Cold War nuclear competition by substantially and verifiably reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons holdings.

START slashed strategic nuclear forces of the two sides from 1990 levels of approximately 10,000 deployed warheads each to no more than 6,000 warheads apiece by December 5, 2001. (See Appendix I.) The accord also limits each side to 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles (land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, plus heavy bombers) and mandates the destruction of most excess delivery systems. In addition, START established a far-reaching system of notifications and inspections that provides an accurate assessment of the size and location of each side’s forces.

START also prohibits interference with national technical means of intelligence, operating in a manner consistent with the recognized principles of international law. START bans the use of concealment measures that impede verification by national technical means.

National technical means are buttressed by a system of cooperative measures which make it easier for satellites to monitor the numbers and locations of strategic forces. START further bans most forms of telemetry encryption during flight tests of ICBMs and SLBMs, which provides additional confidence that such tests are not being used for illegal purposes.

START provides agreed procedures for the conversion or elimination of systems, which provides assurance that such reductions are genuine and cannot be easily reversed. A special system of notifications in numerical and geographical constraints helps control the numbers and locations of mobile ICBMs.

While the U.S. and Russia reached the START-mandated weapons ceilings back in 2001, START still provides a channel through which U.S. and Russian military leaders, bureaucrats, and experts can communicate, allowing them to discuss particular issues and settle disagreements. It provides U.S. and Russian political leaders with predictability and transparency about how each will handle the world’s largest and most deadly nuclear arsenals.

Will START Stop?

Unfortunately, after nearly a year of off-and-on talks on the future of START, it appears that the United States and Russia will not conclude an agreement on the future course of action regarding START before President George W. Bush leaves office. According to our sources in the U.S. State Department, currently there is no follow-up meeting scheduled between the two sides on the matter following the April meeting of Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin at Sochi.

If the two sides do not succeed in reaching an agreement on the future of START before the end of 2008—and it is not likely that they will—the next U.S. presidential administration will have relatively little time to work out an arrangement on START with President Dmitry Medvedev before START’s scheduled expiration date of December 5, 2009.

Leaders in Washington and Moscow must do better. Although the 1991 START system may require adjustments to reflect present-day realities, it continues to serve as an important foundation for deeper, faster, and irreversible reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals. Further verifiable reductions in warheads and delivery systems are essential if we are to head-off renewed U.S.-Russian strategic competition and reduce the dangers posed by these excessive, obsolete, and deadly arsenals.

My remarks today will outline:

  • The current impasse facing START;
  • The views of key U.S. Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the subject; and
  • Possible next steps for U.S. and Russian leaders to preserve key elements of START and achieve deeper and verifiable U.S. and Russian strategic reductions.

Missed Opportunities and Multitudes of Weapons

The recent inability to develop a common future strategy for START is nothing new. In the 17 years since START was negotiated and signed, efforts to ratify and implement the follow-on START II of 1993 [1] and plans to begin formal talks on a START III framework agreement [2] have been sidetracked by differences between Washington and Moscow on other issues, primarily missile defenses. Instead of START II or START III, the United States and Russia agreed in May 2002 to the useful but very inadequate Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which calls for deeper reductions in operationally deployed strategic warheads to 1,700-2,200 each by the year 2012.

Unlike START, SORT does not establish any limits on strategic nuclear delivery systems nor does it mandate the destruction of those delivery systems. Excess warheads may be stored, and no new verification mechanism was established. Making matters worse, the two sides were unable to agree on a common system for monitoring compliance with the limits on deployed warheads and the treaty expires on the day its limitations take effect.

From the perspective of the Bush administration, SORT provides the flexibility to adjust U.S. nuclear forces up or down, depending on the international situation. But SORT’s emphasis on flexibility undermines predictability and confidence in the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship.

Partly as a result of this history of missed opportunities and nuclear policy inertia, the U.S. and Russia are not true allies, and mutual suspicions linger. Today, the U.S. and Russia deploy some 3,000 to 4,000 strategic nuclear warheads and they store thousands of additional strategic and sub-strategic nuclear warheads, some of which could theoretically be redeployed within weeks or months. The United States is not sure about Russia’s current number of deployed strategic warheads because SORT did not establish a common set of counting rules.

The unsettled nature of the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship and the rules to manage it are reflected in the differences between the current warhead levels as measured by SORT and START. According to the latest unclassified U.S. government declaration on the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, the United States deployed at the beginning of 2008 some 2,871 strategic nuclear warheads. (See Appendix II.)

In contrast, according to the latest START memorandum of understanding and START counting rules, the United States has some 5,900 strategic warheads deployed on 1,225 strategic nuclear delivery systems (land- and sea-based ICBMs and bombers). The different figures are due largely to the fact that the United States has converted a large number of its bombers and missiles to conventional missions, eliminated 50 MX missiles and 40 Minuteman IIIs, and it has substantially reduced (or downloaded) the number of strategic nuclear warheads on key land- and sea-based missile systems. Yet, those warheads and delivery systems are still START accountable.

The shortcomings of SORT and the failure of Washington and Moscow to make progress on disarmament beyond the numerical goals outlined a decade ago in START III has reinforced the view among the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states that the five original nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) do not intend to pursue their NPT-related nuclear disarmament commitments. This has complicated efforts to win support from the non-nuclear-weapon majority who will continue to resist new measures to restrict the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies, strengthen the safeguards system, and respond to cases of noncompliance.

Given that U.S. and Russian officials have so far been unable to agree on the future of START and neither government appears ready to extend START in its current form past its scheduled expiration on December 5, 2009, the situation could get even messier.

The U.S. intelligence community believes, as I am sure the Russian intelligence community believes, that its ability to monitor strategic nuclear weapons holdings would be significantly hindered in the absence of START. If no new verification mechanisms are established, a former U.S. verification official told Arms Control Today in 2005 that the two countries would be “flying blind” in their nuclear relationship.

The loss of START would compound the existing tensions between Washington and Moscow over U.S. plans to install missile interceptors in Poland, as well as Russian worries that the United States might redeploy its reserve nuclear forces and utilize leftover nuclear delivery systems for conventional strike missions. At the same time, Russia is pursuing new strategic missile systems and plans to increase the number of warheads carried by certain missile systems.

The Status of Talks on START

Following President Putin’s call for a new round of U.S.-Russian strategic arms reductions talks in mid-2006, U.S. and Russian experts began discussions in March 2007 on follow-on measures to START, but the two sides have not been able to bridge differences on several core issues. Russia favors negotiating a new treaty that would reduce strategic nuclear warheads to less than 1,500 each, with specific limits on delivery systems. The Bush administration rejects further weapons limits, but has agreed to negotiate legally-binding transparency and confidence-building measures.

While both sides want some verification measures after START, there are differences in their approaches. Russia claims that more intrusive measures, such as on-site inspections, would need to be included in a legally-binding agreement as required by Russia’s domestic laws. U.S. negotiators have argued for understandings that would allow for “visits” to each other’s weapons storage sites.

Given the differences between the White House and the Kremlin on the future of START, the prospects for a new legally binding agreement before the end of 2008 look dim. The next U.S. president, who will enter office in January 2009, will have limited time to work with President Dmitry Medvedev on a new arrangement before START lapses.

Views of Key Lawmakers and the Presidential Candidates

Although the START clock is ticking, the good news is that there is strong support from key Republican and Democratic lawmakers that the U.S. and Russia must make further progress on legally-binding strategic nuclear reductions. Much of the emphasis and concern is focused on the loss of the verification protocols of START.

As Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in October 2007, “[T]he administration must reject the arguments from some that suggest the U.S.-Russian relationship has moved beyond the need for legally binding treaties.”

In January, Lugar was more specific, when he said “Presidents Bush and Putin must extend the START Treaty’s verification and transparency elements … and they should work to add verification measures to the Moscow Treaty.”

Just last week, Lugar pressed the point again at the nomination hearing of William Burns, the incoming undersecretary of state.

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) wrote March 2008 in The Wall Street Journal that “losing the transparency and stability these treaties provide would be a monumental failure for the U.S. and Russia.” Presidents Bush and Putin, he wrote, have “largely abdicated these responsibilities. Their successors will have to act immediately to revitalize both accords.”

In June 2007, 28 key members of the House of Representatives urged action to extend START and achieve deeper reductions. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), Chair of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee and others suggested that President Bush “… carefully consider extending START in its current form in order to enable your and President Putin's successors to negotiate a new legally binding agreement that achieves greater, verifiable reductions in each nation's nuclear forces.”

With new leadership in the White House next year, there is indeed the potential for substantial progress. Each of the remaining U.S. presidential candidates has expressed support for renewed U.S. leadership on nuclear disarmament. In varying degrees of specificity, each has outlined what actions they would pursue.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has said he would seek “world in which there are no nuclear weapons,” and with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), introduced legislation in 2007 (S. Res. 1977) outlining a strategy to fortify U.S. nonproliferation and disarmament policy.

In that bill Obama and Hagel suggest “taking further steps to achieve deeper, verifiable reductions in global nuclear arsenals and their means of delivery; initiating talks with the Government of the Russian Federation to reduce the number of non-strategic nuclear weapons and further reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons in the respective nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the Russian Federation in a transparent and verifiable fashion …; taking measures to reduce the risk of an accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch of nuclear weapons, including by considering changes in the alert status in U.S. and Russian forces and rapidly completing the Joint Data Exchange Center.”

In a November 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) wrote “taking dramatic steps to reduce our nuclear arsenal would build support for the coalitions we need to address the threat of nuclear proliferation...To reassert our nonproliferation leadership, I will seek to negotiate an accord that substantially and verifiably reduces the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. This dramatic initiative would send a strong message of nuclear restraint to the world, while we retain enough strength to deter others from trying to match our arsenal.”

In a March 26, 2008 speech in Los Angeles, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, "Forty years ago, the five declared nuclear powers came together in support of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and pledged to end the arms race and move toward nuclear disarmament. The time has come to renew that commitment. We do not need all the weapons currently in our arsenal. The United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament consistent with our vital interests and the cause of peace.”

Will these candidates, if elected, follow through on these commitments? If so, what specific strategies might each of them pursue? At this point, these are unanswerable questions given that the advisors in each campaign have just begun to think more deeply beyond these general statements and there are several more months before inauguration day.

Another key factor in U.S. thinking about the future of START and deeper reductions will be a forthcoming “nuclear posture review.” When Congress approved the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization Act late last year, it mandated that the Pentagon, consulting with the Energy and State Departments, conduct a separate “comprehensive review” of U.S. nuclear posture for the next five to 10 years. Lawmakers ordered the posture review to be delivered in 2009 with the Pentagon’s next Quadrennial Defense Review, which maps out the department’s thinking about how to structure forces and weapons for the future.

This report, which will not likely be completed until late-2009 or after, need not delay talks between Washington and Moscow on the future of START and the U.S. stockpile, but the nuclear posture review will shape and be shaped by U.S.-Russian discussions on the future of START.

What Should Be Done?

So if the next U.S. president, along with the Russian president want to pursue further, verifiable strategic nuclear reductions, what should they do to bridge the differences that have divided the two sides for the past several years and how do they do it before START expires?

First, the two presidents should meet early in 2009 and declare their intention to dramatically reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons by working closely together to negotiate a new “START plus” treaty that puts each nation on course to achieve far deeper, verifiable, and legally-binding reductions in each nation’s nuclear warheads and missile forces, with the goal of completing the new agreement by 2010. Simply stating this will help build trust and send a strong signal to their respective bureaucracies to focus on getting the job done.

Second, rather than allow START to expire or mask long-simmering differences with halfway measures, Bush’s and Putin’s successors should announce that they will unilaterally but reciprocally continue to observe START until they can conclude negotiations on the new START-plus agreement. While some START restrictions, such as limits on warhead downloading, may affect U.S. and Russian force structuring plans over time, a relatively short extension of START will not adversely affect immediate force structure requirements and SORT obligations.

This approach is in keeping with the spirit if not the letter of Article XVIII paragraph 2 of the START, which allows for the two parties to extend the treaty “for a period of five years unless it is superseded before the expiration of that period by a subsequent agreement on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.”

A new “START-plus” agreement must tackle four key objectives:

  • Mutually acceptable ceilings on the number of delivery systems and the warheads that they carry according to common and verifiable counting rules. With the United States and Russia set to reduce operationally deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,700-2,200 warheads by 2012 under SORT, and given that there is no security threat other than the other’s nuclear arsenals that could possibly justify possession of a few hundred strategic deployed nuclear warheads, START-plus should aim to reduce each nation’s deployed strategic arsenal to no more than 1,000 warheads within a period of five years. Russia has already proposed its readiness to reduce its strategic forces to the level of 1,500 or fewer warheads.

Based on each country’s decisions about the number of warheads loaded on delivery systems, the agreement should also establish lower limits on designated nuclear-capable delivery systems.

To provide each side with a certain degree of flexibility regarding how they decide to structure their deployed force, existing START rules on “downloading” should be relaxed to allow each side to achieve deeper reductions by reducing the number of warheads deployed on certain strategic missiles.

  • Ensuring that non-deployed warheads are not available to quickly increase the size of either nation’s deployed strategic stockpile. This could be achieved by limiting the number of warheads that may be loaded on any given delivery system and reducing the ceilings for nuclear-capable strategic delivery systems; and/or, in the next phase of strategic nuclear weapons reductions, a new an intrusive system for verifiably dismantling excess warheads could be established, as was envisioned in the START III framework agreement of 1997.
  • Establishing a streamlined START-style verification protocol. To retain current levels of transparency, accountability, and confidence, current START data exchanges, notifications, and on-site inspections should continue to serve as the basis for START-plus. The two countries could decide what kind of data and types of inspections are still critically important and which are obsolete and could be canceled. The quotas for the number of inspections could also be revised in START-plus.
  • Accounting for  any strategic ballistic missiles that are converted from a nuclear to a conventional, “prompt global strike” mission. Given that the United States plans to deploy a relatively small number of such non-nuclear ballistic missiles, such systems should simply be counted under the START-plus ceilings.

The two presidents must also agree not to allow other difficult issues to stall the START negotiations. NATO expansion, U.S. missile interceptors and radars in Europe, the CFE Treaty, the Balkans and the Caucuses will continue to be difficult issues that will require further but separate dialogue between our two countries.

Later, as the two sides’ strategic arsenals shrink, the United States and Russia should apply further limits on the number of warheads held in reserve, and discuss joint measures for reducing the alert levels of deployed forces. The two sides should also account for and agree to scrap Russia’s residual arsenal of at least sub-strategic nuclear warheads, as well as the smaller U.S. stockpile, which includes 350 warheads stationed in Europe.

With a new push for real nuclear reductions based on the proven principles of START, the U.S. and Russian leaders could achieve what SORT did not: verifiable, phased reductions of strategic deployed warheads to a level of 1,000 or fewer with lower ceilings on the number of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic missiles.

Appendix I

Changes in U.S. Strategic Forces Since 1990

(As of Jan. 1, 2008)

"START Accountable"

Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles

Strategic Nuclear Warheads

September 1990

January 2008

September 1990

January 2008

ICBMs

MX/Peacekeeper

50

50

500

400

Minuteman III

500

500

1,500

1,200

Minuteman II

450

0

450

0

Subtotal

1,000

550

2,450

1,600

SLBMs

Poseidon (C-3)

192

0

1,920

0

Trident I (C-4)

384

120

3,072

720

Trident II (D-5)

96

312

768

2,496

Subtotal

672

432

5,760

3,216

Bombers

B-52 (ALCM)

189

95

1,968

950

B-52 (Non-ALCM)

290

47

290

47

B-1

95

81

95

81

B-2

0

20

0

20

Subtotal

574

243

2,353

1,098

Total

2, 246

1,225

10,563

5,914

Notes:
1. The United States met the START I implementation deadline of December 5, 2001, seven years after the treaty's entry into force. The treaty limits the United States and Russia each to 6,000 "accountable" warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers). All data is taken from the initial START I Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) of September 1, 1990 and the most recent MOU of January 1, 2008. All figures are based on START counting rules, as negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union and specified in the treaty text. Thus, numbers do not necessarily reflect those weapons systems that are operationally deployed. For example, under START I, heavy bombers that are not equipped to carry long-range nuclear air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) will be counted as carrying only one warhead, regardless of the number of bombs or short-range attack missiles that they actually carry. Moreover, 150 U.S. heavy bombers that are capable of carrying ALCMs will be counted as carrying only 10 missiles each, even though they have the capacity to hold 20 missiles each. Finally, U.S. deployed ICBMs and warheads are less than reported. In September 2005, the United States completed the retirement of all 50 MX/Peacekeeper missiles, and it is currently in the process of reducing the Minuteman III fleet from 500 ICBMs down to 450 missiles. 
Sources: START Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) of September 1, 1990 and the most recent MOU of January 1, 2008.

Changes in Former Soviet Strategic Forces Since 1990
(As of January 1, 2008)

"START Accountable"

Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles

Strategic Nuclear Warheads

September 1990

January 2008

September 1990

January 2008

ICBMs

SS-11

326

0

326

0

SS-13

40

0

40

0

SS-17

47

0

188

0

SS-18

308

104

3,080

1,040

SS-19

300

122

1,800

732

SS-24 (Silo)

56

0

560

0

SS-24 (Rail)

33

0

330

0

SS-25

288

201

288

201

SS-27 (Silo)

0

48

0

48

SS-27 (Road Mobile)

0

6

0

6

Subtotal

1,398

481

6,612

2,027

SLBMs

SS-N-6

192

0

192

0

SS-N-8

280

0

280

0

SS-N-17

12

0

12

0

SS-N-18

224

96

672

288

SS-N-20

120

60

1,200

600

SS-N-23

112

96

448

384

RMS-56

0

36

0

216

Subtotal

940

288

2,804

1,488

Bombers

Bear (ALCM)

84

64

672

512

Bear (Non-ALCM)

63

0

63

0

Blackjack

15

15

120

120

Subtotal

162

79

855

632

Total

2,500

848

10,271

4,147

Notes:
1. START I limits the United States and Russia to 6,000 "accountable" warheads each with an implementation deadline of December 2001. Figures are based on START counting rules, as negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union and specified in the treaty text. Thus, numbers do not necessarily reflect those weapons systems that are operationally deployed. 
2. Strategic nuclear weapons were located in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Belarus and Kazakhstan rapidly transferred nuclear warheads back to Russia and transferred or destroyed their associated delivery systems. Ukraine completed the transfer of nuclear warheads back to Russia in 1996 and destroyed its last SS-24 ICBM silo on October 30, 2001.

Sources: START Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) of September 1, 1990 and the most recent MOU of January 1, 2008.

Appendix II

Current Strategic Nuclear Forces of the United States

(As of January 1, 2008)

START
Strategic Delivery Vehicles [1]

 

Actual N-Capable
Strategic Delivery Vehicles [2]

START
Strategic Nuclear Warheads [1]

 

SORT Deployed Warheads [3]

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

550

≈460
Minuteman IIIs

1,600

≈660?

Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs)

432
on 18 Trident subs

≈336
on 14 Trident subs

3,216

≈1,728?

Bombers

243

≈102
21 B-2s; 76 B-52s

1,098

≈500?

Total

1,225

≈900

5,914

2,871 [3]

Sources: [1] According to START I  counting rules and January 1, 2008 MoU.
[2] ACA estimates.
[3] As of Dec. 31, 2007, according to U.S. SORT Declaration, May 2008.

Current Strategic Nuclear Forces of the Russian Federation

(As of January 1, 2008)

 

START-Accountable Strategic Delivery
Vehicles [1]

START-Accountable Strategic Nuclear Warheads [1]

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

481

2,027

Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs)

288

1,488

Bombers

79

632

Total

848

4,147

Source: [1] According to START I counting rules and January 1, 2008 MoU.


Endnotes

1. START II called for reducing deployed strategic arsenals to 3,000-3,500 warheads and banned the deployment of destabilizing multiple-warhead land-based missiles. START II would have counted warheads in roughly the same fashion as START I and would have required the destruction of delivery vehicles but not warheads. Both the Senate and the Duma approved START II, but the treaty did not take effect because the Senate did not ratify the 1997 protocol and several ABM Treaty amendments, whose passage the Duma established as a condition for START II’s entry into force. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Russia declared itself no longer bound by START II.

2. In March 1997, U.S. and Russian leaders agreed to a framework for START III, but those talks never got off the ground. START III was supposed to lead to verifiable limits of deployed strategic warheads to 2,000-2,500. Significantly, in addition to requiring the destruction of delivery vehicles, START III negotiations were to explore “the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads…to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.” Negotiations were supposed to begin after START II entered into force, which never happened.

Posted: May 13, 2008