A Beginning, Not an End

Daryl G. Kimball

The May 24 signing of the new Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin is a welcome, though incomplete, step toward reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear dangers. In their zealous pursuit to maintain strategic nuclear flexibility well into the next decade, U.S. negotiators have spurned a historic opportunity to verifiably eliminate excess nuclear weaponry, leaving behind numerous dangers that demand further action.

The new agreement is short. It requires each side to reduce its number of deployed strategic warheads to no more than 2,200 by 2012. It places no restrictions on strategic missiles and bombers and allows each side to determine the composition of its deployed nuclear forces. The treaty does not spell out what is to be done with warheads removed from service.

The White House asserts that this formulation suits the more amicable U.S.-Russian relationship. But the treaty’s limited scope and lack of detail reflect the fact that negotiators simply could not agree on core issues, including how to count deployed warheads. On the whole, the new treaty does not significantly alter the number of existing nuclear delivery systems and therefore only marginally affects the residual nuclear potential of the United States and Russia. The allowance for storage of thousands of reserve warheads undercuts the treaty’s verifiability and makes it more difficult to forecast future force levels. The agreement’s emphasis on flexibility detracts from its predictability, lessening its value in building a more stable and secure U.S.-Russian relationship.

As the Senate reviews the treaty in the coming weeks, it will surely applaud the treaty’s mandate for deployed nuclear force reductions. But the Senate should also press the administration to explain the gaps left in the treaty text and seek action from Bush on a more comprehensive and effective nuclear risk reduction strategy vis-à-vis Russia.

First, the Senate should examine why the old premises of Cold War nuclear targeting continue to dictate the size of the U.S. arsenal. Clearly, the United States and Russia are no longer enemies and have no reason to go to war, but the Bush administration’s proposed nuclear force size and posture are still very much based on deterring and defeating Russia’s nuclear and conventional military forces. As a result, the condition of mutual assured destruction persists. Absent such requirements, there is no plausible threat scenario that requires the deployment of more than a few hundred nuclear warheads, let alone 2,200, with thousands more available for rapid redeployment.

If Putin follows Bush’s policy of warehousing, rather than eliminating, excess warheads, the long-term burden of safeguarding Russia’s already vast and insecure nuclear weapons complex will only grow. The United States should pursue a policy of minimizing reserve forces and offering Russia more assistance to safeguard and demilitarize their excess warheads and nuclear materials.

The treaty promises to remove some but not all strategic warheads from ready launch status. Consequently, the Senate should press the administration to seek further operational changes in the alert status of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces to guard against the risk of accidental launch or miscalculation.

Though verification provisions from the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will remain in effect until 2009, the new treaty provides no additional verification or transparency measures. Proposals to expand data sharing and improve monitoring of treaty compliance were on the table, but the two sides failed to close a deal. Senators should task U.S. negotiators to work with Russia on new mechanisms to enhance transparency and establish a better baseline on weapons holdings through the Bilateral Implementation Commission established by the new treaty.

Given the pursuit of nuclear weapons by terrorist organizations, it is troubling that Russia retains thousands of poorly accounted-for tactical warheads, which are relatively more vulnerable to theft or diversion than strategic warheads. For now, tactical nuclear weapons are not a top Bush administration priority. Meanwhile, the administration is contemplating the development of new types of—and new uses for—tactical nuclear weapons, a policy that only makes the control of such weapons more challenging. Negotiations leading to the verifiable elimination of tactical nuclear weapons should be high on the U.S.-Russian agenda.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice has said that the new treaty is “a transitional measure to a day when arms control will play a very minor role in U.S.-Russian relations, if a role at all.” But because this treaty fails to lock in strategic nuclear reductions and does not address the vast array of other Cold War-era dangers, that day remains far too distant. The task now is for the United States and Russia to pursue the much-needed next steps with a more comprehensive and lasting nuclear risk reduction strategy.