The Department of State recently reported to lawmakers that the United States and Russia appear on pace to fulfill the terms of a 2002 nuclear treaty but also admitted that Washington has no plan on what should happen in relation to the 2009 expiration of an earlier bilateral nuclear accord.
An unclassified version of the October report on implementation of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) states that “all indications are that both parties are fully committed to fulfilling the [treaty] reductions, and no obstacles are envisioned to their capability to do so.” The report is an annual congressional requirement that is supposed to be submitted April 15 each year.
But the report also notes that “the administration has no formal position, as yet, with regard to the end” of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). SORT did not include verification measures, so the United States relies on its national intelligence capabilities and START’s verification regime to assess Moscow’s SORT implementation.
SORT obligates the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed offensive nuclear forces to 1,700-2,200 strategic warheads apiece by Dec. 31, 2012, which is also the day that the limit expires. At the time Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the agreement, the target warhead level was roughly equivalent to a cut of two-thirds in the deployed forces for each side. (See ACT, June 2002. )
Warheads do not count against the treaty limit if they are stored separately from ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range bombers. No warheads or delivery vehicles need to be destroyed as part of the SORT reduction process.
Also known as the Moscow Treaty, the agreement set no interim force benchmarks. Yet, Washington indicated that it would work to lower its deployed strategic arsenal to 3,500-4,000 warheads by 2007.
U.S. deployed offensive strategic warheads numbered 3,878 as of the end of last year, according to the October report. This marks the first time that Washington has provided such a precise figure in the unclassified report.
In a projection of the 2012 composition of U.S. strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, the report reaffirms Bush administration plans announced earlier this year to retire 50 Minuteman III ICBMs and cut 38 B-52H bombers. This would leave the United States with 450 Minuteman IIIs and 56 B-52H bombers in addition to 21 nuclear-capable B-2 bombers and 14 nuclear-armed Trident submarines. However, Congress restricted moves to begin these reductions in a defense authorization bill signed Oct. 17 by the president. (See ACT, November 2006. )
The unclassified report does not detail existing Russian warhead levels or reduction plans, although the classified version reportedly contains such information. Under START warhead-counting rules, which are different from those under SORT, the Kremlin reported July 1 that it had 4,384 strategic warheads and 912 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles.
START and its verification mechanisms are scheduled to lapse Dec. 5, 2009, three years before the SORT reductions are supposed to be completed. Although Putin has called for negotiations to “replace” START, the Bush administration has not been receptive. (See ACT, October 2006. )
Other governments have also expressed concerns about the expiration of START. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre joined with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier Nov. 11 to urge the United States and Russia to negotiate a follow-on agreement to START.
Some nongovernmental nuclear experts have raised the possibility of extending START or at least some of its verification provisions, but Washington has been largely silent on the issue.
In comparison to its predecessors, the October report appears to diminish the value of the START verification regime. Whereas all earlier reports noted START provides “important data” for the U.S. intelligence community, the latest version uses the phrase “additional data.”
Citing improved U.S.-Russian relations, Bush administration officials have repeatedly downplayed the necessity of formal nuclear agreements or talks with Russia. The annual SORT reports have consistently predicted that there will be “increasing openness” in the two sides’ strategic relationship.
Still, there are indications that the two government’s nuclear relations remain rocky at times. The October report confirms a September Arms Control Today article that the United States and Russia have replaced an offensive nuclear transparency working group established in conjunction with SORT with a new channel of talks between Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak. The disbanded group reportedly only met four times over three years because of agenda disputes.
Meanwhile, Putin emphasized in a Nov. 16 speech the need for Russia to retain a strategic arsenal capable of destroying any potential foe regardless of how advanced or modern its weapon systems. He said this posture requires Russia to maintain the quality of its strategic systems, no longer necessarily to match an adversary weapon for weapon.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced the same day that Russia plans to procure 17 new ICBMs next year. This is about triple the acquisition rate of previous years. (See ACT, January/February 2006. )
The new missiles likely will be a combination of silo-based and road-mobile SS-27 Topol-Ms. Since 1997, Moscow has deployed 42 of the silo-based missiles, according to the July START data exchange. Subsequently, Russia reportedly deployed its first road-mobile version of the missile and plans to field up to two more before the end of the year.
Development of a new submarine-based missile, the Bulava, is progressing more slowly. The missile has failed its last two flight tests, the latest of which occurred in October. It is unclear when the missile might be ready for deployment.
Despite the Bulava and Topol-M programs, Russia’s aging nuclear inventory is projected ultimately to decline below the lower SORT limit.