On June 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to begin talks with the United States on replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), set to expire in 2009. Calling for a “renewed dialogue on the main disarmament issues,” Putin did not provide any specifics on the kind of agreement he was seeking; nor was there any direct response from Washington, although U.S. officials say they plan to work with Russia on the issue.
Therefore, it seems valuable to look at whether it might make sense to replace START and what role such an agreement could play in the arms control context of the 21st century.
U.S. and Russian officials must first decide if they should replace START, extend it, or allow it to expire. They will have to take into account significant changes in the strategic landscape, particularly the implementation of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which will be in force until 2012. That treaty went beyond START in calling for deeper cuts. But it does not include a verification mechanism or arrangements for the destruction of launchers or delivery vehicles. Instead, its only verification provisions are those of START.
Putin’s call should be supported by the United States. By maintaining transparency in strategic areas, a new or extended START would increase both countries’ confidence in their broader relationship, which continues to be tested. It would also demonstrate the two nuclear superpowers’ commitment to Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which calls for nuclear-weapon states to take steps toward nuclear disarmament, thus strengthening the nonproliferation regime. Still, squaring the quite diverse political and diplomatic goals of the United States and Russia in any negotiations could prove exceedingly difficult.
Behind Putin’s Call for Talks
Putin’s June 27 proposal came soon after he revealed his disappointment to the Russian parliament that disarmament issues had vanished from the international agenda. Although in his annual address in May, he had said it was “too early to speak of an end to the arms race.”
That dialogue has languished after conclusion of SORT. Russia had hoped that talks in two bodies established the same day that SORT was signed—the Consultative Group on Strategic Stability (CGSS) and the Bilateral Implementation Commission—would work out existing disagreements on strategic arms issues.
These hopes have not yet been realized. Indeed, the offensive transparency working groups under the CGSS stopped meeting after January 2005.
Russia is also concerned that if START were to lapse, some limitations on the development of new types of strategic arms, including some space weapons, would disappear as well.
The Bush administration has appeared reluctant to engage in such discussions, viewing U.S.-Russian strategic arms control as passé after the end of the Cold War. U.S. officials argued that such pacts were designed to manage relations between adversaries, and recent years had seen the emergence of a new U.S.-Russian partnership. Indeed, only a push from Congress and the Kremlin forced the White House to reluctantly accede to the three-page SORT.
Yet, there have been some recent signs that the Bush administration’s attitude toward strategic talks may be changing. In a May 2006 interview with Arms Control Today, STRATCOM Commander General James Cartwright spoke strongly in favor of transforming or extending the START verification regime. The same month, Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told Arms Control Today that he and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kisylak had formed a group to look at the issue of START’s expiration. Later, Kislyak himself not only confirmed this fact but also hinted at a June 2006 press conference that there are hopes for progress in negotiations. At the July 2006 Group of Eight meeting in St. Petersburg, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that President George W. Bush and Putin had asked their bureaucracies to review the implementation of START. A Putin aide said that the U.S. and Russian presidents “briefly discussed and outlined what needs to be done” in relation to START.
Since SORT lacks appropriate verification provisions it is clear that in order to retain the existing level of transparency of their strategic forces, the United States and Russia have to replace START or simply extend the current treaty. Given the Bush administration’s allergy to new arms control agreements, the easiest alternative by far would be to extend START for five more years. This option is especially attractive because it does not require long negotiations and subsequent ratification by the parties. Article XVII of START allows states-parties Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States to gather and consider the problem of START’s future no later than a year before it ends, or December 2008. However, there are problems that may become insurmountable obstacles to a simple START extension.
U.S. and Russian Strategic Modernization
U.S. and Russian efforts to modernize their strategic offensive forces pose one set of problems.
The 2001 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review placed a strong priority on converting excess U.S. strategic delivery systems for use as conventional-weapon carriers. Some of these plans will likely collide with START constraints.
The Department of Defense has requested funding from Congress to deploy conventional ballistic missiles at sea, using precision warheads delivered from Trident nuclear submarines. Another option being considered is development of a submarine-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile (SLIRBM), which could be deployed on submarines and surface ships. Because the SLIRBM’s planned range exceeds 600 kilometers, the missile would be limited by START. The treaty prohibits deployment of such a missile on surface ships.
Also, if the Pentagon is unsuccessful in persuading a reluctant Congress to move forward with using the Trident submarines as conventional ballistic missile carriers, the administration may decide to go with a land-based alternative that could present its own challenges to START verification.
For example, Air Force officials have raised the possibility of deploying retired Minuteman II and MX ICBMs with non-nuclear warheads. One of the options being considered is deploying these missiles on launch pads near the U.S. coasts instead of in silos at existing ICBM bases. Potential launch pads include the Cape Canaveral space launch facility in Florida and the Vandenberg ICBM test launch site in California. These sites would be chosen to make conventional ICBM launches clearly distinguishable from nuclear ICBM launches so that third parties such as Russia or China would not think there was a nuclear attack directed at them. The sites’ coastal locations would also make it possible to avoid dropping first and second missile stages on U.S. or Canadian land areas. According to the Air Force, several dozen conventionally armed ICBMs could be deployed within two years at a relatively low cost of $31 million.
START does not prohibit the deployment of conventional warheads on ballistic missiles but includes quite strong limitations on deployment methods and sites. ICBMs must be deployed in silo, road-mobile, or rail-mobile launchers. START does permit “soft-site” launch pads for ICBMs at test ranges or space-launch facilities.
But, the Vandenberg base, a declared ICBM test site, has a limited number of ICBM silos. For this reason, deployment of more than 10 to 20 conventional ICBMs in Vandenberg would require building new silos or mobile launchers for missiles. Furthermore, the aggregate number of ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) located at test facilities is limited to 25, and the aggregate number of test launchers is limited to 20 silo and 20 mobile launchers. The treaty also prohibits flight tests of ICBMs equipped with re-entry vehicles from space-launch facilities, which would seem to preclude deployment at Cape Canaveral.
It is notable that U.S. interest in converting strategic delivery systems into conventional platforms already may be prompting the United States to circumvent START provisions. An example is a program to convert four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines armed with Trident I SLBMs to “special-purpose” submarines for launching long-range cruise missiles. To minimize the cost, this conversion is being carried out without removing the ballistic-missile launchers. According to START, converted submarines are treaty accountable and subject to inspections. The United States does not argue with the need to account for special-purpose submarines under START, but it will likely try to avoid inspections, which may become one of the sticking points of START implementation in the near future.
The United States will likely do this by placing the submarines at locations that are not listed as inspectable sites, i.e., facilities that are not ballistic missile submarine bases; facilities for production, repair, storage, or loading of SLBMs; or facilities for training of SLBM crews. Instead, the submarines may have their home ports at Bremerton, Wash., and Norfolk, Va., where submarine conversion and reactor refueling are performed, or at naval bases at Guam and Diego Garcia, which are considered as potential homeports for Ohio-class special-purpose submarines. It is possible that the United States may thus avoid violating the legal language of START, while undermining its spirit.
A similar problem emerged in the late 1980s when START was being negotiated. The United States announced that it planned to convert two Poseidon ballistic missile submarines (SSBN-645 “James K. Polk” and SSBN-642 “Kamehameha”) into special-purpose submarines without eliminating their ballistic missile launchers or missile compartments. In order to exempt these submarines from START inspections, the parties worked out the Thirty-Third Agreed Statement of START, which imposed a set of restrictions on special-purpose submarines.
Moscow suggested that the parties to START work out a similar agreed statement with regard to these Trident-converted ballistic missile submarines, but the United States has not yet responded. Likewise, Russia is increasingly concerned that the United States continues to keep its nuclear long-range sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) ready for deployment. In the past, Russia made numerous failed attempts to include nuclear-armed SLCMs in strategic arms limitation treaties.
START creates obstacles for Russia’s strategic forces modernization program as well, but for other reasons. An analysis of likely future Russian strategic force development suggests that until 2015-2020 the level of deployed strategic warheads will mostly depend on SS-18 and SS-19 type ICBMs with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles. After these missiles are retired, the number of deployed Russian warheads will shrink drastically, making it impossible for Russia to maintain equality with the United States. Indeed, Russia’s arsenal will likely drop near the level of the “third” nuclear states: the United Kingdom, France, and China. To ameliorate this situation, Russia may decide by the end of this decade to deploy multiple warheads on its SS-27 (“Topol-M”) silo- and mobile-based ICBMs, something that is currently prohibited by START provisions. Official statements suggest that such plans are being actively discussed by Russia’s political and military leadership.
Russia may also wish to deploy the new multiple-warhead Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) as a land-based ICBM as well. Deploying a land-based Bulava variant would be easier and cheaper than the proposed construction of six Yuriy Dolgorukiy-type (Borey-class) submarines  and the deployment of Bulava missiles on three aging Typhoon-class strategic submarines. START constraints would be an obstacle to the deployment of a mobile variant of the Bulava.
If START is allowed to expire, Russia will also be able to build up the number of its deployed strategic warheads by increasing the number of warheads on its SS-N-23 SLBMs. START limits this type of missile to four warheads. In the past, however, the Soviet Union developed an SS-N-23 variant carrying 10 warheads.
START limitations on movements of road-mobile missile systems are also among the treaty provisions most frequently criticized in Russia. Taking advantage of these provisions, the United States has rebuked Russia in some meetings of the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission for moving such missiles.
Drawbacks of START Verification
The elaborate nature and high cost of START inspections pose another obstacle to a simple extension of the treaty. Many experts in the United States and Russia believe that the treaty needs to be updated for an era far different from when the treaty was negotiated during the Cold War. At that time, the parties knew little about each other, and the level of mutual confidence was much lower than today. Therefore, a substantial bureaucratic infrastructure was required.
The treaty includes 12 types of inspection visits, as well as continuous monitoring inspection at ICBM production facilities. As table 1 indicates, the United States has conducted more inspections than Russia. U.S. teams typically make about 35-40 inspection trips annually to sites in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine while the Soviet Union successor states conduct about 25-30 trips a year to U.S. sites. Since the beginning of inspections in December 1994 to December 2004, the United States has carried out almost 50 percent more inspections than the former Soviet states.
Former Soviet Union inspectors have been hampered by budgetary considerations. In 2002-2004 the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency spent about $10-12 million on START inspections. Russian expenditures were less by almost a factor of 10.
The financial constraint was the most stringent after Russia’s August 1998 ruble devaluation. The following year, Russia conducted 19 inspection visits, compared to 34 by the United States. Visits by U.S. inspectors can also be financially burdensome for Russia because the inspected party bears all the transportation and living costs after the inspecting team arrives at a port of entry, even though inspected facilities may be quite distant. Disruptions of planned military activities at the sites visited by teams of inspectors are also costly.
Despite the costs, the intrusive and detailed procedures specified in the START inspection protocol do not always achieve their goals. The most striking example relates to on-site inspections of re-entry vehicles. These are intended to check on a random basis the number of warheads declared to be mounted on each missile. The inspected side has a right to place a form-fitting cover on the front section of the missile in order to hide sensitive information. Russian inspectors have raised concerns many times that the hard cover used by the U.S. Navy to cover the re-entry vehicles on Trident II ballistic missiles does not allow confident verification that the missile contains no more than the eight warheads allowed by START. Similar complaints have been made by U.S. inspectors with respect to the hard cover used by Russia during re-entry-vehicle inspections of the SS-25 ICBM.
Approaches to telemetry data exchange need to be modernized as well. Specifically, the parties have been unable to resolve the problem of telemetry data interpretation for some Trident II SLBM test launches. The number of re-entry vehicle deployment maneuvers carried out in these tests appears to exceed the number of re-entry vehicles attributed to this type of SLBM.
Cooperative Reduction Programs
One of the reasons for diminished U.S. interest in strategic arms control negotiations is the data obtained as a result of the implementation of the U.S.-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs. Some U.S. experts even claim that CTR programs could replace traditional arms control in providing transparency. Yet, the transparency mechanisms of the CTR programs are unlikely to provide an adequate replacement for the START verification regime.
Most importantly, verifiable arms control treaties such as START provide the political foundation for the CTR assistance programs. Representing a clear commitment by both countries to cut their nuclear arsenals and provide strategic transparency, they help Russian and U.S. leaders sell such cuts to their domestic publics.
By contrast, the transparency provided by the CTR projects is one sided. Because the program is financed by the United States, Russia provides information and access to its facilities to U.S. officials in connection with CTR projects. Some have suggested that the United States provide reciprocal transparency by allowing Russian companies to compete on an equal basis for contracts to eliminate U.S. weapon systems. Yet, even if the United States allowed Russian companies to compete for elimination contracts, the scale of such Russian participation would not be comparable to that of the United States: U.S. officials are giving less priority to eliminating missiles and other such strategic delivery systems than to modernizing them or converting them to carry non-nuclear payloads.
Moreover, there would be legal problems in implementing CTR programs without START. These projects are currently carried out under the CTR umbrella agreement, formally called the U.S.-Russian Agreement Concerning the Safe and Secure Transportation, Storage and Destruction of Weapons and the Prevention of Weapons Proliferation. It was signed in 1992 and extended twice for seven-year intervals, most recently in June. The CTR projects are also regulated by interdepartmental agreements between the U.S. Department of Defense and a corresponding entity in Russia (as of 2006, Russia was represented by the Roscosmos federal agency). The elimination procedures of Russian strategic weapons, however, are regulated by the START conversion or elimination protocol and verified under the START inspection protocol. Thus, the United States and Russia would have no legal basis for the elimination of Russian arms and the verification of this elimination even if the efforts continued to be financially supported under the CTR programs.
Finally, continued Russian interest in getting funding from the United States for its strategic arms elimination can no longer be taken for granted, as nearly all of these projects are likely to end or shrink significantly after 2009. The only exception is the project on elimination of solid propellant mobile SS-25 ICBMs and their launchers, which by 2009 is going to be at its halfway point at best. Spending on this effort is currently about a half of the annual budget of the CTR Strategic Offensive Arms Elimination Program, which is in the range of $50-80 million per year in fiscal year 2004 to fiscal year 2007. Most likely, the required spending on SS-25 elimination after 2009 will not exceed $20-30 million, which Russia could easily afford. Indeed, Russia is already becoming less dependent on Western support for eliminating its excess arms and military equipment. In 1999, when CTR support was critical, Russia allocated the equivalent of about $82.3 million for this purpose. Since that time, however, Russia has steadily increased its spending on elimination of arms and military equipment. It plans to spend more than $670 million in 2006.
The Framework of a New Agreement
It seems clear that neither letting START expire nor simply extending it look like particularly good options. At the same time, modifying the existing treaty also does not appear to be wise. The treaty is too complex, and many of its provisions simply do not reflect today’s realities. A modernized START is not likely to be worth the effort required, especially as at least the United States has little appetite for long negotiations. By contrast, Putin’s proposal could provide a way for a compromise.
To be sure, a new negotiation could open the door to the long list of ambitious goals that each side has long sought and that could stall negotiations. Russia is interested in discussing strategic stability in a broad context that includes offensive and defensive strategic arms, space weapons, anti-submarine warfare, and precision-guided weapons—the whole set of perceived potential threats to its future deterrence capability. The United States, on the other hand, would like to discuss limiting tactical nuclear weapons.
In our opinion, a breakthrough is possible if these issues are skirted and if a new START resolved two problems that SORT failed to address: the U.S. desire for new nuclear warhead counting rules and Russia’s wish to limit U.S. deployment of non-nuclear offensive strategic arms and provide greater transparency to these weapons. A possible compromise would call for Russia to accept the U.S. approach to count only operationally deployed nuclear warheads. At the same time, the United States has to agree with the Russian position to consider delivery means as strategic weapons under a new START even if their nuclear warheads are replaced with conventional ones. Therefore, such conventional strategic delivery means should be covered by associated limits for deployment, as well as transparency and verification measures.
Achieving such a compromise would also allow both countries to accept lower limits on the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads permitted under a new agreement, compared to SORT’s 1,700-2,200 warhead limits. Limiting both countries to no more than 1,500 warheads or perhaps even a lower level seems realistic. Russia has already proposed its readiness to reduce its strategic forces to the level of 1,000 warheads. The Pentagon’s willingness to convert some Trident SLBMs to conventional ballistic missiles and cut 50 of 500 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs indicates that the United States might not be averse to further cuts as well. Moreover, such cuts could prove politically beneficial for both sides.
Both sides are likely interested in keeping limits on development of certain types of destabilizing strategic arms and on transfers of strategic arms to third parties. Such a treaty could retain the flexibility of SORT in avoiding limits on numbers attributed to subcategories or types of delivery systems, so that both sides can tweak their strategic arsenals. Likewise, the parties could drop some restrictions on deployment methods of conventional missiles.
Yet, the primary aim of a new agreement should be the creation of a new verification mechanism, which would replace the one in START and at the same time retain current levels of transparency. START’s data exchanges, notifications, and inspections could become a basis for a new mechanism. 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 such talks. Revised inspection procedures could also be negotiated to help to resolve mutual concerns.The United States and Russia should be interested in such an approach.
Anatoli Diakov is director of the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and Eugene Miasnikov is a senior research scientist at the center.
2. Both the U.S. and Russian governments issued statements that they would use the existing START inspection mechanism to verify SORT. President George W. Bush mentioned in the SORT letter of transmittal to the U.S. Senate that “the Parties will use the comprehensive verification regime of the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (the “START Treaty”) to provide the foundation for confidence, transparency, and predictability in further strategic offensive reductions.” A similar answer was given by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “the [SORT] Treaty contains an important clause confirming that the START-1 Treaty remains in force.… Thus, a close link is being established between the two treaties - START-1 and the new Treaty.… Thus, the thoroughly developed verification mechanism it provides for, which makes it possible to sufficiently accurately trace the state of affairs in the strategic arsenals of the sides, will be operative as well.”
3. Nikolai Zlobin, “ Russia and the U.S. —What’s Next?” Center for Defence Information, November 2, 2005; Peter Baker, “Russian Relations Under Scrutiny,” The Washington Post, February 26, 2006, p. A1.
6. START was signed July 31, 1991, by the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union’s breakup later that year, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine became the successors to the treaty. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine transferred all of their nuclear weapons to Russia and eliminated their strategic platforms and infrastructure in accordance with START provisions.
15. Andrew Scutro, “Balance of Sub Fleet to Swing Toward the Pacific,” Navy Times, February 20, 2006. Another potential home port under consideration is Pearl Harbor. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Trident Submarine Conversion (SSGN) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” CRS Report for Congress, RS21007, June 23, 2005.
16. The agreement stated that no more than two special-purpose submarines converted from Poseidon SSBNs would be exempt from inspections; the launchers of converted submarines will be counted according to START accounting rules; converted submarines cannot be permanently based at ports specified as ballistic missile submarine bases in the START memorandum of understanding; and when such a submarine is located at the port where it is permanently based, its launch tubes have to be opened on request of the Soviet side for a period of no less than 12 hours in order to allow it to verify by satellite inspection that they do not contain ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union had a right to make two requests per submarine each year.
18. Yuri Gavrilov, “Boyegolovki Posledney Svezhesti [Warheads starting to spoil],” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, July 29, 2004; Igor Korotchenko, “Udar Iz Pod Vody [A strike from underwater],” Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, September 29, 2004.
22. U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” August 2005, p. 13 (hereinafter State Department arms control adherence guide).
23. V. S. Koltunov, “Kontrolnyy Mechanism Dogovorov o Sokraschenii Nastupatelnykh Vooruzhenii [Verification mechanism of offensive arms elimination treaties]” (thesis of the lecture presented at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology within a course “Strategic Arms and Problems of Security,” March 21, 2002); A. Arbatov and V. Dvorkin, eds. “Yadernoye Sderzhivaniye I Nerasprostraneniye [Nuclear deterrence and non-proliferation],” Moscow Carnegie Center, 2005, p. 56; Avis Bohlen, “The Rise and Fall of Arms Control,” Survival, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Autumn 2003).
25. Unfortunately, data on Russian expenses on START inspections do not exist in open literature except for the year 2001, when 39.6 million rubles (about $1.4 million) were allocated in the state budget. Pyotr Romashkin, “Draft Federal Budget of 2001 and Spending for Implementing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties,” Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), September 8, 2000.
26. Ivan Sidorov, “Naskolko Otvetstvenno Storony Vypolnyayut Dogovor SNV-1? [To what extent the parties are responsible in START implementation?],” Yadernoye Rasprostraneniye, August–October 1999, pp. 64-69.
30. See Rose Gottemoeller, “Nuclear Weapons in Current Russian Policy,” in The Russian Military, Power and Policy, eds. Steven E. Miller and Dmitry Trenin ( Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 183-215.
33. Local populations near solid propellant missile-elimination facilities have raised a wave of protests against the project, considering it unsafe for the environment. It is therefore likely that SS-25 elimination will proceed more slowly than planned, with correspondingly lower annual spending requirements.