"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004

By Daryl G. Kimball

Five years ago at the signing ceremony for the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), President George W. Bush claimed the agreement “liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility” between the United States and Russia. Think again. Although SORT calls for deeper reductions in deployed strategic nuclear warheads, to 1,700-2,200 each by 2012, it has not liquidated the weapons nor mutual nuclear suspicions.

The treaty’s emphasis on flexibility detracts from its predictability, lessening its value in building a more stable and secure U.S.-Russian relationship. Unlike the earlier Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) approach, SORT does not require the destruction of strategic delivery systems. SORT also allows each side to store nondeployed warheads. The treaty fails to establish new verification mechanisms, relying instead on those contained in START.

Now, news reports indicate that neither government wants to extend START past its scheduled expiration on Dec. 5, 2009. Although the 1991 treaty may require adjustments to reflect present-day realities, it serves as an important foundation for deeper, faster, and irreversible reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals that would head off renewed strategic competition.

U.S. plans to install missile interceptors in Poland have added to Russian concerns that the United States might redeploy its reserve nuclear forces and utilize leftover nuclear delivery systems for conventional strike missions. In response, President Vladimir Putin has authorized new strategic missile systems and plans to increase the number of warheads carried by certain missile systems. Putin also has threatened to withdraw from the 1987 U.S.-Russian treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear forces.

The loss of START would complicate an increasingly complicated relationship. START was a breakthrough agreement that helped end the Cold War. It slashed strategic nuclear forces from approximately 10,000 warheads each to no more than 6,000 apiece by December 5, 2001. The accord also limits each side to 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles (land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, plus heavy bombers).

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. In 2002, the intelligence community warned that its ability to monitor SORT would be significantly compromised 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.

U.S. and Russian experts began discussions in March on follow-on measures to START, but the two sides are at odds over several core issues. Russia favors negotiating a new treaty that would reduce strategic nuclear warheads to less than 1,500 each, with additional limits on delivery systems. The Bush administration rejects further weapons limits and prefers new, informal transparency and confidence-building measures.

Both sides want some verification measures after START. But 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 argue for understandings that would allow for “visits” to each other’s weapons storage sites.

What should be done? Informal transparency measures may be helpful but provide too little certainty and do nothing to achieve deeper and more lasting force reductions. On the other hand, given the Bush administration’s antipathy toward arms control treaties, the prospects for a new legally binding agreement before the end of 2008 look dim. The next U.S. president will have limited time to work out a new arrangement before START lapses.

Rather than allow the pact to expire or mask long-simmering differences with halfway measures, Bush’s and Putin’s successors should agree to continue to observe START until they can enter into a new agreement that achieves what SORT did not: permanent and verifiable reductions of excess U.S. and Russian Cold War nuclear forces. A new treaty with streamlined START-style verification protocols is necessary to restore confidence that each country will actually dismantle, not simply warehouse, warheads and missiles originally deployed to destroy the other.

Such an agreement should map out permanent, phased reductions of all strategic nuclear warheads, deployed and reserve, to a level of 1,000 or less and establish ceilings on the number of non-nuclear strategic missiles. As the two sides’ strategic arsenals shrink, they must also account for and agree to scrap Russia’s residual arsenal of at least 3,000 tactical nuclear warheads, as well as the smaller U.S. stockpile, which includes 480 warheads stationed in Europe.

The year 2009 will mark two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The United States and Russia are no longer enemies, yet their still massive nuclear arsenals continue to engender distrust and worst-case assumptions. What is required is a new push for real nuclear reductions based on the proven principles of START.