Jump-STARTing U.S.-Russian Disarmament

Daryl G. Kimball

During his 2000 presidential campaign, Gov. George W. Bush pledged to "leave the Cold War behind [and] rethink the requirements for nuclear deterrence." Today, the United States and Russia each still deploy about 3,000-4,000 strategic nuclear warheads, many of which are primed for launch within minutes in order to deter a surprise attack by the other. The Cold War may technically be over, but the practical reality is that the weapons and outdated nuclear deterrence thinking of that era persist.

Although the United States is on track to deploy no more than 1,700-2,200 strategic warheads by 2012 as mandated by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), the agreement's limit expires the day it takes effect. It also allows each side to store thousands of reserve warheads and missiles as a hedge against unforeseen threats. The treaty fails to establish new verification mechanisms, relying instead on those contained in the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Worse still, the White House and the Kremlin have failed to come to terms on a follow-on to START, which is due to expire in December 2009. Without START's far-reaching verification system, neither side would be able to confidently assess the size and location of the other's nuclear forces, adding another dangerous irritant to strained U.S.-Russian relations.

The new president can and must do better. With the START deadline looming, his administration must work expeditiously with Russia to negotiate and conclude an agreement to dramatically and irreversibly cut their still-bloated nuclear stockpiles.

The good news is that, during the campaign, both presidential candidates called for deeper reductions through a new agreement with Russia. In a September 2008 response to Arms Control Today questions, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) called for "real, verifiable reductions in all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.... [T]his process should begin by securing Russia's agreement to extend essential monitoring and verification provisions of START." Obama also pledged to "immediately stand down all nuclear forces to be reduced under [SORT]," which could involve hundreds of currently deployed warheads.

To be sure, implementation of these long-overdue steps is easier said than done. The new administration will be working overtime from day one to address multiple other foreign policy challenges. Yet, charting the future for START and a saner nuclear relationship with Russia cannot wait.

Soon after Inauguration Day, the new president should invite senior Russian leaders to resume nuclear arms talks. The goal should be to conclude a new START-plus deal that achieves dramatically deeper reductions of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads­, deployed and nondeployed, to 1,000 or less by 2012. If necessary, the U.S. and Russian presidents should agree to extend START until they can bring into force a new agreement.

To succeed, the new administration must adopt new approaches to resolve key issues that have stalled progress. Russia has shown interest in deeper reductions: less than 1,500 warheads each along with specific limits on delivery systems. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has rejected lower ceilings on deployed warheads and further limitations on missiles and bombers.

Indeed, as Obama, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and others have argued, deeper warhead reductions are possible and prudent. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, there is no plausible reason for U.S. and Russian leaders to maintain thousands of strategic nuclear weapons with large numbers on high alert. Besides the United States and Russia, no state possesses more than 300 nuclear warheads. China currently only has about 20 nuclear-armed missiles capable of striking the continental United States.

Massive arsenals capable of annihilating entire nations within an hour are more of a liability than an asset because they breed mistrust and worst-case assumptions among other states and perpetuate the risk of accidental or unauthorized launch, nor do U.S. nuclear weapons serve a necessary or practical role in deterring threats from non-nuclear adversaries or in response to non-nuclear attacks.

Washington and Moscow also should establish lower limits on nuclear-capable delivery systems, including caps on how many warheads each system may carry. This would increase confidence that neither side could quickly reconstitute and field a far larger force. A schedule and process for verifiable warhead dismantlement should be addressed in a subsequent agreement.

Such an approach is feasible and practical. As outlined in a 2007 Arms Control Association report by physicist Sidney Drell and Ambassador James Goodby, the United States could quickly downshift to a strategic triad of some 288 warheads on a fleet of three or more Trident submarines on patrol, 100 warheads on 100 land-based Minuteman missiles, and about two dozen nuclear-capable strategic bombers. Comparable numbers of nondeployed warheads and delivery systems could serve as a "responsive" force.

Yesterday's nuclear doctrines and arsenals do not fit today's realities. The next president must seize his opportunity to dramatically reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, restore U.S. credibility on disarmament, and open a conversation with the world's other nuclear-armed states on joint measures to reduce and eventually eliminate global stockpiles.