"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
START Deadline Looms; Endgame Begins

Tom Z. Collina

One month away from START’s Dec. 5 expiration date, it is unclear that a replacement treaty will be ready for signature by that time, comments by administration officials and nongovernmental observers suggest. After months of U.S.-Russian negotiations and high-level visits, major areas of disagreement remain, the experts said. The talks are entering a pivotal phase and may need presidential involvement to overcome the differences, the experts said.

Efforts to close a deal are getting high-level political attention in both capitals. National security adviser Gen. James L. Jones traveled to Moscow Oct. 28-29 to meet with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. After their talks, Lavrov said “intensive efforts” would be required to reach an agreement, and Jones said that the two had a “very good discussion on a number of bilateral issues,” according to the Associated Press.

In an Oct. 24 telephone conversation, Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama reiterated their intent to finish talks on schedule, according to the White House. The two countries held their latest round of talks in Geneva Oct. 19-30; the next round is scheduled to begin Nov. 9.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher, and Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller traveled to Moscow Oct. 13 to meet Medvedev and Lavrov for discussions on the prospects for replacing START. Medvedev “said that he thought we should lock our negotiators in a room in Geneva and not let them out until they had reached a new START agreement,” Clinton told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace Oct. 21. “We haven’t done that yet, but I’m glad to have his full concurrence if that turns out to be necessary,” she said.

In an Oct. 21 interview with Arms Control Today, Tauscher said that the administration would have a “stock-taking” at the end of October to determine which of the major unresolved issues need to be referred to “principals,” or top-level officials, for final decisions. Tauscher reaffirmed the U.S. “intention to be able to replace the START treaty when it expires.” There would need to be agreement on the major components by mid-November in order to leave sufficient time before Dec. 5 for drafting, translation, and final administration review, according to officials.

Because of the tight schedule and slow progress since the basic outlines of the new treaty were established in the presidents’ joint understanding document in Moscow July 6, speculation is growing that the talks might not conclude in time without personal attention from the two national leaders. At a briefing hosted by the Arms Control Association Oct. 19, arms control experts John Steinbruner of the University of Maryland and Sergey Rogov of the Institute for USA and Canadian Studies in Moscow agreed on that point.

Bridging the Gap

If negotiators succeed in reaching agreement by Dec. 5, the administration may seek a “provisional application,” according to officials. That approach would put the terms of the new treaty into place on a temporary basis pending a Senate vote, possibly in the spring. As concern grows that a new treaty will not be ready for signature by December, questions are increasing about what will happen to the verification and monitoring provisions of START once it expires.

If the two sides do not settle on a new treaty, the administration may seek some form of executive agreement with Russia to allow inspectors to stay and information to be shared in ways similar to those established under the current treaty while talks continue, The New York Times reported Oct. 20. Such an agreement, according to the Times, would not require Senate approval.

Some Republican senators apparently would prefer START contingency options that require Senate approval. The Senate Republican Policy Committee, chaired by John Thune (S.D.), issued a report Sept. 30 stating that if the treaty negotiations cannot be finished by year’s end, “the parties should either extend the treaty for five years as provided for [in the treaty], or amend the treaty to remain in force for a different period of time, to which the Senate should consent, while the parties continue to negotiate a new agreement.”

In the Oct. 21 interview, Tauscher said the U.S. plan is to “find an accommodation” to maintain START’s verification protocols in the period between the expiration of the current treaty and ratification of its replacement.

“We really haven’t developed contingency plans, to my knowledge, for what [to] do if we don’t get a START follow-on by Dec. 5,” Michael Nacht, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, said during a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council Oct. 7. “The Russians tend to have a negotiating style where they leave a lot of things for the last minute,” he said. “We are used to this.”

Senate Opposition

Meanwhile, some Senate Republicans are gearing up for battle on treaty ratification. Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said in a Senate floor speech Oct. 19 that Russia’s development of the new multiple-warhead RS-24 missile violates the current START. “In this case, it appears the Russians have cheated—if not in the letter of the START agreement, at least in its spirit—by converting one of their existing missiles, the Topol-M, to this new multiple-warhead variant,” he said. START prohibits “increasing the number of warheads attributed to an ICBM or SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile] of an existing or new type,” meaning that Russia cannot take the single-warhead Topol-M, rename it the RS-24, and deploy it with three warheads, but the treaty does not prohibit the testing of such missiles. Rogov said Russia was waiting to deploy this missile until December 2009, after START expires, to avoid any question of violating the treaty. At an Oct. 26 panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace, former START negotiator Linton Brooks said the Bush administration had made it clear to Moscow during testing of the RS-24 that it did not have any objections.

The Obama administration is also feeling pressure from the Democratic side of the aisle. In a Sept. 29 letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a bipartisan group of eleven senators said, “As we have indicated to the president, we would strongly oppose a reduction below the current force structure of 450 missiles, divided into three wings of 150 missiles each. We believe this structure represents the optimal number of missiles and the optimal organization.” The group of signers includes Democrats Max Baucus (Mont.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), and Mary L. Landrieu (La.).

U.S. ICBMs are currently based in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The two Republican senators from Wyoming also signed the letter.


According to knowledgeable sources, there are several major areas of disagreement that would need to be resolved in the next few weeks.

Missile defense. According to the July 6 joint understanding, the new treaty will include a provision on “the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms.” The Obama administration has made clear that the START successor agreement deals with offensive weapons, not defenses, and wants to discuss defenses in a separate forum. Russian negotiators are seeking a commitment from the United States not to increase its strategic missile defenses beyond current levels, although the United States addressed a major Russian concern by canceling the deployment of strategic missile defense interceptors in Poland. (See ACT, October 2009.)

“The most important of these [START] principles for us is the inter-connection between strategic offensive and defensive weapons, linked to a U.S. program of creating strategic weapons with non-nuclear charges,” Lavrov said Oct. 27, according to Reuters. “On both issues, as we understand, the Americans heard our concerns, are ready to take them into account and promised that within days they would hand over their own proposals, addressing these problems,” he said.

Conventional warheads. The joint understanding says the new treaty will cover “the impact” of ICBMs and SLBMs “in a non-nuclear configuration on strategic stability.” The issue is the deployment of conventional warheads on ballistic missiles that, up to now, could only carry nuclear warheads. The U.S. Department of Defense apparently wants to preserve this option as it is exploring technologies for Prompt Global Strike weapons that might be launched on short notice against faraway targets, such as a state’s missile launch or a nuclear material transfer to a terrorist group. The Pentagon had initially proposed using the Trident D-5 SLBM, counted under START as a nuclear delivery system, for this purpose. Congress declined to fund this program in 2008 out of concern that Russia might be unable to distinguish between a nuclear and conventional attack, increasing the risk of nuclear war. Russia wants the conventional-weapon option banned under the new treaty. “There are very few countries in the world that are afraid of American nuclear weapons, but there are many countries which are afraid of American conventional weapons,” Alexei Arbatov, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in April. A possible compromise, according to Brooks, would be to count conventional warheads deployed on strategic delivery systems against the nuclear warhead limit under the new treaty.

Launcher numbers. The July 6 agreement calls for the number of strategic delivery vehicles to be limited to 500-1,100. Russia wants the low end and the United States the high end, as these limits reflect the number of delivery vehicles each side expects to deploy over the next few years. The U.S. number was developed using START counting rules, under which the United States declared in October it had 1,188 strategic delivery vehicles. Many of these are “phantom” weapons that no longer carry strategic nuclear warheads but still count under START, including 100 ICBM silos, 96 SLBM launch tubes on four Trident submarines, and nearly 150 bombers, according to the Congressional Research Service. If the counting rules are reformed to exclude launchers that no longer carry nuclear weapons, the United States could reduce the delivery vehicle limit from 1,100 to around 800, which is the actual number of launchers the United States is believed to have deployed today. Below that level, the Obama administration would need to retire operational nuclear systems, possibly including land-based ICBMs.

Even if the United States drops down to 800 delivery vehicles or lower under the new treaty, the Russians may still be concerned about “uploading”—the U.S. ability to take nuclear forces out of storage quickly and put them back in the field. “The uploading potential of the United States is 200 percent or more of what would be the ceiling for deployed weapons. For the Russian side, the uploading potential would be no more than 500 warheads, and this is a very optimistic assessment based on the plans for deployment of a new MIRVed ICBM,” said Rogov. He was referring to a missile that would have multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

To address the Trident D-5’s upload potential, which Russia finds particularly troubling, Rogov proposed reducing the number of launch tubes on each submarine, reducing the number of submarines, reducing the number of warheads that can be loaded onto each missile, and verifiably dismantling warheads taken out of service.

Brooks said it might be best to “kick the can” down the road to the next treaty if possible, given the difficulty of reaching agreement on uploading. If not, he said he would propose removing Trident SLBMs from submarines and either cutting up the subs to remove the launch tubes or otherwise rendering them unusable. He said that changing the warhead platform to allow fewer warheads to be loaded would be too expensive and verifiably dismantling the warheads would be too difficult to address in this treaty.

Warhead verification. An additional problem, according to Rogov, is that the United States wants to move away from the START practice of allocating, for counting purposes, a certain number of warheads to each type of missile. For example, under START the Trident D-5 missile is counted as having eight warheads; it can carry fewer than eight but not more. Instead of this approach, the U.S. side is proposing, according to Rogov, to allow on-site inspections so that each side can count for itself how many warheads are on the other’s delivery systems. The Russians are concerned that, without a set number of warheads per missile, what they find on one missile might not tell them enough about the total stockpile, Rogov said. The July 6 agreement calls for each side to maintain no more than 1,500 to 1,675 strategic warheads.

Other unresolved verification issues include the monitoring of missile production sites and mobile missile deployments.