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Daryl G. Kimball

After eight rounds of talks over nine months, U.S. and Russian negotiators are expected to complete work this month on a new strategic nuclear arms reduction deal that would replace the highly successful 1991 START, which expires Dec. 5.

Lower, verifiable limits on still-bloated U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals are long overdue. Today, the United States and Russia each deploy more than 2,000 strategic warheads, most of which exist only to deter a massive nuclear attack by the other. No other country possesses more than 300 nuclear warheads, and China currently has fewer than 30 nuclear-armed missiles capable of striking the continental United States.

As President Barack Obama, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and many prominent national security leaders have argued, deeper U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear reductions are possible and prudent.

The New START deal is particularly important because past Democratic and Republican administrations have squandered opportunities to conclude meaningful, legally binding, and verifiable nuclear cuts. Instead, U.S. and Russian leaders concluded the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which calls for no more than 2,200 strategic deployed warheads each by the year 2012.

Unlike START, the three-page SORT did not establish any limits on strategic nuclear delivery systems or mandate their destruction. Making matters worse, SORT established no new verification mechanism, instead relying on those in START. Contrary to the advice from Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, the Bush administration did not seek to extend START or replace it with a new treaty before leaving office.

To their credit, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 1 directed their negotiators to finish a follow-on to START by year’s end. After the United States conducted a preliminary review of its nuclear force requirements, Obama and Medvedev announced July 6 that the new pact would reduce deployed strategic warheads to somewhere between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads each (about a 30 percent cut from current levels).

The two leaders also agreed to reduce strategic delivery vehicles, (i.e., long-range heavy bombers, plus submarine-launched ballistic missiles and ICBMs) to a level between 500 and 1,100. Washington currently possesses approximately 900 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, while Moscow deploys an estimated 600-800, so the new ceiling will likely be below 800.

Given the limited time frame for the talks, the new treaty will mandate a streamlined framework for strategic reductions that track the planned nuclear force downsizing on each side. The new agreement will carry forward the most essential of START’s verification and monitoring provisions, which are still needed for predictability and to provide each side with high confidence that the other is complying with the terms of the treaty.

The New START will also open the way for more comprehensive U.S.-Russian arms reduction talks beginning next year, which the Obama administration says should address all types of nuclear warheads: deployed and nondeployed; strategic and nonstrategic. It would also help Washington win broader international support for measures to strengthen the beleaguered nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the May 2010 review conference.

Unfortunately, a few are already trying to undermine support for the New START before it arrives. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) erroneously suggested in a Nov. 21 statement “that there had been virtually no talk…of what happens after December 5 and prior to the possible entry into force of the follow-on agreement.” Actually, the two sides have been discussing the bridging mechanism for months, but have not publicized the details because of the ongoing negotiations.

Kyl, who in 2003 praised SORT for its brevity and called START and its monitoring provisions a “700-page behemoth” that “would not serve America’s real security needs,” now suggests START should be extended for another five years. That approach is a nonstarter. At this point, Moscow will not agree to an extension, and without the lower limits on deployed warheads under a new START deal, Russia could and would likely maintain a deployed strategic arsenal in excess of 2,000 warheads indefinitely.

A Sept. 30 Senate Republican Policy Committee white paper suggests that ratification of the New START should be conditioned on a commitment to modernize U.S. strategic nuclear forces. Such a condition is unnecessary and would be unprecedented. Existing U.S. strategic missile and bomber systems are modern, reliable, and accurate. According to a new independent report from the JASON scientific advisory group, “[L]ifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.”

Delaying action on the follow-on to START and rekindling U.S.-Russian nuclear competition is unwise and dangerous. Rather than dither over extraneous issues, the Senate should focus on the merits of the treaty and seize the chance to enhance U.S. and global security by approving deeper, verifiable reductions in the world’s largest and deadliest arsenals.