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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
U.S., Russia Poised for Arsenal Cuts

Tom Z. Collina

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Nov. 15 they expect to sign a new arms control treaty to replace START by the end of December.

The arsenal limits under discussion would lead to substantial reductions in Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear forces. The two sides had not reached final agreement as of press time.

After meeting with Medvedev at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, Obama said, “Our goal continues to be to complete the negotiations and to be able to sign a deal before the end of the year. And I’m confident that if we work hard and with a sense of urgency about it that we should be able to get that done,” according to a White House transcript.

Speaking after Obama, Medvedev said, “I hope that, as was agreed initially during our first meeting in London, [and] was reaffirmed during later meetings, we will be able to finalize the text of the document by December.” He added, “[T]he world is watching.”

The current START expires Dec. 5.

The latest and possibly final round of Russian-U.S. talks began in Geneva Nov. 9. Obama will travel to Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize Dec. 10, and the White House would like to have a new treaty ready for signature by that time, according to administration officials.

If agreement is reached, the new treaty would significantly tighten bilateral limits on the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles each side can deploy. Under START and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), Russia and the United States are limited to deploying 2,200 strategic warheads (by 2012) on 1,600 long-range land-based missiles, sea-based missiles, and bombers. The new treaty would reduce the warhead limit from 2,200 to possibly 1,600, a cut of 600 (27 percent). The launcher limit would drop from 1,600 to possibly 800, a cut of 800 (50 percent).

The launcher reduction is larger in part because the previous limit (1,600) has not been revised since 1991, when START was signed. The previous warhead limit (2,200), by contrast, was agreed to a decade later in SORT, which was signed in 2002, and is thus a more accurate reflection of current deployments. (For comparison, START limits both sides to 6,000 “accountable” warheads, i.e., warheads that are associated with delivery systems but not directly counted.)

With regard to deployed strategic warheads, the Department of State reported in July 2009 that the United States had met its SORT limit of 2,200 three years early. Russia is believed to have about 2,800 warheads, according to independent estimates. Thus, comparing current warhead stocks to the likely new treaty limit (1,600), the United States would have to reduce by 27 percent and Russia by 42 percent.

The likely new limit of 800 strategic delivery vehicles (long-range missiles and bombers) will not directly affect current forces because Russia and the United States are at or below these limits already. The United States is believed to deploy about 800 (the same number allowed under the new treaty) while Russia deploys about 620, according to independent estimates. The difference is due in part to the U.S. preference to keep more missiles with fewer warheads loaded on each one. Russia, due primarily to budget constraints, chooses to deploy fewer missiles with more warheads on each. Reflecting these preferences, Russia originally proposed that the two sides agree to keep only 500 launchers apiece, while the United States first proposed 1,100.

In 1991, before START was signed, Russia and the United States each had roughly 10,000 deployed strategic warheads. If the START follow-on is completed, the bilateral arms control process will have reduced Russian and U.S. deployed strategic warheads by more than 80 percent over the last two decades. If the START successor is not implemented, both sides would be free to increase their nuclear forces after START expires this month and SORT expires Dec. 31, 2012 (see graph).

Even if the text of the START follow-on is finalized by Dec. 5, the new treaty cannot enter into force until ratified by the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma. To cover this interval, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who supports a new treaty and is concerned that inspectors from each side will lose their access to the other’s facilities when START expires, has introduced legislation that would give Obama authority to allow Russian inspectors to continue to monitor U.S. facilities. Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, told reporters at a Nov. 15 White House press briefing that negotiators are working on a “bridging agreement” to extend elements of the current START until the new treaty has been signed and ratified. “We do need a bridging agreement no matter what,” McFaul said. “The key thing there is verification. We just want to preserve the verification.”

Indicating that the negotiations may continue until Dec. 31, McFaul said, “But we’re not at the endgame yet, we’re not at the end of the year.” McFaul added, “We still have some fairly major things to finish.”

Origins of New START

Signed in 1991 and brought into force in 1994, START still provides far-reaching inspections and data exchanges on which both sides depend to determine the size and location of the other’s nuclear forces. The United States has conducted more than 600 inspections in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine while Russia has conducted more than 400 inspections in the United States, according to the State Department. START was signed by the Soviet Union and includes all the former Soviet republics that hosted nuclear weapons at that time. All former Soviet nuclear forces are now controlled by Russia.

SORT, which entered into force in 2003, calls for both sides to retain no more than 2,200 “operationally deployed” strategic warheads, expires the same day the treaty limit takes effect, and provides no additional verification provisions.

Motivated by START’s pending expiration, U.S. and Russian officials agreed in March to negotiate a new treaty to establish lower, verifiable limits on strategic nuclear arsenals by year’s end. Talks on a new START began in April.

Obama and Medvedev agreed July 6 that the new treaty would limit each side’s deployed strategic warheads to a number between 1,500 and 1,675 and strategic delivery vehicles to a number between 500 and 1,100. They also agreed that the new treaty would include verification, monitoring, and information exchange provisions based on principles and practices established by START.

None of these treaties is designed to limit either strategic warheads taken out of service or tactical nuclear weapons. Those issues are expected to be addressed in talks on the next START, which may begin next year. Both sides are believed to have thousands of warheads in reserve (active and inactive) and awaiting dismantlement.