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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
New START Signed; Senate Battle Looms
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Tom Z. Collina

Setting the stage for what could be a major showdown with Senate Republicans, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) April 8 in Prague. The signing of the treaty “demonstrates the determination of the United States and Russia—the two nations that hold over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons—to pursue responsible global leadership,” Obama said. Medvedev said, “What matters most is that this is a win-win situation.… [B]oth parties have won. And taking into account this victory of ours, the entire world community has won.”

Obama said that the new treaty marks the beginning of a longer process. “As I said last year in Prague, this treaty will set the stage for further cuts. And going forward, we hope to pursue discussions with Russia on reducing both our strategic and tactical weapons, including nondeployed weapons.” On April 5, 2009, in a speech in the Czech capital, Obama declared his support for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Medvedev said, “I am convinced that all that has been done so far is just the beginning of a long way, long way ahead. I wouldn’t like to see the Russian Federation and the United States be narrowed down to just limiting strategic offensive arms.”

But in a note of caution, Medvedev said, “It matters to us what will happen to missile defense. It is related to the configuration of our potential and our capacities, and we will watch how these processes develop.”

The Russian government issued a unilateral statement April 7 that it could withdraw from the treaty if U.S. missile defenses “give rise to a threat to the strategic nuclear force potential of the Russian Federation.” The United States made its own unilateral statement the same day, declaring that its missile defenses “are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia.” These statements are not legally binding, and similar statements were issued with previous treaties, including START I.

With the new treaty now signed, the focus has shifted from the U.S.-Russian negotiations to the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate, which must both approve the agreement before it can enter into force. “We intend to proceed promptly and to do all the necessary procedures to ensure that our parliament…starts reviewing this treaty,” said Medvedev in Prague. Obama said, “I feel confident that we are going to be able to get it ratified.”

Senate Outlook

The Obama administration plans to submit the full treaty (text, protocols, annexes, and the administration’s analysis of each part) and the 10-year nuclear stockpile plan (required by section 1251 of the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill) to the Senate on or around May 7 and is seeking ratification of New START by the end of the year, according to administration officials and Senate staff. “I’m going to do everything I can to advance this as quickly as I can. It may take until the first of the year to get it done, but I think it’s important we try to get this done,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said April 13.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over treaties, said in a statement April 8 that he plans to begin hearings on the treaty “in the coming weeks,” and to report a resolution of advice and consent out of the committee for approval by the full Senate “as soon as possible.” Under the U.S. Constitution, only the president can ratify treaties; the Senate can provide its advice and consent with a two-thirds majority vote. In a March 26 statement, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the committee’s ranking member, said, “I also look forward to working with Chairman Kerry…so that we can work quickly to achieve ratification of the new treaty.” Senate staffers said the panel could vote before the August recess. It is not clear how committee Republicans other than Lugar plan to vote.

Some Republican senators who are not on the committee have been more vocal. Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) told the Associated Press April 18 that New START faces a hard battle in the Senate, “and I’ll lead the opposition to it.”

“There’s not a chance the treaty will be approved this year. It took a year and a half to approve the START I treaty,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said April 11 on Fox News Sunday. “And with the Supreme Court pushing to the front of the agenda in the Senate and jobs, terror, and debt being our major issues we should be worrying about, this is a treaty for next year.” But he told CQ Today Online News April 14, “There is an openness to considering the treaty” within the Republican Conference. “The treaty itself is modest,” he said.

“The Obama administration will need to meet three requirements if it expects favorable consideration of the START follow-on treaty,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement April 8. “The Senate will assess whether or not the agreement is verifiable, whether it reduces our nation’s ability to defend itself and our allies from the threat of nuclear armed missiles, and whether or not this administration is committed to preserving our own nuclear triad.”

The Obama administration says that it has already addressed all three Republican concerns. On verification, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said March 26 that New START, in comparison to START I, “features a much more effective, transparent verification method that demands quicker data exchanges and notifications” and that the Joint Chiefs “stand solidly behind this new treaty.” On missile defense, Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces April 15 that New START “actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program” because “[o]ur targets will no longer be subject to START [I] constraints, which limited our use of air-to-surface and waterborne launches of targets.”

On maintaining the nuclear arsenal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in an April 6 cover letter for the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that the document “calls for making much-needed investments to rebuild America’s aging nuclear infrastructure” and that “to this end” he has asked for almost $5 billion to be transferred from the Pentagon to the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. This investment, he said, “and the NPR’s strategy of warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation’s deterrent.”

As for Duma ratification, “the Russians will work hard to convince the United States that ratification in Moscow is in doubt and that, therefore, the United States must really take Russian concerns about [missile] defenses into account,” said former START negotiator Linton Brooks at an Arms Control Association press briefing April 7. “But the historic record suggests that the Russian Duma is a good deal more responsive to their executive branch than our Congress is to ours,” he said. “If President Medvedev and Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin…want ratification, ratification will happen.”

What the Treaty Says

New START replaces START I, which expired Dec. 5, 2009, and the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which will terminate when New START enters into force.

Nuclear Arsenal Limits. Seven years after entry into force, New START limits “accountable” deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs to 1,550, a decrease of approximately 30 percent from the 2,200 limit set by SORT and a decrease of 74 percent from the START I-accountable limit of 6,000. Under START I, warheads were counted indirectly by associating a certain number of warheads with each delivery system.

Deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers assigned to nuclear missions are limited to 700. Deployed and nondeployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and bombers are limited to 800; that figure includes test launchers and bombers and Trident submarines in overhaul. That is a 50 percent reduction from the 1,600 launcher limit set under STARTI. (SORT did not directly cover launchers.) Each side has the flexibility to structure its nuclear forces as it wishes. “We will retain, throughout the life of the treaty, the nuclear triad,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright told the media April 6.

Counting Rules. For deployed ICBMs and SLBMs, the number of warheads counted is the actual number of re-entry vehicles (RVs) on each missile. (RVs protect the warhead as it re-enters the atmosphere from space; they carry only one warhead.) START I did not directly count RVs, but instead counted missiles and bombers that were “associated with” a certain number of warheads. New START counts each heavy bomber as one warhead (although the maximum loading is 16 to 20 warheads), the same counting rule that START I used for bombers carrying short-range weapons. Neither side typically deploys nuclear bombs or cruise missiles on bombers, but keeps them in storage (and thus inspections of bombers would find no weapons to inspect), so the parties agreed to arbitrarily count each bomber as one warhead. New START, like START I, does not track or limit warheads or bombs once they have been removed from deployed launchers.

Each deployed ICBM, SLBM, and bomber is counted as one against the 700 limit. Each deployed and nondeployed missile launcher or bomber is counted as one against the 800 limit. Nondeployed missiles are counted toward that limit unless they have been converted to other missions or eliminated.

Ballistic Missile Defense. Administration officials have stated repeatedly that “current or planned U.S. missile defense programs” are not constrained by New START. The treaty’s preamble acknowledges the “interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms” and that “current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.”

The treaty prohibits both sides from converting launchers for ICBMs and SLBMs into launchers for missile defense interceptors and vice versa. This provision does not apply to five U.S. ICBM silo launchers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that were previously converted to missile defense interceptor launchers. The United States has no plans for any such conversions in the future, according to administration officials.

This provision drew criticism from some Republican senators, who saw it as a way to limit missile defenses. “While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions,” Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and John McCain (Ariz.) said in a joint statement April 8. The Wall Street Journal editorialized April 17 that “[t]he Obama Administration may not currently plan to convert an ICBM silo into a missile defense site. But Mr. Obama won’t be in office beyond 2017, and a future President might want to. [New] START wouldn’t allow it.”

“It’s a limit in theory, but not in reality,” responded national security adviser James Jones in an April 20 letter to the Journal. “We have no plans to convert any additional ICBM silos. In fact, it would be less expensive to build a new silo rather than convert an old one. In other words, if we were to ever need more missile defense silos in California, we would simply dig new holes, which is not proscribed by the treaty.”

Verification. The treaty’s verification regime includes relevant parts of START I as well as new provisions to cover items not previously monitored. For example, the old treaty did not directly limit warheads, but instead assigned a certain number of warheads to each launcher; a count of the launchers gave an upper limit on the number of warheads that could be deployed but not necessarily an actual count. New START includes direct limits on deployed warheads and allows for on-site inspections to give both sides confidence that the limits are being upheld.

START I required telemetry (missile-generated flight-test data) to be openly shared, with limited exceptions, to monitor missile development. New START does not limit new types of ballistic missiles, and thus the START I formula for extensive telemetry sharing was no longer considered necessary. New START allows for the exchange of telemetry recordings and other information on up to five missile tests per side per year to promote openness and transparency.

To monitor Russian mobile ICBMs, all new missiles are subject to the treaty as soon as they leave a production facility, and each missile and bomber will carry a unique identifier. Russia must notify the United States 48 hours before a new solid-fueled ICBM or SLBM leaves the Votkinsk production facility and when it arrives at its destination. That requirement is designed to facilitate monitoring by national technical means, such as satellites. The treaty does not limit the modernization of strategic forces.

Verification of treaty limits is carried out by national technical means and 18 annual on-site inspections. The treaty allows 10 on-site inspections of deployed warheads and deployed and nondeployed delivery systems at ICBM bases, submarine bases, and air bases (“Type One” inspections). It also allows eight on-site inspections at facilities that may hold only nondeployed delivery systems (“Type Two” inspections).

Duration and Withdrawal. The treaty’s duration is 10 years unless it is superseded by a subsequent agreement and can be extended for an additional five years. Each party can withdraw if it decides that “extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.” The treaty would terminate three months from a notice of withdrawal.

Conventional Warheads. New START does not prohibit either side from deploying conventional warheads on ballistic missiles, although they would be counted against treaty limits. The preamble states that both sides are “mindful of the impact of conventionally armed ICBMs and SLBMs on strategic stability.” Any future U.S. Prompt Global Strike deployments are likely to be small. For example, the Bush administration had planned to arm 28 Trident D-5 missiles with one conventional warhead each. According to Obama administration briefing materials, the treaty limits would “accommodate any plans the United States might develop during the life of this treaty to deploy conventional warheads on ballistic missiles.” Trident submarines converted to carry conventional cruise missiles would not be counted under New START, nor would bombers that have been fully converted to conventional missions, such as the B-1B.

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agreements at a Glance

Over the past four decades, U.S. and Soviet/Russian leaders have used a progression of bilateral agreements and other measures to limit and reduce their nuclear warhead and missile and bomber arsenals. The following is a brief summary.

Strategic Nuclear Arms Control Agreements


Begun in November 1969, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) produced by May 1972 both the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which banned nationwide strategic missile defenses, and the Interim Agreement, an executive-legislative agreement that capped U.S. and Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) forces. Under the Interim Agreement, both sides pledged not to construct new ICBM silos, not to increase the size of existing ICBM silos “significantly,” and capped the number of SLBMs and SLBM-carrying submarines. The agreement ignored strategic bombers and did not address warheads, leaving both sides free to enlarge their deployed forces by adding multiple warheads to their ICBMs and SLBMs and increasing their bomber-based forces. The agreement limited the United States to 1,054 ICBM silos and 656 SLBM launch tubes. The Soviet Union was limited to 1,607 ICBM silos and 740 SLBM launch tubes. In January 2002, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty.


In November 1972, Washington and Moscow agreed to pursue a follow-on treaty to SALT I. SALT II, signed in June 1979, limited U.S. and Soviet ICBM, SLBM, and strategic bomber-based nuclear forces to 2,250 delivery vehicles (defined as an ICBM silo, a submarine missile-launch tube, or a bomber) and placed a variety of other restrictions on deployed strategic nuclear forces. The agreement would have required the Soviets to reduce their forces by roughly 270 delivery vehicles, but U.S. forces were below the limits and could actually have been increased. President Jimmy Carter asked the Senate not to consider approving SALT II after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, and the treaty was not taken up. Both Washington and Moscow subsequently pledged to adhere to the agreement’s terms despite its failure to enter into force. However, on May 26, 1986, President Ronald Reagan said that future decisions on strategic nuclear forces would be based on the threat posed by Soviet forces and “not on standards contained in the SALT structure.”


The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), first proposed in the early 1980s by Reagan and finally signed in July 1991, required the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their deployed strategic arsenals to 1,600 delivery vehicles, carrying no more than 6,000 warheads as counted using the agreement’s rules. The agreement limited deployed warheads by imposing limits on delivery vehicles and requiring the destruction of excess delivery vehicles. The destruction was verified using an intrusive verification regime that involved on-site inspections and regular exchanges of information, as well as national technical means such as satellites. The agreement’s entry into force was delayed for several years because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and efforts to denuclearize Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine by making them parties to the agreement and consolidating their nuclear weapons in Russia. START I reductions were completed in December 2001, and the treaty expired on Dec. 5, 2009.


In June 1992, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin agreed to pursue a follow-on accord to START I. START II, signed in January 1993, called for reducing deployed strategic arsenals to 3,000 to 3,500 warheads and banned the deployment of destabilizing multiple-warhead land-based missiles. START II would have counted warheads in roughly the same fashion as START I and, also like its predecessor, would have required the destruction of delivery vehicles but not warheads. The agreement’s original implementation deadline was January 2003, but a 1997 protocol extended the deadline until December 2007 because of Russia’s concerns over its ability to meet the earlier date. Both the Senate and the Duma approved START II, but the treaty did not take effect because the Senate did not ratify the 1997 protocol and several ABM Treaty amendments, whose passage the Duma established as a condition for START II’s entry into force. START II was effectively shelved as a result of the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

START III Framework

In March 1997, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to a framework for START III negotiations that included a reduction in deployed strategic warheads to 2,000 to 2,500. Significantly, in addition to requiring the destruction of delivery vehicles, START III negotiations were to address “the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads…to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.” Negotiations were supposed to begin after START II entered into force, which never happened.


On May 24, 2002, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), under which the United States and Russia agreed to limit their strategic arsenals to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads each. The warhead limit takes effect as well as expires on Dec. 31, 2012. Although the two sides did not agree on specific counting rules, the Bush administration asserted that the United States would reduce only the number of warheads deployed on strategic delivery vehicles in active service, i.e., “operationally deployed” warheads, and would not count warheads removed from service and placed in storage or warheads on delivery vehicles undergoing overhaul or repair. The agreement’s limits are similar to those envisioned for START III, but SORT does not require the destruction of delivery vehicles, as START I and II did, or the destruction of warheads, as had been envisioned for START III. The treaty was approved by the Senate and Duma and entered into force on June 1, 2003. SORT will terminate when New START enters into force.


On April 8, 2010, the United States and Russia signed New START, a legally binding, verifiable agreement that limits each side’s deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and strategic delivery systems to 800 deployed and nondeployed, such as submarines in overhaul, with a sublimit of 700 deployed. The treaty-accountable warhead limit is 30 percent lower than the 2,200 limit of SORT, and the delivery vehicle limit is 50 percent lower than the 1,600 allowed in START I. The treaty has a verification regime that combines elements of START I with new elements tailored to New START.

Measures under the treaty include on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for treaty monitoring. To increase confidence and transparency, the treaty also provides for the exchange of telemetry (missile flight-test data on up to five tests per year) and does not limit missile defenses or long-range conventional strike capabilities. The treaty limits take effect seven years after entry into force, and the treaty will be in effect for 10 years, or longer if agreed by both parties.

Nonstrategic Nuclear Arms Control Measures

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

Signed Dec. 8, 1987, the INF Treaty required the United States and the Soviet Union to verifiably eliminate all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Distinguished by its unprecedented, intrusive inspection regime, the INF Treaty laid the groundwork for verification of the subsequent START I. The INF Treaty entered into force on June 1, 1988, and the two sides completed their reductions by June 1, 1991, destroying a total of 2,692 missiles. The agreement was multilateralized after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and current active participants in the agreement include the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are parties to the agreement but do not participate in treaty meetings or on-site inspections. The ban on intermediate-range missiles is of unlimited duration.

Presidential Nuclear Initiatives

President George H. W. Bush announced on Sept. 27, 1991, that the United States would remove almost all U.S. tactical nuclear forces from deployment, and the Soviet Union made similar commitments, reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation as the Soviet Union dissolved. Specifically, Bush said the United States would eliminate all its nuclear artillery shells and short-range nuclear ballistic missile warheads and remove all nonstrategic nuclear warheads from surface ships, attack submarines, and land-based naval aircraft. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reciprocated on Oct. 5, pledging to eliminate all nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for tactical missiles, and nuclear landmines. He also pledged to withdraw all Soviet tactical naval nuclear weapons from deployment. However, significant questions remain about Russia’s implementation of its pledges, and there is considerable uncertainty about the current state of Russian tactical nuclear forces.


Strategic Nuclear Arms Control Agreements

Status Expired Never Entered Into Force Expired Never Entered Into Force Never Negotiated In Force To Be Ratified
Deployed Warhead Limit NA NA 6,000 3,000-3,500 2,000-2,500 2,200 1,550
Deployed Delivery Vehicle Limit US: 1,710 ICBMs & SLBMs
USSR: 2,347
2,250 1,600 NA NA NA 700; 800 including non-deployed
Date Signed May 26, 1972 June 18, 1979 July 31, 1991 Jan. 3, 1993 NA May 24, 2002

April 8,2010

Date Ratifed, U.S. Aug. 3, 1972 NA Oct. 1, 1992 Jan. 26, 1996 NA March 6, 2003
Ratification Vote, U.S. 88-2 NA 93-6 87-4 NA 95-0
Date Entered Into Force Oct. 3, 1972 NA Dec. 5, 1994 NA NA June 1, 2003
Implementation Deadline NA NA Dec. 5, 2001 NA NA Dec. 31, 2012
Expiration Date Oct. 3, 1977 NA Dec. 5, 2009 NA NA Dec. 31, 2012 or when New START takes effect