Russia Back Below Treaty’s Warhead Limits

Tom Z. Collina

Russia is back under the nuclear warhead limit of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), according to the third data exchange with the United States under the treaty.

According to the Russian-supplied figures, released April 6 by the U.S. Department of State, Russia had 1,492 deployed strategic warheads, 494 deployed delivery vehicles, and 881 total deployed and nondeployed launchers as of March 1. In the previous data exchange, from September 2011, these numbers were 1,566 strategic warheads, 516 deployed delivery vehicles, and 871 launchers.

For its part, the United States deploys 1,737 warheads, 812 delivery systems, and 1,040 launchers, according to the most recent data.

New START’s agreed limits are 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, 700 delivery vehicles, and 800 launchers. Under the treaty, neither side is required to meet these limits until 2018. The data are to be updated every six months.

The September 2011 Russian numbers raised eyebrows among some Republicans on Capitol Hill, as they indicated that Russia had increased the number of its deployed warheads above treaty limits and above the level reported in the first data exchange. That exchange, in June 2010, pegged Moscow at 1,537 warheads, or just below the limit. (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

Although Russia’s deployed warheads are once again below the treaty limit, it is unclear if this will remain the case. According to experts, the number of deployed warheads can fluctuate depending on which delivery systems (missiles, submarines, and bombers) are undergoing maintenance at the time. Once a delivery system is removed from active service, it and its associated warheads are no longer counted as “deployed” under the treaty.

For example, experts speculate that the recent drop in Russian deployed warheads was due in part to the December 2011 fire onboard the nuclear-armed submarine Yekaterinburg while in port. The Russian military first claimed the submarine was unarmed, but later confirmed that nuclear weapons were still on the vessel. The submarine would typically have 16 strategic missiles and 64 warheads onboard.

Some members of Congress have suggested that the United States should not reduce its nuclear forces any further until the Obama administration provides additional funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) nuclear weapons production infrastructure. (See ACT, April 2012.)

Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), two of the 13 Republicans who voted for the treaty in December 2010, wrote an April 17 letter to Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) asking for oversight hearings. Corker and Isakson, who are members of the committee, said they were concerned that “the administration has not requested the funding required to meet our nuclear modernization needs.”

Similarly, Senate Armed Services Committee member Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who also voted for the treaty, sent an April 17 letter to his colleagues on the panel stating that “if modernization efforts to ensure the safety, security and reliability of a smaller stockpile are not sustained, then further reductions to the stockpile should not be considered” until New START expires in 2021.

The administration’s fiscal year 2013 request for NNSA weapons activities is $7.6 billion, 4 percent lower than projected in 2010, during the New START debate in the Senate. However, the 2013 request is 5 percent higher than the 2012 enacted budget.

Condition 9 of the New START resolution of ratification states that if Congress does not provide funding for the nuclear arsenal at the levels projected in 2010, the president is required to submit a report detailing how the administration would address the resource shortfall and whether “it remains in the national interest of the United States to remain a Party to the New START Treaty.”

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee April 17 that the administration would provide the report “soon.” At the same hearing, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said, “I wouldn’t want to suggest that the [nuclear] force that’s deployed today is not safe, secure, and effective. It is. I believe it can achieve its deterrence responsibilities as we sit here today. In fact, I’m extremely confident in that.”