By Hans M. Kristensen
There has been much conster-nation among some about Russia’s increase in deployed warheads counted under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The number has grown since 2013 and, at last count, stood at 1,796 warheads—246 warheads above the treaty limit and 429 warheads more than the United States at the time. However, the number does not reflect an increase of the Russia arsenal but rather a fluctuation of the warhead level during the transition from Soviet-era weapons to newer types.
I don’t see that the numbers indicate that Russia intends to break away from New START. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin in his first phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly brought up the possibility of extending the treaty suggests that he is not interested in violating it but continuing it. The United States should welcome that.
Nor do I think the disparity in deployed strategic warheads matters strategically at this point. There is another New START number that is much more important in that context: the number of strategic launchers. And there, the United States is counted with a significant advantage of 173 launchers more than Russia. It is the structure of the posture that is important. Russia knows that the United States has an additional 2,000 warheads in storage it could upload onto launchers if it needed to. Russia does not have nearly that upload capacity.
It is on this basis that the U.S. Department of Defense and the director of national intelligence in 2012 informed Congress that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START.”
Even so, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, some former U.S. defense officials began to question whether “the weapons limits imposed by New START [are] still consistent with our own and our allies’ national security requirements” and “whether our security can afford a strategic arsenal capped at limits which were based on an alternate reality.”
The United States should always assess whether its military forces are adequate and appropriate. But as far as I can see, there is no basis for questioning New START, which has equal limits for Russia and the United States and keeps a cap on what Russia could otherwise do.
Despite that, in his first telephone conversation with Putin, Trump reportedly brushed aside New START as a one-sided deal when Putin raised the issue of extending the treaty for five years beyond its 2021 expiration date. If the report is accurate, then that was an extraordinary bad decision.
If we do not safeguard and continue arms control, we’ll be removing the constraints that do exist on Russia’s modernization. In fact, it is precisely because of Russia’s modernization that we need to retain New START.
Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. This is adapted from remarks he made February 28 at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit, an industry conference held in Washington.