New START and the myths of Strategic Arms Control

Presidents Obama and Medvedev shake hands after signing the New START Treaty, April 8, 2010, Prague, Czech Republic. Source: Wikipedia

New START entered into force on February 5, 2011. It is due to sunset in 2021, unless the United States and Russia extend it, supersede it, or one party withdraws from it. All limits specified by the treaty require compliance within seven years, by February 5, 2018. The basic parameters of New START incorporate limits on three basic categories of strategic weapons: ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers. New START does not limit the strategic weapon systems launched by bombers, rather the number of aircraft. 

New START also makes differentiation between deployed systems and non-deployed systems. Deployed systems are ICBMs or SLBMs in their silos, tubes, or on mobile launchers. Warheads counted against the aggregate limit under New START include only those mounted on ICBMs or SLBMs, since bombers count as one warhead under the treaty, even though they may carry multiple warheads.

There are additional definitions and limitations on non-deployed systems and deployed systems, as well as what constitutes a nuclear capable strategic bomber. The treaty imposes an aggregate limit on the number of deployed systems and non-deployed platforms, though not dismounted warheads. New START caps the number of “warheads” at 1,550. Yet that number is deceptive. It only counts warheads deployed on ICBMs and SLBMs. Further, it does not count those delivered by bomber. Bombers count as a single warhead toward the cap. Therefore, the actual number of nuclear warheads under New START will still exceed 1,550.

The chart below outlines the status of American and Russian nuclear arsenals as covered by New START, showing the numbers as of ratification and the most recent numbers reported in March 2015, as well as the percentage reduction in the intervening two years. Blocks in green indicate numbers below the New START limits, while blocks in red indicate those in excess of New START. (Data Source: US State Department)

As the above chart shows, the Russian Federation was near most New START targets at the time of implementation, and will soon near compliance as the Russians dismantle non-deployed systems, though their recent direction has seen an increase in numbers from 2013 and 2014, a trend Hans Kristensen analyzes at FAS.org

Yet such charts, common in arms reduction literature, disguise significant underlying differentiations between the U.S. and Russian arsenals. They also disguise the fact that New START represented a change in how the U.S. and Russia counted weapons for treaty verification, and did not represent a truly significant reduction in nuclear arsenals. New START codified, in treaty form, the direction that both the U.S. and Russian arsenals were headed anyway. The United States gave up more, and got little. The treaty helped the Russians, facing shortfalls produced by technical problems with their Bulava missile system, to portray unintended declines as deliberate reductions. 

Several principles guided New START negotiations. First, the new methods of counting and verification reflect the trust and faith both sides have developed in those systems since the Cold War. Verification through National Technical Means (NTM), a fancy way of talking about satellite technology, is a well understood and easily executed procedure for both sides. There was also a shared desire for an easier inspection process. Yet, these methods and provisions have no further application.

The issue of non-strategic weapons is largely a technical one. There are no good NTM to verify non-strategic weapons. The inspections necessary to do so would be extraordinarily rigorous and intrusive, more so than either side would be willing to permit. In fact, neither side has publicly declared the size of their non-strategic stockpile. Non-strategic reductions have been unilateral by both sides since 1991. These issues are more significant for the future than some arms reduction literature implies, and reflect a lack of understanding about the technical makeup of both arsenals, the subject of my next two blog posts.