by Kingston Reif
The ink is barely dry on the New START treaty, and Russia has nearly met the 2018 deadline for reductions.
On June 1 the State Department released a fact sheet detailing the aggregate numbers for the strategic nuclear weapons limited by the treaty.
New START limits the U.S. and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles (long-range missiles and bombers), and 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers (long-range missile tubes, missile silos, and bombers). Each side has until 2018 to meet these limits.
According to the fact sheet, as of February 5, 2011, Russia had 1,537 deployed strategic warheads, 521 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, and 865 deployed and non-deployed launchers. The United States had 1,800 deployed strategic warheads, 882 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, and 1,124 deployed and non-deployed launchers. This means that Russia has already met two of the treaty’s three limits eight years early.
The numbers come from the first exchange of data between the U.S. and Russia, which occurred on March 22, 2011, 45 days after entry into force of the treaty. The data is current as of February 5, 2011 (the date of entry into force) and will be updated every six months until the treaty’s expiration.
What do the aggregate numbers count?
The aggregate numbers reflect the deployed warheads and deployed and non-deployed delivery system accountable under the New START treaty. Recall that the treaty counts each bomber as carrying only one nuclear warhead. As Hans Kristensen notes, due to this bomber discount, the aggregate numbers for deployed warheads listed in the State Department fact sheet undercount the real number of deployed U.S. and Russian warheads. According to Hans and Robert Norris’ latest estimates, the U.S. actually deploys approximately 1,968 warheads and Russia deploys approximately 2,430 warheads.
Why is Russia already below two of the treaty’s three limits?
As was noted by Secretary of Defense Gates and other senior U.S. officials throughout the Senate’s consideration of New START, Russia has been below the treaty’s limit of 700 deployed delivery vehicles for some time. This is because Moscow is retiring older systems faster than it is adding new weapons. According to Russian scholar and former State Duma member Alexei Arbatov, Russia could reduce its forces even further over the course of the next decade, perhaps to as low as 350-400 deployed delivery vehicles and 1,000-1,100 New START accountable warheads.
Some may be surprised to see that Russia is already below the treaty limit of 1,550 warheads. According to Kristensen and Norris, as of late 2009, Russia possessed approximately 1,741 New START accountable warheads. As of March 2011, they estimated that Russia possessed 1,659 New START accountable warheads. It’s not clear for how long Moscow has been below the treaty limit on warheads.
During the Senate’s consideration of New START, critics argued that the treaty disproportionately favored Russia because Moscow planned to reduce its nuclear forces with or without a new treaty. Such critics are likely to point to the first data exchange as confirmation of this view.
However, as I’ve argued repeatedly, the fact the some Russian reductions might have happened in any event is beside the point. As STRATCOM Gen. Kevin Chilton pointed out last year:
“One thing I was pleased to see in the treaty were these limits because as you look to the future though Russia may be close to or slightly below them already, when you look to the future we certainly don’t want them to grow and they would have been unrestricted otherwise without these types of limits articulated in the treaty…”
Without these limits, Russia could have decided to retain a larger number of delivery systems and warheads with which to target the U.S.
What systems will the U.S. need to reduce in order to reach the treaty limits?
According to the first New START data exchange, as of February 5 the U.S. had 882 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 1,124 deployed and non-deployed launchers.
Many weapons in the deployed and non-deployed category are “phantom” systems. That is to say, these systems no longer carry nuclear weapons, but they counted under the old START I treaty and count under New START until the U.S. demonstrates to Russia that they can no longer carry nuclear weapons. These systems include 50 Peacekeeper missile silos that no longer hold Peacekeeper missiles, 50 missile silos that no longer hold Minuteman III missiles, as many as 47 B-1 bombers that no longer carry nuclear bombs, and 96 missile tubes on four Trident I submarines that have been converted to conventional only roles. Unlike START I, New START’s less onerous conversion and elimination provisions make it very easy to remove these launchers from accountability.
For example, on March 18, the U.S. provided Russia with an exhibition of the B-1 bomber. All U.S. B-1 bombers have now been either converted or eliminated in accordance with the terms of the treaty. Future data exchanges, beginning with the next exchange in late September, will no longer include the B-1 as an accountable system.
As outlined by the Pentagon, the U.S. plans to meet the treaty limits of 700 deployed delivery vehicles by deploying no more than 240 submarine launched ballistic missiles, 420 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 60 nuclear capable bombers.
This planned force structure would reduce deployed submarine launched ballistic missiles from a current force of 288 to 240, deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles from 450 to 420, and nuclear-capable bombers from 94 to 60. This force of 720 deployed delivery vehicles will eventually need to be reduced to 700, which the U.S. could do by moving 20 delivery vehicles to non-deployed status (as allowed by New START’s limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic nuclear launchers) or eliminating 20 systems.
New START provides the U.S. with an unprecedented amount of flexibility to achieve these reductions. First, the treaty’s distinction between deployed and non-deployed systems will not force the U.S. to count delivery systems as deployed simply because they are in maintenance, as was the case under START I.
Second, a provision allowing the conversion of individual launchers of submarine launched ballistic missiles such that they no longer count under the treaty gives the U.S. the ability to reduce the number of launchers on each of its 14 Ohio-class submarines from 24 to 20. Third, the treaty allows the U.S. to convert heavy bombers to conventional-only roles.
Will more data be released or is this it?
New START allows the U.S. and Russia to release more detailed information about their own implementation of the treaty. The treaty requires agreement between the two sides to release more detailed information on the other’s forces.
The State Department has indicated that it will release more information about U.S. forces than what is in the aggregate numbers fact sheet later this year. However, Moscow has not indicated that it plans to release such data or allow the U.S. to share data on Russia forces, which would be a departure from START I.
What do these numbers mean for the next steps in U.S.-Russia arms reductions?
If Russia has already met two of the treaty’s three limits, there is no strategic or geopolitical reason why the U.S. couldn’t safely accelerate its reductions to half the seven-year timeframe allowed by New START, as some former high ranking U.S. and Russian officials have suggested. This would follow the precedent of the George W. Bush administration reaching the limits in the Moscow Treaty in half the time allowed under that earlier treaty.
In addition, while Russia will continue to reduce its forces in the coming years, before long it will have to make a decision about whether to build its forces back up to the New START level of 1,550 warheads.
One option that is currently the subject of debate in Moscow is whether to develop a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile with up to ten warheads (press reports indicate that the contract for the new missile has already been assigned to a design bureau). Such a missile would be destabilizing and could prevent further force reductions below New START levels.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov argued that as the U.S. and Russia pursue formal negotiations on a new treaty to further reduce their nuclear arms, reductions in U.S. forces to a deployed warhead level of 1,300—provided that Russia does not exceed that level—might help to encourage Moscow not to build up its strategic forces.
The Obama administration should contemplate these actions as it engages Russia on the next steps in the arms control and disarmament process.