By Sarah Tully
On April 1, 2015 the State Department released an updated New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms report, indicating that all is right in the world: the United States has more strategic offensive arms than Russia, once again.
The U.S. is down to 1,597 warheads, 45 fewer than in October 2014. Russia is down 61 deployed nuclear warheads since last year, to 1,582. The U.S. now leads by all of 15 warheads.
As for deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles and deployed heavy bombers, the U.S. currently has 785, 270 more than Russia’s 515.
At last count, in October 2014, Russia had exactly one more deployed strategic nuclear warhead than the United States (1,643 to 1,642). Bill Gertz fear mongered in a Washington Times with an article suggesting that this extra warhead was significant for U.S. national security.
There are a few things to keep in mind before getting oneself caught up in the minutiae of these numbers:
Aggregate numbers are constantly in flux
The strategic offensive arms reports, put out by the State Department as part of the biannual exchange of data required by the treaty, are a snapshot of each country’s totals.
The numbers counted under New START fluctuate. For instance, From April 2013 to October 2014, the number of deployed nuclear warheads counted for Russia under New START actually went up 163 warheads. That does not, however, signify that there was a net increase in Russia’s nuclear warheads. According to Hans Kristensen, “the increase result[ed] from the deployment of new missiles and fluctuations caused by existing launchers moving in and out of overhaul.”
You know when you go to the doctor for a 3:00pm check-up and you’re two pounds heavier than you were yesterday morning? Imagine these warhead stockpile numbers as your post-lunch, jeans-on weigh-in. This time, Russia went for the salad.
Nevertheless, both Russia and the United States have relatively little to do to get down to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by the February 2018 deadline agreed upon in New START.
New START count does not equal total inventory count
The weapons counted under New START are not reflective of either country’s total inventory of nuclear weapons. According to a recent estimate by Federation of American Scientists, Russia has a total inventory of 7,500 nuclear weapons. The U.S. has 7,100. As a point of reference, that’s 93% of the total inventory of nuclear weapons in the world. Nuclear weapons not counted under New Start are either in each country’s reserve nuclear stockpile, are awaiting dismantlement or subject to a strange counting rule.
Warheads are politically significant, not logistically significant
In 1983, Carl Sagan said, “Imagine a room awash with gasoline. And there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches, the other has 7,000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead.” Whether it’s 9,000 or just under 1,600, many experts argue that 500 nuclear weapons would be more than adequate for a nuclear deterrent, or, for that matter, to destroy the world a few times over.
The big picture significance of Russia’s one extra nuclear warhead or the U.S. leading by 15 is the increasingly icy relationship between Russia and the U.S. since the Russian seizure of Crimea and its invasion of Ukraine. While Putin talks big about nuclear weapons, both countries have arsenals far beyond anything necessary to deter a nuclear war or to respond to a nuclear attack.
Five years ago today, in Prague, President Obama and Russia President Medvedev signed the New START treaty, ensuring that the two countries with most of the world’s nuclear weapons make strategic offensive arms reductions. While significantly more can, and should be done, beyond New START, the president will maintain a legacy of having made the world at least a bit more livable.