Bill Matthews had a good article in Friday’s Air Force Times on the future of U.S. strategic bombers under New START (or the Prague Treaty as I’ve been encouraged to call it).
As just about everyone who has followed the news on arms control over the past week is aware, New START counts each bomber as one warhead against the treaty’s limit of 1550 warheads. The reason, writes Matthews is that…
the treaty permits “direct monitoring of warheads. In the past we have looked at delivery vehicles, now we will be able to look inside the missiles” and count the warheads, [Tom] Collina said.
That probably helps explain the scheme that counts bombers as just one weapon, he said. Typically bomber-delivered nuclear weapons are kept in storage, not on the bombers. “You can’t look in the bomber and see the weapons, so they had to choose an arbitrary number. They chose one,” he said.
I think this gets it about right, although we do know that the U.S. wanted to count and verify the actual number of warheads on U.S. and Russian bomber bases. However, Russia refused, whether it was because (1) they didn’t want on-site inspections at their bomber bases, (2) they didn’t count warheads at bomber bases to be operationally deployed under the Moscow Treaty (unlike the U.S.) and wanted to continue to do so under New START, (3) some other reason or (4) some combination thereof. So a compromise had to be found. And that compromise was “one”.
The extent to which the treaty “overcounts” or “undercounts” deployed warheads hinges on one’s definition of “operationally deployed,” while the exact number of warheads by which the treaty overcounts or undercounts in turn will be a function of how many bombers each side decides to retain as part of its New START force posture.
The reality is that neither the U.S. nor Russia actually deploy warheads on bombers anymore, and New START largely reflects that reality. Thus, on one level, counting each bomber as one warhead against the treaty’s warhead limit overstates the total number of U.S. and Russian operationally deployed warheads.
To the extent that one believes warheads deployed at active bomber bases should count as deployed, New START undercounts warheads. But even if one takes this view it’s not as if New START is going to leave the U.S. completely in the dark about the Russian bomber force. NTM will still allow us to track the number of Russian bombers. While NTM will not allow us to monitor the number of warheads at Russian bomber bases, 15 years of START I implementation has provided us with quite a bit of information about what Russian bombers can carry.
In any event, As Steve Pifer notes, New START’s counting rule for bombers is not a fundamental departure from how START I counted bomber weapons:
That treaty attributed heavy bombers equipped to carry air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) with fewer ALCMs than they could actually carry, and it attributed bombers not equipped to carry ALCMs as carrying only one warhead…This push for preferential treatment for bombers in the belief that they are the least destabilizing leg of the strategic Triad has been a central feature of U.S. arms control policy for some 40 years.[emphasis mine.]
Bombers are inherently less destabilizing than missiles because they take much longer to deliver warheads to their target and can be recalled.
For all these reasons, neither side is likely to get a strategic leg up on the other via the bomber counting rule, as some have already alleged. In fact, the type of mutual suspicion and worst-case scenario planning that could prompt the maintenance of current force levels or even a buildup is precisely why the predictability, stability, and transparency that New START will provide is so important.
Some conservatives might conclude that political hay can be made by arguing that the bomber counting rule will allow Russia to deploy excess warheads. Yet not only will they have to gainsay the reasons cited above, but they will also have to contend with the fact that during the SORT debate they had no qualms with the Bush administration’s view that it didn’t matter how Russia structured its nuclear forces. As Colin Powell put it at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on the Moscow Treaty on July 9, 2002:
What President Bush said…to President Putin:….We are going there [to 1,700-2,200 warheads] unilaterally….So you can do whatever you think you have to do for your security. You can MIRV your missiles, you can keep more, you can go lower. Do what you think you need. This is what we know we need and we are going to this level.
Any way you slice it, the U.S. is much better off with a treaty that counts bombers as carrying one warhead than it would be without any treaty at all.
UPDATE 7/10: If anyone has a strategic advantage as a result of the bomber counting rule, it’s the U.S., which has more nuclear-capable bombers than Russia.