Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, April 2010
Assessing START Follow-On
By Pavel PodvigThe Bulletin, Al-Jazeerah, ccun.org, April 12, 2010
After missing more than a few deadlines and achieving several so-called significant breakthroughs, the United States and Russia finally have reached an agreement on a new arms control treaty. It will be signed in Prague on April 8, almost a year to the day U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to begin treaty negotiations and Obama announced, also in Prague, his commitment to a nuclear-weapon-free world.
So, was the treaty worth the wait? As a disarmament measure, it will be a very modest step. The treaty will set a ceiling of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads--technically a reduction of more than 30 percent from the current levels--but almost all of the reductions will be accomplished by changing the way the warheads are counted. That means most of the warheads will still be in the U.S. and Russian active arsenals. (I have posted some current numbers and projections on my "Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces" website - See below)
It's a bit early to say if the new arms control treaty will be able to deliver on the counts of transparency and verification, but it appears that it will: The final agreement should provide substantial openness of nuclear arsenals."
Numbers alone, however, don't tell the whole story. In fact, they aren't all that important. Whether it is 1,550 warheads or 500 warheads, it's far too many. What is important is that the treaty provides the public with a way to hold the U.S. and Russian governments accountable for the nuclear weapons they possess. As I wrote a year ago, "A strong mechanism of transparency and verification is much more important than any specific number of warheads that the treaty eventually will mandate." It's a bit early to say if the new treaty will be able to deliver on this count, but it appears that it will: The final agreement should provide substantial openness of nuclear arsenals.
A bigger criticism of the new agreement is that it reduced the entire U.S.-Russian relationship to Cold-War-style arms control and little else. In fact, at various points over the last year, it looked as though the idea of "resetting" the U.S.-Russian relationship had given away to the minutiae of mundane topics such as the exchange of telemetry information. But the reality is that these disagreements are real, and it would have been wrong to expect that without the arms control process, Russia would have stopped worrying about, say, U.S. missile defense interceptors in Europe. Quite the opposite: As we saw during the George W. Bush years, in the absence of a dialogue, even small misunderstandings and unjustified fears can grow to grotesque proportions and poison the U.S.-Russian relationship for years to come.
If anything, the new treaty has offered both Washington and Moscow an opportunity to discuss their disagreements. The solutions might not be perfect, but the very fact that they were originated from a dialogue is an incredible step forward. For example, even though the new arms control treaty won't include limits on missile defense, Russia is now on the record stating its concern about the deployments and the United States is now on the record stating that Russia's concerns are unjustified. Obviously official communication won't solve the larger problem, but it should make the issue of missile defense much less politicized than it has been in the last 10 years or so.
Nor will the treaty by itself bring about complete nuclear disarmament. But it's an extremely important, necessary step toward that goal. So my answer is yes--the effort that went into formulating the new treaty was definitely worth it. With the caveat, of course, that it is only the first step of many.
Pavel Podvig is a physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Podvig works as a research associate at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. His expertise is in the Russian nuclear arsenal, U.S.-Russian relations, and nonproliferation.
In 1995, he headed the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Research Project, editing the project's eponymous book, which provides an overview of the Soviet and Russian strategic forces and the technical capabilities of Russia's strategic weapon systems.
His blog, "Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces," updates this information in real time.
New START treaty in numbers
Now that we have some firm information about key provisions of the New START treaty, we can estimate what kind of reductions we can expect. One should be cautious, of course, about predicting the future, but the broad picture is unlikely to change significantly once we see the text of the treaty (the definition of an "operationally deployed launcher" is probably the most important factor there) and know more about the U.S. plans regarding its strategic triad that will emerge from the Nuclear Posture Review process.
The broad picture is that in terms of numbers the reductions of the New START treaty will be, to put it mildly, extremely modest. In fact, Russia would not have to do anything at all - it is already in compliance with the new treaty (this is not to say that the treaty will not limit Russia - it will). The United States would probably have to do some real reductions, but nothing really dramatic is expected there as well - mostly it will be removing some ICBMs from silos. (It is interesting, in fact, how the treaty will deal with empty silos - both sides have some and they will probably reluctant to blow them up. UPDATE 03/29/10: It appears that the treaty indeed will not require elimination of silos.)
The tables below summarize the current status of the U.S. and Russian forces and the possible composition of the forces by the time the New START treaty is set to end - about 2020. The first column show the data from the last "old" START data exchange - these show how many launchers the parties had at the time. Since the old START counts every nuclear capable launcher, whether they operational or not, this column is very much an absolute ceiling. For example, START requires counting SS-N-20 and Bulava SLBMs, although the former have long gone and the latter is yet to fly reliably. The actual state of affairs is in the second column - it shows the actual operationally deployed launchers and the total number of launchers available - the latter number includes, for example, submarines that are in overhaul but that are expected return to service.
The next column show how a New START force may look like - again, there is a separate count of "operationally deployed" launchers and the total number of launchers. The treaty will set separate limits for those - 700 and 800 respectively. It looks like only the United States would use this gap between the two categories - it would need it for the two Trident II submarines that will be in overhaul. Depending of how the treaty deals with empty ICBM silos, the United States could also use it for some of those. Russia, in fact, will also have some empty ICBM silos, so it is possible that it would make use of that provision as well.
The last column shows the New START count of warheads. Since every bomber will be counted as a single warhead, the total count would seriously underestimate the number of nuclear warheads in active service. For example, Russian 76 bombers are technically capable of carrying more than 800 warheads. The U.S. strategic bomber force has about 500 nuclear warheads assigned to it. So, the actual number of operationally deployed warheads will probably be closer to 2000 on each side, which is not much of a reduction compared to the Moscow Treaty.
Creative accounting notwithstanding, the New START treaty is a significant positive development - if only because it preserves some openness and accountability in nuclear affairs. Then, if everything works right, the treaty could probably provide the legal and institutional framework for deeper nuclear reductions. At least it should.
The United States (UPDATED 02/29/10)
UPDATE 03/29/10: The U.S. table is updated to reflect the fact that only 60 of the 111 nuclear-capable bombers would likely be considered operationally deployed. Then, since ICBM silos won't be eliminated, there would be no need to keep them in the "not operationally deployed" category.
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