The U.S. Senate has ratified the New START nuclear-arms reduction treaty, which was signed by the U.S. and Russian presidents on 8 April 2010. The treaty, which must still be approved by the upper house of the Russian parliament, has been applauded by President Barack Obama’s administration and most Democratic members of the Senate.
However, many U.S. military/naval officials and arms-control experts have asked, “Why?”
The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was approved by the lame-duck Senate in December 2010. In his 22 December press conference, President Obama declared, “This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades, and it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals along with Russia.”
In reality, the nuclear-arms reductions agreement approved less than a decade ago—the Moscow treaty of 2002—made a larger cut in nuclear weapons. At intervals of roughly a decade, major U.S.-Soviet/Russian agreements have been made to reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads:
• 1991 START: a limit of 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads with 1,600 delivery vehicles—intercontinental and submarine-launch ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers
• 2002 Moscow Treaty: a limit of 2,200 deployed nuclear warheads (i.e., a 64 percent reduction)
• 2010 New START: a limit of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads (i.e., a 30-percent reduction) with 700 delivery vehicles.1
The means of counting nuclear weapons has changed over the years. The 2010 agreement, for example, counts multiple nuclear bombs or missiles on a single bomber as a single warhead. But perhaps most significant, the new treaty will reinstate on-site inspections, which ended last year.
While on-site inspections are important, they are less so than in the past because (1) U.S. and Russian inspectors have had access to both nations’ nuclear sites for many years, giving them a grasp of the activities, capabilities, and potential of the nuclear facilities; (2) satellite surveillance has improved considerably over the years; and (3) there are more exchanges between scientists and nuclear experts of the two nations than ever before.
With respect to the actual reduction of nuclear weapons under the new agreement, at this time the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is already being reduced and will shortly reach the New START limits, although the force levels set in the agreement must be realized within seven years of ratification. Further, New START does not call for an overall reduction of nuclear warheads. Rather, it limits how many nuclear warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and bombers.
In terms of verification, the treaty will count the actual numbers of warheads deployed on ballistic missiles, but unlike previous agreements it will attribute only one warhead to each nuclear-capable bomber. As a result, both Russia and the United States will be able to deploy all but a few dozen of the 1,550 warheads allowed by New START on land-based intercontinental missiles (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The U.S. Air Force has 18 B-2A Spirit and 76 B-52H Stratofortress nuclear-capable strategic bombers. These aircraft could carry more than 300 nuclear weapons—B61 and B83 bombs, and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM).2 But New START credits them with only 94 weapons, allowing 1,456 warheads to be fitted in U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs.
The equation is further complicated by only deployable missiles being counted. While the U.S. Navy has 14 strategic missile submarines of the Ohio class, only 12 submarines with 288 Trident D-5 missiles are ascribed to the U.S. nuclear force because two ships are undergoing overhaul at any given time. Those units and their 48 missiles and warheads are not included.
The Trident D-5 missile was designed to carry up to eight multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRV). That number is being reduced to four and possibly fewer MIRVs. Installation is under way of a modernized W76-1/Mark 4A warhead that provides more flexibility in setting the height of the nuclear burst, which, according to the Department of Energy, would “enable W76 to take advantage of [the] higher accuracy of [the] D5 missile,” providing more effectiveness against hard targets.3
Similarly, the U.S. ICBM force is undergoing significant changes. The Minuteman III ICBMs originally carried three MIRVs. The current 450 missiles carry a total of 500 warheads—one to three per missile. These warheads also are being upgraded, with increased yield and safety features.
In addition, the United States has strategic warheads in reserve as well as about 400 B61 tactical nuclear bombs for aircraft delivery. These “nukes” are not affected by the provisions of New START.
All of the U.S. strategic force changes were already in train prior to the New START provisions, which have not yet become effective. The impact on the Russian strategic arsenal is less clear. Compared with just over 830 U.S. delivery vehicles—ICBMs, SLBMs, bombers—Russia is estimated to have some 565 delivery vehicles. Strategic force modernization is under way, although slowed by the Russian economic situation and technical problems, especially with the new Bulava (“mace”) SLBM. This advanced missile, known by the U.S.-NATO designation SS-N-30, is a submarine-launched version of the SS-27 Topol-M ICBM. The naval missile is intended for the new Borey/Project 955–class submarines and was designed to carry up ten MIRV warheads. Recent tests of the Bulava have demonstrated major flaws in the weapon.
There is little indication that the Russians can afford a significant modernization or increase in strategic forces. Beyond the on-site inspection feature, there is thus little to recommend the treaty from an arms control perspective. However, there is much to recommend it from a political perspective. For the Russian leadership it demonstrates that it is still a “partner” with the United States in international political/military affairs.
For President Obama, following the large-scale Republican victories in the November 2010 elections, Senate approval of the treaty demonstrated that he and the Democratic party could still push through a controversial treaty. There was major Republican opposition to the Senate approval of New START. A key opponent was Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who criticized the Democratic leadership for leaving the arms treaty and key legislation—such as the tax cuts and funding of all basic government operations—until the brief lame-duck session after the elections. Enumerating the large volume of such legislation, Kyl declared on 18 December, “Any one of these items would normally take a week or more for thoughtful and thorough debate, but the majority leader is trying to jam all of them through the Senate.” He was particularly concerned that the treaty, available since April 2010, had not been discussed and debated until the last minute.
Other senators and staffers have criticized the handling of the treaty and voiced concerns about possible limitations on U.S. ballistic-missile defense (mentioned in the treaty’s prologue). Some also believe that the efforts to control nuclear weapons and related technology could have been better employed in negotiations and treaties with China and possibly with India.
1. Nuclear-forces data are based primarily on Robert S. Norris and Hans Kristensen, “U.S. nuclear forces, 2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May/June 2010) pp. 57–71; see also N. Polmar and Robert S. Norris, The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), and Hans M. Kristensen, “U.S. Moves Rapidly Toward New START Warhead Limit,” Federation of American Scientists Strategic Security Blog, 2 May 2010, at www.fas.org/blog/ssp/2010/05/downloading.php.
2. These are the number of nuclear-capable bombers; see accompanying table.
3. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Defense Programs, Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan: First Annual Update (Washington, DC: October 1997), pp. 1–14.