The New START treaty: going well, as far as it goes

Posted by () on Feb 07 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
David Cliff, London
A little over a year has now gone by since the US-Russian ‘New START’ agreement on strategic offensive nuclear arms came into effect. The pact, a harder-fought battle within the US Senate than many at one time anticipated, was approved there in December 2010 and by the Russian parliament in January 2011. On 5 February 2011, the two countries exchanged the relevant instruments of ratification and the active life of the treaty began.
Treaty limits and verification
New START, a successor to the 1991 START I agreement, requires each party to ensure that no later than seven years after entry into force they hold no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads apiece. The treaty also sets each party a limit of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers. A further limit, of 800, on deployed and non-deployed heavy bombers, ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers also applies.
In terms of verification, New START is broadly similar to START I, but certain ‘counting rules’ differ markedly in that it is the actual number of warheads attached to each deployed ICBM or SLBM that are counted under the new treaty. Under START I, missiles were treated as if they held a pre-agreed number of warheads, regardless of how many they were actually fitted with. They were, in the lexicon of the treaty, ‘attributed’ with a certain number. Depending on their type, bomber aircraft were also given various attribute numbers of warheads under START I, whereas under New START each heavy bomber is counted as holding one warhead, even if several more are carried. (For a fuller discussion of the evolution of US-Russian nuclear arms control agreements, see VERTIC's September 2011 report on ‘Irreversibility in Nuclear Disarmament’, pages 51-61.)
Overall, the verification regime of the treaty includes provisions for on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges (including telemetry data) and notifications, and for the use of ‘national technical means’ (i.e. satellites). Indeed, it is the kind of insight into the Russian strategic arsenal provided by the verification provisions of the treaty (an insight lost in the period between the expiration of START I in December 2009 and the entry into force of New START) that many in the US have argued to be more important than the numerical limits set by the treaty itself.
Boots-on-the-ground access to sites housing warheads and delivery vehicles is an especially important part of that insight. New START includes provisions for two kinds of on-site inspection. Each party can conduct up to ten ‘Type One’ inspections per year of sites housing deployed and non-deployed delivery systems. On each such visit, the treaty requires that inspectors are told and shown where each missile is, and also that they are told how many warheads are deployed on each. The inspection team is then permitted to select one missile and be shown how many warheads it is holding. The risk, therefore, if a host party was attempting to cheat, is that inspectors would select a missile holding more warheads than previously declared. (Each party can also conduct eight inspections per year of sites where only non-deployed delivery systems are located – known as ‘Type Two’ inspections.)
Data exchanges and stockpile numbers
So how does the situation stand at the moment? Under the New START agreement, an initial database was required to be created within 45 days of the treaty’s entry into force. This database was to specify the unique identification code of each deployed and non-deployed ICBM, SLBM and heavy bomber and their locations. The database was further required to list the total number of deployed warheads each party has, by type of missile.
New START requires this database to be fully updated every six months, although most changes require notifications to be made to the other party within days. As the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted on pages 26-27 of its October 2010 report on the treaty (Executive Report 111-06): ‘At any given time, therefore, the United States will have a reasonable understanding of where each Russian ICBM, SLBM, and heavy bomber is based and whether that missile or bomber is deployed or in maintenance. Over time, moreover, the United States will get a sense of each missile and heavy bomber’s deployment and maintenance routine.’ And vice versa, it stands to reason, for the Russian side.
Data released on 1 December 2011 revealed that as of 1 September 2011 the United States held 1,790 deployed strategic warheads and that the Russian arsenal consisted of 1,566. (Earlier data released on 1 June 2011 revealed that in February 2011 Russia held 1,537 deployed warheads, meaning that Russia in fact increased its number of deployed warheads between February and September of last year.) With regard to delivery systems, as of 1 September 2011 the US reportedly held 822 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers while Russia had 516. Against the limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers set by the treaty, the US total stood at 1,043 while Russia's was then at 871.
Implementation update 
On 22 December 2011, Rose Gottemoeller – the chief US negotiator for the New START treaty – wrote an article featured in The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper, in which she noted that the implementation of New START was ‘going very well.’ (Although it must be noted that, while not an implementation issue, the previous month had seen Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threaten to withdraw from the pact due to ongoing concerns over US missile defence plans.) In her article, Ms Gottemoeller announced that of the 18 inspections allowed annually by the treaty, the US had at that point conducted 16 and hosted 17. ‘We are constantly in communication with the Russians,’ Ms Gottemoeller added, noting that over 1,700 notifications – which were helping ‘to track movement and changes in the status of weapon systems’, she wrote – had by then already been exchanged since the treaty came into force. The US experience so far, Ms Gottemoeller said, was demonstrating ‘that the New START treaty is enhancing [US] national security by building predictability and stability between the United States and Russia’.
In an implementation update released by the US State Department on the one-year anniversary of New START’s entry into force, it was revealed that both sides have now conducted their full annual quota of 18 inspections, and that over 1,800 notifications had been exchanged over the past year. The State Department also noted that three exhibitions have been carried out since 5 February 2011: one by the Russians and two by the US. The Russians exhibited their RS-24 mobile ICBM and launcher; the US, for its part, exhibited its B-2A heavy bomber and demonstrated that its B-1B heavy bombers are no longer capable of carrying nuclear armaments. B-1B aircraft will thus no longer count toward the limits of the treaty.
What next?
The key question, though, is what next? Ms Gottemoeller’s piece in December touched only briefly on next steps, with her noting that the US was ‘setting the stage for the future’ with New START, and that further reductions in US and Russian nuclear arsenals would build on the agreement. President Obama is no fan of nuclear weapons, and has come out openly in favour of their (eventual) abolition. Notably, in a planning document issued by the US Department of Defense in January 2012, it was declared that: ‘It is possible that [US] deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in US national security strategy.’ (Page 5, emphasis in original.)
How best to translate that ambition into concrete action is by no means clear though. In a New York Times editorial from December 2010, published shortly after the US Senate voted in favour of ratifying New START, the need for action on shorter-range ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons kept in storage was stressed. Neither were addressed by New START (nor have they been by any other treaty), and both the US and Russia have cumulative totals of tactical and stored weapons numbering in the thousands. But despite it being reported in the wake of New START’s ratification that the Obama administration sought to return to the negotiating table in 2011 to discuss tactical weapons, progress on that front has so far failed to materialise.
As Kingston Reif has noted, there are several major challenges to negotiating a new agreement – both in Russia and the US. Russia has concerns over US missile defence plans and over the balance of conventional forces in Europe, while Republicans in the US who were sceptical of New START are likely to be just as sceptical of another treaty, Mr Reif observes. Then too, he writes, are the ‘new challenges’ involved in ‘verifying and ensuring confidence in the location and destruction’ of non-deployed warheads and tactical weapons.
In any case, there is also the matter of the Russian and US presidential elections, both of which are to take place this year. The seemingly smooth implementation to date of New START is good news, but any substantive further action on Mr Obama’s ambitious nuclear arms control agenda – if indeed he succeeds in winning a second term – will likely have to wait a while longer yet.

Last changed: Feb 08 2012 at 11:55 PM