New START Treaty and Beyond

Pavel Podvig

The New START Treaty signed by presidents of Russia and the United States in April 2010 in Prague will define the nuclear disarmament process for the next decade and possibly longer. The treaty became the first U.S.-Russian arms control agreement that attempted to create a legal and institutional framework of nuclear reductions that would reflect the new international security environment and that would provide a foundation for deep reductions of nuclear arsenals. Unlike its predecessors – the START II Treaty of 1993, which never entered into force, and the Moscow Treaty of 2002, which was essentially a political declaration – New START contains a mechanism that would provide accountability in the nuclear disarmament process while dispensing with the often overly rigid requirements of the START Treaty that was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991 and that reflected the substantial degree of mistrust that still existed at the end of the cold war. The New START arguably does not go far enough as far as numerical reductions of nuclear arsenals are concerned since the levels specified in the agreement are only slightly below of what the two nuclear powers have in their arsenals today. However, the treaty will play an important role in maintaining the momentum of nuclear reductions and in keeping open the dialogue between Russia and the U. S. Potentially, the framework of the new agreement would allow other nuclear weapon states to join the process, although this step would require additional effort.

Ratification of the new treaty might present a certain challenge, especially in the U.S. Senate, where it would have to secure support of Republican senators. However, opponents of the treaty so far have not identified any serious flaws in the agreement and the administration is determined to support the ratification process by committing substantial resources to the modernization of the strategic forces and nuclear complex – about $180 billion over the next decade. As a result, it is likely that the treaty will get approval in the Senate. In Russia, the parliament may raise some questions as well, but the Duma will probably follow the example of the U.S. Senate.

Today, the nuclear arsenals of the U. S. and Russia include more than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons in the world. The U.S. government announced in May 2010 that it has 5,113 nuclear weapons in its active arsenal. Of these, 1,968 are operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads; the rest are tactical nuclear weapons and warheads in active reserve. Russia has never disclosed the exact size of its nuclear arsenal, but estimates done by the Federation of American Scientists show that it has up to 2,600 deployed strategic warheads, about 2,000 tactical warheads, and some number of reserve warheads as well. In addition to these, each side has a substantial number of intact weapons that are awaiting dismantlement, so the total number of warheads is estimated to be as high as 9,600 in the United States and 12,000 in Russia.

The New START treaty will limit only one component of these arsenals: operationally deployed strategic warheads. The treaty will also limit the number of strategic launchers, which comprise land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. The central provisions of the treaty require the United States and Russia in seven years after the treaty enters into force to reduce their arsenals to

700, for deployed ICBMs,deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers;
1550, for warheads on deployed ICBMs, warheads on deployed SLBMs, and nuclear warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers;
800, for deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, deployed and non-deployed SLBM launchers, and deployed and non-deployed heavy bombers.

The focus on strategic weapons and their delivery systems is a legacy of the traditional arms control process, which has so far dealt mostly with these systems. Tactical nuclear weapons, as well as warheads in reserve or in the dismantlement queue, are harder to deal with and it would take the United States and Russia some additional effort to come to an agreement on those.

Although the limits established by the treaty are relatively high, the U.S. and Russia would have to undertake some steps to bring their forces in line with its requirements. At the same time, both countries made sure that the key components of their strategic arsenals and the modernization programs will not be affected by the treaty.

The U.S. strategic forces today include 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, most of which carry one nuclear warhead. The U.S. Navy operates 14 Ohio-class submarines, each carrying 24 Trident II SLBMs. Two of these submarines are in overhaul at any given time, so there are only 288 deployed SLBMs. With four warheads on each missile on average, they carry a total of about 1,100 warheads. In addition, the United States has 60 bombers that are certified for nuclear missions, 44 B-52Hs and 16 B-2s. These bombers have about 450 nuclear warheads assigned to them: air-launched cruise missiles on B-52Hs and gravity bombs on B-2s

Most of the nuclear warheads in the Russian strategic arsenal are deployed on land-based intercontinental missiles. The Strategic Rocket Forces today have about 360 ICBMs of four different types that can carry almost 1300 warheads, or about half of the Russian strategic arsenal. The Russian strategic fleet includes ten SLBM-carrying submarines of two types. Four of these submarines are of the older Delta III class and six are of the somewhat newer Delta IV class. The submarines that are operational, the Delta IIIs and four of the Delta IVs, carry 128 missiles with 448 nuclear warheads. Finally, Russia has 76 strategic bombers, 63 Tu-95MSs and 13 Tu-160s, that can carry up to 844 nuclear air-launched cruise missiles, although the actual number of warheads assigned to these bombers is most likely somewhat smaller. Overall, Russia is believed to have about 560 operationally deployed launchers that can carry about 2600 strategic warheads. However, most of these warheads are slated to be decommissioned in the next few years, so the treaty does not impose serious limits on the Russian force.

 Estimated nuclear arsenals in 2010 and after the New START reductions (deployed warheads, New START counting rules)

  United States Russia>
2010 New START 2010 New START
ICBMs 550 420 1,250 550
SLBMs 1,100 960 448 640
Strategic bombers 60 60 76 76
Total Warheads 2,000 1,440 1,774 1,266


In order to comply with the New START Treaty requirements, the U, S. is planning to reduce the number of its ICBMs and SLBMs launchers. The current plan is to keep up to 420 Minuteman III missiles, all of which will carry a single warhead, and 240 Trident II SLBMs. This will require reducing the number of launchers on each submarine to 20 from the current 24 (the treaty allows that); two submarines with 40 launchers will be in overhaul, and these launchers will be counted as non-deployed. The number of bombers will remain the same as it is today at 60 nuclear-capable aircraft. This would mean that the U. S. will keep 760 deployed and non-deployed launchers out of the 800 allowed by the treaty. Apparently, some of these launchers will have their missiles removed, so the number of deployed launchers will be below the treaty limit of 700. Operationally deployed ICBMs and SLBMs would probably carry 1380 warheads. As for the bombers, they could still have up to 450 warheads associated with them, but the treaty accounting rules count each bomber as carrying only one warhead. This means that the U. S. would have about 1440 “accounted” warheads, although the actual number of warheads would be higher, up to 1800.

Russia has not yet made its plans public, but the composition of its future force will be determined primarily by the withdrawal of the older systems that are approaching the end of their service lives. Most of the currently deployed ICBMs will be removed from the force in the next six to eight years. As a result, Russia will have a smaller land-based ICBM force consisting of relatively new Topol-M/SS-27 missiles. Until now, these missiles have been deployed in a single-warhead configuration, but Russia has been working on a multiple-warhead version of the missile, known as RS-24. If Russia maintains the current rate of deployment of seven to ten new missiles annually, it will have about 200 ICBMs with 550 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade; about 20 of these missiles will be old SS-18 ICBMs with ten warheads each. Submarines of the older Delta III class will also be soon withdrawn from service, leaving six Delta IV submarines of which probably four will be operationally deployed. Russia is also working on a new SLBM, Bulava, which will be deployed on new Project 955 submarines. The current plan is to have as many as eight submarines with the new missile, but this is likely to change since the Bulava missile development program encountered significant technical difficulties during test flights. The program continues, but it is unlikely that Russia could deploy more than four new submarines. Thus, by the end of the decade, the sea-based component of the Russian triad would probably consist of eight submarines with 128 SLBMs and 640 warheads. The composition of the bomber force is unlikely to change significantly. Russia would probably keep all its 76 bombers, which the treaty will again count them as carrying one warhead each. Overall, this estimate shows that by the end of the decade Russia will probably have about 400 operationally deployed strategic launchers with almost 1300 treaty-accountable warheads. As it is the case with the United States,  the actual number of warheads would be somewhat larger because of the bomber counting rules.

During the treaty negotiations, both Russia and the U. S. made sure that their modernization programs remain intact. At this point only Russia is actively developing and deploying new systems, the RS-24 ICBM and the Bulava SLBM and its submarine. However, the U. S. also has long-term modernization plans. When the U.S. administration submitted the new treaty to the Senate for ratification, it also made a commitment to spend about $180 billion in the next ten years to maintain the nuclear deterrence potential. About $80 billion will be spent on supporting infrastructure of the nuclear weapons production complex and $100 billion on development of a new submarine and other strategic weapon systems.

Even though the new treaty does not immediately constrain the modernization programs, in the long run it will definitely have this effect, primarily by creating the mechanism that would allow Russia and the U. S. to ensure transparency of their arsenals and to contribute to trust and confidence-building between the two states. The treaty does this by building a comprehensive verification framework that includes regular exchange of data, inspections, and access to telemetry. The New START would require each side to regularly submit data on the numbers and locations of deployed and non-deployed launchers and missiles, and it will provide an inspection mechanism to ensure accuracy of the data. The inspection arrangements of the new treaty are somewhat simpler than the ones that existed in the original START treaty, but they are in many ways more comprehensive and accurate. For example, each strategic launcher and missile will have unique identifiers that will be used to keep track of them. Also, inspectors will be able to verify the actual number of warheads deployed on missiles and certify that certain launchers, whether ICBM silos, SLBM launch tubes, or bombers, have been converted to non-nuclear use. The latter provisions are particularly important, for they could potentially be used to verify very deep cuts in the number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons. The mechanism provided by the New START treaty could be used in future agreements virtually without modifications.

Further steps toward nuclear disarmament would probably require addressing a number of issues that were left beyond the scope of the current treaty. First and foremost, as the countries move toward lower levels of deployed strategic warheads, they can no longer ignore tactical weapons and the warheads in reserve. At some point, Russia and the U. S. would be reluctant to move toward deeper reductions without a strong commitment of other nuclear weapon states to limit their nuclear forces. And finally, at some point Russia and the United States (as well as other countries) would have to find a way to reconcile nuclear reductions with the U.S. plans to deploy missile defense.

Missile defense has already proven to be one of the most contentious issues at the negotiations. Russia has strongly objected to the U.S. missile defense plans, arguing that they could potentially upset the strategic balance. It insisted on including in the treaty a statement that confirmed a link between offense and defense and, after the treaty was signed, Russia made a unilateral statement in which it asserted its right to withdraw from the treaty should the U.S. missile defense system undermine the deterrent potential of its strategic force. While this move can be seen as undermining the agreement even before it entered into force, in reality it is more likely to strengthen the U.S.-Russian dialogue and make further discussions easier. Now that Russia has had a chance to state its objections to the U.S. missile defense on record, the issue will become much less politicized. Russia and the U. S. have already been discussing cooperation in missile threat assessment and potential joint work on missile defense. This dialogue will eventually do more to resolve the tensions and misunderstandings around missile defense than probably any other process.

Regarding tactical nuclear weapons, the New START treaty opened a discussion of the issue, for without progress on strategic weapons any dialog on tactical nuclear arms was simply impossible. Now that the issue is being reevaluated, it appears that a consensus is emerging in NATO as well as in Russia about the lack of clear mission for tactical nuclear weapons. They are seen mostly as political instruments that have no useful military role. In NATO, a number of countries called on the U. S. to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe, a step that Russia insists should precede any discussions of its tactical nuclear arsenals. It is possible that a commitment to withdrawal will be made as part of the NATO strategic evaluation process that is currently underway and will be completed in the fall of 2010. A commitment of this kind would most certainly require Russia to make some reciprocal measures. Russia has long been reluctant to discuss its tactical nuclear arsenal, arguing that it is needed to compensate for the lack of parity between Russia and NATO in conventional forces. However, there are signs that Russia has been reevaluating this position, as its new military doctrine, released earlier this year, does not have any role for tactical nuclear weapons. This indicates that Russia may be open to a discussion of tactical arsenals. One initial step that might be discussed is a withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe to permanent centralized secure storage facilities in the U. S. and Russia. This step should be accompanied by transparency and verification measures that could be phased in gradually to make sure that these weapons are safe and secure.

Finally, while other nuclear weapon states have not yet felt the pressure to join the U.S.-Russian bilateral disarmament process, they should seriously consider this possibility at this stage. One way for them to contribute to the nuclear disarmament process would be to accept elements of the New START transparency arrangements. For example, France, the United Kingdom and China could publish data about their strategic arsenals in the format required by the treaty. Later on they could voluntarily join the inspections regime that would allow verification of  these data. This way, the smaller weapon states could make tangible contribution to the disarmament process while still maintaining their position that the U. S. and Russia should implement more dramatic reductions before other states make a legally binding commitment to reduce their arsenals.

Overall, the New START treaty demonstrates that progress toward nuclear disarmament depends crucially on cooperation between nuclear weapon states. The treaty would build a strong legal and institutional base that would ensure transparency and accountability of the process and provide a foundation for deeper reductions of nuclear weapons.

Pavel Podvig
Center for International Security and Cooperation
Stanford University

These contributions haven not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.