The United States and Russia are finalizing a strategic arms reduction agreement in time for the summit meeting of Presidents Bush and Putin in Russia on May 23-24. The agreement is a welcome change from the Administration's previous insistence on unbridled unilateral flexibility in strategic policy. The emerging agreement will be a short, 2-3 page document that will revolve around three main points:

  • Limits on deployed strategic offensive forces to 1700 - 2200 weapons to be implemented by 2012.
  • A link to the START I Treaty, which will form the legal underpinnings for the agreement. The extensive START I Verification Protocol will be the basis for monitoring its implementation.
  • Establishment of new transparency measures, to provide confidence in the implementation of new arms control measures beyond those in START I.

The Russians would also like the agreement to contain a legally-binding statement that the U.S. national missile defense system will not be designed to threaten the Russia's nuclear deterrent. The U.S. side would prefer a political declaration that would also outline new items for the strategic relationship.

Endgame Issues
Most of the negotiation endgame has revolved around Russian concerns about the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR, which became public in early 2002, placed a premium on maintaining maximum flexibility for the U.S. strategic forces, regardless of previous arms control commitments. In particular, the United States has asserted the right to return warheads and launchers to operational deployment if the strategic situation warrants it. The Russian Ministry of Defense has been highly critical of the U.S. position. It has shaken the confidence of the Russian military-and indeed, many Russian elites-in the value of the agreement with the United States.

The Russian concerns have translated into an insistence at the negotiating table that START I counting rules be used for the new agreement. For example, the Russians argue that the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) should be counted with eight warheads, as it is in START I, rather than with four warheads, the number to which the U.S. side will download it. Maintaining START I counting rules would effectively prevent the United States from taking credit for reductions achieved through downloading.

To address these concerns, the U.S. is proposing an added layer of transparency for downloaded launchers. New transparency measures, including on-site inspections, would help verify that downloading has occurred and could only be reversed with time. The exact structure of these new measures may not be confirmed, however, until the last moment, when the Presidents agree to them.

Innovation in Warhead Transparency
New transparency measures involving warheads will represent a significant innovation in arms reduction. Historically, the United States and Soviet Union never monitored warheads, since it would have required on-site presence by the other at extremely sensitive sites. For this reason, previous strategic arms reduction treaties focused on verifying the elimination of missiles, bombers, and submarines-large objects whose destruction could be observed remotely, even from satellites. Only in 1997, when Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to the framework of START III at the Helsinki summit, did the two countries contemplate including warhead monitoring in that agreement.

Although START III was never negotiated, a number of warhead transparency measures were being developed for it, including some related to on-site inspections of warhead storage. Such measures related to storage are likely to be in the new agreement.

Less likely will be transparency measures related to the elimination of warheads. Such "full chain of custody" measures would mean that inspectors would follow warheads throughout the elimination process. Because inspectors would be present at highly sensitive warhead elimination facilities, the United States and Russia will want to be careful in developing such measures. They are unlikely to show up in this agreement, although the agreement may task technical experts to develop them.

Conclusion
There is no question that the U.S. would be better off if it had not placed such a premium on flexibility in the NPR. By insisting on the right to reverse strategic reductions, it created an atmosphere of poor confidence at the negotiating table. Because of this, President Bush will be unlikely to get the kudos he sought for this strategic arms agreement and, by extension, for his U.S.-Russia policy.

Nevertheless, the agreement, the first to reduce strategic nuclear arms in a decade, is an important one. It will build on START I, but incorporate important innovations, such as warhead transparency. Through new launcher transparency, it will work to assuage Russian military concerns about the reversibility of reductions. Finally, it will be a significant improvement over the unilateralist "handshake" approach that the Administration previously pursued. President Bush's willingness to negotiate the agreement was its first step toward replacing unbridled flexibility with cooperation and predictability.

US and Russian Strategic Force Structures
Warheads Deployed in 2002 and 2012

 

  US Forces RF Forces

 

Systems 2002 2012 2002 2012
ICBMs 1700 500 3364 230
SLBMs 2784 1440 1868 616
Bombers 1660 260 582 240
Total 6144 220 5814 1086

Rose Gottemoeller is a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment and former Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.