U.S. and Russian negotiators are working hard to conclude a new strategic nuclear arms reduction deal by the end of this month to replace the landmark 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires on December 5. Unfortunately, there are a few naysayers who are already trying to undermine support for the new START agreement before it arrives.
Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, erroneously suggested in a November 21 statement “that there had been virtually no talk…of what happens after December 5 and prior to the possible entry into force of the follow-on agreement.” Actually, the two sides have been discussing the bridging mechanism for months, but have not publicized the details because it was the subject of ongoing negotiations.
Since START was signed 18 years ago, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have squandered opportunities to conclude meaningful, legally-binding, and verifiable nuclear cuts, in part due to disagreements over missile defense. In place of START II and START III, U.S. and Russian leaders concluded the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which calls for no more than 2,200 strategic deployed warheads each by the year 2012.
But unlike START, the 3-page SORT did not establish any limits on strategic nuclear delivery systems, nor does it mandate their destruction. Non-deployed warheads may be held in reserve for potential redeployment. Making matters worse, SORT established no new verification mechanism, instead relying on START’s.
In 2003, Senator Kyl praised SORT for its brevity and called START and its monitoring provisions a “700-page behemoth” that “would not serve America's real security needs.”
Now, he suggests that instead of negotiating a new START on a short timetable, START should have been extended for another five years. That approach is a non-starter: at this point, Moscow will not agree to an extension. What’s more, without the lower limits on deployed warheads under a new START deal, Russia could and would likely maintain a larger deployed strategic nuclear arsenal in excess of 2,000 warheads well beyond 2012.
In an apparent effort to hype Russia’s planned modernization of its aging missile fleet, Kyl has also expressed alarm about the failure of the Obama administration to convince the Russians to maintain START monitoring at Votkinsk, where Russia will produce its new RS-24 road-mobile missile.
However, Kyl fails to mention that the U.S. has known about Russia’s plans to produce the RS-24 to replace its aging Cold War ICBMs for years, and it was the Bush administration that agreed in 2008 to suspend monitoring at Votkinsk at the end of 2009 because it viewed these measures as unnecessary. The loss of monitoring at Votkinsk would be unfortunate but can be dealt with through other means of verification and on-site monitoring.
Other critics of the new START agreement similarly rely on misleading charges. A September 30 Senate Republican Policy Committee white paper argues that it is imprudent to agree to lower levels of U.S. strategic nuclear warheads unless Russia’s relatively larger stockpile of non-strategic warheads is also reduced. Indeed, Russia’s substrategic stockpile is sizable—perhaps as many as 3,000 bombs—and should be verifiably reduced to decrease the risk of terrorist acquisition. However, only a few hundred warheads in Russia’s tactical nuclear stockpile are believed to be in operational condition. Even at lower strategic force levels, that does not give Russia any meaningful military advantage and should not be allowed to impede the modest but important strategic nuclear reductions under a new START.
Moreover, the Senate Republican Policy Committee suggests that ratification of the new START pact should be conditioned on a commitment to modernize U.S. strategic nuclear forces. But such a condition is unnecessary and would be unprecedented. Existing U.S. strategic missile and bomber systems are modern, reliable, and accurate. According to a new independent report from the JASON scientific advisory group, “lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.” Simply put, there is no “modernization gap.”
New, lower, verifiable limits on still bloated U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals are long overdue and important for long-term U.S. security. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia each still deploy more than 2,200 strategic warheads on several hundred long-range bombers and missiles, most of which only exist to deter a massive nuclear attack by the other.
To their credit, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev understand that the nuclear status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. On April 1, they directed their negotiators to conclude a follow-on to START by year’s end. After the United States conducted a preliminary review of its nuclear force requirements, Obama and Medvedev announced on July 1 that the new pact would reduce deployed strategic warheads to somewhere between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads each—a 30 percent cut from current levels.
The two leaders also agreed to reduce strategic delivery vehicles (i.e., long-range heavy bombers, plus submarine- and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles) to a level between 500 and 1,100. Given that Washington currently fields approximately 800 strategic delivery vehicles, while Moscow deploys an estimated 620, the new ceiling will likely be below 800.
The new START agreement will carry forward the most essential of START’s verification and monitoring provisions, which are still needed for predictability and to provide each side with high confidence that the other is complying with the terms of the treaty. It will open the way for more comprehensive U.S.-Russian arms reduction talks beginning early next year, which the Obama administration says should address all types of nuclear warheads, whether deployed or non-deployed, strategic or non-strategic.
Given the short timetable for the new START talks, taking on the challenge of tactical nuclear arms reductions in this round of talks was simply not practical. The best way to begin accounting for and reducing obsolete U.S. and Russian battlefield nukes is to finalize the new START agreement and, as the Obama administration has suggested, begin a new and more comprehensive round of talks early next year to arrive at limits on all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.
Finally, ratification of the START follow-on and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 2010 would help Washington win broader international support for measures to strengthen the beleaguered Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the May 2010 Review Conference.
Delaying action on the follow-on to START and rekindling U.S.-Russian nuclear competition is unwise and dangerous. The U.S. Senate should carefully examine the new START but avoid getting sidetracked over extraneous issues. The new START deal promises to enhance U.S. and global security by further locking in deeper, verifiable reductions in excess Cold War strategic nuclear weapons.
Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association.