US President Barack Obama could offer Russia to extend the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) treaty for five years beyond 2021.
He wants to make sure the next US administration does not interrupt the further reduction of nuclear weapons deployment.
Under the terms of the 2010 treaty (in force since February 5, 2011), the United States and Russia each must reduce numbers of long range nuclear missiles by 50 percent and reduce their total number of warheads by 75 percent by February 2018 to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on no more than 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear-capable bombers. In addition, each side is limited to no more than 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM and SLBM launchers and nuclear-capable bombers. Both sides must then keep their arsenals at these levels until 2021. As of September 1, 2015 (the date of the most recent semi-annual data exchange required by the treaty), the United States had 1,538 deployed strategic warheads on 762 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers. The Russian numbers were 1,648 deployed strategic warheads and 526 deployed strategic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers.
Beyond the regular data exchanges, New START requires that each side notify the other of certain types of changes to its strategic forces and other activities concerning them. As of late January, the sides had made over 10,200 treaty-required notifications. New START also permits each side to carry out 18 inspections per year of the strategic forces of the other. Both fully used their inspection quotas in the first four treaty years and, as of late January, each had carried out all 18 of its allowed inspections in the fifth treaty year.
The New START stipulates that the parties may agree to extend the treaty for a period of no more than five years. A five-year extension in the last months of Obama’s tenure would see it in force until 2026, taking the decision on extension out of the control of the president to be elected this November.
The treaty has obvious strong points. First of all, each side has accepted that its overall strategic nuclear potential will be reduced and capped in a verifiable manner. That bounds and stabilizes a key area of their military competition. The New START’s limits and transparency measures have been proven to be valuable. The envisaged transparency and verification measures – including semi-annual data exchanges, notifications, and inspections – give each side far more information about the other’s strategic forces than it would otherwise have. It reduces the risk of miscalculation on both sides.
Nevertheless, from Russia’s perspective there are concerns that should be taken into account before the issue hits the arms control agenda.
One is the US ballistic missile defense (BMD). Russia views it as a threat to its strategic nuclear potential. There is no certainty in Russia about the future prospects for American BMD. New START, in mentioning the interaction of offensive and defense arms, in no way legally limits the United States in its plans to enhance the BMD capability that would make the Russian deterrent less credible because the US would be able to degrade Russian second strike retaliatory capability – a basis for nuclear deterrence.
There is another point of criticism to evoke questions in Russia. The New START counting rules discount a lot of weapons systems that could really add to the US strategic offensive potential. In contrast to START I, which counted each bomber as one delivery system carrying ten or more warheads, New START counts each bomber as one delivery system, and one warhead. So it would easily fit under the ceiling of 1550 and 700 deployed launchers. Understandably, each bomber normally carries many more munitions – up to twenty cruise missiles and gravity bombs.
According to the treaty, only nuclear warheads actually deployed on missiles would be counted, rather than the maximum number of missiles it can carry according to its previous tests. If the US reduces the number of warheads partially by removing some of them, there is no way to know what will happen with the warheads afterwards. No actual warhead elimination has ever been agreed on in the history of arms control. Before the New START agreement was signed main delivery systems had been usually dismantled. No way could removed warheads be returned. It is different now with New START in force. Within the 1550 ceiling the US is permitted to remove some warheads to the level beyond the actual capacity of the delivery means. For instance, in theory the Trident missile can carry 8-14 warheads. It has been tested with 8 warheads for each missile. Suppose the US leaves a missile with two or three warheads and counts it as carrying two or three warheads. Russian inspectors would be able to come and really count them from time to time. But it does not solve the problem of the United States acquiring a substantial upload capability. The US withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002 to undermine its credibility as a partner. True, there was no violation. America had the right to withdraw but it was the first time that a superpower withdrew from an arms control treaty. Every agreement of this type has a special article provision that permits each party to withdraw with certain advance warning in case extraordinary events make provisions of the treaty incompatible with extreme interests of national security. What if the United States decides to withdraw from the New START treaty? One consequence is clear – it would be able to return warheads from storage back to missiles, and build up its strategic potential by several thousand warheads in several months at most. This is true not only for Trident sea based nuclear missiles, but also for Minuteman III land based ICBMs, which can carry three warheads but many of them would be changed to carry one or two warheads. Russia’s concern is understandable.
One more point of criticism surfaces as a result of US plans to maintain and increase the superiority in long-range nuclear conventional weapons with precision guidance systems relying on space intelligence navigation and targeting. These weapons could theoretically deliver a disarming strike on Russian command and control assets.
The non-strategic weapons in Europe are also a problem to be taken into account. Russia considers US forward-based tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe to be an addition to the United States strategic arsenal that is capable of striking deep into Russian national territory. Moscow has, therefore, demanded that the United States withdraw these weapons (which amount to about 200 air-dropped gravity bombs in the process of being upgraded) from Europe as a precondition to any possible talks on the issue. The process is stalled. «It would be a contribution to international security if all nuclear charges were returned to the territories of countries, which possess them. This is exactly what Russia did», Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO Alexander Grushko said commenting on the US authorities’ intention to offer Russia to extend the treaty for another five years.
There are ways to get the situation out of the current impasse. Where there’s a will there’s a way. The United States can address Russian concerns on missile defense in exchange for further negotiated arms reductions. Washington could pursue major nuclear arms reductions on its own. Russia and the United States could agree to reevaluate the requirements for mutual deterrence in the contemporary context taking into consideration Russia’s concerns mentioned above.
There is another aspect of the problem to be taken into consideration – most of the actions taken by the outgoing US president can be reversed by the next administration. There will be changes in Congress to influence the lawmakers’ position on further nuclear arms reductions. Today a number of Republicans in Congress question the wisdom of nuclear reductions, even those mandated by the New START. They may block ratification of a new nuclear arms agreement. Democrats tend to be more interested in arms control, and that interest could grow as Congress comes to realize the full cost of the modernization in case there is no arms control deal with Russia. There may be changes after the November congressional election. The deteriorated state of US-Russian relations does not make the challenge less relevant; on the contrary, it makes it even more vital to overcome the hindrances.
There is always a hope for some new initiatives to push the process in the right direction. Binding agreements on the capabilities of BMD systems, limitations on existing and emerging long-range, precision-guided conventional offensive weapons and reductions in substrategic nuclear arms could help achieve progress to benefit all.