By Greg Thielmann
The Department of State released today the latest data exchange for the systems limited by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Under the provisions of the treaty, the two parties are obligated to exchange data in three categories of strategic forces every six months. The fact of the data exchange reflects well on the parties and on the treaty, but the contents tell a different story.
In the two most significant categories, deployed warheads and delivery vehicles, the Russians continue to register below the treaty ceilings, which must be met by February 2018. The United States continues to be well above them. During the first 18 months of the treaty’s implementation, neither side’s strategic force levels have undergone dramatic change.
Both sides appear to be on track to eventually slip below all of the ceilings — in the seven years permitted under the treaty. However, it should be incumbent on both governments to answer the question: Why so long? Both Moscow and Washington need to and want to find defense budget savings (or find savings that will allow them to maintain funding for higher priority defense programs). To do so, the United States should pick up the pace of strategic nuclear force reductions. By accelerating the pace of U.S. strategic nuclear reductions and indicating his willingness to go below New START ceilings, the U.S. president could induce the Kremlin to build down Russia’s nuclear forces even further.
A second logical question is: Why act as if the 2018 ceilings are a minimum that must be achieved? Because of the expected retirement of heavy, multiple-warhead ICBMs, Russian warhead levels are expected to fall well below their current levels during the next few years. Studies both inside and outside the U.S. Government –and common sense–suggest that the requirements for U.S. strategic deterrence can be achieved at much lower levels.
Several studies, notably from General James Cartwright, ACA, and the National Academy of Sciences, among others, argue that the United States can deter any would-be nuclear attack with 500 or fewer deployed strategic warheads on a relatively invulnerable array of delivery systems. It is important to note that the Soviet Union’s deployed strategic nuclear force at the time of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis is estimated to have been under 500 deployed strategic warheads, which was clearly more than enough to encourage President Kennedy to walk back from the brink of war.
In the coming years, Russia will not be able easily to accelerate the gradual replacement of its aging inventory with newer systems. Moreover, for political reasons, Moscow will be reluctant to let Russian strategic force levels fall too far below those of the United States, even if the weapons have exceeded their shelf life. The initiative must therefore come from Washington.
With New START, the framework for deeper cuts is already in place. By all accounts, the verification mechanisms of New START are working well. The U.S. nuclear weapon complex and nuclear warheads are being renewed so as to reliably sustain remaining U.S. arsenal for many years to come, reducing the need to maintain a hedge with large stockpiles of spares. There is no third-party nuclear threat even remotely pressing on the U.S. arsenal.
However, there is growing impatience among many – including non-nuclear-weapons state parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – with the too slow progress toward the fulfillment of the NPT nuclear weapons states’ disarmament obligations. It is therefore time to offer Russia reciprocal reductions below the ceilings established by New START. Whatever the pace of New START follow-on negotiations, there is much that could be accomplished now to bend the trendlines downward – even before the next data exchange occurs next March.