Getting A New START On The Road To Nuclear Arms Reductions

Also published here.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev head to a signing ceremony and press conference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, July 6, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev head to a signing ceremony and press conference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, July 6, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

As most of you know, this past week, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev announced something that those of us interested in arms control had been anticipating for almost a year: a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty, or New START. Since it will be signed on April 8, 2010 in Prague, some are proposing we call it the Prague Treaty.

On the day of the Obama-Medvedev announcement, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates summed it up:

The subject of America’s nuclear deterrent and this treaty carries special personal meaning for me. My professional career began as a junior Air Force Officer under the Strategic Air Command, and my first assignment 43 years ago was at Whiteman Air Force Base, then home to 150 Minuteman ICBMs. Since 1971, I have been involved in strategic arms negotiations in different capacities at CIA and here at the NSC. And I particularly recall the day President Reagan signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Treaty, which marked the transition from arms control to disarmament. That process accelerated with START and reaches another important milestone with this treaty.

The journey we have taken from being one misstep away from mutual assured destruction to the substantial arms reductions of this new agreement is testimony to just how much the world has changed and all of the opportunities we still have to make our planet safer and more secure.

The first START treaty, START I, was signed by President George H. W. Bush and President Gorbachev in 1991. The Cold War had just ended; the Soviet Union had broken up, and the circumstances under which the treaty was signed were complicated, to say the least.

Since then, a lot has changed in both of our countries, and in our relationship. From the beginning of the Cold War to the present, it has been a rocky road; you can think of the START treaties as appliance maintenance agreements that have to be renewed, while the ownership of this rather large and complicated appliance keeps changing.

That said, the significance of this agreement cannot not be understated. Though it is routine to renew a treaty, it has been done by two presidents who have verbally emphasized their support for nuclear abolition. Finalizing a New START agreement is an important step in this goal.

The Nitty-Gritty: Numbers, Verification, and Missile Defense


The White House press release gives the limits on warheads as laid out in New START:

  • 1,550 warheads.Warheads on deployed ICBMs and deployed SLBMs count toward this limit and each deployed heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments counts as one warhead toward this limit.

    • This limit is 74% lower than the limit of the 1991 START Treaty and 30% lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.
  • A combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
  • A separate limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
    • This limit is less than half the corresponding strategic nuclear delivery vehicle limit of the START Treaty.

Nuclear arms control analyst Pavel Podvig breaks it down further, and uses the word that I’ve been hearing from many other experts: this is a modest treaty, defining modest reductions. This assessment is based on a number of things, such as the counting rules for warheads (as mentioned by the Federation of American Scientists’ Hans Kristensen here, and in the comments at the Nukes of Hazard here).


I participated in a conference call with senior White House officials on Friday. Part of the discussion involved verification procedures, the specifics of which will become available once the treaty is signed, of course. The officials emphasized that the new treaty builds a strong verification regime (transparency, via inspections, etc.), and that the general importance of having this treaty is:

… if we have this information, that can help us build a more trusting relationship. When you don’t have the information, then your natural tendency — and for some in the US government, it’s their obligation — is to do worst-case scenario planning, to think about the worst, and that leads to a dangerous spiral, and unintended consequences. So that’s the first thing.

I asked a specific question about the role of ballistic missile test data (telemetry) discussions in the overall New START negotiations. They said this was, indeed, a sticking point during the negotiations; the bigger picture is:

[Telemetry is] a valuable tool, and ultimately what we decided to do was include telemetry here, as basically a confidence-building and transparency measure, even though it’s not required specifically to monitor this particular treaty.

So it’s a positive sign that we were ultimately come to an agreement to put it into the treaty, even though there’s no specific requirement to have it in the treaty.

Missile defense

Let me just say this loudly and clearly, so the people over at the Heritage Foundation can hear it:

There will be no constraints on missile defense in the New START treaty.

One of the biggest roadblocks encountered in the treaty negotiations was probably the Russian concerns about our new ballistic missile defense plans. As I learned from senior White House officials, there will be some language in the treaty preamble acknowledging an interrelationship between offensive and defensive missiles, but there will be no constraints on our missile defense system. They very specifically said that “The statements are not unilateral statements.” and that we have not agreed to any unilateral statements, though they have been discussed, and there has been some attempt to plant seeds of concern about such statements.

The White House officials also emphasized the rather significant role the two presidents played in the treaty negotiations. When things got tense regarding missile defense, President Obama called President Medvedev and warned him that we’d have to walk away from the treaty if Medvedev insisted on limitations on missile defense. This effectively broke the logjam, and the treaty negotiations gained momentum from there.

One final missile defense note: please read more about New START and missile defense in Kingston Reif’s March 3, 2010 post at the Nukes of Hazard. Although he wrote it before the treaty was finalized, it’s still applicable, and outlines why the meme that “missile defense will derail New START” is an overblown concern.

The Big Picture: Why Is New START Important?

I asked Daryl Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, exactly that question. What’s the larger significance of New START? His answer:

The big picture is that the United States and Russia have agreed to verifiably slash bloated, Cold War nuclear arsenals, and to maintain a system of monitoring and verification to ensure both sides are confident about what one another is doing. That’s critically important towards moving towards a world without nuclear weapons, maintaining better US-Russian relations, opening the possibility for cooperation between the US and Russia in other important areas, and pressing other countries, whether they have nuclear weapons, they don’t have them, or they’re thinking about having them, to do their part.

Although the limits defined in the treaty are being called “modest”, finalizing the treaty itself is something that was absolutely critical, and had to be done. The overarching theme is that we need the treaty not just as a stabilizing force between the world’s two largest nuclear powers, but as an example to other countries.

The story doesn’t end here, of course. The US Senate and the Russian Duma both have to ratify the treaty, which is a whole other issue. There is bipartisan support in the US (see Senator Kerry’s statement, and Senator Lugar’s statement, as well as John Isaacs’ comments here). But, as we all know, every issue taken up in the Senate these days is a huge battle, and although the treaty explicitly does not limit missile defense, you can be sure that there will be considerable argument over it anyway.

We’ll know more details when the treaty text is available, of course. We’ll also learn more when the Nuclear Posture Review comes out, hopefully in a few weeks.

In the meantime, keep in mind the long road taken to get to this treaty, and how much the world has changed. We still have thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons, which is why arms reduction treaties are so critical. Without having them in place, with their verification procedures, there is no way to trust that what other countries are doing is legitimate.

Treaties build trust. I’m very glad that New START will be signed soon, but we’ve got to get it through the Senate. It’s critical to our national security that we do it as quickly as possible.

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