New START Treaty Has New Counting

An important new treaty reduces the limit for deployed strategic warheads but not the number.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The White House has announced that it has reached agreement with Russia on the New START Treaty. Although some of the documents still have to be finished, a White House fact sheet describes that the treaty limits the number of warheads on deployed ballistic missiles and long-range bombers on both sides to 1,550 and the number of missiles and bombers capable of launching those warheads to no more than 700.

The long-awaited treaty is a vital symbol of progress in U.S.-Russian relations and an important additional step in the process of reducing and eventually perhaps even achieving the elimination nuclear weapons. It represents a significant arms control milestone that both countries should ratify as soon as possible so they can negotiate deeper cuts.

Yet while the treaty reduces the legal limit for deployed strategic warheads, it doesn’t actually reduce the number of warheads.  Indeed, the treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead and actually permits the United States and Russia to deploy almost the same number of strategic warheads that were permitted by the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

The major provisions of the New START Treaty are:

  • 1,550 deployed strategic 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.
  • A limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
  • A limit of 100 non-deployed ICBM launchers (silos), SLBM launchers (tubes), and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

These limits don’t have to be met until 2017, and will remain in effect for three years until the treaty expires in 2020 (assuming ratification occurs this year). Once it is ratified, the 2002 Moscow Treaty (SORT) falls away.

Verification Extended

The most important part of the new treaty is that it extends a verification regime at least a decade into the future. The inspections and other verification procedures in this Treaty will be simpler and less costly to implement than the old START treaty, according to the White House.

This includes on-site inspections. Each side gets a total of 18 per year, ten of which are actual warhead counts of deployed missiles and the remaining eight being “Type 2” inspections of storage and dismantlement facilities.

Exchange of missile test telemetry data has been limited partly because it is not as necessary for verification as previously; there are other means for collecting this information. Even so, the treaty includes exchange of telemetry data for five test flights each year.

The Fine Print: Limits Versus Reductions

The White House fact sheet states that the new limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads is 74% lower than the 6,000 warhead limit of the 1991 START Treaty, and 30% lower than the 2,200 deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

That is correct, but the limit allowed by the treaty is not the actual number of warheads that can be deployed. The reason for this paradox is a new counting rule that attributes one weapon to each bomber rather than the actual number of weapons assigned to them. This “fake” counting rule frees up a large pool of warhead spaces under the treaty limit that enable each country to deploy many more warheads than would otherwise be the case. And because there are no sub-limits for how warheads can be distributed on each of the three legs in the Triad, the “saved warheads” from the “fake” bomber count can be used to deploy more warheads on fast ballistic missiles than otherwise.

Under the New START Treaty That’s One Nuclear Bomb!
The New START Treaty counts each nuclear bomber as one nuclear weapon even though U.S. and Russian bombers are equipped to carry up to 6-20 weapons each. This display at Barksdale Air Base shows a B-52 with six Air Launched Cruise Missiles, four B-61-7 bombs, two B83 bombs, six Advanced Cruise Missiles (now retired), and eight Air Launched Cruise Missiles. Russian bombers can carry up to 16 nuclear weapons.

The Moscow Treaty attributed real weapons numbers to bombers. The United States defined that weapons were counted as “operationally deployed” if they were “loaded on heavy bombers or stored in weapons storage areas of heavy bomber bases.” As a result, large numbers of bombs and cruise missile have been removed from U.S. bomber bases to central storage sites over the past five years, leaving only those bomber weapons that should be counted against the 2,200-warhead Moscow Treaty limit.

Since the new treaty attributes only one warhead to each bomber, it no longer matters if the weapons are on the bomber bases or not; it’s the bomber that counts not the weapons. As a result, a base with 22 nuclear tasked B-52 bombers will only count as 22 weapons even though there may be hundreds of weapons on the base.

According to U.S. officials, the United States wanted the New START Treaty to count real warhead numbers for the bombers but Russia refused to prevent on-site inspections of weapons storage bunkers at bomber bases. As a result, the 36 bombers at the Engels base near Saratov will count as only 36 weapons even though there may be hundreds of weapons at the base.

If the New START Treaty counting rule is used on today’s postures, then the United States currently only deploys some 1,650 strategic warheads, not the actual 2,100 warheads; Russia would be counted as deploying about 1,740 warheads instead of its actual 2,600 warheads. In other words, the counting rule would “hide” approximately 450 and 860 warheads, respectively, or 1,310 warheads. That’s more warheads that Britain, China, France, India, Israel, and Pakistan possess combined!

Dodging The Issue

Update March 30: Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, was asked at a press briefing to explain the rationale behind the “fake” bomber warhead counting rule, but dodged the issue: “Well, I think what we want to do right now is talk about why this is an important treaty….”

Increased transparency of bomber weapons would greatly improve the importance of the new treaty; the U.S. and Russia have more bomber warheads than the total nuclear weapon inventory of all other nuclear weapon states combined.

If they have to use an arbitrary bomber warhead number because it’s too hard to verify, why chose 1? Why not 10 (as START I did) or 12, the medium loading capacity of U.S. and Russian bombers?

The paradox is that with the “fake” bomber counting rule the United States and Russia could, if they chose to do so, deploy more strategic warheads under the New START Treaty by 2017 than would have been allowed by the Moscow Treaty by 2012.

Force Structure Changes

How the new treaty and the “fake” counting rule will affect U.S. and Russian nuclear force structures depends on decisions that will be made in the near future. In the negotiations both Russia and the United States resisted significant changes to their nuclear forces structures.

Russia resisted restrictions on warheads numbers to keep some degree of parity with the United States. It achieved this by the “fake” bomber weapon count and the delivery platform limit that is higher than what Russia deploys today. Under the New START Treaty, Russia can deploy more strategic warheads on its ballistic missiles than it would have been able to under the Moscow Treaty, although it probably won’t do so due to retirement of older systems. It can continue all its current and planned force structure modernizations.

The United States resisted restrictions on its upload capability, which it achieved by the high limit on delivery platforms. The “fake” bomber count enables more weapons to be deployed on ballistic missiles and more weapons to be retained at bomber bases than would have been possible under the Moscow Treaty. The SLBM-heavy (in terms of warheads) U.S. posture “eats up” a large portion of the 1,550 warhead limit, so the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review soon to be completed will probably reduce the warhead loading on each SLBM, and possible cut about 100 missiles from the ICBM force. The incentive to limit bomber weapons further is gone with the new treaty, although it could happen for other reasons. All current and planned modernizations can continue.

Although Russia has thousands of extra weapons in storage, all its deployed missiles are thought to be loaded to near capacity. As a result, under the New START Treaty, Russia will have little upload capacity. The United States, on the other hand, has only a portion of its available warheads deployed and lots of empty spaces on its missiles. The large pool of reserve warheads available for potential upload creates a significant disparity in the two postures so it is likely that the Nuclear Posture Review will reduce the size of the reserve.

Estimated U.S. and Russian Strategic Warheads, 2017
Although the New START Treaty reduces the limit for deployed strategic warheads, a “fake” bomber weapon counting rule enables both countries to continue to deploy as many weapons as under the Moscow Treaty. A high limit for delivery vehicles protects a significant U.S. upload capacity, whereas Russia will have essentially none. Future force structure decisions might affect the exact numbers but this graph illustrates the paradox.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The New START Treaty is an important achievement in restarting relations with Russia after the abysmal decline during the Bush administration. And extending and updating the important verification regime creates a foundation for transparency and confidence building.

The treaty will also, if ratified quickly and followed up by additional reductions, assist in strengthening the international nonproliferation regime and efforts to prevent other countries from developing nuclear weapons.

The United States and Russia must be careful not to “oversell” the treaty as creating significant reductions in nuclear arsenals and strategic delivery systems. Although the treaty reduces the limit, the achievement is undercut by a new counting rule that enables both countries to deploy as many strategic warheads as under the Moscow Treaty.

Indeed, the New START Treaty is not so much a nuclear reductions treaty as it is a verification and confidence building treaty.  It is a ballistic missile focused treaty that essentially removes strategic bombers from arms control.

The good news is that a modest treaty will hopefully be easier to ratify.

Because the treaty protects current force structures rather than reducing them, it will inevitably draw increased attention to the large inventories of non-deployed weapons that both countries retain and can continue to retain under the new treaty. Whereas the United States force structure is large enough to permit uploading of significant numbers of reserve warheads, the Russian force is too small to provide a substantial upload capacity. Even with a significant production of new missiles, it is likely that Russia’s entire Triad will drop to around 400 delivery vehicles by 2017 – fewer than the United States has today in its ICBM leg alone. That growing disparity makes it imperative that the forthcoming U.S. Nuclear Posture Review reduces the number of delivery vehicles and reserve warheads.

To that end it is amazing to hear some people complaining that the U.S. deterrent is dilapidating and that the United States doesn’t gain anything from the New START Treaty. In the words of one senior White House official, the United States came away as a “clean winner.”

Because the treaty does not force significantly deeper reductions in the number of nuclear weapons compared with the Moscow Treaty, it is important that presidents Obama and Medvedev at the signing ceremony in Prague on 8 April commit to seeking rapid ratification and achieving additional and more drastic nuclear reductions.

See also Ivan Oelrich’s blog.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

7 thoughts on “New START Treaty Has New Counting

  1. “It is a ballistic missile focused treaty that essentially removes strategic bombers from arms control”

    This is exactly what Ronald Reagan proposed for START in the early 1980s (although he wanted a missile warhead limit of 5,000, on 1,500). He wanted to limit only the “fast fliers” and let the bombers run free. Do you think it might attract more Republican votes to the treaty if everyone refers to the bomber counting rule as “the Reagan rule”?

    Reply: Whatever works. It is hard to see why there would be people in the Senate opposing a treaty a that is a big winner for the United States. But I can imagine there are members of the Russian Duma who will do so. The important part is to get this treaty through the eye of the needle to we can move onto the next phase. One should not let the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good.” HK

  2. Regardless of Russian motivations, I can almost see a logic in counting bombers instead of bomber weapons. After all, a nuclear bomb in a bunker isn’t of much use without a means to deliver it to a target, unless one wants to destroy the bunker. Do you think this will encourage “off-the-books” warheads for use on bombers, or an increased emphasis on bombers instead of ICBMs and SLBMs? I’m all in favor of relying on bombers that take 6-8 hours to reach their target instead of missiles that take 30 minutes; bombers allow more time for second thoughts and reconsideration once the attack order is given.

    Reply: No, I don’t think this will lead to increased emphasis on bombers instead of ballistic missiles. Actually, the fact that the treaty only counts warheads on ballistic missiles reflects that those are the weapons that both sides view as most important. Bombers are back-up platforms to the fast-flying missiles that carry the day-to-day deterrence mission in today’s counterforce postures. I agree that bombers have characteristics that seem better suited for more relaxed postures on the road to deep cuts. Slow bombers are deterrence weapons while fast missiles are warfighting weapons. HK

  3. I agree by and large with what you say. Just one thing: The Russians have a lot more 500+ kT warheads than the U.S. have modern high-yield warheads. Don’t want to go into CEP and targeting doctrines now, but the SLBMs are clearly under-yielded. In that respect it might be good that this new treaty doesn’t limit R&D’ing new weapons …

    Reply: I doubt the yield differences matter very much; the US military seems very confident in their current capabilities. Also don’t think the 100-kt of the W76/Mk4 is an issue for the type of deterrence that is needed in the future, not least because the new modified W76-1/Mk4A is much more flexible and efficient. HK

  4. Nuclear warheads are essentially ‘obsolete’ since its very unlikely they will ever be used, yet maintenance cost are a drain, which saps badly needed funds for conventional defense system development & deployment. Oh!, by the way a war fought with conventional weapons shall make one as dead!, as a war fought with nuclear forces. Furthermore,a world without! prospect of mutual assured destruction will mean war shall become more common. Remember?, them bad nasty nukes were referred to as deterents! Finally, this treaty does ‘nothing!’ to bring the to bring nuclear-armed states such as Israel, Pakistan, & India, under the ‘NPT’ regime.

  5. [Edited] This is just a sham to INCREASE the number of “Cruise missles”. The trend toward moving to UAVs and the increasing blur between UAVs and “Cruise missles” is to deploy as many more conventional “non-nuke ” capabile delivery UAVs which could also be understood to be non-nuclear cruise missle if it is to fly into the target rather than just deploy another munition. How much does our smallest nuke weigh? 68 pounds? (but that was over 40 yers ago). A lot of UAVs can carry that payload easily. Or we cold just base them in an allied nation till we need them. There are lots of loop holes in most treaties in my opinion.

  6. [Edited] Is the X-37B a missle, bomber or UAV? It’s not slow and no one is taking about weapons as payloads in space or cameras either but it sure is secret now.

    Reply: My understanding is that the X-37B is closer to an UAV, except it is launched from rocket and can reach orbit. For strike platforms through space, look more to tradicitonal ballistic missiles with conventional payloads or hypersonic technologies such as the Falcon. HK

  7. The Minuteman III weapon system his highly effective for striking targets in Russia or China but virtually useless if you want to strike targets any where else do to political over flight restrictions.

    The Trident II Submarine and the Trident II D5 missile is a mobile launch platform that can be positioned in any sea location and is capable of striking any target on earth.

    The B-2 has a proven stealth capability but we only have 20 of them; we would have extreme difficulty keeping more then 6 on nuclear alert at any given time due to inspections, training requirements and non-nuclear commitments. The B-52 used to have an in service rate of about 42%. A more complicated the weapon system like the B-2 has more electronic and avionics components and each one will have a time compliance inspection cycle in addition to the inspection cycle of the airframe it self. Spare maintenance can eat you alive especially when you only have 20 air craft. You will likely need 2.6 at least repairs for every installed electronic or avionics components installed in your fleet. You have to allow for a part installed in the air frame, one active good spare and a part in the repair cycle. You my be able to fix the part in the repair cycle on the flight line, back shop, depot or it my have to go back to an OEM. It is the direct labor over head associated with the inspection cycle that will be the Ascella’s heal of the weapon system.

    Missiles have a distinct advantage: they only have to fly once. And time compliance inspections don’t eat you alive as much as the do on air frames 98 – 99% in service rates on ICBMs and SLBM are common unless part of you fleet is going through a major retro fit.

    From the stand point of a strategic planner if you are not trying to hit Russia or China the delivery system of choice is still the SLBMs and that is where we should put most of our RVs into the remaining 14 Trident II submarines and just keep a token Minuteman III force. Dexterity of use of the asset is the key factor.

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