New START Data Shows Russian Warhead Increase Before Expected Decrease

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By Hans M. Kristensen

The latest set of so-called New START treaty aggregate data published by the U.S. State Department shows that Russia is continuing to increase the number of nuclear warheads it deploys on its declining inventory of strategic launchers.

Russia now has 259 warheads more deployed than when the treaty entered into force in 2011.

Rather than a nuclear build-up, however, the increase is a temporary fluctuation cause by introduction of new types of launchers that will be followed by retirement of older launchers before 2018. Russia’s compliance with the treaty is not in doubt.

In all other categories, the data shows that Russia and the United States continue to reduce the overall size of their strategic nuclear forces. 

Strategic Warheads

The aggregate data shows that Russia has continued to increase its deployed strategic warheads since 2013 when it reached its lowest level of 1,400 warheads. Russian strategic launchers now carry 396 warheads more.

Overall, Russia has increase its deployed strategic warheads by 259 warheads since New START entered into force in 2011. Although it looks bad, it has no negative implications for strategic stability.

The Russian warhead increase is probably a temporary anomaly caused primarily by the fielding of additional new Borei-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The third boat of the class deployed to its new base on the Kamchatka Peninsula last month, joining another Borei SSBN that transferred to the Pacific in 2015.

The United States, in contrast, has continued to decrease its deployed strategic warheads. It dipped below the treaty limit in September 2015 but has continued to decrease its deployed warheads to 1,367 deployed strategic warheads

Overall, the United States has decreased its deployed strategic warheads by 433 since New START entered into force in February 2011.

As a result, the disparity in Russian and U.S. deployed strategic warheads is now greater than at any previous time since New START entered into force in 2011: 429 warheads.

It’s important to remind that the counted deployed strategic warheads only represent a portion of the two countries total warhead inventories; we estimate Russia and the United States each have roughly 4,500 warheads in their military stockpiles. The New START treaty only limits how many strategic weapons can be deployed but has no direct effect on the size of the total nuclear stockpiles.

borei3pacific092716
The Russian increase in deployed strategic warheads is temporary due to fielding of several new Borei-class ballistic missile submarines. This picture shows the Vladimir Monomakh arriving at the submarine base near Petropavlovsk on September 27, 2016.

Strategic Launchers

The aggregate data shows that both Russia and the United States continue to reduce their strategic launchers.

Russia has been below the treaty limit of 700 deployed strategic launchers since New START entered into force in 2011. Even so, it continues to reduce its strategic launchers. Thirteen deployed launchers have been removed since March 2016 and Russia overall now has 13 launchers fewer than in 2011.

Russia will have to dismantle another 47 launchers to meet the limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers by February 2018. Those launchers will likely come from retirement of the remaining Delta III SSBNs, retirement of additional Soviet-era ICBMs, and destruction of empty excess ICBM silos.

The United States is not also for the first time below the limit for deployed strategic launchers. The latest data lists 681 launchers deployed, a reduction of 60 compared with March 2016. The reduction reflects the ongoing work to denuclearize excess B-52H bombers, deactivate four excess launch tubes on each SSBN, and remove ICBMs from 50 excess silos.

The United States still has a considerable advantage in deployed strategic launchers: 681 versus Russia’s 508. But the disparity of 173 launchers is smaller than it was six months ago. The United States will need to dismantle another 48 launchers to meet the treaty’s limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers by February 2018.

Strategic Context

The ongoing implementation of the New START treaty is one of the only remaining bright spots on the otherwise tense and deteriorating relationship between Russia and the United States. Despite the current increase of Russian deployed strategic warheads, which is temporary and will be followed by retirement of older systems in the next few years that will reduce the count, Russian compliance with the treaty by 2018 is not in doubt. And both countries continue to reduce their deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers.

In fact, the temporary warhead increase seems to be of little concern to U.S. military planners. DOD concluded in 2012 that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty…”

Equally important are the ongoing onsite inspections and notifications between the United States and Russia. The two countries have each carried out 103 inspections and exchanged 11,817 notifications since the treaty entered into force in 2011. These activities are increasingly important confidence-building measures.

Yet the modest reductions under the treaty must also be seen in the context of the extensive nuclear weapons modernization programs underway in both countries. Although these programs do not constitute a buildup of the overall nuclear arsenal, they are very comprehensive and reaffirm the determination by both Russia and the United States to retain large offensive nuclear arsenals at high levels of operational readiness.

Although those forces are significantly smaller than the arsenals that existed during the Cold War, they are nonetheless significantly larger than the arsenals of any other nuclear-armed state.

Moreover, New START contains no sub-limits, which enables both sides to take advantage of loopholes. Whereas the now-abandoned START II treaty banned multiple warheads (MIRV) on ICBMs, the New START treaty has no such limits, which enables Russia to incorporate MIRV on its new ICBMs and the United States to store hundreds of non-deployed warheads for re-MIRVing of its ICBMs. Russia is developing a new “heavy” ICBM with MIRV and the next U.S. ICBM (GBSD) will be capable of carrying MIRV as well.

Similarly, the “fake” bomber count of attributing only one deployed strategic weapon per bomber despite its capacity to carry many more has caused both sides to retain large inventories of non-deployed weapons to retain a quick upload capability with many hundreds of long-range nuclear cruise missiles. And both sides are developing new nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

How the two countries justify such large arsenals is somewhat of a mystery but seem to be mainly determined by the size of the other side’s arsenal. According to the U.S. State Department, the New START “limits are based on the rigorous analysis conducted by Department of Defense planners in support of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.”

Yet a recent GAO analysis of the 2010 NPR force structure found that “DOD officials were unable to provide us documentation of the NPR’s analysis of strategic force structure options that were considered.” Instead, STRATCOM, the Air Force and the Navy conducted their own analysis of options, which were discussed at senior-level meetings but not documented.

Both sides can easily reduce their nuclear forces further and increase security, reduce insecurity, and save money while doing so. Possible steps include: a five-year extension of the New START Treaty, lowering the limits of the existing treaty by one-third while maintaining the inspection regime, and taking unilateral steps to reduce the nuclear weapons modernization programs.

Additional information:

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

4 thoughts on “New START Data Shows Russian Warhead Increase Before Expected Decrease

  1. It’s always interesting to take a speculative future look at where all this is going. My opinion is that nuclear arms “deals” between Russia and the United States will end with New START in February, 2018; although, I do think the 1550/700/800 limits will be loosely held by both sides. It just makes practical sense. The Kremlin only negotiates when they are behind and after February, 2018 they will no longer be “behind”. It is naive to assume that Russia feels a world with less nuclear weapons is in their best national interest. Less, as in a lower threshold than New START. As long as Russia equates nuclear weapons with world power status, there is no incentive for change.

    Frank Shuler
    USA

  2. There’s always a fair amount of mistrust when people discuss the DoD conducted Nuclear Posture Review. I can understand that given that the nuclear posture is based on scenarios and target sets that are classified. In that case, why isn’t anybody calling on the next President to create an independent panel with security clearances and non-disclosure agreements that is chartered with reviewing those OPLANs for target sufficiency/redundancy? Would the arms control community automatically discount the legitimacy of such a panel? It seems like maybe there’s a case to be made that would help everyone advocate for a more logical force structure.

  3. It’s always interesting to look at whats going on. My opinion is that nuclear arms deals between Russia and the United States will start new when the Zircon missile enters service, although, I do think the 1550/700/800 limits will not be held by both sides. It just makes PR sense to make people feel safe at night, like the difference of 4500 missile versus 4550 missile. The Whitehouse only negotiates when they are behind or if they can no longer inflict their political will upon other countries. It is naive to assume that America feels a world with less nuclear weapons is in their best national interest if not their corporate interests. Less, as in a lower threshold than New START. As long as America equates nuclear weapons with world power status, there is no incentive for change when behind every blade of grass is an American bearing the right to carry firearms and dictating to the world their own imperialist views.

    Bobby Clapper
    Libya

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