The "New START" Agreement: "Reduced by a Third"...Or Not?

New Paradigms Forum

Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation, National Security Council

The White House is putting it about that the "New START" treaty signed this week is a significant reduction in U.S. and Russian weaponry. The media is dutifully asserting that these arsenals will be -- as the PBS tag line has it -- "reduced by a third." But one needs to unpack what that actually means, and what it conceals, before one can reach a conclusion about the significance of the treaty in this respect.

The deal will indeed set a new, lower limit for strategic delivery systems: a total of 700 deployed missiles and/or bombers (at the possessors' discretion) within an overall cap of 800 deployed and non-deployed systems. This will not be a huge cut from present totals -- for the United States presently has 846 missiles and bombers -- but it's hardly nothing. It is certainly not a reduction by "a third," however. (Under START counting rules, at least, Russia had 79 heavy bombers, 472 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], and 198 submarine-launched ballistic missiles [SLBMs] in 2008 -- for a total of 749. The new treaty thus seems to require even fewer cuts from Russia.)

The "reduced by a third" mantra seems to be based not upon delivery system reductions, but upon the new figure for deployed strategic warheads: a limit of 1,550. What does this really mean, however?

First of all "reduced by a third" doesn't mean that the U.S. and Russian warhead stocks will necessarily be any smaller whatsoever. The treaty places no limits on non-deployed warheads at all: one can apparently still have as many of these as one wishes, as long as they aren't on top of missiles or under the wings or in the bomb bays of bombers. (The U.S. total warhead stock has been shrinking dramatically for quite a few years, but this isn't because it had to: we have chosen to reduce our non-deployed stock through elimination, as well as our deployed stock through movement to non-deployed status. President Bush accelerated warhead dismantlement, and President Obama wishes to continue this policy. But such unilateral cuts are not governed by any agreement with Russia.) "New START" also doesn't touch non-strategic (a.k.a. "tactical") nuclear weapons, of which the United States has a few and Russia a great many.

Nor does "reduced by a third" actually necessarily mean that even deployed warhead numbers will fall by a third. The new limit of 1,550 is indeed approximately 30 percent below the top end of the deployed warhead range limit (2,200) set by President Bush's Moscow Treaty. (Let's be generous to the White House and call 30 percent "one third." The Administration's many friends in the media are.) But that 2002 agreement didn't set a fixed number: it allowed a range of deployed warhead numbers, limiting the parties to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed weapons. So while it's correct -- as far as it goes -- to describe "New START" as reducing the maximum permitted number by a bit less than a third, it is equally accurate to say that the new agreement only provides for a deployed warhead stock that is 8.8 percent below the lower limit set in the Moscow Treaty (1,700). If either party happens in fact to be at or near the lower end of the specified Moscow Treaty range, therefore -- and the actual numbers remain classified -- "New START" would compel it to remove only a mere 150 weapons from operational status. "Reduced by less than nine percent" doesn't sound nearly so dramatic as "reduced by a third," does it?

Indeed, when one looks more closely at the text of the new treaty, it isn't clear that "New START" will necessarily reduce operationally deployed warheads at all. The key to understanding this can be found in Articles II and III. Under Article II((1)(b), the 1,550 deployed warhead limit applies to warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and "nuclear warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers." Why this strange phrasing for bombers? Because Article III(2)(b) specifies that "[o]ne nuclear warhead shall be counted for each deployed heavy bomber." This counting rule opens up some very interesting possibilities.

Let's do some numbers. At the moment, the United States has 44 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and an additional 16 nuclear-capable B-2 bombers. Under Article III(2)(b), this means that the bomber fleet counts as 60 deployed warheads no matter how many warheads these aircraft actually carry. Since a B-52 can apparently carry 20 nuclear weapons and a B-2 can carry 16, this means that the current U.S. bomber fleet can carry a total of 880 weapons on B-52s and a further 256 on B-2s -- for a total of 1,136. That's already nearly three-quarters of the deployed warhead total set by the new treaty, and this bomber-based figure doesn't count the weapons aboard America's 450 ICBMs and 336 SLBMs.

Such bomber-deployed warheads won't actually count under the Treaty, of course, thanks to Article III(2)(b), pursuant to which each bomber counts as only one deployed warhead no matter how many it happens to be carrying. This wrinkle, however, should certainly give pause to anyone who thinks that the number of warheads that are actually deployed will necessarily fall. Even if the United States limited every ballistic missile to merely one warhead each -- which the Obama Administration's Nuclear Posture Review says the U.S. plans to do with regard to Minuteman III ICBMs (but, significantly, not for Trident SLBMs, which can reportedly carry ten or more warheads each) -- the U.S. total number of warheads deployed could be 1,922. Weirdly, therefore, if the United States were today near the bottom end of the Moscow Treaty range of 1,700 deployed warheads and felt like putting lots of weapons aboard its current bomber fleet, the total number of U.S. warheads available for rapid use would actually increase. (I'm using U.S. numbers here because they're easily available. It may be that a similar story can be told about Russia.) "Reduced by a third"? Hmmmm.

I say this not as a complaint. I think there was room for more cuts after START and the Moscow Treaty, and see no disaster in these, but am myself not overly fixated upon the idea of reductions at this point. (Instead, I am much more interested in improving transparency and confidence-building measures than in numerical force limits per se. Treaties don't really drive numbers down; they just reflect decisions the parties have been willing to reach in this regard. Parties' willingness to accept lower limits is what makes treaties possible, and transparency helps parties decide whether such steps are consistent with their security interests.) I am thus not terribly upset that the "New START" agreement could conceivably allow for increases in the total number of warheads actually deployed, in comparison to what the parties might have ended up with in 2012 under the Moscow Treaty. I also think the Obama Administration is right not to worry too much about bomber deployments in and of themselves. (Yes, both sides could upload lots of weapons in each "one warhead" bomber. But the sky wouldn't fall.)

I do think, however, that in light of the misleading spin that one has heard over the past few days, NPF readers deserve an account of what the new treaty really provides.

Take all the hype you're hearing with a grain of ... well, SALT.