Post-Start, Re-Start and New Start: Defogging Russian-American Strategic Nuclear Arms Control

By Cimbala, Stephen J. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Post-Start, Re-Start and New Start: Defogging Russian-American Strategic Nuclear Arms Control


Cimbala, Stephen J., Joint Force Quarterly


The accomplishment of a post-Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I nuclear arms reduction agreement by Russia and the United States calls to mind a Chinese character that stands for both opportunity and danger. Post-START success opens the door to further reductions in both states' nuclear arsenals, and it also creates a possible driver for U.S. and Russian leadership on nuclear non-proliferation. Danger lies in the expectation that post-START political or military success follows automatically from good intentions or less frosty diplomatic demarches.

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Nuclear arms control, like strategy in general, is driven by politics--especially the high politics of state demands for power, prestige, and security. Therefore, the following discussion proceeds in two steps. We first consider the larger frame of political context for post-START restart. In a second step, we apply statistical analysis to establish boundaries on the possible, as opposed to the improbable or impossible. Arms control, like all policy issues, suffers from its vulnerability to claims of extremity, apart from any empirical referents or supportive context.

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The Big Push

Opportunities. The Obama administration has committed the United States to an ambitious agenda with respect to the reduction of global nuclear danger. (1) This agenda includes:

* the accomplishment of a post-START agreement with Russia on the reduction of long-range or "strategic" nuclear weapons (2)

* resubmission of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed by the Clinton administration but rejected by the U.S. Senate for ratification in 1999

* review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), scheduled for May 2010, in New York

* in line with post-START and NPT objectives, encouragement of other nuclear weapons states to reduce their numbers of deployed nuclear warheads and nuclear-capable launchers

* international efforts on the part of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and various negotiating "contact groups" to disarm North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and to prevent Iran from joining the ranks of military nuclear powers.

This activist schedule of arms control and disarmament objectives is by no means the endgame for an ambitious U.S. President. Nuclear arms reductions and nonproliferation are way stations on the road to the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. (3)

With respect to post-START reductions, U.S. and Russian negotiators were tasked by their respective governments to plan for reductions in each state's numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to ranges from 1,675 to 1,500 warheads and 1,100 to 500 strategic delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] and long-range bombers). These reduction targets were to be reached within 7 years of the post-START treaty's entry into force--presumably, 2016 or so. The final text of the treaty would not necessarily include these exact ranges, which would be the subject of continuing negotiation. According to expert Obama administration testimony, the post-START agreement would "combine the predictability of START and the flexibility of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty" (SORT, or the Moscow Treaty of 2002) by "borrowing from the best elements of START on definitions, data exchanges, notifications, eliminations, inspections and verification procedures" as well as "confidence building and transparency measures." (4)

The initial nuclear reductions agreement would not necessarily be the last word. Follow-on agreements might take the numbers of warheads and launchers deployed by both states even lower. Success in the initial or follow-on stages would require navigation of details that included the status of nuclear weapons that were removed from active service and stored, but not destroyed. Russians worried about this as a possible problem of "upload" potential that the United States might use to its advantage. …

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