The Jury Is Still Out

By Boese, Wade; Scoblic, J. Peter | Arms Control Today, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Jury Is Still Out


Boese, Wade, Scoblic, J. Peter, Arms Control Today


If ratified and implemented, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty signed May 24 by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin will reduce the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads by nearly two-thirds over a 10year period.

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the treaty aims to demonstrate the decreasing hostility and budding friendship of the two former rivals, continuing the trend of reducing U.S. and Russian deployed strategic arsenals through codified agreements-a process that began with the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). Indeed, the new treaty's warhead limits go below those of START II and are equivalent to those in the framework established for START III negotiations. In this sense, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty represents progress.

At the same time, the treaty, which totals less than 500 words, repudiates key arms control principles and achievements, eschewing predictability and compounding the proliferation dangers from Russia's unsecured nuclear weapons complex. Furthermore, when the reductions are completed, each side will still deploy and store thousands of strategic nuclear warheads whose only purpose is presumably to target the other. Despite Bush administration statements that the United States no longer needs to match Russia warhead for warhead and that mutual assured destruction is being left behind, the number of weapons left in play by this treaty suggests otherwise. Bush's triumphant claim that the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty "liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility" is decidedly premature.

Warhead Deployments

The treaty calls for the United States and Russia to deploy no more than 2,200 strategic warheads each by the end of 2012. Unfortunately, the treaty does not specify which warheads count toward the 2,200 limit, and the United States and Russia remain at odds over the issue.

The treaty does state that the warhead limit is based on previous Bush and Putin statements, including comments made at a November 13, 2001, joint press conference. That day, Bush said the United States would reduce its "operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level between 1,700 and 2,200." Putin later replied that Russia would "try to respond in kind."

The Bush administration has said that "operationally deployed" refers to those warheads assigned to ICBMs, bombers, and submarines that are in active service but not to warheads associated with delivery vehicles that are being overhauled or undergoing repairs. Under the Bush administration's counting rules, the United States can deploy delivery vehicles that can carry several warheads, but only those warheads actually mated to the delivery vehicle at any given time will count toward the treaty's limit. For example, a 10warhead ICBM with only one warhead actually on it would count as only one warhead even if nine warheads stored nearby could be loaded onto the missile relatively quickly.

Russia agrees that the limit refers to deployed (as opposed to stored or reserve) warheads, but it had sought rules that would count warheads according to the maximum number any deployed delivery vehicle could carry, provisions similar to those in START I. For example, a deployed missile that could carry 10 warheads would count as 10 warheads regardless of how many warheads were actually on it.

The treaty does not address the counting issue, effectively allowing the United States to pursue its more liberal interpretation. The Russian Foreign Ministry has explicitly stated that it does not believe the treaty refers only to operationally deployed strategic warheads and has indicated that Moscow expects the issue to be discussed further in the implementation commission created by the treaty. The United States, however, apparently considers the matter closed.

If only operationally deployed warheads are counted, meeting the 2,200 limit will require both countries to take approximately 3,0004,000 warheads out of service, meaning they must either be dismantled or be stored apart from their ICBMs, bombers, and submarines.

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The Jury Is Still Out
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