On October 1,, 2015 the U.S Department of State’s Bureau for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance released its count of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons covered under the New START treaty. For the first time since the treaty entered into force on February 5, 2011, the United States has dropped below the imposed limit on deployed strategic warheads.
The treaty mandates that the U.S. and Russia both have fewer than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and fewer than 700 launchers by 2018. The latest State Department release shows that the U.S. currently has 1,538 warheads and that Russia has 1,648: a decrease of 263 warheads for the United States and an increase of 111 for Russia.
For some, it appears problematic that Russia has been increasing its nuclear force under the treaty while the U.S. has been reducing its force. The reality, however, is far less alarming.
Defense hawks will undoubtedly object to the U.S. now having fewer nuclear weapons than Russia. But it is important to keep in mind that both countries still have enough nuclear weapons to end the world many times over, and that both countries are expected to comply with the limitations by 2018. Neither country will have violated the New START treaty so long as they have fewer than 1,550 warheads on implementation day.
There is no military significance to having 1,538 versus 1,648 warheads. A 2012 Department of Defense report to Congress indicates that any plausible increase in deployed Russian strategic warheads “would have little to no effect on the U.S. assured second-strike capabilities that underwrite [the U.S.] strategic defense posture” and thereby would not achieve any significant military advantage over the United States. Furthermore, the United States still has considerably more deployed launchers and other means of delivering nuclear weapons than Russia.
Looking at the fluctuations of the number of warheads since the treaty entered into force, one can see that this most recent increase in Russian warheads is not at all troubling.
Fluctuations in the number of deployed nuclear warheads, up or down, is not necessarily indicative of future trends. These variations in numbers are due in part to the counting system used by the New START treaty. The New START treaty counts “deployed” strategic warheads. This means that the numbers are constantly changing as warheads and their launchers go in and out of overhaul. They also count warheads by number of bombers instead of the actual number of warheads on those bombers. Unfortunately, that leads to many discrepancies in actual numbers. Some experts have even put Russia’s current actual number of warheads closer to 1,590. Moreover, Russia is currently undergoing a transition in their nuclear program in which they are modernizing their Soviet-era weapons, which is causing additional fluctuations with the New START numbers.
What’s more important than the current numbers, however, is the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship and our actions post-New START.
U.S.-Russia relations are icy. Ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine, threats and provocations between the two countries have escalated significantly. Russia first threatened to halt foreign inspections of their strategic nuclear arsenal, which would violate New START. Later, it was announced that the United States has made plans to deploy upgraded guided-nuclear bombs to Germany.
In response, Russia has threatened to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Russia has also drastically increased its operational tempo of its naval forces, to which U.S. Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, said we must respond by investing to “pace the Russian capabilities.”
All of this is threatening to embroil the two countries in another arms race similar to past decades, and that is why we need to look to future arms control treaties to provide more predictability of forces. Arms control treaties lend certainty to the U.S.-Russian relationship. They also add transparency to the U.S.-Russian military relationships and the required limits under these treaties help to prevent arms races from spiraling out of control.
The earlier we move on to the next phase of nuclear weapons reductions the better. Many avenues are still open for further cooperation, such as a treaty that imposes limits on stored nuclear weapons, or a treaty that mandates a per year quota of nuclear weapons dismantlement. As lesser goal would be to extend the duration of New START, or impose stricter limits within New START following the one-third reduction proposed by President Obama and endorsed by the Department of Defense’s Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy, while we make decisions on the next steps for non-proliferation.
There have been instances in the past during which Russia and the U.S. have cooperated on one issue while disagreeing on another. Moreover, we might not be able to come to an agreement now, but this does not mean we will not be able to in the future. Either way, we should move to stabilize U.S.-Russian relations through dialogue about the future of U.S.-Russian arms control treaties.