Getting STARTed

April 1, 2010 | 2:19 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

Minuteman MissileWelcome to the first post on the Global Security Program’s blog at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where you can find our analysis and updates on key security issues of the day. We’ll be discussing nuclear weapons, fissile materials, arms control, missile defense, space weapons, reprocessing, China and security, nuclear power, and a few other things for good measure, all in the context of science, security, and policy.

Today’s feature is the New START arms control agreement between the United States and Russia, which will be signed April 8 in Prague.

Our New START agreement fact sheet covers the basics; the bottom line is the treaty is a modest but critical step in re-starting real arms control and strengthening relations with Russia. Without this new treaty, we will have very limited ability to verify Russia’s arsenal; with it, we will know a lot more. We also are on better ground in our efforts to persuade other countries to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

The fact sheet highlights but doesn’t go into detail about one of the key issues that has emerged as analysts have poured over the little information that has been publicly released: in short, just how many warheads will this treaty require each nation to pull from deployment?

This is a question because the treaty counts each long-range nuclear bomber as only one warhead, regardless of how many warheads the plane can carry. By some estimates, that would mean that each country would only have to withdraw a couple hundred warheads. That is, the New START 1,550 warhead maximum is a 30 percent cut from the levels the United States says it deploys under the Moscow Treaty maximum of 2,200. By maxing out bomber loadings, however, the United States could deploy close to 2000 warheads, and Russia could do the same.

Such “undercounts” and “overcounts” have a long history in arms control. In fact, under the now expired START agreement, because of the somewhat bizarre counting rules, the United States still officially deploys almost 6,000 warheads.

But here’s the real truth about this issue: the counting rules don’t really matter. Under the new treaty, we will know precisely how many long-range bombers Russia has; they will know how many we have. The actual number of warheads each bomber could carry is  known fairly accurately, if not perfectly. So the fact that the treaty counts bombers as only one warhead matters only for the treaty. It does not affect our security one whit.

And, even if the warhead counts under the treaty are somewhat lower than reality, what does matter is that the treaty places new, strict limits on delivery vehicles, and provides real verification of those numbers. Both those items are enormous improvements over the Moscow Treaty, which only limited deployed warheads and had essentially no verification, leaving each country to determine how it met the treaty’s limits.

So, in sum, the New START is a durn good start.