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US-Russian START Treaty

Find a lofty ideal; use creative accounting to make it work.

Non-proliferation hawks in the Democratic Party will be happy — the United States and Russia sealed the deal on a “new” START treaty on taking steps towards nuclear disarmament.  US President Barack Obama feels strongly about the issue and wants to work towards a multilateral framework for eliminating nuclear weapons and controlling nuclear material.  In this respect, START III sounds like a great idea; except, as they say, the devil is in the details.

According to the treaty, the United States and Russia will reduce their “deployed weapons” to 1,550 over a seven-year timeframe.  Deployed weapons only, not weapons held in reserve.  In addition to deployed weapons (~ 2,200), the US also has 2,500 weapons in active and inactive stock, which are not within the treaty’s purview.   So right off the bat, the scope of START eliminates about 50% of the US’s total possible inventory.  Second, upon Russia’s insistence, each heavy bomber deployed with weapons counts as “one weapon” towards that magic number of 1,550 (although each bomber will likely possess multiple weapons).  Pretty fancy stuff.

Some very clever people help us out with the arithmetic:

The United States currently deploys approximately 2,126 strategic nuclear warheads, with a comparable number of warheads in reserve. Russia is believed to deploy approximately 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads. However, since each deployed heavy bomber will now count as only one warhead, under New START the U.S. currently deploys far fewer than 2,126 warheads (according to the best estimates we currently have 500 warheads on 60 or 113 bombers – depending on how you count; if you do the math, that already puts us at 1700-1800 warheads)! [Nukes of Hazard]

In addition to only addressing “deployed” weapons, the cap is specific to deployed strategic weapons only — ICBMs and SLBMs.  This very neatly takes the US’s 500 deployed tactical nuclear weapons (and the 600 tactical weapons in stockpile) out of the the treaty’s purview ( link).  There is also some ambiguity over whether the treaty caps US’s ambitious ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS) project — speculation is abound that it does.  However, the White House has already tried to preempt the battle it will have on its hands with this little fact-sheet.

What does START III mean to the rest of the world? Even with 1,550 nuclear weapons each, the US and Russia will be so far ahead of the third largest nuclear weapons state (France, with 300 weapons) that it is unlikely to have a direct impact on disarmament.  Of course, some countries might choose to “right size” their arsenal (as indeed France is doing), but these are not decisions inspired by START.

START III may be just the sort of thing to parade around New Delhi, coaxing it to ratify the alphabet soup of non-proliferation treaties.  This is a non-starter.  We live in a neighborhood where one power willfully flaunts the terms of the non-proliferation treaties that it is signatory to, and is increasingly belligerent in its dealings with India.  And the lesser said about our other nuclear neighbor’s non-proliferation record, the better.   Treaties such as START III can only be conceivable to lesser nuclear powers like India once minimum credible deterrence is achieved (for which there is no magic number).  Until such time, let such treaties be part of the lofty ideals of countries with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over.

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