No Breakthrough on Strategic Reductions at the Summit
November 16, 2001
Promises of the U.S. and Russian Presidents to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals by two-thirds within the next decade were widely advertised by the media all over the world. Commenting this event many press sources draw a conclusion that it is a great achievement, almost a breakthrough in the process of strategic offensive arms reductions. In reality, however, the situation is completely reverse. The press conference by Presidents Bush and Putin underscored in a very distinctive way the contrast in approaches of the two sides and an absence of any compromise in solving a problem of strategic reductions.
According to the accounting rules of the START I Treaty of 1991, each side currently possess nearly 6,000 deployed strategic warheads. The START II Treaty, which was ratified by Russia last year, but still did not enter into force, limits strategic arsenals by 3,000-3,500, and the Helsinki agreements of 1997, that were supposed to become a basis for a START III Treaty, envisage reductions to 2000-2500 deployed warheads.
It is well known, that a year ago the Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to negotiate an agreement on deeper reductions to 1,500 warheads. This proposal was not incidental. The Russian attitude on offensive arms reductions is determined basically by financial capabilities of Russia. Somehow or other, many of aging strategic delivery platforms (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and heavy bombers) have to be eliminated within the next ten years. The level suggested by the Russian President is a maximum the state can sustain. This is exactly why the Russian side tried hard to get a START III agreement negotiated over the last several years. The new treaty was supposed to preserve a parity between the U.S. and Russia on strategic weapons, as the Russian side considered it.
However, the discussions between experts of the two countries, which began soon after signing of Helsinki agreements, failed to produce an effect. The main reason for that is reluctance of the U.S. side to eliminate their strategic platforms. Accounting rules of the START treaties are well known to assume that the number of deployed warheads are counted according to numbers of strategic delivery systems. The U.S. side would like to change these rules and count total levels not in accordance with the numbers of strategic delivery systems, but by actually deployed nuclear warheads. Thus, according to new rules, it would be permissible to reduce numbers of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles, carrying multiple re-entry vehicles (so called "downloading" of missiles), use strategic platforms in "non-nuclear" roles by substituting nuclear weapons with conventional ones, mothball delivery systems. The "left over" nuclear warheads were supposed to be kept at storage places, but they would not be accounted in total levels of deployed strategic weapons. If a need arise, these weapons could be relatively quickly re-deployed, so that one could be possible to build up forces to previous levels. Apparently, the Russian side strongly objected against this approach and insisted on ensuring irreversibility of reductions. Thus, consultations came to the dead-end.
Apparently, the Bush administration added the new method to its arsenal. It is remarkable, that when President Bush announced reductions of the U.S. nuclear forces to 1700-2200 warheads at the press conference on Tuesday, he did not mean "deployed strategic warheads" (warheads, attributed to deployed strategic systems, as defined in the terminology of the START I and II Treaties). On the contrary, he spoke about "operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads", which meaning is very different.
How may future U.S. strategic reductions look like? It is not hard to guess.
Currently the U.S. have deployed nearly 2,000 warheads on land based ICBMs (1,500 warheads are on 500 Minuteman III ICBMs and 500 - are on 50 Peacekeepers). Pentagon plans to decommission Peacekeeper (MX) ICBMs and keep them at storage. Technically, these missiles can be re-deployed in Minuteman III silos, if a need be. All Minuteman III missiles are going to be downloaded to carry a single warhead. Thus, in total, no more than 500 warheads will be counted on land base forces.
According to START I Treaty rules, 3,456 warheads are counted on 18 U.S. Trident strategic submarines (one submarine carries 24 ballistic missiles with 8 warheads each). The U.S. Navy plans to convert at least four submarines into long range cruise missile platforms. It is important to underscore, that the conversion is most likely will be carried out in a reversible way. Neither submarine missile compartments, nor missile launchers are supposed to be cut and eliminated, as the acting START I Treaty requires. One such a submarine will be able to carry up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, armed with conventional as well as nuclear warheads. However, the converted submarines are not supposed to be taken into account by the U.S. Ballistic missiles of the rest of strategic submarines are going to be downloaded to 4 or 5 warheads each. In addition, the U.S. side is planning not to count those strategic submarines that are being overhauled (typically, one or two at any given time). As a result, the U.S. is going to declare less than 1560 deployed warheads on submarines.
Nearly 800 warheads are counted on heavy bombers according to START I rules. The U.S. insisted at START II negotiations, that B-1B bombers would be excluded from counting. The argument was - the B-1B bombers are converted to "non-nuclear" missions. Most likely, a similar method will be used with respect to heavy bombers of other types as well. The U.S. may motivate their approach by the arguments that all U.S. heavy bombers can carry a wide spectrum of conventional weapons; nuclear bombs and air-launched cruise missiles are kept at storage places; and bombers are not in the air or on alert with nuclear weapons on-board.
Thus, this is not about real reductions of U.S. strategic forces. In fact, this is just about decreasing the state of readiness. That is exactly why President Putin underscored importance of achieving formal agreements, which would also include the issues of verification and control, and President Bush said, that there is no need in an arms control agreement, or an arms control, as he thinks.
The prospects for future development of the bilateral dialog on strategic reductions are quite hazy. The character of this dialog will be shaped by many factors, including dynamics of solution of adjacent problems of missile defenses and nuclear non-proliferation. Since both sides believe, that nuclear arsenals are excessive, the process of nuclear reductions will likely continue. However, it will slow down and lose its binding character. Each side will form a structure of its strategic forces at its own discretion. However, since both sides announced that they embarked to a new relationship, somehow they will have to work out new frames to ensure mutual transparency of the reductions process, because existing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are largely directed against each other, and this situation is not going to change quickly. Most likely, forthcoming bilateral expert consultations, announced at the press-conference, will be directed to achieve exactly this goal. One can not rule out that some specific agreements may be already signed in the beginning of the next summer at the summit in Russia, as President Putin suggested.
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- President Bush's Nuclear Arithmetic, - in Russian, (by Eugene Miasnikov, Izvestia, November 12, 2001)
- U.S.-Russian Relations in Nuclear Arms Reductions: Current State and Prospects, (ed. by Anatoli Diakov, Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, Dolgoprudny, 52 pages, June, 2001). Now available is complete report in Russian (in PDF format, 350 Kb).
- President Bush, Russian President Putin Discuss New Relationship, Press Conference by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, November 13, 2001
- Joint Statement on New U.S.-Russian Relationship, November 13, 2001
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