All posts by Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer is director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a retired Foreign Service officer. His more than twenty-five years with the Department of State included substantial work on arms control, the Soviet Union, and Russia. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000.

New START at Three … and What Next?

Obama_and_Medvedev_sign_New_STARTFebruary 5, 2014 marks the third anniversary of entry into force of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The agreement cuts U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces to their lowest levels in five decades. President Obama would like to make further cuts to nuclear stockpiles, but he faces major obstacles.

New START requires both countries to reduce arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers by February 2018. Implementation appears to be going smoothly. Russia has already met these limits, while U.S. strategic forces are moving towards them. The two sides have carried out more than one hundred inspections and exchanged almost 6,000 treaty notifications.

These are encouraging developments, but President Obama took office with a more ambitious agenda. He made that clear in his April 2009 Prague speech, in which he called for a world without nuclear weapons.

Negotiation of the New START Treaty began shortly after the Prague speech. Administration officials originally sought to conclude an agreement by December 2009, before the expiration of the START I Treaty. They hoped for quick Senate ratification of New START, after which the Administration could focus its efforts on ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This would set the stage for negotiation of more far-reaching nuclear reductions with Moscow.

Two obstacles frustrated this plan. First, in part due to Moscow’s bargaining tactics, negotiating New START took longer than Washington expected. For example, in November 2009 Russian negotiators brought the pace to a crawl, attempting—unsuccessfully—to extract U.S. concessions before President Obama’s December visit to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since the signature of New START, President Obama has called for new negotiations to address non-strategic and reserve strategic weapons. In June 2013, he proposed a one-third reduction of the New START deployed strategic warhead limit, which would lower the number from 1,550 to around 1,000.

Thus far, however, Moscow has shown no interest, as Russian officials seek to link further cuts to other issues, such as missile defense. At the start of the Obama administration, the Kremlin clearly wanted a new treaty to cap U.S. nuclear forces and provide predictability after START I. New START achieved this objective.

In retrospect, one wonders whether the United States should have pressed for deeper cuts from the outset and proposed a limit of 1,000 deployed warheads in 2009. The looming expiration of START I could have given Washington leverage to achieve the 1,000-warhead limit. However, at the time the Administration also wanted a new treaty in place when START I lapsed. It figured an opening proposal of 1,500 deployed warheads—the Russians proposed 1,675—would lead to an expedited agreement.

Moreover, the Obama administration could not have militarily justified 1,000 deployed strategic warheads in 2009. The nuclear employment strategy was outdated—based on the George W. Bush administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. The Obama administration only finalized its own review and implementation study in 2012. The completion of this study allowed the President to propose the one-third cut to New START’s 1,550 limit in June 2013.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have posed the second obstacle to the Obama administration’s nuclear policy goals. The hoped-for quick ratification of New START proved more time-consuming and politically bruising than anticipated. In the end, the Senate approved the treaty, but with twenty-six Republican senators voting no. The process generated no momentum for a CTBT ratification push.

Congressional Republicans have since sought to hamstring administration efforts for further nuclear arms cuts. They have even tried to deny funds for implementing New START, which upon ratification became the law of the land.

It remains to be seen whether the political climate—with Moscow and with Capitol Hill—will change in a way that would allow President Obama to achieve more on nuclear arms reductions. Tight budgets on both sides might help.

The Kremlin, facing a stagnant economy, could decide to seek another round of nuclear cuts in order to scale back its costly defense modernization program. In Congress, Republicans might also rethink their opposition to further reductions in light of falling defense budgets, although immediate savings would be modest at best. Both of these appear possible—though not necessarily likely—in the next two years.

While the Obama administration has made clear its preference for negotiated reductions, it still has the option of unilateral adjustments to the U.S. nuclear force structure. The Joint Chiefs have validated the proposed one-third cut from 1,550 deployed warheads as sufficient for U.S. deterrence and war plans. Any unilateral step, however, would likely provoke a bitter fight with Congress. For the foreseeable future, President Obama and his administration will not foreclose the unilateral option, but expect them to continue to press Russia to agree to bilateral reductions.

The Next Step on Nuclear Arms Reduction

The United States and Russia have just begun the third year of implementing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). When the treaty takes full effect in February 2018, each country will be limited to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers. That represents progress, but more can and should be done.

For instance, New START does nothing to constrain non-deployed (reserve) strategic warheads or any non-strategic (tactical) weapons; it covers only about thirty percent of the total U.S. nuclear arsenal. It’s time to bring these weapons to the table. Additionally, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, do the United States and Russia require such large deployed strategic forces?

Recent press reports suggest the Obama administration is ready to answer this question and also bring the “off the table” weapons into the equation. The reports said the administration has concluded that it would be able to reduce the U.S. arsenal to 1,000-1,100 deployed strategic warheads and 2,500-3,500 total nuclear weapons, “without harming national security.” This would be an important step forward. An agreement along these lines could mean a thirty percent cut in deployed strategic warheads from the New START level and could require up to a fifty percent reduction in total U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Such a treaty would be in the U.S. interest for several reasons. First, it would reduce the nuclear threat to the United States. It would also promote a more stable nuclear balance with Russia, that is, a balance in which neither side has incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. The lower limit could lead the Russians to conclude that they do not need their proposed new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which would threaten U.S. ICBMs in their underground silos. At the same, a new heavy ICBM would itself present a lucrative target for preemptive attack in a crisis—a problem noted by a number of Russian experts critical of the planned missile.

Second, by bringing all nuclear arms into the negotiation, a new U.S.-Russia treaty would cover non-strategic nuclear weapons, which would be welcomed by U.S. allies in Europe and Asia who feel threatened by Russian tactical weapons. Moreover, by submitting all of their arsenals to limits, Washington and Moscow would be better positioned to then expand the arms control process to include other nuclear weapons states. That is because the arsenals of Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea contain many non-strategic nuclear arms.

Third, a new treaty that reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear forces could mean cost savings for a strained defense budget. The savings in operating costs in the near term might not be that large, but lower limits could mean substantial savings in the longer term, as the United States recapitalizes its strategic forces. For example, the U.S. Navy estimates that the replacement submarines for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine will cost $6-7 billion each. The Navy hopes to cut that cost, but the recent history of naval shipbuilding suggests the ultimate price tag of new vessels is often higher than initial estimates. A treaty that reduced the need for even two submarines would eliminate the cost of building and then operating them for up to forty years.

Fourth, further U.S. and Russian reductions would bolster those countries’ credentials in raising the bar against nuclear proliferation. A new treaty would not cause North Korea or Iran to change course. It could, however, empower American diplomacy to persuade third countries to up the pressure, including sanctions, on nuclear proliferators.

Finally, a new U.S.-Russian treaty could contribute to an improved broader relationship between the two countries. It could also contribute to better relations with China.

Negotiating and concluding such a treaty would by no means be easy. It is not clear that the Russians are prepared to deal. New tensions have afflicted the bilateral relationship over the past year, and President Putin seems in a cantankerous mood. But Moscow may have incentives to engage. The United States is better placed to sustain its strategic forces at New START levels, while the Russians will have to build new missiles to maintain their forces at the negotiated limits—and they may face tough budget decisions of their own.

There should be a better idea of whether the Russians want to engage after National Security Advisor Donilon’s visit to Moscow later this month, during which arms control undoubtedly will rank near the top of the agenda. The odds of getting a new agreement may not be all that high, but the pay-off in terms of a safer America and enhanced global security makes it a proposition worth testing.