From START to Zero: The Importance—and Limitations—of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty

Cesar Jaramillo Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2010 Volume 31 Issue 4

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed by US President Obama and Russian President Medvedev in April 2010 but not yet ratified, further reduces the strategic nuclear arms limits of previous bilateral treaties and institutes a more robust verification regime. While the provisions of this treaty foster much needed transparency between the United States and Russia, it is far from a definitive step toward complete nuclear disarmament. Not only does New START continue to recognize nuclear deterrence as a legitimate security doctrine, but the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons still allowed dwarf those of any other country and continue to constitute a clear and present threat to global security.


As the Cold War was drawing to an end in the late 1980s, the United States and Russia engaged in a series of negotiations to reduce and limit their nuclear arsenals, culminating in the signing of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START) in 1991 and its subsequent ratification in 1994. Unlike previous arms control agreements between the two Cold War superpowers such as the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation treaty (SALT), which only restricted the future production of new delivery vehicles, START provided for the reduction of existing deployed warheads.

START allowed the US and the Soviet Union (subsequently Russia) to each deploy up to 6,000 nuclear warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles (such as bombers and land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles). Any deployed weapons in excess of these numbers had to be taken off deployment as part of the treaty’s implementation.

Besides the obvious benefit of significantly restricting the number of warheads, START contained a robust verification protocol to ensure compliance with the treaty. This fostered an unprecedented climate of increased transparency and relative predictability with regard to the nuclear weapons capabilities of the signatories. Indeed, “that treaty’s verification measures allowed for a fuller understanding of [nuclear] forces than previous agreements, and this in turn led to increased stability and cooperation between the two countries” (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010c).

The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT), also known as the Moscow Treaty, was signed in 2002 and set a new limit for each country of 2,200 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. However, SORT has been the subject of much criticism for its lack of verification provisions to ensure that agreed-to reductions have in fact taken place. Thus, the December 2009 expiration of the 1991 START marked the end of the verification protocols and, for the first time in more than two decades, inspection teams from the US and Russia were unable to physically verify the number and operational status of each other’s strategic nuclear forces. This increased the likelihood of misunderstandings and potential friction in what is perhaps the most sensitive of arms control regimes. To fill this void, Obama and Medvedev signed the New START.

Key provisions of New START

New START sets limits on nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that are well below those imposed by the 1991 START treaty. These limits are to be met within seven years of treaty ratification by Russia and the US.

Specifically, the primary limits for each country included in the New START treaty (Gottemoeller 2010) are:

  • A maximum of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed nuclear-capable heavy bombers;
  • A maximum of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads placed in the abovementioned delivery vehicles;
  • A maximum of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and nuclear-capable heavy bombers.

The number of warheads and delivery vehicles that each country is permitted to possess under this treaty, while still significant, is considerably lower than what was allowed under previous bilateral treaties. Indeed, the limit on warheads is approximately 75 per cent lower than that of START (from 6,000 to 1,550 warheads) and about 30 per cent lower than the Moscow Treaty (from 2,200 to 1,550).

The limit on deployed delivery vehicles allowed under START is cut by more than half (from 1,600 to 700).

However, current levels of strategic nuclear forces in the US and Russia are already remarkably close to the New START levels. Although estimates vary, recent assessments place the number of US and Russian warheads at 1,762 and 1,741, respectively.

Likewise, the current number of deployed delivery vehicles is approximately 798 for the United States and 566 for Russia (Union of Concerned Scientists 2010a). Therefore, while New START ensures that strategic nuclear forces will not be enlarged to previous Cold War levels, it would seem that the US and Russia are already on their way to compliance, even without treaty ratification.

Another significant element of New START is the robust verification protocol that is embedded in the Treaty, which is understood to be more streamlined and efficient than that of the original START. Verification mechanisms include short-notice, on-site inspections and national technical means of verification, such as satellite surveillance. They are complemented by data exchanges; each party maintains a comprehensive database that includes a detailed inventory of the types and locations of all warheads and delivery vehicles.

In addition, each party must assign a unique alphanumeric identifier to every deployed and non-deployed ICBM, SLBM, and heavy bomber in its possession. This code must be included in the required notifications to the other party every time the missile or associated launcher changes location or status (Gottemoeller 2010).

According to the provisions of New START, inspectors who arrive at a base in the other party’s territory are to receive a detailed briefing, which would include information not provided under the 1991 START verification regime, such as (Gottemoeller 2010):

  • The number of reentry vehicles emplaced on each deployed ICBM or SLBM located at the base;
  • A breakdown of deployed and non-deployed launchers at the base, i.e., those that have missiles in or on them (deployed) and those that do not (non-deployed);
  • The number of deployed heavy bombers based and located at the base; and
  • The number of nuclear armaments loaded on deployed heavy bombers at the base.

From signature to ratification

The New START treaty must be ratified by both the US and Russia before entering into force. This process is neither simple nor guaranteed. The Treaty has been meticulously scrutinized by critics on both the political left and right. Prominent supporters include former Secretaries of State George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and Colin Powell. But Michael Shear (2010) of TheWashington Post writes that “arms control advocates have expressed disappointment in the treaty, saying it does not go far enough in reducing the dangerous weapons on both sides,” while “some conservatives have raised questions about the treaty’s impact on the American nuclear deterrent.”

The Obama administration has stated unequivocally that it wants the treaty to be ratified in 2010. To obtain the 67 votes needed in the Senate for treaty ratification, it must galvanize the support of at least eight Republican Senators. If ratification is delayed until 2011, Treaty supporters will need to muster support from at least 14 Republicans in a Senate that reflects the results of the November 2010 elections.

Among major opponents of the New START treaty is former Massachusetts Governor and rumoured 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney (2010), who has argued that the Treaty will weaken US national security. He has said that “the president’s New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty… with Russia could be his worst foreign policy mistake yet.” Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona has made support for New START contingent upon a commitment from the Obama administration that there will not be deep cuts in spending in the coming years on nuclear infrastructure and nuclear weapons modernization (Richter 2010). Hoping to allay such concerns, the Obama administration has offered to spend an extra $4-billion on the nation’s nuclear complex, bringing the 10-year budget for nuclear modernization to $84-billion (Sheridan and Pincus 2010).

Roadblocks in the US ratification have reverberated in the State Duma of Russia, where ratification was initially thought to be a smooth process. Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international affairs committee in the Duma, said that Russian lawmakers should consider attaching conditions to ratification of the New START pact in response to similar efforts by US Senate Republicans (People’s Daily 2010).

New START and the global disarmament agenda

The New START treaty is welcome because it restricts the growth in strategic nuclear forces of the world’s major nuclear weapons states. But it is far from a fundamental renunciation of nuclear deterrence. In fact, “the rapid downloading of U.S. strategic forces illustrates just how confident the military is in the capability of U.S. nuclear forces to provide a credible deterrent even at the New START level” (Kristensen 2010).

If New START is ratified, each country would retain a level of nuclear weapons that is hardly justifiable, even from a nuclear deterrence perspective. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (2010b):

No current or conceivable threat to the United States requires it to maintain more than a few hundred survivable nuclear weapons. The delivery of fewer than a hundred warheads could destroy the society and economy of any country, and tens of detonations could kill more people than have ever been killed in any previous war.

Notwithstanding these considerations, Global Zero (2010) leaders applauded the April signing of the Treaty and launched a campaign to encourage ratification. Can New START reinvigorate the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and lead to further, more comprehensive disarmament initiatives? The potential is there, as can be seen in the preamble (2010, p. 1), which looks forward to “expanding this process [of reducing and limiting nuclear arms while maintaining the safety and security of their nuclear arsenals] in the future, including to a multilateral approach.”



Global Zero. 2010. Global Zero leaders applaud New START treaty; urge ratification. PR Newswire, April 8.

Gottemoeller, Rose. 2010. New START: Security through 21st century verification. Arms Control Association, September.

Kristensen, Hans M. 2010. United States moves rapidly toward New START warhead limit. Federation of American Scientists, May 2.

People’s Daily. 2010. Russian deputies to postpone ratifying new START. November 4.

Richter, Paul. 2010. White House seeks deal with GOP to ensure ratification of New START treaty. Los Angeles Times, November 5.

Romney, Mitt. 2010. Obama’s worst foreign-policy mistake. The Washington Post, July 6.

Shear, Michael D. 2010. Obama, Medvedev sign treaty to reduce nuclear weapons. The Washington Post, April 8.

Sheridan, Mary Beth & Walter Pincus. 2010. Senate’s ratification of START hinges on Kyl’s vote. The Washington Post, November 16.

Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on measures for the further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms. 2010. United States Department of State, April 8.

Union of Concerned Scientists. 2010a. New START Treaty: Summary of Key Issues. Fact Sheet, April 2.

———. 2010b. The Obama administration’s new nuclear policy. April 8.

———. 2010c. Nuclear weapons and global security: New START overview. September 29.

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