The Importance of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)

Written by Tamar Malz-Ginzburg


INSS Insight No. 172

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which the presidents of the United States and Russia signed a few days ago in a festive ceremony in the ancient castle in Prague, is a continuation of START I, signed between the United States and the former Soviet Union in July 1991. The treaty dealt with a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads and the means of launching nuclear weapons.

START_TreatyThis is likewise the stated purpose of the new treaty: to reduce the strategic nuclear arsenal of both countries. The treaty also allows the continuation of the attempt to control the proliferation of fissile material from Russia to hostile elements - one of the primary goals of the original START.

The first treaty expired in December 2009, so in order to preserve the regulation and verification regime it was necessary to sign a continuation treaty. However, the declared purpose of this treaty in fact encompasses two processes: the first is the "reset" approach between the United States and Russia announced by Obama, and the second is the current public debate in the United States about the need to reduce the arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. The debate is focused on the dangers inherent in the proliferation of fissile material and leak of nuclear knowledge from nuclear weapons states into the hands of hostile entities.

            Already during his election campaign, President Obama joined the supporters of a vision of a nuclear arms-free world. He made his famous speech emphasizing this vision a year ago in Prague, and declared that the United States must spearhead a move that would result - even if not in his own lifetime - in the fulfillment of this vision. Therefore, the signing of the new treaty is extremely important to the American president.

            START has been presented to the public as a significant nuclear control agreement, but in practice it does not contain any unprecedented decisions about the reduction of the two countries' nuclear arsenals. The treaty discusses only the strategic nuclear arsenal, not the tactical one. It also makes no reference to American nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, because these are not defined as strategic. Beyond this, the scope of the reduction in nuclear warheads and their launching means (including intercontinental missiles, submarines, and bombers) discussed in the treaty are insignificant, if not outright confusing. While according to the treaty the warheads mounted on missiles (on land and at sea) will be counted, not all the nuclear warheads that a bomber can in practice carry will be counted. According to the new rules of counting, one warhead per bomber will be counted, whereas in practice every bomber, both Russian and American, can carry anywhere from six to twenty bombs. Thus, according to the counting rules of this treaty, the United States maintains only some 1650 operational warheads and not the 2100 - the actual number of operational warheads it has. Russia, according to the treaty, has 1740 warheads rather than 2600 - the actual number. While the treaty does reduce the means for launching nuclear weapons, it still allows the two countries to maintain a number of operational nuclear bombs such that neither country in fact has to undertake a real change in its current nuclear power structure.

            The delays in the signing of this treaty resulted from a dispute between the sides over two main issues: one concerns questions about the treaty's means of verification. Russia claimed that the previous treaty's verifications methods were too intrusive. The second concerns the American missile defense program and Russia's doubt that this defensive battery is directed only against rogue states such as Iran. Moscow demanded linkage between the decisions in this treaty about offensive nuclear arms and the defensive missile program. Ultimately no such clause was inserted into the treaty.

            Though a new treaty has been formulated, it will not go into effect until ratified by both countries. This process may be dragged out and become an obstacle for Obama when attempting to showcase his achievements. In the United States, the ratification of the treaty requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, thus requiring bi-partisan agreement between the Democrats and Republicans. Currently, there is widespread debate in the United States over publication of the NPR - a document extensively discussing the American nuclear weapons arsenal. The debate centers on the purpose of the American nuclear arsenal, and specifically the number of weapons needed; the necessity of developing new weapons; the nation's level of readiness; and more. In order to achieve the majority necessary for the ratification of the treaty (and subsequently for the CTBT - Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - as well) Obama must be able to demonstrate that no damage has been done to America's nuclear deterrence capabilities. The very modest reduction contained in this treaty will likely help Obama in this process.

            One could thus argue that the importance of START stems primarily from the fact that it continues the process of verification and regulation. It is also presented as a means of strengthening the ties between the nations, though in fact it does not seem that there will be meaningful political ramifications (such as, for example, for the Iranian issue). However, beyond this the new treaty is the kind of agreement whose importance lies more in the narrative it is supposed to embrace and less in the substance of the decisions it contains. It was not for naught that that the presidents of both countries signed the treaty in Prague. The 2009 Prague speech introduced into international consciousness the notion that Obama has a vision of the United States leading the way in reducing the world's nuclear arsenal. On the basis of this vision he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, until this treaty Obama found it difficult to point to any concrete action - and in fact, he recently approved a significant increase in the defense budget designated for the United States nuclear arsenal. A year after that famous speech in Prague, Obama is presenting START as a step in service of his vision. This week Washington will host a nuclear summit dealing with the securing of nuclear weapons, and next month New York will see the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Obama needed this treaty to demonstrate that he holds fast to his vision and is acting to implement it by leading the United States in taking steps to reduce the number of nuclear arms in the world.

            And so, reality notwithstanding, the treaty is presented as a significant step in nuclear arms reduction by the two nations that hold the vast majority of the world's nuclear arms (about 95 percent of all nuclear weapons). Thus after the announcement of the formulation of the treaty, Senator John F. Kerry wrote in the Boston Globe: "A year ago, President Obama threw his weight behind efforts to make the world safer from nuclear weapons. It is working. On April 8, he [signed] a new arms control treaty with Russia that would cut the nuclear arsenals of both countries and reinforce America's leadership on efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons."

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