Your New START Explainer: The Value of Cooperation on Nuclear Arms Control

The US announcement of its intent to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty marked another notch in the administration’s campaign against international arms control and nonproliferation agreements. With that treaty set to collapse in early August, experts worry the only other treaty limiting US and Russian nuclear arsenals, New START, may be next.

Officially known as “The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,” New START was signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev on April 8, 2010. The treaty was ratified by the US Senate and Russian parliament and entered into force on February 5, 2011.

What’s in the Treaty?

Equal limits on US and Russian strategic arsenals of:

  • 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads;
  • 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and deployed nuclear-capable bombers; and
  • 800 total (deployed and nondeployed) launchers.

Verification and transparency measures, including:

  • Up to 18 short-notice, on-site inspections per year;
  • The exchange of data on the characteristics and locations of the strategic force;
  • Notification of movement of strategic forces between facilities; and
  • The exchange of data from missile flight-tests up to five times per year.

New START continues years of bilateral cooperation between the US and Russia/Soviets on nuclear arms reductions. It caps the strategically deployed weapons of the world’s two biggest arsenals. It also provides each country with valuable insight into the other’s nuclear arsenal by restarting the inspections and data sharing that had been lost when the original START Treaty — the first treaty to require deep reductions in the US and Russian/Soviet arsenals — expired in 2009.

Image: Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev sign New START in Prague, April 8, 2010

In February 2018, both countries announced they had met the treaty limits. New START expires on February 5, 2021 but can be extended up to five years through a simple executive agreement signed by the two presidents.

US and Russian delegations meet at the Bilateral Consultative Commission on New START, March 28, 2011

What would happen if New START expired or one or both parties withdrew without any replacement?

  1. The US and Russia would be free to build up their nuclear arsenals and deploy more weapons. There would be nothing left to restrain the new nuclear arms race.
  2. Insight into both sides nuclear arsenals granted under the treaty’s verification and transparency mechanisms would end, increasing uncertainty and nuclear risk. Intelligence agencies and military planners would be left in the dark, leaving ample room for misreading intentions and planning for the worst (read: claims of needing to invest in even more weapons and more capabilities, and keeping even more nuclear weapons ready to launch at a moment’s notice).
  3. Decades of bipartisan work and international cooperation to reduce the nuclear threat would be reversed.
  4. The nuclear nonproliferation regime and US and Russian commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on ending the nuclear arms race and eliminating all nuclear weapons would be undermined.
  5. US leadership on nuclear reductions and nonproliferation would evaporate.

What progress has been made on extending New START?

None yet. The impending death of the INF Treaty and the threat to New START are symptoms of a bigger issue. The US and Russia are not engaging in meaningful dialogue on nuclear risk and arms control. Even during the Cold War, when tensions were high, both sides understood the need to reduce the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war far outweighed their differences.

When the United States and Russia realize the importance of restarting nuclear arms control talks, extending New START should be the first goal

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik to discuss nuclear arms reductions, October 1986

Instead, the US has been reviewing its options on New START. In a recent appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested the administration wants to see China added into the treaty. China has around 280 nuclear weapons. The US alone has more than ten times that amount at around 3,800 nuclear weapons. Russia has around 4,350. While China and others should be engaged in discussions on reducing nuclear risk and laying the groundwork for multilateral nuclear reduction agreements, it is ridiculous to imply China’s lack of participation is in any way a viable roadblock to extending New START.

For its part, Russia has indicated extending New START cannot be done in a couple weeks and would require resolving “serious issues.” This is significant point. With the treaty set to expire just a couple weeks after the US presidential inauguration, some hoped, absent progress in the current administration, extension could be done within the roughly two-week window should the US elect a president willing to do so. It seems, at this point, Russia has closed that door, encouraging the US to start talks on extension now — an offer the US should take up.

When the United States and Russia realize the importance of restarting nuclear arms control talks, extending New START should be the first goal. It would maintain important restraints on US and Russian nuclear arsenals, preserve transparency and verification measures and provide a solid foundation for follow-on agreements.

Avoiding a new nuclear arms race is possible, we just need leaders willing to put the safety and security of their countries above unrealistic expectations.