U.S. and Russia agree on modest nuclear cuts

Test launch of a Trident II submarine launched ballistic missile

Test launch of a Trident II submarine launched ballistic missile

The United States and Russia have reached agreement on the terms of a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty, the White House reported on Friday (“Key Facts about the New START Treaty,” Whitehouse.gov, 26 March 2010). The new treaty, which will be signed in Prague on April 8th, will replace both the 1991 START Treaty (which expired in 2009) and the Moscow Treaty of 2002.

Although on paper the new treaty will reduce the number of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic (i.e., intercontinental range) nuclear weapons by about 30%, in practice the actual reductions will be considerably more modest, as changes in the way bomber-carried weapons are counted will account for much of the reductions. In addition, the treaty will not address  tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear warheads that are in storage or awaiting dismantlement. And it will not resolve the U.S.-Russian dispute on the future of missile defence systems.

Nonetheless, the treaty can be considered a positive step forward in that it will–if ratified in both the U.S. and Russia–institutionalize further nuclear reductions and create momentum for even deeper cuts, which the Obama administration has said it seeks. It will also revive verification provisions that lapsed with the expiration of the START Treaty and were absent entirely from the Bush administration’s Moscow Treaty. The treaty should also place U.S.-Russian relations on a firmer footing and create a modestly improved environment for the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in May.

For further analysis of the new treaty,  see commentaries written by Ernie Regehr, Pavel Podvig, and Kingston Rief.

None of the above will move the world a whole lot closer to the elimination of nuclear weapons, the goal spelled out by President Obama in his Prague speech of 2009 and recently endorsed by Jean Chretien, Joe Clark, Ed Broadbent, and Lloyd Axworthy (“Toward a world without nuclear weapons,” Globe and Mail, 26 March 2010), among others.

Discussion of much deeper cuts is starting to enter the mainstream, however. A recent article (“Remembrance of Things Past: The Enduring Value of Nuclear Weapons”) by three prominent U.S. Air Force strategists, for example, argues that the U.S. should unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal by 90 percent. The Strategic Studies Quarterly article by Professors James Forsyth and Gary Schaub of Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base war college and Colonel B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of the Strategic Plans and Policy Division at Air Force Headquarters, recommends reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal from its current size to just 311 weapons. The authors question the marginal utility of thousands of nuclear weapons, arguing that a smaller arsenal poses no cost to U. S. national security and is more than enough to assure allies protection and maintain an effective deterrent capability.

The appearance of such ideas within the U.S. Air Force has been welcomed by arms control advocates who would like to see the Obama administration take a stronger position in favour of deep nuclear reductions in its ongoing Nuclear Posture Review.

Still, as Ernie Regehr argues, even deep reductions like those advocated by the Air Force strategists won’t get us to abolition as long as nuclear deterrence remains enshrined as the ultimate goal (Ernie Regehr, “The appeal, and folly, of minimum deterrence,” Disarming Conflict, 19 March 2010).

Photo by U.S. Department of Defense

Tags: Chance Saltzman, Ernie Regehr, Gary Schaub, James Forsyth, Kingston Rief, Moscow Treaty, NPT Review Conference, Nuclear Posture Review, Nuclear weapons, Obama administration, Pavel Podvig, START