Three and a half years after the New START Treaty entered into force in February 2011, many would probably expect that the United States and Russia had decisively reduced their deployed strategic nuclear weapons.
On the contrary, the latest aggregate treaty data shows that the two nuclear superpowers both increased their deployed nuclear forces compared with March 2014 when the previous count was made.
Russia has increased its deployed weapons the most: by 131 warheads on 23 additional launchers. Russia, who went below the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in 2013, is now back above the limit by 93 warheads. And Russia is now counted – get this – as having more strategic warheads deployed than when the treaty first went into force in February 2011. Before arms control opponents in Congress get their banners out, however, it is important to remind that these changes do not reflect a build-up the Russian nuclear arsenal. The increase results from the deployment of new missiles and fluctuations caused by existing launchers moving in and out of overhaul. Hundreds of Russian missiles will be retired over the next decade. The size of the Russian arsenals will most likely continue to decrease over the next decade.
Nonetheless, the data is disappointing for both nuclear superpowers – almost embarrassing – because it shows that neither has made substantial reductions in its deployed nuclear arsenal since the New START Treaty entered into force in 2011. The meager performance is risky in the run-up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in April 2015 where the United States and Russia – together with China, Britain, and France – must demonstrate their progress toward nuclear disarmament to ensure the support of the other countries that have signed the NPT in strengthening the non-proliferation treaty regime.
The data for Russia is particularly interesting because it now has 106 warheads more deployed than when the New START Treaty went into force in February 2011. The number of deployed launchers is exactly the same: 106.
This does not mean that Russia is in the middle of a nuclear arms build-up; over the next decade more than 240 old Soviet-era land- and sea-based missiles are scheduled to be withdrawn from service. But the rate at which the older missiles are withdrawn has been slowing down recently from about 50 missiles per year before the New START treaty to about 22 missiles per year after New START. The Russian military wants to retire all the old missiles by the early 2020s, so the current rate will need to pick up a little.
At the same time, the rate of introduction of new land-based missiles to replace the old ones has increased from approximately 9 missiles per year to about 18. The net effect is that the total missile force and warheads deployed on it have increased slightly since 2013.
The new deployments include the SS-27 Mod 2 (RS-24) ICBM, of which the first two regiments with 18 mobile missiles were put in service with the Teykovo division in 2010-2012, replacing SS-25s (Topol) previously there. Deployment followed in late-2013 at the Novosibirsk and Nizhniy Tagil divisions, each of which now has one regiment for a total of 36 RS-24s. This number will grow to 54 missiles by the end of this year because the two divisions are scheduled to receive a second regiment. And because each RS-24 carries an estimated 4 warheads (compared with a single warhead on the SS-25), the number of deployed warheads has increased.
Also underway is the deployment of SS-27 Mod 2 (RS-24) in silos at the Kozelsk division, where they are replacing old SS-19s. The first regiment of 10 RS-24s was scheduled to become operational by the end of this year but appears to have fallen behind schedule with only 4 missiles expected. It has not been announced how many missiles are planned for Kozelsk but it might involve 6 regiments with a total of 60 missiles (a similar number of SS-27 Mod 1s (Topol-M) were installed at Tatishchevo between 1997 and 2013). Since each RS-24 carries 4 warheads compared with the 6 on the SS-19, the number of silo-based warheads will decrease over the next decade.
Another reason for the increase in the latest New START data is probably the long-awaited introduction of the new Borei-class of ballistic missile submarines. The precise loadout status of the first submarines is uncertain, but the first might have been partially or fully loaded by now. The first two boats (Yuri Dolgoruy and Alexander Nevsky) entered service in late-2013 but have been without missiles because of the troubled test-launch performance of their missile (SS-N-32, Bulava), which has failed about half of its test launched since 2005. After fixes were made, a successful launch took place in 2014 from the third Borei SSBN, the Vladimir Monomakh. The Yuri Dolgoruy is scheduled to conduct an operational launch later this month. A total of 8 Borei SSBNs are planned, each with 16 Bulavas, each with 6 warheads, for a total of nearly 100 warheads per boat.
For the United States, the data shows that the number of warheads deployed on strategic missiles increased slightly since March 2014, by 57 warheads from 1,585 to 1,642. The number of deployed launchers also increased, by 16 from 778 to 794.
The reason for the U.S. increase is not an actual increase of the nuclear arsenal but reflects fluctuations caused by the number of launchers in overhaul at any given time. The biggest effect is caused by SSBNs loading or offloading missiles, most importantly the return to service of the USS West Virginia (SSBN-736) after a refueling overhaul with a load of 24 missiles and approximately 100 warheads.
Overall, however, the U.S. performance under the treaty is better than that of Russia because the data shows that the United States has actually reduced its deployed force structure since 2011 : by 158 warheads and 88 launchers. In addition, the U.S. military has also destroyed 124 non-deployed launchers including empty silos and retired bombers.
The better U.S. performance does not indicate that the Pentagon has embarked upon a program of unilateral disarmament. Rather, it reflects that the U.S. nuclear forces structure is much larger than that of Russia and that the U.S. therefore has more work to do before the treaty enters into effect in February 2018.
The increase in Russian and U.S. deployed strategic nuclear weapons shown by New START aggregate data is disappointing because it illustrates the degree to which the two nuclear superpowers are holding on to excessively large nuclear arsenals. While there is no doubt that the two countries will eventually implement the treaty by 2018, they have been exceedingly slow in doing so. The fact that Russia now has more warheads deployed than when the treaty first entered into force in 2011 is particularly disappointing. And it illustrates just how modest the New START Treaty is.
The increase in U.S. deployed warheads and launchers is also disappointing especially when considering that the Nuclear Employment Strategy issued by the White House in June 2013 concluded that the United States has one-third more strategic nuclear weapons deployed than it needs to fulfill its national and international security commitments.
The United States currently has 273 deployed strategic launchers more than Russia, as well as a reserve of several thousand non-deployed warheads that are not counted by the treaty but intended to increase the loadout on the launchers if necessary.
Faced with the planned retirement of Soviet-era missiles within the next decade, Russia appears to be compensating for the disparity by accelerating deployment of new land-based missiles with multiple warheads to maintain parity with the larger U.S. missile force structure. Russia and the United States each has over four times more nuclear weapons than all the seven other nuclear-armed states in the world – combined. Clearly, the large Russian and U.S. arsenals exist in a bubble justified predominantly by the large size of the other’s arsenal. Russia and the United States need to do more to reduce their nuclear arsenals faster. The lackluster performance in implementing and following up on the New START Treaty, as well as the extensive nuclear weapons modernization underway in both countries, mean that the two nuclear superpowers will have very little to show at next year’s nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York to demonstrate how they are meeting their obligations and promises made under the treaty to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.
Neither Russia nor the United States can afford the expensive nuclear weapon modernization programs currently underway to sustain their large arsenals. And they certainly cannot afford to weaken the support of the non-proliferation treaty regime in strengthening efforts to halt and curtail the proliferation of nuclear weapons.