Given the recent news it might look as though America has completely overhauled its stance on nuclear weapons.
After all, President Barack Obama has signed a new treaty with Russia, decreasing the amount of nuclear weapons America and Russia can use.
The President has also revised America’s policy on using nuclear weapons. America will not use them against certain nations, and the military’s ability to use nuclear weapons is restricted.
So it does look like a large leap forward—but there is the fine print.
The treaty signed with Russia is called New START—which stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty—and it focuses on reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons:
- Intercontinental ballistic missiles––those launched from silos underground.
- Submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which are launched form nuclear submarines.
- Nuclear bombs used by aircraft like the B-2 stealth bomber.
The New START treaty sets a cap of 1,550 on how many nuclear warheads America and Russia can have for those weapon systems. For that count, each missile and bomber counts as having one warhead.
That method of counting, though, is slightly deceptive.
In the early days of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, ICBMs and SLBMs could only carry one nuclear warhead per missile. About 30 years ago that changed with the multiple independently targeted reentry vehicle: MIRV. That system allows one missile to hit multiple targets at one time.
So America and Russia have the capacity to put anywhere from three to five warheads on a single missile. In addition, bombers count as just one bomb, but the B-2 can carry 16 of them.
This method of counting is one of the primary ways that New START creates its 30 percent decrease in nuclear weapons. However, other provisions in the treaty offset the slightly deceptive accounting.
One provision sets limits on the number of launch vehicles and delivery systems:
- Deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers are capped at 800. This maximum applies to the silos, submarines and bombers that contain the missiles or bombs.
- Deployed nuclear delivery vehicles are capped at 700. These refer to the missiles and bombs that contain the nuclear warheads.
So while the number of warheads is a bit fluid, the number of missiles and vehicles that carry them is fixed.The treaty, however, does not restrict the composition of these caps. This lets America and Russia decide how many ICBMs, SLBMs and bombers will make up their respective nuclear forces.
Another New START provision, as described in the press summary released by the government, is the reinstatement of inspections which creates new levels of transparency. This transparency is integral to the President’s plan of a nuclear free future, as it is a step forward in diplomatic relations between America and Russia.
The treaty sets out 18 inspections every year that both sides can carry out. There are two different types of inspections.
The first type of inspection focuses on deployed and non-deployed weapons. The second type of inspection focuses only on non-deployed, stored weapons. America and Russia can conduct 10 of the first type and eight of the second every year.
This inspection regime goes to even further lengths with its provision that America and Russia must share technical data: telemetry.
Telemetry is the measurement of a missile’s performance, such as speed and how well it maintains course. This data was once a closely guarded secret by both nations. But now, America and Russia must exchange this information every year on up to five launches.
This exchange shows a tentative trust between the two nations, even after a strained relationship over the war in Georgia and the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
That second issue, missile defense, is one thing that New START does not cover.
The treaty makes no remark about regulating ballistic missile defense systems. It is a sticking point with Russia, as the country’s government sees American anti-ballistic missiles as an intrusion on its sphere of influence—primarily the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe.
However, in the press release about START, the Obama administration laid out its plans for a missile defense system that would be acceptable to Russia, America and American allies.
The system involves a number of American ships fitted with defense missiles that would patrol the Mediterranean Sea. This, according to the government, is a flexible and cost effective solution that will protect American interests and not offend Russia.
Only time will tell how effective it is.
That sentiment also applies, in part, to the Nuclear Position Report released earlier this month. It is the other major component to Obama’s nuclear reform.
NPR stands for “Nuclear Posture Review.” It is a report carried out periodically that discusses the current situation in the world, how it affects American defense and how that changes policy.
The first NPR came out in 1994, and it overhauled America’s nuclear strategy for the post-Cold War world.
The START I treaty is what made the report necessary. It was the first major nuclear disarmament treaty between America and Russia. Negotiations originally started during the Reagan era, but did not come to fruition until 1991, when George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty.
However, the Soviet Union fell six months later, so the treaty did not go into effect until it was signed by the new Russian Federation, and other new countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
These smaller countries had thousands of old Soviet weapons that were simply sitting around in storage. Belarus and Kazakhstan sent their weapons back to storage in Russia, but Ukraine kept a stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium.
That new situation led to the Nuclear Posture Review, as America’s nuclear strategy no longer applied. In 2010, it remains the same, so the new report updates America’s strategy for a world where terrorism is the prime threat.
An important component of the NPR is that America will not develop any new nuclear weapons. Instead, the country will constantly update its current stockpile.
This policy keeps in line with Obama’s idea of reducing nuclear weapons. Why build more when you are deactivating others? That’s the rationale of the Obama administration.
But, by keeping existing weapons on part with current technology it ensures that America’s nuclear weapons are still effective deterrents.
That is the constant theme running through the NPR: deterrence. It is an idea rooted in the Cold War: If you hit me, I will hit you back—harder. While a basic strategy, it kept Russia and America from going to war. Deterrence applies not just to America, but also American allies that are under our protection. The NPR emphasizes it.
However, there is a great deal of debate over the NPR’s statement that America will not use nuclear force in the instance of a biological attack.
This is true. Instead, America will respond with a “devastating conventional military response.”
However, the report continues and states that America reserves the right to change its policy if biological weapons become more powerful.
So it is a gentleman’s agreement. Something is promised, but there is no definite way to back it up, and there are no ramifications if it is broken.
There are no reprisals, no sanctions, if America or Russia decides to refuse inspection or to share telemetry. It is based purely on mutual respect to create openness and transparency between the two countries.
That is a call echoed at the end of the NPR, where it discusses improving transparency and relations with both Russia and China. That transparency is necessary to maintain world security to prevent terrorists and nations like Iran and North Korea using nuclear weapons.
New START, the Nuclear Position Report and the world summit on nuclear weapons this week, are a step toward securing and reducing nuclear weapons.
However, these are small steps, not large leaps.Contact Jason Lowrey.