A Russian View of START

Commentary | June 07, 2010

The follow-on agreement to the expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between Washington and Moscow, referred to as the START III agreement by Russian experts, was a long-awaited and significant breakthrough in the stalemated bilateral relations. It paved the way not only for improved relations between Russia and the United States in other areas, but is also credited with creating a better atmosphere for other nonproliferation initiatives, such as the Nuclear Security Summit and the recently concluded Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference.

Retired Colonel-General Victor Esin, former Chief of Staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, offers an analysis of the latest START agreement and its implications for the Russian strategic forces:

The new START Treaty signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on April 8, 2010 has to be analyzed at two interconnecting and intercorrelated levels.

The essence of the first level is that, after seven years of the new Treaty entering into force, both parties will have a total number of not more than 8,000 deployed and non-deployed ICBM and SLBM launchers and nuclear-armed heavy bombers each.

The second level limits the number of strategic carriers and corresponding warheads. After seven years, the limits of deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear armed heavy bombers for each party cannot exceed 700 units and 1,550 nuclear warheads.

The five following aspects are very important:

First, all ICBMs and SLBMs launchers, including those for testing, military personnel training and those at the space launch sites, which are intended for the launch of space launch vehicles, will be taken into account.

Second, under the Treaty, only nuclear armed heavy bombers are subject to the limits and accounting. The number of conventional armed heavy bombers is not covered by the Treaty. But the Treaty has special provisions for the procedure of the conversion of nuclear armed heavy bombers into conventional armed bombers which, according to experts who participated in the Treaty negotiations, does not allow for their re-conversion.

Third, the limits and accounting cover all types of deployed ICBMs and SLBMs irrespective of whether they are tipped with nuclear or conventional warheads.

Fourth, the limit of 1,550 warheads includes all warheads – both nuclear and conventional – on deployed ICBMs and SLBMs and nuclear arms for deployed heavy bombers. In addition, a special accounting rule is stipulated for heavy bombers: one bomber counts as one warhead. This may be a defect of the Treaty because the heavy bomber actually can carry from twelve to twenty nuclear-armed cruise missiles and more than twenty nuclear bombs. Nuclear bombs can be carried only by U.S. heavy bombers. Russian heavy bombers are armed only with cruise missiles.

Fifth, each party has the right to define the structure of its nuclear forces on its own and in accordance with “the levels” for the launchers and warheads established by the Treaty. Now Russia has been freed from the burdens established on the structure of its strategic nuclear forces by START I. It is very important for Russia that the new Treaty does not forbid the replacement of single warheads of existing RS-12 ICBMs by MIRVs.

Can Russia maintain parity in strategic nuclear arms with the U.S. under the new Treaty? To answer this question we must assess the current status of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces.

According to the rules (pro forma in many respects) of START I, as of July 1, 2009 (the date of the latest exchange of written notifications between the parties of the Treaty containing updated information on their strategic offensive arms) Russia’s arsenal totaled 809 strategic launchers fitted with 3,987 warheads, and the U.S.’s totaled 1,188 strategic launchers with the associated number of 5,916 warheads. However, de facto, as of March 2010, Russia’s deployed nuclear strategic forces included 560 launchers fitted with approximately 2,500 warheads while the U.S. had about 800 launchers fitted with 2,100 warheads.

What does this mean for the U.S. and Russia?


To fulfill the new Treaty obligations, Russia (if it does not want to go below the level of 700 deployed launchers) will need to accomplish two tasks. First, the launchers with the expired operational terms, subject for disposal, should be replaced with new ones. Second, another 140 new launchers should be put on operational posture in order to reach the agreed 700 limit thus filling the currently existing gap between this limit and the actual number of deployed launchers.

United States:

The U.S. has the easier task – only to reduce the excessive quantity of the strategic launchers.

Should Russia overcome these many difficulties to maintain parity with the U.S. in number of launchers as it did in Soviet times? My answer is: No, Russia does not need to match the U.S. launcher for launcher. Russia’s main goal is “to have such strategic nuclear-forces potential, which is able to provide assured nuclear deterrence.” But this task, according to expert calculations, can be successfully accomplished by the unbalanced number of strategic launchers in Russia compared with the U.S. It should be enough for Russia to have 500 deployed strategic launchers and 1,550 warheads that will provide compatible combat capability with the U.S., which will have: 700 deployed launchers and the same number of 1,550 deployed warheads. In reality, warheads destroy targets not launchers .

Undoubtedly, the U.S. will have bigger reloading potential than Russian strategic nuclear forces. But this superiority does not play a decisive role in Russia’s nuclear deterrence potential.

What is an actual threat to Russia is the unlimited build-up of the U.S. global ABM system. That is why Russia made a special statement on the ABM problem during the signing of the new START Treaty in Prague. The statement declared that the Treaty can work and be vigorous only in the absence of qualitative and quantitative build up of the U.S. ABM capabilities. The Russian Federation can withdraw from the Treaty under Article XIV of the Treaty if the threat posed by the U.S. ABM capabilities leads to the devaluation of Russia’s strategic nuclear potential.