New START Expires in 3 Years. And Nobody Knows What Comes Next.

A serviceman carries a air-to-ground missile next to Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters during a drill at the Russian southern Stavropol region

It is almost inconceivable that the United States and Russia will conclude a new treaty in the remaining three years of New START’s life.

February 5 marked the seventh anniversary of the entry into force of the New START Treaty. That treaty was signed by U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 and entered into force on February 5, 2011; all deadlines are counted from that date. By the end of the seven-year period, the two countries should complete reductions mandated by that document—that is, comply with the following limits:

- No more than 1,550 warheads on deployed strategic delivery vehicles (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers);

- No more than seven hundred deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped with nuclear arms; and

- No more than eight hundred deployed and undeployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped with nuclear arms.

There is little doubt that both countries will meet their obligations without much effort. They have been hovering around the level of 1,550 warheads for years; the limits on delivery vehicles and launchers are also comfortable (in fact, Russia is significantly below them). According to data exchanged on September 1, 2017, figures for the United States were 1,393 warheads, 660 delivery vehicles, and 800 launchers and bombers; for Russia, 1,561, 501 and 790. The “dip” in U.S. levels below New START limits is temporary—the U.S. Navy was in the process of reducing the number of launch tubes on submarines from twenty-four to twenty, and each submarine is not counted for the duration of refurbishing. On the Russian side, the pace of reductions is primarily determined by the pace of dismantlement of old, Soviet-produced weapons systems; the process has been moving ahead steadily, and there is little doubt that numbers will reach the 1,550 level in time.

New START has a ten-year lifespan, meaning that is set to expire on February 5, 2021. The remaining three years of its life are likely to be smooth and uncontroversial: the United States and Russia will only need to adhere to these levels, which will hardly cause any complications. A more pertinent question is what will come next.

New START: What It Did and Didn’t Achieve

Seen in the context of more than forty years of U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian arms control, New START is a fairly simple treaty—a stopgap measure to save the faltering arms-control process and perhaps pave the way for a more comprehensive agreement. Its main purpose was certainly not as a step toward nuclear disarmament, even though its text refers to Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and American and Russian representatives seek to depict it as such in multilateral fora. Its main purpose was to restore the transparency and predictability that were lost with the expiration of the 1991 START I Treaty in 2009, and New START did that job in a satisfactory manner.

By the end of the previous decade, strategic nuclear arms control was in dire straits. START I was a good and balanced treaty, but it was conceived in the last years of the Cold War. Consequently, its limits on strategic nuclear weapons were too high, at six thousand warheads for each side. It was excessively prescriptive on how each party was allowed to maintain and operate its forces, and its verification system, although highly efficient, was too cumbersome and expensive. These drawbacks were not the fault of negotiators: in the late 1980s, six thousand warheads represented a very significant reduction. Trust between the parties was still low, and there was little experience with designing and operating an efficient verification system. It was a good treaty whose time had probably passed by the end of the 1990s. As both the United States and Russia continued to reduce their strategic arsenals well below the START I limits and acquired significant experience with verification, the need for a new treaty became increasingly apparent.

Yet two attempts to negotiate a replacement failed. START II was signed in 1993, but never entered into force, and was formally abandoned by Russia in 2002 after the United States withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty. In 1997, the two countries agreed on a framework for a new treaty, which could have become START III, but negotiations were still in an early stage by the time the White House passed from the Democrats to the Republicans in 2000, and talks did not resume in 2001.

In its place, the George W. Bush administration proposed a much simpler arrangement—effectively a joint statement, with a promise of significant new reductions. Although it was given, at Moscow’s insistence, the status of a legally binding treaty, in essence 2002’s Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) remained little more than a joint statement. More importantly, it lacked its own verification mechanism, while the START I verification system was poorly designed to confirm compliance with the central limit of 2,200 deployed nuclear warheads. With the planned expiration of START I, SORT was set to remain without any verification whatsoever—yet the George W. Bush administration remained unenthusiastic about concluding a new treaty.

Barack Obama’s administration, which came to the White House in January 2009, had only limited time to address the problem. What the United States and Russia needed most of all was the restoration of the transparency and verification system. Extension of START I was possible, but not desirable, because the treaty itself was outdated. The two countries needed something smoother, more flexible and less expensive.