Reset Nuclear Arms Negotiations Now

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The Cold War ended nearly two decades ago, yet U.S. and Russian nuclear doctrines and capabilities remain largely unchanged. Washington and Moscow are no longer enemies, yet today each country still deploys at least 2,200 strategic nuclear weapons, many of which are primed for a quick launch to deter a surprise attack by the other.

To be sure, arms control agreements have reduced excess nuclear stockpiles and provided greater predictability and stability. The landmark 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, slashed each nation's strategic warhead deployments from about 10,000 to less than 6,000, and it limited each country to no more than 1,600 strategic delivery systems.

Since then, however, U.S. and Russian leaders have missed opportunities to achieve deeper, irreversible cuts in warhead, missile and bomber stockpiles. The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT, calls for no more than 1,700 to 2,200 deployed strategic warheads by 2012. But the agreement expires the same day that the warhead limit takes effect. Unlike START, SORT does not require the elimination of excess missiles and bombers. Worse still, it failed to establish new verification mechanisms, relying instead on those contained in START, which is due to expire on Dec. 5.

Without START's far-reaching verification system, neither side would be able to confidently predict the size and location of the other's nuclear forces, adding another dangerous irritant to strained U.S.-Russian relations.

Renewed progress on U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament is long overdue. As President Barack Obama said in his news conference on Monday, "It is important for us to restart the conversation about how we can start reducing our nuclear arsenals in an effective way so that we then have the standing to go to other countries and start stitching back together the nonproliferation treaties that frankly have been weakened over the last several years." On the Russian side, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that Russia is "ready to go further on the path of reductions and limitations."

Both sides are clearly interested in doing more than merely extending the 18-year-old START. Russia has shown interest in deeper reductions, perhaps 1,500 strategic warheads or fewer on each side, along with lower ceilings on the number of strategic delivery systems. This would help maintain the numerical parity and save Russia the expense of extending the service life of some aging missile systems.

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The Obama administration has said it "will seek deep, verifiable reductions in all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons -- whether deployed or nondeployed, strategic or nonstrategic. As a first step, we will seek a legally binding agreement to replace START." Obama officials have also said that "ending the Cold War practice of keeping nuclear weapons ready for launch on a moment's notice should also be a priority."

According to some recent media reports, Obama has already decided seek cuts to 1,000 warheads. In reality, with the new president in office less than a month and a new nuclear policy review just beginning, decisions about how low to go, whether to limit warheads or delivery systems and how to verify the pact have not been made.

Public statements suggest that Obama's team will at the very least likely pursue reductions in deployed strategic warheads beyond the lower end of the SORT limit (1,700) by 2012. That would be a step forward. But deeper reductions -- to 1,000 total warheads or less in the coming years -- are possible and prudent if each side is bold and visionary.

Massive arsenals that are capable of annihilating entire nations within an hour are more of a liability than an asset because they breed mistrust and worst-case assumptions among other states. They also perpetuate the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch. It is estimated that no other country possesses more than 300 nuclear warheads.

In the coming weeks, Russian and U.S. negotiators will likely pursue further cuts through a combination of approaches, including lower limits on the number of their strategic delivery systems and verifiably reducing the number of warheads allowed on each missile or bomber. A streamlined system of START-style data exchanges and on-site inspections, plus new deployed warhead monitoring techniques, could give each side sufficient confidence that neither could quickly build up its forces.

For the talks to succeed, each side must adjust their earlier positions. Russia should be more willing to support more intrusive warhead monitoring and verification approaches, and it should agree to data exchanges on nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which remain unregulated by any treaty.

The United States will need to consider retiring some of its modern submarine and missile forces and undertake an expensive retrofitting of re-entry vehicles to limit the number of warheads they can deliver.

If an agreement cannot be reached by December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested that "a mutually acceptable means should be found to give the negotiators more time without allowing key measures, including essential monitoring and verification provisions, to lapse."

Restarting the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control process could dramatically reduce the number of nuclear weapons, improve global cooperation to help meet other nuclear threats and help repair U.S.-Russian relations. The time to begin is now.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the independent Arms Control Association in Washington and publisher of the monthly journal Arms Control Today.