Hitting the Re-START Button

At their meetingáat the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland and in a speech ináBerlin in June, U.S. PresidentáBarack Obama suggested toáPresident Vladimir Putin that the U.S. and Russiaáshould reduce their nuclear arsenals by one-third from theáceilings set by the 2010 New START agreement and achieve "bold reductions ináU.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe."

Furtheráreciprocal cuts in the two nations' still-bloated Cold War nuclear stockpilesáare in order. Three years since New START was completed, each country possessesámore than enough nuclearáfirepower to deter any Russian or U.S. nuclearáadversary. Today, the chance of a bolt-from-the-blueánuclear attack is near zero, but it is certain that a counter-strike involvingá100 or so nuclear weapons would kill tens of millions almost instantly and more in the following weeks and months.

A reduction to 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each is in the best interests of both the U.S. and Russia

So far, however, Putin and other senior officials haveáresponded coolly to Obama's proposals, offering a long listáof preconditions and concerns. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said Moscow would "carefully" analyze the U.S. proposal on the basis of at leastáseveral factors that affect the balance of deterrence.

Adjustments toánuclear and military postures certainly require careful consideration, but itáis alreadyáclear that maintaining the status quo is not in the strategic interests ofáMoscow or Washington.

Russian officials say they wantáfurther U.S.-şRussian reductions to be "reviewed in a multilateral format"ábecause, as Foreign Minister Sergei LavrovátoldáRossia television, reductions beyondáNew START will makeánuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia comparable to those of otherácountries with nuclear weapons.

This is an overstatement.áToday, the U.S. and Russia possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons and have far more capableádelivery systems than their potential adversaries.áRussiaácurrently has 1,480 deployed warheadsáon some 492 strategic launchers, while the U.S. has 1,654 deployed warheads oná792 strategic launchers. New START allows each side to deploy 1,550 nuclearáwarheads on 700 strategic missiles, submarines and bombers until the year 2021. Each side hasáthousands more tactical nuclear weapons and strategic warheads in reserve.

By comparison,áChina has 50-75 warheads on its land-based, long-range ballistic missiles and aátotal arsenal of some 240 nuclear weapons. France deploys less than 300ástrategic nuclear weapons and Britain less than 160. India, Pakistan and Israeláeach have around 100 nuclear weapons, on short- and medium-range delivery systems.

Russia's strategicáwarhead and delivery system deployments are already below the New STARTáceilings, and Russia is spending heavily to build new strategic missiles to keepápace with the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. retains a significantlyágreater capacity to upload stored warheads on its larger missileáand bomber force.

A one-thirdáreduction in both the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals would ensure thatáboth countries have roughly equivalent strategic arsenalsáand would help reduce the enormous financial costs ofáplanned strategicáforce modernization by both countries. Withoutáanother round of negotiated reductions, Russia will be hard pressed to maintainánumerical parity with the U.S. in the coming years.

Reductionsáto 1,000 or fewer Russian and U.S. deployed strategic warheads would stillágive both countries a huge numerical advantage over other nuclear-armed nations but would also put seriousápressure on China and the others to cap their nuclearáprograms and contribute to the nuclear disarmament process.

Russiaácontinues to insistáthatáfurther offensiveánuclear reductions also depend on a resolution to its concerns aboutáfutureáU.S. strategic missile defense plans.áThis isáreasonable, of course, butáRussia must be more realistic about U.S. missileádefense capabilities, which are far more limited than some Russian militaryáplanners fear.

With theáPentagon's recent decision to terminate its Phase Four missile interceptoráprogram in Europe, there is no U.S. missile interceptor capability ináplace or under development that is capable of downingáRussia's advanced strategicámissiles. U.S. ground-based strategic interceptors in Alaska and California areálimited in number —currently 30 and potentially 44 by 2017— and are notácapable ofádefeating Russia's ballistic missiles equipped with decoys and other countermeasures.

Due to technical constraints, U.S. strategic missile defenses will only have a limited capability against a small number of unsophisticated, long-range missiles, which Iran or North Korea might eventually build in the future.

In April,áObama proposed a legally binding şRussian-U.S.áagreement for the regular exchange of information on missile defense programs,áwhich could help Russia verify U.S.áclaims about its limited missile defenseácapabilities. Such an agreement, accompanied by a joint presidential statementáreaffirming that the two countries' missile interceptor programs do notáthreaten eacháother's security, could go a long way toward addressing Russia'sáconcerns — at least for the next 15 years.

Ryabkováand other Russian officials have also expressed concern about U.S. high-precision, conventional strategic weapons systems. The best way to address this issue isáthrough a new round of strategic arms reductionátalks that limit U.S. and Russian strategic missile and bomber systems,áwhether they carry nuclear or conventional payloads.

For many years, Russianáofficials have said theyáwon't consider limits onátheirástockpile ofásome 2,000átactical nuclearáweapons untiláthe remaining 180 U.S. tactical nuclear bombs storedáin bunkers in fiveáEuropean NATO countries are removedáand their storage sites dismantled. For its part, the U.S. and NATOáhaveásaid they are "preparedáto consider further reducing its requirement for nonstrategicánuclear weaponsáassigned to the alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia."

Fresh thinking and bolder action isárequiredáon both sides.áThisáis not the 1970s or 1980s, when NATO might have considered using nuclear weaponsáto halt a Soviet land invasion or vice versa. Nor is it plausible thatámodernáRussia might need tactical nuclear weapons to defend the homeland from aámilitary threat from its Asian partners China or India.

About half ofáRussia'sátactical nuclear warheadsáare assignedáto obsolete air-defense and naval systems and can be eliminated. Russia can alsoáeasily provide verifiable assurances that its remaining tacticaláwarheads are inácentral locations away from its western border. Meanwhile, the U.S. could begin the process of removing its tactical bombs from Europe. Such stepsáwould reduce the salience of battlefieldánuclear weapons worldwide and improveáprospects in other areas of European security and arms control.

Although eachácountry faces unique security challenges, theámassiveánuclear arsenals that Russia and the U.S. have inherited from the ColdáWar are poorly suited for today's threats,áincluding terrorism, cyberattack and proliferation prevention.

By workingáwith the U.S. on further strategic nuclear reductions,ásensible limits on tactical nuclear weapons and new arrangements on missileádefense, Russia can maintain strategicástability. In addition, both countries can meet theiránuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments on disarmament and can putápressure on other nuclear-armed states to exercise restraint. Putin and Obamaáshould directátheir diplomats to work out a framework agreement in time for the scheduled U.S.-Russian summit in Moscow Sept. 3-4, ahead of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5-6.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of theáindependent, private Arms Control Association, based in Washington.