Article in Politics / Peace & Security / Disarmament
The new START treaty will improve global security. Any reduction in the number of operational nuclear warheads reduces the risk of accidental or unintentional nuclear war and of the theft of nuclear warheads.


On 8 April 2010, in Prague, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). America and Russia agreed to the terms of the new Treaty surprisingly quickly. Its evolution began in April 2009 at a meeting of the two Presidents in London.

The first round of negotiations place in Moscow on 19 and 20 May 2010 with seven more rounds taking place in Geneva, Switzerland between 1 June and 9 November. The successful negotiation of the Treaty was a very welcome and timely boost for President Obama and his administration.

The new START, formally called Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, is the successor to: the START I Treaty; the START II Treaty; and the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT).

The START I Treaty expired on 5 December 2009; the Start II Treaty, signed on 3 January 1993, did not enter into force; and SORT, which came into force on 1 June 2003, would have expired on 31 December 2012.

The new START Treaty, hereafter called the ‘New Treaty’, will expire at the end of December 2012, unless superseded by a subsequent agreement. The US and Russia can agree to extend the New Treaty for a period of no more than five years. The New Treaty, which includes a standard withdrawal clause, was ratified by the US Senate by a 71-26 vote on 22 December 2010 (1).

Ratification by the Federal Assembly of Russia, which requires a majority vote in both the State Duma and the Federation Council of Russia, is still pending. But it will probably be ratified by the Duma in early 2011.

The New Treaty will enter into force on the date of the exchange of instruments of ratification; its duration will be ten years, with an option to renew it for up to five years if both parties agree. The SORT Treaty terminates when the New Treaty enters into force.

The New Limits on the Strategic Nuclear Forces

The New Treaty will limit the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550. Warheads on deployed inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) count toward this limit and each deployed heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments counts as one warhead toward the limit (2). Because only one nuclear warhead is counted per bomber, even though it may carry more, the total number of deployed nuclear warheads actually retained by each side may exceed the limit of 1,550 by a few hundred.

The New Treaty will also limit the total number of deployed strategic delivery vehicles – ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons – to 700 (2). These limits are a significant reduction in the level set by SORT (between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads for each of the USA and Russia) and the 1,600 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 6,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads set by the START I Treaty. The New Treaty levels are to be reached seven years after the Treaty is ratified.

The New Treaty will establish a new inspection and verification regime, replacing the one defined by the SORT Treaty. The new regime allows satellite and remote monitoring, as well as eighteen on-site inspections per year. It also provides for the exchange of telemetry, which will add transparency.

The American Strategic Nuclear Arsenal

As of 1 January 2010, the US nuclear forces contained 1,968 operational strategic nuclear warheads and 500 non-strategic (tactical) nuclear warheads. The latter consisted of about 400 B-61 bombs and 100 Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles. In addition to the operational nuclear arsenal, about 2,600 warheads are held in reserve giving a total stockpile of some 5,100 nuclear warheads. The US also had several thousand more nuclear warheads waiting to be dismantled (3).

The operational US strategic nuclear warheads were deliverable by 60 operational heavy bombers (with 316 nuclear warheads); 450 ICBMs (with 500 nuclear warheads); and 228 SLBMs (with 1,152 nuclear warheads). The total number of strategic delivery systems was 738 (3).

The Russian Strategic Nuclear Arsenal

As of 1 January 2010, the Russian nuclear forces contained 2,510 operational strategic nuclear warheads and about 2,120 tactical nuclear warheads. In addition to the operational nuclear arsenal, about 7,300 warheads are held in reserve or awaiting dismantlement, giving a total Russian stockpile of some 12,000 nuclear warheads (3). The Russians also had several thousand more nuclear warheads waiting to be dismantled.

The operational Russian strategic nuclear warheads were deliverable by 76 operational heavy bombers (with 844 nuclear warheads); 331 ICBMs (with 1,090 nuclear warheads); and 160 SLBMs (with 576 nuclear warheads) (3).

If these figures are compared with the limits of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles allowed by the New Treaty, it will be seen that the US and Russian operational strategic nuclear arsenals will be somewhat reduced.

The Russians will have to reduce the number of their operational strategic nuclear warheads from 2,510 to 1,550; the Americans will have to reduce the number of their operational strategic nuclear warheads from 1,968 to 1,550. The Americans will have to reduce the number of their operational strategic delivery systems from 738 to 700. The Russians could, if they choose to do so, increase the number of their operational strategic delivery vehicles from 567 to 700.

Each of the US and Russia has the flexibility to determine the structure of its strategic nuclear forces within the aggregate limits of the New Treaty. The New Treaty places no limits on tactical nuclear-weapons.

Pros and Cons of the New Treaty

As described, the New Treaty will significantly reduce the American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals. As of 1 January 2010, the two arsenals contained a total of about 4,500 strategic nuclear warheads; the New Treaty will limit them to a total of 3,100 strategic nuclear warheads, a reduction of about 30 per cent.

Compared with President Obama’s goal of reducing the global nuclear arsenals to zero, this may be seen to be only a modest reduction. But compared with historical levels the American and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals will, under the New Treaty, be rather small.

The number of nuclear warheads in the American arsenal peaked in 1967 at 32,500; the number in the Soviet/Russian arsenal peaked in 1986 at 45,000 (4). Since 1945, the Americans built more than 70,000 nuclear warheads and, since 1949, the Soviet Union/Russia built over 55,000 nuclear warheads (5). A staggering total of 125,000 nuclear warheads have been fabricated.

These figures show that there have undoubtedly been large reductions in the number of deployed nuclear weapons in the American and Soviet/Russian arsenals. By continuing this trend, The New Treaty will improve global security. Any reduction in the number of operational nuclear warheads reduces the risk of accidental or unintentional nuclear war and of the theft of nuclear warheads.

The New Treaty will somewhat strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. Article VI of the Treaty states that "Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament." The Americans and Russians can claim that the New Treaty moves them closer to the fulfillment of this treaty obligation.

The New Treaty may well give some momentum to Obama’s efforts to persuade the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) which bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 September 1996 but it has not yet entered into force.

The US has signed but not ratified the CTBT. An American ratification would put significant pressure on those countries who have not yet ratified the treaty to do so and hasten the day when it comes into force.

The New Treaty’s verification regime will increase trust between the America and Russia and will go a long way to restore on-site verification.

The New Treaty is unlikely to affect future American/Russian negotiations on ballistic missile defense systems. According to the US, the New Treaty will not limit missile defenses. Russia has announced that it will distinguish between strategic weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made clear that his country is opposed to the continuation of a US missile defense programme in Europe; it has rankled Russia for a long time.

A strong criticism of the New Treaty is that is that it does limit the numbers of tactical nuclear weapons deployed by the US and Russia. This is to the advantage of Russia which has four times more tactical nuclear weapons in its nuclear arsenal than the US.

The American and Russian nuclear arsenals will remain relatively large after the New Treaty comes into force. The next largest nuclear-weapon arsenal will be that of France, with 300 deployed nuclear warheads; China has about 200 deployed nuclear warheads; the UK has 160; Israel has about 100; and India and Pakistan each have about 80.

It will certainly be a long and difficult up-hill task to achieve President Obama’s goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. There are strong vested interests working to maintain the nuclear arsenals. Given the size of their nuclear arsenals, the Americans and Russians must lead the way. Will their future leaders be strong enough to so? Only time will tell.


  1. The White House, Key Facts about the New START Treaty,
  2. US State Department, The New START Treaty
  3. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, SIPRI Yearbook 2010, p.360, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  4. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, Nuclear Pursuits, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, p.71, September/October 2003.
  5. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, p.64, July/August 2006.
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Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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