Jeffrey LewisFollow on to START

Well, we have a Joint Understanding for the START Follow-on Treaty.

I observe that Reuters, in one of those irritating self indulgent news analysis pieces, frames the question “Spin or Deep Cut?” (The article, by Guy Faulconbridge is actually pretty good; not as bad as the headline would suggest.)

I think this outline is neither spin, nor a deep cut. I view the START Follow-on as an interim agreement to preserve the verification mechanisms in START (which disappear with START in December) for a second agreement that will take two or three years to negotiate. Deep cuts will have to wait for this second agreement, to which the Obama Administration has committed publicly.

The key observation is

The new agreement will enhance the security of both the U.S. and Russia, as well as provide predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces.

It is by this measure that we should judge the numbers in the treaty:

The Joint Understanding commits the United States and Russia to reduce their strategic warheads to a range of 1500-1675, and their strategic delivery vehicles to a range of 500-1100.

1500-1675 Warheads: The warhead range is easy enough to explain. A range of 1,500-1,675 warheads is really just a way of saying lower than George Bush’s damnable Moscow Treaty — but not too much lower, at least not until we finish the Nuclear Posture Review.

That seems reasonable to me. The reality of the calendar inherited from the Bush Administration is that a Follow-on Treaty needs to be completed soon, ideally before December. That means the Obama Administration doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for the full Nuclear Posture Review or doing all the preparations for deep cuts.

The Administration has balanced the need to move quickly with the need to ensure Senate support for another agreement, making some interim decisions about near-term force levels that are consistent with any plausible outcome of the NPR and that, therefore, do not prejudge its outcome.

500-1100 Delivery Systems: The more interesting range, in the Joint Understanding, is the one listed for delivery vehicles — between five and eleven hundred. That’s quite a band. The upper bound is more than twice as large as the lower bound.

As I understand it, the range simply reflects the opening bids in an unfinished negotiation. I tweeted in June that the opening US offer was 1,100 delivery vehicles — which is basically where the US is today under START (1,198 as of the last MOU).

The Russians, on the other hand, are still experiencing a process of atrophying strategic forces. Arbatov et al observe that many of Russia’s 800 or so delivery vehicles are “obsolete, vulnerable and unreliable systems, at best capable of serving for STARSORT counting rules and filling quotas.” Not surprisingly, Russia proposed the lower number.

It looks like they never made any progress, with the US refusing Russian requests for cuts to force structure. The Joint Understanding simply kicks this problem down the road, so we will be hearing more about this.

For what it is worth, I am actually sympathetic to the American position on this point. This is not, as I said, the time for a deep cuts treaty. What we need is a stop-gap measure to place legally-binding, verifiable limits on Russian and American strategic forces before START expires in December. (The Moscow Treaty doesn’t come into effect until December 31, 2012, when it expires.)

Legally-binding, verifiable limits are deeply in Russia’s interest ( which, I suspect, contributes to their decision to settle for the Joint Statement on Missile Defense, rather than binding limits in an agreement.)

I understand that Russia seeks to constrain US capacity to deploy many, many more nuclear weapons in long crisis whether you call it upload, augmentation, hedging or shrubbery. I am all for trimming the hedge, as it were, but this agreement doesn’t seem to me to be the place to do that. The President will have a very hard time selling this (and, as a result, any future) agreement to the Senate if it appears that he is reducing forces before the Nuclear Posture Review is completed.

So, all in all, I think it is a modest, necessary first step toward a better future.


  1. Wonkmeister (History)


    Your link in the first paragraph is to the Joint Understanding Fact Sheet, not the actual text of the document. For some reason, the White House has not yet posted the text. The Russians have it on their website (in Russian): Or you can check Pavel Podvig’s blog at for his translation with commentary.

  2. MarkoB

    One thing left out here is the link between BMD and strategic arms control, which ever since SALT and the ABMT has been pretty important. It would seem that there will be no deep cuts so long as East European BMD remains on the table, judging by Medvedev’s comments.

    If we are to truly have a follow on agreement then Obama will have to bite the bullet and rule East European BMD out, if not the entire programme which is a sense less transfer payment to the defence-aerospace sector in the context of the global financial crisis. There are much more important things to spend money on.

    Thus far the signs don’t look too good on the East Europe BMD front. You seem to assume that a follow-on agreement is already something akin to a formality.

    Actually, this agreement might even lead us to go in the opposite direction. That is it could entrench something like NSPD-14. 1,500-1,6750 is NSPD-14 friendly. To change the force structure would require ditching NSPD-14 and the underlying conceptual framework.

    At a minimum we now know that the targeting strategy that underpins OPLAN-8010 is in place over the lifetime of the agreement. That being the case any PD that comes out of the NPR would have to be OPLAN-8010 friendly with an option to change things down the line.

    However, it could turn out that a Gates led Pentagon could use this agreement to entrench current nuclear strategy as a means of outflanking reformers. Something like that happened during Clinton’s NPR.

    A priori we don’t know how things will go from here. That being the case conclusions like the one you have made are unwarranted. If we want government to move in the right direction the public has to make them go in the right direction.

  3. bobbymike (History)

    “The new agreement will enhance the security of both the U.S. and Russia, as well as provide predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces.”

    What is this the height of the Cold War. What a nonsensical statement to make in 2009.

    Where is Slim Pickens “Well it looks like nuclear combat toe to toe with the Ruskies”

    It is like we are in political time warp. Great Society revisited, arms control. What’s next overseas adventurism in some third world backwater….oh wait!!

  4. Anon

    A new agreement for the sake of a new agreement. Meanwhile,others modernize their nuclear weapons,while America’s nuclear deterrent continues to decay toward a point of absolute negligence.

    “… a modest, necessary first step toward a better future.” I can’t agree.

  5. The Donkey (History)

    I fail to see the point in limiting delivery vehicles.

    Isn’t the key to crisis stability to limit warheads?

    Wouldn’t it be better to have a lower number of warheads per delivery vehicle?