ISSN 2330-717X

New START Won’t Stop The Arms Race – OpEd


By Konstantin Bogdanov

Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama signed the new strategic arms reduction treaty, New START, in Prague on April 8, 2010. In the two years since, the sides appear to have exhausted all of its benefits. They have quarreled on a whole series of military issues, and now stand on the brink of a new arms race.

Passing necessity off as virtue

In Prague the sides committed themselves to reducing strategic offensive arms to 800 strategic carriers (including no more than 700 deployed) with 1,500 nuclear warheads.

Russia also managed to end the stifling control of American observers over the Votkins Machine Building Plant, a producer of strategic missiles. The exchange of telemetric information from current launches has also become much more liberal.

However, considering the structure of the missiles that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union (primarily their obsolescence rates), a thousand and a half warheads is not the limit of natural reduction, to put it mildly. Withdrawal of obsolete MIRVed missiles may reduce the overall number of warheads on combat duty.

If Russia does not drastically speed up the commissioning of new MIRVed missile systems, its nuclear potential will drop below the Prague level.

Published expert estimates show that if the current trends persist, the floor will be reached at 1,100-1,200 warheads (including strategic aviation, which plays an auxiliary role in the Russian nuclear triad). Therefore, to abide by the ceilings of the Prague treaty, Russia would have to rapidly commission new nuclear missiles.

A realistic analysis clearly shows that Moscow was in no position to have a considerably larger number of nuclear warheads on strategic carriers. In this sense, the Prague treaty is a pragmatic victory of Russian diplomacy.

In other words, Moscow legally compelled Washington to adapt itself to the natural drawdown of Russian nuclear weapons that is taking place regardless of world disarmament efforts. Necessity was passed off as virtue.

This was not a spectacular achievement for a former superpower, but what was the alternative? To lose these warheads without any U.S. commitment to cut their own numbers, while having to abide by numerous restrictions and requirements, lifted in Prague, that held back the domestic industry and the military.

Strategic risk management

However, this was arguably the only positive result of the Prague treaty. The modest achievements in strategic arms cuts are dwarfed by the growing rearmament of American strategic forces, which will eventually upgrade their combat control and capabilities to a new level.

The issue of American global missile defense in Europe has been discussed ad nauseum. In recent months this issue has become a disaster not only during negotiations but even in consultations between Washington and Moscow.

The United States is going to build its missile defense as a mobile and flexible system with highly integrated information and target acquisition equipment. It will develop the combat capabilities of this system. Russia views this infrastructure as a potential source of risks that is capable of influencing the Russian strategic forces’ potential for retaliation.

Moscow has staked out a tough stance on this issue. It demands technical and legal guarantees, but these demands are met with platitudes about how the system does not target Russia. The U.S. has made clear its unwavering commitment to deploy the system and has demanded that control of tactical nuclear weapons should be discussed first (the Russian General Headquarters has not reacted well to this). The sides reached an impasse by the end of the past summer.

The Prompt Global Strike (PGS) concept is discussed less. The concept, recently adopted by the American armed forces, envisions a system that can deliver a precision conventional weapon strike anywhere in the world within one hour.

So far three types of weapons are being suggested for this purpose – precision warheads for conventional submarine-launched Trident ballistic missiles, super sonic cruise missiles (their prototype X-51 Waverider is now being tested), and possible space-based platforms.

The latter would most likely involve military orbital drones, one of which, the X-37, has been tested in near-earth orbit for more than a year.

Vague prospects

The United States will be deploying a flexible, easily upgradable missile defense system that can potentially use any available package of mobile firepower and will rely on completely transparent information. As such, Russia naturally views these attack weapons as capable of delivering a disarming strike at its strategic forces infrastructure. These weapons enhance risks for Russia and lower the threshold of use for irresponsible politicians on the other side.

In response Moscow may make a so-called “military-technical response,” that is, deployment of new missile systems with improved capabilities of breaking through missile defense. Preparations for this have been ongoing for the last few years.

Thus, the choice has been made in favor of a rather straightforward, albeit no less effective, strategy of mounting a massive nuclear missile strike against the missile defense of the potential enemy. The military are practical people. They think in terms of numbers: how many launchers will survive retaliation and how many warheads are expected to hit enemy territory. If there are obstacles to the absolute minimum, the strategic forces must be upgraded.

Nobody can say how the hypothetical START IV, scheduled for 2020, will look in this light, or rather in this darkness. The atmosphere for further negotiations on nuclear disarmament could not been worse than it is now. An arms race, albeit not on the scale of the Cold War, looks much more likely.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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