US and Russia sign ‘New START’ deal in Prague

In what stands as a boost to President Obama’s ambitious disarmament agenda, April saw the US and Russian leaders meet in Prague—where one year ago Mr Obama proclaimed his vision of a world without nuclear weapons—to sign the so-called ‘New START’ pact which, after many long days of negotiations, stipulates cuts in the number of their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to below 1,550 apiece. The reductions are to be achieved within seven years of the treaty’s entry into force—not, it might be added, a foregone conclusion. Operationally deployed delivery platforms are also cut, with each country being allowed, in total, no more than 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers equipped to handle nuclear arms. Bomber counting rules, though, have raised concerns, since each deployed heavy bomber is counted as being representative of one warhead, when bombers can in reality carry many more. US B-52 bombers, for instance, can hold up to 20.

Almost a year in the making, the New START deal was designed to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (hence, START), which expired in December after 15 years in force. The intention was to have its successor in place before then, but differences over verification provisions and missile defences saw negotiations extend several months into 2010. New START is to supersede the 2002 Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (better known as the Moscow Treaty, or SORT), which set a maximum ceiling of 2,200 for the number of deployed strategic warheads allowed by each side, a target that was supposed to be reached by 2012. Unlike the Moscow Treaty, however, which contained no verification provisions, New START includes many of the stringent verification measures that formed a large part of the 1991 accord. Measures include on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications, provisions for the exchange of missile telemetry data and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means.

Some see verification as more important than the number of warheads, delivery vehicles and their counting rules. As Pavel Podvig, of California’s Stanford University, has written: ‘Whether it is 1,550 or 500 warheads, it’s far too many. What is important is that the treaty provides the public with a way to hold the US and Russian governments accountable for the nuclear weapons they possess…A strong mechanism of transparency and verification is much more important than any specific number of warheads that the treaty eventually will mandate.’

But to even come into force, the treaty must first be ratified by both the US Senate and the Russian parliament, the Duma. In the US, where its legislative approval is likely to be a trickier prospect, ratification hearings began in early June. Obama administration officials are publicly confident, but with mid-term elections (due 2 November 2010) drawing nearer, time is of the essence. ‘We’d really like to get New START ratified this year, meaning we have to start sooner rather than later,’ said Ellen Tauscher, US under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, back in April. ‘Because once we get into election season, and possibly a lame-duck session of Congress, everything becomes unpredictable. We can’t bank on the idea that we get more than one chance at this.’

David Cliff, London