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Alexander Yermakov

Military analyst, RAC expert

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), one of the pillars of strategic stability in the world, fell apart before our very eyes. And now the foundations of the core instrument of global arms control – the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – are starting to crumble too, as it is looking dangerously unlikely that the bare minimum of extending the agreement will be achieved. It is time we started preparing ourselves for the possibility of waking up in March 2021 in a world where there are no restrictions on nuclear weapons.

The potential disintegration of New START would not be catastrophic for Russia, all the more so because the country could derive some benefit from the “inter-treaty” period and approach the next, and hopefully inevitable, stage of arms control from the best position possible. However, a protracted nuclear arms race would present a serious danger both for the Russian economy and for its security, not to mention the obvious heightened threat of a nuclear conflict that must be avoided. A serious and substantive dialogue with the next U.S. administration – which will have to deal with the issue of the enormous expense of renewing the nuclear triad – is thus inevitable, and we have to be prepared for this.


The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), one of the pillars of strategic stability in the world, fell apart before our very eyes. And now the foundations of the core instrument of global arms control – the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – are starting to crumble too, as it is looking dangerously unlikely that the bare minimum of extending the agreement will be achieved. It is time we started preparing ourselves for the possibility of waking up in March 2021 in a world where there are no restrictions on nuclear weapons.

The potential disintegration of New START would not be catastrophic for Russia, all the more so because the country could derive some benefit from the “inter-treaty” period and approach the next, and hopefully inevitable, stage of arms control from the best position possible. However, a protracted nuclear arms race would present a serious danger both for the Russian economy and for its security, not to mention the obvious heightened threat of a nuclear conflict that must be avoided. A serious and substantive dialogue with the next U.S. administration – which will have to deal with the issue of the enormous expense of renewing the nuclear triad – is thus inevitable, and we have to be prepared for this.

Until recently, it was difficult to imagine that such a situation could even exist. Back in 1972, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to limit the growth of nuclear weapons, an agreement that would become known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I. SALT II, which was signed 40 years ago in June 1979, was the first document to mandate a reduction in the number of launchers and introduce restrictions on the modernization of strategic nuclear forces (SNF). A new flare-up in the Cold War meant that the United States never ratified the agreement, although the two sides did respect its main provisions. The signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) in 1987 became a symbol of the dramatic improvement in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States following a particularly difficult period in the early 1980s. Under the Treaty, the parties agreed to eliminate existing intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, which had been the source of tensions in Europe for several years. And the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) on July 30–31, 1991, three weeks before the August Coup, may very well be considered a formal sign of the end of the Cold War.

Once START I entered into force, Russia and the United States had a fundamental treaty that limited the development of strategic nuclear forces and set the “rules of the game.” The types of weapons that were permitted, the procedures for their deployment, the practice of carrying out mutual inspections, and the timeframes for reaching specific limits were all regulated. New agreements always came into force before the provisions of the previous one had expired. For example, START I was in effect until December 5, 2009, while the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) entered into force on June 1, 2003 [1]. SORT remained in effect until the end of 2012, when it was replaced by New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which actually entered into force on February 5, 2011, and is the agreement that we have today. New START was signed for a period of ten years, that is, until February 2021, with the option of extending it for a further five years if both parties so desired, and assuming that no other treaties that would supersede it have been concluded in the meantime.

Back when New START was being signed, the provision on extending the agreement seemed like an unnecessary assurance in light of the “reset” of relations between the administrations of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. Now we can see that it was a good thing they included it. And this is not surprising: the INF Treaty, which formed the basis for the provisions of the START and SORT treaties, has been pulled out from under us. Moreover, the collapse of the INF Treaty was accompanied by a litany of accusations against Russia in U.S. political circles and the media and counter accusations by Russia. And now the sides are accusing each other of failing to observe the provisions of New START, with the United States even going as far as claiming that Russia is conducting banned nuclear tests [2]. While the sides have opened a cautious dialogue on issues of strategic stability, the prospects of at least extending the New START given the current trends in bilateral relations are bleak.

Negative and Positive Experiences

This is not the first crisis in the recent history of agreements on limiting strategic nuclear forces. The most important of these crises involved the START II treaty signed on January 3, 1993. The document was supposed to supplement the START I treaty, further reduce the size of nuclear arsenals and, something that was revolutionary for the time, introduce a ban on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and restrict the number of charges on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These measures were designed to increase strategic stability by reducing the effectiveness of first strikes. Put simply, the mass proliferation of ICBMs with MIRVs would mean that the side inflicting the first strike could “incapacitate” several of the enemy’s delivery systems carrying significantly more warheads than were used in the attack in a single blow.

The attacking side could thus destroy the enemy’s strategic nuclear forces using only a part of its own nuclear potential: carry out a successful so-called “counterforce strike” and achieve victory by threatening to use the rest of its arsenal on a countervalue strike (that is, against economic centers and the population). In a crisis situation, this would serve as an incentive to attack first, in an attempt to preempt the enemy. Such a situation is impossible if the vehicle delivers a single charge only. On the contrary, there will not be a sufficient number of missiles to launch a reliable counterforce strike with a “reserve.”

Of course, the reader might note that this classical justification is only true for conventional strategic nuclear forces consisting exclusively of stationary ICBM launch facilities and based on the assumption that the side under attack will carry out a retaliatory strike rather than a counterforce strike. In reality, the strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russia include enhanced stability components (mobile ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines), and their ballistic missile early warning systems give them enough time to deploy their ICBMs should the corresponding order be issued. Nevertheless, equipping a single delivery system with several dozen charges increases both its value and its ability to carry out a counterforce strike. The softer stance on SLBMs can be explained by the fact that SLBMs have historically been seen as less suitable for counterforce strikes because they are far less accurate.

Potential disintegration of New START would not be catastrophic for Russia, all the more so because the country could derive some benefit from the “inter-treaty” period and approach the next, and hopefully inevitable, stage of arms control from the best positions possible.

The signing of START II coincided with the operation to demobilize the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, whereby its nuclear weapons were either transferred to Russia or destroyed in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, as well as with the extremely complicated economic and domestic political situation in Russia. In view of this, the Russian parliament initially refused to ratify the agreement. The refusal to ratify START II was also due to the parliament’s standoff with the president, as well as the fact that significant expenditures would be required to modernize the strategic nuclear forces. By the end of the 1990s, deteriorating relations with the United States, and its plans to create a national missile defense program in particular, became the main stumbling blocks to ratification. Russia nevertheless formally ratified START II on May 4, 2000, on the condition that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) be preserved. Russia withdrew from START II on June 14, 2002, the day after it expired.

It should be noted that the collapse of START II and the ABM Treaty did not lead to the disintegration of the nuclear weapons control system, although the situation at the time was greatly different from the one that we have today. At the turn of the century, the sides had diametrically opposed positions on key issues, but were nevertheless determined to preserve a substantive dialogue, which led to the speedy conclusion of SORT and, later, to New START. Today, neither side has rejected New START, and accusations of non-compliance are not fundamental in nature. However, there is no meaningful dialogue between the sides and the attitude towards cooperation in these areas is primarily negative, particularly in the United States. The domestic political situation in the United States complicates the matter somewhat: the presidential elections will take place on November 3, 2020, which will bring the issue of a nuclear agreement with Russia into the spotlight of the campaigns of Donald Trump and his opponent, and the demand for a tough stance here is greater than before.

The Day after Tomorrow

It is, thus, highly likely that New START will not be extended and will cease to exist in February 2021. And Russia needs to understand this. What will this mean for relations between the great powers, arms control, and, most importantly, national security and the development of military capabilities?

The collapse of the Treaty will no doubt lead to increasingly frequent accusations of nuclear violations, possibly to a far greater level than we have witnessed during the disintegration of the INF Treaty. If Donald Trump loses the election, it will be difficult to reach an agreement with the new administration, as it will take (at least outwardly) a decidedly anti-Russian stance. Even if Trump wins, it will be a tough task to get a deal ratified [3]. What is more, against the background of the standoff with China, he could continue to demand that it becomes a signatory to the treaty as well, which is hardly likely. On the whole, the proposals on the part of the United States to “replace New START with a trilateral agreement” look like it is already preparing to name the culprits for its inevitable failure, and Moscow can take solace in the fact that Beijing will also be blamed.

An important negative factor in the post-START world will be the growing mistrust in an extremely sensitive area. The value of the START agreements was not only in the controlled and synchronous elimination of surplus nuclear arsenals, but also in the smoothly running system of inspections and the exchange of sensitive information. Of course, suspicions were (and always will be) there, but they are of a different nature. It is one thing when the Russian side declares after a thorough inspection that it has come to the conclusion that it is sufficient to simply remove the fastenings that sealed off four decommissioned torpedo tubes of Ohio-class submarines and that it would like greater reliability. But it is something entirely different when Russian experts have no access to them and there will be fears that submarines will be deployed with two dozen fully loaded Trident missiles, that is, with the entire arsenal of France on board. We will no longer have information exchanges on test launches. And inspections of nuclear weapons complexes and warhead and delivery system maintenance and production facilities will cease. The loss of these guarantees will strengthen the positions of warmongers in the upper echelons of the governments of both countries.

The lack of progress on the global arms control agenda in reducing the world’s main arsenals will exacerbate disputes at the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and will almost certainly lead to its crushing failure, which will be felt particularly deeply in light of the fact that the conference is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force. This will boost the positions of those who are constantly reproaching the “nuclear club” for the hypocrisy of their “radical revolutionaries.” The sad irony is that, feeling the pressure of these attacks, the United States and Russia may very well form a united front in this situation, albeit on this one battlefield only.

The two sides brought their strategic nuclear forces in line with the limits set by New START over 18 months ago. According to the agreement, the American nuclear triad will look like this by spring 2021:

  • 400 deployed Minuteman III missiles each with a single warhead [4]. An additional 54 Minuteman III launchers do not hold ICBMs and therefore do not count as deployed.
  • 14 Ohio-class submarines, two of which must be in overhaul at any one time. The remaining 12 carry up to 20 Trident II SLBMs with 1090 deployed warheads [5].
  • 46 B-52H bombers (including four nondeployed bombers) and 20 B-2A bombers (including two that are not deployed) [6]. The nuclear aviation weapons in the arsenal of the United States Air Force include AGM-86B ALCM air-launched cruise missiles for B-52H bombers and B61- and B63-family ballistic dumb bombs for B-2A [7].
Dmitry Stefanovich: :
The INF Treaty: Mirror or Abyss?

What could the United States do with its arsenal in the event that New START expires without being extended or replaced? Strange as it may seem, not much. The plan to radically modernize the nuclear triad has been repeatedly put off and, while it is now receiving financing and the project is moving forward, the United States will spend much of the next decade with the strategic nuclear forces it has had since the 1970s and 1980s. None of the delivery systems that are currently in development will be ready within the next several years: the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine is set for completion in 2031 [8]; the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) ICBM will be put on standby alert in 2029; and best-case projections for the B-21 heavy bomber to enter the initial operational capability phase are the mid-2020s, although the Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSO) cruise missile will likely be ready by the end of the decade.

Thus, the only practical step that the United States can take in the short term, if it deems it necessary, is to increase the number of deployed warheads by refitting their Minuteman III and Trident II missiles and returning the four torpedo tubes on its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine into operation. This would be seen as an aggressive step (it would be absurd and dangerous to hope to carry out such an operation in secret) and would only be taken as part of a powerful political campaign to accuse Russia of radically increasing its own arsenals following the collapse of New START and the need to “maintain a balance.” This would be an extremely destructive step, and all we can do is hope that it will not come to this, at least for the simple fact that it makes no sense. If it does not produce new delivery systems, the United States will not be able to qualitatively increase the striking power of its strategic nuclear forces: any additional charges received will still not guarantee a reliable counterforce or retaliatory strike in the event that it is attacked first [9]. As for the deterrent function of strategic nuclear forces, to put it simply and cynically, there is practically no difference as far as Washington’s counterpart is concerned whether 1000, 1500 or 2000 warheads reach its territory and explode.

However, if the absence of agreements limiting strategic nuclear forces drags on, then the United States could derive a number of benefits from this. First is the development of nuclear versions of new hypersonic weapons. At the same time, work is under way in a number of different areas, including intermediate-range surface-to-surface (and sea-launched) ballistic missiles with warheads (gliders) and several aircraft missile programs. Officially, these are all non-nuclear weapons, but they can easily be re-equipped in the event that the situation deteriorates, as high-quality thermonuclear charges are not overly big or heavy. These weapons programs are already making Russia rather uncomfortable, and in terms of building up nuclear capacities, the possible development of Pershing 3 missiles in Europe and the transformation of the numerous multi-purpose Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines into advanced delivery systems of nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles could seriously shift the balance of powers [10]. In addition, the nuclear arms race will no doubt have a hand in nuclear cruise missiles returning to the arsenal of the U.S. fleet [11], which will increase its striking power significantly, as any submarine or destroyer/cruiser could potentially become a delivery system for nuclear weapons with a range of several thousand kilometers.

What is the situation with Russia? We should immediately note here that the data used is unofficial and taken from open (primarily non-Russian) sources [12]. It may sound ridiculous, but the only party that the Russian military shares exact figures with a breakdown by system is the United States Department of State, which, in accordance with agreements concluded with Russia, only publishes aggregate figures. By spring 2021, the Russian nuclear triad may look like this:

  • ICBM launchers: approximately 20 deployed heavy RS-20V Voevoda (R-36M2, English designation SS-18 Satan), which will be replaced by the RS-28 Sarmat; the first six Avangard gliders on the RS-18B ICBM (UR-100N UTTH); approximately 60–70 RS-12M1/RS-24 Topol-M/Yars-M (SS-27 Mod 1/2, not to be confused with mobile modifications).
  • Mobile ICBMs on wheeled chassis: up to 150 RS-24 Yars; 18 RS-12M2 Topol-M will most likely remain, but the “original” RS-12M Topol (SS-25) may be replaced.
  • 10 ballistic missile submarines, including three Project 955 Borei and one Project 955A Borei-A carrying 16 RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles each (R-30, SS-N-30), and six Project 667BDRM carrying 16 RSM-54 Sineva/Layner submarine-launched ballistic missiles (R-29RMU2/R-29RMU2.1, SS-N-23). Two more Project 955A submarines are likely to be completed/tested and a further two are under construction, which will replace the old Project 667BDRM submarines as they become ready.
  • Approximately 50–60 Tu-95MS and 15–20 Tu-160 [13] with Kh-55SM and Kh-102 cruise missiles. Mass supplies of Tu-160M2 may commence. The Tu-22M3 will have strategic aviation-like capabilities, especially modernized versions, if they are equipped with nuclear versions of the Kinzhal and Zircon hypersonic missiles.

If we try to move onto a breakdown of the number of charges, then we will be reduced to speculation, which is of little value to the current topic. We might only note that Russian ICBMs are traditionally more “multi-headed” than American ICBMs: almost all of them are, or can be, equipped with several warheads, which means that the ratio of charges to delivery systems in possession of the Russian Federation is almost 1.5 times greater than that of the United States. As a result, Russia has fewer delivery systems than the United States, but more warheads. As of March 1, 2019, the United States had 1365 warheads on 656 ICBMs, compared to Russia’s 1461 warheads on 524 ICBMs.

It is clear that, unlike the United States, Russia is in the process of updating its strategic nuclear forces. This process will continue until 2021. The country is producing delivery systems for the entire nuclear triad, including in such promising areas as maneuverable reentry vehicles. Russia could take advantage of the break in arms control to launch the new Sarmat, Tu-160M2 and strategic long-range missile systems without having to undergo any kind of inspection. The liquidation of the old systems can be timed to coincide with a new round of quantitative reductions. At the same time, Russia’s reserve of deployed ICBMs is now so great that it can quite calmly declare that “for reasons of goodwill and the desire to demonstrate a willingness to cooperate” it will continue to honor the limits set by New START, while continuing to upgrade its strategic nuclear forces even at an accelerated pace.

Does this mean that there is no cause for concern in Russia in connection with the collapse of New START from the point of view of national security? Of course not. It will be difficult for Russia to deliver a symmetrical response to any possible actions of the United States, if only for geographical reasons: just like back in the 1980s, U.S. intermediate-range missiles are capable of reaching the most important regions in Russia, whereas Russia’s only response would be to threaten the United States’ allies, which in itself is a controversial step. What is more, the situation has only got worse since then.

The nuclear race also carries a serious danger from the point of view of the development of military capabilities, as the already privileged strategic nuclear forces will receive an even greater share of the limited military budget. Sarmat and Borei are needed, of course, as they provide protection from a hypothetical “Doomsday war,” but purchasing them in greater numbers will result in less money being spent on infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, helicopters and next-generation planes – vehicles that real Russian soldiers are likely to use in local conflicts in the coming decades.

To sum up, we can state that the potential disintegration of New START would not be catastrophic for Russia, all the more so because the country could derive some benefit from the “inter-treaty” period and approach the next, and hopefully inevitable, stage of arms control from the best positions possible. However, a protracted nuclear arms race would present a serious danger both for the Russian economy and for its security, not to mention the obvious heightened threat of a nuclear conflict that must be avoided. A serious and substantive dialogue with the next U.S. administration – which will have to deal with the issue of the enormous expense of renewing the nuclear triad – is thus inevitable, and we have to be prepared for this.

1. The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT) was a simplified temporary measure that only established new (reduced) ceilings for the number of warheads. These were the only provisions of the START treaty that it replaced.

2. Judging by the rather confused statements emanating from the Defense Intelligence Agency of the United States Department of Defense, we can conclude that the United States suspects Russia of conducting so-called hydro-nuclear tests, which involve the division of an extremely small number of nuclei, causing a similarly small explosion (measured in kilograms of TNT equivalent. However, since this does take place, such tests can be considered as being in violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which Russia has ratified. It should be noted that the CTBT has not entered into force due to the fact that an insufficient number of countries have ratified it, and the United States is not among them. The United States and its allies (France and the United Kingdom) are bound by an “oral” commitment only to not conduct tests of this nature.

3. The President of the United States can extend New START without legislative power. A new document, however, would have to be approved by Congress.

4. Minuteman III missiles initially carried up to three missiles, but they were re-equipped to carry one warhead by summer 2014.

5. Theoretically, the UGM-133A Trident II SLBM (Trident D5) can carry up to 14 warheads, but this load significantly limited their range and it is unlikely to have been used in practice. Judging by the available information, Trident D5s typically carried six warheads. New START sets limits of four to five charges per missile, which fits the hypothesis about equipping some of the missiles with a single warhead (for hitting isolated targets, “signal” strikes, etc.) and the rest with six.

6. The remaining strategic bombers owned by the United States Air Force (all of its B-1B bombers and approximately half of its B-52H bombers) are not equipped to carry nuclear weapons and thus do not count.

7. The provisions of New START do not set limits for the number of air-launched weapons, and every single aircraft counts as carrying one warhead.

8. Although it will use the same missiles, as Trident II will only be replaced in the 2040s.

9. At least in relation to Russia: China’s strategic nuclear forces are less reliable, but the country is actively working on this, building a fleet of ballistic missile submarines and mobile ICBMs and improving its missile attack warning systems. Maybe not now, but in the near future, China’s strategic nuclear forces will be sufficiently stable to deliver a retaliatory strike.

10. We can confidently say that fifth-generation submarines will be able to carry up to four submarine-launched ballistic missiles, but if American engineers are able to work out a way to deal with the rocket’s dimensions, then third- or fourth-generation submarines (eight are currently ready and a further ten are being built) should be able to handle two or three of them.

11. Tomahawk cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were fully decommissioned by 2013.

12. “The New START Treaty: Central Limits and Key Provisions,” Congressional Research Service, Updated May 30, 2019;
“Russian Navy Submarine Outlook 2019–2040,” H. I. Sutton, June 12, 2019;
“Russian Nuclear Forces, 2019,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists;
“Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces,” russianforces.org; MilitaryRussia.ru.

13. Part of this is in storage.


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