Walking, not running: New START and the Nuclear Posture Review

The achievements of the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the signing of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) are the first steps towards President Obama's stated goal of a nuclear free world. However limited their successes may be, their announcements signify real progress in nuclear disarmament.

By Andrew Somerville for RUSI.org

Only two days after the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Report on April 6 laid out a coherent reduction plan for US nuclear weapons, President Obama and Russian President Medvedev met in Prague to sign the new version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Whilst one of these is a bilateral treaty reducing the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world and the other a unilateral doctrine outlining American nuclear weapons policy, these documents have much in common. Both have been much anticipated, and have been the subject of intense debate and anticipation. As such, they have both become not merely important indicators to the international security environment and key influences on May's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, but also an important gauge of whether the Obama administration will be able to achieve its lofty foreign policy goals whilst dealing with so many domestic issues. But now that they have been delivered they must be evaluated for what they actually achieve.

Obama's Nuclear Agenda

Twelve months ago, when the newly-elected  American President gave a speech in Prague stating his goal of eventual nuclear disarmament, a message was clearly sent identifying nuclear weapons as one of his flagship policy areas. However, as his pledge to negotiate a New START treaty by the end of 2009 was not delivered, and the date of the NPR Report slipped from December to February and then further and further into 2010, faith in President Obama's ability to provide leadership on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament began to wane. To some it appeared that bitter domestic battles and the loss of a super-majority in the Senate were consuming the political capital required to deliver such significant goals, potentially leaving the President weakened and unable to gain the leverage necessary to achieve change at either national or international level. As negotiations stalled, the high hopes originally held for the New START treaty and for a successful outcome to the inevitable struggle between the White House and the Department of Defense over the NPR faded.  Giving way instead to fears that these processes would be respectively hamstrung by arguments over missile defence in Europe and inertia over the role of nuclear weapons in US security.

The sudden and rapid acceleration of these recent developments clearly signals President Obama's commitment to nuclear disarmament, and that his attention has now returned to the issue. The announcement of a breakthrough in US-Russia negotiations and an agreement of a treaty text came on 26 March, only days after the signing of the contentious Healthcare Reform Bill. Just over a week after these achievements came the launch of the NPR Report, followed by the signing of the treaty in Prague. This alone would be enough to show that the President retained his focus on the nuclear agenda - laid out in last year's speech in the same city - but is further bolstered by the reports of his personal involvement in the negotiation process via a series of telephone calls to his Russian counterpart at the height of the domestic tussles. However, achieving agreement on these documents would hardly be a success if their contents did not contribute to the Prague disarmament agenda. On that score, both of these documents successfully manage to make multiple modest advances.


New START reduces the world's two largest nuclear arsenals from 2,200 warheads to 1,550, and reduces the number of launchers (ICBMs, SLBMs and Heavy Bombers) to a total of 800 with up to 700 of these deployed. This is a modest, but welcome, reduction in warheads that is more significant in maintaining momentum towards further disarmament. Despite representing a claimed cut of 30 per cent from the upper warhead limit of the Moscow Treaty, the actual post-reduction total will be much larger than the figure of 1,550, owing to the counting rules of the Treaty - each bomber counts as carrying only one warhead no matter how many it may actually be loaded with. More important are the issues not addressed by the Treaty. Missile defence is not subject to control despite Russian pressure to include such technology, although the preamble contains the statement 'Recognizing ... that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties'. Moreover, the treaty makes special effort to create a strict divide between missile defence and offensive missile capabilities. However, the Treaty also includes a clause for withdrawal under 'exceptional circumstances', which the Russian government has stated is a reference to any future development of US missile defence 'quantitatively or qualitatively... in such a way that threatens the potential of the strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation'.[i] Nor are planned conventional ballistic missile arms subject to restrictions, at least according to the original announcement by the US State Department. These compromises and hard-won omissions from the Treaty are crucial, as they minimise the potential for resistance to ratification from the US Senate.


A range of policy declarations made by the NPR compliment the concrete reductions contained within New START. Key amongst these is the stated aim of presenting a roadmap towards nuclear disarmament. Substance towards this overarching goal is provided by a number of important decisions within the NPR

The issuing of the Negative Security Assurances (NSAs) pledging not to use nuclear weapons against Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) parties 'in compliance' with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is not new, but this position is strengthened considerably in the Obama NPR. Firstly, by abandoning the Bush administration's ambiguity over whether nuclear weapons would be used in response to a chemical or biological weapon attack. This NPR clearly states that nuclear weapons will not be used against NNWS in any situation, rather relying on conventional forces to deter such attacks. However, it stops short of making a full pledge of 'No First Use', clearly declaring that there are a narrow set of circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons is acceptable following a chemical or biological attack by a state either in possession of nuclear weapons, or not in compliance with the NPT. Secondly, the 'Warsaw Pact Clause', outlining the possibility of using nuclear weapons against states that are in alliance with nuclear-armed states, has been removed. This clause was originally contained in the 1995 NSA declaration to the UN General Assembly and in all subsequent pledges. The removal of this phrase within the NSA symbolises the desire to move away from the 'Cold War thinking' that has dominated nuclear strategy until now. The pledge to de-MIRV the ICBM force, reducing the number of warheads on each missile from three to one, is important as a key reduction in capability, and the decision to retire the nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missile will also be welcomed by many.

Small steps

The reasoning behind each decision in the NPR report is discussed and transparently explained in the context of taking a step along the road to disarmament, but without taking any potentially destabilising risks. This level of openness is admirable, but it is also important to highlight that both of these documents are modest steps along this path. There are many disappointments for those who may have hoped for more radical policy changes. The New START's numerical cuts in warhead numbers are relatively conservative and do little to reduce capabilities, though it is hoped that further reductions can be made in the near future. There is also the NPR's decision to maintain all three 'legs' of the nuclear triad. Some strategists have mooted the possible removal of the long-range bomber from the nuclear arsenal, but this capability is confirmed as the remaining part of the nuclear force for the foreseeable future and the decision has been made to proceed with the life extension programme for the B-61 gravity bomb. [ii] Europeans hoping for US leadership on the issue of NATO's shared tactical nuclear weapons capability - currently based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands - will be disappointed by the short mention in the NPR, firmly placing the onus for any decision on the shoulders of this year's new NATO Strategic Concept. The lack of movement towards reducing alert levels of the remaining nuclear forces will concern others, as will the perceived 'glossing over' of concerns over the strategic impact of missile defences and conventional ballistic missiles.

However, to focus on these points would be to neglect the role of these achievements as part of the overall strategy. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009, President Obama pledged to 'complete a Nuclear Posture Review that opens the door to deeper cuts, and reduces the role of nuclear weapons'.[iii] This is precisely what has been achieved by this combination of the New START and the Nuclear Posture Review. Neither of these are revolutionary in themselves, but nor are they intended to be. Given both the political realities of the US and the pressures of the international security environment, pushing too far too soon on any one front could have proven disastrous to the initiative that President Obama began last year in Prague. Instead, by making progress and compromises across a number of issues, the policy and capability changes are kept palatable to all audiences, whilst the entire debate moves forward as a whole and provides the foundations for further advances. In this context, these achievements should be recognised for what they are: the delayed small steps at the beginning of the long road to stable nuclear disarmament.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



[i] Statement by the Russian Federation on Missile Defence, 8 April 2010, <http://eng.kremlin.ru/text/docs/2010/04/225214.shtml>, accessed 8 April 2010

[ii] Dana J. Johnson, Christopher J. Bowie, Robert P. Haffa, 'Triad, Dyad, Monad? Shaping the US Nuclear Force for the Future', December 2009, <http://www.afa.org/mitchell/reports/MP5_Triad_1209.pdf>, accessed 8 April 2010

[iii] President Obama's Speech to the United Nations General Assembly, 23 September 2009, <http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/remarks-by-the-president-to-the-united-nations-general-assembly/>, accessed 8 April 2010


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