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Into the Guts of New START: How to Get From Here to Zero?

So we knew earlier today that the U.S.-Russia New START nuclear reductions treaty caps deployed warheads at 1,550, a 30 percent reduction from the Bush-Putin “Moscow Treaty” of 2002, and sets a limit of 700 deployed intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. What we didn’t know from today’s press conference is that there’ll be 18 annual on-site inspections — meaning a guy will be observing the destruction of stuff and counting warheads on missiles at missile bases and storage facilities — to ensure compliance.

Unlike under previous accords, there won’t simply be a reliance on data provided by the parties to make sure the deployed missiles, subs, bombers and warheads numbers add up. (Ironically, if the treaty relied entirely on so-called telemetric data — basically, observing this stuff from long distance and by technological inference — that might be bad for U.S. missile-defense plans.) Verification will be a key aspect of getting the treaty through the Senate.

The question that arms controllers are going to have isn’t going to concern New START. It’s going to concern what comes *after New START. *The lifespan of the treaty is ten years. After ten years, the U.S. and Russia will each possess … up to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed things with which to deliver them. But last year in Prague — where this treaty will be signed — President Obama outlined an ultimate vision of a nuclear-free world. How to get from here to there?

“A great deal depends on the presidential statements in Prague — what they say about what the next steps are,” said Joe Ciricincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. If they “rest on their laurels” in Prague on April 8, then it won’t be enough. And that’s going to be a moment of great momentum: It’ll build up to a 44-nation conference in Washington next month on nuclear security, which will then build up to a spring summit in New York about strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In other words, to other nations, both non-nuclear and nuclear — recall that the U.S. and Russia account for over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — the gains of New START don’t look as great as the gap between their capabilities and the U.S.’s and Russians’. And on the path to a nuke-free world, that’s a big deal.

Obama has “got to stay with the vision he articulated a year ago,” Cirincione continued, urging the nuclear negotiating teams — exhausted after months of arduous work to cobble together New START — to “enjoy the victory of the moment, get some R&R and come back for another tour of duty.” If Obama shows the rest of the world that he really is committed to lead on nuclear security and disarmament, even beyond New START, “this could be one of the defining moments of his presidency.”

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