Your New START Cheat Sheet
Tomorrow is (probably) going to be Nuke Day in Washington, as the Obama administration releases its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review. That’ll tee up Thursday’s big nuke event: the Prague signing by presidents Obama and Medvedev of the U.S.-Russia New START accord on nuclear arms reductions and limitations. If you’re interested in a post explaining what the treaty really says — that is, until its text is released — and what it all means, check out Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk, getting technical about why you shouldn’t be so alarmed about possible bomber-borne bomb undercounts. Let’s get wonky!
Overall, the Prague Treaty [what's he's calling New START] actually moves the United States and Russia much closer to an actual accounting of warheads, rather than the attribution rules under START — at least for ICBMs and SLBMs. That, however, is the subject of a later post, on verification.
Bombers remain difficult to count, since their warheads are in storage and the aircraft are usually training for, or deploying on, conventional missions. Bomber rules are always weird. Kingston Rief makes all the right arguments about why we shouldn’t be too worked up about that fact.
Fundamentally, I think of bomber loadings as a secondary concern. The main goal is to get stabilizing limits on ICBMs and SLBMs, then use the bomber force to make the math work. It’s not pretty, but if you watched health care reform unfold, you don’t care about the niceties.
Remember, you can always call up a bomber pilot and tell him to turn around before he drops a nuclear bomb. You can’t recall a payload on an intercontinental ballistic missile or launched from a submarine. But since getting the New START/Prague Treaty through the Senate is going to entail driving through lots of political roadblocks, watch for the bomber count question to recur on the way to ratification.