Russia has now deployed more than 100 nuclear warheads in its strategic arsenal above the limits set by the New START arms treaty limits—two years before it must meet treaty arms reduction goals.
New START nuclear warhead and delivery system numbers made public Oct. 1 reveal that since the 2010 arms accord went into force, Moscow increased the number of deployed nuclear warheads by a total of 111 weapons for a total of 1,648 deployed warheads. That number is 98 warheads above the treaty limit of 1,150 warheads that must be reached by the 2018 deadline of the treaty.
At the same time, U.S. nuclear warheads, missiles, and bombers have fallen sharply and remain below the required levels under the New START pact.
The United States during the same period of the Russian increases cut its deployed nuclear arsenal by 250 warheads.
The Russian increases and U.S. cuts bolster claims by critics who say the arms treaty is one-sided in constraining U.S. forces while the Russians appear to be ignoring the treaty limits as part of a major strategic forces buildup of missiles, submarines, and bombers.
Additionally, nuclear analysts say recent actions and statements suggest Russia may be preparing to jettison the New START treaty.
“Russia may pull out of the New START before it requires any Russians reductions,” said former Pentagon nuclear policymaker Mark Schneider. “Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's department of security and disarmament issues, Mikhail Ulyanov, said so in 2014 and 2015.”
U.S. nuclear forces in 2011 included 882 land- and sea-based missiles and bombers, 1,800 deployed nuclear warheads, and 1,124 non-deployed launchers and bombers.
The United States today has 762 ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles and heavy bombers, 1,538 warheads and 898 non-deployed weapons.
For the same categories, Russia added five missiles for a total of 526, and 12 non-deployed launchers and bombers for a total of 877.
The Air Force in August carried out the first showing for Russian nuclear inspectors of a converted nuclear-capable B-52H bomber to a non-nuclear aircraft under the treaty. The bomber exhibition took place in September and thus was not counted in the latest U.S. figures for bomber cuts.
Additionally, the Navy also showed the first nuclear missile submarine with converted launch tubes under the treaty last month.
The United States plans to eliminate 98 launchers and heavy bombers under the treaty to reach the 800 treaty level for launchers and bombers by 2018.
Plans call for converting 30 B-52H bombers and 56 submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers and send 12 B-52Hs to the aircraft bone yard.
“To date, our reductions have been for inactive or weapon systems without a nuclear mission—104 ICBM launch facilities, 51 B-52Gs, and converting B-1s to conventional-only under the treaty,” said one defense official.
By contrast, Russia under Vladimir Putin is embarked on a major strategic nuclear forces buildup that includes new missile submarines, upgrading older missile submarines and adding several new strategic missiles. Moscow, like the U.S. Air Force, is also planning a new bomber.
Additionally, Russia under Putin has announced a new doctrine that places a greater emphasis on nuclear forces.
During the crisis over Russia’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, Putin made threats to use nuclear forces against the Untied States and NATO if there were intervention to reverse the annexation.
Russian officials also have made nuclear threats against the United States in response to reports that NATO plans to move military forces into Eastern Europe in response to Russian threats.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said Russia “is in the business of violating treaties.”
“From the Intermediate range Nuclear Forces Treaty, to the Open Skies Treaty, to other conventional and unconventional arms control agreements—Russia violates any treaty or agreement that puts limits on capabilities that Mr. Putin and his cronies desire,” Rogers said. “Russia’s arguable adherence to the New START Treaty just indicates how bad a deal it is for the United States.”
The nuclear numbers were disclosed by the State Department’s bureau of arms control, verification, and compliance.
Blake Narendra, a State Department spokesperson for the arms control bureau, said officials are aware of the increase in Russian deployed warheads and delivery vehicles. But he sought to play down the buildup.
“The United States and Russia continue to implement the New START Treaty in a business-like manner,” Narendra said. “We fully expect Russia to meet the New START Treaty central limits in accordance with the stipulated timeline of February 2018.”
By that date, Moscow and Washington must reach limits of no more than 700 deployed treaty limited delivery vehicles and 1,550 deployed warheads.
Despite the U.S. cuts, Narendra said “our declared forces show clearly that the United States maintains a capable deterrent force capable of defending our interests and those of our friends and allies.”
The increase in Russian numbers was anticipated as Moscow replaces older weapons, Narendra said, adding “we have known for a long time about Russia’s modernization of its strategic nuclear arsenal.”
The spokesman defended the utility of the treaty despite the Russian buildup that has included unprecedented nuclear threats against NATO. The treaty provides knowledge of numbers and locations of Russian strategic forces “at a time when we need it the most,” he said.
Schneider, now a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy, said Russia is now at the highest level of deployed nuclear warheads since the New START treaty went into force.
“For the last three reporting periods—18 months—Russia has moved from below New START limits in deployed warheads and deployed delivery vehicles to above them,” said Schneider.
“In all three limited categories—deployed warheads, deployed delivery vehicles and deployed and non-deployed delivery vehicles—Russia is above its entry into force numbers from 2011”.
Schneider said a flaw in the treaty counting numbers allowed the Russians to under count bomber weapons so that Russia may have between 400 to 500 more bomber-delivered warheads than the United States.
“The U.S. left may not think this is very important, but the Russians do and it is their finger on the Russian nuclear trigger,” Schneider said.
Adm. William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, which is in charge of defending the continental United States, said Russia is qualitatively building up its military forces, with a new doctrine and, in particular, new cruise missiles capable of hitting the United States from Russian airspace.
“They’ve read our play book and they’re putting in force, they’re fielding cruise missiles that are very, very accurate, very long range,” Gortney said Wednesday in remarks to the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
The new missile has been identified by other defense officials as a KH-101 air launched cruise missile that can be armed with either nuclear or conventional warheads.
The missile can reach U.S. infrastructure targets in Canada and the United States from launch points within Russian air space, Gortney said.
Gortney said the Russians have been “messaging” the United States with long-range nuclear-capable bomber flights along U.S. and Canadian borders.
War game scenarios in recent months have included simulated Russian conventional cruise missile strikes on long-range early warning radar in Alaska, he said.
The military blog Russianforces.org said the increase of 66 Russian warheads and nine launchers since March, when the last treaty numbers were released, probably reflects Moscow’s deployment of new submarine-launched Bulava missiles on the new submarine Alexander Nevsky, launched in April.
Army Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for the U.S. Strategic Command, said the treaty “continues to enhance security and strategic stability.”
“We fully expect Russia to meet the New START Treaty central limits in accordance with the stipulated timeline of February 2018,” he said.
Thomas Moore, a former professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who specialized in arms control, said he is not surprised the Russians are over treaty limits while the the United States is below them.
“But I guess we are under it early because ‘business-like' implementation of the treaty is a way the administration can appear to be doing something, and they have a base of left-wing support which demands we go lower still, and faster,” Moore said.
Russia has been building up its forces steadily, he added.
“Its raid of Kalibr cruise missiles from the Caspian to targets in Syria is another sign that, along with New START warhead numbers, its nuclear-capable systems, strategic warheads, and overall nuclear capability at all ranges and with all types of weapons is building up, not down.”