February 5 marks the seventh anniversary of the entry into force of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as well as the day on which the treaty’s central limits take full effect. U.S. and Russian implementation of New START appears to provide a rare bit of good news in the U.S.-Russian relationship and in nuclear arms control. It is uncertain, however, how long the treaty’s benefits will last.

Hitting the limits

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed New START in April 2010. The treaty entered into force on February 5, 2011. It gave the sides seven years to implement its central limits. As of February 5, 2018, the United States and Russia each may have no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers, and no more than 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic missile launchers and bombers.

The U.S. military met these limits in August 2017, and the Russians came close. The September 1, 2017 data exchange showed the United States with 1,393 deployed strategic warheads, 660 deployed strategic missiles and bombers, and 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic missile launchers and bombers. The Russian Foreign Ministry on February 5 stated that Russia had met the limits with 1,444 deployed strategic warheads, 527 deployed strategic missiles and bombers, and 779 deployed and non-deployed strategic missile launchers and bombers. (The State Department said that the U.S. numbers would be updated at the next data exchange, scheduled for March 1.)

Strategic transparency

The data exchanges, which take place every six months, provide each side with a significant amount of information, including the locations of deployed strategic missiles and bombers of the other side. In addition, the sides exchange notifications at a rate of some 2,000 per year regarding changes in their strategic forces, and New START allows each to conduct 18 inspections per treaty year of the strategic forces of the other.

These data exchanges, notifications, and inspections provide a great deal of transparency and information regarding the other side’s strategic forces. That allows the U.S. military to avoid worst-case assumptions about its Russian counterpart’s nuclear arms and make smarter decisions on how to equip and operate U.S. strategic forces. Getting the information provided under New START by other means would cost billions of dollars.

By its terms, the treaty will remain in force until February 5, 2021. It could be extended by up to five years beyond that with agreement by the sides.

An uncertain future

The Obama administration had hoped to follow New START with a subsequent agreement that would have entailed further reductions and covered all U.S. and Russian nuclear arms (New START does not cover reserve strategic warheads or any non-strategic nuclear weapons). Moscow, however, showed no interest, raising instead questions regarding missile defense, precision-guided conventional strike weapons and third-country nuclear forces.

U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated sharply since the first Obama term, particularly following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its aggression in eastern Ukraine. Questions have arisen about New START as well.

First, while senior U.S. military leaders have made clear the value they attach to New START, it is less certain how President Trump regards the treaty. In an early 2017 phone call with Russian President Putin, Trump reportedly did not pick up on Putin’s offer to begin a discussion on invoking the provision on extending New START, instead dismissing the treaty as a bad Obama deal.

Second, Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by deploying a ground-launched cruise missile of intermediate range. While seeking to bring Russia back into compliance, part of the Trump administration’s response includes research and development of a U.S. ground-launched intermediate-range missile. The INF Treaty increasingly appears at risk of collapse, which could have a negative impact on New START. Republicans on Capitol Hill have already indicated that they would oppose funding for New START’s extension if questions persist regarding Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty.

A failure to maintain New START would have negative security consequences. The expiration of the limits would open the possibility for one side and/or the other to deploy more strategic weapons. Budget limitations might prevent a dramatic build-up by the two countries, but some drift up above the limits, say in the number of deployed strategic warheads, would be very plausible.

The end of New START would end one of the few positives on the U.S.-Russia agenda.

The end of New START would mean a loss of the treaty’s data and transparency measures. The Pentagon would have to start making more worst-case assumptions about Russian strategic forces, with likely more costly implications for U.S. strategic forces.

Finally, the end of New START would end one of the few positives on the U.S.-Russia agenda. If it happened in tandem with a collapse of the INF Treaty, no negotiated constraints would cover U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

New START means a safer, more stable and more predictable nuclear relationship with Russia. Maintaining and extending the treaty is very much in the U.S. security interest. Unfortunately, given the difficult bilateral relationship between Washington and Moscow, the troubled INF Treaty, and the president’s unclear thoughts on New START, it is not certain that the treaty will make it to 2021, let alone be extended to 2026.