Updated New START Data Showing Larger U.S. Stockpile Not Alarming: Experts

Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Oct. 3, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Nuc­le­ar-weapons ex­perts re­spon­ded to new data show­ing that in re­cent months the U.S. stra­tegic stock­pile in­creased — des­pite plans for it to de­crease un­der the 2011 New START agree­ment — with a col­lect­ive shrug.

Since the be­gin­ning of March, the United States has mar­gin­ally in­creased the num­ber of de­ployed nuc­le­ar weapons and launch­er vehicles it holds, ac­cord­ing to up­dated New START fig­ures re­leased by the U.S. State De­part­ment on Tues­day. The new com­pli­ance data shows that as of Sept. 1, Rus­sia con­tin­ued to out­pace the United States in re­du­cing the num­ber of stra­tegic arms it holds un­der the treaty.

“To me it’s no big deal, num­bers, up num­bers down,” said John Isaacs, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Coun­cil for a Liv­able World, which ad­voc­ates for re­du­cing U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons. “Every­one cer­tainly is in com­pli­ance with the treaty.”

Still, he told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire in an in­ter­view that the new data is “evid­ence “¦ that we’re be­ing pretty lack­a­dais­ic­al on re­du­cing nuc­le­ar weapons.”

El­bridge Colby, a former U.S ne­go­ti­at­or of the New START ac­cord, also said the war­head in­crease did not alarm him.

“I cer­tainly wouldn’t read too much in­to that,” El­bridge, a prin­cip­al ana­lyst at the Cen­ter for Nav­al Ana­lyses, said in a phone in­ter­view. “I would ima­gine it would have more to do with the par­tic­u­lar­it­ies of the main­ten­ance sched­ules and de­ploy­ments.”

Colby, though, was more in­ter­ested in the in­crease in the num­ber of U.S. stra­tegic-de­liv­ery vehicles.

The month-old in­form­a­tion -- for the time peri­od March 1 to Aug. 31 — shows Rus­sia has 1,400 fielded stra­tegic nuc­le­ar weapons while the United States pos­sesses 1,688 such arms. The data re­lease shows the U.S. mil­it­ary upped its de­ployed war­head num­bers by 34 and its long-range de­liv­ery vehicles by 17 since the last time a re­quired ar­sen­al count was taken.

Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuc­le­ar In­form­a­tion Pro­ject at the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ic­an Sci­ent­ists, noted in a Wed­nes­day FAS blog post that the six-month in­crease in U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons and launch­ers is likely an an­om­aly and not the res­ult of a de­lib­er­ate U.S. policy plan to build-up its ar­sen­al.

“It prob­ably re­flects fluc­tu­ations mainly in the num­ber of mis­siles on­board bal­list­ic mis­sile sub­mar­ines at the time of the count,” he wrote.

What the war­head in­crease does show is how slowly the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been mov­ing to im­ple­ment the New START ac­cord since the treaty entered in­to force two-and-a-half years ago, Kristensen said. Wash­ing­ton “has worked on re­du­cing so-called phantom weapons that have been re­tired from the nuc­le­ar mis­sion but are still coun­ted un­der the treaty.”

Rus­sia con­tin­ues to de­ploy con­sid­er­ably few­er stra­tegic de­liv­ery vehicles than the United States. Un­der the new fig­ures, there are 473 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al-bal­list­ic mis­siles, sub­mar­ine-launched bal­list­ic mis­siles and heavy bombers held by Mo­scow com­pared to the 809 de­liv­ery vehicles kept by Wash­ing­ton.

The num­bers re­leased by the State De­part­ment this week were in ag­greg­ate form. A break­down of spe­cif­ic ICBM, SLBM and stra­tegic bomber quant­it­ies could be is­sued in the com­ing months.

The New START arms con­trol ac­cord re­quires the former Cold War en­emies to each re­duce their re­spect­ive ar­sen­als of fielded long-range nuc­le­ar weapons to 1,550 by 2018 and to lower the num­ber of de­ployed mis­siles and bombers to 700, with an ad­di­tion­al 100 de­liv­ery vehicles per­mit­ted in re­serve.

The U.S. Air Force is ex­pec­ted to lower to at least 420 the num­ber of Minute­man 3 ICBMs it main­tains on act­ive status. As of March, the ser­vice still had 449 de­ployed stra­tegic mis­siles. It is not clear when those re­duc­tions will take place or how they will be spread out among the three bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyom­ing that host the weapons.

The ser­vice also does not know which of its B-52 stra­tegic bombers will have their nuc­le­ar mis­sion taken away, ac­cord­ing to Kristensen. The U.S. Navy is slated to be­gin re­mov­ing some SLBMs from its fleet of Ohio-class sub­mar­ines around 2015-2016.

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