For the START Plus treaty to have any chance to come into force before December, the United States and Russia would probably have to agree on the basic outline of the treaty during the upcoming visit of President Obama to Moscow. I think it is quite possible, especially if Russia does not try insist on a formal U.S. commitment to forgo missile defense deployment in Eastern Europe (this is not to say that missile defense is a good idea, it's just that there are better ways of dealing with the issue).
At this point it looks like both sides would be happy with the new treaty setting a limit of 1500 operationally deployed warheads - that would be a more than 30 percent reduction from the 2200 level specified in the Moscow treaty. Hardly a breakthrough, but still a reasonably low number.
Getting an agreement on the number of launchers would be somewhat more difficult. For Russia, the limit on launchers is quite important, because it sees it as a way to limit U.S. "upload potential". Whether it is the best way of dealing with the issue is somewhat debatable, but this is an important part of Russia's official position.
The United States apparently suggested setting the limit at 1100 strategic launchers. Russia reportedly wants to go significantly lower, probably to 500 launchers. These proposals, of course, reflect the current status of strategic forces - by the last START count the United States has 1198 launchers, while Russia has 814. Here is how these numbers break down:
U.S. START data (January 1, 2009)
|Minuteman III||550||451 deployed ICBMs|
|Trident I||96||0 deployed SLBMs|
|B-52||141||94 with ALCMs + 47 with bombs|
The four submarines that are listed in START as carrying Trident I missiles have, in fact, been converted to SLCM carriers. The missiles are still listed as deployed, but the listings are accompanied by footnotes that say "TRIDENT I SLBMS CONSIDERED DEPLOYED HERE ARE LOCATED AT OTHER FACILITIES AND REPORTED AS NON-DEPLOYED".
As we can see, there is not a lot of room for reductions here. If the new treaty preserves the START definition of a deployed launcher, then the United States could eliminate the 99 empty ICBM silos to get to the 1100 level. Which, as I understand, is exactly the plan. Getting lower than that would require either liquidating more ICBM silos (I don't think the U.S. would be ready to touch other legs of the triad) or changing the definition.
The smart thing to do in this situation would be to get rid of the ICBM force (isn't it what Reagan wanted - to get rid of ballistic missiles?), but the U.S. administration could not realistically do it before the results of the Nuclear Posture Review are available (and, unfortunately, NPR is unlikely to endorse this option anyway).
Russia, of course, is already way below the suggested 1100 level:
Russia START data (January 1, 2009)
|SS-18||104||68 deployed ICBMs|
|SS-19||120||72 deployed ICBMs|
|SS-N-18||96||76 deployed SLBMs|
|SS-N-20||40||21 deployed SLBMs|
|RSM-56/Bulava||36||0 deployed SLBMs|
Even though the total number of launchers listed in START is 814, if we don't count the empty silos and launch tubes (as well as the SS-N-20 SLBMs on Typhoon submarines) the number would be 634. Given that the Project 667BDR submarines with SS-N-18 missiles are being liquidated, as are SS-19 and some of SS-18 ICBMs, 500 launchers is indeed a reasonable number for Russia to suggest. In fact, the current plan is to have a 400-launchers force.
The number of launchers may emerge as a major contentious point at the talks, but I hope that it won't. It would still be possible to get to the lower launcher count, but only if Russia agrees to a new definition of a deployed launcher, for example, the one that would exclude launchers that are not "operationally deployed" - Trident I submarines, non-nuclear B-1 bombers, Trident II submarines that are in overhaul. That would add up to another 200 launchers (96+56+48), bringing the U.S. total down to 899, but I don't think that would be worth it - it is much better to keep launchers on the books, even though the number would be somewhat higher. After all, compared to the START ceiling of 1600 launchers, getting to 1100 would be a reduction of more than 30 percent - again, hardly a breakthrough, but not bad either.
The main point, of course, is that it would be much better to have a treaty with somewhat higher numbers and to keep the transparency and verification structure in place than to have no treaty at all. I believe that if the presidents announce in Moscow that they agreed to have the START-Plus treaty that would set the limits of 1500 warheads and 1100 launchers, there is a reasonably good chance to have the treaty done by December.