With the new START treaty negotiations moving forward - the treaty will be discussed during Hillary Clinton's visit to Moscow that begins today - the opposition to the treaty is also shaping up. A couple of weeks ago the Senate Republican Policy Committee circulated a memo START Follow-on Dos & Don’ts (via The Cable), which provided a good look at the arguments that will certainly be used during the ratification process in the Senate.

Here is what the memo has to say about Russia:

The United States should not pay for what is free. Russia’s nuclear numbers will decline dramatically in the coming years with or without an arms control treaty. The United States should not make important concessions in return for something that will happen in any event.

  • Russia needs this agreement far more than the U.S. does. It is desperately trying to lock the U.S. into lower nuclear levels, not the other way around.

This line of thinking is hardly new - "decline" always adds some drama to the description of the reductions of the Russian arsenals and it begs for some dramatic adjective ("dramatic"?). Moreover, there is some evidence that seems to support the notion of decline - the numbers of nuclear warheads and delivery systems are indeed down substantially from what it was five or ten years ago.

However, the key point of the statement - that the numbers "will decline dramatically" with or without the treaty - is wrong. Neither it is true that Russia is desperate to have the new agreement - there are plenty of people in Russia who would be quite happy without it.

Yes, the numbers do suggest that Russia is moving toward a force of about 400 launchers and 1500-1700 nuclear warheads in the next 10-15 years. These numbers, however, assumed that Russia will be under some pressure to keep the numbers around the level of 1500 warheads. There are many reasons why I think it was a reasonable assumption - mostly it is the inertia of long-term plans made in the late 1990s and a general political commitment to nuclear disarmament that exists in Russia at least on the rhetorical level. Certainly, the plans made in the 1990s had to accept the economic realities of the time, but even in the fatter years after 2000 the plans didn't change very much - there has always been a general understanding that it is natural for the number of nuclear warheads to go down, not up.

Should the START process fail, this understanding will certainly take a hit, changing the landscape of Russia's strategic modernization. Of course, we are not talking about going back to the Cold War levels, but the "dramatic decline" would probably stop at the number that is not much lower than about 2500 operationally deployed warheads that Russia has today.

Land-based missiles

One obvious way to keep the number of warheads up is to deploy multiple warheads on single-warhead missiles. As we know, Russia has been preparing to do just that - the RS-24 missile is a MIRVed version of Topol-M that would carry "no fewer than four" warheads. This, however, has already been taken into account in my projections, so it won't change the numbers very much. Even if Russia would retrofit all its 65 currently deployed single-warhead Topol-M missiles with MIRVs, it will increase the overall number of warheads by about 150 - not very much to reverse the "dramatic decline".

However, MIRVing of Topol-M is not the only option out there. With no pressure to reduce its forces, Russia could consider keeping its UR-100NUTTH/SS-19 missiles. The currently deployed missiles of this type are about 30 years old - and are being removed from service (even thought their service life was extended to 33 years recently). But Russia is believed to have about 30 dry UR-100NUTTH missiles, which it could deploy. In fact, everything seems to be ready for that - in November 2008 President Medvedev stopped liquidation of a missile division in Kozelsk, which is where these missiles could be based. Since each is carrying six warheads, this would add another 180 nuclear weapons to the Russian arsenal.

Furthermore, the industry would not mind resuming production of missiles of the UR-100NUTTH/SS-19 class. NPOmash, the design bureau that produced the missile in the 1970s, does not hide it that it would like to be back in business with a new MIRVed missile of the SS-19 class (it would have to be a new missile, for some components of UR-100NUTTH, namely the guidance, were produced in Ukraine). One can imagine that in a situation with no particular constrains on strategic forces, NPOmash might eventually get that contract.

The silos in Kozelsk are not the only ones that would be available for deployment of new MIRVed missiles - Russia has been keeping some of its SS-18 silos intact - there are 24 empty silos in Uzhur and 21 - in Dombarovsky. It is hard to tell what are the plans regarding these silos, but they certainly would give Russia an option to add some ICBMs to its force - a silo is one of the most expensive part of a missile system.

Overall, if the current plan (which includes MIRVing of some Topol-Ms) has the Russian ICBM force with about 500 warheads in 2015-2025, this could be relatively easily boosted to about 800 and, with some effort, quite a bit higher.

Strategic submarines

The strategic fleet modernization program is currently getting the biggest share of Russia's military spending. And while the attention is mostly on the problems of the Bulava missile test program, the Russian Navy has a few other things to show for all this money - four out of six submarines of the Project 667BRDM/Delta IV class have completed overhaul already and the two remaining ones are expected to return to the active force in 2009 and in 2010-2011. These submarines will carry R-29RM Sineva missiles - it is an old design, but the missiles are newly manufactured.

These submarines and missiles could probably stay in service for quite some time - I would guess that the 2015-2020 time horizon is not out of question. Their predecessors, Project 667BDR/Delta III submarines, built about 30 years ago, are still very much alive.

If Russia is constrained by an arms control treaty, one could assume that when the new Project 955 subs with Bulava missiles will start entering service they will be replacing old Project 667BDRM submarines. In this the scenario, which I used in my projections, the number of SLBM warheads would go up a bit - to about 740 from the current 670.

But without constraints of an arms control treaty, the Navy would probably try to keep the recently refurbished Project 667BDRM/Delta IV in force for as long as they can. For example, instead of keeping a total of eight submarines in service, retiring one Project 667BDRM submarine every time a new Project 955 sub enters service, the Navy could keep ten, adding 32 launchers and 128 warheads to the SLBM force. Admittedly, this is not much, but these things add up - the number of SLBM warheads would grow to just under 900.

Strategic bombers

Changes in this leg of the triad are quite unlikely, but not entirely impossible. The currently deployed bombers, Tu-160 and Tu-95MS, are relatively new - most were built in the mid- to late-1980s. They are undergoing overhaul and will probably stay in service for a long time. According to the START treaty rules, the bombers are capable of carrying 844 ALCMs. The actual number of weapons associated with the bomber force is probably smaller, but we could assume that if no arms control restrictions are in place, Russia could easily keep a bomber force equipped with about 800 nuclear weapons.

Given a chance, the military and the industry would definitely be pushing for expansion of the bomber force - the Air Force would not mind having a new Tu-160 aircraft every year or two, so it could bring the total to 30 by 2025-2030. 

So, what do you get for free?

It is a good rule of thumb that generally you get what you pay for. What the United States will get "for free" is not a "dramatic decline of Russia's nuclear numbers", but something more like a Russia's force of about 2400-2500 warheads. The number might be adjusted somewhat to meet the Moscow treaty requirement - 2200 warheads by 2012, but it could easily go up after that. None of that would be transparent - Russia would be quite happy to part with all those START reporting and verification.

It is quite possible that this is the outcome that the authors of the Republican memo would like to see - I can easily see how, once the arms control process is broken, its authors will be complaining about  "unconstrained growth" of the same Russia's nuclear numbers they say are in "dramatic decline" today. We've seen that before.

Some in the United States may still decide that the difference between a Russian strategic force of 1500 or 2500 nuclear warheads is not significant enough to be worth the price of a treaty that would constrain U.S. programs. There is half a point here - the numbers don't really matter. At this point the real benefit of the arms control process is in cooperation, trust- and confidence-building, and better communication that creates an environment that allows working on a much broader set of security issues than simple cold-war style bean-counting. We know that these things don't come for free - the Bush administration tried that.