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

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

On Feb. 2, 2011, President Obama signed the New START Treaty into law at a White House ceremony attended by, from left, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, retired Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of State John Kerry, former Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images). On Feb. 2, 2011, President Obama signed the New START Treaty into law at a White House ceremony attended by, from left, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, retired Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of State John Kerry, former Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images).

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 number of U.S. strategic-delivery vehicles that are still retained.

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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