WASHINGTON -- Russia's stockpile of deployed strategic nuclear warheads is already below the ceiling required by the U.S.-Russian arms control treaty that took effect earlier this year, according to figures released on Wednesday (see GSN, May 19).
The data was included in the first aggregate accounting of both nations' atomic armaments, released in compliance with the New START pact.
As of February 5, the day the treaty entered into force, Moscow possessed 1,537 deployed strategic warheads, according to a U.S. State Department fact sheet. That is beneath the 1,550-weapon cap the nations are required to meet within seven years.
Russia also came in under the treaty limit of 700 deployed strategic warhead delivery systems with 521 ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers, the brief document states. The nation in total had 865 deployed and nondeployed bombers and ICBM and SLBM launchers. The pact calls for a maximum of 800 delivery systems in the field or on reserve.
The United States, meanwhile, counted 1,800 warheads placed on 882 delivery deployed platforms. Its total number of fielded and reserve warhead carrier systems was 1,124.
The release of the aggregate number of warheads "is an important step in the right direction" by the former Cold War rivals toward greater nuclear transparency, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said during a Wednesday afternoon conference call.
She described the release of the aggregate numbers as "the first in a series" that would be produced under New START.
The diplomat noted that President Obama has called for future arms control talks with Russia to not only focus on further reductions in deployed strategic weapons, but also nondeployed and tactical systems. Russia is believed to have 2,000 deliverable short-range nuclear weapons within its borders, while about 200 U.S. tactical systems are dispersed at bases in several European countries.
"This brings our focus squarely into the future onto warheads," according to Gottemoeller.
The New START pact set a new ceiling for Russian and U.S. strategic warhead deployments, down from a limit of 2,200 mandated by next year under the 2002 Moscow Treaty. The deadline for meeting the updated mandate is 2018.
The latest figures mean that Russia would be allowed to actually increase the number of long-range nuclear weapons it has in the field. Moscow is working to modernize both its sea- and land-based nuclear deterrent, and President Dmitry Medvedev warned recently that the nation could pursue a nuclear buildup if it cannot reach accord on U.S. plans for missile defenses in Europe.
It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will pursue an augmented nuclear force or continue to draw down its deployed arsenal, according to arms control experts.
New START grants each party the right to release to the public any information related to its respective nuclear postures. The United States is in the midst "of basically processing our own data with the intent do so," Gottemoller said.
She said observers could expect that future release to mirror the disclosures made under the original 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Moscow and Washington under the earlier pact provided aggregate figures to the public, drawn from a more detailed document passed twice per year between the countries that provided information on each nuclear weapon and facility, Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, wrote in blog post in March. The United States released the larger document to the public upon request, he added.
Last month Kristensen and three former high-level U.S. officials signed a letter urging Moscow and Washington to continue making such details publicly available (see GSN, May 19.)
Gottemoeller declined to specify when such additional information on U.S. nuclear holdings might be released, saying only "I don't expect it will be very long." The diplomat added it has yet to be determined whether that data will be made available on the Internet or must be requested through Foggy Bottom as before.
The initial offering of warhead figures was mostly applauded by arms control experts.
"This data is a powerful argument for the United States to accelerate reductions in our nuclear arsenal," according to Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. "We are fielding 1,800 warheads on 882 missiles, submarines and bombers- -- in effect, paying for many more weapons than necessary to balance the Russians."
Moscow's forces "will continue to shrink the rest of this decade -- down to an estimated 1,100 strategic warheads. For those looking to cut budgets, these excess nuclear programs are a great place to generate savings without sacrificing security," he told Global Security Newswire on Wednesday by e-mail.
The numbers mean the agreement "is working," as the United States can now use the treaty's on-site inspections to verify reductions of older strategic missiles Moscow made while the treaty was being hammered out, Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, wrote in a blog post.
Moscow can either "build up" its nuclear forces to exploit the limits set by New START or it can continue reductions, he wrote.
"If Russia can accelerate its reductions, so can the United States. There is no need for the Pentagon to wait until 2018 to get to New START levels," according to Collina.
Kristensen, however, sounded a more cautious note.
"At a first glance the aggregate numbers released by the United States and Russia under the New START treaty is a huge disappointment. It represents a step back in nuclear transparency compared with the standard set by the same two countries under the previous START treaty," Kristensen wrote in a Wednesday blog post.
Gottemoeller said U.S. officials would "keep pushing the transparency envelope."
The diplomat highlighted the administration's decision last year to announce the actual size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the country's annual stockpile dismantlement figures (see GSN, May 4, 2010).
Transparency among the five recognized nuclear powers -- France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- is "certainly a very active discussion right now," the official added.
"The United States is very committed to transparency and we're still going to be making a lot of information available about our strategic forces," she said. "It's up to the rest of the P-5 to make their own decisions about this matter and that includes our Russian counterparts."