Not One-Sided: The Many Benefits of the New START Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty

"It’s a one-sided deal like all other deals we make. It’s a one-sided deal. It gave them things that we should have never allowed.” – President Trump on the 2010 New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia, in an interview with Reuters, Feb. 23, 2017.


More than once, in remarks and tweets on nuclear issues both during and after the presidential campaign and in a widely reported phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December, President Trump has made clear his disdain for the bilateral New START nuclear arms reduction treaty.

Last week, he made it clear that his position hasn’t changed. “It’s a one-sided deal,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Trump’s comments may call into question the future of the treaty itself – and the future trajectory of limiting and reducing U.S. and Russian (previously Soviet) nuclear arsenals through carefully negotiated agreements. This is a path that was adopted more than four decades ago and continued by every president since.

New START, signed by the United States and Russia in 2010 and enacted in 2011, reduces the aggregate number of strategic nuclear warheads and launchers on both sides. The Treaty requires both countries to reduce their arsenals by 2018 to 1,550 deployed warheads and 800 strategic launchers, with 700 deployed. Launchers consist of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. 

These mutual limits, along with New START’s robust verification and compliance regime – including national technical means (e.g. satellites), on-site inspections, required notifications, and data exchanges – enhance stability and reduce incentives for either country to engage in an arms race.

Importantly, New START enables U.S. nuclear experts to inspect Russian military sites that host both deployed and non-deployed strategic weapons. These inspections provide a critical source of information on Russian nuclear forces. Under New START, inspectors are permitted to count the number of warheads on individual missiles, rather than having to rely solely on estimates. No other treaty currently allows for such access and if the United States abandoned New START, it would lose a critical source of intelligence, hampering policymakers’ ability to make informed decisions.

New START was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support from the national security and foreign policy communities. This included past presidents, defense secretaries, secretaries of state, national security advisors, and members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle, as well as scores of then-current and former senior government and military officials. The Treaty was ratified with more than 70 votes in the Senate.

President Trump’s comments suggest two reasons he believes New START is one-sided. First, he expresses concern that the United States has fallen behind Russia in its nuclear capabilities. However, New START does not limit U.S. nuclear modernization. The United States is currently pursuing a near-complete overhaul of all elements of its strategic nuclear triad. Over the next 30 years, the United States is slated to field a new ICBM, a new strategic submarine, a new bomber, and a new nuclear cruise missile. While these systems can be debated on their merits, none of these plans are inhibited by New START.

Second, the President alluded to a disparity in Russian and U.S. strategic forces. Although it is true that Russia currently possesses more than the treaty limits and the United States currently possesses less, the numbers don’t provide the whole story. As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists has noted, Russia, too, is in the middle of a major nuclear modernization program and is in the process of fielding new systems (some of the systems improve the survivability of the weapons, which actually enhances stability). The numbers fail to reflect that, in order to keep within the limits of the Treaty, Russia will also begin to retire the older systems it is replacing before the 2018 deadline. Down the road, as the U.S. deploys its own new systems, fluctuations in the total deployed and non-deployed nuclear warheads and launchers are also likely to occur.

Finally, New START helps meet one of the Trump administration’s core stated foreign policy goals – to improve relations with Russia. New START offers a vehicle for U.S.-Russian diplomatic engagement and, despite worsening relations, cooperation on New START has been a steady source of transparency and predictability on nuclear issues. Retaining and eventually extending the treaty may be one of the best ways to meet President Trump’s goal to improve U.S.-Russian relations—by maintaining predictability, stability, and transparency on a mutual and existential common interest.


February 28, 2017
Brian Rose
Brian Rose

Program Officer, Global Nuclear Policy

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