The US-Russia START Treaty: Just What Does “Arms Control” Really Mean?


Darwin Bond-Graham – Truthout

There’s a funny if intimidating gun-nut bumper sticker you may have seen on the road: “Gun control means using both hands.”  It’s clever, invoking and mocking gun control at the same time.

This last week, the United States government, by its actions, formally adopted this bumper sticker as its de-facto nuclear weapons and arms control policy.  Actually, the U.S. did much worse.  Reasonable people can disagre about laws governing the sale and possession of firearms, and at least the libertarian gun lobby is honest about their intentions.  They want as few restrictions on small arms as possible, and don’t have double standards about who can possess what.

With nuclear weapons and the states that possess them, it’s another story entirely.  For the rest of the world they want the sort of “gun control” that liberals like – firm restrictions and penalties on everything from processing nuclear materials to possession of the bomb.  But when it comes to their own militaries, they want a more – how shall we put it? – two-handed technique.

The basic position of the Obama administration is that it seeks strict nonproliferation measures to prevent any and all non-nuclear nations from obtaining nuclear arms capabilities.  This is not very different from past administrations, except that the current White House has proven a little more patient and multi-lateral in confronting potential proliferators.  At the same time, the administration is making an unprecedented fiscal commitment to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while also keeping the military’s “nuclear posture” virtually the same as it has been throughout the Cold War.  In spite of its title and much of the press it has gotten, the recently penned New START treaty in no way puts restrictive “controls” on U.S. nuclear armaments.  In fact, the Congress is demanding, and the administration is delivering, a minimum $80 billion dollar reconstruction funding package for the nuclear weapons complex, and another $100 billion investment package in a new generation of nuclear subs, missiles, and bombers, all just so that the Senate might ratify the treaty.

A START Toward What?

President Obama’s newly negotiated arms control agreement with Russia does not actually reduce either state’s stockpile of weapons in any significant way.  It certainly doesn’t involve any disarmament-inspired steps.  And yet it is being drummed up in the press as an arms control treaty.  How is this?  Comments from Ireland and South Africa’s delegates to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, currently underway in New York, provide a useful perspective here.  According to one report:

“Both the South African and Irish delegations stated that arsenal reductions do not automatically mean a commitment to nuclear disarmament. South Africa’s representative said that reductions could be undertaken for a variety of reasons, such as strategic stability, financial constraints or safety issues. The Irish delegation said that reductions alone do not explain the whole story and that one can only judge a state’s true intentions by surveying the full range of its actions and pronouncements.” [i]

So what is the whole story behind New START?  What might be the true intentions of the U.S.?

Stabilizing and economizing measures are two of the prime functions of the treaty.  On the stability front, it serves the aggressively imperial ambitions of the U.S. while addressing the concerns of a fiscally weakened Russia.  Russia has had major concerns with U.S. plans to build a “missile defense” system for many years now.  Most of the world understands this system to be part of a larger offensive U.S. military stance, not a “defense.”  START is one attempt to smooth things over on this front, while also formalizing small cuts in nuclear arsenals that both states were likely to make with or without the treaty.  “Missile defense” is moving ahead full speed.  Defense Secretary Gates has said, “The reductions in this treaty will not affect the strength of our nuclear triad,” and furthermore, “Nor does this treaty limit plans to protect the United States and our allies by improving and deploying missile defense systems.”  The military’s head of missile defense, Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, said in support of the treaty, “Relative to the recently expired START Treaty, the new START Treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program.” [ii]

During a briefing on Nuclear Posture Review – the administration’s stated nuclear doctrines which were drafted parallel to the New START treaty – General James Cartwright forthrightly admitted that, “There are no constraints in this treaty associated with our missile defenses or our prompt global strike capabilities, read conventional.”  Prompt global strike refers to a new class of weapons: ICBMs tipped with conventional, non-nuclear warheads.  This system is intended to provide U.S. leadership with the ability to strike any point on the planet within an hour.  Like “missile defense,” prompt global strike has elicited a lot of concern from the Russians (to say nothing of other targeted nations).  Here again, the New START treaty has functioned to negotiate a resolution that will allow the U.S. to develop and deploy this new, highly asymmetrical, strategic weapon under terms that do not miff the Russians too much.  In other words, it’s not really about nuclear weapons, up or down.  It’s about finding a way to roll out a new class of extremely destructive and destabilizing conventional weapons.

A related function of the treaty is to provide both states with more fungible accounting rules with respect to nuclear missile warheads and bombs.  New START only barely reduces a fraction of the hugely disproportionate nuclear arms of each state.  It does this through fuzzy accounting methods, ones that do not address warheads and bombs in storage, or tactical weapons.  Worst of all the treaty counts nuclear capable bomber jets, each of which can hold many nuclear weapons, as single warheads.

New START expires the SORT Treaty signed under President George W. Bush.  One of the SORT treaty’s biggest flaws (in the eyes of many nuclear proponents) was that it did not allow for these fuzzy accounting methods.  SORT was an impediment to pro-nuclear strategists.  As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists puts it, “The United States resisted restrictions on its upload capability, which it achieved by the high limit on delivery platforms. The ‘fake’ bomber count enables more weapons to be deployed on ballistic missiles and more weapons to be retained at bomber bases than would have been possible under the Moscow Treaty.” [iii]

Article V of the treaty explicitly allows for the “modernization” of existing designs.  This allowance was written into the treaty by negotiators to permit weapons scientists to aggressively re-design existing bombs and warheads, so long as they stay within technical boundaries, but these boundaries are by no means certain.  Both U.S. and Russian weaponeers are already hard at work refurbishing and rebuilding weapons, often with improved components.  The Americans are miles and miles ahead and possess an arsenal without peer, of course. [iv] Thus the treaty also states that, “When a Party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party shall have the right to raise the question of such a strategic offensive arm for consideration in the Bilateral Consultative Commission.” [v] None of this is for contingency.  “Modernization” of the stockpile is already being carried out under what are called “life-extension programs.”  Big dollar amounts will soon flow into the U.S. nuclear weapons labs to further tinker with weapons designs, START treaty or not.  The treaty’s possible ratification by the Senate is only expected to boost these funding amounts.  It has already emboldened proponents in the weapons labs, Congress and military, who would like to see the physics packages of warheads and bombs opened up entirely under attempts at component replacement.

Modernization of the nuclear weapons complex is seen as a necessary step in tandem modernization of the weapons themselves.  Prior to the New START treaty’s handover to the Senate, the Obama administration had already proposed a $5 billion down-payment to the National Nuclear Security Administration over the next five years.  Among other things, these funds will subsidize the rapidly growing costs of planning and building a uranium enrichment facility at the Y-12 site in Tennessee, and a plutonium “pit” manufacturing center at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Succeeding Where Bush Failed?

Under the George W. Bush administration, there were two names for NNSA’s costly infrastructure aspirations.  At first, the federal agency called its plan to rebuild the nation’s nuclear infrastructure “Complex 2030.”  Then it was “Complex Transformation.”  The latter title was adopted, and its environmental impact statements are officially guiding construction and operations at the nation’s nuclear labs and facilities today.  Key components related to the administration’s transformation plan were nixed by Congress, however, including their centerpiece proposal, the Reliable Replacement Warhead.  Now the language is once again shifting from “Complex Transformation” to “Modernization,” a term that is being applied to both the complex and the weapons it builds, and far larger sums of money are being offered up than during the Bush era.

Ironically, then, for a president who has pledged himself to a vision of a nuclear-free world, the question is not whether a new weapons complex (the operational life-span of which will be generations into the future) will be built, but how quickly funds will be ponied up for it, and at what levels.  The difference between Obama and treaty skeptics like Senator Jon Kyl is on the order of billions of dollars.  But it’s necessary to keep in mind that Obama has already pledged a 13 percent increase over the FY2010 budget, from $6.4 to $7 billion, with a major ramping up of spending again in 2014, by hundreds of millions, finally culminating at $9 billion by 2018. [vi] So what we’re really talking about is the difference between Obama’s major nuclear weapons spending increase, and Senator Kyl’s supersized spending increase.

And yet, the treaty has been promoted as an “arms control” agreement, and even praised by some observers as consistent with the President’s famous April 2009 Prague speech, in which he affirmed a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.  If anyone had any doubts about what New START accomplishes with respect to cementing the place of nuclear weapons in this world, the administration’s own boosters have made it clear that the treaty is in fact a very pro-nuclear law.  Former Defense Secretary William Perry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, “The President’s FY11 budget submission proposes substantial increases to the nuclear weapons program for [improvement of the nuclear weapons complex]…. The administration has been consistent in its statements and proposals on this point, all of which support upgrade and improvement of the nuclear weapons complex.” [vii]

Accompanying the New START treaty’s arrival in the Senate for ratification (which may not even occur this year anyway) is a plan required by the Congress in which the President must outline his administration’s commitment “to enhance the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile of the United States, modernize the nuclear weapons complex, and maintain the delivery platforms for nuclear weapons.” [viii] Informally called the “section 1251 report” after the legislative language requiring it, this classified plan states that the U.S. will consolidate its nuclear arsenal around 420 deployed ICBMs, all with a single warhead, and 14 submarines armed with 240 SLBMs spread between them.  It’s the bombers again that neatly illustrate the nature of the treaty being more about the “both hands” version of arms control than genuine reductions in the spirit of de-escalation and disarmament.  According to a White House fact sheet on the section 1251 report, “The United States currently has 94 deployable nuclear-capable bombers. Under the baseline plan, some will be converted to conventional-only bombers (not accountable under the treaty), and up to 60 nuclear-capable bombers will be retained.” [ix]

Again, under the treaty, these sixty bombers each count as one nuclear weapon, but each can actually be armed with multiple nuclear bombs and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.  Former Secretary of State George Shultz, a protege of Perry and one of the Obama administration’s most influential supporters with respect to nuclear policy, has praised the New START treaty, Nuclear Posture Review, and other initiatives by saying:

“One of the things in the nuclear posture review that has gotten zero attention -but deserves some attention- is the common sense notion that deterrence involves more than just nuclear weapons. There are all sorts of ways historically that you can deter an enemy. If you are an Al Qaeda fighter in the hills of Pakistan, you are much more worried about a drone than a nuclear missile.” [x]

On the flip side, if you’re George Shultz, you are much more worried about the United State’s strained ability to bomb Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Iraqis into submission with “conventional” weapons than you are about maintaining 94 nuclear-capable bombers.  After all, the cost savings achieved by transferring 34 of these bombers to other missions can and will be passed straight into more urgent military missions.  Combined with the fuzzy accounting methods of New START the U.S. doesn’t really lose any real capacity in this wing of the nuclear triad.  It does so while gaining kudos for supposedly “reducing” its stockpile.

With respect to this administration’s arms control agenda, the whole story behind New START and other recent U.S. arms control overtures appears to be one of a foreign policy establishment worried about its military being over-stretched in current wars and occupations, and paranoid about states like Iran and North Korea that might seek a capable deterrent in nuclear weapons.  Pursuing economizing measures to better balance its more-than-all-the-world-combined annual military budget, and also attempting to position itself as a good guy when it comes to its own disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the U.S. has an able tool in the New START.  It would seem to accomplish all of this at once.  Unfortunately it has little to nothing to do with disarmament, and a lot to do with the heightening of U.S. militarism.


[i]    Sarin, Tara, “Main Committee I and III,” Special Coverage 2010 NPT RevCon, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, May 11, 2010,

[ii]    quoted in “Key Quotations on the New START Treaty,” White House, May 13, 2010,

[iii]    Kristensen, Hans.  “New START Treaty Has New Counting.”

[iv]    Reif, Kingston, “Nuclear weapons: The modernization myth,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 8, 2009.

[v]    The New START and its protocol can be downloaded here:

[vi]    Projections for Weapons Stockpile and Infrastructure Costs through 2020 accompany an adminstration fact sheet made public after conveyance of the classified Section 1251 Report to the Senate.  See, Office of the Press Secretary, “The New START Treaty – Maintaining a Strong Nuclear Deterrent,” The White house, May 13, 2010,

[vii]    Perry, William S, “Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on “The Historical and Modern Context for U.S.-Russian Arms Control,” April 29, 2010, quoted in “Key Quotations on the New START Treaty,” White House, May 13, 2010.

[viii]    Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the Press Secretary on the Submission of the New START Treaty to the Senate,” The White House, May 13, 2010,

[ix]    Office of the Press Secretary, “The New START Treaty – Maintaining a Strong Nuclear Deterrent,”

[x]    “Does the Obama nuclear strategy put the US at risk?,” Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 2010,


Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA.


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