Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

START III: Opportunities and Consequences for Nuclear Disarmament

by Eugene Miasnikov

Presentation at the panel "Achieving a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Legal, Political, and Technical Strategies for Nuclear Disarmament", May 9, 2000, United Nations, New York, NY

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After seven years of harsh debates, the START II Treaty has been finally ratified recently by the Russian parliament. This event brought some optimism among those who seek for further nuclear reductions, since START II ratification by Russia had been a condition for beginning START III negotiations between the United States and Russia.

Therefore, it is not surprising, that the following questions occur:

In order to answer to these questions one should understand current U.S. and Russian attitudes toward nuclear disarmament. There seem to be two groups of long term factors influencing decisions of policy makers in both countries.

The first group of such factors stimulates further U.S.-Russian dialog on nuclear arms cuts. The United States seems to be interested in ensuring the safety and security of the Russian nuclear arsenal to prevent nuclear non-proliferation and a possibility of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. At the same time, Russia is very anxious to retain the last symbol of its superpower status - nuclear parity with the United States, which is currently possible only by further steps of nuclear reductions.

However, there is also a second group of factors, which creates obstacles to further bilateral nuclear cuts. There are increasingly strong voices in the United States appealing to obtain overwhelming superiority over any "rogue state" and build an invisible "Fortress America". Russia, on the other hand, has to respond to unfortunate developments (such as NATO expansion, war in Yugoslavia and NMD deployment in the U.S.), and therefore concerns over the survivability of its remaining smaller nuclear arsenal are growing. Unfortunately, the second group of factors is becoming more influential, and eventually may destroy the bilateral nuclear disarmament process.

There are also short term factors shaping the window of opportunities for START III negotiations. These factors, however, may play a decisive role in concluding a START III agreement.

On the eve of the forthcoming presidential elections, Clinton's administration proposed a "grand bargain": Russia would agree to amend ABM Treaty, and the United States would negotiate START III Treaty, and possibly, make some concessions to Russia in exchange. However, there are several obstacles. Russia currently objects to any ABM Treaty modifications, and seems to be ready to go as far as destroying the whole arms control regime. The U.S. Congress made very clear that it will not support the current administration's "grand bargain", nor the entry of START II into force. Finally, President Clinton plans to make a decision on NMD deployment by this fall.

In foreseeable future, it seems impossible to separate negotiations on START III and ABM Treaties. Clinton's administration seems committed itself to withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, if Russia refuses to make modifications. If the ABM Treaty regime collapses, Russia will most certainly withdraw from START II and refuse to negotiate (or implement) START III.

Certainly, it is very difficult to predict how this deadlock will be resolved, but at least two scenarios look quite plausible:

Thus, START III may be reached even by the end of this year, but its implementation is still in question.

In order to estimate what kind of START III can be achieved, one should look at the U.S. and Russian forces projections by 2010.

Table 1. Russian strategic nuclear forces by 2010 (START II force)




Land based forces

silo and mobile "Topol-M" ICBMs



Sea based forces

mix of 6-10 SSBNs ("Delta IV", "Borey" and possibly "Typhoon" or "Delta III")






~80 (Tu-160 and Tu-95)






Russian land based forces will consist of single warhead "Topol-M" (SS-27) ICBMs deployed in silos and on mobile launchers. Existing mobile land based missiles will likely retire, since they have relatively short service lives (about 10 years). Therefore, the quantity of deployed "Topol-M" ICBMs will depend on their production rate. Currently, about 10-20 new ICBMs are deployed yearly, but eventually the production rate may grow. Land based forces may also include about 90 SS-18 ICBMs if START II does not enter into force.

The sea based leg will represent a mix of "Delta IV," and possibly "Borey," "Typhoon" and "Delta III" class SSBNs. Lowest estimates (six deployed strategic submarines) look more plausible, because all "Typhoons" will likely be decommissioned, and the first "Borey" will not enter in service before 2007-2008.

Table 1 clearly shows that Russia is unable to sustain a strategic force at START II levels and thus is interested in deeper nuclear reductions.

Table 2. U.S. strategic nuclear forces by 2010 (START II force)




Land based forces

"Minuteman III" ICBMs



Sea based forces

14 "Trident II" SSBNs




21 B-2

71 B-52H








In contrast, U.S. strategic platforms can be retained in service until at least 2020 at a modest cost. Modernization of Minuteman III ICBMs and Trident SSBNs is underway. If START II does not enter into force, the United States may in addition to retain 50 MX ICBMs, and keep 3 warheads on Minutman III ICBMs and 8 warheads on Trident II SLBMs.

Thus, there is a little incentive for the United States to be interested in START III reductions. START III is unlikely impose any constraints on Russian strategic forces, but may force the United States to carry out "premature" nuclear cuts.

If START III negotiations take place, it is not difficult to predict the areas of disagreement and likely attitudes of both sides (see Table 3).

Table 3 U.S. and Russian attitudes at START III talks



The United States

Inevitable issues

Number of deployed warheads



Implementation methods toward reduction of strategic platforms


Conversion to conventional roles

Counting rules:

Warheads on SLBMs

MIRVed land based ICBMs



Ban on downloading

Permission to deploy up to 3 warheads

START II accounting rules

START II accounting rules

Permission to download

Ban on MIRVed land based ICBMs

Conversion to conventional roles

Should be excluded from counting

New issues


Limits on SLCMs

Should not be included


Should not be included

Limits on TNW

Transparency of nuclear arsenals

Not clear yet

Not clear yet

The outcome of the START III talks will be a compromise between the outlined positions. However, this compromise will strongly be influenced by ABM Treaty modification decisions.

The main issue of negotiations will be a limit on deployed warheads. The U.S. seems unlikely to agree with the Russian proposal to cut the strategic forces to 1000-1500 deployed warheads. The agreement at lower levels can only be reached, if Russia agrees with "formal" U.S. reductions (downloading or conversion of strategic platforms to conventional roles).

Russia will most certainly propose a ban on downloading SLBMs below 4 warheads, which would require elimination of launchers to reduce the number of warheads deployed on "Tridents". However, the Russian attempt to reduce the U.S. "breakout potential" will be weakened if Russia asks for permission to deploy up to three warheads on mobile ICBMs.

Possibly, the U.S. side will propose to consider its strategic bombers (at least, the remaining B-52H bombers) as having been converted to conventional roles and exclude them from counting. If so, the ALCM issue may become a hot topic at the negotiations.

Depending on time frames of the negotiations, new issues (see Table 3) may emerge at the talks. These areas were identified in Helsinki summit in 1997. However, the sides do not seem to be ready to solve the problem of limiting sea launched cruise missiles and tactical nuclear weapons in time for the START III Treaty to be concluded by January 2001.

There is some hope for a breakthrough in the area of transparency of nuclear arsenals, because both sides seem to be interested in progress in this area. Russia wants to reduce the U.S. "breakout potential", and eliminating non-deployed warheads might be a temporary solution. The United States, on the other hand, is interested in increased transparency of the Russian nuclear arsenal. However, chances for a success in this area are very small. The Russian side might prefer to agree with U.S. "formal" reductions in order to keep its nuclear arsenal closed from the eyes of U.S. inspectors.

Realistically, there is a strong possibility that START III will be even more unbalanced compared to START II. The "breakout potential" problem is unlikely to be solved. However, it may be softened, if non-deployed nuclear warheads are to be eliminated. Nevertheless, such a decision will take just a temporary effect, unless production of new warheads is covered by transparent measures.

An unbalanced START III may have a strong negative impact on further nuclear disarmament. Deeper reductions may become impossible for a long period of time. START III implementation will be a hostage both of U.S. NMD deployment plans, and the Russian Federal Assembly.

An example of a desirable agreement was described in a report "Nuclear Arms Reduction: The Process and Problems", published by our Center in 1997. We proposed the following START III limits:

One should mention that other important issues may emerge at the START III talks as well.

Russia will likely propose limiting covert antisubmarine warfare near naval bases. This measure would be very desirable because it allows to improve confidence between the Navies, prevent dangerous consequences of possible submarine collisions and limit destabilizing SLCM deployments.

Another possible Russian proposal is to take into consideration the counter force potential of precision guided conventional munitions (PGM).

The issue was never raised before at SALT or START talks, but the situation has changed since than. If an efficient conventional preemptive strike is theoretically possible against deployed nuclear forces of another side, this option becomes very attractive, because the environmental consequences are much lower compared to the nuclear strike. The situation may become very destabilizing. It is important to bear in mind that if one side ever perceives its strategic forces as being vulnerable, further nuclear cuts become impossible.

As our technical analysis shows, some existing types of conventional PGMs (e.g. the GBU-37 bomb) are already capable of effectively disabling silo based ICBMs. In the near future, the United States will deploy new classes of hard target penetrators (on CALCMs, Tactical Tomahawks, etc). PGM accuracy is constantly improving - CEP of 1-2 m is enough to effectively disable ICBM silos. Mobile land based ICBMs are vulnerable, if detected and U.S. capability to monitor mobile ICBMs will likely continue to grow.

As discussed above, the United States will try to retain most of its existing strategic platforms. Even with conventional payloads these platforms are able to carry strategic roles. Tactical aviation may also play strategic role, as NATO expands further, and Baltic states, Georgia and Azerbaijan become its members.

On the other hand, the capabilities of Russian conventional forces (air defense, antisubmarine warfare) will likely degrade in future. Thus, Russia will be increasingly concerned about counter force potential of U.S. precision guided munitions. Unfortunately, current U.S. and NATO policies contribute to raising Russia's suspicions about their real intentions.

According to our estimates, PGMs will not have a strong impact on the balance at START III levels. Nevertheless, taking this factor into consideration seems very important. One possible way to reducing Russian concerns on conventional weapons could be a ban on conventional ICBMs and limits on the deployment of strategic platforms converted to conventional roles.

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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2000