Russia Nuclear Breakout and the New START Treaty
In December 2019, former Under Secretary of State and Chief Negotiator of the New START Treaty Rose Gottemoeller argued in favor of the extension of the New START Treaty because, “…the Russians could rapidly add several hundred more warheads, some say up to a thousand warheads, to their existing deployments of ICBMs without deploying a single additional missile.” This is certainly true, but it is rather odd that one of the most important defects in the New START Treaty should be presented as a reason for extending it. The New START Treaty omitted the many provisions of the original START Treaty designed to prevent or limit a Treaty breakout. These included: 1) provisions that limited the number of warheads that could be tested on each type of ICBM and SLBM; 2) throw-weight (missile payload) limits for the entire strategic missile force; 3) limits on the throw-weight of individual missile types (ICBM sand SLBMs); 4) the near abolition of the New START Treaty requirements regarding the provision of missile telemetry (which provides information on the technical characteristics of missiles); 5) the START Treaty warhead attribution rules; 6) limitations on downloading (reducing the number of accountable warheads); 7) provisions for the monitoring of the number of mobile ICBMs produced; and 8) the prohibition on the creation of “new types” of heavy ICBMs and SLBMs.
Article V of the New START Treaty (2010) and Article V of the original START Treaty (1992) have the same function – listing types of weapons systems that are prohibited. Article V of the New START Treaty has 125 words. Article V of the original START Treaty contains 1,863 words. Thus, the prohibitions contained in the original START Treaty related to limiting breakout and cheating were simply gutted in the New START Treaty. This combined with other provisions and counting rules contained in the START Treaty that did not make it into the New START Treaty and a similar gutting of the START Treaty verification provisions relating to mobile ICBMs, created an almost unlimited breakout, circumvention, and cheating potential.
The risk of a Russian breakout from the New START Treaty and Russian cheating under the New START Treaty are actually two sides of the same coin. Concerning the declared Russian strategic nuclear force, it takes exactly the same technical capabilities to breakout of the Treaty or to cheat while the Treaty is in effect. To do either, it is necessary to have enough throw-weight to deliver the extra warheads to an intercontinental distance, enough space in the missile’s front section to mount the extra warheads, and it is certainly desirable to be able to test the missile with the increased number of warheads. All of this was either prohibited or limited in the original START Treaty; this is allowed and unrestricted in the New START Treaty.
While there are many other ways of cheating, adding more nuclear warheads on the declared missile force is the cheapest. Nuclear warheads are cheap compared to the cost of the booster missile. That is why multiple warhead missiles (MIRV) became so widespread during the Cold War. As then-Senator Christopher (Kit) Bond (R-MO), then Vice Chairman of the Senate Selection Committee on Intelligence, stated during the New START ratification process, “The Select Committee on Intelligence has been looking at this issue closely over the past several months. As the vice chairman of this committee, I have reviewed the key intelligence on our ability to monitor this treaty and heard from our intelligence professionals. There is no doubt in my mind that the United States cannot reliably verify the treaty’s 1,550 limit on deployed warheads.” There are many reasons for this, some of which go beyond the scope of this essay. However, the inability of the New START Treaty verification regime to detect the deployment of more than the claimed number of warheads on declared Russian ICBMs and SLBMs is clearly one of the most important.
Cheating on nuclear warhead numbers under the New START Treaty is essentially a covert breakout from New START. The mechanism for hiding the number of warheads actually present on inspected Russian missiles was extensively used by Russia during the duration of the original START Treaty. It was a Russian Treaty violation written up in the 2005 edition of the State Department’s annual report on compliance with arms control agreements. The 2005 report has the distinction of being the only State Department report after the George H.W. Bush administration that met the legal requirement for this report. This should be required reading for anyone considering the extension of New START.
The mechanics of the START Treaty inspection of warheads (reentry vehicles) is described in the 2005 report: “…the inspected Party [is allowed to] cover RVs [Reentry Vehicles]….Under the Treaty, such covers must not hamper inspectors in ascertaining that the front section contains no more RVs than the number of warheads attributed to a missile of that type. Russian RV covers, in some instances, are too large; consequently, they fail to meet this requirement.” Former Assistant Secretary of State Paula De Sutter has pointed out:
The verification measures in the New START treaty add nothing to what was there before in the original START treaty. They are using the original START Reentry Vehicle On-Site Inspection regime, complete with all of the same shrouds and covers that were used during the original START, some of which we found to violate the Treaty because we couldn’t confirm the number of Reentry Vehicles (RVs). And those are all still permitted.
The inability to verify the maximum number of warheads on a missile being inspected, at a minimum, means that the cover supposedly covering one warhead could not conceal a second warhead. The implication of oversized warhead covers is that the missile force could actually have at least twice the number of warheads than are declared by the Russians. Thus, the breakout actually happens not at the end of the Treaty period but while the Treaty is legally in force. The Russian breakout/cheating potential has significantly increased during the last decade and is about to skyrocket due to the deployment of the new Sarmat heavy ICBM, which Deputy Minister of Defense Yuri Borisov said can deliver payloads of up to 10 metric tons. By comparison, a U.S. Minuteman ICBM has just under one metric ton of throw-weight. A number of the characteristics of the Sarmat would have been prohibited by Article V of the original START Treaty but are allowed under New START.
With the continuing deployment of the new Russian Yars/SS-27 Mod 2 ICBM and the Bulava-30 SLBM on 955A (Borei-A) submarines, Russia’s breakout/cheating potential is growing. In December 2019, Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu announced that another two 955A class submarines will be produced, increasing the number to seven. With the three existing 955 submarines, the strength of the Borei (955/955A) ballistic missile force will increase to ten submarines. However, the biggest increase in Russian breakout/cheating potential will involve the deployment of the new Sarmat heavy ICBM.
In December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin was told by a Defense Ministry official that, “It is planned to rearm 20 missile regiments with the Sarmat and put them on combat duty from 2020 to 2027.” Since Russian heavy ICBM regiments contain either 6 or 10 deployed missiles, this translates into 120 to 200 deployed Sarmat missiles. This is an enormous increase from the previous program of 46 reported years ago by TASS. Since the Russians plan to complete ICBM modernization by 2024, any Sarmat deployment after 2024 has to be force expansion.
The Sarmat is reportedly capable of carrying 10 heavy or 15 medium nuclear warheads. State-run RT has just reported that, “According to the Ministry of Defense, "Sarmat" will be able to carry up to 20 warheads of small, medium, high power classes.”
The Sarmat is also reportedly capable of carrying three to five of the large new Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicles. The Avangard reportedly weighs 2,000-kg. By comparison, the ballistic warheads deployed on the Bulava-30 SLBM and the Yars/SS-27 Mod 2 ICBM reportedly weigh 90 kg. There are a number of reports in the Russian press that Russia has developed a 100-kg warhead of 100-kt. Thus, a cover designed to cover the Avangard could clearly cover at least several existing Russian missile warheads, including the reported large, medium and small ballistic warheads.
A photograph of what is apparently the Avangard vehicle covered by an accent shroud has appeared on the internet. It gives a clear indication of the size of the Avangard. The people appearing in this photo give a rough comparison to the size of an ordinary missile warhead and the Avangard. It is clear that the Avangard, when deployed on the Sarmat, will create an unprecedented monitoring problem. What purports to be a covered Avangard glide vehicle could easily cover a number of the much smaller ballistic warheads.
We don’t know how many heavy SS-18 heavy ICBM silos the Russians have that could be converted into launchers for the Sarmat. The release of information of this type, which was unclassified under the original START Treaty, is prohibited under the New START Treaty. The New START Treaty in Article VII, paragraph 5 prohibits the release of a very large part of the data exchanged under New START without Russian consent. The START Treaty only required that one-half of the 308 Soviet SS-18 heavy ICBM silos be dismantled. Russian START Treaty data released by the State Department in 2009 indicated Russia had 108 deployed SS-18 ICBMs. There is no indication from the Russian government that they dismantled any additional SS-18 silos after the expiration of the original START Treaty in 2009. Thus, they apparently have enough SS-18 silos that could be modified to deploy Sarmats to allow over twice the earlier reported number of 46 Sarmats. It may also be possible for the Russians to rebuild SS-18 silos that went through START Treaty elimination procedures, which only required a limited amount of damage be done to the silos, although this would be substantially more costly. Theoretically, Russia could build new silos if this were required.
The maximum number of warheads deployable on a Sarmat is certainly not limited to the 15 medium warheads reported in the Russian press. If the Russians deploy some with small warheads, a larger number is obviously possible. For example, the Liner SLBM, a modernized Soviet SS-N-23 SLBM, according to its manufacturer, can carry both “medium” and “light” warheads, the numerical difference being four “medium” vs. 9-12 “light” warheads. The Russians reportedly plan to deploy, at least eventually, 10 warheads on the Yars ICBM/SS-27 Mod 2 and the Bulava-30 SLBM, which would require an even lighter warhead if the range of the missiles is to be maintained. According to one Russian press report, the intent is to integrate “10 super-lightweight warheads for the Bulava’s nose section….” There is no reason why this warhead could not be deployed on an ICBM if the Russians see a need for more warheads. Light warheads would be the easiest to conceal.
The enormous size of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle opens up the possibility that some Sarmat ICBMs supposedly carrying the Avangard are actually carrying large numbers of much smaller ballistic warheads hidden by a cover of a size necessary to cover the Avangard. This would open up a new and unprecedented type of cheating scenario. To hide several warheads or more, an Avangard cover would not necessarily be oversized, creating a new legal problem.
If we do not learn from our arms control mistakes, we will make them again. Pretending that the New START Treaty protects us from breakout is completely false. Under New START, the only real limit is what the Russians can afford to do – essentially the same situation as no arms control. Without Article V of the original START Treaty, there is virtually no limit on breakout (and cheating), and that is far from the only problem with New START. Placebo arms control has never worked. The Sarmat went from a 100-ton missile to a 200-ton missile because this option was created in New START due to the elimination of Article V of the original START Treaty.
While 20 regiments of Sarmat ICBMs were unexpected, it is actually consistent with a statement by then-Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov to the effect that Russia intended to increase the number of its delivery vehicles to the limit allowed under New START (700 deployed delivery vehicles and 800 deployed on non-deployed delivery vehicles) by 2028. The program described to Putin would put Russia close to achieving this objective. It would also give Russia a massive cheating or breakout potential.
The combination of the very large size of the Avangard vehicle and at least three types of ballistic missile warheads to be deployed on the Sarmat makes it easy for Russia to cheat. Thus, the breakout potential under New START is not the only threat we face. There are also reported Russian programs to circumvent the New START Treaty with weapons that are not limited by it. The real Russian breakout/cheating potential is measured in thousands of warheads, and this will grow with the passage of time if New START is extended. The Russians are not about to stop their nuclear modernization programs, which are broad and far ranging. Russia talks about continuous modernization, and it means it. According to President Vladimir Putin, “…our goal is not a one-time rearmament, after which we can forget about the Army and Navy for decades. The Army and Navy must always have the best equipment and technology.”
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
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