Last week, I was lucky to be able to join NPT PrepCom-ers in Geneva to help present the recently completed UNIDIR study ‘A New START Model for Transparency in Nuclear Disarmament,’ carried out by Pavel Podvig, Phillip Schell, and myself.

The work is accessible on the recently launched nuclearforces.org website, where you can check out the overview report, the individual country reports, some nifty maps, or download the KMZ set.

As the P5 continue to seek ways to show up on their 2010 Action Plan commitments (especially those repeatedly mentioned by name that are related to disarmament, transparency, and reporting - Action 5, 20, & 21), the aim of this project was to demonstrate the feasibility and practicality of applying New START definitions and provisions more widely to the other NPT nuclear weapon states.  Yes, New START was specifically designed for the arsenals of Russia and the United States, so why would we do such a thing?  The overview report says it best:

Even though the New START transparency and accountability provisions were developed in the context of bilateral US–Russian nuclear arms control, they could be applied to the nuclear arsenals of other nuclear-weapon states. The key advantage of New START is that it provides a legal and organizational framework for nuclear reductions that has been thoroughly tested in practice. Extending this framework to all nuclear-weapon states would be a natural and direct way of building a comprehensive system that could ensure transparency and accountability in nuclear disarmament.

Over decades of trial and error, Russia and the United States have learned many a lesson in terms of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to effective mechanisms for transparency, notifications, inspections, and general verification in arms control.  Therefore, in thinking about a transparency system for pursuing multilateral disarmament in line with the 2010 Action Plan, we think it makes good sense to build upon this experience rather than to start from scratch.

In this project, using a variety of open sources and geospatial tools, we generated New START-type MOUs for each of the P5 states, which include the relevant aggregate numbers, facilities, geographic coordinates, and weapon system technical data.

Here are the New START-type aggregate totals for each state as of 1 September 2012:

(Data for the United States and the Russian Federation come from the biannual exchange required by New START, which contained data declared current as of 1 September 2012. Data for China, France, and the United Kingdom are estimates based on open-source information.)

 

The numbers might look a little strange at first, but this is what you get when you apply a consistent methodology (something that the open source community tends to be rather lax about) as defined in New START.  The treaty clearly defines an ICBM, SLBM, or heavy bomber based on range, it presents good definitions for determining deployment status, and the limits of the treaty provide a useful measure for determining which forces should be considered “strategic” if only for the purposes of consistent reporting across the P5. The detailed story behind each of these numbers can be found in the country reports, but here are a few key points:

  • The only systems included in the aggregate numbers are those with ranges that meet requirements specified in New START (ICBMS, > 5500km; SLBMs, > 600km; Heavy Bombers, > 8000km or with nuclear long range (>600km) ALCMs)
  • This data reflects the status of arsenals on the date of 1 September 2012, and therefore the numbers might look quite different on another date.  For instance, part of the reason the UK’s numbers are relatively low is because two submarines (as opposed to the usual one) were considered to be in overhaul on this date.
  • The reason for the glaring zero in China’s deployed warheads category is due to the general belief that no warheads are actually mounted on China’s ballistic missiles.

 

The aggregate numbers in the table above do not present a complete picture of each state’s nuclear arsenal, but it’s a good starting point in terms of reporting.  More importantly, the framework and system that New START provides could of course be built upon over time to incorporate new weapon systems (i.e. Russian and U.S. non-strategic forces, French nuclear aircraft, and Chinese missiles with lower ranges) in a sustained and consistent manner.

In completing the MOUs for each state, it was also interesting how much of the necessary data was already available in the public domain.  Despite the fact that the United States removes the coordinates from its New START data releases and that Russia refuses to allow the disclosure of anything beyond its aggregate numbers, the MOUs for both of these states (including geographic coordinates for all facilities) could be rather easily assembled using open sources and Google Earth.  The same goes for the much shorter MOUs generated for France and the UK, which would each have very few facilities to report.  For China, the process required more effort, but thanks to the growing body of research and the increasing availability of commercial satellite imagery, we were able to identify many of the relevant facilities with reasonable confidence.

As an example, the map below shows nuclear forces bases and other facilities that would be included in China’s New START-type data exchange report.  Click on the image to go to the larger interactive version (tip: click on the ‘satellite’ option to be able to view the actual sites when zooming in):

 

With each succeeding Russian-U.S. arms control agreement, the definitions, mechanisms, and procedures have been adjusted to account for lessons learned.  New START stands as the most recent iteration of this process, and while it may not be perfect, it represents a history of cooperation and negotiated agreement between the two states with the largest nuclear arsenals.  Moreover, it contains many elements that could serve as a useful basis for elaborating a multilateral transparency and disarmament system.

As starting points go, we think that’s pretty good.

(For a more eloquent description of the project, also check out Pavel’s recent post.)