Treaty Addresses Weapons Left Over From Cold War

The new arms control treaty requires the U.S. and Russia to cut their arsenals by up to one-third. It's meant to start dealing with a legacy of weapons left over from the Cold War. Matthew Bunn, associate professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, talks to Steve Inskeep about what the new treaty is expected to accomplish.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The treaty requires both nations to cut their arsenals by up to one-third. The key words there are: up to one-third. We're going to ask next just how this agreement works. It's meant to start dealing with a massive legacy of weapons left over from the Cold War.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

To understand what would really change, we started by putting what seemed like a simple question to nuclear expert Matthew Bunn.

How many nuclear warheads does the United States have?

Professor MATTHEW BUNN (Harvard University): That depends on how you count. There are almost 10,000 that physically still exist in one form or another. There are only a couple of thousand that are on missiles and bombers that are ready to be launched at very short notice.

INSKEEP: Which is enough to destroy the world?

Prof. BUNN: Which is enough to destroy most of the world's major cities, indeed. So, in my view, we still have an insane number of nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War.

INSKEEP: So a couple thousand that are ready to go. Ten thousand if you include those that are on the shelf somewhere. What would this treaty reduce that number to?

Prof. BUNN: The previous treaty said you could you have at most 2,200 weapons that were actually deployed on missiles and bombers. This one says only 1,500. However, they have changed the counting rules, so it's not as big a cut as it sounds like. They're counting each bomber, which might carry as many as 10 or 20 bombs, as one. So it's not as big a cut from 2,200 as it might sound like.

INSKEEP: What is not included in this treaty at all?

Prof. BUNN: None of the weapons that are not on missiles that are spare and reserve weapons are included. None of the tactical nuclear weapons are included. Perhaps more important, the whole subject of security for nuclear weapons and nuclear materials, so they don't fall into terrorist hands, is not really the subject of this treaty. That's being addressed separately.

And President Obama is calling together an unprecedented global summit of presidents and prime ministers from around the world next week to focus on nuclear security and beefing up the measures to keep these stockpiles out of terrorist hands.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand a couple of the qualifications you said there. Tactical nuclear weapons: those are, what, smaller warheads that might be used to blow up a city 10 miles away instead of on a missile from thousands of miles away?

Prof. BUNN: Surprisingly, they're not always smaller. In some cases, they're actually the same bombs. So we have, for example, the B-61 nuclear bomb that's carried by tactical aircraft. They might be used in a large-scale war in Europe rather than in a sort of strategic shooting match between the United States and Russia, which would mostly be going over the poles.

INSKEEP: Well, when you consider that those weapons are left out of this count and you consider the lack of attention to safeguards, as you say, and some of the other loopholes, there's a lot of holes in this treaty.

Prof. BUNN: Well, no more than there have been in previous treaties. But there is clearly a need to move on to the next agreement that will address the much more difficult issues surrounding these tactical nuclear weapons that are in storage sites, in Europe in some cases, and these weapons that are not on missiles and are therefore significantly harder to count.

The degree of fighting and pulling and hauling that we've had over what is a pretty limited agreement in this case makes it clear just how hard it's going to be to get the really deep and far-reaching reductions that we ultimately need in nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: Is this one of those situations where any agreement you would reach would seem on its face a little bit insane, about arguing over how many times you need to be able to destroy the world over to feel secure, but just the process of talking is in itself valuable?

Prof. BUNN: I think that not only the process but the agreement itself is also valuable. The agreement brings us three things: it brings us a reduction in what are insanely large stockpiles in nuclear weapons. Not a big reduction but a reduction. It brings us verification and transparency that can build confidence on both sides. And it helps us reestablish our partnership with Russia on nuclear matters, which is going to be extremely critical in the effort to stem the spread of nuclear weapons around the world and keep nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands.

INSKEEP: Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government is the author of forthcoming report on the security of nuclear weapons and materials around the world. Thanks very much.

Prof. BUNN: Thank you.

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