The United States currently has 44 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. (Air Force)
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The new START treaty that would cut the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons could also prompt the United States to trim the bomber leg of its nuclear force.
Limits that reduce the number of deployed "launchers" to 700 could encourage U.S. nuclear policy makers to rely more on land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles and less on B-2 and B-52 bombers, said Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association.
"The bomber leg of the triad is not what you think about when you think about survivability and quick response," he said.
At present, the United States has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles based on land and 336 based on submarines. It also has 44 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and 16 nuclear-capable B-2 bombers.
That gives the United States a total of 846 launchers. The treaty permits 800 launchers, but says only 700 may be "deployed."
If the number of deployed launchers must be reduced to 700, the U.S. military is likely to want most of them to be its most responsive and survivable, Collina said. That suggests keeping the maximum number of land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles.
"The treaty is forcing us to decide where to put our warheads," he said. And bombers are likely to be the losers. "We could be moving to 20 or fewer bombers."
But 20 bombers is a deceptively small number.
Under the new treaty, each bomber counts as one weapon even though U.S. bombers can carry more than one warhead. B-2 bombers can carry 16 nuclear weapons and B-52 bombers can carry 20.
So a fleet of 16 B-2s could carry 256 nuclear weapons and four B-52s could carry 80 more. An all-B-52 fleet could carry 400.
Bombers have already been relegated to a limited role in the United States' day-to-day nuclear posture, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists.
"Warheads on missiles are the day-to-day deterrence," he said. "Bombers are really just a backup."
Land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles can hit targets on the other side of the globe in little more than half an hour. Bombers have to be loaded with bombs or cruise missiles and then fly for hours to reach their targets.
More about the fate of the bomber leg of the nuclear triad is may be revealed in the Nuclear Posture Review that President Barack Obama is expected to release before he departs for Prague to sign the START treaty April 8.
While senior officials of the Obama administration herald the treaty as "a landmark agreement" that is "good for us, good for Russia, and good for global security and stability," arms control experts tend to describe the treaty as "modest."
The new START treaty "will still leave the United States and Russia with thousands of excess nuclear weapons that are liabilities in the effort to curb proliferation and combat terrorism," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
"If anyone can explain to me why we and the Russians continue to need over a thousand nuclear bombs, each five to 25 times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima, pointed at each other, please send me an e-mail," said Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the strategic security program at the Federation of American Scientists.
"It's a modest achievement in terms of limits" on nuclear weapons, "but significant in terms of extending a modern verification regime, and most important, getting the ball rolling again in these types of nitty-gritty talks between the United States and Russia. That's where the value is," Kristensen said.
The treaty permits "direct monitoring of warheads. In the past we have looked at delivery vehicles, now we will be able to look inside the missiles" and count the warheads, Collina said.
That probably helps explain the scheme that counts bombers as just one weapon, he said. Typically bomber-delivered nuclear weapons are kept in storage, not on the bombers. "You can't look in the bomber and see the weapons, so they had to choose an arbitrary number. They chose one," he said.
Although Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev are scheduled to sign the treaty, work continues on writing annexes that spell out details of the inspection regime, said Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, "We hope to have them completed soon after signing, certainly by the end of the month," she said.
Sometime thereafter, the treaty is to be made public and sent to the Senate for ratification, she said. "Our goal is to submit the treaty in the late spring and to seek ratification by the end of the year."
After initial concern that Republicans opposed to Obama's domestic agenda would block ratification of the treaty, arms control advocates are expressing more optimism.
"I think it will be ratified with a comfortable margin," Collina said. "It's a modest treaty, very much in keeping with" arms reduction treaties negotiated by Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. "It doesn't cut weapons that far, it doesn't affect the triad, the verification regime is strong and it doesn't touch missile defense," he said.
"The Senate is likely to ratify it," Kristensen agreed.
"It would look very odd if the opposition in the Senate would use this treaty to say the U.S. lost out. This treaty protects U.S. force structure and it modernizes verification of Russian forces," he said.
The treaty also rejects Russian efforts to make nuclear weapons reductions dependent on limits to ballistic missile defense and conventional strike programs, Kristensen said.