The US and Russia have far fewer nuclear warheads than they did at the height of the Cold War, but the two countries still have large arsenals. Barack Obama wants talks in Moscow to lead toward reductions.
Nuclear stockpile numbers in both the US and Russia have fallen greatly from Cold War heights
Nuclear arms reduction has a prominent place on the agenda of the two-day summit in Moscow between Russia and the United States. The issue is a political priority for US President Barack Obama, who gave a speech in Prague in April in which he outlined his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
For Russia on the other hand, bilateral arms-reduction talks are one of the few issues around which Moscow feels its clout and Cold War history makes it an equal to its one-time rival.
For some time, both times have, regarding the numbers at least, made significant progress in arms reduction. In the mid-1960s, the US had more then 30,000 warheads in its arsenal; the Russians, 20 years later, had some 40,000. Since then, the numbers on both sides have fallen to around 5,000.
Most of these warheads have a explosive force of from 10 to 30 times that of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
At the end of this year, the most comprehensive nuclear reduction treaty ever signed, the 1991 START treaty, will expire. START (later renamed START I) put an upper limit of 6,000 battle-ready nuclear warheads and some 1,600 launching systems.
US President George Bush and Soviet President Gorbachev at the signing of START in 1991
In addition to START, both sides signed off on the "Treaty of Moscow" in 2002. It sees a further reduction on both sides to 1,700 to 2,000 operational strategic warheads.
However, the Moscow document calls on verification of the agreements to be based on the procedures outlined in START, which is considered impractical by both the US and Russia. In addition, it says nothing about the development of new missiles with multiple warheads.
In order to move forward with nuclear disarmament, a new version or an extension of the START treaty is necessary.
By the numbers
The American nuclear arsenal has, according to recent figures put out by the American "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists," already reached the upper limit of 2,200 set by the Treaty of Moscow. Half of US launch systems are intercontinental missiles stationed on submarines, one-fourth are land-based intercontinental missiles and another one-fourth are long-range bombers.
US President Obama in Prague calling for a nuclear weapon-free world
US scientists count some 2,500 warheads in America's active reserve, as well as 500 non-strategic nuclear weapons, mostly found in US bases in Europe. The total: around 5,200 nuclear warheads. More than 4,000 additional ones are on a waiting list to be decommissioned.
The Russian nuclear stockpile contains just under 2,800 strategic operational warheads, of which half are on land-based intercontinental missiles. The other half are on long-range bombers and submarines.
In addition, Russia possesses 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, mostly missile and anti-aircraft systems as well as tactical atomic weapons such as guided missiles. Another 8,000 warheads are held in reserve or are candidates for decommissioning.
Missile shield hurdle
Despite the reductions in their nuclear arsenals by both the US and Russia, an agreement on a new arms control treaty mandating further cuts -down to 1,500 warheads - will not be easily attained.
Besides details such as how launch systems would be included in the equation, the biggest hurdle is the new missile-shield project planned by the US in eastern Europe.
The 2008 signing of an agreement to base missile interceptors in Poland was not to Russia's liking
The plans were developed under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. According to the US, the system would be designed to intercept the small number of missiles that might be launched from countries such as Iran or North Korea.
Moscow, however, considers the planned missile and radar facilities close to its western border as a threat to its security and as something that would undermine its own nuclear deterrent potential.
If the US does not abandon its plans for missile facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow signaled as recently as this past weekend, the Kremlin would not sign off on any successor to the START treaty.
AUTHOR: Hans Spross (jam)
EDITOR: Chuck Penfold