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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton Overstates Nuclear Achievement

Hillary Clinton overstates the impact of a 2011 nuclear agreement with Russia in a TV ad that says she was responsible for “securing a massive reduction in nuclear weapons.”

The agreement, known as New START, limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads — that is, nuclear weapons that are deployed on long-range (or strategic) launchers. But it does not require either side to destroy nuclear weapons or reduce their nuclear stockpile, and it doesn’t place limits on shorter-range nuclear weapons.

Also, Russia was below the limit for deployed strategic nuclear warheads when the treaty took effect in 2011, and it has increased them since then. So there hasn’t even been a reduction in Russia’s deployed strategic nuclear warheads under the agreement.

‘Massive Reduction’?

The ad focuses on Clinton’s record on Social Security, health care and other issues. It has aired thousands of times in at least eight states, most recently during the April 26 Pennsylvania primary, according to Political TV Ad Archive.

The ad starts by showing images of world events as the narrator says, “The world a president has to grapple with. Sometimes you can’t even imagine. That’s the job and she’s the one who’s proving she can get it done.” The narrator then credits Clinton with “securing a massive reduction in nuclear weapons.”

The Clinton campaign told us that the ad refers to her work as secretary of state on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 each for Russia and the United States. It also limits “deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers and heavy bombers” to 800, including no more than 700 “deployed strategic launchers and heavy bombers,” according to a State Department fact sheet. (Long-range nuclear weapons are considered “strategic,” while shorter-range weapons are considered “nonstrategic,” as explained in a March report by the Congressional Research Service.)

The arms control treaty was approved by the Senate 71-26 on Dec. 22, 2010, and took effect Feb. 5, 2011.

In addition to placing limits on deployed strategic nuclear warheads, New START requires “transparency and verification measures — including semi-annual data exchanges, notifications, and inspections” that provide “far more information about the other’s strategic forces than it would otherwise have,” as explained in a recent blog post by Steve Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

But has New START resulted in “a massive reduction in nuclear weapons”? Not according to the data we reviewed and the experts we interviewed.

The information gathered as part of the treaty’s data exchanges shows Russia’s deployed strategic nuclear warheads were already below the treaty limits in February 2011, and Russia actually has increased those weapons, according to a report issued this month by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

CRS, April 13: In February 2011, Russia reported that it had 1,537 warheads on 521 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers. Russia also reported a total of 865 deployed and nondeployed delivery vehicles. At the time of this report, analysts expressed surprise that Russian forces were already below the treaty limits in New START when the treaty entered into force. … [I]n March 2016 Russia reported that it had 1,735 warheads on 521 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers, within a total of 856 deployed and nondeployed launchers.

During that same time, the U.S. went from 1,800 warheads in 882 deployed delivery vehicles to 1,481 warheads on 741 deployed launchers.


Shortly before the agreement was signed, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute called it “disappointing” that the agreement did not call for the destruction of those weapons “withdrawn from operational deployment.”

“One disappointing feature of the new treaty is that it will not require the parties to verifiably eliminate the nuclear warheads withdrawn from operational deployment,” Shannon N. Kile, head of the institute’s nuclear project, wrote. “Such a provision would have contributed to ‘locking in’, or making irreversible, future force reductions. In doing so, it would have helped to address concerns about asymmetries in the two sides’ so-called upload potential (that is, the ability to rapidly redeploy nuclear warheads held in storage onto missiles and bombers).”

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told us in an email: “The treaty itself does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead. Nor does it have any direct impact on how many nuclear warheads Russia and the United States may have in their total stockpiles.”

“So, the treaty has not secured a ‘massive reduction in nuclear weapons’ but reduced (compared to the previous START treaty) how many launchers may exist and be deployed and reduced how many warheads may be deployed on those launchers,” Kristensen said.

His email explained the impact of the treaty in some depth:

Kristensen, April 26: When the treaty entered into force in 2011, Russia was already below the limit in deployed launchers, so they have not been required to reduce that category. Instead they have reduced non-deployed launchers. In contrast, the United States was above the treaty limit for both deployed and non-deployed launchers, so it has been busy dismantling and denuclearizing so-called phantom launchers — that is, missile silos and bombers that were not actually used in nuclear planning but had not yet been destroyed or carried equipment that made them accountable under the treaty. … Overall, in the case of the United States, the reduction in launchers will have been most significant for phantom launchers versus actual nuclear committed launchers. As for deployed warheads, the two countries have made slight adjustments to their deployed warheads. The United States has reduced and Russia has increased slightly. The Russian increase is a temporary anomaly caused by their transition from Soviet-era weapons to modern weapons. They are expected to meet the limit in 2018.

As Kristensen indicated, Russia still has two years to bring its number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads within the treaty’s limits, and he believes it will. Others are skeptical of Russia, which has become more aggressive militarily under President Vladimir Putin.

“Some analysts have questioned whether the increase in Russian warheads reported in March 2016 indicates that Russia may eventually withdraw from New START without reducing to its limit of 1,550 deployed warheads,” CRS says in its report. “Others, however, note that Russia does not need to meet the limits until February 2018, so the warhead level in March 2016 should not be of concern.”

But even if the U.S. and Russia abide by the treaty limits, the reduction in nuclear weapons would be historically modest, experts say.

On its website, the Clinton campaign says the New START treaty “will make the world safer by reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to their smallest size in 50 years.” But this is misleading.

The bulk of that reduction occurred before New START took effect in 2011, as shown in Figure 1 of a June 2015 report by the Carnegie Moscow Center. “[T]he agreements that have followed the unprecedented reductions of START I called for increasingly marginal reductions in [strategic nuclear forces] levels,” the Carnegie report said. START I, which was originally known simply as START, took effect in 1994 and ended in 2009.

“It is an overstatement — to put it mildly — to say that the treaty has reduced US and Russian nuclear arsenals to their smallest size in 50 years,” Kristensen told us. “The overwhelming part of that reduction occurred in the 1990s long before the New START treaty was signed at a time when the two countries retired and dismantled nuclear weapons at an impressive rate.”

The New York Times in a news story this month described the New START agreement as producing “modest reductions in strategic nuclear forces” that could be undermined by the pursuit of “a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons” by Russia, the United States and China.

New York Times, April 16: Russia initially cooperated, signing in 2010 the New Start treaty, which made modest reductions in strategic nuclear forces.

That year, Mr. Obama offered another olive branch: He ordered the American military to reduce the number of warheads atop its land-based missiles to one, from as many as three. That was a signal to show the missiles were more about defense than offense.

Moscow did not reciprocate. Instead, with treaty ink barely dry, it began deploying a new generation of long-range missiles that bore four miniaturized warheads. It continues such actions today, even while adhering to overall treaty limits.

Kile, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, also called the agreement “decidedly modest in the scope and scale of its ambitions.”

“I think modest is a good general description of New START,” Tom Z. Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to reduce and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons, told us in an email. “If you look at other presidents — Republican presidents — they have done much more.”

In October 2014, Kristensen did an analysis of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile in the post-Cold War era and concluded that “the Obama administration so far has had the least effect on the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile of any of the post-Cold War presidencies.” Obama reduced the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile by 10 percent in six years. By comparison, George W. Bush reduced the stockpile by 50 percent followed by his father, President George H.W. Bush, who reduced it by 41 percent in four years.

“Combined, the Bush presidents cut a staggering 14,801 warheads from the stockpile during their 12 years in office – 1,233 warheads per year,” Kristensen wrote. “President Clinton reduced the stockpile by 23 percent during his eight years in office.”

At a recent press conference, President Obama said that he had hoped to negotiate another agreement with Russia shortly after New START that would have lowered the limit yet again on deployed nuclear warheads, but he acknowledged that that will not happen before he leaves office in January.

“Because Mr. Putin came into power, or returned to his office as President, and because of the vision that he’s been pursuing of emphasizing military might over development inside of Russia and diversifying the economy, we have not seen the kind of progress that I would have hoped for with Russia,” Obama said.

All this is not to say that the New START agreement isn’t valuable. Collina credited Obama and Clinton for lowering the ceiling, even if modestly, and providing “transparency and predictability” by requiring the semi-annual data collection that allows the two nuclear powers to know how many nuclear weapons the other side has.

But the record doesn’t show that Clinton was responsible for “securing a massive reduction in nuclear weapons.”