The history of arms control is replete with quirky counting rules that do not easily correspond to reality on the ground.

An official photograph of a B-52 bomber at Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana shows it with a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons it can carry all at once — 14 air-launched cruise missiles, four B61-7 gravity bombs and two B83 gravity bombs.

But when it comes to the new arms control treaty to be signed next month by the United States and Russia, those 20 warheads count as just one.

The history of arms control is replete with quirky counting rules that do not easily correspond to reality on the ground, and the “New START'' treaty completed last week is no different. In this case, independent experts said, each side will be able to comply with the treaty while cutting fewer nuclear weapons than it might appear on paper.

In fact, by some estimates, the United States and Russia together could still deploy some 1,300 warheads beyond the 3,100 ceiling imposed on the two countries by the new treaty. Under some configurations, experts argued, the two sides could deploy nearly as many warheads as permitted by the treaty signed in 2002 by President George W. Bush that will be superseded by this new pact.

“It's creative accounting,” said Pavel Podvig, a longtime arms researcher from Russia who is now on leave from Stanford University. “They found a way of making reductions without actually making them, and they were happy to accept that because nobody wanted to go to more serious measures.”

The Obama administration rejected that interpretation, saying that the arms experts themselves were using creative accounting to argue for deeper cuts and that the numbers they cite are not complete — that the real figures are classified. In any case, they said, the important thing to focus on was the legal limit to be imposed by the new treaty, which brings down the binding cap on deployed warheads by 30 per cent.

“We think that is a very significant reduction,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.

A senior administration official involved in the talks said that was the lowest Russia would go. “We wanted to go lower,” the official said on the condition of anonymity because of White House restrictions. “This was a negotiation with the Russians, not the Arms Control Association.”

To be sure, this treaty was never supposed to be about deep reductions. From the start, the administration's main goal was to extend and update a verification, inspection and monitoring regime from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, or START, that expired in December, and to build the foundation for a better relationship between the United States and Russia that could lead to deeper reductions later.

Still, when President Barack Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia announced their agreement on Friday, the White House emphasised the reductions. The limit on deployed strategic warheads in the new treaty will be set at 1,550 for each country, down from 2,200 in the Treaty of Moscow signed by Bush. But it may not mean that many warheads will have to be cut to meet that limit.

“On paper, the White House has been saying it's a 30 per cent cut in warheads,” said Kingston Reif, deputy director of the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a non-profit research organisation based in Washington. “Well, it is on paper. But when you break it down, you see that the cut isn't quite as significant.”

The nub is how to count warheads. While the treaty will count the actual number of warheads deployed on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, it will count each heavy bomber as a single warhead, even though they can carry far more.

“It's nuts,” said Hans M. Kristensen, an expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “It's totally nuts.”

Although the United States now has about 2,100 deployed strategic warheads, about 450 would not be counted, Kristensen estimated. Similarly, 860 of Russia's 2,600 warheads would not count. To meet the treaty limit, he said the United States would need to cut just 100 warheads and Russia just 190.

That means that while some conservatives like Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., express concern that the treaty cuts too much, others, like former Ambassador John R. Bolton, suggested the administration might be overstating the impact.

“If tomorrow after this treaty is ratified we're still basically at the level we were at yesterday before it was ratified, what does it do for all our soaring rhetoric about getting rid of nuclear weapons and getting others to do the same?” asked Bolton, who negotiated the Treaty of Moscow for Bush. “You can't have it both ways.”

Of course, the Moscow treaty did not have firm counting rules, so the United States counted bombers by the number of warheads stationed with them while Russia did not count bombers at all.

Obama administration officials say the new rule is a distinct improvement and, moreover, bombers are not the most important part of arms control since they are not destabilising first-strike weapons. The arms control experts who said the treaty would not impose deep reductions emphasized that they still support it because it extends verification and should lead to more ambitious cuts. “Confidence-building, that's what it's about,” Kristensen said. “This is a step that will help repair relations.” —©2010 New York Times News Service

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