Pushing for fast-track ratification of the New START agreement, Pres. Barack Obama may send the treaty to the Senate this week for its consent. The expectations are high. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New START will usher in a new era in U.S.-Russian relations; contribute to a positive outcome at this month’s nonproliferation-treaty review conference; assist in building international pressure on Iran and North Korea; and pave the way for further reductions toward the president’s goal of creating a nuclear-free world.
Even before the treaty was signed, Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement describing the agreement as “a major commitment by both countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals” and urging his colleagues to overcome partisanship to “get it done.” Other supporters, like the Center for American Progress, have joined the call for rapid ratification and suggested that any opposition can only be based on narrow partisan considerations. As former career officials who supported all the strategic and intermediate-range nuclear-reduction agreements since 1987, we believe that New START and the recently released Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) together raise serious questions that deserve close consideration by the Senate. To rush the treaty through would be not only an abdication of the Senate’s responsibility to “advise and consent” to the making of treaties, but also a profound mistake given the need for congressional oversight of the nation’s defense. All previous nuclear-arms-control treaties have been subjected to close scrutiny and the nation has benefited as a result. As we enter a new and more dangerous era, with emerging nuclear powers on the horizon and deep concerns about nuclear terrorism, this administration’s approach to nuclear questions must not be an exception.
In particular, the Senate must examine a number of central questions raised by New START and the NPR. Do the contemplated actions put the country on the right path to deal with the most serious and pressing threats the nation faces? Does New START meet the standards for improving predictability and strategic stability that were used to measure earlier treaties? How real are the reductions being proposed? Will New START lead, as the administration has suggested, to Russia and others working more closely with the U.S. to produce “crippling” sanctions on Iran? Most important, will the treaty and NPR allow for the necessary modernization of our nuclear stockpile and for the capabilities we need, such as robust missile defense and conventional, prompt global strike?
Despite claims by the administration that the treaty will reduce by 30 percent the number of nuclear warheads each side is permitted to deploy (from 2,200 to 1,550, a net reduction of 650), the numbers are really smaller, since both the U.S. and Russia were moving towards force levels significantly lower than those permitted under the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty negotiated by President Bush, which reduced the levels by almost 4,000 warheads. Moreover, some of the claimed reduction is an artifact of a revised counting rule. In fact, because a bomber will now be counted as one warhead no matter how many bombs or cruise missiles it carries, the agreement may be the first of its kind to permit an actual increase in fielded warhead levels. Furthermore, as some analysts have suggested, the treaty may contain a startling loophole, large enough to drive a train through, which would not count ICBM launchers on rail-mobile platforms. Given past and present Russian interest in such forces, the Senate must certainly determine whether such a gap exists and, if it does, fix it.