Second to One
From the October 17, 2011, issue of NR.

Signing New START, April 8, 2010


In providing its advice and consent to the ratification of New START, the Senate highlighted its concerns over the imbalance in tactical weapons. In its formal resolution, supported on both sides of the aisle, the Senate called on the president to pursue an agreement with Russia “that would address the disparity.” Unfortunately, but understandably, Moscow has shown no interest in such an agreement, perhaps because the United States gave up all of its leverage by agreeing to a treaty eliminating its main nuclear advantage: a greater number of deployed strategic launchers and warheads.

In one of the less quoted but more revealing statements contained in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration intimated its willingness to accept a nuclear posture second to Russia: “Because of our improved relations, the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War.” In part, this judgment was based on the assumption that the United States would realize potential advantages in missile defenses and advanced conventional arms.

However, missile defenses, at least those capabilities intended to protect the U.S. homeland, were an early casualty of the Obama team’s New START negotiations with Russia. Not only did the president cancel the third missile-defense site in Europe, sacrificing the security interests of key allies, but he also killed or greatly curtailed all the existing programs that were designed to meet long-range-missile threats from states including North Korea and Iran. (Programs such as the Multiple Kill Vehicle and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor were ended; Airborne Laser was relegated to the status of a science project; and the number of ground-based interceptors was reduced.) While the administration has supported the development and deployment of defenses against short- and medium-range threats, it has funded studies — but developed no real capabilities — when it comes to strategic defenses. As for advanced conventional programs, there has been no commitment to deploy long-range prompt global-strike capabilities (which could attack targets at intercontinental range with non-nuclear payloads) — perhaps because, as with missile defense, Moscow has said that our deployment of such a capability would endanger its adherence to New START.

What guided the administration most in making deep, unilateral cuts was a desire to demonstrate the declining role of nuclear weapons and lead by example in placing nuclear reductions, in the words of the Nuclear Posture Review, “atop the U.S. nuclear agenda.” But the nonproliferation dividends have been few, if any, and no country of concern has followed the example. Nevertheless, the administration argues that the United States still possesses too many nuclear weapons. The president’s national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, recently expressed this view in a forum sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, when he announced that the United States would conduct yet another study to identify even more reductions.

New START, although a bilateral agreement, is a clear step toward unilateral disarmament. While the Obama administration marketed New START as requiring 30 percent reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic forces, it simply does not. We now have definitive confirmation that only the United States must reduce its forces — a possibility raised by New START skeptics but strongly denied by the Obama administration during the ratification process.

In June, the State Department released the initial data exchange required by the treaty. As of February 5, the day the treaty entered into force, Russia was already below the ceilings for both delivery vehicles and warheads. Perhaps most telling, knowledgeable Russian observers have stated that American negotiators didn’t even propose terms that would have required Moscow to reduce its stockpiles.

The same mindset led to the administration’s decision last year to give up all nuclear-armed Tomahawk missiles while asking for — and getting — nothing in return. It took this action despite its own consistent calls for negotiations with Russia on theater systems. Once again, leading by example left the U.S. empty-handed.

But that lesson continues to elude the administration. In a recent interview, the president’s point man on arms control, Gary Samore, noted that, while we wait for the outcome of the study announced by Donilon, “there may be parallel steps that both sides could take or even unilateral steps that the U.S. could take.” No doubt there are more steps that the United States could take. No doubt, as well, that for the Obama administration, it is more important to take these steps than to reverse the coming U.S. inferiority in nuclear capabilities.