Politics & Policy

New START: Abandoning Missile Defense

Questions abound concerning the Obama administration's nuclear-weapons-reduction treaty.

The Obama administration is heralding the New START Treaty — a bilateral treaty with Russia, signed on April 8 in Prague — as a major accomplishment. But now that leading national-security experts have had time to review the pact closely, it’s starting to get a lot of criticism. There is grave concern, not just with some of the treaty’s language, but also with some of the backroom deals and promises made during the negotiations.

For the treaty to take effect, the Senate must ratify it with a two-thirds vote, and President Obama wants that to happen before the November elections. But some senators have been hesitant; they have even considered requesting to see the treaty-negotiations protocol — the first draft of the document — which should shed light on what took place.

Dimitri K. Simes, a noted Kremlinologist, president of the Nixon Center, and publisher of The National Interest, reports that high-ranking Russians told him they were assured by senior American officials during negotiations that there was no need to put restrictive language on missile defense in the treaty. Why? Because, the American officials argued, the Obama administration has no intention of moving forward with strategic missile defense. Indeed, Simes writes, U.S. officials argued that explicit provisions restricting U.S. missile defense would be counterproductive as well as unnecessary, since they could cause the Senate to block ratification.

Despite this effort to convince the Russians that there was no need to limit missile defense, and despite the Obama administration’s repeated assurances to the American public that START would not limit missile defense, the treaty in fact severely limits missile defense, as Baker Spring, a strategic-weapons analyst at the Heritage Foundation, points out. The language in the preamble establishes a logic that missile-defense capabilities must come down in coordination with reductions in offensive strategic weapons. Otherwise, the treaty states, effective defenses will call into question the “viability and effectiveness” of offensive strategic weapons.

What’s wrong with that? Last December, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin explained that if the U.S. goes forward with missile defenses and feels more “secure,” it will become more “aggressive” and “do whatever it wants.” That is, Russia does not want U.S. defenses to upset or undermine the strategic balance of terror.


Upon signing the treaty, Russia issued a statement threatening to withdraw if the U.S. builds up its defenses. Simes points out that, inside Russia, the treaty is perceived as a major success — so much so that the Kremlin told the Russian media not to praise it in order not to spook the Americans.


An assessment of the New START Treaty by the Heritage Foundation details a number of ways it limits missile defenses. For starters, the agreement fails to address a major threat to European security — Russian tactical nuclear weapons. (Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller atomic devices designed to be used on the battlefield, as opposed to the strategic weapons designed to obliterate major population centers.) Russia may have a ten-to-one advantage over the U.S. in its tactical nuclear arsenal, and it can use these weapons to intimidate America’s allies. The failure to place limits on this class of weapons, as well as on other small-yield nukes and Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) systems, is a major concession to the Russians.

Similarly, the new treaty has no limitations on the number of warheads that can be deployed on each Russian missile; it limits only the total number of missiles. This encourages the practice, favored by the Russians, of outfitting missiles with MIRVs (multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles) — meaning that each missile carries several warheads and can be used to attack multiple targets.

The RS-24 — a MIRVed missile — will be the mainstay of Russian strategic forces by 2016. Meanwhile, according to the latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration is moving aggressively toward single-warhead missiles. A treaty that greenlights Russian MIRVing while the U.S. proceeds in the opposite direction is highly destabilizing.

Finally, the Obama administration has repeatedly claimed that the New START Treaty will reduce by 30 percent the number of deployed warheads now permitted under the existing Moscow Treaty (1,700–2,200 per country). In fact, while the treaty officially allows only 1,500–1,550 warheads per country, its counting rules and apparent lapses will allow Russian to increase its strategic force level to about 2,100 warheads.

Ratification of this treaty will profoundly undermine U.S. security. When it comes up for ratification, the Senate needs to be aware of its serious drawbacks.

– Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation’s Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Policy. Owen Graham is a research assistant at the Davis Institute.


The Latest