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.
If we take as a baseline the major criticisms leveled against the 2002 agreement during the ratification process, the new treaty appears to fall far short in other areas as well. Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated that “our objective . . . was to get rid of multiple warheads, to make sure we move to include tactical nuclear weapons which are destabilizing so we begin to reduce them and third, to say while we are getting ready to destroy these weapons, or take them out of the inventory, we will de-alert them. . . . None of these objectives were achieved . . . in the Moscow Treaty.” But, if these were the same goals Vice President Biden sought in New START, he must be greatly disappointed.
The agreement, by reducing deployed-launcher levels to 700 while keeping warhead levels high and discounting bomber loads, creates an even greater incentive for Russia to field land-based missiles with multiple warheads — which is exactly what Moscow intends to do. As for “tactical” nuclear weapons — as though any nuclear weapon can be tactical or “non-strategic” — the agreement is silent; which is exactly what Moscow wanted, to preserve its estimated 10-to-1 advantage in this category of weapons. (The NPR only adds to the Russian advantage, by eliminating the U.S. sea-based nuclear-cruise-missile force without getting anything from Moscow in return.) And, as for “de-alerting,” the treaty is silent — which we believe is for the better.
Other senators, including Kerry, Carl Levin, and Dianne Feinstein, also issued scathing criticisms of the Bush agreement, especially because it failed to place any limitations on overall stockpiles or to require any elimination of warheads. Here again, New START must be a great disappointment. If not, today’s treaty proponents need to make a case for why these strictures no longer apply.
This, in turn, raises the question of how New START will affect U.S. force posture. Unlike the reductions in warheads, launcher numbers would be dramatically reduced — to 700 deployed. The September 2008 Defense-Energy White Paper suggested a future force of approximately 900 launchers necessary for deterrence purposes and, as the Wall Street Journal noted on March 31, “In Congressional testimony last summer, Deputy Joint Chiefs Chairman General James Cartwright put 860 launchers as the bare minimum.” What has changed since these assessments were made? What will the impact be on the U.S. force structure? The NPR rightly suggests that the U.S. should retain a robust Triad of forces including land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and manned bombers. But will New START allow for a resilient Triad, including a credible bomber leg?
All of these issues are complicated by the verification challenges raised by the treaty. Those who are pushing a rush to judgment appear willing to ignore the long-held standard “trust but verify” by overlooking the monitoring gaps created by the treaty. While the on-site visits and data exchanges allowed under the treaty are valuable, the New START abandons on-the-ground monitoring of Russia’s missile-manufacturing facility and permits Russia to withhold telemetry of some of its missile tests, undermining our ability to know both what is being produced and what is being developed.
Beyond its specific terms, much of the rationale for the treaty is that it will help with resetting our relations with Russia and help win support for the administration’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program as well as other issues of mutual concern. Here, there has always been reason to be skeptical, but any remaining optimism ought to have been muted by Pres. Dmitry Medvedev’s position on sanctions taken on the margins of the Prague signing ceremony, when, according to press reports, he outlined strict limitations to any such effort. It is also sobering that on the same day, as violence flared in Kyrgyzstan, senior Russian officials made clear their desire to take advantage of the unrest to press again for the closure of the U.S. airbase at Manas, a logistical lifeline for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. One senior official traveling with President Medvedev in Prague is reported to have said, “In Kyrgyzstan there should only be one base — Russian.”
The most pressing question related to New START and the NPR is whether or not they help the nation meet our most important security challenges, which the NPR, in a striking continuity with the Bush administration, correctly identifies as nuclear terrorism and emergent nuclear powers Iran and North Korea. The NPR makes valuable recommendations in calling for building on efforts like the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the Global Initiative to Reduce Nuclear Terrorism, and the Department of Energy’s nonproliferation activities. We also applaud the NPR’s call for hardening the nation’s Command, Control, and Communications networks for nuclear weapons and studying the requirements for maintaining the necessary industrial base for follow-on systems to the Minuteman ICBM and Trident SLBM.
However, there are two fundamental contradictions in New START and NPR that must be addressed by the Senate. The first, and potentially most serious, is the question of constraints on missile defenses and conventional, long-range, precision strike weapons. The NPR says that the U.S. can reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons because of developments in missile defense and conventional military capabilities. Unfortunately, despite repeated assurances from the administration that the treaty would not limit either category, it is clear that, as Russian officials had said, there are both explicit and implicit limitations involved. With missile defense, the explicit limitation is found in Article 5, which precludes any further conversion of ICBM silos for use by defensive interceptors. Although there is currently no plan to convert additional ICBM silos for this purpose, it was considered in the past and, along with the limitation on using submarines to launch missile-defense interceptors, this limitation may become a problem if it is determined that more interceptors are needed to defend the United States in the future. It may also become a problem if the administration’s Phased Adaptive Approach — which is reportedly running into technical and cost problems only eight months after its debut — needs to be abandoned in favor of the “hedge” announced by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last September, the two-stage version of the Ground Based Interceptor. This would almost certainly raise an objection from the Russians, who have already threatened to leave the treaty if the U.S. increases its missile-defense capabilities.
An additional issue that will require clarification in the ratification process is the role of the Bilateral Consultative Commission. A preliminary reading of the Treaty Protocol suggests that the U.S. and Russian commissioners could reach secret agreement on changes to ensure the “viability and effectiveness” of the treaty. These changes could create additional limits on missile defense that would appear to be beyond the reach of the Senate’s responsibility to “advise and consent.”
As for conventional global precision strike weapons, the NPR makes explicit that they will be counted under New START. Treaty proponents contend that the treaty imposes no real limitation on anything currently deployed (we have none currently deployed) or planned (unfortunately, we do not yet have a real program of record for this capability). But since we don’t yet know the real requirement for these weapons, why would we set the precedent of limiting them — when it is precisely these weapons that are meant to relieve some of our reliance on nuclear weapons?
The second contradiction is that, while the NPR calls for maintaining a safe and secure nuclear force capable of performing the vital mission of deterring attack on the United States and reassuring friends and allies about the U.S. extended deterrent, it announces a new declaratory policy that undercuts our ability to deter biological attacks that may be as lethal and more likely than nuclear attack. More directly, and despite welcome commitments of resources to the nation’s nuclear infrastructure, the NPR imposes severe constraints on the modernization and maintenance of our nuclear stockpile. For the U.S., unlike all other nuclear states, there can be no new weapons, no new missions, no new design, only refurbishment and reuse of existing components. Congress must determine whether, hedged with so many restrictions, the nuclear weapons we possess can be both safe and sure and whether under these circumstances the necessary human capital can be recruited and kept in place.
Our nation faces daunting challenges with regard to nuclear terrorism and new nuclear states. The Senate will have to decide whether the limitations on future U.S. capabilities that are in this treaty will enable us to have adequate means for meeting the threats we know we will face, as well as those that we cannot know but may well emerge.
– Robert Joseph, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007. Eric Edelman, a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.