Politics & Policy

The Threat of New START

New START logic: Russia poses no military threat, but we need New START immediately to protect us from the Russian military threat.

When the New START treaty was signed in early April 2010, Obama- administration officials were eager to rush the treaty through the Senate ratification process. Leading Senate Democrats initially insisted that the new treaty should be ratified almost immediately. The closer some Republican senators looked, however, the more flaws they found in it. Now, seven months later, only a few Republican senators have voiced support for the treaty; since ratification requires a two-thirds vote, that leaves New START several votes shy. Worse yet for New START, there will be six additional Republicans in the Senate come January. Consequently, the administration is pressing hard for the Senate to give its consent to the treaty now — before the six Democrats who lost give way to their Republican successors.

#ad#According to the administration, waiting to consider New START until the newly elected senators have been seated would further delay implementation of the treaty’s verification provisions; thus the United States would forgo for that much longer the new information about Russia’s deadly nuclear forces that will become available via those provisions. Such a delay, says the administration, could endanger U.S. security, and so the lame-duck Senate must act.

The administration’s claim about the urgent need to pass New START and initiate its verification provisions, however, blatantly contradicts the administration’s own public statements about the absence of any Russian military threat to us or our allies. It is also belied by the very fact that the administration finds acceptable New START’s many loopholes and lapses in verification procedures.

The treaty’s force limits leave enormous opportunity for Russian circumvention, and, according to the open Russian press, they require only the United States to make reductions — not Russia as well. The treaty omits any limitation whatsoever on nuclear cruise missiles deployed on ships or submarines at a time when Russia apparently is moving forward with such weapons. And the Russian Duma committee responsible for treaties has just indicated that New START’s force ceilings do not apply to future Russian rail-mobile ICBMs. These are large loopholes indeed.

In addition, compared to those of its predecessor, the 1991 START, New START’s verification measures are extremely weak. Among many problems, it abandons the mobile-missile verification regime of START I, including the provision for continuous monitoring at final-assembly plants for Russian mobile missiles. It virtually guarantees that we will not get useful performance data from Russian ballistic-missile flight tests, leaving us with limited insight into the performance characteristics of new Russian weapons — including such basic items as range and warhead payload. It shifts much of the burden of verification to aged National Technical Means satellites and other sensors, and allows Russia’s deployed mobile missiles to be concealed. Several Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rightly concluded that “verification in this treaty is very weak.” Sen. Kit Bond (R., Mo.) observed, “This is one that turns President Reagan’s theory of trust but verify on its head. We will trust them even though we can’t verify it.”

#page#New START’s force limits and verification measures are so porous that they can be considered adequate under only two conditions: (1) if we believe that Russia poses no military threat, and thus treaty verification is a box-checking exercise; and (2) if we believe that no level of Russian cheating could be significant, and thus, again, verification is a box-checking exercise. Armed with these two views, even severely flawed force limits and verification provisions can be deemed adequate: If Russia poses no military threat, and no plausible level of Russian cheating could pose a military threat, why be overly concerned about the holes in New START’s limits and verification measures?

#ad#These beliefs may seem outlandish in the extreme, but they nicely justify a porous treaty and weak verification regime. And, correspondingly, the administration claims both to be true. For example, during a September 2010 interview, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked whether Russia is a national-security threat, and whether he is concerned about Russia’s buildup of new, “more powerful ICBMs.” Secretary Gates’s response: “No. . . . I don’t see Russia as a threat. I see Russia –Russian-U.S. relations being those of normal states now.” Roughly a week later, Secretary Gates said again publicly, “It’s hard for me to imagine that those who are currently in NATO feel a real military threat coming from Russia.”

What about the potential threat of Russian cheating? A major 2010 State Department study reportedly concludes happily that “any” Russian cheating “would have little effect on the assured second-strike capabilities of U.S. strategic forces.”

Little wonder that the administration finds New START’s strikingly weak limits and verification measures acceptable. If Russia is no military threat and prospective Russian cheating would have little effect, then those verification measures serve only ornamental purposes. This line of thinking also fits well with the administration’s apparent lack of clear support for the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces in general. No firm limits on Russia, no strong verification measures, no problem.

By rationalizing New START with this “no threat, no worries” narrative, however, the administration contradicts its other argument: that the need for New START’s verification regime is so urgent that a lame-duck Senate must act immediately to ratify the treaty. If Russia poses no military threat, nor does any prospective level of Russian cheating, then there can be no risk in waiting for the newly elected Senate to be seated and thoughtfully perform its advice-and-consent responsibilities. But if, on the other hand — as the administration also claims — time is of the essence because, without New START’s verification provisions, Russia might make dangerous nuclear-force moves that could catch us unawares, then we must truly be concerned about a treaty with numerous loopholes and weak verification.

So which is it? If Russia’s nuclear weapons and potential cheating could pose a real threat, then the weaknesses in New START should give us all great pause. If there is no such threat, then there is no need to rush the Senate. The administration cannot simultaneously have a threatening Russia and a benign Russia, depending on its arms-control argument of the hour. Suspending disbelief is an established element of the arms-control process; suspending logic should not be.

— Keith B. Payne, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a professor in the Graduate Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Missouri State University. Tom Scheber is a former director of strike policy and integration at the Department of Defense. 

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