Arms Control, On a Schedule

Oct. 1, 2010

It took the United States and the Soviet Union the better part of a decade to come to terms on the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, but when they did it was a blockbuster. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed in December 1987 to eliminate an entire class of medium-range missiles and allow for the first-ever US inspections of Soviet nuclear forces.

INF was followed by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 1991 by Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush. START built upon INF’s inspection procedures, and (until it expired last December) gave the US valuable insight into Russian nuclear force levels and capabilities.

But after 21 years of on-site inspections, no US nuclear inspectors have had access to Russian nuclear facilities in nearly a year. Over time, this lack of knowledge could force the US into “worst case” planning assumptions about Russia’s strategic forces and its capabilities and intent. That is not in America’s best interest.

The Senate this fall will debate whether to ratify New START, which would restore US access to Russian nuclear sites. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed New START in April, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed it by a 14-to-four vote in September. The next step is a full Senate vote.

New START critics implore Senators not to rush to judgment or “rubber stamp” the treaty. The fact that the Administration has formally answered more than 900 questions from a Senate that has held more than 20 hearings should allay any concerns that legislators are rubber-stamping this treaty.

Critics have pointed to missile defenses and verification concerns as the two greatest weaknesses with the treaty. New START prohibits the US and Russia from converting existing ICBM or SLBM silos into missile defense launchers, for example.

As the critics tell it, this is a dangerous development that prevents the US from being able to adequately protect its citizens and allies. In reality, it is a non-issue.

The treaty does not restrict new missile defense programs or capabilities, and the US has no interest in converting existing nuclear weapons silos into ground-based interceptor silos.

“What I would do is, if we had to expand the number of GBIs, is build a new missile field,” Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told reporters in Washington, D.C. “It would be less expensive, faster, and easier to maintain.” It costs about $20 million less, per interceptor, to build a new GBI silo from scratch, compared to converting an existing ICBM silo.

US missile defenses are not even designed to stop a Russian attack—30 interceptors can do next to nothing against the Russian arsenal. What they will continue to do is offer protection against attack from rogue states such as North Korea or Iran.

The other principal concern is that New START lacks verification strength, so Russia will have the ability and incentive to cheat.

Regarding inspections, old START was negotiated with a massive Soviet weapons complex in mind. Under that agreement, 28 annual inspections were allowed at 70 sites. Under New START, there will be 18 inspections permitted in a much smaller Russian nuclear enterprise that now includes 35 sites. The number of visits per site is actually increasing.

Could Russia escape from treaty limits by fielding a rail-mobile ICBM? US officials note that Russia presently has no such system, and if it develops one it will still be an ICBM—and therefore accountable.

Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, head of US Strategic Command, says the US nuclear triad is a powerful deterrent against both cheating and attack. “We have a devastating and assured response that will continue to exist,” Chilton said in September. In fact, the treaty allows the US to structure its forces as it sees fit under the overall caps and to shift nuclear systems to conventional missions.

Top US officials are of the unanimous opinion that New START’s inspections and notifications (bolstered by always-advancing “national technical means”) ensure the US will be aware of any Russian monkey business before serious military disadvantages accrue. In response, the US would have the ability to return warheads to its nuclear systems.

“Does it matter if the Russians cheat?” Chilton asked. “Of course it matters, and I would hope it matters to the Russians.” Ultimately, compliance with the treaty is to their advantage as well.

A final complaint is that New START does nothing to rein in Russia’s overwhelming advantage in “tactical” nuclear weapons. This is true, but the non-strategic nukes have never been included in strategic agreements, and the Administration has pledged to pursue this issue separately in the future.

The numbers of allowed weapons and launchers, Chilton said, were derived from strategic assessment, not a top-down mandate, and include the appropriate “hedge” for uncertainty.

Here, then, is what New START will accomplish: Consistent with the goal of every President since Reagan, it will help reduce US nuclear forces to the lowest level needed for national security. It takes the US and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads, compared to START’s 6,000 and today’s 2,200 under SORT, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. America’s triad of nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers, Minuteman III ICBMs, and Trident submarines will be protected and preserved.

New START is not perfect. It is, after all, a negotiated agreement. But it is far superior to the uncertainty and guesswork that accompany no agreement whatsoever.

Although there seems to be little appetite to have a vote before November’s midterm elections, the Senate would be wise to act quickly on New START, either by ratifying it or voting to withhold approval until specific concerns are addressed. On the whole, the US is better off having access to Russia’s nuclear bases, and there is no reason for New START negotiations to drag out like INF’s did 30 years back.