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Last week, Senate Minority Leader Jon Kyl, the highest-ranked Republican in the Senate and the second most powerful Republican in Congress, signaled that he would not be willing to move ahead with President Obama’s much-loved New START treaty. New START, which was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev last April, is a sweeping update on past START treaties (START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). By signaling his reluctance to rush passage of the treaty before this Congressional session ends, Kyl has delivered a body blow to one of President Obama’s primary foreign policy victories to date, and has left the Administration scrambling to secure passage of the Treaty during the current lame-duck Congress.
The treaty is an evolution of various agreements between the United States and Russia to monitor and gradually reduce the size of each nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Under it, both sides would have the right to inspect each other’s nuclear facilities and operationally deployed warheads would be limited to 1,550 per side. There would also be a limit of 700 “launchers,” which would include some mix of ground- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range heavy bombers. (A further 100 launchers would be allowed to be kept in a non-deployed state as a reserve, in case a “deployed” bomber crashed, for example, it could be replaced without violating the treaty or having to build a new launcher). Tactical nuclear stockpiles would not be effected.
The Treaty is worth ratifying. It would give American officials access to Russian facilities and does not pose any realistic threat to U.S. national security interests. Deterrence would be maintained, as both Russia and the United States would retain more than enough warheads, deployed on numerous delivery systems, to utterly destroy each other as modern, functioning civilizations. The power of both would be balanced. Some early critics of the Treaty worried that its math was flawed because it counted every bomber as one launcher when it could in fact carry multiple warheads, but such concerns miss the forest for the trees. Even if one side were to cheat and break the rules of the treaty when launching a sneak nuclear attack, they would be destroyed anyway. Mutually assured destruction is a fact.
Seeking to preserve one of his major foreign policy victories, the Administration has suggested that failure to ratify the Treaty would jeopardize plans to spend tens of billions of dollars on a modernization program for America’s rapidly aging nuclear arsenal. Nuclear weapons have shelf-lives, and are extraordinarily complex machines. Many of the technicians and engineers who built the current generation of warheads during the closing days of the Cold War are now retired, or near to it, and the U.S. Military would like to field a new generation of high-tech, simplified warheads that will be cheaper to maintain, less prone to deterioration over time and more secure against any possible terrorist threat.
Such a program, while important for American national security, has not been confirmed by the White House. Indeed, as the prospects for a speedy passage of New START have soured, Administration officials have even begun to muse that no Treaty might mean no replacement warheads. “There is a risk that not moving ahead with Congress could shatter the fragile consensus on modernizing the nuclear complex,” said a senior Obama Administration official. “New START puts nuclear modernization in the right context for those who worry how it could send the wrong signal to the world and undermine our non-proliferation efforts.”
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