The lead Republican Senate negotiator for ratification of the new START treaty has signaled his unwillingness to take up debate during the coming lame duck session in Congress, thus dealing what could be a mortal blow to the arms control measure.
Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said in a statement that “given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization,” it would be impossible to consider the treaty at this time.
Kyl is absolutely correct. While the treaty is backed by our entire military establishment, and is, on its surface, generally favorable to our national security interests, there are several unanswered questions relating to verification, missile defense, and modernization that all senators should want to weigh in the balance before casting a final vote on the treaty.
The New START treaty would reduce the number of allowed warheads to 1500 while limiting launchers and long range bombers to 800. The treaty is flexible in that it allows both sides to determine the mix of ICBMs, sub-launched missiles, and bombers to suit their security needs.
The problem isn’t so much with the treaty itself, but with the politics being played by Democrats and the Obama administration. The president wants to ram the treaty through the Senate before the new congress is seated in January, fearing the influx of 10 new GOP senators will make ratification more difficult. He is willing to do this while questions regarding the president’s commitment to modernizing our nuclear force, pursuing a robust missile defense program, and ensuring the Russians don’t renege are being raised even by the treaty’s GOP supporters.
On top of all this, the administration has made the strategic blunder of overselling the importance of the treaty, speaking in apocalyptic terms about the failure to ratify the document in the lame duck session. Vice President Biden, not known for his rhetorical restraint, said on Wednesday, “Failure to pass the New Start treaty this year would endanger our national security,” adding that failure to ratify the treaty would mean there would be, “no verification regime to track Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal,” and that it might affect our relations with Russia on other, strategically vital matters such as imposing sanctions on Iran and the war in Afghanistan.
There are questions about the treaty’s verification standards, which the Obama administration has so far failed to address to the satisfaction of Kyl and other Republican senators. Some of the more robust verification procedures in the old START treaty have been scrapped while others have been altered. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring, F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy, there are major flaws in the treaty’s verification regime:
The monitoring of missile telemetry would now be limited to 5 missile tests. As John C. Wohlstetter points out in Human Events, the Russians could test fire 5 older missiles, allowing the US to view the telemetry on models for which we already have flight profiles, while encrypting any data from missile tests of new or modernized birds. Wohlstetter calls this “swiss cheese verification.”
The abolition of the regime for monitoring mobile ICBMs is extremely troubling. The Russians have been known to place their most accurate ICBMs – the SS-18 – on railroad cars. While the strictures against mobile ICBMs were in place, the Russians were prevented from moving those missiles. That provision is now gone and we will have to rely on Russia’s word to determine where the missles are if they decide to move them.
How good is Russia’s word? A 2010 State Department report on arms control compliance raised important issues regarding Moscow’s adherence to the SALT treaty signed in 1991. The report stated:
Notwithstanding the overall success of START implementation, a number of long-standing compliance issues that were raised in the START Treaty’s Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission (JCIC) remained unresolved when the Treaty expired on December 5, 2009.
Some of the problems were related to the differing ways both sides interpreted the verification procedures in the treaty. But there were several violations by the Russians – including, according to the Washington Times, Moscow’s “blocking inspections of mobile missile warheads — a significant problem that specialists say could allow Russia to create a large, hidden warhead stockpile.”
Other nuclear experts point out that even a small stockpile of hidden warheads can become a game changer when the total number of warheads is so small. “What the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn called the ‘clandestine cache,’” wrote Wohlstetter, can cause enormous security problems. He added, “The closer one gets to ‘nuclear zero’ the more consequential a small cache of hidden nuclear weapons becomes.”
It is possible that the administration can address many of these concerns to the satisfaction of GOP senators, but it almost certainly can’t be done in the limited window of a lame duck congressional session. Beyond that, the 10 Republican senators elected on November 2 have written a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid requesting that no action be taken on the treaty until they are sworn in and seated. The letter was organized by incoming Senator Roy Blount (R-MO) and says, in part, “Out of respect for our states’ voters, we believe it would be improper for the Senate to consider the New START Treaty or any other treaty in a lame duck session prior to January 3, 2011.”
Other aspects of the treaty where Republicans are demanding administration assurances are on missile defense and modernization of our aging nuclear deterrent. As Heritage’s Baker Spring points out, while the treaty allows for modernization, the no-nukes mindset of the Obama administration makes any promises to modernize problematic. Obama is trying to promote both arms control while seeking a total ban on nuclear weapons worldwide. It is obvious where the security of the United States might suffer if a critical balance between the two goals is not maintained.
The key to our future security is modernization, and with that in mind, 41 senators wrote the president in December, 2009 stating that any future reductions in warheads would be dependent on the administration’s promise to modernize our deterrent. The 2010 defense authorization bill mandated that the Secretary of Defense prepare a report detailing our modernization plans. The classified document – known as the “1251 Plan” – mentions building a new nuclear missile submarine, but does not detail how we are going to modernize our Minuteman III missiles or our aging B-52 bombers.
As Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies points out, in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon stated that it “planned to develop a new land-based, penetrating long-range strike capability to be fielded by 2018 while modernizing the current bomber force.”
Unfortunately, the 1251 Plan puts off decisions on both.
Is it any wonder Senator Kyl and other Republican senators want assurances from the Obama administration that they are serious about modernizing our nuclear strike force?
Finally, the issue of missile defense is critical. There is some confusion regarding just what some of the language in the preamble of the treaty means, especially as it relates to our ability to build a robust missile defense program that would protect both the United States and its allies from rogue missile launches from adversaries. The treaty must allow for our defense against potential attackers such as Iran and North Korea, as well as serve as a deterrent for a strategic launch from Russia or China. Heritage’s Baker Spring points out:
This language applies a logic that says that U.S. missile defense capabilities must be reduced in accordance with the reduction in the strategic offensive arms of Russia because the defenses will otherwise “undermine the viability and effectiveness” of Russia’s offensive force.
There is also language that gives the compliance authority of the treaty – the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) – the ability to impose additional restrictions on our missile defense programs.
Not only are these troubling precedents being set, but it seems from a distance a trifle one-sided. The US is being penalized for having developed, at great cost to itself, superior technology. Rather than invite the Russians to match us, we are giving up a clear advantage in a vitally important field of defense. One can understand the process of give and take in negotiations, but this is ridiculous.
What can GOP senators do to make this treaty better? Heritage’s Baker Spring has some suggestions:
The Senate can choose to rewrite the treaty by amending its text in select places and by amending the resolution of ratification to include reservations, understandings, declarations, and conditions.
It is impossible to do any of this in the time allotted for the lame duck session. Senator Kyl, and several other Republican treaty supporters are absolutely right in insisting that no vote be taken until a full vetting of these questions is undertaken by the Senate and assurances are given by the Obama administration that the treaty will not impinge on our ability to protect ourselves, and that a robust verification regime that would prevent Russian cheating is in place. This is the least that our national security demands.