MOSCOW – After more than a year of negotiations on a follow-on to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev finalized the agreement this week. It now appears that the new START will be signed on April 8 in Prague, to commemorate the first anniversary of Obama’s “getting to zero” speech. Getting to zero denotes an unrealistic goal of the world free of nuclear weapons.
Before anyone breaks out the champagne, however, one should remember that it could be months before a START follow on is ratified by the U.S. Senate—if ever. It took 429 days to ratify the 1991 START agreement after it was submitted to the Senate, for example.
And while many arms control advocates are jubilant about a 30 percent reduction in U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions, larger questions linger. Foremost, will the treaty be adequately verifiable, will it impose limitations on US defense modernization, and will it reduce the likelihood of aggression and war?
There are legitimate reasons to be concerned. Onlookers have already seen concessions including cancellation of a key missile defense system in Europe.
In addition, the White House clearly lost ground on the issue of verification. When the START treaty expired in December, the U.S. had to abandon a monitoring station for Russian weapons at the entry and exit portals in Votkinsk, Russia.
By agreeing to leave this station, the U.S. will be unable to monitor the production of Russia’s highly destabilizing RS-24 mobile multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Open sources indicate that this missile will be the mainstay of Russian strategic forces by 2016.
As Russia could place multiple warheads on RS-24 and other ballistic missiles while the U.S. moves aggressively toward single warhead missiles, a disparity may be created. Fewer Russian missiles may carry more warheads.
Arms control advocates frequently assert that the fewer nuclear weapons there are, the safer we all will be. This is not so. Thus, pursuing reductions in a haphazard way, to very low numbers, can lead to increased instability and heighten the likelihood of a nuclear war. This problem will be compounded many fold insofar as President Obama has made an unequivocal and unqualified campaign commitment to “de-alert” that the nuclear arsenal of the United States.
Touting the treaty, the Obama administration is likely not to modernize U.S. nuclear forces as needed, despite the growing Chinese and, down the road, Iranian nuclear build-up. America’s nuclear infrastructure is rapidly aging and struggling to maintain its reliability and effectiveness.
The Director of the National Nuclear Security Administration stated last year that “…maintaining certification of the finely-tuned designs of an aging Cold War stockpile solely via warhead refurbishments and absent nuclear testing involves increasing risk.” Simply put, the U.S. is not producing new nuclear weapons, and its ICBM force is shrinking and not being modernized. In contrast, Russia and China are engaged in a major modernization effort.
Finally, there are also concerns that it will undermine Prompt Global Strike (PGS) intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads as well as further limit directly or indirectly options on U.S. missile defense.
The real danger now is that the Obama administration is codifying the old adversarial balance of terror relationship between the U.S.-Soviet Union. The Heritage Foundation has argued that the U.S. should instead have used the Treaty to move Moscow away from a nuclear posture based on threat of nuclear Armageddon and intimidation and toward a fundamentally more defensive posture. Unfortunately, the Administrated has squandered this opportunity.
Signing arms control treaties to score a public relations stint and a photo opportunity in pursuit of unrealistic “getting to zero” pipe dream is bad policy. The Senate should keep this in mind when considering the new Treaty’s ratification.
Research Assistant Owen Graham contributed to this post.