Ratify New START

Senseless Opposition and Delay to New START Carries Real Risks

Max Bergmann explains why pointless conservative delay on New START is very dangerous.

Cadets of the Serpukhov Military School of Strategic Missile Forces train at the Topol intercontinental ballistic missile during exercises in Serpukhov, 56 miles south of Moscow on April 6, 2010. Every day that goes by without a new arms control treaty the United States loses valuable intelligence on Russia’s nuclear forces. (AP/Misha Japaridze)
Cadets of the Serpukhov Military School of Strategic Missile Forces train at the Topol intercontinental ballistic missile during exercises in Serpukhov, 56 miles south of Moscow on April 6, 2010. Every day that goes by without a new arms control treaty the United States loses valuable intelligence on Russia’s nuclear forces. (AP/Misha Japaridze)

This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote on whether to send the New START treaty to the full Senate for a vote on ratification. After more than 20 Senate hearings and endless discussion and debate over the specifics of New START, no concerns are legitimate enough to justify a vote in opposition to the treaty. And every day that goes by without a new treaty, the United States loses valuable intelligence on Russia’s nuclear forces due to the lack of any verification and monitoring measures. This harms U.S. security and creates an incredibly uncertain and dangerous nuclear environment.

The case for New START is strong and critics’ arguments during the committee process have been thoroughly addressed. Only the most ideologically extreme are opposing the treaty on its actual merits. The facts are out, and the entire U.S. military brass along with almost every sensible foreign policy thinker supports the treaty. As a result, conservative objections or concerns are largely about process or issues unrelated to the treaty’s specifics.

Some Republican senators, keen to avoid anything that could be seen as a victory for President Barack Obama, have sought to stall the treaty or tied its ratification to issues with no direct relevance. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has accommodated their objections, concerns, and complaints to a fault. It’s increasingly clear that their stance was merely to delay or obstruct ratification.

These Republican senators are now linking their support for New START with astronomical increases in funding for the nuclear weapons complex. These issues have little to do with each other, and these senators’ newfound concerns seem entirely disingenuous. The Obama administration has already proposed—and begun to receive—massive funding increases for nuclear weapons that are considerably higher than the levels appropriated during the Bush administration. Furthermore, funding demands by certain Republican senators are both entirely vague and are demands more appropriately made of the Congress rather than the executive branch since the Congress, not the president, appropriates funds.

The Senate Foreign Relations committee will almost certainly approve the treaty. But the stance of some Senate Republicans makes the treaty’s future less certain in the full Senate where it will need 67 votes for ratification. Further complicating START’s future are doubts of whether the full Senate will find the time to vote on the treaty with a packed legislative agenda and in the throes of election season.

Some point to a possible lame-duck session after the November election as a potential period for the Senate to take up the treaty. But it’s still not clear whether Senate Republicans would allow such a session to take place and whether much could be accomplished.

The New START Treaty, therefore, may stall in the Senate and a failure to ratify the treaty in this Congress would mean restarting the treaty ratification process from the beginning in the 112th Congress.

This is incredibly dangerous. The speedy ratification of the New START treaty is an urgent national security priority.

Let’s look more in depth at how delaying ratification hurts our security and why the concerns conservatives are voicing carry no water.

U.S. national security is harmed every day that goes by without New START’s ratification

The original START treaty expired on December 5, 2009. When that happened the United States and Russia lost the ability to monitor each others’ nuclear forces. Both sides agreed to uphold the original START treaty’s principles, but currently no provisions are in place to monitor Russian nuclear activity. We also lost vital on-the-ground inspectors who were obligated to leave. U.S. intelligence has been severely diminished by their departure.

The lack of monitoring and verification puts us in a very precarious situation. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), one of the leading arms-control opponents in the Senate, noted in November 2009 on the floor of the Senate that: “For the first time in 15 years, the U.S. stands to lose a significant source of information that has allowed us to have confidence in our ability to understand Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.”

This is exactly what is happening. The Washington Post reported last month that:

For the first time in 15 years, U.S. officials have lost their ability to inspect Russian long-range nuclear bases, where they had become accustomed to peering into missile silos, counting warheads, and whipping out tape measures to size up rockets. The inspections had occurred every few weeks under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But when START expired in December, the checks stopped. Meanwhile, in an obscure, fluorescent-lighted State Department office staffed round-the-clock, a stream of messages from Russia about routine movements of its nuclear missiles and bombers has slowed to a trickle.

Ned Williams of the State Department’s Nuclear Risk Reduction Center told The Post, “Now we don’t get any of that information. We have less and less visibility into their status of forces.”

Yet when asked about the gap in verification, Senator Kyl didn’t know it existed. He told The Post, “I thought we were just going to continue doing business as usual” until the new treaty could be ratified. An exasperated David Broder wrote in his Washington Post column, “What a price to pay for ignorance.”

The danger from losing such visibility is that it will create an increasing cloud of uncertainty between the United States and Russia over their nuclear forces. This, in turn, could lead one side to increasingly suspect the activities and intentions of the other, sparking a reinforcing spiral of distrust. Any instability or distrust leads to an increased risk of a nuclear incident, which could occur from misinterpretation, accident, or elevated hostilities.

With nuclear weapons still on hair-trigger alert and with both sides continuing to adhere to launch-on-warning protocols that oblige both leaders to fire their nuclear arsenals at the first detection of a possible attack, the potential for catastrophe remains ever present.

It is vital that the New START treaty be ratified as quickly as possible to maintain nuclear stability.

Sen. Kerry and the Obama administration have accommodated even obvious obstruction

The approach of some Republican senators toward New START has gone well beyond reasonable. They have made countless demands and asked nearly 1,000 questions for the record–more than twice the total number of questions submitted about the original START treaty, which was an entirely new treaty. This onslaught of questions amounted to an effort to delay the treaty by creating busy work for the administration and committee staff.

These process obstacles along with complaints about being rushed from some Republican committee members prompted Sen. Kerry to delay the committee vote until after the August recess. Kerry’s decision, however, was not supported by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), who believed that the vote should have been called. Lugar felt senators on the committee received plenty of time to review the treaty.

By pushing back the vote for six weeks and fully answering all questions, there can be no doubt that senators have received more than enough time to review the treaty.

Senate conservatives are tying the treaty to nuclear weapons funding that has nothing to do with New START

Senate Republicans’ chief justification for apprehension over New START is their concern over the state of the nuclear weapons infrastructure. Many conservative senators have demanded expanded funding for nuclear weapons infrastructure in exchange for voting for START. They argue that if the United States is to shrink its arsenal under the treaty, it will need to take all necessary steps to ensure the remaining arsenal is reliable. This may be a legitimate concern, but the Obama administration shares it.

The Obama administration as well as Democrats and Republicans in the Senate agree that the nuclear weapons complex deteriorated under President George W. Bush. The Obama administration proposed a massive spending increase of over $80 billion on the nuclear weapons complex over 10 years to reverse this deterioration. This amounts to a 15 percent increase over the Bush administration.

Linton Brooks, George W. Bush’s own nuclear administrator who ran the National Nuclear Security Administration for five years, stated upon seeing Obama’s budget proposals: “And I will say flatly, I ran that place for five years and I’d have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration.” What’s more, Congress appropriated this money, with the House Energy and Water Subcommittee approving virtually 100 percent of the administration’s request.

Yet conservative senators who were relatively silent on this issue during the Bush administration are now demanding even more money despite this massive boost in nuclear funds. Their requests amount to around an additional $10 billion on top of the $80 billion proposed. Their figures, however, are highly vague and it is unclear what this money is actually supposed to fund. This makes it virtually impossible for the administration to deliver on Republican demands even if they wanted to.

Travis Sharp of the Center for New American Security explains, “Senators are asking President Obama to guarantee something (modernization funding) that only they themselves can constitutionally guarantee.”

Conservatives’ substantive treaty concerns have all been exhaustively answered

The vast majority of Senate Republicans, including Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), are not taking issue with the treaty’s specifics anymore. Right-wing ideologues at the Heritage Foundation and senators like James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) are the exceptions. As noted above, they are raising concerns that have almost nothing to do with the actual treaty.

Their substantive concerns, which are listed below, have been fully answered.

START enhances U.S. missile defense. Nothing in the treaty limits U.S. missile defense plans. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20, 2010, that New START will actually reduce hindrances placed on missile defense under Ronald Reagan’s original treaty. The general testified, “The New START treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program.”

Critics claim that a provision in Article V of the treaty limits missile defense by preventing the United States from converting ICBM missile silos to silos for missile defense interceptors. But as O’Reilly testified, the United States would never use these old silos for this purpose since it is more cost-effective to build a new missile silo. And missile interceptors would never be fired from submarines equipped with long-range ballistic missiles.

The bomber-counting rule doesn’t favor Russia. When the treaty was released many on the right thought they’d discovered a big loophole that would allow Russia to possess more nuclear weapons than the treaty would allow. The so-called “bomber-counting rule” counts bomber planes as only possessing one nuclear bomb when they could possess more than 20. This provision, however, is nothing new and has long been a practice in arms control.

The treaty only covers deployed nuclear weapons, and unlike the original treaty it seeks to count specific warheads. This means it only covers nuclear weapons that are loaded up and ready to go at a moment’s notice. But this creates a counting problem because bombers like the B-52 no longer carry deployed nuclear weapons. True, these aircraft can be uploaded with nuclear weapons, but they are not sitting on the runway or flying around equipped with weapons.

When counting only deployed nuclear weapons without a bomber-counting rule each side would count bombers as possessing zero nuclear weapons. As a result, the Obama administration takes the step in New START to define what “deployed” means—hence bombers being arbitrarily allocated one nuclear weapon.

But why only one nuclear weapon per bomber? There are a number of reasons for this. Bombers are inherently less destabilizing than ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles because they take much longer to get to their targets and can be shot down. They can also be called back, while once an ICBM is launched it’s gone.

The treaty covers rail-mobile missiles. Some opponents mention that the treaty doesn’t address Russia’s rail-mobile missiles. But Russia no longer puts ICBMs on railcars. Even so, Russian nuclear expert Pavel Podig explains that if Russia did use rail-mobile missiles they would be covered by the treaty because the treaty covers all launchers of strategic nuclear weapons whether they are fixed or mobile, running on tires or tracks.

He writes, “Article II of the treaty limits all launchers, deployed and non-deployed, and does not care whether they are mobile or not.”

Verification is just as strong if not stronger under New START. Conservatives claim this treaty weakens verification. They point out that New START contains fewer inspections than the previous treaty. In the past there were 28 inspections and under this one there are only 18. But there’s a simple explanation for this: There are many fewer nuclear weapons in Russia and fewer nuclear facilities.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 18, 2010, “under the previous treaty there were 73 [Russian] facilities that we inspected; under this treaty there are only 27. In fact, based on the number of inspections—18—there are almost twice as many inspections per facility per year as there was under the previous treaty.”

Sen. Lugar also noted in an interview, “I believe it [START] will provide more transparency than START I, rather than less. The numbering system for warheads and delivery systems is much more transparent than before.”

The treaty also contains missile test data-sharing, known as telemetry, despite the fact that due to technological advances in U.S. intelligence, gathering this data no longer needs to be formally shared for the United States to obtain the information.

START must be ratified to address tactical weapons. A common argument treaty opponents make is that this strategic nuclear weapons treaty does not address tactical nuclear weapons. But tactical nuclear weapons aren’t addressed precisely because this is a strategic nuclear weapons treaty. Strategic nuclear weapons are large-yield nuclear weapons designed to target population centers or impact an adversary’s ability to wage war, while tactical nuclear weapons are smaller, battlefield nuclear weapons used in support of conventional forces.

Conservatives are right to be concerned with tactical nuclear weapons. But this concern should prompt conservatives to support New START. James Schlesinger, former secretary of defense under President Richard Nixon, noted that the New START treaty is a prerequisite for addressing tactical nuclear weapons. No treaty has ever dealt with short-range tactical nuclear weapons, and for those negotiations to occur a START treaty must be in place.


Arms-control treaties in the past have been ratified by the Senate with near unanimous bipartisan support. The New START treaty, which updates and extends a treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan, shouldn’t be any different. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has done its job by thoroughly scrutinizing the treaty over the last five months. The treaty has the full backing of the U.S. military as well as overwhelming bipartisan support from leading former national security officials. And the committee as well as the administration has addressed every legitimate concern raised over the treaty.

It’s time for the Senate to ratify New START and end the nuclear uncertainty created by the gap in verification. Our national security is at stake.

Max Bergmann is a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Policy Analyst for American Progress.

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Max Bergmann

Former Senior Fellow