Center for American Progress

The Time to Vet Is Over: It’s Time to Vote on the New START Accord

The Time to Vet Is Over: It’s Time to Vote on the New START Accord

Max Bergmann details the New START concerns and ready answers provided by the Obama administration.

Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the U.S. 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 President Ronald Reagan’s original treaty.
<br /> (AP/Harry Hamburg)
Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the U.S. 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 President Ronald Reagan’s original treaty.
(AP/Harry Hamburg)

The facts are out on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and every issue raised by conservatives in the Senate has been thoroughly addressed. Most conservative objections or concerns about New START are largely about process or issues unrelated to the treaty’s specifics—details that the Obama administration has dealt with. Now only the most ideologically extreme are opposing the treaty on its actual merits. Yet even their substantive concerns, which are listed below, have been fully answered.

New START enhances U.S. missile defense

Nothing in the treaty limits U.S. missile defense plans. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the U.S. 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 President Ronald Reagan’s original treaty. The general said, “The New START treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program.”

Conservative 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.

Other conservatives argue that the language in the preamble of the treaty, which states that there is a connection between offensive and defensive systems, is new and troubling. In fact, there is nothing new about this text—similar language was included in past treaties. The language also contains no limits on missile defense.

The Obama administration has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to nuclear modernization

Senate conservatives’ 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 New 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 more than $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. The White House in the last month agreed to increase this figure to $85 billion in an effort to convince Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ).

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.

Some conservative senators who were relatively silent on this issue during the Bush administration are still saying that the Obama administration’s budget may not be adequate. But demands for additional funding remain highly vague, making it virtually impossible for the administration to deliver on Republican demands even if they wanted to.

Verification is just as strong if not stronger under New START

Conservatives have claimed that New START weakens verification. They point out that the treaty contains fewer inspections than the previous START accord. 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 [New 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.

The treaty doesn’t rely on trusting Russia; it holds them accountable

The original START 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’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. Senator Kyl, 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 Washington Post, “Now we don’t get any of that information. We have less and less visibility into their status of forces.” If the treaty were to be rejected, the U.S. would then have to simply trust that Russia was not altering the nuclear balance.

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.”

New 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. New START, which updates and extends a treaty negotiated by Ronald Reagan, shouldn’t be any different. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed the treaty on a bipartisan basis and it has the full backing of the U.S. military as well as the overwhelming bipartisan support from leading former national security officials.

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