The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will soon vote on New START, the arms control treaty that has floated in partisan debate limbo since Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed it in April. New START is modest but important—if ratified, it would reduce the number of American and Russian strategic nuclear weapons and launchers and continue the mutual inspection regime in place since the Reagan administration. But some conservatives oppose New START because they worry that the treaty places significant limitations on U.S. missile defenses.
To support their argument critics often cite the Russian unilateral statement that accompanied the signing of the treaty. It declares that a “qualitative and quantitative” change in U.S. missile defense could lead Russia to withdraw from New START. Critics also point to the treaty’s Preamble and Article V as further constraints on America’s ability to defend itself. These both recognize the interrelationship between offensive and defensive strategic arms and prohibit converting intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, and submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM, launchers from offensive to defensive purposes, respectively. Finally, some critics worry that the Bilateral Consultative Commission, or BCC, that the treaty establishes could be used to limit future U.S. missile defense plans.
When New START is evaluated in the proper strategic context, however, it is clear that the treaty poses no threat to U.S. missile defense.
It’s important to note that missile defense systems and interceptors play no part in securing America against a Russian nuclear strike. American security in relation to other established nuclear powers like Russia relies on the principal of nuclear deterrence, which argues that in a situation of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, states will avoid attacking one another to prevent nuclear holocaust. This assumption is both logically and historically sound. New START allows each party to maintain as many as 700 deployed delivery systems with up to 1,550 warheads—more than enough to sustain MAD and a stable bilateral nuclear balance.
MAD is admittedly not an ideal situation, with nuclear stability maintained by a hostage-type balance. But it is the only way to achieve that stability because a world without nuclear weapons—whatever you think of the idea itself—is far in the future. Fears that New START “locks us in” to MAD ignore the reality of our current situation. We are far from achieving anything close to a "Star Wars"-type missile defense system, so to maintain strategic nuclear stability now we have to preserve the nuclear balance, which New START’s verification regime does. Ratifying New START by no means signals the end of nuclear talks and regulation. Solidifying strategic nuclear stability with New START will open the door for further arms control treaties down the line.
Further, the Preamble’s recognition of the connection between offensive and defensive arms is not strategically or logically contentious. A missile defense system that could potentially neutralize the adversary’s nuclear deterrent would create instability by providing a potential incentive for a nuclear first strike against the now-defenseless rival. In other words, if the United States could shoot down enough of Russia’s ballistic missiles, the cost-benefit analysis might favor an American nuclear launch (or vice versa).
The reality is that neither side is anywhere close to that kind of destabilizing missile defense capability—nor do we seek to get there. And for good reason. The true utility of U.S. missile defenses lies in defending against smaller-scale attacks from rogue states such as Iran or North Korea. Any missile defenses that we develop to counter missile threats from these rogue states would pose no threat to Russia’s deterrent, and therefore provide them no justification to withdraw from the treaty.
Moscow is committed to the mutual regulation and stability New START provides, and would not threaten that balance for an issue as strategically unthreatening as current U.S. missile defense plans. Russia did not withdraw from START I even after we pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, and it still supports New START even though the Obama administration has repeatedly stressed that the United States will proceed with plans to build a missile defense system against rogue states.
The Phased Adaptive Approach, the Obama administration’s missile defense plan, relies on a combination of regional assets, such as Aegis cruisers, to defend America from rogue state ballistic missile attacks. These assets are far from sufficient in nature or number to defend against a Russian nuclear strike. After all, that’s not what the system is designed to do.
The critics’ claim that New START hinders U.S. missile defense efforts by prohibiting the conversion of ICBM and SLBM launchers to defensive uses also has no relation to current military plans. Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 16 that the MDA’s plans do not include converting existing ICBM or SLBM silos to missile defense launchers, a process he described as expensive and impractical compared to building new systems explicitly for missile defense. Gen. O’Reilly stated unequivocally that far from constraining missile defense, the “New START Treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program.”
Missile defense is certainly an important national security concern. It’s vital that we be able to defend ourselves against ballistic missile attacks from rogue states. New START does not threaten this defensive capability, and the treaty will also create a valuable foundation of security cooperation with Russia that will yield future benefits. The improving U.S.-Russia relationship under the Obama administration’s “reset” has already produced significant cooperation on security issues, including curbing Iran’s nuclear program and helping to stabilize Afghanistan. Ratifying New START will both restore the verification and regulation necessary for bilateral nuclear stability and facilitate a cooperative and constructive relationship with Russia on issues of mutual importance.
The rational argument that New START does not constrain U.S. missile defense efforts is sound, but the critics know that. Their opposition truly rests on the insidious implication that Obama will cave to Russian posturing and demands—a belief for which there is no support.
The conservative concern about the BCC embodies this doubt about the administration’s collective backbone. The BCC is empowered to approve “additional measures as may be necessary to improve the viability and effectiveness of the treaty.” Critics argue that Russia could manipulate the commission to limit U.S. missile defense plans. But this criticism is relies on the idea that the American committee members, and by extension the president, would collapse in the face of Russian political bluster and threats.
This accusation’s baseless nature reveals that New START’s critics oppose the treaty on fundamentally political grounds. America’s security should be determined by strategic reality, not political imagination. And according to that reality it’s time to ratify New START.
Ben Morris-Levenson is an intern in the National Security Department at the Center for American Progress.
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