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False Start?

Don’t believe the hype about the new arms treaty with Russia.

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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False Start?

Conservatives are already criticizing the new United States-Russia arms control treaty. Nobody but those privy to the negotiations knows yet what the treaty actually says, but the critics are probably right to be worried.

For what we do know—and have known for months—is troubling enough. Presidents Obama and Medvedev worked out the broad outlines of an agreement in the middle of 2009. Each side would reduce their operationally deployed warheads by about a third (the exact figure turns out to be 1,550). Delivery vehicles—not covered by the more recent Moscow Treaty—will go down to 800. Of those, only 700 can be deployed at any given time, a very thin margin for reserve forces. This treaty, like the last one, does not cover nondeployed warheads, so presumably each side will (as ever) maintain a large reserve stockpile. Only under the New START Treaty, the ratio of delivery vehicles to warheads will undermine the point of such an arrangement.

Perhaps that is the point—to give each side an incentive to accelerate the dismantlement of older, nondeployed weapons. In any event, it’s certainly a gift to the Russians, who can barely afford to keep 800 missiles and bombers deployed as it is. Think of a minor league team negotiating a salary cap with the Yankees: It’s in their interest to push the figure down as low as possible.

The iron rule of international negotiation: Whoever wants the piece of paper more loses on substance. Last time around, it was the Russians. President Bush had already decided to slash the deployed U.S. arsenal by thousands of warheads and was going to do so no matter what the Russians said or did. But at an East Room press conference in November 2001, he was sandbagged by Vladimir Putin, who made clear he wanted a signing ceremony with all the trappings. After making clear that he preferred no treaty, President Bush graciously acquiesced: “If we need to write it down on a piece of paper, I’ll be glad to do that.”

Thus the 2001 Bush Nuclear Posture Review became the basis for the Moscow Treaty. We gave away essentially nothing but our signature. We flattered Russia’s great power pretensions to gain some cooperation in the war on terror. (Whether, in the end, we actually got any is another matter.)

This time, things are different. Obama wanted the paper (and the attendant bragging rights and signing ceremony) much more than Medvedev. So what price did he pay for it? That low delivery vehicle threshold, for starters. 

The last major sticking points in the negotiations had to do with telemetry—information from ballistic missile tests. We wanted data from the Russians on their advanced SS-27 ICBM; they wanted telemetry for our missile defense interceptors. Telemetry on ICBMs has been a staple of prior treaties; defensive interceptors have never been covered.

Comments from Secretary of Defense Gates at the press briefing at the White House on March 26 suggest that we got the data on the Russian ICBM: “There still is a bilateral agreement to exchange telemetry information on up to five missile launches a year.” But no specific mention was made of missile defense telemetry. Both Gates and the undersecretary of state for arms control insisted that the treaty does not “constrain” missile defense efforts on the U.S. side.

Such careful wording, however, does not rule out providing defense interceptor telemetry to the Russians, who would of course use it to make their newest ICBM more able to defeat any American defense system. If we indeed made this concession, it’s likely because this administration (like every administration since Ronald Reagan’s) has not contemplated building a missile defense system capable of defeating a large onslaught of hostile ICBMs and SLBMs. Our efforts have been focused rather on intercepting a small number of missiles fired, presumably, by a “rogue state.” Small comfort given Russia’s close relationship with Iran.

Formally linking missile defense to offensive strategic weapons would be a bad move on America’s part. It would also undercut the logic of missile defense: If our system is only meant to deter the likes of Iran and North Korea, why make it part of a deal with Russia? Russia clearly sees its own interests furthered by increasing our headaches. Constraining us on missile defense helps with that goal. For us, it amounts to giving away a lot and getting little—a hallmark of U.S.-Russian relations under Obama.

But at this point all we really know is that an agreement has been reached. We don’t know the details, and it’s possible they still have not been hashed out. Sources indicate that the classified annexes remain to be finalized. One thing we do know, says a key Hill staffer, is that “If the Russians are happy, I’m not sure the Senate will be able to ratify.”

President Obama will play the deal up as big and welcome news for his disarmament agenda as he prepares to host a nuclear materials conference in Washington this month and to attend the Nonproliferation Treaty Conference in New York this May. But there was arguably bigger news last Friday: news which won’t get much coverage and undercuts his nuclear agenda.

Last November, JASON—an advisory group of independent scientists first convened in 1960—finished a study of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Their report is classified but the executive summary is not. The summary seemed to indicate that the Life Extension Program (LEP), the government’s efforts to ensure the long-term reliability of our nuclear arsenal, was working just fine. The Obama administration and its allies on the left used this as evidence of there being no need to do anything that might be interpreted as building new warheads.

But leaks undermining this narrative quickly appeared. People familiar with the full report indicated that it didn’t quite support the executive summary’s interpretation of the LEP. Now we know those leaks were correct.

Ohio Republican representative Michael Turner asked the heads of the three national nuclear laboratories to give a frank assessment of the report. Their letters were released on Friday and in their view, Life Extension probably won’t cut it over the long haul, and the classified report actually spells out many of the reasons.

This is bad news for the president’s disarmament agenda. He loses a valuable piece of high-level cover for his insistence that the United States not undertake any real modernization of our nuclear arsenal. It’s very bad news for Vice President Biden, who is reported to be the biggest opponent in the administration of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) concept—a new long-lived warhead design that was defunded in 2008. It’s good news for Secretary Gates, who supports RRW.

But even this may have a silver lining for the president. The New START Treaty faces an uphill ratification battle. Its chances get dimmer the less seriously the administration treats Republican concerns about stockpile longevity. To have a shot at getting the treaty ratified this year, the president is going to have to bend on warhead modernization. This will anger the left. But the scientific cover for ditching RRW that was yanked away by the lab directors can be spun as political cover for moving ahead with modernization. To get the nine extra Senate votes he needs for his treaty, the president can now say, without dissembling, that a reliable arsenal requires doing more than LEP currently encompasses.

Such an argument would help the president get his treaty, help America maintain a credible deterrent—and have the additional advantage of being true.

 

Michael Anton served in national security positions in the recent Bush administration.


 

 

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