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Big Week for Nuclear News

7:00 AM, Feb 9, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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Which it probably is not.  And which brings us back to that treaty.  President Obama desperately wants it ratified.  To get it, he knows he is going to have to make serious concessions to the “Gang of 41” (the Senate signatories to a letter to the president on this).  This budget is intended to thread a narrow needle: Spend more money, keep alive some important programs, but don’t do anything that might upset arms controllers or complicate international negotiations.  Will the senators buy it?  I doubt it. 

If anything, the probable outline of the deal with the Russians will only complicate matters.  The last reported sticking point was missile telemetry.  We wanted data from the Russians on their advanced SS-27 ICBM, which is supposed to be capable of beating any missile defense technology currently in development.  They wanted telemetry for our interceptors.  Telemetry on ICBMs has been a staple of prior treaties; defensive interceptors have never been covered.  The sudden breakthrough suggests that we gave in.  Did we?  No details—leaked or otherwise—have as yet come out.  If that’s really what happened, expect the Gang of 41 to be unhappy about it.  The rest of the treaty—steep cuts to our warhead stockpile and delivery systems—is already problematic enough. 

The administration is going full tilt on the communications front, with Vice President Biden as chief spokesman.  He telegraphed the budget request with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, and this Wednesday will give what is being billed as a major speech “on the future of the United States’ nuclear deterrent capabilities.”  The salesmanship has so far been not bad.  The administration has gotten some much-needed good press on the national security front thanks to the increased funding request.  Whether that can be sustained is another matter.  Ultimately, successful salesmanship depends on the product being sold.  So far, it appears there isn’t one. 

It’s still possible that the administration is willing to make deal: Work on something that looks a lot like the Reliable Replacement Warhead while billing it as something totally different.  What’s certain is that one side is going to have to give on something it doesn’t want to give on, or else there will be no ratification—not this year, not ever.

Correction and Update:

An original version of this post attributed a quote to the lead U.S. negotiator on the START follow-on treaty, that the US and Russia had achieved an “agreement in principle.”  In fact, the lead U.S. negotiator -- Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller -- did not say that; the quote is rather from an unnamed administration official.   I regret the error.

Also, Vice President Biden’s speech, originally scheduled for tomorrow, February 10th, has been postponed to Thursday, February 18th, owing to the snow in D.C.  Gives new meaning to the phrase “nuclear winter”!

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