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Did the ICBM Fiasco Kill New START?

2:37 PM, Oct 27, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Yesterday's news about an entire squadron of nuclear missiles dropping offline may have blown up the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, projected to hit the floor during the lame duck session of Congress.

This morning, a Senate staffer close to the START debate relayed to me serious concerns about ratifying a nuclear arms control agreement after such a serious breakdown in the technical reliability of our strategic forces. His quote in response to the incident: "I think the START treaty is dead." The Republican staffer also relayed skepticism that the treaty would even reach the Senate floor during the lame duck session.

Administration officials have tried, feebly, to downplay the connection between the ICBM failure and the new START treaty, likely sensing the danger here. But Marc Ambinder, who broke the news yesterday, laid out the relationship between the two: 

There are about 450 ICBMs in America's nuclear arsenal, some of them bearing multiple warheads. 150 are based at Minot and about 150 are housed at Malmstrom AFB in Montana. The chessboard of nuclear deterrence, a game-theory-like intellectual contraption that dates from the Cold War, is predicated upon those missiles being able to target specific threat locations across the world. If a squadron goes down, that means other missiles have to pick up the slack. The new START treaty would reduce the number of these missiles by 30 percent, but the cuts are predicated upon the health of the current nuclear stockpile, from warhead to delivery system to command and control. 

With significant Republican Senate gains projected next Tuesday, it will be difficult for the administration to pass a treaty that already carries its fair share of baggage. Conservative lawmakers have raised red flags in response to worrisome language on ballistic missile defense, low technical confidence in the aging warhead stockpile, and the speed in which the treaty was rushed into committee. 

This ICBM slip up could be the straw that broke the camel's back. At best, the administration may have to make significant concessions on research and development money for a new ICBM system, as well as upgrades to our bomber force and submarine fleet, in order to get the legislation passed. 

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