Last week, after the Kremlin leaked news that Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev had reached agreement on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement including:
I hope that this new treaty can be ratified without delay so as to allow its expeditious implementation.
Secretary-General Ki-moon’s offices at U.N. headquarters in New York do enjoy the protection of United States security, but perhaps the head of the UN should not be deciding when a treaty is ready to be ratified.
In just the past week it has become clear that the Obama administration and Moscow have very different ideas about what is actually in the treaty. Ratification of this treaty would have profound implications for the security of the United States for years to come. Accordingly, those actually charged with approving U.S. treaties, U.S. Senators, need to ask some probing questions about the agreement in the months to come. Heritage fellow Baker Spring identifies five:
1. Does the Treaty, Either Directly or Indirectly, Limit the Missile Defense Options of the U.S.? The fact sheet released by the White House describing the content of the treaty in general terms states that the treaty places no constraints on the U.S. regarding missile defenses. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, begs to differ. He has stated that if the U.S. exceeds current levels of missile defense systems, then the new treaty will cease to have force. Lavrov also asserts that the limitations on strategic defenses take a legally binding form under the treaty. Even if this is not the case—and that cannot be certain until the text of the treaty is released—informal linkages to missile defense from the treaty can, as a practical matter, be just as limiting as actual text in the treaty. For example, President Obama established precisely such a linkage by canceling a plan to field defensive interceptors against long-range missiles in Poland and associated radar in the Czech Republic last September.
2. Does the Treaty Limit U.S. Conventional Strategic Strike Systems? Again, the White House fact sheet says no. The White House assertion is difficult to fathom, however, because the fact sheet states that the treaty will limit both deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers at 800. Thus, such launchers would seem to be applicable against the numerical limit—whether or not they are armed with nuclear warheads. If launchers are subject to the numerical limitation regardless, then the treaty by definition imposes a limitation on U.S. options for fielding conventional strategic strike systems.
3. Will the Obama Administration Modernize and Test the U.S. Strategic Nuclear Force? The White House fact sheet includes an anodyne statement that the U.S. is free under the treaty to structure its strategic nuclear force, within the numerical limits, as it sees fit. This would seem to include the freedom to upgrade its strategic nuclear force qualitatively. Upgrading the force, however, will require modernization steps, such as developing new generations of missiles and bombers and the warheads to go with them. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has been nothing short of adamant that it will not conduct nuclear weapons tests and will press the Senate to consent to the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate rejected in 1999.
4. How Will the Obama Administration Maintain an Effective Strategic Nuclear Arsenal Following President Obama’s Expected Order to “De-Alert” the Force? The White House fact sheet states that the limits imposed by the treaty are based on rigorous analysis conducted by strategic planners at the Department of Defense. During his campaign President Obama, without the benefit of analysis from the Department of Defense, asserted that U.S. nuclear forces are on “hair trigger alert” and unequivocally pledged to take them off alert. While a specific description of the steps the President would take to “de-alert” U.S. nuclear forces must await the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, any such steps will make it impossible to maintain a strategic nuclear force that can meet any reasonable military and operational requirements. Even with a large strategic arsenal, reducing the alert levels of U.S. nuclear forces would be a dangerous proposition; under the smaller force mandated by the treaty, it would be even more dangerous.
5. Will the Treaty Limitation on Deployed Strategic Nuclear Warheads Be Adequately Verifiable? The White House fact sheet asserts that the verification measures in the treaty are adequate. The description, however, fails to explain whether the warhead limitation (1,550) will be verified directly or only through accounting principles applied through the limitations on launchers. If the verification regime is focused on ensuring that the launcher limits are observed but just assumes that the warhead limits will correspond to the number of launchers, the regime will be inadequate; the Russians will be able to explore options to put more warheads on each launcher than is assumed by the accounting principles. In fact, the Russians will likely argue that warhead numbers that exceed the 1,550 limitation could be perfectly legal under the treaty. Most likely, the Russians will make the reasonable argument that the verification regime is an integral part of the treaty and that, therefore, the treaty only seeks to limit what can be verified.