New START: messy but urgent

In his post-election press conference, President Barak Obama acknowledged – in the context of recalling health care reform – that getting things done in Washington can be “an ugly mess when it comes to process.” True to form, the effort to get the new US-Russia nuclear arms deal through the US Senate has accumulated a string of unsavoury compromises, but successful ratification will be well worth the mess.

The current US Senate has one brief session left before the newly-elected one takes over in January, so it has one last chance to keep the nuclear disarmament momentum going by ratifying the US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (referred to as New START). A two-thirds majority is required, which means garnering the support of at least some Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, and that won’t happen without some heavy horse trading that has already gone from messy to odious.

The standard objections to New START are threefold: inadequate verification of Russian compliance, limits on future US ballistic missile defence (BMD) prerogatives, and concerns about the reliability of remaining warheads in the US arsenal. On the first two there aren’t really any further deals to be made.

Verification of the Treaty is reciprocal, it largely follows earlier START models of inspections, and if ratification fails there will be no verification of any kind, and no US inspections of Russian nuclear facilities. The 2002 Moscow Treaty (the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty – SORT) promised to reduce US and Russian arsenals to no more than 2,200 deployed warheads each by 2012, but without any verification provisions there is no guarantee of compliance.

On ballistic missile defence, New START prevents both the US and Russia from using existing missile silos for BMD interceptor launchers. But, as a recent editorial in  Air Force Magazine pointed out, the US Missile Defence Agency has no intention or interest in doing that, and, furthermore, BMD advocates have been given assurances that the treaty in no way restricts future missile defense programs or capabilities.[i]

On those two issues, Senators will either be persuaded or not; Washington isn’t in a position to unilaterally change verification or BMD references, even if it now wanted to. On the third, the question of warhead “reliability,” there has already been plenty of controversial compromise.

Indeed, compromise has come rather more easily to the Obama Administration than one dared to hope, in part because the worriers about warhead reliability include his own Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. Before the 2008 election he argued that arsenal reductions could not be accepted without allowing either tests on remaining stocks or building new warheads to replace existing ones.

In the election campaign, then Senator Obama rejected both of those options – arguing that the reliability of a reduced arsenal could be assured without warhead testing or replacing existing warheads with new ones.[ii] That was and is certainly the overwhelming view in the scientific arms control community, and President Obama has remained firm. But warhead “replacement” has been traded for warhead “modernization” (replacement of some components) and a major infusion of new money into the US nuclear weapons establishment.

The Obama Administration is spending at least 10 per cent more than the George W. Bush Administration did to extend the life of existing strategic nuclear warheads and to expand and modernize the nuclear weapons infrastructure (but it’s worth noting that the same infrastructure also supports arms control and non-proliferation capacity). In the decade of 2010-2020 the bill for the nuclear weapons maintenance system will come to more than $80 billion.[iii] Another $100 billion will go to maintaining their missile and bomber delivery systems.[iv]  

The path to a world without nuclear weapons should not have to go through an expanded US nuclear weapons infrastructure, but to be fair, President Obama’s compromises have not betrayed his election campaign promises or his 2009 Prague speech. In both cases he insisted that while the commitment to a world without nuclear weapons is firm, as long as other states still have nuclear weapons the United States will maintain a nuclear deterrent arsenal.

It is the kind of messiness that should not obscure the extraordinary achievement that New START ratification would represent. For without real and treaty-compelled reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the major powers, without a legally binding commitment to prohibit both warhead testing and the production of fissile materials for weapons, the struggle to keep nuclear weapons out of the arsenals of smaller powers will fail. Not immediately, but inevitably.

Achieving major cuts in nuclear arsenals and legal blocks to further weapons development involves some messy compromises – and that still doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to get it done. But we can be sure of one thing, if the New START and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are not ratified, things will get a whole lot uglier.

(Published as “Nuclear disarmament can be a messy business,” The Record, Waterloo Region, 9 November 2010)


[i] Adam J. Hebert, “Arms Control, On Schedule.” Air Force Magazine, October 2010.

[ii] See Disarming Conflict post, 5 January 009.

[iii] “The New START Treaty – Maintaining a Strong Nuclear Deterrent,” n.d., US State Department New START Fact Sheets.

[iv] “The New START Treaty – Maintaining a Strong Nuclear Deterrent,” n.d., US State Department New START Fact Sheets.

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