Last Friday President Obama met with Russian President Medvedev on the outskirts of the Copenhagen climate change conference hoping to cut through remaining obstacles in the agreement to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired on December 5. For Obama those talks are less about slashing our nuclear arsenal and mostly about buying Russian cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue and gaining Russian help in Afghanistan.
START is the child of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT I and II), 1969-1979, which dramatically cut the atomic arsenal and delivery systems for both the U.S. and Russia. But hard times forced Moscow to seek further cuts while trying to maintain a credible deterrent. That prompted Moscow to renew the current talks which come at a fortuitous time for Russia.
The U.S. desperately needs Moscow’s help. Obama needs Russia to grant supply lines through its territory to Afghanistan. Currently, most supplies bound for the war front are shipped by truck across Pakistani routes that are marred by daily attacks.
Obama also needs Russian help with the Iranian atomic crisis which became more complicated last Friday. Iranian forces occupied an oil facility inside Iraq signaling the U.S. that it knows about America’s end of December deadline to negotiate or face tough sanctions. But Tehran is being defiant with the incursion suggesting it is prepared, if the U.S. takes action against it, to disrupt the fragile peace in Iraq.
But it’s Israeli pressure that has Obama’s attention. Apparently, Obama pledged not to pursue diplomacy with Iran indefinitely. Now that diplomacy failed Israel is looking for decisive action. Obama must either impose tough sanctions or execute the military option. But Obama knows without Russian and Chinese support tough sanctions are doomed.
Perhaps Obama can use START-related incentives to buy Moscow’s sanctions support. But it’s unknown whether Moscow can sway Beijing to support sanctions as well. China’s support is critical if a gasoline embargo is selected because Beijing is currently trading gasoline for crude petroleum with Tehran.
What START-related incentives might Obama offer Moscow?
First, Moscow would like to have parity in nuclear delivery systems with the U.S. This is critical to Moscow which can’t afford to sustain more than about 550 nuclear-weapons delivery systems. The new START agreement reduces strategic platforms to below 800, down from the old limit of 1,600.
The U.S. can afford to sustain a much larger force than Russia. Arguably the U.S. should keep a powerful deterrent because it is also challenged by an emergent China which is rapidly growing its nuclear platforms. But Obama may be ready to compromise.
America’s atomic triad — ground- and sea-based missiles and bombers — is in jeopardy. The administration has no plans to replace our aging ballistic missiles and in April, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled research on a future bomber saying he wanted “…a better understanding of the need, the requirement, and the technology.”
Second, Moscow wants the U.S. to accept a smaller nuclear arsenal to off-set America’s enormous conventional advantage. The U.S. should only accept a smaller arsenal if it goes ahead with modernization that keeps all enemies in check.
Moscow, which in conventional military terms is a mere shadow of the former Soviet Union, relies on its nuclear capabilities to counter Western conventional capabilities. That explains Moscow’s “large-scale” renewal of nuclear arsenal plans and that nation’s intent to reshape its nuclear doctrine to include the pre-emptive use of atomic weapons.
The new START agreement requires each side to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,600 but that’s not small enough for Moscow. The U.S. has about 2,200 strategic warheads while Russia has about 2,800. But the tactical warhead arsenals are more lopsided. Russia has perhaps 8,000 and the U.S. has no more than 1,200 tactical weapons.
Russia’s large inventory of tactical nuclear weapons is a special security concern. Some Russian nuclear storage facilities remain vulnerable to sabotage or a well-executed terrorist attack. And thwarting nuclear terrorism is the aim of Obama’s classified review of nuclear weapons policy, states the New York Times. That review orders the entire government to shift money from nuclear platforms to defensive measures. The U.S. will be expected to help pay for demilitarizing Russian weapons as it has in the past.
But before accepting a smaller nuclear arsenal the U.S. must consider Russian plans to develop and build a new generation of weapons. That could give Russia an atomic advantage and should prompt the U.S. to consider a modernization program as well.
Earlier this year a blue-ribbon commission set up by the Pentagon identified major flaws in our aging nuclear arsenal spurring calls for a new generation of weapons. But any new weapons must be tested which is contrary to Obama’s plans.
Last week 40 Republican senators wrote Obama to remind him that current defense authorization law links modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to further arms reductions. However, the Obama administration has launched an effort to win ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which would prevent future testing of any new nuclear weapons.
Third, Moscow wants to limit U.S. verification. Specifically, it wants to deny the U.S. access to Russian missile-flight data on their new generation of missiles. They also want to limit nuclear forces inspection protocols including freedom to choose which facilities to inspect and when.
Monitoring Russian flight data is prudent. Moscow is developing new missiles and warheads but wants to keep the technical data secret. We should apply President Reagan’s adage to the situation — “Trust but verify.”
America must monitor Moscow’s nuclear system programs to prepare for dangerous advances. Specifically, last week, Russia’s much-touted submarine-based Bulava intercontinental missile failed the third time in four months. It is billed as Russia’s newest technological breakthrough to support its nuclear deterrent. Moscow also continues to deploy SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missiles and over the last two years flight-tested its developmental RS-24, which it claims can penetrate any missile defense.
Finally, Moscow wants the U.S. to abandon any plans to install an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense in Europe. Moscow fiercely opposes any European-based ABM system because it violates Russia’s spheres of influence by placing missiles in former Soviet Bloc countries. Further, Russian military officials fear those missiles could be fitted with warheads and turned into offensive weapons.
But Obama already scrapped our European ABM to appease Moscow. The day after Obama was elected Medvedev threatened to deploy short-range Iskander missile systems “…to neutralize if necessary the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe.” Shortly after his inauguration Obama floated the idea of putting off ABM plans for Europe if Russia would help convince Iran to suspend its nuclear weapons program.
Apparently, ABM became part of the START negotiations. Soon after Obama’s offer the presidents met at the G20 summit in London and on May 4, the countries began the formal process of renegotiating START. A “Joint Understanding for a Follow-on Agreement to START I” was signed by Obama and Medvedev in Moscow on July 6.
Their next meeting coincided with Obama’s announcement scrapping the European ABM and the day prior to the United Nation’s nuclear disarmament summit. At their meeting Medvedev indicated he might consider sanctions for Iran.
Obama might buy Moscow’s help with Iran and Afghanistan by offering the aforementioned START-related incentives. But he had better get something from START too and without endangering our security.