Stop Start?

Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace questions the opposition to the “New START” treaty in an excellent piece in the Washington Post on Friday. Ironically, Kagan concedes many of the points made by opponents while nonetheless calling for the treaty to be approved.

How can this be reasonable? The reason is simple: there is no trust between a large segment of the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate, where the treaty must be ratified, and the current administration. And thus the treaty has become a proxy for debates on other related issues, even though the terms of the treaty itself do raise specific, perhaps more narrow issues, but nonetheless of significant importance. 

For the U.S. to secure nuclear deterrence into the future, especially at lower levels of nuclear weapons, we will have to maintain the nuclear warhead and laboratory infrastructure, maintain, sustain and modernize our nuclear platforms on which our nuclear warheads are deployed and sustain a policy of extended deterrence to keep our allies secure.

The administration has said it will do these things. Funds have been added to the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration, especially for some enhancement of the capability of our laboratories to certify that the stockpile of nuclear warheads we have remains safe, effective and secure. A commitment of some $7 billion-$8 billion this year is there; but sustaining this over a decade is problematical, as funds for the out-years remain highly uncertain.

And the previous rhetoric of the administration—against new warheads, against the Reliable Replacement Warhead, against testing of warheads—unsettles members of the Senate worried that when push comes to shove the administration will go the direction of the disarmament lobby and the louder voices for global zero. 

Our labs are in seriously bad shape. Our warheads have not been tested for nearly two decades. The people necessary in nuclear science are not being trained and our industrial base has major weaknesses. These facts have been reiterated and confirmed by the Defense Science Board, studies of the Institute for Defense Analysis and most recently the Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, popularly known as the Perry-Schlesinger Commission after its two co-chairman.

While it is true Congress must each year decide whether to approve the President’s budget request and future legislators cannot be bound by present “promises,” there is considerable debate whether the administration is enthusiastically committed to such future expenditures.

Many of its allies on the hard left are not. For example, of special note is the comment of one analyst at the Center for American Progress. When asked to comment on the whether nuclear modernization should be the quid pro quo for START ratification, the representative said, “Well, there are things we do not want to have” down the road which would have to be agreed to now to make the START critics happy.

This is particularly true of the nuclear-force structure. Considerable effort was made by both Democratic and Republican senators to keep 12-14 Trident submarines and all 450 Minuteman missiles as part of our force structure under new START.

At 1,550 warheads, various force structures could be envisioned that eliminate whole segments of our nuclear Triad. But given bombing-counting rules where one bomber whether with 16 to 24 warheads counts as only “one warhead” under New START, additional sea- and land-based missile warheads could be deployed within the 1,550 ceiling without doing damage to either of these legs of the Triad.

But here again, the future remains uncertain. There is not an agreed upon framework roadmap for the future of the ICBM or bomber force, although considerable work within the administration continues to make those a reality. And for that matter, while a notional 12 submarines will probably remain in the future force, whether the boats carry 16, 20 or 24 missiles has not been decided and this might have a major impact on the ICBM and bomber force, depending upon the warheads carried per missile and the number of missiles per boat.

This is critical for the future force structure will in fact determine the level of strategic stability—putting more and more of our eggs in fewer and fewer strategic baskets makes those responsible for strategic policy nervous.

The future force structure may also drive strategic nuclear policy. If you have so few warheads that targeting an adversary’s weapons becomes impossible, then we are left targeting the other guy’s people or cities. As Gen.Welch noted recently, that is an immoral policy the American people would not support. Many on the left have assumed that targeting the weapons of Russia or China is somehow either wrong-headed or an automatic requirement that our forces strike first.

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of deterrent policy. A U.S. President would not authorize the use of such awesome weapons out of revenge. The idea of launching weapons to take out the other guy’s missiles, submarines or bombers is to limit the damage that can be done to our country, and to deny the other country the achievement of its war aims, to the extent that means talking out his military power. Otherwise we leave such weapons in a sanctuary, free to be used whenever an adversary so decides.

This leads us to the further point that the START treaty emphasizes reductions but achieved only relatively modest reductions from the Moscow treaty of 2002. What Senate critics are concerned with is that we should be emphasizing deterrence and the treaty numbers would be a reflection of that, not the other way around, especially as you move to lower numbers of deployed warheads. No longer do you have the same flexibility of having many thousands of warheads as “insurance” in case of a technological failure in any aspect of the nuclear force. Therefore a commitment to the future force is critical.

On missile defense, at the heart of the debate are two issues which the treaty cannot solve; (1) do we want to continue mutual-assured-destruction relationship with Moscow where our deployments of missile defenses are seen at a certain level of deployments as “unstable” or threatening to Moscow; and (2) should we have accepted any limits in missile defense, such as deploying missile defenses in our Trident submarines or Minuteman silos, which are both prohibited, when the threats to the U.S. come from North Korea, Iran and China, countries whose inventory of ballistic missiles is not controlled by Moscow?

It was precisely to get away from seeing missile defenses as “destabilizing” that the Bush Administration in 2002 successfully pulled the U.S. out of the ABM Treaty while at the same time securing a reduction in deployed nuclear weapons from 6,000 allowed under START I to 2,200 allowed under the Moscow or SORT Treaty, more than a 65% reduction. Yet SORT was ridiculed as “false arms control” while new START was praised, a point Kagan makes.

More interesting, however, is what actually would render the strategic situation “unstable”? When the administration was asked by senior defense members of the Senate and House this specific question, no answer was forthcoming. First, the Congress was assured whatever level of missile defenses we were going to deploy in the future, in addition to that deployed today, Russia remained unconcerned. And second, when asked what that number was, Congress was assured that whatever the number was, it wouldn’t bother the Russians even though no specific number was forthcoming.

Now some would argue that since Russia has the warhead inventory capable of destroying the U.S. completely, we have to make accommodation with Moscow. But the U.S. has a nuclear umbrella for 30 some countries; Moscow does not; the U.S. has relatively few tactical nuclear weapons; the Russians probably have in excess of 10,000, none of which are limited by this “new” treaty.

Do we really have to have “parity” with the Russians on strategic nuclear weapons and vehicles when our role is so different than that of Russia? Could not this get particularly troublesome if Moscow, as is suggested by Russia’s own defense plans, may drop its nuclear launchers to as low as 300-400, (compared to our current inventory around 850), and the new START level of 700-800, which we may be compelled to match under future START treaties? And especially in light of Russian nuclear weapons doctrine which envisions the use of tactical nuclear weapons in conflicts in the “near abroad” or regions around Russia.

One of the philosophical assumptions behind the 2002 Moscow Treaty was to start a process to move away from the rigid bi-polar Cold War arms control environment. That is why the treaty allowed a range of warheads to be deployed—1,700 to 2,200—as well as allowing each nation to deploy in an operational mode whatever weapons they deemed important for their defense strategies within overall but very flexible limits.

In Washington, issues are not often debated straight up on their merits. They are often place-holders for other policy.

Cap and trade is a stalking horse for establishing an energy policy that seriously rations energy consumption and dramatically curtails U.S. energy production. But all in the name of “saving the planet” and consuming only “our fair share” with an actual implementing strategy that taxes Americans hundreds of billions more each year to replenish the revenue coffers of the “Great Society” that is now broke.

So, too, does “healthcare reform” become a proxy to ration healthcare while being declared as a new program to help the “uninsured” and those with pre-existing conditions. It was nothing of the sort. Faced with a $38 trillion Medicare deficit, the supporters of “Big Government” could not admit the failure of the “Great Society”. Instead, trillions would be siphoned from taxpayers, business and individuals alike, under the ruse of covering everyone with health insurance when in fact what the government wants is your healthcare dollar while conspiring to deny millions care, whether they call them “death boards” or not.

The “New START” treaty has triggered a debate over U.S. security policy, the nature of the world we hope to live in, the role of the United States in the world and whether and to what extent Russia will get to call the shots on U.S. missile defense and nuclear weapons deployments policy.

Whether we ratify the treaty or not the lack of consensus on future strategic nuclear needs and requirements need not be up in the air during each authorization and appropriation cycle in Congress. The room for error diminishes as we further reduce nuclear weapons and our force structure. Prudence dictates we get some reasonable commitments on these matters, as well as fully understand whatever new policies or strategies may be inherent in our pursuit of “global zero.”