Why START Stopped Sounding Sweet November 9, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
Tags: arms control, Missile Defense, nuclear reductions, Nuclear Weapons, START Treaty
On July 6, I argued in this post that the Obama administration may have finally abandoned hope for realism in its preliminary agreement with Russia on the follow-on to the expiring Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Over the past 4 months, however, the “Obama Realism” has faded into either hope or, more dangerously, realism conducted with the objective of constraining American power to cement good relations with Russia. In the process the next START is appearing to resemble the worst elements of the Kellog-Briand Pact (the idealistic hope to “outlaw” war as an instrument of national policy) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which constrained developments in an area where the U.S. could exploit a clear technological edge.
It is bad enough that the administration has sought to ameliorate Russia through numerous concessions and policy changes (from abandoning the missile defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic, to distancing itself from post-Russian invasion rump Georgia, to Obama not even appearing in Berlin to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today) in the distant and ambiguous hope that Moscow will “get tough” with Iran. The administration is also constraining real American capabilities in exchange for nonexistent or declining Russian capabilities during the arms control negotiations. The most poignant examples of this include the overall limits on strategic delivery vehicles (ballistic missiles and strategic bombers) and limits on non-nuclear, conventional systems.
According to an article from the Global Security Newswire, National Security Advisor Jim Jones may have proposed a “compromise” limit on strategic delivery vehicles at 700 (the preliminary July agreement set the range at 500-1,100). It also reported that the Obama administration has likely conceded ANOTHER point to Russia – that conventional strategic systems will be counted in the overall limit. Since Russia is likely to have fewer than 350 nuclear strategic systems by 2020 (and likely no conventional ones), the proposal to set the limit at 700 is a huge concession to Moscow. The U.S. deploys somewhere around 815 strategic delivery vehicles, which doesn’t count the conventional B-1 bombers, empty missile silos, and submarines in port (all of which are counted under the expiring START). A limit of around 700 would require the U.S. to retire most of its B-52s and either 50-100 Minuteman-III ICBMs or 2-3 Trident II SSBNs (ballistic missile subs). And for what? So Russia will continue to retire its aging systems anyway? How does sacrificing real capabilities in exchange for nothing further the U.S. national interest?
The Obama administration had an excellent opportunity to craft a pragmatic and advantageous arms control pact with Russia. They held all the cards – missile defenses, large numbers of missiles and bombers, advanced conventional prompt global strike capabilities, etc. If they had used such leverage effectively, they could have convinced Russia to agree to a new START that would lower warheads moderately (1,600 ceiling) and strategic systems somewhat (900 limit), that would ease verification measures (to make them more cost-efficient and flexible), and that would have furthered U.S. national security. Instead they conceded one point after another. Russian tactical nuclear weapons were off the table before the negotiators arrived at it. Missile defense in Europe was “adjusted.” Conventional capabilities may be counted. The strategic delivery vehicle limit will be set very low. The next concession to watch for – the U.S. may withdraw the remainder of its ~200 tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
This does not communicate American strength. As Stephen Rademaker has stated, you don’t go to a car dealer and say you’re really interested in the car and absolutely need it right away and by-the-way how much does it cost? You’re guaranteed to get burned. And Russia puts used-car dealers to shame. Russian negotiators have searched their arms control histories and have resurrected virtually every major concession they made during the Cold War. They understand that Obama wants this treaty a lot more than they do, and they’re prepared to sell the rust-proofing and limited warranties and anything else they can get the buyer to purchase. Only when this treaty is finished will we understand how badly we have been burned. At that point, START will be tasting awfully bitter.