While GOP Senators couldn't defeat Obama care (it's amazing how many votes Harry Reid can buy with a few billion tax dollars), there is another showdown they actually have a chance of winning--providing, of course, they stick together and don't give in to compromise.
We refer to the looming battle over President Obama's plans to cut the nation's nuclear arsenal, part of a strategic arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia that is currently being negotiated. While final details have not been worked out, a "preliminary understanding" between the two countries promises to reduce operationally deployed nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675, a one-third cut from present levels.
And, the final deal may go even lower. According to Reuters, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an audience in Uzbekistan that the two nations are planning "radical cuts" in their stockpiles of nuclear warheads, suggesting that both sides may agree to even greater reductions.
The planned agreement will replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired in early December. That accord has been extended, as work on the treaty continues.
As we noted earlier this year, the arms treaty is a bad idea, for a number of reasons. First, it essentially grants nuclear parity to the Russians. Our strategic triad (land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers and ballistic missile submarines) is larger--and in some regards, more capable than its Russian counterpart, which fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Moscow's strategic forces are now essentially built around its modernized ICBM force, with lesser contributions from its nuclear capable bomber fleet, and SLBM force, which is a mere shadow of its former self.
Obviously, the U.S. will have to make greater cuts to reach the force levels mandated by the new treaty. We'll also predict that the new deal will target areas of U.S. strength (including our ballistic missile subs), reducing both the number of threats that the Russians have to account for. Reducing the number of missile boats will save Moscow billions in ASW and related naval programs, allowing that money to be re-directed to other efforts, including strategic modernization.
Did we mention that Russia has spent much of the last decade upgrading its ICBM force? The new SS-27 is deployed in both silo and mobile versions, and its far more accurate than anything Moscow has produced in the past. Tracking down the road-mobile variant of the SS-27 is a near-impossible task, even in an era of satellites, UAVs and real-time intelligence. That ensures survival of a Russian counter-force, missiles (and warheads) that could survive an initial nuclear exchange and deliver a second--or third--strike.
Meanwhile, our ICBM force consists of silo-based Minuteman III missiles, assigned to bases in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. The accuracy of those weapons has also improved over the past 20 years, but their location is anything but a state secret. If the missiles aren't used immediately in a Doomsday scenario, they are little more than sitting ducks. Additionally, our "newest" Minuteman IIIs were built in the 1970s, and as they age, the missiles are becoming more difficult to maintain.
Other elements of our nuclear weapons infrastructure are getting long in the tooth as well. We haven't designed--or built--a new warhead in more than 20 years. Many of the scientists who produced those weapons are reaching retirement age, and there's been little effort to replace their expertise. The research labs and production facilities responsible for nuclear warhead design and fabrication have also suffered from years of neglect, raising questions about our ability to quickly field new weapons, if the need arose.
That's where Senate Republicans enter the picture. Last week, all 40 GOP members of the Senate (plus Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut) sent a letter to Mr. Obama, reminding him that current defense authorization language links the a new START treaty to modernization of our own strategic arsenal. As a bloc, the 41 Senators could block the planned START agreement, which needs 67 votes for ratification. As Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported:
The 41 senators stated in the letter that they agree with the defense legislation's language that says modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear stockpile is critical to further U.S.-Russian arms cuts.
"In fact, we don't believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent," the senators stated.
A Republican Senate aide said the letter is intended to put the White House on notice that formal ratification of a new START accord must include specific plans and funding for upgrading U.S. nuclear weapons outlined in Section 1251 of the Democrat-drafted 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law by Mr. Obama on Oct. 28.
The senators stated that a bipartisan commission headed by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger first drew the linkage between proposed new arms cuts under START and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons.
The commission members "were unanimously alarmed by the serious disrepair and neglect they found [in the nuclear arsenal], and they made a series of recommendations to reverse this highly concerning situation," the letter says.
In their letter, the Senators call for life-extension upgrades to the B61 and W76 warheads; funding for a "modern warhead" that is easier to update, and replacements for aging uranium and plutonium plants.
Is the Obama Administration paying attention? So far, the answer seems to be "no." While the President has made strategic arms reduction a top priority, he has paid little attention to the nuclear modernization, despite pleas from the Perry-Schlesinger Commission, and the leader of U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton.
If the Senate Republicans hang together, they can greatly influence the future of our strategic forces. Mr. Obama wants a new START treaty as a "signature" accomplishment, but GOP Senators must be clear and resolute; any replacement agreement must not be a U.S. "giveaway," and any cuts in our arsenal must be linked to the modernization of the nuclear weapons that remain.
ADDENDUM: Russian negotiators are also trying to get the U.S. to cut missile defenses as part of the new accord. GOP Senators must also make it clear that such concessions are a non-starter, if President Obama wants a new arms deal.