Monday, August 02, 2010

Endorsing the "New" START

The recently-signed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia has picked up an important endorsement. In a letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fourteen former commanders of Strategic Air Command and U.S. Strategic Command expressed their support for the pact:

As former commanders of Strategic Air Command and U.S. Strategic Command, we collectively spent many years providing oversight, direction and maintenance of U.S. strategic nuclear forces and advising presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush on strategic nuclear policy. We are writing to express our support for ratification of the New START Treaty. The treaty will enhance American national security in several important ways.

First, while it was not possible at this time to address the important issues of non-strategic weapons and total strategic nuclear stockpiles, the New START Treaty sustains limits on deployed Russian strategic nuclear weapons that will allow the United States to continue to reduce its own deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Given the end of the Cold War, there is little concern today about the probability of a Russian nuclear attack. But continuing the formal strategic arms reduction process will contribute to a more productive and safer relationship with Russia.

Second, the New START Treaty contains verification and transparency measures—such as data exchanges, periodic data updates, notifications, unique identifiers on strategic systems, some access to telemetry and on-site inspections—that will give us important insights into Russian strategic nuclear forces and how they operate those forces. We will understand Russian strategic forces much better with the treaty than would be the case without it. For example, the treaty permits on-site inspections that will allow us to observe and confirm the number of warheads on individual Russian missiles; we cannot do that with just national technical means of verification. That kind of transparency will contribute to a more stable relationship between our two countries. It will also give us greater predictability about Russian strategic forces, so that we can make better-informed decisions about how we shape and operate our own forces.

To their credit, the retired generals and admirals acknowledge that treaty limits will force the U.S. to make deeper cuts than Russia. But despite these reductions, they believe the United States will still retain a "robust, survivable and effective nuclear deterrent," built (largely) on the capabilties of our ballistic missile submarine force. By comparison, our nuclear bomber force is both shrinking and aging, while our land-based ICBMs are located in fixed silos that can be easily targeted.

But is the new START accord really the "good deal" outlined by the former flag officers? Count us among the skeptics. A number of observers, including Henry Sokolski (Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center) and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have voiced serious misgivings about the treaty, and its language concerning missile defense, among other topics.

For example, the preamble of the new treaty appears to link strategic offensive weapons and missile defenses, which could limit future deployments of systems designed to protect us against ballistic missile attacks. Supporters of START claim the preamble is largely meaningless, but Russian officials have a different view. From their perspective, future U.S. BMD deployments would put us in violation of the treaty, giving them a pretext for abandoning it.

Having invested so much time and effort in negotiating the agreement, it's likely the Obama Administration would avoid antagonizing Moscow at virtually any cost. That doesn't bode well for the next generation of missile defenses.

And, as Mitt Romney observes, the new treaty contains some "fuzzy math" that seems to benefit Moscow as well. For example, the START accord treats each nuclear bomber as a single "weapon," no matter how many missiles or bombs it can carry. Did we mention that Russia is currently developing a new strategic bomber to supplement its (relatively) small number of TU-160 Blackjacks (roughly equivalent to a B-1 Lancer), and TU-95 Bears? Meanwhile, the U.S. has all-but-abandoned plans for a new long-range bomber, opting (instead) for a family of aircraft that will perform various elements of the mission.

But the flaws in the new START agreement don't end there. In an op-ed for the Washington Post (published last month) Governor Romney noted that the proposed treaty actually encourges Russia to place multiple re-entry vehicles on a single missile, since it removes the restrictions on MIRVs found in the old agreement. Indeed, the Russian press has reported that Moscow plans to retain as many warheads as possible, taking advantage of various loopholes and ambiguities in the new treaty.

So why are the retired generals and admirals ignoring these rather inconvenient facts? It all depends on your perspective. More than a few former flag officers, having spent decades in the nuclear business, develop a deep sense that arms reduction treaties are the only viable option for preventing a nuclear conflict. Others have their own agendas, believing that supporting the treaty might land them an appointment to a presidential commission, or perhaps an ambassadorship. Some of the former nuclear commanders may be hoping for another sort of quid pro quo, trying to persuade the administration to begin modernizing what's left of our nuclear arsenal, in exchange for their timely support for the accord.

Sadly, the prospects for that latter scenario are The President and his national security team are quite willing to sustain the degradation of our strategic forces. Nuclear-capable B-52s are expected to remain on the job until 2030, at which time the newest "Buffs" will be almost 80 years old. Likewise, our Minuteman III ICBMs are also projected to remain on alert for another two decades, long past their original retirement date. Additionally, there are no plans to design or build more modern nuclear warheads, or update the technical and intellectual infrastructure required to produce those weapons.

In other words, those retired generals and admirals have endorsed a bad deal for the United States, both now and in the future. Whatever we gain under the new START treaty is more than surpassed by what we give up, both in terms of present and future capabilities, including missile defense.

Too bad some of the legendary CINCSACs (like Curt LeMay) are no longer with us. That whirring noise you hear is General LeMay, rolling in his grave. If copies of the treaty are available in the Great Beyond, the man who built SAC into a global strike force must be shaking his head--at what we're willing to give up, and at the men who have put their reputations and credibility behind that so-called agreement.

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