Friday, November 19, 2010


Before jetting off to the NATO summit in Portugal, President Obama held a brief media "opportunity" at the White House. During a short Q&A with reporters, he made it clear that the new START treaty with Russia should be a priority for the lame duck session of Congress. "It's a matter of national security," he said.

But that may be the very reason to reject the accord. In an article posted earlier this week at National Review, Keith B. Payne and Tom Scheber note that the new START agreement provides plenty of opportunities for Russian chicanery:

The treaty’s force limits leave enormous opportunity for Russian circumvention, and, according to the open Russian press, they require only the United States to make reductions — not Russia as well. The treaty omits any limitation whatsoever on nuclear cruise missiles deployed on ships or submarines at a time when Russia apparently is moving forward with such weapons. And the Russian Duma committee responsible for treaties has just indicated that New START’s force ceilings do not apply to future Russian rail-mobile ICBMs. These are large loopholes indeed.

In addition, compared to those of its predecessor, the 1991 START, New START’s verification measures are extremely weak. Among many problems, it abandons the mobile-missile verification regime of START I, including the provision for continuous monitoring at final-assembly plants for Russian mobile missiles. It virtually guarantees that we will not get useful performance data from Russian ballistic-missile flight tests, leaving us with limited insight into the performance characteristics of new Russian weapons — including such basic items as range and warhead payload. It shifts much of the burden of verification to aged National Technical Means satellites and other sensors, and allows Russia’s deployed mobile missiles to be concealed. Several Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rightly concluded that “verification in this treaty is very weak.” Sen. Kit Bond (R., Mo.) observed, “This is one that turns President Reagan’s theory of trust but verify on its head. We will trust them even though we can’t verify it.”

Obviously, these are not minor flaws. Over the past 25 years, Russia's land-based ICBM force has largely shifted from silo-based systems, to road and rail-mobile missiles. Moscow's first rail-based system, the SS-24 Scalpel, was introduced in the early 80s and remained in service for 25 years. Tracking the missile trains across Russia's vast railway network proved to be extremely difficult.

We recall a conversation with a DIA analyst who worked the SS-24 problem. At one point, imagery analysts were pouring over winter images of Soviet rail lines, looking for distinctive "snow melt" patterns that might have been produced by the missile trains. From what we gathered, a distinctive signature was never developed, and tracking the trains remained a near-impossible task. Now, if those Russian legislators are correct, future START ceilings won't apply to the next-generation of rail-mobile missiles, which will be equally difficult to keep tabs on.

Concerns about Moscow's newest land-mobile missiles are even more problematic. As Payne and Scheber observe, it will be difficult to gain useful intelligence on those systems without continuous inspections at the final assembly plant, and without full access to telemetry data. Yet, the Obama Administration is willing to accept these glaring weaknesses and press ahead with the agreement. From their perspective, U.S. weapons are as much a problem as the Russian arsenal, and the White House will go along with anything that mandates major cuts in the nuclear stockpile.

Indeed, the folly of this approach is evident in some of the tactics being used to "sell" the treaty. Earlier today, administration officials warned that without a new START agreement, some of our intelligence satellites might have to be diverted to Russian missile targets, reducing support for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that explanation has a couple of problems; first, as U.S. involvement in those conflicts wanes, there will be less tasking for overhead platforms.

Additionally, it's worth remembering that some overhead sensors have less value in tracking terrorists and other targets associated with a low-intensity conflict. So, we not sure how much support will be lost, particularly with more UAVs on-orbit in theater, and a wider array of sensor packages for those aircraft.

Truth be told, the new START is less about a cogent national security policy, and more about Mr. Obama's crusade to rid the world of nukes, with less regard for the strategic consequences. And did we mention that he's anxious to get any accomplishment on his resume, particularly after that recent "shellacking" at the polls?


Vigilis said...

"Truth be told, the new START is less about a cogent national security policy, and more about Mr. Obama's crusade to rid the world of nukes..."

There are much better places in which to begin ridding the world of nukes, including the DPRK and Pakistan.

Exactly how does any world body convince a state to give up or forgo (i.e. Iran) a nuclear arsenal when the rewards for having them have been as high as a seat on the U.N. Security Council?

More likely President Obama's goal is to lower the U.S. military's premiere status to average, along lines that parallel his equally unclear goals for our contracting economy and reduced living standard.

Thomas Friedman outlined the rationale for lowered U.S. living standards in his revealing, but illogical, November 17, 2009, NYT - "What They Really Believe" OP-ED piece, analyzed here.

J.R. said...

Next generation of rail-mobile missiles? You're joking, right? The SS-25, SS-27, and their newest ICBM are all road-mobile. The Russians chose to dismantle the SS-24 as well as dozens of their SS-18s (MIRVed silo systems, the most destabilizing) because the rail mobile systems were unreliable resource hogs.

I agree that the absence of portal monitoring is problematic, but the choice is not "New START or something stronger," but rather "New START or no START". Whatever your concerns about the weakness of the verification, the arguments go double or triple for no verification at all.