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Joint Chiefs of Staff 'Uncomfortable' With Start III Reductions Below 2,000-2,500
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Philipp C. Bleek

Further complicating the Clinton administration's already tenuous negotiating position at the June 3-5 Moscow summit, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) appeared to reject START III reductions below 2,000-2,500 deployed strategic warheads. The chiefs' testimony, presented at a May 23 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, represents their first public statement on the issue and appears to deprive the administration of one of its few bargaining chips to induce Russian agreement to modify the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

In recent months, Russian officials have repeatedly called for START III cuts to 1,500 warheads, a level below the 2,000-2,500 warhead ceiling agreed to by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997. Due largely to fiscal constraints, the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal is declining—deeper negotiated reductions represent Russia's only chance at reducing anticipated disparities between the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals. For its part, the administration is seeking Russian agreement to amend the 1972 ABM Treaty to facilitate deployment of a limited national missile defense, which Russia fears may threaten its nuclear deterrent.

Senator John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called the hearing in an apparent attempt to preempt administration agreement to deeper START III cuts at the Moscow summit. The JCS and the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Richard Mies, had discussed the issue of deeper reductions at a closed Pentagon meeting May 10 at which Mies reportedly rejected reductions below 2,000-2,500. Mies' comments were subsequently leaked to The Washington Times and printed in a May 11 story.

At the hearing, several members of the JCS expressed concern about prospective deeper reductions, particularly in the absence of a substantive review of the issue. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson stated that he was "quite uncomfortable going outside the Helsinki framework without the requisite analysis on a subject of such major strategic importance." The chiefs also emphasized that they had not yet been tasked with a comprehensive evaluation of reductions below the Helsinki levels, despite the fact that Russia has been calling for deeper START III reductions for several years.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton summed up the unanimous position of the chiefs when he said, "The chiefs favor additional negotiated reduction in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. The chiefs support…the START III framework adopted at Helsinki." The 2,000-2,500 level was approved by the chiefs in 1997 after thorough analysis.

Representing the administration at the Senate hearing, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe responded to the chiefs' comments by emphasizing the administration's support for the Helsinki levels and noting that before lower numbers were put on the table, "We would certainly do the analysis." Administration spokesmen have echoed Slocombe's comments in recent weeks.

Substantive analysis would take time to conduct. The 1994 nuclear posture review, for example, extended more than a year. Consequently, while the administration may still discuss deeper START III cuts with Russia, an agreement on 1,500 warheads seems unlikely before the end of Clinton's term.

Posted: June 1, 2000