Administration Pushes to Finish “New START”

Tom Z. Collina

U.S. and Russian negotiators are set to meet this month as part of an effort to wrap up negotiations by December on a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, administration officials said recently.

But even if the two sides meet that timetable, there is a strong possibility, according to many observers, that the new treaty will not be in force before the current START expires Dec. 5 because the Senate would have to consider and approve it. The administration officials said they are making plans for that contingency.

In the Senate, the expected submittal of the treaty, which the Department of State has designated “New START,” is already stirring debate. In a July 23 letter to President Barack Obama, a bipartisan group of senators said the pact should be accompanied by a 10-year budget assessment for maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller said the administration was putting “the pedal to the metal” to finish negotiations on the new treaty. However, in Aug. 14 comments at a U.S. Air Force-sponsored conference in Willliamsburg, Va., she also said the administration was looking into the legal options for dealing with a potential gap between the Dec. 5 expiration of the current START and New START’s entry into force.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Michael Nacht told a House Armed Services Committee hearing July 15 that he expects the new treaty to be ratified by the Senate “some time by the spring of 2010.” He said he based his prediction on the opinion of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the ratification process might take four months from when the treaty is submitted.

The Pentagon says it will work with Congress to find a way to extend START to ensure continuity of verification and transparency measures. According to Nacht, “[W]e would seek an extension from the Congress to continue [START] while the [New START] ratification process goes forward.”

In an Aug. 4 telephone conversation, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reaffirmed their commitment to concluding a new strategic arms reduction treaty by December, according to Ria Novosti.

During their phone call, Medvedev and Obama “agreed to give additional instructions to experts on intensifying work, to reach a constructive decision by December” on replacing START, RIA Novosti said.

Russian and U.S. experts met July 22-24 in Geneva for the latest round of talks on the new treaty. The sides agreed to hold the next round of negotiations in early September, according to RIA Novosti.

At their July 6 summit in Moscow, Medvedev and Obama signed an agreement outlining the provisions of New START, including reducing their countries’ deployed strategic arsenals to 1,500-1,675 warheads and 500-1,100 delivery vehicles. These new arsenal limits represent a drop from existing treaty commitments under the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) and START (see table 1). Gottemoeller said in her prepared remarks for the Williamsburg conference, “These ranges will be narrowed through further negotiation – they are not the final numbers for the Treaty.”

The final numbers will be determined in part by how the weapons are counted. Under START counting rules, Russia had approximately 3,900 strategic warheads and 800 delivery vehicles as of January 2009. The United States had more than 5,500 strategic warheads and approximately 1,200 delivery vehicles. However, rather than counting actual warheads, START counts delivery vehicles that have “accountable” numbers of warheads associated with them. (Delivery vehicles can be more easily seen than warheads by military satellites.) For example, each Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile is counted as eight warheads, its maximum loading when the treaty was signed, but in fact the United States now loads Tridents with only four warheads on average. Similarly, Minuteman III ICBMs are counted as having three warheads under START, but in fact carry only one or two. Nuclear delivery systems that have been converted for use on conventional missions are still counted as well.

As a result, START counting rules report hundreds more “deployed” warheads and delivery vehicles than each side actually has. Under SORT, which limits but does not verify “operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads,” the State Department announced that, as of May, the United States had reduced its stockpile to 2,126 such warheads, thus meeting the limits (2,200 by 2012) of the treaty three and a half years early. Although the real numbers are classified, independent estimates published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are that the United States has approximately 800 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and Russia has slightly fewer than 2,800 strategic warheads and 620 delivery vehicles.

If the counting rules for New START can be reformed to eliminate these “phantom” weapons, then the upper limits could be brought down. For example, the New START upper limit of 1,100 delivery vehicles may be revisited given that the United States and Russia each are estimated to have 800 or fewer today.

Missile Defense in the Mix

In addition to outlining targets for New START, at the Moscow summit Medvedev and Obama discussed missile defense and issued a joint statement in which they declared, “We have instructed our experts to work together to analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century and to prepare appropriate recommendations, giving priority to the use of political and diplomatic methods.” In particular, the two presidents said their experts were “intensifying dialogue on establishing the JointDataExchangeCenter.” Medvedev and Obama said they hoped the center would become the basis for a multilateral missile launch notification regime.

On missile defense, the Obama administration finds itself squeezed between Moscow and congressional Republicans. Russia is concerned about plans originated during the George W. Bush administration to deploy 10 missile defense interceptors in Poland, an X-band radar in the CzechRepublic, and a mobile radar at a still-to-be-determined location in Europe. An August Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, requested by Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Tim Johnson (S.D.), and Robert Byrd (W. Va.), found that the Department of Defense’s projected military construction costs for the interceptor and radar sites are too low and could potentially increase from the department’s original $837 million estimate to more than $1 billion. As a result, the GAO report said, “Congress does not have accurate information on the full investment required for ballistic missile defenses in Europe.”

In response to cost and schedule concerns, missile defense contractor Boeing suggested last month at a missile defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., that European interceptors could be based on mobile launchers rather than in fixed silos, according to a Reuters report. This plan would allow interceptors to be deployed by 2015, Boeing said, before Iran develops a long-range missile capability.

In an Aug. 26 e-mail, a Boeing official said there has been “general discussion about potential alternatives for European missile defense.” Boeing officials “believe it’s an option that is lower risk, more affordable and can be fielded more quickly than other potential options,” he said.

Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Huntsville conference that Washington has made “a couple of bad decisions” in its missile defense strategy, according to Reuters. The United States has assumed that “the emergence of the intercontinental ballistic missile threat would come much faster than it did” from countries such as Iran and North Korea, and “the reality is that it has not come as fast as we thought it would come,” he said.

The administration’s missile defense plans are on hold while it conducts a policy review. Peppi DeBiaso, director of missile defense policy in the Pentagon, told the Williamsburg conference that the issue of European deployment has been separated from the larger review, which is not expected until early next year, so that it can be accelerated. Obama has said that the Europe portion of the review will be done by the end of the summer.

Missile defense supporters in Congress are concerned that Obama might shelve plans for the European deployment in exchange for Russian support of New START. Fueling these concerns is a section of the Joint Understanding from the Medvedev-Obama summit saying the New START will include “a provision on the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms.” In a Senate floor speech July 10, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the statement “is a dangerous connection to make and one the administration must not negotiate.”

Pressing his point, Kyl offered an amendment to the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill, almost identical to a Republican amendment in the House bill offered by Rep. Michael Turner (Ohio), that would have barred spending to implement New START unless the treaty, among other things, placed no limitations on missile defense, space capabilities, or advanced conventional weapons and fully funded modernization and refurbishment of U.S. nuclear weapons and the weapons production complex.

Senate Democratic leaders worked with Kyl to moderate his amendment in exchange for a joint letter by a bipartisan group of senators, including Kyl, John Kerry (D-Mass.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Lugar, Byrd, and John McCain (R-Ariz.), to the White House stating, in its entirety:

We believe that when the START treaty is submitted, you should also submit a plan, including a funding estimate for [fiscal year 2011] (and out years across the next decade), to enhance the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, to modernize the nuclear weapons, modernize the infrastructure, maintain the key capabilities and competencies of the nuclear weapons workforce (the designers and the technicians), and to maintain the delivery platforms.

The Senate subsequently passed a revised Kyl amendment that would require the administration to give lawmakers the information described in the letter. “The Senate decided wisely not to adopt the House approach of trying to bar U.S. compliance with a treaty before the treaty has even been negotiated,” Kerry said on the Senate floor July 29.

The administration has maintained all along that New START is unrelated to missile defenses. According to remarks by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher at a conference hosted by U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha July 30, Obama and Medvedev “agreed that missile defenses will not be part of these negotiations, even while recognizing that there is an inherent link between offenses and defenses, something first recognized by the Nixon administration in 1972. The New START Treaty is about offensive arms.”

Jousting Over CTBT

Kyl, a longtime opponent of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), appeared to be using his amendment on START to raise doubts about the test ban. In response, Kerry, a CTBT supporter, said on the Senate floor that the administration should see the requirement laid out in the bipartisan letter “not as a burden, but as an opportunity.” To win Senate ratification of the CTBT, he said, “[m]embers will have to be convinced that the executive branch is prepared to sustain our nuclear deterrence by maintaining a stockpile of safe, secure, and reliable nuclear weapons, without resorting to nuclear testing.”

The challenge of maintaining confidence in the shrinking U.S. arsenal without nuclear testing reportedly also is creating friction within the Obama administration. At a high-level meeting in June, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly sought to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program as a way to maintain a reduced arsenal but was opposed by Vice President Joe Biden on nonproliferation grounds, according to an Aug. 18 report by Global Security Newswire.

Gates has long been of the view that building new replacement warheads rather than refurbishing warheads will be necessary to maintain the arsenal’s viability. Biden objected on the grounds that replacement warheads would create the perception that the administration was modernizing its nuclear arsenal and thereby undermine Obama’s nonproliferation agenda, particularly its efforts regarding Iran and North Korea, the newswire said.

A spring 2010 Senate ratification vote on New START would not leave much time to seek ratification of the CTBT before the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May.

Former Republican presidential nominee McCain recently indicated openness to the CTBT. McCain, who opposed the treaty in 1999, told the Associated Press (AP) July 22, “The devil is in the details. If we could get it done, if it is acceptable, then it is a step forward on the path to the president’s goal and mine of a nuclear free world.”

AP also reported that Lugar, who opposed the CTBT in 1999 as well, is now undecided. Lugar said he does not want an acrimonious CTBT debate to sap support for the New START or weaken the U.S. position at the May NPT conference, AP said. “I would postpone consideration” of the CTBT to avoid that situation, Lugar told AP.

A Senate vote on the CTBT has not been scheduled.

Table 1: Treaty Limits on U.S. and Russian Strategic Nuclear Arsenals

The chart below shows the treaty limits for U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals under the 1994 START, the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), and the prospective New START. START warhead limits (6,000) have been superseded by SORT warhead limits (2,200). START delivery vehicle limits (1,600) are still operable. New START limits are subject to change. Both sides retain thousands of additional weapons in reserve or awaiting dismantlement.



New START Target range


Strategic Delivery Vehicles

1,600 NA 1,100 or fewer 500, or 31%

Strategic Warheads

6,000 2,200 1,675 or fewer 525, or 24%

Sources: Department of State, White House.