Key Panel Plans August Vote on New START

Tom Z. Collina

Seeking to finish its work by the August recess, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held five hearings on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in June.

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing as well, its first since the treaty was transmitted to the Senate May 13.

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and ranking member Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said in a June 10 statement they plan to hold a committee vote on New START “prior to the August recess,” which is scheduled to begin Aug. 9. Kerry said he and Lugar were “confident that our colleagues from both sides of the aisle will join us in supporting the treaty to strengthen our national security.”

The committee is unlikely to hold its vote until the U.S. intelligence community delivers a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ability of New START’s monitoring and verification provisions to detect possible treaty violations. Administration sources say this NIE and two other required Department of State reports should be completed by early July. The panel has announced plans to hold a closed hearing with an unnamed “senior intelligence community official” that month.

To date, Lugar is the sole Republican senator to endorse New START publicly. Republican senators James Inhofe (Okla.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), who both sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, have said they would oppose it. The committee has 11 Democrats and eight Republicans.

Sending a treaty out of committee to the full Senate requires only a simple majority. That step of the process is therefore not in doubt for New START, but administration sources say they would like to attract Republican votes on the committee beyond Lugar’s to show significant bipartisan support before the treaty gets to the Senate floor, where a two-thirds majority is needed for approval. Obama administration officials have said they hope to schedule the floor vote before the November elections, possibly before the August recess, but no date has been set.

After meeting at the White House with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev June 24, President Barack Obama said at a press conference that they had “reaffirmed our commitment to work to ratify [New START] as soon as possible so it can enter into force and set the stage for further cuts and cooperation.”

On June 10, the Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony favoring the treaty from retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Stephen J. Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush. In response to a question, Scowcroft said that if the treaty were rejected by the Senate, the result “would be to throw the whole nuclear negotiating situation into a state of chaos.” Hadley said that New START makes a “modest but nonetheless useful contribution to the national security of the United States and to international stability.”

Several other senior former national security officials from Republican administrations, including former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, have testified in support of New START. Frank Carlucci and George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense and secretary of state, respectively, endorsed the treaty in a joint statement with a bipartisan group of 28 other former officials released June 24 by the Partnership for a Secure America. Other endorsers included Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, and former Republican senators Howard Baker (Tenn.), John C. Danforth (Mo.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Nancy Kassebaum-Baker (Kan.), Warren Rudman (N.H.), and Alan Simpson (Wyo.).

In contrast, sitting Republican senators other than Lugar, Inhofe, and DeMint are taking a wait-and-see approach while asking pointed questions, primarily about how New START relates to missile defense and the modernization of the nuclear stockpile and weapons complex.

McCain Joins Missile Defense Fray

Republican senators continued to question administration and outside witnesses about why New START includes legally binding language that relates to missile defense and what it means for the future of U.S. missile defense programs. At the June 17 Armed Services Committee hearing, ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is up for re-election and is facing a primary challenge from the conservative wing of his party, asked why Article V of New START prohibits the conversion of offensive missile silos into missile defense silos, and vice versa, given that administration witnesses have testified that they have no plans to carry out such conversions in any case.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton replied that the Russians were concerned that U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos that are no longer operational, of which there are about 100, would be converted for use by missile defense interceptors, “and we said no, we had no intention of continuing with the conversion.” Five ICBM silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California were converted during the George W. Bush administration for missile defense use.

“It seemed to us to be a smart negotiating decision to put something in that, frankly, we never intended to pursue,” Clinton said.

As to why the five ICBM silos at Vandenberg had been converted in the first place, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly testified before the Foreign Relations Committee June 16 that the United States began converting these silos to launch ground-based interceptors in 2002 because the MDA had not yet developed a silo for them. The United States was prohibited from fielding a nationwide missile defense system until it withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, also in 2002. “Since then, we have developed the [ground-based interceptor] silo that cost $20 million less than converting ICBM silos and is easier to protect and maintain,” O’Reilly said. Moreover, converting submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers into missile defense interceptor launchers would entail the “modification of submarines to carry missile defense interceptors [which] would be very expensive and impractical,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified June 17 that the use of missile silos for more than one purpose could be destabilizing by creating confusion on the part of U.S. adversaries. As in the case of the Prompt Global Strike initiative, for which the United States could deploy conventional warheads on strategic missiles that previously carried only nuclear weapons, Gates said, “Any of these things that are confusing [to] a party on the other side, I think needs to be dealt with very carefully.”

McCain also questioned the wisdom of the treaty’s preamble, which, like the preamble to START I, acknowledges the interrelationship between strategic offensive and defensive forces. McCain said he needs “to be confident that the treaty in no way limits the administration’s ability and willingness to deploy missile defense capabilities, regardless of the statements made by the Russian government.” During an April 9 interview, McCain quoted Medvedev’s remarks, in which he referred to the preamble’s language on missile defense and said, “[I]f these circumstances will change, then we would consider it a reason to jeopardize the whole agreement.”

McCain argued that “it’s clear from many statements that Russian leadership has made that there is a very different interpretation of this treaty from what has been stated here concerning the connection to missile defense systems.” Numerous Republican senators have voiced the concern that the Obama administration would be self-deterred from deploying missiles defenses that might prompt Russian withdrawal from New START.

Clinton replied that Medvedev said in the same interview, in reference to the preamble, “That doesn’t mean that because of this, if the American side starts to build up the missile defense [system], that the treaty would automatically lose its power.” Medvedev also said, “I would like to make sure that there is no impression that any change in the U.S. missile defense system would be a reason to abandon a signed agreement.”

At the June 17 hearing, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) noted that the United States is currently planning to deploy the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIB ballistic missile defense interceptor in Europe in the 2020 time frame, which is intended to defend against missile launches from the Middle East, and that this missile will have an ICBM intercept capability. As a result, Chambliss said, the SM-3 Block IIB could provoke a Russian withdrawal from the treaty. “[A]ssuming that you were in your current position when that decision needed to be made, would you recommend the United States deploy this system regardless of the Russian response?” Chambliss asked Gates.

Gates said he would recommend deployment. “[T]he SM-3 Block IIB would give us the ability to protect our troops, our bases, our facilities, and our allies in Europe. So for all those reasons, that would be my recommendation if, God forbid, I were still in this job 10 years from now.”

Russian officials have long said they fear that a U.S. missile defense system in Europe could be used to intercept Russian long-range missiles aimed at the United States or even used to launch nuclear warheads at Russia from close range. O’Reilly said June 16 that SM-3 interceptors pose no threat to Russia because they do not have the size and range to reach Russian strategic missile fields. Even if Russia flew a missile within range of SM-3 interceptors, “given the time we would see the missiles and the velocity of their much larger strategic missiles and our smaller ones, we would not be able to catch up with those missiles in order to have an intercept,” he said.

Republican senators have asked why U.S. missile defenses are geared toward “rogue” threats, such as a limited number of missiles from Iran and North Korea, and not the larger Russian strategic missile force. Gates said June 17 that building a “missile shield of the kind envisioned in the 1980s is technologically unfeasible, cost prohibitive, and destabilizing. Therefore, we have no plans to do so.”

As to why a defense against massive Russian attack would be cost prohibitive, O’Reilly said June 16 that defense doctrines require two to four missile defense interceptors to be launched at each target. According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Russia plans to maintain more than 1,000 warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs under New START. Given current U.S. plans to protect the United States against limited missile attack using 30 deployed missile defense interceptors in Alaska and California, “a tremendously larger inventory of interceptors would be needed [to defend against a Russian attack], and the command and control sensor and fire control would be tremendously more complex than what we’re developing today,” O’Reilly said. The United States currently spends about $10 billion per year on missile defense.

Skepticism on Modernization Funding

As part of the administration’s transmittal of New START to the Senate, section 1251 of the fiscal year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act required a report on the plan for modernizing the nuclear weapons complex and upgrading nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. A public summary of the classified report states that the administration plans to invest $80 billion over the next decade in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) nuclear stockpile and weapons complex budget and “well over” $100 billion in the Pentagon’s nuclear delivery systems.

At the Armed Services Committee hearing, McCain said he was “skeptical that the 10-year funding plan for NNSA adequately addresses the recapitalization needs of the weapons complex.” The $80 billion “is certainly a substantial sum,” but “only a fraction of that amount is actually above what would be allocated simply to sustain the current stockpile,” he said.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), also up for re-election and whose state borders strategic missile and bomber bases in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, said that, of the $100 billion for delivery systems, about $30 billion would go to development and acquisition of a new strategic submarine. He cited estimates by U.S. Strategic Command putting the cost of maintaining the current nuclear force at approximately $5.6 billion per year, or about $56 billion over the decade. “That leaves roughly $14 billion of the $100 billion the administration intends to invest—even less if you factor in inflation. That $14 billion is not nearly sufficient to develop and acquire a next-generation bomber, a follow-on ICBM, a follow-on air-launched cruise missile, and develop a conventional prompt global strike capability,” Thune said.

Gates replied that decisions have not yet been made on how the administration is going to modernize the long-range bomber force or the ICBM force. “We are in the process,” said Gates. “We have money in the budget for a new nuclear reactor for the Navy for the next-generation nuclear submarine. So we are on track in that particular area of modernization.”

Gates added, “I’ve been up here for the last four springs trying to get money for this, and this is the first time, I think, I’ve got a fair shot of actually getting money for our nuclear arsenal.”

Rail-Mobile Missiles Covered

Some critics of New START have said that if Moscow were to build rail-mobile ICBMs, such as the now-retired Russian SS-24, those missiles might not count under treaty limits because they are not specifically mentioned in the text. James Miller, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, testified June 16 that the treaty’s central terms and definitions cover all ICBMs and ICBM launchers, “which would therefore include any rail-mobile systems.” If Russia were to deploy rail-mobile ICBMs in the future, the launchers, the ICBMs, and the warheads would be accountable under New START, he said.

At the June 10 hearing, Hadley also raised concerns about rail-mobile missiles, but after an exchange with Kerry, he agreed that “the way out of this” is to “emphasize the breadth of that language that would seem to catch any launcher even if it was on a rail platform.”

Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the George W. Bush administration, testified June 24, “To me, it is inconceivable that, should Russia again deploy rail-mobile ICBMs, they would not be counted under the treaty’s launcher and warhead limits.” Even so, he suggested that the Senate should ensure “that there is no room for ambiguity” by amending the treaty or exchanging formal notes with Moscow.

The Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees plan to hold additional hearings in July, with testimony from the directors of the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories; START I negotiators Ronald F. Lehman II and Linton F. Brooks; members of the JASON group of defense consultants to the government; and members of the intelligence community.