Move Ahead With New START

Daryl G. Kimball

The Senate will return this month for a postelection session that can and should be used to approve the modest but essential New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Failure to do so would further delay the re-establishment of an effective U.S.-Russian inspection and monitoring system, undermine U.S. nonproliferation leadership, and jeopardize U.S.-Russian cooperation, including joint efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

Just as earlier agreements negotiated by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did, New START would keep Washington and Moscow on track to reduce their arsenals by about 30 percent below current limits—to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on no more than 700 delivery vehicles. The United States would retain a large and modern nuclear force more than sufficient to deter nuclear attack by Russia or any other potential adversary.

Prompt ratification of New START is the only way to close the “verification gap” that has emerged since the original START expired on Dec. 5, 2009. New START would establish an updated system of information exchanges and enhanced on-site inspections that would provide more information on the status of Russian strategic forces than was available under START.

Without New START, each side would be tempted to engage in more-costly force modernization and hedging strategies. "If we don't get the treaty, [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and...we have no insight into what they're doing. So it's the worst of both possible worlds," Gen. Kevin Chilton, the commander of STRATCOM, said June 16.

New START skeptics have tried and failed to make their arguments stick. Claims that the treaty’s nonbinding language on the "interrelationship" between strategic offenses and defenses will limit U.S. missile defense options do not add up. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bluntly said May 18, "[T]he treaty will not constrain the United States from deploying the most effective missile defenses possible."

Some complain that New START does not reduce Russia’s tactical nuclear warhead levels, which have never been covered by a treaty. By design, New START addresses strategic nuclear weapons. It does not make sense to risk verifiable reduction in Russia’s long-range nuclear weapons by insisting that the policy for short-range weapons be settled now. New START lays the diplomatic foundation necessary for a future accord on tactical nuclear weapons reductions.

For these and other reasons, the overwhelming majority of former military leaders, including seven former U.S. strategic commanders, and national security leaders from past Republican and Democratic administrations judge New START to be in the U.S. national security interest.

Nevertheless, many Republican senators have withheld their support at the behest of Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who has threatened to block New START unless there is still more money flowing to the already well-funded U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure.

Earlier this year, the administration outlined an $80 billion, 10-year plan to modernize the weapons complex and continue to refurbish existing warhead types (a 15 percent increase over current levels). Its plan calls for spending another $100 billion over the same period to upgrade strategic nuclear delivery systems.

Obama’s $7 billion request for the weapons complex in fiscal year 2011 was 10 percent higher than it was in the final year of the George W. Bush administration. Linton Brooks, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Bush administration, said in April, "I'd have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration."

So far, the Obama administration has ensured its fiscal year 2011 budget request has not been cut by congressional appropriators. Congress must act before Dec. 3 to approve an extension of the federal budget. The New START resolution of advice and consent approved 14-4 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorses the 10-year plan to maintain the arsenal and delivery systems. However, if the Senate does not vote on New START before year’s end, the administration may not be able to protect the program from cuts.

But Kyl is apparently holding out for even more. He has suggested the fiscal year 2012 budget request should be higher to cover as yet undocumented cost overruns for two major construction projects: a uranium facility in Tennessee and a plutonium laboratory in New Mexico. He would like new multiyear cost estimates and guarantees they will be funded.

Enough is enough. If there are additional nuclear weapons program costs—or savings—down the road, the next Congress can adjust the budget. Senators of both parties should recognize that delaying approval of New START—and reconsideration of the Test Ban Treaty next year—would create uncertainty about U.S. nuclear policy and jeopardize the fragile political consensus to increase funding to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the years ahead.

U.S. national security is clearly stronger with New START than without it. It is time for the Senate to act.