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June 2, 2022
Classified Session to Discuss New START: What Will Senators Likely Learn?

Arms Control NOW

By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association

The U.S. Senate will meet today in the historic Old Senate Chamber for a classified session on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. While we do not know exactly what will be discussed or what will be said, open testimony and statements from senior U.S. military leaders and intelligence officials suggest that the following points—all of which argue for prompt ratification—will be discussed and reviewed.

Verification and Monitoring

-- The classified session will likely make clear why senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials conclude that New START verification provisions will allow for effective monitoring of the treaty limits. This means that no militarily significant cheating would be possible without detection, and given the superior ability of U.S. strategic force structure to respond to break-out, the Russians have a strong incentive to comply with the New START limitations.

-- The classified session will explain why national technical means (such as satellites) must be complemented by the treaty-specified inspections of Russian facilities in order to achieve high confidence assessments of Russia's strategic forces.

-- The classified session will reveal that without implementation of the verification procedures of New START, national technical assets will have to be diverted from other critical missions, but that, even so, they will not be able to compensate for the information that would have been gained from on-site inspections.

-- The classified session will likely warn that U.S. confidence in estimates of Russian strategic capabilities is deteriorating with every passing day that on-the-ground, on-site inspections are absent. It has been more than one year since U.S. inspectors were last able to conduct on-site inspections of Russian strategic nuclear assets.

The Adequacy and Effectiveness of U.S. Nuclear Forces

-- The classified session should help Senators understand that New START allows the United States to retain a highly-capable, devastating, and modern nuclear force that is more than capable of deterring or responding to any potential adversary. As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Nov. 11 that New START would leave the United States with nuclear forces that are "more than enough for us to handle our military responsibilities." Besides Russia, the United States' only other potential nuclear competitor is China, which has fewer than 50 nuclear warheads on long-range missiles.

-- The classified session should underscore that the Obama administration's $85 billion, ten-year plan for maintaining the existing nuclear arsenal without nuclear test explosions is more than adequate. The directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories wrote Dec. 1 that they are "very pleased" with the recently updated plan to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile and modernize the weapons complex. Lawrence Livermore director Dr. George Miller, Los Alamos director Dr. Michael Anastasio, and Sandia director Dr. Paul Hommert wrote that the increased funding plan released in November provides "adequate support" to sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The Future of U.S.-Russian Relations and Cooperation on Issues of Common Concern

-- The classified session should make clear that potential Senate rejection or alteration of New START could lead to a severe deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. The negative consequences could include: withdrawal of permission to move U.S. supplies for Afghanistan-based forces through Russia; withdrawal of Russian support for the implementation of tough sanctions on Iran for its ongoing nuclear program; disruption of Comprehensive Threat Reduction activities involving Russia; and the elimination of any prospect for negotiating further limits on Russian nuclear weapons, including tactical warheads.

Impact on U.S. Global Leadership

-- The classified session may also underscore the impact of rejecting New START on U.S. leadership on a variety of international issues. U.S. allies and most countries in the world not only favor ratification of the treaty, but regard the reductions regime it contains as serving the interests of international stability.

-- Without New START, the United States (and Russia) will not be able to argue convincingly that they are fulfilling their obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to move toward nuclear disarmament, thus weakening efforts to contain the nuclear weapons programs of states of proliferation concern.

Bottom Line

The public and the classified discussion should make it clear why U.S. military and intelligence leaders and former U.S. national security experts—Republicans and Democrats alike—are all calling on the Senate to promptly provide its advice and consent for New START.
Speaking about New START ratification, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Nov. 16: "I think the earlier, the sooner, the better. You know, my thing is, from an intelligence perspective only, are we better off with it or without it? We're better off with it."
Greg Thielmann most recently served as a senior professional staffer of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Prior to joining the SSCI in 2005, he was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for 25 years, last serving as Director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office in the Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.