New START: A Missile-Defense-Friendly Treaty

Volume 1, Number 31, November 16, 2010

One of the biggest ironies in the debate over ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is that critics use the agreement's treatment of missile defense as an excuse to oppose Senate approval. In reality, New START is conspicuous for its lack of significant constraints on strategic ballistic missile defenses. The Barack Obama administration's negotiation of a missile-defense-friendly-treaty is particularly remarkable considering that missile defense constraints appear to have been an important objective of the Russian negotiators.

Missile Defense Myths About New START

That this barking dog did not bite has not stopped some advocates of strategic missile defenses from complaining loudly about "unilateral constraints on missile defenses." Yet the only missile defense constraint of any kind is the treaty's Article V prohibition on converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers for use as launchers of missile defense interceptors. With regard to this provision, Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, has testified to Congress that retaining the silo conversion option was not sought by the United States because there were no plans to exercise it; if any new missile defense launchers were needed, they could be more quickly and less expensively acquired through the construction of new silos. None of the critics have explained how this provision limits U.S. missile defense options in the real world.  Moreover, Gen. O'Reilly told a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that: "The New START treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program [present in the 1991 START agreement]." START I prohibited the launch of missile defense target vehicles from airborne and waterborne platforms.

Some missile defense acolytes have also complained about New START's non-binding, preambular language recognizing the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms and that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced. Yet including this simple truism in the preamble did not lead to any numerical or qualitative limits on missile defenses in the treaty itself. Moreover, the preamble continues with the assertion that "current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties" - a striking acknowledgement by Russia that the 30 strategic ballistic missile interceptors currently deployed by the United States do not threaten Russia's strategic nuclear retaliatory capability.

A final complaint of critics stems from the unilateral "Statement of the Russian Federation Concerning Missile Defense." Following a practice used by both parties to past strategic arms treaties, Russia provided a formal warning that New START "may be effective and viable only in conditions where there is no qualitative or quantitative build-up in [U.S. missile defense system capabilities]" and that a build-up in U.S. missile defense capabilities that "would give rise to a threat to [Russia's strategic nuclear force potential]" is one of the "extraordinary events" mentioned in Article XIV of the treaty, which could prompt Russia to exercise its right of withdrawal.

In response to Russia's statement, the United States issued its own unilateral statement explaining that U.S. missile defenses "are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia," and that the United States intends "to continue improving and deploying its missile defense systems in order to defend itself against limited attack...." This language will undoubtedly provoke criticism in the Duma's consideration of the treaty, but is not expected to prevent ratification.

Put simply, New START would mandate verifiable reductions of Russian and U.S. strategic offensive nuclear forces without placing limits on strategic defensive forces. Moreover, the United States has made clear in its unilateral statement that the treaty would not prevent it from improving and deploying missile defense systems. The subsequent adoption of President Obama's Phased Adaptive Approach has provided a clear and logical conceptual roadmap for U.S. development and deployment of future missile defense systems in Europe during the treaty's duration. Obama's cancellation of plans for deploying unproven, strategic missile interceptors in Poland constituted a shift in emphasis to regional, non-strategic systems, more responsive to present and near-term missile threats from Iran. Russian civilian and military leaders have indicated that they do not feel threatened by U.S. theater missile defense systems based in Europe.

Missile Defense Politics vs. U.S. National Security

That the critics' line of argument is so contrary to the facts cries out for explanation. Most of these critics probably know full well that New START protects rather than jeopardizes U.S. missile defense options during the next decade. They realize that the treaty has broad support among present and former senior military and security officials. They should also understand that without New START in force, the U.S. intelligence community would not be able to predict with high confidence the status of Russia's nuclear forces, and both sides would be tempted to engage in more-costly force modernization and hedging strategies.

However, since missile defense programs are so popular in Congress, rallying to their defense is a convenient subterfuge. Spurious charges and snipe hunts for imaginary secret understandings between U.S. and Russian negotiators to curb missile defenses are useful excuses for delaying the Senate vote. Ideological opponents of arms control hope that likely Senate approval may be derailed by stalling a Senate vote until the 112th Congress convenes or by provoking a negative Russian reaction. Some missile defense enthusiasts worry that future compromises with Russia might limit U.S. programs. They find that withholding support for treaty approval now increases leverage with Congress to secure future budgets and to insert qualifying language in the Senate's resolution of approval, which builds firewalls against negotiating future limits on missile defenses.

There is a legitimate debate to be had over the chances of reconciling post-New START reductions in nuclear weapons with a build-up in U.S. strategic defenses at some point in the future. But the critics' distortion of New START as hostile to missile defense only raises suspicions that they fear an honest debate on the merits of this treaty and a frank discussion about the real opportunity costs of pursuing unconstrained strategic missile defenses in the future. - GREG THIELMANN