Looking for a New START

Originally published here.

Last week, in the midst of the tense Copenhagen climate conference negotiations, brief news stories began to surface regarding an impending meeting between Presidents Obama and Medvedev. It wasn’t to be just any meeting: after nearly a year of complicated negotiations in Geneva between Russian and American diplomats, as well as several well-publicized meetings between Obama and Medvedev, the two world leaders are now dealing with the fact that they failed to reach an agreement on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by the December 5 expiration date.

Regardless of the rumors that flew ahead of their Copenhagen meeting, Obama and Medvedev did not sign a new treaty; they issued a rather generic statement basically saying that negotiations are down to the wire, that they are “quite close to an agreement,” and that “there are certain technical details… which require further work…”.

Progress, Difficulties with New START

I wanted to get a better idea of what might be holding things up, and what we’ll be facing in the future with regards to Senate ratification of the New START treaty. With respect to the latter, it appears that the Senate Republicans might be laying the groundwork to make treaty ratification more complicated that it should be.

With these questions in mind, I contacted Kingston Reif, the Deputy Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Regarding when there will actually be a treaty, Reif and I discussed how the news reports made it hard to predict. He said:

I’ve seen a lot of different reports, saying different things, in both the Russian press and the US press, to the point where I’m hesitant to predict anything on this anymore. It’s become pretty difficult to do that.

It’s not going to be this year anymore. It might extend well into January or even February. The U.S. and Russian negotiating teams are heading home for the holidays. They’re not going to start up again until January.

When I asked him what he thought the main hold-up was (specifically, regarding verification), he emphasized that he thought verification was the main issue, as well as the “issue of mobile missiles”. Specifically:

My understanding is that we have agreed to shut down our monitoring at Votkinsk, and that’s not going to be in the new treaty. Perhaps the US is still trying to convince the Russians otherwise. The Russians may also be trying to convince the US that since the US doesn’t have mobile ICBMS — all our ICBMS are at three bases in the western portion of the country, they don’t move, they’re silo-based missiles, whereas the Russians still have mobile missiles that they might want some means of verification for those that is simpler than the provisions were for mobile missiles in START I, so they may be trying to push the US on that.

I think another issue that’s a point of contention is the issue of telemetry. START I requires that neither side encrypt telemetry information about their ballistic missile tests. The Russians are claiming “you guys are not building new missiles, whereas we are, so it’s one-sided that we have to reveal information from those launches, whereas you don’t, because you’re not building new missiles.

And then finally, I think both Obama and Medvedev have stated that this new treaty is going to limit both delivery vehicles and warheads. The US preference, obviously, is to not follow the START rule of “attributing” a specific number of warheads to delivery vehicles, no matter how many warheads those delivery vehicles actually carry. The US just wants to be able to count the actual number of warheads that it has on its delivery systems, because we’ve downloaded a lot of warheads from our specific missiles and bombers, such that they don’t carry the maximum number of warheads they could carry. We’ve also converted some subs and bombers to conventional-only missions. So, trying to work through how, exactly, you verify the actual number of warheads, if you don’t have an attribution rule could potentially be difficult.

I think those are some issues that could be holding things up. And it’s interesting to note that the Russians seem to be saying some of the same things about verification that the Bush administration was saying back in 2002 and 2003. The Bush administration kept telling the Russians that we don’t care how you structure your forces, we don’t care about Votkinsk, we don’t care if you build new missiles, if we’re going to have verification provisions at all, they should be much simpler, etc. So the Russians seem to be still clinging to that view.

One thing that I hope the lay person can see at this point is why it isn’t surprising that Obama and Medvedev couldn’t just whip out their pens and sign a treaty in Copehagen. It can’t be emphasized enough how complex the negotiations have been. Yes, it’s a disappointment that they missed the deadline, but it’s also not unexpected; part of the problem is that the George W. Bush administration was not interested in negotiating a treaty to replace START I, as I’ve explained in a previous post.

Looking To The Future: Senate Ratification

Now, the big question is: once we have a new START treaty, what hurdles will it face when it comes to ratification by the US Senate?

Last week, we got a hint of what’s to come, from a Washington Times article:

All 40 Republican senators and one independent wrote to President Obama on Wednesday reminding him that the current defense authorization law links modernization of the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal to further U.S.-Russian arms reductions.

The law applies to the not-yet-finished successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired on Dec. 16.

The 41 senators – enough to block formal ratification of a new treaty, which requires 67 votes – stated in the letter that they agree with the defense legislation’s language that says modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear stockpile is critical to further U.S.-Russian arms cuts.

“In fact, we don’t believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent,” the senators stated.

I’ve seen a copy of the letter; not surprisingly, Joe Lieberman is the Independent to whom the article refers.

“We need new warheads” has been a recurring theme from the GOP side of the fence, especially from Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona. I asked Kingston Reif about the letter sent to Obama, specifically if its reference to the defense bill was accurate. Reif told me:

First, as you alluded to, Kyl is misconstruing what the Defense Authorization language actually says. Now, the section of the Defense Authorization bill that deals with this so-called linkage, it does require a plan to “modernize” the nuclear weapons complex, but it does not say anything about modernization in the context of the nuclear arsenal, or the nuclear deterrent, which is what this letter does.

So, as you hinted, it’s important to note that there’s no requirement in the bill that the president must deliver a plan to design and build new nuclear warheads, period. It’s just not in there.

The relevant section of the Defense Authorization Act is here. Note that there’s nothing about a new plutonium pit facility, either.

Reif explained this very clearly:

The bill specifically calls for “a description of the plan to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, including improving the safety of facilities, modernizing the infrastructure, and maintaining the key capabilities and competencies of the nuclear weapons workforce, including designers and technicians.” That’s what it says. So according to the language, modernization here — they’re talking in general terms about more funding for science, facilities, and people at the labs and production facilities. Ideally this should mean focusing more research and development on strengthening our existing life extension programs and capabilities that would enhance U.S. nonproliferation objectives, such as nuclear forensics, safeguards, and dismantlement. But there’s nothing specific in there about a new plutonium pit facility. There may be something specific in the Nuclear Posture Review, and the President’s FY11 budget request, but there’s no specific language on that, to my knowledge, in the Defense Authorization bill.

[T]he letter, I think, greatly overstates the link between the modest reductions that are likely going to be called for in the new START treaty, whenever it’s signed, and on the other hand, maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile and modernizing the infrastructure. I mean, if you buy Senator Kyl’s logic that we need to modernize the deterrent, then he should want to do so with or without a new arms control treaty. The Obama administration is going to address the issues raised in the Defense Authorization bill when it releases its Nuclear Posture Review and presents its fiscal year 2011 budget requests. In my view, given the modest first step that New START represents, it’s going to have no impact on the health of our stockpile and its supporting infrastructure.

Finally — and this is very, very important — we talked about how the Washington Times article neglected to mention a recent study by an independent group of defense scientists, the JASON Defense Advisory Panel. The study basically said that what we’ve been doing to maintain our nuclear arsenal (the Life Extension Program) means the weapons will be good for decades to come.

Reif had this to say:

The final point to make, too, is that we are, in fact, modernizing our weapons. Now, Kyl and others seem to think that because we’re not building new missiles and warheads like the Russians and Chinese, we’re falling way behind. That’s simply not true…

Our arsenal remains second to none. In fact, it’s even more capable now than it was during the Cold War. We simply do not need to build new missiles and warheads. I think that sentiment, particularly on the warhead issue, was confirmed by the recent JASON report, which said that the lifetime of today’s nuclear warhead can be extended for decades, via the current life extension approach, with no anticipated loss of confidence.

Reif recently wrote a fabulous piece on this subject; please click here to read it. We are actually spending $6 billion a year on weapon modernization. However, it doesn’t seem to be the kind of modernization that Kyl et al. have in mind.

Next year will be a nuclear minefield when it comes to battles in the Senate. It’s important to point out that everyone wants a new START treaty; it’s just that how the GOP Senators (and Lieberman) have defined “modernization”, and what’s actually in the Defense Authorization act, that are different.

It’s my prediction that Senator Kyl will use ratification of the new START treaty to set up his arguments for killing any possible ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which he has vowed to do.

I’ll leave you with a graph I’ve posted several times before. This is to give you the big picture about how far we’ve come with nuclear treaties, and why it’s so important that we ratify the new START treaty with a minimum amount of grandstanding and politicization.

US, Russian nuclear warhead inventories

The US and Russia still have huge inventories of nuclear warheads.
Image credit: Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists.

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