Friday, June 25, 2010

The New START Debate: Fact vs. Fiction

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held another hearing on the New START Treaty Thursday afternoon; it focused on the risks and benefits of the bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Presenting witnesses included former U.S. Special Envoy for Nuclear Nonproliferation Ambassador Robert G. Joseph, former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Eric S. Edelman, and Director of U.S. Advocacy for the Open Society Institute, Dr. Morton H. Halperin.

There were no real surprises at the hearing; Joseph and Edelman reiterated the same anti-START talking points, namely verification, missile defense, and counting measures. Halperin provided the only pro-START testimony during this particular hearing. Here’s what you need to know about the arguments surrounding ratification:

  • The Argument: Ambassador Joseph voiced his concerns about data exchange and “gaps in verification.” He claims that the treaty risks national security because there will be no on-the-ground inspections at Votkinsk, where Russian missiles are assembled, and decreased telemetry (the information relayed during missile tests) sharing.  Decreased monitoring, he avers, will allow the Russians to stockpile weapons and thus "cheat" the limits delineated by the treaty.  
  • Reality: The reality is that this is an exaggeration used to scare START proponents into believing that the treaty will decrease monitoring and that the Russians will build up a secret arsenal.  Yes, Joseph is correct that the arms control agreement does not permit on-the-ground inspections at Votkinsk.  What he fails to mention, however, is that inspectors were never permitted to enter the facility in the first place, rather, they conducted portal and perimeter inspections.  U.S. satellites can now conduct this type of monitoring (i.e. satellites can "see" constructed missiles leaving the facility).  Even if the Russians decided to "cheat," they could not possibly do so in a way that would give them any real military advantage, as Dr. Halperin noted in his testimony.
Missile Defense:
  • The Argument: Talk about beating a dead horse...this is probably the most used argument against New START.  Ambassador Joseph, Eric Edelman, and Sens. Inhofe and DeMint, all contended that the new treaty will somehow limit the U.S.'s ability to develop a viable missile defense shield.  Their assertion revolves around the unnecessarily controversial Article 5, which prohibits either party from converting ICBM launchers into launchers for missile defense interceptors (ICBMs are offensive weapons--missiles launched at targets, interceptors are defensive--missiles launched at incoming threats).  The claim is that even though the Obama administration does not want to convert any launchers, the article prohibits future administrations from doing so.  A unilateral statement issued by Russia about withdrawing from the treaty should it feel the U.S.'s advancements in missile defense puts its national security at risk has also drawn criticism from the right. 
  • Reality: Forget for a moment that many experts conclude that missile defense is merely a pipe dream; New START advocates, including top military experts, concluded that the treaty in no way constrains missile defense.  For one, converting an existing silo to fit a missile defense interceptor is costly and laborious--it would be much more effective and efficient to build a custom launcher.  Senator Lugar also noted that launching defensive interceptors from an ICBM missile field may lead the Russians to believe we were firing offensive arms at Moscow, causing them to retaliate. 
    • In regard to the unilateral statement issued by Moscow, Russians have always been wary of missile defense.  As Dr. Halperin so accurately stated, "No one could doubt that a Russian decision to deploy a very large ballistic missile defense force aimed at shooting down all of the American missiles...would lead the United States to carefully evaluate the adequacy of our offensive forces and to withdrawn from the Treaty if we determine that our supreme national interest requires such action.  We should not be surprised if the Russians have the same view."
Counting Measures: Author's note: This issue can get a bit confusing and wonky.  I will try to keep things as clear as possible, and where I can't, I will try to provide edifying links.
  • Argument 1: Eric Edelman's testimony revolved around the status of the U.S.'s Prompt Global Strike (PGS)--the ability for the United States to strike with a precision guided conventional missile anywhere in the world within 1 hour.  Under New START, neither nation may hold more than 700 launchers (platforms from which weapons are launched, i.e. submarines, bombers, or ground-based missiles).  According to Edelman, this will inhibit the U.S.'s ability to develop a PSG system, as, according to him, the system may require Trident based missiles, which are limited under the treaty. 
  • The Reality:  Yes, missiles used for PSG would be counted under New START, as it counts launchers whether they carry nuclear or conventional warheads.  However, as Secretary Gates noted in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, a PSG system would require such low levels of missiles, that it would be easily accommodated under the ceiling of New START.  He stated that the administration is also developing a system that would not use ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) or SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles), and would therefore not be subject to the treaty limits. 
  • Argument 2: According to Ambassador Edelman, New START does not limit rail-mobile ICBMs (long-range missiles capable of being launched from rail-cars), and thus, Russia could build up a secret arsenal of these types of weapons.
  • The Reality: He's right--New START does not specifically limit or define rail-mobile ICBMs...because the last system was liquidated in 2007 under the Nunn-Lugar Act, as Senator Lugar noted.  What the text of the treaty DOES define, however, is mobile ICBM launchers.  New START defines these systems as "an erector-launcher mechanism for launching ICBMs and the self-propelled device on which it is mounted."  Edelman's claim is contingent on the fact that rail-mobile ICBMs are not "self-propelled," but as Pavel Podvig notes, "this is, of course, wrong. Article II of the treaty limits all launchers, deployed and non-deployed, and does not care whether they are mobile or not."  Confusing?  Yes, but Edelman's claim is baseless; New START covers all deployed and non-deployed ICBMs and their launchers, which includes these rail-mobile weapons.  
In the end, the Senate hearing proceeded as expected.  Sitting committee member Senator Richard Lugar debunked Edelman's concerns about rail-mobile missiles as well as the Ambassador's claim that the U.S. was engaging in an adversarial relationship with Russia.  As usual, Senators Inhofe, Risch, and DeMint all voiced their objections to the treaty.  Perhaps the highlight of the hearing came when Senator DeMint stated that "America is a protector of many nations and a threat to none, while Russia is a threat to many nations and a protector of none."  Talk about adversarial relationships.  The South Carolinian Senator then concluded that achieving parity with a third world economy was "absurd" and that it would be destabilizing, as nations which rely on our nuclear umbrella would seek to develop their own nuclear arsenals if they felt unprotected by the U.S.  What is "absurd," Mr. DeMint, is that you believe that the U.S. would somehow be safer with these nuclear weapons, which have the capability of destroying the planet several times over.  The U.S.-Russian reset is going well (as evidenced by this footage of Obama and Medvedev sharing an intimate moment over a cheeseburger); abandoning the treaty now would set back U.S.-Russian relations to Bush administration levels.  Speaking to students at the University of Pittsburgh, Medvedev referred to relations at that time as being at "Cold War levels."  The U.S. can't afford relations to dip that low again, as Obama needs Russia on his side to counter Iranian and North Korean threats; New START is our best option. 

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