Special Report

Still a Non-Starter

New START effectively stops America's development of missile defenses. 

By 12.13.10

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In coming days, the U.S. Senate will begin its deliberations over New START, the major new arms control pact finalized by Moscow and Washington earlier this year. The outcome of that vote will have enormous ramifications for the safety and security of the United States in the years ahead. Here's why.

New START is inherently unbalanced -- and detrimental to American security. Under the treaty, both Moscow and Washington have committed to slashing their existing strategic arsenals by about one-third, to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads apiece, and to limiting the total number of ballistic missile launchers and nuclear-armed bombers available to each side. But the agreement is silent on a number of key issues that cumulatively serve to undermine the parity of the agreement.

One is Russia's own, increasingly robust effort to modernize its nuclear weapons, which is not constrained qualitatively by the agreement in any way. Another is New START's failure to address the issue of lower-yield, "tactical" nuclear weapons, of which Russia possesses far more than the United States. As a result, an arrangement that seems balanced on paper in practice will be anything but -- leaving Russia unfettered in its nuclear development and America more vulnerable than before.

New START effectively stops America's development of missile defenses. Last year, the Obama administration laid out a substantial plan to expand and augment the existing capabilities of the United States and its allies to defend against ballistic missile threats from abroad. Yet the text of New START undermines this commitment, explicitly limiting U.S. missile defense development under certain conditions. Worse yet, Russian officials have made clear that U.S. negotiators offered guarantees that the Obama administration will not make qualitative or quantitative improvements to its existing missile defense systems -- and have threatened to walk away from New START if Washington does. This means that, as a practical matter, America's ability to protect the U.S. homeland and its allies from ballistic missile attack has become a hostage of arms control negotiations with Russia. 

New START isn't transparent. Worried over the sidebar understandings that may have been agreed to by U.S. negotiators to secure Russian consent, the Senate has demanded that the White House provide the full negotiating record for the New START treaty. So far, the Obama administration has refused to do so, fanning fears that detrimental side deals were in fact struck by the White House and the Kremlin -- and that the Senate will be forced to vote on the treaty without knowing the full extent of the commitments to which it is binding the country as a result.

New START isn't urgent. It is abundantly clear why the White House has made speedy ratification of New START a top priority. Once the new session of Congress convenes in January, it will face even stiffer opposition to the accord than it does at the moment. White House officials therefore have attempted to woo Congressional conservatives with pledges of substantial funds for modernizing America's own strategic arsenal in exchange for prompt passage of the treaty. At the same time, they have alluded to the fact that money for modernization might disappear if New START somehow doesn't pass Congressional muster.

What is far less apparent is why Congressional conservatives should take the bait. For one thing, the modernization of our strategic arsenal, the single greatest guarantor of American national security and international primacy, is far too important to be tied to the fate of a bilateral treaty. For another, lawmakers need adequate time to properly weigh that agreement on its merits, rather than on the inducements that have been attached to it. When they do, they are bound to discover that -- for all of the inducements being proffered by the Administration -- the new arms pact with Russia is still a bad deal for America.

That, of course, is exactly what the White House is afraid of.

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About the Author
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.