Obama’s nuke deal with Russia: unprecedented but incomplete

Obama’s nuke deal with Russia: unprecedented but incomplete

As Politico has pointed out, the Obama administration has a tendency to describe their every action as "unprecedented." In the case of the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, this is actually true. Theoretically, the treaty agreed to by the Obama administration limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons. In practice, it will allow least 200 nuclear weapons in excess of the U.S. and Russian stockpiles permitted under the 2002 treaty signed by the Bush administration. The administration is laying claim to a 30 percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons while actually permitting an increase in the force. This is unprecedented. 

The discrepancy comes from what each treaty actually limits.  The earliest treaties (SALT I and II) limited but did not reduce stockpiles, and established "counting rules" on the basis of how many warheads each system could deliver. The 1992 START Treaty was structured to give the Russians incentives to shift from fast-flying missiles to bombers. In the theology of nuclear deterrence, it is believed that "slow-flying" bombers are more stabilizing because a leader could reconsider the decision after launching, and the target country would have greater warning of an impending attack. So the 1992 Treaty gave generous discounts to bombers, counting the newer B-1 and B-2 bombers as a single weapon although they have the capacity to carry up to 20 warheads. The older B-52s that carry air-launched cruise missiles were counted at half their true capacity, so tallied as 10 warheads each. The Obama administration’s new START treaty counts all bombers as a single nuclear weapon, leading the Federation of American Scientists to conclude that 450 U.S. warheads and 860 Russian warheads will be excluded from the count.

The administration sensibly wanted greater confidence the Russians are in control of their weapons and not cheating on the deal, but the Russians were evidently unwilling to agree to verification of their actual bomber warheads. The Obama administration very much wanted a strategic nuclear agreement in advance of the president’s nuclear security summit, or at the very least, to demonstrate progress in advance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s review in May. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had been holding out since December 2009 hoping the administration would make further concessions, so even if the administration were surprised by Medvedev’s announcement that a deal had been reached, they were certainly relieved.

I’m tempted to cheer an arms control agreement that succeeds in increasing our latitude to retain what is already a small nuclear force, and to expand it modestly. We conservatives should commend the Obama administration for producing an advance in arms control agreements that no Republican president had achieved: An agreement that gives us more latitude than its predecessor! Except that there are two significant problems the Treaty doesn’t deal with that our approach ought to address:

No. 1: Unlimited short-range nuclear weapons. As Frank Miller, George Robertson and I have written elsewhere, the Obama administration is missing a huge opportunity to engage the Russians in negotiations to reduce short-range nuclear weapons, which are wholly unconstrained. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has unilaterally reduced its nuclear forces by 90 percent, down to about 200 weapons, with no corresponding reductions in the Russian force. The Russians retain 5,400 tactical nuclear weapons. Yet some Obama administration officials have even encouraged the German government’s irresponsible proposal for further unilateral NATO reductions (yet one more effort to shift greater burden from Germany onto other allies), without linking those reductions to any action to reduce the far larger Russian force.  Some even claim entering into TNF negotiations would make Congress less likely to ratify START. But this is exactly wrong — as we move down to such low levels of strategic nuclear forces, the 5,400 tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s arsenal loom even larger as a circumvention of the strategic limits. Controlling tactical nuclear weapons would increase confidence in strategic nuclear reductions. The administration could help itself and the NATO alliance, and gain more of the credibility it so deeply desires at NPT conference, by proposing such a negotiation at the Talinn NATO Ministerial this spring.

No. 2: Constraints on conventional strike capability. Counting delivery vehicles rather than warheads themselves is also problematic because it places limits on some bombers and missiles we might use in conventional strikes. DOD’s planned expansion of our non-nuclear "strategic" strike force plans to use long-distance precision strike to greater effect. It could be that nuclear-capable bombers are not envisioned to be used in conventional roles; but since the administration’s nuclear posture review is not yet completed, it’s impossible to tell. The administration needs to clarify its intentions on conventional strike. Constraints on delivery systems should not be allowed to impede U.S. conventional operations — the canonical example of old weapons used to unexpected purposes being Eisenhower era bombers providing air support to special forces troops operating in small units in Afghanistan. Innovation is a crucial part of what makes the U.S. military so dominant, and it is questionable whether the limits imposed on nuclear forces in START outweigh the possible limits on our freedom of action for conventional strike assets. 

The Senate should strongly press the Obama administration on these issues as they determine whether or not to ratify the START treaty.