Shadow Government

New START vs. missile defense: is it one or the other?

The Obama administration is already gearing up its push for Senate ratification of the recently signed New START agreement between the United States and Russia, with hearings that began yesterday and a vote possible by the end of the year. As senior administration officials make their case around town at various think tanks and before ...

JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is already gearing up its push for Senate ratification of the recently signed New START agreement between the United States and Russia, with hearings that began yesterday and a vote possible by the end of the year. As senior administration officials make their case around town at various think tanks and before Congress, they need to do a better job of refining their message to make sure it stands up to scrutiny.

In a speech last week at the Atlantic Council, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher stated three times that the New START agreement "does not constrain U.S. missile defense programs." Despite the repetition, Tauscher’s claim, like that of other Administration officials, is simply not accurate.

Article V, Section 3 of the text states: "Each Party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) launchers and SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein." This section makes clear that the treaty does indeed constrain one possible way for the U.S. to develop missile defense capabilities. This may not be the way the current administration envisions developing its missile defense system, but that isn’t what Tauscher claimed. (A White House fact sheet issued March 26 is more accurate in stating, "The Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs…" [emphasis added].)

Conversion of offensive ICBMs has been done in the past: there are five Minuteman III ICBMs at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that were converted into defensive interceptors. These have been grandfathered into the treaty in the section noted above, but additional conversion of launchers into interceptors, which is arguably the fastest way to develop such a defensive capability should an urgent need arise, is now forbidden under this new agreement. That constrains our missile defense programs, plain and simple.

Then there is the problem of the unilateral statement issued by the Russian side on missile defense. Released the same day as the full agreed-upon text in Prague April 8, this statement clearly says that the treaty "can operate and be viable only if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively." This statement, Obama administration officials are quick to point out, is not legally binding and will not constrain U.S. missile defense programs. Russian officials have a different take.

Before and after the April 8 signing, senior Russian officials have been touting that statement and warning that further moves by the U.S. in developing missile defense systems in Europe would cause serious problems for Moscow. Are Russian leaders bluffing or would they actually follow through and withdraw from the new treaty if the U.S. moved forward on missile defense? Is the purpose to force the Obama administration to choose between missile defense and keeping Russia on board with New START? Is the administration prepared to move forward with missile defense in Europe and risk having Russia withdraw from New START? These are the key questions for senators to ask during the ratification process.

A Russian withdrawal from New START would be a big blow to Obama’s reset policy with Moscow. It would also damage his efforts to hold up the treaty as the model for the rest of the world to follow as part of his fanciful goal to make the world free from nuclear weapons. But the reality is that, with or without the treaty, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is in serious decline, with the life of many warheads expiring. Russia’s warhead and delivery vehicle numbers are already largely within the limits of the new treaty, whereas it is the U.S. that would have to reduce significantly its nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles.

Thus, Russia needs this treaty more than does the United States in order to lock in parity between the two sides. And yet from the outset of negotiations with the Russians, Obama and his administration came across as much too eager to get a treaty signed with Russia. If they want it ratified, they’d be wise to make sure their talking points stand up to scrutiny and prepare to answer the question of New START versus missile defense. 

David J. Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.

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