This Week at War: The Paradox of Arms Control
Even if it passes, New START will only ensure that the U.S. remains dependent on nuclear weapons.
Nuclear arms control will stop with New START
Nuclear arms control will stop with New START
This week, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) angered the White House when he resisted a ratification vote during Congress’s lame duck session on the New START treaty with Russia. Ratification of the treaty is one of President Barack Obama’s highest foreign-policy priorities. A debate and vote on the treaty will now very likely have to wait until the next Congress, which will include six additional Republican senators, making the likelihood of passage even lower. Obama is witnessing the paradox of arms control: to get New START ratified, Obama will have to become a hawk on strategic nuclear modernization and missile defense. Instead of being a steppingstone to a nuclear-free world, New START is, ironically, likely to make both the United State and Russia ever more reliant on nuclear weapons.
Obama and his advisors had placed all their money on persuading Kyl, the senator other Republicans look to on arms control, to support quick ratification. If Kyl supported the treaty, the Obama team figured, enough Senate Republicans would follow to get the 67 required votes. Kyl has now declared that there is insufficient time in the lame-duck session to properly consider the issue.
Obama attempted to purchase ratification votes during the lame-duck session by promising to add $4.1 billion in spending on nuclear-weapons maintenance, research, and support. With a vote now likely delayed until next year, Republican senators will pocket that commitment and then increase their demands. With their increased leverage, Kyl and his colleagues may require specific commitments from Obama on a new nuclear-capable, long-range bomber aircraft and specific funding for the next generation of ballistic-missile submarines.
GOP senators are also likely to require more clarity from Obama on his plans for missile defense. At the upcoming NATO summit meeting, heads of government are expected to declare missile defense a core NATO mission. But Russia still objects to any plan to station a powerful missile-defense radar in southeast Europe. The radar, which Moscow considers to be highly intrusive, may be a red line for Russia. But failing to commit to the radar and a new generation of missile interceptors may be red lines for Republicans voting on the treaty.
The White House argues that the United States needs the treaty to maintain on-site inspections of Russian nuclear forces. Even more important is the cooperation the United States currently gets from Russia on freezing advanced surface-to-air missiles sales to Iran and permitting the northern supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Most analysts agree that the treaty makes only modest changes to the U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear balance. The larger issue for the senators considering ratification concerns Russian cooperation on a variety of other security issues.
Arms control advocates hope that a ratified New START treaty will lead to a follow-on agreement that will sharply reduce tactical battlefield nuclear warheads. Twenty years ago the United States unilaterally dismantled all but a handful of its tactical nukes. Russia, to compensate for its relatively feeble conventional forces, continues to maintain a large stockpile. Here, the paradox of arms control reappears: The Russians won’t give up their tactical nukes unless they can rebuild their army and air force. But if Russia rebuilds its conventional forces, NATO won’t give up its remaining tactical nukes. Better to maintain that arsenal than spend the money and political capital required to build up European conventional forces to deter a rebuilt Russian army.
New START is thus likely the end of the line for nuclear arms control. Paradoxes abound: To get it ratified, Obama will have to resemble a Cold War hawk. Both Russia and NATO will prefer their nuclear weapons to the expense of conventional military defense. And a decade from now, when is the treaty is to expire, new nuclear-weapon states will likely have appeared, complicating the global security environment and making U.S.-Russian nuclear agreements an anachronism. Nuclear arms control will stop with New START.
Can the Air Force protect its Asian bases?
This week, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released its annual report to Congress. The commission was chartered in 2000 to investigate and report to Congress on the national security implications of the economic and trade relationship between the United States and China. This year’s report includes a chapter on the expansion of China’s air force and conventional missile capability and the growing threat they pose to U.S. military bases in East Asia. The commission concludes that Chinese air and missile forces now have the capacity to shut down, at least temporarily, five of the six U.S. air bases in the region. The issue for U.S. policymakers is whether U.S. efforts to defend these bases from missile attack can keep up with further growth in China’s missile inventory. If the United States cannot keep up with Chinese missile deployments, Washington may eventually be forced to consider other strategies to maintain the credibility of U.S. security commitments to the region.
According to the commission, the combined Chinese conventional ballistic and cruise missile inventory now totals as many as 1,765 missiles. Although over 1,000 of these missiles are positioned near Taiwan, the commission concludes that 830 missiles are available for attacks on two U.S. air bases in South Korea and 430 missiles are available for attacks on the three U.S. air bases on Okinawa and mainland Japan. The U.S. air base on Guam, 3,000 kilometers from China, is currently out of range of all but a few Chinese missiles. The commission reported that an attack involving 30 to 50 missiles would be sufficient to overwhelm existing defenses of these bases, cratering runways and destroying the base’s unprotected aircraft and facilities.
The commission recommended that Congress require the Pentagon to make "a list of concrete steps" to strengthen the ability of these bases to survive a missile attack. Concrete — the steel-reinforced variety — is one part of the answer, as are missile interceptor systems. But those planning the defense of these bases face the first-order question of missile defense — can the United States build hardened aircraft shelters and missile interceptor batteries faster and cheaper than the Chinese can build additional offensive missiles of their own? If not, U.S. policymakers may have to look for a new approach.
The U.S. Navy is investigating whether a Star Wars-like, ship-based, free electron laser weapon might help it win the cost battle against missiles, a concept which is still hypothetical and costly. Losing the marginal-cost battle against adversary missiles could compel U.S. forces to retreat from vulnerable forward locations. That could be very damaging to U.S. diplomatic strategy.
The United States and China are not yet military adversaries. But the growth in Chinese missile forces shines a light on the high cost of U.S. weapons systems. The United States has traditionally looked to technology to overcome numerical disadvantages. Today, that approach seems to be failing. The missile problem discussed in the commission’s report has exposed a vulnerability in the Pentagon’s strategy in Asia.
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