New START Almost Goes Over the Cliff

cliff-52e486d4fbe14e4282dda14dc6c00ba2ab5c540d-s6-c10By Tom Z. Collina and Daryl G. Kimball

In all the last minute drama about whether the nation would fall off the ‘fiscal cliff,’ it went largely unnoticed that the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) almost took the plunge as well.

The fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by President Obama on Jan. 2, included language that Obama, in his signing statement, called “deeply problematic” as it would “impede the fulfillment of future U.S. obligations agreed to in the New START Treaty, which the Senate provided its advice and consent to in 2010, and hinder the Executive’s ability to determine an appropriate nuclear force structure.”

The NDAA section in question (1035) required that, before carrying out “any reduction to the number of strategic delivery systems,” such as required under New START, the President must certify

… that the Russian Federation is in compliance with its arms control obligations with the United States and is not engaged in activity in violation of, or inconsistent with, such obligations. [Emphasis added.]

This section was a problem because it is no secret that the State Department has been unable to certify that Russia is in compliance with all of its arms control obligations, in particular the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). However, the State Department has certified that Moscow is in compliance with its strategic arms control commitments, such as New START.

Obama signed the NDAA anyway, but only after a quiet veto threat from the White House motivated Congress to included a fix in H.R. 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, better known as the ‘fiscal cliff bill,’ which Obama signed later that same day.

The fix in the cliff bill only changed two words in NDAA, but they made all the difference:

… whether the Russian Federation is in compliance with its strategic arms control obligations with the United States and is not engaged in activity in violation of, or inconsistent with, such obligations. [Emphasis added.]

Now, the President need only certify “whether” Russia is in compliance—yes or no—with “strategic” arms control agreements, not “that” it is in compliance with all agreements.

And this is as it should be. The last thing we should do is to take a successful treaty like New START—which is verifiably reducing Russian nuclear arms that would otherwise be aimed at the United States—and hold it hostage to longstanding disagreements with Russia on other issues. BWC compliance is particularly difficult to verify, as it has no verification provisions. As for the CWC, the United States has missed its own share of destruction deadlines. And Moscow has its own views about U.S. compliance with arms control treaties.

What’s more, further U.S. and Russian nuclear force reductions are in order. Current U.S. deployed strategic nuclear forces (approximately 1,700 warheads) are still well above the ceiling established by New START (1,550). Today, Russia deploys about 1,500 strategic warheads.

Such levels, while lower than during Cold War years, are widely acknowledged to be far in excess of what is required to deter a nuclear attack from Russia or any other nuclear-armed country. Other than Russia, China is the only other nuclear-armed adversary capable of striking the United States, and it has about 50-60 warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

To deter a nuclear attack, adversaries need only realize the United States is capable of reducing key targets to radioactive rubble rather than a fine dust–and that can be accomplished with a much smaller nuclear force that either the U.S. or Russia have today.

As the President said in a March 2012 speech:

My Administration’s nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today’s threats, including nuclear terrorism.  Last summer, I therefore directed my national security team to conduct a comprehensive study of our nuclear forces.  That study is still underway.

But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.

As our colleague Kingston Reif has written before, House Republicans had been seeking to insert provisions in the NDAA to undermine implementation of New START and perhaps more.

Thankfully, the 11th hour fiscal cliff fix avoided such an outcome.

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