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New START Verification: Inspecting the Critics’ Arguments

More than 70 experts and former officials from both parties have come out in support of New START. Of the six opponents that the Heritage Foundation has rounded up against the treaty, Paula DeSutter, former Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, has taken the strongest stand on verification in the New START treaty, claiming that it does not live up to the standard set by START I, which expired in December.

This is a rather puzzling argument coming from DeSutter, considering that she questioned the very need for stringent verification during her time in the Bush administration. In a 2007 interview, she said that many provisions of START I, including most of its verification, were “no longer necessary.” “We don’t believe we’re in a place where we need have to have the detailed lists (of weapons) and verification measures,” she said.

It’s hard to know how to read the criticisms of New START verification as not being adequate coming from someone who believes they aren’t necessary.

DeSutter’s arguments ring hollow. She states that “the lack of effective verification in New START is dangerous…” because unlike having no verification, as in the SORT treaty, having flawed verification can create a “very false sense of confidence.” But she doesn’t explain how “false confidence” in a treaty process that she doesn’t believe even requires verification could threaten U.S. security.

In addition, DeSutter says the fact that the Obama administration thinks New START provides effective verification raises concerns about “what we can expect from this administration in future agreements” when verification really matters, like going to zero. But it’s not just Obama but a very broad, bipartisan set of military and security experts who believe the verification provisions are effective. DeSutter’s position is the one at odds with main-stream thinking—not Obama’s.

Still, let’s take a look at some of her arguments on verification in New START.

DeSutter says that the on-site inspections of Russian re-entry vehicles (RVs) allowed under New START represent “nothing new,” and will be subject to the same problems the U.S. ran into with inspections under START – specifically problems due to “Russian hard covers” on their missiles.

But this argument is a red herring. The “hard covers” are specifically regulated in both START I and New START to not hinder inspectors from counting the number of warheads. The U.S. did raise issues with the Russians over Russian covers that were too large (as did the Russians over U.S covers), but a recent report on treaty compliance stated that the compliance issues surrounding the RV inspections had been worked out in the last several years. And if problems arise again in the future, the U.S. will be able to address them, as it did before, through the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission (JCIC) that New START sets up.

Moreover, arguing that there is “nothing new” here misses a key point about the purpose of inspections. It’s true that U.S inspectors could look at RVs under START I (although not under the current SORT treaty that the Bush administration negotiated). But the goal of verification is to confirm the data that is provided by each country in the mandatory data exchanges required by the treaty. What is new – and significant – is that, unlike START I, New START requires each country to declare the actual number of RVs that each individual missile carries, rather than simply setting the maximum number of RVs that a particular type of missile could carry. Therefore, the data gathered in New START is much more accurate than under START I, since it eliminates the overcounting of warheads on missiles.

DeSutter also complains that these inspections “can only tell U.S. inspectors what is on the missile inspected, not what every other missile of that type throughout Russia is carrying.” This is disingenuous. The goal of RV inspections has always been to conduct random, spot checks of missiles to make sure they agree with the information in the data exchanges. Under START I, the goal was to ensure you didn’t find any missiles with more warheads than were allowed for that type of missile. Under New START, inspectors pick a specific missile to inspect, and ensure that the number of warheads loaded onto that missile corresponds with the number declared by the Russians. These random inspections provide confidence that no significant cheating is taking place. This is the same principle that the START I inspections worked on.

The UCS fact sheet on verification compares the verification regime of New START to that of START I, and demonstrates that the new procedures preserve the strength of START I while streamlining the process and bringing it in line with today’s security environment.

When the Senate returns from recess, we will have gone 275 days without verification of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. It’s time to get the inspectors back in the field.

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New START Verification: Less is More

One of the most important legacies of 1991’s START treaty was its verification regime, which allowed U.S. inspectors close access to previously secret Russian nuclear systems and facilities. The inspection regime increased our knowledge of Russian forces, built trust and cooperation between the two parties, and provided confidence that neither side was cheating.

The START treaty’s verification measures ended in December of 2009 when that treaty expired. Since that time, the United States has lost the ability to inspect Russian facilities, view newly developed systems, and receive notification of weapon production and movements. The New START treaty, which is awaiting the advice and consent of the Senate, would reestablish this important relationship with a verification regime based on that of the original START treaty.

However, some of the treaty’s critics have questioned whether New START’s verification regime is effective, since New START allows fewer inspections than START I. However, because there are fewer Russian facilities now than during the Cold War, and because some new inspections accomplish more tasks than the old ones, the inspections are equally effective—in this case, less is more.

To explain these complex issues in an understandable way, UCS has released a short fact sheet summarizing the important points about New START verification. It shows how the new, streamlined verification regime gathers all of the information necessary to verify Russian compliance with the treaty.

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It’s a Mad, MAD World

In the June 15, 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the New START agreement, Senator DeMint (R-SC) again lamented that, as he argued, the United States has ruled out attempting to develop a missile defense system that could defend against a full-scale Russian nuclear attack. He said he didn’t like and didn’t think the American people would like the fact that we continue to live in a world of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with Russia.

He certainly is right—no one likes the fact that, in a very real sense, every American is threatened by the enormous and inconceivably powerful Russian nuclear arsenal. Or that, however unlikely a Russian nuclear strike is, our defense relies on the American ability to retaliate and destroy Russia with our nuclear arsenal. The Senator is also right that we should want to escape that MAD world, and in fact we can.

But we can’t escape that world by developing a missile defense system that attempts to stop a Russian nuclear attack. As Secretary Gates previously reminded Sen. DeMint, not since the early days of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative—commonly known as Star Wars—has any U.S administration sought to unilaterally neutralize Russia’s offensive capabilities, and for very good reasons.

What would happen if the United States decided to deploy an anti-missile system aimed at neutralizing Russia’s long-range nuclear-armed missiles? The first thing to note, one can be sure, is that Russia wouldn’t simply accept this development. It could not accept the loss of its nuclear deterrent, and has a number of options to counter such a U.S. initiative.

What could Russia do? It could substantially increase its nuclear arsenal, deploying additional missiles and warheads to overwhelm the defense (like the U.S., Russia has large numbers of warheads in storage). As Gen. Patrick O’Reilly testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 16, for every Russian warhead, an anti-missile system would want two to four interceptors to attempt to shoot it down.

And since one missile can launch many warheads, this makes it even easier and cheaper to deploy additional warheads than it is to expand a missile defense system to keep up. Any missile defense system can be overwhelmed by a rapid increase in missile and warhead numbers.

Add to this the fact that Russia can deploy highly effective countermeasures that would render the U.S. anti-missile system completely ineffective. In 2000, UCS published a report, Countermeasures, outlining the vulnerability of long-range anti-missile systems to countermeasures, and those problems are every bit as real today as they were then. Some of these fool the interceptors with decoys using a more elaborate version of a Mylar “Happy Birthday” balloon. We put together a short animation explaining the science. As the U.S. national intelligence community concluded in a 1999 NIE, even countries like Iran and North Korea could use available technologies to defeat a U.S. anti-missile system. Russia, as it has repeatedly bragged (and the above NIE confirmed), already has the technology to deploy countermeasures capable of defeating an anti-missile system.

Finally, Russia could deploy nuclear warheads on cruise missiles, short-range missiles launched from ships, depressed trajectory submarine-launched missiles with short flight times, or any number of other alternatives to overwhelm, defeat, or go around a U.S. long-range, anti-missile system.

For all these reasons, the United States abandoned the idea of developing an anti-missile system that sought to defend against a Russian long-range nuclear attack. Even Ronald Reagan in the end understood that seeking such a unilateral defense was hopeless.

The bottom line is this: in today’s world of terrorist threats, nuclear proliferation, and the continuing existence of enormous Cold War arsenals, nuclear weapons are a greater liability than an asset for the United States. Nuclear deterrence will be with us as long as nations possess nuclear arsenals, and attempts to undermine that balance will only increase the danger of disaster. To end Mutually Assured Destruction, the only way forward is reducing nuclear arsenals, eventually to where no country possesses the ability to destroy another with nuclear weapons. That process begins with the New START agreement.

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International Statements Supporting New START

Are critics following the news?

Among the objections to the New START treaty, few are uttered with more gravity than the claim that U.S. nuclear reductions will make our allies question their own safety, and perhaps seek nuclear weapons of their own. However, opponents of the treaty have not offered a credible example of such a nervous ally. Opponents of Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review made similar arguments, claiming that changes in U.S. declaratory policy could lead to dangerous steps by Japan or other allies. Those claims were just as baseless as the current ones.

For example, regarding the reductions under New START, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said in a May 13th talk at a National Defense University Foundation breakfast, “I think there are indications that nations are nervous about where we are heading and they’re asking themselves, well maybe we need to have our own [nuclear weapons].” Notably, he gave no indication of which countries he might mean.

What, in fact, have our allies and others said? The NPT Review Conference currently underway in New York has given countries an opportunity to sound off on nuclear issues. Their statements contain a treasure trove of endorsements for New START. UCS has compiled an extensive list of these endorsements, from Australia to Zambia. The message from our allies – and the rest of the world – is clear: New START would make the world safer by advancing the global nonproliferation agenda.

When treaty critics refer to countries that might object, who do they name? One is Japan, which has a longstanding commitment to forsake nuclear weapons, something some U.S. politicians have argued could change should the United States adjust its nuclear policies. In a recent Washington Times article, John Bolton singles out our Asian ally, claiming that its “concerns were especially acute” about recent U.S. nuclear policies, including the Nuclear Posture Review and New START. I’m not sure who in Japan John Bolton has been talking to, but it certainly wasn’t the Prime Minister, who stated in the aftermath of the treaty signing that “it’s great news for the world” and urged the U.S. and Russia to “ratify it soon.” And it probably wasn’t any of the 204 members of Japan’s parliament who sent a letter to Obama in February stating “We support your efforts to conclude a new START agreement with Russia mandating significant reductions in each country’s deployed strategic forces.” In reality, Japan’s status as the only victim of nuclear attack has made it a consistent advocate of disarmament.

Bolton also brings up the countries of NATO, an alliance that has historically based its security on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Many NATO countries, including Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—countries that actually host U.S. tactical nuclear weapons—have called for the United States to withdraw them. As this would go much further than New START does, it is little surprise that these Western European countries fully support the treaty.

But what about Eastern Europe, which obviously has a complicated history with Russia? Here again our allies express clear support. In a statement at the UN, the Polish representative applauded the treaty, saying that “It is…an important instrument in building confidence and achieving transparency, thus contributing to international stability and security.” Lithuania “welcomes” the agreement, the Czech Republic recognized its “important cuts,” and Bulgaria called it a “remarkable achievement.” Would we be hearing such widespread support for the treaty if it was making our allies quake in their boots?

The ambiguity of the claim that New START will spook US allies only conceals its implausibility. Can anyone imagine a scenario in which the U.S. arsenal of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads—enough to lay waste to most of the world—along with thousands of additional non-deployed warheads, would be insufficient? Would New START have the unanimous backing of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs, and other military experts if it undermined our security?

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“If we are not going to build a new weapon…”

“This modernization plan has to be a lot more than words and vague commitments. As far as I’m concerned, it has to be an absolute commitment to adequate funding for everything that has to be done, as well as a sufficiently clear outline of the way that we’re going to perform life extension if we are not going to build a new weapon, which the NPR eschews, and if we are not going to test.”

– Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), April 19, 2010, at the National Defense
University Foundation breakfast, emphasis original

In the above, by separating out “new” weapons, Senator Kyl draws an important distinction between issues he had previously conflated: warhead “modernization” and building new warheads. Our hope is his statement affirms that pouring funds into the nuclear weapons complex, even while ruling out “new” weapons (and we’ll explain those quotes later), combined with the benefits of the treaty, will be reason enough for Kyl to support the New START agreement.

The Senator’s words are vitally important. He is the undisputed leader of the Republican caucus on arms control issues, and it was his personal efforts that directly led to the downfall of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.

And if support for the nuclear weapons complex and a plan for the future are what the Senator wants in exchange for his vote, he will be getting it in spades. President Obama poured $7 billion into the nuclear stockpile in his 2011 budget request, a move that Senator Kyl called “welcome.” The budget request included major increases in funding for programs like the B61 warhead life-extension program and two new nuclear facilities. This funding was significantly higher than the highest funding levels under President Bush, leading former NNSA head Linton Brooks to say he “would have killed” for the 2011 budget.

Of course, these steps have not stopped Kyl from making apocalyptic statements about the state of our nuclear weapons and infrastructure. In last week’s comments, he perpetuated the myth that the United States is the only nuclear power that is not modernizing its weapons. The simple fact is, the United States has the most capable, up-to-date arsenal in the world. Would the Senator trade our stockpile for Russia’s?

The key item that Senator Kyl is awaiting is the administration’s 10-year plan for modernization, a plan mandated in Section 1251 of the 2010 Defense Authorization Act. The administration plans to submit the plan to Congress together with the New START agreement and its supporting documents in May. NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino, in response to questions in Congressional hearings, has assured Congress that this modernization plan will fund the weapons complex to his satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the lab directors. (Another question for Senator Kyl: will any amount of funding be “enough,” or is this really about other issues?)

Previously, based on his interpretation of Section 1251, the Senator had sought to extract from administration officials additional promises that the law does not obligate them to make. For example, in a letter last December signed by 40 other Republicans and Senator Lieberman, citing Section 1251, the Senator called for the administration to provide, in addition to plans for funding stockpile surveillance and the nuclear complex, funding for a “modern warhead” in the 10-year plan. However, the FY10 Defense Authorization Act only calls for the President to:

  1. enhance the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile of the United States;
  2. modernize the nuclear weapons complex;
  3. and maintain the delivery platforms for nuclear weapons.

Nothing in that language requires new warheads.

Many had feared that the Senator and others would make new warheads a sticking point in the New START ratification debate. This recent talk may be a sign that he has decided not to take that position, particularly as Secretary of Defense Gates – who previously has called for a new warhead himself – has signed off on the NPR’s rejection of them.

And why the previous quotes around “new”? Because the administration created a backdoor that would allow it to build what, for all intents and purposes, is a new warhead, at least as much as the officially-rejected Reliable Replacement Warhead was one. In the NPR, the administration supported the options of refurbishment, reuse, and replacement to achieve life-extension goals. It stated that reuse and refurbishment were the “preferred” options, and made approval of replacement methods subject to Presidential and Congressional approval. That approach would have prohibited some of the options considered under the RRW program, but would have allowed the NNSA’s approved design to go forward.

For his part, Senator Kyl warned that this approach would have a “chilling effect” on the labs, preventing them from pursuing replacement if it was required. Given the labs’ history of seeking rationales to justify new warheads – see plutonium aging and reliability issues – that does not seem to be a worry. But, speaking for the administration, NNSA head D’Agostino insisted in a hearing on Thursday that the lab directors “were comfortable” with the NPR’s stance on replacement, which emphasized that the “full range” of life-extension options will be available to the labs.

Only one senator, Senator Inhofe, has stated that he will oppose the New START agreement. We hope that Senator Kyl’s statements indicate that he will join the clear majority of senators in supporting this treaty and continue the long history of bipartisan support for arms control agreements.

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