New START puts no limits on missile defense

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Baker Spring, following the lead of his Heritage Foundation colleague James Jay Carafano, has misrepresented the relationship between missile defense and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia (New START).  Along the way he makes a series of gratuitous and misleading comments regarding my own views on the subject, but they are irrelevant to the real issues at hand.

Our central point of disagreement is whether New START will place limits on U.S. missile defense development efforts.  The short answer to this question is “no.”

One clear indication that New START will not limit the missile defense plans of the United States is the strong support for the treaty among current and former national security officials, from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, to the head of the U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Kevin Chilton, to the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, to Secretary of Defense Gates. Their views have recently been reinforced by a letter from seven former commanders of the Strategic Air Command and the U.S. Strategic Command, who heartily endorse New START and explicitly state that “”[T]he treaty provides no meaningful constraint on U.S. missile defense plans.” If any of these officials believed that New START would diminish our ability to protect ourselves or our allies, they would not be supporting the treaty.

As I have noted elsewhere, the text of the treaty – the only part that is legally binding – puts no meaningful limits on missile defenses.  This is true regardless of what one may think about the wisdom or utility of pursuing any particular approach to missile defense.  Mr. Spring concedes the point that the text of the treaty does not restrict missile defense development.

Mr. Spring’s main argument – one that has been endlessly repeated by his colleagues at Heritage and other critics of New START – is that the preamble to the agreement will constrain missile defense development going forward.  First, just to make this point perfectly clear, the preamble is just that – a series of introductory observations that are followed by the statement that the two parties of the treaty have “Agreed as follows.”  In other words, the formal agreement occurs after the preamble.  Senator Lugar (R-IN) explained long ago that such statements are “in essence editorial opinions.”

Even so, it’s worth looking at what the preamble says about missile defenses, in part to see what Mr. Spring and his cohorts are so exercised about, and, more importantly, to further clarify the potential impact of the treaty.  The relevant statement from the preamble, in its entirety, reads as follows:

“Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties…”

So, what does this observation mean? First, it indicates that Russia has no objection to current U.S. missile defenses. And second, it indicates that the relationship between offensive and defensive arms will become “more important” as the numbers of strategic weapons are reduced.

In short, the preamble language is just a statement of reality.  If nuclear weapons are reduced substantially – to levels far lower than the 1,550 allowed to each side under New START – the balance between offensive and defensive arms will need to be handled carefully to avoid sparking a new arms race.  Why is this? Because if Russia fears that the United States can destroy most of its nuclear weapons, and then blunt any retaliatory action with its missile defenses, Moscow will feel vulnerable to what is known as a “disarming first strike.”  Rather than accept this position of vulnerability, Russia will deploy more warheads and delivery vehicles to prevent the U.S. from developing or sustaining a first strike capability, and an arms race will ensue.

That is precisely why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has suggested that the United States should not pursue such a capability:

“Under the last administration, as well as under this one, it has been United States policy not to build a missile defense that would render useless Russia’s nuclear capabilities . . . That, in our view as well as theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive.”

In other words, the concern implied in the preamble is an unlikely scenario, barring a major shift in U.S. policy.  But one job of military planners is to take unlikely scenarios into account.  So, the preamble language flags a problem that might arise far down the road, if then.  It has nothing to do with the situation that will exist under New START.

Given all of the above, one wonders whether Mr. Carafano’s and Mr. Spring’s charges regarding New START and missile defense aren’t simply distractions designed to obscure the main point.  New START is a good treaty that will make the United States safer.  Not only will it reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons by one-third, but it will restore an effective verification system that will allow the United States to keep close tabs on Russia’s nuclear program.  It will also serve to deepen U.S. and Russian cooperation in the nuclear sphere, making it easier to work together on issues like securing and dismantling “loose nukes” and bomb-making materials that might otherwise fall into the hands of terrorists.  And it will signal to the rest of the world that Washington and Moscow are serious about nuclear arms reductions, thereby making it easier to persuade other nations to reduce or eliminate their own arsenals.

New START puts no limits on missile defenses, and it has considerable security benefits that make it worthy of ratification by the Senate as soon as possible.  Mr. Carafano and Mr. Spring should remember that this is not just my opinion, it is the opinion of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Kevin Chilton, the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, Secretary of Defense Gates and countless other prominent national security experts.  The advice of our nation’s most respected military and national security leaders has been clear:  New START is essential to our national security and the Senate should move rapidly to ratify New START.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.