Bush Administration Decides to Let START Die

World Politics Review | Bush Administration Decides to Let START Die

 Richard Weitz | Bio | 07 Aug 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive

In a written statement submitted for his July 31 Senate confirmation hearing, Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command and the Bush administration’s nominee to become the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that the administration has decided not to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) after it expires in Dec. 5, 2009.

In his written description of his vision for developing a conventional, non-nuclear, prompt global strike capability, Gen. Cartwright included the following question: “Does the Administration’s decision not to extend the START Treaty have any impact on development of a prompt global strike capability?” The general argued that ending START would give the administration more flexibility to pursue prompt global strike options and systems “that contribute to national security and reduce our reliance upon nuclear weapons.”

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed START on July 31, 1991, after a decade of contentious negotiations and months before the U.S.S.R.’s disintegration later that year. The accord required both countries to reduce their strategic holdings to 6,000 nuclear warheads on a maximum of 1,600 strategic delivery systems (land- and sea-launched ballistic missiles or long-range bombers) by Dec. 5, 2001.

START did not come into force until Dec. 5, 1994, after the parties agreed that Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine would serve as legal successors to the Soviet Union for the purposes of the treaty. START’s initial duration is 15 years, but the parties can agree to its extension for successive five-year periods. Each side also has the right to withdraw from the treaty by giving the other side six month’s notice.

The treaty document is very long, complex, and contains perhaps the most extensive inspection and verification provisions in the history of arms control. A December 2001 State Department fact sheet observes: “A significant aspect of the START Treaty’s regime lies in its use of rigorous, equitable and verifiable methods to monitor its implementation. The right to perform on-site inspections and other verification measures will continue for the duration of the Treaty, in order to verify compliance. In addition, data exchanges and notifications on each side’s strategic systems and facilities as well as exchanges of telemetry data from missile flight tests will help to maintain confidence in the status and level of the Parties’ strategic forces.”

Since then, however, members of the Bush administration have expressed increasing dissatisfaction with START. In particular, they have repeatedly indicated that they consider comprehensive strategic arms control treaties largely irrelevant in a world in which threats from transnational terrorists and states of proliferation concern have become far more important than fears of a confrontation between Moscow and Washington. More recently, they have complained that the treaty’s burdensome verification measures would still not prevent the Russian military from concealing additional warheads if it chose to do so. As Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter complained to Reuters, “you’re never going to know how many warheads they are going to have on various missiles.”
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In his Senate testimony, Gen. Cartwright did reaffirm the administration’s continued support for implementing the remaining provisions of the bilateral Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which was signed in 2002 in Moscow. Administration representatives have argued that SORT’s implementation should suffice to place the Russian-American strategic relationship on a stable basis since the treaty provides for major reductions in both sides’ current nuclear arsenals — to between 1,700 and 2,200 “operationally deployed strategic warheads” by Dec. 31, 2012.

One complication with respect to SORT, however, is that the treaty does not provide for its own verification measures. When SORT was signed, the assumption was that Russia and the United States would either simply extend START beyond 2009 or negotiate new measures before then. Last summer, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about “stagnation” in the bilateral strategic arms control dialogue resulting from Washington’s perceived lack of interest in discussing post-START issues.

Without a new agreement, both governments will have to rely primarily on less effective national means of verification after START’s expiration. This situation could prove problematic. Observers note that the lack of interim deadlines for reductions means that the SORT warhead limits will both take effect and expire on the same day (though in practice both countries are gradually reducing their nuclear forces toward that level). Questions also exist about the treaty’s lack of detailed verification procedures, the absence of a timetable and rules for warhead reductions, its 90-day withdrawal clause, and other uncertainties associated with the three-page document. U.S. intelligence analysts have indicated that these uncertainties prevent them from verifying Russia’s treaty compliance with high confidence.

The Bush administration has now indicated that it will abandon START but has yet to indicate what will replace it. At the time of last month’s presidential meeting in Kennebunkport, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a three-sentence statement reaffirming their intent to pursue further strategic arms reductions, providing any lower levels would remain “consistent with their national security requirements and alliance commitments.” Yet, Russian and U.S. negotiators continue to disagree on several important issues, including whether any follow-on agreement needs to be embodied in a formal treaty or whether a less formal mechanism like the Moscow Treaty might suffice.

Russian officials want to retain formal legal restrictions on U.S. strategic forces, including limits on the number of American strategic warheads and delivery vehicles — corresponding to the level they expect Russia’s strategic forces to reach at that period (which is lower than current U.S. totals). They also want to require the United States to destroy warheads removed from its active stockpile rather than simply place them in storage. Russians fear that, at some future point, Washington could simply “upload” these warheads back onto U.S. strategic systems and thereby quickly reconstitute its pre-START II force. Finally, members of the Russian government have expressed continued interest in retaining some of the detailed verification and data exchange provisions that have long characterized strategic arms control agreements.

Even in Washington, members of the U.S. government remain divided on whether any START follow-on agreement should contain binding verification provisions. Arms control analysts within the U.S. intelligence community favor continuing START-like obligations because it helps them monitor Russian strategic developments. In contrast, several influential policy makers in the Bush administration, supported by civilian and military strategists, advocate lax verification provisions to remove possible impediments to placing conventional warheads on U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Another complication is that leading Democrats and Republicans have urged the Bush administration either to extend START or replace it with a new treaty with comprehensive verification requirements. Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democratic candidate for president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has argued: “It’s a lose-lose situation for the U.S. and Russia if START were to lapse.” Similarly, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.) has praised START’s elaborate verification regime for reducing “the chances of misinterpretation, miscalculation and error.”

Since START will not expire until after a new U.S. administration assumes office, the next president should have ample opportunity to reverse the current administration’s decision regarding the treaty should he or she decide to do so.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a WPR contributing editor.

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