New START and the allure of strategic superiority

By Joshua Pollack | September 24, 2010

After countless Senate hearings and nearly six months after the signing ceremony in Prague, the New START treaty has successfully passed out of committee. The support of the necessary 67 out of 100 senators appears likely but is not yet a done deal; as a Senate staff member told the Washington Post, “The administration is still going to have to work on these votes.”

After countless Senate hearings and nearly six months after the signing ceremony in Prague, the New START treaty has successfully passed out of committee. The support of the necessary 67 out of 100 senators appears likely but is not yet a done deal; as a Senate staff member told the Washington Post, "The administration is still going to have to work on these votes."

The text of the approved resolution of advice and consent to ratification provides a roadmap for the journey of persuasion that lies ahead. Its conditions, understandings, and declarations illuminate what could be called the persuadable skeptics' idea of the proper role of arms control: the rigorous and mistrustful enforcement of parity. Indeed, if some senators ultimately cannot be reconciled to the treaty, it may be because they prefer strategic superiority to parity.

In principle, the overriding purpose of a nuclear arms control treaty is not guaranteeing roughly equal numbers of warheads, numbers of missiles, or some other quantity. Rather, it's stability. When two sides are vulnerable to each other's attack, adding forces simply reduces the other side's security without improving one's own. The keys to survival are not more arms, then, but removing any incentives to launch a pre-emptive attack during a crisis, and avoiding fatal misunderstandings.  It's no accident that the first bilateral nuclear arms control agreement, which was concluded within months of the Cuban Missile Crisis, served to establish an emergency communications "hotline" between Moscow and Washington.

Nevertheless, it has turned out to be difficult to resist the urge to build more strategic forces than the other side. By now, it shouldn't require any complex analysis to realize that the most important aspects of a deterrent force are its ability to survive an attack, retaliate, and deal unacceptable harm to the attacker. From a coldly rational perspective, as long as the other side has no way to protect its major cities from retaliation, who happens to own more bombs is beside the point. But as Bernard Brodie anticipated years before the first Soviet nuclear test, the pursuit of numerical superiority would yield a sort of "political capital," regardless of its inability to supply the "military security" traditionally offered by superiority in conventional armed forces. For this reason, the second major purpose for strategic nuclear treaties, from SALT I in 1972 to New START in 2010, has been to contain the runaway costs of an arms race and check the ensuing growth of mutual mistrust.

The importance of parity is immediately apparent in the New START treaty text, which centers on common numerical ceilings for bombers and ballistic missiles, warheads, and missile launchers. Shelving potential strategic arms competition supports the logic of a "reset" in relations; if the arms race recommences, it will be difficult to win Moscow's cooperation on other fronts, including Iran's nuclear program.

But the resolution of ratification takes parity concerns to new heights. The text displays great sensitivity to the risk of Russian noncompliance, the verifiability of the treaty, the possibility that the executive branch might contemplate cuts to nuclear forces deeper than those required, and even the possibility that third-party arsenals might grow to superpower levels. Seemingly any possible source of numerical disadvantage — however symbolic, political, or psychological in nature the problem ultimately might be — has been run to ground.

And the resolution goes beyond parity. In two areas — missile defense and conventional prompt global strike — it seeks to hold the door open to future forms of American strategic superiority. While these points do not contradict the treaty text, they do suggest how future developments could undermine its logic and damage trust and cooperation between the United States and Russia.

First, the resolution expresses an understanding that the treaty imposes no limits on the growth of missile defense systems — a point often made in support of the treaty by arms control advocates not usually known for championing defensive systems. The resolution goes on to affirm the treaty's compatibility with the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, which called for deployment of a system "capable of defending the territory of the United States" against limited attacks. At the last minute, too, the Senate committee added a compromise amendment to the resolution declaring that the United States is "free to reduce [its] vulnerability to attack" by building additional defensive systems.

Second, the resolution emphasizes the importance of proposals for conventional prompt global strike, meaning intercontinental-range weapons with precision-guided conventional warheads. It calls upon the Obama Administration to deliver a comprehensive analysis of competing efforts to develop this new type of weapon. Because current programs involve "boost-glide" systems that the United States does not consider to be ballistic missiles limited by New START, the resolution insists that the treaty would have to be formally amended before it could include them.

Unfortunately, mistrust turns out to be a two-way street. While Washington usually justifies missile defenses and conventional prompt global strike in terms of regional adversaries, i.e., North Korea and Iran, these explanations are not necessarily accepted in Moscow (or Beijing, for that matter). Certainly when it comes to missile defense, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov's recent comments to the media betray no doubts: "They tell us their missile shield is not aimed against us, but we tell them our calculations show it is aimed against us."

The same fears are expressed in Moscow's unilateral statement on missile defense, which conveys that a "qualitative or quantitative build-up in the missile defense system capabilities" could threaten Russia's "strategic nuclear force potential," and would be grounds for withdrawal from New START. The Senate resolution correctly notes that this declaration is not binding upon the United States. It also adds, rather grandly, that "the Senate finds that conventionally armed, strategic-range weapons systems not co-located with nuclear-armed systems do not affect strategic stability between the United States and the Russian Federation." It is unlikely that this judgment is widely shared in Russia.

Neither issue should prevent the treaty from entering into force, but either might lead to its unraveling later if the United States should pursue large-scale deployments. For treaty skeptics, that may be an acceptable outcome. But for anyone cognizant of the importance of sustained Russian cooperation in dealing with other issues, most of all Iran, it's a sobering prospect.

In the years to come, Congress and the administration would be well-served to reflect carefully on the purposes, relevance, and cost-effectiveness of new strategic weapons. In the "numbers game," it will not be difficult for other parties to offset these expensive, cutting-edge systems with additional nuclear missiles or warheads. Even less-capable adversaries will have countermeasures available, especially if they have help from more capable countries. It will be less easy for the United States to recover the trust and cooperation needed to advance its most important goals in nonproliferation and regional security.

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