Offense and defense after New START

By Pavel Podvig | January 6, 2011

Senate approval of New START on Dec. 22 opened the way for quick reciprocity on the side of the Russian parliament, which launched its own ratification process just two days later. Russia has expressed some concerns about the wording of the Senate’s ratification resolution on missile defense and conventionally armed strategic launchers; however, since the treaty text remained unchanged, the Duma will pass a resolution in which it will register its own understandings of some of the treaty provisions, but will avoid inserting those into the treaty itself. If everything goes well, New START could enter into force in January or February, after which the data exchange and inspection procedures between the two countries will be carried through almost immediately.

The only way to remove the political posturing from the issue and bring the United States and Russia to an agreement on the real world capabilities of missile defense is to ensure that the two countries closely collaborate in order to understand clearly the limitations of each country’s missile defense.

Intended to be a treaty that restores US-Russian arms control, New START also lays the foundation for deeper nuclear reductions — this is the work that the treaty does quite well. At the same time, it is clear that New START is the last “traditional” arms control agreement in that it exclusively deals with the two largest nuclear weapons states and their strategic nuclear weapons. Further steps toward nuclear disarmament will require dealing with a range of different issues, and difficult issues in their own right — from tactical nuclear weapons and conventional strategic launchers to nuclear warheads in storage and the arsenals in other nuclear weapon states. Success in dealing with these matters will depend on whether the United States and Russia find a way around a problem that will quite likely dominate the debate: missile defense.

Missile defense worked its way into the New START process by way of a relatively modest clause in the treaty preamble. The treaty recognizes “the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms.” This addition, which Russia insisted on including in the text, incensed US missile defense advocates and, at one point, this nearly derailed ratification. The politics of missile defense in the United States is such that further restrictions on the US program would be practically impossible — given the support it has in Congress, no president would risk signing an agreement with Russia that limits the program. Russia, on the other hand, is showing no signs of backing down and will probably insist on some tangible limits on missile defense should the United States ask it for concessions on other issues, like tactical nuclear weapons or non-deployed warheads. Russia has already stated that it reserves the right to withdraw from New START if the US missile defense system threatens its strategic potential.

Although this definitely looks like a recipe for a stalemate, it is not. At least it should not be. If managed correctly, missile defense is not a threat to the arms control process. Russia, of course, still will have the right to follow through on its threat to withdraw from New START — but there will be no reason to do so.

Here’s why: Though the treaty preamble includes language on the interrelationship between offensive and defensive arms, the preamble includes another statement, which is equally important. That is: “current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms.” The reality of the defense-offense relationship is that this statement will remain true no matter how deeply the United States and Russia cut their nuclear forces: At no point will missile defense be able to pose a serious threat to strategic offensive arsenals.

It may be hard to imagine today that, as the number of weapons decreases, the US missile defense will not impact the strategic balance. But this is exactly what happened to missile defense in the past. If we look at the development trajectory of the missile defense system, we will notice that the goals of the program grew increasingly modest. The vision of missile defense evolved from Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” — which was supposed to defend the US population against thousands of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles — to the current system that is oriented toward intercepting a few non-sophisticated short-range missiles aimed at military bases. And as people begin to understand what missile defense can and cannot do, they also become more realistic in their assessment of the kind of nuclear reductions that are possible. Twenty-five years ago the argument between the United States and the Soviet Union was whether they could reduce their forces to the level of 6,000 warheads without letting missile defense undermine their deterrent — today, the US and Russia are on record saying that the New START arsenals of 1,550 warheads are not threatened by missile defenses. The trend is obvious, and it should be possible for the two countries to agree that the deployed missile defense systems do not pose a threat to an arsenal of, say, 500 or even 100 warheads.

The most difficult part, of course, is to reach that point of mutual understanding. Missile defense has always been and will always remain an issue that is quite vulnerable to various political manipulations on both sides. The only way to remove the political posturing from the issue and bring the United States and Russia to an agreement on the real world capabilities of missile defense is to ensure that the two countries closely collaborate in order to understand clearly the limitations of missile defense. Again, history should be our guide: Once the missile defense enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1980s gave way to a serious analysis of missile defense capabilities, it became clear to both countries that the defense is helpless in countering missile threats.

The most important result of New START is that both the US and Russia have made a solid commitment toward deeper nuclear disarmament. This is a historical move forward and, to keep the momentum, the two countries should not forget their own past lessons: Missile defense cannot offer protection against real world missile threats. It is critical that the two countries cooperate and fully understand this, so that missile defense does not undermine the process of nuclear disarmament.

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