Last week, the Senate Republican Policy Committee released this execrable document, START: Do Time Extension Instead of a Bad Treaty, on the New START treaty.

Today, I finagled a copy of a memo that Senator Kyl’s staff has distrubuted in advance of a briefing that Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller will give to the Senate National Security Working Group tomorrow at 9 am.

The memo, October 8, 2009 briefing with START negotiating team, is not very encouraging.

Taken together, these two documents are disheartening, in that they depict an opposition to the President that isn’t serious.

So, this is sort of a long post on why the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is important to US national security, but it is also in some sense an elegy to the dwindling number of moderate Republicans who played such an important role in setting US nuclear weapons and arms control policy.

Arms Control Is A Favor We Do Ourselves, Not The Russians

I want to start by addressing the juvenile tone of the Senate Republican Policy Committee document, which repeatedly implies the new START treaty is some kind of favor to Moscow.

The document repeatedly asks whether Russia has “earned” further reductions or whether its behavior “warrants” a new treaty.

This is crazy. The Administration seeks a New START agreement for the same reason that a McCain Administration would have: because it is in our interest, for at least two reasons.

1. A new START is important to drive the Russians toward a more stabilizing strategic posture that does not depend heavily on MIRV’ed ICBMs, and

2. A new START is essential to our ability to monitor Russian nuclear weapons programs.

I want to talk about each of these in turn, but indulge me for a bit on the subject of strategic stability.

Strategic Stability

A lot of people were shocked to hear Secretary Gates explain (in an unclassified setting) that one of Moscow’s main concerns was that “ground-based interceptors in Poland could be fitted with nuclear weapons and become an offensive weapon like a Pershing and a weapon for which they would have virtually no warning time.”

Yes, I know that sounds very War Games. But the Russians have always been paranoid about decapitation strikes against their creaky command and control structure, from the War Scare of 1983, through the 1995 Black Brant fiasco, right up to today.

Understand, this is the strategic culture that gave the world “Perimeter” — the so-called “Doomsday Machine” or “Dead Hand” detailed in David Hoffman’s book of the same name and in a recent Wired article by Nick Thompson. Perimeter, as Thompson writes, was largely a measure to compensate for inadequate Soviet command-and-control capabilities.

The fact that Moscow still worries today about command performance should give us pause. It is not in our interest for the Russians — and their giant nuclear arsenal — to operate on the basis of paranoid fantasies about the United States.

Arms control is one way to address that. So let’s be clear, we do this because it is in our interest.

Russia’s Declining Strategic Forces

The Senate Republican Policy Committee asks what is intended to be a rhetorical question: “Why pay for what is free?” Russia’s strategic forces are in decline, so why agree to cut ours?

Over the next decade, in the absence of any arms control treaty or agreement, “the number of delivery vehicles in Russia’s nuclear arsenal will continue to decline sharply,” perhaps to fewer than 500 delivery vehicles.55 This is because “Russian strategic systems have not been designed for long service lives,” and Russia is unable to replace aging delivery systems at the pace at which they are retired.56 There is certainly no reason for the United States to pay for something that is going to happen with or without an arms control treaty. In this respect, there is no reason for the United States to sacrifice U.S. nuclear force structure, or other
unrelated national defense matters, such as missile defense or prompt global strike, “as a price to be paid for an agreement that requires nothing of the Russians beyond discarding the aged systems they plan to eliminate in any event.”57

This is fantastically misleading!

What is declining in Russia is the number of delivery vehicles — missiles, bombers and the like — not the number of warheads.

The Republican Senate Policy Committee attempts to obscure this distinction by stating that “Russia needs this agreement far more than the U.S. does. It is desperately trying to lock the U.S. into lower nuclear levels, not the other way around.”

“Nuclear levels” is a meaningless phrase intended to deceive, not elucidate — Russia wants lower numbers of delivery vehicles but more warheads. The United States seeks the opposite: lower levels of warheads — much, much lower than even in the Joint Understanding — but many more delivery vehicles.

Senator Kyl’s letter acknowledges this, noting that “the Russians have been testing a new multiple-warhead version of the Topol-M ballistic missile” that would be prohibited under START.

Russia is deploying the MIRV’ed Topol because Moscow wants to keep its warhead numbers constant, even as the number of delivery vehicles plummets.

In other words, Russia is heading toward MIRVing the hell out of its strategic forces to keep its warhead numbers up around 1700. This is probably the only thing I agree with in Senator Kyl’s letter — I am also disturbed by the deployment of the MIRV’ed Topol. I don’t worry that the missile itself disturbs the strategic balance, but I do worry about what the MIRV’ed Topol deployment says about trends in future Russian strategic forces.

Recall the discussion of nuclear decapitation and strategic stability. It is not in our interest for Russian leaders to be confused about the possibility of a decapitating U.S. first strike — unless the thought of a half-drunk Boris Yeltsin staring at the Russian “football” doesn’t bother you. Now, imagine that a significant fraction of Russia’s nuclear forces are deployed on a small number of relatively vulnerable land-based ballistic missiles. What impact do you think that will have on the time pressure faced by a future Russian leader?

A very senior Bush Administration official, one who was deeply involved with negotiating the original START, once said to me: “One way to look at the arms control endeavor is as a bipartisan effort over the past thirty-years or so to drive the Soviets and now the Russians to a more stable strategic posture.”

That really stuck with me, because I think it is dead-on. Indeed, Kerry Kartchner’s history of the START negotiations, Negotiating START: Strategic Arms Reduction Talks and the Quest for Strategic Stability, makes this point eloquently:

The U.S. approach to START was, above all, a quest for strategic stability, the Holy Grail of the nuclear era. In fact, early Reagan statements made it clear that no agreement would be better than an arms control accord that failed to enhance strategic stability. This pont underscored the view that arms control was a means to an end, and certainly not the only means …

This is why, for instance, the George H. W. Bush Administration negotiated a START II agreement with Russia that banned MIRV’ed ICBMs.

Obviously, I’d like to get back to that MIRV ban. (MIRVs and the Moscow Treaty, December 12, 2004). But that’s not going to happen (STRATCOM Hearts MIRV, January 30, 2006, STRATCOM Still Hearts MIRVs, November 29, 2007).

In the interim the best we can do is try to make sure the New START agreement strikes a better balance between the number of operationally deployed warheads and the number of strategic delivery vehicles than what we are likely to have absent an agreement, while preserving the essential monitoring and verification provisions.

Why Not Just Extend START for 5 Years?

Let me begin by saying that I favored START extension throughout the twilight of Bush Administration.

I tried puns (START Talking March 7, 2007), the obvious (Extend START, April 20, 2007), and the over-the-top (Frickin’ Extend START Already, June 21, 2007) before slipping into despair (START: Dead Treaty Walking, September 22, 2008).

But the Bush Administration, or at least the parts that mattered, wasn’t interested because of the paperwork burden imposed by the verification measures. (Sadly, that is not hyperbole.)

So, believe you me, when Senate Republicans suddenly say “We should just extend the treaty,” well that comes at it mighty high.

The reality is that “extending START” is, as options go, a poison pill. If Rose Gottemoeller shows up in Geneva and says “scrap the joint understanding, let’s just extend START,” the Russians are going to take their MIRV’ed Topol ICBMs and go home.

We had a chance to extend the START Treaty — which I favored — but that opportunity is now past.

What about Verification?

Finally, Senator Kyl’s memo states that a draft New START “was not accompanied by the important verification protocol.” The implication is that the Administration has no intention of negotiating verification measures, which I sincerely doubt.

Again, given that the Bush Administration negotiated the Moscow Treaty without a verification protocol, this is somewhat churlish.

But the fact is that maintaining the verification and monitoring provisions in START is an important interest. We know, thanks to Jonathan Landay’s excellent reporting, that the Intelligence Community issued NIE on Russian strategic forces that expressed doubt about our ability to monitor Russian compliance with the Moscow Treaty without the measures in the START agreement. (See: IC Can’t Verify Moscow Treaty, December 22, 2004).

So, I guess this is the second area in which Senator Kyl and I agree — the verification provisions will be important. I am a little surprised to see this, because the Senate Republican Policy Committee was rather blase about the demise of START noting “If the verification regime is extended, both Russia and the United States benefit similarly; whereas if it lapses, there is probably equal detriment.”

That’s asinine.

Let me ask you: Do you think it is easier to make reliable open source estimates of US or Russian strategic forces? To say that the lapse of the verification provision would be to the equal detriment of both sides is one of the more foolish things I’ve seen in a long time.

Please Be Serious

This is really a plea for Senate Republicans to play a constructive, engaged role, rather than being arm-chair negotiators. (Hey, that’s my job!)

I happen to think that the START process under Reagan and Bush greatly improved on SALT, not the least for the conceptual approach taken by self-consciously “conservative” supporters of arms control that emphasized strategic stability over conviviality. In retrospect, I think the START I and START II treaties were impressive pieces of work that reflected both Democratic and Republican priorities.

I suppose it only seems that way with hindsight. But, right now, I am feeling nostalgia for the good old days.