“Limit” is a very particular word — The definitions in OED suggest usage most often involves those things that we can measure: time, acreage, troops, eggs, and whatnot.
That usage holds true, too, in the context of arms control treaties, where we use “limit” to mean a numerical constraint such as so-many ICBMs or so-many warheads. So, for example, the practice in START documents of referring to treaty’s “central limit” of 1600 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, as well as various “limits” and “sub-limits” of delivery vehicles and warheads. In all cases, a “limit” refers to something numerical. Try search strings like start nuclear limit site:.gov or start nuclear limit site:.mil and the pattern is clear.
In that narrow sense, START does not limit US missile defenses. Nevertheless, the treaty touches upon missile defenses in three ways, which I gather will be the subject of discussion during the ratification process:
1. The preambular language recognizes that there is an interrelationship between strategic offenses and strategic defenses.
2. Article 3 (7A) excludes missile-defense interceptors from the definition of a ballistic missile, irrespective of other characteristics like trajectory or range.
3. Article V (3) prohibits further conversion of ICBM and SLBM launchers to hold missile defense interceptors, and vice versa. (Previously converted launchers are grand-fathered.)
The preamble to the Prague Treaty contains a passage that comments on the relationship between strategic offenses and defenses:
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.
You could utter any or all these things at a Defense Policy Board meeting and no one would spit coffee through his nose. This is pretty bland stuff.
What will complicate the preambular language is Russia’s unilateral statement that “the extraordinary conditions” that might lead to Moscow’s withdrawal would include the development of US defenses that “would result in a threat to the potential of the strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation.”
Such statements are not new — as Kingston Reif and Travis Sharp have both noted, Moscow made a similar statement after signing the original START. (I hasten to add that the vote on START was 93-6 with yes votes including Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar, John McCain, and Mitch McConnell.) The Administration, too, seems aware of this history.
Yet, it seems some are set to make an issue of this language and the Russian statement. I really don’t understand the issue. It is a fact of life that Russia takes current and anticipated US missile defense capabilities into account when making decisions about its nuclear forces. It is also the fact that the treaty has a withdrawal clause. The New START Treaty would not last long if the United States developed extraordinarily capable defenses that would allow the United States to negate the Russian deterrent.
That is precisely why even the Bush Administration sought to make clear that missile defense did not threaten Russia. On that score, I think missile defense advocates should welcome the preamble, which commits Russia to the statement that “current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.” That’s going to be useful at some point.
Missile Defense Exclusion
The treaty defines intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and, for good measure, enumerates them by type. Although missile defense interceptors are not listed as treaty-limited equipment, the treaty contains a further provision to make clear that interceptors — without regard to their range or other properties — are simply not ballistic missiles to be covered by the treaty:
A missile of a type developed and tested solely to intercept and counter objects not located on the surface of the Earth shall not be considered to be a ballistic missile to which the provisions of the treaty apply.
No Silo Conversion
Finally, Article IV of the Treaty contains a number of provisions that confine the location of treaty limited equipment. So, for example, there are restrictions on joint basing of nuclear-equipped and non-nuclear-equipped heavy bombers. The principle is a straightforward one: Requiring parties to declare the locations of equipment substantially eases the task of verification.
Article V, which deals with the development of new offensive arms, contains a provision that prohibits the parties from using ICBM and SLBM launchers to house missile defense interceptors and vice versa:
Each Party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein.
The advantages of this are obvious: otherwise, you would have Russian inspectors crawling all over US missile defense interceptors to ensure they weren’t stocked with contraband treaty-limited equipment.
Keith Payne and others have erroneously claimed the Prague Treaty counts the five Minuteman III silos at Vandenberg that were converted for missile defense missions and that “the launchers themselves probably will be eliminated.”
That is incorrect. The passage from the treaty clearly notes that the provision does not apply to launchers previously converted. (Nor, obviously, would it apply to new missile-defense launchers in Alaska or Poland.)
Moreover, the Seventh Agreed Statement of the Protocol contains procedures to conduct an exhibition to demonstrate that the silos at Vandenberg really were converted to hold missile defense interceptors. It is evident that nothing need be eliminated. All one had to do was read the treaty.
Ah, there is the rub! I confronted a colleague making this accusation the other day. He responded that we won’t know until the treaty text is released. The text had been released a couple of days before (and I had slogged through it before doing interviews). Not having read the treaty didn’t stop my colleague from being very confident about his assertion in a public setting, which is a life lesson, I suppose.
Does The Treaty Limit Missile Defenses?
I think it is very hard to conclude that the treaty “limits” missile defenses. The treaty may have some implications for missile defense programs, but on the whole it is written in such a way as to create space for current and planned missile defense programs, including language that exempts interceptors from the definition of an ICBM and the provision to “grandfather” the converted silos at Vandenberg.
Still, I suspect we will continue hear from some quarters that the treaty “limits” missile defense. This is a form of special pleading. The common-sense test is that no one would claim that the treaty “limits” conventional bombers, despite some provisions to separate conventional bombers from their nuclear-equipped brethren. By any consistent standard, the treaty limits neither.