Back from the brink of annihilation, the Obama administration’s treaty with Russia on reducing nuclear weapons is looking like it’ll pass the Senate after all, possibly as early as Wednesday. The only thing that everyone’s overlooked in the past several months’ political theater over the treaty is what it actually does — and doesn’t do. So we’re here to help.
The headlines first: New START caps strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 on each side. (According to the nuke wonks at the Ploughshares Fund, the Russians have 2,600 strategic nuclear weapons and the United States has just under 2,000.) The intercontinental ballistic missiles, subs and bombers that deliver them have to be capped at 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers.
By most arms-control experts’ accounts, these are pretty modest cuts, still allowing each side to incinerate the Earth several times over.
Additionally, every year, each side will conduct 18 on-site inspections at places where those warheads and delivery vehicles are stored. That’s 10 annual inspections fewer than under the old treaty, but more data is extracted from each inspection. The 1991 predecessor treaty only allowed inspectors to count launchers and approximate the number of warheads they contained, for instance, but the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty requires the United States and Russia to individually catalog each weapon with its distinct warhead payload.
Here’s one aspect of the missile-counting that pertains to the treaty’s key sticking point from Senate Republicans: missile defense. “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 a ballistic missile to which the provisions of this Treaty apply,” the treaty reads. And that leads to what the treaty doesn’t do.
The treaty doesn’t limit missile defense. The closest it comes is to bar each side from converting its intercontinental and sub-launched ballistic-missile launchers into delivery mechanisms for anti-ballistic-missile interceptors.
Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June that there aren’t any plans anyway to convert ICBM launchers for missile defense and that repurposing sub launchers for missile defense “would be very expensive and impractical.” In other words, he said, “the new START treaty does not constrain our plans to execute the U.S. missile defense program,” and its new provisions for counting missiles and expanded telemetry data-sharing “reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program.”
What it also doesn’t do: Reduce any of the forward-deployed, short-range nuclear weapons each side possesses.
WikiLeaks revealed that the United States still has tactical nuclear weapons in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey. U.S. spies believe that Russians have moved their own tactical nuclear weapons closer to their western borders, scaring some of the eastern-European NATO members. (Although Poland’s foreign minister urged the Senate to ratify the new START last month.)
But Danger Room pal Jeffrey Lewis summed up the problem with using the no-tactical-nuke-reductions in the treaty as an argument against ratification: “Do you know why the New START treaty doesn’t deal with tactical nuclear weapons? Because it starts with a f’cking S, that’s why.” In other words, if anyone wants a follow-on treaty for limiting tactical nuclear weapons, that’s got to wait for another treaty. And the only way to get the Russians to agree to another treaty is to ratify this one.
MPs in Russia could approve a new strategic arms reduction treaty with the US as early as tomorrow after President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed the pact.
The country's overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin parliament is likely to push the agreement through swiftly, despite doubts over Washington's desire to station a missile defence shield in Europe.
Medvedev's office said today he was "pleased to learn that the United States Senate has ratified the Start Treaty and expressed hope that the State Duma and the Federation Council [lower and upper houses of parliament] will be ready to consider this issue shortly and to ratify the document".