Obama and Medvedev

One of the common “sky is falling” claims of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) supporters like Hillary Clinton and John Isaacs of the Council of a Livable World is that unless this treaty with Russia is ratified, we’ll have nothing binding to make us continue reducing our nuclear weapons arsenal.

Those claims are just plain false, and the Obama Administration should acknowledge that fact –now.

Today, the levels of strategic nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia are governed by the Bush-era Moscow Treaty or as its technically known, the Treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States of America on Strategic Offensive Reductions. The Moscow Treaty is still in force, is currently limiting the size of both strategic nuclear arsenals, and will remain so until the end of 2012, if New START is not ratified.

Simply put: considering the flaws in START,the existing Moscow Treaty is a better deal for America. And, better yet, remaining under it gives us time to go back to the drawing board to negotiate a treaty that better serves American interests, including one which  doesn’t limit missile defenses or our conventional weapons programs, doesn’t permit Russia to grow its strategic nuclear arsenal, provides for real verification – and addresses tactical nukes.

There is no need to rush to ratify a treaty that will make Americans less safe.

For instance, while leaving aside all the other problems with New START, consider the central issue of how many strategic nuclear weapons each side will have under the Moscow Treaty versus New START.

The Administration claims the new treaty will reduce the number of strategic warheads permitted by the Moscow Treaty by 30 percent. Not really. New START would impose a limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, while the Moscow Treaty limits the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200—which on the surface looks like a 30 percent reduction. But, as the New Start Working Group explains, the Moscow Treaty’s limits,which complemented the restrictions under the START I Treaty that was in force until December, actually required deeper reductions and included more restrictions than what we see in New START:

New START’s counting rules and apparent lapses will permit increases in Russian strategic force levels above the 1,700–2,200 deployed warhead limit of the Moscow Treaty. RIA Novosti, an official news agency of the Russian Federation, already has reported that given New START’s counting rules, Russia will be able to retain 2,100 strategic nuclear warheads under New START, not 1,550. Russia will be able to deploy even higher numbers under New START if it follows through on announced modernization programs, particularly the new heavy bomber. In addition Russia could deploy strategic nuclear systems that were limited or prohibited under START I, but appear not to be limited whatsoever under New START.

So we will cut our strategic nuclear warhead levels to 1,550, but Russia will keep 2,100. How does that advance American security?

Another problem is how these weapons are counted. The Moscow Treaty counts nuclear warheads at heavy bomber bases. New START counts bombers, but assigns only one warhead to each bomber regardless of how many warheads a bomber actually can or is carrying or how many are deployed at each base—as RIA Novosti reports: “Under the Treaty, one nuclear warhead will be counted for each deployed heavy bomber which can carry 12-24 missiles or bombs, depending on its type.”

So, there is no limit to the number of weapons that may be carried by a Russian bomber. In the judgment of former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and U.S. Special Envoy for Nuclear Nonproliferation Bob Joseph and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelmen:

[B]ecause a bomber will now be counted as one warhead no matter how many bombs or cruise missiles it carries, the agreement may be the first of its kind to permit an actual increase in fielded warhead levels. Furthermore, as some analysts have suggested, the treaty may contain a startling loophole, large enough to drive a train through, which would not count ICBM launchers on rail-mobile platforms…

There are plenty of reasons to worry about New START. So the next time you hear someone say it’s all or nothing, in other words, it’s New Start or complete vulnerability to nuclear attack, don’t believe it. As former Assistant Secretary of State Kim Holmes explains in a forthcoming piece in The Washington Times, there is a far better way to reduce nuclear weapons and stop their spread to countries that don’t care about proliferation than by re-freezing the world in another old Cold War–style treaty.

A better strategy would protect and defend all peace-loving people from nuclear attack by reducing the numbers of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads without constraining missile defense; deploying nuclear weapons only to enhance those missile defenses without threatening population centers; fostering more international cooperation in missile defense; signing bilateral treaties with Russia and others to specifically counter nuclear-armed terrorism; and address battlefield nuclear weapons.

Down the road that effort could lead to an international stability treaty that emphasizes strategic defenses such as missile defense instead of offensive nuclear arms and deals far better with the real problem of nuclear proliferation – not to mention American security.