New START and Nuclear Midnight

By Daniel McGroarty

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia's Dmitry Medvedev meet today in Prague to sign the so-called "New START" nuclear arms reduction treaty. Media reports have prefaced the signing with replays of the president's 2009 Prague speech, pledging to pursue "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." New START, in this narrative, represents a step, albeit a modest one, towards that audacious goal.

But don't wait for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to reset the hands on the Doomsday Clock; they won't. Consider that as a counterweight to breathless reporting on "the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades." START I, signed in Moscow by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, pushed the clock back seven minutes - the single biggest reset, to the safest moment in Doomsday history: 17 Minutes to Midnight. It appears we'll have to be satisfied with the current one minute gain to 6 Minutes ‘til Midnight, decreed a scant ten weeks ago, in anticipation of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia "to vastly reduce their nuclear arsenals."

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Now that the actual numbers have been released - at the moment I write this, the language of the treaty is still not public - the Atomic Scientists have become a little more circumspect. As for disarmament, leave it to one of the scientists to note: "Ironically, it's possible that the retirement of 4,000 or more U.S. warheads under the Moscow Treaty [of 2002] and other retirements ordered by George W. Bush may exceed anything Obama does in terms of disarmament."

What accounts for the dampening of enthusiasm of pro-disarmament groups for New START? Call it a kind of fuzzy math: The White House has been careful to characterize the new warhead levels as 30 percent below the warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty. But both the U.S. and Russian arsenals are well below those limits now, having retired weapons without replacing them.

Add to that a new rule for counting nuclear-capable strategic bombers: Under New START, each bomber counts as one warhead - regardless of how many nuclear weapons it can deliver. With U.S. and Russian bomber capacities varying from 6 to 20 nuclear warheads, that's a quick way to cut the warhead count without scrapping any weapons. That eases the task of determining just how many nuclear (as opposed to conventional) warheads any given bomber is carrying, but at the cost of turning bombers into "virtual MIRVs:" a new form of multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles. (Blame Russia for the fudge: The U.S. pushed for on-site verification to determine just how many nuclear warheads bombers would hold. Moscow refused; Washington relented.)

Apply the New START counting rules to the existing arsenals, and the U.S. today is only 100 warheads above the new 1550 limit, and Russia 190. Put this way, a 290 warhead cut to an overall two-country total of 3,100 will amount to an 8 percent reduction in U.S.-Russian warheads. Welcome, but hardly the stuff that wins accolades from anti-nuclear activists. As the Federation of American Scientists' Hans Kristensen reports: "... The [New START] counting rule would ‘hide' approximately 450 and 860 warheads, respectively, or 1,310 warheads. That's more warheads than Britain, China, France, India, Israel, and Pakistan possess combined!" Expect to hear more about that from the world's non-nuclear nations at next month's Non-Proliferation Treaty conference.

The one wildcard in the New START mix concerns not the treaty proper but rather the preamble, in a passage referring to missile defenses. Here, too, the language isn't public yet, but if Defense Secretary Robert Gates' statement at the White House press conference announcing New START is any indication, the U.S. has its position staked out: "... Nor does this treaty limit plans to protect the United States and our allies by improving and deploying missile defense systems." Count on the Russians to spin the preamble to claim that strategic cuts are conditioned on the U.S. abandoning missile defense.

In fact, Moscow's not even waiting for the signing ceremony: On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted Russia's readiness to dump the treaty if "the U.S.'s build-up of its missile defense strategic potential in numbers and quality begins to considerably affect the efficiency of Russian strategic nuclear forces. ... Linkage to missile defense is clearly spelled out in the accord and is legally binding." If the preamble language supports an interpretation anywhere near Lavrov's assertion, New START will be a dead letter in the U.S. Senate.

The signing of New START comes on the heels of the long-awaited release of the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a comprehensive assessment of the strategic role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. Insider accounts note that the overdue review was delayed by four months, ostensibly because early versions too closely resembled the prior George W. Bush policy. If the version being backgrounded now reflects a shift left from a Bush Era orientation, the first draft must have been written by Donald Rumsfeld. The new NPR holds fast against a no-first-use pledge, and - notwithstanding candidate Obama's campaign pledge not to develop "new nuclear weapons" - it envisions the modernization of U.S. warheads to ensure their continued safety, security and effectiveness.

In fact, the single largest line item in the 2011 Obama budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration is $2 billion for warhead modernization. The president's hairsplitting on whether a new warhead on an old missile makes it a new weapon is sure to demoralize the disarmament wing of his Democratic base - even as it invites a spirited discussion with Senate Republicans who stand between New START and its ratification.

For the cynically inclined - a group that likely includes North Korea's Dear Leader and Iran's ruling mullahs - it all adds up to a kind of nuclear collusion between the old Cold War superpowers to reduce the carrying costs of so many warheads, while keeping options open to improve the warheads each retains, and reserving the right to add more under the strategic bomber loophole.

So is the new treaty counter-productive to the point that the U.S. Senate should refuse ratification? No. The Senate can sign off not because New START does so much so well, but because it attempts so little. For that very reason, don't expect the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to turn back the doomsday clock - and don't expect New START to shame the rogues of the world into abandoning their nuclear dreams.

Quite the contrary: New START underscores that nuclear weapons still represent the ultimate unspeakable threat in an all too Hobbesian world. If we're going to deter the rogues bent on building nukes of their own, we're going to have to find a different way to do it.

As the Atomic Scientists like to say, the clock is ticking.

Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense. He attended the 1991 Moscow Summit at which the START I treaty was signed.

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