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The centerpiece of “New Start,” the arms-control treaty that President Barack Obama signed with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, is its reduction in nuclear warheads. Less well-understood–but profoundly misguided–is the treaty’s return to outmoded Cold War limits on weapons launchers, which will require the United States, but not Russia, to dismantle existing delivery systems. This could cripple America’s long-range conventional warhead delivery capabilities, while also severely constraining our nuclear flexibility. We will pay for this mistake in future conflicts entirely unrelated to Russia.
In pursuing New Start, the Obama administration has essentially jettisoned the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which only dealt with the limitation of nuclear warheads that were operationally deployed. That freed large numbers of U.S. launchers (land-based and submarine-based ballistic missiles, along with heavy bombers such as the B-2) to carry conventional payloads world-wide–a concept known as “conventional prompt global strike.”
Such delivery flexibility is far more important to America than to Russia, given our global interests and alliances. Its wisdom was evident after 9/11, as we fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. New Start encumbers us with unnecessary constraints that will distort strategic priorities and weapons-development for decades.
Mr. Obama hopes to avoid debating limits on conventional-weapons delivery capabilities. In this he is aided by decades of eye-glazing arms-control language that intimidates the uninitiated, and by the White House spin that the Pentagon fully supports his treaty.
But New Start’s limits on delivery systems reflect military judgments only marginally. Fundamentally, they are political, diplomatic and legal in nature. The Pentagon is being told to structure its forces according to the treaty’s limits, including a ceiling of 700 launchers. This sort of compulsion has happened before, as was the case with both Start I and Start II. Forced to live within limits, and knowing that thinking outside the treaty’s four corners isn’t career-enhancing, the military will do what it must. It has no other choice.
That is a far cry from saying that the coming force structure is desirable, much less optimal, especially given the radical uncertainty of future threats. And it is no answer to say, as the Obama administration does, that Russia will face the same constraints. Russia’s global position is nowhere near that of the U.S., and its current launcher capabilities are far inferior. Nominally equal limitations can have dramatically unequal consequences in the real world.
Backers of New Start say that new generations of missiles that evade the treaty’s definitions will give America the conventional delivery capabilities it needs. But that is trading birds in the hand for imagined birds in the bush—the very signature of harmful, politically-driven decision making. What’s more, the Russians will vehemently oppose any flexible U.S. interpretations of treaty definitions, and Mr. Obama can’t be relied upon to ignore Moscow’s assault. Indeed even the Bush administration—partly because of Russian pressure—failed to follow its own strategy for using conventional weapons on former nuclear launchers.
Second, betting that untried, unfunded systems will be operational when needed shows just how much New Start rests on political, legislative and budgetary—rather than military—judgments. It means designing, building and deploying an entirely new system simply to fit within the treaty, rather than because of military necessity.
The Pentagon today is increasing planning for smaller-scale conflicts in which the need for global, conventional warhead launchers will be particularly acute. But New Start, with its myopic focus on Russian arms levels, will severely limit our small-war capabilities. Since launchers can be used for either conventional or nuclear purposes, limiting their number to 700 forces war-planners to consider that any launcher used for conventional purposes is in effect one less launcher in the nuclear arsenal. Both conventional and nuclear capabilities are needed, and yet New Start forces a damaging trade-off.
Moreover, on the other end of the threat spectrum, China is systematically expanding its nuclear-warhead and delivery capabilities, totally unconstrained by treaty limits.
Senators need to probe far more deeply than they have into New Start’s impact for our conventional force capabilities. Mr. Obama will try to ram the treaty through the Senate, but our defenses need prudence and deliberation.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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