It is day five of the debate on New START and Republicans are set to offer just their second treaty-killing amendment.
Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) is proposing an amendment that inserts language that says there is a relationship between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. In other words, Risch and other Senate Republicans are upset that the treaty doesn’t address Russia’s thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. There is a simple reason for this – START, which stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, deals with STRATEGIC nuclear weapons. This is like saying I oppose the START treaty because it doesn’t secure the US border or cure global hunger. It was never intended to address those things. While it would be great if START cured hunger, the fact it doesn’t should have no bearing on the merits of the actual treaty.
Strategic nuclear weapons are high-yield nuclear weapons designed to target population centers or impact an adversary’s ability to wage war, while tactical nuclear weapons are smaller battlefield nuclear weapons used in support of conventional forces. CAP’s Ben Morris-Levenson wrote earlier this year:
This difference highlights a crucial point: even reduced to the levels called for in New START, a strategic arsenal of 1,550 warheads renders any Russian advantage in tactical weapons insignificant in the broader context of deterrence. Nuclear deterrence at the strategic level relies on each side’s ability to annihilate the other… neither side will risk even a limited nuclear exchange because the consequences of escalation are so horrific that even minimal risks become unjustifiable. Russia’s “advantage” in tactical nuclear weapons is therefore largely irrelevant to American security.
Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are a real problem, largely because due to their smaller size they are more prone to fall in the hands of terrorists. This is why both Republicans and Democrats agree that it is critical to have talks with Russia over its tactical nuclear weapons. But crucially to have these talks, it is imperative to ratify the START treaty.
James Schlesinger, former Secretary of Defense under Nixon and Ford, and leading arms-control skeptic, endorsed the ratification of a new START treaty in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this year. He did so largely on the grounds that to deal with tactical nuclear weapons “there is no alternative” but to ratify the START treaty, as START provides us with a “platform” to address tactical weapons.
In other words, in order to begin to address what is a major counter-terrorism concern – the danger of loose Russian tactical nukes falling into the hands of terrorists – we must ratify START. Schlesinger has long been a guiding light to the far right on nuclear policy issues, the Wall Street Journal even called him the right’s “nuclear yoda.”
Republicans may also complain that the Obama administration should have linked the two issues in negotiations, but this is just bad Monday morning quarterbacking. There has never been a treaty on tactical nuclear weapons therefore negotiating one would have taken considerable time. Given that the original START treaty was set to expire within the first year of President Obama taking office and that the Bush administration did no work to lay the groundwork for a New START treaty, let alone a treaty on tactical weapons, linking the two would mean that negotiations would probably still be going on – more than a year after the original START treaty’s expiration. Republicans were also silent in attacking the Bush administration for failing to address Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.
The Risch amendment therefore is nothing but a poison pill amendment designed to force a renegotiation of the START treaty and therefore kill the treaty. Fortunately, just 51 votes are needed to kill Risch’s amendment and like the McCain amendment on the preamble, this should go down to defeat.