Correcting Misinformation On START

Our guest bloggers are Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; and Kelsey Hartigan, a policy researcher at the National Security Network.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) deserves the full support of the United States Senate. Strategic arms control treaties have historically had strong, bipartisan support. There is nothing in this treaty should prevent the Senate from following that tradition. That’s why the recent proclamation from the Heritage Foundation’s president, Ed Feulner, is so troubling. Feulner’s assertion that New START is a “nonstarter” suggests he is more interested in presenting a distorted picture than fulfilling his role as president of a well-known think tank. The New START agreement is in line with the principles embraced by Ronald Reagan. That the president of the Heritage Foundation would attempt to tarnish that legacy is disappointing. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in his May 13 op-ed, “The new START Treaty has the unanimous support of America’s military leadership — to include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of the service chiefs, and the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, the organization responsible for our strategic nuclear deterrent.” Feulner has opted to ignore the advice of our uniformed military and instead put forth three false claims. First, Fuelner’s assertion that Russia will not have to reduce its number of strategic nuclear warheads while the United States will be forced to make cuts is simply not accurate. Not only has Secretary Gates clearly testified that the Russians “will be reducing the number of warheads,” but they will have to do so significantly. According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia currently deploys 2,600 warheads, making New START’s limit of 1,550 warheads a much more drastic cut than for the United States, which deploys 1,950 warheads.

While the New START treaty establishes a counting rule for strategic bombers, as was the case under START I, this does not leave either side with an overwhelming advantage. Strategic bombers have long been considered to be the most stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad, as they are not first-strike weapons. Furthermore, neither the U.S. nor Russia maintain warheads on their bombers, making it necessary to establish a rule for how to count the number of warheads. Under the New START accord, the number of warheads counted per bomber is one.

Second, the Bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission — the very report that Fuelner cites — actually recommended that the U.S. “pursue a step-by-step approach with Russia on arms control,” and that the U.S. “make the first step on U.S.-Russian arms control modest and straightforward in order to rejuvenate the process,” something which former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger (and the Vice-Chairman of the Commission) endorsed when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Schlesinger highlighted the need to ratify this agreement in order to pursue future negotiations over tactical nuclear weapons, a concern for those in Eastern Europe and an issue that would have significantly complicated the negotiations and severely delayed the process. The administration has already announced that it will address tactical weapons in the next round of negotiations. This makes ratifying New START even more important.

The United States will also continue to explore the full range of technologies and systems for a Conventional Prompt Global Strike. Should the U.S. decide to move ahead with this program, the conventional warheads that are loaded on strategic delivery vehicles would count against the treaty’s limits. Because the U.S. does not currently deploy conventional warheads on its ICBMs or SLBMs, the number of warheads and delivery vehicles that would count against the treaty limits would minimal.  Third, the New START accord will not limit the missile defense plans of the United States. The Director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, testified on April 20 before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, saying that, “The New START treaty actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, as well as four very distinguished statesmen, including three who had served under republican presidents, have also all discussed missile defense at lengt — and to date, no one who has appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has said that New START limits missile defense in any serious way.

The day after Feulner’s op-ed appeared, the National Security Advisers for both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush joined the chorus of support for New START and urged the Senate to give its advice and consent for ratification. Every single national security expert who has testified on this treaty has recommended ratification. With this kind of support, it calls into question the motives of those who call this treaty a “nonstarter.” Critics will continue to throw mud against the wall to see what sticks. This is to be expected from those who are more interested in pushing a partisan agenda than protecting our national security. It is unfortunate, however, that the president of a think-tank has decided to take on that role.