The Right’s START Confusion: It Doesn’t Cut Enough!

The right wing is really confused about how to respond to New START. On the one hand, New START doesn’t do any of the things they feared it would. It doesn’t impact missile defense or conventional weapons programs like prompt global strike. It updates and modernizes verification measures and even includes access to missile test data (telemetry). It reduces the limits on nuclear weapons and launchers, but not in the massive way the right had portrayed. And it has the full backing of the military and of former senior Republican national security officials. But on the other hand, supporting one of Obama’s major foreign policy accomplishments would seem to violate the stated political strategy of Senate conservatives to reflexively opposing everything Obama proposes.

While almost no conservative has yet to come out against the treaty — including John Bolton — the right is still desperately searching for an argument to make against treaty ratification. One of the newest, seems to bizarrely attack the treaty from the left — it doesn’t cut enough! John Bolton told Peter Baker of the New York Times:

If tomorrow after this treaty is ratified we’re still basically at the level we were at yesterday before it was ratified, what does it do for all our soaring rhetoric about getting rid of nuclear weapons and getting others to do the same?…You can’t have it both ways.

Kori Schake, who was a foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign, wrote on Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government:

I’m tempted to cheer an arms control agreement that succeeds in increasing our latitude to retain what is already a small nuclear force, and to expand it modestly. We conservatives should commend the Obama administration for producing an advance in arms control agreements that no Republican president had achieved: An agreement that gives us more latitude than its predecessor!

What they are talking about is the new bomber-counting rule. Under the agreement each strategic bomber is counted as possessing one nuclear weapon. But in reality each bomber could possess multiple nuclear weapons — the B-52 can carry more than 20 nuclear bombs. Since the treaty limits the number of “delivery vehicles” — the things that get nukes to their targets (ICBM missile silos, submarine launched missiles, and bombers) — both sides could conceivably abandon all their missiles in favor of bombers and therefore blow the doors on the nuclear limits in the treaty, while still adhering to rules of the treaty. See — it’s a sham!

This interpretation neglects a few key points: namely reality.

First, this treaty only covers deployed nuclear weapons. This means it only covers nukes that are loaded up and ready to go at a moments notice. However, this creates a counting problem because bombers, like the B-52, no longer carry deployed nuclear weapons. They can be loaded up with nukes, but they aren’t sitting there or flying around with them. So really if you were only going to count deployed nuclear weapons, you would count bombers as possessing zero nuclear weapons.


Second, the Obama administration is adopting the approach of the Bush administration, who in the 2002 SORT treaty, first started counting deployed warheads. But in the Bush administration’s hurry to write their three page treaty, they never defined what they meant by deployed — allowing both sides to come up with their own definitions. So the Obama administration in this treaty actually takes the step to define what “deployed” means — hence bombers being arbitrarily allocated one nuclear weapon. In short, this was no big deal for conservatives 8 years ago, but suddenly it’s evidence that this treaty does not mark an Obama accomplishment.

Third, bombers, since they take time to reach their targets and could be shot down, are much less destabilizing and therefore should be slightly favored over ICBMs and SLBMs. Importantly, this treaty reduces the limits on delivery vehicles, which forces the US and Russia to decide where to put their weapons — bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs. If Russia wants to build a whole bunch of bombers and take out of commission their much more destabilizing missiles, which can be launched at a moments notice, that is fine by me. In reality, by forcing choices, this treaty will likely lead to a further reduction in the reliance on bombers. The Air Force Times, notes that in this treaty “bombers are likely to be the losers,” because as Tom Collina, of the Arms Control Association says:

The bomber leg of the triad is not what you think about when you think about survivability and quick response …The treaty is forcing us to decide where to put our warheads…We could be moving to 20 or fewer bombers.

This is not some shock to the Air Force. A few months back the Institute for Air Power Studies, which is closely aligned with the Air Force, advocated cutting bombers from the nuclear triad. Unfortunately, the Obama administration does not seem willing to do that, as Secretary Gates is planning on unnecessarily developing in a new bomber, meaning that the new START treaty won’t impact the nuclear triad. That will disappoint arms-control advocates. Indeed, it would be great if this treaty went much further and cut nuclear weapons much more extensively.

But that isn’t what this treaty was primarily about. It was about maintaining nuclear stability, updating and extending Reagan’s START I verification system, placing important limits on nuclear weapons, and restores the US-Russian relationship on nuclear issues thereby laying the groundwork for a future more far-reaching agreement that cuts weapons further.