START Signing2

The new START Treaty, signed April 8 in Prague castle, would reduce strategic nuclear warheads by 30 percent compared with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and delivery vehicles by 50 percent compared with the 1991 START I Treaty.

It is apparently a big step in U.S. President Barack Obama’s quest to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations, but the U.S. Senate ratification process may reveal that New START holds both less and more than meets the eye. U.S. senators should consider six matters:

* Obama’s stated aim of zero nuclear weapons – though he admits it may not be achievable perhaps even during his lifetime – is off the mark, and in international negotiations, aim matters. If the administration regards nuclear weapons as vital national security tools for the foreseeable future, it would have mounted painstaking and likely protracted negotiations not only to reduce, but to craft more stable strategic force structures, protect critical future capabilities such as missile defense and rein in tactical nuclear weapons.

Instead, it lunged for reductions and called for further cuts before the ink dried on the document.

* The focus on numerical reductions led to a flawed process. On a subject fundamental to national security, the administration should have thoroughly assessed the current situation, future requirements, prudent hedges against unforeseen events and comprehensive objectives before engaging the Russians.

In fact, American negotiators hopped on a flight to Geneva while the Washington security bureaucracy pondered and haggled over the details of nuclear strategy. The administration released the new Nuclear Posture Review just two days before Obama signed the treaty.

Unsurprisingly, the review validates the numbers that had already been negotiated in the New START Treaty, which, by the way, Obama had already generally agreed upon with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last July.

Medvedev craved the appearance of Russia on the superpower stage with America, and he wanted a treaty to lock in U.S. parity with Russia’s plan to draw down and modernize its strategic force. By agreeing so readily, we squandered our bargaining leverage to induce Moscow to negotiate over its massive tactical nuclear arsenal and to remove multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) from its land-based ICBMs.

* So, the New START is less than it might have been; indeed, it may not even deliver the touted cuts. This is because the new counting rules count manned bombers as just one warhead. However, as Keith Payne points out in the April 8 Wall Street Journal, Russia’s 76 bombers can carry between six and 16 nuclear bombs and cruise missiles. Consequently, Moscow can erase the claimed 30 percent warhead reduction but remain treaty compliant.

* Worse, the New START validates instability in Russia’s strategic force structure. Two generations of arms control professionals labored to spread each side’s warheads across as many delivery vehicles as possible to confound first-strike calculations. This is particularly important for ICBMs, which are easier to find and target than submarines or manned bombers. Indeed, the 1993 START II Treaty would have required ICBM de-MIRVing. However, START II foundered over disagreements on ballistic missile defense.

Resurrecting ICBM de-MIRVing should have been a priority. Nonetheless, a White House fact sheet says, "Each party has the flexibility to determine for itself the structure of its strategic forces within the aggregate limits of the treaty."

In other words, the Russians would not budge on MIRVs. Now, they are unlikely to budge because the New START validates their financially driven reductions in delivery vehicles. The White House fact sheet proclaims this as a virtue: "This limit is less than half the corresponding strategic nuclear delivery vehicle limit of the START treaty."

* The fifth and sixth matters can be fully explored only when the veil of secrecy is lifted from the draft treaty. Fifth is whether Russian negotiators managed to plant in and around the document obstacles to U.S. missile defense or long-range precision strike capabilities. The administration insists there are no restrictions, however, borrowing a line from Shakespeare, "The lady doth protest too much."

Senators must carefully comb through the negotiating record to ensure that there are no restrictions. Furthermore, they should be aware that even nonbinding preambular language, coupled with the numerous public statements of senior Russian officials, could amount to practical constraints on U.S. defense programs.

* Finally, there is the age-old matter of verification, which administration officials seem to acknowledge is less in New START than it was in START I. Now, senators must ascertain that negotiated verification provisions will be effective.

The imperative of verification raises the matter of whether New START is a step toward a worthwhile U.S.-Russia partnership or another Pavlovian press on the "reset" button.

David Smith is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. He was the U.S. chief negotiator for defense and space from 1989 to 1992. This article appeared on DefenseNews. Photo credit: Getty Images.