Mapping a National Security Failure: Ratification of the New START Treaty

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The following month, Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the Russian State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, issued a statement that he was considering recommending to fellow committee members that they reconsider their initial recommendation to ratify New START, in light of the Senate’s language in its resolution of ratification:

First, it is specially emphasized that [it is the U.S. senators’ understanding that] strategic-range non-nuclear weapon systems do not fall under the treaty, but it is virtually impossible to tell whether a missile that has already been launched is carrying a nuclear or non-nuclear warhead or not… [the second understanding presumes that] the Americans are trying to apply the New START Treaty to rail-mobile ICBMs in case they are built… And third, they say at the same time that the New START Treaty will on no account limit the Pentagon’s efforts toward deploying missile defenses… Thus, through such unilateral understandings, the Americans are trying to dispel their concerns about the possible emergence of rail-mobile ICBMs while at the same time ignore the Russian concerns about missile defenses and strategic-range non-nuclear weapons.[116]

These developments in the Duma led some analysts to surmise that the Russians believed that the Senate was back-tracking on commitments made to Russia in the course of New START negotiations.[117]

Meanwhile, key Senators continued to express concerns about the Obama administration’s interactions with Russia on missile defense. On 1 December 2010, Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ), James Risch (R-ID), and Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a joint letter to President Obama seeking more information about the administration’s dealings with Russia in this area.[118] Though the Senators did not explicitly mention New START,  each of them were known skeptics of the treaty, and their request was interpreted as a signal that their reservations about New START were tied in part to concerns about possible missile defense constraints arranged with the Russians. For its part, the State Department insisted that there were no “secret deals” between the United States and Russia on missile defense.[119]

Just two days before the full Senate’s ratification vote on New START, President Obama himself felt it necessary to send a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), specifically discussing the concerns about missile defense raised during the course of Senate consideration. After stating “The New START Treaty places no limitations on the development or deployment of our missile defense programs”, President Obama elaborated:

In signing the New START Treaty, the Russian Federation issued a statement that expressed its view that the extraordinary events referred to in Article XIV of the Treaty include a ‘build-up in the missile defense capabilities of the United States of America such that it would give rise to a threat to the strategic nuclear potential of the Russian Federation.’ Article XIV(3), as you know, gives each Party the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it believes its supreme interests are jeopardized.

The United States did not and does not agree with the Russian statement. We believe that the continued development and deployment of U.S. missile defense systems, including qualitative and quantitative improvements to such systems, do not and will not threaten the strategic balance with the Russian Federation, and have provided policy and technical explanations to Russia on why we believe that to be the case. Although the United States cannot circumscribe Russia’s sovereign rights under Article XIV(3), we believe that the continued improvement and deployment of U.S. missile defense systems do not constitute a basis for questioning the effectiveness and viability of the New START Treaty, and therefore would not give rise to circumstances justifying Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty.”

Regardless of Russia’s actions in this regard, as long as I am President, and as long as the Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces, and our allies and partners.”[120]

On 22 December 2010, the full Senate voted to ratify New START. Out of fifteen total proposed amendments to the resolution of ratification, four were accepted, either by “voice vote” or by “unanimous consent,” neither of which require a formal recorded vote.[121] Notably, among the rejected amendments—defeated largely along party lines—was one offered by Sen. McCain which would have removed the section of the treaty’s preamble that referred to the “interrelationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms.”[122]

On the subject of missile defense, the resolution did include the following “condition” (one of several that, according to the terms of the resolution, “shall be binding upon the President”):[123]

(14) Effectiveness and viability of new start treaty and united states missile defenses.-Prior to the entry into force of the New START Treaty, the President shall certify to the Senate, and at the time of the exchange of instruments of ratification shall communicate to the Russian Federation, that it is the policy of the United States to continue development and deployment of United States missile defense systems to defend against missile threats from nations such as North Korea and Iran, including qualitative and quantitative improvements to such systems. Such systems include all phases of the Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defenses in Europe, the modernization of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, and the continued development of the two-stage Ground-Based Interceptor as a technological and strategic hedge. The United States believes that these systems do not and will not threaten the strategic balance with the Russian Federation. Consequently, while the United States cannot circumscribe the sovereign rights of the Russian Federation under paragraph 3 of Article XIV of the Treaty, the United States believes continued improvement and deployment of United States missile defense systems do not constitute a basis for questioning the effectiveness and viability of the Treaty, and therefore would not give rise to circumstances justifying the withdrawal of the Russian Federation from the Treaty.”[124]

The same amendment added to the “understandings” section of the Resolution of Ratification the following:

…The preamble of the New START Treaty does not impose a legal obligation [to curtail missile defense] on the parties.[125]

As was the case with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Resolution of Ratification on New START, the Russian Duma also objected to the full Senate’s missile defense-related amendments to the resolution. Chairman Kosachev responded not long after the vote:

During the ratification of START in the US Congress the American lawmakers noted that the link between strategic offensive armed forces and antimissile defense systems is not juridically [sic] binding for the parties. They referred to the fact that this link was fixed only in the preamble of the document. Such an approach can be regarded as the US’ attempt to find an option to build up its strategic potential and the Russian lawmakers cannot agree with this.”[126]

Indications at the time were that such objections had prompted a delay in the Duma’s own ratification of New START, postponing conclusion of the Russian ratification process until January, 2011.[127] By the time the process had finished, the Russian ratification law had imposed restrictions on U.S. missile defense, and had noted the “indisputable significance” of the treaty’s preamble, which in turn had established a linkage between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms—linkage that Russia believed was legally binding, and would therefore justify its withdrawal from the treaty if the United States sought to expand missile defense capabilities.[128]

Several observers would go on to point out that this interpretation was wholly at odds with the Senate’s view of the New START’s preamble with respect to missile defense. As Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the lead Senate Republican negotiator on New START ratification stated on the Senate floor after Russian ratification: “I am not aware of an example when the U.S. has ratified a bilateral treaty in the face of clear evidence that there is no meeting of the minds on key treaty terms.”[129]

Nuclear Modernization

During the President’s April 2009 address in Prague, in which he committed the United States to a leadership role in seeking a “world without nuclear weapons”, the President also stated: “Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies…but we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.”[130] The attempt to ensure that President Obama followed through on his stated commitment to “maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal” would become a core element of the New START ratification process, and a critical factor in securing support for ratification from ambivalent Senators.

The effort to ensure that President Obama would commit to maintaining an effective arsenal began not long after the Prague address. On 28 October 2009, the President signed into law the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act—Section 1251 of which required that the President articulate specific plans on funding and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure, in conjunction with his submission of any follow-on treaty to START I for the Senate’s consideration.[131]

Specifically, the Section 1251 report was required to include:

(A) A description of the plan to enhance the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile of the United States;

(B) A description of the plan to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, including improving the safety of facilities, modernizing the infrastructure, and maintaining the key capabilities and competencies of the nuclear weapons workforce, including designers and technicians;

(C) A description of the plan to maintain delivery platforms for nuclear weapons;

(D) An estimate of budget requirements, including the costs associated with the plans outlined under subparagraphs (A) through (C), over a 10-year period.[132]

Two months later, forty-one Senators—all 40 Republicans, plus Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT)—sent a letter to President Obama essentially indicating that modernization of the nuclear enterprise, pursuant to the requirements of Section 1251, would be integral to the New START ratification process.[133] It was not lost on observers that 41 Senators was beyond the number needed to block ratification of a treaty, for which 67 votes is required.

In what would prove to be a significant data point for skeptics of the President’s intentions in this area, the Department of Defense in April 2010 released its Nuclear Posture Review Report. Although the report did articulate several objectives for modernization of the U.S. nuclear enterprise, the report stated in part that the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent could be ensured through the pursuit of a “sound Stockpile Management Program for extending the life of U.S. nuclear weapons…without the development of new nuclear warheads or further nuclear testing.”[134]

Pursuant to the FY 2010 Defense Authorization Act, President Obama did submit the 1251 Plan to Congress in May of 2010, though the document itself was classified.[135] The 1251 plan outlined the administration’s plan to spend $80 billion on nuclear infrastructure and weapons modernization over a ten-year period.[136]  The plan also included $100 billion for the modernization of strategic delivery systems including heavy bombers and both land and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.[137]  Several analysts—notably including Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the Senate Republicans’ lead negotiator on New START—would go on to assert, however, that this initial 1251 Plan submission had fallen short.

Ben Lerner

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