Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Does START limit missile defense?

As the Senate moves forward on a ratification vote for President Obama’s START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) Treaty, Georgia’s senators seem split on whether to vote for the treaty.  Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans, have differing opinions on whether the treaty should be ratified.

The treaty limits the number of offensive nuclear weapons that the US and Russia can field.  Each country will be limited to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles (ICBMs).  You can view the entire (unclassified portion of the) treaty on the State Department’s website.

One of the controversial parts of the treaty is the mention of anti-missile systems in its preamble.  The preamble mentions a “the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms….”  This leads many to question whether the treaty places limits on the United States’ right to field anti-missile systems to defend itself against attack.  President Obama says that the preamble is not part of the binding agreement, and that the US will continue to develop missile defense systems.

It appears likely that Obama is correct, because several paragraphs later, at the end of the preamble, the treaty reads that the “United States of America and the Russian Federation…  Have agreed as follows….”  In other words, the preamble does not appear to be part of the treaty agreement.

The matter is made more complicated by the fact that the Russians imply that they believe that anti-missile systems are included in the treaty.  The Russians have stated that “they reserve the right to withdraw from the New START treaty, if Washington's missile defense plans pose what they consider to be a threat to Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent force.”  In other words, the entire treaty might be for naught if the US continues to develop missile defense systems, even though the binding treaty does not specifically address them, except to say that neither country may convert ICBM or SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) launchers into defensive systems (Article V, Section 3). 

Ironically, the US is not seeking to build a defensive capability that would negate a Russian strike.  The US missile defense is focused on rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, which might launch small-scale nuclear attacks.  A system that could defend against a full-scale Russian attack is years away.

At this point, Senator Johnny Isakson has indicated that he plans to vote in favor of the treaty.  Isakson believes that US missile defense will not be inhibited and that some “verification is better than no verification at all….”  Since the old treaty expired in 2009, the US has not been able to verify the Russian nuclear arsenal.

President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in 2009.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, however, still has reservations.  In a speech linked from his website, Senator Chambliss says that he “wants to support” the treaty, but has concerns in five areas.  First, he wants to be sure that it will not affect US missile defense.  Second, he wants to ensure that the Congress will fund modernization of US nuclear weapons.  Third, Senator Chambliss wants to make sure that the treaty’s verification process is adequate.  His fourth objection deals with the classified portions of the treaty, and, finally, he would like for the treaty to address short-range tactical nuclear weapons as well as long-range strategic ones.  Russia has a large numerical advantage over the US in small, “suitcase” weapons.

The START Treaty requires 67 votes to be ratified and more Republicans are lining up to support it.  A test vote to close debate on the treaty passed today 67-28.  A vote could be taken to ratify the treaty as early as tomorrow.

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