A step in the right direction?

Negotiators from the U.S. and Russia recently completed a nuclear weapons treaty cleverly called "New START." Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed it to much fanfare, and as an Advocate of the Air Force Association, I have been very interested in its military ramifications. The treaty mandates limits of 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 delivery systems (bombers and ballistic missiles) for each side.  While the treaty is certainly a step in the direction of reducing nuclear weapons, an important question remains: does it make us safer?

A few facts. New START requires the U.S. to eliminate 80 more warheads than the Russians and to eliminate 150 delivery systems while Russia can add 130 systems, counting older systems it was intending to scrap and as well as adding new ones.  The U.S. gets to keep its nuclear triad of delivery systems: 420 ICBMs, 14 submarines carrying up to 240 SLBMs, and up to 60 nuclear capable heavy bombers.  If a technical problem arises in one of the triad systems, we can still rearrange its nuclear forces within treaty limits to compensate.  The treaty does not address tactical nuclear weapons at all, where Russia is reported to have a 10-to-one advantage. 

One important aspect of the new treaty is that the intrusive verification process, ensuring compliance by both sides, continues.  Since the original START treaty expired in December 2009, short-notice inspections of both deployed and non-deployed weapons systems and verification of the numbers of warheads carried on strategic missiles have been conducted.  This verification process gives the U.S. a way to understand Russian force deployments and contributes to our ability to plan our own modernization efforts. Even if Russia did cheat, the U.S. would still have the ability to deter any surprise Russian aggression.  Absent New START, we would have had to rely solely on intelligence estimates. 

Of course, deterrence might be affected in the long run if we do not upgrade our aging nuclear infrastructure, find ways to extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2030, and come up with a replacement. It does us no good if this treaty is ratified but we do not modernize the nuclear infrastructure that keeps this nation and our allies secure.  And as we draw down nuclear warheads, both sides must install safeguards to guarantee that nuclear weapons and their parts will be protected, recorded and kept away from terrorists and other rogue entities. This is why not addressing tactical weapons in New START is an important omission.

But does all this make us safer? New START is a vestige of the Cold War. Russia and the United States are not the world's only nuclear powers; at least half a dozen other nations- China, France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom-are known to have nuclear weapons. Several others are thought to have them or may be seeking to acquire them. But the U.S. and Russia are the only nations affected by this treaty. Real nuclear safety will come about only when all nuclear powers are known and all are committed to reducing, and ultimately eliminating, their nuclear arsenals.

The New START treaty is a positive but incomplete step. Even within its context, the United States will need to keep its eyes open at all times and invest in modernizing and securing our nuclear enterprise. Eliminating nuclear weapons is a worthy, but unrealistic goal which will require the participation of more than just two nuclear nations, particularly two which are among the least likely to use them.  Meanwhile, the real world remains a dangerous place. 
Negotiators from the U.S. and Russia recently completed a nuclear weapons treaty cleverly called "New START." Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed it to much fanfare, and as an Advocate of the Air Force Association, I have been very interested in its military ramifications. The treaty mandates limits of 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 delivery systems (bombers and ballistic missiles) for each side.  While the treaty is certainly a step in the direction of reducing nuclear weapons, an important question remains: does it make us safer?

A few facts. New START requires the U.S. to eliminate 80 more warheads than the Russians and to eliminate 150 delivery systems while Russia can add 130 systems, counting older systems it was intending to scrap and as well as adding new ones.  The U.S. gets to keep its nuclear triad of delivery systems: 420 ICBMs, 14 submarines carrying up to 240 SLBMs, and up to 60 nuclear capable heavy bombers.  If a technical problem arises in one of the triad systems, we can still rearrange its nuclear forces within treaty limits to compensate.  The treaty does not address tactical nuclear weapons at all, where Russia is reported to have a 10-to-one advantage. 

One important aspect of the new treaty is that the intrusive verification process, ensuring compliance by both sides, continues.  Since the original START treaty expired in December 2009, short-notice inspections of both deployed and non-deployed weapons systems and verification of the numbers of warheads carried on strategic missiles have been conducted.  This verification process gives the U.S. a way to understand Russian force deployments and contributes to our ability to plan our own modernization efforts. Even if Russia did cheat, the U.S. would still have the ability to deter any surprise Russian aggression.  Absent New START, we would have had to rely solely on intelligence estimates. 

Of course, deterrence might be affected in the long run if we do not upgrade our aging nuclear infrastructure, find ways to extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2030, and come up with a replacement. It does us no good if this treaty is ratified but we do not modernize the nuclear infrastructure that keeps this nation and our allies secure.  And as we draw down nuclear warheads, both sides must install safeguards to guarantee that nuclear weapons and their parts will be protected, recorded and kept away from terrorists and other rogue entities. This is why not addressing tactical weapons in New START is an important omission.

But does all this make us safer? New START is a vestige of the Cold War. Russia and the United States are not the world's only nuclear powers; at least half a dozen other nations- China, France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom-are known to have nuclear weapons. Several others are thought to have them or may be seeking to acquire them. But the U.S. and Russia are the only nations affected by this treaty. Real nuclear safety will come about only when all nuclear powers are known and all are committed to reducing, and ultimately eliminating, their nuclear arsenals.

The New START treaty is a positive but incomplete step. Even within its context, the United States will need to keep its eyes open at all times and invest in modernizing and securing our nuclear enterprise. Eliminating nuclear weapons is a worthy, but unrealistic goal which will require the participation of more than just two nuclear nations, particularly two which are among the least likely to use them.  Meanwhile, the real world remains a dangerous place. 

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