In April 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Six years later, an analysis of New START’s impact on U.S. national security is as timely as it is instructive. New START has not accomplished the Administration’s main goal of providing predictability and strategic stability between Russia and the United States. While it is impossible to attribute this failure solely to New START, U.S.–Russia relations have deteriorated under the Obama Administration, and the initial concessions in the treaty have emboldened Russia to pursue its bellicose international policies. New START continues to damage U.S. national security by sending Russia a signal of weakness in the face of Moscow’s large-scale nuclear weapons modernization. Recent Russian force expansions were made possible by permissive provisions in New START.
The Strategic Stability that Wasn’t
From the beginning, the United States has been at a disadvantage because of the time pressure placed on negotiators and because the U.S. government took only a short time to prepare for arms control negotiations with the Russians. The Administration cited the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as a reason to hasten New START considerations in the Senate. The President also wanted to conclude negotiations before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Russian negotiators were under no pressure to conclude New START, putting them in a comparatively better position. In fact, the Russian Duma ratified the treaty over two months after it passed the U.S. Senate, proving that Administration claims that New START had to be the first arms control treaty ratified in a lame duck session of Congress were unfounded.
The Senate fell for the Administration’s rosy portrayal of the effects of New START and squandered an opportunity to thoroughly review the flawed treaty, thus leaving successive Congresses and Administrations, in addition to the American people, with all the negative side effects of this erroneously conducted arms control treaty. In her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the treaty “will provide stability, transparency, and predictability” between the United States and Russia and continue “our progress toward broader U.S.-Russia cooperation.”
The Administration tried to create the impression that New START reduces the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals. The late Edward Warner, Secretary of Defense Representative to Post-START Negotiations, stated that “the United States sought to conclude a treaty that would significantly limit and reduce U.S. and Russian strategic offensive arms.” In reality, the Obama Administration managed to negotiate a treaty in which the United States bears the majority of mandated reductions while Russia is allowed to add deployed nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to its inventory (and has been doing so). Due to counting rules, nuclear reductions border on insignificant and allow Russia to deploy more nuclear warheads than it deployed under the 2002 Moscow Treaty that preceded New START. Extensive Russian nuclear weapon modernization negates any benefits from the predictability that Administration officials claimed would follow ratification of the treaty.
Additionally, at least some Russian reductions are due to obsolescence and not a result of the treaty, as then-Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller pointed out. Assistant Secretary Gottemoeller also claimed that the Russians have “a fairly significant number of launchers…that will be reduced and eliminated under this treaty.” In reality, the Russians declared 865 launchers (the limit for this category is 800 under the treaty) while the United States declared 1,124. Russia does not have to reduce its launchers significantly. In fact, Russia does not have to reduce much of anything significantly. Moscow was below the New START limit on deployed warheads and delivery vehicles at New START’s entry into force.
During the 2010 Russian ratification of New START, Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov said that Russia will increase the number of its deployed nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles up to the New START limits. In fact, it can increase and has been increasing the number of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles in certain categories. Had New START not been ratified, the United States today would be in a better strategic position vis-à-vis Russia regarding the number of its strategic systems, despite the Administration’s claims that limits set forth by the treaty are important. Limits set forth by the treaty today disadvantage the United States, while Russia continues its nuclear buildup as if there were no treaty limits at all.
When asked about U.S. recourses regarding Moscow’s arms control violations, Secretary Clinton responded that “presenting information that we believe might violate the spirit or the letter of the treaty leads to changes.” In reality, Russia has a history of noncompliance, and the United States has a history of not following through with holding Russia accountable for its arms control violations. During the New START debate, however, the State Department was dealing with Russia’s potential violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a concern about which a majority of Senators were not properly informed. This occurred despite the fact that this information is important in the context of New START.
Advocates of the treaty attributed to it almost magical properties, saying the treaty would improve relations with Russia and help the U.S. advance its nonproliferation goals and exercise its leadership on the issue. Few of the witness statements before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee went beyond general platitudes to explain what exactly this general language means or how the treaty would accomplish its stated goals. The few concrete examples turned out to be short-lived. For example, Senator Bob Casey (D–PA) touted New START’s benefits even before the treaty was signed, attributing Russia’s refusal to provide Iran with the S-300 air defense system to the treaty’s signature. In fact, Russia completely reversed course a few years later in complete disregard of U.S. national security interests in the region.
Russia’s consistent track record of disregard for U.S. national security interests can also be seen in other areas. A particularly destabilizing course of action that Russia plans to pursue is resurrection of its nuclear missile trains. Highly valued for their discreet appearance and survivability in the event of an attack, these systems were limited under START, and the then-existing Russian system was banned in 1993 under START II (which never entered into force). Russia once possessed 36 of these missiles on 12 separate trains, with each missile totaling 5.5 megatons divided among 10 warheads. At its peak, Russia had almost 200 megatons of nuclear weaponry riding its rails, 5,000 times the highest estimated explosive yield of the two bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
These systems, however, are not covered by New START, which supersedes START II. Russia appears intent on seizing this opportunity and recently announced plans to design and deploy new and improved missile trains, which will be known as “Barguzin.” Moscow plans for each missile train to carry missiles based on the three-stage, solid-fuel RS-24 “Yars,” which carries four nuclear warheads for a total yield of 1.2 megatons per missile. While the destructive potential of the new missiles is significantly less, the accuracy and range have each increased over time. Further, the lighter weight of the new weapons allows each Barguzin to tow up to six missiles. The clear threat that such difficult-to-track systems pose to U.S. national interests showcases Russia’s continued belligerence.
Russia plans to add these missiles into service in 2019, and their estimated retirement is 2040. Unless either party withdraws from New START, the treaty will remain in force until 2021 (with a five-year possible extension), years after Moscow’s planned rail-mobile missile deployments. New START negotiators eliminated all provisions of START that constrained the deployment of rail-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The START definitions that captured rail-mobile ICBMs were either changed to exclude rail-mobile ICBMs or completely eliminated. It would take a treaty amendment to capture rail-mobile launchers under New START limits. All of the verification provisions relating to rail-mobile missiles are also gone. The Russian decision to pursue rail-mobile ICBMs almost certainly results from the fact that the number of these missiles and the warheads they carry are not constrained by New START unless Russia agrees to a treaty amendment.
The surprise Russian decision to build at least 50 new Tu-160 bombers is almost certainly based on the fact that the dozen nuclear cruise missiles that each bomber can carry are counted as only a single deployed nuclear warhead under New START.
New START: Now and Then
According to James Miller, then-Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) provided guidance to U.S. New START negotiators with respect to acceptable nuclear forces levels. The problem is that the NPR is based on faulty assumptions. The NPR states that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries” and that “prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically.” This is simply not the case, particularly today. A good deal of the blame for the sorry state of relations between the United States and Russia can be placed at the feet of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
America’s nuclear planning is in dire need of reassessment. The Obama Administration naively pursued “reset” relations with Russia, but the only “reset” the Administration accomplished was to embolden Russia to pursue aggressive Cold War–style policies damaging to U.S. interests and European security.
General Kevin Chilton, former head of United States Strategic Command, stated during Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings that the New START nuclear force posture is based on the assumption that the Russians will not cheat and will abide by limits set by the treaty. This assumption is clearly flawed. Russia has violated every single arms control agreement it has ever signed with the United States, its most recent violation being of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Administration stated that even large-scale cheating would not have an impact on U.S. second-strike capability.
In addition, the State Department started to voice concerns about Russia’s “selective implementation” of the 2002 Treaty on Open Skies, which establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the territories of its signatories. Moreover, New START force levels assume that the United States will not need more nuclear weapons and that the U.S. strategic forces’ planning guidance will not change for the duration of the treaty.
During the New START ratification, several Administration officials emphasized that the United States had a nuclear arsenal sized just right for the national security situation at that time. General Kevin Chilton, for instance, stated at the time: “I think the arsenal that we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent.” The past six years have shown this statement and the Administration’s assumptions to be flawed.
The Administration has not delivered even where it had the power to do so. The President made clear that “he is completely committed to the full funding in this modernization program for as long as his Administration is in power.” The Senate gave its advice and consent on the expectation that the Administration would request funding for the nuclear enterprise at levels set forth in its Section 1251 Report to Congress. New START was meant to be a sign “that there’s a general consensus on the need to maintain the stockpile, the need to support science, and the need to modernize the infrastructure.” The assumption has proved unfounded, as the consensus on the need to recapitalize the U.S. nuclear weapon enterprise broke down shortly after New START came into force. Even under the best-case scenario, where Congress and the Administration come together on a 10-year nuclear weapons activities plan, the nuclear weapons enterprise would still be $10 billion short between 2011 and 2021.
The Administration was able to gain support for New START among many Members of Congress and nuclear weapon experts because it pledged nuclear weapon modernization funding. The U.S. nuclear security enterprise has been underfunded for years and has faced organizational and retention challenges. Additionally, successive Administrations have failed to implement sound nuclear policies, including reversing the aging trend in U.S. nuclear warheads, planning for new developments in U.S. adversaries’ nuclear capabilities, and delivering nuclear weapons products to the Department of Defense on schedule and on budget.
Among the two key National Nuclear Security Administration projects for which the Administration pledged to provide funding and accelerated construction—in return for the Senate’s ratification of New START—were the Chemical Metallurgy Research Replacement building at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) was intended to replace the current Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building at Los Alamos National Laboratory after capabilities and operations were “restricted due to safety constraints.” However, lingering safety concerns and cost overruns far exceeding initial estimates deferred the completion date in 2012 and necessitated a new strategy to address near-term needs and risks. The Plutonium Strategy will take a modular approach consisting of three parts, including two parts executed as CMRR line-item subprojects.
First, the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB) will be reconfigured and reequipped to handle increased radiological limits to allow additional equipment to be purchased and more operations to be undertaken. Step two will involve relocating and consolidating processes within PF-4, a high hazard nuclear space, to create more space for the installation of new production equipment and the transfer of capabilities from the CMR building. These facilities reportedly will “enable the cessation of programmatic operations” at the CMR building by 2019 and “allow war-reserve-quality production of 30 plutonium pits per year by FY 2026 and 50 to 80 pits per year by 2030.”
Plutonium pit production capabilities are critical to the maintenance and sustainment of the nuclear stockpile. To assess the “reliability, safety, and security of nuclear weapons without underground testing,” they must be disassembled so that each component can be examined and tested individually. Occasionally, plutonium pits and other components are destroyed in the process and require replacements. If CMR operations continue to be restricted, replacement parts may not be available, thus reducing the weapons stockpile.
The Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) will replace and improve mission-critical capabilities and infrastructure at the Y-12 National Security Complex, including most of the uranium production functions of Building 9212. Since many of the current facilities were designed and scaled to address Cold War threats, much of the infrastructure is inactive, outdated, or deteriorating. This contributes to a decrease in efficiency and reliability, along with an associated rise in maintenance costs. In short, the complex is “both too old, and too big.” While some construction and revitalization projects can tolerate delays due to budget restraints, the critical nature of Building 9212 functions “demands appropriate risk reduction.” The UPF will modernize Manhattan Project–era capabilities and security to meet future needs of the energy and defense sectors.
In order to minimize project costs and maximize utility, many vital processes and infrastructure will be consolidated and transferred to existing facilities “certified for specific nuclear safety, seismic, and security requirements.” Only operations that are not appropriate for transition to existing facilities, including casting and special oxide production, will be included in plans for a new facility. The project, scheduled for completion by 2025, will incorporate modern standards and technologies designed to “accommodate current and future fuel types” and improve the sustainability, viability, safety, and security of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s uranium-enrichment capabilities.
The consensus on nuclear weapons funding that the Administration worked out before New START was ratified did not last a year. Instead of delivering on its promises and ensuring the viability of the U.S. nuclear enterprise into the future, the Administration decided to cut nuclear weapons funding. Even worse, the Administration cancelled the CMRR that it pledged to speed up prior to New START’s ratification. Regrettably, Congress went along with these ill-advised proposals.
New START’s launcher definitions do not properly cover rail-mobile missiles. At the time of Senate consideration, the Administration argued that neither Russia nor the United States deployed these types of systems and that if they did, these systems would be covered under the central limit of the treaty. The problem is that the Administration failed to negotiate special inspection and verification measures for this type of system while giving up most of its negotiating leverage in New START itself. The Administration’s mismanagement of U.S. Russia policy is leaving the United States in a situation in which it will have to negotiate from a position of weakness on Russia’s rail-mobile missiles.
Toward Improving U.S. Nuclear Security
Future Administrations and Congresses will have to live with the consequences of President Obama’s misguided belief that any arms control agreement is a good one, regardless of its strategic implications. Both the executive and the legislative branches will have to work together to mitigate the negative effects of New START. The following are the steps that the United States should take to increase its national security and reclaim some of the lost ground with respect to pursuing sound arms control policies:
- Withdraw from New START. The United States should withdraw from New START, as the treaty is not in the national interest. New START allows a bellicose Russia to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal while the United States has to bear the majority of costly reductions. The existing precedent, the 2001 U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, showed that alarmist predictions about negative consequences of the withdrawal did not come to pass. The Russians have a good grasp of the concept of national interest.
- Defund New START’s implementation. Should the executive branch disagree that withdrawal is in the U.S. interest, Congress can take steps to mitigate New START’s deleterious effects by defunding its implementation. Congress can restrict the Administration from spending resources on nuclear delivery and nuclear warhead dismantlement. It can provide funding and direct the Administration to upload more nuclear warheads on the existing strategic systems. It can create conditions that the President has to meet before proceeding with New START implementation. Some Members of Congress have exercised such leadership and included similar provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act.
- Modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and supporting infrastructure. Currently, the United States has plans to sustain its nuclear weapons and replace its aging nuclear delivery vehicles. However, contrary to popular belief, Washington is not modernizing its nuclear warheads. President Obama opposes giving existing nuclear weapons new missions or new military capabilities, despite the need for new capabilities that would strengthen deterrence in today’s dynamic and multi-nuclear-armed environment. The Administration broke the nuclear weapon modernization promises on which New START was contingent, especially with respect to the CMRR. The legal framework in which the treaty was meant to operate is gone—and so should be New START.
- Forbid the Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance from being a chief negotiator for arms control treaties. Under the current arrangement, the person who negotiates a treaty for the Administration is also the person who is responsible for creating a verifiability assessment and testifying to Congress on how verifiable the treaty is. This creates a conflict of interest. Delinking the two would strengthen the independence of the treaty review process and increase the credibility of the Administration’s judgments with respect to its assessment of arms control treaties.
- Inform Congress about the special inspection and verification measures related to New START and Russia’s rail-mobile ICBMs. Russia is exploiting New START’s loophole with respect to rail-mobile ICBMs and planning to deploy a rail-mobile system in 2020. The treaty expires in 2021 (with a possible five-year extension). If the Administration has no intention of withdrawing from New START, it should begin negotiations on the special inspection and verification measures that will be necessary to monitor these particularly challenging systems for the purposes of the treaty. Negotiations will take time, and in order to achieve a good outcome for the United States, currently in a weaker negotiating position than Russia, the Administration will have to devise a comprehensive plan to convince Russia to agree on a meaningful verification regime for this class of systems. Rail-mobile systems will also place additional burdens on U.S. national technical means, which take years to develop. The Administration must start planning and budgeting for Russia’s rail-mobile systems now.
- Raise the issue of the size of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal and arms control violations in international fora. The United States has been keeping quiet about the size of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal and arms control violations. The disparity between the U.S. and Russian arsenals and Russia’s blatant disregard for nuclear and conventional arms control agreements create a dangerous situation in the European theater on borders between NATO and Russia where Russia has conventional superiority today. U.S. unwillingness to raise these issues with Russia and internationally, as well as U.S. conventional and tactical inferiority, might embolden President Putin to take more aggressive steps than he would if force postures were more balanced.
- Mandate that the Department of Defense annually prepare an unclassified publication on Russia’s nuclear and ballistic missile forces to educate the public about Moscow’s nuclear capabilities. Americans need to understand what kind of military steps Russia is taking and which capabilities it has at its disposal to threaten both U.S. allies and the U.S. homeland. Such an understanding is critical for an informed U.S. foreign policy. Alternatively, Congress could demand an annual comprehensive report on Russia’s military forces modeled after the Defense Department’s Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. As part of New START, to which the U.S. agreed, Russia has prohibited the Administration from releasing detailed information from New START data exchanges. However, there is nothing in New START or other agreements that would prevent the Administration from releasing its own information about Russia’s nuclear forces. To make the publication more accessible to the public, it could be modeled after the “Russia’s Nuclear Posture” report recently produced by the National Institute for Public Policy.
- Hold exercises simulating Russian nuclear attacks on NATO. Given repeated Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against NATO, including considering use of a nuclear weapon to be de-escalatory, NATO should organize military exercises simulating a small-scale nuclear attack on its territory. NATO must develop responses that would be de-escalatory in nature. Deploying a ballistic missile defense system to provide the U.S. President with more time and decision-making space in case of an attack should be a priority for NATO. Being prepared to counter effects of Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship is another essential element of preventing a nuclear escalation.
- Maintain nuclear weapons in Europe and expand supporting infrastructure. The United States must not accede to Russia’s condition for long-range nuclear weapon negotiation: The Kremlin has repeatedly demanded that the United States withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe before negotiations even start. U.S. forward-deployed nuclear weapons remain critical for NATO allies as reiterated in NATO’s strategic documents, but also as an assurance for U.S. allies in Asia.
Reversing counterproductive trends in U.S. strategic policy will require leadership, vision, and an ability to realistically assess dangers that Russia’s extensive nuclear modernization program poses to U.S. interests. An effective response to Russian actions will require cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of the government and investment in nuclear delivery platform modernization.
—Michaela Dodge is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and Strategic Policy in the Center for National Defense, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.