MONROE: Hesitation over New START

Trouble with Russia’s tactical nukes

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The Senate has just reconvened for its “lame-duck” November and December session. President Obama is urging this body to hold a ratification vote on the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia during this period, prior to the seating of the new senators elected two weeks ago. The Senate would be ill-advised to do this, for a number of reasons.

Surprisingly, the principal reason why the Senate should deny ratification has received little attention. The scope of the treaty itself is highly disadvantageous to the United States. Russia’s huge and increasing arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons is excluded from this treaty. New START covers only strategic nuclear weapons, which are limited to 1,550 for each side. Russia, however, has many thousands of tactical nuclear weapons - a 10-to-1 advantage over us - about which it has refused to negotiate. Ratification of New START would place America at a grave disadvantage.

For the past 20 years, Russia’s principal nuclear weapons activities have been focused on advanced tactical weapons - research, testing and production of next-generation weapons. Russia’s new military strategy emphasizes early use of tactical nuclear weapons in all conflicts, large and small. And these weapons - launched, for example, atop cruise missiles from submarines off our shores - pose a threat comparable to that of strategic weapons. Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are an even greater threat to about 30 of our allies that are protected by our nuclear umbrella.

America has nothing comparable to Russia’s new tactical nuclear weapons. We have been observing a “nuclear freeze” for 20 years, since the Cold War ended, and design of these low-yield weapons was prohibited by law for a decade of this period. The Obama administration claims that once New START is ratified, it will open negotiations with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons. Don’t hold your breath. Russia has adamantly refused such negotiations for years, and it will be even more determined to block future ones if we ratify the unbalanced New START treaty, which gives Russia virtually all the advantages it has sought.

New START allows the Russians to increase their number of strategic delivery vehicles (bombers, ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles) while we must reduce ours (below the minimum level the Defense Department recommended last year). The treaty vastly reduces the intrusive verification provisions under which Russia chafed during the past two decades. New START gives Russia a free hand with its preferred multiple independent re-entry vehicles, much to our disadvantage. Even worse, it gives the Russians virtual veto power over advancements in our much-feared missile-defense programs although these do not employ nuclear weapons. The treaty also greatly constrains our promising Prompt Global Strike program, which does not involve nuclear weapons.

The Senate should return to first principles. The aim here is to reduce nuclear weapons - all nuclear weapons. The distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, never great, has disappeared in this age of versatile delivery vehicles. New START indeed makes a small reduction in strategic nuclear weapons. However, it allows Russia to make unlimited increases in new tactical nuclear weapons. This is not the treaty the United States should have been considering (or negotiating), and it’s not the treaty the Senate should ratify. If it is ratified, we’ll be locked into a gross imbalance: less than 2,000 U.S. nuclear weapons facing 5,000 to 8,000 Russian nuclear weapons. And we’re left with no negotiating capital.

The issue is clear. The only way America can get the Russians to negotiate limits on tactical nuclear weapons is for the Senate to refuse to ratify New START, thus denying them the many benefits on which they’ve been counting. The Founding Fathers created Senate ratification of treaties exactly for the purpose of bringing this type of clear wisdom to bear on issues of great importance.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Robert R. Monroe is a former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.

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