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Nuclear Stars Align for New START

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Nine of the ten former and current commanders of America's nuclear forces have now told the Senate that it is time to approve a new arms pact with Russia. Will the senators listen to our top military leaders?

The substantive debate over the New START treaty between the United States and Russia is now over. The treaty would reduce the forces on both sides by 30 percent form previously agreed levels. It would also put in place a stringent new inspection regime that would allow the United States to keep a close eye on Russia's nuclear arsenal -- the only arsenal in the world that can destroy this nation.

Administration officials have thoroughly answered all the questions that skeptics posed about the treaty on its effect on missile defense, Russia's tactical nuclear weapons, verifications regimes and maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The treaty does not affect U.S. missile defenses and it paves the way for negotiated reductions on Russia's tactical weapons. Without the treaty, we cannot inspect Russia's arsenal. To ensure that we can fully maintain our arsenal, the Obama administration has budgeted $180 billion over the next ten years (much more than the Bush administration).

That is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of U.S. missile defense programs are solidly behind the treaty. It is why the previous secretaries of defense, secretaries of state and national security advisers who have spoken on the treaty have supported it. There is not a single, senior military or national security official from any administration going back to the Nixon administration that opposed the treaty.

The clincher came this week, with a statement from seven of the eight former commanders of America's nuclear forces urging quick approval of the treaty.

Gen. Eugene Habiger, who organized the letter, told POLITICO's Morning Defense that opposition to the treaty seems entirely politically motivated and not based in substance.

It's extremely rare, he noted, to have every former commander who "sat in the nuclear seat" over the last 30 years line up on one side of an issue. In this case all seven past STRATCOM commanders signed on to the letter, and the other two -- Gen. James Cartwright and Gen. Kevin Chilton -- are still on active duty backing the treaty. "You have virtually nine of the individuals... all stepping up to the plate to say we support the treaty. And then you have folks on the sideline saying not so fast," Habiger said. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The commanders argument in brief is direct and compelling. In their letter, they say:

  • As former commanders of Strategic Air Command and U.S. Strategic Command, we collectively spent many years providing oversight, direction and maintenance of U.S. strategic nuclear forces and advising presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush on strategic nuclear policy.
  • We are writing to express our support for ratification of the New START Treaty. The treaty will enhance American national security in several important ways.
  • We will understand Russian strategic forces much better with the treaty than would be the case without it... That kind of transparency will contribute to a more stable relationship between our two countries. It will also give us greater predictability about Russian strategic forces, so that we can make better-informed decisions about how we shape and operate our own forces.
  • Although the New START Treaty will require U.S reductions, we believe that the post-treaty force will represent a survivable, robust and effective deterrent, one fully capable of deterring attack on both the United States and America's allies and partners.
  • The New START Treaty will contribute to a more stable U.S.-Russian relationship. We strongly endorse its early ratification and entry into force.

The letter was signed by seven of the eight former commanders of Strategic Air Command and U.S. Strategic Command: Gen. Larry Welch, Gen. John Chain, Gen. Lee Butler, Adm. Henry Chiles, Gen. Eugene Habiger, Adm. James Ellis, and Gen. Bennie Davis. The eighth former commander, Adm. Richard Mies, does not sign group letters but is said to also support the treaty.

The Senate should take this advice and consent to the quick approval of this vital national security instrument.