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Lt. General Robert G. Gard Jr. (USA, Ret.) Headshot

New START and the Obama Nuclear Agenda

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This piece was co-authored with John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World

One year ago President Barack Obama outlined an ambitious nuclear weapons agenda that is coming to fruition this month. The President recognized that while the Cold War with the Soviet Union is 20 years in the past, many Cold War nuclear weapons policies remain in place.

To establish a 21st century nuclear weapons policy, the President set forth a number of steps. On April 8th, President Obama joined Russian President Medvedev in Prague to sign a legally binding New START treaty to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which expired last year.

New START caps the number of long-range nuclear warheads each side can deploy at 1,550 and reduces the maximum number of deployed missiles that carry the warheads to 700, with 100 in reserve, within seven years. It includes verification procedures to promote confidence that both countries will comply with the treaty. President Ronald Reagan once said, "trust but verify," and that dictum remains valid today.

Technical annexes to the treaty are not yet complete and the administration must provide Congress with a detailed analysis of the provisions of the treaty before the Senate will consider offering its advice and consent to ratification. Already, some skeptical senators are raising concerns including, the relationship of the treaty to U.S. missile defenses and the status of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

There are no limitations in the treaty on U.S. missile defenses whatsoever. Reflecting Russian concern over the administration's missile defense, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated on April 6th that Russia would maintain the right to quit the treaty if it feels threatened by U.S. missile defenses.

Some advocates of missile defense claim that Russian reservations will cause the administration to hold back on deploying promising missile defense systems. They seem to forget that the Soviet Union warned that it would cancel participation in the 1991 treaty if the U.S. opted out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty; we did, but they did not. Moreover, it is customary for treaties to specify that a nation may withdraw if extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the treaty jeopardize its supreme national interests.

To assuage concerns over the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the Administration has requested a major budget increase for the next fiscal year to upgrade our nuclear weapons laboratories and other buildings.

Also on the President's agenda, after dealing with New START, is securing Senate agreement to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban and then to promote its ratification by the remaining states necessary to bring this treaty into effect. The aim is to reduce proliferation by preventing testing by additional nations attempting to develop nuclear weapons and precluding states with nuclear arsenals from testing new or improved weapon designs.

New START is also being criticized for not going much further in reducing not only deployed strategic warheads but also the number of warheads each side holds in reserve. Yet the treaty must be evaluated in the context of President Obama's full nuclear agenda as outlined in his April 5, 2009 speech in Prague. Russia and the United States, between them, hold about 95% of the world's nuclear weapons. Restoration of a stable and predictable U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship and further movement away from their dangerous cold war nuclear postures are important to obtain the cooperation of other states in the comprehensive nuclear agenda. Also, the President views New START as an interim step towards seeking to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles of the other nuclear states, such as China, France, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

It is widely recognized that the worldwide nuclear non-proliferation arrangements embodied in a 1970's treaty signed by most of the nations is eroding. Strong measures must be taken to prevent an increase in the number of states with nuclear arsenals, with the attendant increased dangers of their use and to decrease the likelihood of terrorists obtaining a nuclear bomb. The Administration's nuclear policy study, released on April 6th, elevates the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to the top priority on the U.S. policy agenda. The new policy is another important step in reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy by limiting the circumstances in which nuclear weapons would be employed.

At President Obama's invitation more than forty heads of state or their representatives gathered in Washington, DC, on April 12th and 13th, with the goal of setting guidelines to prevent terrorists from stealing or buying the materials to make nuclear bombs. The summit focused on securing all worldwide fissile materials, useful in fashioning nuclear bombs, within four years.

New START is just that: a start. Despite the end of the U.S.-Soviet competition, the remaining 23,000 nuclear bombs across the globe present a clear and present danger to U.S. security. The President's program to focus the world's attention on this problem and to take serious steps to ameliorate this threat is critical to preventing nuclear catastrophes.