The ink on the nuclear arms treaty signed in Prague by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev was barely dry before some senators warned they may vote against ratification for reasons that in fact have nothing to do with the treaty. This makes no sense.
The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is a sensible effort to roll back the nuclear threat, in the tradition of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It is a modest step forward, not a giant one. It calls for cutting deployed nuclear warheads by 30 percent, to 1,550 each, and launch vehicles -- such as missile silos and submarine tubes -- by more than 50 percent, to 800 each.
These reductions in the new START agreement will not erode America's nuclear capabilities, strategic deterrent, or national defense. In fact, the reductions don't have to be completed until the treaty's seventh year -- plenty of time for a prudent draw-down.
But while its terms are modest, its impact would be broad. The new START agreement will:
- Pave the way for more efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
- Demonstrate to the world that the two nations which possess more than 90 percent of the planet's nuclear weapons are committed to reduction and non-proliferation.
- Continue and improve a verification regime begun under START I that allows U.S. inspectors and intelligence officials to understand and monitor Russian nuclear forces. The new agreement "counts actual, physical warheads," said Linton Brooks, chief U.S. negotiator for START I, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. "So it measures the real deployed capability."
- Signal a new cooperation between Washington and Moscow: cooperation that has already borne fruit with Russian statements on containing Iran.
- Lay the groundwork for deeper cuts in U.S. and Russian tactical and non-deployed weapons.
- Put us on a path that may lead to a world without nuclear weapons as envisioned by Presidents Obama and Reagan.
By any measure, this is a good treaty, and it should be ratified by the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma.
So it's disheartening to hear some in the Senate suggest they may hold this treaty hostage to additional, unnecessary conditions.
Make no mistake: This treaty will be carefully vetted. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has begun a series of hearings that will examine the treaty, and will report to the Senate. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which I chair, will hold hearings into how its terms will be monitored. And the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings on its impact on our nuclear posture and national defense.
I am confident a powerful case for ratification will be made. So far, critics have relied on two general, unsupported claims:
- First, they say reducing America's nuclear arsenal in a dangerous world would make us vulnerable. The truth: The agreement maintains a robust arsenal and is supported by the Defense Department's civilian and military leadership. Defense Secretary Gates said it "strengthens our nuclear stability." Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it "enhances our ability to do that which we have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States."
- Second, some Senators infer that our nuclear weapons will become unreliable over time, and say they won't vote for the treaty unless it's linked to modernization of the arsenal. The truth: An independent group of scientists who advise the government on nuclear weapons (known as the JASONS) reported in August that the National Nuclear Security Administration is successfully ensuring the arsenal's safety and reliability through weapons "lifetime extension programs."
Their report said that through such programs, "Lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence..."
Meantime, the Defense and Energy secretaries have certified the nuclear stockpile as "safe and secure" every year for the past 14.
More needs to be done. President Obama is committed to providing the resources to ensure a safe, secure and effective arsenal for as long as we have nuclear weapons. His Fiscal 2011 budget asks for $11.2 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a 13.4 percent increase over the Fiscal 2010 budget.
Against these facts, the red flags raised by some in the Senate start to look more like red herrings.
In reality, the one thing that could make us more vulnerable is the failure to ratify this agreement. START I expired in December. Without a new treaty, we'd lack the means to inspect and monitor Russia's nuclear forces and warheads. We'd lose the transparency that exists between our nations. Russia would be free to produce and hide more warheads, missiles, and submarines. The trust built through recent negotiations would be squandered.
If any treaty should be ratified, it is this one. It should be an easy step for the Senate to take, a step that should be taken promptly.
Senator Feinstein is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.