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William Hartung

William Hartung

Posted: May 20, 2010 12:34 PM

Nuclear Arms Reductions and the Politics of Missile Defense

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START and the Politics of Missile Defense

A strange debate is emerging in Congress over the links - or lack thereof -between missile defense and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. Treaty opponents like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and the Heritage Foundation have suggested that the agreement will spell the end of missile defense development as we know it, to the detriment of U.S. security. Treaty defenders rightly point out that the text of the agreement puts no meaningful limits on the ability of the United States to develop as extensive a missile defense system as it chooses. Whether it would be wise to deploy such a system is a separate question, addressed below.

Why does this matter? Because the claims about missile defense and New START are going to be used by treaty opponents to try to block the agreement. This would be a major setback for President Obama's efforts to seek deep reductions in global nuclear arsenals, and his longer-term goal of getting rid of these devastating weapons altogether.

New START is a modest step. It will cut U.S. and Russian arsenals by one-third but still leave each side with 1,550 warheads, enough not just to deter anyone from attacking either country, but to destroy life on earth. But New START is still essential, not only in its own right but in setting the table for more extensive efforts to reduce global nuclear arsenals. Next steps can and should include another round of U.S.-Russia talks that involve deeper reductions; a worldwide ban on all nuclear testing; measures to keep nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials out of the hands of terrorists; and an agreement to end the production of "fissile materials" - the plutonium and enriched uranium that are the basic ingredients for a nuclear weapon. Without START, it will be much harder for the Obama administration to achieve these other objectives.

Which brings us back to missile defense. For many Republicans, missile defense is an article of faith and an indispensable part of the Reagan legacy (unfortunately, they rarely embrace Reagan's other legacy, his dream of a world without nuclear weapons). This is a reality that any nuclear arms reduction effort will have to address. But it's not as if the Obama administration has abandoned missile defense. Although it has eliminated a few of the most costly and unworkable projects, it is still spending nearly $10 billion per year on missile defense. But there is a shift in emphasis under Obama towards programs that are most useful in addressing shorter-range threats like a potential Iranian ballistic missile rather than systems that in theory could block Russian missiles.

This is where the bottom line comes in. The most costly and dangerous missile defense network would be one that would neutralize Russia's nuclear warheads altogether - or be perceived to have that capability. Russia's response to such a development would be to ratchet up its own nuclear arsenal, with the risk of re-starting a Cold War-style arms race.

The reasons behind this were best articulated by Fred Kaplan in a recent essay that appeared in Slate:

"If both sides reduce their offensive nuclear weapons, and if the United States builds up its defensive weapons, Russian strategists might fear that Washington was amassing a "first-strike capability." That is, the United States could launch a first strike on Russia's missile silos and bomber bases--and when Russia strikes back with its surviving missiles, U.S. missile defenses will shoot them down. Thus, missile defenses can destroy the other side's ability to deter a nuclear attack.
The scenario sounds--and is--insane. (A few reasons: An American president who entertains the idea of launching an attack would have to consider that the Russians might launch their missiles as soon as their radar saw our missiles coming; and even if they didn't, some Russian missiles would survive the attack, get through the defensive barrier, and wind up killing millions of Americans.) But such are the contemplations of the nuclear priesthood. (In Cold War days, U.S. think-tank denizens, generals, and even a few officials went through similar calculations, all of them beginning, "If the Soviets launched a first strike ...")"

This issue was debated by Sen. DeMint and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Sen. John Kerry at a hearing held earlier this week. The most succinct rebuttal of DeMint's advocacy for a massive system designed to eliminate Russia's ability to respond to a nuclear attack was offered by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who noted that such an effort would be "enormously destabilizing as well as unbelievably expensive." And as Peter Baker noted in yesterday's New York Times, not even as ardent a missile defense proponent as George W. Bush supported building a system aimed at Russia. So, while START leaves open the possibility of deploying as extensive a missile defense system as possible, there are good reasons to not to do so.

All of this may seem rather elaborate and convoluted, but it will be one important part of the debate over a new U.S.-Russia arms reduction agreement. Regardless of one's position on missile defense in general, it is important that false claims regarding the Obama administration's position on it not be allowed to derail the New START agreement.