Senate Democrats

The Follow-on START Agreement: Responding to False Claims

There is broad, bipartisan support among political leaders and national security experts for negotiating a follow-on START treaty with Russia.  Further mutual reductions in U.S. and Russian Cold War-era nuclear arsenals are considered critical for maintaining strategic stability in our relations, enhancing the global nonproliferation regime, and, in effect, advancing U.S. security. Despite this widespread consensus in favor of a new START, some analysts have advanced unsubstantiated myths, unfounded concerns, and political slogans as negotiators have worked toward a treaty.  With the Senate poised to consider the new treaty once finalized in the coming months, it is vital that these misleading and irresponsible claims be debunked, ensuring that the debate is grounded in the facts.

Myth:  The new treaty could limit our missile defense program.

Fact:  The Obama Administration has made clear the new START treaty will in no way constrain U.S. missile defenses.  As arms control expertKingston Reif recently underscored, the Obama administration has committed to protecting U.S. missile defenses in a new agreement, noting that “Presidents Obama and Medvedev have stated that a New START will deal only with strategic offensive arms.  The offense-defense link might be noted in the preamble of the new treaty, but the text of New START will not contain any formal or legal limitations on missile defenses.”[1] 

Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, chief negotiator of the treaty, directly addressed this issue in a recent speech, stating that “The new Treaty is breaking no new ground on this issue.  Both Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed in their April 1 statement in London that the new START Treaty is about strategic offensive arms.  While the United States has long agreed that there is a relationship between missile offense and defense, we believe the START Follow-on Treaty is not the appropriate vehicle for addressing missile defense.”[2]

Myth:  It would be premature and imprudent for the Administration to negotiate a new START agreement until the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is completed.

Fact:  The NPR analysis on our nuclear force structure and posture was completed early in the process to allow for the negotiators to work on a follow-on START treaty even before the completion of the entire NPR.  In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 9, Marine General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated: “We prioritized in the Nuclear Posture Review…the activities and the analysis that would be necessary to support the timelines associated with the START negotiations or the follow-on START negotiations…  I’m very comfortable that we prioritized that analysis at the front end in order to support these negotiations.”  In an August fact sheet, the Department of Defense underscored that the START negotiations and NPR have been “closely coordinated” and the interagency NPR team, including the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy, as well as the US Strategic Command and other combatant commands, “made it an early priority to accomplish the analysis necessary to support the START Follow-on treaty negotiations…”[3]

Fact:  START negotiations have been closely informed by the NPR.  While some conservative Republicans have suggested that the Administration has pursued START negotiations without taking into account relevant analysis on our nuclear posture from the NPR, the Pentagon and State Department have repeatedly stated that the NPR has sufficiently informed the START discussions.  In the words of Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, and chief U.S. START negotiator: “Critics have also said that we are agreeing on the New START Treaty ahead of the completion of the Nuclear Posture Review.  That is not the case.  The Obama Administration tasked the NPR working groups, as a first step, to develop a nuclear force structure and posture for use in these negotiations.  While the NPR’s work is still ongoing, it will continue to inform the positions taken by the United States as it negotiates the new START Treaty with Russia.”[4]

Further, with final negotiations still in progress and the NPR scheduled for release in March, it now is expected that the Senate will have the full NPR analysis before it receives a new treaty for consideration.  Therefore, Senators will be able to weigh the NPR’s guidance against the provisions of the new START treaty during the Senate’s consideration and debate.

Myth:  We should opt to extend START, rather than trying to implement a new treaty.

Fact:  A simple extension of START is not in the national security interest of the United States.  As arms control expert Steven Pifer has asserted, “…a simple extension of START is a non-starter.  That is not going to happen.  START formally expired on December 5.  Russia is not and has not been interested in a simple extension of START, in part because that would prohibit their ability to replace their older ICBM systems with newer systems and make it impossible for them to maintain a strategic force that is roughly equivalent in numbers to the United States, nor would the United States necessarily want to have all of the various limits and sublimits that START imposes continue for another 5 years.  And what’s more, if we simply extended START, the effect would be that Russia could and probably would try to maintain a larger, deployed strategic nuclear warhead force – above 2,000 warheads – on their 500, 600 strategic delivery vehicles, than they would under this new START treaty, which aims to bring down those deployed warhead numbers to 1,500 to 1,675.”[5] 

Myth:  Russia would benefit from a new treaty more than we do.

Fact:  A follow-on START treaty will provide mutual security benefits to the United States and Russia.  Conservative charges that Russia will be forced to reduce their nuclear arsenal regardless of whether a new agreement is negotiated not only are based on shaky assumptions, they also ignore the inherent national security benefits for United States in pursuing mutual arms reductions with Russia as well as the importance of having a binding, verifiable treaty framework with which to verify those reductions.[6]

Fact:  Further mutual reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are central to U.S. national security objectives.  As the bipartisan Commission on WMD Proliferation and Terrorism concluded in December 2008, “The Commission believes it imperative that we continue to reduce the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles in a structured and transparent manner.  Consequently, we believe that the next administration should engage with Russia at the earliest possible date to negotiate additional reductions in both countries’ strategic stockpiles…  Such an agreement would send an important signal to the rest of the world regarding U.S. and Russian commitments to negotiate in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.  Setting additional benchmarks for further reductions would serve as a natural reinforcement to continue this important strategic partnership in fighting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”[7]

Myth:  We cannot ratify START without committing to modernizing U.S. nuclear warheads.

Fact:  The U.S. strategic nuclear force is modern, credible and reliable: there is no “modernization gap” between the U.S. and Russian arsenals.  As Carnegie nonproliferation expert Daryl Kimball has underscored, “Existing U.S. strategic missile and bomber systems are modern, reliable, and accurate.  According to a new independent report from the JASON scientific advisory group, ‘lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.’  Simply put, there is no ‘modernization gap.'”[8]

Fact:  The United States has a robust modernization program in place that effectively sustains our nuclear arsenal.  Several conservative Republicans have suggested that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is falling behind that of Russia on the sole basis that Russia is manufacturing new warheads and the United States is not.  As William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, has emphasized, “As we reduce our arsenal, we don’t need new warheads; we just need to know that the existing ones work…A new warhead…would actually be less reliable than current designs.  Current warheads have undergone hundreds of tests; a new warhead would not (and should not) be tested.”[9]

Several government-commissioned and independent reports have certified that we have an effective modernization program in place to sustain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear arsenal.  Since the mid-1990s, the science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program has used computer simulations, experiments, inspections, monitoring, and other measures to maintain a robust arsenal without nuclear explosion testing.  Studies by the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the independent scientific advisory group, JASON, as well as a 2002 National Academy of Science panel all have found that the Stockpile Stewardship Program is able to reliably maintain the U.S. arsenal.[10]

Fact:  The Obama Administration made it clear in its Fiscal Year 2011 budget that the safety, security, and reliability of our nuclear stockpile is a top priority.  President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget request provides significant new investments for the Stockpile Stewardship Program and its supporting infrastructure – including increased funding in the nuclear laboratories and facilities responsible for maintaining, monitoring, and storing nuclear warheads.  It would devote $8.1 billion, more than a $750 million above the Fiscal Year 2010 funding level, for the Department of Energy to expand life extension programs (LEPs); provide for upgrades to the infrastructure supporting LEPs; and to fund new initiatives in naval reactors work.  The budget would also provide $2 billion for critical facility upgrades, including a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a new uranium production facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which will facilitate world-class nuclear science and help attract top young scientists to the nuclear workforce.  Further, over the next five years, the Administration plans to increase funding for these activities by more than $5 billion.[11]

Fact:  Focusing on warhead replacement programs would negatively impact broader U.S. initiatives on nuclear complex modernization, including the Lifetime Extension Program (LEP).  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has estimated that warhead replacement efforts – including new warhead production facilities to produce newly designed weapons – would cost $150 billion, while the NNSA’s cost estimate for the required research and uranium processing facilities would be an additional $5.5 billion.  Experts warn that focusing on such expensive, unproven warhead replacement programs would divert critical resources away from necessary investments in nuclear weapons complex expertise – expertise that has proven effective in ensuring a reliable and safe nuclear arsenal.  They argue that the United States should focus on efforts to improve the verification, safeguards, and dismantlement at the national nuclear laboratories and bolstering initiatives to secure loose nuclear weapons worldwide.[12]

Myth:  The Administration has not moved quickly enough to negotiate a follow-on START treaty. 

Fact:  The Obama Administration has committed to taking the time necessary to get the treaty right; it would not be in our interest to rush negotiations.  AsWilliam Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the Department of State, recently noted, “I don’t think it should be surprising to anyone that a technically complex treaty takes some time to complete.  It’s important for both of our interests not to rush that process.  Over the course of the last few months since the July summit we’ve made considerable progress.  We’re on the verge of completing the agreement and like I said, I’m optimistic that we’ll complete it soon.”  Similarly, in late January, the National Security Council spokesman stated, “I think it is important for both countries to get an agreement that is a good agreement for both.  We are not going to rush through this.  We did set an ambitious timeline, and of course, we had a deadline in terms of expiration of the treaty on December 5th of last year.  But, both parties agreed to basically to keep continuing on in the negotiations.  We are in a different world, a post-Cold War world where the issues of concern are not the same.  That said, I think we have made good progress… We remain confident that an agreement will be reached in fairly short order as our negotiating teams work through the remaining details.”[13]

Fact:  The previous Administration failed to act to lay the groundwork necessary for completing a follow-on treaty by December 2009.  As Kingston Reif has underscored, “It’s important to take into account that the two sides only began negotiating earlier this year, in large part because, as we all know, the Bush administration was not interested in a new arms control agreement to replace START I.  They knew that the expiration of START was on the horizon, and they simply weren’t interested in doing much about it.  The Obama administration’s negotiating team entered this in a pretty tight spot, so it was always going to be a challenge to get an agreement negotiated before December 5, to say nothing about actually getting an agreement negotiated, signed, and then ratified by the US Senate by December 5.”[14]

Fact:  Many of the same conservative Republicans claiming the Administration has failed to make sufficient progress in securing a new START treaty have actively worked to impede the negotiation process.  Max Bergmann, national security policy expert at the Center for American Progress recently detailed the hypocrisy and baseless nature of conservative criticism – particularly the claim that not reaching an agreement prior to the December 5 deadline represents a diplomatic failure of the Administration: “Not only did conservatives not lift a finger to advance START over the last eight years, but they have also shown almost no concern for verification measures in the past.  But what is most galling about this attack is that the Administration has had effectively only 5 months to negotiate an incredibly complex treaty – not a full year.  The reason for this is that conservatives in the Senate put a number of holds and stalled numerous appointments crucial to the START negotiations.”[15]

Fact:  The passage of the December 5 expiration date is not surprising and not a national security concern.  As Linton Brooks, the chief negotiator of START I under George H.W. Bush, noted in December, “The fact that the treaty wasn’t done on the 5th of December is a fact, but it’s not a problem.  They started in April; that’s eight months ago.  My treaty started 9 years before I watched it being signed.   So while this is a less – I hope – complicated treaty, it is certainly not surprising that they haven’t finished things.  And you can see in the nature of the statement the two governments issued about continuity until it’s finished that this is going to be a fairly short period.  I don’t know what a fairly short period means – weeks, not months, not years.”[16]

Myth:  It would be dangerous to agree to lower levels of strategic nuclear warheads unless Russia reduces its relatively larger stockpile of nonstrategic warheads.

Fact:  Tactical warheads do not actually give Russia a meaningful military advantage – experts believe that only a fraction of these weapons are in usable condition.  AsSteven Pifer has underscored, “Russia is believed to have a larger and sizeable tactical warhead force, perhaps as many as 3,000 bombs; nobody knows exactly how many.  And it should be verifiably reduced – mainly to decrease the risk of terrorist acquisition in the future.  But we also have to keep in mind as we look at Russia’s tactical force that, just like their strategic force, not all of these are deployed, not all of these are in top operational condition and independent experts believe that maybe only a few hundred are in any condition that could be utilized in a real-world military situation.  And even at lower strategic force levels – well below what the two countries are contemplating for this agreement – those tactical warheads do not give Russia any meaningful military advantage and should not be allowed to impede the modest but very important reductions in strategic arsenals under a new START treaty.”[17] 

Fact:  The Administration has committed to addressing tactical arms reduction in the next, comprehensive round of U.S.-Russian talks.  As one nonproliferation expert emphasized, “Given the short timetable for the new START talks, taking on the challenge of tactical nuclear arms reductions in this round of talks was simply not practical.  The best way to begin accounting for and reducing obsolete U.S. and Russian battlefield nukes is to finalize the new START agreement and, as the Obama administration has suggested, begin a new and more comprehensive round of talks early next year to arrive at limits on all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.”[18]

Myth:  A new START agreement could threaten continued U.S. deterrence capability. 

Fact:  A new START agreement would in no way weaken the U.S. deterrent, even as other countries seek to build their nuclear capabilities.  In a resolution introduced in December, some conservative House Republicans called on the President to “ensure the continued deterrence capability of the United States strategic nuclear arsenal” and warned against signing an agreement that would harm our ability to deter potential nuclear powers – particularly China.  Experts have made clear that the concerns raised by this resolution – and by other conservative critics in recent months – are unfounded.  As Kingston Reif has noted, “Even after a New START agreement, the U.S. will still have at least 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear weapons (as will the Russians), plus many thousands more in reserve. In contrast, China has only 240 total weapons and only 25-40 missiles capable of striking the U.S., far from the U.S. total.  The resolution cites a U.S. intelligence estimate that the Chinese could have over 100 missiles capable of striking the U.S.15 years from now.  First, it’s important to note that U.S. intelligence estimates have repeatedly overestimated the speed and content of China’s modernization programs.  Second, given the numbers being considered for New START, even if one assumes that China could have 100 such missiles by 2035, the U.S. would still have an overwhelming advantage.”[19]   

Further, as a recent report from the New America Foundation asserted, “China has repeatedly asserted a ‘no first use policy.’  Overall, their posture continues to be one of ‘minimum deterrent’ strategy… Reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear forces is likely to reinforce this policy, not spur a Chinese build-up.”[20]

Myth:  The Obama Administration’s failure to complete a follow-on treaty by December 5 has led to the loss of key U.S. monitoring capability at the missile production facility at Votkinsk.

Fact:  U.S. inspectors were forced to leave Votkinsk in December under an agreement made by the Bush Administration with Russia.  As Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress noted in a recent panel discussion,”U.S. inspectors were forced to leave the facility this December because of a deal the Bush administration made with Russia before leaving office:  The reason monitoring is ending at Votkinsk is because the Bush administration locked the Obama administration in by giving into Russian demands – not because the Obama administration didn’t care about verification or bungled the negotiations, as conservatives are suggesting.  The Obama administration – like on almost every issue – inherited a bum hand from the Bush administration on START.”[21]

Fact:  Monitoring at Votkinsk is no longer considered necessary by many experts.  Linton Brooks has argued there no longer exists a need to monitor missiles out of the production facility Votkinsk.  As he recently highlighted, “The Bush administration had decided it didn’t want to preserve it; it doesn’t serve any useful purpose.  I mean, the right way to do verification is figure out what the limits are and then see what you need to verify them. The continuous monitoring at Votkinsk was done at a time when we were worried about large numbers of spare launchers and large numbers of spare missiles that could be brought together, and that has proven not to be a genuine worry.  The Russians have not done anything like the number of spares they were allowed under START-I.  Further, the whole philosophy under that was for enduring or continuing a protracted nuclear war, which to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the world believes in anymore.  So I don’t think that continuous monitoring will be in the final treaty and I don’t think that’s a very big deal.[22]

For additional responses to criticisms against the new START treaty:

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Rebuttals to Arguments against a “New START.”

New America Foundation, For Security and Peace: Ratify START, 1/13/09.

[1] Kingston Reif, 12/8/09.

[2] Rose Gottemoeller, The Long Road From Prague, 8/14/09.

[3] General James Cartwright testimony, via Kingston Reif, 12/8/09; Department of Defense, Fact Sheet: The NPR, Arms Control and Deterrence, 8/6/09.

[4] Rose Gottemoeller, The Long Road From Prague, 8/14/09.

[5] Arms Control Association, Event: START Follow-on Treaty: Assessing Progress on Nuclear Risk Reduction. 12/9/09.

[6] New America Foundation, For Security and Peace: Ratify START, 1/13/10.

[7] The Commission on WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, 12/08.

[8] Daryl Kimball. Don’t Stop with START. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12/3/09.

[9] William Hartung, Why a New START Will Make Us Safer, 1/15/09.

[10] Vice President Joe Biden, Wall Street Journal op-ed, 1/29/10; JASON, Lifetime Extension Program, 9/09.

[11] Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2011, Department of Energy.

[12] Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, 1/6/10.

[13] Interview with Under Secretary William Burns, 1/14/10; Mike Hammer, National Security Council Spokesman, Foreign Press Center Briefing, 1/22/10.

[14] Kingston Reif, via Daily Kos, 11/22/09.

[15] Max Bergmann, 11/30/09.

[16] Linton Brooks, Arms Control Association, Event: START Follow-on Treaty: Assessing Progress on Nuclear Risk Reduction. 12/9/09.

[17] Steven Pifer, Arms Control Association, Event: START Follow-on Treaty: Assessing Progress on Nuclear Risk Reduction. 12/9/09.

[18] Daryl Kimball, Don’t Stop with START. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12/3/09.

[19] Kingston Reif, Much Ado About Not Much: The House Republican Resolution on a New START, 12/8/09.

[20] New America Foundation, For Security and Peace: Ratify START, 1/13/10.

[21] Max Bergman, Heritage Foundation Panel, 12/1/09, via the Ploughshares Fund, 12/4/09.

[22] Arms Control Association, Event: START Follow-on Treaty: Assessing Progress on Nuclear Risk Reduction. 12/9/09.