New START: A missile-defense-friendly treaty

The only missile defense constraint of any kind in New START is the prohibition on converting long-range missile launchers for use by missile defense interceptors. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, has testified to Congress that there are no plans to convert launchers, and that if any new missile defense launchers were needed, they could be more quickly and less expensively acquired through the construction of new missile silos. None of the critics have explained how this provision limits U.S. missile defense options in the real world.  Moreover, O’Reilly has explained that the treaty: “…actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program [that were present in the 1991 START agreement],” such as prohibiting the launch of missile defense target vehicles from airborne and waterborne platforms.

Some missile defense advocates also complain about New START’s preambular language recognizing the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms. Yet including this simple truism in the preamble did not lead to any numerical or qualitative limits on missile defenses in the treaty itself. Moreover, the preamble also notes that “current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties” – a Russian acknowledgement that the 30 U.S. strategic ballistic missile interceptors currently deployed do not threaten Moscow’s strategic nuclear retaliatory capability.

Also objectionable to critics is a (non-binding) Russian unilateral statement, stating that New START “may be effective and viable only in conditions where there is no qualitative or quantitative build-up in [U.S. missile defense system capabilities]” and that such a build-up could prompt Russia to withdraw from the treaty. The United States issued its own unilateral statement in response, explaining that U.S. missile defenses “are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia,” and that the United States intends “to continue improving and deploying its missile defense systems in order to defend itself against limited attack….”

The United States has made clear that the treaty would not prevent it from improving and deploying missile defense systems. The adoption of the Phased Adaptive Approach in 2009 provided a clear and logical conceptual roadmap for U.S. development and deployment of future missile defense systems in Europe during the treaty’s duration. President Obama’s cancellation of plans for deploying unproven, strategic missile interceptors in Poland constituted a shift in emphasis to regional, non-strategic systems, more responsive to present and near-term missile threats from Iran. Russian civilian and military leaders have indicated that they do not feel threatened by U.S. theater missile defense systems based in Europe.

That the critics’ arguments are so contrary to the facts cries out for explanation. Most of these critics probably know full well that New START protects rather than jeopardizes U.S. missile defense options during the next decade. Moreover, without New START in force, the U.S. intelligence community would not be able to predict with high confidence the status of Russia’s nuclear forces, prompting more-costly U.S. force modernization and hedging strategies.

However, since missile defense programs are popular in Congress, rallying to their defense is a convenient subterfuge. Spurious charges of imaginary secret understandings between U.S. and Russian negotiators to curb missile defenses are handy excuses for delaying the Senate vote. Ideological opponents of arms control hope that likely Senate approval may be derailed by letting the vote slide into the 112th Congress or by provoking a negative Russian reaction.

There is a legitimate debate to be had over the chances of reconciling post-New START reductions in nuclear weapons with a build-up in U.S. strategic defenses at some point in the future. But the critics’ distortion of New START as hostile to missile defense only raises suspicions that they fear an honest debate on the merits of the treaty.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, and served on the professional staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and in the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.