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Failing to ratify New START has real consequences

When the Senate returns to complete their work for this session, they will undoubtedly have a lot on their plate. America’s military leadership, however, has made clear that for them, scheduling a vote on the ratification of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia should be a top priority.

The Secretary of Defense has written that New START has the “unanimous support” of the US military.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, testified in support of the treaty, as did the Director of the US Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen Patrick O’Reilly. The Commander of US nuclear forces (STRATCOM), General Kevin Chilton advised the Senate to ratify New START. He was joined by seven of the last eight commanders of STRATCOM who jointly wrote the Senate urging ratification.

As recently as November 4, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters, “This treaty is absolutely critical to the effectiveness of our nuclear arsenal, our knowledge of Russian nuclear capabilities and U.S. national security overall. We’re advancing it at this time and pushing for ratification because we need this. And we need it sooner, rather than later.”

Despite all of this, there are some in Washington who would urge the Senate to flatly ignore America’s military and, in direct contradiction to their advice, postpone consideration of New START until some unspecified time in the future. But those who make this argument have failed to take responsibility for the likely consequences of that course of action, just as they typically fail to acknowledge that their recommendation enjoys no support at the Pentagon.

So let us consider what failure to ratify the treaty would mean.

First, it means that the US ability to conduct on-site inspections will continue to be suspended. For more than twenty years, the US military has had boots on the ground, inspecting and monitoring the Russian nuclear arsenal. These inspections, negotiated by the Reagan administration and guided by the principle of “trust, but verify” have provided critical intelligence. Unfortunately, they were suspended when the prior START I treaty expired in December of last year. The New START Treaty would both resume and improve those on-site inspections. For almost a full year, we’ve been in the dark. At a minimum, postponing a ratification vote would prolong this disadvantageous situation. At worse, inspections would be postponed indefinitely. As General Chilton testified: “If we don’t get the treaty, [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and … we have no
insight into what they’re doing. So it’s the worst of both possible worlds.”

Second, it means that the US is obliged to plan on worst-case scenarios with regard to our own deployments. This means that we will be compelled to waste military resources, not to mention tax dollars. A precise accounting of the Russian arsenal and predictability going forward informs our strategic force structure. Frankly, it is to our advantage to verifiably reduce the Russian deployment because it allows us to use our resources more effectively. The greater predictability we have, the better.

And contrary to the erroneous claim that New START interferes with missile defense, Lt. General O’Reilly testified that “the New START Treaty actually reduces previous START treaty’s constraints on developing missile defense programs in several areas.”

There are broader issues at stake as well. While some may still view these issues through a Cold War lens, the fact is that world has changed. Our 21st century concerns are nuclear proliferation and the terrible possibility of nuclear terrorism. To successfully address these issues we need to build and expand our cooperation with Russia and other states. Whether it is countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions or securing nuclear material around the globe we need to persuade the other major powers to advance a shared security agenda. To argue that we can address these issues unilaterally is simply not credible.

Engaging Russia isn’t about “being nice” it is about advancing our national security interest. Failing to ratify New START will both destabilize relations with Russia and seriously weaken US leadership on these issues internationally.

The New START Treaty enjoys very strong from support from the US military for one simple reason – it improves our national security. While some may see a political opportunity in delaying a vote, the national security disadvantages are far more serious and more immediate.

In our system of government, civilians control the military to ensure that the military does not acquire too much power. This is a principle that has served us well, but it does not mean that elected officials should ignore the advice of the military for solely political reasons.

John Castellaw, retired as a lieutenant general after a 36-year career
in the United States Marine Corps and most recently served as the deputy
commandant for programs and resources at the Pentagon in Washington,


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