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Nuclear command nominee sidesteps questions on arms control treaties

Nuclear command nominee sidesteps questions on arms control treaties
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The admiral nominated to lead the U.S. military command in charge of nuclear weapons sidestepped questions Thursday on whether the United States should stay in a pair of treaties arms control advocates fear are on President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE’s chopping block.

Vice Adm. Charles Richard, the nominee to be commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee he would give the president his “best military advice” on the New START Treaty and Open Skies Treaty, and listed several pros and cons with each.

But he would not definitively say at his confirmation hearing whether he supports staying in the treaties or withdrawing despite several senators’ attempts to get him to do so.

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“I will support any arms control or other treaty that enhances the security of this nation,” Richard said generally when asked about both treaties.

New START, negotiated by the Obama administration, caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 each.

New START is up for renewal in 2021. The Trump administration has indicated it wants to expand the scope of the treaty as a condition of extension, by taking steps such as folding in China and other weapons not currently covered by the agreement.

Supporters of New START say the Trump administration’s conditions are poison pills meant to kill the treaty.

The Open Skies Treaty, meanwhile, allows the pact’s 34 signatories to fly unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of other signatories. The intention is to increase transparency and reduce the risk of military miscalculation.

The United States has also used the treaty in recent years to show support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, flying observation flights in 2018 after Russia seized Ukrainian naval ships and in 2014 after Russia invaded Crimea.

But Republicans for years have accused Russia of violating the treaty by blocking flights over some of its territory, including Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Democrats first raised the alarm earlier this month that the administration was considering withdrawing from Open Skies, writing a letter to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition Brennan takes final shot at Trump: 'I leave his fate to our judicial system, his infamy to history, & his legacy to a trash heap' MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBiden's State Department picks are a diplomatic slam dunk Kissinger tells Biden to go easy on China Saudi-Israeli diplomacy progresses amid looming Middle East challenges MORE that said they “understand” a withdrawal in under consideration.

On Thursday, Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection More conservatives break with Trump over election claims Warnock hit by Republicans over 'cannot serve God and the military' comment MORE (R-Ark.), an ardent opponent of Open Skies, pushed Richard on his case for withdrawing from the treaty.

Cotton asked Richard whether he sees “value in remaining in a treaty where only one side is following the rules” and whether “we have the best satellite constellation in the world.”

“I think this is a lot like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Cotton said, referring to a treaty Trump has already withdrawn from. “Everyone agrees Russia is not complying with it. Everyone agrees it would be best if we brought Russia back into compliance. Everyone agrees it would be great if everyone had a pony, as well. But we’ve spent years trying to get Russia into compliance with this treaty, and in the meantime, Russia has continued to gain significant intelligence advantage over the United States.”

Richard told Cotton his analysis of Russia’s violations was “quite correct,” but would not commit one way or the other on the treaty.

“You are hitting at the factors that have to be considered on whether or not we stay in the treaty,” Richard told Cotton.

Asked later by Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthOvernight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' Top Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' Overnight Defense: Another Defense official resigns | Pentagon chief says military 'remains strong' despite purge | Top contender for Biden DOD secretary would be historic pick MORE (D-Ill.) for risks in withdrawing from the treaty, Richard cited the Open Skies’s benefit to U.S. allies.

“The primary negative to that, ma’am, I would put in the category of the assurance of our allies,” he said. “We’re not the only signatory to that treaty. It provides valuable insight and partnership opportunities with our allies. But it does require us to make the capital and resource investments to fully use the provisions inside that treaty, and it does come at a counterintelligence cost the United States."

On New START, Duckworth and committee ranking member Jack ReedJack ReedTop Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' Overnight Defense: Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper | Worries grow about rudderless post-election Pentagon | Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up | Pelosi says Esper firing shows Trump intent on sowing 'chaos' Esper firing hints at broader post-election shake-up MORE (D-R.I.) pressed Richard on the benefits of the agreement.

Richard said New START has provided “valuable insight” on the makeup of Russia’s strategic forces, but raised concerns that the treaty does not cover some types of weapons and appeared to allude to China not being a party to the treaty.

“The New START treaty has provided us with valuable insight into Russian, in this case, capabilities,” he said. “It gives us a feel for their size, capacity, capability, but it also doesn't address large categories of weapons that are not treaty constrained. It is only with Russia, and they are developing new systems. And I would provide my best military advice, if confirmed, into the pros and cons of any future agreement, including this one.”