Nuclear command nominee sidesteps questions on arms control treaties

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 Trump’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.{mosads}

“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 Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that said they “understand” a withdrawal in under consideration.

On Thursday, Sen. Tom Cotton (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 Duckworth (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 Reed (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.”

Tags Donald Trump Jack Reed Mark Esper Mike Pompeo Tammy Duckworth Tom Cotton

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