The writer, of Washington, D.C., is a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and a former senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Nebraska’s U.S. senators are front and center in one of the most important national security debates in Washington. The Senate will soon vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed on April 8 in Prague.
Treaty ratification will set in motion the verifiable reduction of hundreds of strategic nuclear weapons, without weakening the deterrent capability of U.S. forces. It also will re-establish the on-site monitoring of Russian and U.S. missile and bomber bases. This monitoring is necessary for confidence that both sides are reducing their stockpiles as agreed.
The votes of both Sens. Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns are needed to ensure that this essential treaty does not get delayed or derailed by partisan wrangling.
Growing up in central Iowa during the Cold War, I used to look toward the western horizon (and Omaha) with both fear and reassurance. I realized that in the event of a nuclear exchange, Soviet targeting of Strategic Air Command headquarters would result in the Omaha area’s destruction, sending deadly clouds of radioactive fallout by prevailing winds over my hometown.
Yet I was also aware that the powerful deterrent forces directed from SAC headquarters provided the best guarantee that no sane opponent would ever unleash such an attack in the first place.
For the past two decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have negotiated treaties to reduce Russian and U.S. strategic arsenals in a balanced and stable manner. Each of these agreements was approved without delay by overwhelming majorities in the Senate. The New START legislation deserves similar support.
Extensive Senate hearings in recent months have revealed broad and deep support for the treaty among security experts associated with both political parties.
In a speech on Aug. 11, Sen. Nelson announced his strong support for treaty passage. Given his work on strategic forces as a member of the Armed Services Committee, Nelson’s endorsement is particularly significant. His rationale extended beyond the reductions themselves to include the benefits of increased transparency: “America will be stronger if we can continue to look under Russia’s hood.”
In Senate testimony, Gen. Kevin Chilton, the Omaha-based commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), provided three reasons for prompt ratification of New START — the treaty would limit the Russian missile warheads that pose the greatest threat to the United States; retain sufficient flexibility for U.S. deterrent forces; and re-establish a strategic nuclear arms control verification regime that provides intrusive access to and predictability for Russian nuclear forces.
“Without New START,” Chilton explained, “we would rapidly lose insight into Russian strategic nuclear force developments and activities, and our force modernization planning and hedging strategy would be more complex and more costly.”
Indeed, without New START, Russia could easily maintain more than 2,000 deployed strategic warheads rather than reducing to the 1,550 treaty limit.
Seven of Chilton’s predecessors at SAC or its successor organization, STRATCOM, subsequently endorsed the treaty, making clear that Chilton’s conclusions are widely shared among those who have held the awesome responsibilities of commanding U.S. nuclear forces. The same judgment has been rendered by most previous secretaries of defense, secretaries of state and national security advisers — Republicans and Democrats alike.
We are now at a critical juncture. In spite of the growing consensus on the treaty’s merits, Washington’s highly partisan political environment is jeopardizing the Senate’s ability to finish the job.
The early August vote sought by both the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and his ranking Republican colleague was postponed until Sept. 15 in response to requests for additional time. The approach of November congressional elections increases temptations to play politics with the issue, pushing a vote into 2011.
Yet New START is an urgent, high-priority national security issue, and the Senate needs to deal with it accordingly. Since the original START expired nearly nine months ago, U.S. inspectors have not been able to monitor Russian strategic forces “up close and personal,” so gaps in our understanding of the threat they pose are growing.
Moreover, the benefits we would derive from verifiably lower levels of Russian nuclear weapons are being forestalled.
The Senate, with support of Nebraska’s delegation, must promptly approve this treaty, providing for the most efficient and effective use of the U.S. strategic deterrent and reducing the risks still posed by Russia’s arsenal.