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The New START, its positives, and the imponderables

A. Vinod Kumar was Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 07, 2011

    One can blame the year-end chill for the lack of global enthusiasm to the US Senate’s ratification of the New START unlike the excitement seen earlier on landmark events of this genre. A widely-heard rejectionist sentiment on this exclusive US-Russian affair is that it is a nominal arms control gesture with minimal impact on the disarmament movement. The Treaty’s passage, it is perceived, could rather be a timely political stimulus to lessen the mistrust between the traditional nuclear rivals. Such arguments are not without merit. Despite the subtlety of intentions, it could be inferred that the New START could serve as an antidote to the friction over US missile defences in Europe which remains at the heart of the ongoing contention with Moscow. Simply so, an implausible outcome of the new Treaty may not be its intended effect on strategic arms reduction and disarmament, but a new quid-pro-quo on sharing the strategic space in Europe.

    The New START and dynamics of negotiations throw unique insights, and varied interpretations, into the strategic competition being played out in the European theatre. The Treaty attempts only a balance of the strategic nuclear stockpiles of both countries while leaving out from its ambit the more potent component of tactical nuclear warheads deployed in the frontline. Interestingly, while the Americans have numerical superiority in strategic warhead stockpiles, they are pondering over means to negate the Russian advantage in tactical weapons, which has a dominating influence in the European theatre. An effective bulwark developed by the Bush administration was the plan to deploy Ground-based Mid-Course Defence (GBMD) system in the Russian backyard – Poland and the Czech Republic. Under Russian pressure, President Obama tried to dilute the impact of this direct counter to Moscow’s sway in Europe by proposing a new plan of “phased adaptive approach” for segregated land- and sea-based deployments across Europe. The Russians were firm that the basic US game plan remained unchanged. The deployment of an operational system like the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) in place of GMBDS, which is still under development, merely added more teeth to the BMD-oriented balancing of Russian tactical forces. For, it is an accepted fact that neither the SM-3s nor GBMDS are needed to negate the threat from Iranian short- and medium-range missiles to the European heartland. The target for a BMD-centric balancer was thus sufficiently evident.

    So is the New START all about a new equation of nuclear stability, as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, Ellen Tauscher, remarked from her hospital bed? Or will it emerge as a durable and genuine effort towards reductions, eventually leading to complete disarmament. At first glance, it seems there is potential for both. While its efficacy in the European strategic competition is always an arguable proposition, the Treaty’s realistic impact on nuclear disarmament cannot be understated. For that matter, there are many positives to the New START which need to be accounted for in any debate, as much as the imponderables.

    Positive 1: Obama’s disarmament agenda is on a roll

    After the much-hyped Prague speech and the Obama-mentored United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1887, it seemed that the US President’s disarmament vision was more rhetoric and less of substance. A symbolic Nuclear Security Summit, a truncated Nuclear Posture Review minus the expected reduced role of nuclear weapons, and an otiose Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) with diluted disarmament commitments – all pointed to the initial disarmament euphoria slipping off from the President’s agenda. That he forewarned of this goal not fructifying in his lifetime added to the scepticism. The New START ratification is thus undoubtedly a shot-in-the-arm for Obama’s disarmament agenda, though not without the usual questions: how far and how soon?

    Positive 2: Raising hope for CTBT and FMCT

    Though no one expects an enthusiastic President to ride on this success and hasten the ratification process of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the New START ratification, and the bi-partisan support it gained, raises the morale for US non-proliferation managers to work out a reconcilable process that could enable the CTBT ratification before the President’s term ends in 2012. That the security implications of New START are diametrically different from that of the CTBT, despite both being disarmament initiatives, will factor in this campaign. While New START only trims a superfluous nuclear arsenal while enabling funds for nuclear weapons modernisation, the CTBT has implications for their upgradation and improvisation into an infinite future with minimal firewalls against potentially unfavourable security environments. The other opportunity is on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Obama could revise the US draft to ensure greater acceptability among other nations, who now oppose provisions of the existing draft pertaining to verification and entry-into-force.

    Positive 3: Reductions are a reality

    That the two biggest nuclear weapon states (NWS) are systematically and convincingly reducing their arsenals in substantive terms will sooner or later force the other NWS to contemplate reductions. Though it will take years for that threshold of proportionate or numerical equity to be achieved and from where the final disarmament movement could be initiated, the fact that the US and Russia are effectively cutting stocks could pressure others into action. This is, however, not without the apprehension that the US-Russia reduction exercise might hit a wall at some stage from where modernised and smaller arsenals will become the norm rather than swift progress towards complete disarmament.

    Positive 4: Bi-partisan support for disarmament initiatives

    It is not unusual for the US Congress to witness bi-partisan support on national security and foreign policy issues. But New START always was heavily resisted by the Republicans and the advantage they gained from the November elections and Senator Jon Kyl’s spirited campaign made the ratification seemingly impossible at one stage. Given this, the crossing-over of 13 Republicans to back the ratification was a shocker and showed how backing of the military and the vigorous White House campaign convinced some Republicans to support the Treaty. Such optimism, however, need not be shared on CTBT, which has larger ramifications than an arms reduction deal with a traditional rival. A stronger Republican presence in the Congress is a definite challenge.
    A palpable fact emerging from these trends is that the positives largely camouflage the imponderables, which could manifest into challenges for Obama’s disarmament agenda.

    Imponderable 1: The missile defence conundrum

    Russia issued a statement at the Treaty’s signing that it will pull out if threatened by any build-up of US missile defences. Though Russians highlight missile defences as primarily negating their strategic deterrent, Moscow is clear that the Iran bogey is used as excuse to deploy a mid-course interception system that counters its tactical advantage in Europe. Russians, hence, reject suggestions of joint deployment and periodic threat assessments as unfeasible propositions. The Republicans, for their part, used BMD deployment as a key bargaining chip in the ratification negotiations. The Obama administration also insists that the deployment plan will be pursued from as early as late 2011, notwithstanding Russia’s objections. The spoiler potential is thus dominant in this matrix. For, the potency of the Russian threat of withdrawal based on BMD postures cannot be underestimated. (Moscow might be keen to imitate what President Bush did on the ABM Treaty citing a new security environment.) Thereby, the New START might be confronted with an imponderable possibility of premature collapse if a compromise is not worked out. Ultimately, both countries will need to agree on how missile defences are going to determine the strategic equation, especially its role as a catalyst or undermining the reduction process.

    Imponderable 2: The Military as the determinant

    The US defence establishment is known to despise any initiative that erodes America’s nuclear prowess. Its resistance to the reference of reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in the NPR and its tacit support for sidelining the CTBT are all driven by its solemn desire to safeguard the sanctity of the arsenal. By that standard, the support by the military leadership to New START was surprising. However, their endorsement came only after ensuring a budgetary boost for nuclear complex modernisation, which they had already gained in the run-up to the NPR finalisation. A smaller but more potent arsenal, with preferably a new warhead programme, is the big bargain they see in the New START. Whether their support will prevail on the CTBT will depend on the Obama administration’s decision on the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) project, though sections in the Pentagon feel that the CTBT would not impinge future upgradation, minus testing.

    Imponderable 3: Smaller arsenals, not actually disarmament

    Following on these steps, Russia has also declared that the New START will not impede its nuclear modernisation efforts. This commonality of interests spell challenges for nuclear disarmament as both countries might indefinitely sustain a smaller and modernised arsenal rather than taking reductions to its final conclusion. The heavy funding for nuclear complex modernisation after passionate debates preceding the NPR and a similar demand made by the Republicans prior to the New START ratification demonstrate such intentions. That even the four statesmen who advocated a disarmament roadmap also justified a smaller and safer arsenal ‘in the interest of nuclear disarmament’ only shows that reductions might not be a perennial affair. This raises questions on why a country needs a modernised arsenal when disarmament remains the ultimate goal. An expected justification will be that nuclear deterrence will need to prevail until the promise of total disarmament and abolition emerges. Unfortunately, this is too convincing an argument to be effectively countered.

    Imponderable 4: Dynamics of tactical nuclear weapons and verification

    The New START could be termed as half-baked without coverage of tactical weapons and offensive forces. While Russia assures its citizens that New START will not erode its offensive edge, the United States has promised a new round of negotiations to deal with Russian tactical weapons. A unique aspect of this one-to-one is that a chimera is intentionally created to demonise the Russian arsenal as not just a security challenge, but also a ‘trust’ problem. This is best exemplified in the case of verifications where all debate in the US focuses on the feasibility of verifying Russian reductions credibly, while little is heard about any such Russian concerns about the US process. Such attempts to project themselves as a good-boys-above-suspicion and Russia as a congenital deceiver are a hangover of the Cold War days, when Reagan propounded the ‘trust, but verify’ formulation. This hullabaloo is despite the fact that New START has a robust monitoring and data sharing system, besides the provision for over 18 annual visits to nuclear weapon sites in both countries. Not surprisingly, the US military has been enthralled by the opportunities to keep an eye on the Russian arsenal.

    Such parochialism apart, that two historic nuclear rivals open up their stockpiles to each other for on-site inspections and perennial presence itself is the most virtuous aspect of this treaty.