NoH has been arguing for some time that given the delivery vehicle range outlined in the Joint Understanding last July, together with the slow trickle of news that the new treaty would likely contain simpler conversion and elimination rules, the U.S. wouldn’t have to make any significant changes to its current nuclear force structure (long live the triad!) or chop up systems that have been converted to conventional-only roles.
Now that the treaty text and protocol have been released, the amount of flexibility (and by extension the hedge against uncertainty) that the treaty allows for is truly astounding.
Of course, this won’t stop some critics from saying that the treaty could endanger the triad, that it disproportionately benefits Russia – since the deployed number of Russian delivery vehicles is anticipated to drop dramatically with or without a new arms control agreement – and/or that it limits U.S. prompt global strike capabilities.
Indeed, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who has made ensuring that the triad remains inviolable a kind of pet project of his, flight tested some of these arguments at last Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Nuclear Posture Review. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jim Miller and STRATCOM Commander Kevin Chilton were having none of it, however, and their responses are worth quoting at length…
The Limits are Key
Chilton really drove home the point that New START prevents Moscow from maintaining a larger number of deployed warheads and delivery vehicles than it otherwise might have without the agreement:
THUNE: Will the Russians have to cut their number of delivery vehicles to get to 700?
THUNE: Well and my understanding is that they’re already going to be below that level [700 delivery vehicles]….I guess my next question would be what if anything do we get in return for that concession?
CHILTON: …One thing I was pleased to see in the treaty were these limits because as you look to the future though Russia may be close to or slightly below them already, when you look to the future we certainly don’t want them to grow and they would have been unrestricted otherwise without these types of limits articulated in the treaty… [emphasis mine.]
This gets it exactly right. The fact the some Russian reductions might happen in any event is beside the point. If nothing is put in place to replace START I, we can say goodbye to the important limits on and an essential means of verifying Russia’s still enormous force of deployed warheads in particular, but also delivery vehicles. Such an outcome would make the United States less safe.
Each Side Can Determine for Itself How to Structure its Forces
Unlike START I in its waning days, New START is tailored to the current realities U.S. force posture and planning. It also allows the U.S. to meet the limits without endangering the triad. As Chilton put it, “it not only made sense strategically it certainly is doable to sustain the triad at these numbers [i.e. 700 deployed delivery vehicles] and I believe at lower numbers.” Miller provided still more context:
THUNE: …I also want to know if you could elaborate a little bit on what the implications are for each leg of the nuclear triad under these reductions. How many land-based missiles, subs, bombers will we have to cut to be in compliant with the treaty?
MILLER: Senator let me add very briefly that the New START treaty has provisions that allow us to do three things that will allow us to reduce the requirement for the number of strategic delivery vehicles while still keeping the same force structure. The first one is it eliminates what we’ve called the phantom strategic delivery vehicles, those that are counted under the old START treaty but are no longer associated with the nuclear mission….Second, the treaty also allows further conversion of current dual capable bombers to a conventional only role that would take them off the books as well and we are looking at that possibility for some B52-Hs. And finally the treaty allows for the elimination of launchers from accountability for submarines through a variety of means including the simple removal of the gas generator that would eject the SLBM. [emphasis mine.]
The SLBM provisions, which are laid out in detail in the Ninth Agreed Statement and Section IV of Part III of the protocol, are pretty amazing. In fact, not only can SLBM launchers be converted in the way Miller describes, but converted tubes can be located on the same boomer with launchers that have not been converted. The treaty makes it a lot easier to convert or eliminate ICBM launchers and heavy bombers, too.
In other words there is flexibility galore, and DoD could go in any one of numerous different directions to meet the treaty’s limits on delivery vehicles (both Miller and Chilton stated that DoD will provide a specific force structure associated with New START as part of the Sec. 1251 report due to be submitted to Congress with the treaty in early May). In fact, the U.S. could probably get away with not having to physically destroy a single launcher; it could simply convert and/or deactivate its way below the limits. This doesn’t mean that the reductions wouldn’t be “real,” but remember that this treaty was never about deep reductions in the first place. Predictability and stability are its calling cards.
Prompt Global Strike is Alive and Well
Finally, on the issue of prompt global strike, Miller points out that New START will count ICBMs and SLBMs whether they carry nuclear or conventional warheads; thus a prompt global strike capability would be subject to the treaty’s limits. However, a warhead limit of 1,550 and a deployed delivery vehicle limit of 700 would still give the U.S. the flexibility to deploy a small number of conventionally armed submarine- and/or land-based long-range missiles, if it ever decides to do so:
THUNE: The Nuclear Posture Review emphasizes the development of conventional prompt global strike capabilities. Will these prompt global strike systems count against the New START limits and require further nuclear cuts to accommodate them?
MILLER: Senator Thune….[t]he NPR explicitly looked at that as it did force structure analysis and looked at further reductions under the 700 and 800 combined limit that would leave room for that and indeed would leave room for a small number of conventional ICBMs. [I]f…the determination were made that that was desirable it would be a very small number. [emphasis mine.]
New START provides space to deploy a small number of advanced conventional ICBMs, though the wisdom of such a course is another matter.
What this all adds up to is that New START is a huge win for U.S. security. Our entire military leadership strongly supports it. It should be a no brainer in the Senate.
(Note: Last Thursday’s hearing was incredible on many different levels, not the least of which was the shouting match that broke out between Sen. John McCain and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher, and will probably be the subject of some future NoH posts.)