Will the real Keith Payne please stand up? In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Payne, a member of the bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, attacked the U.S.-Russia Joint Understanding for the START Follow-on Treaty, claiming that it “has the potential to compromise U.S. security.”
To be fair, Payne does not say he would necessarily oppose a START follow-on agreement within the limits outlined in the Joint Understanding (1,500-1,675 warheads and 500-1,100 delivery vehicles by 2017). However, he raises issues and concerns about the START follow-on process that fly in the face of the language he agreed to in the Strategic Posture Commission’s final report.
First, recall what the Commission had to say about arms control with Russia. The Commission drew a clear dividing line between “tak[ing] a modest first step to ensure that there is a successor to START I when it expires at the end of 2009” and “the challenges of deeper nuclear reductions.” According to the final report:
A mutual reduction of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons in some increment should be achievable. This first reduction could be a modest one, but the objective should be to do what can be done in the short term to rejuvenate the process and ensure that strategic arms control survives the end of START I at the end of 2009. Recalling that reductions in nuclear forces should proceed only through bilateral agreements, the United States and Russia should address limits on both launchers and warheads and discuss how to adapt the comprehensive START verification measures to any new commitments. Success in taking this first step would help create the political will to proceed to follow-on steps on the basis of effective verification.
Though Payne signed his name to this language, it seems he now wants to renounce it. First, Payne argues that “locking in specific reductions for U.S. forces prior to the conclusion of the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review is putting the cart before the horse.” But the Strategic Posture Commission does not hinge “taking a modest first step” upon a fully completed NPR. In any event, several Obama administration officials have hinted that the first phase of the NPR has already been completed to inform the START follow-on negotiations.
Second, Payne claims that Russia plans to draw down its delivery vehicles “with or without a new arms control agreement.” Consequently, the Obama administration will be forced to move toward the lower bound of the Joint Understanding’s proposed 500-1,100 limit on delivery vehicles “in order to match Russian reductions.” Payne contends that such a reduction “would make the U.S. more vulnerable to destabilizing first-strike dangers.”
This is absurd for numerous reasons. While the U.S. possesses approximately 1198 START-accountable delivery vehicles, in reality it possesses approximately 800 (Russia possesses approximately 814 and 620 delivery vehicles, respectively). The U.S. will easily be able to reach the upper bound of the 500-1,100 limit, and assuming the two sides can reach some additional compromises on counting rules, could go even lower without making any significant changes to its current force structure. Furthermore, as Hans Kristensen notes, “It is precisely because Russia is reducing that the United States should also trim its force; anything else will cater to those elements in Russia who want to stop and reverse the reduction. How could such a future possibly be in the interest of the United States or its allies (and, for that matter, Russia)?” Finally, drawing down to 500 delivery vehicles would not threaten the survivability of the U.S. deterrent, since Russia is moving down to that level in any event. Payne does not bother to explain why the U.S. would be more vulnerable with 500 delivery vehicles; he simply asserts that it would be.
Third, Payne complains that the Joint Understanding does not address Russia’s numerical advantage in so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Once again, however, the Strategic Posture Commission notes that this is a challenge to be addressed in the context of deeper nuclear reductions, not the “modest first step.”
In sum, the Joint Understanding comports comfortably with the recommendations of the Strategic Posture Commission. Perhaps Keith Payne should be reading more…Keith Payne.
Update (7/9): Hans Kristensen sends the following e-mail: “On Payne’s point about Obama locking in the reductions before completion of the NPR, recall that Bush did the same with 1,700-2,200 before the 2001 NPR that Payne was part of was completed. I didn’t hear any complaints from him back then.”