Another day brings another baseless attack on President Obama’s important arms control agenda. Today, the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes argues in the New York Post that rushing to complete an agreement to replace START I, which is set to expire on December 5, makes no sense in light of Russia’s “record of non-compliance with existing arms-control agreements.”
Brookes’ cites four such instances of alleged non-compliance: 1) Russia’s failure to abide by its Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI) commitments on tactical nuclear weapons; 2) Russia’s performance of low-yield nuclear tests; 3) Russia’s testing of a MIRV’ed configuration of the SS-27 in contravention of START I’s “new types” rule; and 4) Russia’s support for North Korea and Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
I’ll address each of these allegations in the order they’re raised by Brookes.
1. Tactical Nuclear Weapons
Citing the final report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, Brookes states “that Russia is ‘no longer in compliance with its PNI [Presidential Nuclear Initiatives] commitments’ – leaving Moscow with what some say could be a 10:1 advantage in ‘battlefield’ nukes.”
Recall that the PNIs were a collection of voluntary commitments made by the U.S. and Russia in the early 1990s to eliminate certain types of tactical, or “battlefield,” nuclear weapons. For more information, see this excellent Arms Control Association fact sheet.
Public concern about Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons gathered steam in October 2004, when then-Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker accused Russia of not living up to its pledge to reduce its tactical nuclear weapons during a visit to Moscow. Russia officials retorted that “[t]he Russian side has fulfilled these obligations by dismantling nuclear warheads from ground-based tactical missiles and removing tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships and submarines.” According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, “Russia has practically carried out in full all of the [tactical nuclear-weapon] reduction initiatives that had been put forward….All those weapons, unlike the situation with the United States, are located solely within our national territory.” The State Department released a statement later that month which noted that “We believe that Russia, for the most part, has been implementing its PNI pledges, but the U.S. will continue to keep this issue under review.”
As the State Department’s clarification demonstrates, allegations that Russia has violated the pledges it made in 1991 and 1992 are just that: allegations. The fact is that neither Russia nor the United States release information about their non-strategic nuclear forces. (Update 9/1: The PNIs were not legally binding agreements and for the most part neither side was forthcoming about which systems would be eliminated and when they would be eliminated. As a colleague noted to me in an e-mail, “You can’t violate, or even verify compliance, with an agreement if there is no agreement and there are no specific requirements.”) To facilitate transparency in this area, the United States and Russia could agree to report regularly on their strategic and non-strategic stockpiles (both deployed and non-deployed) and the United States could resume reporting on yearly warhead dismantlements at Pantex, which it suspended after 1999.
While Russia’s tactical arsenal is an important issue that should be addressed, there is not sufficient time in 2009 to reach an agreement on further reductions in nonstrategic forces. Leaving tactical weapons off the table at this time would not endanger U.S. security because (1) the first round of U.S.-Russian reductions will entail only modest cuts in U.S. and Russian deployed strategic forces and (2) Russia’s large non-strategic nuclear stockpile does not increase the threat posed by its existing strategic weapons. In fact, when you actually break down the types of tactical weapons maintained by the U.S. and Russia, the “10 to 1 advantage” cited by Brookes turns out to be not much of an advantage at all.
2. Nuke Testing
Many opponents of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) allege that Russia is secretly performing low-yield nuclear tests and that it is doing so by taking advantage of the supposed ambiguity in the CTBT’s definition of what constitutes a nuclear explosion. The available unclassified evidence does not support this conclusion.
Regarding alleged Russian low-yield testing nearly all of the allegations are almost a decade old. A March 2001 story in The New York Times noted that Lawrence Turnbull, a CIA analyst, and Charles Craft, a Sandia National Laboratory analyst, had been the source of frequent claims that Russia was conducting hydronuclear tests. At the time Mr. Craft lead a panel of the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee, a group that represents the nuclear views of many federal agencies. The committee pointed to “highly sensitive intelligence sources” as evidence of its claims. However, as the story noted, Mr. Turnbull and his allies have a history of poor intelligence analysis. In August 1997 they told the White House that the Russians might have conducted an underground test at Novaya Zemlya. But after seismic experts challenged that assessment, the C.I.A. retracted that finding and said the tremor was actually a nearby undersea earthquake.
Another set of allegations claims that some Russian officials, especially former-First Deputy Russian Atomic Energy Minister Dr. Viktor Mikhaylov, have attacked the U.S. “zero yield” CTBT interpretation and articulated the reasons for a CTBT interpretation allowing low yield testing. Many of these allegations, which date back to the late 1990s, are collected in a July 2008 article by Mark Schneider in the journal Comparative Strategy. However, none of these allegations proves that Russia has conducted or intended to conduct such tests, as even Schneider himself is forced to concede.
Note that my rebuttal of this claim deals exclusively with whether Russia has conducted low-yield tests, and not the equally important question of whether such low-yield testing would matter in any strategically significant way, were Russia actually conducting such tests (hint: the answer is that they wouldn’t be significant!).
Regarding whether Russia believes the CTBT allows low-yield tests, Ambassador Stephen Ledogar, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Holum and General John Shalikashvili, all of whom were involved in negotiating the Treaty, claim that the CTBT negotiating record demonstrates a shared understanding among the P5 that would prohibit low-yield tests. Moreover, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev stated in late July that “Under the global ban on nuclear tests, we can only use computer-assisted simulations to ensure the reliability of Russia’s nuclear deterrent” (h/t: Jeffrey).
3. Strategic arms
Brookes is correct in pointing out that Russia has developed a new, three-warhead version of the single warhead SS-27 (known as the RS-24), and that START would prohibit the RS-24 because it does not conform to the Treaty’s definition of a new type of missile. Yet it’s not clear why this should be an issue, since most experts agree that the START follow-on agreement will allow for the deployment of the RS-24.
The key issue here is that Russia is retiring older delivery vehicles at a much faster pace than it is deploying news weapons, meaning that by 2016 Russia could have as few as 400 delivery vehicles. Consequently, the U.S. could soon have more ICBMs than Russia’s entire force of delivery vehicles. As Hans notes, Brookes should be forced to answer how it is in our national security interest to maintain such a large arsenal of delivery vehicles that Russia can’t keep up with and which therefore pushes Russian planning toward a MIRV-heavy posture.
Since I’m out of breath, let me just say that most of the allegations leveled in this section are, not surprisingly, based on the views of anonymous “others” and “some analysts” – not hard evidence.