On January 1, as I was psychologically preparing for the Rose Bowl (sadly my Wisconsin Badgers lost for the third year in a row), I was shocked to find that the text of the Biden-McConnell fiscal cliff deal (H.R. 8) included a section on strategic delivery systems. Obviously intrigued, I had a look at the text and found that the provision amended Section 1035 of the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) “(1) by striking ‘‘that’’ before ‘‘the Russian Federation’’ and inserting ‘‘whether’’; and (2) by inserting ‘‘strategic’’ before ‘‘arms control obligations’’.”
Now doubly intrigued, I went back and had a look at the original text of Section 1035 in the NDAA. The specific language in question stated:
`(c) Prior Notification- Not later than 60 days before the date on which the President carries out any reduction to the number of strategic delivery systems, the President shall–
`(1) make the certification under subsection (a) for the fiscal year for which the reductions are proposed to be carried out;
`(2) transmit the additional report matters under subsection (b) for such fiscal year, if such additional report matters are so required; and
`(3) certify to the congressional defense committees that the Russian Federation is in compliance with its arms control obligations with the United States and is not engaged in activity in violation of, or inconsistent with, such obligations.
It turns out that the President would be unable to certify that Russia is in compliance with all of its arms control obligations since Russia is in fact not in compliance with all of its arms control obligations if said obligations are defined to include the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), the Chemical Weapons Conventions (CWC), etc. Given the President’s inability to certify “that the Russia Federation is in compliance…” the provision could prevent the reduction of strategic delivery systems under the New START treaty (and beyond). By adding “whether” in place of “that” and “strategic” before “arms control obligations”, the language cannot stop reductions required by New START and is consistent with the rest of the provision.
I missed this subtle wording during my first run through of the NDAA, but thankfully better minds in the administration did not. Indeed, the administration issued a signing statement with the bill which included this:
Section 1035, which adds a new section 495(c) to title 10, is deeply problematic, as it would impede the fulfillment of future U.S. obligations agreed to in the New START Treaty, which the Senate provided its advice and consent to in 2010, and hinder the Executive’s ability to determine an appropriate nuclear force structure. I am therefore pleased that the Congress has included a provision to adequately amend this provision in H.R. 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which I will be signing into law today.
Clearly this was a very big deal behind the scenes (it has also generated a surprising amount of media coverage) and the language of the statement suggests the President may not have signed the NDAA if this provision wasn’t fixed. What’s less clear is whether the House authors of this conference provision, which was a compromise version of two differing provisions on strategic delivery system reductions in the original House and Senate version of the defense bill, deliberately worded Section 1035 to prevent implementation of New START, made a drafting error, or something in between.
In any event, it’s obviously a good news that the problem was fixed (reportedly there was bipartisan agreement on the need for the fix). As our friends at the Arms Control Association point out, New START shouldn’t be “held hostage to longstanding disagreements with Russia on other issues.”
I’d go a step further and argue that even the amended version of Section 1035 is unnecessary and redundant because the issues it raises re: nuclear weapons spending and Russian compliance with New START are already adequately addressed in the New START resolution of ratification and the FY 2012 NDAA.
While Section 1035 may not initially have been deliberately worded to impede New START, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have been on a mission the last two years to delay and even block implementation of the treaty and further changes to US nuclear posture via the NDAA. As we’ve tried to regularly remind readers, doing so defies the bipartisan counsel of former government officials and military leaders and would be a major setback for US national security.