Nuclear Commanders Endorse New START

The men behind a decade and a half of U.S. strategic nuclear planning say the New START treaty will enhance American national security.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear strategic planning have endorsed the New START treaty and recommended early ratification by the U.S. Senate.

In a letter sent to Senator Carl Levin and John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the retired nuclear commanders conclude that the treaty “will enhance American national security in several important ways.”

The list includes four former commanders of U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) and four former commanders of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) – one served both as SAC and STRATCOM commander – who were responsible for U.S. strategic nuclear war planning and for executing the strategic war plan during the last phases of the Cold War and until as recently as 2004.

In doing so, the nuclear commanders – who certainly can’t be accused of being peaceniks – effectively pull the rug under the feet of the small number of conservative Senators who have held the treaty and U.S. nuclear policy hostage with a barrage of nitpicking and frivolous questions and claims about weakening U.S. national security interests.

The endorsement by the former nuclear commanders adds to the extensive list of current and former military and civilian leaders who have recommended ratification of the New START treaty. In fact, it is hard to find any credible leader who does not support ratification.

It’s time to end the show and do what’s right: ratify the New START treaty!


July 14, 2010

Senator Carl Levin, Chairman, Armed Services Committee
Senator John McCain, Ranking Member, Senate Armed Services Committee

Senator John F. Kerry, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senator Richard G. Lugar, Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee


As former commanders of Strategic Air Command and U.S. Strategic Command, we collectively spent many years providing oversight, direction and maintenance of U.S. strategic nuclear forces and advising presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush on strategic nuclear policy.  We are writing to express our support for ratification of the New START Treaty.  The treaty will enhance American national security in several important ways.

First, while it was not possible at this time to address the important issues of non-strategic weapons and total strategic nuclear stockpiles, the New START Treaty sustains limits on deployed Russian strategic nuclear weapons that will allow the United States to continue to reduce its own deployed strategic nuclear weapons.  Given the end of the Cold War, there is little concern today about the probability of a Russian nuclear attack.  But continuing the formal strategic arms reduction process will contribute to a more productive and safer relationship with Russia.

Second, the New START Treaty contains verification and transparency measures—such as data exchanges, periodic data updates, notifications, unique identifiers on strategic systems, some access to telemetry and on-site inspections—that will give us important insights into Russian strategic nuclear forces and how they operate those forces.  We will understand Russian strategic forces much better with the treaty than would be the case without it.  For example, the treaty permits on-site inspections that will allow us to observe and confirm the number of warheads on individual Russian missiles; we cannot do that with just national technical means of verification.  That kind of transparency will contribute to a more stable relationship between our two countries.  It will also give us greater predictability about Russian strategic forces, so that we can make better-informed decisions about how we shape and operate our own forces.

Third, although the New START Treaty will require U.S. reductions, we believe that the post-treaty force will represent a survivable, robust and effective deterrent, one fully capable of deterring attack on both the United States and America’s allies and partners.

The Department of Defense has said that it will, under the treaty, maintain 14 Trident ballistic missile submarines, each equipped to carry 20 Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).  As two of the 14 submarines are normally in long-term maintenance without missiles on board, the U.S. Navy will deploy 240 Trident SLBMs.

Under the treaty’s terms, the United States will also be able to deploy up to 420 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and up to 60 heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.  That will continue to be a formidable force that will ensure deterrence and give the President, should it be necessary, a broad range of military options.

We understand that one major concern about the treaty is whether or not it will affect U.S. missile defense plans.  The treaty preamble notes the interrelationship between offense and defense; this is a simple and long-accepted reality.  The size of one side’s missile defenses can affect the strategic offensive forces of the other.  But the treaty provides no meaningful constraint on U.S. missile defense plans.  The prohibition on placing missile defense interceptors in ICBM or SLBM launchers does not constrain us from planned deployments.

The New START Treaty will contribute to a more stable U.S.-Russian relationship.  We strongly endorse its early ratification and entry into force.


General Bennie Davis (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1981-1985]

General Larry Welch (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1985-1986]

General John Chain (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1986-1991]

General Lee Butler (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1991-1992, STRATCOM CINC 1992-1994]

Admiral Henry Chiles (USN, Ret) [STRATCOM CINC 1994-1996]

General Eugene Habiger (USAF, Ret) [STRATCOM CINC 1996-1998]

Admiral James Ellis (USN, Ret) [STRATCOM CINC 2002-2004]

The original letter is here.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

5 thoughts on “Nuclear Commanders Endorse New START

  1. One question troubles me greatly. If the verification mechanisms of START I were more robust, why water them down in START II? It seems that two things could get an arms control treaty through the Senate almost unanimously:

    1) more funding for the upkeep of the stockpile (Sen. Kyl’s apparent position)

    2) negotiate a reauthorization of the previous START verification mechanisms with the deployed limits associated with the SORT Treaty, as agreed to by former Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2002.

    After all, those limits not insubstantial, 1700-2200, for each side as opposed to the 1550 in the new START. Further, if tied to pre-existing verification mechanisms of START I, those limits will still represent a willingness to de-emphasize a confrontational posture between the US and Russia, while not unduly limiting US flexibility.

    That would not fit in with the “Global Zero” movement, but it would most certainly be arms control.

  2. The verification mechanisms in old START are not necessarily “more robust.” They provide information needed to verify compliance with the limits in the old Treaty. Since the limits in the new Treaty are different from the limits in the old Treaty, one would naturally expect that the information you need to verify compliance would be different. Not more robust, not less robust, just different. If the treaty doesn’t limit throwweight (and the new treaty doesn’t), then you don’t need monitoring provisions that provide you with information you need to verify limits on throwweight. The intelligence may still be nice to know, but it is not needed for verification. In addition, some of the “relaxed” treaty provisions and monitoring provisions serve U.S. interests; the U.S. wanted things to be “less robust” (or just different).

    We could not have just negotiated “reauthorization” of the START verification provisions to monitor the SORT Treaty. Since the SORT Treaty does not contain the same limits and restrictions as the START Treaty, the verification provisions of START would have been meaningless. Why would you want to confirm that warhead loadings did not exceed attribution numbers (the goal of START OSI) if you no longer had attribution numbers that applied to warhead loadings? The Moscow Treaty contained no definitions or counting rules; we couldn’t verify compliance because there was nothing to comply with.

    There’s also no legal mechanism available to use to “reauthorize” the monitoring and verification provisions. Either we extended the treaty for a full 5 years, or we let it lapse. You couldn’t extend pieces and parts for random amounts of time. We could have negotiated a new Treaty that was just the monitoring and verification provisions of old START, but that would have made no sense. Again, the monitoring provisions were linked to the limits and restrictions in the treaty. Continuing to monitor compliance with limits that no longer applied would have made no sense.

  3. The points made above are certainly valid.

    My thought would be that the numbers of deployed warheads would be the same as SORT, with the definitions and counting rules from START I (or at least modified to correspond to the new, lower deployed warhead limit).

    In other words START I with new limits.

    With an 80% or so reduction in deployed warheads since the end of the Cold War, why do we continue to insist on going further? Why not stabilize the US-Russian strategic situation, refocus on theater missile defense and expand our notion of deterrence with respect to other, “rogue” actors.

    A variant of START I would seem to accomplish this. The New START does not seem to be a disaster or a complete “sell out” (as critics assert), but it also does not necessarily help US security nearly so much as proponents claim.

    I think we could have gotten a much better deal and that one should be reached.

  4. Greg you are absolutely right. There really is no rationale to go below SORT limits on deployed warheads. Some have speculated (Bolton) that the Russians want lower limits because they still have active production lines for warheads while the US does not. That raises the specter of “break out” with no time for the US to respond in kind. The US should maintain an arsenal large enough that we have time to reconstitute our production capacity in this type of scenario.

    I also don’t trust the current Administration when it talks about insuring a fully modernized weapons infrastructure. A good example was when SecDef Gates talked about the future Trident replacement SSBN (X) prior to the treaty signing and then weeks later when it appeared we might get early ratification all of a sudden says the US cannot afford a new strategic submarine.

    The US risks going to “global zero” all by itself as the entire weapons complex along with key industries/companies that produce delivery vehicles and related technologies (re-entry vehicles, solid propellant rocket motors, etc.) “whither on the vine.”

  5. Please clarify. If I read the treaty correctly: The New START Treaty indicates that each country, US and Russia, can have 2,350 nuclear warheads that are in various stages of deployment and emplacement. Does this definition of the treaty include warheads in RESERVE status that can be later upgraded to deployment? This would be an important distinction. I didn’t see the wording of “reserve” in the document. If the treaty disregards warheads in reserve status then doesn’t it ignore a large part of each country’s nuclear arsenal and is this a weakness of the treaty?

    Reply: The treaty permits each side to deploy up to 1,550 warheads on 700 strategic delivery vehicles. Another 100 vehicle may exist in a non-deployed status. The limit is fuzzy, though, because a bomber is only counted with one weapons even if it carries 20. So a bomber force of 20 B-2 and 40 B-52 could carry as many as 1,056 weapons but only be counted as 60. The same for Russia’s approximately 76 heavy bombers. The treaty does not count or limit warheads in reserve status, so yes most of each country’s inventory of nuclear weapons is ignored. The ambition is to begin to address this hidden inventory in the next treaty, but that will require each country to open up in a way they have never done before. It will be hard, but would be amazing if they would. HK

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