Nuclear Weapons

Responding to Senator Bond on New START

11.23.10 | 7 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Senator Kit Bond, Republican of Missouri, gave a speech in the Senate on the New START treaty.  Eli Lake’s summary is in the Washington Times.  He made accusations of serious shortcomings in the treaty.  I address these points because they appear to be substantive and earnest, unlike some of the hysteria and outright silliness coming from other treaty opponents.  I believe that the Senator’s concerns are sincere but that does not make them correct.  They reflect, instead, shortcomings in understanding about the treaty, misrepresentation of exiting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, and a mistake in statistics.

Bond claims of the treaty’s limits on missile defense are spurious.  The only limit the treaty places on defenses is that neither Russia nor the United States can use existing offensive launchers to house defensive missiles.   The United States has no plans to do such a thing so the treaty keeps us from doing something we do not want to do.   If the treaty forbid us from painting our defensive missiles purple, would anyone object?  (I suppose, the answer is “yes.”)

He also objects to Moscow’s unilateral statements that it can reevaluate offensive arms limitations if U.S. defenses threaten to defeat Russian retaliatory capability.  This issue is more subtle than it is serious.  First, either side can say whatever it likes but the treaty is what it is.  Moreover, the U.S. is unlikely to have the necessary defensive capability within its technical reach in the imaginable future but, even so, to say, as the preamble of the treaty does, that there is a connection between offense and defense should be an obvious statement of fact.  Indeed, why would we be spending billions on a missile defense system that is unconnected to offensive missiles?  Finally, he claims that Russian threats to abandon the treaty are leverage over U.S. defensive plans.   There is no treaty that we, or the Russians or any other nation, can sign up for that cannot be repudiated.  But that is our decision, not the Russians, to decide  whether that is leverage or not.   The U.S did withdraw from the ABM treaty in 2001 with strong support from the conservatives in Congress.  It is a fact of life, not a criticism of treaties or this treaty in particular.

Senator Bond also objects that the treaty allows deployed missiles to be rapidly uploaded with additional warheads.  This is, in fact, a big concern about the treaty, but it is a concern the Russians have about the U.S., not the other way around.   The Russians pushed for lower launcher limits while we pushed for lower warhead limits.  The U.S. gets down to the warhead limit in part by off-loading warheads from multiple warhead missiles on its submarines, so the US has lots of empty launch spots on its missiles.  (This is precisely why Russia pushed for lower launcher numbers.  See discussion in the next paragraph.)  The problem Senator Bond points out is precisely the problem that Russia sees when looking at US systems.  The Russians, with lower launcher numbers, will be much closer to their maximum missile loading than the US will be.  If Russia breaks out of the treaty, which they cannot do undetected, the U.S. is in a far stronger position to react than Russia is to act.  Russia knows this, making this breakout tactic unappealing to them.

The Senator’s misleadingly claims that “ this treaty … forces the United States to reduce unilaterally our forces, such as missiles, bombers, and warheads, in order to meet treaty limits.  On the other hand, the Russians will actually be allowed to increase their deployed forces because they currently fall below the treaty’s limits.”  As shown in the graph above, prepared by my colleague Hans Kristensen, we see that the US makes almost no reductions from current numbers of launchers and warheads.  (Indeed, talk of how the treaty demands a reduction of third in deployed warheads is overstated because current counting rules overstate the actual number of warheads.  There is a one third reduction in accounted warheads, but not in actual warheads.)  The Russians have to make significant reductions in warhead numbers.  Perhaps what the Senator is referring to is that Russia’s launcher number is below the limit and the Russian’s current plans are to cut launchers even further below New START limits anyway, so they could build up launchers from where they are expected to be.  But this is just to say that the treaty favors the U.S. because we are going to exploit both the launcher and warhead limits to the fullest but the Russians will not.  The alternative seems to be to further restrict U.S. launchers to get them down to where Russia is.  How does that make the treaty stronger?  The bottom line is that Russian warhead numbers have to come down.  And it is warheads, not missiles that blow things up.  (Note that in both cases, the deployed warhead numbers are above the treaty “limit” because of the counting rule on bombers.)  We can be absolutely certain that the Russians pushed for a launcher limit that was as low as where they were heading anyway.  The fact the launcher limit is higher, where the Americans, not the Russians, want it to be, is a sign of successful U.S. negotiation, not a weakness of the treaty.

Senator Bond’s statements that the treaty requires unilateral reduction in the number of bombers is flatly wrong.  Indeed, each U.S. bomber, which can carry a dozen nuclear bombs, is counted as though it carries only one, which is considered a major shortcoming by those of us who wanted a more ambitious treaty.

When he says that “unlike START” this treaty places no limit on non-deployed missiles he is overstating the limits of START.  The 1991 treaty did place some limits on certain Russian mobile missiles, for example, but it only limited launchers for fixed ICBMs and for SLBMs, not the missiles that went into those launchers.  When Bond argues that START allowed us to count warheads precisely because we could count launchers precisely and had a warhead counting rule, he is again mistaken.  We counted launchers as a surrogate for missiles and those were a surrogate for warheads.  (We counted launchers not because it was a great idea but, given limitations on monitoring, it was the only thing we could count.)  True, at the end you come up with a nice precise number that everyone can agree on but that number is only indirectly related to the actual number of warheads.  That has been perceived by most as a major weakness of past arm control verification schemes that New START rectifies.   It is clear that Senator Bond actually prefers missile limits with counting rules to counting warheads directly, apparently because that is a better measure of the worst case.  That is a valid objection but most nuclear planners would rather have a direct count on warhead numbers than have an exact count on launchers that are a surrogate for a surrogate for warhead numbers that might be off by a third.   It is important to note that the Russians actually have limited capacity for the breakout that Bond worries about and it could not occur undetected.

The Senator misunderstands statistics and the purpose of inspections:  he says that the 10 inspections a year will only check on 2 percent of the Russian forces, the implication being that 98% will be a complete mystery to us so we really don’t have any idea what is going on.  This is not true:  with just a sampling provided by inspections, we can have extremely high confidence in compliance.

As he says, “…these inspections cannot provide conclusive evidence of whether the Russians are complying with the warhead limit.”  True, checking on 10 weapons sites is not enough to develop a statistical picture of Russian forces.  But the treaty requires data exchanges to declare how many warheads are on which missiles.  The data exchanges include the entire arsenal on both sides.  The inspections are not really to inspect the weapons themselves so much as to confirm the data exchanges.  Say the Russians wanted to cheat by putting more warheads than allowed on, say, 10% of their missiles.  (I pick 10% because I don’t think anyone is arguing that 10% more or fewer weapons will make any discernable military difference.  The number of warheads we have ready to launch changes by about 10% every time a ballistic missile submarine goes on or off patrol.)  They would have to put the warheads on missiles and then lie on the data exchange and hope they don’t get caught.  So, if we pick our inspection sites randomly, then there is a 10% chance they will get caught in one inspection and a 90% chance they will get away without detection on that one inspection.  But there is only an 81% chance of getting past two inspections, 73% chance away with three, and so on.  If we do 10 inspections, there is a 2/3 chance we will catch a violation of only a 10% cheat, hardly odds that would appeal to a prospective cheater.  There is a 90% chance we would catch a 20% cheat.  Just in the first 10 inspections.  Remember that inspections continue over the years and our confidence will increase over time, approaching near certain that even small violations will be detected by the time the warhead limits are reached.  Compare this to our complete lack of knowledge of warhead numbers without inspections.

Note that the important number is the number of inspections, not the fraction of sites inspected.  The statistics are essentially the same whether we inspect ten out of a hundred sites or ten out of ten thousand.  Therefore, the Senator’s point that the inspections look at only 2-3% of the sites is wholly irrelevant from a mathematical perspective.

It is also important to understand that, contrary to Senator Bond’s implication, our National Technical Means, that is, overhead satellites, do not suddenly disappear.  If the Russians tried to quickly load more warheads on missiles, we would see it.

Senator Bond’s objections are not simply politically motivated hysteria but his objections have been addressed and met.  The treaty will reduce the nuclear threat and the verification is carefully tailored to meet the provisions of the treaty.  Ratify.