By R. Nastranis
The tug of war about the U.S. federal budget ‘fiscal cliff’ threatened to jeopardise the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). But much to the satisfaction of disarmament experts that danger has been removed after a new legislation passed the U.S. Senate and House.
Tom Z. Collina and Daryl G. Kimball, experts at the Arms Control Association, point out that the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by President Barack Obama on January 2, included language that he, in his signing statement, called “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.”
Collina and Kimball write: “The NDAA section in question (1035) required that, before carrying out ‘any reduction to the number of strategic delivery systems,’ such as required under New START, the President must certify … 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.
“This section was a problem because it is no secret that the State Department has been unable to certify that Russia is in compliance with all of its arms control obligations, in particular the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). However, the State Department has certified that Moscow is in compliance with its strategic arms control commitments, such as New START.”
According to the two experts, Obama signed the NDAA, but only after a quiet veto threat from the White House motivated Congress to include a fix in H.R. 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, better known as the ‘fiscal cliff bill,’ which Obama signed later that same day.
“The fix in the cliff bill only changed two words in NDAA, but they made all the difference: … whether the Russian Federation is in compliance with its strategic arms control obligations with the United States and is not engaged in activity in violation of, or inconsistent with, such obligations.”
Subsequently, President Obama need only certify “whether” Russia is in compliance – yes or no – with “strategic” arms control agreements, not “that” it is in compliance with all agreements.
“And this is as it should be,” write Collina and Kimball. “The last thing we should do is to take a successful treaty like New START – which is verifiably reducing Russian nuclear arms that would otherwise be aimed at the United States – and hold it hostage to longstanding disagreements with Russia on other issues. BWC compliance is particularly difficult to verify, as it has no verification provisions. As for the CWC, the United States has missed its own share of destruction deadlines. And Moscow has its own views about U.S. compliance with arms control treaties.”
According to the two experts, further U.S. and Russian nuclear force reductions are in order. Current U.S. deployed strategic nuclear forces (approximately 1,700 warheads) are still well above the ceiling established by New START (1,550). Today, Russia deploys about 1,500 strategic warheads.
However, such levels, while lower than during Cold War years, are widely acknowledged to be far in excess of what is required to deter a nuclear attack from Russia or any other nuclear-armed country. Other than Russia, China is the only other nuclear-armed adversary capable of striking the United States, and it has about 50-60 warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“To deter a nuclear attack, adversaries need only realize the United States is capable of reducing key targets to radioactive rubble rather than a fine dust – and that can be accomplished with a much smaller nuclear force that either the U.S. or Russia have today,” the Arms Control Association experts say.
They recall what Obama said in a March 2012 speech: “My Administration’s nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today’s threats, including nuclear terrorism. Last summer, I therefore directed my national security team to conduct a comprehensive study of our nuclear forces. That study is still underway.
“But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.”
Another expert, Elaine M. Grossman, writes in the National Journal: “In signing the new defense authorization legislation into law on Wednesday (January 2), Obama issued a written statement saying he retained the latitude to interpret the bill’s New START implementation restrictions in a manner that would not interfere with his “constitutional authority to conduct diplomacy.”
However, the president also said he was “pleased” that the fiscal cliff legislation, which he also signed into law via “autopen” while on travel later in the day, amended the defense bill’s problematic prose regarding Russian arms control compliance.
“Specifically, the new changes will require the president, in annual New START certification, to state “whether” Moscow is complying with its treaty obligations, rather than “that” the Kremlin is complying. The diction adjustment appears aimed at eliminating a presumption of Russian compliance in the certification process,” writes Grossman.
Referring to the same sentence in the authorization bill, the executive branch also asked lawmakers to insert the word “strategic” before “arms control obligations.” This new construct would allow the White House to certify Russian adherence to New START strategic nuclear arms control treaty stipulations, even if Moscow is not complying with other treaties involving the United States, avers Grossman.
The revised wording would give Russia a pass – at least in terms of this narrow presidential certification – for no longer meeting terms of the Conventional Forces in Europe pact, for instance. Russia in 2007 announced it would suspend implementation of the accord.
The Obama White House objects to a number of the New START implementation requirements imposed by Congress, including those that hold the administration’s feet to the fire in funding atomic weapons and infrastructure modernization programs into the future at specific budget levels, noted Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear arms expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
Administration officials are tacitly accepting most of the legislative provisions related to New START even if they are viewed as inappropriate or onerous. As the defense authorization text was initially written, though, the Russia certification provisions were “impossible to meet,” and thus required change, Lewis said.
Under New START, which entered into force in 2011, the United States and Russia each agreed to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a 1,550 ceiling by February 2018. The accord also limits fielded nuclear delivery vehicles — including bomber aircraft and missiles based on land and at sea — to 700, with an additional 100 allowed in reserve.
“We worked with the administration to facilitate having it happen,” said Claude Chafin, a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, referring to the wording adjustment. Republicans on the panel, led by Representative Howard McKeon (Calif.), “didn’t object” to the Obama team’s request, he told Global Security Newswire.
A Defense Department spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Monica Matoush, on January 2 said the Pentagon “will not comment on the internal deliberation between the Department and Congress that led to the change in language.”
Grossman writes: A spokesman for the White House Management and Budget Office similarly would not address indications that the wording modifications were discussed at high levels inside the administration. Declining to be named, he also would not say whether Obama would have vetoed the defense authorization legislation if the Russian compliance certification provision had remained unchanged.
“The fiscal cliff package amended a poorly written provision that would have allowed the Russians to dictate U.S. nuclear arsenal policy,” a Democratic congressional source said by e-mail to Grossman on January 2, implying that any Russian treaty noncompliance should not be permitted to force any specific U.S. responses. “Both Republicans and Democrats agreed to the fix, and it was quickly made,” the source said.