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A 'New START' to an arms race between the US and Russia?

Yousaf ButtThe Christian Science Monitor
Site Summit Nike missile site in Alaska. Photo by Senior Airman Laura Turner/USAF

Judging by the sound and fury coming from Russia lately, the United States might be witnessing the slow-motion destruction of President Obama’s foreign policy crown jewel, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

But no big surprise there, really: It was only a matter of time before the time bomb attached to the treaty – European missile defense – blew it up. Not only is Russia figuratively up in arms, but it has actually upped its nuclear arms lately, possibly re-igniting a cold-war-style arms race.

Under New START, which entered into force in February, Moscow and Washington agreed to reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 each by 2018. This strict balance or “parity” in strategic warhead numbers is a central tenet of the treaty.

The problem with European missile defense is that while it’s designed to counter Iran, the faster interceptors due to come online in 2018 will also be able to engage Russian warheads, upsetting this all-important perception of parity. Indeed, this interplay between strategic offense and defense was explicitly recognized in the preamble to the treaty.

For more than a year, Moscow and Washington have been negotiating on possible ways to cooperate on missile defense. The Russians would like to set up a joint European missile defense network with NATO, to make sure that the elements of the system – in a number of NATO countries, including Turkey – will not neutralize Russia’s nuclear warheads.

NATO, in contrast, has proposed the creation of two entirely separate systems that would exchange information. But the discussions have gone nowhere, and on Nov. 23, President Dmitry Medvedev finally threw in the towel, announcing the end of negotiations on missile defense cooperation.

Now Russia is warning it will deploy advanced conventional Iskander missile systems in its western and southern Kaliningrad and Krasnodar regions and neighboring Belarus if there is no satisfactory closure on the missile-defense issue. These missiles would be capable of targeting the NATO missile defense bases.

Russia has also been increasing its deployed strategic nuclear stockpile. Russian warhead numbers had already dipped below the New START limits earlier this year, but have now increased to 16 warheads above the treaty limits. While the increase is not large, the trajectory of change is discouraging: Instead of continuing the decline in warhead numbers, Russia is now evidently increasing its deployed strategic stockpile.

That more of the three-warhead RS-24 missiles are now being used – and fewer of the single warhead SS-25s – strongly suggests that this is a direct reaction to NATO missile defense, since the RS-24s were specifically developed in response to earlier missile-defense plans.

While New START is a modest treaty in terms of strategic warhead reductions, it represents an important accomplishment for Russia and the United States: It re-establishes the data exchange on strategic-weapon systems and resets the US-Russia nuclear arms control relationship by building in a degree of predictability. It regularly brings together experts from both nations and increases transparency and decreases the possibility of misunderstanding.

But the domestic bargains struck to ensure the passage of this modest treaty in the US were much more significant – and, ultimately, destabilizing – than its meager benefits.

Huge funding increases for America’s nuclear-weapons complex and “modernization” programs as well as the green-lighting of the flawed missile-defense system were offered as concessions to reluctant hawks to get their agreement to sign on the dotted line. Obama entered office not favoring the ill-tested missile defense system but changed his mind because he needed additional votes to pass New START.

And this missile-defense “time bomb” in New START is what is now going off.

It is not only the monetary cost of the funding increase for the nuclear-weapons complex and missile defense, totaling about $200 billion over the next decade, but also the negative arms control blowback that make the domestic ransom paid to get passage of New START a ridiculously bad deal. The huge concessions made were simply not worth the modest goals of the treaty and, in fact, are now actively undermining it. A proper cost-benefit analysis carried out before acceding to the demands of defense-hawks would have clearly indicated this.

The anticipated increase in security by slightly reducing strategic-nuclear-warhead numbers is now more than negated by the poisoning of relations with Russia over missile defense. It would possibly be worth tolerating the deteriorating relations with Russia if the planned missile-defense system were actually effective against Iran or North Korea.

The irony of it all is that the type of missile defense that is being fielded could easily be defeated by any adversary who has the skill to manufacture missiles.

The simplest countermeasures are cheap inflatable balloon decoys. Because the missile-defense interceptors try to strike the missile warheads in the vacuum of space, these balloons and any warheads would travel together, making it impossible to tell them apart.

An enemy bent on delivering a nuclear payload to Europe or the United States could inflate many such decoys near the warhead and fool or overwhelm the defense system by swamping it with fake signals.

The latest tests of both the ground-based and sea-based missile-defense systems have failed – and these are essentially rigged tests, where the intercept team knows the timing and trajectory of the incoming missile. NATO will have no such luxury in the real world, where its adversaries will surely also use countermeasures and decoys.

And on the few occasions that the Missile Defense Agency has actually tested countermeasures, even these carefully rigged tests have never succeeded. Not once. Neither has the sea-based missile-defense system been tested in really rough sea conditions, and it is well-known to be unreliable beyond a certain sea state.

The importance of being able to handle countermeasures was recently underlined by the Pentagon’s own Defense Science Board, which says in its report, “If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!”

The report goes on to state that the sensors currently in place are inadequate for the missile defense mission: “...radars of much more substantial operating range than the current radar on Aegis ships will be necessary for the full realization of a robust regional defense.” And that, “[t]he current Aegis shipboard radar is inadequate to support the objective needs of the... mission.”

In short, Washington has succeeded in alienating Russia over a missile-defense system that will provide an ineffective defense against Iran or North Korea.

Arms control treaties should not be ratified at any cost. It would have been wiser to have no New START treaty and no missile defense and no large funding increases for the nuclear-weapons complex, than having all three as we now do. In fact, signing such treaties casts Russia as an adversary and there are some sound arguments to avoid such neo-cold-war treaties in the future. The data-exchange and transparency measures could have been negotiated without a formal treaty – and without the domestic ransom.

There is no pressing need to involve Russia bilaterally in future arms reductions. In fact, the chief of the Strategic Plans and Policy Division of the Air Force has indicated that US nuclear-deterrent needs can safely be met by just 311 nuclear weapons. We ought to go to that number right away, and let Russia do whatever it wants. If Moscow wants to waste money on the upkeep of thousands of useless nuclear weapons, that’s its problem.

Russia is not our enemy – let’s stop treating it like one.

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, serves as a scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists. His views are his own.