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Getting ready for Congress to go nuclear

April 4, 2010

The most important legislation has already made its way into law, right? Not quite. Though its centrality to the domestic agenda and stranglehold on national attention will pale in comparison to the Affordable Care Act, the Senate’s ratification of the new START treaty will be a vital step in one of the President’s most ambitious and far-reaching transformations of American defense policy.

There are, in theory, some likely allies for arms control in the Republican Party – Richard Lugar, first and foremost, along with McCain, Lindsey Graham, and perhaps some other Republicans who have been involved in the vote. Should they, or, more importantly, will they pass the treaty? Cynically, Republicans have plenty of incentives to sink START – they are smarting from healthcare and it would be all too easy to frame START as Obama being weak on national security and opening the door for irresponsible cuts to the nuclear arsenal and missile defense.

The international payoff for Obama would be rather high, and it would be a major substantive step that might do something to earn the Nobel Prize he’s already won. But domestically, the reward will be at best indifference, and at worst displeasure. Despite invocations of Reagan’s support for abolishing nuclear weapons, conservatives will not be very impressed or enthusiastic. Nor does the Global Zero movement have much political pull outside policy circles, since the threat of nuclear war seriously diminished after the fall of the USSR. Any speculation about the November 2010 elections should be focused on the economy – few people will change their votes on the basis of foreign policy, fewer still on the basis of this treaty. Passing START will neither energize angry voters nor win them to the Democratic Party’s cause – so hopefully horse-race style commentary will not dog this debate.

The key sticking point of opposition usually stems from advocates  of a large arsenal and missile defense. With the Nuclear Posture Review due out soon, many proponents of these programs are already jittery that these programs will make the cut. Despite assurances that missile defense is off the table for the treaty, it has repeatedly been Moscow’s line that significant increases in missile defense programs will prompt withdrawal from the treaty – a sensible position, given the thrust of the treaty. Though Russia has incentives to ratify the treaty to help liquidate a costly strategic arsenal and see the United States do the same. But at the end of the treaty, the US will maintain a strategic advantage vis-a-vis Russia. The more arms reductions occur, mobile platforms such as nuclear submarines become more important – they are the most effective second-strike platforms and hardest to locate. The US submarine fleet is more reliable and more effective than Russia’s, and is looks in superior condition for the long-term. Spectacular failures have marred Russia’s prospects for modernizing its missile submarines and the new Bulava missile. Russia has therefore made it clear repeatedly that marked advances in missile defense will trigger withdrawal from the treaty – because the more limited Russia’s ballistic missiles arsenal is, the more potency missile defense holds as countermeasure.

Of course, Russia is likely to overestimate the efficacy of missile defense, and Republicans are likely to underestimate the treaty’s provision for it,  but misperception is inherent in politics international and domestic, and neither side seems very likely to deviate from their overall position. For the Republican Party’s part, the Heritage Foundation is already calling for an “EMP-Awareness Day.” Remember that EMP, requiring a missile platform to achieve a large radius of effect and lends  itself to the  case for missile defense. Recent developments in Chinese ASBM technology (which merit separate treatment) also encourage further advances in missile defense. Provided these missile defenses are kept out of Russia’s sphere of interest, missile defense technology should not concern Russia much. But nevertheless the development of better ABM technology will worry Moscow, because once the US conquer the remaining technical hurdles to the technology, the geography of its deployment can change with relative ease and rapidity. Russians, not Republicans, should probably be more concerned with the treaty’s cuts. Nevertheless, the former seem ready to accept the treaty and its most outspoken opponents will be among the latter.

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