Joshua PollackTwo Time Bombs in New START

According to the preamble of New START, the Treaty’s measures “will enhance predictability and stability, and thus the security of both Parties.” The preamble also deems the Treaty part of an effort “to forge a new strategic relationship based on mutual trust, openness, predictability, and cooperation.” But as I’ve described it in my latest column at the Bulletin, the spirit of the U.S. Senate’s resolution of ratification — whose complete and final text is now available at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee website — seems closer to the rigorous and mistrustful enforcement of numerical parity.

Consider this an early warning, not a complaint. The Senate’s gimlet eye is only to the advantage of ratification, since some senators are unlikely to vote “yes” unless convinced that America “won” the negotiation — and not necessarily in the sense of a “win-win” outcome. But the unsparing language of the resolution also underscores the Treaty’s deferral of a pair of neuralgic issues, either of which could unravel the entire fabric someday: missile defense and conventional prompt global strike (CPGS).

(Warning: long and wonky post.)

Time Bomb #1: National Missile Defenses

Are national ballistic missile defense systems compatible with strategic arms reductions? Yes and no. The preamble squares the circle with a three-part formula proclaiming that today’s missile defenses are at sufficiently low levels not to interfere with stable deterrence:

Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties…

While this passage is the legal and diplomatic equivalent of mere throat-clearing, the care with which it was drafted is almost palpable. There’s a nod to each side. Lest we miss the point, the Russians have added that the Treaty will cease to be “effective and viable” should the United States undertake a “qualitative or quantitative build-up” in its defensive systems. By way of reply, the resolution of ratification announces that neither the Treaty nor the Russian declaration “limit in any way, and shall not be interpreted as limiting, activities that the United States Government currently plans or that might be required” in the defensive sphere.

That’s correct, of course — there are no limits on defenses in the Treaty. But we can only hope that future Congresses and Administrations will grasp that the absence of a treaty commitment simply places a greater burden on wisdom and restraint. The Committee’s compromise on a last-moment amendment on missile defense seems to have averted a train wreck. But an intimation of future troubles stands clearly before us.

This is, of course, why we had an ABM Treaty to go with SALT I. It didn’t ban national defenses, but kept them within limits that didn’t undercut treaties controlling strategic offensive arms, a problem that concerned both sides at the time. Then as now, Washington explained its need for defenses not in terms of Russia but another country that had just set out to develop ICBMs. (This justification for the deployment decision invited more than a little skepticism at the time.) But there was clearly more interest in the late 1960s and early 1970s in keeping defensive systems at levels that both sides could live with. These days, a few critics in Washington have even objected to the idea of an “interrelationship” between offensive and defensive systems. That’s like denying a connection between jump shots and shot-blocking.

Time Bomb #2: Conventional Missiles

Neither the United States nor Russia currently possesses intercontinental-range missiles with precision-guided conventional warheads. But because weapons of this sort could be used against strategic nuclear targets, and could be rapidly converted to carry nuclear weapons themselves, Moscow has insisted on treating any future CPGS systems the same as any other ballistic missiles of “strategic” range. The New START treaty text reflects this concern by counting and defining intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) without reference to what they carry. As Horton the Elephant might say, “A missile’s a missile, no matter how armed.”

In this same spirit, the New START preamble declares the parties to be “[m]indful of the impact of conventionally armed ICBMs and SLBMs on strategic stability.” And, as if in reply, the Senate resolution declares that “conventionally armed, strategic-range weapon systems not co-located with nuclear-armed systems do not affect strategic stability between the United States and the Russian Federation.”

Now, the idea of putting conventional warheads on ICBMs or SLBMs has been kicking around for awhile, but didn’t win serious notice until the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which envisioned non-nuclear missiles as part of the same “New Triad” leg as the nuclear variety. The Obama Administration’s 2010 NPR omits that novelty, but certainly anticipates the possibility of deployments. The analysis conducted during the NPR, which helped to shape New START, settled on force levels with wiggle room: “a margin above the minimum required nuclear force structure for the possible addition of non-nuclear prompt-global strike capabilities (conventionally-armed ICBMs or SLBMs) that would be accountable under the Treaty.”

And if this weren’t enough, the Administration has also found a rationale for exempting CPGS from the Treaty limits entirely. Current R&D efforts have turned away from ideas like the Conventional Trident Modification — a non-nuclear SLBM — and toward new missiles that launch hypersonic glide vehicles. The article-by-article analysis submitted along with New START strongly hints that these sorts of weapons would be “new kinds” of weapons other than ballistic missiles or bombers, and therefore not controlled by the Treaty:

[Article V] Paragraph 2 addresses “new kinds” of strategic offensive arms. Whereas “new types” refers to new types of ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments that meet the definitions of the Treaty, “new kinds” refers to new offensive arms of strategic range that do not meet the Treaty’s definitions of these existing strategic offensive arms. This paragraph provides that when a Party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party has the right to raise the question of such an arm for consideration within the framework of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC). The provisions regarding the BCC are contained in Article XII and Part Six of the Protocol and establish that either Party may place issues on the BCC agenda for consideration. This paragraph is thus included only for emphasis that either Party may place a concern about a new kind of strategic offensive arm on the BCC agenda for consideration.

The resolution of ratification picks up on this point and hammers it home:

(3) STRATEGIC-RANGE, NON-NUCLEAR WEAPON SYSTEMS.—It is the understanding of the United States that—

(A) future, strategic-range non-nuclear weapon systems that do not otherwise meet the definitions of the New START Treaty will not be “new kinds of strategic offensive arms” subject to the New START Treaty;
(B) nothing in the New START Treaty restricts United States research, development, testing, and evaluation of strategic-range, non-nuclear weapons, including any weapon that is capable of boosted aerodynamic flight;
(C) nothing in the New START Treaty prohibits deployments of strategic-range non-nuclear weapon systems; and
(D) the addition to the New START Treaty of—

(i) any limitations on United States research, development, testing, and evaluation of strategic-range, non-nuclear weapon systems, including any weapon that is capable of boosted aerodynamic flight; or
(ii) any prohibition on the deployment of such systems, including any such limitations or prohibitions agreed under the auspices of the Bilateral Consultative Commission,

would require an amendment to the New START Treaty which may enter into force for the United States only with the advice and consent of the Senate, as set forth in Article II, section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution of the United States.

(Page van der Linden addressed this passage earlier, before the committee’s vote.)

While this position appears defensible as a reading of the text, it’s not what you would call healthy for the Treaty in the long run. Consider a simple thought experiment. If the Russians were to introduce nuclear-armed hypersonic “boost-glide” missiles — something they’re rumored to have been pursuing for awhile now, actually — would official Washington shrug and say, “That’s outside of the Treaty, so we don’t mind?”

Really, what we have here is an unresolved dispute over the status of CPGS systems — proposed weapons whose purpose and effectiveness remain in question. Should that dispute venture beyond the theoretical, problems may soon arise.

The Price of Ratification

Excluding relevant weapons systems from arms-control regimes can turn them into balloon-squeezing exercises. The Washington Naval Treaty‘s limits on battleships seem to have fed a preference for heavy cruisers and aircraft carriers. SALT I’s limits on ICBM deployments probably influenced Moscow’s decision to build and deploy SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles instead. And the emphasis on ballistic missiles in the implementation of the Missile Technology Control Regime now may be contributing to the spread of cruise missiles. Once New START enters into force, it will be Washington’s choice whether to try to circumvent the treaty’s limits in like manner.

Holding these cards that could blow up New START seems to be part of what it will take to get it through the Senate — barely.  The resolution of ratification passed out of committee by 14-4 with one absence, or about 74% voting in favor. When a vote by the full Senate finally takes place, chances are good the margins will be about the same, with just a handful more than the necessary 67 “yes” votes out of 100.  Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry set expectations when he told the New York Times, “In today’s world, if we get about 70 or 70-plus, it would be a very big victory.” For comparison, as Michael Krepon points out, the Chemical Weapons Convention was ratified with 74 votes in favor — meaning all the Democrats and about half the Republicans. That’s where the fault lines of “today’s world,” the post-Cold War world, are found.


  1. page (History)

    Really great post.

    Just a short note on the politics about getting it through the Senate:

    I hate to be a downer about that, but everything points to the resolution being taken up in the lame duck session and possibly beyond. There’s a very good chance the Democrats are going to come out of the November election with only 52 seats. That’s the Democratic caucus, so it counts Joe Lieberman (he’s still in the caucus). He may or may not vote for the New START resolution; he has expressed doubts about it, so let’s say that leaves New START with 51 Democratic votes, because they’re fairly certain not to break ranks.

    My point is that approving the resolution is going to be much, much harder if the vote takes place anytime after January. It had better happen before then, in other words, or things are going to be in a world of hurt.

  2. Theodor KyndFellow (History)

    It’s really interesting that BrahMos is going hypersonic in the new version. I wonder how it will compare to X-51 Waverider. Here are some amazing videos of both hypersonic missiles at

  3. kme (History)

    Is it really possible to effectively control the technology needed for cruise missiles, due to the much larger overlap with normal aircraft technology?

  4. krepon (History)

    Excellent post, Joshua. All good points and worthy of concern down the road. On conventional global strike, if New START enters into force, treaty skeptics will probably do battle with those with sound military judgment. My sense is that the US would be better off developing and placing this limited, but long-range conventional capability in the hands of combatant commanders.

  5. John Schilling (History)

    It does seem that the Pentagon is intent on shoveling a few billion dollars to the hypersonics R&D community for no real purpose beyond postponing the debate over conventional prompt global strike. Certainly there are missions for which some sort of fast, long-ranged missile with a precision-guided conventional warhead would be the right tool, and anyone with global responsibilities would want to have a few such in their arsenal. Any such weapon, can be trivially fitted with a thermonuclear warhead, and barring a very intrusive inspection regime there’s no real way for outsiders to know. Anyone who sees a potential adversary deploy, or worse launch, such missiles, will be wondering right up to the moment of impact whether or not the payload includes concentrated instant sunshine. And wondering what they ought to do about it, before it’s too late. The consequences of this, may well outweigh the benefits of having CPGS available.

    So, that’s an important discussion to have. One which is not in any way altered by putting wings and air intakes on the fast, long-ranged missiles in question – the whole “hypersonic missiles are non-nuclear, everyone knows that, so we don’t have to worry about mistakes”, is purest snake oil. As you note, that becomes abundantly clear when we consider someone else maybe having this sort of weapon.

    And if we come up with a real answer to the real question that ends with deciding to deploy some CPGS missiles, it seems very likely that the technical questions will be resolved the same way as always. If the question is, “how do we deliver a ton or so of unpleasantness, across thousands of kilometers in minutes?”, the answer is to put two or three rocket stages under it and loft it clear of the atmosphere. Air is nothing but trouble if you’re in that much of a hurry.

  6. Allen Thomson (History)

    Could you recommend a good survey of CPGS ideas? Targets, payloads, rockets, trajectories, etc.?

    • joshua (History)

      There’s a fair amount scattered out there. The most handy single starting point is this periodically updated CRS report:

      Naturally, I’ve got to toot my own horn here, too: “Evaluating Conventional Prompt Global Strike,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January/February 2009), at or

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The people who have gotten contracts on this stuff seem to be recalcitrant to talk about it.

      I didn’t get a contract (bid on FALCON LV but didn’t get it), but really only have one thing to add to what’s otherwise out there, which is something I’ve mentioned a few times before. If you’re firing CICBMs (or whatever), it pays off significantly if you shoot south (going around the long ways to targets in the middle east and east) rather than north (over Russia / China / etc).

      It’s a bigger missile / smaller payload tradeoff, but it’s also a lot easier to avoid panicing the people who have their fingers on ICBMs with nuclear warheads if you do it that way.

  7. anonone (History)

    “My point is that approving the resolution is going to be much, much harder if the vote takes place anytime after January. It had better happen before then, in other words, or things are going to be in a world of hurt.”

    Indeed-We certainly wouldn’t want American Voters opinion to be considered.

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