Michael KreponNew Year, New START

Retired Admiral “Fox” Fallon, ex-head of CENTCOM and PACOM, called the ratification of New-START “a no-brainer” in an interview with Mary Beth Sheridan in the Washington Post. General Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, told ABC News’ Jake Tapper that the ruckus over New START’s ratification in the Senate was “baffling to me… to play politics with what is in the fundamental national interest is pretty scary stuff.”

Scowcroft added,

This is not just the treaty, this is trying to put our relationship with the Russians on a sounder basis so we can move forward with a lot of things we really need Russian help with… And the Russians are basically with us with on all those issues but we’re going to stick a finger in their eye.

The Big Three arguments against the treaty – insufficient verification and questionable Obama administration commitments to ballistic missile defense and nuclear modernization – were all flimsy, since shelving the Treaty would mean less verification, less political support for BMD, and less money for the nuclear labs in the Congress. Rejecting the Treaty would weaken U.S. standing on every single proliferation concern. U.S.-Russian relations would have deteriorated and unreconstructed Cold Warriors in both countries would have received a lift. Washington would have found it much harder to lead allies in Europe and the Pacific, since no foreign capital would be able to count on Washington to deliver on its promises. Killing New START would have resulted in a windfall for Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang.

Only one of Ronald Reagan’s top-tier national security advisers, Richard Allen, voiced opposition to New START. Admiral Mike Mullen and the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly supported the Treaty, as did the nuclear lab directors, former Secretaries of State, Secretaries of Defense and national security advisers for Republican as well as Democratic administrations, and a host of retired four stars who used to be responsible for the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

A grand total of thirteen Republican Senators took their advice. The rest talked about shortfalls in verification, missile defenses, and nuclear modernization.

One yardstick to measure new members of Congress is their choice of mentors. When Barack Obama was elected to the Senate, he chose Richard Lugar as a mentor on nuclear issues. The Republican now occupying Senator Obama’s seat, Mark Kirk, is a serious person with a strong interest in national security. During the New START debate, he took his cues from Jon Kyl. Two other indicators of the current center of gravity on national security politics in Republican circles are the votes cast by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two Senators who have logged many, many miles around the world. Both Senators flirted with consensus-building on New START and then voted “Nay.” Graham, who is up for re-election in two years and girding against the same kind of right-wing primary challenge that McCain just faced, also played Hamlet on the energy bill. Only four Republican Senators likely to be on the ballot in 2012 voted for New START.

When the votes were finally tallied, Senator Lugar had more than enough company among Republican Senators to push New START across the finish line. As Admiral Fallon and his cohort noted, this should have been a no-brainer, but we are living in strange times. When there were three channels on my TV, I watched a show called “Father Knows Best” starring Robert Young. (Think of a perfectly-coiffed Brent Scowcroft, smoking a pipe and wearing a cardigan, dispensing folksy wisdom to the kids.) Capitol Hill Republicans, flush with victory in the mid-term elections, now reject the notion that father knows best. Tax cuts trump deficits and treaties are an imposition. What happened? Three possibilities suggest themselves, all unsettling: Perhaps a super-majority of Republican Senators now believes that Party Elders who helped win the Cold War have lost their marbles and have become insufficiently attached to missile defenses and nuclear deterrence. Or, more likely, they think that arms control is as out-of-date as Robert Young’s cardigan, and that tough-minded Senators don’t need treaties to reduce nuclear dangers. Or, more likely still, perhaps they think that partisanship will protect them from primary challenges and produce even more wins in 2012.

For whatever reason, Republicans on Capitol Hill are losing their bearings when it comes to the Bomb. Many Republican Senators were similarly opposed to treaties and international commitments after World War I. Back then, it took a surprise attack and the onset of another world war to marginalize Irreconcilables in the Senate. History is not yet repeating itself: In the aftermath of another surprise attack and the prosecution of two wars, Irreconcilables in the Senate are gaining strength, if the vote on New START is any indicator.

To readers of ACW, whatever your political persuasion, I wish for you a safe and healthy new year.


  1. Coyote (History)


    Yes, a no brainer, for sure.

    A most happy new year to you, good Sir.


  2. FSB (History)

    fyi, RAND has studied this polarization of US politics:


    “…over these 35 years, Washington has become a less analytical and more ideological place.”

    • Scott Monje (History)

      The irony is that 35 years ago political scientists were lamenting the fact that little distinguished the two main parties from each other. If only they would become more ideological, then the voters would have a real choice!

  3. FSB (History)

    Fig. 1 in this is also interesting:


    “It would be inaccurate to suggest that today’s polarization is unprecedented. The parties were even farther apart in the late 19th century, following the Civil War. However, unlike past eras when the parties tended to polarize on only one major issue at a time (for example, slavery or civil rights), the list of issues that divide the parties today seems to have grown larger over time since the early 1960s.”

  4. anon (History)

    “Three possibilities suggest themselves, all unsettling:”

    Michael, can I suggest a fourth possibility? While it is true that the New START debate engaged a large number of Senators (and a large number of staff) who had not addressed nuclear weapons issues in the past, it is not true that this means that the Senate is now educated in, and interested in nuclear weapons issues. It remains true that most members don’t know and don’t care about nuclear weapons issues, or the intricacies of the links between arms control, non-proliferation, threat reduction, and U.S.-Russian relations. For most Members of Congress these are all quite separate issues. Hence, you get the debating point from the Rs that, by pursuing new START, the Administration was ignoring the real threats of NK and Iran. They argued there is no relationship between the two, and, because we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, U.S.-Russian arms control is a simply a diversion.

    Basically, the most that these Members know is that U.S. nuclear weapons are good. Nuclear weapons in the hands of anyone else (except maybe Israel, India and France) are bad. We keep ours, they get rid of theirs.

    Then, of course, there’s the Frank Gaffney explanation (which goes with the “lost their marbles” ) He said that all those luminaries and military guys and gov’t officials who support New START were too busy to read it and just don’t know what’s in it. This assessment applied to both General Chilton and Admiral Mullen….

  5. Taylor Wray (History)

    I think your last possibility is closest to the truth – Republicans are simply willing to risk nuclear instability for short-term political gain.

    Most Republicans in Congress today no longer have any convictions regarding policy – for them, it’s all about politics. Any position that thwarts success for Obama’s administration is good; any position that allows him to claim progress or achievement is bad.

  6. FSB (History)

    I think it is akin to (most) Republicans’ view on gun-control: they don’t really mind if everyone gets nuclear weapons, as long as we have more and “better” ones.

    Can’t wait for President Palin — tacnukes against Polar bears will be fun for the whole family.

    Palin-Romney 2012!

  7. Nick F (History)


    I can think of no better way to make polar bear burgers than through the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon. It would enrage environmentalists, those liberal “gotcha” journalists that ask probing questions, and arms controllers, all while producing a delicious meal! It can be a special, double-length episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

    “Alaska……..Alaskans……..Alaska……Michele Obama hates homemade cookies…..Alaska. Please refudiate!”

    Hardy Har Har. 🙂

  8. Scott Monje (History)

    Clearly, political motivations outweighed national security concerns (or at least my conception of national security concerns) for many Republicans in the New START debate. But now I’m beginning to wonder if it was more calculated than it seemed. Were Republican leaders just opposing anything and everything Obama wanted (they don’t oppose him on Afghanistan, but then they can let Democrats do that for them), or were they specifically trying to undermine the arms control agenda? Since New START was supposed to be the easy win, were they using it to tell him not to bother even trying with CTBT? They have made a few references to how CTBT is dead now. Were they just trying to make the best of a lost Senate vote, or was that part of the purpose all along? Did they stress the importance of tactical nuclear weapons because they really believe they’re important, or because they were looking for anything not covered by the treaty, or because they think that’s the subject the Russians will never come to agreement on, the treaty that will never happen?

    By the way, William Clark opposed New START. (I don’t know about Richard Allen.) He can hang that position on his wall alongside his admission at his Senate confirmation hearing that he really didn’t know who the leader of Zimbabwe was (even though Mugabe had been much in the news).

    • krepon (History)

      You’re right… I forgot about William Clark.
      As for oppositionist tactics, my take is that if you make something hard that should be easy, harder slogs become even more uphill.
      If I heard Sen. Kyl correctly during the New START debate, he was warning the administration not to go for the CTBT and implying that there would be more discipline enforced within the ranks in this event.

    • Anon (History)

      “If I heard Sen. Kyl correctly during the New START debate, he was warning the administration not to go for the CTBT and implying that there would be more discipline enforced within the ranks in this event.”

      Or (even) more extortion.

      Can you say RRW? 😉

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      RRW for CTBT, now that’d be a deal. And we could change it’s name to “Untested Replacement Warhead (URW)” or maybe “Faith-Based Replacement Warhead (FRW),” or let’s say “Probably Reliable Warhead (PRW).”

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Mark writes:
      RRW for CTBT, now that’d be a deal. And we could change it’s name to “Untested Replacement Warhead (URW)” or maybe “Faith-Based Replacement Warhead (FRW),” or let’s say “Probably Reliable Warhead (PRW).”

      Repeating some of my comments earlier…

      As someone who’s aware of design issues but not briefed in on RRW-1’s design details, I can imagine a large range of technical details about how it might have been built that could raise or lower confidence in it.

      For example, it might be an off the shelf, tested primary from a research device which was never deployed as a weapon, used exactly as-is. Even with a new radiation case, that’s still a not particularly risky primary solution.

      It could be a slightly modified off the shelf tested primary, say substituting one neutron reflector material for another.

      It could be more significantly modified, with a heavier different material (less effective reflector, more thickness and weight of it).

      It could have a different explosive material from the previously tested design.

      There are variations on this considering the radiation case and secondary components.

      The closer you are to a previously tested design, and the more all-up like testing you can do (non-fissile Pu isotope pit simulants if you’ve changed any pit components or the explosives, etc), the better.

      A weapon with a new configuration of a previously tested (identical to prior tests) primary and secondary is not a big risk. A weapon with changes throughout from prior tested components is a bigger risk, even if you dry test its primary, etc.

      Everyone who can solidly answer these questions of necessity is someone who already has a Q clearance, and they can’t generally speak without official declassification decisions. So we’re shooting in the dark here to a large degree at this time, on RRW-1’s un-tested reliability.

      It’s not beyond the credible that the chosen design is close enough to previously tested components that it’s still pretty credibly reliable. But I don’t know.

      It would help if the veil of secrecy would lift a bit; without discussion of dimensions and precise design techniques, they could talk about the design and test history of the SKUA-9 and how close the RRW-1 is to the tested SKUA-9. I.e., it’s not really any sort of secret that the “standard sauce” for primaries is a hollow Pu sphere surrounded by a Beryllium neutron reflector; removing Be from weapons was part of the RRW program goals, but it’s not clear it SKUA-9’s previous tested version used a non-Be reflector or not. It wouldn’t kill anyone to reveal that.

    • anon (History)

      Kyl would not trade RRW for CTBT. He opposes the CTBT because he wants the U.S. to build a new warhead AND test it. Its not a bargaining tactic. Its a real desire. If you learned anything about Kyl during the New START debate, it should be that he doesn’t make deals and he doesn’t compromise. He keeps pushing for his ultimate goal. If he doesn’t get there, he doesn’t give you his vote.

    • FSB (History)

      Thanks Anon.

      So Kyl wants to US to abrogate on its NPT treaty obligations.

      Everyone else in the world must disarm and does not need nukes (new or otherwise) but the US does.

      Do as I say, not as I do.

      The NPT essentially drew the line where the world was in 1970; it recognized five existing nuclear weapon States: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union (Russian Federation) and China and provided that the rest of the world would agree not to acquire nuclear weapons.

      And most of the world did agree to that.

      There are 183 NPT non-nuclear weapon States at present (April 2009). But the NPT did not come as a free gift to the five nuclear weapon States from the rest of the world; rather it is a strategic arrangement founded on a central bargain. That bargain was, and is, non-proliferation in exchange for the sharing of peaceful technology and nuclear disarmament. Nuclear disarmament was perceived by the non-nuclear States as the five nuclear weapon States over the long term agreeing to negotiate away their nuclear arsenals so that ultimately all States would receive equal treatment under the NPT. Since it was recognized that this would take a very long time, the non-nuclear weapon States pressed the nuclear weapon States to agree to interim measures, first and foremost a comprehensive nuclear weapon test-ban treaty, a CTBT. The test ban was included in the preamble of the NPT.

    • FSB (History)


      Actually it does not matter what people with Q clearances think about the potential new untested nuclear weapons.

      It does not matter what the actual reliability numbers are or whatever other geek-wonk associated with RRWs one cares to fling into the debate.

      It matters what our adversaries think of a tested stockpile versus an untested one.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      FSB –

      Both matter.

      In the context of the internal political debate, our own estimation of its reliability is paramount, though our estimation of our potential opponents’ estimation of its reliability is certainly a factor.

      In the long term, I find it unlikely that any opponent would within the realm of normal operations assume the negative regarding that weapon’s functionality; however, there’s a crisis psychology aspect to this, where an opponent might grasp at straws (“Even if they fire it at us, they’ve never tested one…”) and do something foolish.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      “there’s a crisis psychology aspect to this, where an opponent might grasp at straws (“Even if they fire it at us, they’ve never tested one…”)”

      Honestly, George, it’s good that you made that argument, since its implausibility is so patently obvious.

      Betting against the functioning of untested warheads is not a likely product of crisis psychology, which will be dominated by the feeling of dread and doom about an imminent apocalypse that appears to be unavoidable. The danger is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

      My own comment above was not meant to suggest that I thought opponents would be undeterred by untested warheads that the US weapons labs have certified will work. Rather, I was mocking the absurdity of an obsession with reliability in the context of a world where deterrence has long been the dominant doctrine and we should be moving as rapidly as possible towards abolition.

  9. FSB (History)

    Re, political polarization and mistrust — pls see also:


    “Such a level of economic inequality, not seen in the United States since the eve of the Great Depression, bespeaks a political economy in which the financial rewards are increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite and whose risks are borne by an increasingly exposed and unprotected middle class. Income inequality in the United States is higher than in any other advanced industrial democracy and by conventional measures comparable to that in countries such as Ghana, Nicaragua, and Turkmenistan. It breeds political polarization, mistrust, and resentment between the haves and the have-nots and tends to distort the workings of a democratic political system in which money increasingly confers political voice and power. “

    • User Hostile (History)

      Barbara Tuchman’s “March of Folly…” would be a good book to re-read over the holiday break. I guess we’ll all find out what happens when the next bubble pops.

      Carry on.

  10. Rick Northrop (History)

    Senator Kerry captured the disconnect between nuclear modernization and support for START in his December 22 remarks during floor debate.

    “That’s why the three directors of the nuclear laboratories told Senator Lugar and me, and I quote, “The proposed budgets provide adequate support to sustain the safety, security, reliability and effectiveness of America’s nuclear deterrent within the limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads established by the new START Treaty, with adequate confidence and acceptable risk.” That’s also why Tom D’Agostino, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, could say just a few days ago, quote, “Having been appointed to my position by President George W. Bush, and reappointed by President Barack Obama, I can say with certainty that our nuclear infrastructure has never received the level of support that we have today.”
    Given all that’s happened in the past year, all that has been certified and pledged, and all that we know the administration absolutely plans to do, it is really hard to understand why anyone has a question about the nuclear stockpile provision at this point in time.”

  11. yousaf (History)

    happy 2011! Re. RRW: The National Academies’ study on margins and uncertainties (QMU) pointed out it is not clear “how close” to the tested design one needs to be to make a viable RRW warhead (in the absence of testing of course), thus the notion that new warheads could be “based upon tested designs” in the new NPR is an unclear formulation:


    Finding 4-2. Any certifiable RRW weapons design will have to be “close” to the archival underground nuclear test base, while meeting reasonable criteria for adequate margin.

    The design and certification of new nuclear weapons that are sufficiently “close” to particular legacy designs could, in principle, be accomplished without nuclear tests, based on the existing nuclear test archive, on new experiments with no nuclear yield, and on modeling and simulation tools supported by a QMU methodology more mature than at present.

    For a certifiable RRW, the design labs will have to make the case that a new design is “close enough” to tested designs. The case would depend on establishing that the design is based on well-understood principles of nuclear warhead physics and engineering, that the design is related in key ways to designs that were successful in archived historical nuclear testing, and that any gaps between the knowledge of physics and engineering and the archival underground nuclear test base are bridged by experiments. Interpolation is highly preferable to extrapolation.

    “Recommendation 4-2. The design laboratories should lay out in detail their arguments for the relevance and closeness of archival underground tests to any proposed RRW design.
    These laboratories should investigate methodologies for helping address the problem of quantifying closeness.”

    How to transparently define and quantify “closely related” is a difficult issue to which the labs should devote sufficient effort. “Close enough” depends on the direction of the change as well as the magnitude—the direction should be away from “cliffs,” and expert designer judgment must go into assessing “close enough.” Prior warhead anomalies and their “fixes” should be used to validate the definition of “close enough.” The goal is to increase the critical margins while controlling the uncertainties so that M/U ratios are greater than 3 or so. The margins and cliffs here are intentionally spoken of in the plural because there are multiple failure modes, and increasing one margin might decrease another—for example, increased Pu mass might endanger one-point safety, so all must be considered together. A primary lying between two successfully tested designs (i.e., interpolated rather than extrapolated) can provide additional confidence. The design and certification of new nuclear weapons that are sufficiently “close” to particular legacy designs could, in principle, be accomplished without nuclear tests, based on the existing nuclear test archive, on new experiments with no nuclear yield, and on modeling and simulation tools supported by a more mature QMU methodology.
    It must be noted, however, that there is no commonly accepted quantification of closeness in the laboratories. While closeness will always have a substantial qualitative component based on expert judgment, a quantitative measure is clearly needed. This is not a trivial problem. “

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