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The Homestretch for START

Nearly a year ago, Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama started talks for a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty to replace START as part of a joint effort to reset relations and reduce excess Cold War weapons. Friday’s visit to Moscow by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provides a critical opportunity to tie up the few loose ends on the negotiations and finally close the deal on the new START.

The new START would be the first truly post-Cold War nuclear arms reduction treaty. The final warhead limit will likely be 1,600, which would represent a roughly 25 percent reduction from current deployed warhead levels. The treaty will also set a lower, common limit on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. The treaty will be in effect for 10 years after it enters into force.

The initial impetus for this treaty began with then-President Vladimir Putin’s 2006 proposal to negotiate a replacement for START. Little progress was achieved due to the George W. Bush administration’s opposition to reductions below the 2002 Moscow Treaty limit of 2,200 deployed warheads and to any new limits on strategic delivery systems. In a shift back to the traditional U.S. position, Obama agreed in April 2009 to work with Russia on a new treaty to further limit nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.

The new START is also crucial to fulfilling U.S. and Russian international disarmament commitments, which are vital to winning support for measures needed to bolster the beleaguered Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In less than six weeks, 180 countries will gather at the United Nations for the treaty’s review conference.

Since U.S.-Russian talks resumed, the negotiators have made tremendous progress. The two sides have been very close to finalizing the new treaty since Dec. 5, when START expired. But close is not enough. For weeks, negotiators have been working through the technical details of how to implement the new and streamlined START verification system, which will contain updated elements from the old treaty as well as new and innovative techniques to monitor strategic warhead deployments. In late January, the two sides reached agreement on a revised system for exchanging telemetric data on missile flight tests, which had been a source of friction.

But progress slowed again due to Moscow’s discontent about Washington’s modified plan to deploy a limited number of theater missile interceptors in Romania over the next several years. The two sides had already agreed in April that the new START agreement would not limit strategic defensive arms, but it would recognize — as earlier bilateral nuclear arms control treaties have done — that there is a relationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive weapons.

Moscow is understandably wary about how future U.S. plans to counter Iran’s growing arsenal of ballistic missiles could affect its own deterrent forces. But it is clear that the United States simply does not and will not have the capability to deploy missile interceptors that could offset Russia’s strategic missile capabilities for at least a decade and probably more.

Under Obama’s plan to counter Iran’s existing short- and medium-range missiles, the United States would deploy 24 SM-3 theater-range missile interceptors in Romania by 2015 and in Poland in 2018, with the option of additional ship-based interceptors that could be stationed in the Mediterranean. By 2018, the United States would begin to upgrade these missiles with a new version that is designed to intercept intermediate-range but not long-range ballistic missiles.

Such systems would clearly not affect Russia’s hundreds of sophisticated land- and sea-based strategic nuclear missiles for the duration of the new START and very likely much longer. U.S. missile defense development is always slower and more costly than expected. In the meantime, the two sides can and should realize their goal of engaging in joint threat assessments, beginning operation of an early warning center and exploring the use of Russian early warning radars in a joint missile defense system.

While the new START should acknowledge the principle that strategic missile defense can affect the offensive strategic balance, it is neither realistic nor necessary to burden this treaty with the task of limiting missile defense options that will not materialize for well over a decade. If at any point during the new START agreement Russia believes that U.S. missile defense has advanced to a point where it actually poses a risk to Russia’s national security, it could exercise a withdrawal clause in the new START agreement, as it had the right to do during START.

The more urgent and higher priority goal for Moscow and Washington is the conclusion of the START follow-on that verifiably reduces excess strategic nuclear arsenals. Without the prompt conclusion and implementation of the new START, each side could continue to deploy a far higher number of strategic nuclear weapons.

Absent the new treaty, the United States would continue to maintain a significantly larger number of strategic delivery systems. Russia’s aging strategic missile force is being modernized but at a pace that will result in far fewer strategic delivery systems and a smaller warhead upload potential without the new treaty limits in place. Without the new treaty and the continuation of essential verification practices, the ability of each side to confidently assess the other’s nuclear forces would significantly diminish, which would almost certainly lead to greater distrust and suspicion.

Before the end of March, Obama and Medvedev must close the deal in order to maintain common-sense controls on the world’s largest and most lethal nuclear arsenals and set the stage for closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of other global challenges.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nongovernmental research organization based in Washington.

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