Defense: START Again


In 1988, Les Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, chided the Reagan administration for not including adequate safeguards against cheating in its negotiating strategy for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Aspin's objections were ignored by the White House, and three years later the Senate approved START I by an overwhelming 93-6 vote. The Senate is now reviewing START II, which requires even greater reductions in the strategic nuclear arsenals of both former Cold War adversaries. The few remaining arms-control opponents are as concerned about the verification issues as Aspin was in 1988.

Aspin warned that, because U.S. negotiators had not pursued adequate verification procedures, there was a danger of breakout—a sudden deployment of significant numbers of weapons above treaty ceilings. "Verification is an enormously difficult problem," he observed, "but verification doesn't even touch the chief element of Soviet breakout potential, the legal spare and test missiles." Aspin was referring to stockpiles of missiles, not counted in arms-control agreements, used for frequent flight tests and to verify performance of missile modifications and upgrades. With the addition of nuclear warheads, they can be quickly converted from test missiles to operational weapons.

As secretary of defense, Aspin is not likely to repeat his earlier objections to START when testifying before the Senate. The Clinton administration fully supports the treaty, even though it was negotiated during the Reagan-Bush years. The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) believes START II will sail through the Senate with an even larger majority than START I had. Before the Foreign Relations Committee releases the treaty for a full Senate vote, expected in late July or after the August recess, two other Senate committees will conduct independent reviews. The Intelligence Committee will report on verification issues, and the Armed Services Committee will assess the treaty's impact on U.S. national security.

Most Americans no longer view the former Soviet Union as a threat. Consequently, there is little public pressure to scrutinize the basic tenets of START II or raise serious concerns about the long-term consequences of the most far-reaching arms-control agreement yet negotiated. For these reasons, at least six myths about START II will not be exposed by the Clinton administration, senators ratifying the accord, or the mainstream press.

Myth 1: START II eliminates land-based MIRVs (multiple-warhead missiles). This was the initial U.S position until the Russians balked. To get the stalled talks moving again, Secretary of State James Baker wrote to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrey Kozyrev on June 17, 1992, conceding that "there is no requirement to replace the reentry platform…no matter how many warheads are removed."

The reentry platform is functionally similar to the cylinder on a gunfighter's Colt .45, only it dispenses nuclear warheads instead of bullets. It is the one piece of equipment that distinguishes a multiple-warhead missile from the single-shot kind. In effect, Baker's concession allows either side to retain the "cylinder" if they agree to load only one chamber.

The United States, on its only affected missile, will replace the three-warhead reentry platform, making Minuteman III a true single-shot weapon. Russia plans to retain the six-warhead reentry platform on its SS-19. Limited on-site inspections will verify that the SS-19 six-shooter has been downloaded to a single round. But Baker's loophole, retained by the current administration, offers a dangerous breakout opportunity. Almost overnight, the Russians could add 525 warheads to their fleet of 105 SS-19s, easily restoring the MIRV capability. The United States could not reload Minuteman III without a major retrofit that would take several years to complete.

Myth 2: Both nations' strategic nuclear weapons will be reduced from the current level of 10,000 each to between 3,000 and 3,500 within 10 years. Neither START accord and neither of the earlier Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT I and II) ever did away with a single nuclear bomb. START limits are based on "warheads attributed to deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles], and deployed bombers." The key words are attributed and deployed.

Here's how START math works. Let's assume U.S spy satellites have detected 100 silos capable of housing the SS-17 ICBM. If Russia chooses to retain all of its SS17s, then the "deployed" count equals 100. But U.S intelligence data indicate the SS-17 can carry four warheads each. Since START II allegedly eliminates multiple-warhead land-based missiles, each SS-17 is "attributed" one warhead. The START count for SS-17 warheads thus becomes 100 (100 deployed missiles times the attributed loading of one bomb each). Spare SS-17 missiles and the downloaded warheads (300 in this example) are not counted. Ambassador Winton Brooks, assistant director of ACDA, says: 'There is no requirement to dismantle warheads downloaded to reach START II limits."

These warheads could be sold to China or to any Third World nation without violating START II. They could also be redeployed on tactical weapons, defensive weapons, or any aircraft or missile not included in the START dictionary.

After START II, the Russians will have exactly as much fissionable material as they had before the treaty was negotiated—over 900 tons of highly enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium. It takes about 15 pounds of plutonium or twice that amount of uranium to make a small atomic bomb.

Myth 3: START II will eliminate Russia 's most destabilizing strategic weapon, the "heavy" SS-18 ICBM. Dubbed "Satan" by Western intelligence, the giant SS-18 is the world's most awesome weapon. Its ability to drop each of its 10 megaton-rated warheads within 600 feet of their intended targets makes the SS-18 a potential first-strike missile. SALT I granted the old Soviet Union an exclusive franchise to build heavy ICBMs while limiting the largest U.S. missile, the MX, to half the Satan's throw-weight. START II supposedly corrects the inequity of previous arms-control agreements by eliminating Russia's monster missile.

The treaty requires Russia to cut up each deployed SS-18 under the watchful eyes of U.S. inspectors. But it does not call for destruction of warehoused spare and test SS-18 boosters, which could number well over 100. This is the same loophole Aspin exposed five years ago. (This high ratio of reserve to deployed missiles is common to all ICBM developers. The United States deployed 50 modem MX ICBMs but produced another 128 that are held in reserve for test firings or to replace any damaged during deployment.)

The final step in truly eliminating an ICBM is to destroy its launchers or silos. Back-pedaling from what had been a firm position, U.S. negotiators allowed the Russian Federation to retain 90 of the massive, super-hard SS-18 silos. After complying with the START II silo-conversion protocol, the Russian Rocket Forces will be permitted to replace 90 of the SS-18s with smaller, single-warhead missiles. The protocol requires Russia to place a 2.9-meter restrictive ring near the top of the retained SS-18 silos and to fill the bottom five meters of the silos with concrete. These measures make the silos too small to hold an SS-18.

But the restrictive ring is almost as easy to remove as one of the little washers placed inside a shower head to reduce water consumption, and chipping out five meters of concrete from a silo hard enough to resist a nuclear explosion is not an engineering challenge. Thus, concessions and ambiguous text offer another opportunity for Russia to break out from START II should relations with the West grow cold again. A thought-to-be-extinct killer missile could suddenly reappear, assembled from forgotten spares and placed on alert in silos that should have been dismantled.

Myth 4: Both sides will "build down " to reach START II warhead limits. With its economy teetering on the brink of chaos, the Russian Federation will continue a multi-billion-dollar program to deploy the modem, fifth-generation road-mobile SS25 ICBM. As they "build up," to ensure that the current inventory of 300 truck-borne SS-25s reaches the treaty's limit of 1,100 mobile ICBM warheads, the Russians will destroy older, paid-for missiles equally capable of vaporizing U.S. cities. One explanation: Mobile missiles are next to impossible to destroy, while the older, silo-based missiles, which can be pinpointed by satellites, are easy to target. No doubt, Russian military strategists noted that in the Gulf War U.S. forces could not find mobile Scud missiles even after establishing air superiority over the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the United States will continue production of the 20 authorized B-2 stealth bombers and Ohio-class Trident submarines to reach its quotas for SLBM and bomber warheads while retiring some older B-52 bombers and Poseiden submarines. START II sets warhead limits, but competition continues to field more capable, higher-technology weapons.

Myth 5: On-site inspections guarantee compliance. Up to a point, this is true. START I allows 10 inspections annually, each requiring notification 16 hours in advance. START II added four on-site visits so U.S. inspectors could look in on the SS-18 silo conversions. Submarines may be inspected in port to verify warhead loadings on sea-launched missiles. The treaty allows a one-time inspection of bombers to assess bomb-bay capacities.

But inspections are strictly limited. Only sites identified during negotiations, primarily from spy satellites, are subject to inspection. If, five minutes after ratification, a satellite spots a previously undetected bomber or missile factory, the United States can declare it a "suspect site" but cannot inspect it. The Russians could explain it away as a "baby-milk factory," and that would be that.

ACDA's Brooks says we did not press for unlimited on-site inspections because granting reciprocal rights to the Russians could undermine U.S. constitutional guarantees against unwarranted searches. ACDA contends limited on-site inspections would detect a breakout from the treaty. But it admits we might not catch violations such as the illegal Krasnoyarsk radar in Siberia that breached the 1972 ABM Treaty or the SS-23 rockets found in Eastern Europe after the 1987 INF Treaty allegedly eliminated all intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Myth 6: START II makes the world a safer place. Before signing the treaty in Moscow on January 3, Russian President Boris Yeltsin called it "our joint gift to the peoples of the earth." Brushing aside the rhetoric, real-world considerations cast serious doubts on the efficacy of START II.

First of all, the intent of Russian arms-control negotiators is suspect. By stubbornly resisting true elimination of multiple-warhead land-based ICBMs, insisting on retaining the right to deploy mobile missiles even high-tech U.S reconnaissance systems can't detect or verify, and keeping the door open for a second coming of the dreaded SS-18, Russian diplomats have set the stage for a dramatic breakout from the 3,500-warhead limit. And no one can guarantee future Russian governments will remain friendly to the West or supportive of START II. Meanwhile, the United States, which steadfastly observes arms-control agreements, will irrevocably reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal to early-1960s levels with no hope of matching a sudden resurgence of Russian nuclear capability. (It takes the United States 12 to 15 years to develop and deploy a new strategic weapons system.)

Secondly, START II only addresses strategic offensive systems; it ignores their military corollary, strategic defense. Uncounted are 2,800 Russian nuclear warheads providing air defense against ballistic missiles, bombers, and cruise missiles. The U.S. total for strategic-defense warheads is zero. If the United States reduces its offensive weapons by two-thirds, as required by START II, Russian strategic defenses become more effective because they have fewer targets to contend with. A treaty that attempts to balance offensive systems while leaving one side with a clear advantage in defensive capabilities doesn't lessen the likelihood of war.

Aspin's mid-May cancellation of Star Wars further weakens U.S. resolve to defend its citizens against nuclear attack. Under the Clinton administration, research and development will focus on ground-based interceptors designed to counter theater ballistic missiles like the Scuds Iraq launched against coalition and Israeli targets during the Gulf War. The prevailing "strict interpretation" of the 1972 ABM Treaty (an early objective of the START negotiations, later abandoned, was revision of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to permit deployment of the Star Wars system) limits emplacement of ground-based interceptors capable of defending the continental United States against nuclear attack to a single North Dakota site. While the location is sufficient for a limited defense of Minuteman and MX silos, it cannot be used effectively to shield most U.S. cities.

Also, despite the drumbeat of the arms-control lobby about warhead reduction, START II leaves former KGB bureaucrats and Russian military brass home alone with the world's largest stockpile of fissionable nuclear materials. Russian warheads may be downloaded, but they will not be eliminated. This is especially worrisome at a time when terrorist states are willing to pay in hard currency for nuclear materials. With few products to sell in world markets, how long will the hard-pressed Russians resist the suitcases filled with dollars that could be exchanged for a few pounds of processed uranium or plutonium?

This leads to a final question. Should START II be considered only in the context of Russian Federation capabilities, or should it also address threats from the rest of the world? China, which at best maintains lukewarm relations with the West, is currently developing three new ICBMs capable of striking U.S. cities. Saddam Hussein is reluctant to let go of his nuclear aspirations. Iran and North Korea may soon join the exclusive nuclear club. Another 33 countries today own short- and intermediate-range missiles that can reach from 40 to 3,000 miles beyond their borders. Most are capable of delivering nuclear payloads.

Clearly, the nuclear threat to the United States is changing. Less clear is the proper response to an emerging new world order that could see a resurgent Russian military, a new menace from China, or a nuclear-capable terrorist state that wouldn't think twice about hitting Europe or the United States with weapons of mass destruction. One thing is certain about nuclear deterrence: Strategic systems require high investment and take a long time to build, but they are inexpensive to operate when compared with conventional armaments. All of this raises a caution flag about deep reductions in U.S. strategic capabilities. We shouldn't take the nuclear cops off the beat before the world neighborhood is safe.

The first principle of military strategy taught in service academies is this: Military forces should be structured to respond to a potential enemy's capability, not necessarily his intent. With this in mind, START II should be amended by the Senate to include defensive systems and to close loopholes permitting a rapid breakout from the pact's warhead limits. If not, by 2003, when START II is fully implemented, the United States will be more dependent on the good will and stability of a longtime Cold War foe than on its own military prowess for the preservation of world peace.

Michael R. Boldrick is a retired Air Force colonel who has written extensively on arms-control and strategic nuclear issues.