Romney's Tired Claims on New START

Jul 6, 2010

By Oliver Bloom
In today’s Washington Post, Mitt Romney has a provocative editorial not only opposing New START, but also calling the treaty President Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet.” Romney trots out some of the repeated talking points opposing New START (constraints on ballistic missile defense, imbalance in launcher reductions, no discussion of tactical nuclear weapons, etc.) and then adds a few new objections of his own—for example, that the bomber counting rule will enable the Russians to mount MIRVed ICBMs on their bombers or that Russian has a stock of more than 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons. One of the sad limitations of print media is that it doesn’t allow us to easily see the sources of specific claims.
But even on identifiable claims, Romney comes up short. He exaggerates the implications and dangers of certain elements of the treaty text, writing, for example, that the Treaty
explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites
and that
the Obama administration bows to Russia's insistence that conventional weapons mounted on ICBMs are counted under the treaty's warhead and launcher limits. 
While both statements are true on their face (the Treaty does explicitly prohibit such conversions and does count conventional weapons mounted on ICBMs), Romney fails to mention that it is more expensive and less effective for the United States to convert ICBM silos to BMD sites, or that both Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen agree that the Treaty will not constrain U.S. conventional strike options. Thus, Romney, while technically correct about various provisions of the Treaty, is suggesting that they have certain negative implications for U.S. national security, which, experts have repeatedly debunked. 
In particular, alleges that New START will constrain missile defense. His allegation here rounds counter to the Senate testimony of Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, Deputey Undersecretary Miller, and Missile Defense Agency Director O’Reilly, who all testified that New START does not constrain missile defense. 
Romney also suggests that due to the unilateral statement by the Russians on missile defense
to preserve the treaty's restrictions on Russia, America must effectively get Russia's permission for any missile defense expansion. Moscow's vehemence over our modest plans in Eastern Europe demonstrate that such permission would be extremely unlikely.
As Secretary Clinton noted in her Senate testimony, and as is reported on the State Department’s website, the unilateral statements in no way constrain U.S. BMD. The State Department fact sheet explains that
The withdrawal clause in Article XIV contains language identical to the withdrawal provisions in many arms control agreements, including the START Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The withdrawal provision is self-judging in that each Party may decide when extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests. Accordingly the Russian statement merely records that the circumstances described in its statement could, in its view, justify such a decision on its part. It does not express a legal right or obligation, nor does it change any of the legal rights or obligations of the Parties under the Treaty.
Now supposing for a moment that the United States advanced a missile defense program that was aimed at Russia (something Secretary Gates said would be “would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive”), the Russians could always pull out of the Treaty, and leave us in the same position we are in today. Nothing will have gotten worse (because the Treaty doesn’t constrain our BMD capabilities), but the United States will have enjoyed years of stability with regards to the Russian arsenal. What’s more, Romney’s interpretation of the role of unilateral statements would give Senators reason to object not only to New START, but to the original START, the INF Treaty and the NPT. Certainly, Governor Romney is not objecting to those agreements as well.
As for Romney’s objections about bomber counting rules, he has a point that the arbitrary counting rules make the overall reductions modest, but the implications for U.S. national security seem decidedly limited. As numerous arms control commentators have pointed out, the bomber counting rule is not only a continuation of a bizarre counting method developed decades ago, but is really a minor issue in the Treaty. 
Romney’s overall message that “the Obama administration has been badly out-negotiated” and “we give, Russia gets,” does not square with the facts. The United States managed to walk away from the Treaty with what it wanted most: firm limits on launchers and deployed warheads and a restored verification regime, and only had to agree to limits on programs it never intended on pursuing.
Pavel Podvig—a researcher at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University—has written a far more detailed post for the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces blog debunking Romney’s claims and points out the numerous inaccuracies and distortions in the piece. 
He reserves his harshest words for the constantly repeated claim that the treaty leaves a counting loophole for rail-mobile ICBMs: 
the op-ed reiterates the ridiculous "rail-road launcher loophole" charge. This has been already looked at in this blog and elsewhere (CRS report by Amy Woolf is particularly good for this and other issues), so I don't think it is worth talking about again. However, I should note that when Romney says about "reports of growing interest in rail-mobile ICBMs" he is simply making things up - there is no interest in reviving the rail-mobile ICBM program in Russia and there are no reports that would suggest that there is.
What’s more, Podvig points out that where Romney has a point (that the treaty wouldn’t require Russia to eliminate any launchers and would give Russia room to deploy new heavy ICBMs, for example), he interprets the fact entirely incorrectly. As Pavel explains
the new ICBM is where Romney gets is exactly backwards. Not having an arms control treaty is the best strategy for making sure that this new ICBM will be developed and deployed. At the same time, the New START Treaty constrains, even though they may appear modest, are very likely to kill the program - if we look at the numbers, at the 1550 warhead level Russia already does not have much room for a MIRVed ICBM. If the arms control process continues, as it should, then we mere prospect of having a ceiling of, say, 1000 warheads, would almost certainly put a lid on any new ICBM development.
And with regards to tactical nuclear warheads, Podvig notes
I have no idea where Mitt Romney got a number of "more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical." Then, whatever the number, contrary to what Romney believes, none of these warheads are" mounted on missiles" that "can reach [U.S.] allies" - a large number of these are warheads for air and missile defense and others are nuclear torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. Most of these weapons are removed to storage and are not operationally deployed.
Podvig’s well-documented piece also makes note of the great Nukes of Hazard post from last month that examined some of the other repeated talking points about New START.
Beyond the technical details of what Romney asserts and what Podvig debunks, Podvig makes the good point that failure to ratify would make things far worse. For everything the treaty does and doesn’t do, it at the very least gives the United States clear insight into Russia’s nuclear arsenal and puts checks on its future development. It gives the United States the framework to begin negotiations on another treaty, one that will hopefully be more amenable to Romney and address his various concerns. Romney somehow imagines that the United States can get everything it wants from a treaty without compromises of its own (a rather warped opinion of negotiations), and doesn’t realize that the majority of the American concessions are giveaways by the United States that do nothing to constrain our national security. 
It’s a shame that the Washington Post gave Mitt Romney the space to repeat misleading assertions and debunked myths, or at least did not give someone else the space to refute Romney’s claims. While the Washington Post has done a commendable job offering space for commentary on nuclear issues in the past, especially on New START, that doesn’t mean it should automatically give space to critics of New START, regardless of the merits of their arguments.  Criticism of New START is valuable and necessary, and the treaty does have its limits (even Podvig admits that), but that certainly does not give critics free reign to trot out tired and weak claims about what the Treaty does and does not do. At the very least, criticism should be grounded in reality, not in fantasy. I don’t know if Romney’s piece fits that bill.

//Rockyobody under a Creative Commons License