Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Moving on to the Next Stage

The Obama administration has announced that it will continue on the nuclear road mapped out in Barack Obama's April 2009 Prague speech, its Nuclear Posture Review, and the New START negotiations. They plan to put ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) before Congress next year, to propose a way forward on a fissile material control treaty in the Conference on Disarmament, and to begin to negotiate with the Russians on tactical nuclear weapons.

During the Senate's debate on New START, a number of Republicans criticized the treaty because it didn't address tactical nuclear weapons. It was never intended to, of course. But, backing the administration's longer-range plans, the Republicans inserted language in the Senate resolution of ratification to begin talks on those weapons next year. So one might think it would be hard for a rightwing organization like the Heritage Foundation to criticize those talks, but no!
Baker Spring, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation and a critic of New Start, said it would be better not to get into a new round of talks. “The imbalance in tactical nuclear weapons is very worrisome,” he said, “but I do not think the U.S. should enter into negotiations on these weapons, because it has no cards to play.”
Not that they were right on anything about New START. The Armchair Generalist picks up on this too.

One of the benefits of New START, not so much discussed in the Senate debate, is that it renormalizes arms control talks between the United States and Russia. Continuing this kind of contact allows issues to be raised and, potentially, solved outside the glare of the press so that nobody has to lose face. But the next talks will be difficult for a number of reasons.

The Russians have about 3000 tactical nukes, and we have about 300. Many are full-up bombs to be delivered by aircraft, but they are not associated with delivery vehicles as the strategic nuclear weapons covered by New START are. So they will have to be counted individually. This is likely to require some sort of identifier for each nuke, with some possibility of allowing the other side to see more of the weapon than the weapon's owner would prefer. New START takes a small step in this direction by counting, explicitly, the warheads on missiles. The inspectors will actually see the warheads, encased in a reentry vehicle.

The Russians also see those tactical nukes as equalizers for American and Chinese conventional power. This may be a more difficult issue than counting warheads, but it is also a next step in arms control. As the numbers of nuclear weapons go down, conventional arms become more important and will also be an issue as other nations are brought into the negotiations.

Getting the CTBT ratified will be interesting. The Senate will be slightly more Republican than the one that ratified New START, and Jon Kyl, who helped to defeat CTBT ratification in the 1990s, will be itching to do it again and regain face with those who think nuclear explosions are a good idea. Those numbers, however, seem to have decreased since the last time around. The big question will be how much Kyl and McConnell have been damaged with their Republican colleagues by their fruitless opposition to New START.

For a fissile material control treaty, there's another "just say no" player: Pakistan, which has been stonewalling discussion on such a treaty in the Conference on Disarmament like forever. It will be useful for the United States to provide a proposal. I have my doubts as to the usefulness of such a treaty. The United States and Russia have surpluses of weapons fissile material; we're burning it in reactors to get rid of it. China is increasing its nuclear stockpile very gradually and may have as much weapons fissile material as it feels it needs. So a treaty to end production of weapons fissile material would primarily affect India, Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly Iran and Israel. None of them are going to sign on to anything like that any time soon. There may be some value, however, in a forum for discussing the subject and in inspection regimes developed to verify such a treaty.

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