Mitt Romney's dumb critique of Obama's New START nuke treaty.

Military analysis.
July 7 2010 7:24 AM

Wrong-Headed Romney

Mitt Romney's dumb critique of Obama's New START nuke treaty.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and—let's not mince words—thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney's attack on the New START treaty in the July 6 Washington Post.

Senate Republicans are looking for some grounds—any grounds—to defeat this treaty, which was signed in April by President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, and which will soon come to the Senate floor for a vote.

Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, clearly feels the need to pump up some foreign-policy swagger in advance of the 2012 presidential primaries. But one would think he could have found a ghostwriter who had even the vaguest acquaintance with the subject matter.

Let's take his rant—critique is too serious a word—line by line.

"New-START impedes missile defense, our protection from nuclear-proliferation rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Its preamble links strategic defense with strategic arsenal."

Aside from the bad grammar and the suggestion that Romney's ghostwriter was taking dictation over a poor phone line (he should have written "links strategic defense with strategic offense," not "strategic arsenal," which makes no sense), the first sentence is false, and the second is irrelevant.

There is nothing in the treaty that places any limits on the U.S. missile-defense program. (And several generals, many with a vested interest in the program, have so testified before the Senate foreign relations and armed services committees.)

Yes, the treaty's preamble notes that there is a relationship between strategic defense and strategic offense. This is Arms Control 101. If both sides drastically reduce their offensive nuclear weapons, while one side greatly builds up its defensive weapons, then that side could (theoretically) launch a disarming first strike and, moments later, shoot down what's left of the other side's missiles as they're launched in retaliation. The essence of nuclear deterrence—and strategic stability—is to maintain the ability to retaliate in kind to a first strike. Very small offensive forces, combined with very large defensive forces, erode deterrence and create a "destabilizing" situation.

However, we are far from this state of affairs. New START leaves each side with 1,550 nuclear warheads; the Pentagon's missile-defense program envisions a few dozen anti-missile interceptors.

More to the point, as is the case with all treaties, preambles are not legally binding. In response to the Russians' unilateral statement, President Obama's negotiators added one of their own, noting that U.S. missile defenses "are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia," but rather to defend against "limited missile launches" by "regional threats" and, to that end, the United States will continue "improving and deploying" its missile-defense systems.

"[New START] explicitly forbids the United States from converting intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos into missile defense sites." 

That's right. But Romney doesn't note that the managers of the missile-defense program say, privately and publicly, that they have no plan—and see no advantage—in doing this sort of conversion.

"And Russia has expressly reserved the right to walk away from the treaty if it believes that the United States has significantly increased its missile defense capability."

This is true, but, as is the case with all treaties, Russia and the United States expressly reserve the right to withdraw for any reason if they believe it endangers their "supreme interests." President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Treaty under such a clause. Any president, Russian or American, can pull out of this treaty, too, with three months' notice. (See Article XIV, Section 3.)

However, the Russians would have to consider the following: If they did withdraw from the treaty, that would probably aggravate tensions to the point where the United States would probably accelerate missile-defense deployments and perhaps resume an offensive arms buildup, too—a resumption that we can afford a lot more than they can.

"The treaty empowers a Bilateral Consultative Commission with broad latitude to amend the treaty with specific reference to missile defense."

This is silly. Previous arms treaties—negotiated by Democrats and Republicans—have created similar commissions. This one, like the others, has no "broad latitude to amend the treaty." In fact, Article XV of New START states explicitly that the commission can make no changes that affect "substantive rights and obligations." Its purpose, as noted in several other sections (Articles V and XIII of the treaty, Part VI of its protocol), is to "resolve any ambiguities that may arise" over the 10 years that it remains in effect. These articles contain no "specific reference to missile defense," by the way.

"The treaty also gives far more to the Russians than to the United States. As drafted, it lets Russia escape the limit on its number of strategic nuclear warheads."

Again, there might have been some static on the phone line. The treaty does let Russia get by without cutting any of its strategic "delivery vehicles" (missiles and bombers). Each side is limited to 700, but Russia right now has only 600; the United States has 850, so it will have to cut back a little. However, both sides will have to reduce their warheads—the actual nuclear weapons—to 1,550. And, for what it's worth, Russia, which now has 2,787 warheads, will have to cut back more than the United States, which now has 2,252.

"For example, rail-based ICBMs and launchers are not mentioned."

First, neither Russia nor the United States has any rail-based ICBMs or launchers. Second, the treaty does deal with mobile ICBMs, in two ways. Article IV, Section 1 states that ICBMs can be deployed "only at ICBM bases." If, in some perverse wordplay, the Russians claim that a railroad line is a "base," Article III, Section 5b notes that an ICBM is counted under the treaty's limits the moment it leaves the production facility (which other sections of the treaty place under constant monitoring); it doesn't matter where the missile goes afterward, it's still counted as an ICBM. So while mobile missiles might not be "mentioned" by the treaty, they are, in effect, restricted.

"Similarly, multiple nuclear warheads that are mounted on bombers are effectively not counted. Unlike past treaty restrictions, ICBMs are not prohibited from bombers. This means that Russia is free to mount a nearly unlimited number of ICBMs on bombers—including MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) or multiple warheads—without tripping the treaty's limits."

This is where I began to wonder if Romney had fallen prey to someone, perhaps a spy from Sarah Palin's camp, who wanted to make him look like an idiot.

ICBMs are not "mounted on," or loaded inside, bombers. The only nuclear weapons carried by bombers are bombs; that's why they're called bombers. (Many years ago, some B-52s and B-1s were equipped with air-launched cruise missiles, which flew through the atmosphere, as opposed to intercontinental ballistic missiles, which arc outside the atmosphere. These ALCMs are almost completely phased out, in any case.) Certainly bombers are incapable of carrying MIRVs (which, by the way, are "multiple warheads" loaded onto the tips of missiles).

I think Romney's ghostwriter might have mixed up one of his talking points. New START counts each bomber as if it is carrying just one nuclear bomb, even though it almost certainly carries several. This counting rule was established for practical reasons. A bomber might carry three bombs one day, a dozen the next, with no need to alter its design. There's no way to verify how many it's carrying. So they agreed just to count one bomber as one bomb.

The thing is, this counting rule is to the United States' advantage, not Russia's. We have 113 heavy bombers; they have 77. So, if this is what Romney's ghostwriter meant to take note of, it's not a problem with the treaty, not from the U.S. point of view.

"Under New START, the United States must drastically reduce our number of launchers but Russia will not—it already has fewer launchers than the treaty limits. Put another way: We give, Russia gets."

As noted above, this is irrelevant. Both sides do have to reduce the number of warheads, which is to say weapons, and Russia has to cut more than the United States does.

"The treaty ignores tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia outnumbers us by as much as 10 to 1.… Russia will retain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical because they are mounted on missiles that cannot reach the United States. But surely they can reach our allies, nations that depend on us for a nuclear umbrella. And who can know how those tactical nuclear warheads might be reconfigured?"

True, the treaty does not limit tactical nuclear weapons. But this isn't a gotcha point; both sides explicitly recognize this fact. Obama hopes to tackle the issue in a follow-on treaty, though doing so will be very hard, since Russia regards its tactical nukes as a counterweight to U.S. conventional military superiority.

Still, three points need to be made here. First, a Senate rejection of the treaty won't limit tactical nuclear weapons, either. If the choice is to ratify the treaty or reject it, the point is irrelevant. Second, the "nuclear umbrella"—the U.S. commitment to threaten enemies with nuclear retaliation if they attack our allies—is unaffected by the presence of Russian tactical nukes; the rough parity in strategic (or long-range) nuclear weapons is far more decisive. Third, I know of no source claiming that Russia has 10,000 tactical nukes. The number is classified (and probably not precisely known by anyone, perhaps including the Russians), but the real number is believed to be about 2,000, compared with the United States' 500 (and no serious strategist or military officer believes we need anywhere close to that many for any purpose).

"By all indications, the Obama administration has been badly out-negotiated."

On the contrary, by all indications, Romney has been badly advised. Next time he speaks out on nuclear weapons, he should read up a little bit. At the very least, he should learn the difference between an ICBM and a bomber.

And if this is the best the Republicans can do to beat down the New START treaty, well, that's just sad.

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