Arms treaty shouldn't constrain U.S. missile defenses

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It is time to put a little reality into the discussions about nuclear weapons and missile defense in the wake of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed April 8 by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Republicans immediately raised questions about whether the treaty could "constrain improvements to U.S. missile defenses, if objected to by the Russians," as Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, both of Arizona, put it the day the pact was signed. Last week, at a hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) mentioned his concern that the United States will be "self-constrained" by the treaty.

The treaty in its preamble recognizes "the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties."

In Article 3, however, missile-defense interceptors are excluded from the definition of a ballistic missile covered by the treaty. In Article 5, the treaty prohibits converting current ground- or sub-based intercontinental ballistic missile launchers to handle interceptors, and vice versa. That might be seen as a bow to Russian concerns, but it has no effect on U.S. programs.

Jeffrey Lewis, on his ArmsControlWonk Web site, points out that the preamble exempts the "five Minuteman III [ICBM] silos at Vandenberg [Air Force Base in California] that were converted for missile defense missions."

Those worried that the United States is "constrained" in pursuing strategic missile defense of the homeland and of our forces overseas should also read the testimony last week of Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency.

O'Reilly said that five new missile interceptors have been delivered to Fort Greely, Alaska, and that construction has been completed on a field that will hold 14 silos from which they can be launched. An existing silo field, which can hold six interceptors, is being phased out.

The fiscal 2011 budget now before Congress would provide for finishing the silos, allowing a "contingency deployment" of eight additional interceptors. It would also fund the purchase of five more interceptors. The interceptor fleet can be sustained through 2032, O'Reilly said. Remember, North Korea has yet to test successfully a missile that could reach Alaska.

Beyond that, the U.S. early-warning radar in Thule, Greenland, has been upgraded and an upgrade is planned for one at Clear, Alaska. The first phase of deployment of the Obama European missile defense plan for protection against Iranian missiles is set for 2011. It will base interceptors and radars on 20 Aegis ships and deploy forward-based sensors, including one radar, in Israel.

Phase 2, set for about 2015, will see sea- and land-based interceptors with launchers in Poland and Romania, where negotiations are underway, as well as a radar in southern Europe. By 2015, about 38 ballistic missile defense-capable ships will be available in the area.

Cooperative missile defense systems are well underway with Japan and Israel; the latter's Arrow system is interoperable with the U.S. system.

O'Reilly said he has asked for $110 million next year for developing and testing a remotely piloted, missile- tracking sensor or an airborne infrared system that could spot and follow "large raids of ballistic missiles in flight."

Those who see the new START treaty as limiting U.S. nuclear weapons, in hopes of eventually eliminating them, also need to look closer. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week, James N. Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said: "The department is currently looking at the mix of long-range strike capabilities that the military will need for the coming decade or two." Both conventional and nuclear warheads are in the planning mix.

Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, head of U.S. Strategic Command, reassured one congressman at the hearing that work is going on to design "the follow-on to the current Ohio class Trident submarine fleet," which carries the D-5 nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. The treaty's Article 5 says that "modernization and replacement of strategic offensive arms may be carried out" subject only to the pact's provisions.

One committee member estimated a cost of $7 billion for each submarine. Chilton said that "anticipating a life of 40 years," the requirements for the new submarine "are that it also be able to . . . do something other than just carry the D-5."

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