» News » US-Russia N-arms control: A farce

US-Russia N-arms control: A farce

By Harsh Pant
April 03, 2010 02:37 IST
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How history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. The era of arms control is back. It was indeed tragic that all the arms control pacts between the United States and the former Soviet Union could not prevent the qualitative and quantitative improvements in the nuclear arsenals of the two super powers during the Cold War. And what is now being attempted by the two sides almost verges on the farcical, notes Harsh V Pant.

US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev will be signing their new arms control pact -- New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)-- in Prague on April 8 that will lower limit on deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 each from the 2,200 permitted as of 2012.

Furthermore, it will lower the limit on launchers to 800 while putting a cap on nuclear-armed missiles and heavy bombers at 200 each. The pact is being heralded as one of the most far-reaching foreign policy accomplishments of Barack Obama.

It indeed comes at a crucial time for the US as Obama will be hosting one of the largest global summits aimed at securing loose nuclear material in April.

And then in May the US will be making an argument at the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to strengthen the NPT. The Obama administration wants to use the new treaty with Moscow to make a case to the US Senate for the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to the international community for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

It is being hoped in the corridors of power in Washington, DC that this pact will establish Obama administration's credibility before the nuclear security summit and the NPT Review Conference.

After all the initial hoopla about the new pact, however, it turns out that the new 10-year START will be making lower-than-advertised changes in the arsenals of the US and Russia, leading to an actual decline of only about 100-200 weapons. The treaty cuts warheads only half as much as was accomplished by George W Bush in his 2002 Treaty of Moscow with Vladimir Putin.

The treaty also does not affect the US ability to put a conventional warhead on either submarine-launched or ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles as part of the new global strike concept.

This gives the US the ability to strike a target anywhere within an hour without relying on the nuclear arsenal. The non-nuclear Prompt Global Strike weapon could achieve the effects of nuclear weapons, without turning a conventional war into a nuclear one.

The new treaty is not likely to affect American plans for a missile system to protect Europe and the US against Iranian missiles. This limited plan will be phased in over a ten-year period. Russia continues to view this missile system as a threat.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has already announced that it will be spending billions of dollars more on updating America's weapons laboratories to assure the reliability of a smaller arsenal.

Yet, even this limited treaty was difficult to come by as Russia demanded less intrusive verification rules and was not inclined to share telemetry data on its missile tests. The Obama administration has decided to privilege arms control in its relationship with Russia in the hope that Russians would be of help on issues of global concern.

So far there is little evidence for this. And the Russians made sure that the completion of the deal took much longer and was much harder than the US had anticipated.

Moreover, there is little likelihood of the US and Russia moving beyond the currently agreed limits. Russian military views a strong nuclear arsenal as essential to counter American conventional superiority and America remains concerned about Russian advantage in short-range nuclear missiles.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the latest treaty does not touch the issue of tactical nuclear weapons and stored nuclear warheads. Tactical weapons are more likely to get used, so an agreement on them would have actually meant something.

At a time when real proliferation threats are being left unaddressed in practice, the rhetoric of arms control is unlikely to help the Obama administration achieve anything at the upcoming NPT Review Conference.

The US provides its nuclear security umbrella to around 31 countries around the world. It is important the US deterrent remains available and credible if these countries are to continue with the foreswearing of nuclear weapons.

The countries in the Gulf have no interest in a marginal reduction of American and Russian arsenals when they are facing the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

At best, the New START is a superfluous agreement that will have very little impact on the trajectory of global nuclear discourse. But the US will use these cosmetic changes to put pressure on India on the nuclear issue.

The NPT Review Conference will see renewed pressure on India to join the NPT as non- nuclear weapons state despite the acceptance of India's de facto nuclear status by the Nuclear Supplier's Group.

There have already been calls that the exception granted to India goes against the spirit of the NPT. Indian national security interests demand that the government should focus single-mindedly on strengthening its deterrent posture.

If a weaker India could resist the global pressure on the nuclear issue for so long, there is no reason why a rising, more confident India should fear engaging with the global nuclear regime and underlining the fundamental flaws in the very architecture of the regime.

If the major powers are serious about global nuclear disarmament, they should get India's support, but if they continue to use arms control provisions to constrain the strategic autonomy of other states, India should have no reticence in making its voice heard.

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Harsh Pant