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New START treaty represents an important achievement in arms control

Posted by Steven Starr, MT (ASCP) on April 9, 2010

Despite much criticism, the new START treaty represents an important achievement in arms control, because it restores verifiable and enforced nuclear arms reductions between the United States and Russia.  It replaces the meaningless Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) negotiated by the Bush administration, which was jokingly described as “SORT of a nuclear arms control treaty”, because it contained no verification measures and only came into force the day it expired.

The new START treaty contains real limits and vigorous state of the art verification measures, which will track nuclear activities and verify reductions as they occur on schedule. It also establishes significantly lower, legally-binding, verifiable limits on deployed strategic warheads – levels not seen since the days of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

START also provides for verification via on-site inspection of deployed warheads. Previous agreements had resorted to “counting rules” (which counted delivery systems, silos, launchers, etc.) rather than actual verification of warheads themselves, so this is a significant improvement.  Each side will deploy no more than 1,550 warheads, and the agreement cuts the number of delivery systems in half.

Thus, START is an important and necessary step forward in the process of creating a world without nuclear weapons. However, the nuclear reductions mandated by START do not create changes large enough to make a qualitative difference in nature of the 50+ year-long U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation. The treaty does not address the fact that each nation still maintains at least 1000 strategic nuclear weapons on high-alert status, with most land-based forces capable of being launched with only a few minutes warning.

Keeping nuclear weapons on high-alert is arguably the single most dangerous aspect of current force structures, because it makes possible the option of launching upon warning. Should such a warning prove to be false (or even an attack of conventional, non-nuclear warheads), such a responsive nuclear strike, launched in a matter of minutes, would actually amount to a first-strike which would begin an accidental nuclear war.

Thus the new treaty does not significantly change or reevaluate the way in which nuclear forces are deployed. It retains the same essential force structures used during the height of the Cold War, with a triad of bombers and both land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles designed to thwart a “disarming” nuclear first-strike. Given that the Cold War supposedly ended almost 20 years ago, this doesn’t make sense.

We must come to grips with a fundamental question: Why do we continue to keep thousands of nuclear weapons ready for instant use against the peoples of our nations? No one seriously believes that either nation would launch a nuclear attack against the other; there are no plausible political reasons to assume that anyone other than a madman would order such an attack.

Furthermore, our best scientists, using NASA computers and climate models, now tell us that a war fought with these nuclear arsenals would surely end human history. The environmental consequences of a nuclear war fought with strategic nuclear weapons would leave the Earth uninhabitable. What possible political or national goal could justify such an end?

It is with this knowledge we must press our political leaders to change their ways of thinking. There are many here in the U.S. who find fault with virtually any agreement to limit nuclear weapons; they are still thinking with a World War II mindset.  They promise to oppose Senate passage of even this new START treaty, unless perhaps it is accompanied by massive new expenditures for our nuclear weapons complex, including the construction of a new factory to build nuclear warheads.

We must not let the passage of this new START treaty become a means to prevent future arms reductions.  So I suggest that it is time to educate our leaders about the environmental consequences of nuclear war, to make it clear that a single failure of nuclear deterrence, which leads to the detonation of START-size arsenals, would kill most people on Earth. We cannot expect to institutionalize nuclear arsenals forever and not have them eventually used in conflict.

It requires new 21st century thinking to overcome the mindset of the Cold War.  We are a single species living on a fragile planet, and we must use our imagination and vision to forge new alliances and understandings that no longer include plans for nuclear holocaust.

Comments

Daniel Kerlinsky MD said ..

The Obama administration Nuclear Posture Review contains approval of a new uranium enrichment plant at Oak Ridge and a new plutonium processing facility at Los Alamos which will produce weapons-grade material for potentially 100,000 new weapons over the next 70 years. Many activists have long worked for the end of nuclear weapons production in the United States. When the old weapons production complex was shut down we hoped a new nuclear weapons production complex would not be built. These multi-billion dollar facilities will have to be approved by Congress. The fight against new nuclear weapons production facilities in the US must continue no matter how activist feel about the Obama public rhetoric about eliminating nuclear weapons.

April 13, 2010

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