Republicans led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hammered at the New START Treaty when the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee held its fourth hearing on the arms reduction pact with Russia on July 20.
Democrats defended the treaty as necessary to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and to permit the United States to resume inspections of Russian nuclear sites. But skeptics dominated the hearing.
McCain set a curmudgeonly tone when he asked Gen. Kevin Chilton, chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, if he agreed with a U.S. State Department assessment that "any cheating by the Russians would have little, if any effect."
"Senator, I do agree with that in my ..." Chilton started to reply.
"You do agree with it?" McCain interrupted with exaggerated astonishment.
Chilton explained that cheating on the START Treaty by the Russians would have little effect on the United States' ability to maintain an effective deterrent force of submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles. "I believe that we're in a good position vis-a-vis the Russians in this regard."
"Well, what this explains to the casual observer's mind, general, is if it doesn't have any consequences, if they do any cheating, what's the point in having a treaty?" McCain demanded.
The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) would reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads for the United States and Russia to 1,550 each. Each now has about 2,200 deployed warheads and thousands more in storage or awaiting disposal. The treaty was signed in April by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and the Russian parliament.
Taking their cues from McCain, other Republicans on the Armed Services Committee attacked various facets of the treaty.
Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., faulted the treaty for not covering tactical nuclear weapons, in which, he said, Russia has a 10 to one advantage. Tactical weapons pose a threat because they are mobile, thus hard to monitor and easier to proliferate, LeMieux said.
He also criticized the treaty, contending that Russia has already reduced its stockpile to about the 1,550 level, so the United States is extracting no concessions from Russia by agreeing to that level.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., complained that the New START Treaty "punted" on the matter of tactical weapons, and wanted to know "where are the teeth" in the treaty if the Russians violate it.
The United States has a range of possible responses, said James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. They range from political actions to raising the alert level on U.S. strategic weapons to increasing the number of deployed warheads on U.S. missiles and bombers.
That should serve as a disincentive for the Russians to cheat, Miller said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, complained that the treaty doesn't require the Russians to supply the United States with missile telemetry for warhead verification purposes.
Miller said that telemetry isn't needed because the United States will be able to conduct on-site inspections of Russian missiles.
Collins also complained that the new treaty provides for fewer on-site inspections than the old one did. Miller said the new treaty permits 18 inspections while the old one permitted 28. But there are only 35 sites in Russia to be inspected compared to 70 in the Soviet Union when the old treaty went into effect.
So, proportionally, the new treaty permits more inspections than the old one did, he said.
Republicans questioned whether the treaty would impair U.S. efforts to improve missile defense systems in the United States and in Europe. And they did not appear satisfied by repeated assurances that the treaty would not, and that the United States would proceed with missile defense improvements.