You can never guess what kinds of straws people would grasp when desperate. Who knew that the New START treaty would come under criticism for allegedly "fumbling" such issues as rail-mobile ICBMs and "reloads"? I'm not sure that many people even remember what "reload capability" is. Well, apparently some do.

Questions about rail-mobile missiles started to pop up a few days ago. I haven't heard about "reloads", though, until I saw a piece by Christopher Ford, currently a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. Entitled "Does 'New START' Fumble Reloads and Rail-mobile ICBMs" the piece conveniently summarizes the arguments and "frets about" scenarios in which

"SS-25-style treaty-accountable deployed ICBM launcher could be accompanied by one or more nuclear-armed reload missiles and any necessary reload vehicles,"

or, even worse,

"unlimited numbers of rail-mobile launchers deployed with nuclear-armed missiles."

All this, of course, is just plain crazy.

Each of these scenarios starts with the fact that missiles are not limited by the treaty as long as they are not loaded into a launcher - Article II.1a sets a limit of 700 on deployed missiles and bombers, while Article II.1b, which deals with non-deployed systems, limits only launchers.

Here is where the "reloads" come in. Chris Ford and his colleagues conclude that since the treaty does not explicitly prohibit the practice of reloading a launcher once it fires its missile, each ICBM launcher could have a stash of missiles stored nearby or could be trailed by a truckload of missiles that would come handy in a "protracted" nuclear warfighting. And, of course, the argument goes, Russia with its mobile launchers would have an advantage over the United States that is stuck with its silos. This is presumably a scary prospect.

Should anyone think that a "protracted nuclear warfighting" is just downright crazy, Ford refers to a document that in his mind authoritatively established that it is not - "during the Cold War, Soviet strategists planned for protracted warfighting in part by preparing to decontaminate and reload such silos over the course of a few days." The document in question is the 1983 edition of Soviet Military Power. Yes, it's not a mistake - 1983. Why would anyone today believe the claims of the 1983 Soviet Military Power completely escapes me; unless, of course, that person was absent from any kind of discussions of Soviet policies during the last thirty years. We know now that key claims of that time about Soviet intentions and capabilities were very wrong. And there is no shred of evidence that would suggest that the Soviet Union ever contemplated either fighting a protracted nuclear war or decontaminating and reloading its ICBM launchers in the process. (There may have been plans, however unrealistic, to reload submarines, though.)

Of course, people who still consult the 1983 Soviet Military Power for spiritual guidance would not believe the evidence from actual Soviet documents. So, there are other considerations to take into account in considering the "reload" issue. Probably the most important one is that while non-deployed missiles are not limited by the treaty, they would have to be declared, tagged and open to inspections. Inspections would be able not only to count all non-deployed missiles, but also to track them wherever and whenever they go. Moving them covertly, even if it were possible, wouldn't help - there are inspection to prevent that. To suggest that in this situation anybody would be able to create a stash of unaccountable non-deployed missiles is simply ludicrous. Equally not serious is the claim that "reloading in wartime remains a real possibility for mobile systems, and wouldn’t take very long." Has anyone tried?

Now to the rail-mobile launchers. The argument there is that the treaty does not define these creating a loophole that allows them to escape from the treaty limits. The treaty indeed defines a "mobile launcher of ICBM" as essentially a road-mobile launcher:

45 (35.)  The term "mobile launcher of ICBMs" means an erector-launcher mechanism for launching ICBMs and the self-propelled device on which it is mounted.

"Self-propelled" is part of the definition here and it means that a rail-mobile launcher would not be covered by it (unless one would want to define the entire train as a mobile launcher, but let's not go there). From this, Ford and his colleagues leap to a conclusion that rail-mobile launchers are not limited by the treaty, especially if they non-deployed, i.e. do not contain deployed missiles. I'd rather quote the original claim here, otherwise people would think I am making it up:

“New START” would seem to allow a party to have unlimited numbers of rail-mobile launchers deployed with nuclear-armed missiles, at least if these missiles are not actually uploaded.  In such a scenario, if you gave the signal, all your rail-mobile launchers could be uploaded with MIRVed missiles in extremely short order, but prior to that point, none of these launchers or missiles or warheads would fall within treaty limits: you could have as many as you like.

This is, of course, wrong. Article II of the treaty limits all launchers, deployed and non-deployed, and does not care whether they are mobile or not:

[II.1] (c) 800, for deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, deployed and non-deployed SLBM launchers, and deployed and non-deployed heavy bombers

As for the definition of an "ICBM launcher", the Protocol is very clear:

28. (56.) The term "ICBM launcher" means a device intended or used to contain, prepare for launch, and launch an ICBM.

There is nothing self-propelled here, so any rail-mobile launcher is an ICBM launcher and therefore would definitely be "caught" by the treaty limit of 800 non-deployed launchers. Note that the definition does not require the launcher to be actually used for a launch - it is enough that it is intended to be used in that role.

The entire Ford's argument is built on an assertion that a launcher that is mobile but not self-propelled cannot be considered a mobile launcher under the treaty definition, so it not limited by the Article II.1.c of the treaty. He goes on suggesting that even a deployed launcher of this kind would be exempt from the treaty limits, but only to prove that once you start from a false statement you can arrive to literally any conclusion, however arbitrary and false.

Speaking seriously, the treaty indeed does not define or otherwise specifically mention rail-mobile launchers. The reason is simple - there are none deployed. The last RT-23UTTH/SS-24 rail-mobile missiles had been removed from service in 2002 and the last base was liquidated in 2007. The New START treaty is fairly clear in that it deals only with those systems that exist - since all mobile launchers of ICBM are road-mobile, they are defined accordingly. The treaty does not define a number of other, more exotic systems, like air-launched ballistic missiles, for example. The reason is simple - instead of listing every possible system basing configuration one can come up with (which was more or less what the original START did), the New START has Article V.2, which leaves the issue to the Bilateral Consultative Commission.

On balance, it is clear that this kind of arguments should not have a chance of surviving an encounter with reality. However, knowing the U.S. political process, I would be more cautious. After all, I know that a few people took them fairly seriously. And it wouldn't be the first time a ridiculous issue is blown out of proportions. We will see.