Since the beginning of the New START Treaty deliberations and hearings in the U.S. Senate a couple of months ago, the Republicans appear to have settled on a set of objections and talking points that they hope could help defeat the treaty. Neither of the issues raised by the Republicans is really a "killer flaw" (to use Steven Pifer's term) and very much all the questions have been answered by the administration officials during the hearings - Kingston Reif has a particularly detailed message with all the relevant quotes (this is part of his excellent New START coverage at Nukes of Hazard).

There is really not much to add to what others have said. However, I thought that Mitt Romney's op-ed in today's Washington Post, "Obama's worst foreign-policy mistake", which seems to position itself as an anti-New START manifesto, makes a few incorrect and misleading statements that should not be left unanswered.

First of all, Romney goes after the alleged limit on U.S. missile defense - in order to "preserve the treaty's restrictions on Russia," he asserts, "America must effectively get Russia's permission for any missile defense expansion." We all know, of course, that this is not true. But, in addition, I am not sure I understand the logic of the argument. How exactly the treaty gives Russia a leverage? If Russia eventually decides to leave the treaty in response to U.S. missile defense expansion, everybody would find themselves roughly where Mr. Romney and his colleagues want them to be - with no treaty and with an expanded U.S. missile defense. This is hardly a leverage.

The op-ed reiterates the ridiculous "rail-road launcher loophole" charge. This has been already looked at in this blog and elsewhere (CRS report by Amy Woolf is particularly good for this and other issues), so I don't think it is worth talking about again. However, I should note that when Romney says about "reports of growing interest in rail-mobile ICBMs" he is simply making things up - there is no interest in reviving the rail-mobile ICBM program in Russia and there are no reports that would suggest that there is.

Another gem in Mitt Romney's collection is the idea of ICBMs deployed on bombers. This is, of course, technically possible, but even during the cold war the United States and the Soviet Union found this idea quite unreasonable. Should they change their minds, the treaty provides a mechanism for counting and limiting those - according to Article V.2 of the treaty the Bilateral Consultative Commission would consider any "new kind of strategic offensive arm," which it definitely would be. In any event, in the treaty as it stands today, there is no loophole that would exempt those hypothetical bomber-deployed MIRVed ICBMs from treaty limits - a bomber that would carry an ICBM would not be a "heavy bomber" under the treaty definition (it applies only to airplanes that can carry ALCMs and bombs), so it cannot be counted as having just one warhead.

The next point is a bit more serious - the op-ed argues that the treaty would not require Russia to eliminate any existing launchers and that it would even permit Russia to deploy new systems, including a new "heavy-load" MIRVed ICBM. Technically, he has a point - Russia's numbers are already very much below the treaty limits. Then, Russia has indeed been looking into developing a new ICBM, the Rocket Forces issued a call for proposals and the current plan is to have the new missile by around 2016 (which is unrealistic, in my view). All options appear to open at this point, but it is likely that the new missile, if developed, would strongly resemble UR-100NUTTH/SS-19 - its designers have been lobbying for this project for some time now.

But the new ICBM is where Romney gets is exactly backwards. Not having an arms control treaty is the best strategy for making sure that this new ICBM will be developed and deployed. At the same time, the New START Treaty constrains, even though they may appear modest, are very likely to kill the program - if we look at the numbers, at the 1550 warhead level Russia already does not have much room for a MIRVed ICBM. If the arms control process continues, as it should, then we mere prospect of having a ceiling of, say, 1000 warheads, would almost certainly put a lid on any new ICBM development.

Now to tactical nuclear weapons. Romney argues that "Russia outnumbers us by as much as 10 to 1." This is a point that is often repeated in Washington, but it is quite a bit of an overstatement, to put it mildly. Russia does have more deployed tactical nuclear warheads than the United States, but the difference is less dramatic - Russia is estimated to have about 2,000 deployed non-strategic warheads with another about 3,300 being in reserve or awaiting dismantlement. The United States has 500 deployed non-strategic warheads, which means that as far as the deployed weapons are concerned, the ratio is more like 4 to 1. The United States also has some reserve warheads and warheads that are scheduled to be dismantled - the numbers are 2,500 and 3,500-4,300 respectively (these, however, include strategic warheads as well).

I have no idea where Mitt Romney got a number of "more than 10,000 nuclear warheads that are categorized as tactical." Then, whatever the number, contrary to what Romney believes, none of these warheads are" mounted on missiles" that "can reach [U.S.] allies" - a large number of these are warheads for air and missile defense and others are nuclear torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. Most of these weapons are removed to storage and are not operationally deployed.

This is not to say that the issue of tactical weapons should not be addressed. But it is certain that by engaging Russia in arms control process the administration will have a better shot at resolving it than those who argue that the issue should somehow solve itself before any talks with Russia can begin.

Interestingly enough, when talking about tactical warheads, Romney makes a point that underscores importance of the treaty - he asks, "[W]ho can know how those tactical nuclear warheads might be reconfigured?" This is a legitimate question. This is why the treaty, in fact, addresses it - its explicit limit on the the number of strategic launchers, which serves to ensure that "those tactical nuclear warheads" cannot be reconfigured into anything that they are not.

I think at this point it is clear that any opposition to the New START is very much a result of partisan politics. This certainly complicates the issue quite a bit for the administration, since partisan arguments are usually impervious to reason (as the issue of the "rail-mobile launcher loophole" clearly demonstrates). Having an agreement with Russia is only part of the deal, and probably the easier one. Senate could be a tougher challenge. Well, the administration managed the first part very successfully, let's hope it will manage the second one as well.