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Senate Committee Delays Action on New START Treaty

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has delayed a vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty until after the August recess.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev on April 8 in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. It replaces the 1991 START I treaty that expired last December.

Executive Director Daryl Kimball, of the private research firm the Arms Control Association, says the New START treaty is the most important U.S.-Russian strategic arms control agreement in almost two decades.

"Currently the two sides have agreed not to have any more than 2,200 deployed strategic warheads. This treaty will require a reduction to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads," said Kimball. "And it also limits the two sides to having no more than 700 nuclear armed strategic delivery systems - the missiles and the bombers that carry the nuclear weapons."

Kimball says the treaty has another important provision.

"It is going to re-establish a monitoring and verification and information exchange system to give each side high confidence that the other is complying with the requirements of the treaty. And that will mean that each side can move ahead with confidence that the arsenals are being reduced and they do not have to base future military planning on worst case assumptions," Kimball added.

To come into effect, the New START Treaty must be ratified by the Russian Parliament - or Duma - and the U.S. Senate. The treaty was formally presented to the Senate last May.

At that time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged quick and decisive Senate action, citing previous arms control agreements between Washington and Moscow.

"The 2002 Moscow Treaty was approved by a vote of 95 to nothing. The 1991 START Treaty was approved by 93 to six," she said.

Sixty-seven out of 100 Senators must approve the treaty in order for it to be ratified. The Obama administration was hoping for quick action. But Republican senators have voiced reservations about certain issues, saying verification provisions are not strong enough and arguing that the treaty limits plans for a U.S. missile-defense system.

A former senior official on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, Frank Miller, sees another contentious issue.

"There is a fair amount of concern among conservative circles that our strategic nuclear forces need to be modernized and indeed they do. The strategic forces the U.S. has today are the product of a recapitalization [modernization] effort done by the Reagan administration - so they are 20, to 30-years-old. They do need to be modernized," he said.

Miller and others see a potential deal whereby Democrats agree to more money to modernize U.S. strategic forces and Republicans agree to support the accord.

But deal or no deal, arms control expert and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton remains opposed to the New START treaty.

"I think the United States is in a very different position from Russia and agreeing to equivalent limits of nuclear weapons combined with the restrictions on delivery systems, I think hampers the United States' ability to fulfill its global obligations. We have allies in Asia and the Pacific; we have allies in Europe; we have interests all over the world," said Bolton. "There is simply no comparison between the obligations that the United States has and those that Russia has compared to their legitimate defense needs. So I think this was an ill-advised treaty."

But Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focusing on nuclear policy, disagrees.

"It is reasonable in the beginning of the process to have legitimate questions: what does this phrase mean? Asked Cirincione. "What does that phrase mean? But all of those questions have been answered. In fact, among the national security experts there is nearly unanimous conclusion that this treaty, on the whole, is in the U.S. national security interest. And not just people in the administration, but every living secretary of defense, secretary of state, national security adviser that has testified to the Senate on this has approved the treaty."

Cirincione says if there are no security concerns, then opposition to the treaty is only based on political reasons.

"Because if this treaty passes, it will be the first time that a democratic president has passed an arms reduction treaty in the U.S. Senate. It will also be seen as a victory for President Obama before a critical mid-term election in November and his political opponents do not want to give him that victory. So they are trying to drag out the process, draw it out,"Cirincione said.

Experts say the process has already dragged on. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has delayed a vote on the treaty until mid-September at the earliest, ostensibly giving more time to resolve the Republicans' concerns.