Saturday, February 5, 2011

Much ado about nuclear nothings

The Telegraph has caused quite a stir by reporting that the New START Treaty negotiations require the United States to provide information on Trident II Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that the U.S. sells to the United Kingdom. Some folks have been up in arms about this, believing it to be a slight to our partners in the Special Relationship. While it seems like a pretty dickish move by the U.S., I don't see it that way.

Firstly, the language of the agreement in the document linked to by the Telegraph only requires the U.S. to report to Russia on Trident II missiles while they are in U.S. hands. Essentially, the treaty requires the U.S. to report and allow inspection of all offensive arms produced and maintained by both parties, including SLBMs. We have to report on each Trident II we make - why on earth would the missiles we make for the UK be exempt from that? I'm sure the Russians would just accept an "Oh those? Those are for the UK. Don't worry about them and please don't look at or count them." I know this is surprising, given U.S.-Russian relations over the decades, but something tells me that the treaty would be completely useless unless we gave them the details on our export missiles. Same, same for when the UK returns them to us for destruction at the end of their life cycle. We can't have the treaty at all (the overall effect of which is still up for debate) without this clause. Which was, apparently, in the 1991 START Treaty. There is no change in policy on this.

Our UK readers are probably thinking, "That's all fine and good for you, but what about us?? This screws us!!" Not exactly. Your new government has changed its policy on keeping its stockpile a secret and is moving towards increasing transparency on its nuclear weapons and policies. Since the UK uses SLBMs exclusively and you have a known number of submarines, the whole world knows you can only keep 160 missiles in operation at any given time. You also make your own warheads, so each missile's yield is still your state secret and not something we can know or share with the Russians. This clause doesn't change what the world knows about your arsenal, where it is, or how it may ever be used.

Bottom line is everyone needs to calm down. This hasn't changed anything that has already been ongoing for 20 years and no one's security is degraded by it. It sounds like the U.S. is screwing the UK, but a few minutes of reading reveals that we're not. The Special Relationship may not be as special as it used to be, but we're not stabbing you in the back. Well, in the New START Treaty at least. The other takeaway? Never take anything the Telegraph reports at face value. Ever.

UPDATE: John Noonan pointed out to me via Twitter that I was erroneously referring to the recent treaty as START II when New START is the appropriate term. Apologies for the inaccuracy.

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