WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top military officials said on Thursday the United States badly needed ratification of the New START nuclear treaty with Russia, even as Republican senators questioned its implications for national security.
General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters all the military service chiefs were “very much behind this treaty” because it would provide transparency as Russia and the United States modernize their nuclear forces.
“To have transparency, to understand the rules by which to put structure to that activity, we need START and we need it badly,” he said at a White House briefing. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed his support for the arms pact.
Their comments came as the Senate held its first full day of debate on the treaty, with Republicans raising concerns about the accord but failing to offer amendments, prompting Democrats to accuse them of stalling on one of President Barack Obama’s top priorities.
The treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, is viewed as a centerpiece for improving U.S.-Russian relations as well as a foundation for further steps in Obama’s push to ultimately eliminate nuclear arms.
The pact calls for each side to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons to no more than 1,550 within seven years and to reduce its number of deployed nuclear missiles and bombers to no more than 700.
Some Republican lawmakers challenged the wisdom of the reductions.
“It is naively optimistic to assume that a world with fewer nuclear weapons is the same thing as a safer world,” Republican John Ensign said in a Senate speech. “Our security has long depended on a strong and flexible deterrent.”
Republican speakers questioned whether the treaty would impede U.S. efforts to build missile defense systems and expressed skepticism about whether the verification regime would be effective.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, whose Foreign Relations Committee led the review of the treaty, asked opponents repeatedly if they had amendments to propose so the Senate could begin to address the real issues with the treaty.
“Part of the business of the Senate on the treaty is to expose its flaws and to have a robust debate about those flaws,” responded Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican leader on the issue.
Kyl said Republicans were discussing a two-page list of amendments. An aide to the senator said later that Republicans had made no decision on when they would introduce the amendments, how many there would be or what they would say.
Republicans were focused on an issue critical to them -- “ensuring the government doesn’t shut down 56 hours from now” because of a funding dispute, the aide said.
“It becomes pretty obvious, doesn’t it?” said Democratic Senator Richard Durbin. “This isn’t about offering amendments. ... This is about delaying the ultimate passage of this critical treaty for the safety of the United States.”
Administration officials said passage of the New START treaty would be the foundation of any future arms control effort with Russia, including reducing the number of undeployed nuclear weapons and the number of tactical nuclear weapons.
“If we don’t have New START in place, then going forward to reduce tactical nuclear weapons and nondeployed weapons over time, which the president has said we’d like to do, is just not going to be possible,” said Jim Miller, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
Russia has a significantly higher number of shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons than the United States. Estimates vary, but the Federation of American Scientists puts the U.S. tactical nuclear weapon tally at 500, versus about 2,000 deployed Russian weapons.
Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state for arms control and the chief negotiator of New START, said it was clear from the debate on the treaty that lawmakers wanted to move soon to reduce tactical nuclear weapons.
“I‘m ready to go,” she said. “But I do agree ... that it’s not going to be possible unless we get this treaty ratified and then put into force.”
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Peter Cooney