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How I Learned to START Worrying Again and Hate the Bomb

For a child of the late “˜90s like me, hearing stories about the Cold War and Russian aggression is a bit like watching “˜80s sitcoms: I’m just removed enough from that era that, while I can find a few points to identify with, the bulk of the subject matter is eerily foreign.

This is why I find the latest START treaty, which President Obama and Russian President Medvedev signed back in April, so fascinating. The original START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was signed into being in 1991 by then-Presidents Bush and Gorbachev. It reduced the number of nuclear warheads and strategic delivery vehicles each country could hoard to 6,000 and 1,600, respectively.

Leading up to the signing of the treaty, both America and Russia destroyed tens of thousands of warheads to whittle their arsenals down to the requisite numbers. After START was in place, both countries underwent yearly inspections of their arsenals to prove they remained in compliance with the treaty.

START I expired in December, 2009, prompting Obama and Medvedev to draft and sign a new treaty, which would further reduce numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles. However, START II is currently stuck in the Senate, subjected to hoopla about negating U.S. supremacy and undermining our nation’s defense.

Granted, the Senate hoopla isn’t entirely unfounded. The Washington Times reported in July, 2010 that Russia violated provisions of START I from its inception to its expiration, by refusing to submit to certain inspections and by developing a multiple-warhead missile that, by stretching the terms of the treaty, counted as one weapon. The Times‘ findings are based on the State Department’s 2010 report on arms-control compliance. Throwing yet another wrench in the gears is intelligence included in the report indicating that Iran, North Korea and Syria are all working towards building their own nuclear weapons.

So whither goes America in this déjà-vu scenario? Do we ratchet up nuclear production or do we attempt the delicate balancing act of disarmament, which is arguably the end-game of treaties like START?  The debate in the Senate currently hinges on whether or not the weapons America currently possesses are sufficient to deter hostile countries from attacking us. While it would seem a purely factual count of warheads and summation of their abilities would resolve the matter, one of the by-products of nuclear warfare is the way it obscures and mystifies the traditional ability to assess threat level.

For context, note that the U.S. possesses 18 Ohio class submarines, 14 of which are armed with 24 Trident II long-range ballistic missiles, a weapon with the capability to carry 8 individual 475-kiloton Mark 5 warheads. This means the U.S. can launch 1,276,800 kilotons of nuclear energy, roughly the equivalent of unleashing the destruction wrought on Hiroshima 85,120 times. And that’s just one class of long-range missile.

This begs the question: will bandying about these sheer numbers of missiles serve to protect us? Will the fact that America has thousands more missiles than, say, North Korea, really matter if the North Koreans deploy the dozen they manage to get their hands on?

Conservatives, in particular, argue that we need to expand our arsenal and that, since we haven’t tested any missiles since 1992, our weapons are badly in need of modernization.

If scientists really are unsure of the stability of our stockpiled missiles, testing a nuke shouldn’t be out of the question. But our leaders seem to already have forgotten what happened to their original Cold War strategy, the arms race that only heightened hostility between the U.S. and Russia. It’s nonsensical to think that, a mere decade after the first START treaty, we’re back to square one, encouraging the U.S. to stockpile deadlier and deadlier weapons, heedless of the point after which a few hundred more kilotons of power really cease to matter.

The START II treaty is not a perfect solution, especially considering the oh-so-sneaky Russians will likely try to circumvent its particulars, again. But the Atlantic’s Elizabeth Weingarten suggests it will tease Russia away from supporting volatile Iran. The treaty would then pave the way for the U.S. to exercise more control over the world-wide attitude towards proliferation, knocking down support for aggressive countries one by one.

It is frightening to know that there are people in the world who want to hurt you and your loved ones; the instinct to arm oneself is understandable. But the U.S. has to accept that it is a role model for other countries, and that the more nuclear weapons in our possession, the less leverage we have to encourage other countries to disarm and help us block hostile nations from trading for the nuclear materials they lack. Disarmament may seem like a pipe dream, but it’s that or gear up for a nuclear war that nobody can possibly win.

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