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Breaking Down START II Treaty Amid Raging Debate

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Nov. 18: Obama speaks in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington during a meeting on the New START pact. (AP)

President Obama has called it a top priority for action in the waning days of the lame-duck session in Congress – riling some liberal Democrats, who are more focused on tax relief and jobless benefits – while Republicans offer a steady drumbeat of criticism, and demand it be held over for the next Congress to consider.

But the actual contents of the START II nuclear arms accord with Russia, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague last April and awaiting Senate ratification, remain far less publicized than the politicking surrounding it.

As such accords go, this one is fairly modest in its slashing of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals. The U.S. and Russia would each be limited to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, down from the 2,200 permitted under the Treaty of Moscow that was finalized by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, in June 2003.

“In reality, neither side was going to be at 2,200,” Eric S. Edelman, an under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009, told Fox News.

In addition, each country would be limited to having 800 nuclear missile launchers, with only 700 permitted for deployment. To abide by this, Russia would have to do nothing, as Moscow is only known to possess 608 strategic delivery vehicles. The U.S., by contrast, would have to pare back from 880 such vehicles.

Most controversial are the provisions related to missile defense and to the procedures and systems to be established to verify that each side is abiding by the treaty. No previous treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, or between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, has asserted a link between nuclear arms reductions and missile defense – but this one does. 

START II forbids each country from converting the hardware that was once used to launch nuclear missiles, either from land or submarine, into an interceptor that can be used in a missile defense system.

Opponents of ratification have made this tenet a central point in their arguments. “[President] Reagan was adamant that no arms control agreement be allowed to encumber the pursuit of advanced ballistic missile defense technology,” wrote two Reagan aides, former Attorney General Ed Meese and former assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle, in an opinion article for the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

“One of us (Mr. Perle) was present in Iceland when [Reagan] turned down an otherwise desirable treaty with the Soviet Union precisely because it would have impeded work on his Strategic Defense Initiative.”

A day earlier, five Republican former secretaries of state who support swift ratification – Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, and Colin L. Powell – dismissed the suggestion that START II hinders American progress toward an effective missile defense system. 

The former secretaries cited testimony from current military commanders to that effect, and added: “Although the treaty prohibits the conversion of existing launchers for intercontinental and submarine-based ballistic missiles, our military leaders say they do not want to do that because it is more expensive and less effective than building new ones for defense purposes.”

Finally, even supporters of START II acknowledge the verification regime that it provides is less robust than the one that existed under the terms of the first START treaty, which disappeared when it expired  in December 2009. For example, on-site inspection would not be permitted at mobile missile production facilities; and would be permitted only at declared, not undeclared, sites.

Where proponents of START II like to cite the precedent of previous arms control accords signed by previous presidents dating back to Richard Nixon, opponents of the new treaty, like Meese and Perle, have cited the absence of undeclared sites from the inspection regime as “a precedent that could be invoked by others -- Iran, for example.”

“Having a sufficient verification regime in place is much better than having no verification regime in place at all,” countered Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a supporter of the new treaty. “Could it be more and do more? Of course. But I think most considered experts believe that what was negotiated in the treaty is certainly sufficient for verification purposes.”

Edelman, who also served as a top national security aide to Vice President Cheney, offered another potential problem with START II.

“There's a limitation on what we call Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapons," he said. "That is the idea that we might use either a submarine-launched ballistic, or a Minuteman, missile, and put a conventional warhead on it, so that the United States could strike any target in the world within 30 minutes or so...Those will be counted as strategic delivery vehicles under this 700-launcher limit, even though there is not a nuclear warhead on it.”

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole."