The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 16 voted 14-4 to approve a resolution giving consent to ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.  Three Republican senators—Richard Lugar, Bob Corker and Johnny Isakson—joined committee Democrats in approving the resolution, which next goes to the Senate floor.

The SFRC vote is a positive step.  The treaty, which needs 67 votes to be ratified, is not home yet, but it is moving in the right direction.

New START will limit the United States and Russia each to no more than 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers, and no more than 1,550 strategic warheads, though the treaty “discounts” bomber weapons, so each side will likely have 1,800-1,900 warheads.  This is a significant cut from the 1991 START I Treaty, which permitted each side up to 6,000 warheads, and a modest cut from the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which allowed each side 2,200 warheads.  New START will supplement national technical means of verification, such as imagery satellites, with an array of verification measures, including data exchanges, notifications and on-site inspections.

The SFRC vote came after more than 20 hearings by Senate committees on New START (in contrast, SORT received only six).  The administration provided the Senate an article-by-article assessment of the treaty, a classified assessment of its verifiability and answers to more than 900 questions for the record.  By August, the ratification discussion seemed to focus less on specific questions regarding terms of the treaty and more on the issue of funding for modernization of the nuclear weapons complex and strategic deterrent.  The administration has outlined 10-year plans to beef up spending in both areas.

The resolution of ratification approved by the SFRC was drafted by Senator Lugar.  It addresses concerns expressed by Senate Republicans on questions such as missile defense, verification and strategic-range conventional weapons.  The resolution does not appear to require renegotiation of the treaty, which is a critical point for the administration.  Reopening the treaty could cause the Russians to raise new issues—or revisit old issues that have already been settled.

What happens next?  The administration hopes the full Senate will take up the treaty and ratify it in the coming weeks.  Whether that is possible depends on the Senate agenda and whether the Republican leadership is prepared to support New START—or at least not orchestrate an effort to block it.  The SFRC vote suggests bipartisan support for the treaty is growing.  (Republican national security heavy-weights such as Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz, Frank Carlucci, James Baker, Colin Powell and Stephen Hadley have already endorsed New START’s ratification.)

It’s not certain when a full Senate vote will take place.  Some suggest it might not happen until after the November mid-term elections, during a lame duck session, while others worry that a ratification vote could be delayed until 2011.  While a delay would not be the end of the world, it would come at a price:  START I expired last December, and the United States no longer has the information provided by that treaty’s data exchanges, notifications and on-site inspections regarding Russian strategic forces.

As a result, we have less information about Russian strategic forces than would be the case if New START—with its data exchanges, notifications and inspections—were in force.  The U.S. military attaches importance to this kind of information:  with it, they have a better understanding of Russian forces and can make smarter decisions about how to equip and operate U.S. strategic forces.  The longer we go without New START in force, the longer the period when we miss such information.  Hopefully, this will figure into Senate calculations in the coming weeks.