New START withdrawal would ease path for bomber sale to Israel

Debate over whether to renew the 2009 nuclear treaty with Russia could have implications for US defense ties with Israel.

al-monitor A US Air Force B-52 (C) flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Jan. 10, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji.
Jack Detsch

Jack Detsch


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Military Industry

Feb 17, 2019

The Donald Trump administration’s two-year deadline to take a fresh look at the Obama-era New START nuclear treaty with Russia could give pro-Israel advocates another chance to deepen defense ties.

The potential lapse of the treaty, inked in 2009, would remove a prime legal obstacle to transferring US-made bombers overseas. Such a sale would in turn give Israel the platform it currently lacks for delivering bunker-busting bombs that could target Iran.

The possibility of the United States leaving New START, or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, has increasingly been raised after the Trump administration gave Russia notice it would leave the Ronald Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in six months. The president himself called the pact “another bad deal” in a 2017 interview with Reuters, while The Guardian reported late last year that national security adviser John Bolton has blocked talks on renewing the treaty.

New START establishes limits on the number of “strategic offensive weapons” such as nuclear weapons, bombers, ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable submarines in US and Russian arsenals, and bans their transfer to other countries. Asked about the future of the New START Treaty, or NST, in a recent interview, the State Department’s top arms control official demurred on extending the deal past February 2021.

“I have no intentions of addressing that today,” Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control, told PBS NewsHour on Feb. 7. “We have got two more years.”

But the treaty still holds sway in the US administration, according to documents reviewed by Al-Monitor.

In a report on the implementation of the treaty delivered to Congress in December, the Defense Department indicated that the deal gives the United States an extensive ability to watch the “comprehensive modernization” of Russia’s nuclear forces.

“The NST remains in the national security interests of the United States,” the Pentagon report said. “Without continued implementation of NST, the United States would lose access to valuable information on Russian strategic forces, as well as access to Russian strategic facilities.”

As of the end of 2018, both the United States and Russia remained in compliance with the treaty, the report said.

The Trump administration’s review of New START is occurring as the Defense Department’s longstanding relationship with Israel is getting even tighter. In February, the US Army announced it had opted to purchase two Israeli-designed Iron Dome batteries after lawmakers called on the Pentagon to quickly set up a system to help defend US troops from cruise missiles.

The dissolution of the treaty, which explicitly bars selling controlled technology to foreign powers, wouldn’t remove all obstacles to selling bombers to Israel. The United States is in short supply of the aircraft, and has not sold one to a foreign power since World War II, though the United States did explore the joint development of bomber designs with the British.

“Even without the treaty there would be plenty of other obstacles,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington. “For example, the B-2 and the B-52H are of course critical and prized US assets. Given the Pentagon’s argument that we don’t have enough strategic bombers, it’s hard to imagine the Pentagon being supportive of such a transfer.”

The possibility of a bomber transfer to Israel generated buzz in 2015, as the Barack Obama administration was negotiating its nuclear deal with Iran. David Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed at the time calling on the United States to loan Israel several bunker-busting bombs and the B-52 bombers to drop them, said doing so could send “a message to the Iranians to the potential of what could have been done” if Tehran pursued a nuclear weapons program.

Israeli military sources who spoke to Al-Monitor in 2015 questioned whether the country’s armed forces would want to sustain US bombers and massive ordnance penetrators, which could potentially be used to target Iran’s underground uranium enrichment facilities.

Deptula said he no longer supported a potential sale, but said he thought that the Israeli military should be able to absorb such a system despite its cost and complexity.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t do it,” Deptula told Al-Monitor. “All it takes is money, resources and material.”