Last week, a Senate panel approved a treaty that could define our country's nuclear security for the next decade. They were right to do so -- and the full Senate must affirm their judgment when they consider the agreement this fall.
The measure under consideration -- the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) -- was signed by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev in April. But it won't go into effect until the Senate grants its consent.
Under the terms of New START, the United States and Russia would scale back their nuclear weapons arsenals. The treaty would also strengthen America's position in the global fight against nuclear proliferation.
New START mandates that Washington and Moscow cut their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals by 30 percent below current limits, from about 2,200 warheads each to no more than 1,550. It also requires both countries to reduce their stock of nuclear-armed long-range missiles and bombers to 700 each.
To make sure both countries comply, New START reestablishes a verification system that includes data exchanges and 18 multipurpose, on-site inspections annually.
New START's predecessor, START I, expired eight months ago. Since then, there haven't been any American nuclear inspections in Russia. Existing intelligence operations provide a rough picture of Russia's nuclear forces. But they can't provide crucial information - like the number of warheads inside a given missile -- that on-site inspections can.
The treaty would leave the United States with a nuclear arsenal that is more than large enough to deter an attack from Russia -- or any other nuclear-armed state.
New START will also bolster ties between the United States and Russia. A cooperative relationship between the two countries is critical to keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists and to exerting pressure on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
New START has received overwhelming support from America's national security leadership, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, six former secretaries of state, and seven former U.S. Strategic commanders.
Unfortunately, a few senators, including Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), are withholding support for New START unless the administration guarantees more funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure.
That makes little sense. Over the next decade, the Obama administration plans to spend $80 billion to modernize the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) weapons-production complex and refurbish our existing nuclear stockpile. The White House is also calling for another $100 billion over that time to modernize and maintain strategic delivery systems.
If there are additional nuclear weapons program costs or savings down the road, future lawmakers can change the budget.
Other critics complain that New START doesn't require Russia to reduce its stockpile of "tactical," or short-range, nuclear warheads.
But no formal arms treaty with Russia has ever tackled tactical nukes. It would be foolish to risk the progress we've made on long-range nuclear weapons by insisting that the policy for short-range weapons be settled now. And without New START, Russia will never agree to cut its tactical nuclear arsenal.
Further, as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has noted, the vast majority of Russia's tactical nukes are deployed to defend its border with China or are in storage. So they have little impact on the military balance between Russia and the NATO alliance.
Since the Reagan administration, every U.S.-Russia arms control treaty has been promptly approved by the Senate with broad bipartisan support. There's no reason why this accord should be any different. The Senate must approve New START with all due speed.
Avis Bohlen served as U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and was assistant secretary of state for arms control from 1999-2002. Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the nonpartisan Arms Control Association.