Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Saturday rejected claims by Senate Republicans that the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia would hamper U.S. missile defense programs and nuclear weapons modernization, warning of "significant consequences" if the Senate doesn't ratify the accord.
He said that Russia could also respond to a failure to approve the treaty by scaling back its assistance for the war in Afghanistan. Russia has allowed the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization to ship supplies through its territory to Afghanistan, including a recent decision to permit transport of so-called mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, the heavily armored troop carriers used to guard against hidden bombs.
"Despite what anybody says, I, as secretary of Defense, and the entire uniformed leadership of the American military believe that this treaty is in our national security interest," Gates said, taking on claims by critics of the treaty that some in the military privately oppose the accord.
His comments to reporters after meeting with officials in Chile were part of a lobbying blitz by senior Obama administration officials to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty, which restricts each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed long-distance warheads, before the end of the year.
In addition to Gates' comments, President Obama devoted his weekend radio address to the treaty.
"Without ratification this year, the United States will have no inspectors on the ground, and no ability to verify Russian nuclear activities," Obama said in the address.
"Without ratification, we put at risk the coalition that we have built to put pressure on Iran, and the transit route through Russia that we use to equip our troops in Afghanistan," the president continued.
Some Senate Republicans have signaled that they plan to oppose ratification this year, citing concerns that the measure will hamstring efforts to put in place new systems to defend against missile attacks and put limits on updating the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
But Gates said that nothing in the treaty would interfere with missile defense programs. "Anything that we have in mind now or in the years to come that we haven't even thought of is not prohibited," he said.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said earlier in the week that he doubted the pact could be brought up in the "lame duck" session. Kyl said he opposed a vote because of "complex and unresolved issues" about the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
But Gates countered that failure to ratify the treaty could lead Democrats in the Senate to oppose funding for modernizing U.S. warheads and other such steps.
"Part of the discussion [in the Senate] are that support for the treaty also brings support for modernization of the U.S. nuclear enterprise," Gates said. "I think the failure to ratify the treaty puts that at high risk."