In an article in the Washington Post today, Mary Beth Sheridan accurately quoted me as highlighting the inadequacies of New START verification measures, and, in particular, the way these measures fall short of the telemetry provisions of the original START treaty. This is followed by an administration rebuttal: “U.S. officials say the change is not significant because, under the new treaty, they will be counting the number of warheads on missiles and not using estimates, as was the case before. They contend that the new treaty will help each side get a more accurate count by assigning an ID number to each warhead and launcher.”
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s dismissal of the consequences of losing telemetry is misleading at best. First, under New START inspectors can conduct re-entry vehicle on-site inspections (RVOSIs) on up to ten Russian missiles per year, but these inspections represent nothing new. The RVOSIs will be conducted with the same procedures used in START — including the same Russian hard covers that impeded U.S. monitors for years, and with the same radiation detection equipment used to try to overcome the Russian covers. Second, since there is no restriction in New START on the number of re-entry vehicles that can be loaded onto any particular Russian strategic ballistic missile, the inspection results will only tell U.S. inspectors what is on the missile inspected, not what every other missile of that type throughout Russia is carrying. Finally, the ID number assigned to each warhead and launcher will be assigned by the Russians — in whatever way they choose. They could assign the same number to multiple mobile missile launchers and warheads, and when U.S. inspectors determine that the number of warheads on, say, the fourth missile they inspect, is the same as on the first, the Russians need only assert that the U.S. happened to request an RVOSI on a missile they had already inspected.
Members of the Senate are insisting that they conduct a due diligence examination on behalf of the American people on New START, including monitoring and verification measures and other critical questions. The Obama administration has tried to ram New START through the Senate with minimal examination, little rebuttal to their assertions, and with stonewalling on provision of documents, including the negotiating record. The administration and its Senate allies have tried to convince the Senate and the American people that blame for lack of data on Russian strategic nuclear forces rests on members with the audacity to question the adequacy of the treaty.
The onus, however, rests on the administration. Had the administration deemed the data provided under START to be critical, they could have extended the START treaty until negotiations on New START were completed and it was ratified by the U.S. and Russia. Instead, they let START expire and negotiated against a deadline after making clear their desperate desire for getting an agreement. The Russians obviously took advantage of this and refused to agree to stringent verification measures, including the START telemetry provisions. So, even if New START is ratified, our insight into Russian strategic nuclear forces will decline over the terms of the treaty.
The lack of effective verification in New START is dangerous enough, particularly in light of the administration’s empty bluster regarding counting warheads for the first time and having identification numbers on missiles. If the administration is successful, there is a significant risk of creating a very false sense of confidence. More dangerous yet, however, is what the weak approach to verification demonstrated by New START says about what we can expect from this administration in future agreements — especially those relating to the most daunting verification challenge in the history of arms control: President Obama’s stated goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons.
– Paula A. DeSutter served as Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance from 2002 to 2009.