Defense & National Security

New START Treaty’s Swiss-Cheese Verification Trap

The most infuriating argument made on behalf of those (mostly Democrats) pushing for the Senate to ratify the New START Treaty signed by President Obama last April is on verification.  The argument is that because existing verification provisions under prior START treaties lapsed December 5, 2009, senators should ratify New START to restore verification, else there will be no verification at all.

There are two problems with this argument.  First, the administration created the very mess it now flags as a reason to vote for the treaty, in that in its manifest eagerness to “reset” relations with Moscow—itself odd, in that Moscow could not have been overly displeased with a Bush Administration that stood by while Russian troops invaded Georgia and stripped her bare—the Obama negotiators failed to insist that Russia commit to abide by existing verification procedures pending negotiation of a new treaty.

Russia would not have been pleased, but it is in a far worse economic bind than even a weakened United States, and is thus unable to maintain a nuclear arsenal of even 1,000 warheads.  Strapped for funds to test its modern missiles under development, Moscow had to limit spending on maintaining its old arsenal.  Currently Moscow has as few as 566 strategic ICBMs deployed (intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of reaching American shores from inside Russia).  Thus, New START’s lowering the cap on ICBM warheads to 700 from today’s 1,550 spares Moscow huge financial problems.  Instead of applying this immense leverage to our advantage in, among other things, making Moscow extend verification, the new team’s reset mania told Moscow it could play hardball in negotiations.  Moscow happily did so.

Which brings us to the second serious flaw in administration arguments: the provisions of the New START Treaty are far weaker than earlier verification provisions were—the exact opposite of what is needed as forces are reduced.  When one is down to a few hundred warheads, the problem of what the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn called the “clandestine cache” becomes far greater.  In other words, the closer one gets to “nuclear zero” the more consequential a small cache of hidden nuclear weapons becomes.

But the verification provisions of New START fall far short.  For example, prior START treaties allowed monitoring flight telemetry data—vital information sent from the missile to ground stations for analysis—on all superpower missile tests.  The New START rule requires that data from only five missile tests annually be sent without encrypting test data. 

Russian rocketeers need merely keep data open to monitoring on five tests of its old missiles, whose flight profiles are already well known to American verification experts.  Conversely, every test of Moscow’s next-generation missiles can thus lawfully be fully encrypted under New START, depriving American monitors of vital data on missiles whose performance profiles are far less well understood.

Thus New START’s verification provisions might best be called “Swiss-cheese verification”—featuring gaping holes in our ability to verify the most important data, that concerning Moscow’s modern emerging arsenal.  Such verification is arguably worse than no verification at all, because it gives us the illusion of adequate verification when in fact verification will be grossly inadequate.

The new Senate should decline to ratify New START and insist that it will accept no treaty with weaker verification than earlier START treaties negotiated by the Bush I, Clinton and Bush II administrations. 

Moscow’s weak economic position would likely force it to return to the negotiating table.  If not, a new START treaty can await a new administration not driven by a “reset” mentality, to bargain harder with the unsentimental Russians.

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