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Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
New START Near “Finish Line,” Timing Unclear

Tom Z. Collina

After missing previous deadlines, Russia and the United States have reached an “agreement in principle” on the START follow-on treaty, administration officials and press reports said last month, although details still remain to be worked out. President Barack Obama called Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Feb. 24 to give the talks a final push, the White House said. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Feb. 23 and “encouraged Russia to continue to move ahead, push hard so we can reach an agreement in the next couple of weeks” according to the Department of State.

“We are at the end game, we see the finish line of negotiations in the START follow-on treaty,” Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher told a conference on nuclear deterrence near Washington Feb. 17. No new timeline has been set, she said.

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, who addressed the conference after Tauscher, said, “Mind you, the closer you come to the endgame, the bigger each and every small detail becomes.”

Meanwhile, a proposed Russian unilateral statement on missile defense may now create additional delays, according to McClatchy March 1. “We don’t think these problems are insurmountable,” a senior U.S. official told McClatchy.

A high-level breakthrough on New START came in mid-January when national security adviser James Jones and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Moscow to work through key verification details, including the sharing of data from ballistic missile flight tests, known as telemetry, administration officials said. A deal was approved in principle Jan. 27 during a phone conversation between Obama and Medvedev, the officials said. “The presidents agreed that negotiations are nearly complete, and pledged to continue the constructive contacts that have advanced U.S.-Russian relations over the last year,” the White House said in a Jan. 27 statement.

Rose Gottemoeller, the Obama administration’s lead negotiator, flew to Geneva Feb. 1 to help draft the final text and begin what could still be a time-consuming process of translating the agreement into treaty language. “There may be finessing and fine-tuning, but the issues, from our perspective, are all addressed,” an administration official told The Wall Street Journal Feb. 3.

However, exactly how the two sides agreed to resolve their differences over the telemetry issue has not been made public.

Splitting the Difference on Telemetry

Under START, which expired last December, the parties had agreed to broadcast telemetric data openly after each ballistic missile flight test and not to actively deny the other side this information, with limited exceptions. The Russians now see the telemetry access requirements as burdensome and unequal because the United States has no telemetry data to report under START. The United States is not currently developing new strategic missiles, but is instead rebuilding current models, such as the Trident D-5. The Russians, on the other hand, are developing new missiles, such as the RS-24 mobile missile, to replace Soviet-era systems. Moreover, the United States is currently testing interceptors for its various missile defense systems, but was not obligated under START to share missile defense test data with Russia. (See ACT, January/February 2010.)

According to the Journal Feb. 3, the Russians agreed to share flight-test data, “something they had resisted as they develop more-modern ballistic missiles.” According to a Feb. 1 report in McClatchy Newspapers, however, the United States “agreed to a Russian demand to eliminate in the new verification system a prohibition on encrypting telemetry data transmitted to and from new ballistic missiles during test fights.” In other words, flight-test data would not be shared.

Each of these seemingly contradictory reports appears to be partly correct, according to sources. The United States had been arguing for open access to telemetry, and Russia for denying it; senior leaders have agreed to split the difference, the sources said. The agreed balance between access and denial, which has not been made public, has now been handed off to negotiators in Geneva who must hash out how the data is to be controlled, the sources said.

“If you ask me ‘do we offer some exchange of data,’ of course we do,” Kislyak said Feb. 17 at the conference. “Some encryption removal? Of course. But this...is exactly what needs to be done in negotiations.”

Telemetry can be denied by means including encryption (scrambling the data), jamming (interfering with the broadcast), encapsulation (post-test recovery of data tapes), or narrow directional beaming (limited broadcast of data). Telemetry can be shared by open broadcast during the test or subsequently by exchange of data tapes and other information. Although START also included limitations on access to telemetry, New START appears to be shifting the balance toward denial.

Regardless of the outcome on this issue, it is clear that New START will seek to limit nuclear weapons in different ways than its predecessors and thus will have different monitoring requirements. For example, START sought to limit the capabilities of new types of ballistic missiles, in particular, the number of warheads they are configured to carry and their throw weight, or loading capacity, using strict telemetry-sharing requirements. New START will not impose these limits, making telemetry information less relevant to its verification, according to officials involved in the talks. On the other hand, New START will reportedly seek to monitor the actual number of warheads on particular missiles and bombers, rather than just confirming that warhead numbers do not exceed an agreed maximum, as under START. The more challenging job of counting actual warheads has not been done previously and will require additional verification measures.

“Think about the size that the Russian and the American nuclear arsenals were 15 years ago. That required a very different kind of monitoring regime than 15 years later, when both sides have reduced by tenfold the number of weapons in their arsenals,” an administration official told McClatchy. “We’re confident that the verification and inspection mechanism in this treaty is sufficient to allow both of us to verify,” he said.

On strategic delivery systems, Medvedev and Obama last July promised limits of 500 to 1,100. The U.S. side then picked a middle ground of around 800, just under the number of delivery vehicles it currently deploys. The Russians, with fewer nuclear delivery systems in use, wanted a lower number, about 550, sources say; and there are indications that the two sides have resolved this issue, settling on a number between 600 and 700. As for deployed nuclear warheads, the two sides are expected to agree to a limit of about 1,600.

While some Republican Senate staffers are predicting that the treaty will not be ratified in 2010 as the administration hopes, Democratic staffers said such predictions are premature. The Cable quoted a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as saying, “Senator Reid has long been expecting to receive and consider the START treaty during the 2010 calendar year. We have seen nothing to this point that would alter this expectation. Arms control treaties have always been handled in a bipartisan manner and, once the Senate receives all the details on this particular treaty, Senator Reid is confident this tradition, which is critical to our national security, will continue.”

Reflecting GOP concerns about the treaty, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a speech Jan. 28, “Verification issues will play an important role in Senate consideration of a new treaty to replace START I.” He quoted the 1992 statement on START of CIA director Robert Gates, who is now secretary of defense, that “the verifiability of this treaty has always been seen, by supporters and opponents alike, as the key to the Senate consent process.”