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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
278 Days Without On-Site Inspections: Time for New START
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Volume 1, Number 20, September 9, 2010

For the first time in more than 20 years, the United States cannot "look under the hood" and conduct direct, on-site inspections of thousands of nuclear weapons in Russia.  This unprecedented strategic blackout began when the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START I, expired last December--278 days ago.  

As former Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz wrote Sept. 7 in the Wall Street Journal, "The time has come to start seeing again, with penetrating eyes, and to start learning from the new experience," by ratifying the New START treaty.

Complex problems do not often have ready solutions, but this one does.  New START, signed by the U.S. and Russian presidents in April, would reestablish intrusive on-site inspections inside Russia as part of a modern and effective verification system to ensure compliance.  But New START cannot enter into force without the approval of the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma.

Verification Gap

As a result of the current inability to count Russian weapons up close, "U.S. knowledge of Russian nuclear forces will substantially erode over time" according to Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation.  This knowledge erosion, she wrote this month, is "increasing the risk of misunderstandings, mistrust, and worst-case analysis and policymaking."

U.S. military leaders agree.  General Kevin Chilton, U.S. Strategic Forces commander, testified in June that without renewed verification "we would rapidly lose insight into Russian strategic nuclear force developments and activities, and our force modernization planning and hedging strategy would be more complex and more costly."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) delayed an early August vote on New START to allow senators more time to study the details of the treaty.  But as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked Aug. 11, there should be no more delays. "[W]hen the Senate returns, they must act, because our national security is at risk. There is an urgency to ratify this treaty because we currently lack verification measures with Russia, which only hurts our national security interests," she said.

"There is no substitute for on-site inspections," wrote Gottemoeller.  "Simply put, the United States is more secure and safer when our country is able to gain a better understanding of the Russian strategic arsenal," she wrote.

For these and other reasons, a long list of current U.S. military leaders and former senior national security officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations have endorsed prompt ratification of New START.  Critics' reasons to delay treaty ratification simply do not hold water.

New START's 20-Year Bipartisan Legacy

The first U.S. on-site inspection of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles took place 22 years ago on July 1, 1988 as part of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  Previous treaties, such as 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT, did not allow for on-site monitoring but depended on satellite reconnaissance.  Satellites, valuable as they are, cannot look under roofs or inside missiles like human inspectors can.  INF's on-the-ground inspections were a major breakthrough in the Cold War, allowing increased transparency, predictability, and stability between the United States and Russia.  

New START and its verification system is a direct descendant of the INF Treaty, which was negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified in 1987 by a Senate vote of 93-5.  After that, START I was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and passed the Senate 93-6.  START II, which never entered into force, was signed by President Bush in 1993 and passed 87-4.  President George W. Bush signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2002, which passed in the Senate 95-0.  

SORT, unfortunately, does not have its own verification system, but relied on inspections--now expired--under START I.  Aware of START I's pending expiration, in April 2008 President Bush agreed with Russian President Putin to seek a legally-binding post-START agreement, which was ultimately not realized before the Bush administration ended.

It fell to the Obama administration to sustain this 20-year, bipartisan practice of intrusive on-site inspections.  New START would provide a more streamlined and cost-effective set of verification procedures based on the original START and add new innovations, including direct monitoring of actual deployed nuclear warheads.

"The New START treaty, like others before it, was built on previous experience," wrote Secretary Shultz. "And, like earlier treaties, it provides a building block for the future. As lower levels of warheads are negotiated, the importance of accurate verification increases and the precedent and experience derived from New START will ensure that a literal counting process will be available," he wrote.

New START would modestly reduce U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads, from more than 2,000 today to 1,550 or less each on no more than 700 deployed delivery systems. Approval of New START would open the way to reductions in other types of nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear bombs, which are a prime target for terrorists.

Oct. 1, 1992 to Oct. 1, 2010

Signed in 1991, START I was ratified by the U.S. Senate on Oct. 1, 1992 with overwhelming bipartisan support, one month before a presidential election.  In that case, senators on both sides of the aisle decided that it was good politics and good policy to vote for a treaty that made America safer.

Following the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's planned Sept. 16 vote on New START, the full Senate should mark the Oct. 1 anniversary of START I by promptly approving ratification of New START.  

The United States has now gone 278 days without on-site inspections.  The Senate can close this verification gap by voting for New START. - TOM Z. COLLINA