New START Verification: Inspecting the Critics’ Arguments

August 27, 2010
Mark Donaldson
Former contributor

More than 70 experts and former officials from both parties have come out in support of New START. Of the six opponents that the Heritage Foundation has rounded up against the treaty, Paula DeSutter, former Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, has taken the strongest stand on verification in the New START treaty, claiming that it does not live up to the standard set by START I, which expired in December.

This is a rather puzzling argument coming from DeSutter, considering that she questioned the very need for stringent verification during her time in the Bush administration. In a 2007 interview, she said that many provisions of START I, including most of its verification, were “no longer necessary.” “We don’t believe we’re in a place where we need have to have the detailed lists (of weapons) and verification measures,” she said.

It’s hard to know how to read the criticisms of New START verification as not being adequate coming from someone who believes they aren’t necessary.

DeSutter’s arguments ring hollow. She states that “the lack of effective verification in New START is dangerous…” because unlike having no verification, as in the SORT treaty, having flawed verification can create a “very false sense of confidence.” But she doesn’t explain how “false confidence” in a treaty process that she doesn’t believe even requires verification could threaten U.S. security.

In addition, DeSutter says the fact that the Obama administration thinks New START provides effective verification raises concerns about “what we can expect from this administration in future agreements” when verification really matters, like going to zero. But it’s not just Obama but a very broad, bipartisan set of military and security experts who believe the verification provisions are effective. DeSutter’s position is the one at odds with main-stream thinking—not Obama’s.

Still, let’s take a look at some of her arguments on verification in New START.

DeSutter says that the on-site inspections of Russian re-entry vehicles (RVs) allowed under New START represent “nothing new,” and will be subject to the same problems the U.S. ran into with inspections under START – specifically problems due to “Russian hard covers” on their missiles.

But this argument is a red herring. The “hard covers” are specifically regulated in both START I and New START to not hinder inspectors from counting the number of warheads. The U.S. did raise issues with the Russians over Russian covers that were too large (as did the Russians over U.S covers), but a recent report on treaty compliance stated that the compliance issues surrounding the RV inspections had been worked out in the last several years. And if problems arise again in the future, the U.S. will be able to address them, as it did before, through the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission (JCIC) that New START sets up.

Moreover, arguing that there is “nothing new” here misses a key point about the purpose of inspections. It’s true that U.S inspectors could look at RVs under START I (although not under the current SORT treaty that the Bush administration negotiated). But the goal of verification is to confirm the data that is provided by each country in the mandatory data exchanges required by the treaty. What is new – and significant – is that, unlike START I, New START requires each country to declare the actual number of RVs that each individual missile carries, rather than simply setting the maximum number of RVs that a particular type of missile could carry. Therefore, the data gathered in New START is much more accurate than under START I, since it eliminates the overcounting of warheads on missiles.

DeSutter also complains that these inspections “can only tell U.S. inspectors what is on the missile inspected, not what every other missile of that type throughout Russia is carrying.” This is disingenuous. The goal of RV inspections has always been to conduct random, spot checks of missiles to make sure they agree with the information in the data exchanges. Under START I, the goal was to ensure you didn’t find any missiles with more warheads than were allowed for that type of missile. Under New START, inspectors pick a specific missile to inspect, and ensure that the number of warheads loaded onto that missile corresponds with the number declared by the Russians. These random inspections provide confidence that no significant cheating is taking place. This is the same principle that the START I inspections worked on.

The UCS fact sheet on verification compares the verification regime of New START to that of START I, and demonstrates that the new procedures preserve the strength of START I while streamlining the process and bringing it in line with today’s security environment.

When the Senate returns from recess, we will have gone 275 days without verification of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. It’s time to get the inspectors back in the field.