A New START: Changes in US-Russian Arms Control

In Amy Woolf’s report on Monitoring and Verification in Arms Control for the Congressional Research Service, Woolf analyzes the strategies behind monitoring and verification before doing a deep dive on the START (Strategic Offensive Arms Reductions Treaty) treaty to compare the differences between the new treaty that went into effect in 2011 and the START treaty that preceded it, from 1991.

One of the major aspects of the relationship between the two countries is the exchange of information so that each party can monitor the other. Both the United States and Russia use national technical means of verification (NTMs) including satellites, radar, and electronic surveillance to gain information about the others’ capabilities, but the treaty provides for data exchanges that provide even more information and create an atmosphere of transparency and understanding. In the 1991 START, one of the main aspects of this data exchange was the exchange of broadcast transmissions from missile tests. Analysts agreed that analyzing this data gave them a better understanding of the capabilities of both sides missiles, providing information about the weight, length of time fuel burned, and the number of times reentry vehicles were released that would have contained nuclear warheads. In the negotiations for the 2011 treaty, Russia pushed back on these provisions, arguing that it created an unequal obligation because they were developing new missiles, while the US was only occasional testing older missiles. Eventually, an agreement was reached that they would exchange information on an equal number of launches, but no more than 5 launches, in a calendar year. In the original treaty, both sides had uncertainty about the number and capabilities of the others’ arsenal, but after 15 years of monitoring, both now have a better understanding of the number and capabilities, making this somewhat less important.

In terms of verification, the 1991 treaty came at a time when many Americans believed that the Soviet Union could have incentives to violate the verification aspects of the treaty to gain an advantage over the United States. As a result of this uncertainty, the original treaty contained many provisions that were designed to detect efforts to hide or deploy extra missiles, particularly with the uncertainty about how many missiles each side actually had. These measures included on-site inspections to verify the number of mobile ICBMs and warheads assigned to missiles, as well as random, short-notice inspections to deter hidden movements. While these were not intended to provide an exact count on the total number of mobile ICBMs and warheads the other party had, the goal was to limit the breakout potential of the other party. The 1991 START contained provisions for 12 different types of on-site inspections, each with different abilities that covered different goals. One of the major changes that Woolf discusses is the consolidation in the 2011 START into 2 types of on-site inspections that achieve the same goals as the previous inspection types, but trims them down into more simple types of inspections that can cover many areas. The overall goals of the changes to the verification were to reduce the complexity and costliness of the inspections for both parties while understanding that the need for stringent verification and monitoring was not as high as it has been before. Are the changes made to the new START treaty smart considering how US and Russian relations have changed since the 1991 treaty, or should the US have pushed harder to keep the treaty stricter on things like missile test data? Is the move to a less complex and costly verification framework smart? I think that given the familiarity the countries now have, the easing of some of the treaty’s provisions show that the US is willing to cooperate and make concessions to keep the trust of other countries.

I thought this article brought up interesting points about how the increased familiarity between the United States and Russia lead to the changes in the new START, and some interesting questions about this cooperative effort. The main argument Woolf mentions against the treaty is that the US could be giving itself a strategic disadvantage by giving so much information to Russia when Russia’s nuclear arsenal is already aging and no longer poses the immediate nuclear threat that it used to, nor is there as much concern about Russian incentives to violate the treaty. Through the use of NTMs, some argue that the US can already monitor Russian weapons systems, so the treaty is not necessary. Woolf counters by highlighting the value of international cooperation and the continued building of trust between the US and Russia, and also that the treaty shows the United States’ commitment to its obligations under the NPT. By cooperating and sharing its information, the treaty can provide benefits by convincing more nations to join the US in strengthening the NPT and isolating rogue nations like Iran and North Korea. These benefits would be difficult to measure, and I’m not sure I agree that this is an benefit of continuing with START. Do you think the benefits of an arms control treaty outweigh the potential loss of strategic advantage that could come with sharing our own information with Russia? — Nikhil