Learning From Experience on Arms Control

September 7, 2010

The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2010

Russia and the United States have made steady progress on verification since the 1980s.


The New Start treaty provides an instructive example of how, when everyone works at it, an important element of arms control treaties can be improved by building on past treaties and their execution.

I remember well the treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), as I had a hand in negotiating the treaty and in getting implementation started. Our mantra was stated almost endlessly by President Ronald Reagan, to the point that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would join in: “Trust but verify.”

Reagan insisted on, and we obtained, on-site inspection of the critical elements in the treaty: the destruction of all missiles and a method of ensuring that new ones were not produced. This critical element in the treaty built on an earlier one. The Stockholm Agreement of 1986 was the first U.S.-Soviet agreement to call for on-site observation of military maneuvers. Although not as intrusive as a close look at nuclear facilities, it was nevertheless an important conceptual breakthrough. The idea of on-site inspection had been accepted and put in practice.

When the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) was negotiated and finally signed in 1991, a different problem presented itself. On-site inspection of missile destruction is one thing; on-site inspection of an active inventory is something else again. You are looking at an ongoing operation. Nevertheless, the challenge was met in part by counting delivery vehicles, clearly building on the successful experience of both sides with the INF treaty.

However, the political relations between the United States and the then Soviet Union had not yet reached the level of cooperation required to count the number of actual warheads directly without concern about compromising secret design information. The result was a process of attribution derived from access to telemetry—that is, the data transmitted from flight tests of missiles. This allowed for a cap on the maximum number of warheads that could be delivered, which was the number attributed in Start.

Periodic on-site inspections of the missile sites were provided for under Start, but the experience of both sides was that this process, conducted in a fragmented way, disrupted normal operations and so was unnecessarily burdensome to both sides.

The Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), negotiated in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration, simply relied on the Start verification regime. In a joint declaration, President Bush and President Vladimir Putin agreed on the desirability of greater transparency, but they left it at that.

Along came the New Start treaty, signed by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8, 2010. People responsible for monitoring the original Start treaty were included in the negotiations, so operating experience was present at the table. The result was a further advance, building on the transparency measures already in place under the Start treaty. On-site inspection now allows the total number of warheads on deployed missiles literally to be counted directly.

Thus, up-close observation is substituted for the telemetry that was essential in the original Start treaty. But some cooperation in sharing telemetry information was included in the New Start treaty. This provides some additional transparency and can serve, over time, as a confidence-building measure. It is well that some telemetry cooperation will occur so that the principle is retained.

The New Start treaty, like others before it, was built on previous experience. 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. The New Start treaty also sets a precedent for the future in its provision for on-site observation of nondeployed nuclear systems—important since limits on nondeployed warheads will be a likely next step.

The problem of interruptions in operations posed by the original Start treaty and identified by the executors of the treaty on both sides is addressed in the New Start treaty in a way that gives more information but is less disruptive. First of all, a running account in the form of regular data exchanges is provided every six months on a wide range of information about their strategic forces, and numerous inspection procedures have been consolidated.

The United States will have the right to select, for purposes of inspection, from all of Russia’s treaty-limited deployed and nondeployed delivery vehicles and launchers at the rate of 18 inspections per year over the life of New Start. It is also important that each deployed and nondeployed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) or heavy bomber will have assigned to it a unique code identifier that will be included in notifications any time the ICBM or SLBM or heavy bomber is moved or changes status. The treaty establishes procedures to allow inspectors to confirm the unique identifier during the inspection process.

The notification of changes in weapon systems—for example, movement in and out of deployed status—will provide more information on the status of Russian strategic forces under this treaty than was available under Start. Information provided in notifications will complement and be checked by on-site inspection as well as by imagery from satellites and other assets which collectively make up each side’s national technical means of verification.

Having been involved in the Stockholm Treaty when a breakthrough in on-site inspection was made and when intrusive on-site inspection of key events was a main element of the INF Treaty, I am pleased to see that the building process is continuing, especially since the New Start treaty includes some improved formulations that bode well for the future. Seeing is not quite believing, but it helps. Learning is not limited to what you get from experience, but it helps.

The original Start treaty expired last December. The time has come to start seeing again, with penetrating eyes, and to start learning from the new experience.

Mr. Shultz, secretary of labor (1969-70), secretary of Treasury (1972-74) and secretary of state (1982-89), is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.