In the New Strategic Arm Reductions Treaty (New START), the United States agreed to a weak verification regime. An indication of this is that U.S. negotiators agreed to degrade the telemetry regime in the original START from verification to a transparency measure.
Under New START, each party is required to exchange telemetry from up to five launches. It appears that U.S. negotiators in the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the treaty’s implementation body, have given into Russian demands yet again as both parties agreed this week to exchange telemetry from only one ballistic missile launch each that took place in 2011. This is not only a bad precedent for the future, but also degrades any transparency value that telemetry exchanges would have had.
Telemetry is data that a ballistic missile transmits during its flight. This data is recorded and can provide a valuable insight into capabilities of the missile type, which allows the United States to determine how many reentry vehicles a ballistic missile may carry. This important information would help the United States understand the scope of Russian options for deploying larger numbers of nuclear warheads and the potential extent of Russia’s capacity to break out of the treaty.
While experience from past treaties offers some insights into existing Russian strategic systems, following the ratification of New START, Russia has initiated the largest strategic buildup since the end of the Cold War. In 2011, Russia announced a threefold increase in nuclear missile production, including an improved Sineva submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Bulava SLBM, the Arbalet SLBM, and a possible rail-mobile missile called the Avangard. Moscow also plans on deploying a new heavy intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) in 2018. In 2016, Russia will deploy new warheads on the SS-27 variants.
Agreeing on only one telemetry exchange per year sets a bad precedent for next year’s negotiations on telemetry exchanges. In addition, it is likely that Moscow will provide telemetry data on flight tests of Russia’s aging missiles rather than from its development tests of new ICBMs and SLBMs. Because New START allows the encryption of telemetry from all but flight tests for which a party does not intend to provide telemetry tapes, it is impossible for the U.S. to understand telemetry broadcasted by Russian missiles even if it managed to collect it with its national technical means (e.g., satellites).
As a result, U.S. understanding of the new and modified Russian missiles is likely to decline dramatically over time. It is essential that the U.S. not provide telemetry from its ballistic missile defense tests, which is banned under the Senate’s resolution of ratification anyway.