WASHINGTON -- The anticipated strategic nuclear arms-reduction agreement between Russia and the United States will include provisions that allow each side some access to the other's missile-test data, the Kremlin's ambassador to Washington said yesterday (see GSN, Feb. 9).
"We need to have enough access to information, enough access to the facilities ourselves to be able to [contend] to outsiders and to our government, to our civil society, that the treaty serves our own best interests," Sergey Kislyak said at a conference on nuclear deterrence in Alexandria, Va. "So there will be verification."
It appeared as recently as last month that differences over verification provisions were delaying a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired Dec. 5.
Behind closed doors, the U.S. negotiating team in Geneva was pushing for the new accord to include a verification provision requiring that at least some nuclear-capable missile tests be carried out openly, without special coding called "encryption," according to sources.
Under the old START agreement, Washington and Moscow were able to collect technical data from most of the other's tests, a practice that the U.S. intelligence community reportedly has found useful.
However, in the talks, Russia had sought under the new treaty a right to encrypt technical data or "telemetry" broadcast during such tests, which would limit the other side's ability to independently verify missile capabilities, these sources said.
Moscow is developing and testing new strategic missiles while Washington is not, suggesting that the exchange of data presently benefits U.S. intelligence more than it helps Russian analysts.
That difference appeared to prompt a divergence in negotiating positions, even though the Defense Department is beginning to eye plans of its own to eventually modernize or replace submarine- and ground-based strategic ballistic missiles, according to experts.
"Just to be fair, to look at [the situation], they're in their modernization phase," one senior U.S. defense official said in an interview. "We're not."
This official and a number of others declined to be named while discussing the sensitive matter of ongoing negotiations.
A diplomatic breakthrough occurred four weeks ago, when U.S. national security adviser James Jones and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen met with Russian military leaders and envoys in Moscow (see GSN, Jan. 25). Exactly how the logjam over this issue was broken has not been made public.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev subsequently discussed an agreement in principle during a late-January telephone conversation (see GSN, Feb. 3). Many specific details have yet to be hashed out, according to both sides, so negotiations remain ongoing.
The two leaders announced in July that under the forthcoming agreement each nation would cut its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads. The total would be a reduction from a 2,200-weapon limit the states are to meet by the end of 2012 under another treaty. Negotiators have also reportedly agreed that Washington and Moscow would each limit their fielded strategic delivery vehicles to between 700 and 800, down from a notional 1,100 cap the presidents discussed last summer.
Kislyak's remarks yesterday appeared to constitute the first official public acknowledgment that Russia could now accept some number of unencrypted tests in the forthcoming pact.
"If you ask me, do we offer some exchange of data? Of course we do," he said in response to a question from the audience. "Some encryption removal? Of course. But this ... is exactly what needs to be done in negotiations."
"I think the Russians are interested in getting this done," Linton Brooks, who led START negotiations under then-President George H.W. Bush, told a reporter following the ambassador's remarks. "I think they know this [test data] is an important issue for the United States. Whether this [Kislyak statement] is some exciting new signal, I just don't know what they've been saying in other fora."
Its significance might ultimately boil down to the numbers. Under the now-lapsed arms-reduction treaty, no test telemetry could be encrypted except during a handful of annual missile tests. Each side was allowed up to two encrypted test launches annually of a single, active missile system declared under the treaty, and up to four encrypted launches annually of a retired system, among other strictly defined provisions, a Pentagon official said this week.
However, Russia never declared an active system for encrypted testing purposes under the START agreement and the United States only did so relatively recently, according to the defense official. Still, Washington has not encrypted any of its test telemetry since the 1970s, said this source, who declined to say whether Russia conducted any encrypted tests while the treaty was in force.
The two sides also regularly exchanged tapes containing test data under the terms of the START accord, according to the defense official.
Some experts are beginning to sound alarms about the potential for other nations to gain valuable understanding of how to develop their own strategic-range missile by observing the more transparent form of U.S. or Russian test launches.
"Broadcasting of unencrypted telemetry data would be a proliferation risk," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Global Security Newswire yesterday. "The Iranians, the Chinese, the Indians, Pakistanis and others can pick up unencrypted missile flight test telemetry signals."
With such concerns in mind, U.S. and Russian officials have discussed the possibility of encrypting all their test telemetry, but sharing with one another a "key" that would enable the other side to decode encryption for a limited number of launches, the Pentagon official said this week.
Officials quickly concluded that such a practice would be technically infeasible, though, because having a key for a particular missile system could enable Moscow or Washington to effectively decode all subsequent tests of that system, the Defense Department source said.
"If you know that [encryption] system, you know how to break it" during additional launches, the official said.
At the same time, the defense official played down concerns about the ability of third-party nations to glean useful data from unencrypted tests, saying that would require greater technical capability than they possess.
"It takes a lot to do it," the official told GSN. "It's not the same as pointing a receiver in the general direction and understanding it."