Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where is the New START data?

by Russian strategic nuclear forces

I always believed that progress in U.S.-Russian relations critically depends on whether the two countries could get their bureaucracies work together. The general success of the "reset" process shows that this is indeed how things work - the most successful cooperation usually takes place in those areas where people speak common language. The problem is that the bureaucracies quickly learn each other worst habits and practices (they might occasionally exchange the best practices as well, but that requires a serious effort - the worst ones, in contrast, are adopted in no time).


This is exactly what happened with the data exchange mechanism in New START - not only the United States did not insist on keeping the transparency mechanism that existed in START, it actually decided follow Russia in not releasing any data at all. Hans Kristensen tried to get the information from the U.S. administration, but received the following response from an administration official:

All exchanges are classified and will not be subject to release. [...] There may be some information on very general numbers under the Treaty that could be made public, but that is still to be determined, and will not occur for a least six months if it occurs at all.

This is an absolutely scandalous (as in disgraceful, shameful, outrageous,shocking, infamous, ignominious, flagrant) policy and I certainly hope that the arms control community will work to make the U.S. administration to rescind it.

Strictly speaking, Russia also has no basis for keeping the data secret, but nobody expects very much from the Russian bureaucracy. The current U.S. administration, on the other hand, has positioned itself as a champion of openness and nuclear disarmament. As Hans rightly noted in his post, if the United States is serious about advancing the nuclear disarmament agenda, it has to be transparent about its arsenal.

New START data exchange is in many important ways more detailed than that of the old START - the New START exchange, for example, should include the data on the number of warheads on each deployed missile, information about missile and bomber bases, and such details as individual identifiers for each strategic launcher. The data format is described in Sections III-IX of the Part Two of the Protocol to the Treaty.

Article VII of the treaty, however, specifies that there are some restrictions on releasing this data to the public - Part 5 of Article VII says that

The Parties shall hold consultations within the framework of the Bilateral Consultative Commission on releasing to the public data and information obtained during the implementation of this Treaty. The Parties shall have the right to release to the public such data and information following agreement thereon within the framework of the Bilateral Consultative Commission.

In short, if the United States wants to release the data it received as part of the data exchange it would have to ask Russia first. We know that the answer in this case will be a firm "No" - the purpose of this clause is exactly to make sure that the United States does not do that.

The treaty, however, is very clear that each side is free to publish information about its own strategic forces - with the number of warheads and all. Here is the same Section 5 of the Article VII of the treaty:

Each Party shall have the right to release to the public data related to its respective strategic offensive arms.

There is nothing in the treaty that would prevent the United States from releasing the U.S. data exchange in full. Well, almost - the treaty specifies that some categories of data are particularly sensitive and seem to require mutual agreement (Article VII.6):

Geographic coordinates [...], unique identifiers, site diagrams of facilities provided by the Parties pursuant to this Treaty, as well as coastlines and waters diagrams [...] shall not be released to the public unless otherwise agreed [by BCC].

This is perfectly fine - there is no harm to keep this kind of information confidential. Even in the old START exchange, geographic coordinates of silos were not released.

Even though the treaty prevents the parties from releasing a detailed data exchange of their counterpart, it explicitly allows publication of aggregate data for both sides. Here is Section 7 of Article VII:

Notwithstanding paragraph 5 of this Article, the aggregate numbers of deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers; the aggregate numbers of warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and nuclear warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers; and the aggregate numbers of deployed and nondeployed ICBM launchers, deployed and non-deployed SLBM launchers, and deployed and non-deployed heavy bombers, may be released to the public by the Parties.

This is probably what the U.S. administration official meant when he spoke about "some information on very general numbers" that the administration might decide to release at some point. I think it is absolutely clear that this decision should not be left to the bureaucratic discretion. It's not "some information" - it is a very specific set of data which should be released without much delay.

Ideally, Russia and the United States would release two sets of aggregate data and their respective full data exchange sets. Russia, of course, was expected to be secretive and to withhold as much information as it could. But the fact that the United States followed the Russian lead on that is absolutely shameful and cannot be justified. There is absolutely no way anybody could argue that the aggregate numbers are classified - they are not (they are not classified even in Russia). And I am sure a good case can be made that the full data exchange is exempt from classification as well - it is sent to Russia after all.

The bottom line is that this is the information that the U.S. administration should make public on a regular basis as soon as the data exchanges with Russia take place:

  1. Aggregate numbers for the United States and Russia, as described in Article VII.7 of New START
  2. The data submitted by the United States as part of the New START data exchange, as described in Part Two of the Protocol to the Treaty, with exception of geographic coordinates and other categories of data listed in Article VII.6 of the Treaty.

Transparency is probably the most valuable element of the New START treaty and by withholding the data exchange information the United States and Russia greatly undermine the agreement and certainly complicate efforts to further reduce their nuclear arsenals. Russia is probably a lost cause as far as transparency is concerned, but the U.S. administration should not be allowed to get away with ludicrous references to classified nature of data exchange and with vague promises to maybe release something at some date.


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