START expiration ends U.S. inspection of Russian nuclear bases

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

For the first time in 15 years, U.S. officials have lost their ability to inspect Russian long-range nuclear bases, where they had become accustomed to peering into missile silos, counting warheads and whipping out tape measures to size up rockets.

The inspections had occurred every few weeks under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But when START expired in December, the checks stopped.

Meanwhile, in an obscure, fluorescent-lighted State Department office staffed round-the-clock, a stream of messages from Russia about routine movements of its nuclear missiles and bombers has slowed to a trickle.

The Obama administration hopes the inspections and messages will soon resume under the New START agreement, which was signed by the two countries in April. But the pact is on hold in the Senate. If it faces long delays, or is voted down, the U.S. government will lose critical insight into Russia's nuclear forces, officials say.

"The problem of the breakdown of our verification, which lapsed December 5, is very serious and impacts our national security," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), one of the chamber's top nuclear experts, said in a recent hearing.

In months of debate over New START, there has been little focus on the implications of the lapse in nuclear checks. Instead, hearings have centered on such issues as whether the pact would inhibit U.S. missile defense.

"I thought we were just going to continue doing business as usual" as the replacement treaty was debated, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said when a reporter noted the inspection cutoff.

The Obama administration has emphasized that New START will require the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals. But many experts say the verification measures matter even more.

That's not because they think a nuclear attack is imminent. But even two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russia has about 2,500 deployed nukes capable of hitting the United States. U.S. officials like to keep an eye on them.

"Without the [new] treaty and its verification measures, the United States would have much less insight into Russian strategic forces, thereby requiring our military to plan based on worst-case assumptions," Jim Miller, a senior nuclear policy official in the Pentagon, testified last month. "This would be an expensive and potentially destabilizing approach."

Kyl and other Republicans say that before voting on a pact that reduces the nation's stockpiles, they want to ensure there is enough money to modernize the nuclear complex. They say they should not rush the treaty because the monitoring measures have expired.

"It's not an argument for voting before you know all the facts," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

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