In the absence of a U.S.-Russian arms control treaty, the U.S. intelligence community is telling Congress it will need to focus more spy satellites over Russia that could be used to peer on other sites, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, to support the military.
The demand for these satellites - one component of the “national technical means,” or NTM - has increased the urgency for the Obama administration to get the Senate to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in its lame-duck session.
“As the proliferation threat has grown over the past decade, as the terrorism threat has grown over the past decade and as the United States has been deploying troops in harm’s way over the last decade, there has been a decline in the priority assigned to Russian strategic forces by national technical means and at the same time there has been a decline in our overall NTM capabilities,” said Paula DeSutter, former assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation between 2002 and 2009.
At issue are the “low Earth orbit satellites,” which orbit at about 300 miles above the Earth. The satellites’ sensors have improved in recent years to the point that they can take very high-resolution photographs and in some cases at least provide a rough picture of underground facilities with ground-penetrating radar.
The newer satellites can see in the dark with infrared sensors and scan the electromagnetic spectrum for tell-tale signs of nuclear activity and wireless communications.
The treaty, which was signed in April, would restore on-site inspections of Russian nuclear missile silos, bombers and submarines that have stopped since the old START expired in December. The new treaty also bars the Russians from interfering with or jamming spy satellites and restricts where various nuclear weapons can be located.
Inside the intelligence community, battles rage among various offices and task forces over where to deploy the highest-technology spy satellites.
“Having the inspections [in New START] will allow us to focus our resources on other targets right now,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times.
Daniel Gallington, who represented the defense secretary in 11 rounds of talks with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, said there has always been a competition for national technical means inside the intelligence community.
“The thing about national technical means is that everybody wants them,” he said. “The tactical guys on the ground want them, the strategic guys want them, anyone who has an intelligence account responsible for producing an estimate wants to use as much overhead and technical means as they can get. There are committees that sit down and try to figure out who gets what, and there is just never enough to go around.”
“Our overall satellite capability is not what it used to be and not what it ought to be,” she said. “Eighteen spot inspections a year is not going to fill the gap left by inadequate NTM capabilities. If we want better coverage of Russia’s strategic threats, we are going to have to launch more satellites.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, dealt a blow to President Obama’s efforts to get the Senate to ratify New START when he said he did not think it was right to vote on the treaty in the lame-duck session. Republican leaders have said they will take cues from Mr. Kyl on New START before casting their own votes.