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On Thursday, 10 incoming Republican senators drafted an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, asking for a chance to vote on New START.

Mr. Obama has designated Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as point man for ratifying the treaty.

“There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress,” Mr. Obama said Thursday, noting that the agreement would restore inspections. “We cannot afford to gamble on our ability to verify Russia’s strategic nuclear arms.”

On Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Agence France-Presse: “I think the earlier, the sooner, the better. You know, my thing is, from an intelligence perspective only, are we better off with it or without it? We’re better off with it.”

John Noonan, a former missile-launch officer with experience in START inspections, pointed out that inspections were only one part of how the U.S. tracked the Russian arsenal.

“I refuse to believe that all our intelligence assets that were in place for six decades of the Cold War have all of the sudden been tasked to other targets,” he said. “Inspections are useful, but they are part of a larger intelligence picture.”

Among key concerns for the intelligence community is that it is difficult to get high-resolution coverage over a long period time of suspected missile sites and to search for hidden facilities over large swaths of territory.

“The ability to cover large amounts of real estate with a high degree of detail persistently, which is 24/7, is a vast technological challenge that would consume resources that are not readily available today,” said Wesley Covell, vice president of strategy for defense contractor Harris Corp. He declined to discuss specific U.S capabilities.

Mr. Gallington, who is senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said he opposed ratification of START because, even with the inspections on the ground, the Russians historically cheated on arms control treaties.

Mr. Gallington said this was the case with regard to how the Russians defined the terms of the treaties. “They engage themselves in elaborate protocols to facilitate their cheating,” he said. “They rely on language in the protocols that border on the outrageous. Classification definitions, counting rules, they are so intricate that essentially they negotiate an agreement in their own language,” he said.

However, Rose Gottemoeller, current assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation, praised the inspections regime in an article for Arms Control Today in September: “The United States will have the right to select, for purposes of inspection, from all of Russia’s treaty-limited deployed and nondeployed delivery vehicles and launchers over the life of New START.”

She added that inspections would be supplemented by overhead satellites.

“Information provided in notifications will complement and be checked by on-site inspection as well as by imagery from satellites and other assets that collectively make up each side’s national technical means of verification,” she wrote.

Ms. DeSutter - Ms. Gottemoeller’s predecessor - said the treaty allows for 18 inspections per year and the inspections, even if combined with satellite imagery, would hardly suffice to give much visibility into the Russian arsenal.