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.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. spy satellites began to shift focus from Russia onto sites such as Iraq, China, Pakistan and India. Today, spy satellites are trained on Iraq and Afghanistan.
“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.
Opponents of the treaty say that even if New START is ratified, the United States will still need to increase its overhead surveillance of Russia’s strategic arsenal.
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.”
But Ms. DeSutter, noting that New START calls for 18 annual inspections of Russian sites, said the U.S. needs more eyes in the sky for verification.
“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.
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.