To Catch a Treaty Cheater: Off-Snoop Before On-Site

<i> Thomas A. Halsted served as director of public affairs for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1977 to 1981</i>

The Senate will begin ratification hearings this week on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in Washington last month by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. There is broad public support for the agreement and a general assumption that it faces little opposition in the Senate--which must approve by a two-thirds vote before it becomes law. A major reason for this support is the leading role assigned to on-site inspection of missile sites and production facilities to verify compliance by both sides. Indeed, to many Americans “verification” means “inspection.” But the inspection angle is oversold, and could prove to be the treaty’s major weakness.

Years of propaganda (a lot of it spread by Reagan) about the supposed unverifiability of past treaties, and the claim that the Soviets have violated many, persuaded much of the public that on-site inspection is essential to prevent cheating. Thus, for political reasons, on-site inspection had to be a mainstay of the INF Treaty if it was going to be seen as different and better than its predecessors.

The new treaty is laden with on-site inspection provisions. They allow for initial inspections of missile bases, “close-out” inspections to insure required dismantling of bases has taken place, “elimination inspections” to monitor destruction of missiles and their launchers, the permanent stationing of U.S. and Soviet teams at each other’s production facilities and a quota of short-notice challenge inspections at former launching sites and other facilities by each side.

On the surface, these provisions look like a major step forward. But if the purpose of verification measures is to provide each side assurance that the other is abiding by the agreement, will inspections do that?


The challenge inspections are the main problem. The reasons for any challenges will be provided by “national technical means” of verification: reconnaissance satellites, electronic eavesdropping and other unilateral intelligence methods. If these “NTM” raise questions about Soviet compliance, the United States can demand an inspection. Will the Soviets then allow U.S. inspectors in, as the treaty requires? If they do, and inspectors find nothing wrong, will Washington be reassured, or will they conclude that the Soviets have hidden the evidence? Ironically, we are likely to have the greatest confidence in inspections when we believe the Soviets are complying anyway. Thus whenever inspections are used, they may reduce, rather than increase, U.S. confidence in Soviet compliance.

The real deterrent to cheating will not be the inspections, but the lack of motivation to cheat in the first place. With the INF Treaty there is essentially none. The Reagan Administration gave the Soviets a tidy way to compensate for any loss of destructive capability a year ago, when it decided to ignore SALT II limits and, in effect, invited the Soviets to do the same. While that treaty was being observed, it set upper limits on the number of long-range missile launchers each side could possess. Without it, the Soviets can simply build more allowed long-range missiles to compensate for the loss of now-forbidden medium- and short-range missiles. The allowable SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missile, for example, can hit any target the now-banned SS-20 was aimed at. Why should the Soviets go to the trouble and expense of clandestinely building or squirreling away SS-20s when they can openly buy more SS-25s?

But even if Washington created that convenient loophole, why would the Soviets enter into the INF Treaty with the intention of cheating? Aside from the enormous expense of secretly carrying out forbidden activities and the political cost of being caught, the only conceivable purpose of cheating would be to gain some strategic advantage. This is hard to do when each side has more than 10,000 strategic nuclear weapons unaffected by the treaty.

As for alleged violations of past treaties, many charges made by the White House would be hard to prove because the Reagan Administration’s former secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger, emasculated the Standing Consultative Commission, created specifically to examine any questions of compliance with the two SALT agreements. He ordered Gen. Richard H. Ellis, SCC commissioner, to use the forum only as a platform to level accusations at the Soviets, not to resolve uncertainties.


The Soviet record of compliance with all arms-control treaties entered into over the past 29 years has in fact been quite good. There has been one major exception: the giant radar they have been building in Siberia since 1983. Because of its location and design, it would, once operational, almost certainly be a violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. While the Soviets have stopped construction--and even allowed a delegation of U.S. congressmen, armed with cameras and tape recorders, to swarm over the installation--the potential violation remains.

But in general, where treaty language has been unambiguous, there have been few questions about compliance. Where it has been fuzzier, questions have arisen about performance by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Until the SCC was trashed by the Reagan Administration, most such arguments had been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. The same Reagan Administration that has been so ready to condemn Soviet cheating has also testified to their good performance: In 1985 Lt. Gen. John T. Chain Jr. (now head of the Strategic Air Command) testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Soviets “have complied with the large majority of the treaties.”

These treaties all depended on national technical means of verification, supplemented by other non-intrusive provisions. To ensure that these NTM could provide effective monitoring, most recent treaties--particularly SALT I and II-- provided that neither side would take actions to interfere with NTM or to conceal prohibited activities from them. Questions of compliance that still arose would be resolved if possible in the SCC. These provisions, taken together, instilled confidence that no significant violations could take place. In fact, Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, who negotiated the 1972 ABM Treaty for President Richard M. Nixon, once testified that given a choice between on-site inspection and national technical means to monitor the treaty, he would prefer the latter because of the ambiguities on-site inspection could raise.

So what role will these technical capabilities play in the INF Treaty? Much the same as in other treaties. Article XII of the INF Treaty text states that each party shall use NTM, that neither shall interfere with it or use concealment measures. Furthermore, the treaty establishes a Special Verification Commission to “resolve questions relating to compliance with the obligations assumed” and “agree upon such measures as may be necessary to improve the viability and effectiveness of this treaty.”


This sounds mighty like the charter of the discredited Standing Consultative Commission.

The INF Treaty is a new beginning. It offers important precedents for future U.S.-Soviet arms agreements: actual disarmament; asymmetrical reductions--where one side destroys many more weapons to create equal levels, and the total elimination of a particular class of weapons. But the last of these features, bringing both sides to zero, and the fact that the weapons involved are of little or no military significance, may give us unwarranted confidence in a fourth precedent, on-site inspection. We would be better advised to rely on technical intelligence, consultation where needed and common sense than to give an overrated and potentially mischievous provision undue prominence in assessing the value of this or any other treaty.