Op-Ed: U.S., Russia should return to on-site inspections for treaty claims

The ongoing diplomatic back-and-forth between the United States and Russia would have you believe that the future viability of the history-making Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is nil. That would represent a major setback for arms control — and the security of the world. Beyond banning two classes of nuclear delivery vehicles, the treaty served to stabilize European security and set the tone for a series of strategic nuclear-force reduction treaties between the U.S. and what is now Russia that remains in effect to this day.

The INF treaty has played a crucial role in shaping the course of U.S. and Soviet (and later, Russian) nuclear arms control. But enforcing it has become far more problematic since on-site inspections are no longer integral to the treaty’s verification system. Today, this work is conducted exclusively by spy satellites that, despite their many capabilities, lack the in-person human element inherent with inspections. On-site inspections have fallen out of favor due to their expense and complexity, but that doesn’t mean they can’t — or shouldn’t — be resurrected. Two recent cases, one from each side of the U.S.-Russian divide, probably would be resolved if on-site inspections resumed.

On one side of the equation, the Obama administration has informed Moscow that the U.S. views Russia as being in violation of the INF treaty. The central issue behind the charge is a U.S. allegation that the Russians tested a ground-launched cruise missile, with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers — an act prohibited by the treaty. The Russians vehemently deny the charge and point out that the U.S. has failed to provide specific data to sustain the allegation.

In turn, Russia has levied its own battery of claims against the U.S. for INF treaty violations. The most serious centers on U.S. plans to deploy the Navy’s Aegis missile defense system and Standard Missile-3 interceptors using a vertical launch system in Romania and Poland. This launcher is a multi-missile, multi-mission system designed for use aboard ships and capable of launching the SM-3 interceptor and the Tomahawk cruise missile. The Russians contend that this gives the U.S. the capability of launching the Tomahawk in a ground-launch configuration, which violates the INF treaty.


Historically, compliance issues such as these were dealt with through on-site inspections. However, the last such on-site inspection conducted under the treaty occurred in 2001. This is in keeping with the 13-year limit for such inspections under the treaty, which was signed in 1987 but was not enforced until 1988. Though some treaty verification activity since then has been carried out by spy satellites, data collected that way is incomplete and subject to interpretation, making it unreliable as a means of verifying compliance.

We need to return to on-site inspections, carried out within the framework and context of the INF treaty, which would allow for the investigation and resolution of these kinds of treaty compliance issues. Though on-site inspections are no longer integral to the INF treaty, they could be brought back under certain circumstances by the Special Verification Commission, an organization established by the treaty to “resolve questions relating to compliance” and “agree upon such measures as may be necessary to improve the viability and effectiveness of the treaty.”

The commission notably intervened in 1990 when it resolved a dispute over the installation and operation of an X-ray imaging system called CargoScan at a Soviet missile plant in Votkinsk, Russia, that threatened to derail the treaty. The special on-site inspection of CargoScan carried out under the auspices of the commission set a precedent that could, and should, be drawn upon today.

On-site inspection could play a viable role in resolving both of these U.S. and Russian treaty compliance issues. The Russian event in question probably involves a treaty-permitted test of a sea-launched cruise missile utilizing a fixed, land-based launcher used solely for test purposes — which is permitted by the treaty. An on-site inspection could verify that the launcher is physically different from those used for ground-launched cruise missiles, as required by the treaty. Likewise, the U.S. admits that the structural components of the land-based vertical launchers are similar to the ship-borne version, but contends that the electronics and software used by the land-based systems are incapable of launching a Tomahawk. This could only be verified by up-close, in-person on-site inspection.

The need for on-site inspection as a verification tool is as great today as it was when the INF Treaty came into force 27 years ago. The Special Verification Commission should be called upon to make full use of the versatility and utility of trained inspectors to breathe new life into on-site inspections as a treaty compliance tool. Such a move would imbue the INF treaty with a credibility it has been lacking for many years, given the mistrust that arises from inadequate compliance monitoring and verification.

The INF Treaty is too important to international peace and security to allow it to unravel in the face of current U.S.-Russian geopolitical tensions, and on-site inspections are too valuable a tool for treaty compliance verification to be relegated to the pages of arms control history.
Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, is the author of “Dangerous Ground: America’s Failed Arms Control Policy, from FDR to Obama.” He was one of the first U.S. inspectors sent to the Soviet Union to implement the INF Treaty.

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