Arms verification: how much is enough?

The Reagan administration's decision to begin talks with Moscow on the sensitive subject of verifying arms control agreements highlights an old and difficult question. What information must you have to guard against Soviet "cheating" and what measures are needed to get it?

Disagreements over what constitutes "adequate" capability to monitor arms limitations have dogged US-Soviet negotiations for more than 20 years. The problem is clear: Given the dangers involved in trusting a potential adversary's promise to limit its military power, independent monitoring capabilities -- especially where nuclear weapons are involved -- are a must. But given the nature of the task, the assurances provided by those capabilities can never be absolute.

United States and allied concerns in this area are compounded by the closed nature of Soviet society and the traditional Russian penchant for extreme secrecy in military matters. An apt illustration was provided in the SALT I negotiations: The Soviet military did not give their own civilian diplomats information on Soviet nuclear weapons already available (by independent means) to the US side.

The US has, over time, managed to whittle away at Soviet resistance to negotiating specific verification measures. The SALT negotiations produced agreement to rely on "antional technical means" to monitor treaty compliance, backed by pledges not to interfere with that monitoring or conceal relevant activities from view. SALT also produced, in 1979, a first-ever exchange of strategic weapons data, reportedly prompting Soviet Ambassador Semyonov to tell Us negotiator Paul Warnke, "You have just repealed 400 years of Russian history."

Progress in negotiating more intrusive verification measures has been slower, but visible. Generally, the more circumscribed the intrusion, the better the proposal has fared. Both sides agreed to exchange pertinent seismic data in the signed but unratified Threshold Test Ban Treaty (1974) and to onsite inspection, in certain cases, under the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (1976). More significantly, the Soviets have agreed in principle to installation of tamper-proof seismic stations on their territory to augment remote monitoring of a comprehensive test ban.

Given the glacial pace with which verification measures have been negotiated, it is doubtful that these new discussions would produce early breakthroughs. Moreover, there are clear risks in the approach.

* The current US initiative may appear to allies and others to be a tactic to delay, rather than advance, arms limitations. Linking issues of substance to inspection provisions that have little chance of acceptance by the other side remains a good way to seize the high ground while minimizing chances for agreement. For example, tied to on-site inspection, the 1970 US proposal to ban multiple-warhead missiles rapidly sank out of sight.

* Cooperative measures are, moreover, not magic bullets. They are increase our knowledge of certain military activities, but they do not reduce the need for monitoring-at-a-distance. They key word remains "cooperative." Even with challenge inspections, naming of weapons production facilities, and extensive exchange of data, it would remain impossible to prove a negative -- that nom covert production facilities exist, for example.Cooperative measures cannot substitute for good-faith bargaining and basic intent to comply with agreements reached. That is the basic tension which underlies all of arms control.

* Finally, intrusive inspection measures are especially dicey when applied to multilateral agreements. Even if the USSR were to allow US access to certain data, or to certain facilities, would they as readily allow, say Israeli or West German access? And would the US give acces to the Cubans or the Czechs?

In short, the administration's approach to verification can cut two ways. Intrusive verification may well be essential in some future agreements. But a priorim insistence on such measures, when national technical means would suffice, or pursuit of treaty terms enforceable only by on-site inspection, could as readily serve to delay useful treaties as to produce arms agreements with "teeth".

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