The original START treaty expired on December 5, 2009. When that happened the United States and Russia lost the ability to monitor each others’ nuclear forces. Both sides agreed to uphold the original START treaty’s principles, but currently no provisions are in place to monitor Russian nuclear activity. We also lost vital on-the-ground inspectors who were obligated to leave. U.S. intelligence has been severely diminished by their departure.
The Washington Post reported last month that:
For the first time in 15 years, U.S. officials have lost their ability to inspect Russian long-range nuclear bases, where they had become accustomed to peering into missile silos, counting warheads, and whipping out tape measures to size up rockets. The inspections had occurred every few weeks under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But when START expired in December, the checks stopped. Meanwhile, in an obscure, fluorescent-lighted State Department office staffed round-the-clock, a stream of messages from Russia about routine movements of its nuclear missiles and bombers has slowed to a trickle.
Ned Williams of the State Department’s Nuclear Risk Reduction Center told The Post, “Now we don’t get any of that information. We have less and less visibility into their status of forces.”
The danger from losing such visibility is that it will create an increasing cloud of uncertainty between the United States and Russia over their nuclear forces. This, in turn, could lead one side to increasingly suspect the activities and intentions of the other, sparking a reinforcing spiral of distrust. Any instability or distrust leads to an increased risk of a nuclear incident, which could occur from misinterpretation, accident, or elevated hostilities.
With nuclear weapons still on hair-trigger alert and with both sides continuing to adhere to launch-on-warning protocols that oblige both leaders to fire their nuclear arsenals at the first detection of a possible attack, the potential for catastrophe remains ever present.
It is vital that the New START treaty be ratified as quickly as possible to maintain nuclear stability.
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