WASHINGTON — Wrangling between Bush administration aides and U.S. intelligence agencies is holding up talks with Moscow on future monitoring of the thousands of nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia still aim at one another.
The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) established the elaborate scheme of inspections, data sharing, advance missile test notifications and satellite surveillance. But the accord will expire in December 2009, and the U.S. spy satellites that locate and count Russian missile sites are stretched thin by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, concerns about North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs and other threats, current and former U.S. officials and experts said.
Administration policymakers argue that the monitoring system is an outdated vestige of the Cold War that restricts the Pentagon's ability to respond to new threats. They want to replace it with an informal system of looser inspections that would allow the United States to do things such as replacing nuclear warheads with conventional warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry makes strict verification unnecessary, and the START monitoring methods aren't foolproof, anyway, said senior administration official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
"We both (Moscow and Washington) want to understand the general trends and directions of each other's forces. But we don't need to know everything all the time," the official said.
Alarmed by the stress on the limited fleet of U.S. spy satellites, however, U.S. intelligence agencies oppose weakening the on-site inspections and other means that give U.S. officials a window into the only nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the United States.
The intelligence agencies have outlined their concerns in classified reports that were delivered to Congress last week, said an expert who asked to remain anonymous because the matter is classified.
A spokesman for Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell declined to comment.
The START accord is credited with reducing the danger of a U.S.-Russian nuclear war by cutting both sides' nuclear arsenals and providing verification mechanisms to guard against cheating.
If it's not replaced, Moscow and Washington will lose the most reliable means of monitoring each others' compliance with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which calls for both sides to reduce the number of warheads on their bombers, long-range missiles and submarines to 2,200 by Dec. 31, 2012. After that, neither side will be bound by limits on its arsenal.
Moreover, because the SORT treaty doesn't require the destruction of warheads, those removed from service and stored in reserve stockpiles could be redeployed rapidly.
A failure to replace START, coupled with disputes over the U.S. missile defense system and other issues that have plunged U.S.-Russia relations to their iciest since the former Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, could raise the risk of a new arms race, some experts warned.
"The biggest loser will be everybody, because that would undermine every kind of accountability on both sides," said Pavel Podvig, an expert with Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.
The United States and Russia held a preliminary meeting in March in which they agreed that the START Treaty should be replaced with a new arrangement and that parts of the monitoring system are no longer needed. But that's where the agreement ended.
Russia wants a legally binding treaty mandating deeper weapons reductions. The United States favors an informal deal, opposes new weapons cuts and wants to eliminate strict verification measures.
"A lot of this comes down to the question of how do we see the Russians. We don't see them as we used to during the Cold War," said Paula DeSutter, the State Department official in charge of arms control and verification.
The two sides have been unable to continue the talks because the internal U.S. dispute has delayed the formulation of an American proposal for replacing the START verification system.
U.S. intelligence agencies first warned that they wouldn't be able to verify Russia's compliance with SORT reliably about a month after President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, signed the treaty on May 24, 2002.
Their concerns have grown because of the increased stress on U.S. spy satellites, U.S. officials said.
John Bolton, who served as the administration's top arms control official until August 2005, said it would be better to increase spending on U.S. intelligence than to rely on START-type verification to monitor Russia's nuclear forces.
"With the continued existence of thousands of nuclear warheads, it remains essential that the United States and Russia have the tools to understand and predict each others nuclear posture," responded Darryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, an advocacy organization. "A new treaty with streamlined verification should be our goal."