"Trust But Verify"

Reagan's favorite slogan won't protect us if we don't know how many weapons to look for-or where they might be hiding.


Since the United States first initiated arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, the need for verification has been a centerpiece of U.S. policy. The reason is simple: the Soviets are not to be trusted. This is well known and widely appreciated.

The INF treaty now before the Senate provides a most timely example of the problems involved in verification. The subjects of the INF treaty are ground-based mobile theater missiles, designed to be used within a geographic region, or "theater," such as Europe. Because they are mobile, these missiles are extremely difficult to find, and thus their reduction will be equally difficult to verify.

Of course, these intermediate-range missiles do not pose a direct threat to the United States. Yet their verification is important because the problems involved are very similar to problems that have recently cropped up with respect to intercontinental-range strategic missiles. Over the past decade the Soviets have transformed their land-based strategic missiles, previously viewed as fixed, silo-based missiles. They are now mobile and concealed, and the verification problems they pose are not much different from those posed by the INF missiles.

The difficulties of verification are easy to appreciate by looking critically at the primary Soviet nuclear missile that the United States seeks to eliminate through the INF treaty, the SS-20. This missile is advertised as a highly accurate 5,000-kilometer-range missile that carries three 150-kiloton nuclear warheads. It first appeared in roughly 1975 and since that time has been regarded as the main nuclear threat to Europe. The Defense Department describes the missile and its deployments with such accuracy—441 missile launchers and 1,323 warheads at last count—that we are led to believe that the government has good intelligence on the missile and that verification of the INF treaty, although difficult, is far from impossible.

These precise "data" on the SS-20 are, however, very misleading, because the range of uncertainty is not stated. The estimates are really based on very little information and a multitude of unwarranted assumptions. In truth, we do not know what the SS-20 is or how it is to be used. We do not even know it exists!

Because the Soviets conducted many of their tests of the SS-20 at night and encrypted its test telemetry, we did not obtain the data needed to determine with confidence its range or payload. Early estimates of range were as high as 6,000 kilometers, and one-megaton warheads have been reported. Compare the Defense Department's assertion of 5,000 kilometers and 150-kiloton warheads.

We have never seen an SS-20. All we see are canisters that we think contain missiles. The numbers we count are based on the number of sheds that are seen and that are assumed to contain missiles. Some agencies of our government assume there is only one missile per launcher, while others believe there may be as many as five. The Defense estimate of 1,323 warheads assumes only one missile per launcher—but this would mean that the missile could not be reloaded, which would be quite unusual.

These uncertainties respecting the SS20 are especially significant because the missile as it is described by the U.S. government makes little sense. One might argue that there are enough targets in Europe to warrant perhaps 50 missiles armed with 10-kiloton warheads, but not much more—and certainly not several hundred missiles carrying a thousand or more 150-kiloton warheads. So Europe's target set does not justify the system.

Nor does Soviet strategy call for it. The Soviets have had more than enough theater nuclear systems to strike every target in Europe several times over without the SS-20. Moreover, Soviet strategy has been emphasizing the use of nonnuclear systems (such as chemical and biological weapons) in a European war to avoid destroying the industrial prize they seek to capture. The SS-20 as advertised makes little sense as a theater system.

A Potemkim System
We are compelled to ask, then, what the SS-20 system really is. Might it really be an intercontinental system that has been masquerading as a theater system? The uncertainties on the range and payload are such that it might well be. Moreover, the SS-20 has been physically linked to known intercontinental missiles. Some defense and intelligence analysts believe that it is really the first two stages of the Soviets' SS-16 mobile intercontinental missile and is similarly related to the SS-25 intercontinental missile. If so, it would be a simple matter to convert the SS-20 into an intercontinental missile, if it is not one already. Also, because the missile parts were freely available from the SS-16 development program, very little effort and cost would have been required for the Soviets to have set up the SS-20 from the beginning as a completely bogus system, a Potemkin Village missile.

The count of the missiles, 441, which is based on the number of launchers believed to be housed in sheds of a certain dimension, also presents us with a bit of a dilemma. The rationale for making a mobile system in the first place is security. If it is mobile, the enemy cannot find it, because it can be stored in a wide variety of installations—caves, tunnels, garages, fake buildings, and so forth—and hidden from the enemy. The idea that the Soviets would build a series of identical sheds that are easily distinguishable by the enemy from space makes little sense and is certainly inconsistent with Soviet military logic. Recently, some of the sheds were dismantled; but what happened to the missiles, or whether there were any in the sheds in the first place, remains unknown.

The SS-25 mobile intercontinental missile is also stored in sheds, we assume—sheds that are only three meters longer than the SS-20 sheds. If the SS-20s are important, isn't it possible they are stored in SS-25 sheds, especially because the SS-20 system has been observed in SS-25 deployment areas? This possibility is not covered under the INF treaty. This raises a further challenge to our knowledge of how many SS-20s there are and where they are deployed.

In sum, the United States does not know what the principal Soviet INF system is, or why it is, or how many of them exist, or where they are stored if they exist. Even the "data" provided by the Soviets on the missile as part of the negotiations have been found to be internally inconsistent, are believed to have been faked, and have been challenged by several senators and administration officials. Yet President Reagan proceeded to sign the treaty as though there were no technical problems.

There is of course an explanation: by outlawing all SS-20s, verification is no longer a problem, because we are not asking our intelligence to count how many systems the Soviets have but merely to keep watch and ensure that we never see any SS-20s at all. But what if there were no SS-20s in the first place? Or what if they now store them in SS-25 canisters or simply keep them hidden from sight?

Although the treaty does make a much heralded provision for on-site inspection, it doesn't help matters. All the Soviets have to do is manufacture the missiles in factories not subject to inspection or deploy them in areas not subject to inspection—which is automatic if the sheds are only Potemkin sheds.

Also curious is the SS-20 destruction clause in the INF treaty, which states that the missile is to be destroyed while in the canister. U.S. inspectors cannot even open and look into the canisters to see if there are missiles inside, let alone identify them as SS-20s presumably to be destroyed.

The more closely the INF treaty and the systems covered under it are examined, the more questionable the treaty becomes, especially on the issue of verification. The Soviets have a myriad of attractive—inexpensive and effective—evasion options.

Who Holds the Trump
But does it all matter? Is verification really all that important? Based on past experience, one would have to admit that it does not and is not. Even if violations were detected, a significant U.S. response would be unlikely. U.S. officials might hiccup and cough a few times, but soon business as usual would continue.

So far the Soviets have violated every significant arms control treaty or agreement. This is not the conclusion of rightwing fanatics. It is the conclusion of the President's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament and the conclusion of a series of six interagency studies of Soviet noncompliance. These studies used the best intelligence and intelligence analysts. They included a multitude of participants who would have preferred to find the Soviets in compliance, but they did not.

But did these findings lead to any significant U.S. response? No—which is why, in one respect, the problem of verifying the INF treaty may be a moot question.

This is not comforting. Indeed, it is extremely disquieting, because the INF treaty is advertised by U.S. and Soviet negotiators alike as a prelude to a larger, more impressive event, a START agreement that both sides promise will achieve significant reduction in long-range strategic nuclear systems. There is no reason to believe that START will be any different from INF or its SALT predecessors, and that could well spell disaster.

The folks in Washington deliberately gave away U.S. nuclear superiority in the 1960s. It was easy to curtail military development programs then—we were ahead, and the Soviets had no intention of doing anything other than catching up, or so U.S. officials thought. In 1969 the Soviets first surpassed the United States in strategic nuclear capability.

Washington again put the brakes on U.S. nuclear developments in the 1970s, in the interests of détente and arms control. And it was acceptable; after all, the Soviets stated they were not interested in achieving superiority. They only wanted to maintain the balance. By 1980 the Soviets had deployed two new heavy missiles, the SS-18 and SS-19. These were not contemplated by U.S. negotiators of the SALT treaty and enabled the Soviets to leapfrog far ahead of the United States. In the process, in the opinion of many defense specialists, the Soviets had obtained a first-strike capability by 1980.

For a brief period in the early '80s, there were some indications that the United States might attempt to reverse the trend and launch new programs, especially in the defensive area. While some hope still remains, most of the beliefs of the early 1980s have been shattered. Arms control and trade and assistance to the Communist countries again are the mainstay of U.S. foreign and defense policy. While continuing to expand their strategic offensive arsenal, the Soviets have also made major advances in their missile defense capabilities, both passive and active. But the United States remains totally vulnerable—defenseless—to a Soviet attack, and, partly because of the failure to control federal spending, there are no prospects for change in sight.

Should a strategic arms reduction treaty emerge in the months ahead, the result will be a dramatic reduction in an already eroded U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent, while Soviet capabilities, based on past experience, will continue to improve. Then there will be no mistaking who holds all the trump.

This is why the INF treaty and our ability to verify what the negotiations are all about are so important and why Congress and the American public should scrutinize the treaty and the process with the greatest attention and interest. Verification has been advertised as the sine qua non of U.S. arms control policy since that process began. Early in his term, President Reagan made it quite clear that effective verification is essential—not "adequate" verification or "sufficient" verification, as was used to get around our inability to verify in the 1970s, but real verification.

But it has become clear that we know less now about what we are doing than we did in 1972. We find ourselves confronted with a treaty whose success depends on the Soviets' good will and trustworthiness. The lesson is obvious: that is the only way an arms control treaty will be negotiated. The corollary is equally obvious: arms control is a sham. It would be nice if we learned this before we give away the whole farm, but that is about as realistic as expecting the Soviets to honor their agreements.

Joseph D. Douglass, Jr., is a national security consultant and the author of Why the Soviets Violate Arms Control Treaties.