Michael KreponNational Blindness & National Technical Means

Many of New START’s harshest critics argue that the Treaty’s monitoring provisions are deficient. They have an odd way of demonstrating their commitment to verification — by systematically trying to kill off treaties with on-site inspections and clauses protective of monitoring satellites. This approach makes sense if you’re trying to weaponize space, not if you’re trying to find out what somebody worth watching is up to.

Warning: This week’s post has heavy viscosity. Non-hard-core wonks may wish to skip to the bottom line.

The first arms control agreement in which the term “national technical means” appeared was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. (Does anyone out there know how this phrasing came about?) NTM was a polite way of saying “spy satellites.” Article XII of the ABM Treaty contained this foundational language:

1. For the purpose of providing assurance or compliance with the provisions of this Treaty, each Party shall use national technical means of verification at its disposal in a manner consistent with generally recognized principles of international law.

2. Each Party undertakes not to interfere with the national technical means of verification of the other Party operating in accordance with paragraph 1 of this Article.

3. Each Party undertakes not to use deliberate concealment measures which impede verification by national technical means of compliance with the provisions of this Treaty. This obligation shall not require changes in current construction, assembly, conversion, or overhaul practices.

Article XV of the companion SALT I Interim (Executive) Agreement replicated this language. The Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty in December 2001. The Interim Agreement expired in 1977.

Article II of the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which mandated the limitation of underground nuclear tests to yields no greater than 150 kilotons, contained the same language regarding NTM and noninterference. This long-forgotten treaty automatically renews every five years “unless either Party notifies the other of its termination no later than six months prior to the expiration of the Treaty.”

The 1979 SALT II Treaty contained similar language regarding NTM, no harmful interference and deliberate concealment. The Senate never voted on its ratification. Article XII of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty reaffirmed the NTM and no harmful interference provisions. This Treaty is of unlimited duration, but its inspections ended in 2001. Moscow is grumbling about pulling out of the INF Treaty because it prohibits Russia from having missiles with ranges possessed by lesser nuclear powers. The first (1991) Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty also contained language protective of national technical means. Its provisions expired in December 2009. The second (1993) START Treaty, which contained similar language, never entered into force. When the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty, the Kremlin pulled the plug on START II because it contained restrictive limits on Russia’s land-based missiles.

Article IV of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiated during the Clinton administration contains the noninterference with NTM provision. Senate Republicans voted in large number to block its ratification. The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (also known as the Moscow Treaty), viewed by some critics of New START as a model agreement, had no verification provisions. Instead, it borrowed from the START I Treaty, which lapsed a year ago. The 2010 New START Treaty also contains NTM and noninterference provisions, but it may not pass muster in the Senate, in part because critics say they are worried about verification.

To my knowledge, only one non-nuclear treaty –The 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty – contains the NTM and noninterference provisions. This Treaty is of indefinite duration, but Moscow feels disadvantaged by its provisions and has “suspended” its implementation.

Bottom line: Treaty trashing undermines norms protective of our eyes and ears in space. NTM will be placed at further risk by pursuing the space warfare capabilities that some treaty opponents seek. Instructing the Obama administration to go back to the drawing board to improve verification is a simple dodge; we all know that it may take years of logrolling to do so. In the meantime, there will be no inspections and no reaffirmation of the norm against harmful interference with NTM. Without treaties in force that allow on-site inspections and affirm norms protective of monitoring satellites, complaints about the need for better verification ring hollow.

Treaty trashing in the Senate has taken a significant toll. If irreconcilable Senators have their way, prohibitions against interfering with monitoring satellites will rest on a 37 year-old treaty that can be axed every five years and two treaties from which Moscow may seek to withdraw.


  1. Muskrat (History)

    START I didn’t just protect use of NTM — it incorporated it into provisions such as the cooperative measures requirements for mobile ICBMs and heavy bombers. That’s not 100% explicit in the text — just “display in the open” — but it’s clear what the purpose is. Are there cooperative measures in the New Start?

  2. FSB (History)

    One can go blue in the face with technical high-viscosity wonk reasons that opposing New START does not make any sense.

    Nevertheless, it will be opposed for the political reason to deny Obama a FP victory.

    Other examples that make no technical sense but are pursued for political/monetary ends: RRW, strategic missile defense etc.

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    A slightly random question, but is telemetry access/denial still a matter of interest in arms control negotiations?


    • FSB (History)

      On telemetry and New START:

      see also:


      “The 1991 agreement required, with limited exceptions, that each side not encrypt the telemetry[6] from its ballistic missile tests and that it share the data that it collected. The new treaty provides that each side will share telemetric data on up to five ballistic missile tests per year, with the specific tests to be agreed. Another streamlining of the START I verification regime is the end of permanent monitoring at the Votkinsk missile production plant, something that the Bush administration had already agreed to forgo.

      There are several reasons for such changes. First, national technical means of verification have improved significantly over the past 20 years. Although the United States rarely discusses the capabilities of its satellites and other national technical means, they can provide more information relevant to monitoring arms control treaties than they could in the past.

      Regarding telemetry, New START does not contain the kinds of START I provisions that required telemetry access for monitoring purposes. For example, the 1991 treaty had a provision specifying what constituted a new type of missile as opposed to an existing type and prohibiting putting multiple warheads on an existing single-warhead ballistic missile. The effect of the provision was to require a side to build a new type of missile to carry multiple warheads. Telemetry access helped to verify whether a missile test was of an existing or new type. The new treaty defines “new type,” but for purposes of information; the treaty does not impose any limits on new types.

      Senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have said the United States does not need any telemetry access to monitor the new treaty. The administration negotiated some telemetry access, however, bearing in mind the importance attached to telemetry by some in the Senate.”

      see also:


      “The Role of Telemetry

      DeSutter also contends that the less stringent telemetry provisions of the new agreement would result in a decline in U.S. insight into Russian strategic nuclear forces. This assertion ignores the fact that telemetry is no longer required to verify the New START limits, which are different from the throw-weight, missile-type, and warhead-counting rules of START. DeSutter’s concern here is intelligence, not verification. If one is really worried about losing insight into Russian strategic nuclear forces, then one should consider the insight being lost every day that treaty opponents delay the entry into force of the extensive on-the-ground inspection provisions incorporated into the New START agreement.”

  4. Jack Pirate (History)

    “Does anyone out there know how this phrasing came about?”

    Richard Burns’ book, The Evolution of Arms Control from Antiquity to the Nuclear Age has a whole section on monitoring and verification.

    From p. 164: “The ‘self-monitoring’ of negotiated arms control agreements — which leaned heavily on national means (later, during the Cold War, national technical means as well). Ancient imposed arms control restrictions were surely carefully scrutinized by available national means. National means has historically focused on human observers including diplomats and military attaches, international businessmen and tourists, and clandestine or undercover sources managed by state intelligence agencies. Often these sources were supplemented by other monitoring systems, such as notification, reporting, and enquiry.”

    Then there’s another 4 pages with specific examples of how both of these terms were used in treaties.

    My reading of the section is that “national means” was a term in widespread use before the Cold War, but not explicitly stated in the text of arms control treaties. Apparently diplomats back then had enough honor that it didn’t need to be stated… or something like that. The additional provisions for national technical means in the nuclear treaties would have been added due to the greater stakes involved and to establish a norm that spy satellites were acceptable even if U2s weren’t.

    This begs the question of who first coined the term “national means,” to which I have no idea.

  5. Lemon (History)

    Isn’t the problem of treaty verification for weapons in space that you will have to find inspectors willing to train as astronauts?

    • Alex (History)

      You think it would be hard to find applicants for the post of nuke-policing star pilot?

  6. John F. Opie (History)

    Fundamentally, it’s all a question of having solid information.

    Which would you prefer: a capabilities assessment based on solid, non-controvertible data from missile telemetry, open and not encoded, that clearly shows what a missile can or cannot do, or an assessment of what the missile might be capable of doing, based on the assessment of someone who may have a political motive one way or the other? Or an intentions assessment based on unambiguous photos of military installations that are not permitted to hide their capabilities, or one based on what might be behind the camouflage?

    I thought so.

    I dare say that the failures of intelligence work in the last decades – especially looking at Iraqi capabilities – should make clear to everyone that it is in everyone’s interest that capabilities shall not be hidden, in order to avoid ambiguities that otherwise cloud the minds of those who are tasked with making those decisions.

    A case might even be made that faulty intelligence assessments are a result, indirect and not desired, of the lack of ambiguity where national means of technology START and SALT were concerned between the US and the former USSR.

    From what I remember of this aspect of the treaties, the language was kept deliberately generic so that no one would be limited to a specific kind of satellite systems. Being able to see what the other fellow was doing was critical for these treaties to be agreed to and then also ratified: trust, but verify, as someone once put it. It also meant that a potential treaty-breaker couldn’t achieve a break-out position by hiding what he was doing: having the freedom to inspect and being able to rely on high-resolution, high-quality imagery that was not compromised by camouflage ensured that it was functionally impossible to secretly prepare a break-out position by using extensive camouflage: the existence of the camouflage was itself a problem, regardless of what was going on.

    And it worked for both sides: like I said, trust, but verify is good policy.

    • anon (History)

      “Which would you prefer: a capabilities assessment based on solid, non-controvertible data from missile telemetry, open and not encoded, that clearly shows what a missile can or cannot do, or an assessment of what the missile might be capable of doing, based on the assessment of someone who may have a political motive one way or the other?”

      If one is collecting intelligence, for the sake of intelligence collection, then open, unencrypted telemetry is clearly the preferred means of collection. However, the information you need to verify compliance with the limits in an arms control treaty is not the same thing as collecting intelligence. If one needs the raw data about missile capabilities from telemetry to confirm compliance, then the requirement for unencrypted telemetry stands. If the information in this data is not required to confirm compliance with the treaty limits, then this is simply the collection of intelligence information, or, as the Russians like to say, spying.

  7. bradley Laing (History)

    Neutron bomb inventor Samuel Cohen dies in LA

    AP – Thu Dec 2, 12:02 am ET
    LOS ANGELES – Neutron bomb inventor Samuel T. Cohen, who designed the tactical nuclear weapon intended to kill people but do minimal damage to structures, has died, his son said Wednesday.

  8. bradley Laing (History)

    “If we are going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their inhabitants,” he wrote, “might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?”

    —Coehn qoute, from AP article.

    — Is the “Best quips” contest still open?

  9. John F. Opie (History)

    @Anon 2.12.2010

    Back to the original point: why use a deliberately ambiguous term (National Technical Means)? Simple: there is no intelligence collection for the sake of intelligence collection. If you try to make the case that obfuscation is legitimate because “the other side is otherwise spying”, who decides what is legitimate or not? Think of it this way: if you can’t hide anything, then there is no way to cheat; if you can start hiding things, then you can narrow the definitions of what is visible to enable you to cheat.

    That was the whole point of being deliberately ambiguous about what espionage tools were available: if it had been limited to a single satellite type, use of any other reconnaissance would have been forbidden under the treaty (or simply not allowed, same difference). The whole point was to convince the Soviet Union that for the US to agree to weapons limitations, the Soviets would have to allow “national technical means” and, gritting their teeth, they did so. Worked.

    Why expect anything else now? Same problems exist in terms of verifiability and trust issues: if anything, with the existing reductions, the importance of each missile or delivery system is of greater importance, and any attempted break-out could mean, for instance, if you moved from single warhead missiles to 12-pack MIRVs, that the cheater could achieve a “guaranteed” counter-force kill capability that much “easier” because there are that many fewer missiles for them to kill. If there are 1000 missiles in silos, makes no sense: if there are only 100 in silos, starts to get interesting…especially if they are far, far away from cities (notice the declining populations of North and South Dakota?) and you could reserve your city-busters to deter retaliation from bombers and subs.

    This all reverts to classic paranoia and force/counter force/counter-counter-force calculus that should be increasingly irrelevant: hence, don’t start trying to weasel out of what has worked for decades (unencrypted telemetry, sanctity of national technical means, etc etc). I don’t want to go back to the “good old days”, I think we all can agree that further reductions, given the right conditions, Is A Good Thing…

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