START negotiations are soon to reconvene in Geneva, and while the two sides seem very close to finalizing an agreement, there have been a lot of questions concerning why a deal on a new START treaty has not yet happened. Now more than a month since December 5th – the date that START expired – we have a bit more of an idea what one of the major obstacles is: telemetry. Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy reports:
Were you wondering what the last remaining sticking point was inside the U.S.-Russian negotiations over a START follow-on treaty? Well, as it turns out, the issue is … rocket science, and, more specifically, telemetry data.
Telemetry is the information that a missile sends back after it is tested and in the previous START treaty this information had to be shared between the US and Russia. However in the negotiations over a new treaty this has been a major sticking point. The Russians want to get rid of it, as they see it as unfair to keep it in a new treaty, because the US isn’t testing any new missiles. As former Ambassador Linton Brooks noted, “It’s an interesting argument but it’s the argument they make.”
In other words, if telemetry is included, the Russians want to get something for it – and that something appears to be access to data on US missile defense tests. While US negotiators have been insistent that telemetry be included in a final agreement, they have also made clear that linking the START treaty to missile defense in any way is out of bounds for this treaty. Hence, the impasse.
But what is frustrating about this deadlock is that telemetry really doesn’t matter all that much to the US in a practical sense. Current technology allows the US to gain access to missile test information, whether the data is formally shared or not. Rogin notes:
Many insiders see the telemetry issue as somewhat of a red herring. New verification and tracking technologies, most of them classified, can provide the same capability without the Russians directly providing the data.
Rogin’s source adds:
Everybody knows that telemetry is bullshit [substantively], but it’s become an issue nonetheless.
So why are US negotiators fighting furiously over something pointless? Well, because conservative members of the Senate, especially Jon Kyl are looking for any little thing to blow up and use to oppose the treaty. Therefore to appease Jon Kyl, US negotiators have to go to the mat on something pointless. Travis Sharp of CNAS, explains:
For the United States, the politics matter because certain senators will go nuts without access to the data.
By constraining the hand of US negotiators, Kyl and other conservatives are, as a result, giving the Russians more leverage in these negotiations.