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Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
U.S., Russia Sign Missile- and Space-Launch Notification Deal

January/February 2001

By Philipp C. Bleek

Aiming to reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear war, the United States and Russia approved an agreement December 16 that is intended to decrease the possibility of false warning of a strategic missile attack by having Washington and Moscow inform each other of planned missile and space launches.

The accord is designed to facilitate the provision of early-warning information to the Joint Data Exchange Center in Moscow, at which the United States and Russia will exchange and jointly monitor missile-launch data in "near-real time." (See ACT, July/August 2000.) The agreement must be implemented within one year of its signing, a date timed to coincide with the deadline for the new center's opening.

Formally titled the "Memorandum of Understanding on Missile Launch Notifications," the new agreement was signed in Brussels by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and is expected to be made public in the coming weeks. It covers both pre- and post-launch notification and incorporates legally binding obligations as well as voluntary commitments that substantially exceed those contained in existing agreements.

A U.S. official involved with the agreement's negotiation indicated that for ballistic missile launches with a range greater than or maximum altitude higher than 500 kilometers, the agreement obligates notification, although combat launches can be exempted. For space launches, the official stated that the agreement "establishes a norm but allows exceptions," for example due to national security concerns. Finally, the agreement calls for voluntary notification of satellites forced from orbit and geophysical experiments "that could adversely affect the operation of early-warning radars," according to the State Department.

The two sides have repeatedly emphasized their intention to open the agreement to any other interested countries after it is implemented bilaterally. According to the official, the U.S. government considers the agreement as "laying the groundwork for a multilateral system."

The agreement extends beyond existing accords, providing for the notification of a far broader range of activities. Prior agreements date back to 1971, when the United States and the Soviet Union required notification of ballistic missile launches extending beyond their national territories and directed toward the other party. A range of subsequent agreements incorporated overlapping pre-launch notification requirements. The most far-reaching of these are the START I and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces pacts, which only govern specific missile systems.

According to a Pentagon official, one of the primary motivations for the new notification agreement's negotiation was a widely reported January 1995 incident in which Russia identified a U.S.-Norwegian scientific rocket launched from Norway's coast as a potential U.S. attack. In response, then-President Boris Yeltsin reportedly activated his nuclear briefcase to prepare for a retaliatory strike, only de-escalating after early-warning radar operators calculated that the missile would not impact on Russian soil.

The accord was negotiated in the context of ongoing U.S.-Russian "strategic stability" talks, which were originally intended to negotiate a START III agreement. Since the START process stalled, those talks have focused on a variety of second-tier arms control-related issues like early warning and fissile material disposition.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov met November 29-30 in Washington for what appears to be the final session of the talks under the Clinton administration, although the State Department declined to characterize the talks as a "final round."