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Nuclear Risk Reduction: center promotes clarity that weapons treaties require.

When the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, otherwise known as New START, entered into force in February, the Department's Nuclear Risk Reduction Center in Washington, D.C., and its counterpart at the Russian Ministry of Defense in Moscow assumed responsibility for transmitting the treaty's required notifications. This month, both sides will begin exchanging data on their strategic weapons and facilities and resume the onsite inspections that allow each side to follow the maxim "trust, but verify."

The new treaty, the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades, promotes strategic stability between the United States and Russia, reducing the limits on nuclear weapons and launchers that the United States and Russia deploy while fully maintaining America's nuclear deterrent. The treaty's verification regime uses extensive data exchanges and timely notifications, and includes onsite inspections, exhibitions and restrictions on where treaty-limited items may be located, plus additional transparency measures. The messages exchanged between the Russian and American NRRCs provide real-time transparency regarding the numbers and locations of deployed and non-deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers able to carry nuclear weapons.

Testing Notification

The treaty requires both sides to notify each other before testing long-range ballistic missiles. When the U.S. Air Force plans a test launch of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, for example, it must notify Russia in advance. The notification process begins when the Air Force sends a message about the launch to the Department of Defense's Arms Control Enterprise System. The message is then routed through a series of steps to ensure that it is accurate and that the U.S. government's arms control offices are aware of what is to be transmitted. Then, at the NRRC in Washington, the information is verified again to make sure it meets the treaty requirements and transmitted to the Russian government.


All of these steps must happen quickly, sometimes in under an hour. The process works much the same way when the Russian government notifies the United States about its activities. But in that case the NRRC must translate the message from Russian into English before disseminating it to various U.S. government offices. These include the North American Aerospace Defense Command, National Military Command Center, State Department, National Security Council and others.


Created at Summit

The idea for the NRRC originated at the 1985 Geneva Summit when President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to have their experts explore establishing centers to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Those talks led to the NRRC's creation in 1987. Separate from the more famous Hot Line reserved for the Russian and American presidents, the NRRCs are special diplomatic communication links intended to provide reliable, rapid and secure transmission of notifications and government-to-government communications.

The U.S. and Russian NRRCs became operational in April 1988, and exchanged notifications associated with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which took effect that June. As the United States has entered into additional arms control agreements, its NRRC has assumed additional responsibilities for the agreements' exchanges of data. Today, it supports 16 treaty and agreement notification regimes, including the 1999 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures, the Open Skies Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. The Department's NRRC is also the transmission point for notifications to the Immediate Central Contact for the implementation of the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.

Operating 24 hours a day, the NRRC in Washington is staffed by 26 employees, plus six communications staff members provided by the Bureau of Information Resource Management. The staff is drawn from the Civil Service, Foreign Service and U.S. military and have been qualified in one or more of the treaty's five languages other than English: Russian, French, Spanish, German and Italian. The staff expeditiously handles thousands of messages per year, ranging from relatively routine to extremely high priority.

Foreign Service officer Beth Herbolich, an NRRC watch officer, said the NRRC in Washington is a unique work experience because she's part of implementing important arms control treaties, and the office itself is a "unique operations environment with a collegial mixture of Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel contributing to a very effective team."

Mission Broadens

The NRRC was the first direct communications link established with the Soviet Union since the 1963 launch of the Hot Line. By increasing transparency through exchange of bilateral notifications regarding strategic matters, especially test launches of ballistic missiles, the NRRC reduced the risk that misunderstandings regarding strategic weapons could escalate into a nuclear confrontation. The center's mission has since evolved to encompass notifications associated not just with nuclear weapons but also with conventional and chemical weapons.


The NRRC in Washington is extensively modernizing its information technology procedures and hardware to allow it to more effectively process and transmit communications rapidly and accurately to an increasing number of partners and ensure its preparedness to operate in a hostile cyber security environment.

"This modernization will help us leverage NRRC versatility to meet 21st-century communication opportunities and to meet evolving security challenges," said Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance and chief negotiator for the New START Treaty. "Knowing we have this sort of facility with this kind of capacity molds and facilitates effective arms control negotiation."

Jonathan Winward, a Civil Service staff member and the NRRCs bilateral staff officer, said, "Implementing the New START Treaty while we're modernizing the computer and communication systems is very challenging, but it's rewarding to be a part of such an historic event."

Under an agreement between the departments of State and Defense, the NRRCs deputy staff director is always an active-duty colonel in the U.S. military. The current deputy staff director, Samuel McNiel, said, "As a junior officer, I was on alert in ICBM launch control centers ready to execute a launch order in just a few seconds. Now, I get to help make sure that order is never given because of a miscalculation or misinterpretation of a test launch."

NRRC staff officers advise the Department's policy and operational offices on issues affecting arms control communications and notification-processing functions. The center maintains a central role in coordinating with the interagency and international partners that generate or act upon the arms control notifications exchanged via the NRRC.

The NRRC has a crucial role in implementing U.S. arms control commitments and is a reliable conduit for exchanging notifications with foreign governments and international organizations under an increasing list of international agreements. Through such exchanges, the center plays a critical role in maintaining mutual security between the United States and its treaty partners.

By adapting its procedures and structure to an expanding role, the NRRC has become a model for implementing 21st-century arms control. Staff Director Ned Williams summed up the center's mission by saying, "The NRRC stands ready for new missions as the United States is committed to providing global leadership for new and ever more effective arms control."

The author is a special assistant in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.
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Title Annotation:Office of the Month
Author:Mannina, Jamie
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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