US agrees to notify other nations before launching ballistic missiles, satellites

By George Jahn, AP
Thursday, May 20, 2010

US agrees to announce missile launches

VIENNA — The United States has agreed to notify other nations before it launches most ballistic missile tests or satellites, in a measure that builds on a landmark arms agreement with Russia and is meant to encourage Moscow to reciprocate.

The American decision was contained in a confidential note made available Thursday to The Associated Press and confirmed by three diplomats familiar with the issue.

The move is less far-reaching — or binding — than the treaty signed last month by the U.S. and Russian presidents that outlines cuts in both nations’ massive nuclear arsenals. But it is significant in reflecting Washington’s determination to build on the success of that agreement.

For years, Russia voluntarily provided such pre-notifications regarding the launch of ballistic missile tests or satellites. But it stopped doing that two years ago, complaining that the U.S. and other nations were not following suit.

One senior diplomat familiar with the issue said that Moscow is now expected to resume its reporting. That would add to the confidence building that received a huge push with last month’s signing of the nuclear arms agreement.

“The United States … will provide pre-launch notification of commercial and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space launches as well as the majority of intercontinental ballistic and submarine-launched ballistic missile launches,” said the note forwarded to HCOC, an organization overseeing efforts to curb the spread of such weapons.

The wording indicated that not all missile tests would be subject to pre-notification, but it was not clear from the note what would be exempt.

The U.S. decision was conveyed to the other 129 HCOC member states on May 7, judging from the date on a cover letter accompanying the American note and signed by Austria’s Foreign Ministry, which administers the Vienna-based Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.

The U.S. initiative comes as Washington presses the U.S. Senate to ratify the arms reduction treaty signed April 9 in Prague with Russia, arguing the passage is vital to U.S. efforts to persuade other countries not to build atomic weapons.

If ratified, the New START pact would limit each country’s stockpile of nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current level of 2,200 — bringing the arsenals to a level last seen in the 1950s. The treaty would remain in effect for 10 years.

HCOC members plan to meet at the end of this month and the beginning of June, and the senior diplomat — who, like his colleagues, agreed to discuss the confidential issue in exchange for anonymity — said the Americans were expected to expand on their pre-notification plans then.

But his two counterparts said Washington already was acting on its commitment, with the U.S. administration informing the HCOC of NASA plans to launch Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center before the May 14 liftoff of the space shuttle.

In suspending its pre-launch notifications, the Russian Foreign Ministry had complained about many signatories of the code “chronically” failed to fulfill their obligations. It said the U.S. was not serving notices on launches of its ballistic missile tests — projectiles launched to drop on their targets from high altitudes — and about half of the signatories fail to submit annual declarations about their missile activities.

Four nuclear weapons states that adhere to the Nonproliferation Treaty — the U.S., Russia, Britain and France — are HCOC members. But China, the fifth, has not joined, nor have NCOC outsiders India and Pakistan, which both posses ballistic missile capabilities.

Other non members are North Korea — which has tested nuclear arms — and Iran, which the West fears is trying to develop a nuclear arms program. Both are believed to be working on long-range ballistic missiles capabilities.


Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

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