"Adapting the U.S. Approach to Arms Control and Nonproliferation to a New Era"

Remarks from Pranay Vaddi, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Arms Control, Disarmament, and Nonproliferation at the National Security Council

June 7, 2024

Thank you for that introduction, Daryl.

You know, as you went through your list of the different things I’ve been doing in this current job, I just immediately felt my energy leave my body thinking about how busy we’ve been.

Pranay Vaddi speaking at the ACA Annual meeting in Washington, D.C., June 7, 2024 (Photo: Arms Control Association)

But I really do appreciate that kind introduction—and I want to thank the Arms Control Association for bringing us all together today for this important set of conversations.

And most importantly, I want to thank all of you for giving me this opportunity to address you—to update you on where things stand in the administration’s approach to this important set of issues.

Since the dawn of the nuclear era, the United States has focused on a central goal: reducing the risk of a catastrophic nuclear conflict occurring.

President Biden has been personally committed to reducing nuclear dangers throughout his career—and since day one of this administration.

We are committed to seeking the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all;

To upholding strategic stability;

To working with allies and partners to strengthen arms control and nonproliferation under the rules-based international order;

And to reducing the global salience of nuclear weapons.

We have pursued these goals with urgency, as well as pragmatism—

Balancing the imperative to maintain the capability and will to deter aggression or a nuclear attack;

Against the need to control the build-up and further spread of nuclear weapons.

The need for this dual track approach was described aptly by President Carter, who said, “National weakness, real or perceived, can tempt aggression and thus cause war.”

“That's why the United States can never neglect its military strength.”

“We must and we will remain strong.”

“But with equal determination,” he went on to say, “the United States and all countries must find ways to control and reduce the horrifying danger that is posed by the enormous world stockpiles of nuclear arms.”

In the period following the Cold War, the world made significant progress in reducing nuclear dangers thanks to U.S. leadership—

Together, we reduced the salience of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction threats;

We strengthened the international nonproliferation regime and the global commitment to nuclear security;

And we limited the strategic arsenals of the largest nuclear powers.

Just fifteen years ago, we would have celebrated the trajectory that we were on.

But the last decade has revealed cracks in each of these pillars—

Cracks that, as the National Security Advisor said at this forum last year, run substantial and deep.

Russia, the PRC and North Korea are all expanding and diversifying their nuclear arsenals at a breakneck pace—showing little or no interest in arms control.

Those three, together with Iran, are increasingly cooperating and coordinating with each other—in ways that run counter to peace and stability, threaten the United States, our allies and our partners, and exacerbate regional tension.

They are also freely proliferating advanced missile and drone technology among one other, and around the globe.

They also possess capabilities relevant to chemical and biological warfare that pose a threat to the United States and allied and partner forces, as well as civilian populations—

Russian forces have even used chemical weapons and riot control agents on the battlefield in Ukraine—in violation of Moscow’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

This is a new and dangerous era marked by evolving proliferation risks and rapid changes in technology.

It’s an era that demands we adapt both our strategy and our solutions.

So today, I want to describe how we are adapting our approach to arms control and nonproliferation for this new era.

In each pillar—

  • Demonstrating what it means to take action as a responsible nuclear power;
  • Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons;
  • And continuing to pursue arms control arrangements;

There should be no question—we have adjusted our strategy to account for a more complex and worsening security environment.

But we are in no way abandoning our principles. We are taking a more competitive approach.

First, this administration remains determined to lead by the power of our example—

To show what it means to act responsibly as a nuclear power—and encourage others to do same.

To ensure that all five nuclear weapon states live up to their statement that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

In terms of our capabilities, we are developing and fielding only what is required to deter.

The President recently issued updated nuclear weapons employment guidance, which takes into account the realities of a new nuclear era.

It emphasizes the need to account for the growth and diversity of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal—and the need to deter Russia, the PRC, and North Korea simultaneously.

It also reaffirms our commitment to use arms control and other tools to minimize the number of nuclear weapons needed to achieve U.S. objectives.

And reiterates that the United States will continue to abide by New START limits for the duration of the Treaty, so long as Russia does the same.

Unlike our adversaries, we will not develop radiation-spewing, nuclear-powered cruise missiles—

Or nuclear weapons designed to be placed in orbit—which would be a clear violation of the Outer Space Treaty.

We will continue to uphold the global norm against nuclear explosive testing.

We remain committed to bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force.

And we will ask the world to join us in supporting a treaty to cutoff production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

We will continue to forswear chemical and biological weapons, meet our obligations under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, and hold countries accountable for compliance.

Indeed, this administration completed the destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile last year—

A disarmament milestone decades in the making that earned our workers and technicians this Association’s distinction of Arms Control Persons of the Year for 2023.

In our doctrine, we have reaffirmed that U.S. nuclear weapons are reserved for deterring strategic attack by those that threaten us and our allies and partners with nuclear weapons.

And we will maintain a human in the loop for all decisions regarding nuclear weapon employment.

Together with the United Kingdom and France—and in stark contrast to the PRC—we have committed to transparency regarding our nuclear policies and forces.

However, we know that leading by example has only limited influence on our adversaries’ behaviors these days.

If they are unwilling to follow—and instead take steps to increase the salience of nuclear weapons—we will have no choice but to adjust our posture and capabilities to preserve deterrence and stability.

Stable deterrence—that is what we’re aiming for with our posture.

Toward that end, we are modernizing each leg of our nuclear triad, updating our nuclear command, control, and communication systems, and investing in our nuclear enterprise—to ensure that we can sustain, and if necessary, enhance our capabilities and posture.

We remain confident in our position today.

And, as the National Security Advisor made clear, we do not need to increase our nuclear forces to match or outnumber the combined total of our competitors to successfully deter them.

But without a change in the trajectory that Russia, the PRC, and North Korea are on—

The United States will need to continue to adjust our posture and capabilities to ensure our ability to deter and meet other objectives going forward.

We have already taken some prudent steps in this regard.

For example, we decided to pursue the B61-13 gravity bomb to provide an additional capability against certain harder and large-area military targets—

And that will allow us to move beyond the outdated megaton-class B83-1 that we seek to retire.

We are also seeking to extend the life of certain Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines to provide additional margin during the transition from legacy to modern capabilities across the triad.

The B61-13 is an example of a qualitative improvement to our arsenal that aligns with our approach—

It will enhance deterrence without increasing overall numbers, unduly stressing the existing program of record, or requiring any substantial new resources that would force a trade-off with other defense priorities.

As we consider potential adjustments, we will carefully keep in mind—

  • the implications for strategic stability;
  • the capacity of our defense and nuclear enterprise;
  • and competing budget priorities.

We’re focused on a “better” approach, not necessarily a “more” approach—which will require some creative solutions, and potentially discrete capabilities that fill an important niche.

But let me be clear—

Absent a change in the trajectory of adversary arsenals, we may reach a point in the coming years where an increase from current deployed numbers is required—

And we need to be fully prepared to execute if the President makes that decision—if he makes that decision.

If that day does come, it will result from a determination that more nuclear weapons are required to deter our adversaries and protect the American people and our allies and partners.

It will not be a simplistic calculation that more for them requires more for us.

The second area of focus for our administration is preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and other strategic capabilities by strengthening the global nonproliferation regime.

Extended deterrence has been one of our greatest contributions to the nonproliferation regime.

For decades, U.S. security guarantees have persuaded many of our allies that they do not need to develop nuclear weapons of their own to deter against the greatest threats that they face.

The continued success of extended deterrence is not, however, a foregone conclusion—

Allies face ever increasing nuclear and conventional threats from Russia, the PRC, and North Korea, and may worry about the credibility of our guarantees.

Under the President’s leadership, we have fully invested in strengthening our alliance system—to ensure that extended deterrence continues to contribute to nonproliferation.

The Washington Declaration between the United States and South Korea is an example of our efforts to jointly approach nuclear scenarios with our allies, as equal partners.

NATO is also taking steps to improve its capabilities, posture, exercises, and planning.

This is work we are advancing ahead of the Washington Summit—to account for Russia’s actions in Europe, including in the nuclear domain.

In both Asia and Europe, we are looking for ways that allies can contribute to nuclear deterrence—

Whether by easing the burden on U.S. conventional or dual-capable forces, or stepping up their conventional support to U.S. nuclear operations in a contingency.

Enabling greater participation will increase allied confidence in U.S. security guarantees and achieve this extended deterrence for nonproliferation approach that we’ve taken.

This administration also continues to uphold the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as the cornerstone of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime—

We are committed to advancing all three NPT pillars: disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

We are reestablishing U.S. leadership in the peaceful use of nuclear energy by making significant investments in our domestic industry and banning Russian uranium imports—

And, we are using that leadership to ensure that new reactor designs integrate the highest standards of safety, security, and safeguards;

To export our nonproliferation values through nuclear supply arrangements;

And to prevent the spread of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology to new countries.

We are also seeking to establish nonproliferation norms as part of the Administration’s effort to accelerate the development of fusion energy—

And are working with likeminded countries to establish a framework for guardrails on fusion energy systems, equipment, and related materials.  

We are committed to working closely with the IAEA to maintain the safe, secure, and peaceful use of nuclear technology—

Including on AUKUS, where we are working to set the highest nonproliferation standard as part of our cooperation with Australia and the United Kingdom. 

A related aspect of our nonproliferation policy is strategic trade controls.

We have traditionally worked through the multilateral arrangements to limit the spread of long-range missile technology that could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.

And we continue to advance strategic trade controls internationally by

  • improving coordination among like-minded partners;
  • strengthening existing multilateral regimes;
  • and taking steps to address any gaps that may emerge.

But there are limits to this consensus-based approach in a more competitive environment.

Our adversaries are blatantly disregarding their commitments and standing in the way of reforms.

To support its war in Ukraine, Russia has turned to the PRC to prop up its defense industrial base, North Korea to provide artillery and missiles, and Iran to provide missiles and drones.

Russia is increasing its defense cooperation with all three, and creating concerns as to what capabilities and know-how Russia may share as payment for the assistance it is receiving.

It has also been blocking new controls from being implemented on the most advanced technologies in the Wassenaar Arrangement.

Given the blatant steps by our adversaries to undermine the Missile Technology Control Regime, we are working to streamline our trade and cooperation to boost allied and partner defense capabilities—particularly with regard to long-range strike.

We are calibrating our “small yard, high fence” of controls to ensure that we can enable our allies and partners to strengthen their defense and deterrence.

We are looking to create new opportunities for exports and co-production that have been challenging because of existing controls and licensing requirements—

Not only within AUKUS but among a broader set of allies and partners.

A final area where our nonproliferation policy has adapted has been with regard to Iran.

The President remains as resolved as ever to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon—and we are prepared to use all elements of national power to ensure that outcome.

We have been increasing pressure on Iran through a combination of sanctions, deterrence, and international isolation—

Including sanctioning over 700 additional individuals and entities connected to the full range of Iran’s problematic and dangerous behaviors in this administration.

We have long said that diplomacy is the best way to achieve a sustainable, effective solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s escalations related to its nuclear program, support for Russia, and support for Hamas have undermined our ability to compartmentalize Iran-related issues—and caused us to lose opportunities for multilateral diplomacy.

We must, therefore, focus on setting the conditions for future diplomacy.

By taking steps to underscore to Iran the consequences of its nuclear escalations;

  • Building leverage;
  • Redoubling coordination with key partners;
  • Encouraging the PRC to press Iran to cease destabilizing behavior;
  • And insisting that Iran fully cooperate with the IAEA, and not further escalate its nuclear program. 

Earlier this week, we voted in favor of a Board of Governors resolution that calls out Iran for its lack of cooperation with the IAEA.

We also supported a comprehensive report by the IAEA to provide a greater understanding of the Agency’s outstanding concerns regarding Iran.

Such a report will be important as we approach a key inflection point in October 2025—when the UN Security Council could close consideration of the Iran nuclear issue under Resolution 2231.

Above all, our objective has been and will remain a diplomatic solution that ensures that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.

For the third pillar of our approach, we continue to prioritize arms control.

U.S. leadership on arms control and risk reduction makes tangible contributions to global security—

It also affirms the importance that we place on taking “tangible steps” under Article 6 of the NPT;

And it builds our credibility with close allies and partners and non-aligned countries.

The President made clear at the UN last September that “no matter what else is happening in the world, the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures.”

We are upholding that promise by thinking through what a future arms control agreement with Russia after New START might look like.

In any future agreement, our goal will be to reduce nuclear threats to the United States and our allies and partners by limiting and shaping adversary nuclear forces.

Without a doubt, the type of limits we will be able to agree to with Russia will be impacted by the size and scale of the PRC’s nuclear buildup, and U.S. deterrence needs vis-à-vis Beijing.

We are also investing in new monitoring and verification technologies and approaches—

Both to solidify existing agreements and set the stage for a future where the arms control arrangement, subject matter, and implementation may be very different than the past.

What’s more, this Administration is vigorously pursuing the arms control opportunities that do exist.

We’re pushing for results-based discussions at every major multilateral body that seeks to limit nuclear and other WMD risks:

  • The United Nations;
  • The NPT Preparatory Committee and Review Conference;
  • The P5;
  • The Conference on Disarmament;
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention;
  • Among many others.

We are thinking creatively about the content and mechanisms of arms control—and pursuing opportunities when they arise, even where treaty-based solutions are not going to be available.

We’ve committed to not conduct destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing.

And put forth proposals for responsible behavior in space, and principles for the responsible military use of artificial intelligence—all unilaterally.

We are working to institutionalize new norms by bringing them into UN mechanisms.

We are also supporting arms control through accountability.

Together with our NATO allies, we suspended the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in response to Russia’s withdrawal—opening the possibility of larger U.S. conventional force deployments and exercises in Eastern Europe.

We enacted lawful countermeasures in response to Russia’s suspension of New START that ensure Moscow would garner no advantage.

States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention also voted to oust Russia from the governing body of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—

This was fitting given Russia’s continued violations of the Convention and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.

But at least in the near-term, the prospects for strategic arms control are dim.

Russia’s outright rejection of arms control dialogue casts a shadow over the likelihood of a New START successor after February 2026.

We must be prepared for that possibility—that these constraints disappear without replacement.

With the PRC, the United States offered a number of specific proposals focused on managing strategic risks in connection with a bilateral consultation held last year.

The PRC has shown no interest in engaging on these proposals and rejected holding a follow-on arms control-focused meeting.

With North Korea too, our attempts to engage on risk reduction and nuclear issues have been answered with more missile tests and greater hostility to us and our close allies.

In their outright refusal to even discuss arms control, Russia and the PRC are failing to meet their international obligations.

Practically speaking, they are forcing the United States and our close allies and partners to prepare for a world where nuclear competition occurs without numerical constraints.

The reality is that further enhancing our capabilities and posture is incredibly important to rejuvenating strategic arms control.

It will incentivize Russia and the PRC to engage in arms control;

Frame the subject matter at the heart of those engagements;

Provide the United States with leverage in those engagements;

And prepare us for an environment in which they may continue to refuse engagement.

We need to persuade our adversaries that managing rivalry through arms control is preferable to unrestrained competition across domains.

Let me close with this.

We should be under no illusions about the challenges ahead.

But we have a tremendous opportunity to chart a new path for arms control and nonproliferation—

Same goals, new approach.

I look forward to continuing to work with all of you to make that happen. Thanks for your time.