"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Julia Masterson

CEND Working Groups Discuss Disarmament

January/February 2021

With the 10th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference delayed until August, a U.S. initiative to discuss nuclear disarmament issues will have the opportunity to hold more sessions before the conference. The Trump administration announced the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative in 2018, saying the planned meetings were aimed at addressing the underlying issues that may currently preclude global nuclear disarmament. Initiative participants met mostly virtually on Nov. 24 to exchange updates on the program’s three working subgroups and to discuss further engagement with civil society.

Civil society experts have played an important role in the initiative’s work, serving as facilitators for each subgroup, which focus on reductions in the perceived incentives for states to retain their nuclear arsenals, mechanisms to bolster nonproliferation efforts, and measures to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons in the interim. At the November meeting, an open conversation centered on modalities for the CEND initiative to work most effectively and on efforts to engage civil society.

“The CEND initiative has now ‘graduated’ to being something more [than a U.S. initiative]. It is clearly now a much broader initiative that belongs to all of its participants. That is gratifying and very important,” said Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, who leads the effort, in opening remarks to the meeting.

Ford said the United States anticipates hosting two to three in-person CEND meetings each year, and he added that plenary sessions have been scheduled for late autumn 2021 and spring 2023.—JULIA MASTERSON

CEND Working Groups Discuss Disarmament

Iran Passes Nuclear Law

Iran Passes Nuclear Law Iran’s parliament and Guardian Council passed legislation Dec. 2 requiring Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its nuclear activities in 60 days if certain sanctions relief measures are not met. The Nov. 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, regarded as among Iran’s top nuclear scientists, likely accelerated the legislation. The legislation, which is expected to become law in the coming days, will require the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to cease implementing the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement 60 days after enactment if certain...

Iran Grows Uranium Stockpile

December 2020
By Julia Masterson

Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium continues to expand, according to a Nov. 11 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran has now accumulated 2,443 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 4.5 percent, roughly 12 times the limit of 202 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium set by the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Iranian Amb. Kazzem Gharibabadi speaks to a virtual meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors on Nov. 20. Attending the meeting in a sparsely attended board room are IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi (left) and Amb. Heidi Alberta Hulan of Canada, who began her one-year term as board chairperson in September. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA) The latest quarterly report describes these ongoing JCPOA breaches and suggests that Iran is moving carefully to avoid steps that could impede a U.S. reentry to the nuclear deal or its own future return to full compliance with the accord. The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, and Iran has subsequently exceeded a number of the agreement’s limitations.

The IAEA report states that Iran’s enriched uranium production has slowed significantly over the last quarter when compared to the previous three reporting periods. Tehran produced 338 kilograms of enriched uranium over the last quarter, down from 533 kilograms in JuneSeptember 2020 and the smallest increase in a year. Iran has also not taken any additional steps to violate the accord since announcing in January 2020 it would no longer be bound by any of the deal’s operational restrictions. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Nevertheless, frustration with the nuclear deal appears to be mounting in Tehran. The Iranian Parliament voted on Nov. 3 to approve provisionally a bill requiring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to enrich uranium up to 20 percent at the Fordow facility and to take other steps in further violation of the nuclear deal. Although the resolution is not binding, it could signal an effort by Iranian lawmakers to pressure the incoming Biden administration to reenter the nuclear deal quickly and without conditions.

In addition, Iran continues to operate advanced centrifuges in violation of the JCPOA, but the Nov. 11 report details Iran’s decision to transfer cascades of centrifuges from the pilot plant to the main enrichment hall at Natanz instead of building three new equivalent cascades, as it had previously announced. In July, Tehran notified the IAEA that it would move three cascades comprised of IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges to the Natanz enrichment facility. But in September, the IAEA reported that Iran would instead construct three new cascades at Natanz and that it would cease operation of the corresponding machines at the pilot plant.

Iran’s decision to duplicate its IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 cascades was worrisome in part because it would have left Iran with additional advanced centrifuges to use in the event that it chose to accelerate its production of enriched uranium. Moving the existing cascades from the pilot plant to the enrichment hall reduces the total number of centrifuges that could have been installed in Iran.

The Nov. 11 report indicates that only the cascade of IR-2m centrifuges had been moved to the Natanz enrichment hall and that they were not yet enriching uranium. One week later, however, in his Nov. 18 remarks to the agency’s Board of Governors, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi noted the release of a new report containing an update on Iran’s nuclear activities. That report has not been made public, but a section from the report quoted in a Nov. 18 article by Reuters outlines that, on Nov. 14, the IAEA “verified that Iran began feeding [uranium hexafluoride gas] into the recently installed cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges” at Natanz.

Kazzem Qaribabadi, Iranian ambassador and permanent representative to the IAEA, confirmed the information on Nov. 18.

The enrichment of uranium using IR-2m machines at Natanz marks another violation of the JCPOA, which dictates that Iran operate only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at that facility. In her Nov. 18 statement before the Board of Governors, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jackie Wolcott condemned Iran’s decision to enrich uranium with IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz and urged Tehran to “reverse these steps immediately.”

As noted in the Nov. 11 report, Tehran informed the agency that the decision to move the centrifuges was made “with the aim that eventually all of the enrichment [research and development] activities will be concentrated in this area,” but it is possible that Iran was also motivated to move the cascades after an apparent act of sabotage on its centrifuge assembly facility in July caused significant damage to its advanced machines. The Natanz enrichment hall is underground and presumably more protected from sabotage attacks.

Iran has since begun construction of a building to replace the centrifuge assembly facility at Natanz that was damaged during the July attack although that new facility is not mentioned in the IAEA report. But Grossi made clear during an Oct. 27 interview that the IAEA is monitoring Iran’s construction activities at Natanz, indicating that Iran is committed to maintaining compliance with its safeguards agreement.

The IAEA has “not observed any change in the level of cooperation by Iran,” according to the Nov. 11 report, which outlines that Iran continues to provisionally implement an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and is cooperating with the continuous monitoring measures put in place by the nuclear deal.

The IAEA generally does not disclose information related to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreements in its quarterly monitoring reports, but the Nov. 11 report notes Iran’s failure to provide a satisfactory response to the IAEA investigation into isotopically altered uranium particles found during a visit to an undeclared site in February 2019. The agency has made clear that these particles date to before 2003, when Iran was assessed by the IAEA to have had a nuclear weapons program.

The Nov. 11 report details that although Iran told the IAEA on Oct. 21 that “the evidence of such contamination is under investigation” and later provided more information to the agency in a Nov. 5 letter, Iran’s response was “not technically credible” and so far has been unsatisfactory.

Iran has now produced about 12 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed by the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran’s Accumulation of Enriched Uranium Slows

Although the troubling growth of Iran’s uranium enrichment stockpile continues, the most recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicates that Tehran’s accumulation of enriched uranium slowed over the past quarter. It is concerning that Iran continues to breach limits set by the nuclear deal, but the slower stockpile growth and no indication of new violations suggests Tehran is showing restraint so as not to cross any red lines that might imperil a U.S. re-entry into the nuclear deal and return to full compliance by all parties down the road. Iran’s stockpile of...

Novichok Used in Russia, OPCW Finds

November 2020
By Julia Masterson

A nerve agent was used to poison Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed Oct. 6. The OPCW findings corroborated earlier independent conclusions by German, French, and Swedish laboratories. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Emergency personnel load the portable isolation unit used to transport Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny to a Berlin hospital on Aug. 22, 2020. The OPCW has confirmed other assessments that he was poisoned with a chemical agent. (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)According to the global chemical watchdog, the toxins detected in Navalny’s bloodstream shared unique similarities to Novichok agents, including those that were added to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of banned Schedule 1 agents in June 2020.

The CWC general-purpose criterion prohibits the use of any toxic agent as a chemical weapon, and the inclusion of a chemical agent on the CWC list of Schedule 1 substances goes a step further to obligate the declaration and destruction of those specific agents. For instance, the Novichok compound A-234, which was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in 2018, is now required to be declared under the treaty. The Skripal incident triggered efforts by CWC states-parties to add Novichok agents to the list of Schedule 1 substances in November 2019. Four Novichok entries were ultimately added to the annex on chemical weapons after that amendment entered into force on June 7, 2020. (See ACT, December 2019.)

But the OPCW statement noted that although “the biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Mr. Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics to toxic chemicals belonging to [Schedule 1],” the specific Novichok agent used to poison Navalny in August 2020 was not among those included in the amendment to the convention’s annex on chemicals.

Gregory Koblentz, who directs biodefense graduate programs at George Mason University, said in an Oct. 6 tweet that the OPCW language suggests a similar Novichok agent, called A-262, was used to poison Navalny. He explained that A-262 agents combine features of two of the chemicals already included in Schedule 1, which were cited by the OPCW as having similar structural characteristics to the agent used on Navalny.

Koblentz detailed in a Sept. 30, 2019, article in The Nonproliferation Review that the presence of an additional nitrogen atom in A-262 and in similar Novichok compounds precluded their inclusion in the updated annex on chemicals, meaning that they were technically not subject to declaration and destruction following the CWC amendment.

The OPCW statement on Oct. 6 clarified that despite the specific agent’s absence from the annex on chemicals, “the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstance [is] reprehensible and wholly contrary to the legal norms established by the international community.” OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias called on states-parties to uphold the global norm against chemical weapons use.

Despite Russian denials, French and German officials have maintained their suspicions of Moscow’s involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, which occurred on a domestic flight in Russia on Aug. 20. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Oct. 7 that Russia is not developing chemical weapons and that it is in full compliance with its treaty obligations, but a French and German statement issued the same day countered that “no credible explanation [for the incident] has been provided by Russia so far.”

Their statement concluded that “there is no other plausible explanation for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning than a Russian involvement and responsibility.” They successfully argued for European countries to impose economic sanctions against Russian officials presumed responsible for the attack.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced on Oct. 12 that the vote to impose sanctions “was a complete acceptance by all member states,” but did not name the extent or the individual targets of the sanctions.

The United Kingdom also imposed sanctions against Russian officials allegedly responsible for the poisoning of Navalny, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced in an Oct. 15 tweet.

According to the OPCW, the Russian Foreign Ministry sent a letter Oct. 1 requesting assistance from the watchdog’s Technical Secretariat. Arias responded in an Oct. 2 letter seeking clarification from Moscow on the reasoning for the requested dispatch of the Technical Secretariat, noting that experts could be deployed to Russia on short notice. It remains unclear whether the OPCW has since launched its technical assistance to Russia.

The OPCW findings pursuant to the use of Novichok were reported ahead of the OPCW Executive Council meeting, which convened Oct. 6–9. The CWC conference of states-parties will meet Nov. 30–Dec. 4, where the incident will likely be subject to further discussion.


The world’s chemical watchdog confirmed earlier findings that Russian political dissident Alexander Navalny was poisoned.

Syria Fails to Meet OPCW Deadline

Novemer 2020
By Julia Masterson

Syria failed to meet the deadline to declare the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), according to an Oct. 14 report by the global chemical weapons watchdog.

OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias (left) addresses an Oct. 6 session of the agency's Executive Council. Syria has failed to comply with a council deadline to declare its full chemical weapons program. (Photo: OPCW)That deadline was mandated by a July 9 decision of the OPCW Executive Council obligating Syria to declare the totality of its chemical weapons program, including the facilities where precursors, munitions, and devices are stockpiled and assembled, within 90 days. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Chemical weapons have continued to be used in Syria despite the destruction of the nation’s declared stockpile accompanying its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2013. The council’s July decision followed an inaugural April 8 report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) that attributed responsibility for a series of chemical weapons attacks using sarin and chlorine in March 2017 to the Syrian air force. (See ACT, May 2020.)

The council’s decision called on Syria to declare, specifically, sarin, sarin precursors, and chlorine not intended for civilian use. Sarin is a treaty-banned agent, and states are barred from producing, stockpiling, or using the nerve agent under any circumstances. Chlorine is not a chemical agent explicitly banned by the convention because it has civilian applications, but the treaty’s general-purpose criterion prohibits the use of any chemical as a weapon. Treaty members are not ordinarily required to declare or destroy any chlorine in their possession, but Syria is an exceptional case given that the IIT confirmed that the Syrian air force used chlorine in attacks.

According to the new OPCW report, Director-General Fernando Arias sent a letter to the Syrian deputy foreign minister outlining Syria’s obligations established by the council’s decision. Arias professed a readiness by the OPCW Technical Secretariat to support Syria in its fulfillment of the prescribed mandate, but the Syrian Foreign Ministry did not respond to the letter.

The OPCW report notes that although Syria failed to meet the 90-day deadline to declare the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile and associated facilities, “the secretariat will continue to implement all of its mandates with regard to the Syrian chemical weapons program.”

Next steps may be taken in accordance with the council’s July decision to recommend action under Article XII of the CWC at the next conference of states-parties. That article outlines a series of steps to redress a situation that ultimately ends in referral to the United Nations. It states that in cases where a state-party fails to fulfill an Executive Council request with regard to its compliance with the treaty, “the conference may, inter alia, upon the recommendation of the Executive Council, restrict or suspend the state-party’s rights and privileges under this convention until it undertakes the necessary action to conform with its obligations under this convention.”

Those rights and privileges are not explicitly named by the convention, but could include a loss of voting privileges and a moratorium of technical assistance under the CWC, among other things.

The states-parties are scheduled to meet next from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, and British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab tweeted on Oct. 14 that the United Kingdom will initiate such action at the upcoming conference. “Chemical weapons use must end,” he said.

The Oct. 14 report also states that the secretariat will share its findings with the UN Security Council, which possesses the authority to impose more punitive consequences.

Damascus has denied all allegations of involvement in the ongoing use of chemical weapons in Syria. According to a Sept. 29 story by the Syrian Arab News Agency, “Syria has fulfilled its obligations since its accession to the [CWC,] and it has destroyed all of its stockpile since the year 2014.”

But an Oct. 6 analysis by Foreign Policy of an unpublished U.S. State Department report for Congress reveals a U.S. assumption that Syria intends to rebuild its chemical weapons stockpile and its production capabilities. The State Department reportedly conveyed its assessment that Syria is “seeking to reestablish strategic weapons production capabilities it lost in the course of the [civil war] conflict” and that “Syrian procurement activity in support of its chemical weapons and missile programs” is ongoing.

Despite mounting frustration among those in the international community seeking to hold Syrian officials accountable for the ongoing reprehensible use of chemical weapons in violation of international law and the CWC, there is evidence to suggest a growing movement to prosecute those responsible. In Germany, where there is universal jurisdiction permitting prosecution for crimes against humanity committed worldwide, a group of Syrian survivors filed criminal complaints against ranking officials of the Syrian government and armed forces for their involvement in the ongoing chemical weapons attacks.

According to an Oct. 6 Reuters article, the effort represents “a rare legal avenue for action against the government of [Syrian] President Bashar al-Assad.” This is because earlier attempts to establish an international tribunal to prosecute Assad for war crimes have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Russia and China.

The UN International, Impartial, Independent Mechanism (IIIM) tasked with the investigation of crimes committed in violation of international law in Syria has existed since 2011, but it lacks authority to actually prosecute those responsible. The IIIM mandate, however, calls for collecting evidence to assist in the criminal proceedings of those tried in national and international courts or tribunals, and the Executive Council’s July 9 decision welcomed a memorandum of understanding between the OPCW and the IIIM.

It remains to be seen whether the OPCW will play a role in the forthcoming legal action taken in accordance with the criminal complaints filed in Germany.

Short of criminal prosecution, the European Union voted on Oct. 12 to extend sanctions on a list of individuals and entities responsible for the use of chemical weapons for one year, until Oct. 16, 2021. Five individuals and one organization affiliated with the Syrian chemical weapons program are subject to those sanctions.

Damascus continues to stymie international efforts to curb its production and use of chemical weapons.

UN Restrictions on Iran’s Arms Trade Expire

UN Restrictions on Iran’s Arms Trade Expire Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described the expiration of UN restrictions on Iran’s conventional arms trade as “momentous,” but said Tehran will not go on a weapons “buying spree.” The UN arms embargo ended Oct. 18 under the terms of Resolution 2231 , which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and modified UN sanctions on Iran. The United States sought to prevent the expiration of the UN measures by snapping back Security Council sanctions on Iran using a provision in Resolution 2231 that cannot be blocked by veto. However, the Security...

OPCW to Investigate Navalny Poisoning

October 2020
By Julia Masterson

The international agency overseeing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) aided in a preliminary investigation into the recent illness of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned by a dangerous chemical agent, according to multiple
test analyses.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches in a Moscow demonstration on Feb. 29. He fell ill in August after an alleged attack with a chemical agent. (Photo: by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)Navalny was reportedly given the agent on Aug. 20 in Russia, where he received initial medical treatment before being flown to Germany, where doctors assessed that he had been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, a substance banned under the CWC. The finding was corroborated by laboratories in France and Sweden, according to German government spokesman Steffen Seibert. He said on Sept. 14 that samples of the nerve agent detected in Navalny’s system were also sent to The Hague for additional tests at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the treaty’s implementing body. He called on Russia to “explain these events.”

The OPCW announced on Sept. 17 that it provided technical assistance to Germany regarding the allegations of chemical weapons use against Navalny. According to the OPCW, “[A] team of experts from the Technical Secretariat independently collected biomedical samples from Mr. Navalny for analysis by OPCW designated laboratories.” The analyses of those samples are forthcoming, the watchdog said.

Using toxic agents, even in the poisoning of a single individual, is considered use of chemical weapons and is prohibited under the 1997 CWC. Following news of Navalny’s poisoning, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias said on Sept. 3, “States-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention deem the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances as reprehensible and wholly contrary to the legal norms established by the international community.”

The treaty’s near universality strengthens the well-established global norm against chemical weapons use. Just four states—Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan—are not party to the convention and therefore not subject to the treaty’s prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

Novichok was added to the CWC list of banned substances as a Schedule 1 agent in November 2019, after states-parties voted to amend the treaty’s Annex on Chemical Weapons to include Novichok as among the most tightly controlled agents that states are prohibited from producing, transporting, stockpiling, or using. Under the CWC, these Schedule 1 agents are those with “little or no use for purposes not prohibited” under the treaty. That amendment entered into force on June 7, 2020. (See ACT, December 2019.)

The 2018 poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom triggered the campaign by CWC members to amend the annex, subjecting countries in possession of the nerve agent to the treaty’s most stringent verification and declaration requirements. Moscow is widely believed responsible for that attack, but although the OPCW conducted sample analyses of the agent used on Skripal and confirmed Novichok was used, Russia was never held accountable in the OPCW. (See ACT, May 2018.)

The CWC bans the use of any chemical as a chemical weapon, but the addition of Novichok to the treaty’s list of tightly controlled Schedule 1 agents grants the international chemical watchdog a newfound political ability not only to determine whether the agent used in Navalny’s poisoning originated in Russia, but also to impose punitive consequences for violating the treaty if that conclusion is reached.

“The first step is for the OPCW to complete the assessment of the samples it gathered in Germany,” Gregory Koblentz, an expert on chemical and biological weapons and the director of biodefense graduate programs at George Mason University, told Arms Control Today. Should the OPCW conclude that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, the other states-parties to the CWC would likely pressure Russia to declare its past research and development of the nerve agent and to destroy any existing stockpiles or production capabilities. If Russia refuses to cooperate, states may demand a challenge inspection under the CWC into any suspected chemical weapons production or storage facilities in Russia.

“Since that provision of the treaty has never been invoked, the OPCW would be entering uncharted waters,” Koblentz said. “It’s too soon to predict how this will play out.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sept. 9 that there is a “substantial chance” that senior officials in Moscow were behind the attack. He warned that “this will prove costly for the Russians.”

Russia has vehemently denied allegations that the Kremlin was involved in the attack on Navalny and has accused Germany and its allies of victimizing Moscow over the dissident’s poisoning.

The governing Executive Council of the OPCW is scheduled to meet next in early October, where the incident will likely be subject to further discussion.


Recent changes to the CWC empower the treaty’s implementing organization to undertake more stringent reviews of certain chemicals.

North Korea Continues Uranium Enrichment

October 2020
By Julia Masterson

A new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on North Korea reveals ongoing uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon facility and continuing progress toward construction of an experimental light-water reactor (LWR). North Korea’s five-megawatt, gas-graphite reactor remains inactive, however; and there are no signs that plutonium reprocessing occurred within the last year, the agency’s Sept. 3 report finds.

Massimo Aparo, head of the IAEA Department of Safeguards, speaks to member states in July 2019 in Vienna. His department's September report on North Korea found that Pyongyang is continuing to produce material that could be used for a nuclear weapon. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Although the agency notes that, without inspector access to North Korea’s nuclear facilities the IAEA “cannot confirm either the operational status or configuration/design features of the facilities or locations described,” the report suggests that North Korea’s production of fissile material, specifically of highly enriched uranium (HEU), continues. That the agency detected no indications of plutonium reprocessing would suggest that North Korea’s plutonium production has stalled.

But the report suggests the IAEA is not able to determine whether irradiated fuel from the reactor’s most recent operational cycle, which ended in December 2018, remains inside the reactor or whether fuel rods were removed and stored in the spent fuel pond to await reprocessing. The latter action could imply a forthcoming plutonium reprocessing campaign, which would expand North Korea’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium.

The agency’s report does not estimate how much HEU North Korea produced during the reporting period or how much fissile material it has stockpiled in total.

According to the report, Pyongyang is continuing to make progress toward constructing an experimental LWR at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The report notes that although internal construction appears to have continued during the reporting period, the IAEA is unable to estimate based on available information when the reactor will become operational. Construction on the reactor began in late 2010.

North Korea’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA limits implementation of the agency’s safeguards practices to those that can be conducted remotely and without on-site access. Safeguards conclusions, including those reflected in the Sept. 3 report, are drawn largely from open source information and satellite imagery analysis.

Despite these limitations, the IAEA has taken steps to strengthen its preparedness to verify North Korea’s nuclear program should a diplomatic agreement on denuclearization be reached. According to the agency, these steps include efforts to enhance open source monitoring tools, expand collection of satellite imagery, and shore up inspectors’ familiarity with the technical aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program. The IAEA formed a North Korea team within its Department of Safeguards in August 2017 to develop and implement these safeguards practices.

Whether a denuclearization agreement with North Korea necessitating IAEA safeguards can be achieved remains in doubt. Kim Yo Jong, who heads the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, said on July 10 that “summit talks are not needed this year and beyond.”

She did not say that denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang were off the table permanently, but she listed a series of conditions to be met for diplomacy to proceed. Namely, she said, “denuclearization on the Korean peninsula can only be realized when there are major changes made on either side, i.e., the irreversible, simultaneous major steps to be taken in parallel with [North Korea’s] actions.” (See ACT, September 2020.)

In the meantime, Pyongyang appears to be continuing its development of nuclear weapons and offensive missile capabilities. A South Korean military official reported on Sept. 16 that North Korea may soon conduct an underwater-launched ballistic missile test for the first time in about a year. This test could support development of an eventual submarine-launched ballistic missile capability.

Although the IAEA’s September safeguards report and indications of an upcoming North Korean missile test are concerning, South Korean officials maintain that any military conflict with the North, even one in which North Korea uses nuclear weapons, can be countered by joint U.S.-South Korean forces without resorting to nuclear retaliation. Seoul said on Sept. 15 that no U.S.-South Korean military plan calls for the use of nuclear weapons.


Using off-site monitoring tools, the IAEA assesses North Korea’s nuclear activities.

Pentagon Warns of Chinese Nuclear Development

October 2020
By Julia Masterson and Shannon Bugos

A new U.S. Defense Department assessment of China’s military power found that China continues to expand its nuclear capabilities, but the report seems to provide a less alarmist view of Beijing’s nuclear weapons policy and plans than some Trump administration officials have suggested.

Chinese military vehicles display DF-26 ballistic missiles during a 2015 parade in Beijing. The missiles would be the most likely to field a low-yield nuclear warhead, should China develop one, according to Pentagon assessments. (Photo: Andy Wong/Getty Images)According to the Pentagon’s 2020 report to Congress assessing China’s military capabilities, Beijing is estimated to possess a total nuclear warhead stockpile “in the low 200s.” The September report says that Beijing will likely “at least double its warhead stockpile,” which affirms an earlier department estimate, and that it will do so without new fissile material production.

The report, which covers Chinese security and military developments through 2019, marks the first time the U.S. government has provided a public estimate of China’s nuclear arsenal. U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley assessed in May 2019 that China had an arsenal of warheads in the “low couple of hundreds,” but did not provide a specific estimate at that time.

The Pentagon’s estimate of China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads is lower than previously held expert assessments of China’s nuclear capabilities. Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists estimated that China had 290 nuclear warheads in 2019, but the Pentagon’s assessment likely does not include warheads for weapons that have yet to become operational or for dormant bomber weapons, Kristensen and Korda said in a Sept. 1 article.

China has consistently shied away from disclosing the exact size of its nuclear stockpile or corroborating any estimates of its capabilities.

The report also describes China’s pursuit of nuclear-capable, land- and air-based missiles and a potential shift in its nuclear policy doctrine. Although Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, has claimed that China is in the midst of a “secretive crash nuclear buildup,” the Pentagon’s assessment does not appear to substantiate the envoy’s statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticized the Pentagon’s assessment and called the report “a deliberate distortion of China’s strategic intentions.”

“China’s strategic intentions are transparent and consistent,” she said Sept. 2.

The report states that China is in the process of further developing its land-based missiles capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.

Beijing’s fixed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal consists of 100 missiles, including some equipped with multiple independently targetable reentryvehicles (MIRVs) to carry more than one warhead. The Pentagon assesses that China’s development of new ICBMs and advanced MIRV capabilities will strengthen its nuclear deterrent and necessitate increased nuclear warhead production.

Within the next five years, according to the Pentagon’s report, China aims to deploy close to 200 warheads on its land-based ICBMs, which can threaten the United States.

China will also expand its current inventory of more than 200 DF-26 ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear and conventional warheads to the Pacific and Asian regions.

The Defense Department highlights speculation by Chinese strategists that Beijing may need a low-yield nuclear weapon to “increase the deterrence value of China’s nuclear force without defining specific nuclear yield values.” The report suggests that the DF-26 would be the most likely missile to carry a low-yield warhead due to its capacity to deliver precision strikes. China is not currently known to field any low-yield nuclear weapons.

China aims to diversify its nuclear triad by developing a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile, says the report. During the October 2019 military parade, China revealed the H-6N as a long-range strategic bomber, which would be capable of carrying such a missile.

China’s nuclear policy doctrine, meanwhile, prioritizes the maintenance of a nuclear force so as to survive a first strike and soundly retaliate. Beijing has long held a no-first-use stance, but the Pentagon cites ambiguity with the conditions under which this policy would not hold. Some officers in the People’s Liberation Army have suggested that China should reserve the right to strike should the survival of its nuclear forces or regime be threatened, although no official statement on this front has been made.

Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters on Sept. 14 that he sees “China developing a stack of capabilities that would be inconsistent with a no-first-use policy.” But Caitlin Talmadge of the Brookings Institution noted in a Sept. 16 tweet that even if China is not moving away from a no-first-use policy, “survivability improvements to Chinese nuclear forces are likely to intensify competition with [the United States.]”

China stated in a 2019 defense white paper that it maintains a minimum nuclear deterrent, but the Pentagon report says that Beijing has placed its nuclear forces on a path to exceed the size of such a deterrent, making its posture “more consistent” with a limited deterrent, which Chinese armed forces have described as a level between a minimum and maximum deterrent.

Furthermore, as part of its nuclear policy, China has “almost certainly” kept the majority of its nuclear forces on a peacetime status, with launchers, missiles, and warheads separated. The Defense Department report claims, however, that Beijing is seeking to keep a portion of its forces on a launch-on-warning posture, which would require mating missiles and warheads. As evidence, the report cites exercises by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force that include “assigning a missile battalion to be ready to launch and rotating to standby positions as much as monthly for unspecified periods of time.” It also mentions an investment in silo-based forces and an improvement in early-warning capabilities and command and control, but this evidence is unclear and circumstantial, according to Kristensen and Korda.

Following the report’s release, Billingslea reiterated his insistence that China has a crash nuclear buildup program. Beijing needs to “come clean” about this program, he said in a Sept. 4 tweet, and “sit down for in-person talks, as so many nations have urged.”

Billingslea has led the Trump administration’s push to bring China into trilateral arms control talks with Russia, but China has so far rejected the U.S. effort, pointing to the difference in size of its nuclear arsenal as compared to those of the United States and Russia.

Although the report puts China’s nuclear warhead arsenal in the low 200s, the United States and Russia are each believed to have about 6,000 total nuclear warheads, including retired nuclear warheads awaiting dismantlement. Even if Beijing expands its nuclear arsenal as predicted by the Defense Department, it would still be far below that of the United States or Russia.

“We urge the United States to abandon the outdated Cold-War mentality and zero-game mindset,” said Hua on Sept. 2, and to “do more things that are conducive to the China-U.S. military-to-military relations.”

In the report, the Pentagon also estimates that China has achieved parity with or potentially exceeded the United States in its deployment of ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM). Where China currently fields more than 1,250 land-based GLBMs and GLCMs, the United States only fields one, a short-range, conventional GLBM. This gap in capabilities demonstrates the steps that Beijing has taken over the past 20 years to “strengthen and modernize the [People’s Liberation Army] in nearly every
aspect,” the report says.

Beijing seeks to boast a “world-class” military by the end of 2049, according to the report.

China has not defined what it means by its ambition for such a military, but the report says that “it is likely that China will aim to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military, or that of any other great power that China views as a threat to its sovereignty, security, and development interests.”


Report Highlights Chinese Interest in New Technologies

One of the recurring themes of the Pentagon’s 2020 report on military developments in China is the strong emphasis being placed on the utilization of emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous weapons systems, quantum computing and encryption, and hypersonics by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

According to the report, Chinese leaders, from President Xi Jinping on down, recognize that advanced weaponry and command-and-control (C2) systems will play a decisive role in future great-power conflicts, and so Chinese forces must endeavor to match U.S. capabilities in this regard and, if possible, overtake them.

“China seeks to become a leader in key technologies with military potential, such as AI, autonomous systems, advanced computing, quantum information sciences, biotechnology, and advanced materials and manufacturing,” the report says. “China’s implementation of AI and a quantum communication network demonstrates the speed and scale with which it intends to deploy certain emerging technologies.”

The weaponization of AI is said to play an especially critical role in Chinese military planning, given that future wars are expected to unfold at extremely high speeds and to entail simultaneous operations in air, sea, ground, space, and cyber domains. As described by Chinese strategists, future operations increasingly will be “intelligentized,” meaning heavily reliant on AI-powered systems to track enemy movements, assess battlefield conditions, and guide PLA operations, all at machine speed.

“Victory in future warfare, according to PLA strategists, will depend upon which side can more quickly and effectively observe, orient, decide, and act in an increasingly dynamic operating environment,” the report says. “As a result, China is pursuing new technologies like AI to support future military capabilities, such as autonomous command and control (C2) systems, more sophisticated and predictive operational planning, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) fusion.”

As part of this effort, the PLA is said to be placing particular emphasis on the development of autonomous weapons and automated C2 systems. Without providing details, the report claims that significant progress has been made in the development of unmanned surface vessels and unmanned tanks, as wells as “armed swarming drones” using AI “to perform autonomous guidance, target acquisition, and attack execution.”

China is also assessed to be making progress in the development of advanced C2 systems that will use AI “to collect, fuse, and transmit big data for more effective battlespace management and to generate optimal courses of action” by commanders in the field. Such initiatives would appear to parallel similar endeavors in the United States, such as the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control (JADC2) system. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Among other emerging technologies highlighted in the Pentagon report, considerable stress is placed on Chinese progress in the development of hypersonic missiles. Such weapons, which can fly faster than five times the speed of sound, are said to play an important role in the PLA’s plans for defense against U.S. forces in a future Pacific-wide conflict. However, few details
are provided on Chinese gains in this area, except to note that the Xingkong-2 (Starry Sky-2) hypersonic glide vehicle was successfully tested in August 2018. —MICHAEL T. KLARE

An annual Defense Department report appears to undermine Trump administration assessments
of China’s nuclear ambitions.


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