"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Michael Klare

Keep nuclear testing off the table


Originally published in The Boston Globe, June 13, 2020.

Our nation and the world face a daunting array of challenges. Surely, this is not the time to ignite a new arms race with Russia and China — let alone to begin testing nuclear weapons again, as senior officials at the White House have been considering.

One of the most consequential responsibilities of the president of the United States is to pursue policies aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war, curtailing the nuclear arsenals of America’s adversaries, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. For decades, presidents of both major parties have embraced these momentous responsibilities and helped create a system of treaties and agreements that have reduced the nuclear danger.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is backing out of vital treaties that have helped avert a catastrophic conflagration with Russia, our main nuclear rival, and is stoking nuclear tensions even further.

President Trump claims that he wants to constrain the arms race, which he says is “getting out of control.” However, he has withdrawn from one arms control treaty after another and rebuffed Russia’s offer to extend the sole remaining arms limitation agreement, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in eight months.

Last month, the president’s new envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, threatened to let New START expire and warned that the United States is prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion”in order to “win” a new nuclear arms race if they do not agree to a new nuclear deal on Trump’s (as yet undefined) terms.

Then, on May 22, the Washington Post revealed that senior White House officials have discussed the option of conducting the first US nuclear test explosion in 28 yearsas a way to pressure Russian and Chinese leaders into accepting vague US terms. The proposal was described in the Post as “very much an ongoing conversation” within the administration.

Billingslea announced on Tuesday that he would meet with his Russian counterpart in Vienna on June 22. While it is a positive that they are talking, there is no realistic chance of concluding a new and more ambitious nuclear arms control deal with Russia, let alone China, before START is due to expire. It would be foreign policy malpractice to gamble away that treaty’s important limits on Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a desperate attempt to coerce unilateral concessions from Moscow and Beijing. The common-sense path forward should be to agree with Russia to extend New START by five years, as allowed for in the treaty. That would provide time for talks on further nuclear reductions with Russia and for an agreement to halt the potential growth of China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

And most certainly, a demonstration nuclear test should not be on the negotiating table. Whatever Trump and his acolytes might tell themselves, a nuclear test blast by the United States would do nothing to rein in Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals or improve the environment for negotiations. Rather, it would raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.

Other nuclear-armed countries, such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than would the United States. Since a bipartisan majority in Congress halted underground nuclear testing in 1992, the US nuclear weapons labs have devised other technical means to ensure the reliability of US warheads; other nuclear powers would probably seize the opportunity provided by a US nuclear blast to engage in multiple explosive tests of their own, which could help them perfect new and more dangerous types of warheads.

Nuclear testing is a dangerous vestige of a bygone era. Since 1945, at least eight countries have conducted more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions, including 1,030 by the United States alone. About one-fourth of these nuclear tests were detonated in the atmosphere, which killed or sickened thousands of US military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians living downwind. The worldwide spread of radioactive isotopes from these tests — among them strontium-90, which accumulated in children’s teeth — provoked widespread protests against nuclear testing and helped create a nearly universal consensus that all such tests should be stopped.

American leadership played a key role in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in 1996, which prohibits all nuclear tests of any explosive yield anywhere. The United States and 183 other states have signed the treaty, though it has not yet been ratified by several countries, including the United States. Only one country — North Korea — has detonated nuclear tests in this century, and even Kim Jong Un has now declared a testing moratorium.

Unfortunately, President Trump could order a simple demonstration nuclear test explosion underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas in as little as six months.

Congress can and should step in to prevent such recklessness. Republicans and Democrats should join Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York, and others who have proposed a prohibition on the use of taxpayers’ funds to resume nuclear weapons testing. Parallel efforts are being led by Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, and others in the House.

For the sake of our generation and generations to come, it is time to act to avoid a pandemic of dangerous nuclear weapons testing and proliferation.

Read the original article in The Boston Globe.

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Pentagon Invests in AI, Issues Principles

May 2020
By Michael Klare

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 Defense Department budget request prioritizes spending on artificial intelligence (AI) research and procurement of AI-enabled weapons systems, including unmanned autonomous ships, aircraft, and ground vehicles. Among these requests is $800 million for accelerated operations by the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), the Pentagon’s lead agency for applying AI for military purposes, and for Project Maven, a companion project that seeks to employ sophisticated algorithms in identifying potential military targets among masses of video footage. (See ACT, July/August 2018.)

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at the Pentagon on March 5. He announced in February that the Pentagon would adopt a set of ethical principles for using artificial intelligence in military applications. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)In February, when presenting the Pentagon’s proposed budget, Deputy Secretary of Defense David L. Norquist indicated that some existing weapons programs would be cut or trimmed to free up funds for increased spending on sophisticated systems needed for what he called the “high end” wars of the future. Such engagements, Norquist suggested, will entail intense combat with the well-equipped forces of great power competitors, notably China and Russia.

If U.S. forces are to prevail in such encounters, he added, they will need to possess technological superiority over their rivals, which requires ever-increasing investment in “critical emerging technologies,” especially AI and autonomous weapons systems.

In advocating for these undertakings, senior Defense officials have consistently emphasized the need for speeding the weaponization of AI and autonomous weapons systems.

“Leadership in the military application of AI is critical to our national security,” Gen. John (“Jack”) Shanahan, the commander of JAIC, told reporters last August. “For that reason, I doubt I will ever be entirely satisfied that we’re moving fast enough when it comes to [the Defense Department’s] adoption of AI.” At the same time, however, top leaders insist that they are mindful of the legal and ethical challenges of weaponizing advanced technologies. “We are thinking deeply about the ethical, safe, and lawful use of AI,” Shanahan insisted.

The Pentagon’s recognition of the ethical dimensions of applying AI to military use stems from three sets of concerns that have emerged in recent years. The first encompasses fears that as human oversight diminishes, AI-enabled autonomous weapons systems could “go rogue” and engage in acts that violate international humanitarian law. (See ACT, March 2019.) The second arises from evidence that facial-identification algorithms and other AI-empowered systems often contain biases of some sort that could result in unfair or illegal outcomes. Finally, analysts worry that it can be very difficult to identify and trace the algorithmic flaws that might result in such outcomes.

In recognition of these concerns, the Defense Department has taken a number of steps to demonstrate its awareness of the risks associated with hasty AI weaponization. In 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis asked the Defense Innovation Board (DIB), a semiautonomous body reporting directly to senior Pentagon leadership, to develop a set of “ethical principles” for the military application of AI. After conducting several meetings with lawyers, computer scientists, and representatives of human rights organizations, the DIB delivered its proposed set of principles last Oct. 31 to Secretary Mark Esper. (See ACT, December 2019.) After an internal review, Esper’s office finally proclaimed its acceptance of the DIB formula Feb. 24.

In announcing his decision, Esper made it clear that the rapid weaponization of AI and other emerging technologies remains the department’s top priority. The United States, he declared, “must accelerate the adoption of AI and lead in its national security applications to maintain our strategic position [and] prevail on future battlefields.” At the same time, he noted, adoption of the new AI guidelines will buttress “the department’s commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards.”

Of the five ethical principles announced by Esper, four, covering the responsible, equitable, traceable, and reliable use of AI, address the risk of bias and the need for human supervisors to oversee every stage of AI weaponization and be able to identify and eliminate any flaws they detect. Only the final principle (governable) addresses the risk of unintended and possibly lethal action by AI-empowered autonomous systems. Under this key precept, human operators must possess “the ability to disengage or deactivate deployed systems that demonstrate unintended behavior.”

If fully implemented, the five principles adopted by Esper in February could go a long way toward reducing the risks identified by critics of rapid AI weaponization. But this will require that all involved military personnel be educated about these precepts and that contractors abide by them in developing new military systems. When and how this process will unfold remain largely unknown. Devising the five principles, Shanahan explained on Feb. 24, “was the easy part.”

“The real hard part,” he continued, is “understanding where those ethics principles need to be applied.” At this moment, that process has barely begun, but the acquisition of AI-enabled weapons systems seems to be advancing at top speed.

The U.S. Defense Secretary made clear the Pentagon will pursue military artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies as a top priority.


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