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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Shannon Bugos

U.S., Russia Disagree on Prospect for Arms Control Deal | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch

U.S., Russia Disagree on Prospect for Arms Control Deal Against the backdrop of the imminent U.S. presidential election and the impending expiration in less than four months of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), the Trump administration appears to have once again shifted its proposal for an arms control framework deal with Russia. But despite U.S. claims of progress in recent talks, Russia continues to strongly reject the proposed U.S. framework and to call for extending New START by five years without conditions as allowed by the treaty. U.S. Special Presidential...

Time Running Out: Extend New START Now

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Volume 12, Issue 7, October 7, 2020

Four months remain until the last U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty is slated to expire Feb. 5, 2021, and with it the last remaining verifiable limits on the size of the still enormous U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has so far refused Russia’s offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years as allowed by the treaty.

Instead, the administration has conditioned consideration of a short-term extension of New START on Russia’s acceptance of a one-sided, 11th hour offer that Russia has rejected. In recent days, the two sides have exchanged additional ideas with U.S. officials claiming some measure of “progress.”

The stakes could not be higher. The untimely death of New START with nothing to replace it would open the door to a costly and dangerous new quantitative U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race.

Barring an October surprise in which President Trump orders a more reasonable approach than what the administration has currently offered to Russia, the fate of the treaty will likely be decided by the presidential election Nov. 3. Former Vice President Joe Biden has expressed support for an extension of New START without conditions.

 

The U.S. August Proposal

Following an August meeting in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea sketched out the U.S. proposal for a politically binding framework deal with Russia. The framework, he said Aug. 18, must cover all nuclear warheads, establish a verification regime suitable to that task, and be “extensible” to China in the future.

In addition, Billingslea characterized New START as “a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration” and alleged the agreement has “significant verification deficiencies.” He said President Trump would not agree to extend New START unless these purported deficiencies, including an inadequate number of inspections, are fixed. Billingslea later clarified that even if Russia agrees to the U.S. terms, only a short-term extension, likely no more than a year, is on the table.

“[I]f Russia would like to see that treaty [New START] extended, then it’s really on them to come back to us,” Billingslea said, citing a mandate from Trump. “The ball is now in Russia’s court.”

Trump administration officials insist that the conditions represent a reasonable offer. They note that China’s immediate participation in trilateral arms control talks is no longer a condition for consideration of an extension of New START (though they continue to insist that the framework agreement must specifically mention China and that the next arms control treaty must include China).

Left unsaid is what the administration is willing to put on the table in return for Russia agreeing to the U.S. demands. The answer appears to be that Russia must agree to the U.S. demands for free.

Meanwhile, the administration should not get credit for being mugged by reality and relaxing its insistence on China’s immediate participation in talks. There was never any chance that China would do so, despite Billingslea’s ineffective efforts to embarrass China to the table.

Predictably, Russia has repeatedly poured cold water on the administration’s proposal, calling it “absolutely unrealistic.” Ryabkov reiterated Oct. 1 that the U.S. proposal is “clearly a nonstarter for us.”

In addition to making unrealistic demands, the administration has resorted to wild threats and petty insults in an attempt to coerce and embarrass Russia to the table. Billingslea is now publicly saying that if Russia refuses the unrealistic U.S. terms, “we will be extremely happy to continue…without the START restrictions” and threatened that the United States would immediately begin building up its nuclear arsenal the day after New START expires. He has also threatened to slap additional conditions on the U.S. offer if Russia does not accept it by the November election.

Such an approach has zero chance of success and is far more consistent with running out the clock on New START (and trying to pin the blame on Russia and China) rather than a serious effort to make progress on further arms control.

The Latest Exchanges

Billingslea and Ryabkov met again Oct. 5 in Helsinki. A senior Trump administration official told The Wall Street Journal that “substantial progress” was made at the meeting and that Russia brought “concrete proposals” to the table for the first time. The official added that the framework agreement the sides are discussing would include a politically binding commitment to freeze the total number of warheads possessed by each side and entail a short-term extension of New START.

A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry after the talks said only that “further prospects on the track of bilateral cooperation on arms control” had been discussed. As Billingslea and Ryabkov were meeting in Helsinki, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his belief that New START "is going to die." He said that "The conditions they [the Trump administration] set are absolutely unilateral and do not take into account either our interests or the experience of many decades, when arms control was enforced to everyone’s satisfaction and was welcomed by all countries."

A politically binding warhead freeze could be a useful confidence-building measure as Washington and Moscow engage in what are sure to be complex and lengthy talks on a new nuclear disarmament agreement. However, it remains to be seen what such a freeze would entail, what Russia might seek in return, and whether the Trump administration is open to relaxing its heretofore unacceptable conditions for a deal, especially the demand for changes to the New START verification regime.   

The Case for Extending New START

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. It also put into place a verification regime greatly valued by the U.S. military for the insight it affords into the Russian nuclear arsenal.

Article XIV of the treaty allows for an extension “for a period of no more than five years” so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents mutually agree. Members of Congress from both parties and most U.S. allies have expressed support for the treaty’s five-year extension.

The pursuit of a new arms control agreement that captures all types of nuclear warheads and additional nuclear-armed states is a laudable goal. But not if that pursuit comes at the expense of or as a condition for extending New START. New START should be extended for the full five years in order to ensure that the verifiable limits put into place by the treaty do not disappear as talks on a new agreement are pursued. New START is too valuable to allow to expire.

If New START lapses with nothing to replace it, there would be no negotiated limits on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. The end of the treaty would further damage relations with our allies, undermine the fraying health of the global nonproliferation regime, exacerbate an already fraught U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, and provide Washington and Moscow with a greater incentive to make additional costly nuclear force investments.

Below are additional key points about the case for extending New START for five years and the problems with the Trump administration’s proposal for a new framework agreement with Russia.

The U.S. military greatly values and relies upon the verification regime established by New START. Billingslea has argued that the New START verification regime “has significant loopholes in the way verification is physically conducted, which the Russians have been exploiting.” But the U.S. military has raised no such concerns.

New START’s extensive monitoring and verification regime provides essential real-time insights directly into Russian strategic forces and modernization programs. Allowing the treaty to die would deprive us of a vital flow of information about Russia’s strategic forces that cannot be obtained via other means.

Vice Adm. David Kriete, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in July 2019 that “those verification procedures that the U.S. gets to execute all the time provides great insight into Russia’s capabilities, numbers, and all kinds of things associated with their nuclear weapons.” If those procedures disappeared, he said, then “we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps.”

The treaty’s verification regime is more than adequate to monitor Russia’s compliance with the treaty. Indeed, a State Department report published in February reiterated that Russia remains in compliance with the treaty and that the treaty limits and the “verification regime established by the treaty both regulate competition and provide key data, information, and insights regarding Russian strategic nuclear forces.”

Rose Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. negotiator of New START during the Obama administration, recently wrote that New START’s verification setup used what worked in previous treaties and discarded what was no longer necessary and cumbersome and costly to implement. “In the end,” she said, “the United States got what it wanted in the New START verification regime: streamlined inspection procedures at a sufficient level of detail to be effectively implemented.”

There is no evidence that withholding an extension of New START or dangling a short-term extension of the treaty enhances U.S. leverage to push Russia to agree to U.S. demands for a bilateral framework agreement or a new trilateral arms control treaty. The Trump administration believes that Russia is “desperate” to secure an extension of New START. But Russia has said that it will not agree to an extension “at any cost.” Ryabkov said Sept. 21 that the Trump administration needs to give up its preconditions for extension “and then we can start the talks about something, or there’s no deal.”

The administration’s refusal to date to extend the treaty by five years has produced no meaningful leverage. Moreover, assuming Moscow would even agree to multiple short-term extensions totaling less than five years, preparing and posturing for such extensions would distract from the broader talks the administration says it seeks.

A five-year extension would provide the most breathing room to pursue negotiations on a new deal. U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations have in the past been complex and time-consuming, and the Trump administration is proposing an agreement unprecedented in scope. The Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), for example, took place from November 1969 to May 1972. New START was notable for the relatively short time it took to negotiate, but it still took the United States and Russia 10 months.

The Trump administration does not have a successful track record trying to force Russia’s hand on arms control. For instance, the Trump administration’s threats to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty did not bring Russia back into compliance, and the United States officially withdrew from the treaty in August 2019. Likewise, the U.S. announcement in May of its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty has not pressured Russia to address U.S. concerns about Russia’s implementation of the accord. The United States is slated to formally exit the treaty shortly after the election.

The outcome of U.S. efforts to seek new arms control arrangements will succeed or fail based on whether those arrangements comport with the security interests and address the concerns of the parties involved. Neither Russia nor China can be coerced or embarrassed to the negotiating table (and Moscow has said that it will not cave to U.S. pressure to force Beijing to join trilateral arms control talks).

Apart from allowing New START to expire and threatening a nuclear buildup, the Trump administration has refused to detail what the United States is willing to put on the table to incentivize Russia (and China) to agree to the administration’s arms control goals. Any agreement as sweeping and unprecedented as the one proposed by Billingslea will, of course, require mutual concessions by both Washington and Moscow. But as it stands, the politically binding framework proposed by Billingslea demands unilateral concessions from Russia.

In addition to China, Russia has long called for France and the United Kingdom to join the next arms control agreement after New START. Moscow also seeks to capture other factors it deems essential to maintaining strategic stability, such as missile defense, ground-based short- and intermediate-range missiles, space weapons, and hypersonic weapons. As the United States wants an agreement that covers Russia’s unconstrained stockpile of nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons, so does Russia want Washington to remove the estimated 150 U.S. tactical nuclear bombs based in five European countries.

But Billingslea has already dismissed the idea of limits on U.S. missile defense as well as the removal of U.S. tactical weapons in Europe.

There is no national security need to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal above the New START limits, and the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are unprepared to do so anyway. Following Billingslea’s threat that the United States will start increasing the arsenal after New START expires, news reports revealed that the Pentagon has been asked to evaluate how long it would take to execute a buildup. Billingslea does not appear to have consulted the Pentagon before making his threat.

James Anderson, the undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in July that, “Our intention is to remain within the New Start limits of 700 strategic missiles and bombers and 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.” According to a July 30 report by the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon “is basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its force structure.”

The United States has not increased the size of the U.S. deployed nuclear arsenal in decades and doing so would be a major departure from longstanding U.S. policy.

Billingslea’s call for a nuclear buildup follows his outlandish claim earlier this year that the United States can spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in a new arms race. More U.S. spending on nuclear weapons won’t force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands and would be fraught with peril.

The United States is already planning to spend an excessive sum to sustain and upgrade the current arsenal, which is based on the New START limits. As a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office demonstrated, the possibility of unconstrained nuclear competition could create even greater costs that would divert funding from higher priority U.S. national and health security priorities.

Ever-increasing spending on nuclear weapons without an arms control framework that bounds U.S. and Russian nuclear forces is a recipe for a less secure United States. Such an approach also flies in the face of longstanding bipartisan Congressional support for the pursuit of modernization and arms control in tandem.

Extend New START Now

The Trump administration’s approach to arms control with Russia has not been a serious starting point for negotiations on extending or replacing New START.

With little more than four months until New START expires, the best course forward is to immediately extend the treaty for a full five years and then pursue follow-on agreements that address legitimate U.S. and Russian concerns about unconstrained nuclear weapons, the nuclear arsenals of other nuclear-armed states, and non-nuclear weapons and policies that could impact strategic stability.

Extending New START would prolong the limits on Russia’s deployed strategic forces, continue an otherwise unobtainable flow of information about those forces, and provide the necessary foundation from which to seek more far-reaching arms control goals.

The Trump administration’s demand for unilateral concessions from Moscow in exchange for a short-term extension of New START is a recipe for failure and risks setting the United States on the road to an expensive arms race that it can ill afford.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant

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The stakes could not be higher. The untimely death of New START with nothing to replace it would open the door to a costly and dangerous new quantitative U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race.

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U.S., Russia Hit Impasse on New START


October 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

As the clock winds down on the last remaining U.S.-Russian arms control treaty, the United States and Russia remain locked in a stalemate with numerous obstacles blocking the path to prolonging the agreement. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration will only contemplate a short-term extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) if Russia agrees to a framework for a new trilateral treaty that verifiably covers all nuclear warheads, includes those of China in the future, and makes changes to the painstakingly negotiated New START verification regime.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov arrives for nuclear talks with U.S. officials in Vienna on June 22. The discussions yielded little progress, and more recently he said "there are no grounds for any kind of deal in the form proposed." (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)Moscow, which supports an unconditional five-year extension of the treaty, has called the U.S. proposal “absolutely unrealistic.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that “there are no grounds for any kind of deal in the form proposed” by Washington in a Sept. 21 interview with Kommersant. New START permits an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents agree.

The U.S. approach raises several questions, such as whether the Trump administration is actually interested in extending New START at all, what the United States would be willing to put on the negotiating table in exchange for concessions from Russia, and why the administration believes that withholding an extension of the treaty provides the United States leverage in negotiations.

With Russia showing little sign of agreeing to the framework, the Trump administration will soon face the choice of whether to extend the treaty as is or set it on a path to expiration in February, which could trigger a costly arms race.

The Trump administration has also suggested that, if Russia does not agree to framework prior to the U.S. presidential election in November, Washington will tack on additional conditions for New START extension. What those conditions would be are unknown.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said that if he is elected president in November and New START has not been extended, he will pursue the treaty’s extension and “use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements,” according to his campaign website.

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, told Kommersant on Sept. 21 that if Russia does not agree to the Trump administration’s framework, the United States will not extend New START. Billingslea also threatened that the United States would increase the deployed strategic arsenal "immediately after the expiration of the treaty in February."

The U.S. insistence on the framework and refusal to extend New START without unilateral concessions by Moscow has prompted some skeptics to wonder whether the Trump administration is attempting to set Russia and China up to take the blame for an expiration of the treaty.

U.S. officials said that, with four months until New START expires on Feb. 5, 2021, sufficient time remains for Russia to agree to the U.S. offer before a decision must be made on an extension. Yet even if Russia were open to discussions with the United States on its demands, negotiating the specifics of a framework could take weeks if not months.

In addition, according to officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow might need months to process a “technical extension” of the treaty.

Billingslea has claimed that the United States has significant leverage because Russia is desperate for an extension of the treaty. But Russia has said that it desires an extension of the treaty only as much as the United States and will not pursue an extension at any cost.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in July that, if the Trump administration does not agree to extend New START, “we will not insist.”

Extending the treaty for a period of less than five years, as the Trump administration is contemplating, also poses risks. Negotiations on arms control treaties are difficult and time consuming. A new agreement along the lines proposed by the Trump administration could take years.

Billingslea has declined to say how long an extension the administration has proposed, telling Kommersant that it “depends on how flexible the Russian leadership will be.”

Moreover, assuming Moscow would even agree to multiple short-term extensions totaling less than five years, preparing and posturing for such extensions could distract from the broader talks the administration says it seeks.

Although any framework agreement is likely to require mutual concessions from Washington and Moscow, the Trump administration refuses to detail what it would be willing to put on the negotiating table, besides a short-term extension of New START, in order to secure Russia’s agreement.

Russia has long said that it prioritizes the inclusion of U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom in arms control discussions. In addition, Moscow seeks to capture other factors it deems essential to maintaining strategic stability, such as missile defense, ground-based short- and intermediate-range missiles, space weapons, and hypersonic weapons.

Billingslea, however, has dismissed the idea of including limits on U.S. missile defenses, involving France and the UK in multilateral talks, and removing U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

The Trump administration also has yet to describe what it would be willing to do in order to bring China to the table. Billingslea told CNN on Sept. 18 that Russia could persuade China to join talks, although Moscow has previously refused to do so.

“It’s [Russian President] Vladimir Putin,” he said. “He’s got all kinds of leverage. If they really wanted to help, they could.”

China has repeatedly declined to join trilateral arms control talks with the United States and Russia. The only way that Beijing would join, said Fu Cong, director-general of the Chinese Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, in July, was if the United States decreased its nuclear arsenal to the size of China’s. (See ACT, September 2020.) The United States has an estimated 6,000 nuclear weapons, including retired warheads; China’s arsenal numbers in the low 200s, according to a U.S. Defense Department report in September.

Billingslea claims that the verification regime put into place by New START suffers from significant loopholes and deficiencies, such as the absence of sufficient exchanges of missile telemetry and the limited frequency of on-site inspection.

The U.S. military, however, places great value on the treaty’s inspections and has not indicated that such flaws exist. Vice Adm. David Kriete, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in July 2019 that “those verification procedures that the U.S. gets to execute all the time provide great insight into Russia’s capabilities, numbers, and all kinds of things associated with their nuclear weapons.” If those procedures disappeared, he said, then “we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps.”

Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for New START, also emphasized the importance of New START’s verification setup, saying that it used what worked in previous treaties and discarded those elements that previously encountered issues with implementation. “In the end,” she said in May, “the United States got what it wanted in the New START verification regime: streamlined inspection procedures at a sufficient level of detail to be effectively implemented.”

Although the Trump administration has expressed its willingness to let New START expire, members of Congress continue their calls for the treaty’s five-year extension.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) sent a Sept. 8 letter to Trump calling for the United States to extend New START.

According to an internal State Department report for Congress obtained by Foreign Policy in September, U.S. allies are “concerned about the potential repercussions to the international security environment should New START expire before its full term.”

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have continued a pause on inspections under New START and a postponement of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), which oversees implementation of the treaty.

“The United States is studying how and when to resume inspections and the BCC while mitigating the risk of COVID-19 to all U.S. and Russian personnel,” a State Department spokesperson told Arms Control Today. “The United States continues to implement and abide by” New START.

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

 

U.S. demands for new nuclear restrictions appear to foreshadow the demise of the last remaining U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty.

U.S. Aims to Add INF-Range Missiles


October 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States is moving quickly to develop and deploy missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, according to Trump administration officials, but questions remain about what missiles the military might develop and where they would be based.

A U.S. Navy Tomahawk cruise missile launches during a 2018 exercise. A senior Army official said his service was considering deploying a land-based version of the missile, a weapon that would have been prohibited by the INF Treaty.  (Photo: William Collins/U.S. Navy)“Now that we are out of the INF Treaty, the department is making rapid progress to field ground-launched missiles,” said Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist on Sept. 10 at the Defense News Conference.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea in August told Nikkei Asian Review, a Japanese news outlet, that the United States aims to talk with its allies in Asia about where to base such missiles.

The Trump administration wants to “engage in talks with our friends and allies in Asia over the immediate threat that the Chinese nuclear buildup poses, not just to the United States but to them, and the kinds of capabilities that we will need to defend the alliance in the future,” said Billingslea on Aug. 15.

Billingslea specifically highlighted the ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile that the United States tested shortly after withdrawing from the INF Treaty in August 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.) Washington also tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in December 2019. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The cruise missile is “exactly the kind of defensive capability that countries such as Japan will want and will need for the future,” said Billingslea.

Meanwhile, Defense News reported on Sept. 2 that the U.S. Army is planning to develop a ground-launched missile prototype with a range between 500 and 2,000 kilometers. The Army aims to begin fielding the prototype by 2023.

General Joseph Martin, vice chief of staff of the Army, said on Aug. 21 that the Army is “looking at land-based, land-launched Tomahawk missiles and SM-6s, which are in the Navy’s inventory.”

The new missile would join other ground-launched missiles already under development by the Army with a range formally prohibited by the treaty, including the Precision Strike Missile and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon.

“What we want to do is provide arrows in the quiver… options to our combatant commanders that present multiple dilemmas to our competitors,” Brig. Gen. John Rafferty, the head of the Army’s development of long-range fires, told Breaking Defense, on Sept. 8. “That’s how we deter.”

The Marine Corps fiscal year 2021 budget request released in February included funds to purchase Tomahawk missiles, ostensibly for use as a ground-launched capability. (See ACT, June 2020.)

In October 2019, Taro Kono, Japan’s defense minister, downplayed the idea of Tokyo hosting INF-range missiles from the United States, saying that the two countries “have not been discussing any of it.” (See ACT, December 2019.) Australia and South Korea have also poured cold water on the prospect.

Both China and Russia responded to Billingslea’s remarks, saying they will respond if the United States deploys new ground-launched missiles.

“China firmly opposes U.S. plan to deploy land-based medium-range missiles in the Asia Pacific,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian Aug. 21. “If the U.S. is bent on going down the wrong path, China is compelled to take necessary countermeasures to firmly safeguard its security interests.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Aug. 20 that, “Undoubtedly, the deployment of new American missile systems in the region would provoke a dangerous new round of the arms race.” Such a move by Washington “would call for compensatory response measures,” she added.

Meanwhile, Billingslea rejected the idea of a moratorium on deploying missiles that were once banned by the INF Treaty, a proposal made by Russian President Vladimir Putin after the U.S. withdrawal.

“I really wouldn’t spend a lot of time thinking about or worrying about an INF moratorium because, simply put, that’s not going to happen,” said Billingslea during a June 24 press briefing.

NATO officially rejected the proposal in September 2019. France and Italy have acknowledged the moratorium proposal as an opportunity for dialogue.

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet Union nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The Pentagon is continuing to develop options for deploying missiles that were once banned by the INF Treaty.

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.

CEND Moves Forward


October 2020

A September meeting of the leadership group of the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative marked the starting point for executing the programs of work the initiative agreed on in November 2019 in advance of the 2020 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

“We are now at a critical threshold,” said Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, in his opening remarks at the Sept. 3 virtual meeting. The initiative is moving “from laying the groundwork for the deep thinking and far-ranging inquiry that the disarmament challenge demands to actually setting off down that path of thoughtful exploration,” he said.

Diplomats from 43 countries are involved in the initiative, according to Ford, which includes nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states and some countries not party to the NPT.

Three working subgroups compose the initiative, with each group focused on one specific issue: the reduction of the perceived incentives for states to acquire or increase their nuclear stockpiles, the function and effectiveness of existing nuclear disarmament mechanisms and institutions, and potential interim measures to reduce risks related to nuclear weapons. Following the November meeting, each subgroup developed its own program of work to be carried out over two years. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The leadership group consists of the two countries appointed to lead each subgroup: Morocco and the Netherlands, South Korea and the United States, and Finland and Germany, respectively. Representatives from some nongovernmental organizations also participate.

Sources familiar with the initiative told Arms Control Today that the organizers plan to virtually convene a meeting of the full group in November.—SHANNON BUGOS

CEND Moves Forward

U.S. Shifts Arms Control Strategy with Russia | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch

U.S. Shifts Arms Control Strategy with Russia The Trump administration has softened its demand that China immediately participate in trilateral nuclear arms control talks with the United States and Russia and says it is now seeking an interim step of a politically binding framework with Moscow. But the administration continues to reject Russia’s offer of a clean five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ) and has said that President Trump will not consider an extension until several conditions are met. According to Trump administration officials, the...

U.S. Modifies Arms Control Aims with Russia


September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration has softened its demand that China immediately participate in trilateral nuclear arms control talks with the United States and Russia and says it is now seeking an interim step: a politically binding framework with Moscow that covers all nuclear warheads, establishes a verification regime suitable to that task, and could include China in the future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump speak at the 2019 G20 summit in Japan. U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien recently said "we'd love to have Putin" come to the White House to sign a nuclear arms control accord, but the lead U.S. arms control negotiator said the two nations "remain far apart on a number of key issues." (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)Still, the administration continues to oppose an unconditional five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and wants Moscow’s support for limiting all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and strengthening the New START verification regime as a condition for prolonging the treaty.

Russia supports an unconditional extension and says that it will not agree to any changes to New START.

The impasse continues to cast an ominous shadow over the future of the last remaining arms control agreement limiting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals five months before it is slated to expire.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said on Aug. 18, following a round of talks in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, “that New START is a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration, and it has significant verification deficiencies.”

According to Billingslea, these deficiencies include the absence of sufficient exchanges of missile telemetry and the limited frequency of on-site inspections.

He said that he would recommend that President Donald Trump consider extending the treaty only “if we can fix” the flaws “and if we can address all warheads, and if we do so in a way that is extensible to China.”

“[I]f Russia would like to see that treaty extended, then it’s really on them to come back to us,” he added, citing a mandate from Trump. “The ball is now in Russia’s court.”

New START expires next February but can be extended by up to five years if the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to do so. The treaty caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

Billingslea met with Ryabkov in Vienna from Aug. 17–18. A July 23 call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and as working group discussions between U.S. and Russian technical experts later that month, paved the way for the August meeting, according to Billingslea.

The working groups met in Vienna from July 28–30 to discuss issues such as nuclear doctrine, unconstrained nuclear warheads, transparency, and verification.

Trump said on July 30 that the United States is in “formal negotiations with Russia on arms control.” Although the U.S.-Russia discussions this summer have marked the most sustained period of dialogue on arms control issues since the Trump administration took office, they would be more accurately described as the continuation of a longer standing, less concrete dialogue on strategic security.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien suggested on Aug. 16 that Putin could visit the White House to seal a new bilateral arms control understanding. “We’d love to have Putin come here to sign a terrific arms control deal that protects Americans and protects Russians.”

Billingslea, however, said that the two sides “remain far apart on a number of key issues.”

Ryabkov told the Russian news agency Interfax following his meeting with Billingslea that “any additions” to New START “would be impossible both for political and procedural reasons.”

He added that Russia would not support an “extension at any cost.”

“If the U.S. embellishes its possible…decision in favor of extension with all sorts of preconditions and burdens this work with all possible additional requirements, then I think the problem of extending the treaty won’t be that easy to resolve,” he said.

When Billingslea and Ryabkov last met on June 22 in Vienna, the United States pressured China to join, but Beijing declined and remains strongly opposed to trilateral talks with the United States and Russia. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

China’s unalterable opposition appears to have convinced the administration that the only hope for progress lies in bilateral engagement with Russia, at least at the outset.

Trump told reporters on July 30 that “China right now is a much lesser nuclear power…than Russia.” He said that he would focus on arms control talks with Russia and then “go to China together.”

Billingslea said in Vienna that “we’re not going to negotiate another bilateral arms control treaty.”

He added that “the framework that we are articulating” with Russia “will be the framework going forward that China will be expected to join.”

The Trump administration has yet to detail its specific objectives for arms control with China, a fact that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized on July 29. “Let them at least document what they have in mind,” he said.

CBO Weighs Cost of New START Expiration

The U.S. Defense Department could incur modest to staggeringly high costs if the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in February 2021 and the United States increases its arsenal above the treaty limits, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found in an August report.

On the modest end, expanding forces to reach the limits set by the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) would not increase the Pentagon’s cost relative to its current plans, since the New START limits are comparable to the SORT limits.

At the high end, the Pentagon could pay $410 billion to $439 billion as a one-time cost and $24 billion to $28 billion annually in pursuit of a more flexible approach that involves buying more delivery systems.

CBO estimated the cost if the United States increases its deployed strategic nuclear forces to the levels of three previous arms control treaties: the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which capped warheads at 6,000 for each side; the 1993 START II agreement, which sought to limit warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 but was never entered into force; and SORT, which limited warheads to 1,700 to 2,200.

New START limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. The Trump administration’s plans to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal are likely to exceed $1.5 trillion over the next several decades after including the impact of inflation.

CBO examined two approaches for expanding U.S. forces to reach each of the three treaty’s levels. The lower-cost and less flexible approach would involve increasing the number of warheads allocated to each missile and bomber and minimize any potential purchase of additional delivery systems. The more flexible yet more expensive approach would purchase more delivery systems to reach the number of desired warheads.

The United States could also take an approach that lies between those two approaches, CBO noted.

CBO said that the projected cost to increase the arsenal could be even higher, as the office’s estimates did not include the cost of producing additional warheads by the Energy Department, any new operating bases or training facilities if needed, or an expansion in delivery system production capability.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, requested the report in September 2019.

The CBO report comes on the heels of a July 30 report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have not considered how the potential expiration of New START may affect their nuclear modernization plans and spending.

“DOD is basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its force structure,” the GAO said in a July 30 report.

“NNSA similarly has not considered the implications of the potential expiration of New START on the assumptions underlying its overall program of record and future-years funding projections as described in the fiscal year 2021 budget justification,” the GAO noted. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Following U.S.-Russian arms control talks in Vienna in mid-August, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, Deputy Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that the U.S. military is “agnostic” on the question of whether extending New START is in its best interests.

Bussiere added, “We do believe, however, that it does provide increased international security.”—SHANNON BUGOS

Billingslea claimed that many “countries have already called out the Chinese for their failure to negotiate with us in good faith, and that chorus of calls…would accelerate dramatically once we have created an architecture to control all nuclear weapons.”

Fu Cong, China’s director general of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, said on July 8 that “it is unrealistic to expect China to join the two countries in a negotiation aimed at nuclear arms reduction” given the differences in the sizes of nuclear arsenals of three countries. The United States and Russia have about 6,000 total nuclear warheads each, China is believed to have about 300.

Fu also accused the United States of using Beijing’s refusal to join trilateral talks as “a ploy to divert world attention and to create a pretext under which they could walk away” from New START.

Fu added “that China stands ready to discuss all issues related to strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction in the framework of P5, i.e. among China, Russia, U.S., UK, and France.”

Russia continues to say that it will not force China to come to the table and that if a multilateral nuclear agreement is to be negotiated then nuclear-armed France and the United Kingdom must be part of it as well.

Although the Trump administration is now willing to negotiate with Russia before bringing China into talks at a later date, it has not specified what a politically binding framework with Russia should contain and what it would be willing to put on the table to incentivize Russia’s agreement.

Billingslea told Axios on Aug. 20 that Russia raised “a range of issues with U.S. capabilities” in Vienna, but that Moscow’s non-nuclear concerns about for example U.S. missile defenses are not on the table as part of a possible framework deal.

Billingslea has offered few clues about how a new agreement should capture U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons that have never before been limited by arms control, such as shorter-range tactical nuclear warheads and warheads held by each country in reserve.

He hinted, however, that the preferred U.S. approach would not necessarily hinge on counting individual unconstrained warheads.

“What we likely will see is a hybrid approach that would maintain limitations on the strategic systems but which would provide for a method of ensuring that the overall inventory of warheads writ large is static,” he said.

 

Committee Advances Billingslea Nomination

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced Marshall Billingslea’s nomination to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security on July 29. The committee voted in favor of the nomination on a 11–10 party line vote, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) abstaining. The full Senate has yet to schedule a date to consider Billingslea’s nomination.

Billingslea, currently the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, sat before the committee on July 21 for his nomination hearing.

In his opening remarks, Billingslea touted his “support for arms control that advances U.S. security, and which is both enforceable and verifiable.”

Billingslea was formerly an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of many arms control agreements.

Committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) asked Billingslea for his “thoughts on the fact that” the administration’s arms control efforts are “probably going to be bilateral as opposed to trilateral,” referring to the administration’s desire for a new nuclear arms control agreement with not only Russia but also China.

Billingslea responded that efforts with Russia and China “need to converge in the direction of a trilateral arms control arrangement that brings back many of the most effective verification mechanisms that we once had in the original [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] and which also address the unconstrained warheads that Russia is now building.”

Asked about the Trump administration’s view on extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), due to expire in February 2021, Billingslea said, “We have not arrived at a decision one way or another on extension of the agreement and, if so, for what period of time.”

In addition to New START, Billingslea also faced questions about hypersonic weapons from Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

Billingslea said that some of the new strategic nuclear weapons Russia is developing, such as the hypersonic glide vehicle called Avangard, would be covered under New START. “But other of these weapons, I would not want to say they should be captured because we frankly don’t think these weapons should exist at all,” he said, referring to weapons such as the nuclear-powered cruise missile named Burevestnik.

Billingslea also said the United States would not “restrict” its missile defense options in any arms control negotiations. Moscow has previously said it would only limit its nonstrategic nuclear weapons if Washington were to limit its missile defenses.

Addressing his earlier Pentagon service, when the George W. Bush administration promoted interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture, Billingslea said, “I never advocated for any technique that was characterized to me as torture.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) cited Billingslea’s record on torture as a major concern with him potentially taking up the top arms control job at the State Department.

“When I come to ask you in your new position whether you argue for taking human rights into account before approving the export of more bombs to Saudi Arabia to drop on Yemen or whether you advocated for stronger U.S. protections in an arms treaty with Russia, I’m wondering whether we’ll get the truth,” said Menendez.—KINGSTON REIF and SHANNON BUGOS

The Trump administration eases demand for Chinese participation in new arms control talks.

Saudi Arabia May Be Building Uranium Facility


September 2020
By Julia Masterson and Shannon Bugos

With Chinese support, Saudi Arabia may be constructing a new uranium processing facility to enhance its pursuit of nuclear technology, The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 4. Citing unnamed Western officials, the report said that a facility near Al Ula is intended to be used to produce concentrated uranium, known as yellowcake, from mined ore. The reported development comes as U.S. and Saudi officials have been unable to agree on the terms of a nuclear cooperation agreement to support Saudi plans to develop nuclear energy.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the 2016 G20 Summit in China. Recent reports have suggested that China is backing the construction of a uranium processing facility in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)The Saudi Energy Ministry reportedly has categorically denied the existence of such a facility at that location. If confirmed, such a facility could signify Saudi progress toward constructing an indigenous uranium enrichment program, as yellowcake production is a key step in refining uranium for civilian or military uses.

Saudi officials have stated their intent to pursue a uranium enrichment program as part of the country’s plan to build 16 civilian power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, October 2019.) Companies from the United States, Russia, South Korea, China, and France are competing for a contract to build the first two of the planned 16 nuclear power reactors, but Riyadh has yet to select a vendor.

Israel also raised concerns about the new facility to the Trump administration, Axios reported on Aug. 19. There are “worrying signs about what the Saudis might be doing, but it is not exactly clear to us what's going on in this facility," said one senior Israeli intelligence official.

Saudi Arabia is not believed to have any uranium enrichment program as of now, but mastery of the enrichment process could embolden Riyadh to enrich to weapons-grade levels.

Revelation of the facility and Saudi Arabia’s possible lack of transparency has spurred renewed concern from members of Congress about how the Trump administration might address Saudi nuclear ambitions.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Arms Control Today that “President Donald Trump’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia has threatened our national security interests and undermined our values,” referring in particular to the administration’s lack of response to the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident.

“The return on this investment is now clear: a purported ally turning to China to accelerate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” said Kaine.

Meanwhile, three Democratic members from the House Foreign Affairs Committee—Reps. Joaquin Castro (Texas), Ami Bera (Calif.), and Ted Deutch (Fla.)—sent a letter on Aug. 17 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information and a briefing on the recent revelation as it “raises further questions about whether Riyadh’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) led a bipartisan group of senators in writing an Aug. 19 letter to Trump also demanding further information and a briefing on the status of U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation negotiations and the state of U.S. discussions with China on Riyadh’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Riyadh’s apparent lack of transparency regarding its nuclear efforts coupled with a growing ballistic missile program poses a serious threat to the international nonproliferation regime and United States objectives in the Middle East,” the senators wrote.

Concerns about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions have been exacerbated by rhetoric from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who in 2018 pledged that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” (See ACT, June 2018.)

A U.S. intelligence analysis circulated in early August detailed a second newly constructed structure near Riyadh, according to an Aug. 5 report by The New York Times. Analysts speculated it could be an undeclared nuclear facility, but the confidence with which that assessment was made is not clear.

Reports of the existence of the site near Al Ula allege that Saudi Arabia was aided by China in its construction. Asked about China’s role in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear development, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Webin said Aug. 7 that “China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners,” who “maintain normal energy cooperation.” He did not address the suspected yellowcake facility, but said that Beijing “will continue [its] strict fulfillment of international obligations in nonproliferation and pursue cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy with other countries.” China and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear collaboration dates back to 2012, when the two countries signed their first cooperative pact.

Saudi Arabia has also received help from China on the significant expansion of its domestic ballistic missile program, according to U.S. intelligence agencies in June 2019. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

Currently, Saudi Arabia has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that is complemented by an outdated small quantities protocol, reflective of the negligible size of its nuclear program at the time its safeguards agreement was concluded in 2005. Under that protocol, Saudi Arabia is not obligated to invite IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities, including any potential yellowcake production facilities.

IAEA officials have been pushing for Saudi Arabia to transition to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement for several years as Riyadh has moved to expand its civilian nuclear program. Following the revelation of the possible yellowcake facility, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, urged Riyadh on Aug. 8 to strengthen its agreement with the agency and invite inspectors in.

U.S.-Saudi negotiations on the nuclear energy cooperation deal, called a 123 agreement after the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act requiring it, have stalled over the past year.

An April report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggested that U.S.-Saudi talks have faced two unresolved issues. First, Riyadh has not agreed to sign an additional protocol to its limited safeguards agreement, which would provide the IAEA with a broader range of information on its nuclear-related activities. Second, Saudi Arabia has so far declined to promise to forgo nuclear fuel production activities, a step that is called a nonproliferation “gold standard.” (See ACT, June 2020.)

A 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear technology, equipment, and materials with other countries. A 123 agreement can include a gold standard commitment in which a cooperating country agrees to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, as those activities can be used to produce weapons-grade material. By forgoing those, countries adhering to a gold standard signal their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.

In September 2019, Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly sent a letter to Saudi officials stating that the United States would require Saudi Arabia to adopt an additional protocol with the IAEA and commit to the gold standard. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Kaine questioned U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea during his July 21 hearing for the top arms control job at the State Department on whether he would maintain that requirement. The State Department leads negotiations on 123 agreements, which, once complete, require congressional approval.

“You have my commitment that I will pursue the so-called gold standard in these 123 agreements,” said Billingslea. “I believe [it] should also be pursued with the Saudis.” He did not address the additional protocol.

 

Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia could be starting a uranium enrichment program.

U.S. Withdrawal Raises Open Skies Questions


September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The remaining members of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty are moving forward with determining how the treaty will function following the planned withdrawal of the United States, but significant questions remain about how the treaty would function with the U.S. absence.

A Romanian AN-30B aircraft is used for an Open Skies Treaty observation mission in 2004. (Photo: OSCE)On July 6, the states-parties gathered for a videoconference to discuss the May announcement by the Trump administration that the United States will withdraw from the accord in November, citing issues with Russian compliance with and implementation of the treaty. (See ACT, June 2020.) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 21 that Washington might reconsider its decision should Russia return to compliance. Signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

Hosted by treaty depositaries Canada and Hungary, the videoconference brought together 188 representatives from all 34 member countries, including the United States, according to a July 7 statement from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The representatives discussed “the overall impact on operational functionality of the treaty, the impact on the allocation of observation quotas and on financial arrangements within the treaty, and other potential effects on the treaty,” said the OSCE statement.

After the conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation, told Russian news agency TASS that “many participants in the videoconference spoke about the United States’ withdrawal in November as something foregone.” He further commented that Russia does not view the United States “as a partner who is able to negotiate.”

On July 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement alleging that the remaining states-parties “have not yet shown their willingness to assume responsibility for the treaty, to give a principled assessment of the actions of the U.S. administration, and to engage in a truly meaningful dialogue with Russia in order to resolve mutual claims.”

Russia has not definitively stated how it will respond to the U.S. withdrawal and has broadly conditioned its continued participation in the treaty on its national security interests.

“Russia will continue to assess its partners’ willingness to fully comply with their obligations under the treaty and seek mutually acceptable solutions to emerging problems,” but ultimately “no scenario can…be ruled out,” according to the foreign ministry statement.

The United States did not release a statement following the conference.

U.S. allies have continued to express their regret at the U.S. decision to withdraw and indicated their intention to remain a party to the treaty.

“We believe that the withdrawal by the U.S. is wrong,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Aug. 10. “Germany will continue to implement the Treaty on Open Skies and to do everything it can to preserve it.”

The states-parties will next convene in October, when flight quotas for 2021 will be determined.

How those quotas will be distributed in the absence of the United States is uncertain. Under the treaty, the United States can conduct 42 overflights a year. Most Canadian and European flights take place over Russia. Multiple states-parties are able to take part in an overflight, which has been beneficial to U.S. allies who do not possess properly outfitted aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force on July 14 officially cancelled the recapitalization program for the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for treaty overflights. Congress appropriated $41.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Another unresolved issue is to what extent, if at all, states-parties, particularly Russia, can continue to conduct overflights of U.S. military bases in Europe after the official U.S. withdrawal.

In a May 22 letter to Esper, 21 Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed concern that “the United States has over 35,000 forward deployed troops and critical military equipment deployed in countries that will remain subject to Russian overflight under the treaty.”

Defense officials “have stated that there are currently no agreements in place with each of our partners that establish notification requirements in the event of a Russian overflight of U.S. forces and equipment,” the lawmakers said.

Some treaty flights resumed in August after all flights were halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. During Aug. 10–13, Russia conducted an overflight of Germany, the path of which included Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, and Spangdahlem Air Base, a NATO base.

Also uncertain is how imagery gathered from overflight data will be handled with respect to the United States and its allies. Under the treaty, all imagery collected from overflights is made available to any of the states-parties. Once Washington likely departs from the treaty in November, it will lose access to that data.

Russia has indicated that U.S. allies should not continue to share information gathered from Open Skies flights with the United States after its departure from the treaty.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on May 26 that “Washington itself should not harbor too much hope of maintaining access to all data received under the treaty if it withdraws from it.”

Meanwhile, the House version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) expresses the sense of Congress that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty did not comply with the fiscal year 2020 NDAA, which required the administration to notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the treaty.

The bill also requires a plan for how the United States will be notified of treaty flights over parties that host U.S. military and assets and an assessment of the potential effects of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty on how the United States will obtain unclassified imagery and other information that it currently obtains under the treaty.

The House Appropriations Committee included a provision in their version of the fiscal year 2021 defense bill that would rescind $158 million from fiscal years 2019 and 2020 in funding for the program and prevent it from being reprogrammed.

 

Treaty parties have begun to discuss how the agreement will work if the United States withdraws in November.

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