"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
United States

Nuclear False Warnings and the Risk of Catastrophe

December 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball

Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). U.S. bomber and missile forces went on full alert, and the emergency command post, known as the “doomsday plane,” took to the air.

Former Titan II Missile in its silo, Sahuarita, Arizona. Source: The Titan Missile Museum.At 3 a.m., National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by a call from his military assistant. He was told that NORAD computers were reporting that 2,200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. According to Brzezinski, just one minute before he planned to call President Jimmy Carter to recommend an immediate U.S. nuclear retaliatory response, word came through that the NORAD message was a false alarm caused by software simulating a Soviet missile attack that was inexplicably transferred into the live warning system at the command’s headquarters.

The 1979 incident was one of the most dangerous false alarms of the nuclear age, but it was not the first or the last. Within months, three more U.S. system malfunctions set off the U.S. early-warning systems.

The Soviet Union also experienced false alarms. On Sept. 26, 1983, a newly installed early-warning system erroneously signaled that the United States had launched a small salvo of missiles toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge that night, would later report that he defied standard military protocol and refused to pass the alert to Moscow because “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.”

On Jan. 25, 1995, a large weather rocket launched off the coast of Norway created the appearance on Russian radars of an initial phase of a U.S. nuclear attack. Russian President Boris Yeltsin reported that the launch prompted him to activate Russia’s mobile nuclear command system.

Although the Cold War standoff that gave rise to massive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals ended decades ago, the nuclear strategies that could lead to the firing of hundreds of nuclear weapons remain susceptible to false alarms.

Today, each side deploys some 1,400 strategic nuclear warheads on hundreds of sea- and land-based missiles and long-range bombers—far greater than is necessary to deter an attack and more than enough to produce catastrophic devastation. Each side maintains hundreds of warheads that can be fired within minutes of a launch order from the president, and both leaders retain the option to retaliate before they confirm that nuclear weapons have been detonated on their territory. These dangerous launch-under-attack postures perpetuate the risk that false alarms could trigger a massive nuclear exchange.

Complicating matters, Washington and Moscow each reserve the option to employ nuclear weapons first in a crisis or conventional conflict. Each possesses hundreds of so-called tactical nuclear bombs, which produce relatively smaller explosive yields, for use on the battlefield. Both sides regularly conduct drills and exercises involving their respective nuclear forces.

Today, U.S. and Russian leaders have a responsibility to pursue immediate and decisive actions to reduce these grave risks. To start, they should invite all nuclear-armed states to affirm the 1985 pledge made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Given the risks of escalation, no plausible circumstance could justify legally, morally, or militarily the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. All nuclear-armed states should announce policies that rule out the first use of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons before nuclear use on their soil has been confirmed.

In fact, the dangerous launch-under-attack policies of the United States and Russia are unnecessary because a large portion of their nuclear forces could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of their forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Another key line of defense against nuclear catastrophe is dialogue. Washington and Moscow can and should resume a regular military and political dialogue on strategic stability. Such talks can avoid miscalculation over issues such as the use or nonuse of cyberattacks against nuclear command-and-control systems, missile defense capabilities and doctrine, nuclear launch exercises, and more. Similar talks with China should also be pursued.

Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin also should promptly agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by five years, as allowed by the treaty, and begin talks on a follow-on deal to set lower limits on all types of nuclear weaponry. Without the treaty, which expires in 2021, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972; and the likelihood of a dangerous, all-out nuclear arms race would grow.

We were lucky the false alarms of the Cold War did not trigger nuclear war. Because we may not be so lucky in the future, our leaders must act now to take the steps necessary to reduce and eliminate the nuclear danger.

Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

Pentagon Board Issues AI Guidelines

December 2019
By Michael Klare

On Oct. 31, after 15 months of private deliberation and public meetings, the Defense Innovation Board (DIB), an independent advisory arm of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, issued a set of recommendations on “ethical principles” for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) by the Defense Department.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., speaks during a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence conference on Nov. 5. He chaired the Defense Innovation Board which recently issued recommendations on the military use of artificial intelligence. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)The DIB had originally been asked in 2018 to devise such recommendations by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis following a revolt by workers at Google over the company’s AI work for the department. Some 4,000 employees signed a petition calling on Google to discontinue its work on Project Maven, a pioneer Pentagon effort to employ AI in identifying suspected militants, possibly for elimination through drone attack. Google subsequently announced that it would not renew the Maven contract and promised never to develop AI for “weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.”

Knowing that the military would have to rely on Silicon Valley for the talent and expertise it needed to develop advanced AI-empowered weapons and fearful of further resistance of the sort it encountered at Google, the Defense Department leadership sought to demonstrate its commitment to the ethical use of AI by initiating the DIB study. This effort also represents a response of sorts to growing public clamor, much of it organized by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, for a treaty banning fully autonomous weapons systems.

The DIB, chaired by Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, held three closed-door meetings with academics, lawyers, company officials, and arms control specialists in preparing its recommendations. A representative of the Arms Control Association submitted a formal statement to the board, emphasizing the need to ensure human control over all weapons systems and for the automatic deactivation of autonomous systems that lose contact with their human operators.

In its final report, the DIB appears to have sought a middle course, opening the way for expanded use of AI by the military while trying to reassure skeptics that this can be done in a humane and ethical fashion.

“AI is and will be an essential capability across [the Defense Department] in non-combat and combat functions,” the board stated. Nevertheless, “the use of AI must take place within the context of [an] ethical framework.”

The military has long embraced new technologies and integrated them in accordance with its long-standing ethical guidelines, the DIB indicated. But AI poses distinct problems because such systems possess a capacity for self-direction not found in any other weapons. Accordingly, a number of specific “AI ethics principles” are needed when employing these technologies for military purposes. Specifically, such systems must be “responsible, equitable, traceable, reliable, and governable,” the DIB wrote.

Each of these five principles seeks to address concerns raised by meeting participants over the use of AI in warfare. The DIB report led with the principle of ultimate human responsibility over all AI systems deployed by the Defense Department. Similarly, in response to concerns about biases built into AI target-identification systems—one of the issues raised by rebel workers at Google—it offers equity. The Defense Department,
it affirmed, should “avoid unintended bias in the development and deployment of combat or non-combat AI systems that would inadvertently cause harm to persons.”

The precepts of traceability and reliability are responses to scientific critics who worry that AI-empowered machines may act in ways that humans cannot understand or behave erratically, causing unintended harm. Accordingly, those principles state that it is essential that AI systems’ decision-making processes be traceable, hence correctable, by humans and that any programming flaws be detected and repaired before such munitions are deployed on the battlefield.

The final principle, governability, is of particular concern to the arms control community as it bears on commanders’ ability to prevent unintended escalation in a crisis, especially a potential nuclear crisis. The original text stated that all AI systems must be capable of detecting and avoiding unintended harm and disruption and be able to “disengage or deactivate deployed systems that demonstrate unintended escalatory or other behavior.” Some DIB members argued that this left too much to chance, so the final text was amended to read that such systems must possess a capacity “for human or automated disengagement or deactivation” of systems that demonstrate escalatory behavior.

The DIB recommendations will be forwarded to the defense secretary, where their fate is unknown. Nevertheless, the principles articulated by the board are likely to remain a source of discussion for some time to come.

Panel produces recommendations on “ethical principles” for use of artificial intelligence by the U.S. military.

Move Signaled for Firearm Exports Changes

December 2019
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration formally notified Congress last month that it would move ahead with controversial changes to regulations on how certain firearms are exported, starting a 30-day clock before final rules could be published. The move pushes past a hold that Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had put on the changes in February and sidesteps efforts in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would prevent them.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) has criticized a Trump administration effort to modify oversight of certain U.S. firearms exports.  (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)Under the proposed rules, semiautomatic and nonautomatic firearms and their ammunition, as well as certain other weapons, would be removed from the first three categories of the U.S. Munitions List (USML), a State Department-administered list of weapons. Sales of weapons from that list that meet certain dollar-value thresholds are notified to Congress, and a complex set of rules governs the reasons for which they may be transferred to and used by foreign recipients. Under the proposed changes, exports of these weapons would be transferred to a list administered by the Commerce Department, known as the Commerce Control List (CCL). The CCL does not trigger congressional notification requirements and allows for more streamlined arms transfer approvals.

In a Nov. 12 press release critical of the changes, Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) said the rules "will remove critical oversight mechanisms that will increase the probability that U.S. firearms will be misused to create violence and instability around the world." In March, Bera led a hearing on the changes as chair of the House Foreign Affairs oversight subcommittee. Menendez also cited the lack of congressional oversight as one of two primary concerns in his February hold on the changes.

But the administration attempted to address concerns about 3D gun printing technology transfers by adding new rules to the CCL that would require a license for online distribution of 3D printing plans. Currently, such plans are regulated under the USML and deemed an exportable item. The administration’s original proposal did not address the 3D printing issue, which was a second reason for concern highlighted in Menendez's hold and in legislative proposals to address the issue that he and others led. (See ACT, March 2019.)

An amendment passed in July to the House version of the NDAA, patterned after stand-alone legislation introduced by Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif), would prohibit changes to the relevant USML categories. The NDAA conference committee has not reconciled the House bill with the Senate version, which did not include the Torres amendment. Menendez has not indicated if he would attempt to place a hold on the changes again.

Export rule changes have not been as high profile as some other domestic efforts related to assault-style weapons, but Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have explicitly called for export authority to remain with the State Department. Robin Lloyd, managing director at the Giffords campaign to prevent gun violence, said on Nov. 13, "This White House clearly is more concerned with appeasing the gun lobby than making it harder for exported firearms to contribute to international violence and crime.”


Planned shift to Commerce Department reviews for certain U.S. arms transfers triggers strong congressional criticism.

U.S. Goals Unclear for Saudi Nuclear Deal

December 2019
By Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration has not committed publicly to requiring the “gold standard” commitment for an agreement with Saudi Arabia over its nuclear power program.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, speaking here on Sept. 24, has suggested the United States will seek stringent nonproliferation conditions in any agreement to share U.S. nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia, but the Trump administration has not officially set its terms. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)Saudi Arabia plans to build up its nuclear power program, but in order to receive U.S. nuclear materials or technology, Riyadh would need first to sign a 123 agreement with the United States. Such an agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear energy technology, equipment, and materials with other countries. A 123 agreement can involve what is known as a “gold standard” commitment in which a country forgoes uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing, which are two pathways to making nuclear weapons.

“To be a good citizen of the world, to show we are going to be responsible and we are going to be world leaders, signing a 123 agreement with the appropriate additional protocols makes an abundance of good sense to me,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry in an Oct. 26 interview with CNBC. That same day during a roundtable in Abu Dhabi, he also predicted that “[t]he kingdom and the leadership in the kingdom…will find a way to sign a 123 agreement with the United States, I think.”

In neither instance did Perry, who announced he would resign from his post at the end of November, state whether the United States would also demand that Saudi Arabia include a gold standard commitment in any 123 agreement. He said only that Riyadh is “absolutely correct” in pursuing nuclear power and that Washington wants it to “understand that the message on nonproliferation is really important.”

According to a September article by Bloomberg, Perry did inform Saudi officials that a 123 agreement “must also contain a commitment by the kingdom to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement.” That report has not been confirmed. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Four Democratic senators—Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)—sent a letter Nov. 13 to Dan Brouillettee, recently confirmed as the new secretary of energy, demanding clarification about the 123 agreement and the inclusion of a gold standard commitment. The Energy Department is leading negotiations for this agreement, which would require congressional approval once completed.

“Do you agree with the text of Secretary Rick Perry’s September letter to Saudi Arabia, as reported, that the terms of any potential civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia must also contain a commitment by the country to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement?” they asked. They additionally inquired about the overall status of civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The senators set a Nov. 27 deadline for responses from Brouillettee.


The Trump administration has not clarified if it will pursue the "gold standard" of nonproliferation conditions as it negotiates a nuclear technology sharing agreement with Saudi Arabia.

NRC Will Not Require Drone Defenses

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced on Oct. 30 that it would not require nuclear power plant operators to defend against drone attacks.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that U.S. nuclear power plants, such as New York's Indian Point Energy Center, need not take additional security measures to protect against drone attacks. (Photo: Tony Fischer/Flickr)The NRC sets protection requirements for nuclear power plants and has been studying the threat posed by drones for the past two years. In an unclassified summary published in October, the commission concluded that nuclear power plants “do not have any risk-significant vulnerabilities that could be exploited” by drone attacks that would result in “radiological sabotage” or theft of special nuclear material. The NRC said it would continue evaluating the impact of drone technologies.

Edwin Lyman, the acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a Nov. 4 press release that the decision “ignores the wide spectrum of threats that drones pose to nuclear facilities.” He said that the NRC “seems more interested in keeping the cost of nuclear plant security low than protecting Americans from terrorist sabotage that could cause a reactor meltdown.”

No nuclear power reactor worldwide appears to have been attacked by a drone to date, but Greenpeace flew a drone into a nuclear power reactor in France in July 2018 to demonstrate the site’s vulnerabilities.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

NRC Will Not Require Drone Defenses

Fifty Years Ago, the First Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Began

Fifty years ago, on Nov. 17, 1969, the United States and the Soviet Union launched the first-ever Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Helsinki, Finland. The chief American negotiator was Gerard Smith, who had been appointed the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency by then-president Richard Nixon. Smith’s opening message that day: “The limitation of strategic arms is in the mutual interests of our country and the Soviet Union.” Negotiated in the midst of severe tensions, the SALT agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were the first restrictions on the...

A New Nuclear Deal Begins With New START

November 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Since 2017, the Trump administration has sought to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while withdrawing the United States from key agreements designed to reduce nuclear dangers.

At the same time, President Donald Trump claims he wants to negotiate a nuclear arms control deal with Russia and with China, which has never been part of a nuclear arms limitation treaty.

In an interview Oct. 21, Trump said, “I believe that we’re going to get together with Russia and with China, and we’re going to work out our nuclear pact so that we don’t all continue with this craziness. It’s very costly and very dangerous. It’s very, very dangerous. We should all get together and work out something—a cap, have a cap."

Nuclear weapons are certainly very costly and dangerous, and there are no winners in a nuclear arms race. But contrary to what the president may believe, Washington is not actively engaging with Moscow or Beijing on a nuclear disarmament deal and does not appear to have a viable plan for doing so.

Worse yet, Trump’s advisers have spurned Russian offers thus far to talk about extending the only existing treaty that does cap the deadly strategic arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear actors: the 2010 U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in February 2021.

In remarks at the United Nations last month, Thomas DiNanno, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense policy, emerging threats, and outreach, asserted that “we need a new era of arms control, one in which Russia and China are at the negotiating table and willing to reduce nuclear risks rather than heighten them.”

“The Cold War approach, with its bilateral treaties that covered limited types of nuclear weapons or only certain ranges of missiles, is no longer sufficient,” he said.

Talks with other nuclear-armed states aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating all types of nuclear weapons are necessary and overdue. But given the Trump administration’s lack of preparation and the complexity of such an endeavor, there is no possibility a new trilateral deal with Russia and China could be concluded before New START expires.

Contrary to DiNanno’s claims, New START, if extended, would provide the only near-term path to limit Russia’s ill-advised plans for new strategic delivery systems, including a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a long-range torpedo, an “unlimited range” nuclear-powered cruise missile, and hypersonic glide vehicles.

If Trump actually wants to avoid an arms race, the first step is to promptly agree with Russia to extend New START by five years.

New START is working. Allowing the treaty to expire without a viable substitute would be foreign policy malpractice. The treaty verifiably limits the number of deployed strategic warheads for each side to 1,550 and caps the number of deployed delivery vehicles at 700, far more than is necessary to deter a nuclear attack.

Military and intelligence officials greatly value New START inspections and its prohibition on interference with national technical means of verification, which provide predictability and transparency and promote a stable nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia.

U.S. allies strongly support a New START extension. There is bipartisan support in Congress and among the American public for the treaty’s extension. Extending the treaty would represent a significant policy win for Trump and would restore some of the United States’ lost standing in the world.

An extension of New START would provide a foundation for a more ambitious follow-on agreement with Russia limiting other types of nuclear weapons, including short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons systems, as well as for talks with China to curb future nuclear and missile competition.

China, however, which has an estimated 300 nuclear weapons, has made it clear it is not going to join New START or reduce the size of its nuclear force unless Washington and Moscow pursue far deeper cuts of their nuclear arsenals, numbering some 6,500 weapons each.

A more realistic approach would be for the United States and Russia agree to negotiate a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with limits well below those of New START by one-third or more if China agrees not to increase the size of its stockpile and adopts some transparency measures.

For instance, all three countries might agree to jointly declare their total warhead numbers, including type of warheads and delivery systems. The three countries also could engage in regular talks on strategic stability, including the interrelationship between strategic ballistic missiles and missile defense, limits on hypersonic weapons, and a joint understanding that cyber capabilities should not be used interfere with nuclear command and control.

These types of multilateral efforts will be difficult and will take time. In the meantime, without New START, the risk of unconstrained nuclear arms competition and conflict with Russia would grow and the task of bringing other states in the nuclear disarmament enterprise would become even more challenging. Extending New START is Trump’s best chance for a deal to reduce the nuclear weapons danger.


Since 2017, the Trump administration has sought to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while withdrawing the United States from key agreements designed to reduce nuclear dangers.

Cyber Battles, Nuclear Outcomes? Dangerous New Pathways to Escalation

November 2019
By Michael T. Klare

In January 2018, details of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) were posted online by the Huffington Post, provoking widespread alarm over what were viewed as dangerous shifts in U.S. nuclear policy. Arousing most concern was a call for the acquisition of several types of low-yield nuclear weapons, a proposal viewed by many analysts as increasing the risk of nuclear weapons use.

A U.S. F-22 fighter shadows a Russian Tu-95 bomber on May 20 in international airspace near Alaska. Aircraft and missile detection systems rely heavily on electronic communications, making them potential targets for cyberwarfare. (Photo: NORAD)Another initiative incorporated in the strategy document also aroused concern: the claim that an enemy cyberattack on U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) facilities would constitute a “non-nuclear strategic attack” of sufficient magnitude to justify the use of nuclear weapons in response.

Under the Obama administration’s NPR report, released in April 2010, the circumstances under which the United States would consider responding to non-nuclear attacks with nuclear weapons were said to be few. “The United States will continue to…reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks,” the report stated. Although little was said about what sort of non-nuclear attacks might be deemed severe enough to justify a nuclear response, cyberstrikes were not identified as one of these. The 2018 NPR report, however, portrayed a very different environment, one in which nuclear combat is seen as increasingly possible and in which non-nuclear strategic threats, especially in cyberspace, were viewed as sufficiently menacing to justify a nuclear response. Speaking of Russian technological progress, for example, the draft version of the Trump administration’s NPR report stated, “To…correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage, the president will have an expanding range of limited and graduated [nuclear] options to credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks, which could now include attacks against U.S. NC3, in space and cyberspace.”1

The notion that a cyberattack on U.S. digital systems, even those used for nuclear weapons, would constitute sufficient grounds to launch a nuclear attack was seen by many observers as a dangerous shift in policy, greatly increasing the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear escalation in a crisis. “The entire broadening of the landscape for nuclear deterrence is a very fundamental step in the wrong direction,” said former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. “I think the idea of nuclear deterrence of cyberattacks, broadly, certainly does not make any sense.”2

Despite such admonitions, the Pentagon reaffirmed its views on the links between cyberattacks and nuclear weapons use when it released the final version of the NPR report in February 2018. The official text now states that the president must possess a spectrum of nuclear weapons with which to respond to “attacks against U.S. NC3,” and it identifies cyberattacks as one form of non-nuclear strategic warfare that could trigger a nuclear response.

That cyberwarfare had risen to this level of threat, the 2018 NPR report indicated, was a product of the enhanced cybercapabilities of potential adversaries and of the creeping obsolescence of many existing U.S. NC3 systems. To overcome these vulnerabilities, it called for substantial investment in an upgraded NC3 infrastructure. Not mentioned, however, were extensive U.S. efforts to employ cybertools to infiltrate and potentially incapacitate the NC3 systems of likely adversaries, including Russia, China, and North Korea.

For the past several years, the U.S. Department of Defense has been exploring how it could employ its own very robust cyberattack capabilities to compromise or destroy enemy missiles from such states as North Korea before they can be fired, a strategy sometimes called “left of launch.”3 Russia and China can assume, on this basis, that their own launch facilities are being probed for such vulnerabilities, presumably leading them to adopt escalatory policies such as those espoused in the 2018 NPR report. Wherever one looks, therefore, the links between cyberwar and nuclear war are growing.

The Nuclear-Cyber Connection

These links exist because the NC3 systems of the United States and other nuclear-armed states are heavily dependent on computers and other digital processors for virtually every aspect of their operation and because those systems are highly vulnerable to cyberattack. Every nuclear force is composed, most basically, of weapons, early-warning radars, launch facilities, and the top officials, usually presidents or prime ministers, empowered to initiate a nuclear exchange. Connecting them all, however, is an extended network of communications and data-processing systems, all reliant on cyberspace. Warning systems, ground- and space-based, must constantly watch for and analyze possible enemy missile launches. Data on actual threats must rapidly be communicated to decision-makers, who must then weigh possible responses and communicate chosen outcomes to launch facilities, which in turn must provide attack vectors to delivery systems. All of this involves operations in cyberspace, and it is in this domain that great power rivals seek vulnerabilities to exploit in a constant struggle for advantage.

The use of cyberspace to gain an advantage over adversaries takes many forms and is not always aimed at nuclear systems. China has been accused of engaging in widespread cyberespionage to steal technical secrets from U.S. firms for economic and military advantages. Russia has been accused, most extensively in the Robert Mueller report, of exploiting cyberspace to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Nonstate actors, including terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, have used the internet for recruiting combatants and spreading fear. Criminal groups, including some thought to be allied with state actors, such as North Korea, have used cyberspace to extort money from banks, municipalities, and individuals.4 Attacks such as these occupy most of the time and attention of civilian and military cybersecurity organizations that attempt to thwart such attacks. Yet for those who worry about strategic stability and the risks of nuclear escalation, it is the threat of cyberattacks on NC3 systems that provokes the greatest concern.

Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on February 14. He warned that China and Russia are conducting sustained cybercampaigns against the United States. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)This concern stems from the fact that, despite the immense effort devoted to protecting NC3 systems from cyberattack, no enterprise that relies so extensively on computers and cyberspace can be made 100 percent invulnerable to attack. This is so because such systems employ many devices and operating systems of various origins and vintages, most incorporating numerous software updates and “patches” over time, offering multiple vectors for attack. Electronic components can also be modified by hostile actors during production, transit, or insertion; and the whole system itself is dependent to a considerable degree on the electrical grid, which itself is vulnerable to cyberattack and is far less protected. Experienced “cyberwarriors” of every major power have been working for years to probe for weaknesses in these systems and in many cases have devised cyberweapons, typically, malicious software (malware) and computer viruses, to exploit those weaknesses for military advantage.5

Although activity in cyberspace is much more difficult to detect and track than conventional military operations, enough information has become public to indicate that the major nuclear powers, notably China, Russia, and the United States, along with such secondary powers as Iran and North Korea, have established extensive cyberwarfare capabilities and engage in offensive cyberoperations on a regular basis, often aimed at critical military infrastructure. “Cyberspace is a contested environment where we are in constant contact with adversaries,” General Paul M. Nakasone, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command (Cybercom), told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2019. “We see near-peer competitors [China and Russia] conducting sustained campaigns below the level of armed conflict to erode American strength and gain strategic advantage.”

Although eager to speak of adversary threats to U.S. interests, Nakasone was noticeably but not surprisingly reluctant to say much about U.S. offensive operations in cyberspace. He acknowledged, however, that Cybercom took such action to disrupt possible Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections. “We created a persistent presence in cyberspace to monitor adversary actions and crafted tools and tactics to frustrate their efforts,” he testified in February. According to press accounts, this included a cyberattack aimed at paralyzing the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” in St. Petersburg said to have been deeply involved in generating disruptive propaganda during the 2016 presidential elections.6

Other press investigations have disclosed two other offensive operations undertaken by the United States. One called “Olympic Games” was intended to disrupt Iran’s drive to increase its uranium-enrichment capacity by sabotaging the centrifuges used in the process by infecting them with the so-called Stuxnet virus. Another left of launch effort was intended to cause malfunctions in North Korean missile tests.7 Although not aimed at either of the U.S. principal nuclear adversaries, those two attacks demonstrated a willingness and capacity to conduct cyberattacks on the nuclear infrastructure of other states.

Efforts by strategic rivals of the United States to infiltrate and eventually degrade U.S. nuclear infrastructure are far less documented but thought to be no less prevalent. Russia, for example, is believed to have planted malware in the U.S. electrical utility grid, possibly with the intent of cutting off the flow of electricity to critical NC3 facilities in the event of a major crisis.8 Indeed, every major power, including the United States, is believed to have crafted cyberweapons aimed at critical NC3 components and to have implanted malware in enemy systems for potential use in some future confrontation.

Pathways to Escalation

Knowing that the NC3 systems of the major powers are constantly being probed for weaknesses and probably infested with malware designed to be activated in a crisis, what does this say about the risks of escalation from a nonkinetic battle, that is, one fought without traditional weaponry, to a kinetic one, at first using conventional weapons and then, potentially, nuclear ones? None of this can be predicted in advance, but those analysts who have studied the subject worry about the emergence of dangerous new pathways for escalation. Indeed, several such scenarios have been identified.9

The first and possibly most dangerous path to escalation would arise from the early use of cyberweapons in a great power crisis to paralyze the vital command, control, and communications capabilities of an adversary, many of which serve nuclear and conventional forces. In the “fog of war” that would naturally ensue from such an encounter, the recipient of such an attack might fear more punishing follow-up kinetic attacks, possibly including the use of nuclear weapons, and, fearing the loss of its own arsenal, launch its weapons immediately. This might occur, for example, in a confrontation between NATO and Russian forces in east and central Europe or between U.S. and Chinese forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

Speaking of a possible confrontation in Europe, for example, James N. Miller Jr. and Richard Fontaine wrote that “both sides would have overwhelming incentives to go early with offensive cyber and counter-space capabilities to negate the other side’s military capabilities or advantages.” If these early attacks succeeded, “it could result in huge military and coercive advantage for the attacker.” This might induce the recipient of such attacks to back down, affording its rival a major victory at very low cost. Alternatively, however, the recipient might view the attacks on its critical command, control, and communications infrastructure as the prelude to a full-scale attack aimed at neutralizing its nuclear capabilities and choose to strike first. “It is worth considering,” Miller and Fontaine concluded, “how even a very limited attack or incident could set both sides on a slippery slope to rapid escalation.”10

U.S. servicemen conduct a defensive cyberoperations exercise at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on March 8.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Renae Pittman)What makes the insertion of latent malware in an adversary’s NC3 systems so dangerous is that it  may not even need to be activated to increase the risk of nuclear escalation. If a nuclear-armed state comes to believe that its critical systems are infested with enemy malware, its leaders might not trust the information provided by its early-warning systems in a crisis and might misconstrue the nature of an enemy attack, leading them to overreact and possibly launch their nuclear weapons out of fear they are at risk of a preemptive strike.

“The uncertainty caused by the unique character of a cyber threat could jeopardize the credibility of the nuclear deterrent and undermine strategic stability in ways that advances in nuclear and conventional weapons do not,” Page O. Stoutland and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer wrote in 2018 paper for the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “[T]he introduction of a flaw or malicious code into nuclear weapons through the supply chain that compromises the effectiveness of those weapons could lead to a lack of confidence in the nuclear deterrent,” undermining strategic stability.11 Without confidence in the reliability of its nuclear weapons infrastructure, a nuclear-armed state may misinterpret confusing signals from its early-warning systems and, fearing the worst, launch its own nuclear weapons rather than lose them to an enemy’s first strike. This makes the scenario proffered in the 2018 NPR report, of a nuclear response to an enemy cyberattack, that much more alarming.

Yet another pathway to escalation could arise from a cascading series of cyberstrikes and counterstrikes against vital national infrastructure rather than on military targets. All major powers, along with Iran and North Korea, have developed and deployed cyberweapons designed to disrupt and destroy major elements of an adversary’s key economic systems, such as power grids, financial systems, and transportation networks. As noted, Russia has infiltrated the U.S. electrical grid, and it is widely believed that the United States has done the same in Russia.12 The Pentagon has also devised a plan known as “Nitro Zeus,” intended to immobilize the entire Iranian economy and so force it to capitulate to U.S. demands or, if that approach failed, to pave the way for a crippling air and missile attack.13

The danger here is that economic attacks of this sort, if undertaken during a period of tension and crisis, could lead to an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks against ever more vital elements of an adversary’s critical infrastructure, producing widespread chaos and harm and eventually leading one side to initiate kinetic attacks on critical military targets, risking the slippery slope to nuclear conflict. For example, a Russian cyberattack on the U.S. power grid could trigger U.S. attacks on Russian energy and financial systems, causing widespread disorder in both countries and generating an impulse for even more devastating attacks. At some point, such attacks “could lead to major conflict and possibly nuclear war.”14

These are by no means the only pathways to escalation resulting from the offensive use of cyberweapons. Others include efforts by third parties, such as proxy states or terrorist organizations, to provoke a global nuclear crisis by causing early-warning systems to generate false readings (“spoofing”) of missile launches. Yet, they do provide a clear indication of the severity of the threat. As states’ reliance on cyberspace grows and cyberweapons become more powerful, the dangers of unintended or accidental escalation can only grow more severe.

‘Defending Forward’

Under these circumstances, one would think the major powers would seek to place restrictions on the use of offensive cyberweapons, especially those aimed at critical NC3 systems. This approach, however, is not being pursued by the United States and the other major powers.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Defense was empowered to conduct offensive cyberstrikes on foreign states and entities in response to like attacks on the United States, but any such moves required high-level review by the White House and were rarely approved. This approach was embedded in Presidential Policy Directive 20 (PPD-20), adopted in October 2012, which states that any cyberaction that might result in “significant consequences,” such as loss of life or adverse foreign policy impacts, required “specific presidential approval.”

Officials in the Trump administration found this requirement unduly restrictive and so persuaded the president to rescind PPD-20 and replace it with a more permissive measure. The resulting document, National Security Presidential Memorandum 13 (NSPM-13), was approved in September 2018 but has not been made public. From what is known of NSPM-13, senior military commanders, such as Nakasone, enjoy preapproval to undertake offensive strikes against foreign entities under certain specified conditions without further White House clearance. In accordance with the new policy, military planners can prepare for offensive cyberattacks by seeking vulnerabilities in adversarial computer networks and by implanting malware in these weak spots for potential utilization if a retaliatory strike is initiated.15

As translated into formal military doctrine, this approach is described as “defending forward,” or seeking out the originators of cyberattacks aimed at this country and neutralizing them through counterstrikes and the insertion of malware for future activation. “Defending forward as close as possible to the origin of adversary activity extends our reach to expose adversaries’ weaknesses, learn their intentions and capabilities, and counter attacks close to their origins.”16

In embracing this strategy, Nakasone and other senior officials insist that their intention is defensive: to protect U.S. cyberspace against attack and deter future assaults by letting opponents know their own systems will be crippled if they persist in malicious behavior. “For any nation that’s taking cyber activity against the United States,” said National Security Advisor John Bolton when announcing the adoption of NSPM-13, “they should expect…we will respond offensively as well as defensively.”17 For any potential adversary following these developments, defending forward will certainly be interpreted as preparation for offensive strikes in the event of a crisis, inviting stepped up defensive and offensive moves on their part.

Much less is known about the strategic cyberwar policies of other powers, but they likely parallel those of the United States. China, for example, has long been known to employ cyberspace to spy on U.S. military technological capabilities and steal what they can for use in developing their own weapons systems. Russia has been even more aggressive in its use of cyberspace, employing cyberweapons to cripple Ukraine’s electrical grid in 2015 and to influence elections. That Moscow has also sought to infiltrate the U.S. electrical grid suggests that it too intends to defend forward, by preparing for possible cyberattacks on U.S. command, control, and communications capabilities, including NC3 facilities.

Although occurring largely in secret, what can aptly be called “an arms race in cyberspace” is underway. Where this might lead is difficult to foresee, but it is certain to involve the development of ever more potent cyberweapons. Each nuclear power will seek to enhance its defenses against future cyberattack. Yet, just as is the case in missile warfare, it is easier and cheaper to devise new offensive cybersystems than defensive ones. In the event of a crisis, then, there will be a strong temptation to employ the new technologies early in the encounter, when they might be used to maximum effect, setting in motion an escalatory process resulting in nuclear weapons use. As noted, the mere fact that disruptive malware is known to have been embedded in the vital command-and-control systems of a nuclear power could lead it to distrust its early-warning and intelligence systems and, in a panicky response to ambiguous signals, assume the worst and launch its nuclear weapons.

Arms Control in Cyberspace

Given the various ways in which conflict in cyberspace could result in nuclear weapons use, steps must be taken to minimize the risk of escalation from one domain to the other, but conceiving of agreements to curb malicious and escalatory behavior in cyberspace is no easy task. Computer software cannot readily be classified and counted the way planes and missiles can, and states do not agree on definitions of offensive and defensive cyberweapons, let alone on measures to control them. Nevertheless, some efforts have been made to develop rules and protocols to restrain the destabilizing use of cybertechnologies, and these provide a framework for further consideration.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks November 12, 2018 at the Internet Governance Forum in Paris, where he introduced the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace," which has been signed by more than 50 nations, but not the United States. (Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)Perhaps the most extensive effort to adopt rules for acceptable behavior in cyberspace has been undertaken by the United Nations, in accordance with a series of General Assembly resolutions on the topic. This process first gained momentum in December 2011, when that body, “expressing concern” that emerging cybertechnologies “can potentially be used for purposes that are inconsistent with the objectives of maintaining international stability and security,” established a group of governmental experts to assess the dangers in cyberspace and consider “possible cooperative measures to address them, including norms, rules, or principles of responsible behavior of States.”18

In its initial report, released in June 2013, the experts group warned of increasing threats to the safety of what it described as the realm of information and communications technology (ICT). “States are concerned,” it noted, “that embedding harmful hidden functions in ICTs could be used in ways that affect secure and reliable ICT use…and damage national security.” With this in mind, it affirmed a basic principle: “International law, and in particular the Charter of the United Nations, is applicable” in the ICT domain. On this basis, it called on member states to work together in “the application of norms derived from existing international law relevant to the use of ICTs.” Furthermore, as part of this effort, it recommended the crafting of confidence-building measures, such as the creation of information-sharing mechanisms to investigate serious cybersecurity incidents, aimed at minimizing the risk of unintended consequences.19

As the evidence of dangerous developments in cyberspace multiplied, UN General Assembly Resolution 68/243, called for the formation of a new experts group to consider restraints on ICT malpractice. That body released its report in July 2015, providing the most comprehensive blueprint to date for the management of cyberspace. Building on the earlier experts group report, it articulated a set of norms that should govern behavior in this realm. Foremost among these was the precept that states “should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure” of another country. Other norms articulated in the report include the proviso that states should not allow their territory to be used for “internationally wrongful acts using ICTs” and should seek to “prevent the proliferation of malicious ICT tools and techniques and the use of harmful hidden functions.”20

By articulating a set of fundamental norms, the 2015 experts group report provides a useful starting point for further consideration of arms control in cyberspace. Lacking any decision-making authority, however, the UN group in advocating for those norms called only for conversations among states on their implementation and the adoption of “voluntary, non-binding norms” for responsible behavior. The General Assembly, addressing the topic on several occasions since then, has only reiterated the principles of the 2015 report and called on member states to follow its guidance without achieving any obvious, genuine progress.

Several other initiatives have been undertaken by states and nonstate entities to promote restraint in cyberspace. In February 2017, Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, called for the formulation of a “Digital Geneva Convention,” modeled on the existing, post-World War II Geneva Conventions, aimed at protecting civilians from the negative consequences of cyberattacks.21 Some academics, including scholars at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, have carried this notion further, calling for the worldwide embrace of "cyberpeace" based on the adoption of common norms and rules.22 “Just as the world’s governments came together in 1949 to adopt the Fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians in times of war,” he declared, “we need a Digital Geneva Convention that will commit governments to implement the norms that have been developed to protect civilians on the internet in times of peace.”

President Emmanuel Macron of France has advocated for similar measures at the international level. In November 2018, he unveiled the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace” at a major gathering in the French capital. Essentially a rewording of past UN resolutions and the 2015 experts group report, it called for international cooperation in reducing malicious behavior, especially cybercrime and political warfare.23 Although signed by leaders of more than 50 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom, President Donald Trump refused to endorse the Paris call, presumably because it might infringe on U.S. plans to employ cyberweapons in an offensive mode (no reasons were provided for the U.S. refusal to sign).24

At this point, the likelihood that the United States, Russia, and China will adopt and respect international constraints on the use of cyberweapons aimed at the critical information and communications systems of their adversaries appears virtually nil. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that UN officials, industry figures, and prominent national leaders continue to articulate such norms and call for their adoption. Hopefully, these precepts will form the basis for binding international agreements, when enough key governments are prepared to embrace such measures. In the meantime, it is essential that policymakers and arms control advocates pursue other routes to arms control in cyberspace.

Perhaps the most promising approach in this regard is the adoption of formal or informal agreements to eschew certain behaviors that would increase the risk of unintended or accidental nuclear escalation. This would involve meetings between U.S. and Russian officials, possibly under the auspices of the currently suspended Strategic Stability Dialogue; between U.S. and Chinese officials; or possibly all three together aimed at identifying certain rules of the road to which all sides would agree to adhere, such as a ban on the implantation of malware in the NC3 systems of their adversaries.

A precedent for such high-level accords is provided by U.S. President Barack Obama’s September 2015 agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping to bar the use of cyberspace for the theft of intellectual property. Although there is widespread debate over the extent to which China has abided by the 2015 accord, there is general agreement that it did result for a time in a diminished level of Chinese cyberespionage in the United States.25

Such an approach was advanced by Stoutland and Pitts-Kieter in their 2018 study of cyberweapons and nuclear stability. “As a priority first step,” they said, “the United States should seek to initiate a bilateral dialogue with Russia” intended to “develop mutual understanding on how cyber threats can affect deterrence and strategic stability.” Such talks, they wrote, “should be held with a view toward developing a shared understanding of our mutual interest in minimizing that risk and identifying practical ways to address it bilaterally and multilaterally.”26

At present, none of these approaches for the control of cyberspace appears to be making any headway. As a consequence, the arms race in cyberspace is rapidly gaining momentum, greatly increasing the likelihood that future confrontations among the major powers will entail the early use of sophisticated cyberweapons, magnifying the risk of rapid and uncontrolled nuclear escalation. Because this danger has received far less attention than other pathways to escalation, it is essential that policymakers and arms control advocates devote far more effort to controlling cyberspace than they have up until now.



1. U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review (draft), January 2018, p. 17, at https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/npr2018-draft.pdf.

2. Aaron Mehta, “Nuclear Posture Review Draft Leaks,” Defense News, January 12, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/space/2018/01/12/nuclear-posture-review-draft-leaks-new-weapons-coming-amid-strategic-shift/.

3. For background on these efforts, see Andrew Futter, “The Dangers of Using Cyberattacks to Counter Nuclear Threats,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2016, pp. 8–14.

4. For a comprehensive assessment of the cyberweapons threat in all its forms, see
David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon (New York: Crown, 2018).

5. For a thorough assessment of these vulnerabilities, see Beyza Unal and Patricia Lewis, “Cybersecurity of Nuclear Weapons Systems,” Chatham House, January 2018, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2018-01-11-cybersecurity-nuclear-weapons-unal-lewis-final.pdf.

6. Julian E. Barnes, “Cyberattack Neutralized Russian Trolls as U.S. Voted,” The New York Times, February 27, 2019.

7. For background on these operations, see Sanger, Perfect Weapon, pp. 7–36 and 276–283.

8. David E. Sanger, “Russian Hackers Train Focus on U.S. Power Grid,” The New York Times, July 28, 2018.

9. For a summary of such scenarios, see Page O. Stoutland and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, “Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age: Report of the Cyber-Nuclear Weapons Study Group,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, September 2018, p. 12, https://media.nti.org/documents/Cyber_report_finalsmall.pdf.

10. James N. Miller Jr. and Richard Fontaine, “A New Era in U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability,” Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Center for a New American Security, September 2017, p. 18, https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNASReport-ProjectPathways-Finalb.pdf.

11. Stoutland and Pitts-Kiefer, “Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age,” p. 12.

12. See Ivan Nechepurenko, “Kremlin Warns of Cyberwar After Report of U.S. Hacking of Electrical Grid,” The New York Times, July 18, 2019.

13. See Sanger, Perfect Weapon, pp. 43–47.

14. Miller Jr. and Fontaine, “New Era in U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability,” p. 19.

15. Zachary Fryer-Biggs, “The Pentagon Has Prepared a Cyberattack Against Russia,” Daily Beast, November 2, 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-pentagon-has-prepared-a-cyber-attack-against-russia.

16. U.S. Cyber Command, “Achieve and Maintain Cyberspace Superiority: Command Vision for U.S. Cyber Command,” n.d., https://www.cybercom.mil/Portals/56/Documents/USCYBERCOM%20Vision%20April%202018.pdf?ver=2018-06-14-152556-010 (released
April 2018).

17. Fryer-Biggs, “Pentagon Has Prepared a Cyberattack Against Russia.”

18. UN General Assembly, Resolution 66/24, December 2, 2011.

19. UN General Assembly, “Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/68/98, June 24, 2013 (containing the report).

20. UN General Assembly, “Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/70/174, July 22, 2015 (containing the report).

21. Brad Smith, “The Need for a Digital Geneva Convention,” Microsoft, February 14, 2017, https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2017/02/14/need-digital-geneva-convention/.

22. Scott Shackelford, "The Meaning of Cyber Peace," Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, https://ndias.nd.edu/news-publications/ndias-quarterly/the-meaning-of-cyber-peace/.

23. “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace,” November 12, 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/paris_call_cyber_cle443433-1.pdf.

24. David E. Sanger, “U.S. Declines to Sign Macron Declaration Against Cyberattacks,” The New York Times, November 13, 2018.

25. See Adam Segal, “Is China Still Stealing Western Intellectual Property?” Council on Foreign Relations, September 26, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/blog/china-still-stealing-western-intellectual-property.

26. Stoutland and Pitts-Kiefer, “Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age,” p. 27.


Michael T. Klare is a professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. This is the fourth in the “Arms Control Tomorrow” series, in which he considers disruptive emerging technologies and their implications for war-fighting and arms control.


Rapidly advancing cybertechnology threatens to undermine traditional thinking on when the use of nuclear weapons may be provoked.

Russia, China, Arms Control, and the Value of New START

November 2019
By Thomas Countryman

Until President Donald Trump took office in 2017, every U.S. president for the previous 50 years proposed and pursued negotiations with Moscow as a means to regulate destabilizing nuclear arms competition and reduce the risk of the United States and its allies being destroyed in a nuclear war. They sought and concluded a series of treaties, with strong bipartisan support, that have made the United States and the world much safer.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (left) and U.S. President Richard Nixon celebrate their signatures of the agreements resulting from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks on May 26, 1972.  The talks opened 50 years ago, on November 17, 1969. (Photo: Getty Images.)Nearly exactly 50 years ago, for example, the United States and Russia opened the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks on Nov. 17, 1969. Lead U.S. negotiator Gerard Smith wrote that his opening message that day was that “[t]he limitation of strategic arms is in the mutual interests of our country and the Soviet Union.”1

What was true then is true now. Sadly, Trump has not continued the efforts of his predecessors. The United States abandoned the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty this year and appears ready to allow the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to lapse in 2021. If New START expires, there will be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.

Instead, Trump says he wants to bring China into trilateral negotiations with Russia on a new agreement to limit nuclear weapons not covered by New START. Efforts to limit all types of nuclear weapons with other nuclear-armed states are admirable, but such negotiations would be complex and time consuming. There is no realistic chance that a new agreement along these lines could be finalized before New START expires.

This approach has drawn a bipartisan rebuke, and has prompted House and Senate lawmakers to introduce bills to support New START extension. In the House, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced the “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” bill, which expresses the sense of Congress that the United States should seek to extend New START so long as Russia remains in compliance. Similarly, in the Senate, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced a companion bill of the same title and purpose.

Extending New START would preserve verifiable caps on the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia. The treaty limits each side to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. Without these limits and verification measures, Russia is well positioned to rapidly upload more additional warheads than the United States could, and each side would have far less insight into the other’s nuclear deployment and modernization plans. As a result, the already difficult and uneasy U.S. nuclear relationship with Russia would become even more complicated, the risks of renewed nuclear competition would grow, and efforts to mitigate nuclear risks in other corners of the globe would become more difficult.

The Value of Nuclear Arms Control

Previous presidents, since Dwight Eisenhower have recognized the value of effective nuclear arms control. They understood that:

  • Talking to an adversary, whether a superpower such as the Soviet Union or a lesser challenger such as Iran, is not a sign of weakness but a hardheaded and realistic means to reduce threats posed to the United States.
  • Treaties provide rules of the road that enable the United States to pursue more effectively its economic and security interests while constraining other nations’ ability to act against U.S. interests more than they constrain U.S. freedom of action.
  • Arms control agreements are not a concession made by the United States or a favor done to another nation, but an essential component of and contribution to U.S. national security.
  • In a world in which the United States claims global leadership, Washington must take the lead bilaterally and multilaterally, proposing initiatives that greatly reduce the risk that weapons of mass destruction spread or are used.
  • The pursuit of reductions of nuclear stockpiles and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons as a moral and, since approval by the U.S. Senate of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1969, legal obligation, one that can and must be pursued regardless of the ups and downs of great-power relations.
  • There can be no winners in a nuclear war. Mutual assured destruction is not a theory or a philosophy; it is a reality. Since the time the Soviet Union achieved reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1960s, neither the United States nor Russia can launch a nuclear attack on the other’s homeland without the near-certain destruction of its own homeland. Arms control agreements and associated stability mechanisms serve to reduce the risk that a cycle of assured destruction will begin.

As a consequence of U.S. diplomatic leadership and the support of Congress, a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later Russia, verifiably reduced the two superpowers’ strategic nuclear arsenals by more than 85 percent below their Cold War peaks. The total destructive power of those weapons has been reduced from the equivalent of more than a million Hiroshima-size bombs to the somewhat less insane equivalent of 80,000 such weapons. One of those agreements, the INF Treaty, verifiably eliminated an entire class of destabilizing missiles that threatened European security and increased the risk of superpower miscalculation.

The United States helped lead the way to the negotiation and conclusion of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear test explosion, no matter what the yield. Although the CTBT has not formally entered into force due to the failure of eight key states to ratify, the treaty has been signed by 184 nations, including all five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT; has established a global monitoring network that is operating around the clock to help detect and deter clandestine testing; and created a global norm against nuclear testing. Today, no state is actively engaged in nuclear testing.

U.S.-led efforts to reduce the role and the number of nuclear weapons and to end nuclear testing, combined with political pledges from the United States and the other nuclear-armed states to take further disarmament steps, have helped to solidify international support for the NPT and paved the way for its indefinite extension in 1995.

Many of these positive trends have been reversed, and others are at risk. This is due in part to a deficit of U.S. leadership and the growing body of thought of many in the administration and Congress today who believe that the United States should not discuss vital national security issues or consider compromise with adversaries such as Russia and Iran until they have fully met U.S. demands in all fields. They think international treaties are inherently disadvantageous to the United States, as they constrain the freedom of action of the world’s leading military and economic power. They imagine that because arms control agreements involve a degree of compromise, they grant unwarranted concessions to opponents. They deem such agreements to have no value if they do not solve every problem between the parties, an all-or-nothing approach exemplified by the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. They credit the Cold War fallacy that there is a way to win a nuclear war, that a numerical or technical advantage can give the United States a dominance of power that would spare the country from destruction in a nuclear exchange. Sadly, no U.S. official today is able to repeat the obvious fact that motivated President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to declare that “[a] nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

Over the last two years, this line of thinking is evident in the Trump administration’s retreat from global leadership, its embrace of authoritarian leaders, its weakening partnership with democratic allies, its withdrawal from international agreements, and its inability to make any new and meaningful agreements. The administration has weakened restraints on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. It has refused to reconsider CTBT ratification or otherwise reinforce the de facto nuclear testing moratorium, which has preserved the important U.S. technical advantage in the nuclear field.

Now, with the demise of the INF Treaty and the looming expiration date of New START, the administration has failed to put forward a serious plan for constraining Russia’s nuclear arsenal. There is a serious risk that, without extension of New START and mutual restraints on INF Treaty-range missile systems after the end of that treaty, the conditions for an expensive, risky, and destabilizing nuclear weapons race will emerge, similar to but riskier and more expensive than the arms race in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the absence of responsible steps to prevent a dangerous new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race, Congress can and should be ready to point the way forward.

No INF Treaty, What Now?

The INF Treaty was a signature foreign policy achievement for Reagan. It was unprecedented in its requirement of the destruction of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, resulting in the elimination of 2,692 Soviet and U.S. missiles. It established the principle of on-site inspection, a concept still central today to effective agreements and to U.S. understanding of Russian systems. It resolved a dangerous split within NATO and reduced a genuine threat to U.S. allies and to peace in Europe. It was central to establishing the opportunity for genuine cooperation between Washington and Moscow.

Monitoring the INF Treaty, a Soviet inspector examines a U.S. ground-launched cruise missile prior to destruction on October 18, 1988. In August, the United States withdrew from the treaty. (Photo: Jose Lopez/Department of Defense)The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty will now free the Russian military to plan new generations of missiles aimed at Russia’s NATO and non-NATO neighbors while plausibly blaming the United States for the treaty’s demise.

The U.S. decision to terminate the treaty, now combined with the possibility of new U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, was risky and unwise. It opened the door to a new phase of destabilizing INF Treaty-range missile competition with Russia.

These missiles, whether nuclear armed or conventional, U.S. or Russian, would be able to strike targets deep inside Russia and in western Europe. Their short time-to-target capability increases the risk of miscalculation in a crisis. Any nuclear attack on Russia involving U.S. intermediate-range, nuclear-armed missiles based in Europe could provoke a massive Russian nuclear counterstrike on Europe and on the U.S. homeland.

This leaves open the questions: what happens next, and what can be done to mitigate the risks?

To encourage Russia to avoid expanding missile deployments, including the 9M729 intermediate-range cruise missile that the Obama and Trump administrations confirmed was tested and deployed in violation of the INF Treaty, a new and more serious NATO commitment to arms control is needed to protect Europe and the United States.

One option would be for NATO to declare as a bloc that no alliance members will field any INF Treaty-prohibited missiles or any equivalent new nuclear capabilities in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy treaty-prohibited systems where they could hit NATO territory.

This would require Russia to dismantle or move at least some of the currently deployed 9M729 missiles. As the United States and Russia dispute the range of that missile, they could simply agree to bar deployments west of the Ural Mountains or beyond. The U.S. and Russian presidents could agree to this “no-first INF Treaty-range missile deployment plan” through an executive agreement that would be verified through national technical means of intelligence, monitoring mechanisms available through the Open Skies Treaty and the Vienna Document, and, as necessary, new on-site inspection arrangements.

Another possible approach would be to negotiate a new agreement, perhaps as part of a New START follow-on, that verifiably prohibits ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic or cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. As a recent UN Institute for Disarmament Research study explains, the sophisticated verification procedures and technologies already in place under New START can be applied with almost no modification to verify the absence of nuclear warheads deployed on shorter-range missiles.2

Such an approach would require additional declarations and inspections of any ground-launched INF Treaty-range systems. To be of lasting value, such a framework would require that Moscow and Washington agree to extend New START.

The Future of New START

New START reduced deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to their lowest level since the 1960s. It built on previously agreed systems of notification, verification, and inspection. To date, the two sides have exchanged more than 10,000 notifications of movement of delivery systems and have conducted dozens of on-site verification inspections on each other’s territory.

If New START expires, there will be no limits on deployments of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, such as this Russian SS-24 ICBM.  (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)As a result, the United States has a significantly clearer picture of Russian strategic capabilities than it could attain by national intelligence means alone. There have been no credible allegations of Russian violations of the agreement and, despite some questionable Russian concerns about verifying the conversion of U.S. strategic nuclear systems to conventional roles, the United States also continues to fully implement the treaty.

The Trump administration, however, appears to believe in the myth that Russia needs New START more than the United States does and that the treaty can be leveraged to gain something more from Moscow.

Taking these factors into account, the most important step that the two sides could take would be to take advantage of the option, as described in Article XIV, to extend the treaty by five years to 2026.

To do so, it is important that the two sides promptly begin consultations on key issues raised by each side. Russia has raised concerns about the verification of the permitted procedures to convert some U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems to conventional roles. The United States understandably has suggested that New START should account for new Russian strategic nuclear weapons systems, including the Status-6 nuclear-armed, long-range torpedo and the proposed nuclear-propelled, long-range cruise missile. If both sides are willing to engage in a professional dialogue relatively soon, using the mechanism contained in the treaty, the Bilateral Consultative Commission, these issues can be addressed in a mutually agreed manner before or soon after a decision to extend New START is taken.

New START extension is the most significant step Trump could take with Russia that would improve national security, lay the basis for progress in other areas of Russian misbehavior, and draw bipartisan support.

The United States does not need and cannot afford a new Cold War-style nuclear arms race, nor does it need to give China a cynical excuse to expand its arsenal, as is likely if the United States and Russia discard New START without a replacement agreement and pursue expanded deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the wake of the INF Treaty collapse.

As an insurance policy against increased Russian and U.S. strategic warhead deployments in the absence of New START, Congress could prohibit the use of funds for the purpose of increasing U.S. strategic warhead and delivery vehicles above New START limits so long as the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Russia remains under the New START limits.

During Senate consideration of the treaty in 2010, the White House made a strong commitment to sustain the funding necessary to replace and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems and for warhead life extension programs. Since then, the cost estimates for those programs have grown significantly, and the Trump administration has added a number of new requests that would add new nuclear capabilities to the arsenal.

If this administration, whether through inaction or proactively, forces the end of New START, Congress should not go along supinely with the administration’s plan for spending on new nuclear weapons, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates to be $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. Instead, Congress should seek more cost-effective program alternatives that can save hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars while still allowing for the deployment of a nuclear force more than sufficient to deter any and all nuclear adversaries.

A Broader Arms Control Agreement?

The Trump administration has delayed any action on extension of New START and has proposed instead expanding New START to include China as a treaty party and to set new limits on tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by New START. When described this way, such an approach may seem to make sense. Involving other nuclear-armed states and all types of nuclear weapons in the disarmament process should be a medium-term goal of any administration.

Yet, given the antipathy expressed toward New START and all other treaties by President Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, and the difficulties of engaging China on nuclear arms control matters, that approach appears to be a poison pill, a pretext for withdrawing from New START or allowing it to expire rather than to sustain meaningful limits on Russia’s strategic arsenal.

There are several obstacles in the way of a more ambitious trilateral nuclear arms control deal with China and Russia. First, China has very little incentive to participate. With a nuclear arsenal less than one-tenth the size of U.S. and Russian stockpiles, it argues that these two sides need to reduce before including China in their discussions. The United States has not defined what agreement it would want China to embrace—to commit to the limitations New START imposed on Moscow and Washington? This would mean blessing a fivefold increase in China’s weapons stockpile, which is hardly in the U.S. interest. Alternatively, would the United States agree to reduce U.S. and Russian deployments to China’s level, estimated at more than 300 warheads? That would be a real contribution to reducing the risk of nuclear war, but it is not currently achievable for political and security reasons.

Second, Russia counts the French and UK nuclear deterrents like the U.S. arsenal, as belonging to a potential adversary. It has suggested that multilateral discussions should include not only Beijing, but also Paris and London. Further, Moscow is not ready at this time to discuss its nonstrategic arsenal, particularly if the United States is not prepared to discuss issues of greatest concern to Moscow, such as U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense.

Third, the United States would not be ready to discuss reducing its own nonstrategic nuclear stockpile before completing consultations with NATO partners, which would inevitably be complex and time consuming.

Finally, even under ideal conditions, a bilateral negotiation on a single topic takes years. Even if Russia and China were willing to discuss the proposed Trump agenda, a trilateral discussion of multiple topics would inevitably take considerably longer, even if it were pursued by an administration committed to the topic and with successful experience in negotiations. This is not such an administration, which features officials long opposed to New START, combined with a nearly complete absence of experienced officials in the U.S. Department of State. It is utterly unrealistic to expect such an agreement could be achieved before the scheduled expiration of New START in a little more than a year.

Strategic Stability Beyond New START

If New START is not extended, the two superpowers will find themselves in 2021 with no legal restraints on their nuclear arsenals. This absence would be a foreboding political signal: if the two main nuclear powers cannot agree on the urgency of reducing the nuclear threat hanging over them, what chances will there be for reducing other areas of tension?

As U.S. intelligence leaders have testified, our national technical means alone, even if upgraded at great expense, could not fully substitute for the insight into the Russian arsenal gained from New START’s notification requirements. In the absence of confidence about the other side’s capabilities, U.S. and Russian planners will have greater incentive to engage in worst-case scenario planning, driving a spiral of increased spending on destabilizing systems.

A deep strategic stability dialogue between Washington and Moscow is necessary today to reduce the risk of unintended escalation and will be even more essential tomorrow if New START is allowed to expire. Central to this effort is the intensification of U.S.-Russian military-to-military contacts. The no-contact policy dating back to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was meant to show Moscow there can be no business as usual, but it now works against U.S. security interests because it prevents the kind of information exchange and relationships that could help prevent an incident from becoming a conflict.

For decades, U.S. presidents have pursued arms control agreements and dialogue with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, under difficult circumstances, because it is the U.S. national security interest to reduce the risks posed by the world’s most dangerous weapons, and especially between the two nations with the largest and deadliest nuclear arsenals.

Especially at this time of increasing tensions between leaders in Moscow and Washington, more serious and sustained U.S. leadership is needed to reduce nuclear risks, cut excess nuclear arsenals, and to engage other nuclear-armed states in the nuclear disarmament enterprise. By agreeing to extend New START, President Trump has an opportunity to get the United States and Russia back on track and to set the stage for more ambitious multilateral nuclear disarmament diplomacy.



1.  Gerard Smith, Doubletalk: The Story of SALT I (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 75.

2.  Pavel Podvig and Ryan Snyder, “Watch Them Go: Simplifying the Elimination of Fissile Materials and Nuclear Weapons,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, August 2019, https://unidir.org/publication/watch-them-go-simplifying-elimination-fissile-materials-and-nuclear-weapons.


Thomas Countryman served for 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and rose to become acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security before retiring in 2017. He now chairs the Arms Control Association’s board of directors. This article is adapted from testimony he delivered July 25 to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment.

Extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is essential to maintain stability between the United States and Russia.

Frustrations Surface at CTBT Conference

November 2019
By Shannon Bugos

The 11th international conference to discuss steps to bring the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force revealed tensions between Russia and the United States, which failed to attend. The meeting convened Sept. 25 at UN headquarters in New York.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the Article XIV conference for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in New York on Sept. 25. (Photo: CTBTO)The treaty text allows for conferences every other year to discuss approaches to encourage the signatures and ratifications that are still necessary to bring the treaty into force. According to Article XIV of the treaty, the agreement cannot enter into force until it has been signed and ratified by the 44 countries listed in Annex 2. Eight of those states—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States—have yet to deposit their instruments of ratification.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned the United States, which avoided the conference, for failing to ratify the CTBT, calling this “the main destabilizing event.” Moscow ratified the CTBT in 2000.

During his remarks, Lavrov also declared that Russia has “not staged a single nuclear explosion” since observing the global moratorium on nuclear testing in 1991 and intends to continue observing the moratorium, but only so long as “other nuclear states follow the same line.” His remarks likely allude to a May statement made by the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, that “Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard outlined” by the treaty. The United States has yet to provide any credible information to back up that statement.

In addition to Lavrov, foreign ministers and other diplomats representing nearly 50 countries spoke to support the treaty’s entry into force. Signed in 1996, the pact prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any nuclear explosion” no matter what the yield, anywhere in the world.

Since the last conference in 2017, two countries have ratified the CTBT: Thailand in September 2018 and Zimbabwe in February 2019. Another, Tuvalu, signed it in September 2018. In total, there are now 168 ratifications and 184 signatures.

Izumi Nakamitsu, UN undersecretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, opened the conference, saying unequivocally that there is “no substitute” for the CTBT. Nakamitsu declared that the entry into force of the CTBT “must be a priority,” a call that the 50 states-parties in attendance, as well as the European Union and a group of more than 40 leaders from civil society, reinforced in their own statements.

Many states additionally stressed the importance of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which is responsible for developing and operating the treaty’s global monitoring and verification system. In his statement, CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo highlighted the organization’s achievements, specifically with regard to the International Monitoring System (IMS), which constantly monitors the world for any signs of nuclear explosions.

The IMS is nearing completion and, when finished, will consist of 337 facilities worldwide. “The progressive build-up of the [IMS],” Zerbo said, “has resulted in a level of maturity, readiness, and relevance that has been demonstrated on numerous occasions and in a variety of circumstances.”

Most recently, the IMS demonstrated its importance after an accident that set off an explosion and release of radioactivity off the coast of Russia that involved Moscow’s development of a new nuclear-powered, long-range cruise missile. Two days after the Aug. 8 incident, the CTBTO reported that some IMS stations in Russia began to halt transmissions of data. By Aug. 13, five of the seven radionuclide stations in Russia had gone silent, although when two came back online a week later, they backfilled information to the CTBTO.

The United States stayed away from an international meeting focused on bringing the CTBT into force.


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