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"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
United States

Keeping Outer Space Nuclear Weapons Free


March 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

Fifty-seven years ago, through the Outer Space Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to codify a fundamental nuclear taboo: nuclear weapons shall not be stationed in orbit or elsewhere in outer space. But there is growing concern that Russia is working on an orbiting anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system involving a nuclear explosive device that would, if deployed, violate the treaty, undermine space security, and worsen the technological and nuclear arms race.

The flash created by the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test on July 9,1962 as seen from Honolulu, 900 miles away. (Wikimedia Commons) The White House confirmed on Feb. 15 that U.S. intelligence uncovered evidence that Russia is developing an ASAT weapon that “would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed up to, including Russia.” Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a nondenial denial, claiming on Feb. 20 that Russia remains “categorically against…the placement of nuclear weapons in space.”

An ASAT system involving a nuclear explosive device could produce a massive surge of radiation and a powerful electromagnetic pulse that, depending on the altitude of the explosion and the size of the warhead, could indiscriminately destroy, blind, or disable many of the 9,500 commercial and military space satellites now in orbit.

Russia’s reported pursuit of a nuclear-armed ASAT system is another troubling attempt by the Kremlin to challenge the fundamental norms against nuclear weapons and to use nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce. But it would not be a “Sputnik moment” requiring parallel ASAT weapons system development or radical new countermeasures by the United States.

As with the exotic nuclear delivery systems that Putin first announced in 2018, including a long-range, underwater torpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-capable ASAT weapons system would add a dangerous capability. But it would not alter the existing military balance of terror.

Russia already fields a range of ASAT system capabilities, including co-orbital systems that can launch cyberattacks and engage in electronic jamming of specific adversary satellites. As with China, India, and the United States, Russia has already demonstrated a capability to use a ground-based missile to hit and destroy an orbiting satellite. All nations with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles also have the latent ability to detonate a nuclear explosive device in space. From 1958 to 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted nuclear explosive tests in the outer atmosphere.

The United States, which has the largest number of satellites in orbit, is already working to improve the resilience of its military communications, early-warning, and surveillance assets. A new Pentagon program soon will put constellations of smaller, cheaper satellites into orbit to counter space-based threats. Any corresponding U.S. nuclear-armed ASAT system effort would put U.S. and other satellites at even greater risk and do nothing to protect U.S. capabilities in space.

Off-and-on talks designed to maintain the peaceful use of space, including restrictions on ASAT weapons systems, have been stymied for years. A long-standing Chinese-Russian treaty proposal would ban objects placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects. It also would ban the “threat or use of force against outer space objects,” which would still allow suborbital and ground-based ASAT weapons capabilities.

Until recently, the United States has been wary of any legally binding restrictions on ASAT weapons systems in part because they might restrict U.S. ground-based missile defense capabilities or a possible space-based, kinetic anti-missile system that could involve a number of orbiting interceptors that provide a thin defense against ground-based missiles. More recently, the Biden administration proposed and rallied support for a ban on direct-ascent ASAT missile tests, which create debris fields that pose a major hazard to orbiting objects.

In the coming weeks, Washington, Beijing, and other capitals need to pressure Putin to abandon any ideas about putting nuclear weapons in orbit. As President Joe Biden noted on Feb. 16, that deployment “hasn’t happened yet, and my hope is it will not.”

The possibility of a Russian nuclear-armed ASAT system should also spur Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and other space-faring nations to get serious finally about additional measures to protect space security. They need to implement effective limits on ASAT weapons systems, including direct-ascent ASAT weapons and space-based systems that can destroy satellites and other objects traveling through space.

Russian ASAT weapons systems are not the only destabilizing factor in the dangerous nuclear and deterrence equation. In the absence of new, agreed constraints on Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals and measures to halt the growth of China’s arsenal, a costly three-way nuclear arms race could accelerate after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires in 2026. In response, Biden needs to rally international pressure on Russia to support his proposals for talks on a new nuclear arms control framework and separate, regular dialogues with Moscow and Beijing on reducing nuclear dangers. Space and global security depend on it.

Fifty-seven years ago, through the Outer Space Treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to codify a fundamental nuclear taboo: nuclear weapons shall not be stationed in orbit or elsewhere in outer space.

March 2024 Books of Note


March 2024

Under the Cap of Invisibility: The Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant and the Texas Panhandle
By Lucie Genay
University of New Mexico Press
2022

This book explores how the Texas Panhandle has shaped “the cap of invisibility” covering a key U.S. nuclear weapons production site. For nearly 50 years, Pantex has been the sole U.S. nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility. Yet to most people, Amarillo, home to Pantex, suggests oil and gas, cattle ranching, country western songs, and the place where you can eat a 72-ounce steak, well before thoughts of nuclear weapons. In Pantex’s first decades of operation, the surrounding community referred to it as the “soap factory” because the first site contractor was Procter and Gamble. Not until 1969 did the local newspaper clearly disclose the Pantex role in the nuclear weapons enterprise. Perhaps more than at other nuclear weapons sites, secrecy and invisibility have been cultivated here.

The book tells rich stories of the people who have tried to penetrate this invisibility, bringing moments of scrutiny and tension to Pantex. Challenges from some community religious leaders, sick workers, neighboring ranchers, and activist groups have brought into question the morality of Pantex weapons activities, its safety and health impact on workers, and its environmental impacts on the ranching industry. Efforts to expand and develop new Pantex missions, largely unsuccessful, also have brought controversy to the facility. As attention to these efforts has now subsided, invisibility is returning. The book sheds light on how new attention could be drawn to the facility, particularly by those who are interested in addressing nuclear weapons human and environmental harms.—KATHY CRANDALL ROBINSON

 


 

Death Dust: The Rise, Decline, and Future of Radiological Weapons Programs
By William C. Potter et al.
Stanford University Press
2024

 

Death Dust is an in-depth exploration of the history and development of radiological weapons. The authors meticulously analyze why, despite their destructive potential, these weapons did not proliferate as other weapons of mass destruction did. Radiological weapons are defined as devices that spread radioactive substances without a nuclear blast.

The book examines programs in Egypt, Iraq, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It thoroughly analyzes the technical obstacles and reduced military effectiveness that caused the discontinuation of radiological weapons programs. It also explores the role of science fiction in shaping the development of radiological weapons, drawing parallels between fiction and actual governmental strategies.

The authors explain why radiological weapons are obscure in historical literature and attribute this situation to such factors as the short lifespan of these programs and the shift in focus toward nuclear weapons. They emphasize the potential future relevance of these weapons and the need for international efforts to prevent their resurgence.

By providing a comprehensive study that blends historical facts with contemporary concerns, the book is a valuable addition to international security literature. It is a thought-provoking must-read for those interested in the history of weapons development and arms control issues.—CHAD ALLAN LAWHORN

 

Under the Cap of Invisibility: The Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant and the Texas Panhandle

Can Biden’s New Arms Transfer Policy Be More Than an Empty Promise?


March 2024
By John Ramming Chappell

On February 8, four months into the U.S.-backed Israeli campaign in Gaza that had already killed more than 25,000 people, the Biden administration released a policy concerning U.S. arms sales, civilian harm, and international law.

National Security Memorandum 20 (NSM-20) will not provide much-needed relief for Palestinians in Gaza, nor will it stop the flow of U.S. weapons to the Israeli government in the short term.1 The policy requires assurances from recipients of U.S. arms on international law compliance and aims to push for the implementation of laws and policies already on the books, but it risks becoming yet another piece of paper ornamented with empty promises. The memorandum references the Biden administration’s conventional arms transfer policy, another document that makes strong commitments in text but has fallen short in practice. Whether such initiatives will help protect civilians and promote human rights in U.S. arms transfer decisions outside of the context of the war in Gaza depends on Congress.

What the Policy Does

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), at podium, and fellow Senate Democrats hold a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on February 9 to celebrate a new Biden administration policy that demands that recipients of U.S. foreign military aid adhere to international humanitarian law. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)NSM-20 grew out of an amendment to the supplemental funding package for Ukraine and Israel, introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in December that gained momentum as 18 Democratic senators joined as co-sponsors.2 Negotiating with the Biden administration, Van Hollen worked to turn his amendment into a national security memorandum, which is an executive branch policy issued by the president. Although any president could revoke the policy or ignore it, national security memorandums carry the authority of a directive from the president. Van Hollen has stated that he hopes to codify NSM-20 in law.

NSM-20 is premised on a superficial form of conditionality. In order to be eligible to receive taxpayer-funded weapons systems from the United States, countries must provide certain “credible and reliable written assurances.”3

The assurances fall into two principal categories. First, the partner government must commit expressly to use weapons funded with U.S. appropriated funds in accordance with international law. No such commitments exist in the standard terms of U.S. arms sales agreements, under which purchasers simply acknowledge international law obligations.4 Although the executive branch is required to report substantial violations of those agreements to Congress, this reporting is a rare occurrence.

Second, the partner government must commit that, in conflict zones where the country uses U.S.-funded weapons systems, it “will facilitate and not arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance and United States Government-supported international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance.” The language draws from Section 620I, a little-known provision of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The requirement of assurances is a positive step, but monitoring and accountability will be key to implementation. For countries engaged in armed conflict, assurances are due 45 days after the memorandum’s release. All other countries have 180 days.

In a rare measure for a policy document, the memorandum commits the president to report to Congress on the required assurances and whether a foreign government has abided by them. Within 90 days of the memorandum’s release and annually thereafter, the executive branch will provide a report that includes reported violations of international law, use of weapons in compliance with civilian harm mitigation best practices, and adherence to the assurances regarding facilitation of humanitarian access. Other reporting is required when the “credibility or reliability of assurances” is called into question.

A Policy of Lip Service

NSM-20 references and follows the long-awaited release in February 2023 of President Joe Biden’s conventional arms transfer policy,5 which drew praise for its emphasis on human rights and atrocity prevention.6 In particular, the conventional arms transfer policy established that the United States will not export a weapon when it is “more likely than not” that it will be used to commit, facilitate, or aggravate the risk of a serious violation of international human rights or humanitarian law. The standard is stricter than the policies of the Obama and Trump administrations and provides the only firm commitment in the policy to refrain from arms transfers under certain circumstances.

155mm artillery shells, such as these produced at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pa., are among the weapons systems that the United States provides to other countries, including Ukraine and Israel. (Photo by Hannah Beier/Getty Images)Regardless, the war in Gaza has ushered in serious doubts about whether the commitments outlined in Biden’s conventional arms transfer policy actually matter. Human rights organizations have documented numerous instances of possible war crimes in Gaza. Josh Paul, who formerly directed congressional affairs at the Department of State bureau responsible for arms sales, has repeatedly asserted that the Biden administration is not adhering to the standard.7 Legislators and nongovernmental organizations also have called attention to the “more likely than not” standard.8

In a risk assessment for a proposed sale of bombs, precision guidance kits, and bomb fuses to Israel, the State Department concluded that the sale raised no human rights concerns.9 Yet, Amnesty International has documented that the Israeli government has used bombs and precision guidance kits in attacks that killed dozens of civilians and likely violated international law.

NSM-20 risks suffering the same fate as the conventional arms transfer policy and other commitments that look good on paper but result in no discernible changes when it matters most. When it comes to Israel, Biden administration officials have stated that the policy will have no immediate effect on security assistance, which sets an unfortunate precedent for its application elsewhere.10

Empty Words in Law

It is not just arms transfer policy that frequently has amounted to empty words. Generally applicable U.S. law restricting arms transfers and security assistance too often has shared the same fate.11

Since the 1970s, Congress has enacted human rights laws governing weapons transfers and security assistance. Those laws bind the executive branch, but for decades, the executive branch has evaded, ignored, and undermined those laws. Courts have declined to wade into disputes on the grounds that they pose “political questions” inappropriate for judicial intervention.

Implementation of legal restrictions on arms sales appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, the first provision of U.S. arms sales law to address human rights, prohibits security assistance to any country where the government engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights. Yet, successive administrations declined to implement the prohibition.

That failure resulted in Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) leading the fight to pass the Leahy law in 1997, a ban on assistance to any unit of foreign security forces for which the U.S. government has credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights. Leahy spent decades on the Senate Appropriations Committee closing loopholes, pushing for implementation, and conducting oversight, making the Leahy law the only human rights-related security assistance restriction in U.S. law with a robust vetting process to ensure implementation. Even so, no Israeli unit has ever been restricted from receiving U.S. assistance under the Leahy law despite credible allegations of gross violations of human rights and pressure from Leahy.12

In October 2023, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report concluding that the U.S. government has not implemented a provision of the Arms Export Control Act banning arms sales to countries “engaged in a consistent pattern of acts of intimidation or harassment directed against individuals in the United States.” The report found that the law “has never been invoked since its enactment in 1981 and, with limited required reporting, it is unclear the extent to which it has been considered.”13

Section 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act

Section 620I has suffered from similar neglect. That provision, which NSM-20 references, prohibits security assistance to any country whose government “prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.”14 The law originated as the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act, a 1994 bill that responded to Turkey’s blockade on Armenia and blocked U.S. humanitarian assistance to the country. Congress enacted a precursor to Section 620I in 1995 as part of an annual appropriations act and then made the prohibition permanent in 1996. The following year, President Bill Clinton used the waiver authority in Section 620I to continue providing assistance to Turkey despite its restriction on the delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid.15

Since then, Section 620I only occasionally has reemerged in legislative discourse. In 2008, Congress required that the president report to Congress in case of a waiver of the provision.16 Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.) pressed the Trump administration’s nominee for State Department legal adviser on the implementation of Section 620I in the context of the war in Yemen during her October 2017 confirmation hearing.17 The United States provided weapons to Saudi Arabia even as it committed war crimes in Yemen and imposed a blockade that restricted the delivery of humanitarian aid and deepened Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. In 2019, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced a resolution requesting a report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices, and the resolution referenced Section 620I’s prohibition.18

In recent months, though, Section 620I has garnered unprecedented attention on Capitol Hill. Before long, deaths in Gaza from preventable diseases and famine may outnumber the death toll from bombings. Human rights organizations and media outlets have documented apparent Israeli restrictions on humanitarian assistance. The Israeli government recently blocked the delivery of U.S.-funded food aid to Gaza.19 Section 620I featured prominently in Van Hollen’s supplemental amendment, congressional floor speeches, and letters from civil society organizations.

Law should be enough to force action. Policies to pressure the executive branch into compliance with statutes should not be necessary. In practice, however, congressional vigilance historically has been required to nudge the executive branch into compliance.

A Catalyst for Congress

The potential of NSM-20 lies in its reporting requirements. Reporting to Congress and the public creates opportunities for legislators, advocates, and constituents to pressure the executive branch to implement the law in good faith. Must-pass legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act and appropriations acts provides opportunities for legislators to force the executive branch to implement the law in conjunction with periodic reports. Such a process, over the course of many years, made the Leahy law into the cornerstone security assistance law that it is today.

The fact that civilians in Yemen and Gaza, where U.S.-provided bombs have exacerbated humanitarian crises, have suffered from restrictions on U.S. humanitarian aid imposed by U.S. allies and partners speaks to the urgency of implementing Section 620I. Whether NSM-20 will change outcomes depends on whether Congress uses the opportunity that reports present to pressure the administration to comply with the law.

 

ENDNOTES

1. See Sarah Harrison, “Biden’s New Policy on Security Assistance, NSM-20, Will Not Save Gaza,” Lawfare, February 14, 2024, https://www.lawfaremedia.org/article/biden-s-new-policy-on-security-assistance-nsm-20-will-not-save-gaza; Brian Finucane, “Not Reassuring: NSM-20 and the Limits of Law-of-War Assurances in the Transfer of U.S. Arms,” Just Security, February 13, 2024, https://www.justsecurity.org/92214/not-reassuring-nsm-20-and-the-limits-of-law-of-war-assurances-in-the-transfer-of-u-s-arms/; Seth Binder and John Ramming Chappell, “Can Biden’s New Arms Policy Lead to Real Accountability for Israel?” Defense News, February 16, 2024, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/2024/02/16/can-bidens-new-arms-policy-lead-to-real-accountability-for-israel/.

2. “Van Hollen, Durbin, Kaine, Schatz and Colleagues Announce Amendment Requiring That Use of U.S. Supplemental Aid Comply With U.S., International Law,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, December 7, 2023, https://www.vanhollen.senate.gov/news/press-releases/van-hollen-durbin-kaine-schatz-and-colleagues-announce-amendment-requiring-that-use-of-us-supplemental-aid-comply-with-us-international-law.

3. The White House, “National Security Memorandum on Safeguards and Accountability With Respect to Transferred Defense Articles and Defense Services,” February 8, 2024, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2024/02/08/national-security-memorandum-on-safeguards-and-accountability-with-respect-to-transferred-defense-articles-and-defense-services/.

4. “‘With Great Power’: Modifying U.S. Arms Sales to Reduce Civilian Harm,” Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Stimson Center, n.d., p. 28, https://civiliansinconflict.org/publications/research/with-great-power/.

5. The White House, “Memorandum on United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” February 23, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2023/02/23/memorandum-on-united-states-conventional-arms-transfer-policy/.

6. John Chappell and Ari Tolany, “Unpacking Biden’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” Lawfare, March 1, 2023, https://www.lawfaremedia.org/article/unpacking-bidens-conventional-arms-transfer-policy.

7. See, e.g., Mathias Hammer, “Josh Paul on Why He Resigned From the State Department Over Arms to Israel,” Time, October 19, 2023, https://time.com/6325957/josh-paul-state-department-israel-arms/; Laura Flanders, “Why I Resigned From the State Department: An Interview With Josh Paul,” The Nation, October 30, 2023, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/josh-paul-resignation-interview/.

8. “Tlaib Requests Biden Administration and GAO Assessments of Israel’s Human Rights Compliance Under Leahy Laws and Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” Representative Rashida Tlaib, January 24, 2024, https://tlaib.house.gov/posts/tlaib-requests-biden-administration-and-gao-assessments-of-israels-human-rights-compliance-under-leahy-laws-and-conventional-arms-transfer-policy; “Warren, McGovern Lead Bicameral Coalition Pressing Biden Administration for Bypassing Congress to Approve Arms Transfers to Israel,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, January 29, 2024, https://www.warren.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/warren-mcgovern-lead-bicameral-coalition-pressing-biden-administration-for-bypassing-congress-to-approve-arms-transfers-to-israel; Letter from Center for Civilians in Conflict and other civil society organizations to Secretary Lloyd Austin, December 20, 2023, https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/NGO-Letter-to-Secretary-Austin-on-Civilian-Harm-in-Gaza.pdf.

9. Jared Malsin and Nancy A. Youssef, “U.S. Plans to Send Weapons to Israel Amid Biden Push for Cease-Fire Deal,” The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2024.

10. Bryant Harris, “Biden Doesn’t Plan to Stop Israel Aid After Human Rights Order,” Defense News, February 9, 2024, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2024/02/09/biden-doesnt-plan-to-stop-israel-aid-after-human-rights-order/.

11. John Ramming Chappell et al., “Law and Policy Guide to U.S. Arms Transfers to Israel,” Just Security, November 8, 2023, https://www.justsecurity.org/90010/a-law-and-policy-guide-to-us-arms-transfers-to-israel/.

12. Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “‘Different Rules’: Special Policies Keep U.S. Supplying Weapons to Israel Despite Alleged Abuses,” The Guardian, January 18, 2024, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/18/us-supply-weapons-israel-alleged-abuses-human-rights.

13. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Human Rights: Agency Actions Needed to Address Harassment of Dissidents and Other Tactics of Transnational Repression in the U.S.,” GAO-24-106183, October 2023, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-24-106183.pdf.

14. 22 U.S.C. § 2378-1.

15. “Waiver of Statutory Restrictions to Permit Assistance to Turkey,” 62 Fed. Reg. 30737, June 4, 1997.

16. Comm. on Appropriations, Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2008, S. Rep. No. 110-128 (2007).

17. Nomination Hearings of the 115th Congress—First Session, Hearings Before the Comm. on Foreign Relations, 115th Cong. (2018).

18. S. Res. 169, 116th Cong. (2019).

19. Julia Frankel, “Israel Is Holding Up Food for 1.1 Million Palestinians in Gaza, the Main UN Aid Agency There Says,” Associated Press, February 9, 2024; Barak Ravid, “Despite U.S. Requests, Israel Reduces Aid Allowed Into Gaza After Ceasefire Collapses,” Axios, December 1, 2023, https://www.axios.com/2023/12/01/gaza-aid-hamas-israel-limit-ceasefire-collapse; Jacob Magid, “Israel Agrees to Finally Release American Flour Shipment for Gaza, Says U.S. Official,” The Times of Israel, February 23, 2024, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-agrees-to-finally-release-american-flour-shipment-for-gaza-says-us-official/; Amnesty International, “Israel Defying ICJ Ruling to Prevent Genocide by Failing to Allow Adequate Humanitarian Aid to Reach Gaza,” February 26, 2024, https://www.amnestyusa.org/press-releases/israel-defying-icj-ruling-to-prevent-genocide-by-failing-to-allow-adequate-humanitarian-aid-to-reach-gaza/; Human Rights Watch, “Israel Not Complying With World Court Order in Genocide Case,” February 26, 2024, https://www.hrw.org/news/2024/02/26/israel-not-complying-world-court-order-genocide-case.

 


John Ramming Chappell is the advocacy and legal fellow in the U.S. Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

 

Whether such initiatives will help protect civilians and promote human rights in U.S. arms transfer decisions depends on Congress.

U.S. Warns of New Russian ASAT Program


March 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russia is pursuing a new and more advanced anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system that would violate the Outer Space Treaty, according to Biden administration officials.

U.S. intelligence reports that Russia is pursuing a new and more advanced anti-satellite weapons system have raised new concerns about an arms race in space. But Russian satellites, such as the one pictured, also would be vulnerable. (Photo by NASA)National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan briefed select members of Congress on new U.S. intelligence about the system on Feb. 15, and later that day, White House spokesperson John Kirby confirmed to reporters that the system is “related to an anti-satellite weapon that Russia is developing.”

Although it is not an “active capability that has been deployed,” Kirby said that the new system “would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed up to, including Russia.”

Article IV of the treaty expressly prohibits countries from deploying “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install[ing] such weapons on celestial bodies, or station[ing] such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

Kirby said that “our general knowledge of Russian pursuit of this kind of capability goes back many, many months, if not a few years. But only in recent weeks has the intelligence community been able to assess with a higher sense of confidence exactly how Russia continues to pursue it.”

“We found out there was a capacity to launch a system into space that could theoretically do something that was damaging,” President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Feb. 16. “Hasn’t happened yet, and my hope is it will not.”

According to a CNN report that same day, officials familiar with the intelligence assessment confirmed that the Russian ASAT system under development involves a nuclear explosive device that would produce not only a massive nuclear-driven blast wave and a surge of radiation, but also a powerful electromagnetic pulse that could destroy, blind, or disable other satellites in orbit over a wide zone.

Such a weapon could pose a threat to U.S. and allied military communications, early-warning, and intelligence-gathering satellites if it were to become operational. It also would pose a threat to thousands of other space-based assets in orbit operated by dozens of other countries and commercial entities.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States experimented with various types of ASAT weapons systems concepts, including the use of nuclear explosions to destroy objects in space and the production of beams of directed energy to destroy or disable enemy satellites.

Between 1958 and 1962, the United States carried out a handful of very high-altitude nuclear detonations, including the massive 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime test that occurred 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean and demonstrated the potential of nuclear detonations as ASAT weapons. The Soviets conducted a series of high-altitude nuclear test explosions over Kazakhstan between 1961 and 1962.

These test explosions produced a surge of free electrons that created X-rays capable of severely damaging electronic components and computer systems on the ground and in low earth orbit, an electromagnetic pulse that can disable unprotected electrical components on satellites, and a nuclear flash that can blind optical sensors on reconnaissance satellites. The Starfish Prime nuclear test explosion also produced radiation belts that lingered for months, disabling eight of the 24 satellites that were in orbit at that time, according to a 2022 report by the American Physical Society.

In 1963, U.S. and Soviet negotiators concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, and in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty.

As Jaganath Sankaran wrote in Arms Control Today in 2022, Russia has been pursuing a range of ASAT system capabilities for more than a decade, including co-orbital ASAT weapons capabilities in the geostationary orbit where most military command-and-control satellites operate, as well as ground-based lasers and a range of satellite jamming systems to deny and degrade the capacity of weapons that rely on satellite-enabled information.

In 2021, Russia conducted an ASAT weapons test on one of its own satellites, breaking it into more than 1,500 pieces of debris, which can pose a serious threat to other objects in orbit. China, India, and the United States also have demonstrated ASAT missile capabilities.

But none of these systems involved nuclear explosive devices. Today, there are approximately 9,500 active satellites in orbit and two crewed, orbiting space stations. One or more nuclear weapons explosions in orbit would create far more indiscriminate damage than the 1962 Starfish Prime nuclear test, and the loss of satellite services would affect significant commercial, military, communications, and navigations systems on Earth.

On Feb. 15, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the claim that Russia was pursuing a nuclear-armed ASAT weapons capability as a “malicious fabrication," but on Feb. 16 he told RIA Novosti that Russia is ready to discuss the issue “if there are such initiatives from the American side.”

On Feb. 15, Kirby said, “We are in the process with engaging with Russia about this.” He said that Biden “has directed a series of initial actions, including additional briefings to congressional leaders, direct diplomatic engagement with Russia, with our allies and our partners as well, and with other countries around the world who have interests at stake.”

On Feb. 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the topic of nuclear weapons in space during a working meeting in Moscow with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“Our position is clear and transparent: we have always been categorically against, and are now against, the placement of nuclear weapons in space,” Putin said, according to Kommersant. “On the contrary, we call for compliance with all agreements that exist in this area and proposed to strengthen this joint work many times over.”

The anti-satellite weapons system would violate the Outer Space Treaty.

China, U.S. Restore Military Communications


March 2024
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

China and the United States resumed military-to-military contacts with a series of recent meetings, delivering on a decision by their leaders at a November 2023 summit.

Michael S. Chase (C, L), U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, hosts Chinese delegation led by Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao (C, R), deputy director of the Chinese Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation for meetings at the Pentagon on Jan. 9. (U.S. Department of Defense photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza)Two days of meetings, called the China-U.S. defense policy coordination talks, took place Jan. 8-9 at the Pentagon. It was the first formal in-person encounter between the two militaries since January 2020.

The meetings were co-chaired by Michael Chase, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, and Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao, Chinese deputy director of the Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation.

The two sides discussed Chinese-U.S. defense relations and regional and global security issues, including Ukraine, North Korea, and the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Defense Department, which added that it “will continue to engage in active discussions with [Chinese] counterparts about future engagements between defense and military officials at multiple levels.”

In a Jan. 10 news release, the Chinese Defense Ministry said that its delegation expressed a willingness at the meeting “to develop a sound and stable military-to-military relationship with the U.S. side on the basis of equality and respect and work together.”

Meanwhile, on Dec. 21, two weeks before the Pentagon meeting, China and the United States conducted a video teleconference involving teams led by U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and Chinese Gen. Liu Zhenli, the chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Joint Staff Department.

The two sides discussed a number of global regional security issues, the U.S. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said afterward. It also reported that the U.S. delegation reiterated “the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication” and “the importance of the [PLA] engaging in substantive dialogue to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.”

The Chinese delegation also shared a similar viewpoint, that “the two sides exchanged candid and in-depth views on implementing the important military-related consensus reached between the two heads of state in San Francisco and on other issues of common interest,” Senior Col. Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Chinese Defense Ministry, told a press conference on Dec. 28.

“The video call yielded positive and constructive outcomes,” Wu said. “Going forward, we expect the U.S. side to work with us in the same direction and take concrete actions on the basis of equality and respect to promote the sound and steady development of [the] China-U.S. military-to-military relationship.”

Bilateral military-to-military contacts broke down after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. Many analysts increasingly have been concerned that Beijing’s and Washington’s inability to communicate directly courts danger if a crisis erupts over Taiwan or some other major flashpoint.

But even after the recent meetings, tensions and differences between China and the United States remain evident. For example, Wu complained that the United States “has been intensifying its military deployment in the Asia-Pacific, which is full of Cold War mentality.”

“We urge the [United States] to abandon the outdated security vision and zero-sum Cold War mentality, view China and China’s military development in an objective and rational light, instead of being obsessed with the pursuit for hegemony,” Wu said.

Similarly, a Chinese Defense Ministry news release on Jan. 10 urged the U.S. side “to take seriously China’s concerns and do more things that contribute to the growth of the mil-mil relationship.”

Both sides seem determined to maintain the restored lines of communication. On Jan. 25, Wu confirmed that, “[w]ith the concerted efforts of the two sides, mil-to-mil dialogues and consultations have been steadily resumed on the basis of equality and respect. Currently, the Chinese military and the U.S. military are maintaining communication and coordination on exchange programs.”

Following the November summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden and the two sets of military-to-military meetings in December and January, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Bangkok on Jan. 26-27.

Given that 2024 marks the 45th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations, China said that the two countries “should work together toward mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation, finding the way for China and the United States to get along with each other,” according to the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that, in his meeting with Wang, Sullivan “stressed that although the United States and China are in competition, both countries need to prevent it from veering into conflict or confrontation.”

Both sides also “recognized recent progress in resuming military-to-military communication…noted the importance of maintaining these channels...[and] discussed next steps on a range of areas of cooperation [including on] holding a U.S.-China dialogue on [artificial intelligence] in the spring,” the embassy said.

It added that the “two sides held candid, substantive and constructive discussions on global and regional issues, including those related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East, [North Korea], the South China Sea, and Burma” and that Sullivan “underscored the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Further, the U.S. embassy said that the two sides “committed to maintain this strategic channel of communication and to pursue additional high-level diplomacy and consultations in key areas.”

China and the United States also held long-awaited talks on nuclear arms control on Nov. 6 in Washington D.C., the first such meeting in nearly five years.

Speaking to the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group on Feb. 8, Mallory Stewart, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, deterrence, and stability who led the U.S. delegation to the arms control talks, admitted that “we didn’t see much substantive progress from this first engagement” with China’s representative Sun Xiaobo.

“But the idea that we would make the substantive conversation from the very first engagement that we have not had for many years on our arms control, strategic stability and risk reduction is not realistic,” she said. (See ACT, December 2023.)

“I think the key is to encourage them to appreciate why we need to share our questions and they need to share their questions, and we work together to get to a place where we address each other’s specific understandings,” added Stewart.

Meetings at the Pentagon were the first formal in-person talks since 2020.

Mexican Lawsuit Against U.S. Gun Firms to Proceed


March 2024
By Chad Lawhorn

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has revived Mexico’s $10 billion lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers, which previously was dismissed by a lower court.

Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, legal adviser to the Mexican Foreign Ministry, speaks during a press conference in August 2021 when Mexico announced its suit against U.S.-based manufacturers and sellers of weapons used by organized crime groups in Mexico. (Photo by Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)The suit accuses six companies, including Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co., of negligent practices that facilitate the trafficking of more than 500,000 guns annually to Mexican drug cartels, exacerbating gun violence in that country.

Despite the broad immunity granted to gun-makers by the U.S. Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, the Boston-based appeals court unanimously found that Mexico’s lawsuit “plausibly alleges a type of claim that is statutorily exempt from the [act’s] general prohibition,” Reuters reported on Jan. 22.

Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, the lawyer leading the lawsuit for the Mexican government, told El País in an interview on Jan. 25 that the decision to revive the case was “historic.”

“Not only will we have the opportunity to present our evidence, we will be able to ask the defendant companies to share their evidence with us…. That’s the kind of information we’re going to get in litigation. It could be a gold mine,” he said.

The appeals court decision overturns a lower court’s 2022 dismissal, which found that foreign governments cannot sue under U.S. law. It marks a significant legal advancement for Mexico, supported by U.S. gun control advocates.

Mexico has argued that the actions of gun manufacturers have contributed directly to the violence within its national borders.

The lawsuit seeks financial damages and aims to hold these manufacturers accountable for their role in international arms trafficking and related harms, such as declining investment and economic activity in Mexico​​.

Other companies named in the suit are Beretta USA, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Colt’s Manufacturing Co., and Glock Inc. All have denied wrongdoing.

The U.S. law typically shields gun manufacturers from liability for the improper use of their products. The gun companies have argued that Mexico does not have legal standing to sue. (See ACT, September 2022.)

The lower court agreed with the immunity argument, ruling that the law prohibits legal action brought by foreign governments. The appeals court determined that the law was designed only to protect lawful firearms-related commerce and not the problem Mexico identified, namely, companies accused of aiding and abetting illegal gun sales by knowingly facilitating the trafficking of firearms into the country.

According to Celorio Alcántara, the gun-makers unsuccessfully attempted to distance themselves from the issue of gun trafficking by describing the scale and scope of supply chains and the number of individuals involved in those processes.

Mexico, on the other hand, focused on the U.S. law and why it did not apply. “We pointed out that [it] has no extraterritorial effect, that there is a direct violation of the machine gun export ban, and that the defendant companies violate state and federal laws,” Celorio Alcántara said.

The decision to revive the case could pave the way for other litigation against gun manufacturers on similar grounds, potentially affecting how firearms are marketed, distributed, and regulated within the United States and internationally.

“Other countries will surely be able to analyze whether this decision…gives them a window to sue, such as Jamaica, Canada, or other countries that are suffering from the same problem,” Celorio Alcántara said.

As the Mexican case proceeds, it likely will encounter more legal and political hurdles given the power of the gun lobby, contentious gun control debates in the United States, and intricate legal arguments surrounding the law.

Mexico’s $10 billion lawsuit against U.S. gun producers had been dismissed by a lower court.  

Sentinel ICBM Exceeds Projected Cost by 37 Percent


March 2024
By Libby Flatoff

The U.S. Air Force notified Congress on Jan. 18 that the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) would cost 37 percent more than expected and take about two years longer than planned to build and deploy.

Cost overruns and production delays plague the new U.S. Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile system program. (Image by Northrop Grumman)The cost per unit for the Sentinel system originally was projected to be $118 million and now is estimated at $162 million, putting the projected total program cost at roughly $130 billion over the next decade, up from an estimated baseline of $96 billion, the Air Force told Defense News.

The expected delay of the system’s initial operating capability likely will result in greater sustainment costs to keep the existing fleet of Minuteman III ICBMs operational.

The projected overrun would put the new missile system in “critical” breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a law designed to prevent major cost overruns for weapons systems, a chronic problem plaguing the Pentagon.

There are two levels of breaches under the act. A program is in significant breach when the program unit cost increases by 15 percent of the current baseline or 30 percent over the original cost estimate. A critical breach occurs when the cost increases by 25 percent of the current baseline or 50 percent of the original estimate.

In 2020, Northrop Grumman was awarded a sole-source $13.3 billion contract for engineering and manufacturing Sentinel missiles to replace the current arsenal of 400 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs.

The Sentinel development program calls for acquiring 659 missiles, updating 450 launch silos, and modernizing more than 600 facilities to “like new conditions,” according to Air Force Global Strike Command. (See ACT, May 2023.)

In 2020 the Pentagon estimated that the total cost of the next-generation Sentinel program, including decades of operations and support, could be as high as $264 billion. (See ACT, March 2021.) Taking the new cost increases into account, the total cost of the program over its planned 50-year life cycle could be as high as $300 billion, plus another $15 billion for the production of the new W87-1 warhead for the missiles.

Under the act, the Defense Department is required to report to Congress whenever a major defense acquisition program exceeds certain cost thresholds. The notification must include an explanation of the cost increase, changes in the projected cost, changes in performance or schedule, action taken or proposed to control cost growth, and prior cost estimating information.

In addition, the department must submit a new selected acquisition report containing the new status of the total program cost, schedule, performance, cost per unit, and cost breach information. The report on the Sentinel program is due to be submitted within 45 days after President Joe Biden submits his budget to Congress, now set for March 9.

With a critical breach, the Office of the Secretary of Defense is required to conduct a root-cause analysis to determine what factors caused the cost increase.

Under the act, if the program is to continue, the defense secretary must certify no later than 60 days after the new selected acquisition report that the program is essential to national security, the new cost estimates are reasonable, the program is a higher priority than those whose funding will be cut to cover the cost increase, and a new management structure is in place to control additional cost growth. If the certification and requirements are met, the program will be allowed to continue.

At the Air Force Association forum on Feb. 11, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said that “nothing is off the table right now.… [W]e’re going to take a look at the totality of the [defense] budget” when addressing how to cover the additional $35 billion needed for the Sentinel program.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the bicameral Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group, argued in a statement Jan. 18 that the overrun is “proof that we must look closely at our nation’s nuclear policies…[and] address our security needs without compromising fiscal responsibility.”

Some experts, such as Gabe Murphy, a national security policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, say that the United States should get rid of ICBMs entirely. “Whatever strategic value nuclear ICBMs may have held in the past, in our current security environment, they serve as little more than a bottomless pit…[into] which the Pentagon throws taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” Murphy wrote in an Feb. 11 essay for Stars and Stripes.

In 2016, former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote in The New York Times “that the United States can safely phase out” its land-based ICBM force. He argued that although the ICBM force is too costly and dangerous, submarine and bomber forces are highly accurate and thus are “sufficient to deter our enemies and will be for the foreseeable future.”

Despite the cost increases, congressional backers of the Sentinel program say it should go full-speed ahead. “Sentinel is absolutely necessary for the future of our nuclear deterrent. I’m committed to conducting vigorous oversight of the program and ensuring the Air Force follows through on making the necessary changes to address the cost overruns while continuing to advance the program,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in a Jan. 19 press statement.

Others urged support for Sentinel whatever the cost. “Despite these challenges, abandoning or downsizing Sentinel isn’t an option. Our nation’s safety and prosperity depend on an updated and fully operational nuclear deterrent,” argued Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), the ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its strategic forces subcommittee, respectively, on Jan. 19 in The Wall Street Journal.

The projected overrun would put the new intercontinental ballistic missile program in breach of a law designed to prevent major cost overruns.

Russia Rejects New Nuclear Arms Talks


March 2024
By Libby Flatoff and Daryl G. Kimball

Russian leaders have rejected a formal U.S. proposal to resume talks “without preconditions” on a new arms control framework to succeed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that expires in two years.

A Russian Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile on display in Red Square  in Moscow in 2009. (Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP via Getty Images)If the decision holds, it means that the only remaining bilateral nuclear arms control agreement limiting the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenals will expire on Feb. 5, 2026, along with its strict verification provisions.

In a written response to the United States on Dec. 2 obtained by Arms Control Today, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “The proposal of the U.S. Side to launch a bilateral dialogue ‘to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework’ is unacceptable to us. Such ideas are completely inappropriate and absolutely untimely for they cannot be considered adequate to today’s realities and to the state of Russia-U.S. relations.”

Citing NATO and the “acute conflict around Ukraine,” the Russian diplomatic note also said, “At the moment, the U.S. Side does not demonstrate any interest in a mutually acceptable settlement of the current crisis [Ukraine], does not show readiness to take into account Russia’s security concerns…. Thus, there is no visible basis for a constructive and fruitful dialogue with the United States on strategic stability and arms control.”

The U.S. proposal was first announced by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association last June. Sullivan said that the United States is ready to engage in nuclear arms control diplomacy with Russia and with other nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “without preconditions.”

“Rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework,” he said. Three days later, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described Sullivan’s comments as “important and positive.” (See ACT, July/August 2023.)

But by August, Russian officials at the preparatory committee for the 11th NPT Review Conference had already started signaling that, in their view, nuclear arms control talks “cannot be isolated from the general geopolitical and military-strategic context,” which includes the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The United States followed up Sullivan’s June speech with a written proposal to Russia that was transmitted in September. (See ACT, December 2023.)

On Jan. 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov elaborated on Russia’s written response to the U.S. proposal, saying that “amid a ‘hybrid war’ waged by Washington against Russia, we aren’t seeing any basis, not only for any additional joint measures in the sphere of arms control and reduction of strategic risks, but for any discussion of strategic stability issues with the United States.”

Pranay Vaddi, senior director for arms control at the U.S. National Security Council, said at an event hosted by Center for Strategic and International Studies on Jan. 18 that the rejection “linked other politics to arms control in a way that has not been done in the post-Cold War era…[and] as a result, we don’t have a conversation to be had.”

Vaddi expressed disappointment that Russia had not even offered a counterproposal on nuclear arms control and disarmament. In failing to do so, “Russia is minimizing their obligations under the NPT” and not even attempting “to pursue negotiations in good faith” as required by Article VI of that treaty.

Shortly after Russia’s rejection of the U.S. proposal became public, the U.S. State Department on Jan. 31 released its annual report to Congress on the implementation of New START. It said that the United States had 1,419 warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers, below the limit of 1,550 deployed warheads permitted by the treaty.

The report said that Russia’s decision to pause New START inspections in 2022 and its failure to provide data on its strategic nuclear forces since it suspended implementation of the treaty in early 2023 “negatively affects the ability of the United States to verify Russia’s compliance” with the New START deployed-warhead limit.

Despite the verification obstacles, the report assesses that Russia “likely did not exceed” the treaty’s deployed-warhead limit in 2023 and “that there is not a strategic imbalance between the [United States] and [Russia] that endangers the national security interest of the United States.”

But the report noted that “due to the uncertainty generated by Russia’s failure to fulfill its obligations with respect to the [t]reaty’s verification regime, the United States was unable to verify that [Russia] remained in compliance throughout 2023 with its obligation to limit its [number of] deployed warheads…to 1,550” on delivery vehicles subject to the treaty.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with RIA Novosti on Jan. 22 that, “for now, we are focusing on the task of maintaining the quantitative indicators of strategic offensive weapons at the levels established by the treaty on the condition that further destabilizing steps by Washington will not make such a task meaningless for us.”

The decision means that the remaining Russia-U.S. nuclear arms control treaty limiting the world’s largest nuclear arsenals will expire in 2026.

Enhancing Nuclear Transparency in Iran Could Help Prevent a Wider War

As U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias clash in the Middle East, there is a growing risk that another dangerous flash point could ignite conflict between Tehran and Washington: Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Iran is already on the threshold of nuclear weapons six years on from U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral arrangement that had, to that point, successfully contained its nuclear program. Escalating regional tensions could push Tehran to determine it needs a nuclear deterrent for security or the United States to miscalculate Iran’s intentions and prematurely use military force...

New START to Expire in Two Years as Russia Refuses Talks

With less than two years to go before the expiration of the last remaining treaty limiting the world's two largest arsenals, Russian leaders continue to reject U.S. offers to discuss a new nuclear arms control framework. In late December, Russia sent a diplomatic paper rejecting the United States’ proposal to resume arms control talks, according to U.S. officials , and Russia's foreign minister announced Jan. 18 that Russia was interested in talks on a new arms control framework to supersede the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires Feb. 5, 2026. In a speech Jan. 17,...

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