"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
United States

U.S. Nuclear Budget Skyrockets

March 2020
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request released in February proposes a major increase to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, prompting fresh questions about whether the spending plans are necessary or sustainable. The budget goals also fueled growing alarms about the challenge they may pose to other defense priorities.

National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty speaks in June 2018. She successfully persuaded the White House to seek a 25 percent increase in funding for the agency's nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2021. (Photo: NNSA)The request would support continued implementation of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which called for expanding U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities, and comes as the administration is recommending a lower national defense budget top line in fiscal year 2021 than Congress provided last year.

Congress will begin its review of the request in the coming weeks, but the ultimate fate of the submission is unlikely to be determined until after the presidential election in November. Last year, Congress supported the administration’s nuclear spending priorities despite opposition from the Democratic-led House. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The Trump administration is requesting $44.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 for the Defense and Energy departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure, an increase of about $7.3 billion, or 19 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 level. (See ACT, April 2019.) This includes $28.9 billion for the Pentagon and $15.6 billion for the Energy Department.

The proposed spending on nuclear weapons constitutes about 6 percent of the total national defense request, up from about 5 percent last year.

“The president was very clear to me, to the Pentagon, to the Hill, that modernization of our strategic nuclear forces is priority number one,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Feb. 19.

The largest increase sought is for the nuclear weapons activities account of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The budget request calls for $15.6 billion, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request.

The NNSA had not released its detailed fiscal year 2021 budget request by Feb. 26, but it would increase funding for several ongoing nuclear warhead life extension programs, a new program for a future submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead dubbed the W93, and the expansion of the production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year, NNSA Administrator Lisa-Gordon Hagerty told reporters in Washington
on Feb. 10.

The NNSA budget submission was reportedly a controversial issue within the Trump administration and was not resolved until days before the Feb. 10 public release of the budget. Gordon-Hagerty’s budget proposal of nearly $20 billion for the agency was opposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which countered with $17.5 billion, according to a report published in late January by The Dispatch, a digital news publication.

Several administration officials, including Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, were said to support the lower amount, and the budget was built based on that figure.

Gordon-Hagerty, joined by several Republican members of Congress, resisted the OMB figure, warning that a budget of $17.5 billion would undermine the modernization plan described in the NPR and force the United States to unilaterally reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

President Donald Trump ultimately sided with the NNSA and approved a total of $19.8 billion for the agency.

The factors driving the NNSA to request such a large unplanned increase are unclear. The agency said last year that its fiscal year 2020 budget plan was “fully consistent” with the 2018 NPR and “affordable and executable.” (See ACT, September 2019.) Under that proposal, the NNSA did not plan to request more than $15 billion for the weapons activities account until 2030. It is also unclear whether the NNSA could spend such a large increase in one year.

Trump’s support for increasing the NNSA budget forced a late scramble to make room for the higher amount. “I can tell you that [the Defense Department] is covering the cost for this increase,” Brouillette told Defense News on Feb. 16.

Although he did not identify the specific accounts that were cut, the Navy’s shipbuilding account was one of the causalities, according to a Bloomberg report on Feb. 6. The Navy is requesting $19.9 billion for shipbuilding in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $4.1 billion below the fiscal year 2020 level.

“It is the worst-kept secret in Washington that last-minute maneuvering led to the shipbuilding budget being robbed to pay for other pet projects,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, in a Feb. 10 statement.

Meanwhile, the budget request contains large but planned increases to maintain the schedule of Pentagon programs to sustain and rebuild the U.S. triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers.

The request includes $4.4 billion for the Navy program to build 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The Air Force is seeking $2.8 billion to continue development of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, $500 million for the long-range standoff weapons program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile, and $1.5 billion for the program to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile with a missile system called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. The Pentagon is also asking for $4.2 billion to sustain and upgrade nuclear command, control, and communications systems.

Collectively, the request for these programs is an increase of $3.2 billion, or more than 30 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 level.

The SSBN program, which is estimated to cost a total of $128 billion to acquire, poses a particularly significant affordability challenge. The fiscal year 2021 budget request includes funding to purchase the first submarine in the class over the next three years.

“[W]e must begin a 40-year recapitalization of our [SSBN] force,” Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly wrote in a Feb. 18 memo directing the Navy to identify $40 billion in savings over the next five years.

“This requirement will consume a significant portion of our shipbuilding budget in the coming years and squeeze out funds we need to build a larger fleet.”


The Trump administration is seeking larger increases to U.S. nuclear weapons than envisioned earlier.

U.S.-Russia Talks to Begin Soon, U.S. Says

March 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia are nearing the start of new arms control talks, but China is presently uninterested in limiting its nuclear forces, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said last month.

White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien participates in a February event in Washington. He acknowledged publicly for the first time in February that China is not interested in arms control talks with the United States or Russia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)“We’ll be sitting down with our Russian colleagues very soon,” O’Brien said Feb. 11. “We’ll have to wait and see how those negotiations play out.”

He also acknowledged—the first time an administration official has done so—that China has no interest in joining the negotiations. “So far, and this is not surprising, the Chinese are not interested in arms control,” he said.

O’Brien’s admission stands in contrast to repeated statements from U.S. President Donald Trump that China is eager to join arms control talks. Beijing is “extremely excited about getting involved,” Trump claimed last December.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed in 2010, will expire on Feb. 5, 2021, unless the United States and Russia mutually agree to extend it by up to five years.

Moscow stands ready to extend New START immediately and without any preconditions, according to remarks Russian President Vladimir Putin made in late 2019, but the Trump administration has yet to make its decision regarding the future of the accord. During his Feb. 11 remarks, O’Brien said he would not “get into conditions or that sort of thing in this context or in this forum” on potential U.S. preconditions for extending New START. U.S. officials have previously said Washington prefers to seek a more comprehensive deal that covers additional types of nuclear weapons and includes China.

Senior administration officials addressed bringing China into the arms control process at a Feb. 14 background briefing for reporters at the White House, but the administration has not yet put forward a proposal for a new accord. “Now is the time for China to put its money where its mouth is and prove that it is a responsible international actor,” said one official, Reuters reported.

“On New START, we have made no decision on a possible extension as we are focused on addressing a broader range of threats beyond just the weapons subject to the treaty,” another official said.

For its part, China has consistently expressed its opposition to trilateral talks with the United States and Russia. “This position is very clear and has been widely understood by the international community, including Russia,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters on Jan. 22. The United States “constantly makes an issue of China on this to dodge and shift its responsibilities for nuclear disarmament,” he said.

Robert Wood, the U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, claimed on Jan. 21 that Washington and Moscow had reached an “understanding” about pursuing trilateral talks with China. “Hopefully over time and through the influence of others besides the United States, [China] will come to the table,” he said.

Soviet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, however, stated on Feb. 10 that Moscow “will not try to convince China” to join the talks. “If the Americans are quite sure that it makes no sense to take any further steps on the New START…without China, let them get down to business on this all on their own,” he said. “Even if a multilateral process gets under way, it will be utterly protracted,” and “we ought to have a safety net in an extended New START.”

“We have told the Americans as much,” he said. “They are still silent.”

In addition to pursuing trilateral talks with Russia and China, Christopher Ford, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said on Dec. 20 that the United States had invited China to begin a bilateral strategic security dialogue. Fu Cong, director of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, remarked on Feb. 12 at a conference of nuclear-weapon states in London that Beijing will answer Ford’s proposal “soon.”

Another reported hindrance to the U.S. effort to negotiate a more comprehensive replacement for New START is the Trump administration’s inability to find a lead negotiator for the undertaking. The administration has offered the role to several potential candidates, but no one has agreed to take it, Politico reported on Feb. 12.

Calls from key foreign leaders and former officials to extend New START have intensified amid the administration’s continued indecision on the future of the accord.

“It is critical that the New START…be extended beyond 2021,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in a Feb. 7 speech on defense and deterrence. The uncertainty regarding the treaty’s future, he said, contributes to “the possibility of a return of pure unhindered military and nuclear competition by 2021.” Macron joined other U.S. allies, such as Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in endorsing the treaty’s extension.

The Aspen Ministers Forum, a group of former foreign ministers from around the world, released a statement on Feb. 10 also supporting prolonging the treaty. “Extending New START would lay solid groundwork and build momentum towards increased international cooperation in the new decade,” they stated.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia resumed their dialogue on strategic security on Jan. 16 in Vienna. The State Department said the two sides discussed “nuclear stockpiles and strategy, crisis and arms race stability, and the role and potential future of arms control, including the importance of moving beyond a solely bilateral format.” The dialogue will continue, and the two sides will “begin expert-level engagement on particular topics in the near future,” according to the State Department.

In remarks to the press after the January meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented that the talks were “difficult” and that Russia does not have a clear understanding of Washington’s overall strategic plan for arms control.

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 deployed and nondeployed missile launchers and bombers each. It also put into place a rigorous inspections and verification regime, on which the U.S. military relies for knowledge about the Russian arsenal.

While declining to share his advice to the Trump administration on New START’s extension, Gen. John Hyten, current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), recently emphasized the importance of the accord.

“If you’re the STRATCOM commander, New START is really important,” Hyten said Jan. 17. “It allows you to posture your force and understand what you have to do in order to deter the adversary, Russia in this case, and tells you what you have to do. It also gives you insight into the Russian nuclear forces because of the verification regime.”

Hyten expressed concern about Russian nuclear weapons not covered by the treaty, such as new strategic nuclear weapon delivery vehicles that Moscow is developing and Russia’s larger arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, estimated at 2,000 warheads. “We have to make sure that when we sit down with Russia, we talk about all the nuclear weapons that are out there,” he said.


A dialogue may be advancing between the United States and Russia, but China appears unwilling to discuss any limits to its nuclear arsenal.

U.S. Deploys Low-Yield Nuclear Warhead

March 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Navy has fielded a low-yield nuclear warhead for some of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles for the first time, the Defense Department confirmed in February. The move, first proposed in the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, “strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” said John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, in a Feb. 4 statement.

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to base in Kings Bay, Georgia in 2011. The boat is reportedly the first to have some of its missiles armed with low-yield nuclear warheads. (Photo: James Kimber/U.S. Navy)The new type of warhead, called the W76-2, “demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” Rood added. The warhead is estimated to have an explosive yield of five kilotons, roughly one-third the yield of the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Feb. 7 that “the bottom line” is that the new warhead gives the president “options [that will] allow us to deter conflict” and “if necessary…fight and win.”

The NPR report said the W76-2 would “ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses” and “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” The report argued that the low-yield warhead would counter Russia’s alleged “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy of threatening to employ tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional confrontation so as to deter further aggression and deescalate the conflict “on terms favorable to Russia.” Moscow denies having this strategy.

Russia criticized the new warhead’s deployment. The decision “reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on Feb. 5.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), an opponent of the NPR report’s call for new low-yield warhead capabilities, described the administration’s decision to deploy the W76-2 as “misguided and dangerous.”

“This destabilizing deployment further increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis,” Smith said in a Feb. 4 statement.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the panel’s ranking member, supported the deployment, saying that the weapon “enhances U.S. deterrence and tells Russia that any attempt to use nuclear weapons as part of an escalate-to-deescalate approach will not
be successful.”

Although the W76-2 was a controversial issue in Congress in 2019, lawmakers ultimately approved the Trump administration’s request for nearly $30 million to support fielding of the warhead in fiscal year 2020. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The Federation of American Scientists first reported on Jan. 29 that the W76-2 had been deployed at the end of 2019 on the USS Tennessee, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine based at Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced in February 2019 the successful completion of the first warhead at the Pantex plant in Texas and stated that it was on track to “deliver the units” to the U.S. Navy by the end of fiscal year 2019. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the NNSA has since produced about 50 W76-2 low-yield warheads.


The U.S. Navy has begun to field a new warhead on a U.S. ballistic missile submarine.

North Korea Douses Hope for New Talks

March 2020
By Julia Masterson

Negotiations between the United States and North Korea are unlikely to resume in 2020 absent a shift in the U.S. approach, according to multiple Pyongyang officials. “If the U.S. persists such hostile policy toward the DPRK…there will never be a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” said North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Jan. 21.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk together at the border of North and South Korea in June 2019. Kim has said North Korea will no longer be bound by his moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)Although he did not define “hostile policy” at the meeting, North Korean condemnation of U.S.-imposed stringent economic sanctions and the conduct of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises have headlined many North Korean statements.

Ju also said that Pyongyang may no longer observe its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing put in place in April 2018 to “build confidence with the United States.” He said Pyongyang has “no reason to be unilaterally bound” by its commitment, given that Washington “remains unchanged in its ambition to block the development” of North Korea. His remarks closely echoed those of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the December 2019 plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, where Kim first announced Pyongyang’s shifted attitude toward talks with Washington. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Despite the North Korean rhetoric, the United States remains “cautiously optimistic” about North Korea’s bargaining position, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told Axios on Jan. 12. Washington has “reached out to the North Koreans and let them know that we would like to continue the negotiations,” he added.

South Korea also supported renewing talks. “Momentum for North Korea-U.S. dialogue should continue,” said South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a Jan. 7 statement. “A show of force and threats are not helpful to anyone.”

Despite efforts by Washington and Seoul to revive dialogue, recent changes to Pyongyang’s defense and diplomatic leadership appear to reinforce North Korea’s new position. “It is the unwavering will of [North Korea] to further increase the strength of justice for defending its sovereignty and security and safeguarding the global peace and stability,” Ri Son Gwon said in his new role as foreign minister on Jan. 23. Ri is reportedly revered for his hard-line stance. North Korea also has a new defense minister, Army Gen. Kim Jong Gwan, who assumed his post on Jan. 22.

North Korean plans to follow through on its warning to resume nuclear and long-range missile testing remain unclear. North Korea is “trying to build a long-range ballistic missile with the ability to carry a nuclear warhead,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Jan. 24.

Recently captured satellite imagery also shows activity at North Korea’s Sanumdong missile research center, CNN reported on Jan. 26. The imagery depicts activity consistent with actions observed before previous North Korean missile tests, but experts appear divided on the meaning of the intelligence.

A North Korean leadership shake-up may indicate a harder line on nuclear talks with the United States.

Budget Would Augment National Missile Defense

March 2020
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 defense budget request seeks to supplement U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems to defend against longer-range threats. Specifically, the budget submission for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) seeks funds to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to intercept limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency conducts a test of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii Dec. 10, 2018. The Trump administration is seeking $39.2 million in fiscal year 2020 to upgrade the weapon to supplement U.S. long-range missile defense capabilities. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)The MDA is asking for $39.2 million for the Aegis system to provide “an initial underlayer capability to” the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and California. Its request also contains $139 million to “initiate the development and demonstration of a new [THAAD] interceptor prototype to support contiguous United States defense.” The agency is planning to test this capability in fiscal year 2023.

In addition, the MDA plans to test the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor, which was originally designed to counter regional missile threats during their midcourse phase of flight, against an ICBM target this spring. Aegis interceptors can be based on Navy ships or on land.

Like the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, the mobile, land-based THAAD system was originally designed to defend against short- to intermediate-range missile threats in their descent phase of flight.

“[W]hat this budget really does for us is starts to say, let’s take advantage of these regional systems that have been so successful and are very flexible and deployable,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, the MDA director, told reporters on Feb. 10.

“When we say ‘layered homeland defense,’ what we mean is, we want to give the country options,” he said.

Such a layered missile defense theoretically could provide four opportunities to intercept an incoming North Korean ICBM: two shots with the existing GMD interceptors, a third shot with the SM-3 Block-IIA missile, and a fourth shot with an extended-range THAAD interceptor.

The proposal to expand the U.S. homeland missile defense footprint is consistent with the 2019 Missile Defense Review, which specifically called for bringing the SM-3 Block-IIA missile into the national missile defense architecture. (See ACT, March 2019.)

An increase in the number of U.S. interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs could exacerbate Russian and Chinese concerns about the threat the defenses pose to their nuclear deterrents and prompt them to take steps to counter new U.S. missile defenses.

The administration is asking for a total of $20.3 billion for missile defense programs in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $1.6 billion below the fiscal year 2020 appropriated level. Of that amount, $9.2 billion would be for the MDA, $7.9 billion would be for non-MDA-related missile defense efforts such as early-warning sensors and the Patriot system, and $3.3 billion would be for nontraditional missile defense and left-of-launch activities such as offensive hypersonic glide vehicles.

The MDA request of $9.2 billion would be a decrease of 12 percent from the fiscal 2020 level of $10.5 billion. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The GMD system would receive about $1.7 billion under the budget proposal, a decrease of about $465 million below last year’s spending level. Of the $1.7 billion, $664 million would be for the new Next Generation Interceptor. The MDA decided to pursue development of the interceptor last year in the wake of the demise of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle. (See ACT, October 2019.)

The MDA “will continue design and development activities for two competitive interceptor development contracts scheduled to be awarded in 4th quarter of fiscal year 2020,” according to the budget documents. The agency is aiming to begin fielding the new interceptor in the late 2020s.

The MDA is proposing to request $9.3 billion for the GMD system between fiscal years 2021 and 2025. This is an increase of $3.7 billion, or 66 percent, above what the agency planned to request between fiscal years 2020 and 2024.

The budget request also includes $207 million “to define concepts and develop engineering requirements” to defend against new hypersonic missile threats.

To make room for increased investments in homeland missile defense, the request “reprioritizes lower return on investment missile defense research.”

Programs included in the fiscal year 2020 request that are not funded in the latest submission include two homeland missile defense radars for deployment in the Pacific, a space-based neutral particle beam to destroy missiles during their boost and midcourse phases of flight, a multiple-object kill vehicle to arm a single ground-based interceptor with several kill vehicles, and an airborne laser to zap ballistic missiles during their boost phase.

In addition, the budget request includes no funding for an Air Force program included in last year’s request to develop an air-launched interceptor for boost phase defense and for the Space Development Agency to study space-based interceptors.

The Trump administration is seeking to adapt existing missile defense systems to defeat longer-range targets.

Controversial Firearms Rules Published

March 2020
By Ju-Hyun Kim and Jeff Abramson

Nearly two years after first opening a public comment period, the Trump administration officially published a controversial final rule that changes how certain firearms are exported from the United States. The move broke a second informal hold requested by a leading Democratic senator and faces a possible injunction that would block the rules from becoming effective on March 9.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks in Washington on Nov. 7, 2019. The Trump administration overrode his efforts to block a change in how the government oversees certain arms exports. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)Originally drafted during the Obama administration as part of a broader export control reform effort but never advanced to completion, the new rules were first shared by the Trump administration in 2018 for public review, with most public comments being negative. Congress received notification of the final rules in November 2019, and they were published on Jan. 23. The rules would transfer authority for the export of certain types of semiautomatic firearms and their ammunition that are currently controlled under the first three categories of the United States Munitions List (USML) to the Commerce Control List (CCL). Due to the different rules governing the lists, Congress does not receive notification of potential sales of weapons that are controlled by the CCL. In a revision to the administration’s first version of the rules, however, the Commerce Department would require licenses for the online publication of 3D gun-printing plans, which are currently considered exports and regulated under the USML.

The administration drew a rebuke from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This reckless decision not only makes it easier to export deadly firearms to human rights abusers, it removes these exports from congressional oversight and disapproval,” he said on Jan. 17 after learning the rules would soon be published. “Semiautomatic firearms and ammunition...are easily modified, diverted, and proliferated and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world. As such, they should be subject to more rigorous export controls and oversight, not less.”

Loss of congressional oversight and dangers around 3D-printed guns, also called “ghost guns,” was at the heart of Menendez’s February 2019 hold on the rules. After a measure in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have stopped the changes was not included in the final version of the NDAA, Menendez requested a second hold on the change on Dec. 10. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Repeating a 2019 effort, a group of state attorneys general also filed suit Jan. 23 to stop the changes, focusing primarily on the 3D gun issue. Led by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, attorneys general of 21 other states and the District of Columbia argued in part that the new rule failed to follow Arms Export Control Act requirements to assess the change’s effects on world peace and national security. They also argued that the new rule has significant loopholes that would make it easy to skirt online posting limitations. As of Feb. 27, the case had been assigned to a judge in Washington state, where a motion was filed for a temporary injunction, but it was unclear whether the rules would be blocked before Mar. 9, when the new rules would take effect.

A wide array of civil society groups, including gun violence prevention, human rights, and arms control organizations, also reacted negatively to the rule change. Business groups and the National Rifle Association, however, welcomed the change. “This is a tremendous achievement for the firearms and ammunition industry,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

In the final rules published, the Trump administration asserted that the new rule will allow the government to use its resources more effectively by only focusing on weapons and munitions that provide “a critical military or intelligence advantage.” The document also stated that the rule “does not deregulate the export of firearms” because the exports will still require an authorization by the Commerce Department, and all export license applications will still be subject to an interagency review.

The Commerce Department will now oversee certain firearms exports

U.S. Begins Destroying Last Batch of Sarin

March 2020

The United States has begun the final step in destroying chemical weapon munitions at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky, the Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives announced in January. The site began destroying its stored munitions in June 2019, and by the end of January, 18 tons of chemical agent, representing 3.4 percent of the original stockpile stored at Blue Grass, had been destroyed, including the first munitions containing sarin.

A waste operator dons safety equipment with the help of an operations support supervisor at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in February. The site has made progress in destroying its sarin-filled munitions. (Photo: PEO ACWA)The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention called for destroying all Schedule 1 agents, including mustard and sarin gases, within 10 years of its entry into force. The United States missed this deadline and a subsequent April 2012 completion target. (See ACT, May 2006.) Today, the remaining U.S. chemical munitions are housed at the Blue Grass facility and at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado.

Speaking on the January milestone of beginning destruction of a sarin-filled munition at Blue Grass, the plant’s site manager told the Lexington Herald Leader that “this is another major milestone toward eliminating the total chemical weapons stockpile in Kentucky.” At the Pueblo site, destruction of munitions containing more than 2,600 tons of mustard agent is ongoing.—JULIA MASTERSON

U.S. Begins Destroying Last Batch of Sarin

Nuclear Powers Discuss Arms Control

March 2020

Nuclear-armed powers discussed a range of arms control issues during a Feb. 11–12 meeting in London in advance of this year’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, scheduled to begin in April. Representatives from the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) joined participants from 16 non-nuclear-weapon states to address topics such as nuclear transparency, disarmament, and verification.

Thomas Drew, a senior UK Foreign Office official, chaired the conference. The other nuclear power delegations were led by Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation; David Bertolotti, director of strategic affairs, security, and disarmament in the French Foreign Ministry; Vladimir Leontiev, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control department; and Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Cong said the nuclear-weapon states are “responsible for strengthening coordination and cooperation and ensuring the success” of the NPT review conference, according to a Feb. 14 statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

He also commented on efforts by the Trump administration to engage Beijing in arms control talks with the United States and Russia. “It is neither fair nor reasonable to encourage the Chinese side to join trilateral arms control negotiations,” he said.

The United States nevertheless encouraged Chinese participation. “Beijing poses a serious threat to strategic security given the trajectory of its nuclear build-up,” said Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, in a Feb. 19 tweet.

The five nuclear powers plan to host a side event during the NPT review conference to “exchange perspectives and answer questions about how we think about nuclear weapons, doctrine, and disarmament issues,” Ford said in December.—SHANNON BUGOS

Nuclear Powers Discuss Arms Control

Arms Control Experts Urge Trump to Agree to Extend Key Treaty Limiting Russia’s Nuclear Forces



For Immediate Release: February 5, 2020

(Washington, D.C.)—In one year, on Feb. 5, 2021, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) will expire unless President Trump takes up Russia’s offer to extend the treaty by a period of up to five years.

“New START is the only remaining legally binding, verifiable agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals,” says Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “If it lapses with nothing to replace it, the result would open the door to unconstrained nuclear competition that President Trump says he wants to avoid.”

New START, which has been in force since February 5, 2011, verifiably limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed strategic missiles and heavy bombers.

“New START is working as designed,” says Thomas Countryman, chairman of the board of the Arms Control Association and former acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, “and both sides are in compliance with the treaty’s limits and obligations.”

Military and intelligence officials have said they greatly value New START’s monitoring and verification provisions, which provide predictability and transparency and help promote a stable nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia. Republican and Democratic members of Congress and all of the major Democratic presidential contenders support New START extension.

“Extending New START should be the easiest foreign policy decision Trump can make. Failure to extend the treaty, on the other hand, would be one of the worst decisions the President could make,” Countryman said.

Although Russia has indicated its support for a clean, unconditional extension, the Trump administration has yet to officially decide on the future of the treaty. Instead, Trump administration officials say they want to explore options for a new treaty that covers all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and involves China.

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, recently said that, in regard to China, “I wouldn't want to pay the price of losing the restrictions on Russian forces in order to get restrictions on a Chinese force that’s much smaller and less significant in the composition of its war fighting.” Currently, the United States and Russia each have a total of about 6,000 nuclear warheads, while China has about 300.

“A new agreement with Russia and with China is not achievable before New START is due to expire,” notes Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and nuclear threat reduction policy with the Arms Control Association. “By extending New START, however, Trump could secure a significant foreign policy win that would provide a foundation for follow-on negotiations with Russia and possibly with China to further reduce nuclear risks,” he said.


Experts Available in Washington:

  • Thomas Countryman, former​ ​acting​ ​under secretary of state for​ ​arms​ ​control and ​international security, and ​​chair of the board for the Arm​​s Control Association, [email protected], 301-312-3445
  • Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, [email protected], 202-277-3478
  • Kingston Reif, ​director for ​disarmament​​ and ​threat reduction​ ​policy​, ​[email protected], 202-463-8270, ext. 104

New START, the last remaining treaty limiting the world's two most deadly arsenals, expires one year from today. Arms control experts urge the Trump administration to agree to extend the treaty.

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Responses to Common Criticisms About Extending New START



Volume 12, Issue 1, February 5, 2020

With the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on August 2, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is now the only remaining arms control agreement limiting at least a portion of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Signed in 2010, New START verifiably caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 deployed and nondeployed missile launchers and bombers. The treaty is slated to expire one year from today on February 5, 2021, but it can be extended by up to five years by agreement of the U.S. and Russian presidents.

Although Russia has indicated its support for a clean, unconditional extension, the Trump administration remains officially undecided about whether to extend the treaty and is seeking a more comprehensive arms control agreement that includes more types of Russian weapons as well as China.

If New START lapses without an extension or replacement, there will be no legally binding constraints on the world's two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in half a century. The risk of unconstrained U.S.-Russian nuclear competition, and of even more strained bilateral relations, would grow.

Below are responses to some of the most common objections raised against New START. The criticisms range from understandable, to misleading, to disingenuous. None of them merit a decision to allow the treaty to lapse.

Claim: New START doesn’t include the new strategic nuclear delivery systems that Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in March 2018.

Response: In a March 2018 speech, Putin said that Russia is developing several new strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems designed to ensure that Russia can maintain an adequate nuclear deterrent in the face of unconstrained U.S. missile defenses. These systems include a new heavy ICBM (the Sarmat), hypersonic glide vehicle (the Avangard), nuclear-powered cruise missile (Skyfall), and nuclear-powered underwater torpedo (Poseidon).

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 30 that “if we were simply to extend New START now, without touching those other systems, which the Russians have been invested in, we’re tying our hands in not limiting what...the Russians see where their growth [is]…in their strategic assets.” Given the range of the new Russian weapons, it is reasonable to ask why they shouldn’t be limited by New START.

But Russia’s development of the weapons actually strengthens the case for extending New START. Russia has stated that the two systems closest to deployment (the Avangard, which began combat duty in late December, and Sarmat) would be captured by the treaty. Russia will be limited in how many of these weapons they can deploy, and the treaty’s verification regime will give the United States a clearer picture of how many of these weapons there are and where they are located. Russia last November exhibited the Avangard to U.S. inspectors per the terms of the agreement.

As for the other two weapons—Skyfall, a recent test of which resulted in a deadly explosion, and Poseidon—they are still in development and unlikely to be deployed in large numbers or before the mid-2020s at the earliest, according to independent open source and intelligence assessments. This means that these systems likely wouldn’t be fielded until after the expiration of an extended New START, which should make them less relevant in the administration’s current analysis of whether to extend the treaty.

(Putin also unveiled an air-launched ballistic missile, the Kinzhal, in his 2018 address. The missile reportedly began trial deployment in December 2017. Russia is currently planning to field the weapon on the shorter-range MiG-31 aircraft, in which case Kinzhal would not be accountable under New START.)

Moscow says that it is open to discussing limitations on the Skyfall, Poseidon, and Kinzhal in the format of strategic stability talks, but that capturing them would require an amendment to New START or a new agreement, in which case Moscow would have its own list of U.S. capabilities that should be addressed. Article V of the treaty states: “When a Party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging,” the two sides can discuss how to take the systems into account. Both sides are discussing the new systems, making use of this provision.

Extending New START provides the best and only chance to limit Russia's new strategic weapons. It would be illogical and irresponsible for the United States to forego another five years of limits on Russia's enormous arsenal of hundreds of existing strategic nuclear weapons because Russia might deploy some new weapons not covered by the treaty over five years from now.

Claim: New START doesn’t include Russia’s large arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Response: Russia maintains a large arsenal of approximately 2,000 non-strategic nuclear warheads for short-range delivery. The United States is estimated to possess about 200 such weapons, approximately 180 of which are housed on the territory of five European NATO member states. David Trachtenberg, who served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from October 2017 to July 2019, wrote last November that New START “ignores the significant and growing Russian advantage in non-strategic nuclear forces.”

Contrary to popular belief, Russia’s arsenal of non-strategic nuclear warheads, which are believed to be housed in central storage, has actually decreased significantly since New START was negotiated.

Talks on limiting both countries’ non-strategic nuclear weapons are nonetheless long overdue. The Senate during its review of New START in 2010 called for future negotiations with Russia to address the imbalance between the two sides in non-strategic nuclear weapons.

But New START was designed to focus on limiting Russian strategic nuclear weapons that can directly threaten the U.S. homeland. Talks to limit non-strategic nuclear warheads would be time-consuming and difficult. Russia insists that a future agreement limiting a broader range of nuclear weapons also limit U.S. missile defenses and advanced conventional strike weapons and include British and French nuclear forces. Russia is also likely to demand that any agreement limiting Russian short-range nuclear weapons mandate the removal of the U.S. short-range weapons deployed in Europe and possibly conventional forces near Russia’s border. The Trump administration has given no indication that it is willing to address these Russian demands.

Extending New START would buy five additional years with which to engage in negotiations with Russia to attempt to capture weapons and technologies not limited by the treaty while retaining limits on Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Ditching the treaty on the other hand would leave all types of Russian weapons unconstrained. Threatening Russia with New START’s expiration is not going to force the Kremlin to unilaterally concede to U.S. demands on non-strategic weapons.

Claim: New START doesn’t include China.

Response: The Trump administration argues that China must be included in the arms control process. “[I]t is vital that nuclear arms control adapt itself to the modern strategic environment; we are committed to involving both Russia and China…by negotiating a trilateral nuclear arms control agreement,” said Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford in a Dec. 13 speech in Brussels. “There can be no serious future for arms control that does not involve both Moscow and Beijing, and they know it,” Ford claimed.

Seeking to convince China, which has never formally participated in the arms control process, to get off the arms control sidelines is an important and worthwhile goal. But there is no realistic possibility of concluding an unprecedented trilateral deal with Russia and China before New START expires in 2021. Though Trump has repeatedly claimed that China is excited to begin trilateral talks, China has repeatedly made its opposition to such talks clear.

Currently, the United States and Russia each have a total of about 6,000 nuclear warheads, while China has about 300. If negotiations on a new agreement including China are to become a real possibility, either “the U.S. agrees to reduce its arsenal to China’s level or agrees for China to raise its arsenal to the U.S. level,” Fu Cong, director of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Nov. 8.

In addition, nearly a year after the Trump administration first called for including China in arms control talks, officials have yet to articulate their goals for a multilateral accord or strategy for achieving it. Nor does the administration appear to have the personnel to negotiate such a deal.

Jettisoning New START’s limits on Russia’s enormous existing arsenal of deployed strategic nuclear weapons—just because it doesn't cover all Russian weapons or include China's much smaller arsenal—would be akin to cutting off our nose to spite our face. As Pranay Vaddi, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written, “there is no chance for arms control with China if New START is permitted to expire. It is unimaginable that China would join the arms control process if the U.S. and Russia walked away.”

Fortunately, extending New START is perfectly compatible with seeking to engage China on arms control and is a necessary foundation from which to pursue more ambitious arms control talks. In the near-term, the United States should pursue a sustained strategic stability dialogue with Beijing focused strengthening crisis stability, reducing the risk of unintended escalation, and exploring what would be required to enhance transparency about China’s nuclear forces and cap the growth of those forces.

Claim: Holding out on extending New START provides leverage to bring Russia and China to the negotiating table on a broader arms control agreement.

Response: As the administration continues to weigh whether to extend New START, some officials argue that whatever the final decision, it would premature to extend now. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Dec. 5 that “if the United States were to agree to extend the treaty now, I think it would make it less likely that we would have the ability to persuade Russia and China to enter negotiations on a broader agreement.”

The claim that holding out on extension provides the United States with leverage over Russia and China is unconvincing for several reasons.

First, New START is useless as a bargaining chip unless the administration is willing to walk away from the treaty if Russia and China don’t meet U.S. demands for talks. But making New START a chip in a high-stakes poker game with Russia and China is a dangerous gamble because the treaty is too important to be gambled away.

Second, the Trump administration does not have a good track record when it comes to attempting to leverage existing nuclear agreements into better deals. In the case of the Iran Deal, the administration’s threats to withdraw failed to convince Iran to agree to better terms. In the case of the INF Treaty, the administration’s threat to withdraw failed to convince Russia to return to compliance. President Trump ultimately withdrew from both agreements with no viable plan to replace them.

Third, as Vincent Manzo and Madison Estes wrote last July, the longer the administration waits to extend New START, “the more attention U.S. defense, intelligence, and diplomatic officials will likely devote to figuring out how to manage the challenges that would emerge without New START—and the less they will have to conceptualize and negotiate new and plausible arms control arrangements for the emerging strategic landscape.”

Fourth, Russia has provided no indication that it would trade an extension of New START for talks on limiting weapons not covered by the treaty. Russia has repeatedly made clear the U.S. concessions it is seeking in return for a new agreement capturing additional types of weapons. Moreover, Moscow is no doubt aware that most U.S. allies strongly support a clean extension and would likely blame Washington for the treaty’s collapses. While Moscow would prefer to extend New START, it also appears content with a world in which the treaty dies and the United States is left holding the bag.

Finally, there is no evidence that China supports New START so strongly that it would reverse its longstanding policy and join trilateral talks with the United States and Russia to avert the treaty’s collapse.

Claim: Russia is violating other arms control agreements.

Response: The Trump administration has stated that Russian noncompliance with other arms control agreements is one of the factors it is considering in weighing whether to extend New START. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford said last September that “it’s difficult for me right now in the wake of the violation of the INF Treaty to say automatically that I support extending START.”

Despite its concerns with Russian noncompliance with other agreements, the United States continues to assess the Russia remains in compliance with New START. Attempting to “punish” Russia’s violations of other agreements by abandoning New START would senselessly and counterproductively free Russia to expand the number of strategic nuclear weapons pointed at the United States after New START expires in 2021. Moreover, letting New START expire won’t discourage Russia from future violations, especially since the United States is likely to be blamed for New START’s collapse.

Claim: The United States hasn’t sufficiently modernized its nuclear arsenal.

Response: Some opponents of extending New START argue that the treaty should be allowed to die because modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is not proceeding swiftly enough. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) claimed last May, “We just haven't followed through on it [modernization] and it's—it's very unfortunate. One of the many reasons why I oppose…a gratuitous five-year extension, given where we are.”

New START was negotiated with U.S. nuclear modernization in mind and is consistent with the Pentagon and Energy Department’s planned recapitalization of U.S. nuclear forces and their supporting infrastructure.

In November 2010, when the Senate was debating New START, the Obama administration pledged to spend about $85 billion between fiscal years 2011 and 2020 on nuclear weapons activities at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). (Separately the Defense Department identified $100 billion in planned spending on delivery system sustainment and modernization, though it was never entirely clear what this number included).

Spending on NNSA weapons activities over the 10-year period between fiscal years 2011 and 2020 exceeded what was projected. The Obama administration initially kept pace with the pledged levels, then had to cut back due to the unwillingness of House Republican appropriators to fund the requested amounts and later the 2011 Budget Control Act, and then returned to the pledged levels in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The Trump administration for its part has blown way above the levels projected in 2010, and press reports indicate that the FY 2021 budget request will continue that trend. Spending on nuclear weapons by the Defense Department has greatly exceeded $100 billion since fiscal year 2011.

The question then is not whether the U.S. arsenal is being upgraded (it is), but whether the administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans are necessary or sustainable. The answer is that they are not. In fact, the costs and risks of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans are compounded by its hostility to arms control. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted last September, “bipartisan support for nuclear modernization is tied to maintaining an arms control process that controls and seeks to reduce Russian nuclear forces…We’re not interested in writing blank checks for a nuclear arms race with Russia.”

Congress should support both extending New START and adjusting the administration’s modernization plans because doing so makes sense for U.S. security. —KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy


New START expires on Feb. 5, 2021, but can be extended by up to five years. Here are responses to the common criticisms about an extension of the treaty.

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