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“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
April 2024
Edition Date: 
Monday, April 1, 2024
Cover Image: 

Breaking the Impasse on Disarmament, Part One


April 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

A special UN Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament issues convened by Japan in March underscored agreement among all 15 members that the risk of nuclear war and arms racing is higher than at any point since the end of the Cold War. But it also highlighted chronic differences among the nuclear-armed states about how to reduce the danger. As the Japanese foreign minister warned ahead of the meeting, “The world now stands on the cusp of reversing decades of declines in nuclear stockpiles.”

The UN Security Council holds a meeting on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation at the UN headquarters in New York, March 18, 2024. (Photo by Xie E/Xinhua via Getty Images)To address such challenges, UN Secretary-General António Guterres outlined several commonsense, achievable steps that could begin to move the world away from the nuclear precipice if pursued by China, Russia, the United States, and others.

Noting that “states possessing nuclear weapons are absent from the table of dialogue,” Guterres said they “must reengage” to reduce nuclear stockpiles, prevent nuclear use, negotiate a joint no-first-use agreement, stop nuclear saber-rattling, and reaffirm support for the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

He put specific emphasis on countries with the largest arsenals, Russia and the United States, and said that they “must find a way back to the negotiating table to fully implement the [New Strategic Arms Reduction] Treaty [New START] and agree on its successor.”

Last month, more than two dozen members of Congress introduced an important resolution calling for stronger U.S. efforts to engage Russia and China in arms control talks. Moving the nuclear-armed states in the right direction will, however, require much stronger and sustained pressure from civil society, legislators, and the international community.

At the Security Council meeting on March 18, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield criticized Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and reiterated the 2023 U.S. offer to engage in bilateral talks with Moscow on a post-New START nuclear arms control framework. Unsurprisingly, Russia’s delegate renewed the Kremlin’s rejection of the U.S. offer, claiming that there is no basis for such work if Western countries refuse to “respect [Russia’s] vital interests.”

In reality, maintaining limits on their strategic nuclear arsenals is in the vital interest of both countries. Yet, New START, the last remaining bilateral arms control treaty, is due to expire in fewer than 675 days. Moreover, Russia and the United States are obligated under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to engage in negotiations to halt the arms race and move toward disarmament.

NPT member states should make it their highest priority at the NPT preparatory committee meeting in July to press Moscow and Washington to observe the New START limits on deployed warheads until a more permanent, comprehensive nuclear arms control arrangement is concluded.

Thomas-Greenfield also called out China’s nuclear buildup and said that, despite a round of bilateral talks in November, China “remained unwilling to engage in substantive talks on nuclear risk reduction and arms control.”

China’s delegate agreed that “the risk of a nuclear arms race and a nuclear conflict is rising,” but insisted that U.S. criticisms of China “don’t hold water.” He invited other nuclear-armed states to explore the possibility of a no-first-use agreement.

China’s proposal is designed, of course, to highlight its long-standing no-first-use posture and divert attention from its nuclear buildup. Nevertheless, such an agreement would help reduce nuclear risk. As U.S. President Joe Biden said in October 2022 about Russia’s threat of a potential first use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.” The same logic applies to U.S. or Chinese first use.

If the United States wants more substantive dialogue with China, the White House should agree to seriously discuss China’s proposal and say the United States does not plan to threaten nuclear coercion against China. Such a shift could reduce tensions and lead to more concrete measures designed to prevent a Chinese-U.S. nuclear arms race.

Guterres also called for reforms at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to open the way for long-delayed talks on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) and on legally binding negative security assurances against nuclear attack for non-nuclear-weapon states, a priority for most nations.

To advance progress at the CD, the United States indicated in February that it would drop its opposition to talks on legally binding assurances against nuclear attack for non-nuclear states in good standing with their NPT commitments if other states, including China and Pakistan, drop their objections to long-delayed talks on an FMCT. Such a quid pro quo, if accepted by Beijing, could jump-start CD activity and lead to tangible results that reduce nuclear risks and guard against unconstrained arms buildups.

The world has faced grave nuclear dangers before. Then as now, it will take strong domestic and international pressure, smart diplomacy, and some luck to prevent disaster.

A special UN Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament issues convened by Japan in March underscored agreement among all 15 members that the risk of nuclear war and arms racing is higher than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

UN Security Council Holds Rare Disarmament Debate


April 2024
By Shizuka Kuramitsu and Daryl G. Kimball

Japan chaired a rare, high-level UN Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation on March 18. Although the meeting underscored the urgency of addressing the growing threats posed by nuclear weapons, it also highlighted the chronic divisions among key states on disarmament and nonproliferation issues.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa (C) chairs a UN Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament in New York on March 18. She has warned that “the world now stands on the cusp of reversing decades of declines in nuclear stockpiles.”  (Photo by Japanese Foreign Ministry)Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa described the meeting as “an opportunity for UN member states to share concrete ideas and proposals to accelerate the realization of a world without nuclear weapons” in an op-ed published by PassBlue on March 17.

“The world now stands on the cusp of reversing decades of declines in nuclear stockpiles. We will not stop moving ahead to promote realistic and practical efforts to create a world without nuclear weapons. Japan cannot accept Russia’s threats to break the world’s 78-year record of the nonuse of nuclear weapons,” she added.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres; Robert Floyd, executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization; and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, director of the nonproliferation program at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, were invited to brief the meeting.

All Security Council members were represented, including the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Many stressed the urgency of addressing growing nuclear weapons threats. But the exchange also underscored the extent to which rising geopolitical tensions and long-standing divisions among leading states impede tangible progress on disarmament and nonproliferation issues.

In his opening remarks, Guterres warned that “[h]umanity cannot survive a sequel to [the movie] Oppenheimer. Voice after voice, alarm after alarm, survivor after survivor are calling the world back from the brink.”

“And what is the response?” he asked. “States possessing nuclear weapons are absent from the table of dialogue. Investments in the tools of war are outstripping investments in the tools of peace. Arms budgets are growing, while diplomacy and development budgets are shrinking.”

Guterres said the nuclear-armed states in particular “must reengage” to prevent any use of a nuclear weapon, including by securing a no-first-use agreement, stopping nuclear saber-rattling, and reaffirming moratoriums on nuclear testing.

He urged them to take action on prior disarmament commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including reductions in the number of nuclear weapons “led by the holders of the largest nuclear arsenals, the United States and the Russian Federation, who must find a way back to the negotiating table to fully implement the [New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] and agree on its successor.”

To catalyze action, he reiterated his call for “reforms to disarmament bodies, including the Conference on Disarmament [CD]…that could lead to a long-overdue fourth special session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament.”

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield criticized Russia’s “irresponsible…nuclear rhetoric” and said that “China has rapidly and opaquely built up and diversified” its nuclear arsenal.

In addition, “Russia and China have remained unwilling to engage in substantive discussions around arms control and risk reduction,” she said.

Thomas-Greenfield reiterated the U.S. offer to “engage in bilateral arms control discussions with Russia and China, right now, without preconditions.”

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, said that his country shares “the noble goal” of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Nevertheless, he described the possession of nuclear weapons as “an important factor in maintaining the strategic balance.”

Polyanskiy countered criticism of Russian nuclear threats by charging that it is the “clearly Russophobic line of the United States and its allies [that] creates risks of escalation that threaten to trigger a direct military confrontation among nuclear powers.” He said the current situation is largely the result of the “years-long policy of the United States and its allies aimed at undermining the international architecture of arms control, disarmament, and [weapons of mass destruction] nonproliferation.”

Polyanskiy added, “As for the issues of strategic dialogue between Russia and the United States with a view to new agreements on nuclear arms control, they cannot be isolated from the general military-political context. We see no basis for such work in the context of Western countries’ attempts to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia and their refusal to respect our vital interests.”

Maltese Ambassador Vanessa Frazier called on the nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their disarmament obligations under the NPT. “Current tensions cannot be an excuse for the delay…. Rather they should be a reason to accelerate the implementation,” she said.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun acknowledged that “the risk of a nuclear arms race and a nuclear conflict is rising” and “[t]he road to nuclear disarmament remains long and arduous.”

He reiterated Beijing’s long-standing position that “nuclear weapons states should explore feasible measures to reduce strategic risks, negotiate and conclude a treaty on no first use of nuclear weapons against each other” and “provide legally binding negative security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states.”

Apparently in response to U.S. criticism of a Chinese nuclear buildup and refusal to engage in substantive arms control and risk reduction talks, Zhang said these “allegations against China do not hold any water.”

“Demanding that countries with vastly different nuclear policies and number of nuclear weapons should assume the same level of nuclear disarmament and nuclear transparency obligations is not consistent with the logic of history and reality, nor is it in line with international consensus, and as such will only lead international nuclear disarmament to a dead end,” the Chinese envoy said.

Some states proposed new initiatives. In response to U.S. concerns that Russia may be pursuing an orbiting anti-satellite system involving a nuclear explosive device, Japan and the United States announced they will “put forward a Security Council resolution, reaffirming the fundamental obligations that parties have under this [Outer Space] Treaty,” which prohibits the deployment of weapons in space. (See ACT, March 2024.)

Japan also announced the establishment of a cross-regional group called Friends of FMCT “with the aim to maintain and enhance political attention” and to expand support for negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

For decades, the 65-nation CD has failed to agree on a path to begin FMCT talks. Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, the UK, and the United States will join the FMCT group, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

High-level Security Council debates focused on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation have been infrequent in the post-Cold War era, and few of them result in consensus statements or resolutions.

In 2009, the council held a summit-level meeting chaired by U.S. President Barack Obama on nuclear nonproliferation
and disarmament.

It adopted Resolution 1887, which reaffirmed a “commitment to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons” and outlined a framework of measures for reducing global nuclear dangers.

In September 2016, the council adopted Resolution 2310, which reaffirmed support for the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It called on states to refrain from resuming nuclear testing and called on states that have not signed or ratified the treaty to do so without further delay.

More recently, the council has held briefings on nuclear disarmament issues but without tangible outcomes.

The last such meetings were in March 2023, when Mozambique chaired a discussion on threats to international peace and security, including nuclear dangers, and in August 2022, when China organized a meeting on promoting common security through dialogue in the context of escalating tensions among major nuclear powers.

Following the March 18 meeting, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said the session “provided an opportunity to accelerate substantive discussion between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states” ahead of the NPT review conference in 2026.

 

Although the meeting underscored the urgency of addressing the nuclear weapons threat, it also highlighted chronic divisions among key states on disarmament and nonproliferation issues.

Europeans, U.S. Threaten Iran With IAEA Censure


April 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

European and U.S. officials threatened to pursue action against Iran at the next International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting if Tehran does not meet its legally binding safeguards obligations.

The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency holds its quarterly meeting at the agency headquarters in Vienna March 4. European and U.S. officials threatened to pursue action against Iran at the next board meeting if Tehran fails to meet its legally binding nuclear safeguards obligations. (Photo by Dean Calma / IAEA)The agency has been pressing Iran for years to account for the presence of nuclear materials at two sites that were never declared to the IAEA as part of Iran’s nuclear program. The agency assesses that one of the locations, Turquazabad, was used to store nuclear materials and equipment, and the other, Varamin, included a pilot plant for uranium milling and conversion.

In a Feb. 26 report, the IAEA said Iran did not provide the agency with “any information on the outstanding safeguards issues relevant to either of the two undeclared locations.” It added that the IAEA “will not be able to confirm the completeness and correctness” of Iran’s nuclear declaration until Tehran provides technically credible explanations for the presence of the uranium at the two locations and accounts for the current location of the nuclear materials.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, known as the E3, said in a March 7 statement to the IAEA board that action to “hold Iran accountable to its legal obligations is long overdue.” They made clear that they will pursue a resolution at the board’s quarterly meeting in June if there is no “decisive and substantive progress” on the safeguards investigation.

An official from one of the E3 countries told Arms Control Today in a March 12 email that several European countries favored pursuing a resolution censuring Iran for its failure to cooperate with the agency during the March board meeting, but the United States opposed the proposal.

The board last passed a resolution regarding the investigation in November 2022. That resolution said it is “essential and urgent” for Iran to clarify all outstanding safeguards issues. Following the passage of that resolution, Iran agreed in a March 2023 joint statement with the agency to “provide further information and access to address the outstanding safeguards issues.”

The E3 statement also said the board may need to consider “making a finding under Article 19 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement,” which includes the option of reporting Iran to the UN Security Council if the agency cannot verify that all of Iran’s nuclear materials are being used for peaceful purposes.

The board reported Iran to the Security Council in 2006, a move that led to a series of council resolutions requiring Iran to halt certain nuclear activities and the imposition of sanctions when Tehran failed to implement those provisions.

Iran defended its cooperation with the IAEA in a March 5 note to the agency. The note said that Tehran has “done its utmost” to enable the IAEA to “effectively carry out verification activities.” It said that Iran has fulfilled all of its legal commitments, including under its safeguards agreement. The note repeated allegations that the IAEA assessment of the undeclared locations is “based on unreliable information and unauthentic documents.”

In a March 7 statement to the board, Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, also condemned Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA investigation, but suggested that the board ask the agency to prepare a “comprehensive summary report” on Iran’s nuclear program and the “degree to which the agency is in position to verify that Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful.”

She said that if Iran continues to “delay and deflect” the agency’s inquiries, the board must consider “further action for the sake of demonstrating that no state can indefinitely thwart implementation of its…safeguards obligations [under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] by obstructing” the IAEA.

If the board pursues a resolution censuring Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency, Tehran is likely to retaliate. The U.S. intelligence community, in its 2024 Worldwide Threat Assessment, released March 11, assessed that Iran “probably will consider installing more advanced centrifuges, further increasing its enriched uranium stockpile, or enriching uranium to 90 percent” uranium-235 in response to a censure, further sanctions, or an attack against the nuclear program.

The intelligence community also assessed that Iran “is not currently undertaking key nuclear weapons-development activities” but that the expansion of the country’s program “better position[s] it to produce a nuclear device, if it chooses to do so.”

According to the most recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s overall stockpile of enriched uranium grew over the last quarter. But Tehran down-blended 32 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 by mixing the material with low-enriched uranium. As a result, Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent U-235 material decreased slightly from 128 kilograms to 121 kilograms.

Although a slight decrease in the stockpile of 60 percent U-235 is positive because that material can be quickly enriched to weapons-grade levels, or 90 percent U-235, the down-blending has little impact on the immediate proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran made the decision to produce weapons-grade uranium, it could still enrich enough material for one bomb in about a week and enough for about six bombs in a month. After that, it would take Iran an estimated six months to one year to build a bomb. But those activities would take place at covert facilities, making the weaponization process more difficult to detect and disrupt.

Holgate told the IAEA board that the United States has “serious concerns” about the 60 percent U-235 stockpile. “Iran should down-blend all, not just some, of its 60 percent stockpile, and stop all production of uranium enriched to 60 percent entirely,” she said.

The action could come at the next International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting if Iran does not meet its legally binding safeguards obligations.

Ukraine War Colors U.S. Concerns on Russia, North Korea


April 2024
By Xiaodon Liang

The U.S. intelligence community remains concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could resort to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine in response to Russia’s failure to achieve decisive battlefield successes, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on March 11.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) visits Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tsiolkovsky, Russia, in September. The two countries are growing closer as North Korea supplies Russia with weapons for its war in Ukraine. (Photo by Getty Images)After Putin made several veiled nuclear threats in the spring and fall of 2022, U.S. intelligence officials made public an assessment that senior Russian officials had discussed the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine that year. (See ACT, December 2022.)

Haines, presenting the 2024 edition of the worldwide threat assessment report, also said that the intelligence community worries that Russia will put at risk long-standing norms against the use of “asymmetric or strategically destabilizing weapons, including in space and the cyber domain.”

In February, U.S. officials accused Russia of developing a new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system that would violate the Outer Space Treaty. (See ACT, March 2024.) The accusation of a treaty violation strongly implies that the new ASAT system would carry a nuclear warhead in orbit.

The report said that Russian capabilities in space would remain competitive with those of the United States despite the imposition of sanctions on the Russian space industry in response to the invasion of Ukraine. In contrast, last year’s report speculated that sanctions, in concert with resource constraints and sectoral difficulties, might imperil Russia’s long-term space goals.

The intelligence community assesses that North Korea, having supplied Russia beginning last year with conventional arms and munitions to bolster the war effort in Ukraine (see ACT, November 2023), is probably seeking to leverage this assistance to secure acceptance as a nuclear power. Speaking to this concern, Haines said that Russia’s reliance on its few allies may lead to weakening of “long-held nonproliferation norms.” North Korea’s shipment of military goods to Russia constitutes a violation of UN Security Council sanctions prohibiting exports of arms from North Korea.

Although the threat assessment did not include new information on Chinese strategic systems, it did eliminate a finding present in last year’s report that China was not interested in agreements that could restrict its strategic forces. This comes after a November summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, two subsequent military-to-military meetings over the winter, and a January meeting in Bangkok between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. (See ACT, March 2024.)

In its assessment of Iran’s nuclear program, the report said the intelligence community found that the country is not currently performing key weapons-related activities.

In a shift from last year’s threat assessment, the report placed special emphasis on chemical and biological threats.

It highlighted the growing risk of states using chemical weapons against their own general population and individual critics. In addition to outlining the threat posed by actors employing dual-use biotechnologies to design new pathogens and toxins, the report noted the success that China and Russia have had in undermining public trust in countermeasures.

 

The intelligence community remains concerned that Russia could resort to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and that North Korea is maneuvering to win acceptance as a nuclear- weapons state.

U.S. to Focus on Deterring North Korea


April 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

In the absence of dialogue with North Korea, the United States will redouble its efforts alongside allies to deter Pyongyang, a top U.S. official said.

South Korean and U.S. soldiers pose for photos in March after their joint live fire exercise at a military training field in Pocheon, part of an annual event. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Washington still views negotiations with Pyongyang as the only viable pathway to peace on the Korean peninsula and remains focused on denuclearizing North Korea, Jung Pak, the U.S. senior official for North Korea, said March 5 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But the United States assesses that North Korea is undergoing a long-term strategic shift, Pak said. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un no longer believes that he can achieve his primary goal, preservation of the regime, through negotiations with the United States or South Korea, she said. Kim is viewing the world through a “new Cold War lens” where he believes that North Korea will benefit from aligning more closely with Russia and China, she said.

Pak said that North Korea currently is not interested in engagement, but the United States continues to reiterate its willingness to engage in talks “at any level” and on “any topic” without preconditions. If there is an opening for diplomacy, denuclearization will not happen “overnight” given the “scope of [North Korea’s] weapons activities and its proliferation,” she said, adding that denuclearization will require “interim steps.”

In the absence of dialogue, Pak said the United States will “redouble” its efforts to deter North Korean aggression.

Pak’s comments came as the United States and South Korea commenced a military exercise, called Freedom Shield, that North Korea described as an “undisguised” military threat that “can never be called defensive.”

During the exercises, the South Korean military conducted drills simulating a strike on North Korean ballistic missile launches and practiced intercepting cruise missiles. North Korea accelerated testing of what it claims are nuclear-capable cruise missiles in recent months. Cruise missiles, which are maneuverable during flight, are more difficult to intercept than ballistic missiles.

The drills also included simulating a response to a North Korean invasion. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said that the exercises included field training for special operations forces, which must be “capable of swiftly eliminating the enemy leadership should Kim Jong Un wage war.”

Gen. Paul J. La Camera, head of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, told The Wall Street Journal in a March 11 interview that the exercises are designed to respond to an array of threats posed by North Korea. Kim must be assured that “positive [actions] will be met with positive actions, and negative will be met with negative,” he said.

As the Freedom Shield exercises wrapped up, North Korea conducted military exercises that included paratroopers simulating an infiltration into South Korea and attacking a South Korean guard post. Kim observed parts of the exercise.

In addition to expanding its missile capabilities, North Korea appears to be working to meet Kim’s goal of expanding the country’s nuclear arsenal.

In a March 4 statement, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said the agency is continuing to observe activities indicative of the commissioning of the light-water reactor (LWR) at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

He said that the “continuation and further development” of North Korea’s nuclear program, including the commissioning of the LWR, “are clear violations of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and deeply regrettable.”

Grossi called on North Korea to “cooperate promptly” with the IAEA and effectively implement its safeguards agreement.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the agency’s Board of Governors in a March 6 statement that North Korea’s “dangerous, irresponsible, and escalatory nuclear rhetoric, and its unprecedented number of ballistic missile launches…threaten international peace and security and undermine the global nonproliferation regime.”

Holgate said that North Korea’s “rejection of diplomacy and dialogue underscores” that Pyongyang alone is responsible for “continued provocations.”

North Korea has not responded to U.S. offers for dialogue, but Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, suggested that the country might be open to engagement with Japan.

She said that if Japan “makes a political decision to open up a new way of mending the relations,” the two countries “can open up a new future together.” In addition, if Tokyo “drops its bad habit” of criticizing Pyongyang “over its legitimate right to self-defense” and the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, there “will be no reason for the two countries not to become close,” she said.

She appeared to be responding to a statement by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio that called for “boldly” changing the country’s relationship with North Korea.

Washington still views negotiations as the only viable path to peace on the Korean peninsula but assesses that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is intent on aligning more closely with Russia and China.

U.S. Nuclear Costs, Projections Continue to Rise


April 2024
By Xiaodon Liang

The Biden administration’s $850 billion defense budget request for fiscal year 2025 would increase spending for Defense Department nuclear weapons programs by 31 percent over the current year and projects sharply rising future costs for some key nuclear modernization programs.

An artist’s rendering of a future U.S. Navy Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, which will replace the Ohio-class submarines that are nearing the end of their service life. The new ships are part of a major U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy) The request for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons-related activities is 4 percent higher than appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2024. In all, the budget request, unveiled on March 11, calls for $69 billion for nuclear weapons operations, sustainment, and modernization, including $49 billion for Pentagon programs and the rest for the NNSA. The combined budgets would be 22 percent higher than last year.

Three key nuclear rearmament programs are driving increasing costs. The funding request for the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system foresees lifetime research and development (R&D) and procurement costs that are 44 percent higher than anticipated in the 2024 budget request. The Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine program will consume 30 percent of the Navy’s $32 billion shipbuilding budget under the administration’s spending plan for 2025, up from 17 percent in the budget authorized by Congress for 2024.

Meanwhile, the cost of producing plutonium pits at the 80-unit-per-year rate mandated by Congress is projected to rise to more than $4 billion per year from fiscal years 2027 to 2029.

The administration released the new budget request before Congress completed work on the appropriations bills that actually fund the government for the current fiscal year. Congressional negotiators finalized the fiscal 2024 appropriation figures for the Defense Department in late March.

In line with the Air Force’s disclosure in January that the Sentinel ICBM program likely would exceed baseline unit costs by 37 percent and its entry into service would be delayed by two years, the president’s request substantially raised projected R&D spending associated with the program. (See ACT, March 2024.) Last year, the R&D costs for fiscal years 2025 to 2028 were estimated at $11 billion, and now that projection is $14 billion.

Speaking at an industry conference March 7, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall acknowledged the budgetary squeeze created by the cost overruns. “We see very big problems dealing with [fiscal] ‘26. We're looking at a number of things which are increasing. Sentinel is one of them,” he said.

The Air Force requested $539 million in advance-year procurement money on the Sentinel program in 2024, but later asked congressional appropriators to shift that money to R&D. There is no further procurement request in the 2025 budget. 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 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 to produce the new W87-1 warhead for the missiles. (See ACT, March 2024.)

The cost overruns put the Sentinel program in “critical” breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, triggering a mandatory investigation into the root causes of the unanticipated cost increases. By mid-April, the Defense Department is required to give Congress an explanation of the cost increase, changes in the projected cost, changes in performance or schedule, and action taken or proposed to control growth.

The Sentinel program is in “deep trouble,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) of the House Armed Services Committee and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a March 14 letter to Kristyn Jones, the acting undersecretary of the Air Force. The lawmakers called for a thorough assessment of alternatives to the Sentinel program, including possibly extending the life of the Minuteman III ICBM to 2030, 2040, or 2050.

Funding for the W87-1 warhead associated with the Sentinel ICBM would stay flat at $1.1 billion in 2025 under the administration’s budget proposal.

The request calls for $8 billion for R&D and procurement of the new long-range B-21 strategic bomber, slightly less than the 2024 appropriation. The Air Force would receive less for the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) weapons system, a new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile, with funding falling from the $950 million appropriated in 2024 to $833 million for 2025. Spending on the W80-4 warhead for the LRSO system would increase from $1 billion to $1.2 billion.

Spending on the Columbia-class submarine would increase sharply from $6.1 billion in 2024 to $9.8 billion in 2025. Several media outlets, citing unnamed sources, reported March 11 that the first ship would not launch until 2028, a year later than planned.

To address production challenges and delays affecting the Columbia-class submarine and the Virginia-class attack submarine programs, the administration asked for $3.3 billion in 2024 supplemental funding to invest in the submarine industrial base. Speaking in support of the supplementary request March 11, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called on contractors to “do better” and “get their personnel situation straightened out,” according to National Defense.

The budget also seeks $743 million for development of a new W93 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead and its aeroshell, an increase above the $516 million that was appropriated by Congress in fiscal 2024.

The administration’s request did not include funding for the nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missile despite the mandate in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act that the administration establish a program of record for the system. Congress appropriated $90 million for the missile and $70 million for its warhead in the 2024 budget. (See ACT, January/February 2024.)

In the NNSA request, funding for plutonium-pit modernization and production at the Savannah River Site would increase from the $1.1 billion enacted by Congress in 2024 to $1.3 billion, while funding for the same activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory would decline from $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion. The NNSA significantly raised its projections for plutonium production and modernization costs for the 2025-2028 time period from $12.3 billion to $14.8 billion.

In a January 2023 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed that the NNSA had not developed a comprehensive schedule or cost estimate for the plutonium modernization program that met GAO best practices. The GAO found activities and milestones missing from the NNSA schedule and flagged a likelihood of disruption and delay.

Meanwhile, spending on NNSA arms control and nonproliferation programs would increase from $212 million appropriated by Congress for 2024 to $225 million. The administration request for the Defense Department Cooperative Threat Reduction program would remain unchanged at $350 million.

Following testing setbacks and delays, the administration has eliminated funding for procuring the Navy’s hypersonic Conventional Prompt Strike system while requesting R&D spending of roughly $900 million. The Army variant of the system, the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, would receive $538 million in R&D funding and an additional $744 million for procurement under the proposed budget.

Two months after Congress eliminated funding for the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (see ACT, January/February 2024), the Biden administration increased its R&D request for the service’s other hypersonic program, the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile. That program would receive $517 million in 2025, according to the budget proposal, up from $343 million appropriated by Congress for 2024.

Spending on missile defense programs would decline under the administration request, with total costs for the Aegis ballistic missile defense system and purchases of Standard Missile-3 Block IB and IIA interceptor missiles declining from the $1.7 billion appropriated last year to $1.3 billion.

Likewise, spending on design and development of the Missile Defense Agency’s Next Generation Interceptor, a new component of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, would be reduced from the $2.1 billion appropriated in 2024 to $1.7 billion.

The Biden administration’s $850 billion defense budget request for fiscal year 2025 would increase spending for Pentagon nuclear weapons programs by 31 percent over the current year.

Diplomatic Debate Over Autonomous Weapons Heats Up


April 2024
By Michael T. Klare

Diplomatic activity concerning the regulation of autonomous weapons systems is accelerating. The United States convened a conference on the subject in March, Austria has scheduled one for April, and the UN General Assembly plans a debate on the topic at its fall meeting.

Alexander Kmentt, Austria’s director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation, briefs Vienna-based diplomats in March about his government’s plan for a conference on autonomous weapons systems, in April.  (Photo courtesy of Alexander Kmentt) The quickening diplomacy reflects growing worldwide concern over the faulty or unsupervised use of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous weapons in combat, possibly resulting in unintended atrocities or conflict escalation, and differing opinions over how best to prevent such perils.

The intensifying concern over the deployment of autonomous weapons is perhaps best exemplified by the lopsided Dec. 22 vote on UN General Assembly Resolution 78/241, calling for a rigorous study of the topic. Some 152 states voted in favor of the resolution, with only Belarus, India, Mali, and Russia voting no. Another 12 states abstained.

Acknowledging unease over “the possible negative consequences and impact of autonomous weapon systems on global security and regional and international stability,” the resolution calls for a comprehensive review of the subject at the next UN General Assembly, scheduled to begin Sept. 10. To ensure that such an assessment is conducted in a thoroughly informed manner, the resolution directs the secretary-general to prepare a comprehensive report on the issue, incorporating the views of all key stakeholders.

Although there is widespread agreement about the potential risks posed by autonomous weapons systems, especially when they are deployed without adequate human oversight, there is considerable international debate over the best way to regulate them. Some nations, led by the United States, advocate the adoption of voluntary constraints. Another group, led by Austria, favors a legally binding prohibition on the deployment of fully autonomous weapons systems. To promote their contending perspectives, these key actors decided to organize separate international meetings.

The first of these dueling assemblies was convened by the U.S. State Department on March 19-20 at the University of Maryland. Without much fanfare, the plenary brought together some 150 participants from nearly all of the 52 countries that have signed the “Political Declaration on Responsible Military Use of Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy.” The declaration is a set of voluntary constraints on the use of autonomous weapons systems first released by the State Department in February 2023 and then rereleased, with slightly altered language, last November. (See ACT, April 2023.)

The declaration affirms that autonomous weapons systems can play positive as well as negative roles in warfare. It also asserts that states must adopt strict guidelines on their use in order to prevent negative outcomes. For example, the declaration posits that states “should take appropriate steps, such as legal reviews, to ensure that their military AI capabilities will be used consistent with their respective obligations under international law.” But this measure and others enunciated in the declaration are purely voluntary steps, entailing no legal obligation by signatory states to abide by them and carrying no penalties if they fail to do so.

Nevertheless, organizers of the U.S. event insisted that by convening representatives of signatory states and sharing experiences, they are helping to bolster international norms against the misuse of autonomous weapons systems. “We look forward to continuing to share lessons learned and best practices to build our collective capacities to implement these responsible measures,” Assistant Secretary of State Mallory Stewart told Arms Control Today. She said that participating states agreed to form working groups to discuss implementation of specific measures in the political declaration and that the entire group will meet again in annual plenaries such as the one held in Maryland.

By contrast, the assembly being organized by Austria, officially called the Vienna Conference on Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Challenge of Regulation, will consider legally binding measures along with voluntary ones.

To be held April 29-30, it will include representation from governmental and nongovernmental entities. Its aim, according to the official announcement, is “to increase international awareness of the topic of [autonomous weapons systems] and their legal, moral, ethical, and security policy challenges,” as well as to “build momentum…for the creation of an international legal and normative framework.”

Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation at the Austrian Foreign Ministry, said the Vienna meeting is aimed particularly at stimulating international interest in UN General Assembly deliberations on autonomous weapons systems.

In addition to awareness-raising and momentum-building for the future regulation of autonomous weapons systems, the conference is linked to the report that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has been mandated to produce, Kmentt told Arms Control Today. The conference agenda is designed to achieve this outcome by soliciting “relevant substantive input by experts” and “by stimulating states to submit their views to the [secretary-general] as input for this report,” he added.

The groups assembled by the United States and Austria have many similar concerns about the battlefield deployment of autonomous weapons systems, but also have differences about the best approach to regulating these systems. These are sure to become more pronounced as states prepare for the General Assembly’s review.

The United States convened a conference on autonomous weapons in March, Austria has set one for April and the UN General Assembly plans a debate on the topic at its fall meeting.

Islamic State Group Blamed for Chemical Attack in Syria


April 2024
By Mina Rozei

The Islamic State group likely carried out an attack in Syria using chemical weapons nine years ago, according to international experts responsible for investigating the use of these banned weapons.

Wounded people receive treatment after a mustard gas attack in the Marea district of Aleppo, Syria, on Sept. 1, 2015. An investigation by experts with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons recently pinned responsibility on the Islamic State group. (Photo by Mamun Ebu Omer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)In a report on Feb. 22, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said that there are “reasonable grounds” to find the Islamic State group culpable for the attack in Marea on Sept. 1, 2015, in which 11 individuals showed symptoms consistent with exposure to sulfur mustard.

“The Secretariat of the OPCW has once again delivered on the mandate it has received to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria,” OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias said when the report was released. “This is a stark reminder to the international community that nonstate actors like [the Islamic State group] have developed the capacity and the will to use chemical weapons.”

The report concludes a comprehensive year-long OPCW investigation into the attack in Marea.

Investigators found that the Islamic State group deployed sulfur mustard using one or more artillery guns, asserting that “no other entity possessed the means, motives, and capabilities to deploy sulfur mustard as part of an attack in Marea” on that date.

According to the report, 11 individuals who “came into contact with the liquid substance experienced symptoms consistent with exposure to sulfur mustard.”

The IIT was able to reconstruct the organizational chain of command that led to the attack and identify four individuals as perpetrators and two additional Islamic State members as primary drivers of the group’s chemical weapons program.

Using a finding of “reasonable grounds” to assign the responsibility to the Islamic State group is a “standard of proof consistently adopted by international fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry,” the report said.

The IIT relied on interviews, information from the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and various forensic evidence and data to reach its conclusions.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a primary nongovernmental organization providing the IIT with on-the-ground information, has documented five chemical weapons attacks by the Islamic State group and 132 casualties since the group emerged in Syria in 2013.

This case marks the first time that the IIT has established that a nonstate actor perpetrated a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Mozambique’s UN ambassador, speaking at a UN Security Council meeting on behalf of Algeria, Guyana, and Sierra Leone, declared that the findings “suggest that, henceforward, the Syrian chemical weapons program will be seen in a different perspective.”

The findings document the latest in a series of confirmed chemical attacks in Syria and underscore growing frustration that CWC states-parties are becoming less compliant with the treaty. “The absence of accountability for the use of chemical weapons continues to be a threat to international peace and security,” said Adedeji Ebo, director and deputy to the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, at a Security Council meeting on March 4.

The findings provoked a mixed reaction at the meeting. Some states, such as the United States, criticized Syria for failing to comply with the OPCW and pointed to the latest IIT report as proof that the OPCW remains impartial. France, Japan, and Slovenia also praised the OPCW’s impartiality and called on Syria to comply with the IIT.

Syria insisted that it destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile and is cooperating with the OPCW. Russia and Iran defended Syria and said the OPCW is being exploited by Western countries.

The IIT report was released before the OPCW Executive Council met in The Hague on March 5-8 where its findings were discussed. Arias reported that Syria’s chemical stockpile declaration continues to have “gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies that remain unresolved [and] the Secretariat assess[es] that the declaration submitted by [Syria] still cannot be considered accurate and complete.”

As a result of the 2015 attack, 11 individuals showed symptoms consistent with exposure to sulphur mustard.

Grossi, Putin Discuss Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant


April 2024

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met Russian President Vladimir Putin last month to discuss the safety and security of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

After the meeting in Sochi on March 6, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi described his conversation with Putin as “professional and frank” and said the situation regarding Zaporizhzhia remains “enormously fluid and precarious.”

Russia illegally attacked the nuclear power plant in the early days of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and continues to occupy the facility.

According to a press release from the Kremlin, Putin told Grossi that Moscow is willing to “do everything to ensure security anywhere [that Russia is] involved with nuclear energy.”

In early February, Russia’s state-run nuclear energy company Rosatom barred employees of Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear power company, from working at Zaporizhzhia. (See ACT, March 2024.) Grossi visited the nuclear power plant after that announcement to assess safety and security conditions there.

In a March 7 letter to the IAEA, Russia said the number of employees at Zaporizhzhia is enough “to carry out its safe operation” and scheduled maintenance. Russia said it is recruiting additional personnel and making “efforts aimed at improving the quality of life” for employees at the nuclear complex.

In a March 12 interview with Reuters, Grossi said the plant’s current staff “can do the job” but the “situation is not sustainable in the long term.”

The day after Grossi met with Putin, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution demanding the “urgent withdrawal” of all unauthorized personnel from the facility and calling for the nuclear power plant “to be immediately returned to the full control of the competent Ukrainian authorities.”

This resolution is the fourth that the board has passed condemning Russia’s illegal occupation of Zaporizhzhia.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Grossi, Putin Discuss Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Sweden Joins NATO


April 2024

Two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sweden officially joined NATO amid rising concerns that the war might spill into other European countries.

On March 7, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson handed over accession documents to the United States during a ceremony in Washington, culminating a process in which the allies unanimously approved the addition of the new member.

"Sweden is a safer country today than we were yesterday…. We have taken out an insurance in the Western defense alliance," he said.

The move is seen as a major blow to Russia, which long has opposed NATO expansion.

As a member, Sweden has pledged to adhere to NATO’s doctrine of common defense, by which allies agree to defend
any other NATO ally that comes under military attack by another country.

Now that it has joined NATO, Sweden is considering reinforcing Gotland, a strategic island in the Baltic Sea that is close to Russia and key to the defense of the Baltic states.

In an interview with the Financial Times on March 14, Kristersson confirmed that ways to protect Gotland are on the list of issues being discussed with the allies. He acknowledged that Sweden only has a “small” military presence on the island.

Sweden is the 32nd country to join NATO, following Finland, which formally became a member in April 2023. Both countries applied for membership in May 2022, abandoning their long-held neutrality, the hallmark of their Cold War foreign policy. Polls showed that public opinion on nonalignment shifted drastically after Russia invaded Ukraine.—CHRIS ROSTAMPOUR

Sweden Joins NATO

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