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Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
December 2020

Arms Control Today December 2020

Edition Date: 
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
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Missile Defense and the Arms Race

December 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Within weeks of taking office, President Joe Biden and his team will be confronted with dozens of pivotal choices. An under-the-radar but consequential decision facing the new administration will be whether and how to move forward with Trump-era plans to expand the U.S. national missile defense footprint with new sea-based missiles that can shoot down long-range ballistic missiles.

The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) fires a Standard Missile-3 during exercise Formidable Shield 2017 over the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 15, 2017. (Photo: U.S. Navy)Although the new interceptor, known as the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA, may help mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea in the near term, it will undoubtedly encourage Russia and China to believe they need to continue to enhance the capability and quantity of their offensive nuclear-armed missiles—and undoubtedly complicate progress on arms control.

Nuclear strategists have long understood that the development and deployment of strategic missile interceptors are ineffective against determined nuclear-armed adversaries but could lead them nonetheless to build more numerous and sophisticated offensive missile systems to overwhelm and evade missile defenses.

To prevent costly and destabilizing missile competition, Washington and Moscow agreed to cap strategic missile interceptors to no more than 100 each under the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Those limits facilitated progress on arms control and steep reductions in U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces.

Even after the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, U.S. policymakers have focused for the most part on improving capabilities to address limited missile threats from rogue states. To date, the Pentagon has only managed to field 44 strategic interceptors as part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. This system would be ineffective against Russia’s arsenal of some 450 land- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and China’s arsenal of some 100 ICBMs.

As North Korea has improved its ballistic missile capabilities in recent years, however, Congress has poured billions of dollars more into the Missile Defense Agency to develop, procure, and test additional missile defense capabilities and explore new technologies.

In 2019, the Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review recommended a more robust approach “to further thicken defensive capabilities for the U.S. homeland” to defend against the rogue-state threat. But President Donald Trump declared that the goal is to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

Such an approach, if pursued, would represent a major departure from the traditional policy of defending against limited attacks from North Korea or possibly Iran.

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 defense budget request sought nearly $180 million to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to intercept ICBMs.

On Nov. 17, the Missile Defense Agency tested the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM-type target. Current Pentagon plans call for building hundreds of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors by 2030 and deploying them on land and at sea across the globe.

James Miller, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and Biden campaign adviser, told Arms Control Today last year that if the SM-3 Block IIA missile becomes part of the U.S. national missile defense architecture, “we should expect the Chinese nuclear arsenal to grow substantially and Russia to resist reductions—and to prepare seriously to break out.”

As a first step, the new administration should reiterate that U.S. homeland missile defense capabilities will be sized to defend against third-party offensive missile threats, not against more sophisticated Russian and Chinese capabilities.

Such a clarification alone will not be sufficient. Moscow has conditioned further offensive nuclear cuts on future limits on U.S. missile defenses. Russia claims its efforts to develop new intercontinental-range nuclear delivery systems such as an undersea torpedo, hypersonic glide vehicle, and nuclear-powered cruise missile are designed to overcome U.S. missile defenses.

China has already begun to respond to U.S. missile defense capabilities by diversifying its nuclear strike capabilities, including by increasing the number of silo-based ICBMs that are armed with multiple warheads.

U.S. efforts to further limit Russian nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process are unlikely to gain traction unless Washington agrees to seriously discuss its long-range missile defense capabilities, including the SM-3 Block IIA. Fielding sufficient missile defenses to defend against limited ballistic attacks from North Korea or Iran and agreeing to binding limits on the quantity, location, and capability of such defenses should not be mutually exclusive.

But doing so will require the Biden administration to move away from the simplistic notion that there should never be any limits on U.S. missile defenses.

Twenty years ago, then-Senator Biden argued for the “development of a theater missile defense that enhances regional stability” and against a strategic missile defense system that “would be seen as threatening by both Russia and China.” Now, as president, Biden has a responsibility to adjust the U.S. missile defense strategy so that it strikes the right balance.


Within weeks of taking office, President Joe Biden and his team will be confronted with dozens of pivotal choices.

Enhancing Space Security: Time for Legally Binding Measures

December 2020
By Victoria Samson and Brian Weeden

A growing chorus of top U.S. military chiefs and bipartisan political leaders has voiced alarms on the proliferation of space threats. Yet, those same voices have been much quieter on the potential solutions, aside from calls for the United States to grow even stronger. It is time for the United States to return to its historical role and propose additional legally binding measures to enhance the security and stability of space, including space arms control, as part of a more holistic approach that includes voluntary measures as well.

The United States demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities with this SM-3 missile in February 2008 by destroying a malfunctioning U.S. intelligence satellite. (Photo: U.S. Navy)Doing so will not be easy. Space is a unique domain, with its own physical, legal, and political dynamics. Hardly any of the work necessary to develop the conceptual foundations for space arms control has been done, let alone to define how to meet the conditions for measures that are equitable and verifiable and enhance U.S. national security as laid out in current U.S. policy. All of these, however, are challenges that should be overcome, not insurmountable obstacles, because ensuring the long-term sustainability and security of space for the benefit of all is an end result too important to ignore.

Emerging Threats to Space Security and Stability

Space capabilities are a crucial part of U.S. national security. It is difficult to find a current U.S. military operation anywhere in the world that does not rely on space data or services in some way. Satellites also provide critical intelligence data on potential future threats, as well as warning of imminent attacks on the United States and its allies. In addition to these core military and intelligence applications, space capabilities underpin the ability to predict and warn the American public about severe weather and natural disasters and monitor the changing climate. Space capabilities also are integrated into national and global transportation, financial, and communications systems.

The reliance on and importance of space capabilities for national security has sparked investment in the development of offensive counterspace capabilities to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems during times of heightened tensions and armed conflict. These capabilities include nondestructive jamming and interference with satellite signals and functions, cyberattacks, and even outright destruction. Primarily, Russia and China are investing in these capabilities; but France, India, Iran, Japan, North Korea, and the United States are also active.1 As counterspace technologies mature, they will likely further proliferate to other countries and potentially to nonstate actors. Since 2005, there have been 20 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests in space or against satellites by four different countries, a rate of testing that has not happened since the 1960s.2

In addition to outright weapons testing, there have been a growing number of concerning activities in space. Many of these involve rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs), or deliberately close approaches of other space objects by satellites. Although RPOs have been conducted since the 1960s as part of human spaceflight operations, robotic RPO capabilities over the last two decades have been more widely developed for a range of commercial, civil, and national security applications. There is growing concern that such activities might increase tensions between countries or could be misinterpreted as a hostile action that precipitates an armed attack.

The current international legal framework is largely permissive, at least implicitly, toward the development, testing, and deployment of counterspace capabilities and conducting RPOs. While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the placement of nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, there are generally no specific restrictions on testing or deployment of non-nuclear weapons in space. And while the Charter of the United Nations prohibits aggression in space just as it does terrestrially, there is no consensus on what constitutes a use of force or armed attack against space capabilities or how international humanitarian law applies to an armed conflict that extends into space. There is also a lack of consensus on norms of behavior for conducting military activities in space during peacetime, including close approaches of other satellites.

Top U.S. military and political leaders have voiced alarm over the proliferation of space threats, but so far, there has been little willingness to discuss legally binding measures to restrict or halt them. The main strategy of the United States has been to increase the resilience of its own space systems and develop its own offensive counterspace capabilities with the goal of deterring attacks and winning a war should deterrence fail.3 The United States has also voiced support for voluntary measures on some categories of space activities, such as mitigating the creation of orbital debris and sharing space situational awareness (SSA) data, but has not put forward specific proposals related to military or national security activities in space.

It is time for the United States to return to its historical role and propose additional legally binding measures to enhance the security and stability of space, including space arms control. The United States has played a key role in developing and enforcing legally binding security mechanisms in nearly every other domain of military activity and has long recognized the value these mechanisms can play in enhancing U.S. national security and international stability. As the space power of potential U.S. adversaries grows, so too do the negative implications of that space power for U.S. interests. The United States needs to decide what types of space capabilities and power relationships present a threat to U.S. national security and the best way to mitigate or remove that threat.

Yet, it is not a matter of simply replicating for space the legal mechanisms and controls that have proven successful in other domains. Space is a unique arena, with its own physical, legal, and political dynamics. Other domains can provide useful context and examples, but cannot be applied wholesale. Additionally, a considerable amount of work is needed to develop the strong conceptual foundations for space arms control, similar to what was done for nuclear arms control.

Multilateral Forums

Various multilateral forums have discussed current space security challenges, but these discussions have yielded very limited progress. Most of the proposals for legally binding agreements on space security issues have gone nowhere largely because their proponents and opponents were not acting in good faith. There has been some success with non-legally binding agreements, but few of them address security issues.

Efforts to discuss legally binding proposals on space security have been undertaken at the Conference on Disarmament, but the forum has never achieved much progress on the issue. (Photo: Pierre Albouy/United Nations)The vast majority of legally binding proposals on space security have emerged within the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which has had an agenda item on the prevention of an arms race in outer space since the 1980s.4 These efforts have never taken root, in part due to the inability of the CD to agree on a work plan.5 In addition to this agenda item, the CD deals with a wide range of contentious security issues, including nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cutoff treaty, and negative security assurances, and various states have sought to block progress on some or all of these issues by tying them together.

Specific to space security, Russia and China have been the most active in the CD by repeatedly proposing initiatives to ban placement of weapons in outer space, but these measures have never gained widespread international acceptance. They proposed an agreement titled the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) in 2008, which was modified somewhat in 2014 in an effort to meet concerns about its lack of verification, but has not seen much progress toward adoption since that time.6 More recent proposals for no first placement of weapons in space have not had much traction either, although a UN General Assembly resolution of support was passed in November 2019.7

Between 2017 and 2019, three different UN bodies tried and failed to make any significant progress on space security issues in a multilateral setting. In February 2018, the CD agreed to form four subsidiary bodies to deal with individual agenda items in the absence of an overall work plan. Subsidiary body three was tasked with looking at the prevention of an arms race in outer space.8 Through 2018, it met six times and was able to agree on a consensus report, which was forwarded to the CD plenary. Yet, the CD was not able to adopt a final report to send to the UN General Assembly due to political difficulties with the presidency of one member state. Instead, its final product was just a procedural report.

There are several key issues behind the current deadlock and failure of the CD. It has become a forum where states take ideological positions or air larger geopolitical grievances. On space security, this manifests in Russia and China using the proposed PPWT as a diplomatic cudgel to publicly demonize the United States on space weaponization while developing their own ground-based space weapons that would not fall under the restrictions established by the PPWT. The United States for its part has rejected any legally binding proposals on space security, instead wanting the flexibility to develop future weapons capabilities, including space-based missile defenses, while accusing Russia and China of weaponizing space.9 Thus, the United States mobilized its allies to object to the PPWT and no-first-placement proposals while never offering alternatives of its own.

As a result of the CD deadlock, there have been several attempts to discuss space security issues through other means. One of these was the 2008 proposal by the European Union for a draft code of conduct for space. The draft code was mostly a conglomeration of fairly benign, uncontroversial best practices that EU members felt would be helpful for the security and stability of space. It fell apart, however, once international negotiations began because of a lack of broader diplomatic support and disagreement over how the document should view self-defense in space. By the time the UN had a meeting on it in July 2015, its momentum had expired. Although the EU has not officially shelved the draft code, it has not had any more formal discussions on the document either.10

A more successful attempt at coming to agreement on space security principles was made by a UN group of governmental experts that met in 2012 and 2013. This space experts group had a diverse geographic representation and reached consensus on recommendations for transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities.11 Some of the measures included recommendations for information sharing on national policies and activities in outer space, notifications of risk reduction efforts, and voluntary visits to launch sites. Yet, implementation of these recommendations has been minimal and thus has had limited impact on space security and stability.

The UN Disarmament Commission, which is part of the General Assembly, established a working group to find ways in which the recommendations of the 2013 experts group on space transparency and confidence-building measures could be implemented.12 The working group was not able to convene in the spring of 2019 because Russian delegates had visa issues preventing them from getting to the UN meeting in New York.

In December 2017, the General Assembly asked the UN secretary-general to form an experts group on further practical measures on preventing an arms race in outer space.13 The delegates met in the summer of 2018 and spring of 2019. Part of their mandate was to look at elements of a legally binding treaty, using the proposed PPWT as a basis for discussions, and other elements that might be introduced to make an agreement on preventing an arms race in outer space work. At some points during the negotiations, it seemed that a consensus document might emerge from this experts group, but none ultimately was achieved.14

Over this same time period from 2010 to 2018, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space concluded a very successful eight-year effort to develop voluntary guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space.15 This effort was unique in that it brought more than 90 member states together to reach consensus on issues ranging from mitigating orbital debris to sharing SSA data and space weather information and developing national policy and regulatory frameworks. Several countries, led by the United States, strongly opposed including any security issues in the sustainability discussions, arguing that they were outside the mandate of the UN committee, and opposed making the guidelines legally binding. The sustainability discussions also survived constant opposition from Russia through much of the process that arose from geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

In the most recent effort, the United Kingdom proposed a General Assembly resolution in August 2020 to try and take a different tack on space security.16 The UK proposal tries to shift the space security discussion from banning or controlling specific technologies to looking at actions and behaviors in space and developing a more unified perspective on threats to space security. As a starting point, it calls for UN member states to report to the secretary-general what they believe responsible and threatening behavior in space looks like. The UK proposal survived opposition from Russia and several other countries and was adopted by the UN General Assembly First Committee in early November 2020.17

Some of these non-CD efforts have been at least partially successful, but even those achievements highlight the challenges of making progress on space security issues. All of the successful efforts have been voluntary in nature, which the United States favors but many other countries oppose. All of them have avoided tough security issues, but still had to spend years developing common understandings of terminology, convincing developed and developing states of the importance of the issue, expanding national capacity and processes to develop individual state positions, and finally navigating geopolitical storms. Most importantly, none of the successful initiatives have addressed any of the core underlying issues behind the pressing security challenges facing the space domain.

The Need for Space Arms Control

With these failures and shortcomings, the need remains for diplomatic and legal agreements to address the proliferation of counterspace capabilities and the growing instability in space. First and foremost, there must be a recognition that there is no silver bullet for solving the core space security challenges. Like many “wicked” problems,18 they are complex and will require multiple approaches that combine voluntary and legally binding efforts working together as part of a comprehensive whole. A number of concepts and ideas can serve as a starting point for further discussion on developing a substantive framework to enhance space security and stability.

A NASA graphic illustrates (not to scale) Earth-orbiting objects, the vast majority of which are debris, not functioning satellites. The use of anti-satellite weapons could create debris that could threaten satellites and human spaceflight.  (Image: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)Second, although many countries will need to play a role in resolving these challenges, the United States must take a leadership role. The United States is still the most powerful country in space and has the most to lose, should space devolve into an arena of unrestrained weaponization and potential armed conflict. Preventing this exact outcome was part of the impetus that drove the United States to play a major role in creating the current international legal regime in space, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, that has served the United States and the world so well.

Third, the consideration of legally binding measures in space is consistent with historical U.S. policy. Nearly every U.S. national space policy since the Eisenhower administration has endorsed pursuing space arms control and other legally binding agreements.19 The current policy, issued in June 2010 by the Obama administration, states, “The United States will pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space. The United States will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, [are] effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.”20 Thus, the starting point should be what those three conditions—equitable, verifiable, and U.S. national security-enhancing—might mean.

Measures That Enhance U.S. National Security

Beginning with the third of the conditions, determining how best to enhance the national security of the United States and its allies should be the starting point of any arms control discussion. Indeed, it was the realization that nuclear arms control restrictions on the Soviets could improve U.S. national security that led to some of the initial political support for nuclear arms control. Since the 1980s, however, U.S. leaders have concluded that space arms control would hinder the United States more than its potential adversaries. This emphasis on “freedom of action” stemmed from the thinking that the United States should leave its options open to be able to develop whatever space capabilities and weapons that could provide benefits in the future.

Yet, that situation is changing. Other countries, particularly China and Russia, have developed their own counterspace capabilities, and many of the underlying technologies are rapidly coming down in cost and complexity. Capabilities that were once only within the reach of the United States and perhaps the Soviet Union are now potentially available to many other countries, even nonstate and commercial actors. This commoditization and proliferation is a trend happening across the space sector and will continue to accelerate. Hence, there should be a renewed debate as to what space capabilities truly benefit U.S. national security and which ones present a threat to U.S. national security.

Most discussions of what capabilities might threaten U.S. national security more than benefit it zero in on destructive testing of ASAT weapons. Destructive ASAT weapons tests have created nearly 5,000 pieces of orbital debris since the 1960s, more than 3,000 of which still pose navigation hazards to satellites.21 Long-lived orbital debris poses a threat to critical U.S. national security assets, human spaceflight operations, and the future commercial development of space, all of which are priorities for the United States and its allies. A legally binding agreement that prevents destructive testing of ASAT weapons or at least that which generates long-lived orbital debris should be at the top of the list for consideration.

Thinking further into the future, the United States needs to consider that potential future space weapons not currently deployed today might pose more of a threat to U.S. security than benefits. A recent paper suggested that space-to-earth weapons might fall into this category because they would periodically overfly the United States and its allies and could pose an untenable threat for U.S. political leaders.22 Placing such weapons into orbit is not explicitly illegal under the existing space law regime although it does explicitly allow their unrestricted overflight of every country. Changing either of those aspects of current law might be something the United States could consider.


Verification is defined as any process designed to demonstrate a party’s compliance or noncompliance with an agreement or treaty. In traditional nuclear arms control, a large part of verification involves using satellites that are usually referenced by the euphemism “national technical means” to observe and measure objects and activities on earth. For example, electro-optical imagery satellites can count the number of missile silos and measure the length and diameter of ballistic missiles to determine their performance. Radio-frequency signal intercept satellites can detect and capture radar emissions and telemetry, tracking, and command signals.

India displays its Shakti anti-satellite weapon at a defense expo in February. The weapon successfully destroyed an orbiting target in a March 2019 test that marked India as the fourth nation to succeed in such a test, after China, Russia, and the United States. (Photo: DRDO)Countries and special interest groups hostile to the concept of space arms control often assert that it is impossible to verify space weapons and therefore space arms control is not feasible. That is true to a point: it is extremely difficult to determine whether a satellite is a weapon, in large part because there are many ways that a satellite can be used for weapons effects. This assertion, however, hides two things. It is possible to verify many types of actions in space, such as a close approach of another object or a collision that generates large amounts of orbital debris. Also, it is more difficult to use a satellite to harm another satellite than often postulated, and militaries are much more likely to choose custom-designed weapons to achieve desired effects than try to modify a commercial or civil satellite.

From a technical perspective, the United States is already laying the foundations of space verification. SSA has been a top priority for the United States and many other countries for more than a decade now and includes monitoring and characterizing activities in space. It is precisely these capabilities that allowed the United States to publicly assert that Russia tested a space weapon in July 2020.23 This suggests that the United States already has some of the capabilities necessary to verify the testing or deployment of ASAT weapons in space. The key issue is matching existing capabilities with the legal stipulations of a future agreement and ensuring the other parties in the treaty can also feel confident in their own verification abilities. For example, only the United States currently has the ability to verify the launch of a direct-ascent ASAT weapon from earth, but several countries and commercial companies could verify that it collided with a satellite and created large amounts of orbital debris.


The third requirement outlined in existing U.S. policy, that measures be equitable, is currently the most vague and potentially challenging to define. There is no common definition among arms control negotiators of “equitable.” At best, you could probably get practitioners to agree that it means all parties are affected by the agreement and benefit from it, but not necessarily in exactly equal ways. For example, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty caps the number of various types of warheads and deployed ballistic missiles that the United States and Russia are allowed to have, with the cap being the same on each side. Yet, each side has flexibility on the number and types of platforms it can develop and deploy within those caps. The benefit to both countries is a limit on unrestricted arms racing and avoiding global nuclear war.

Finding agreement elsewhere has proven more difficult. The issue of equitability has stymied progress on the proposed PPWT, and the two sides of the debate on preventing an arms race in outer space do not agree on the threat that needs to be addressed, while also having different capabilities for and interests in space. The United States has integrated space enhancement capabilities into its national security infrastructure to a much higher degree than Russia and China. Russia has focused more effort on integrating counterspace capabilities, particularly electronic warfare. China is developing integrated counterspace and integrated space enhancement capabilities, although it still lags the United States in results for the latter.

Thus, restricting the development of ground-based ASAT weapons would affect Russia and China more than the United States,24 unless those restrictions also include limits on the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system capabilities the United States currently has deployed. That, however, may be politically untenable for U.S. policymakers, who have made these missile defenses the main response to nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.

Limits or bans on deployment or testing of space-based weapons may be more equitable, but present their own political challenges, again related to nuclear weapons. Despite the massive, inherent economic and technical challenges, a vocal minority in the United States still argue strongly for a “space-based missile shield” that can theoretically protect the United States from nuclear attack. Such a capability would undermine Russian and Chinese nuclear deterrents, which is why preventing the deployment of space-based interceptors is the focal point of the PPWT. In an effort to counter U.S. satellite capabilities, Russia and China are also experimenting with co-orbital ASAT weapons of their own, which the United States considers to be a major threat. Thus, there may be a way to create a limit or ban on space-based weapons that restricts and benefits all the major parties, although not necessarily in exactly the same ways.

Although all legitimate challenges, they are not insurmountable, should the United States make an effort to meet them. During the Cold War, the United State poured considerable resources and political will into creating the intellectual foundations for nuclear arms control, establishing verification capabilities, and crafting negotiating positions that linked everything together. No such effort has been done for space in the last 20 years and would likely be necessary for any legally binding agreements on space security to be taken seriously.

Baby Steps

The prospects of legally binding agreements on space security remain distant, but the United States can take concrete actions to improve space security and stability. As a starting point, the United States, Russia, and China should discuss definitions of agreed behavior for military activities in space, in particular the interactions between their military satellites in space, akin to the discussions that led to the Incidents at Sea Agreement during the Cold War.25 As in the case of maritime operations, clarifying norms of behavior for noncooperative rendezvous and proximity operations and, where possible, providing notifications of upcoming activities can help reduce the chances of misperceptions that could increase tensions or spark conflict. As part of these discussions, the main space powers need to share their perspectives on how the existing laws of armed conflict apply to military space activities.

The United States can also lay the foundation for a ban on debris-creating ASAT weapons tests. This includes developing a whole-of-government understanding of the value of such a limitation and the required verification capabilities. Encouraging voluntary moratoriums on such testing could send a powerful political signal and counter their current international acceptance, but only as a basis for moving to a legally binding agreement, as was the case with nuclear testing. The main difference is that space agreements are likely to start at least as trilateral (the United States, Russia, and China) and later expand to include other space powers, such as some European nations, Japan, and India. Immediately pushing for a broad multilateral agreement within the UN on preventing an arms race in outer space or other space security topics would be ineffective. In this domain, the UN is more effective for normalizing ideas and agreements generated elsewhere than creating them.

Finally, throughout these discussions, the United States should recognize that space is a cross-cutting issue and likely cannot be fully separated from nuclear arms control or broader economic and national security issues. Space security should be included where relevant in other security conversations, and any discussion of space security proposals should be examined for their impact on other domains. For example, potential bans on ASAT weapons testing or deployment of co-orbital ASAT weapons are likely to have impacts on missile defense. Difficult decisions will need to be made on how to balance the benefits and consequences of limiting all countries’ abilities to pursue certain space technologies or conduct certain space activities that could have negative consequences for everyone.

The U.S. approach toward meeting disruptions to the security and stability of space has focused almost exclusively on an offensive counterspace capability build-up and, to a lesser extent, mixed messaging about intent and deterrence. It is time that all possible options to bolster U.S. national security in space and international strategic stability were fully explored. For this to happen, the United States has to acknowledge the strategic benefits of a fully holistic approach, begin sketching out what it hopes to achieve with space arms control, and start laying the groundwork for doing a cost-benefit analysis of the options it would be willing to forgo in order to persuade competitors to abandon even bigger threats to the United States.


1. Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, eds., “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment,” Secure World Foundation, April 2020, https://swfound.org/media/206970/swf_counterspace2020_electronic_final.pdf.

2. Brian Weeden and Kaila Pfrang, “History of ASAT Tests in Space,” August 6, 2020, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1e5GtZEzdo6xk41i2_ei3c8jRZDjvP4Xwz3BVsUHwi48/edit#gid=0.

3. U.S. Department of Defense and Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, “National Security Space Strategy: Unclassified Summary,” January 2011, https://archive.defense.gov/home/features/2011/0111_nsss/docs/NationalSecuritySpaceStrategyUnclassified
; U.S. Department of Defense, “Defense Space Strategy Summary,” June 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Jun/17/2002317391/-1/-1/1/2020_DEFENSE_SPACE_STRATEGY_SUMMARY.PDF.

4. “Outer Space: Militarization, Weaponization, and the Prevention of an Arms Race,” Reaching Critical Will, n.d., https://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/resources/fact-sheets/critical-issues/5448-outer-space (accessed November 9, 2020).

5. “Conference on Disarmament (CD),” Nuclear Threat Initiative, June 26, 2020, https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/conference-on-disarmament/.

6. Michael Listner and Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “The 2014 PPWT: A New Draft but With the Same and Different Problems,” The Space Review, August 11, 2014, https://www.thespacereview.com/article/2575/1.

7. “First Committee Approves 11 Drafts Covering Control Over Conventional Arms, Outer Space Security, as United States Withdraws Text on Transparency,” GA/DIS/3642, November 5, 2019, https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/gadis3642.doc.htm.

8. Daniel Porras, “PAROS and STM in the UN: More Than Just Acronym Soup” (presentation, UT Austin/Space Traffic Management conference, February 27, 2019), https://commons.erau.edu/stm/2019/presentations/22/.

9. “Statement by Ambassador Wood: The Threats Posed by Russia and China to Security of the Outer Space Environment,” U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, August 14, 2019, https://geneva.usmission.gov/2019/08/14/statement-by-ambassador-wood-the-threats-posed-by-russia-and-china-to-security-of-the-outer-space-environment/.

10. Michael Krepon, “Space Code of Conduct Mugged in New York,” ArmsControlWonk.com, August 4, 2015, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/404712/space-code-of-conduct-mugged-in-new-york/.

11. UN General Assembly, “Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/68/189, July 29, 2013.

12. 2018 UN Disarmament Commission Working Group II, Secretariat nonpaper, n.d., https://www.un.org/disarmament/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/WG2-secretariat-non-paper-outer-space-TCBMs-FINAL.pdf.

13. UN General Assembly, “Further Practical Measures for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space,” A/RES/72/250, January 12, 2018.

14. A version of their finding was leaked, leading some participants to raise concerns about the ability to participate in future groups of governmental experts.

15. “The UN COPUOS Guidelines for the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities,” Secure World Foundation, November 2019, https://swfound.org/media/206891/swf_un_copuos_lts_guidelines_fact_sheet_november-2019-1.pdf. Secure World Foundation Executive Director Peter Martinez served as the working group chair for these discussions prior to joining the foundation.

16. “UK Push for Landmark UN Resolution to Agree Responsible Behaviour in Space,” UK Foreign Office, August 26, 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-push-for-landmark-un-resolution-to-agree-responsible-behaviour-in-space.

17. “Sending 14 Drafts to General Assembly, First Committee Defeats Motion Questioning Its Competence to Approve One Aimed at Tackling Outer Space Threats,” GA/DIS/3657, November 4, 2020, https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/gadis3657.doc.htm. For a breakdown of the votes of the resolution’s paragraphs, see Reaching Critical Will, Twitter thread, November 6, 2020, https://twitter.com/RCW_/status/1324745999361822721?s=20.

18. Brian Head, “Wicked Problems in Public Policy,” Public Policy, Vol. 3, No. 2 (January 2008): 101-118.

19. The lone exception was the national space policy issued by the George W. Bush administration on August 31, 2006. See “U.S. National Space Policy,” n.d., https://aerospace.org/sites/default/files/policy_archives/Natl%20Space%20Policy%20fact%20sheet%2031Aug06.pdf.

20. “National Space Policy of the United States of America,” June 28, 2010, p. 7, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/national_space_policy_6-28-10.pdf.

21. Weeden and Pfrang, “History of ASAT Tests in Space.”

22. Michael P. Gleason and Peter L. Hays, “A Roadmap for Assessing Space Weapons,” Center for Space Policy and Strategy, October 2020, https://aerospace.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/Gleason-Hays_SpaceWeapons_20201005_1.pdf.

23. U.S. Space Command Public Affairs Office, “Russia Conducts Space-Based Anti-Satellite Weapons Test,” July 23, 2020, https://www.spacecom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/Article/2285098/russia-conducts-space-based-anti-satellite-weapons-test/.

24. For further information, see Kaitlyn Johnson, “A Balance of Instability: Effects of a Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite Weapons Ban on Nuclear Stability,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 21, 2020, http://defense360.csis.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/2Kaitlyn_A-Balance-of-Instability.pdf. She notes that “[w]hile a direct-ascent [anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons] ban may reinforce stability in the space domain—and potentially other domains such as air, land, and sea—it may destabilize the nuclear domain because China and Russia view direct-ascent ASAT weapons as assurance of their nuclear arsenals’ success against U.S. missile defense systems.” Ibid., p. 11.

25. Michael Listner, “A Bilateral Approach From Maritime Law to Prevent Incidents in Space,” The Space Review, February 16, 2009, https://www.thespacereview.com/article/1309/1.

Victoria Samson is the Washington office director and Brian Weeden is the director for program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the long-term sustainability of space for benefits on Earth.

Efforts to negotiate space arms control are more important than ever, and new efforts could get the ball rolling.

The New Geopolitics of the Arms Trade Treaty

December 2020
By Tobias Vestner

The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) sets international standards for the transfer of conventional weapons. The United States was heavily involved in the treaty’s negotiation, but has moved to the sidelines during the Trump administration, whereas China now engages more actively. In light of shifting balances of power and rising great power competition, these developments have several effects on the ATT and international cooperation regarding global arms transfers, eventually indicating a new phase of multilateralism in international security.

A Yemeni man visits a cemetery in Sanaa in 2017, on the morning of the first day of Eid al-Adha. The Arms Trade Treaty aims to reduce the illicit transfer of conventional weapons, which can fuel conflicts which cause the most casualties among civilians.  (Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)Originally, the United States, the world’s largest arms exporter, supported and significantly shaped the treaty negotiations. Washington aimed to encourage other nations to better regulate international arms transfers in line with U.S. standards. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the treaty in September 2013, but domestic politics prevented the Obama administration from ratifying the agreement. Nonetheless, the U.S. signature signaled its commitment to other states and enabled Washington to engage in many of the treaty’s activities.

The next administration, however, followed a different course. President Donald Trump announced in April 2019 that the United States no longer supported the treaty and that the administration would not seek to ratify the treaty.1 Even if the Biden administration were to reverse this decision, the United States appears disinterested or at the very least ambivalent about the ATT.

Meanwhile, China has chosen an opposite trajectory. During treaty negotiations, China was less proactive. It addressed certain issues, such as limiting the treaty’s scope or arguing against regional organizations joining the treaty, but Beijing avoided a leadership role. It was also one of the 22 states that abstained from voting on the adoption of the treaty at the UN General Assembly in 2013.2

Seven years later, however, China deposited its instrument of accession, in July 2020, with the treaty entering into force for Beijing in October. In August 2021, it will participate for the first time as a full member at the seventh conference of states-parties.

This development is part of a broader ongoing phenomenon regarding international institutions. The United States has stepped away from such bodies, often criticizing them with harsh language, while China has increased its involvement. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers the best example of this.3

With the relative decline of the United States and the rise of China, debates about the end of the liberal world order are also in full swing.4 It remains to be seen if the theories that claim that international institutions can effectively bind emerging powers and thus outlive the power relations of the moment of their creation will hold, particularly in this new era of revived great power comptetition.5 Yet, for the ATT, what do these shifts in the international system and developments regarding its membership mean?

The Arms Trade Treaty 1.0

As designed and adopted in 2013, the treaty pursues multiple purposes. From a normative perspective, the treaty aims to promote responsible international arms trade. This implies that its provisions set the global standards for responsible decision-making on arms transfers. The treaty’s prohibitions and arms exports provisions further aim to establish a level playing field by binding states-parties that compete in the international arms trade to the same rules. These rules are ultimately designed to foster international, regional, and state-level national security, as well as prevent human suffering. Furthermore, the ATT’s obligation to establish and maintain national control authorities enlarges the global net of national controls. In addition, the treaty fosters international cooperation, inter alia, through its reporting, international assistance mechanisms, and institutionalized meetings.

Since its entry into force, the treaty as an institution has made considerable progress. States-parties have established a treaty secretariat, meet regularly at conferences of states-parties and in working groups, and share information. Through the Voluntary Trust Fund, states-parties organize international assistance, and deliberations have led to detailed voluntary documents for the implementation of the treaty.

The treaty continues to grow and is now truly global, encompassing states from all continents, including many middle-sized and smaller states. It enjoys 110 states parties as well as 31 nations that have signed but not ratified. Yet the new geopolitical dynamics and shifts in U.S. and Chinese attitudes represent a critical juncture with several effects on the treaty regime and beyond.

Evolution of the Regulatory Framework

Thes most notable effect concerns the international regulatory framework of international arms transfers, namely the ATT’s legal substance and its application. These standards were negotiated and adopted in 2013 and thus are defined in the treaty. With the accession of China, the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter and importer,6 the ATT’s rules have gained relevance.

Its rules now apply to a significantly greater volume of arms transfer activities, so their impact has expanded. Besides this direct effect, the treaty has become more difficult to ignore by states that have not adhered to the ATT. It would be premature to consider the treaty as reflecting customary international law, but the Chinese accession certainly supports the emergence of such a norm as its application of the rules has considerable weight in this regard.7

China’s acceptance and application of the ATT’s rules also has an important symbolic value. This is most notable with regard to Article 6 of the treaty, which prohibits the transfer of arms that would contribute to international crimes, among others, and the obligations regarding export assessments under Article 7. By adhering to the treaty, China signals a commitment to preventing international crimes and ensuring the respect of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

More concretely, from a legal perspective, China is now legally bound to implement and comply with the treaty’s provisions. The respective ATT standards, however, permit significant room for interpretation and allow considerable leeway for their application. Accordingly, it is difficult to assess how far the standards will affect China’s arms transfer decisions. Indeed, China has not communicated specific changes in law, policies, or practice in light of its adherence to the ATT, although it claims that a “full-fledged policy and legislative system of export control on conventional arms, which is in line with the purpose and objective of the ATT and meets the requirements of the ATT, has been established.”8

It is foreseeable, however, that China’s appreciation of the treaty’s rules will influence other nations’ understanding. States will watch how China interprets, implements, and applies the rules. China is likely to have different legal views, policies, and practices than those of the United States and European states, most notably regarding the provisions on international humanitarian law and international human rights law. This may lead other states to follow the Chinese example, ultimately transforming the treaty’s commonly understood meanings. This cannot counter the treaty text, of course, but can nonetheless be significant as many rules can be read and applied in diverse ways.

China's Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jinghua (right) shakes hands with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (center) as Philippine military chief Eduardo Ano applauds during a ceremony marking the delivery of 3,000 Chinese assault rifles to the Philippines in 2017. China's growing engagement with the Arms Trade Treaty could influence other countries to modify their interpretation of the treaty's rules. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)Similarly, within and through the ATT forums, China will directly influence states-parties’ individual and common understanding, as well as official guiding documents, on implementation of and compliance with the treaty. At this stage, states-parties have only adopted voluntary guiding and supporting documents that are neither legally nor politically binding. Moreover, they concern rather uncontested issues.9 As a state-party, unlike the United States, China now has the formal power to initiate, shape, and block future guidance according to its priorities. Having committed to the treaty, it also has more authority to persuade other states-parties.

China has lately become more assertive in international institutions and can be expected to act more forcefully in ATT discussions. Indeed, it has already called on all states “not to provide arms to non-state actors, stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states through arms sales, and earnestly abide by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”10 China will probably aim to embed these national priorities into the treaty’s international standards, ultimately trying to counter U.S. and European laws, policies, and practices.

Potential Conflict Between Regimes

China’s treaty engagement, combined with the weakened U.S. position, affects the international institutional landscape. By revoking its signature of the treaty, the only remaining U.S. engagement in a multilateral regime on the transfer of conventional weapons is the 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies. Currently, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the ATT are compatible, and there are multiple potential synergies between them.11

Wassenaar participating states, first and foremost the United States, ensured this during the ATT negotiations. The United States perceives the Wassenaar Arrangement as the “gold standard” regarding export controls and saw the ATT as a means to bring other states closer to it. Although major progress within the consensus-based Wassenaar Arrangement is currently difficult because of tensions with Russia, the United States will continue to lead that regime’s development. If China does the same with regard to the ATT, deviations between the different institutions are foreseeable.

This may result in a fragmentation of global regulations and different state practices that undermine international standards. At this point, it is difficult to identify in which direction the institutions will evolve and what sort of deviations or contradictions might emerge. Interestingly, new measures to control high technology adopted by the Wassenaar Arrangement in 2019 were reportedly aimed directly against China, among others.12 This suggests that the United States and partners already use the export control regime to counter China’s strategic goal to become a leading military power.

Within the ATT, China has already indirectly blamed the United States for rising geopolitical tensions, regional armed conflicts, and turmoil, as well as the persistence of terrorism, extremism, and organized transnational crime. It also stated that “some country, by abusing arms trade as a political tool, flagrantly interferes in the internal affairs of other countries and pursues hegemony and bullying policy, which undermines international and regional peace and stability.”13 This is indicative of the great powers using the regimes for their geopolitical goals as well as possible conflict between the regimes.

In addition, with the ATT evolving steadily and with its participation by more than the exporting states, it is quite possible that the Wassenaar Arrangement loses some of its relevance for establishing globally applicable regulatory standards. States may prefer to turn to the ATT and focus their efforts for cooperation and further developments of international regulations in this more modern, global institution.

The ATT’s broad membership, in addition to its negotiations and adoption within the United Nations, procures a high level of legitimacy to the treaty regime. The Wassenaar Arrangement, on the other hand, comprises only 42 participating states that export conventional arms and respective technologies. As such, it had been labeled an exclusive “exporters’ club” in the past.

Contrary to other emerging exporters, China has not joined the Wassenaar Arrangement. This suggests that China perceives the arrangement as illegitimate. Without U.S. balancing in the ATT, attempts to delegitimize the Wassenaar Arrangement among ATT states-parties are more likely to succeed. This would weaken not only the regime, but also the legitimacy of its members’ export control policies and decisions.

Transformation of Political Relations

The potential conflict between the thematically overlapping international institutions indicates larger political dynamics. The ATT includes many states from South America, Africa, and Asia. Indeed, the treaty addresses many of their core concerns related to international arms transfers, such as preventing and combating the diversion of arms transfers to illegal and unintended recipients or the need for capacity building and international assistance to better manage international arms transfers. ATT states-parties may see absent or weak U.S. engagement as a signal that it does not care about these issues and related multilateral cooperation.

By participating in the treaty, China communicates that it does care and is willing to cooperate and support related efforts. Indeed, by its adherence alone, China effectively enhances the relevance and impact of the ATT’s mechanisms. The diplomatic dialogue within ATT forums now includes one of the world’s major arms traders, which also happens to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. China’s participation in the new Diversion Information Exchange Forum, for instance, adds information to the system. China’s international assistance and universalization efforts directly and indirectly benefit ATT states-parties.

China joining the ATT is also a strong signal that the ATT does not hinder the interests of major importing and emerging exporting countries. This may attract outsiders such as Russia and India, as well as hesitating Arab and Asian states, such as Malaysia and Singapore, which would strengthen the ATT even further.

The political consequence is that China now can credibly claim that it shares the same concerns as its partner states. This can facilitate political relations between China and ATT states-parties in general and regional and bilateral defense cooperation more specifically, which is in line with China’s efforts to strengthen its international ties with countries around the globe. In the context of security cooperation and arms trade, this is particularly the case regarding African states.14

Yet, the same applies to the Asia-Pacific region, where China can now present itself as a normative leader in the region regarding the control of international arms transfers. By strengthening the Asian voice in treaty forums, China can generate sympathy among states from the same region and counter the current regional leaders within the treaty regime, Japan and South Korea.

At a more general diplomatic level, as a state-party that engages in multilateral cooperation, China can present itself as a multilateralist and normative player and leader. Thereby, it gains legitimacy and the reputation of a good citizen of the international community. More specifically, China can claim that it is a responsible actor regarding the international arms trade. This arguably offers goodwill by other states and authority for its actions. Although this contributes to China’s broader foreign policy strategy to engage more actively in global affairs, this certainly applies to international diplomacy on international security issues, in particular diplomacy and cooperation on the arms trade.

Redirection of International Arms Transfers

This leads to the most practical implication of the new geopolitical developments regarding the ATT, namely their effect on the flow of arms transfers. So far, it remains uncertain if the treaty’s standards will limit China’s arms exports. Prospective changes to Chinese law, policies, and practice on arms exports will depend on other states’ pressure. Whether middle-sized and smaller states within the ATT, especially those that benefit from China’s engagement, will try to establish such pressure is highly questionable.

As a party to the treaty, China should find it easier to export weapons and related technologies. China tends not to compete for exports of technologically advanced weapons, which are generally covered by U.S., European, and Russian exports, although it has begun to export more sophisticated weapons and weapons systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles. In any case, Chinese sales will likely be made easier now that it has joined the treaty, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, because it is now part of the same “club” of the ATT.

Most importantly, China can now be seen as respecting and representing international standards. Importing states that are often criticized for violating international humanitarian law and international human rights law or for contributing to international and regional insecurity might gain easier access to weapons while communicating that China has applied the same standards as others.

Toward Russia, Turkey, India, and other exporting states that have rather low standards regarding international humanitarian law and human rights, this offers a competitive advantage for China. For the United States and most European countries, this reduces their leverage to bring importing states to use the imported weapons in respect to international law. They then need to decide between renouncing certain exports, thereby forgoing exports that are lucrative or in their national security interest, and lowering their own standards, which would result in a race to the bottom.

In addition, if China succeeds in establishing strong international norms against arms transfers to nonstate actors and interference in internal affairs, this may limit exports by European and other middle-sized and smaller states. Indeed, the United States is too powerful to be constrained by such norms and Chinese pressure, but not its partner states. Yet, importing states may be emboldened to reject U.S. practices for assessing their imports.

As China is not only an emerging exporter of conventional weapons but also a major importer, the fact that China is part of the ATT may facilitate its imports. As an ATT state-party, it can claim to be a responsible actor that abides by international standards. Thus, there should be fewer reasons to deny arms transfers to China. The treaty does not have a mechanism that facilitates arms transfers among state-parties, which means that the standards need to be applied to all arms transfers to all states. Yet, this still may be a valid argument, in particular when exporting states assess the risks if the importing state would reexport weapons to other states or divert them to nonstate actors. Chinese collaboration within the ATT, particularly regarding information exchange, may reassure exporters.

Most significantly, China can use the treaty’s provisions that call on exporting states to make objective and nondiscriminatory assessments to argue against their political decisions. This could affect, for example, the EU policy to suspend all arms exports to China following the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.15

The Arms Trade Treaty 2.0

With the geopolitical shifts and in particular Chinese engagement and U.S. ambivalence, the ATT’s political center of gravity is moving from the West to the East. The international rules on arms transfers were fixed at the treaty’s adoption in 2013, but they remain malleable to a certain degree. Whether the United States has managed to lock other states, including China, into its own standards or whether China and others will own and transform these international standards remains to be seen.

Regardless, the treaty as a multilateral institution is getting stronger. The ATT’s institutional developments so far are concrete and continue to evolve. The ATT has become more relevant with such broad participation, including China. Although states-parties still prefer to avoid politically sensitive discussions on states’ international arms transfer decisions and the treaty’s prohibitions and export criteria’s concrete application, the fact that they discuss the ATT’s implementation and exchange information is significant progress. So far, the geopolitical developments have not damaged but strengthened the ATT.

Great power competition about and through the treaty regime, however, calls for caution. The biggest risk is that China will try to dominate the ATT, whereas the United States owns the Wassenaar Arrangement, and both use the respective international institutions as instruments to control other states’ arms transfers, ultimately leading to a fragmentation or even breakdown of multilateral cooperation in global arms trade. As the purpose of international institutions is to provide a focal point for cooperation and serve as platform to alleviate tensions between states, it is better if the United States joins the ATT so that the competition over influence in global affairs is fought within rather than about the ATT.

Ultimately, to secure a strong treaty, there are a number of ways states can use these geopolitical developments for advancing multilateral cooperation and law regarding the international arms trade.

The United States negotiated effectively to shape the design of the treaty. Its subsequent disengagement from the treaty has not necessarily hurt U.S. national security interests, but Washington has renounced a means to influence other states’ regulation of the arms trade. With China’s treaty accession, this renunciation weighs heavier. The only way to rebalance is the Biden administration’s revocation of the decision to “unsign” the treaty.

This alone will be inadequate because Washington has lost credibility in the international community. In addition to rejoining the agreement, the United States must seriously work to ratify the treaty. Because it does not need to change its laws, policies, or practice, it can do so at very low costs. Even if the U.S. Senate remains skeptical toward multilateral treaties, this is in the U.S. interest for geopolitical reasons. Otherwise, the United States runs the risk that its normative interests will not transcend the future.

To further rebalance the ATT toward the West, the United States must increase its engagement to higher levels than prior to its disengagement. Within the ATT forums, Washington cannot only defend the rules and common understanding that have been negotiated in 2013, but it needs to be a proactive force. By supporting ATT implementation projects and universalization efforts, it can further shape their substance and regain trust among partner states. In addition, by facilitating collaboration between the treaty and the Wassenaar Arrangement, the United States can contribute to both institutions’ efficiency and relevance. Although it has lost influence over the ATT regime, the United States can still use it as a tool to foster better control of international arms transfers around the globe and enhanced international cooperation. As such, the treaty has never been about domestic gun regulations, yet remains a means of foreign and national security policy.

For China, its engagement in the ATT means it takes responsibility for the treaty. Accordingly, Beijing should lead joint efforts for multilateral cooperation according to its own interests but also the interests of all states-parties. As a major importer and exporter state, permanent member of the UN Security Council, and leading global economy, China has significant leverage to direct the ATT regime toward achieving the treaty’s purpose. For this to materialize, however, it is crucial that China does not just defend its own narrow interests. It should not seek to use the treaty as a diplomatic tool against the United States. Rather, China should engage in constructive dialogue with other ATT states-parties, as well as assist their implementation efforts.

For the other ATT states-parties, it is important to integrate China in the joint work so that it can rapidly engage and collaborate. Most importantly, states should work closely with China to ensure that it upholds the treaty’s current standards. European states and the European Union, as normative forces and strong supporters of ATT-related capacity building, have an important role in this.

Major exporters, such as France and the United Kingdom, should constructively contribute to the treaty’s progress rather than try to avoid criticism against their practices by diverting the focus to China’s actions. Civil society organizations, in particular Control Arms, which publishes the annual ATT Monitor, are essential to ensure the right focus in this regard. As international cooperation involves more than one party, all ATT states-parties should invest in getting the United States on board.


The ATT is the object and scene of the U.S. and Chinese competition for influence in global security affairs. This will most likely affect the treaty regime, the international institutional landscape, states’ political relations, and transnational arms flows. As such, the geopolitically induced shifts regarding the ATT may be a first example of a broader tendency in multilateral disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation. At least for the ATT and the international regulation of transnational arms transfers, these shifts must not mean the end or weakening of multilateralism, multilateral cooperation, or multilateral law. Rather, these shifts signify a continuation and reinforcement of multilateralism with potential reorientation of its substance.

Yet, what appear to be slow and fluid changes in international affairs may actually be significant breaking points. It is up to all ATT states-parties to ensure that the new geopolitics advance mutual benefits. The relocation of the ATT’s political center of gravity from the West to the East has occurred. Even if the United States recommits, the power balance within the treaty regime is novel. Any level of U.S. reengagement would strengthen the treaty, even if great power competition makes it a contested regime.

Indeed, the ATT version 2.0 has already started. As part of a broader phenomenon, this may indicate what will come with regard to other international institutions and multilateral security cooperation. The new geopolitics of the ATT may represent a new era of multilateralism.



1. A formal “unsigning” of international treaties does not exist under international law. Jeff Abramson and Greg Webb, “U.S. to Quit Arms Trade Treaty,” Arms Control Today, May 2019.

2. Anna Stavrianakis and He Yun, “China and the Arms Trade Treaty: Prospects and Challenges,” Saferworld, May 2014, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/180595/china-and-the-att.pdf.

3. See, e.g., Harod H. Koh and Lawrence O. Gostin, “How to Keep the United States in the WHO,” Foreign Affairs, June 5, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-06-05/how-keep-united-states-who; Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup, “How WHO Became China’s Coronavirus Accomplice,” Foreign Policy, April 2, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/02/china-coronavirus-who-health-soft-power/.

4. See, e.g., G. John Ikenberry, “The Next Liberal Order: The Age of Contagion Demands More Internationalism, Not Less,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-06-09/next-liberal-order; Richard N. Haass, “Liberal World Order, R.I.P.,” Project Syndicate, March 21, 2018, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/end-of-liberal-world-order-by-richard-n--haass-2018-03?barrier=accesspaylog.

5. See G. John Ikenberry, After Victory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Robert Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

6. Pieter D. Wezeman et al., “Trends in International Arms Transfers 2019 Fact Sheet,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 2020, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/fs_2003_at_2019.pdf.

7. U.S. practice is compatible with the Arms Trade Treaty and can contribute to the emergence of relevant practice.

8. Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the UN Office at Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland, “Statement of the People's Republic of China to the Sixth Conference of States-Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty,” August 17, 2020, http://www.china-un.ch/eng/dbtxwx/t1807021.htm.

9. For the documents, see Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), “Tools and Guidelines,” n.d., https://thearmstradetreaty.org/tools-and-guidelines.html (accessed November 9, 2020).

10. Chinese statement to ATT conference of states-parties, August 17, 2020.

11. Tobias Vestner, “Synergies Between the Arms Trade Treaty and the Wassenaar Arrangement,” GCSP Strategic Security Analysis, No. 5 (May 2019), https://dam.gcsp.ch/files/2y102vjaRJo9CCUZAgCU2XP0YequIEZV5wodwIppHEGiOXu8bstaN1Qxu.

12. “Arms-Curbing Wassenaar Arrangement Agrees to Add Military-Grade Software and Chip Tech to Export Control List,” Kyodo News, February 24, 2020.

13. Chinese statement to ATT conference of states-parties, August 17, 2020.

14. Bernardo Mariani, “China, Africa, and the Arms Trade Treaty,” in China and Africa: Building Peace and Security Cooperation on the Continent, ed. Chris Alden et al. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 333–354.

15. European Council, “Presidency Conclusions,” SN/254/2/89, n.d. (Annex II, Declaration on China, from meeting in Madrid on June 26–27, 1989).

Tobias Vestner is head of the Security and Law Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, an honorary senior research fellow at the University of Exeter, and nonresident fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. He co-authored A Guide to International Disarmament Law (2019) and was member of the Swiss delegation to the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations.

Evolving U.S. and Chinese attitudes toward the Arms Trade Treaty are changing the treaty’s outlook just seven years after its adoption.

A Strategy for Reducing the Escalatory Dangers of Emerging Technologies

December 2020
By Michael T. Klare

Throughout human history, military forces have sought to exploit innovations in science and technology to achieve success on the battlefield, very often fielding new technologies before societies could weigh the risks of doing so and impose controls on their use.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein speaks to the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in September 2019. As great-power competition in cyberwarfare pushes the technology forward, there are risks that potential escalatory consequences are being ignored. (Photo: Wayne Clark/U.S. Air Force)During World War I, for example, Germany exploited advances in chemical production to develop asphyxiating gases for military use, provoking widespread public outrage and prompting postwar efforts to ban such munitions. During World War II, the United States exploited advances in nuclear science to create the atomic weapons used against Japan, again generating public outrage and prompting postwar control efforts. Today, rapid advances in a range of scientific and technological fields—artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, cyberspace, remote sensing, and microelectronics—are again being exploited for military use. And, as before, control efforts are lagging far behind the process of weaponization.

As in those historical examples, the current lack of progress in devising control measures reflects the challenge of grappling with new and unfamiliar technologies. Some of these innovations, such as AI and cyberoperations, are said to pose a particularly severe challenge to arms control because they cannot be as easily quantified and monitored as other weapons limited by arms control agreements, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). However, this deficiency also represents a failure to grasp the unique ways in which the weaponization of cutting-edge technologies can imperil international peace and stability. To avoid a new round of global catastrophes, it is essential to identify the distinctive risks posed by the military use of destabilizing technologies and overcome the obstacles to their effective control.

Before considering such measures, it is necessary to examine the geopolitical and strategic setting in which the weaponization of these technologies is taking place, as well as the novel ways in which this process endangers international stability.

The Pursuit of Technological Superiority

The level of risk associated with the military exploitation of cutting-edge technologies cannot be separated from the geopolitical context in which this process is occurring, given that the principal enablers of such weaponization—China, Russia, and the United States—perceive themselves to be engaged in a competitive struggle for military advantage at a time when war among them is deemed entirely possible. Under these conditions, all three countries are enhancing their capacity for what the Pentagon calls “high end” warfare, or all-out combat among the modern, well-equipped forces of their adversaries—combat that is expected to make use of every advance in military technology.

The U.S. military leadership first described this evolving environment in its National Defense Strategy of February 2018. “We face an ever more lethal and disruptive battlefield, combined across domains, and conducted at increasing speed and reach,” it stated. “The security environment is also affected by rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war. The drive to develop new technologies is relentless…and moving at accelerating speed.”1

If the United States is to retain its technological edge and prevail in future wars, the leadership asserted, it must master these new technologies and incorporate them into its major military systems.

A very similar outlook regarding the strategic environment is embedded in Chinese and Russian military doctrines. In language strikingly similar to that of the U.S. strategy, but in mirror image, China’s July 2019 white paper on national defense asserts that the United States “has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber, and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.” If Chinese forces are to prevail in this environment, it states, “greater efforts have to be invested in military modernization to meet national security demands.”2 Russian doctrine makes similar claims and places equal emphasis on the utilization of emerging technologies to ensure success on the battlefield.3

The modernization and enhancement of front-line conventional forces are common themes in the military doctrines of all three countries, but so also is the modernization of strategic nuclear forces. All three are engaged in costly upgrades to their nuclear delivery systems, in some cases involving the replacement of older ICBMs, bombers, and missile-carrying nuclear submarines with newer, more capable versions. More worrisome still, all three are developing nuclear warheads for use in nonstrategic scenarios, for example, to defeat an overpowering conventional assault by an adversary. This is an explicit goal of the Nuclear Posture Review adopted by the Trump administration in February 20184 and is believed to figure in Russian military doctrine. China is less transparent about its nuclear weapons policies, but is known to have developed nuclear warheads for its medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles designed for use against U.S. and allied forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Eroding Nuclear Firebreak

In light of these developments, many analysts believe that the barriers to nuclear weapons use have been substantially eroded in recent years. Most of these obstacles were erected during the Cold War era, when leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union came to realize that any nuclear conflict between them would result in their mutual annihilation, impelling them to devise a variety of measures intended to prevent a conventional war from escalating across the “firebreak” separating non-nuclear from nuclear combat. These measures included the “hotline” agreement of 1963; successive limitations on the size of each other’s nuclear arsenals, beginning with Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement in 1972; and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. In the language of the time, these measures were designed to preserve “strategic stability” by eliminating the risk of accidental, inadvertent, or unintended escalation across the nuclear firebreak.

In today’s strategic environment, however, analysts fear that strategic stability is being undermined by changes in the nuclear doctrines of the major powers and by the introduction of increasingly capable non-nuclear weapons. These developments include, on one hand, the adoption of policies envisioning the use of “tactical” or “nonstrategic” nuclear arms in response to overwhelming non-nuclear attack by an adversary, and, on the other, the deployment of sophisticated cyber and conventional weapons thought capable of locating and destroying an adversary's nuclear combat capabilities, especially its nuclear command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) systems. Also contributing to this environment of instability, analysts warn, is the dissolution of the arms control regime established by the two superpowers during the Cold War era and the emergence of India and Pakistan as major nuclear weapons powers.5

None of these countries would deliberately choose to initiate a nuclear exchange, recognizing that the costs of doing so in terms of homeland devastation would be so high. Yet, they have adopted military doctrines that emphasize non-nuclear attacks on their adversary’s critical military assets—radars, missile batteries, command centers, and so on—at the very onset of a conflict. In most cases, these assets are primarily intended for conventional operations, but some also house nuclear C3I facilities or perform dual-use functions, both conventional and nuclear—a situation described by James M. Acton as “entanglement.” If these dual-use or co-located facilities come under attack, the target state might conclude this was the prelude to a nuclear strike and decide to launch its own nuclear munitions before they could be destroyed by its adversary’s incoming weapons. “Entanglement,” says Acton, “could lead to escalation because both sides in a U.S.-Chinese or U.S.-Russian conflict could have strong incentives to attack the adversaries dual-use C3I capabilities to undermine its non-nuclear operations.”6

With all these countries fielding ever more capable conventional weapons and embracing nuclear policies that authorize the use of nuclear weapons in response to severe non-nuclear threats, the risk of such scenarios is bound to increase under any circumstances. Worse still, these dangers are being further amplified by the utilization of emerging technologies for military use. Such technologies pose an added threat to the durability of the nuclear firebreak by multiplying the types of non-nuclear attacks that can be launched on critical enemy assets and by increasing the vulnerability of nuclear C3I systems to non-nuclear attack.

The Risk of Nuclear Escalation

The pathways in which militarized emerging technologies could increase the risk of nuclear escalation can be summarized in four areas.

First, increasingly capable air and naval autonomous weapons systems equipped with advanced sensors and AI processors could be deployed in self-directed “swarms” to find and destroy key enemy assets, such as surface ships and submarines, air defense radars, anti-air and anti-ship missiles, and major C3I facilities. To an adversary, such attacks could be interpreted as the prelude to a nuclear first strike, especially if they result in the destruction of nuclear C3I systems co-located with non-nuclear C3I facilities, prompting it to launch its own nuclear weapons for fear of losing them to enemy weapons.7

A Russian MiG-31 aircraft carries a Kinzhal hypersonic over Moscow's Victory Day parade in 2018. High-speed weapons like this, capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads, risk escalating conflicts as decision makers have little time to assess an ambiguous threat. (Photo: Kremlin.ru) Second, multiple strikes by hypersonic missiles could be used early in a conflict to destroy key enemy assets like those described above, again causing the target state to fear that a nuclear strike is imminent and cause it to launch its own nuclear arms. This danger is multiplied by the fact that the flight time of hypersonic missiles is extremely brief and that many of these weapons now being developed by the major powers are designed to carry a nuclear or a conventional warhead, leaving a target country in doubt as to an attacker’s ultimate intentions, especially if key C3I facilities are degraded, preventing senior leaders from knowing the nature of the attack and inclining them to assume the worst.8

Third, just before or at the very onset of a conflict, a belligerent could launch a cyberattack on its adversary’s early-warning and C3I systems, hoping thereby to degrade that country’s ability to resist a full-scale assault by conventional forces. Because many of these systems are also used to warn of a nuclear attack and to communicate with nuclear as well as conventional forces, the target country’s leaders might conclude they are facing an imminent nuclear attack and order the immediate launch of their own nuclear weapons.9

Fourth, as the speed and complexity of warfare increases, the major powers are coming to rely ever more heavily on AI-empowered machines to sort through sensor data on enemy movements, calculate enemy intentions, and select optimal responses. This increases the danger that humans will cede key combat decision-making tasks to machines that lack a capacity to gauge social and political context in their calculations and are vulnerable to hacking, spoofing, and other failures, possibly leading them to propose extreme military responses to ambiguous signals and thereby cause inadvertent escalation. With machines controlling the action on both sides, this danger can only grow worse.10

These are some of the major pathways to escalation that are being created by the weaponization of emerging technologies, but other pathways of a similar nature have been identified in the academic literature and are likely to arise as these technologies are pressed into military service.11

How to Control Destabilizing Technologies

Until now, efforts to control the military use of emerging technologies have largely focused on three aspects of the problem: eliminating the danger that autonomous weapons systems will prove incapable of distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants in contested urban areas, leading to unnecessary harm to the latter; ensuring that cyberspace is not used for attacks on critical military and civilian infrastructure; and guarantying the reliability, safety, and unbiased nature of AI-empowered military systems.

These endeavors, each valuable in its own way, have resulted in some important if modest gains. Efforts to curb the deployment of autonomous weapons systems, also called “killer robots,” have yet to result in the adoption of a legally binding international ban on such munitions under the auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW); however some two dozen states are now calling for negotiations leading to such a ban outside of the CCW framework.12 UN discussions on rules governing cyberspace have produced agreement on certain bedrock principles of noninterference in a state’s critical cyberinfrastructure, but no binding obligations.13 Finally, concerns over the military use of AI have spurred the U.S. Department of Defense to adopt a set of principles for the ethical and responsible use of AI-empowered systems,14 but other countries have yet to follow suit, and it is unclear how the Pentagon principles will be implemented.

None of these measures, valuable as they are, addresses the additive role of emerging technologies in increasing the risk of nuclear escalation. If this, the most critical aspect of the military-technological revolution, is to be brought under effective international control, a more targeted set of measures will be required. These must focus specifically on those applications of emerging technologies that increase the risk that a conventional conflict results in the accidental or unintended use of nuclear weapons by one side or another.

A focused strategy must span a variety of technologies and require many components and so cannot be encompassed in a single agreement. Rather, what is needed is a framework strategy aimed at restricting the military use of those technologies deemed most threatening to strategic stability. Recognizing that implementing all the components of such a strategy will prove difficult in the current political environment, the framework must envision a succession of steps aimed at imposing increasingly specific and meaningful restrictions on destabilizing technologies. Drawing on the toolbox of measures developed by arms control practitioners over decades of experience and experimentation, as well as proposals advanced by other experts in the field,15 such a strategy should be composed of the following elements, in an approximate order of implementation.

Awareness-Building. This would include efforts to highlight the additive risks to nuclear stability posed by the weaponization of emerging technologies. Some important research has already been conducted on these dangers, but more work is needed to identify the escalatory risks inherent in the weaponization of emerging technologies and to make the results widely known.

Additional effort is needed to bring these findings to the attention of policymakers. An important start to such endeavors was made by the German Foreign Ministry in November 2020 with its virtual conference titled “Capturing Technology, Rethinking Arms Control.” At the conclusion of this event, the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden issued a joint proclamation expressing their concern over the “mounting risks for international peace and stability created by the potential misuse of new technologies.”16 More such events, involving a wider spectrum of nations, would help raise awareness of these dangers. In the United States, for example, Congress should be encouraged to hold hearings on the destabilizing impacts of certain emerging technologies.

Track 2 and Track 1.5 Diplomacy. Government officials from China, Russia, and the United States are barely speaking to each other about strategic nuclear matters, let alone about the dangers posed by the weaponization of emerging technologies. In the absence of such official discourse, it is imperative that scientists, technicians, and arms control experts from these countries meet in neutral settings to assess the additive risks to nuclear stability posed by the weaponization of these technologies and to devise practical measures for their regulation and control. Building on the experience of the Pugwash organization in assembling arms control experts from many nations, such meetings could, for example, evaluate measures for controlling or limiting the deployment of hypersonic missiles or the use of cyberspace for attacks on enemy C3I systems.

Ideally, such Track 2 (nongovernmental) consultations can be followed by Track 1.5 meetings, in which government advisers and former government officials also participate, lending them greater authority and helping to ensure that any proposals developed at such gatherings will be given consideration at higher levels and form the basis for future formal arrangements.

Strategic Stability Talks. Before governments can even begin to consider formal arrangements to curb the deployment of destabilizing technologies, senior officials must become more familiar with the nature of these technologies and the significant risks they pose; even more essential, officials on all sides must come to understand how their adversaries view these risks. The best way to do this, many experts agree, is to convene a series of “strategic stability talks,” composed of government officials, military officers, and technical experts, who together can build on the work begun by under Track 2 and 1.5 diplomacy by further assessing the dangers posed by the weaponization of destabilizing technologies and devising measures to restrict or control the technologies in question.

Some preliminary efforts of this sort have occurred under the auspices of the strategic security dialogue conducted by U.S. and Russian officials in recent years, albeit without achieving any concrete results.17 With a new, more arms control-friendly administration about to take office in Washington, one can hope that these talks will resume in a more serious and productive atmosphere, resulting in a thorough discussion of the mutual risks posed by the weaponization of emerging technologies and leading over time to concrete proposals for their regulation and control. Proposals have also been made to expand these bilateral talks to include Chinese participants or to organize a separate strategic security dialogue between the United States and China. Hopefully, this too can now be undertaken.

Unilateral Measures. Given the current state of international affairs, it could prove difficult for the United States and Russia, the United States and China, or all three to agree on formal measures for the control of especially destabilizing technologies. Yet, it may be possible for these states to adopt unilateral measures in the hope that they will induce parallel steps by their adversaries and eventually lead to binding bilateral and multilateral agreements. Experts in the field have suggested several areas where this would be desirable and practical. In the cyberspace realm, for example, Acton has called on governments to adopt a “risk-averse” policy under which they insert barriers against the inadvertent or precipitous initiation of attacks on an enemy’s nuclear C3I.18 A similar approach could be extended to AI-empowered command decision-support systems to limit the risk of mutual interference and inadvertent escalation.

Greater effort could also be made by the Pentagon and the military organizations of other states to adopt, refine, and enforce guidelines for the safe and ethical utilization of AI for military purposes. The Defense Department took an important first step in this direction with its February 2020 announcement of a set of principles governing the military use of AI, but additional measures are needed to ensure that these principles are fully implemented. The militaries of other countries should also adopt principles of this sort and ensure full compliance with them. As part of these endeavors, military contractors must be made aware of their obligation to comply with such principles and military officers will have to be trained to use AI-empowered weapons in a safe and ethical manner.

Bilateral and Multilateral Arrangements. Once the leaders of the major powers come to appreciate the escalatory risks posed by the weaponization of emerging technologies, it may be possible for them to reach accord on bilateral and multilateral arrangements intended to minimize these risks. Such accords could begin with nonbinding agreements of various sorts and, as trust grows, could be followed by binding treaties and arrangements. To help build trust, moreover, the major powers could engage in confidence-building measures of various sorts, such as exchanges of information on ethical standards and protocols for delegating decision-making authority to machines.19

As an example of a useful first step, the leaders of the major nuclear powers could jointly pledge to eschew cyberattacks against each other’s nuclear C3I systems. “While such an agreement would not be verifiable in the traditional sense,” says Acton, it would be “enforceable” in that each state would possess the ability to detect and retaliate against such an intrusion.20 Some analysts have also proposed that states agree to abide by a code of conduct governing the military use of AI, incorporating many of the principles contained in the Defense Department’s roster of principles. In particular, such measures should require that humans retain ultimate control over all instruments of war, including autonomous weapons systems and computer-assisted combat decision-support devices.21

If the major powers are prepared to discuss binding restrictions on the military use of destabilizing technologies, certain priorities take precedence. The first would be an agreement or agreements prohibiting attacks on the nuclear C3I systems of another state by cyberspace means or via missile strikes, especially hypersonic strikes. Another top priority would be measures aimed at preventing swarm attacks by autonomous weapons on another state’s missile submarines, mobile ICBMs, and other second-strike retaliatory systems. Strict limitations should be imposed on the use of automated decision-support systems with the capacity to inform or initiate major battlefield decisions, including a requirement that humans exercise ultimate control over such devices. In negotiations for these agreements, progress made in earlier stages of this progression, from Track 2 and 1.5 diplomacy to strategic stability talks and nonbinding measures, will allow policymakers to devise practical agreements to achieve these ends.

Without the adoption of measures such as these, cutting-edge technologies will be converted into military systems at an ever-increasing tempo, and the dangers to world security will grow apace. These perils are inseparable from the larger context of mutual antagonisms and arms racing among the major powers: the weaponization of emerging technologies is being rushed because these states seek every possible advantage in any war that might arise among them, and only a relaxation in these great-power tensions will make it possible to address the full spectrum of nuclear dangers. A more thorough understanding of the distinctive threats to strategic stability posed by certain destabilizing technologies and the imposition of restraints on their military use would go a long way toward reducing the risks of Armageddon.



1. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States,” U.S. Department of Defense, n.d., https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf (emphasis in original).

2. State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” July 2019, http://english.www.gov.cn/atts/stream/files/5d3943eec6d0a15c923d2036.

3. See Roger McDermott, “Russia’s Military Scientists and Future Warfare,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 5, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/russias-military-scientists-and-future-warfare/.

4. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review 2018,” February 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.

5. See Steven E. Miller, “A Nuclear World Transformed: The Rise of Multilateral Disorder,” Dædalus, Vol. 149, No. 2 (Spring 2020): 17-36.

6. See James M. Acton, “Escalation Through Entanglement,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Summer 2018): 56-99.

7. Michael T. Klare, “Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Laws of War,” Arms Control Today, March 2019, pp. 6–12.

8. Michael T. Klare, “An ‘Arms Race in Speed’: Hypersonic Weapons and the Changing Calculus of Battle,” Arms Control Today, June 2019, pp. 6–13.

9. Michael T. Klare, “Cyber Battles, Nuclear Outcomes? Dangerous New Pathways to Escalation,” Arms Control Today, November 2019, pp. 6–13.

10. Michael T. Klare, “‘Skynet’ Revisited: The Dangerous Allure of Nuclear Command Automation,” Arms Control Today, April 2020, pp. 10–15.

11. See, for example, Christopher F. Chyba, “New Technologies & Strategic Stability,” Dædalus, vol. 149, no. 2 (Spring 2020), pp. 150–70.

12. See Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Stopping Killer Robots: Country Positions on Banning Fully Autonomous Weapons and Retaining Human Control,” August 10, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/08/10/stopping-killer-robots/country-positions-banning-fully-autonomous-weapons-and.

13. See UN General Assembly (UNGA) Report A/70/174, Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security, July 22, 2015, which was adopted by the full UNGA in Resolution 70/237 of December 23, 2015, Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security.

14. U.S. Department of Defense, “DOD Adopts Ethical Principles for Artificial Intelligence,” press release, February 24, 2020, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2091996/dod-adopts-ethical-principles-for-artificial-intelligence/.

15. For a review of the arms control “toolbox” and other proposals for controlling destabilizing technologies, see Jon Brook Wolfsthal, “Why Arms Control?” Dædalus, vol. 149, no. 2 (Spring 2020), pp. 101–15. See also Giacomo Persi Paoli, Kerstin Vignard, David Danks, and Paul Meyer, Modernizing Arms Control: Exploring Responses to the Use of AI in Military Decision-Making (Geneva, Switzerland: UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2020).

16. “Minister’s Declaration at the Occasion of the Conference ‘Capturing Technology, Rethinking Arms Control,’” November 6, 2020, https://rethinkingarmscontrol.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Ministerial-Declaration-RAC2020.pdf.

17. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “No Progress Toward Extending New START,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2020, pp. 31–32.

18. James M. Acton, “Cyber Warfare & Inadvertent Escalation,” Dædalus, vol. 149, no. 2 (Spring 2020), pp. 143–44.

19. See Michael C. Horowitz, Lauren Kahn, and Casey Mahoney, “The Future of Military Applications of Artificial Intelligence: A Role for Confidence-Building Measures? Orbis, Fall 2020, pp. 527–43.

20. Acton, “Cyber Warfare & Inadvertent Escalation,” p. 145.

21. See, for example, Vincent Boulanin, Kolja Brockmann, and Luke Richards, Responsible Artificial Intelligence Research and Innovation for International Peace and Security (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2020).

Michael T. Klare is a professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. This article follows his four-part “Arms Control Tomorrow” series published in Arms Control Today in 2019 and 2020.

Reducing the risks of militarized emerging technologies will require technologically advanced nations to adopt a sequential, multipart framework strategy.

In Pursuit of Multilateralism

December 2020
By Amb. Mark Zellenrath

Multilateralism, and non-proliferation and disarmament in particular, must not fall victim to Covid-19. It remains our responsibility to take stock of where we are, to reflect upon what we have accomplished, and to set new goals in order to address the current challenges to our multilateral and security environment. Last year, we already witnessed the demise of the INF treaty. This year, the JCPOA with Iran is under immense pressure. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is under strain as chemical weapons are being used by state and nonstate actors, as recent as in the case of Navalny. Also in light of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) seems more important than ever. Furthermore, the shared space surrounding our planet is congested and contested, and can no longer be seen isolated from technological and military developments.

The Netherlands will therefore continue to promote multilateralism as the key principle in our international rules-based system to address today’s challenges and promote international security. Our efforts in a number of areas will therefore be constructive, forward-looking, and building on the fundamentals of the rules-based system. In that regard, the Netherlands supports the UN secretary generals’s agenda.

The Netherlands continues to be strongly committed to the strengthening and implementation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation and disarmament regime. We will actively contribute to a successful outcome of the NPT review conference via our vice presidency of the conference and our chairmanship of Main Committee III. Furthermore, the Netherlands continues to be involved with creative collaboration initiatives such as Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification and the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative, and topics that give substance to our NPT-commitments. Think of the immediate start of negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty, the signing and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the further development and implementation of concepts such as nuclear risk reduction and Verification. We encourage the permanent members of the UN Security Council to engage in a meaningful and constructive dialogue on these issues.

The Netherlands follows closely the strategic dialogue in Vienna, and lately also in Helsinki, between the United States and Russia on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. We share the U.S. vision that a more ambitious agreement is needed for future strategic stability. Extending New START is a first important step. We call upon all relevant parties, in particular Russia and China, to engage.

Together, we all agree that we must uphold the global norm against the use of chemical weapons. The Netherlands condemns the recent attack on Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent. We share the conclusion of Germany and France that there is no other plausible explanation for Navalny’s poisoning than Russian involvement and responsibility in this matter, and therefore we support the call for sanctions. We condemn Syria for using chemical weapons and urge them to fully comply with the CWC. I would like to seize the opportunity to commend the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) for its first report in which three chemical weapons attacks were attributed to Syria. I look forward to the ITT’s second report. The Netherlands has full confidence in the professionalism, impartiality and objectivity of the OCPW director general and the agency’s technical secretariat.

Lastly, we should work on improving and modernizing our disarmament machinery. It is a sad truth that the very conference that produced vital multilateral disarmament treaties, such as the CWC and the CTBT, is not able to start negotiations on, for example, a fissile material cutoff treaty. We have to be creative in order to move forward. The Netherlands has therefore introduced a working paper last year with suggestions on the organization of our work in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), namely to go “back to basics.” We hope that his will be taken at heart at the start of the CD session next year.

Adapted from a statement by Amb. Mark Zellenrath, the Dutch deputy permanent representative to the UN, to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly on Oct. 9.

The Netherlands urges multilateral solutions to international security problems.

U.S. Completes Open Skies Treaty Withdrawal

December 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States formally withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty on Nov. 22 despite domestic and international pressure to remain party to the accord, including from President-elect Joe Biden and numerous U.S. allies.

The United States has used OC-135 aircraft to conduct overflights as part of the Open Skies Treaty. The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty may trigger plans to dispose of the aircraft. (Photo: Perry Aston/U.S. Air Force)“Today, pursuant to earlier notice provided, the United States withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies is now effective,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a tweet. “America is more secure because of it, as Russia remains in noncompliance with its obligations.”

In May, Pompeo issued the six-month notice of withdrawal as required by the treaty, citing concerns over Russian compliance with and implementation of the treaty as grounds for the U.S. withdrawal. (See ACT, June 2020.)

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations that it has violated the treaty and said in a Nov. 22 statement that all options remain on the table regarding its continued participation. The statement followed Nov. 12 remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in which he outlined in stark terms the circumstances in which Moscow might remain party to the treaty.

“If they [the remaining states-parties] want to keep the treaty in force, and if we choose to remain part of it, we will require our partners to legally confirm in writing that, first, they will not prohibit flights over any part of their territory regardless of whether U.S. bases are located there or not,” he said.

He added that the parties must also “strongly commit not to transmit data on flights over Russia to the United States.”

Under the treaty, all imagery collected from overflights is made available to any of the states-parties. During the treaty’s fourth review conference in October, Russia prioritized the provisions of the pact that restrict the distribution of treaty data to states-parties only. (See ACT, November 2020.)

A senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal that the United States is already moving to dispose of the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for treaty overflight missions.

“We’ve started liquidating the equipment,” the official said. The planes “are really old and cost-prohibitive for us to maintain. We don’t have a use for them anymore.”

An Air Force official told Defense News on Nov. 24 that a final decision on the disposition of the aircraft has not yet been made.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to continue modernizing the aircraft, and the Air Force was planning to seek $76 million in fiscal year 2021 to replace the planes. But the Defense Department halted the funding earlier this year. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Following the U.S. withdrawal, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.) issued a Nov. 23 statement maintaining that the Trump administration broke the law when it neglected to notify Congress 120 days before issuing an intent to withdraw from the treaty as required by the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“President Trump is attempting to burn down our critical institutions on his way out the door,” they wrote. “In doing so, he not only jeopardized U.S. national security, but he blatantly ignored and deliberately broke the law.”

In a Dec. 20, 2019 statement issued alongside his signature of the fiscal year 2020 authorization bill, Trump argued that the NDAA provision on the treaty raised constitutional concerns.

“I reiterate the longstanding understanding of the executive branch that these types of provisions encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the president’s exclusive constitutional authorities as commander in chief and as the sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs,” the president said.

President-elect Joe Biden has expressed support for the treaty and condemned the administration’s decision to withdraw. But he has stopped short of committing to try to reenter the agreement when he takes office in January or arguing the United States still remains a state-party because the withdrawal was done in violation of the law.

If Biden did want to resume U.S. participation in the treaty, it is unclear whether and how he could do so.

In a statement to Arms Control Today, Monica Matoush, a Democratic spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, did not address whether Biden should attempt to rejoin the agreement.

“The importance of alliances and confidence-building measures to support strategic stability in Europe in the face of Russian aggression must be a priority for the next administration, despite efforts over the past four years to undermine these relationships and dismantle agreements that uphold transatlantic stability,” she said.

Peter Jones, a former Canadian representative to the Open Skies Treaty negotiations, proposed on Nov. 12 that the remaining states-parties pause the treaty at one minute to midnight on Nov. 21 in order to prevent the Trump administration from withdrawing from the treaty and buy time for a new Biden administration to rescind the withdrawal.

“In effect, they would be ignoring the Trump deadline until the Biden administration was sworn in and could rescind the withdrawal,” he wrote. Although the proposal was reportedly discussed in Vienna, it did not come to fruition.

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The U.S. withdrawal raises questions about the treaty’s future.

Biden Victory May Save Iran Nuclear Deal

December 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election increases the likelihood that the United States and Iran will quickly return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but Tehran says any formal U.S. reentry into the deal will need to be negotiated.

Vice President Joe Biden visits members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015 to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. As president, he may seek to reverse the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, but the agreement does not contain provisions for such a move. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reimposed sanctions on Iran. (See ACT, June 2018.) Iran was abiding by the agreement’s nuclear restrictions at that time, but took steps beginning one year later to breach certain JCPOA’s limits in response to the U.S. sanctions campaign. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Although the Trump administration claimed its maximum pressure campaign was designed to push Iran to negotiate a new deal that addressed Tehran’s nuclear program and a range of other activities, Biden has stated a clear preference for restoring the JCPOA.

In a Sept. 13 CNN commentary, Biden wrote that “[i]f Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Iranian officials have rejected Trump’s push for negotiations on a new deal, but have said consistently that if Washington returns to full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, Iran will do likewise.

After Biden was projected the winner of the election, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran “has always adhered to its commitments when all sides responsibly implement” their JCPOA obligations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered more detail on the Iranian position on Nov. 17, saying that a return to full implementation by the United States and Iran can be “done automatically” and “needs no negotiations.” However, Zarif said that if the United States wants to rejoin the JCPOA, Iran will be “ready to negotiate how” Washington can reenter. U.S. reentry, however, is “not a priority,” Zarif said.

The nuclear deal does not contain any provisions detailing what, if any, steps a state must take to rejoin the deal.

Zarif’s comments appeared to imply that Iran would be satisfied in the short term with Washington and Tehran fully implementing their obligations under the JCPOA without the United States being a state party and that Iran may try to impose conditions to a formal U.S. return.

Formally rejoining the JCPOA would give the United States certain privileges, such as participating in meetings of the Joint Commission, which oversees the agreement’s implementation, and having the power under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 to unilaterally trigger a reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran in the event of a violation.

Zarif’s comment about negotiating a return to the JCPOA may be motivated in part by concern that the United States would abuse the UN snapback privilege in the future. The Trump administration attempted to snap back sanctions on Iran earlier this year, despite having withdrawn from the JCPOA, but was opposed because the United States was no longer a participant in the nuclear deal. (See ACT, November 2020.)

It appears that each Biden and Rouhani have the authority to return their respective countries to compliance with the JCPOA, but some of the details and determining the sequencing may pose challenges.

For the United States to return to full compliance with the accord, the Biden administration would need to waive sanctions reimposed when Trump withdrew from the accord and determine if any of the additional sanctions imposed on Iran since May 2018 should be waived.

Iranian officials have called for all of the sanctions put in place by Trump since May 2018 to be lifted, including those imposed for non-nuclear issues, such as support for terrorism.

Nothing in the JCPOA prohibits the United States from imposing sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear activities, but Trump administration officials have indicated that some of these sanctions were put in place to complicate any future return to the JCPOA, suggesting that some of the designations may not have been made in good faith.

Despite this, the Biden administration may face opposition from Congress if it lifts designations on individuals and entities sanctioned under executive orders designed to prevent terrorism, for example.

The Biden administration may also need to make clear that it views Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and helps implement it, as intact. The Trump administration attempted to use a provision in Resolution 2231 to reimpose all prior UN sanctions on Tehran lifted as a result of the JCPOA in order to prevent the UN arms embargo on Iran from expiring in October. While Security Council members rejected the U.S. argument that it was entitled to snap back the UN sanctions, the Trump administration maintains that the measures were reimposed.

Rouhani appears to have support from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to return to compliance with the JCPOA, if the United States does likewise.

Saeed Khatizbadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, summarized Khamenei’s thinking about the future of the nuclear deal, noting that the United States must accept that it made mistakes, end its “economic warfare” against Iran, “implement [its] commitments” and then “compensate for the damages.” It is not clear what compensation Iran will seek, but the order of Khamenei’s steps and Zarif’s comments suggest that Tehran may seek compensation in the negotiations over U.S. reentry into the JCPOA, rather than as a condition for returning to compliance.

For Iran to return to compliance it will need to reverse its violations of the JCPOA. Most of the steps necessary could be accomplished quickly and must include shipping out or blending down uranium enriched in excess of the JCPOA’s limit on 300 kilograms of uranium-235 gas enriched to 3.67 percent, halting enrichment above 3.67 percent, halting enrichment at Fordow and removing all uranium from that location, and dismantling advanced centrifuges installed and operating in excess of JCPOA limits.

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told Axios on Oct. 30 that Iran could take those steps in about four months.

A potentially more challenging question is how to address new advanced centrifuges Iran installed over the past year that are not covered by the JCPOA. The JCPOA allows Iran to introduce new centrifuges with permission of the Joint Commission, the body that oversees implementation of the JCPOA, but Iran did not seek such approval.

It is unclear if the parties to the JCPOA will ask Iran to dismantle the new machines or if Iran will be permitted to test them in restricted numbers.

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated his support for the 2015 nuclear deal, but going back may be complicated.

Iran Grows Uranium Stockpile

December 2020
By Julia Masterson

Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium continues to expand, according to a Nov. 11 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran has now accumulated 2,443 kilograms of uranium enriched up to 4.5 percent, roughly 12 times the limit of 202 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium set by the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Iranian Amb. Kazzem Gharibabadi speaks to a virtual meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors on Nov. 20. Attending the meeting in a sparsely attended board room are IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi (left) and Amb. Heidi Alberta Hulan of Canada, who began her one-year term as board chairperson in September. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA) The latest quarterly report describes these ongoing JCPOA breaches and suggests that Iran is moving carefully to avoid steps that could impede a U.S. reentry to the nuclear deal or its own future return to full compliance with the accord. The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018, and Iran has subsequently exceeded a number of the agreement’s limitations.

The IAEA report states that Iran’s enriched uranium production has slowed significantly over the last quarter when compared to the previous three reporting periods. Tehran produced 338 kilograms of enriched uranium over the last quarter, down from 533 kilograms in JuneSeptember 2020 and the smallest increase in a year. Iran has also not taken any additional steps to violate the accord since announcing in January 2020 it would no longer be bound by any of the deal’s operational restrictions. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Nevertheless, frustration with the nuclear deal appears to be mounting in Tehran. The Iranian Parliament voted on Nov. 3 to approve provisionally a bill requiring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to enrich uranium up to 20 percent at the Fordow facility and to take other steps in further violation of the nuclear deal. Although the resolution is not binding, it could signal an effort by Iranian lawmakers to pressure the incoming Biden administration to reenter the nuclear deal quickly and without conditions.

In addition, Iran continues to operate advanced centrifuges in violation of the JCPOA, but the Nov. 11 report details Iran’s decision to transfer cascades of centrifuges from the pilot plant to the main enrichment hall at Natanz instead of building three new equivalent cascades, as it had previously announced. In July, Tehran notified the IAEA that it would move three cascades comprised of IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges to the Natanz enrichment facility. But in September, the IAEA reported that Iran would instead construct three new cascades at Natanz and that it would cease operation of the corresponding machines at the pilot plant.

Iran’s decision to duplicate its IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 cascades was worrisome in part because it would have left Iran with additional advanced centrifuges to use in the event that it chose to accelerate its production of enriched uranium. Moving the existing cascades from the pilot plant to the enrichment hall reduces the total number of centrifuges that could have been installed in Iran.

The Nov. 11 report indicates that only the cascade of IR-2m centrifuges had been moved to the Natanz enrichment hall and that they were not yet enriching uranium. One week later, however, in his Nov. 18 remarks to the agency’s Board of Governors, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi noted the release of a new report containing an update on Iran’s nuclear activities. That report has not been made public, but a section from the report quoted in a Nov. 18 article by Reuters outlines that, on Nov. 14, the IAEA “verified that Iran began feeding [uranium hexafluoride gas] into the recently installed cascade of 174 IR-2m centrifuges” at Natanz.

Kazzem Qaribabadi, Iranian ambassador and permanent representative to the IAEA, confirmed the information on Nov. 18.

The enrichment of uranium using IR-2m machines at Natanz marks another violation of the JCPOA, which dictates that Iran operate only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at that facility. In her Nov. 18 statement before the Board of Governors, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jackie Wolcott condemned Iran’s decision to enrich uranium with IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz and urged Tehran to “reverse these steps immediately.”

As noted in the Nov. 11 report, Tehran informed the agency that the decision to move the centrifuges was made “with the aim that eventually all of the enrichment [research and development] activities will be concentrated in this area,” but it is possible that Iran was also motivated to move the cascades after an apparent act of sabotage on its centrifuge assembly facility in July caused significant damage to its advanced machines. The Natanz enrichment hall is underground and presumably more protected from sabotage attacks.

Iran has since begun construction of a building to replace the centrifuge assembly facility at Natanz that was damaged during the July attack although that new facility is not mentioned in the IAEA report. But Grossi made clear during an Oct. 27 interview that the IAEA is monitoring Iran’s construction activities at Natanz, indicating that Iran is committed to maintaining compliance with its safeguards agreement.

The IAEA has “not observed any change in the level of cooperation by Iran,” according to the Nov. 11 report, which outlines that Iran continues to provisionally implement an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and is cooperating with the continuous monitoring measures put in place by the nuclear deal.

The IAEA generally does not disclose information related to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreements in its quarterly monitoring reports, but the Nov. 11 report notes Iran’s failure to provide a satisfactory response to the IAEA investigation into isotopically altered uranium particles found during a visit to an undeclared site in February 2019. The agency has made clear that these particles date to before 2003, when Iran was assessed by the IAEA to have had a nuclear weapons program.

The Nov. 11 report details that although Iran told the IAEA on Oct. 21 that “the evidence of such contamination is under investigation” and later provided more information to the agency in a Nov. 5 letter, Iran’s response was “not technically credible” and so far has been unsatisfactory.

Iran has now produced about 12 times the amount of enriched uranium allowed by the 2015 nuclear deal.

New UAE Arms Sales Raise Concerns

December 2020
By Alexander Bertschi Wrigley

In an anticipated move shortly after the November elections, the Trump administration formally notified Congress of its intent to sell more than $23 billion of advanced weaponry to the United Arab Emirates, an effort that is now facing bipartisan opposition in Congress.

The U.S. Air Force displays two fighter wings of F-35 aircraft at a January exercise in Utah. The  Trump administration has notified Congress that it intends to sell up to 50 F-35s to the United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Nial Bradshaw/U.S. Air Force)The sales appear to be linked to the August agreement in which the UAE and Israel normalized relations, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noting in his Nov. 10 announcement of the proposed sales that the “historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape.”

The sale includes up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder missiles valued at $490 million. In a rare change from standard protocol, the notifications to Congress of the potential sales specified that they would result in “a significant increase in capability and will alter the regional military balance.”

On Nov. 18, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Rand Paul (R-Ky.); and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced four separate joint resolutions of disapproval taking aim at the proposed arms sales. “The UAE has violated past arms sales agreements, resulting in U.S. arms ending up in the arms of dangerous militia groups, and they have failed to comply with international law in Libya and Yemen. A sale this large and this consequential should not happen in the waning days of a lame duck presidency, and Congress must take steps to stop this dangerous transfer of weapons,” said Murphy. These resolutions were followed up on Nov. 19 by joint resolutions of disapproval introduced into the House by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Democrats have objected to what many see as a rushed process, as well as one that could threaten Israel. In October, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to limit sales of advanced defense equipment, including F-35s and armed drones, to Middle Eastern countries to those that have signed normalization agreements with Israel and will not violate international humanitarian law.

On Oct. 20, Sens. Menendez and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to reassert congressional oversight over F-35 sales by requiring presidential certifications that Israel’s qualitative military edge would not be undermined before F-35s could be sold to other countries in the Middle East.

Under laws passed in 2008, proposed U.S. arms sales to any country in the Middle East and North Africa, apart from Israel, must be accompanied by a determination that the sale would not impact Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

The new sales would also be made easier by the administration’s unilateral reinterpretation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) earlier this year. (See ACT, September 2020.) Under the previous understanding of MTCR guidelines, the sale of MQ-9 Reaper drones were subject to a “strong presumption of denial.” But under the revised interpretation, the sale would now be considered with the same criteria as any other foreign military sale.

In addition to coming under criticism for its role in the war in Yemen, the UAE has also been accused of openly flouting the UN arms embargo in Libya. On Nov. 10, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) released a letter to Pompeo detailing concerns regarding the role of the UAE in allegedly violating the embargo.

On Nov. 18, the House of Representatives passed the Libya Stabilization Act, a bipartisan bill that requires the secretary of state to issue a report within 90 days on the full extent of UAE and other foreign military involvement in Libya.

Even if the resolutions of disapproval were to pass both chambers of Congress but fail to garner enough support to overrule an expected veto by President Donald Trump, as happened in 2019 (See ACT, September 2019), the incoming Biden administration could suspend sales, and a new Congress could act at any time to block delivery.

With these deals, the Trump administration has notified Congress of more than $127 billion in potential global arms sales via the Foreign Military Sales program, the largest annual total in more than two decades. (See ACT, November 2020.)

Congress is taking steps against Trump administration efforts to conclude large new arms deals with the United Arab Emirates.

Nations Laud Landmine Removal

December 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Roughly half of the Mine Ban Treaty states-parties that have been contaminated at some point by landmines are now landmine-free, according to announcements made at the treaty’s Nov. 16–20 annual meeting. At the treaty’s 2019 review conference, members set the global goal of completing landmine clearance by 2025 in the 63 states-parties that have at some time declared that landmines were deployed on their soil. Participants celebrated announcements from Chile and the United Kingdom (for the Falkland Islands), the latest to announce that they had completed clearance of all known landmine contamination

A Sri Lankan mine clearance crew demonstrates its techniques in 2018. About half of the states-parties with landmines deployed at one time on their territory have successfully completed their removal. (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)Complying with pandemic limits prohibiting meetings of more than 50 people in Geneva, parties to the 164-nation treaty met virtually to continue their efforts to rid the world of antipersonnel landmines. Nearly 500 participants registered for the meeting, including government representatives from 88 states-parties and 11 states not party to the treaty.

Under the treaty, countries have 10 years to clear known antipersonnel mine fields, but can seek extensions, seven of which were granted at this year’s meeting and next steps were agreed for two countries that earlier declared completion but had since discovered additional contamination. Eritrea, however, failed to request an extension to its current deadline of Dec. 31, meaning it will soon be in noncompliance with the treaty.

While marking progress broadly on treaty goals, for the fifth year in a row the annual Landmine Monitor report recorded a high number of annual casualties caused by landmines and other explosive remnants of war. In 2019, the last year for which comprehensive data is available, there were at least 5,554 casualties recorded, 80 percent of whom were civilians where such status was known.

As with other treaty processes this year, transparency reporting rates fell, partly due to countries prioritizing pandemic needs. (See ACT, September 2020.) According to the Landmine Monitor, just 46 percent of states parties had submitted their annual reports by mid-October.

Having the meeting occur and take on key business, however, was seen as a success. Meetings of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that were scheduled for earlier in the month were delayed, again postponing discussion of lethal autonomous weapons systems, or “killer robots.” The second review conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions that was to take place in Lausanne, Switzerland, from Nov. 23–27 instead met for three days virtually Nov. 25–27 and will continue Feb. 4–5 next year.

The United States continued to attend the Mine Ban Treaty annual meeting as an observer, as it has done each year since 2009, despite announcing in January a new policy that ended its goal of one day joining the treaty. (See ACT, March 2020.) On the first day of the meeting, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) issued a press release in Washington encouraging the “incoming Biden-Harris administration …[to reinstate] the policy that was in place at the end of the Obama-Biden administration, which prohibits the use of anti-personnel mines except on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, it should direct the Pentagon to modify its strategies and tactics to eliminate the use of anti-personnel mines within three years so the United States can join the treaty no later than Sept. 26, 2023.”

During the annual meeting, the European Union similarly called “upon the United States to re-examine its decision to re-authorize the use of anti-personnel mines by U.S. military forces outside of the Korean Peninsula.”

As it has been for years, the United States is the largest global donor to landmine clearance, victim assistance, and related efforts—more commonly known as mine action. According to the Landmine Monitor, the United States provided $177.4 million for mine action in 2019, 32 percent of all such international support.

Asked about the rationale for U.S. participation, a State Department spokesperson wrote to Arms Control Today on Nov. 20, “We participate in order to demonstrate solidarity with all those committed to eliminating, through concrete Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA), the risks that landmines pose to civilians; highlight U.S. efforts and leadership in HMA; and coordinate with other states, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations regarding global HMA activities.”

The annual meeting of the Mine Ban Treaty marked further progress in eradicating landmines.


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