"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
December 2021
Edition Date: 
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Cover Image: 

A Small Step Toward an ASAT Ban

December 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Last month, the UN General Assembly First Committee, responsible for international security, approved a compromise resolution that sets into motion a new open-ended working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space. If key countries, including the United States, provide leadership, the initiative could help advance progress toward legally binding measures designed to prohibit counterspace activities that threaten international security, beginning with a ban on anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.

Launch of the SM-3 missile that intercepted USA-193 on February 20, 2008. (Photo by U.S. Navy)A core rationale for the resolution, which was sponsored by the United Kingdom, is “that the creation of long-lived orbital debris arising from the deliberate destruction of space systems increases the risk of in-orbit collisions and the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculations that could lead to conflict.”

As if to underscore the threat posed by ASAT weapons, on Nov. 15, Russia launched an interceptor from its Nudol ground-based ASAT system to destroy one of its own aging satellites in low Earth orbit. The collision created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris that will pose a threat to orbiting objects for years to come.

Russia is not the only nation to act in such an irresponsible manner. China, the United States, and India have also demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites with ground- or air-launched missiles. In 1985, the United States successfully tested an air-launched missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2007, China used a ground-based SC-19 ballistic missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2008, the United States used a modified ship-based SM-3 missile defense interceptor to destroy a failed U.S. intelligence satellite. In 2019, India used a ground-based Prithvi ballistic missile to destroy one of its own target satellites.

Each of these demonstrations of ASAT weapons capabilities is destabilizing. If these and other potentially hostile activities in space are not stopped, an acceleration of a space arms race is all but certain.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space, but there are no restrictions on other types of weapons in that domain. Efforts to launch talks that might produce new understandings on maintaining the peaceful use of space have been stymied for years.

China and Russia have long advocated for a treaty that only bars the placement of any weapons in space. Their proposal, called the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), defines a “space weapon” as an object placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects. This means that the Russian Nudol system, which flies a suborbital trajectory, would not be a violation. But their proposed ban would restrict potential U.S. efforts to develop space-based missile defense interceptors while allowing suborbital ASAT capabilities.

For years, the United States has been wary of any legally binding restrictions on ASAT systems in part because they might restrict U.S. ground-based missile defense capabilities or a possible space-based kinetic anti-missile system that could involve a number of orbiting interceptors that provide a thin defense against intercontinental missiles.

But earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance stated that the United States “will lead in promoting shared norms on space.” The U.S. National Space Policy, issued in December 2020 by the Trump administration, said Washington shall consider “proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.”

Curiously, although Beijing and Moscow voted “no” on the UK resolution for the working group on preventing an arms race in outer space, they refrained from pushing for discussions in a UN-sponsored forum for their PPWT proposal. This may be because the UK resolution allows for consideration by the new working group of legally binding measures of the kind that Russia and China have pursued, as well as voluntary rules designed to constrain threatening military activities.

The UK resolution, which was approved 163–8 with nine abstentions, is expected to win final approval by the UN General Assembly in December. It would authorize the working group to begin operating in 2022 with a final report due to the General Assembly in the fall of 2023. To its credit, the resolution also emphasized the need for verification of legally binding arms control regarding space systems.

The UK-led initiative is a small but much-needed breakthrough that creates the potential for positive results. As the process unfolds, the United States, Russia, China, and India could help build momentum and reduce tensions by declaring unilateral moratoriums on any further testing of their ASAT weapons that could create dangerous orbital debris and agree to participate in the working group next year.

Without commonsense rules of the road, a dangerous, destabilizing offensive-defensive space arms competition is on the way. It is past time for key states to engage in productive dialogue on space security, with a focus on halting ASAT weapons.

Last month, the UN First Committee, responsible for international security, approved a compromise resolution that sets into motion a new open-ended working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space.

From Division to Constructive Engagement: Europe and the TPNW

December 2021
By Oliver Meier and Maren Vieluf

Europe remains deeply divided over the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), with NATO membership the main political fault line between treaty critics and sympathizers. Since 2010, NATO has described itself as a nuclear alliance. In December 2020, all 30 of its members collectively stated their opposition to the ban treaty, but that appearance of unity is vanishing as the treaty picks up support in key allied nations.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store (R), shown hosting German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Oslo. Both countries recently announced that they will attend the first meeting of the states-parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as observers in March 2022. (Photo by Håkon Mosvold Larsen / NTB / AFP via Getty Images)The 27 EU members, by contrast, have agreed to disagree on the TPNW. Three EU states are parties to the TPNW, while France, the only EU nuclear-weapon state, remains a staunch opponent. The other European states linger somewhere between these positions.

This disunity reduces European influence on the nuclear disarmament debate. In the past, when it acted jointly, the European Union was often able to facilitate global agreement on steps to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. The union has been a key force in shaping the multilateral arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation landscape. NATO, the EU, and Europeans could again assume such roles by constructively engaging with the ban treaty.

In this sense, the treaty is an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, to increase European agency on the way toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

So how can NATO, the EU, and European nations make the best use of the TPNW in striving toward nuclear disarmament? What options exist for EU and NATO members to reduce divisions over the treaty and build on the momentum it has created while respecting each other’s viewpoints? These questions are particularly acute as NATO revises its Strategic Concept and Europeans prepare for the 2022 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York on January 4–28 and the first meeting of TPNW states-parties, which will take place in Vienna on March 22–24.

NATO’s Crumbling Unity

Until recently, NATO members collectively opposed the ban treaty. In the waning days of the Trump administration, the alliance argued that the TPNW “risks undermining the global non-proliferation and disarmament architecture” and called on “partners and all other countries to reflect realistically on the ban treaty’s impact on international peace and security.”1

In mid-October 2021, however, the newly elected Norwegian government, led by Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, tore down the façade of unity by announcing its intention to attend the first meeting of the TPNW states-parties as an observer.2

In Germany, the parties in the new government pledged in their November 24 coalition agreement that Berlin would observe “in close consultation” with allies the first meeting of TPNW states-parties “in order to constructively accompany the intentions of the treaty.”

NATO’s hard-line stance against the treaty has stood on shaky ground for some time. In Spain, government coalition partners in 2018 informally agreed to join the treaty, although they subsequently failed to act on that commitment. The Dutch Parliament forced the government to take part in the 2017 UN General Assembly negotiations on the ban treaty. The Belgian government in 2020 pledged to explore how the treaty “can give new impetus to multilateral nuclear disarmament.”3 Thus, three of the five states that host U.S. nuclear weapons under NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements—Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands—have struggled to stay faithful to the alliance position on the ban treaty.

French President Emmanuel Macron, shown at a NATO meeting in June in Brussels, has been leading the charge to keep the alliance from joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). (Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)All of this is unlikely to sway treaty opponents. Paris is leading the charge. In a speech on French nuclear policy on February 7, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron accused “advocates of abolition” of attacking the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence “where it is easiest, that is to say in…European democracies.”4 France is the only NATO state not participating in the alliance’s Nuclear Planning Group and its integrated nuclear policies. From its position of “splendid isolation” on nuclear issues within NATO, Paris has repeatedly vetoed progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament and is likely to remain adamantly opposed to any engagement with the ban treaty.5

As so often in NATO, in the end it will be the U.S. position that makes the difference. The Biden administration, however, has not indicated whether it intends to move away from the strong treaty opposition of his two immediate predecessors. A change of policy would require a step away from Biden’s past positions. In 2016, while Biden was vice president in the Obama administration, Washington had urged allies to reject any initiative to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons. In an October 2016 nonpaper sent to the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political decision-making body, even before treaty negotiations started in 2017, Washington warned that nuclear burden-sharing “could become untenable” and alliance consensus on the deterrence “could splinter” if any NATO member decided to join a ban treaty.6

The alliance is now struggling to square its rigid opposition to the treaty with changing political realities. When asked about his reaction to Oslo’s decision to observe the TPNW states-parties meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, a Social Democrat like Støre and also a former Norwegian prime minister, replied that he expects allies to take NATO’s opposition to the treaty into account when addressing nuclear issues and that they should “consult closely with other NATO allies.”7

Stoltenberg made the remarks on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers meeting in October that preceded a meeting of the Nuclear Planning Group, where ministers discussed the treaty issue. Stoltenberg’s chief of staff, Stian Jenssen, in an October 27 op-ed in the Norwegian newspaper VG warned that if Norway signs the TPNW, “it will endanger a wide range of defense and security policy cooperation with our closest allies.”8 So far, Oslo appears to be resisting peer pressure.

A Union Divided

Although NATO has worked hard to project unity on nuclear disarmament, the EU has effectively conceded failure.9 The breaking point came in 2015, two years before 122 states adopted the TPNW in the UN General Assembly. In 2013 and 2014, most EU member states had attended international conferences on the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear weapons in Oslo; Nayarit, Mexico; and Vienna. Nuclear-weapon state France shunned all three conferences. Reflecting this split, EU members failed to reach consensus on nuclear disarmament language for the 2015 NPT Review Conference. For the first time, in such a common decision, Europeans could only acknowledge their internal split by noting “the ongoing discussions on the consequences of nuclear weapons, in the course of which different views are being expressed, including at an international conference organized by Austria, in which not all EU Member States participated.”10

As discussions on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons moved ahead, this gap deepened, while support for the ban treaty globally as well as among Europeans grew broader. Many European non-nuclear-weapon states participated in a 2016 open-ended working group set up by the UN General Assembly to “take forward” multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. Yet, most EU and NATO members voted against a December 2016 UN resolution recommending full-fledged negotiations on a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty, even though the European Parliament had passed a resolution welcoming the ban treaty and calling on EU member states to support and “participate constructively” in the talks.11

In the end, many EU members stayed away from the 2017 UN General Assembly negotiations on the ban treaty. From Europe, only non-NATO members Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden eventually voted for the legally binding TPNW, which comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons. NATO member the Netherlands was the only state to vote against adoption of the ban treaty. Austria and Ireland, who are leading promoters of the treaty, and Malta are the only EU members among the 56 TPNW states-parties.

Another complication is that parliaments in many European countries and the European Parliament itself tend to be more open toward engagement with the TPNW than their governments. On October 21, the European Parliament issued a recommendation that referenced the security context and supported a step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament but also recognized the TPNW as an expression of discontent by a majority of states with international disarmament efforts.12 Because the EU position remains fragmented along multiple lines, reaching a unified European position on the TPNW is likely to remain difficult.

Action Out of Diversity

Any future European policy on the treaty will have to take into account the broad spectrum of views on nuclear weapons that NATO and EU member states represent, with seemingly irreconcilable differences between the extremes. Although the TPNW has brought these divergences to light, it is not their root cause. Rather, they can be traced to different interests, cultures, historical experiences, and alliance relationships among European states. Differences also exist at the domestic level, as demonstrated by ongoing debates on national nuclear disarmament policies even in countries whose governments have charted a clear course against the TPNW.

Efforts to address European divisions on the TPNW and on nuclear weapons more generally will be arduous, but they are necessary to mitigate the counterproductive consequences of the European disputes and paralysis. For example, European engagement with a growing number of states supportive of the TPNW and the new ban treaty regime is a key to preserving Europe’s global role as an advocate of multilateralism. Europe is the region most opposed to the nuclear weapons ban. Of the 42 countries that reject the ban treaty, 31 are European nations. Europe’s legitimacy as a disarmament advocate depends on its ability to speak to ban treaty supporters and particularly the 86 countries that have signed or ratified the ban treaty.13

Europeans also need to find a more productive position toward the treaty if they want to reduce the risk of a widening rift among NPT member states on nuclear disarmament, which is a declared goal of the EU.

Meanwhile, NATO’s denunciation of the treaty is at odds with domestic developments in a number of key European countries. As an alliance of democracies, NATO should be responsive to such political shifts among its members and accommodate the momentum toward the TPNW. Unity has never been and cannot be based on demands to adhere to previously agreed positions when the context has changed.

Finally, European engagement is important for the treaty’s evolution. Many Europeans and NATO members criticize the TPNW’s verification provisions as too weak. They also argue that the treaty could undermine the NPT by establishing a competing legal and normative framework. Yet, the TPNW entered into force on January 22, 2021, and it is here to stay. If European critics want their concerns about the treaty to be addressed, they need to sit at the table. Staying on the political sidelines takes Europeans out of the nuclear disarmament game, so
how can Europeans engage constructively with the treaty through NATO, the EU, and individually?

Adjusting NATO's Policy

To maintain NATO unity, allies should agree on a more sustainable and forward-looking policy on the treaty. The current approach of completely rejecting the TPNW confronts members who are willing to recognize the treaty as a useful addition to the disarmament toolbox with an impossible choice. States such as Norway either can bow to pressures from the nuclear-weapon states and grudgingly step back into line or would have to break ranks with the alliance. For NATO, which is built on solidarity and rightly prides itself on being a political institution as well as a military alliance, such strongman tactics would be counterproductive.

At least implicitly, the alliance should acknowledge that engagement with the treaty, including attendance at TPNW meetings, does not weaken NATO coherence on nuclear matters, just like Dutch participation in the treaty negotiations had no discernible impact on perceptions of NATO unity or the effectiveness of NATO’s nuclear posture.

One opportunity to adjust NATO’s nuclear disarmament policies to political realities are discussions on a new strategic concept, to be agreed by the next alliance summit in Spain in the summer of 2022. Allies launched that process at their June 2021 summit in Brussels, when they confirmed their intention “to take all necessary steps” to maintain a credible deterrence posture but also committed to “support and strengthen arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation.”14

In the new strategic concept, NATO could acknowledge the ban treaty as a good faith effort by the majority of states to eliminate the nuclear danger and build up the legal framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons.15 Such a statement would stop well short of support for the nuclear weapons prohibition as a generally accepted international norm.

Collectively and individually, NATO allies have persistently objected to the “argument that the TPNW reflects or in any way contributes to the development of customary international law.”16 Engagement with the treaty, including observing meetings of TPNW states-parties, can be consistent with such a policy if the allies continue to point out the substantive reasons for not acceding to the TPNW. For example, Israel, which possesses nuclear weapons, has observed several NPT review conferences and in 2015 submitted a working paper even though it does not want to join that treaty and nobody would expect that.

NATO could also engage with the TPNW by being more transparent about how it wants to ensure its nuclear planning is consistent with international humanitarian law. Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner have analyzed how the United States goes to great lengths to ensure that its nuclear war plans are consistent with these laws.17 They describe the procedures by which U.S. governments seeks legal advice so they follow international legal guidelines when developing nuclear war-fighting scenarios and preparing rules for nuclear weapons use. Naturally, nobody would expect NATO to discuss nuclear targeting plans. Yet, the alliance could describe the processes by which it implements its international humanitarian law obligations, including at which points and through which institutions allies individually can have an impact on such plans and their possible implementation in case of war.


Getting the EU’s Act Together

The 27 EU member states have been tiptoeing around their TPNW differences. Their foreign ministers on November 15 adopted a common position for the NPT review conference. The conclusions of the Council of the European Union do not even mention the ban treaty and merely note “the very severe consequences associated with nuclear weapons use”, while emphasizing “that all States share the responsibility to prevent such an occurrence from happening.”18

This lowest common denominator agreement does not put Europe in a position to shape discussions on nuclear disarmament. High-level engagement by European leaders will likely be needed to develop a more nuanced position. Such a stance could identify areas of agreement, along with those areas where Europeans continue to disagree or where they would push ban treaty supporters for further clarification. The difficult quest for greater convergence on nuclear disarmament is also mandated by the Treaty on the European Union, which calls on member states to “coordinate their action in international organizations and at international conferences.”19 More importantly, such a graded position on nuclear disarmament would help improve the credentials of the EU as a bridge-builder within the global nonproliferation regime.

At the review conference, the EU and member states should seek to reduce polarization over the TPNW by promoting language that recognizes the entry into force of the treaty and acknowledges the different perspectives on it. As Spanish analyst Clara Portela has emphasized, “Recognising the legitimacy of the treaty objectives does not equate to sympathising with the treaty, let alone to adhering to it.”20

The EU could also be a champion for those issues that are widely perceived as common ground among the nuclear disarmament camps. Thus, on nuclear risk reduction, Europeans could endorse a restatement by NPT states-parties of the Reagan-Gorbachev formula that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Highlighting the importance of transparency as a method of fostering nuclear disarmament is another way in which Europeans can bolster the disarmament agenda, while enlarging the middle ground among NPT states-parties.

Looking beyond the review conference, the EU could seek to link the intersessional processes under the NPT and TPNW. Politically, this should be unproblematic as long as TPNW membership remains a subset of NPT membership. For example, NPT states-parties could invite the chairs of TPNW meetings of states-parties to issue formal reports at subsequent NPT preparatory committee meetings and at the 2025 NPT Review Conference. The EU could also propose that NPT states-parties establish an open-ended working group on ways and means to better integrate humanitarian law in nuclear weapons-related security concepts.21

The choice of Europe as the venue for the first TPNW meeting of states-parties places a special responsibility on Europeans to make the meeting a success. The EU itself could apply to observe the meeting as a relevant international or regional organization. The fact that the ban treaty remains contested must not be an insurmountable hurdle. The European Commission and the EU have observed the first meetings of states-parties to other treaties, even though at the time only some EU member states were parties.22

The European Parliament, which remains divided on the ban treaty, has not decided whether to send a delegation to the TPNW meeting, but the parliament’s Left and Green parliamentary groups will be represented. They also have asked the EU special envoy for nonproliferation and disarmament to represent the EU at the meeting as an observer regional organization.23 EU members Germany, Finland, and Sweden have already stated their intention to observe the meeting,24 and others might and should follow their lead.

Looking beyond the Vienna meeting, the EU could facilitate implementation of TPNW provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation. France and the United Kingdom conducted all their nuclear weapons tests outside their European home territories and have a special responsibility to address the consequences of their nuclear weapons programs for humans and the environment. Such support would flow from the EU’s stated goal to “strongly support” the full implementation of multilateral disarmament, nonproliferation, and arms control treaties.25

The European Parliament could strengthen its role as a forum for diverse viewpoints on nuclear disarmament. It could seek to address the tension between deterrence and disarmament in a series of hearings involving both TPNW supporters and critics. The parliament could invite France and other NATO allies to explain how the alliance will ensure that nuclear planning takes into account international humanitarian law requirements to reduce human suffering in conflict. This could involve further discussion on whether any use of nuclear weapon is incompatible with international humanitarian law, as TPNW supporters argue.

Furthermore, the parliament could build on its traditional strength of using parliamentary diplomacy to influence the EU foreign and security policy agenda. For example, the parliament’s delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly could use the results of hearings on the TPNW to initiate debate within the assembly. Such interaction could also help to broaden NATO-EU relations, which are now focused on defense issues, to include a common strategic culture on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation.

Participation of individual countries as observers in TPNW meetings is key. According to the Treaty on the European Union, states participating in international organizations and at international conferences shall uphold EU positions. A common EU approach toward the TPNW, as outlined above, would thus strengthen Brussels’ voice at the Vienna conference and other ban treaty gatherings.

In the end, Europeans need to change their perspective. Ban treaty supporters need to acknowledge the position of those who support nuclear deterrence. TPNW critics should view the ban treaty not as a problem, but as an opportunity to make progress toward reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons. Through a policy of constructive engagement with the TPNW, Europe can address its long-standing ambiguity on the role of nuclear weapons and strengthen European agency in nuclear disarmament. That would be good for Europe and, more importantly, for nuclear disarmament in general.



1. NATO, “North Atlantic Council Statement as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Enters Into Force,” press release (2020) 131, December 15, 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_180087.htm.

2. Alf Bjarne Johnsen and Gisle Oddstad, “Støre-Regjeringen Reiser Til Atomforbud-Konferanse: USA Stiller Spørsmål” [Støre government travels to nuclear ban conference: U.S. asks questions], VG, October 14, 2021, https://www.vg.no/nyheter/innenriks/i/mr33pE/stoere-regjeringen-reiser-til-atomforbud-konferanse-usa-stiller-spoersmaal.

3. Government of Belgium, “Accord de Gouvernement” [Government agreement], September 30, 2020, p. 78, https://www.belgium.be/sites/default/files/Accord_de_gouvernement_2020.pdf.

4. Emmanuel Macron, “Speech of the President of the Republic on the Defense and Deterrence Strategy,” February 7, 2020, https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2020/02/07/speech-of-the-president-of-the-republic-on-the-defense-and-deterrence-strategy.

5. Oliver Meier and Simon Lunn, “Trapped: NATO, Russia, and the Problem of Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Today, January 2014, pp. 18–24, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2014_01-02/Trapped-NATO-Russia-and-the-Problem-of-Tactical-Nuclear-Weapons.

6. NATO, “United States Non-Paper: ‘Defense Impacts of Potential United Nations General Assembly Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty; Note by the Secretary,’” AC/333-N(2016)0029 (INV), October 17, 2016.

7. NATO, “Doorstep Statement by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Ahead of the Meetings of NATO Defence Ministers on 21 and 22 October at NATO Headquarters,” October 21, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_187624.htm.

8. Stian Jenssen, “Veien Mot En Verden Uten Atomvåpen” [The road to a world without nuclear weapons], VG, October 27, 2021, https://www.vg.no/nyheter/meninger/i/RrKzjd/veien-mot-en-verden-uten-atomvaapen.

9. The EU-related section of this article draws heavily on Tytti Erästö et al., “A Fresh Breeze for Nuclear Disarmament in Europe? Making Best Use of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” The Greens/EFA in the European Parliament, June 2021, https://europeecologie.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Nuclear-Disarmament_A-Fresh-Breeze.pdf.

10. Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on the Ninth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” No. 8079/15, April 20, 2015.

11. European Parliament, “European Parliament Resolution of 27 October 2016 on Nuclear Security and Non-Proliferation (2016/2936(RSP)),” October 27, 2016.

12. European Parliament, “Recommendation to the VPC/HR and to the Council in Preparation of the 10th Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) Review Process, Nuclear Arms Control and Nuclear Disarmament Options (P9_TA(2020)028),” October 21, 2020.

13. On the current status of support of the TPNW, see Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor, https://banmonitor.org/ (accessed November 13, 2021).

14. NATO, “Brussels Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels 14 June 2021,” June 14, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm (hereinafter “NATO Brussels summit communiqué”).

15. Daryl G. Kimball, “The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A Much-Needed Wake-Up Call,” Arms Control Today, November 2020, p. 3, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-11/focus/nuclear-ban-treaty-much-needed-wake-up-call.

16. NATO Brussels summit communiqué.

17. Scott D. Sagan and Allen S. Weiner, “The Rule of Law and the Role of Strategy in U.S. Nuclear Doctrine,” International Security, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Spring 2021): 126–166.

18. Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT),” 13243/21, November 15, 2021.

19. Treaty of the European Union, art. 34.

20. Clara Portela, “The EU’s Arms Control Challenge: Bridging Nuclear Divides,” Chaillot Paper, No. 166, April 2021, https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/CP_166.pdf.

21. See Thilo Marauhn, “Reducing the Role of Nuclear Weapons: A Role for International Law,” in Meeting in the Middle: Opportunities for Progress on Disarmament in the NPT, King’s College London Centre for Science and Security Studies, December 2019, pp. 34–37, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/csss/assets/meeting-in-the-middle.pdf.

22. See Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, 2056 U.N.T.S. 211, September 18, 1997; Diplomatic Conference for the Adoption of a Convention on Cluster Munitions, “Convention on Cluster Munitions,” CCM/77, May 30, 2008.

23. Mounir Satouri (@MounirSatouri), “Together with fellow MEPs @Oezlemademirel @Brandobenifei and @Lukasmandl we will attend the First meeting of the #TPNW We Call on the @EUCOUNCIL to mandate the EU special envoy to attend #1MSP #nuclearban,” Twitter, September 7, 2021, 12:05 p.m., https://twitter.com/MounirSatouri/status/1435273050245697538.

24. Ann Linde, “Statement of Foreign Policy 2021,” Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 24, 2021, https://www.government.se/speeches/2021/02/statement-of-foreign-policy/; Pekka Haavisto, “Speech by Pekka Haavisto, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the Meeting of Heads of Mission, 23 August 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, August 23, 2021, https://um.fi/speeches/-/asset_publisher/up7ecZeXFRAS/content/ulkoministeri-pekka-haaviston-puhe-suurlahettilaskokouksessa-23-8-2021: German Coalition Agreement, 2021.

25. European Union, “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe; A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy,” June 2016, pp. 41–42, https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eugs_review_web_0.pdf.

Oliver Meier is a senior researcher in the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH). Maren Vieluf is a researcher in the Challenges to Deep Cuts Project in the Berlin office of IFSH.

Deep divisions over the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are hampering the ability of Europe
to influence the goal of nuclear disarmament.

Revitalizing the Missile Technology Control Regime

December 2021
By William Alberque and Timothy Wright

More states than ever have cruise and ballistic missiles in their arsenals. In 1987, for instance, only three states—the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union—possessed cruise missiles. Twenty-three states and one nonstate actor possess them today. The demand for these systems is partly driven by their increasing utility, resulting from exponential improvements in survivability, accuracy, and speed. Missile proliferation has been accelerated by the spread of enabling technologies that have allowed more actors to overcome previous structural hurdles.

India unveils a second generation rocket, called the Geo Synchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV). It is capable of placing 2,000 kilogram satellites in orbit roughly 36,000 kilometers above Earth. In 2001, the project was sanctioned by the United States under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). (Photo by Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)These and other threats present significant challenges to those who seek to maintain global governance and restrictions on missiles. The landscape has altered dramatically since the end of the Cold War, when the most significant effort to stop the spread of missile technology through multilateral export controls, known as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), was established. As a result, there is an urgent need for innovative thinking about how to reform the existing governance structure. The responsibility to do so needs to be global, and the choices will be difficult. Political will at the highest level is essential.

The Regime

The MTCR is a technology-focused export control regime, comprising a voluntary association of 35 member states that apply agreed standards, known as the Guidelines for Sensitive Missile-Relevant Transfers, to limit the export of technology that can be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It differs from most other export control regimes by creating a presumption of exportation denial of longer-range ballistic and cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as the most worrisome technology related to their manufacture.1 The MTCR puts the burden for compliance on the sellers rather than the buyers, but it contains no verification or enforcement requirements. The guidelines include a detailed technical annex that defines complete delivery systems and production facilities, known as Category I items, as well as supporting equipment, software, and technologies that could contribute to building delivery systems, known as Category II items.2

The scope of the MTCR has expanded considerably over the past three decades. The regime was secretly negotiated by the Group of Seven (G7) nations and announced on April 16, 1987, to address what was seen as an urgent proliferation crisis driven by detected or suspected sales of nuclear-capable missiles by the Soviet Union and China, as well as emerging and advanced missile programs in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa. The MTCR also was influenced by a series of breakthroughs in bilateral negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States, including a decision after the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik to conclude the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned both countries from possessing ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The INF Treaty drafters intended for the MTCR to reinforce the treaty by providing global limits on the spread of missiles, missile components, and related technology and by focusing on ballistic missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram warhead a distance of 300 kilometers. This range was based on the performance of the Soviet-designed Scud short-range ballistic missile, which at the time was thought to be the technological threshold for a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

In 1992, the regime was altered to include all potential systems capable of delivering chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, except manned aircraft, thus expanding the regime’s scope to include UAVs, target drones, and cruise missiles. Members also began issuing regular appeals to nonmember states to apply the MTCR guidelines on a voluntary basis and declare themselves “universal adherents.”3 Following the September 11 attacks, the MTCR’s goals were expanded to address missile transfers to nonstate actors, as reinforced by UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

Regime Strengths

The MTCR is a supply-side arrangement that has evolved into a global norm, increasing security and helping to curb missile proliferation. This occurred despite the absence of a universal, legally binding treaty within the UN framework. The MTCR is not a panacea and has many faults, but it also has strengths and demonstrable successes.

The regime’s membership incorporates many of the most important state possessors and producers of missiles and related technologies. The roster grew from the original G7 states in 1987 to 32 members in just more than a decade. Further growth has since slowed, with only three additional states—Bulgaria, India, and South Korea—joining since 1998. Given that New Delhi possesses nuclear weapons, Seoul historically has employed a nuclear hedging strategy, and both states operate diverse missile programs, their inclusion in the regime marks an important effort to control potential missile proliferation.4

Furthermore, by limiting membership to the most significant states that possess delivery systems and related technologies, the MTCR’s three expert working groups can operate at the highest levels of detail.5 The resulting MTCR annex is an impressive achievement, with an agreed scope and a set of definitions of the highest technical complexity. The expertise provided by MTCR working group members also means the annex is continually updated by some of the world’s most knowledgeable missile technology experts. The annex has such as an extraordinary level of detail, relevance, and scope that it forms the basis for stricter missile technology controls enacted under other UN Security Council resolutions.6

One weakness of the MTCR is that China, which has a rapidly growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, like the missiles shown here, does not belong to the regime.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)The adaption of a fully elaborated and well-defined list of WMD-capable delivery systems creates a nonproliferation norm through the presumption of denial standard for Category I items and establishes the principle that states pursuing missile exportation or acquisition will be scrutinized. Paragraph 2 of the MTCR guidelines notes that “particular restraint will be exercised in the consideration of Category I transfers regardless of their purpose, and there will be a strong presumption to deny such transfers.”7 The particular restraint and presumption to deny standards for the most concerning systems and their enabling technologies therefore put pressure on countries, whether regime members or not, to adhere to the guidelines.

Finally, the MTCR has a program of regular outreach that seeks to persuade nonmember states to adopt MTCR controls through partnership and the “adherent” system. This is an important evolution because it has allowed nonmember states to adhere not simply rhetorically but through a formal mechanism.8 Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Latvia are recognized adherents while China and Israel have declared themselves as self-adherents.

Together, these factors have played a role in slowing or stopping several significant missile programs, including the joint Argentine-Egyptian-Iraqi Condor II ballistic missile program; the missile stockpiles of former Warsaw Pact states that had aspirations to join the EU, NATO, and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; the missile programs of India and South Korea; and Libya’s Category I missiles.9 Although other factors, including diplomatic and economic pressures and incentives, encouraged these positive outcomes, the MTCR regime played an important contributory role.

Unilateral and Institutional Constraints

Despite these MTCR strengths, if a state decides to acquire advanced missile technology and is willing to pay the costs, it likely will succeed. Although the MTCR can delay, complicate, and raise the political and economic costs of such a decision, the regime is unable to prevent or reverse missile proliferation unless member states wield an array of other separate security, diplomatic, or economic incentives or punishments. Moreover, the regime has an innate discriminatory nature that has been exploited as MTCR members trade among themselves and sometimes seek special exemptions or allowances for trade or other forms of support with states inside and outside the regime.

The MTCR’s powerlessness to unilaterally prevent missile proliferation reflects its voluntary character, the lack of formal linkages to the UN system, and the facts that adherence to the guidelines is entirely self-enforced and that no sanctions or penalties can be imposed on states that circumvent the regime.10 The regime also has shortcomings in membership because it does not include states with significant ballistic and cruise missile programs, including China, Iran, and North Korea. Relatedly, the MTCR’s lack of commitment to halt missile development, production, or trade among members has led some nonmembers states to criticize its legitimacy. The impression that the MTCR is an exclusive club of haves and have-nots has resulted in some nonmembers labeling it a cartel.11

There are other institutional weaknesses that affect efficacy. The regime requires consensus for decisions, thereby limiting its ability to quickly resolve political issues or adapt to change. The consensus rule has prevented expanding membership to key states due to unrelated political considerations, such as Italy blocking India’s membership bid due to a dispute following New Delhi’s arrest of two Italian servicemen.12 An area where advancements in capabilities have outstripped the agreed MTCR guidance is UAV technology, whose utility has improved substantially since MTCR restrictions on exporting these systems were adopted in 1992. These restrictions were implemented due to concerns that UAVs might be used for delivering chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Given the growing global demand for acquiring these systems for conventional purposes by non-MTCR members, such as China, the United States proposed changes to allow the exportation of UAVs that cannot exceed an airspeed of 800 kilometers per hour.13 After its proposals failed to gain consensus, Washington took unilateral action.14 In this case, consensus changes to the regime were hampered by a combination of problems, including the disconnect between technical experts and political representatives and competing economic and nonproliferation interests between members.15

The regime is also weakened by its lack of a permanent secretariat. This places a strain on France, which serves as the MTCR host and “point of contact,” and prevents the development of a dedicated, professional, international staff that can carry forward the regime’s work in a consistent, focused way. The lack of a permanent secretariat can also impede faith in the implementation of the agreement, especially if a nonmember perceives itself to have differing interests from the point of contact.

Although the MTCR’s rotating chair demonstrates a lack of institutional bias and a sharing of leadership, this feature creates significant risks, including the possibility that a chair may lack the political clout or will to achieve anything during their term and that institutional knowledge will be lost and the momentum behind projects will dissipate each time the chair changes. The rotating chair has created uncertainty when countries have hesitated to volunteer for the chairmanship, requiring last-minute lobbying to persuade somebody to fill the position. This issue was temporarily resolved during the 2019 plenary meeting, as members agreed to three successive chairs until 2023, but no additional chairmanship appointments have been publicly agreed beyond that.16

The lack of technical expertise among some member and adherent states and the disconnect between technical experts and political representatives can burden MTCR chairs and stretch limited national resources and capabilities. Encumbrances in carrying out routine tasks can limit progress. For instance, in some member states, export control and arms control functions are housed in different departments; and economic and trade policies are considered separately from security policy, often to the detriment of all these equities.

Finally, the MTCR does not address vertical proliferation among missile producers, thus allowing these member states to develop and expand existing domestic programs. The regime also allows for continued cooperation among states with preexisting programs, such as the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile, which the UK and the United States both operate as part of their respective sea-based nuclear deterrents. In other instances, some states, such as South Korea, have received waivers and been able to expand their domestic ballistic and cruise missile production capability despite earlier efforts to limit their ambitions. Earlier this year, the United States agreed to lift all limits on South Korean missile development due to political pressure from Seoul following increased North Korean nuclear and missile threats.17

Incremental Reform of the MTCR

Advocates for incremental reform of the MTCR argue that the work needs to focus on achievable, “low-hanging fruit,” which is often described but somehow never harvested. Incremental approaches should likely be informed by Track 1.5 meetings, a UN Security Council Resolution 1540 comprehensive review, and possibly a convention of a high-level UN group of governmental experts with a clear mandate to identify specific proposals, backed by substantial political will to use upcoming MTCR plenaries to agree to changes. Although the previous UN expert group in 2008 was unable to agree to substantial changes, the current global environment of accelerating missile proliferation may provide a new impetus for future agreement.

Given the institutional weaknesses of the MTCR, establishing a permanent secretariat to support and improve national expert training, implementation of the regime, and information sharing should be a priority. It could help overcome the distrust of nonmember states who sometimes view the point of contact as a biased actor. Other aims should be opening internal processes and decision-making to greater scrutiny and increasing MTCR engagement with other global and regional initiatives, such as the Missile Dialogue Initiative and the Warsaw Process Missile Proliferation Working Group.18

Such changes would initially require coordination and agreement in small groups followed by sequencing and leadership of outreach to members and nonmembers alike to build support for any changes. Progress would require sustained engagement within and among governments to bring together the correct mix of diplomats and experts on arms control, export control, missile and UAV technology, security policy, and intelligence. Even so, such an incremental process would take years and would have a low likelihood of success based on the failure of all recent efforts toward systemic reform. That calculation is only likely to change if there is some catalytic event that is so broadly destructive or destabilizing that the major powers begin spending the political capital necessary to make significant changes.

Russian mobile launchers carrying Yars nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles are among the systems limited by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). (Photo by Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images)There is hope for a more radical approach. Russia, as it took over the rotating MTCR chair in 2021, expressed interest in radical reforms to global missile governance. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, in his address to the MTCR plenary on October 6, called for an experts group to begin talks on a legally binding global missile treaty.19 So far, the membership has not expressed enthusiasm for this proposal, but it may be an opening for more ambitious ideas. A radical approach could also be timelier, insofar as it may channel Russia’s enthusiasm for change and make some incremental changes more achievable than they are today.

Radical Approaches to Change

More drastic approaches to MTCR reform should be designed so that even if such efforts fall short, they change the terms of the debate and help advance the goals anticipated under the incremental reform rubric.20 Support for a broad package of radical changes does not require abandoning the existing MTCR framework, but rather reconsidering the scope, scale, membership, and impact of the regime. This could include, for instance, setting limits on the spread of UAVs capable of launching missiles above a certain speed and establishing a code of conduct for their use that would incorporate the standards of international humanitarian law.

Rather than focusing singly on the MTCR, states could deliver more useful benefits and provide a radical change to global missile controls by strengthening and increasing the MTCR’s complementarity with other frameworks, including with UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which is aimed at preventing nonstate actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivery, and the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, a voluntary transparency and confidence-building instrument that aims to establish norms around ballistic missile proliferation.21 This initiative could include having the UN General Assembly pass a resolution to form an experts group to design a global agreement within the United Nations to subsume the MTCR and the Hague Code of Conduct. The eventual structure could include transforming the MTCR into a technical body focused on the MTCR annex and its expert working groups, which would present options to the Hague Code of Conduct, which would act as a plenary body for decisions and promulgation.

A larger change could involve expanding the Resolution 1540 infrastructure into a joint secretariat with the MTCR and Hague Code of Conduct in Vienna, with a secretary-general appointed by the UN and an ad hoc national chair rotating every two years, along with regular monthly technical and political meetings and an annual decision-making plenary. Considering the dual capability of civilian space technology, a possible agreement could also integrate the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, the MTCR, and the Hague Code of Conduct, with the proposed secretariat providing a common operating framework that encompasses national policy, launches, and situational awareness in outer space under one umbrella. Finally, incorporating the Proliferation Security Initiative into the expanded organization would enable broader cooperation on interdiction.

Other functions could include the development of new confidence-building measures modeled after U.S.-Russian missile launch and strategic exercise notifications and the establishment of national risk reduction centers and a central data-fusion center to increase transparency and minimize risk.22 Sharing the benefits of the peaceful pursuit of space launch capabilities, including communications and navigation, with less capable member states would reduce the conceptions of have and have-not states.

Setting forth obligations regarding transparency and responsibility for corporations and other entities seeking or using satellite launch vehicle capabilities would ensure that commercial firms are not overlooked and minimize disguised civil-military fusions. Incorporating targeted UN implementation, enforcement, and reporting measures, based on those used to limit the missile programs of Iran and North Korea, into the agreement would provide codified penalties for violations. This could be taken one step further by codifying all of the above into a unified agreement, which could be named the Missile and Space Technology Transparency and Control Treaty (MASTTRACT), or the Missile Nonproliferation Treaty (MNT).

Limited Time to Act

The MTCR’s original purpose was to limit the proliferation of missiles that could deliver a 500 kilogram warhead a distance of 300 kilometers. This was later expanded to limit the spread of all nonpiloted means of delivering chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The regime was also meant to establish a norm that would restrict activity by nonmembers, some of whom were active proliferators of missile systems.

The MTCR has successfully facilitated cooperation by like-minded states to limit the proliferation of missiles and associated technologies, and it has bought time by delaying and increasing the cost of these practices. Despite increases in membership and the broad application of the regime’s guidelines, the number of states that ignore the guidelines while possessing or producing systems capable of accurately delivering large payloads over long distances continues to increase. The regime has also allowed members to trade freely among themselves and to seek special exemptions or allowances for trade with states as needed, such as South Korea. These practices have allowed for exploitation, thereby weakening the efficacy of the regime and its relevance.

Meanwhile, many more countries have proven that they can overcome the technological hurdles that previously limited missile proliferation, including the ability to manufacture solid fuel propellants, miniaturized turbofan engines, complex rocket motors, precision guidance systems, and special-property materials for reentry vehicles.23 Most damningly, these capabilities are now within the grasp of nonstate actors, ranging from commercial firms such as Space X to insurgent groups such as Ansarullah.

Despite its successes, the MTCR has failed to substantially resolve the concerns that it was created to address. Further proliferation of missile technology, as demonstrated by Iran, North Korea, and nonstate actors such as Ansarullah and Hezbollah, is only a matter of time despite the likelihood of the UN Security Council adopting additional resolutions tailored specifically to prevent this from happening.

Reform of the MTCR’s scope and functions is the only viable path forward, and an incremental approach could deliver tremendous benefits. Achieving this will require long-term focus and significant political, intellectual, and financial commitments. Although a more radical approach is unlikely to be agreed among members and adherent states, if such radical ideas are pushed within an unofficial Track 1.5 format, they could shock the system toward incremental reform.

Recent decisions on waivers by the MTCR and unilateral reinterpretations of the regime’s scope are likely the beginning of a broader shift by member states away from the presumption of denial that is at the core of the MTCR. Even if no reform action is taken, it is likely that the UN Security Council will still look to the MTCR for guidance on national export controls, but this will occur as an increasing number of technologically advanced states outside the regime ignore or take advantage of MTCR limitations on member states by selling restricted items to interested buyers.24 Advanced missile and space launch technology will spread in the meantime as the world continues down a dangerous path. The world therefore must decide not only if it wants reforms that strengthen the MTCR, but whether it is really committed to making that reform happen.



1. Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), “MTCR Guidelines and the Equipment, Software and Technology Annex,” n.d., https://mtcr.info/mtcr-guidelines/ (accessed November 20, 2021).

2. MTCR, “Missile Technology Control Regime Equipment, Software and Technology Annex,” MTCR/TEM/2019/Annex, October 11, 2019.

3. MTCR, “Plenary Meeting of the Missile Technology Control Regime - Oslo, Norway — 29 June – 2 July 1992,” July 2, 1992, https://mtcr.info/plenary-meeting-of-the-missile-technology-control-regime-oslo-norway-29-june-2-july-1992/ (hereinafter 1992 plenary meeting).

4. Mark Fitzpatrick, Asia’s Latent Nuclear Powers: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (New York: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2016), intro.

5. There are three annual meetings of experts from Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) partners in support of the annual plenary meeting: the Technical Experts Meeting, which seeks agreement on updates to the MTCR Equipment, Software and Technology Annex; the Information Exchange; and the Licensing and Enforcement Experts Meeting.

6. Brendan Murphy, “Public Statement From the Plenary Meeting of the Missile Technology Control Regime, Sochi, 8 October 2021,” MTCR, October 26, 2021, https://mtcr.info/public-statement-from-the-plenary-meeting-of-the-missile-technology-control-regime-sochi-8-october-2021/ (hereinafter 2021 MTCR public statement).

7. MTCR, “Guidelines for Sensitive Military Missile-Relevant Transfers,” n.d., https://mtcr.info/guidelines-for-sensitive-missile-relevant-transfers/ (accessed November 20, 2021).

8. 1992 plenary meeting.

9. For further details on the specifics of some of these actions, see Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Argentina Missile Facilities,” December 7, 2011, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/argentina-missile-facilities/; “Bulgaria, Slovakia Still Hold SS 23s,” Arms Control Today, September 1997, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1997-09/arms-control-today/bulgaria-slovakia-still-hold-ss-23s; Kelsey Davenport, “Chronology of Libya's Disarmament and Relations With the United States,” Arms Control Association, March 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/LibyaChronology.

10. Jeffrey Lewis, “Storm Shadow, Saudi and the MTCR,” Arms Control Wonk, May 31, 2011, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/204051/saudi-arabia-storm-shadow-the-mtcr/.

11. Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Why Pakistan Doesn’t Want to Join the MTCR,” Dawn, June 30, 2016.

12. Tom Kington and Vivek Raghuvanshi, “Italy Blocks Indian Application to MTCR,” Defense News, October 17, 2015.

13. Valerie Insinna and Aaron Mehta, “Here’s How the Trump Administration Could Make It Easier to Sell Military Drones,” Defense News, December 19, 2017.

14. Daryl G. Kimball, “U.S. Reinterprets MTCR Rules,” Arms Control Today, September 2020, p. 32.

15. Mike Stone, “U.S. Relaxes Rules to Export More Aerial Drones,” Reuters, July 24, 2020.

16. Jeffrey Taylor, “Public Statement From the Plenary Meeting of the Missile Technology Control Regime, Auckland, 11 October 2019,” MTCR, October 18, 2019, https://mtcr.info/public-statement-from-the-plenary-meeting-of-the-missile-technology-control-regime-auckland-11-october-2019/; 2021 MTCR public statement.

17. Timothy Wright, "U.S. and South Korea Scrap Ballistic Missile Range Limits," IISS, June 2, 2021, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/06/us-south-korea-ballistic-missile-range-limit.

18. IISS, “Missile Dialogue Initiative,” n.d., https://www.iiss.org/research/defence-and-military-analysis/missile-dialogue-initiative (accessed November 20, 2021); U.S. Department of State, “Missile Proliferation Working Group Summary Statement,” November 15, 2019, https://2017-2021.state.gov/missile-proliferation-working-group-summary-statement/index.html.

19. 2021 MTCR public statement.

20. William Alberque, “Revitalising Arms Control: The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC),” IISS, November 2021, https://www.iiss.org/-/media/files/research-papers/iiss_revitalising-arms-control-the-mtcr-and-the-hcoc_mdi-02112021.pdf.

21. Kolja Brockmann, “Controlling Ballistic Missile Proliferation: Assessing Complementarity Between the HCoC, MTCR, and UNSCR 1540,” HCoC Research Papers, No. 7 (June 2020), https://www.nonproliferation.eu/hcoc/wp-hcoc/uploads/2020/06/Assessing-the-complementarity-vf.pdf.

22. U.S. Department of State Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, “Memorandum of Understanding on Notifications of Missile Launches (PLNS MOU),” December 16, 2000, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/trty/187152.htm.

23. Amy Nelson and T.X. Hammes, “Inevitable Bedfellows? Cooperation on Military Technology for the Development of UAVs and Cruise Missiles in the Asia-Pacific,” IISS, July 28, 2020, https://www.iiss.org/-/media/files/research-papers/cooperation-on-military-technology-for-the-development-of-uavs-and-cruise-missiles-in-the-asiapacifi.pdf.

24. Bradley Bowman, Jared Thompson, and Ryan Brobst, “China’s Surprising Drone Sales in the Middle East,” Defense News, April 23, 2021.

William Alberque is director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Timothy Wright is a research analyst and program administrator for defense and military analysis at the IISS.

The 34-year-old MTCR, an international export control regime, has slowed or stopped some significant missile programs but needs reform to deal with the increase in states adding ballistic and cruise missiles to their arsenals.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Submarines and Safeguards

December 2021
By Laura Rockwood

If the AUKUS deal, under which the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, goes forward, it will have a precedent-setting effect on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards implemented pursuant to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which is formally known as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said that the special arrangement that Australia must negotiate to acquire nuclear-powered submarines promised by the United Kingdom and the United States will require the agency “to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, which has never been done before, and it’s a very, very demanding process.” (Photo by Mandel Ngan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)These technical measures are at the heart of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. They are accepted by non-nuclear-weapon state-parties to the NPT through the conclusion of comprehensive safeguards agreements. Under these agreements, the agency is empowered to verify independently that such states are complying with their obligation not to divert nuclear material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Australia concluded such an agreement in 1974.1

The NPT does not prohibit the use of nuclear material for certain non-explosive military uses, such as nuclear naval propulsion. To accommodate that possibility, the comprehensive safeguards agreement includes a provision that allows a state to request the withdrawal of nuclear material from safeguards for use in such a nonprohibited activity. Prior to doing so, the state must conclude a separate, specific arrangement with the IAEA.

In the 40 years since the IAEA has been implementing comprehensive safeguards agreements, it has never concluded such an arrangement. If one results from the AUKUS deal, Australia, the IAEA, and the other two participant countries will have to take great care to avoid creating a loophole in such agreements that could provide cover for the diversion of nuclear material for use in a nuclear weapons program.

As IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi stressed to reporters on October 21, “There has to be a specific arrangement with the IAEA” that will require the agency “to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, which has never been done before, and it’s a very, very demanding process.”

Legal Framework

All comprehensive safeguards agreements are based on INFCIRC/153, a document negotiated in the 1970s by a committee of the IAEA Board of Governors that was open to all members of the agency.2 As regards submarines, the most important provision is paragraph 14, entitled “Non-application of safeguards to nuclear material to be used in non-peaceful activities.” It contains the procedures to be followed in the event that a state wishes to “exercise its discretion to use nuclear material required to be safeguarded under the agreement in a nuclear activity which does not require the application of safeguards.” This is often referenced as the “withdrawal” of nuclear material from safeguards, distinguishing it from provisions related to the termination of safeguards on nuclear material, for example, if the material has become practicably irrecoverable, and to the exemption of nuclear material from safeguards, such as for use in a non-nuclear activity.

Pursuant to paragraph 14, before any nuclear material may be withdrawn from safeguards for use in such an activity, the IAEA and the state concerned must “make an arrangement” so that safeguards will not be applied only while the nuclear material is being used in that activity.

The drafters of INFCIRC/153 insisted on this as a means of balancing a state’s interest in protecting militarily sensitive information while ensuring, to the extent possible, that the withdrawal of nuclear material from safeguards would not create opportunities for the state to divert the material for prohibited purposes.

The withdrawal of nuclear material under paragraph 14 is not automatic and is not intended as a blanket exemption for nuclear material, facilities, or activities due to their military nature. A state may not withdraw nuclear material from safeguards without invoking paragraph 14 and concluding an arrangement with the IAEA.

Only Canada has ever invoked paragraph 14. Although discussions on a possible arrangement with the IAEA were initiated in the late 1980s, Canada decided not to pursue the project, and no arrangement was ever concluded.

Brazil is the only non-nuclear-weapon state with an active nuclear naval propulsion program. Some experts worry that the AUKUS deal, in which Australia plans to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the UK and the United States, will encourage other countries to pursue this technology. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel / AFP via Getty Images)Brazil, the only non-nuclear-weapon state with an active nuclear naval propulsion program, has already announced its plan to build a land-based prototype for a submarine reactor and has provided facility design information to the IAEA. Unlike the AUKUS project, the Brazilian project is based on a domestic fuel cycle, including conversion, enrichment of nuclear material using low-enriched uranium, fabrication of the fuel, and assembly of the fuel into a reactor core. The IAEA has not received a request from Brazil to conclude a relevant arrangement.

In 2012, Iran also announced its intention to produce nuclear-powered submarines3 and recently started producing uranium enriched to 60 percent in uranium-235.4 Although Iran also recently alluded to the possible use of 60 percent-enriched uranium for a submarine program, no formal announcements have been made. South Korea has also expressed interest in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines and commissioned a feasibility study in 2017.5 Neither Iran nor South Korea has raised with the IAEA the prospect of concluding a paragraph 14 arrangement.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Germany and Japan developed nuclear naval propulsion but for civilian application to surface ships.6 No special safeguards arrangements were concluded with either country.

Questions to Answer

The key process-related question is whether approval by the IAEA Board of Governors is required for a paragraph 14 arrangement. Paragraph 14 speaks only of the IAEA agreeing on the arrangement, not whether such an arrangement would be subject to board approval.

An exchange of letters between the IAEA and Australia in 1978 concerning the secretariat’s handling of paragraph 14 requests is likewise ambiguous, but suggests that the board would determine the appropriate action.7 Should the matter be presented to the board by the director-general, the board itself could decide whether approval is necessary.8 Given the divergent interests of the states represented on the board, the results of such deliberations are far from predetermined and could become quite political and contentious.

There are also substantive issues associated with the use of nuclear material in a nonproscribed military activity and the conclusion of an arrangement under paragraph 14.

Details of the arrangement. Paragraph 14 requires that “only while the nuclear material is in such an activity, the safeguards provided for in the Agreement will not be applied” and that safeguards are to apply again “as soon as the nuclear material is reintroduced into a peaceful nuclear activity.” The arrangement must identify, to the extent possible, the period or circumstances during which safeguards will not be applied. It also must provide for the IAEA to be kept informed of the total quantity and composition of the material withdrawn from safeguards, whether in the country or exported.9

In addition, the arrangement may only relate to “such matters as” temporal and procedural requirements and reporting arrangements. The list in INFCIRC/153 of what the arrangement may include is not exhaustive and the IAEA and the states involved must work out the details. In agreeing to such an arrangement, however, the IAEA has no authority to require information deemed by the state to be classified or to approve or disapprove the activity in question.10

Withdrawal of material from safeguards and safeguards reapplication. The material should spend as little time as possible outside safeguards. As agreed by the drafters of INFCIRC/153, “[S]uch peaceful nuclear activities as transport and storage, and activities or processes which merely change the chemical or isotopic composition of nuclear material, such as enrichment or reprocessing, are not intrinsically military and, therefore, [are] not entitled to exclusion from safeguards under paragraph 14.”11 Insofar as Australia could be receiving submarines already equipped with the reactors,12 there inevitably will be some transport and storage of the submarines, which will have to be addressed. As Australia will not be engaged in enrichment or reprocessing of the reactor fuel, that could simplify the negotiation process. Yet, there needs to be clarity regarding when the nuclear material in the reactor would have to be brought back under safeguards.

This Australian Collins Class submarine is among those to be replaced under a new defense agreement among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. (Photo by POIS Yuri Ramsey/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images)Implications for additional protocols. The implementation of an additional protocol could mitigate the possible negative impacts on safeguards of a paragraph 14 arrangement. An additional protocol offers the IAEA expanded access to information and locations, which increases the agency’s ability to detect indications of undeclared nuclear material and activities. Many measures contained in an additional protocol, such as the IAEA’s right to request access to and information about nuclear fuel-cycle-related research and development activities not involving nuclear material, could be relevant to a nuclear naval propulsion program, depending on what activities are actually carried out by the non-nuclear-weapon state.

Australia concluded an additional protocol in December 1997.13 Would some of these provisions be suspended as well? If so, how would that impact the IAEA’s ability to determine whether a state is pursuing undeclared nuclear activities?

More complicated still is how such a suspension might impact the IAEA’s drawing of “safeguards conclusions,” in particular the drawing of the “broader conclusion.” Each year, the IAEA draws a safeguards conclusion for each state in which safeguards were implemented during the previous year. If a state with a comprehensive safeguards agreement has an additional protocol in force and the IAEA sees no indications of the diversion of declared nuclear material and no indications of undeclared nuclear material or activities in the state, the agency draws a “broader conclusion” that “all nuclear material remained in peaceful activities.” Would the IAEA still be able to draw such a conclusion? Would there have to be a reformulation of the broader conclusion?

Although it is tempting to suggest that no paragraph 14 arrangement should be approved unless a state has an additional protocol in force, such a position is likely to meet resistance among NPT states-parties, given the insistence by many states on the voluntary nature of such protocols.

Military-to-military transfers and paragraph 14 arrangements. The question has been posed whether a transfer of nuclear material from a military program in a nuclear-weapon state to a military program in a non-nuclear weapon state—a so-called military-to-military transfer—would fall outside the requirements of the NPT or INFCIRC/153. The answer is no. Any efforts to circumvent the paragraph 14 mechanism should be resoundingly rejected, not just from a policy perspective but from a legal perspective. This approach was actually raised in the context of the Canadian project and rejected by the secretariat.

Paragraph 1 of INFCIRC/153 tracks the language of the NPT in requiring the application of safeguards “on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities.” The reference to peaceful nuclear activities was intended to accommodate the interest in nuclear-powered submarines among some non-nuclear-weapon states in the late 1960s. It was not intended as a means for securing an exclusion of nuclear material from safeguards due its use in a military activity.

Paragraph 34(c) requires that nuclear material of a composition and purity suitable for fuel fabrication or isotopic enrichment or produced later in the nuclear fuel cycle, as the nuclear material in a reactor core would be, become subject to all safeguards procedures upon its import into a state with a comprehensive safeguards agreement. Unlike other provisions in paragraph 34, subparagraph (c) is not limited to the import of such material for particular purposes. Thus, the nuclear material contained in a reactor would become subject to safeguards upon its import, regardless of the purpose for which it is imported.

Finally, pursuant to paragraphs 92 to 96, a state must provide advance notification to the IAEA of the expected transfer into the state of nuclear material in an amount greater than one effective kilogram, as would be the nuclear material in a reactor core, and in any case not later than the date on which the recipient state assumes responsibility for the material. Likewise, the state would be obliged to report the export of such material. None of these provisions has an exclusion for nuclear material used in or transferred for a military purpose.

The general rule under customary international law for interpreting a treaty is that a treaty should be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of an agreement in their context and in light of its object and purpose. From a plain reading of INFCIRC/153, safeguards agreements must be interpreted as states having committed themselves to notifying the IAEA of the production and import of nuclear material even if the material is intended for use in a nonproscribed military nuclear activity. Such states also are committed to abiding by the provisions of paragraph 14 should they wish to use nuclear material in a nonproscribed military nuclear activity.

Under customary international law, supplementary means of interpretation, such as the negotiating history of a treaty, may be used to confirm the ordinary meaning resulting from the application of this general rule. The negotiating history also can be used to determine the meaning of a treaty when interpretation in accordance with the general rule results in an ambiguous or obscure interpretation or leads to a result that is manifestly absurd or unreasonable. In this instance, the interpretation resulting from the application of the general rule does not result in an ambiguous, obscure, or manifestly absurd or unreasonable interpretation of INFCIRC/153. Nevertheless, it is useful to review the negotiating history, which clearly confirms that interpretation.

The negotiators agreed that the IAEA “should be consulted and satisfactory administrative arrangement[s] reached concerning the use of any nuclear material for a military purpose permitted under [the NPT], whether or not the material was initially under safeguards.”14 They also noted that “[t]he provision should thus be applied to all material which was either actually under safeguards and to be withdrawn or which had never been placed under safeguards and which was intended to be used in a permitted nuclear activity.”15 Finally, the negotiators made a change to the secretariat’s proposed draft of paragraph 14 to avoid any ambiguity that might suggest that nuclear material would not be subject to safeguards if it were assigned at the moment of production to a non-explosive military activity.16

Thus, to interpret paragraph 1 as providing what would be tantamount to an automatic exclusion from safeguards of nuclear material because it is used in or was produced for use in a military activity would be manifestly absurd and unreasonable. It would create an enormous loophole in safeguards, thereby defeating the very object and purpose of comprehensive safeguards agreements, contrary to international treaty law.17

Although some will argue that Australia’s sterling nonproliferation credentials should allow for greater flexibility, any arrangement will inevitably be invoked as a precedent by other states.

In fact, as Grossi told reporters, it “cannot be excluded” that other countries would use the AUKUS precedent to pursue their own nuclear submarine plans. General Sir Nicholas Carter, the departing UK chief of the defense staff, recently suggested that Japan, Canada, and New Zealand could eventually join the AUKUS partnership.

To that end, whatever the arrangement, it must be designed as fit for purpose, which is to say, it cannot be used to defeat safeguards regardless of who the partner states might be. Ultimately, the acceptability of any given arrangement should be judged on its nonproliferation merits and be able to survive the following test: if the names of the parties involved are changed, is it still acceptable?



1. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “The Text of the Agreement Between Australia and the Agency for the Application of Safeguards in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/217, December 13, 1974.

2. IAEA, “The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/153 (Corr.), June 1972 (hereafter INFCIRC/153). The paragraph numbers in INFCIRC/153 correspond, by and large, to article numbers in the actual agreements. To avoid confusion, this article will refer to paragraphs as reflected in INFCIRC/153.

3. Olli Heinonen, “Nuclear Submarine Program Surfaces in Iran,” Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, July 23, 2021, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/nuclear-submarine-program-surfaces-iran; Tom O’Connor, “Iran Says It Wants Nuclear Submarines to Power Up Fleet After Confrontation With U.S. Navy,” Newsweek, April 17, 2020.

4. Uranium enriched to a level of 20 percent or higher uranium-235 is considered to be highly enriched uranium. Uranium that is enriched below 20 percent U-235 is referenced as low-enriched uranium.

5. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “South Korea Submarine Capabilities,” February 17, 2021, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/south-korea-submarine-capabilities/.

6. In the case of Japan, its surface vehicle Mutsu (1970–1992) never carried commercial cargo and was converted to diesel engine power in 1996. Germany’s Otto Hahn (1968–1979) was converted to diesel engine power in 1979.

7. IAEA, “Exchange of Letters Between the Resident Representative of Australia and the Director General,” GOV/INF/347, November 27, 1987. See Laura Rockwood, “Naval Nuclear Propulsion and IAEA Safeguards,” Federation of American Scientists Issue Brief, August 2017, https://uploads.fas.org/media/Naval-Nuclear-Propulsion-and-IAEA-Safeguards.pdf.

8. See Rockwood, “Naval Nuclear Propulsion and IAEA Safeguards,” p. 11.

9. INFCIRC/153, para. 14(b).

10. INFCIRC/153, para. 14(c).

11. GOV/COM.22/53/Mod.1.; GOV/COM.22/OR.76, paras. 47–53.

12. It is not certain whether construction of the actual submarines will be in Australia, the United Kingdom or the United States.

13. IAEA, “Protocol Additional to the Agreement Between Australia and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/217/Add.1, February 9, 1998.

14. GOV/COM.22/OR.11, para. 40.

15. GOV/COM.22/OR.13, para. 11.

16. GOV/COM.22/53/Mod.1; GOV/COM.22/OR.76, paras. 47–53.

17. In 1993 the IAEA advised North Korea that there was no automatic exclusion for IAEA access to information or locations simply by virtue of such information or locations being associated with military activities.

Laura Rockwood is the director of Open Nuclear Network in Vienna. She retired from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in November 2013 as the section head for nonproliferation and policy in the Office of Legal Affairs after 28 years of service.

For Australia to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the UK and the U.S. as planned, it will have to negotiate an unprecedented safeguards arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems

December 2021

Digging Deep Into China’s Motivations and Intentions

China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems
James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt, Editors
(Georgetown University Press, 2021)
280 pages

Reviewed by Tong Zhao

Many op-eds have been written this year as more revelations emerged about the surprising speed and scale of China’s nuclear expansion. The reported construction of more than 200 new missile silos and the testing of an orbital hypersonic glider drew most of the international attention, but there may be more than meets the eye. Given that Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed the People’s Liberation Army in March to “accelerate the construction of high-level strategic deterrent” systems, more details about China’s comprehensive efforts to rapidly develop its nuclear triad capabilities will likely emerge.

These developments are taking place at a critical juncture, when the Biden administration is deliberating the future of the U.S. nuclear posture and China’s national power continues to grow even though the country’s overall strategic orientation has become increasingly unclear. In light of the growing ambiguities and all the moving pieces, only a holistic and systematic examination of China’s nuclear strategy could hope to offer deep and accurate insight about what is going on and the implications. The book, China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, edited by James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt with contributions from a stellar group of leading experts, does exactly that. Admittedly, the book does not include the most recent Chinese capability developments, especially in 2021. That would be an impossible task given the fast developments in the program. Yet, the book performs an excellent service by enriching the public debate with a deep, nuanced review of the key technical, doctrinal, geopolitical, and cultural dimensions of the evolving nuclear thinking that appears to be shaping China’s current and future policy.

Reasons for the Buildup

Such a holistic approach helps avoid attributing China’s nuclear buildup to any singular cause. For instance, even though the perceived threat from U.S. missile defenses may still be the most important technical factor affecting the calculations of Chinese nuclear strategists, the incremental development of these U.S. capabilities cannot satisfactorily explain the relatively abrupt acceleration of China’s nuclear buildup. The reported construction of hundreds of missile silos across at least three suspected silo sites—a deployment strategy not optimal for countering missile defense—also indicates a growing Chinese concern about a possible U.S. preemptive nuclear strike. Why does China believe there is a such a threat? Why is China experimenting with exotic nuclear delivery systems that other countries perceive as excessive for dealing with realistic threats in the foreseeable future? Many analysts stop short of asking these deeper and potentially more important questions, but this book makes a particular effort to address them.

At a military parade in 2019, China displayed DF-17 Dongfeng medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with a DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle. (Photo by Zoya Rusinova\TASS via Getty Images)The book includes a timely and helpful analysis of the impact of China’s contemporary worldview, which increasingly may be shaping its perception of and approach to nuclear weapons more than any technical factors. Contributing author Andrew Scobell observes that China’s major “defense projects are the logical manifestations of a highly determined Leninist regime possessing ‘an extreme sense of insecurity.’” This insecurity appears to have become even more extreme in recent years as efforts by China’s paramount leader to centralize domestic power and strengthen internal control were met with growing criticism from the United States and other Western countries over issues such as human rights, democratic governance, and the rule of law. The West’s efforts to defend these long-held principles and values thus present the gravest threat to China’s security, as a result of “national security being conflated with regime security” by Beijing. As the Chinese leadership becomes increasingly alarmed by the growing threat from the U.S. “ideological confrontation” with China’s “political security” and “regime security,”1 a stronger nuclear capability could force the United States to acknowledge mutual vulnerability and accept peaceful coexistence with China under its current political system.

Influential Chinese public opinion leaders such as Hu Xijin argue that to contain such U.S. “strategic ambition and restlessness” against China, Beijing has to build an arsenal greater than its traditional second-strike capability.2 Such views seem to resonate with a Chinese population that is increasingly nationalistic and likely also aligns with Xi,who sees the United States as “the biggest source of chaos in the present-day world” and instructs all party officials to adopt the “fighting spirit” against such threats.3 If Chinese leaders think nuclear weapons can and should play a greater role in countering perceived U.S. political aggression, it would significantly change China’s traditional approach to nuclear self-restraint. For instance, if the nuclear buildup does not lead to the expected result of making Western powers treat China with respect—by ending human rights-related pressure on China, for example—even more nuclear buildup might be viewed as necessary.

Beijing’s growing determination to achieve its perceived territorial interests may also account for the nuclear buildup. Some Chinese experts believe the expansion is directly driven by a growing determination to achieve national unification with Taiwan in the foreseeable future. If it comes to the point where that is only possible by military means, a stronger Chinese nuclear force could reduce the ability of the United States to use the threat of nuclear escalation to interfere in China’s conventional military operations across the Taiwan Strait. As long as Beijing can effectively contain the nuclear escalation threat from Washington, China’s growing conventional military advantages in the region give it confidence that it would be able to deter and defeat any conventional military interventions.

Contributing author Sugio Takahashi points out another potential driver of China’s nuclear buildup: its interest in acquiring the capability to manage escalations. A secure second-strike capability coupled with a massive retaliation policy could help China deter a large-scale nuclear attack, but may not credibly deter a small-scale, limited nuclear attack and could be viewed as insufficient for conducting nuclear escalation management operations. As early as the 1980s, Chinese nuclear strategists started thinking about scenarios other than an all-out nuclear exchange.4 It is possible that China has been interested in pursuing a more sophisticated nuclear capability and posture that allows it to conduct a symmetric or proportionate nuclear response on various rungs of the escalation ladder. Indeed, a more diversified and increasingly more accurate nuclear arsenal would allow China to hold at risk not only big cities and other types of soft targets but also a wide array of military targets at various ranges. This gives China the option of conducting limited, reciprocal nuclear countermilitary strikes at the regional or strategic level to achieve escalation management. Admittedly, such capabilities could also enable China to initiate a limited nuclear strike during a conventional conflict, although China’s growing confidence in its conventional capabilities would reduce the Chinese incentive to do so.

The ideological confrontation appears to have persuaded Chinese leaders that the United States is increasingly willing to take greater risks to destabilize China. This may have intensified Beijing’s concern about possible nuclear escalation by the United States if a future conventional conflict, such as one over the Taiwan Strait, starts to get out of control. U.S. efforts to introduce low-yield nuclear weapons into its arsenal, although primarily aimed at addressing the perceived threat of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons in conventional wars, have been interpreted by Chinese experts as Washington’s attempts to develop nuclear war-fighting capabilities that lower the threshold of nuclear use. As China’s concerns about U.S. nuclear coercion rise, its sense of urgency to acquire effective escalation-management capabilities probably grows too.

China’s more explicit pursuit of escalation-management capabilities would have important implications. Nuclear restraint is more difficult when a nuclear power’s goal is to manage escalation in addition to securing a credible second-strike capability. When two nuclear rivals compete over escalation management, their competition is likely to become more zero-sum in nature because one’s capacity to manage escalation would likely be viewed as threatening the other’s capacity to do so. This dynamic contributed to the insane nuclear arms race between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War and today could lead to greater risks of a U.S.-Chinese nuclear arms race.

At the operational level, the pursuit of an escalation management capacity could drive new technological development. China’s recent investment in theater-range nuclear forces could enhance its escalation management capacity at the regional level. Under a circumstance in which a potential nuclear conflict rises along the escalation ladder and involves a limited U.S. nuclear attack on selected military targets on Chinese territory, Beijing might need the capacity to effectively deliver a limited nuclear retaliation against selected military targets on the U.S. homeland too. China might not have viewed such extreme scenarios as sufficiently realistic previously, but its heightened strategic threat perception in recent years could motivate more serious planning against these circumstances. That could be especially true when Xi repeatedly admonishes Chinese officials to adopt so-called bottom-line thinking, which warns against underestimating the hostility of an enemy and stresses the importance of preparing for the worst possible scenarios.

Some experts believe that the Chinese nuclear buildup is driven, at least in part, by Beijing's determination to achieve national unification with Taiwan. Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers, pictured here, march during a parade in 1999. (Photo by Stephen Shaver/AFP via Getty Images)Delivering a limited nuclear strike against the U.S. homeland could impose a more demanding requirement on China’s capabilities than delivering a nuclear retaliation in an all-out exchange. Current U.S. homeland missile defenses cannot pose a realistic threat to China’s second-strike capability, but they could become a considerably greater threat to a limited Chinese nuclear strike. It is difficult to tell at this point whether China’s reported development of exotic nuclear delivery technologies, such as the reported test of an orbital hypersonic-glider system, is driven by an interest to acquire a limited nuclear strike capability against the U.S. homeland for the purpose of achieving escalation management. If escalation management indeed becomes China’s goal, however, traditional understandings about the U.S.-Chinese nuclear relationship and strategic stability would need to be fundamentally reexamined.

The New Political Reality

Contributing author Nancy Gallagher highlights the need to redouble efforts to engage China on arms control to contain the risk of a nuclear arms race and nuclear use. Yet, the U.S. debate on this issue remains limited. Many U.S. experts focus on the importance of technical-level factors such as missile defense and seem to believe that U.S. efforts to limit its missile defense capabilities by itself would effectively remove China’s incentive to build up its nuclear capabilities. This view may overestimate the importance of technical-level factors.

The much-heightened Chinese threat perception appears less driven by the incremental development of any one U.S. weapons systems than political factors such as the recent drastic shift in China’s domestic and international orientations and the subsequent ideological confrontation between Washington and Beijing. Whether China’s nuclear buildup is intended to further assure its second-strike capability and strengthen regime security and international political leverage, to prevent nuclear escalation in a conventional military maneuver to achieve unification with Taiwan, or to acquire an escalation management capacity, political and strategic considerations seem to influence China’s thinking more than technical factors.

As China undergoes significant domestic changes, international nuclear policy experts can benefit from developing a deeper understanding of the domestic environment in which China’s nuclear policy changes are taking place. Contributing author Brad Roberts wonders if “the sense of insecurity that grips China’s leaders is deeply engrained in” and “reinforced by the inherent [nature of the political system]…and cannot be washed away by increased military strength.” He writes that:

The consequences of China’s strategic military modernization are intimately connected with the fate of political reform in China. The apparent failure to liberalize as it modernizes has sharply lowered the expectations of those Chinese who had hoped that embracing economic reform would generate political change of a kind valued by democratic states. But China’s leaders have gone beyond a mere rejection of liberalization. Rather, they have framed the competition with the United States as significantly ideological in character, with the aspiration to provide a competing model for the correct ordering of political life and to see that model flourish elsewhere.

China policy specialists point out that another dimension of the domestic change is that the unprecedented concentration of decision-making power under one person would further remove any remaining internal checks and balances within the system. Tightened security rules in recent years work to ensure only a very small number of insiders know what capabilities China is developing and why. As the Chinese state media dismisses foreign reports of China’s nuclear expansion, the majority of Chinese nuclear policy experts have even less capacity to understand what is going on than their foreign counterparts who have access to satellite imagery and other open-source tools. At the unclassified level, there is very little expert discussion, let alone debate, in China about how much nuclear capability would be sufficient to achieve what security objective, and almost no question is raised about the rationale and wisdom of China’s current nuclear development and its future trajectory. As the system is increasingly reorganized to ensure efficient and unquestioning implementation of Xi’s vision, his apparent interest in acquiring a stronger nuclear force fuels a positive feedback process in which experts and officials find their own interests best served by promoting the leader’s vision. The system is ridding itself of the capacity to conduct self-reflection and course correction from within.

Ironically, in some cases, Western experts may be unconsciously contributing to the groupthink in China. Many U.S. experts are deeply frustrated with the polarizing partisanship and other seemingly insoluble problems in the U.S. political system. They do an invaluable service for the international community by scrutinizing U.S. foreign and security policy and holding the government accountable so that the No. 1 superpower does not make terrible policy choices and throw its own people and the rest of the world in harm’s way. This inclination for critical self-reflection and empathy toward one’s rivals is not only applaudable but imperative to resolve international disagreements and develop international trust. China, however, appears to increasingly dismiss the usefulness of alternative perspectives and reject the idea of internal checks and balances, working on the assumption that China is an inherently pacifist, responsible country and that any hope to stabilize the U.S.-Chinese relationship rests with Washington correcting its wrongful behaviors. As it happens, negative U.S. expert commentary about U.S. policy and sympathetic commentary about Chinese policy are widely promulgated in China and help reinforce the country’s self-perception.

This does not mean that Western experts should stop holding their own governments accountable, but there is a need for more nuanced understandings about how internal and external factors may work together to shape the strategic perspective of an increasingly centralized political system. If people really believe in the theorem that checks and balances are imperative for accountability, they should pay attention to any place where such checks and balances may be lacking. Especially in the nuclear field, any country’s bad choice can cause tremendous harm to all. As Xi likes to say, we live in an interconnected world.

In this spirit, I believe this book will help readers develop a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of China’s nuclear policy, along with its evolving strategic perspective, at a time when an informed and in-depth international debate is badly needed in order to promote clear and constructive thinking about the future.


1.  Dazhi Yang, “政治安全是国家安全的根本” [Political security is the root of national security], PLA Daily, April 20, 2018, http://www.mod.gov.cn/jmsd/2018-04/20/content_4809950.htm.

2.  Xijin Hu, “胡锡进看到了什么,强烈主张中国扩大核力量” [What Hu Xijin sees that made him strongly advocates[sic?] China’s expansion of nuclear forces], Global Times, May 9, 2020.

3.  Chris Buckley, “‘The East Is Rising’: Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent,” The New York Times, March 3, 2021; “习近平激励年轻干部发扬斗争精神” [Xi Jinping inspires young cadres to carry forward the fighting spirit], Xinhua News Agency, September 9, 2021, http://www.news.cn/politics/leaders/2021-09/09/c_1127842766.htm.

4.  Alastair Iain Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking’: The Concept of Limited Deterrence,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 1995-1996): 5-42.

Tong Zhao is a senior fellow at the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Editors James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt have produced an insightful book that enriches the public debate with a holistic and systematic examination of China’s nuclear strategy.

The Military Role in Nuclear Command and Control

December 2021

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was telling it like it is when it comes to the potential launching or firing of a nuclear weapon by the United States in a conflict. He definitely would be involved. (See ACT, June 2021.)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations on Capitol Hill on September 28, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry has alarmed the public by warning that there is no check on the raw power of the president to unilaterally order a nuclear strike—alternately termed “nuclear launch authority”—and that the commander-in-chief might “go rogue.” (See his 2020 book: The Button.)

In many fora, Perry has posed this question: “Almost every governmental process is subject to institutional checks and balances. Why is potential nuclear annihilation the exception to the rule?”

But is it an exception? With respect, the experienced Perry could not have overlooked an intervening military check and balance as part of the safeguards built into the process of executing the launch of the weapon.

Michael Schmidt, writing in The New York Times on Sept. 15, laid bare a code-word secret from the book Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. He quoted Milley from the transcript of a telephone conversation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as saying:

“The one thing I can guarantee is that as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I want you to know…in your heart of hearts, I can guarantee you 110 percent that the…use of military power, whether it’s nuclear or a strike in a foreign country of any kind, we’re not going to do anything illegal or crazy.”

Afterward, Milley summoned senior commanders to the Pentagon war room to review long-standing procedures for launching nuclear weapons, and affirmed, as reported by Isaac Stanley-Becker in The Washington Post, that “the president alone could give the order—but, crucially, that he, Milley, also had to be involved.”

“If you get calls,” General Milley was quoted by The Times as saying, “no matter who they’re from, there’s a process here, there’s a procedure. No matter what you’re told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure. You’ve got to make sure that the right people are on the net.”

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 28, Milley elaborated on his January conversation with Pelosi: “I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn’t launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.”

Milley is not in the chain of command—he is the principal military adviser--but he has now declared, publicly, that he must be kept “in the loop” on the decision to launch nuclear weapons, once ordered by the commander-in-chief.

Moreover, he is in the chain of communications when it comes to deploying troops or ordering strikes.

The events of the last year have presented the United States with an existential question: What is the military’s duty in curbing the unilateral power of a reckless commander in chief?

William E. Jackson Jr. was executive director of President Jimmy Carter’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control & Disarmament (1978–1980) and conducted a study of the command and control of nuclear weapons in the Executive Branch.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was telling it like it is when it comes to the potential launching or firing of a nuclear weapon by the United States in a conflict.

NPT States Prepare for a Critical Conference

December 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will convene in January for meetings that will shape the future of international arms control at a time when nuclear restraints are under severe stress and the outcome of the event is highly uncertain.

NPT conference president-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen (center) and UN High Representative for Disarmament Izumi Nakamitsu (right) at a Nuclear Discussion Forum at the Mission of Kazakhstan, in October. (Photo by Mission of Kazakhstan to the United Nations.)After multiple delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the president-designate of the 10th NPT review conference announced in November that the meeting will finally be held Jan. 4–28 at UN headquarters in New York.

The conference caps a five-year cycle of meetings in which states-parties review compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on steps to overcome new challenges to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

The conference outcome is still very much in flux, according to diplomatic observers and participants. The president-designate, Argentine diplomat Gustavo Zlauvinen, and his three co-chairs are facilitating talks with more than 100 states-parties on a wide range of topics. Reaching consensus on a final document and action plan will be challenging, hinging on a handful of key issues, observers say.

The Disarmament Deficit

Ahead of the conference, tensions among the five nuclear-armed NPT members have risen as costly Chinese, Russian, and U.S. programs to modernize their nuclear arsenals speed ahead. These developments, along with the dissolution of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the failure of the United States and China to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, have increased frustrations over the failure of the nuclear-armed states-parties to meet their NPT disarmament obligations. As a result, a central conference issue will be reversing this trend.

As Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, described the situation in October, “Announcements and allegations related to growing nuclear arsenals and new means of delivery have caused disquiet not only amongst the other nuclear-weapon states, but also among non-nuclear-weapon states who see such developments as incompatible with the obligations contained in Article VI of the NPT.”

The NPT obligation to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date may have seemed quaintly outdated a decade ago, perhaps, [but] now seems worryingly relevant,” she said.

Another focus will be whether the conference will reaffirm the political commitments agreed by consensus at the 1995, 2000, and 2010 conferences, which all produced a final document.

In 1995, states-parties extended the treaty indefinitely on the basis of a package of decisions that included specific actions on disarmament and on establishing a “zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) in the Middle East. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, states-parties went further, setting forth 13 “practical steps” on disarmament. The 2010 NPT Review Conference consensus document identified 22 “actions” to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Some NPT nuclear-armed states argue that some outcomes of past NPT conferences have been overtaken by events, are no longer valid, or must be updated.

The vast majority of the non-nuclear-weapon states take the opposite view. As Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde told the Conference on Disarmament in February 2020, “The disarmament-related commitments and obligations from past review conferences, notably in 1995, 2000, and 2010, remain valid. Several are still outstanding and should be implemented urgently.”

One goal that remains valid is pursuing steeper reductions in and maintaining verifiable, legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Russia and the United States, which agreed at the 11th hour to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until February 2026, will likely tout their renewed strategic stability dialogue and plans to seek a new agreement to supersede New START.

The United States will also likely cite its decision to disclose the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal as a contribution toward greater transparency. The Oct. 5 declassification announcement indicates that the total number of “active” and “inactive” U.S. warheads is 3,750 as of September 2020.

U.S. officials have said little about what specific commitments they might endorse at the conference. Some decisions may hinge on the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which is not expected to be released until after the conference concludes.

The Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction held its first session, shown here, in November 2019 at UN Headquarters in New York. The second session is taking place Nov. 29–Dec. 3 in the same venue. Whether to establish such a zone is among the issues to be considered at the 10th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in January, also in New York. (Photo by United Nations)Asked by Arms Control Today what the U.S. message at the conference will be, Anthony Wier, deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said in an email, “We are deeply committed to restoring U.S. leadership on arms control and nonproliferation and to working closely with our partners and allies to address 21st Century challenges. At the NPT RevCon, the United States will do just that.”

He stressed that “a successful outcome will require each of us to be flexible” and said the United States will “work constructively with all NPT parties to achieve a positive outcome, one in which we reaffirm our commitment to the treaty.”

“The world is far more stable, secure, and prosperous today than before the NPT entered into force. We must preserve and prolong these benefits of the NPT, and strengthen the NPT itself,” Wier added.

With discussions moving slowly at best, several states have advanced proposals to encourage dialogue on disarmament and reducing nuclear risks. Among these is the 16-nation Stockholm Initiative, which emphasizes the value of “further work by the nuclear-weapon states on nuclear risk reduction, including more robust bilateral and multilateral dialogue and policies and doctrines that could reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies, prevent escalation leading to the use of nuclear weapons, and lessen the danger of nuclear war.”

Ahead of the conference, representatives of the five NPT nuclear-armed states will meet in Paris on Dec. 2 for their annual P5 Process meeting, which was established in 2007. The agenda includes nuclear doctrines and strategic risk reduction. At the group’s meeting in 2020, the United States balked at a proposed joint declaration that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” At their summit last June, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that statement. Diplomatic sources told Arms Control Today that the P5 Process group is working on a joint statement on nuclear risk reduction that references the Russian-U.S. statement.

As Nakamitsu noted in October, “Of course, while nuclear risk reduction can and should be a facilitator of nuclear disarmament steps, it cannot substitute for such steps.”

In recent months, other groups of states, including the Stockholm Initiative, the New Agenda Coalition, and the Non-Aligned Movement, issued statements and working papers that suggest how the conference can advance disarmament. Whether the delegations can converge around modest steps that build on previous conference statements could determine the success or failure of this one.

The Nuclear Ban

NPT states-parties are also expected to debate how to deal with the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which enjoys strong support from most NPT states-parties but not from the nuclear-armed states and many of their allies.

Diplomats told Arms Control Today that it makes sense for the conference to acknowledge that the TPNW has entered into force and is viewed by its supporters as a contribution to fulfilling the NPT obligations. Participants likely will press for language reinforcing the 2010 consensus that expresses “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirm[ing] the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”

There are indications that a few NPT nuclear-weapon states, all of whom criticized the TPNW in the past, may temper their opposition in the interest of reaching agreement on other more substantial issues.

At a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and disarmament, said in answer to a question about the TPNW that the United States “still has concerns about the treaty, but we are also not telling countries that they shouldn’t sign and we’re not nearly as assertive as we were in the past about it.”

Sweden, which is not a TPNW party but plans to attend the first meeting of the TPNW states-parties in 2022 as an observer, is among those urging an end to polarizing tactics over the treaty. “It is essential that the upcoming NPT review conference does not turn into an argument for or against the TPNW,” Linde told Arms Control Today in May 2021.

“Digging ourselves deeper into trenches will not solve anything. Rather it may risk having a negative spillover effect on other issues,” she said.

Regional Issues

Meanwhile, disagreements persist about the process of establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone, despite a decision by the UN General Assembly to convene a UN-sponsored meeting on the issue in 2019.

Establishing such a zone has long been a priority for states in the region concerned about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But disputes over the agenda and format of meetings have stymied progress.

At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the United States vetoed the draft final conference document because it called for the UN secretary-general to convene a conference by March 1, 2016, aimed at “launching a continuous process of negotiating and concluding a legally binding treaty” establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. (See ACT, June 2015.)

The U.S. delegation, however, “was unable to accept an early deadline” for holding an initial conference on the zone and it objected to “Egypt’s insistence on deleting from the mandate the key phrase that the conference be held ‘on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at’… [which was] necessary not only to make an initial conference acceptable to Israel, but also for the credibility of any process that followed an initial conference,” according to former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Following the impasse, Arab states encouraged the UN General Assembly in 2018 to convene a conference on the establishment of the zone. The first session was held in November 2019. The second session is scheduled for Nov. 29–Dec. 3 in New York.

Zlauvinen told a gathering of diplomats on Oct. 27 that his consultations indicate that key states-parties remain divided as to whether the UN-convened meeting on the zone could advance genuine progress. “Aside from nuclear disarmament, this is the second most important challenge we face at the review conference,” he said.

Other Complications

The NPT conference typically involves hundreds of representatives from most of the 191 states-parties to the treaty, as well as nongovernmental organizations and meeting support personnel.

Even after three pandemic-related delays, the virus continues to complicate the work of conference delegates. Most premeeting consultations between the conference president and states-parties are usually in person, but global pandemic travel restrictions have relegated the bulk of this work to video calls.

Although the meeting will be held at the United Nations, diplomats will not have normal use of the building, and organizers have mandated that national delegations be smaller than usual.

The U.S. delegation has also been hampered by the fact that the special representative nominated by Biden to lead the team, Adam Scheinman, who also performed that function for the 2015 conference, has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The review conference marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force. As Zlauvinen said on Oct. 27, “[O]ne way that governments can show their strong support for the treaty is by attending at least the first few days of the conference at the highest levels.” He noted that he cannot dictate who those officials might be but made clear that “heads of state or foreign ministers would be more than welcome.”

The U.S. State Department’s Wier did not rule out that Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken might address the conference.

Before the conference was delayed last year, Zlauven said almost 40 foreign ministers and six or seven heads of state or government had been expected to attend.

States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will convene in January for a review conference that will shape the future of international arm control.

Pentagon Sees Faster Chinese Nuclear Expansion

December 2021
By Shannon Bugos

China is accelerating its development of strategic nuclear warheads in an effort to amass 700 by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030, more than doubling last year’s estimate, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s 2021 China military power report.

China's DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, shown here during a military parade in Beijing in 2019, are a component of the country's nuclear buildup. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)Viewed alongside recent revelations about the construction of at least 250 new missile silos in northwestern China, the annual report highlights a concerning nuclear buildup. Last year, the Pentagon estimated that Beijing had a total nuclear warhead stockpile in the low 200s and projected it would at least double over the next decade. (See ACT, October 2020.)

China is “investing in, and expanding, the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces,” according to the report, which covers developments through 2020.

“Our number-one pacing challenge is the People’s Republic of China,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby on Nov. 5.

Responding to the report’s release, State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated that the Biden administration has sought to engage China on arms control. “We think all responsible countries that have [nuclear] weapons should engage in an arms control dialogue,” he told a Nov. 4 press briefing. “We remain ready and willing to do that, and we’ve made that known to [Chinese] authorities.”

President Joe Biden also raised the possibility of opening a strategic stability dialogue with China, to include nuclear issues, during a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 15.

“The two leaders agreed that we would look to begin to carry forward discussions on strategic stability,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told a virtual event at the Brookings Institution the following day. Such a dialogue will need “to be guided by the leaders and led by senior empowered teams on both sides that cut across security, technology, and diplomacy,” he added. “It is now incumbent on us to think about the most productive way to carry it forward from here.”

Beijing repeatedly rejected Trump administration demands to join trilateral arms control talks with Russia and also rebuffed previous calls by the Biden administration to open a bilateral strategic stability dialogue. The Biden-Xi virtual summit seemed to suggest that Beijing now is at least willing to consider the possibility of dialogue.

China strongly denounced the Pentagon’s report.

“The Defense Department report, just like similar reports in the past, disregards facts and is filled with bias,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Nov. 4. He emphasized that China “actively advocates the ultimate complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons.”

China has an estimated 350 nuclear warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The United States and Russia have at least 10 times more, with estimated stockpiles of 3,800 and 4,500 warheads, respectively.

The report also comments on recent revelations that China is constructing at least 250 new long-range missile silos at as many as three locations in its northwestern region. (See ACT, September 2021.) Beijing “is building hundreds of new ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] silos and is on the cusp of a large silo-based ICBM force expansion comparable to those undertaken by other major powers,” says the report.

Whether China plans to fill every silo with a missile and how many warheads each missile might carry remains uncertain. At the moment, Beijing possesses approximately 100 ICBMs, which can be silo based or road mobile.

As with the report covering 2019, the 2020 report concluded that China aims to deploy roughly 200 warheads on ICBMs within the next five years, as well as to continue expanding its inventory of more than 200 DF-26 ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear and conventional warheads.

In 2020, Beijing also began to deploy the dual-capable hypersonic glide-vehicle system paired with a medium-range ballistic missile, known as DF-17. The Pentagon report did not comment on the allegation by U.S. intelligence sources that China tested in July a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, carried on a rocket, that flew through low-orbit space and circled the globe before striking within two dozen miles of its target. (See ACT, November 2021.)

China’s nuclear expansion “is certainly something that’s very concerning to us,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters ahead of the report’s publication. It “raises some questions about their intentions, because it’s one thing to observe what they’re doing, but they haven’t explained why they’re doing it.”

Caitlin Talmadge, an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University, echoed this concern, telling the Financial Times on Nov. 3, “If this was an emoji, it would be the ‘eyes popping’ emoji.”

Yet, Rose Gottemoeller, former U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and chief U.S. negotiator for the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, emphasized during a Nov. 17 event at the Arms Control Association that “there is no need to panic.” China has “a long way to go to catch up with the United States,” she said.

The report notes that Beijing plans to carry out the expansion by increasing its capability to produce and separate plutonium, which can be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons, through the construction of fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.

James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace expressed skepticism about this conclusion. Although it is “quite likely” that China will restart fissile material production, “I am not convinced by the argument in [the report] that it has already decided to do so,” he tweeted on Nov. 3.

Restarting production will require Beijing to master difficult technologies and carry “significant technical risk,” Acton wrote. “It doesn’t seem all that attractive from a military perspective.”

The report found that China has “possibly already established a nascent ‘nuclear triad’ with the development of a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile…and improvement of its ground- and sea-based nuclear capabilities.”

As in 2020, this year’s report highlights speculation among Chinese strategists that Beijing may need “lower-yield nuclear weapons in order to increase the deterrence value of [its] nuclear force,” although they have not defined specific nuclear yield values. China is not known to have fielded any low-yield nuclear weapons.

In addition to providing some details on China’s nuclear forces, the report describes Beijing’s nuclear policy doctrine. China has long held a no-first-use stance.

But the report notes “some ambiguity about conditions where Beijing’s no-first-use policy would no longer apply.” Some Chinese military officers have discussed using nuclear weapons first in cases when a conventional attack threatens the survival of China’s nuclear forces or of the country itself, the report said.

Although Beijing says it maintains an arsenal “at the minimum level required for national security,” the report suggested that the Chinese arsenal can more accurately be called a “limited deterrent,” which Chinese military officials have described as a level between a minimum and maximum deterrent.

“I do worry they’re going away from minimum deterrence because every indication is they are,” Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Oct. 28. “You don’t need to develop the kind of capabilities they’re developing for minimum deterrence.”

The report states that China “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning…posture with an expanded silo-based force.” Beijing likely views this posture as compatible with a no-first-use policy, the report added.

It is not established that Beijing has applied this approach to the majority of its forces, as the launch-on-warning posture appears primarily associated with exercises at this stage. The report also found that China “almost certainly keeps the majority of its nuclear force on a peacetime status—with separated launchers, missiles, and warheads.” With nuclear warheads separated from delivery vehicles, Beijing would require extra time to prepare its nuclear forces for launch.

Some experts say China’s nuclear expansion reflects concerns about U.S. missile defenses. But Tong Zhao, a Beijing-based senior fellow at Carnegie, argued in a Nov. 15 op-ed for The New York Times that, although technically correct, such an assertion “misses the bigger geopolitical picture.”

“It’s clear to me that Beijing’s nuclear buildup is ultimately an attempt to force Washington to drop the perceived strategic assault and accept a ‘mutual vulnerability’ relationship—in which neither country would have the capability or will to threaten nuclear war without risking its own destruction,” Zhao wrote.

China’s evolving capabilities are geared toward strengthening its ability to “‘fight and win wars’ against a ‘strong enemy,’” a likely euphemism for the United States, the report concluded, as well as to “coerce Taiwan and rival claimants in territorial disputes, counter an intervention by a third party in a conflict along [China’s] periphery, and project power globally.”

China Pushes 'Intelligentized' Warfare

The Pentagon’s 2021 report on China’s military strength highlighted another alarming claim in addition to the disclosures about the country’s expanding nuclear arsenal. That is that China will have completed by 2027 the modernization and what it terms the “intelligentization” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), thus investing it with the capacity to engage and defeat U.S. forces in a hypothetical war over Taiwan.

According to the report, the Chinese leadership has decreed a new milestone for military modernization in 2027, the 100th anniversary of the PLA’s founding, when the PLA will have achieved “the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization” of its forces. Once this process is completed, the report asserts, China would have access to “more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”

By means of informatization and intelligentization, the report claims, the PLA expects that the use of advanced technologies, notably artificial intelligence (AI), high-speed computing, sophisticated sensors, cyberweapons, and autonomous, or unmanned, weaponry, will enable it to prevail in high-intensity combat against a well-armed adversary, such as the United States.

“PLA strategists have stated new technologies will increase the speed and tempo of future warfare, and that operationalization of AI will be necessary to improve the speed and quality of information processing by reducing battlefield uncertainty and providing decision-making advantage over potential adversaries,” the report states. “The PLA considers unmanned systems to be critical intelligentized technologies, and is pursuing greater autonomy for unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles to enable manned and unmanned hybrid formations, [and] swarm attacks…among other capabilities.”

The PLA also is stepping up research on emerging technologies such as AI and autonomy and accelerating the incorporation of these technologies in combat-ready weapons systems, the report says. In particular, the Chinese are said to be rushing development and deployment of unmanned weapons systems, including aircraft, ships, submarines, and tanks. Such systems are intended to collect data on enemy movements and supplement the combat power of manned weapons. The PLA is developing the capacity to employ unmanned vehicles in “swarms,” using AI to coordinate the actions of multiple robotic weapons, the report added. Swarming technology has also been tested by the U.S. military, for example in the Navy’s Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 exercise of April 2021. (See ACT, May 2021.)

Although the report says China is developing unmanned weapons of all sorts, it provides detailed information on only one type: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The report says that the PLA has begun deploying its WZ-7 Xianglong “Flying Dragon” high-altitude reconnaissance UAV at airfields in western China and on Hainan Island. It is also continuing to develop the Shen Diao “Divine Eagle” long-range combat UAV and to upgrade its BZK-005 Chang Ying “Long Eagle” reconnaissance drone.

Equipped with these and other advanced systems, the Pentagon report concludes, by 2027 the PLA could be capable of repelling a U.S. counterattack should Beijing decide to invade Taiwan in order to secure the island’s unification with the mainland. Many independent analysts question this assertion, insisting that U.S. military capabilities are far superior to China’s and are improving all the time, thus negating any Chinese expectations of overpowering U.S. forces in such a contest. Nevertheless, the Pentagon’s claim that China is five years away from possessing the ability to defeat the United States in a war over Taiwan is certain to fuel efforts by Congress to increase spending on weaponry supposedly intended to defeat China in any such encounter.

China is accelerating its development of strategic nuclear warheads, more than doubling last year’s estimate, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s 2021 China military power report.

UN Panel Approves Working Group on Space

December 2021
By Mary Ann Hurtado

A UN panel has agreed to create an open-ended working group aimed at preventing an arms race in space, a major concern among UN member nations.

The UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security threats, voted 163–8 on Nov. 1 to establish the new group. It was proposed by the United Kingdom with support from nearly 40 other countries, including the United States. The working group will consider threats to space systems and recommend rules of the road for military activities in outer space.

The International Space Station is among countless assets that could be at risk in the event of a war in space. The UN General Assembly First Committee has voted to establish a working group to examine this challenge. (Photo by NASA)“The prevention of an arms race in outer space is a UK priority,” James Cleverly, the minister leading the UK portfolio on space security, said after the vote. “There is no doubt that there is a growing range of threats to space systems, and a risk that those threats could lead to miscalculation and, in turn, escalation and conflict. Only together can we find solutions to keep space peaceful, sustainable, and open to all,” he added.

The General Assembly is expected to formally approve the working group in December. According to the resolution, the group will “work on the basis of consensus, hold its organizational session in Geneva for two days, and meet in Geneva for two sessions of five days each in both 2022 and 2023.” A report to the General Assembly is due in the fall of 2023.

Driving this action is concern for the security of thousands of satellites and vehicles in orbit, such as the International Space Station. The United States has long dominated space, but many other nations also have valuable assets there. In the U.S. case, satellites enable the Pentagon to locate enemies on the battlefield, verify arms control treaties, and ensure early warning if an adversary targeted the country with a missile.

During the Cold War, the United States and Russia engaged in limited testing of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Russia tested one on Nov. 15 to destroy one of its own satellites, causing astronauts on the space station to take shelter when the craft intersected with the debris.

China and Russia are developing offensive capabilities, including jammers, lasers, and cyberweapons that could damage satellite operations. Even so, they have attempted to secure a ban on placing weapons in outer space within the Conference on Disarmament (CD), but the proposals have failed to generate traction. (See ACT, December 2020; November 2019.)

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have pressed countries to adopt a basic set of norms and rules for operating in space. In April, Gen. John Raymond, the chief of space operations, described the domain as the “Wild West.” In July, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed a memo pledging that the Pentagon would follow five “tenets of responsible behavior in space,” including operating with “due regard” for others and limiting the creation of space debris.

The First Committee meeting dealt with many other issues related to nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons.

On biological weapons, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily shaped the discussions. The United States proposed strengthening the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and promoting more rigorous compliance, but did not detail its plans. China urged member states to conduct responsible, bioscientific research and adopt the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists at the ninth BWC review conference in 2022. China, with Russian and Iranian support, also encouraged adoption of the legally binding BWC protocol and a “credible verification mechanism” to ensure adherence to BWC obligations.

U.S., European, and South Korean representatives urged North Korea to resume talks on its nuclear weapons program without preconditions. The UK in particular noted growing concerns about Pyongyang’s repeated ballistic missile launches. But China said that unnamed “relevant parties” should cease escalating tensions and implied that UN sanctions on North Korea should be lifted.

Meanwhile, Russia and the United States highlighted their recent decision to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until February 2026. Washington said the extension laid a “firm foundation” for potential future arms control with Moscow and emphasized the importance of their bilateral strategic stability dialogue, which resumed over the summer. (See ACT, September 2021.) Moscow stressed the need to develop a new “security equation” that would consider strategic stability factors.

France, South Korea, and the United States pressed the case of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who has blamed the Kremlin for his poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in 2020. Some states also emphasized the need to hold Syria to account for repeated violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Ahead of the review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in January, China, Russia, and North Korea expressed frustration with a lack of U.S. progress on its obligations under Article VI, which requires the treaty’s five nuclear-armed states-parties to take meaningful steps toward disarmament.

Beijing urged Washington to “abandon the Cold War zero-sum mentality” and safeguard global strategic stability, including by rejecting a new deal with the UK to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. (See ACT, October 2021.)

Russia said that by halting “face-to-face” diplomacy, the COVID-19 pandemic harmed the efficiency of the First Committee and the CD and increased tensions among member states. The UK countered that the lack of progress, especially in the CD, should be attributed to the states that prevented the adoption of a work program.

The UN General Assembly First Committee has agreed to create a working group aimed at preventing an arms race in space.


Russian ASAT Test Creates Massive Debris

December 2021
By Shannon Bugos

Russia conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) test on Nov. 15 to destroy one of its own satellites that has been in orbit since 1982, creating a field of at least 1,500 trackable pieces of debris in low orbit and threatening space operations and human spaceflight.

The Nudol PL-19, an anti-ballistic missile interceptor that also functions as an anti-satellite weapon, is the kind of system Russia used on Nov. 15 to destroy an aging satellite in space. The United States, Russia, and China are competing with each other in developing space-based missiles that can not only destroy ballistic missiles in the boost phase but can also target satellites in orbit.  (Photo by Russian Ministry of Defence)The destruction of the inactive Russian satellite, known as Cosmos 1408, caused the seven crew members aboard the International Space Station—four Americans, two Russians, and a German—to take shelter multiple times as the station’s orbit intersected with the debris and to seal off modules of the station. The collision occurred about 500 kilometers above the surface and 80 kilometers above the space station’s orbit.

“The long-lived debris created by this dangerous and irresponsible test will now threaten satellites and other space objects that are vital to all nations’ security, economic, and scientific interests for decades to come,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Nov. 15 statement. NASA said that it would monitor the debris in the coming days and into the future.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price added that “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical.”

U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander, also strongly denounced the test, charging that “Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners.”

Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby added that the United States has “been very clear we would like to see norms for space so that it can be used responsibly by all spacefaring nations.” In October, the UN First Committee voted to create a new working group to develop new norms of responsible behavior in space aimed at the prevention of an arms race.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the test on Nov. 16, but said that the test did not violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and that “the debris it produced did not create any threat and does not pose any obstacles or difficulties to the functioning of orbital stations and spacecraft, or to other space activities.” The treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction and prohibits the testing of any type of weapons in space.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also commented on the test, saying, “We’ve really tested a successful forward-looking system. It hit the old satellite.”

Condemnation of the test quickly rolled in from U.S. allies, members of Congress, and the expert community.

“This destructive anti-satellite missile test by Russia shows a complete disregard for the security, safety, and sustainability of space,” tweeted UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace on Nov. 15. “The debris resulting from this test will remain in orbit putting satellites and human spaceflight at risk for years to come.”

In Congress, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the test “makes it clear that Moscow is willing to threaten the peaceful use of outer space, further militarize this domain, and disregard any consequences for all nations.”

“We must hold Russia accountable with the support of our allies and partners,” Smith added.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), ranking member on the committee, released a statement describing the Russian test
as “concerning.”

Meanwhile, the Secure World Foundation called for “the United States, Russia, China, and India to declare unilateral moratoriums on further testing of their anti-satellite weapons that could create additional orbital debris and to work with other countries towards solidifying an international ban on destructive ASAT testing.”

“The continued testing or demonstration of anti-satellite capabilities, including the targeting of one own’s space objects, is an unsustainable, irresponsible, and destabilizing activity in space in which no responsible spacefaring state should engage,” the foundation said on Nov. 16.

The Russian test follows activity last year in which Moscow reportedly conducted nondestructive ASAT tests in April and July. During the latter test, a Russian satellite operated in abnormally close proximity to a U.S. satellite before maneuvering away to another Russian satellite, near which it released an object. (See ACT, May and September 2020.)

This is not the first time an ASAT test resulted in thousands of pieces of dangerous debris in space. China shot down one of its weather satellites in 2007, and India destroyed one of its satellites with a ground-launched ballistic missile interceptor in 2019. (See ACT, May 2019; March 2007.)

Russia conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test to destroy one of its own satellites, creating a large debris field and threatening space operations and human spaceflight.


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