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

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
January/February 2018
Edition Date: 
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
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Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority

January/February 2018
By Bruce Blair

U.S. nuclear launch protocol has important virtues and serious liabilities. Major changes are needed to constrain a president who would seek to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause and to prevent him or her from being pushed into making nuclear retaliatory decisions in haste.

From a Navy E-6 Mercury flying above the Pacific Ocean, an Air Force officer monitors the status of an unarmed Minuteman III missile being test launched April 26, 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, by a control system aboard the aircraft. The E-6, a version of the commercial Boeing 707 aircraft, is intended to provide a survivable communication link from the president and other elements of the National Command Authority to the U.S. nuclear forces. (Photo: Keifer Bowes/U.S. Air Force)The virtues of the protocol—the procedures and timelines for ordering the use of nuclear weapons and for carrying out such an order—are twofold. First, it concentrates launch authority at the highest level of the executive branch, the presidency, taking it out of the hands of the military and others. This is a function of paramount importance. The principle of civilian control over weapons of mass destruction must never be compromised. Together with the imposition of organizational and technical safeguards on the weapons and their handlers, the protocol elevates the locus of launch capability, as well as of launch authority, to the highest practical level.1

Second, it is designed to allow the president and the nuclear forces under his command to respond rapidly and decisively in the face of an enemy attack by nuclear-armed missiles that can fly from the opposite side of the planet to U.S. territory in 30 minutes or from forward-deployed submarines in 15 minutes.2 This is of critical importance in view of the acute vulnerability of U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications, as well as of a large portion of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, particularly the silo-based missile force and the bomber fleet in its normal peacetime posture.3

Despite fast-flying inbound warheads, the protocol on paper provides enough time for detecting and assessing an attack, convening an emergency conference between the president and his top nuclear advisers, briefing the president on his options and their consequences, authenticating the president’s decision, and formatting and transmitting a launch order to the launch crews in time to ensure the survival and execution of their forces.

The flip side of these virtues are serious liabilities. The protocol concentrates authority and emphasizes speed to such a degree that it may allow a president to railroad the nuclear commanders into initiating a first strike without apparent cause and quickly executing an order that may be horrifyingly misguided, illegal, or both. A demented commander-in-chief could start a nuclear conflagration that no one could forestall, veto, or stop.

Equally deleterious, a president can become hostage to the protocol itself, like a conductor on a runaway train, if an enemy nuclear strike appears underway. He may be pushed into hastily ordering “retaliation” in response to a false alarm. Rationality would be lost in the fog of crisis under a short deadline fraught with confusion and emotion.

Protocol for Intentional First Use

If the president wishes to order the first use of nuclear weapons, he would be expected to do so in close consultation with his top national security advisers, particularly the secretaries of defense and state (statutory advisers on the National Security Council), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser, and the senior generals who command the military forces. Depending on the urgency of the situation, this could be a protracted process with extensive planning, heightened force readiness, and regular briefings of the president, or it could be truncated to minutes if an imminent attack is perceived.

The so-called nuclear football, kept close to a president by a military aide, is a briefcase containing nuclear war plans and options (not communications gear) to enable a president to act in an emergency. This retired satchel was put on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  (Photo: Jamie Chung/Smithsonian Institute)When a decision is imminent, the process goes critical. The commander-in-chief would be connected to his key advisers via a secure communications network designed to support nuclear emergency actions. The president could initiate this conference anytime, even abruptly in the night, through his military aide who is always nearby with the “football”—a satchel containing the nuclear war plans, including a one-pager graphically depicting the major options at his disposal.

The best location for conferencing would be the blast-resistant emergency operations center under the East Wing of the White House. Advisers could be assembled there, and others linked by secure phone. Such a conference could be convened almost anywhere, from Mar-a-Lago or other locations or aboard his ground-transport vehicles and dedicated aircraft, including Air Force One and his “doomsday” plane.4 Secure communications are far less reliable when the president is traveling or in the process of being evacuated to a safe location.

The advisers may or may not join the conference in a timely way. If a brewing crisis suddenly escalates and catches them off guard, key advisers may fail to get on the call before a president decides the time to strike has arrived. During nuclear release exercises and real-world incidents involving North Korea and other nations over the past decade, missile launch preparations or actual firings posing a potential threat triggered emergency conferences, but notification often failed to reach key advisers in time. Sometimes none of the advisers checked in, leaving the president and the head of Strategic Command (StratCom), whose role is to brief the president on nuclear options and their consequences, alone in the hot seats.5

After this briefing, the president may seek advice from any, all, or none of the advisers in the room or on the telephone before rendering a decision, which likely but not necessarily involves choosing a preprogrammed option.6 Formally, he does not need any approval or consent, although StratCom or others on the call could attempt to dissuade the president if his thinking or final decision veer into the realm of the obviously misguided or illegal.7 Even the defense secretary has no particular role other than offering advice if asked. Contrary to widespread belief, he does not confirm the order or otherwise bless it in any way. But this is their last chance to change the president’s mind before a formal launch order is prepared by the Pentagon, disseminated, and inexorably implemented.

Listening in on the exchange is the Pentagon war room, a kind of boutique service dedicated to executing the orders of the president and the defense secretary.8 Following the drift of the conversation, this entity would start preparing a launch order. When the president finally declares his choice of option, it would challenge the president to authenticate using a special code known as the “biscuit,” or Gold Code. This would take a few seconds. If the codes match properly, it would quickly format and transmit a launch order over multiple communications channels directly to the submarine, bomber, and underground launch crews.

This would take a couple of minutes. Shorter than the length of a “tweet,” the order would specify the war plan, the time to begin the strike, an unlock code needed by the firing crews to release their weapons, and a Sealed Authentication Code that must match the codes in the firing crews’ safe. If the codes match, the crews assume the order originated with the president, even though all the codes in the launch order are held exclusively by the Pentagon war room and alternate command centers such as StratCom itself.

The underground Minuteman crews could complete their launch checklist in a little more than a minute. Today, as many as 400 missiles could be launched from their underground silos in less than five minutes after the president gave the order.9

Submarines and bombers would be the primary attackers in a scenario involving North Korea. With two boats typically on launch-ready patrol in the Pacific Ocean, the sub force would be capable of quickly firing about 200 warheads roughly 15 minutes after the president gave the order.10 If the order came without a prior raising of alert readiness, however, the boats would surface to confirm its validity.

Bombers on full alert with bombs and cruise missiles loaded,11 as they would be in times of heightened tension, would need eight hours or so to fly from their U.S. bases to near the border of their target countries, where they would fire cruise missiles at inland targets or proceed to fly into enemy airspace to drop gravity bombs. They could deliver upward of 500 weapons.

Protocol for Second-Strike Scenarios

A decision to strike back in retaliation theoretically could be drawn out for days and weeks, but the protocol is designed to yield one in minutes. The basic procedures are the same for first and second use of nuclear weapons, but the timelines shrink in the latter case. Reactions from the bottom to the top of the chain of command to an apparent attack are driven by checklists and virtually preordained. The action could be described as a rote enactment of a prepared script with very high expectations in all quarters that a nuclear response would be authorized immediately.

U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney (right), then-U.S. Strategic Command commander, and other officers monitor from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., a Minuteman III missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 20, 2015. Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan pre-delegated nuclear release authority extensively to military commanders. Recognizing that could compromise civilian control, such delegation was rolled back at the end of the Cold War. (USSTRATCOM courtesy photo)Historically, the notion of riding out an attack has been operationally anathema to the military. As General Lee Butler, a former head of the strategic forces, stated, “Our policy was premised on being able to accept the first wave of attacks…. Yet at the operational level it was never accepted…. They built a construct that powerfully biased the president’s decision process toward launch before the arrival of the first enemy warhead…a move in practice to a system structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack.”12

This is called “jamming” the president, or pressuring him to quickly authorize retaliation while under apparent or confirmed attack.13 Jamming is still the norm in current nuclear operations. Although President Barack Obama directed the Pentagon to reduce our reliance on launch on warning and find ways to increase warning and decision time, nuclear exercises still feature this high-pressure tactic. In some high-threat situations, the StratCom commander’s briefing of the president may be compressed to as little as 30 seconds, and then the president may be pressed to “deliberate and decide” in six minutes or less.

The persistent vulnerability of the nuclear command system and hundreds of U.S. missiles requires extremely fast reaction at all levels. In truth, everyone gets jammed. The risk of mistaken launch on false warning remains significant even today, 25 years after the end of the Cold War. It also creates pressure to pre-empt an imminent attack.

To relieve the jamming pressure today, the protocol must start earlier and under conditions of greater uncertainty about the degree of threat posed by missile launch preparations or actual firings. During the Cold War, even the really close calls did not rise to the level of presidential notification.14 Today, there are more missile launches than ever to track, and assessing whether they pose a threat has become more difficult.15

Ironically this surge, which has happened over the past decade or so, has spawned great unpredictability, complicated assessment, and led on multiple occasions to presidents being notified of an ambiguous imminent threat in progress.16

Reforms: Toward a True Retaliatory Posture

A six-minute deadline for deliberation and decision is ridiculous. The president needs much more warning and decision time to rationally cope with indications of a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. He must no longer be jammed to authorize what could be a civilization-ending response to attack indications that may be false. The risks of miscalculation and irrational decision-making leading to incoherent operations and further escalation are unacceptably high.

This terrifying reality has been ignored for decades. Reform is long overdue.

Protesters from the Global Zero movement attend a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing November 14, 2017, on the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)This means that the current prompt-launch posture must be drastically altered. Use-or-lose forces such as the silo-based missile force should be eliminated. Launch on warning should be eliminated. Reducing the vulnerability of command, control, and communications to kinetic attack and cyberattack should be the top priority of the nuclear modernization plan, even if it means cutting spending on replacement forces in the pipeline. The submarine force has already become the premier leg of the strategic triad, the central component of U.S. deterrence policy. This force can patiently wait for months for direction from higher authority.

Equally overdue is the adoption of a policy that eschews the first use of nuclear weapons. A clear marker would be established in limiting the president’s leeway to initiate a first strike.17 If taken seriously, the operational plans would also be modified in ways that would hamstring any effort to order the use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause.

Congress has considerable legal standing to pass legislation that prohibits first use. A recent bill introduced by Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is a step in this direction,18 but a law would draw real redlines around the policy. Crossing them would make the president accountable and even impeachable.

The Trump administration appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Its nuclear review in the works is leaning toward the deployment of smaller-yield nuclear weapons (e.g., a primary-only warhead on Trident missiles) that will make them more usable in both first- and second-use scenarios. It is also leaning toward widening the conditions under which nuclear weapons may be used first in response to non-nuclear strategic aggression and toward revoking Obama-era assurances given to non-nuclear countries that the United States would never attack them with nuclear weapons.

The key challenge is moving to a true retaliatory posture19 that allows the president and his successors to provide enduring command and control over the submarine force. The nuclear protocol would thus place priority on their quick and safe evacuation to survivable and enduring command centers.

Other Promising Reforms

No single reform suffices. A combination of reforms is needed to reduce risk.

The Markey-Lieu bill. The premise of this bill is that employing nuclear weapons is tantamount to going to war and this responsibility belongs to the U.S. Congress, not the president, under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.20 The president therefore is to be prohibited from employing nuclear weapons first unless Congress has declared war and provided specific authorization for their use. The president would still retain the authority to order their use in the event of a confirmed nuclear attack against the United States or U.S. allies.

The bill might tie the president’s hands too much in some situations, such as an imminent and seemingly irrevocable nuclear strike by a country such as North Korea. Even if it did not, it might take too long to secure congressional approval. Additionally, if specific authorization is granted but the crisis drags on or takes a turn in unanticipated directions, the president would remain empowered and could still unilaterally make a terribly bad call later.

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Pennsylvania transits the Hood Canal August 2, 2017, as it returns home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Wash. A submarine on patrol could launch its nuclear missiles as quickly as 15 minutes after a president gives the command. (Photo: Amanda Gray/ USSTRATCOM)The Betts/Waxman solution. Among the many proposals for adding more people to the chain of command, one of the strongest is to require the defense secretary to confirm that a presidential first-use order came from the president and the attorney general to certify that it is a legal order.21 This reform would address the growing danger of cyber intrusion generating deceptive presidential commands and authentications, and it adds a high-level legal oversight to first-use decisions. If the latter is going to be more than a rubber stamp, however, much deeper consideration of the legal issues will have to be undertaken and firm guidelines drawn in advance.

Although it is debatable whether Congress has the standing to dictate the chain of command within the executive branch, whose commander-in-chief possesses clear authority over the armed forces under Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress could press the Pentagon to devise its own solution that thickens the protocol with additional heads. Congress could exert its power over the purse to encourage compliance, for instance by withholding funds for nuclear modernization until the executive branch reformed the protocol in a satisfactory way.

Deepening consultation with Congress. In order to further check and balance the first-use authority vested in the president, Congress should pass legislation requiring the defense secretary to consult closely with the top four leaders of the Senate and House, as well as the chairs and ranking members of the committees responsible for defense spending, on matters pertaining to U.S. nuclear war plans. These leaders would be given greater access to the wartime plans that govern conventional and nuclear operations and be apprised of any changes to those plans that move the nation closer to their implementation. The defense secretary would be held accountable for timely briefings and answer sessions to ensure that these congressional leaders will be informed of pending military actions and able to assert their war powers and if necessary bring the full Congress into the debate. He would also be required to inform the president, vice president, and national security adviser if ongoing nuclear mission planning does not accord with the consensus view of congressional leaders.

Should the president’s operational direction of the nuclear forces overstep the consensus of the congressional leaders, particularly if it entails the first use of nuclear forces, the vice president could consider whether the president’s state of mind warranted invoking the 25th Amendment.

The Nuremburg solution. Both a former and the current head of StratCom recently claimed publicly that disobeying an illegal nuclear strike order offers a safeguard against a president gone berserk.22 They were attempting to allay the widespread concern about the temperament and character of the current commander-in-chief and the perception that the nuclear forces are under erratic and unreliable control. If not staunched, these worries could generate public hysteria and put the $1.3 trillion 30-year nuclear modernization program in jeopardy.

The assurances of the generals were not very convincing. First, a launch order normally would be transmitted by the Pentagon directly to the firing crews at the bottom of the chain, and StratCom and other senior military commanders receiving it at the same time could not interfere at this late stage. StratCom could scramble to issue a termination order but it would almost certainly arrive too late to stop the launch.23 Second, their comments suggested that they could not refuse a horrifyingly bad call by the president, but rather only an illegal one. Third, insubordination seems a weak reed to lean on given the deep-seated obedience to civilian control engrained in military culture, training, and its code of justice. By the same token, to the extent that it would be an effective safeguard, it may well undermine the sacred tenet of civilian control over the military. Fourth, they provided no clues as to what would constitute an “illegal” order and indeed created the impression that they would defer broadly to a president’s judgment of what constitutes an imminent threat warranting a pre-emptive or even preventive first strike. There was no opinion proffered, for instance, that President Donald Trump’s threat to prevent North Korea from acquiring the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead by missile to any target in the United States would be illegal if it means mounting a preventive conventional or nuclear strike, and no clear indication that the military would ever resist such orders on legal grounds.

The literature on the law of war, international humanitarian law, and other constraints on the use of force such as Articles 2 and 51 of the UN Charter, a treaty to which the United States is bound by law to observe, indicates that much is amiss already in U.S. nuclear war planning. It is a stretch indeed to reconcile these legal tenets with a nuclear target plan that includes upward of 1,500 nuclear aim-points, many hundreds located inside cities in Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.24

The target plans have already been vetted by military lawyers and legally certified for prosecution under certain circumstances, a fact that plants serious doubt that legal desiderata have been applied scrupulously. Dubious rationales such as “belligerent reprisal” to justify killing millions of civilians, departures from the law of war (proportionality, distinction, and necessity), and the self-defense clause of the UN Charter to justify pre-emption and even preventive strikes appear to be too readily invoked.25

The absence of crystal clarity in this arena begs for elucidation. The time is ripe for a reckoning of the legality of specific nuclear plans on the books, a serious endeavor to teach and train nuclear commanders in this area, and the international court of justice to revisit the question of the legality of using nuclear weapons.

Extralegal back channels. During the dark days of the Watergate scandal engulfing President Richard Nixon, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly instructed the Pentagon to check with them before carrying out any strange orders from Nixon.26 This may have been a prudent intervention, however dubious in legal terms, but it represents only a stopgap measure that is not reliable and sets a bad precedent with insidious long-term effects on presidential governance. It is notable that these secretaries were civilians without military backgrounds. The current crop of senior advisers surrounding Trump are former senior generals who lack any proclivity to conspire against the commander-in-chief.

25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Should a president bark out an obviously illegal order, senior officials could notify the vice president in a bid to invoke the 25th Amendment. It provides a mechanism for the vice president to become the acting president. If the vice president secures in writing the concurrence of one-half or more of the Cabinet secretaries declaring the inability of the president to perform his duties for physical or mental reasons, then the vice president takes over as soon as this letter is delivered to the leaders of Congress. Unfortunately, the launch protocol is so streamlined that this constitutional intervention may prove too slow and cumbersome, but it does provide a potential recourse in some situations.

Enforce the War Powers Act of 1973. The law allows the president to send U.S. troops into combat for 60 days without congressional approval, during which time Congress must authorize the mission or else the troops must be withdrawn within 30 days after the 60-day grace period expires. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, the pre-eminent authority on this law, argues that the 60-day period begins when the president threatens to commit the forces,27 a somewhat controversial interpretation that suggests Trump’s tweeting and talking about destroying North Korea already started the 60-day clock, which has now run out. Congress has been too reluctant to exercise its war powers and needs to assert them vigorously.


1 These safeguards are the “two-person rule” prohibiting access or control by any single person other than the president, and the locking of weapons to prevent their use electro-mechanically unless and until unlock codes are provided to the firing crews. The unlock and launch authorization codes needed by the bomber, silo-based missile, and submarine crews are held exclusively by high-level military command centers, not the president. The locking devices were installed on these strategic forces in 1970, 1977, and 1997, respectively.

2 Bruce Blair, “Trump Could Face a Nuclear Decision Soon,” Politico, November 16, 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/trump-north-korea-nuclear-crises-214457.

3 Although U.S. nuclear deterrence policy is conceptually predicated on the notion of maintaining a credible capability to absorb an enemy’s maximum assault and strike back with sufficient force to destroy the aggressor’s country, the practical reality is that these persistent vulnerabilities render the United States heavily reliant on extremely rapid reaction if an enemy attack is imminent or underway with incoming warheads streaking toward U.S. territory at four miles per second.

4 This plane is a militarized Boeing 747 airborne command post kept always on runway alert (home-based at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha or forward-deployed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington) or shadowing the president during his travels abroad. It possesses all the codes needed to issue the “go-code” and the communications equipment to transmit it directly to the forces, including a five-mile-long trailing antenna to reach submarines.

5 In fact, he has become the primary initiator of the conference as a result of the surging proliferation of ballistic missiles and their prolific testing over the past decade.

6 A pre-planned option would take only minutes to execute. An innovated option could take hours to days.

7 David Welna, “What the Law of War Says About Nuclear Strikes,” NPR, November 29, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/11/29/567313562/what-the-law-of-war-says-about-nuclear-strikes.

8 This joint operations cell of the National Military Command Center is headed by a one-star flag officer. Normally, a colonel is the ranking officer on duty. See Ben Smith, “Kirk: ‘I Command the War Room in the Pentagon,’” Politico, May 21, 2010, https://www.politico.com/blogs/ben-smith/2010/05/kirk-i-command-the-war-room-in-the-pentagon-027162.

9 The Editors, “No One Should Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack,” Scientific American, August 1, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/no-one-should-have-sole-authority-to-launch-a-nuclear-attack/. Although the missiles are normally aimed at the open ocean, changing them to their wartime targets, preset in the missile’s memory for aim-points in Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran, is as easy as changing TV channels. They would not be involved in a nuclear strike confined to North Korea because they would have to fly over Russia and risk triggering mistaken retaliation by Russia against the United States.

10 Dave Merrill, Nafeesa Syeed, and Brittany Harris, “To Launch a Nuclear Strike President Trump Would Take These Steps,” Bloomberg Politics, January 20, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2016-nuclear-weapon-launch/. The crew positions the boat at the proper launch depth (150 feet) and spins up the missiles’ gyroscopes for flight navigation to the designated targets. Missiles would emerge from their tubes one at a time every 15 seconds.

11 In peacetime, the entire nuclear bomber force is not armed with nuclear weapons. It takes 12-24 hours to load the weapons from local storage bunkers. Bruce G. Blair, “De-Alerting Strategic Forces,” in Reykjavik Revisited: Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, ed. George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2008), http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/9780817949211_ch2.pdf .

12 Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), pp. 191-194.

13 Reason would likely be the first casualty, as U.S. presidents and their key advisers recognized. Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, “A sudden massive attack would put the American leaders under extraordinary psychological pressure, capable of inducing erratic behavior and hesitation.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, “From Arms Control to Controlled Security,” The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 1984. Brzezinski spoke from experience, having received a shocking call in the middle of the night in 1979 informing him of the launch of 220 Soviet submarine missiles at the United States. A second call indicated that 2,200 missiles were streaking toward the United States—an all-out first strike. His biggest worry at this stage was figuring out how he would convince a groggy president that this was the real thing requiring an immediate nuclear response. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in 2009 conversation with author. As he prepared to call President Jimmy Carter, he received a call ending the nightmare. A defective computer chip had caused the false alarm. See “The 3 A.M. Phone Call,” The National Security Archive, The George Washington University, March 1, 2012, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb371/.

14 There was much predictability in the U.S.-Soviet strategic confrontation. The United States knew much about Soviet missiles and their ranges and test practices. By mutual agreement, the United States received advance notification of their launches.

15 Over the past decade, countries in Asia having nuclear weapons—China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan—and Iran have accelerated their ballistic missile programs. Every day, events occur, often involving civilian or military missile launches, that require a look by the early-warning crews at Petersen and Offutt Air Force bases. They are tasked to provide a preliminary assessment whether North America is under nuclear missile attack within three minutes after receiving the first reports from satellites and ground radar.

16 This notification process now runs through two distinct channels, NORAD and StratCom, with the latter striving to get a head start and activating the protocol before an attack is confirmed or even before a missile lifts off from North Korea, China, Iran, or elsewhere.

17 In January 2017, Vice President Joseph Biden argued that “[g]iven our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter—and defend ourselves and our Allies against—non-nuclear threats through other means.” Joe Biden, “Remarks by the Vice President on Nuclear Security,” American Presidency Project, January 11, 2017, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=121419.

18 H.R.4415, 115th Cong. (2017).

19 Bruce G. Blair, Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1985), pp. 289-295.

20 Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, H.R. 669, 115th Cong. (2017).

21 Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman, “Safeguarding Nuclear Launch Procedures: A Proposal,” Lawfare, November 19, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/safeguarding-nuclear-launch-procedures-proposal.

The popular misconception that the defense secretary already plays a role may stem from the fact that he and the president constitute the “national command authorities.” It may also stem from the law that reorganized the Department of Defense in the 1980s. Under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chain of command is stipulated to run from the president to the defense secretary and then to the combatant commanders, but this law contains a loophole. It says this is the chain of command unless the president directs otherwise. See Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-433, 10 U.S.C. 111 (1986).

22 See Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, November 14, 2017, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/111417_Kehler_Testimony.pdf; Kathryn Watson, “Top General Says He Would Resist ‘Illegal’ Nuke Order From Trump,” CBS News, November 18, 2017, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/u-s-strategic-command-gen-john-hyten-resist-illegal-nuke-order-from-trump/.

23 Under some circumstances, StratCom would assume the duties of the Pentagon war room and would be in a position to withhold the transmission of a launch order. “U.S. General Says Nuclear Launch Order Can Be Refused, Sparking Debate,” Fox News, November 20, 2017, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/11/20/generals-comments-on-illegal-nuclear-launch-by-president-sparks-debate.html.

24 The author estimates that there are 80 aim-points in North Korea; half that many in Iran; 900-plus in Russia, including 250 economic and 200 leadership aim-points largely concentrated in cities (100 in greater Moscow alone); and more than 400 in China, including 250 and 60 such economic and leadership aim-points, respectively.

25 For discussions on international law as it applies to nuclear weapons use, see Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “Taming Shiva: Applying International Law to Nuclear Operations,” The Air Force Law Review, Vol. 41 (1997), pp. 163-165; Theodore T. Richard, “Nuclear Weapons Targeting: Evolution of Law and U.S. Policy,” Military Law Review, Vol. 224, No. 4 (2017): 862-978.

26 Garrett M. Graff, “The Madman and the Bomb,” Politico, August 11, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/11/donald-trump-nuclear-weapons-richard-nixon-215478.

27 Bruce Ackerman, “How to Stop Trump Blowing It Up,” The New York Review of Books, November 28, 2017, http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/11/28/how-to-stop-trump-blowing-it-up/.

Bruce Blair is a member of the Princeton University research faculty in the Program on Science and Global Security and co-founder of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons.


U.S. nuclear launch protocol has important virtues and serious liabilities. Major changes are needed to constrain a president who would seek to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause and to prevent him or her from being pushed into making nuclear retaliatory decisions in haste.

The Enduring Challenge of Nuclear Security Coordination

January/February 2018
By Laura S.H. Holgate

Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists can kill millions and wreak the world. This essential truth underpins the enduring, bipartisan U.S. commitment to enhancing the security of nuclear weapons and the materials that can make them.

President Donald Trump sits beside his national security adviser H.R. McMaster as he talks with South Korea's President Moon  Jae-In during their summit meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on November 7, 2017. (Photo: JEON HEON-KYUN/AFP/Getty Images)This task has become more multifaceted over time, and the bureaucratic machinery by which the United States pursues these goals has grown in size and complexity. Aligning the legal authorities, available funding, and institutional capacity of more than a dozen departments and agencies involved in policymaking and programmatic implementation for nuclear security is an enduring challenge—one made more difficult in the absence of senior political appointees.

U.S. nuclear security policies are pursued through a variety of avenues, including public and private statements by senior officials in bilateral and multilateral settings; scientific research on threats and the technologies to thwart them; training and capacity building with partners at home and overseas; negotiation of treaties and other international instruments; design and enforcement of national laws and regulations; provision, installation, and maintenance of equipment domestically and abroad; intelligence gathering and analysis; partnerships with related industries and civil society groups; and formal and informal international counterpart relationships at all levels and across all agencies.

Coordination of these myriad actors on a global stage is critical to achieving intended outcomes and to effective use of taxpayer resources. Absent deliberate and accountable coordination at all levels, messages get muddled, money gets wasted, equipment goes unused, gaps go unnoticed, opportunities are missed, and good will is squandered. No one wins awards or makes headlines with this thankless task. Yet without it, U.S. security is at greater risk; and aspiring nuclear terrorists are more likely to acquire the materials, skills, and opportunities to kill millions and inflict economic and political havoc on a global scale.

Effective coordination starts at the White House and engages more than a dozen departments, agencies, and offices. Even the best leadership will struggle with enduring coordination challenges, such as internally aligning programs and policies, working with Congress, liaising effectively with international partners, and facilitating information flow. President Donald Trump’s delays in filling key positions dealing with these matters makes coordination more difficult and reduces U.S. influence in addressing these vital issues internationally.

The National Security Council

The National Security Council (NSC) is at the apex of interagency coordination and closest to the president but often less visible to those outside the interagency process. Within the NSC, the lead player in nuclear security coordination is the directorate designated to deal with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), typically led by a senior director, but which changes its name, structure, and size with each administration.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s interest drove the planning for a series of biennial nuclear security summits. In this photo, Obama speaks April 1, 2016, during a closing session at his fourth and final nuclear security summit in Washington. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images)Other NSC offices are also involved; a dedicated staff member in each of the regional directorates often handles significant nuclear issues, such as East Asia, South Asia, and Russia. Depending on the issue, other NSC offices are also relevant, particularly those dealing with counterterrorism, multilateral affairs, and intelligence. NSC offices responsible for legislative and public affairs frequently are key partners.

As with the rest of the U.S. government, there is a built-in tension between regional and functional offices. In noncrisis times, this usually manifests itself in disputes over the agenda and talking points for meetings of the president or the national security adviser with his or her counterparts. The regional offices control the preparatory efforts for such engagements and have the last chop on the paper flow, and the regional senior directors are usually the last NSC staff person to brief the president before conversations with other heads of state.

This puts a premium on building strong day-to-day relationships between the WMD office and the regional offices so that key nuclear security issues are not being hashed out at the last minute as papers are due to the Oval Office, but rather that the regional teams understand the nuclear security landscape with key countries and work routinely with the nuclear team to frame and prioritize issues. In this sense, intra-NSC coordination is as critical as interagency coordination and depends heavily on the culture and expectations set by the national security adviser.

Alongside the NSC, the Office of Science and Technology Policy provides critical technical input and shares some of the coordination and writing burden. Its involvement can also be an important signal of credibility to the scientific community that its concerns are visible during the policy process.

Sometimes, the National Economic Council (NEC) is a relevant participant, especially where nuclear energy and nuclear security intersect, such as "123 agreements” for peaceful nuclear cooperation and spent nuclear fuel storage. The international economics team is typically dual-hatted between the NSC and NEC, and it runs the interagency processes related to the Group of Seven and the Group of 20, where nuclear security topics are often addressed.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) plays a key role in coordination between policy and resources. The OMB’s visibility on the ebb and flow of policy enhances its own carefully choreographed annual budget process. Ideally, the OMB national security team is on good, transparent terms with the NSC nuclear team and will seek views from the policy side as it is considering agency budget submissions. Yet, that does not always happen, and it takes effort and intention to make it work.

The NSC’s role is fundamentally coordination of the myriad U.S. government actors involved in developing and implementing nuclear security policy. A presidential directive, usually the first one issued by a new administration, establishes this process. Most coordination happens through interagency meetings at rising levels of seniority, from sub-interagency working groups led by NSC staff to interagency working groups led by NSC senior directors to deputies committees led by a deputy national security adviser to principals (cabinet officials) committees chaired by the national security adviser to formal NSC meetings of cabinet officials chaired by the president.

Christopher Ford was confirmed in December 2017 as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, the department’s primary office for nuclear security issues. Previously, he served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation at the National Security Council. (Photo: Terry Atlas)These meetings are used to prepare for events such as presidential meetings or multilateral gatherings; to develop response options for crises or ongoing issues, such as North Korea or Russia; to formally approve major policy documents, such as presidential directives; to obtain buy-in from senior officials who will need to be personally involved in policy implementation; and to resolve any other major interagency disagreements. Most nuclear security issues are determined at the working group levels because office directors, deputy assistant secretaries, and assistant secretary-level officials usually are adequately empowered to make the necessary programmatic, budget, and policy decisions regarding nuclear security issues and because the deputies and principals committees’ schedules are so constrained and the calendars of the deputies and cabinet secretaries are so packed that they rarely have time for nuclear security issues. Senior directors are generally expected to solve as many problems as possible at their level or below, but also to crystallize open issues and help agencies prepare their deputies or cabinet secretaries for participation in deputies and principals committees.

The NSC also coordinates interagency activity through paper review of press guidance, briefing memos and talking points for senior officials, instructions for delegations and embassies, and congressional testimony. Jointly with the OMB, the NSC leads discussions on agency budgets, although the sanctity of the OMB’s unique authority over agencies on budgetary decisions is important to preserve.

Departments and Agencies

The primary Department of State office for nuclear security issues is the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, led by an assistant secretary. The bureau is home to a large number of career civil servants who become deep subject matter experts, working alongside Foreign Service officers assigned on a temporary basis. The bureau oversees a modest budget for a range of nuclear security activities, primarily in training, and has the interagency lead on treaties related to nuclear security. It also leads interagency coordination of routine bilateral and multilateral nonproliferation dialogues held by the assistant secretary or undersecretary.

Most nuclear security issues also involve one or more regional bureaus, and issues involving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations involve the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. Embassies worldwide are responsible for facilitating delegations and providing ongoing connectivity and diplomacy with relevant international counterparts.

The Department of Defense has multiple offices and communities, and it has an enormous internal coordination burden. The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy nominally has the lead for interagency engagement, including representation at NSC meetings, where responsibility for nuclear security falls to the assistant secretary for global affairs and homeland security. In some instances, other parts of the department, such as the acquisition team, where policy is turned into contracts, or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which has programmatic responsibility for most Defense Department nuclear security efforts, work directly with interagency counterparts. The Joint Staff is also typically represented at interagency meetings. This gives the Defense Department two “votes” at the interagency table, although the Joint Staff position is statutorily subordinate to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Responsibility for synchronizing Defense Department's countering-WMD missions shifted from U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom) to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in October 2016. This adjustment reflected the growing recognition of the nonstate actor WMD threat after Islamic State forces formulated and used their own mustard agent in attacks in Iraq and Syria. SOCOM’s expertise in counterterrorism offers more applicable tools and an activist posture compared to the primary deterrence role of StratCom.

SOCOM appears to be taking a much more active role in the nuclear security mission, but it lacks familiarity with the nuclear interagency process. How engaged SOCOM and its policy counterpart, the assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, will be in the interagency process remains to be seen. Unchanged, however, is the specialized role of SOCOM assets in responding to any suspected nuclear terrorism device or event overseas.

The Department of Justice and the FBI are less well-known participants on nuclear security issues. They lead the U.S. government response to any potential terrorist-related nuclear activity on U.S. territory. This uniquely sensitive role requires working painstakingly through the procedures for delegating presidential nuclear authorities down to specially trained FBI or military teams operating directly on a suspect device and on the interagency network that is generated to support a domestic or overseas incident. The FBI’s WMD Directorate plays a key role in liaising with law enforcement officials around the world and through Interpol, and it provides critical nuclear forensics capacity for use in domestic criminal investigations.

Staff at the National Counterterrorism Center, which brings together resources from various government agencies, wait for an address by President Barack Obama on October 6, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)The Department of Energy, through the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), currently makes the largest budgetary and programmatic contributions to U.S. nuclear security activities under the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, led by an assistant secretary-level appointee. This office combines policymaking and programmatic responsibilities. Many of the programs and activities of the NNSA, as well as other agencies, are executed by Energy Department national laboratories. These labs provide research and development, technical expertise, program management, and, in many cases, personal connections to counterparts overseas that ease doors open to nuclear cooperation.

In addition to the nonproliferation office, the NNSA Counterterrorism and Emergency Response offices play critical roles in preparations for searching and handling nuclear and radiological materials and in working with other countries to increase their radiological and nuclear response capacity, as well as to provide reach-back technical advice to those countries in real-time, real-life incidents. The Energy Department is responsible for the management of the 17 national laboratories and multiple industrial facilities involved in nuclear weapons production, nuclear energy research, and environmental cleanup, and the department establishes and oversees the nuclear security regulations for those sites.

The Department of Homeland Security’s main contribution to nuclear security comes through the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), responsible for research, acquisition, and deployment of radiation detectors around the country and among federal, state, and local officials. This office also has the interagency responsibility for centralized nuclear forensics analysis. By statute, it produces the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, which describes the placement and capabilities for nuclear detection across the U.S. government and internationally. The interagency process by which this document is created and approved helps focus international priorities, and the DNDO has its own international relationships with customs and immigration officials overseas.

The primary interagency representation of the intelligence community on nuclear security issues comes from three parts of the Directorate of National Intelligence, which sits above the various intelligence agencies: the national intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction, the National Counterproliferation Center, and the National Counterterrorism Center. The CIA office known as the Weapons and Counterproliferation Mission Center is also active in bringing intelligence information and analysis into the policy and program communities. Most of the other intelligence agencies also have specific nuclear security expertise and missions, and most of the cabinet agencies mentioned above have an intelligence component that contributes through the intelligence community.

Coordination within the intelligence community on nuclear security issues has always been challenging, and a recent effort to create a dedicated, all-source, cross-community team focused exclusively on nuclear terrorism was not successful. More successful has been the decade-plus project hosted by the Energy Department intelligence office to gather all information about the security of nuclear material in storage and transport globally into a single platform known as the Nuclear Materials Information Program. This set of information helps inform presidential briefings on nuclear security threats and programmatic prioritization of countries and facilities.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations, which is organizationally and functionally separate from the State Department, is a key player for any aspect of nuclear security that takes place in New York. Activities related to UN Security Council Resolution 1540, Security Council meetings focused on nonproliferation and nuclear security, and the like are engaged in close coordination with the U.S. mission.

The independent status of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) puts it in a special category regarding coordination. On one hand, it does not take direction from the executive branch in setting the standards for domestic civilian nuclear facilities, including nuclear security regulations. On the other hand, they participate in policy discussions regarding nuclear security regulations and practices in other countries, and they have robust cooperative relationships with regulatory counterparts around the world.

The NRC plays a key role in reviews of security practices for U.S.-origin nuclear materials exported under "123 agreements” and provides significant expertise in consultations with the IAEA on nuclear security. Its independent status has created tensions based on concerns that interagency efforts to enhance international nuclear security standards or guidelines could add burdens to U.S. licensees or imply a critique of U.S. regulations.

All of these participants had roles in creating the success of the biennial nuclear security summits held from 2010 to 2016. The design and preparation of these events was driven strongly by the NSC, reflecting their origin as a personal priority of President Barack Obama, and the NSC led the small U.S. delegations to the summit planning meetings.

Determining the summits’ outcomes, however, required numerous sub-interagency and interagency working groups to refine policy goals for the summit communiqués, as well as to identify, prioritize, and extract high-impact deliverables from participating countries. Deputies and principals committees were used to gain leadership approval on the summit design and engagement in pursuing high-priority deliverables with their counterparts and to prepare cabinet officials for their own participation in the summits. Special intelligence products were developed, in coordination with interagency input, to brief Obama and other senior officials. The clear connection of priorities from action officer to the president and the empowerment that came from that connection were critical components of the summits’ impact in reducing nuclear material and preventing nuclear smuggling.

Coordination Challenges

The quality and effectiveness of coordination among these agencies varies greatly over time and among issues. Five enduring coordination challenges require attention, even if they are unlikely ever to be fully resolved.

First is the clarification and adjustment of programmatic roles and missions among the agencies in a way that aligns their legal authorities, budgets and capacities. Some of this is done around an NSC table, but often it is best done at operational levels on a topical basis among related programs. Obvious as this may be, stovepipes based on personality, information access, and turf will emerge from the best-intentioned coordination process and will always need to be broken down. Further, any informal coordination methods will reflect the peculiarities of the people and issues involved.

Second, it seems that every administration has to relearn the value of having common themes for agency witnesses to incorporate into their congressional budget testimony, given the distributed nature of nuclear security budgets and authorities across departments and across congressional oversight committees. In one example, a one-page overview of the agreed nuclear security strategy was developed for each department witness to place at the beginning of their testimonies in order to reflect how agency efforts complemented each other toward a coherent whole-of-government approach.

Third, management of the connection points with international partners is always a challenge. No country matches the depth and breadth of U.S. officials. U.S. delegations and programs are at constant risk of overwhelming the bandwidth of foreign partners. U.S. embassies often fight a losing battle in seeking to rationalize, prioritize, and sequence interagency activities. This is another good reason to build relationships in Washington between functional and regional teams so that embassy officials are hearing consistent messages from their own reporting chains and interagency delegations. Functional teams can also do a better job of finding ways to combine and prioritize contacts with overseas counterparts.

Fourth is the sharing of relevant information among all who need it to do their jobs. To best serve policymakers and program managers, clandestinely acquired information needs to be supplemented with tacit knowledge that any government official or contractor absorbs by virtue of their interactions in the course of doing their jobs. The responsibility to record and appropriately distribute this information extends from program implementers to senior officials, and it can be effectively performed without crossing sensitive lines between active collection and nonintelligence functions.

In this modern environment of diverse communications threads shifting from formal, old-fashioned cables to official emails and informal texts, opportunities can be missed to have a common picture of relevant facilities, communities, and technologies that feeds intelligence analysis, threat assessments, programmatic prioritization, and diplomatic engagement. When leaders make expectations clear and administrative barriers are low, this can work well, but it requires constant attention and development of trust over time.

The fifth point is the challenge of coordinating nuclear security policy with nuclear weapons and disarmament policy. In the United States, these are often managed by separate communities, and U.S. nuclear security and disarmament policies are not seen as interdependent, much less in conflict. For many other countries, especially non-nuclear-weapon states, this is not true, and many of them perceive the lack of progress on disarmament as more of a threat to their security than nuclear terrorism. They believe that terrorists are not sophisticated enough to build a weapon and that even if they did, it would be targeted at the United States or maybe Europe.

This perception has caused many countries and collectively the Non-Aligned Movement to perceive nuclear security cooperation as a favor they do for the United States and to hold global progress on nuclear security, such as at the IAEA, hostage in the absence of progress on disarmament. Although the process created by the new nuclear weapons prohibition treaty could provide a forum for countries to express their views on disarmament, it may only inflame the divisiveness in multilateral settings. This will require more coordination between U.S. positions and priorities on nuclear security and disarmament.

Effective coordination of policies, programs, and information flow is heavily dependent on the individuals involved. Many of the capable U.S. career officials have strong habits of working together, but the true character of coordination awaits the arrival of confirmed officials in assistant secretary-level positions, few of whom have even been nominated to lead the offices and bureaus described above.

Without confirmed officials in place, career staff can be unwilling to take risks or make decisions that could conflict with future policy direction from unknown bosses-to-be. “Acting” officials tend to have less impact in presenting and defending budgets internally and before Congress, and they often are not included in meetings with their cabinet secretary that generate guidance or decisions. In deputies and principals committees, acting officials can be less effective in debates with more senior, confirmed counterparts from other agencies. In a crisis, these leadership gaps can interfere with rapid decision-making, as well as the kind of authoritative interactions with international counterparts that would be required to build a collective response.

As long as the nuclear security interagency leadership remains thin, coordination will be incomplete, and the United States will be less capable to prevent or respond to a nuclear event. This should worry us all.

Laura S.H. Holgate is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a U.S. representative to the United Nations Office at Vienna and the International Atomic Energy Agency and a special assistant to the president and senior director for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and threat reduction on the National Security Council.



Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists can kill millions and wreak the world. This essential truth underpins the enduring, bipartisan U.S. commitment to enhancing the security of nuclear weapons and the materials that can make them.

Are We Nearing the End of the INF Treaty?

January/February 2018
By Steven Pifer and Oliver Meier

As relations between the West and Russia deteriorate, a key Cold War arms control accord has come under threat.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan shake hands December 8, 1987 at their Washington summit, as dignitaries give a standing ovation after the two leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The ceremony was held in the East Room of the White House. (Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)The United States charges that Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by deploying a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) having a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Moscow rejects the charge and instead claims that Washington has violated the agreement. The Trump administration has announced several steps in response to the Russian violation, including beginning research and development of options for U.S. intermediate-range missiles.

If the treaty unravels, it will open the door to an arms race in production and deployment of these missiles, which would weaken security in Europe and Asia. It would undermine support for other arms control treaties, such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and make it difficult to reach new accords. That would not be in the interest of the United States, Russia, Europe, or Asia.

Washington and Moscow should work to preserve the INF Treaty and its benefits. If the United States and Russia desire to maintain the treaty, there are ways to resolve their compliance concerns. If they do not act to save the treaty, its days are likely numbered.

INF Treaty History

The Soviet Union began deploying the SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missile in the late 1970s. The SS-20’s mobile launcher, three independently targetable warheads, and estimated range of 5,000 kilometers made it a significant improvement over older Soviet intermediate-range missiles and provoked alarm in Europe.

Washington at first downplayed the concern, but NATO agreed in December 1979 to the “dual-track” decision: The United States would seek to engage the Soviet Union in a negotiation aimed at reducing and limiting intermediate-range ground-launched missiles. In parallel, the U.S. military would develop and, beginning in late 1983, base GLCMs in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom and Pershing II ballistic missiles in Germany, provided that an arms control agreement did not obviate those deployments.

Dutch protesters demonstrate October 29, 1983 in The Hague against deployment of U.S. Pershing cruise missiles. The Soviet Union quit negotiations on a ban on such intermediate-range nuclear missiles in late 1983 but returned to talks in 1985 that concluded successfully with the INF Treaty eliminating a whole class of weapons.  (Photo: HERMAN PIETERSE/AFP/Getty Images)U.S.-Soviet negotiations began in 1981, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced the “zero-zero” proposal under which the United States would forgo its planned deployments if the Soviet Union eliminated its SS-20 and other intermediate-range missiles. Moscow rejected zero-zero, and the first two years of negotiations yielded little common ground between the sides. When the first U.S. GLCMs and Pershing IIs arrived in Europe in November 1983, the Soviets broke off the negotiations.

The Kremlin seemed to hope that public opposition within NATO countries would derail the U.S. missile deployments. Although it appeared a near thing at times, leaders in the five basing countries held firm despite significant domestic opposition, and the alliance moved forward with deployment. In 1985 the Soviets agreed to resume negotiations.

The negotiations made progress in 1986-1987 along the lines of the zero-zero proposal. Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, signed the INF Treaty on December 8, 1987. The treaty banned the production, flight-testing, and possession of all ground-based cruise and ballistic missiles having ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (300 and 3,300 miles) and required the elimination of all such existing missiles. When the treaty’s reduction period concluded in 1991, the United States and Soviet Union had destroyed some 2,700 missiles, as well as launchers and other support equipment.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse at the end of 1991, Russia and several other post-Soviet states assumed the Soviet INF Treaty obligations. The treaty’s inspection period ended in 2001. The Special Verification Commission (SVC), established by the treaty as a venue for discussing the treaty’s implementation and compliance concerns, with the participation of the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, had its last meeting in 2003 before a 13-year hiatus.

In 2005, Russian officials expressed interest in withdrawing from the treaty and suggested to the United States to jointly terminate the accord. Washington refused. In February 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that, although the United States and Russia were banned from having intermediate-range missiles, third countries were developing and fielding such systems, and those countries tended to be in close proximity to Russia.

The following October, Putin proposed making the INF Treaty “global in scope.” The United States and Russia at the UN General Assembly jointly called on third countries to eliminate their intermediate-range missile systems. Moscow did not seriously pursue its proposal, although Russian officials continued to express concern about the proliferation of intermediate-range missiles.

Treaty Violation Charges

During the Obama administration, reports began to circulate that Russia was violating the INF Treaty. In July 2014, the U.S. government publicly charged that Russia had violated the accord. Washington offered few public details, but press reports indicated that Russia had tested a prohibited intermediate-range GLCM. The INF Treaty does not ban development per se, but draws the line at testing. In March 2017, a senior U.S. military officer said Russia had begun to deploy the missile, confirming press reports that had appeared two months earlier.

USS Florida launches a Tomahawk cruise missile during a test in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas in January 2003. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Getty Images)U.S. government officials have made little information available publicly on the specifics of the Russian violation. This stems from their desire to protect sources and methods, that is, how the U.S. government learned of the violation. They have been consulting with allies on INF Treaty questions and the Russian violation.

The Trump administration says the Russian system of concern is the SSC-8 GLCM, which the U.S. government says uses the Russian designator 9M729. This missile appears to be an extended-range version of the SSC-7 (Iskander-K) cruise missile. The Iskander-K is an INF Treaty-permitted cruise missile with a range of less than 500 kilometers. The SSC-8/9M729 reportedly uses a launcher that differs from the Iskander-K launcher. Deployment of SSC-8 missiles is expected in all four Russian military districts, that is, in the European and Asian parts of Russia.

Russia has denied the U.S. charge and asserted that U.S. officials had not produced enough information for it to identify the system of concern. U.S. officials flatly rejected that, saying that Moscow has all the information it needs. The U.S. Department of State’s 2017 compliance report notes that, during several meetings, the U.S. side provided “more than enough information for the Russian side to identify the missile in question,” including “[i]nformation pertaining to the missile and the launcher,” such as “Russia’s internal designator for the mobile launcher chassis and the names of the companies involved in developing and producing the missile and launcher,” as well as data on “the violating GLCM’s test history, including coordinates of the tests and Russia’s attempts to obfuscate the nature of the program.”1 Russian officials recently acknowledged that the 9M729 (SSC-8) is the missile in question, but they maintain that it is fully compliant with the INF Treaty.

Russian officials charge the United States with violating the INF Treaty. The primary Russian concern appears to center on the Mk-41 vertical launch system for the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in Romania, soon to be deployed in Poland, which are part of NATO’s missile defense program. Russian officials note that Mk-41 vertical launch systems on U.S. Navy warships can launch sea-launched cruise missiles, which are quite similar to the now eliminated GLCMs, as well as SM-3 interceptors and other missiles, and say that the launchers in Romania and Poland can contain cruise missiles.

Moreover, the Russians charge that the United States uses intermediate-range ballistic missiles as targets in missile defense tests and operates armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) that are equivalent to GLCMs of intermediate range.

U.S. and Russian officials discussed the charges in political channels for several years before convening the SVC in November 2016. The commission met again in mid-December 2017. Thus far, it has not reported progress toward resolving the compliance questions.

Resolving Compliance Issues

From a technical perspective, parties to the INF Treaty could resolve these concerns through a combination of political-level talks and technical exchanges in the SVC. A group of nongovernmental experts, the
trilateral Deep Cuts Commission, has developed a number of proposals on how the SVC could tackle these noncompliance concerns.2

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis holds a press conference November 9, 2017, at NATO headquarters in Brussels during talks that included discussion of the alleged Russian INF Treaty violation. (Photo: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)If Moscow were prepared to address the U.S. charge seriously, the SVC could agree on procedures under which the Russian side would exhibit the SSC-8 and its launcher to U.S. experts and explain the missile’s characteristics, particularly its range. If that exhibition satisfied the U.S. side that the missile was consistent with the INF Treaty, the matter would be put to rest. If there were further questions, they could be discussed in the SVC. Another option for addressing the problem would be to create a new panel of technical experts from the United States and Russia to discuss ways to resolve noncompliance concerns.

If it turned out that the SSC-8 had a range in excess of 500 kilometers but not in excess of 5,500 kilometers, the issue would be more difficult to resolve. All missiles and their associated launchers, including all launchers from which the missile was tested, would have to be eliminated in a verifiable manner in order for Russia to return to compliance with the treaty. The INF Treaty contains precise verification procedures, but they were developed and tailored to certify the destruction of U.S. and Soviet systems in existence as of 1987. Those procedures would require adaptation for the SSC-8 and its launcher, which could be agreed in the SVC. In any case, the sooner that detailed discussions on the violation commenced, the easier it would be to find solutions to tackle the compliance problems raised by Washington and Moscow.

With regard to the Russian charges, the dispute over the U.S. use of booster stages in target missiles for ballistic missile defense tests should not prove difficult to resolve. The INF Treaty makes an allowance for such missiles, and the sides’ technical experts could work out language in the SVC to distinguish between prohibited intermediate-range ground-launched ballistic missiles and allowed target missiles for missile defense tests. In addition, they might agree on language restricting target missiles to production facilities and sites associated with missile defense tests.

The second dispute regards whether armed UAVs, which the United States deploys and Russia is developing, are covered by the agreement. Armed UAVs did not exist when the United States and Soviet Union concluded the INF Treaty. UAVs differ from cruise missiles because they can return to base after their mission is completed. This clear distinction between GLCMs and UAVs should enable experts in the SVC to agree on language to clarify the scope of the INF Treaty.

The more serious Russian charge concerns the Mk-41 vertical launch system deployed in Romania and scheduled to become operational in Poland in 2018. Experts could address that in two ways. One would be modification of the land-based Mk-41 system with an observable difference—ideally, a functionally related observable difference—to distinguish the launchers in Romania and Poland from Mk-41 vertical launch systems on U.S. warships.

The second approach would employ transparency measures to reassure Russia that the launchers in Romania and Poland did not contain cruise missiles or weapons other than SM-3 interceptors. With the agreement of NATO and, in particular, Romania and Poland, U.S. officials could invite Russian inspectors to periodically visit the SM-3 sites, where they could randomly choose two or some other agreed number of the 24 launch tubes in the vertical launch system to be opened, allowing confirmation that they contained SM-3 interceptors.

The SVC would work out procedures for such inspections, as well as the particulars for observable differences for the vertical launch systems in Romania and Poland. Given the concerns of NATO member states, it might make sense to include European experts on visits to the SM-3 interceptor sites or to any Russian exhibition of the SSC-8.

The Politics of Compliance

The political obstacles to resolving the INF Treaty issues appear more difficult to overcome than the technical hurdles. The INF Treaty dispute happens at a time when a number of other arms control and transparency agreements, including the Open Skies Treaty, are increasingly affected by the crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. These accords may lack the strong supporting constituencies in Moscow, Washington, and, to some degree, Europe that they used to have.

A number of Russian military and civilian officials seem to favor withdrawal from the INF Treaty. They argue that it is a Cold War relic that has been overtaken by technological advances. These include the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe and the growing number of intermediate-range missiles in the inventories of third countries. China, for example, deploys hundreds of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles. North Korea, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel also possess intermediate-range missiles.

Those Russians who support continued adherence to the treaty worry about a new arms race and the prospect of the deployment of new U.S. precision-guided weapons systems in Europe. Moscow’s official position remains that it has not violated the treaty and remains committed to it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Russia remains willing “to discuss the concerns of both parties.”3

U.S. Attempts to Bring Russia Back Into Compliance

While charging Russia with violating the INF Treaty, the Obama administration made clear its interest in maintaining the treaty and sought to bring Russia back into compliance. It failed. The Trump administration conducted a review of the agreement while senior administration officials spoke in the fall of 2017 of looking for leverage to bring Russia back into compliance with the accord.

Also at that time, Congress agreed on language in the National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes up to $58 million to respond to the alleged Russian INF Treaty violation, including by the establishment of a program of record to develop an intermediate-range GLCM.4

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks October 20, 2017, at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference that Russia is willing to “discuss the concerns of both parties.” (Photo: C-SPAN)On December 8, 2017—the 30th anniversary of the signing of the INF Treaty—the Trump administration announced what it called an integrated strategy for dealing with the Russian violation. The strategy reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to preserving the treaty and said the United States would (1) continue efforts to seek a diplomatic settlement of the Russian violation, including through the SVC; (2) begin research and development on options for conventionally armed intermediate-range ground-launched missile systems; and (3) impose economic sanctions on Russian entities that had taken part in development and production of the SSC-8.

Development of a new U.S. intermediate-range ground-launched missile, although not a violation of the treaty as long as the United States did not proceed to flight-testing, would be at odds with the purpose of the INF Treaty. After all, it was negotiated with the goal of eliminating all land-based intermediate-range missiles from Europe and globally. The Russians undoubtedly will attempt to exploit the contradiction between U.S. words and actions if Washington were to pursue development of a new intermediate-range ground-launched missile while insisting on the value of a prohibition of those weapons.

The push for a tough response is based on the hope that the United States and NATO can pressure Russia to come back into compliance. Congress, which distrusts the Trump administration’s Russia policy, may also hope to make sure that the president does not paper over the INF Treaty issue. Proponents of a tit-for-tat response recall that deploying GLCMs and Pershing IIs in the early 1980s helped to trigger a discussion in Moscow that eventually led to the agreement to eliminate all INF Treaty-covered missiles.

Could a second dual-track decision, including a decision to deploy new U.S. intermediate-range systems in Europe, push Moscow back to the negotiating table? A number of factors appear to lower the likelihood that such a policy would work. First, finding consensus within NATO for such a course would prove difficult. In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union’s military position relative to NATO was significantly stronger than that of Russia today relative to NATO. Second, the relationship between Moscow and Washington 30 years ago was on an upward trajectory, whereas today U.S.-Russian relations are in a downward spiral. Arguably, the leaderships in Moscow and Washington in the 1980s were pursuing more consistent and predictable policies and were more interested in reversing the nuclear arms race than their successors are today.

Moreover, a program that moved beyond early research and development to flight-testing and production of a new U.S. intermediate-range ground-launched missile would cost billions of dollars at a time when the Department of Defense budget already faces major shortfalls. Fielding a new missile system would take years and not provide a timely response to Russia’s current violation.

The Alliance Dimension

The U.S. and NATO military responses to Russian deployment of a new GLCM should primarily aim at reassuring allies. Although allies may not object to U.S. development of a new intermediate-range ground-launched missile, proceeding to flight-testing and deployment would severely stress NATO solidarity.

Deploying U.S. conventionally armed air- and sea-launched cruise missiles to Europe would offer an alternative action. Temporary deployments of conventional B-1 heavy bombers combined with Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, as well as more frequent deployments to northern European waters of U.S. warships and submarines carrying conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles, could also signal the U.S. commitment to Europe. Deployment of the USS Georgia or USS Florida—converted Ohio-class submarines that carry up to 154 sea-launched cruise missiles—to seas near Europe would also underscore that any attempt by Moscow to create zones of different security are not going to be successful.

Steps such as these would be easier, faster, and cheaper than building a new ground-launched missile. They might affect Moscow’s calculation and encourage the Kremlin to return to compliance with the INF Treaty. If Russia did so, these steps would be readily reversible.

Such moves are also less likely to provoke a crisis within the alliance about its response to Russia’s actions. It is by no means certain that NATO would agree to deploy U.S. missiles now, as it did in its 1979 decision. The development of new intermediate-range ground-launched missiles will inevitably bring back memories of contentious debates within NATO about moving forward with the deployment of GLCMs and Pershing IIs in the early 1980s.

NATO members favor maintaining the INF Treaty. The communiqué of the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit termed preservation of the agreement “crucial to Euro-Atlantic security” and called on Moscow “to preserve the viability of the INF Treaty through ensuring full and verifiable compliance.”5

At a November 2017 NATO defense ministers meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis again briefed allies on Russia’s alleged INF Treaty violation. Mattis reportedly urged allies to craft a joint position to force Russia back into compliance by the time of the next NATO summit in July 2018, suggesting that Washington would otherwise react unilaterally.6

On December 15, NATO allies took note of the U.S. decision to begin development of a new GLCM but stopped short of collectively endorsing it by stating that “our actions, including national measures taken by some allies, seek to preserve the INF Treaty, strengthen the alliance, and incentivize Russia to engage in good faith.” NATO also stated that “allies have identified a Russian missile system that raises serious concerns,” yet allies did not jointly affirm the U.S. finding of Russian non-compliance.7

That silence frustrates U.S. officials, particularly because a Russian intermediate-range GLCM would be designed and built to strike targets in Europe and Asia, not the United States. To improve alliance cohesion, Washington should inform the alliance in more specific detail about its intelligence on the SSC-8. It should consult with allies on the way forward. Any attempt to force allies to support U.S. military deployments could well increase skepticism in Europe about the reliability of Washington’s nuclear policies under President Donald Trump.

Given that Congress has become a driving force behind the U.S. push to respond in kind to Russia’s policies, a parliamentary dialogue on how to respond to the INF Treaty violation would be important. NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, which regularly brings together legislators from alliance members, might be a good place to have discussions about a response to Russia’s actions. This could be complemented by bilateral dialogues between parliamentarians.

Any division among allies on how to act on the INF Treaty question would play into Moscow’s hands. In any event, it would make no sense for Washington to withdraw from the treaty unless it can present compelling evidence of Russia’s violation. Absent such information, the United States likely would get the blame for the treaty’s end, and Russia would be free to deploy intermediate-range missiles without any treaty constraints.


The INF Treaty is fundamental to European security and important to the security of U.S. allies and others in Asia. The treaty’s collapse would open the way for an arms race in intermediate-range ground-launched missiles, with unpredictable strategic and political consequences for relations between the West and Russia.8 It would also weaken the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control regime. Indeed, although their proposal did not survive congressional conference committee negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act, some Republicans had proposed to deny funds for extension of New START beyond 2021 if Russia was not in compliance with the INF Treaty.

The INF Treaty has made a significant contribution to security in Europe and Asia over the past 30 years. It should be preserved. That will require smart decisions by the Trump administration and concerted action with NATO members, which will otherwise find they are confronting a new Russian missile threat.

Saving the INF Treaty will also require a change in the Kremlin’s current course. The West should do what it can to encourage such a change.


1 Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “2017 Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 2017, pp. 13-14, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/270603.pdf.

2 See Hans Kristensen et al., “Preserving the INF Treaty: A Special Briefing Paper,” April 24, 2017, http://deepcuts.org/files/pdf/Special_Brief_-_Deep_Cuts_INF.pdf. For information on the Deep Cuts Commission, see http://deepcuts.org/.

3 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks and Answers to Media Questions at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference,” October 20, 2017, http://www.mid.ru/en/press_service/minister_speeches/-/asset_publisher/7OvQR5KJWVmR/content/id/2913751.

4 Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Analysis of Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Bill: HR 2810,” n.d., https://armscontrolcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/NDAA-conference-analysis-111417.pdf.

5 “Warsaw Summit Communiqué,” NATO press release no. (2016) 100, July 9, 2016, para. 62, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133169.htm.

6 Matthias Gebauer, Christoph Schult, and Klaus Wiegrefe, “Alleged INF Treaty Violation; U.S. Demands NATO Action on Russian Missiles,” Spiegel Online, December 8, 2017, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/us-delivers-ultimatum-to-nato-regarding-russian-missiles-a-1182426.html.

7 North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Statement by the North Atlantic Council on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty,” NATO Press Release (2017) 180, December 15, 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_150016.htm.

8 For example, see Ian Anthony, “European Security After the INF Treaty,” Survival, Vol. 59, No. 6 (December 2014-January 2018): 61-76.

Steven Pifer is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Oliver Meier is deputy head of the International Security Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Both are members of the Deep Cuts Commission, a nongovernmental group of German, Russian and U.S. experts.


As relations between the West and Russia deteriorate, a key Cold War arms control accord has come under threat.

BOOKS IN BRIEF: Silencing the Bomb, by Lynn R. Sykes; The Art of Sanctions, by Richard Nephew

Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist’s Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing
By Lynn R. Sykes, Columbia University Press, 2017, 284 pp.

Lynn R. Sykes, a professor emeritus of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, was one of the scientists who adapted earthquake detection technologies for application to detection of explosive nuclear testing. This account of his work and his activist role in pushing for a ban on nuclear testing provides a unique historical view for those who wish to learn more about the intersection of science and treaty negotiation. Sykes’ experience shapes this historical overview of the negotiations to end nuclear testing, which produced the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). He covers a period of time from the development of nuclear weapons in the 1940s to the advancement of nuclear test monitoring technologies, the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, and the 1999 Senate rejection of the CTBT. Sykes then looks ahead at efforts to continue to push for ways to permanently prohibit nuclear testing.—SHERVIN TAHERAN


The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field
By Richard Nephew, Columbia University Press, December 2017, 232 pp.

Richard Nephew, senior research scholar and program director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, provides a practical framework for applying and evaluating the efficacy of sanctions. Nephew’s guidelines stress that the relationship between a target state’s ability to absorb pain and its resolve to overcome pain is the critical factor for assessing how a state will respond to sanctions pressure. Nephew argues that to use sanctions property, measures should be introduced incrementally and that the state being sanctioned must understand under what conditions that pressure will be eased or removed. He offers options for calibrating sanctions to be more effective and pairing sanctions with a diplomatic approach. Nephew draws on his experience at the U.S. Department of State as deputy coordinator for sanctions policy to provide anecdotes about the U.S. experience applying sanctions on Iran and Iraq, which help illustrate his framework and make for an entertaining read.

Books In Brief: Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist’s Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing, by Lynn R. Sykes; The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field, by Richard Nephew

‘This Remarkable Endeavor’

An excerpt from the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize presentation speech by Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, given December 10 in Oslo.

In awarding this year's peace prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the Norwegian Nobel Committee seeks to honor this remarkable endeavor to serve the interests of mankind.

Photo credit: Nigel Waldron/Getty ImagesThe Nobel Committee believes that an international ban on nuclear weapons will be an important, possibly decisive step on the road to a world without nuclear weapons. Such a goal is fully consistent with the essence of Alfred Nobel's will.

Ladies and gentlemen, ICAN's support for a global ban on nuclear weapons is not uncontroversial. We must acknowledge that the treaty has powerful opponents, but the idea of prohibiting and abolishing nuclear weapons is neither naïve nor new. As early as 1946, in the UN General Assembly's very first resolution, the United Nations called for nuclear disarmament and an international nuclear weapons control regime.

At the Reykjavik summit in 1986, [Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev and [U.S. President] Ronald Reagan tried to halt the spiraling nuclear arms race between the two superpowers and came close to concluding an agreement to abolish all long-range nuclear missiles. A year and a half earlier, President Reagan had addressed the people of the United States and the Soviet Union directly, saying, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they never will be used. But then, would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”

Today, it is more important than ever to support this vision. While the global community may trust that no responsible head of state would ever order another nuclear attack, we have no guarantees that it will not happen. Despite international legal commitments, irresponsible leaders can come to power in any nuclear-armed state and become embroiled in serious military conflicts that veer out of control.

Ultimately, nuclear weapons are controlled by human beings. In spite of advanced security mechanisms and control systems, technical and human errors can occur, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Can we be sure that the control systems of the nuclear powers will not someday be sabotaged by hackers acting on behalf of hostile states, terrorists, or extremists?

In short, nuclear weapons are so dangerous that the only responsible course of action is to work for their removal and destruction.

Many people think that the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world, a Global Zero, is utopic or even irresponsible. Similar arguments were once used to oppose the treaties banning biological and chemical weapons, cluster weapons, and landmines. Nonetheless, the prohibitions became reality, and most of these weapons are far less prevalent today as a result. Using them is taboo.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is aware that nuclear weapons disarmament presents far greater challenges than disarmament of the types of weapons I just mentioned. But there is no getting around the fact that the nuclear-weapon states have committed, through the [nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty, to work toward disarmament. This is the ultimate objective of the treaty. Through its efforts, ICAN has reminded the nuclear-weapon states that their commitment entails a genuine obligation, and the time to honor it is now!

In his Nobel lecture in 1959, Philip Noel-Baker took issue with the widely held opinion that complete nuclear disarmament is impossible to achieve in the real world. He quoted another peace prize laureate, Fridtjof Nansen: “The difficult is what takes a little while; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”

The people of ICAN are impatient and visionary, but they are not naïve. ICAN recognizes that the nuclear-armed states cannot eliminate their nuclear weapons overnight. This must be achieved through a mutual, gradual, and verifiable disarmament process.

But it is the hope of ICAN and the Norwegian Nobel Committee that an international legal ban and broad popular engagement will put pressure on all nuclear-armed states and expedite the process.

The full speech is available at https://www.nobelprize.org/

An excerpt from the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize presentation speech by Berit Reiss-Andersen,
chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, given December 10 in Oslo.

Trump Sets INF Response Strategy

January/February 2018
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration is increasing the pressure on Russia over its alleged violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, confirming earlier press reports that its strategy to confront Moscow includes development of a new missile system that if built and tested would violate the accord.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, visits the Peter the Great Strategic Missile Forces Academy near Moscow on December 22, 2017. Russia denies the U.S. claim that it is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. (Photo: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)The State Department announced on Dec. 8, the 30th anniversary of the treaty, that the administration is “taking new diplomatic, military, and economic measures intended to induce the Russian Federation to return to compliance and to deny it any military advantage should it persist in its violation.” This action follows a policy review and Russia’s continued refusal to address U.S. compliance concerns.

The department said that beginning research on “concepts and options for conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems,” which is not prohibited by the treaty, “will prepare the United States to defend itself and its allies.”

The United States will cease this research if Russia “returns to full and verifiable compliance” with the treaty, the department added.

Russia, which denies it has violated the treaty, responded harshly to the announcement. “It looks like conditions are being set ... for the United States to walk out on” the treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at his annual year-end news conference Dec. 14.

Lawmakers voted in November to require the Defense Department to establish a program to begin development of a new ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) having a range prohibited by the treaty as part of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. (See ACT, December 2017.)

Some members of Congress have raised concerns about a tit-for-tat response, arguing that it could lead to a dangerous and unnecessary missile race in Europe. A bipartisan group of 13 senators wrote to the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Dec. 8 urging them to prohibit the expenditure of fiscal year 2018 funds on a new GLCM. “We believe the development of such a missile would call into question the United States' commitment to uphold” its long-standing obligations under the treaty, they stated in the letter.

Neither the House nor Senate appropriations committee-approved versions of the fiscal year 2018 defense appropriations bill include funding for a new GLCM. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have yet to pass a final spending bill for the current fiscal year.

If the United States decides to deploy the new missiles, development would likely take years and cost several billion dollars.

Foreign ministers of NATO countries gather for a meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels Dec. 6, 2017. The council issued a statement Dec. 15 saying the report of a new Russian missile system “raises serious concerns.” (NATO photo)The Trump administration said it will also continue to seek a diplomatic resolution, including through the treaty’s dispute resolution forum known as the Special Verification Commission (SVC), and pursue punitive economic measures against “entities involved in the development and manufacture of Russia’s prohibited cruise-missile system.”

The SVC met for the 31st time in Geneva on Dec. 12-14. It is not clear whether the meeting made progress or whether the parties agreed to meet again.

A State Department press release on Dec. 14 said the parties to the treaty “expressed the view that the INF Treaty continues to play an important role in the existing system of international security, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and that they will work to preserve and strengthen it.”

Since 2014, Washington has accused Moscow of violating its commitment “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a GLCM having a range prohibited under the pact. In the past year, the Pentagon has alleged publicly that Russia is fielding a noncompliant system.

The INF Treaty requires Russia and the United States to eliminate permanently their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles having ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

The Obama administration explored a range of military options to respond to Russia’s alleged violation, but ultimately decided to pursue a broader approach that went beyond its specific concerns about Moscow’s noncompliance with the treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2016.)

In announcing its new approach, the Trump administration for the first time revealed both the U.S. name for the missile of concern, the SSC-8, and the apparent Russian designation, the 9M729.

In a Dec. 9 statement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called the U.S. charges “totally unfounded” and reiterated Russia’s position that the United States is violating the agreement. Washington maintains that it is in full compliance.

Although previous Russian denials have not acknowledged the existence of the missile system in question, Ryabkov said the Trump administration had provided Russia with the name of a “missile research project” but that the missile is compliant with the treaty.

Meanwhile, NATO, which since 2014 has been reluctant to strongly condemn Russia for violating the treaty, said in a Dec. 15 statement that member states had identified a Russian missile system that “raises serious concerns” and called on Russia “to address these concerns in a substantial and transparent way, and actively engage in a technical dialogue with the United States.”

NATO’s actions, “including national measures taken by some allies, seek to preserve the INF Treaty, strengthen the alliance, and incentivize Russia to engage in good faith,” the statement added.

The Trump administration is increasing the pressure on Russia over its alleged violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, confirming earlier press reports that its strategy to confront Moscow includes development of a new missile system that if built and tested would violate the accord.

New START Future Uncertain

January/February 2018
By Kingston Reif

The United States and Russia are on track to fulfill their obligations under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by the agreement’s Feb. 5 implementation deadline, but the future of the agreement is in doubt.

In a display of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate provided its advice and consent to ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by a vote of 71-26 on December 22, 2010. Then-Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who together led the push for treaty ratification, met with reporters a day earlier, after winning a procedural vote. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)The treaty is one of the few remaining bright spots in the U.S.-Russian relationship, as both sides have abided by its terms.

Signed in 2010, the treaty requires each country to reduce its strategic nuclear forces to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed delivery systems, and 800 deployed and nondeployed delivery systems by the February implementation deadline. New START also includes a comprehensive suite of monitoring and verification provisions to help ensure compliance with these limits.

As of the most recent biannual exchange of treaty data compiled by the State Department last September, the United States had met the limits for all three of the central weapons categories ahead of the deadline. Russia had reached two of the limits and was a mere 11 deployed warheads above the required limit of 1,550.

New START is set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021, and can be extended by up to five years without further approval by the U.S. Senate or Russian Duma if both presidents agree. But U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized the treaty and in a January 2017 phone call responded negatively to a suggestion from Russian President Vladimir Putin that their countries work to extend the treaty, according to Reuters report.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control department, said in a Dec. 19 interview with Interfax that Russia is willing to consider a five-year extension but that the United States is not currently “prepared for this kind of conversation.”

The U.S. administration is conducting a Nuclear Posture Review, which could involve consideration of the New START limits. (See ACT, March 2017.) The review is scheduled to be completed in February.

If New START is allowed to lapse with nothing to replace it, there would be no limits on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces for the first time in decades.

In November, Christopher Ford, then-special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, told an audience in Washington that New START “remains a valuable tool for ensuring transparency and predictability between the United States and Russia.”

“We hope that after the February deadline is met” and the administration’s nuclear posture and ballistic missile defense reviews are complete, “we can begin to assess whether or not extending New START for an additional five years…is in our national security interest,” said Ford, who is now assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation.

U.S. military leaders continue to see value in New START. Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress in March that “bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.”

But some Pentagon officials have said that it is too early to consider extending New START. There is “no need to extend New START today,” Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in March.

Apart from New START, other key pillars of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control architecture, like the bilateral relationship more broadly, are under siege, most notably the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Since 2014, the United States has accused Russia of violating that accord.

The House-passed version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act would have prohibited the use of funds to extend New START unless Russia returns to compliance with the INF Treaty. (See ACT, September 2017.)

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said at an event in Washington in July that by threatening New START and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, two accords that Russia hopes to preserve, the United States demonstrates a “firm and unyielding response” to Russian noncompliance.

The final version of the authorization bill signed by Trump in December did not include the House language on New START.

The United States and Russia are on track to fulfill their obligations under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by the agreement’s Feb. 5 implementation deadline, but the future of the agreement is in doubt.

Hypersonic Advances Spark Concern

January/February 2018
By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department in the fall conducted its latest test of a hypersonic missile, a new type of high-speed weapon that potentially holds great military promise but also great peril as the United States and other nations seeking to exploit the dizzying pace of technological advances.

Artist’s concept of the X-51A Waverider in flight. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne scramjet engine, it is designed to ride on its own shockwave and accelerate to about Mach 6 (4,500 miles per hour). (U.S. Air Force graphic)Although it could be a decade before hypersonic weapons are ready for use, U.S. military planners and contractors salivate over the prospect they could provide a game-changing military advantage. But other nations, including other nuclear-armed powers, are developing similar capabilities as they seek to counter more than 25 years of U.S. post-Cold War military dominance.

The pursuit of this emerging technology is drawing warnings that it could lead to new escalation dangers in a conflict, including to the nuclear level, and that interested countries are not giving enough attention to the potential for a dangerous arms race and increased risks of instability. To further complicate matters, hypersonic missiles could provide a new means of delivery for nuclear warheads.

Unique capabilities make hypersonic weapons more difficult to defend against than legacy missiles and “further compress the timelines for a response by a nation under attack,” according to a major 2017 Rand Corp. report, “Hypersonic Missile Nonproliferation: Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons.” There is “probably less than a decade available to hinder the proliferation process,” the report says.

Hypersonic missiles can travel at approximately 5,000 to 25,000 kilometers per hour, or 1 to 5 miles per second. They can change their trajectories during flight and fly at odd altitudes. The flight altitude and maneuverability result in less warning time than in the case of higher-flying ballistic missiles. Any effort to thwart such systems would be “challenging to the best missile defenses now envisioned,” according to the Rand report.

Two types of hypersonic missiles are currently under development. A hypersonic boost-glide vehicle is fired by rockets into space and then released to fly to its target along the upper atmosphere. Unlike ballistic missiles, a boost-glide vehicle flies at a lower altitude and can change its intended target and trajectory repeatedly during its flight. The second type, a hypersonic cruise missile, is powered through its entire flight by advanced rockets or high-speed jet engines. It is a faster version of existing cruise missiles.

The United States, China, and Russia are leading the emerging race in the development of hypersonic weapons, but they are not the only countries engaged in research and development on the technology or that might seek to acquire it.

In 2003, Washington began formally pursuing options to quickly strike high-value targets with conventional weapons anywhere on the globe at the outset of or during a conflict. The effort has become known as conventional prompt strike.

Supporters inside and outside of government put forward several rationales for this mission, including countering increasingly sophisticated air and missile defense systems, destroying rogue-state nuclear forces, and targeting terrorists.

The United States conducted its first successful flight test of a boost-glide weapon in 2011, when the Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) flew for 2,400 miles from Hawaii to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

On Oct. 30, 2017, the Navy conducted a $160 million test in the Pacific of a modified version of the AHW that could be deployed atop missiles on Virginia- or Ohio-class submarines. Additional program flight tests are planned in 2020 and 2022.

The Defense Department has spent a total of $1.2 billion on its prompt-strike program. It requested $202 million for the program in its fiscal year 2018 budget request published in May, including $197 million for the AHW.

China and Russia have not sat idle. The two countries appear to be developing the technology in part to penetrate U.S. missile defenses.

Since 2014, China has conducted at least seven tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle, which U.S defense officials call the WU-14. It is believed to have conducted one or two tests of a hypersonic cruise missile.

In addition, The Diplomat reported in December that China in November conducted two flight tests of a new, medium-range glide vehicle, dubbed the DF-17, that is intended for operational deployment as early as 2020.

Russia has repeatedly expressed concern that U.S. prompt-strike efforts could threaten the survivability of Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. Russia is engaged in its own work on hypersonic missiles, notably the Tsirkon, or Zircon, hypersonic cruise missile.

It is uncertain whether China and Russia are developing hypersonic weapons to deliver nuclear or conventional weapons.

After the United States, China, and Russia, the two governments that have made the most progress on hypersonic technology are France and India. Both are pursuing hypersonic cruise missile options. Australia, Japan, and the European Union are also pursuing research and development programs in hypersonic technology.

The most highlighted risk to strategic stability posed by hypersonic or other prompt-strike weapons armed with conventional warheads is that they could be mistaken for nuclear weapons. This could trigger a nuclear-armed country, targeted by such a conventional attack, to launch its nuclear weapons in response.

But there are arguably more significant stability concerns. For example, the deployment by nuclear-armed states of conventional hypersonic missiles could pose a threat to the survivability of their nuclear forces and potentially reduce the available response time. By increasing fears of a disarming attack, a threatened state could take steps that would increase crisis instability, such as increasing the readiness of its nuclear forces or adopting a policy of pre-emption.

Chinese and Russian officials and analysts have expressed concerns about this type of scenario.

Further, the advent of hypersonic weapons could increase the growing risks of inadvertent escalation related to the “entanglement” of non-nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons and their supporting capabilities, such as command-and-control functions. Given that the actual targets of a hypersonic missile attack might not be apparent until the last minutes of flight, a state could misattribute an attack aimed at its conventional forces as an attack against its nuclear forces nearby.

The proliferation of hypersonic weapons beyond the United States, China, and Russia could exacerbate stability concerns. The Rand study noted that the spread of the weapons “could result in lesser powers setting their strategic forces on hair-trigger states of readiness and more credibly being able to threaten attacks on major powers.”

Experts concerned about the risks to stability have proposed ideas to mitigate them. For instance, as a unilateral step, countries developing these missiles could make escalation risks a key factor in the decision about whether to acquire and deploy the weapons.

James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 21 interview that the U.S. hypersonic program is technology driven and the Pentagon has not adequately explained why it needs such a capability or assessed the benefits, risks, and costs.

Cooperative steps also could be pursued, although progress does not appear likely in the near term given tensions among the major powers. As one idea, the United States could initiate separate dialogues with China and Russia on stability and escalation concerns and on developing confidence-building measures. Such measures could include data exchanges on hypersonic deployment and acquisition plans.

In addition, the three countries could agree to multilateral export controls to restrain the proliferation of hypersonic technology.

More far-reaching measures could also be contemplated. In a report published last November by the Carnegie Endowment, Russian scholars Alexey Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, and Petr Topychkanov urged the inclusion of intercontinental boost-glide systems under the central limits of a successor to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Some analysts have called for enacting a moratorium on hypersonic testing and eventually establishing a test ban treaty. Mark Gubrud, a physicist and adjunct assistant professor in the peace, war, and defense curriculum at the University of North Carolina, has written that a test ban would be “a simple, risk-free, and highly verifiable way” to avoid “a new round of an old arms race.”

But Acton told Arms Control Today he is skeptical about the feasibility of a test ban. He noted that there is no clear dividing line between boost-glide vehicles and terminally guided ballistic missiles, such as the Chinese DF-21, which maneuvers to its target after re-entering the atmosphere. “If all maneuvering re-entry vehicles are banned,” Acton said, “China will never sign up.”

The Defense Department in the fall conducted its latest test of a hypersonic missile, a new type of high-speed weapon that potentially holds great military promise but also great peril as the United States and other nations seeking to exploit the dizzying pace of technological advances.

North Korea Tests New Long-Range Missile

January/February 2018
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea tested a new ballistic missile capable of targeting the entire continental United States, a move that considerably extends Pyongyang’s missile flight range.

This December 12, 2017 photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang presenting awards to scientists for their successful work on the Hwasong-15 intercontinental-range ballistic missile. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)The Nov. 29 test took place just before 3 a.m. in North Korea, and the missile flew on a lofted trajectory for 53 minutes before splashing down in the Sea of Japan about 1,000 kilometers from the launch site. The test, which violates UN Security Council resolutions, was firmly condemned by the international community and escalated concerns about a potential pre-emptive or preventative strike by the United States in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile advances.

North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) heralded the test of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), designated the Hwasong-15, as a success and described the missile as “capable of carrying super-heavy nuclear warhead and attacking the whole mainland of the U.S.”

David Wright, co-director of the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimated that the missile would have a range of 13,000 kilometers if flown on a standard trajectory, which would put the entire continental United States within its range. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed the range capability on Nov. 28 when he told reporters that the missile could hit “everywhere in the world.”

North Korea did test an ICBM, the Hwasong-14, twice in July, but the estimated range of that system is 10,500 kilometers. (See ACT, September 2017.) At that range, Washington, D.C., would likely have been just out of range, and experts assess that the weight of a nuclear warhead would further reduce that missile’s range.

Like the Hwasong-14, the Hwasong-15 is a two-stage, liquid-fueled system. The Hwasong-15, however, has a number of different characteristics, including a pair of rocket engines powering the first stage, unlike the single-engine Hwasong-14.

Michael Elleman, senior fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies, concluded in a Nov. 30 analysis for the website 38 North that the Hwasong-15 could “deliver a moderately-sized nuclear weapon to any city on the U.S. mainland.” Further, the missile is large and powerful enough to carry decoys or countermeasures that would complicate U.S. missile defense efforts, he said.

Elleman also noted improvements on the Hwasong-15 that would give the North Korean weapon additional accuracy. The missile could be fitted with a postboost control system that could be used to adjust the payload’s velocity and positioning, he said.

When asked about the test, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters on Nov. 28 that the United States “will deal with it.”

The KCNA announcement said that the test accomplished the “historic cause of completing the state nuclear force” and that North Korea had attained its goal of “completing the rocket weaponry system development.”

A South Korean official told Arms Control Today on Dec. 19 not to read too much into the use of the word “complete.” The official said that North Korea is likely directing that comment at a domestic audience because leader Kim Jong Un set the goal of completing the nuclear arsenal in his Jan. 1, 2017, speech. The officials said that “completion” should not be interpreted as an end of tests.

Many experts and officials assess that North Korea will need to conduct additional tests to demonstrate the reliability of the ICBM. There are continuing doubts about whether North Korea has the technology to ensure that a warhead would survive re-entry into the atmosphere.

Mattis told reporters on Dec. 15 that the Hwasong-15 “has not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now.” Yeo Suk-joo, South Korean deputy minister for defense policy, said on Dec. 1 that North Korea still needs to prove re-entry and warhead activation.

Elleman made a similar point, noting that more testing is necessary to validate the missile’s performance and verify the re-entry system to ensure that the warhead survives re-entry into the atmosphere. If North Korea is willing to accept “low confidence in the missile’s reliability,” Kim Jong Un could declare the Hwasong-15 combat ready after two or three additional tests, he said.

South Korea responded to the missile test by launching its own precision-strike missiles six minutes after the North Korean test. The South Korean response included army, navy, and air force systems, likely demonstrating that the country’s intelligence agencies detected preparations for the test.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in described the North Korean test as a “reckless provocation” and warned that Pyongyang’s actions may drive the United States to consider a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

Moon’s concerns about a pre-emptive or preventative strike were reinforced by several U.S. policymakers. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that the test brought “the world closer to war” and although the United States does not seek a military conflict, “if war does come, it will be because of continued acts of aggression,” such as the ICBM test.

North Korea tested a new ballistic missile capable of targeting the entire continental United States, a move that considerably extends Pyongyang’s missile flight range.

North Korea Holds Talks With Seoul

January/February 2018
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened the door for talks with South Korea in his annual New Year’s address while warning the United States that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal should deter Washington from starting “an adventurous war.”

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon (L) shakes hands with the head of the North Korean delegation Ri Son Gwon after their meeting at the border village of Panmunjom on January 9.  (Photo: Korea Pool/Getty Images)Although talks between North Korea and South Korea have the potential to reduce tensions and lead to further communications, an improved relationship between the two countries could stress the U.S.-South Korean alliance and put Seoul and Washington at odds over the strategy on dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

U.S. officials were quick to point out that addressing the threat posed by the North’s ongoing nuclear weapons development, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking as far as New York and Washington, is the dominant issue for the United States. Kim, in his address, said his country would continue and even accelerate production of nuclear warheads and missiles in 2018, leaving U.S. officials skeptical about his new overture to South Korea.

“We won't take any of the talks seriously if they don't do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on Jan. 2. “We consider this to be a very reckless regime, we don't think we need a Band-Aid, and we don't think we need to smile and take a picture.”

The Trump administration has worked to tighten international sanctions on North Korea to increase diplomatic leverage, even as reports surfaced of Chinese and Russian entities covertly supplying oil to North Korea. President Donald Trump has said he is disappointed that China has not done more to force North Korea to curtail its nuclear activities.

In his Jan. 1 remarks, Kim wished South Korea success with hosting the Winter Olympics and offered to send a delegation of athletes to participate in the event. He said that authorities from the two countries “may meet together soon” to discuss the details, a shift from past responses that largely ignored South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s calls for dialogue since Moon’s election in May.

South Korea responded the next day with an offer to talk, and the two sides met Jan. 8 at the border town of Panmunjom. To facilitate a meeting, North Korea restored a hotline between the two countries that it shut down nearly two years ago when South Korean President Park Geun-hye closed a joint industrial complex.

In photo provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, a South Korean official checks the direct communications hotline being re-activated to talk with the North Korean side at the border village of Panmunjom on January 3. (Photo: South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images)In his remarks, Kim seemed to be implying that the North and South could work together to reduce tensions while casting the United States as a warmongering country that threatened the peninsula. Kim said in his speech that the United States is “wielding the nuclear stick and going wild for war” and that “when the north and the south are determined, they can surely prevent the outbreak of war and ease tension on the Korean peninsula.” He further called for “improved inter-Korean relations” in order to “avoid acute military confrontation.”

Any talks between Pyongyang and Seoul are unlikely to focus on North Korea’s nuclear program, but decreased tensions between the two countries might lessen South Korean support for the current U.S. pressure-based approach, particularly if the Trump administration continues to increase tensions.

White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders did not directly respond to a question about whether the United States supports South Korea’s decision to engage in dialogue, but said on Jan. 2 that U.S. policy toward North Korea has not changed and Washington “will still continue to put maximum pressure on North Korea to change and make sure that it denuclearizes the peninsula.”

Trump tweeted on Jan. 2 about Kim’s offer for talks with South Korea, saying “perhaps that is good news, perhaps not—we will see!”

Although this was not overtly negative, Trump adopted a more belligerent tone toward North Korea later in the day when he responded to Kim’s reference to having a “nuclear button” on his desk and weapons that can strike the entire U.S. mainland. Trump tweeted that he too has a nuclear button that is “much bigger and more powerful” than Kim’s and that his button works.

Further, the Trump administration may oppose South Korea conceding too much to North Korea to ensure stability during the Winter Olympics, set for Feb. 9-25.

Seoul expressed an interest in postponing annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that are normally held around the time of the Olympics to try and mitigate any provocations by North Korea in response.

After initial U.S. resistance to a delay, Trump agreed Jan. 4 to Moon’s request to postpone the joint military exercises until after the Olympics. Moon asked for the delay so South Korea can focus on “ensuring the security” of the games, according to a White House statement. It is unclear whether Trump agreed for that reason, or whether his administration saw the move as a way to reduce tensions with Pyongyang.

Trump has consistently undermined signals from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea, and a number of U.S. officials have sent mixed messages about the actions Pyongyang would need to take for Washington to start talks.

Tillerson said on Dec. 12 at the Atlantic Council that the United States is “ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk” and willing to “have the first meeting without precondition.” The White House quickly walked back Tillerson’s comment, saying on Dec. 13 that North Korea must refrain from provocations and take “sincere and meaningful actions toward denuclearization” before talks can begin.

Kim indicated that North Korea intended to continue its nuclear and missile activities in 2018. He described “perfecting the national nuclear forces” over the past year as “an outstanding success.” Kim said the country would emphasize the mass production of nuclear warheads and missiles to “spur the efforts for deploying them for action.”

In line with the U.S. strategy, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a new sanctions resolution Dec. 22 in response to North Korea’s Nov. 29 ICBM test (see page 30). North Korea is prohibited from conducting missile launches by previous Security Council resolutions.

Resolution 2397 further reduced the amount of refined petroleum products that North Korea can legally purchase and bans additional North Korean exports, including food and agricultural products. The resolution requires states to seize illicit goods on ships caught evading sanctions and to expel North Korean workers by the end of 2019.

Haley said on Dec. 22 that “leveling these unprecedented sanctions is a reflection of the international outrage” over North Korea’s actions. She said the measures in the resolution “cut deeper” and reiterated the U.S. call for all states to“sever diplomatic and trade relations with North Korea.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened the door for talks with South Korea in his annual New Year’s address while warning the United States that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal should deter Washington from starting “an adventurous war.”


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