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January/February 2019

Arms Control Today January/February 2019

Edition Date: 
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
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Extending New START Is in America's National Security Interest

January/February 2019
By Frank Klotz

On December 4, 2018, the United States officially declared that Russia’s ongoing violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty constitutes a material breach of the treaty and that the United States will suspend its obligations under the treaty in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance.1

U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in Prague on April 8, 2010, committing their nations to further nuclear arms cuts. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)If the United States ultimately follows through on this course of action, as seems likely, only one bilateral agreement would remain that mutually constrains the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. Moreover, that one agreement, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), is due to expire in less than three years, that is, 10 years from the date it entered into force.2 The treaty’s terms, however, permit it to be extended for up to one additional five-year period with the approval of the U.S. and Russian presidents, without further review by the legislative bodies of the two countries.

Unlike the case with the INF Treaty, the U.S. Department of State has repeatedly certified that Russia is in compliance with the terms of New START.3 In addition, New START has been and remains in the military and national security interests of the United States. Thus, the most prudent course of action would be to extend New START before it expires in 2021 and thereby gain the time needed to carefully consider the options for a successor agreement or agreements and to negotiate a deal with the Russians.

New START was signed in April 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. It entered into force in February 2011, following approval by Russia's Duma and Federation Council and after a particularly rancorous debate in the U.S. Senate. The treaty called for the continued reduction of the nuclear forces of both countries, which had begun in the Reagan era.4 It also put in place a comprehensive verification regime, including provisions for on-site inspections at each other’s nuclear-capable bomber, missile, and submarine bases, as well as routine data exchanges and notifications regarding specific activities associated with their respective strategic offensive arms.5 Both sides met the February 2018 deadline for reducing their existing nuclear forces to the treaty's mandated limits. In addition, as of late 2018, they had each conducted more than 140 on-site inspections and together had exchanged almost 17,000 notifications related to their strategic nuclear forces and facilities.6

Whether the current U.S. administration will opt to extend New START, as permitted by the treaty, is uncertain. Shortly after entering office in January 2017, President Donald Trump reportedly referred to the treaty as a “bad deal” during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which the latter raised the possibility of extending the treaty.7 On the other hand, the U.S. president subsequently told reporters in March 2018 that he would like to meet with Putin “to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”8

Indeed, one of the issues that received considerable attention during the run-up to the July 2018 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki was whether the United States and Russia should agree during the meeting to extend New START.9 That did not happen. Putin did reveal, however, in an interview that he had “reassured President Trump [during the summit] that Russia stands ready to extend this treaty, to prolong it” but that questions regarding U.S. compliance would first have to be decided by “experts.”10

No Firm Position

The U.S. administration apparently does not have a firm position on whether to extend New START before it expires in 2021, nor has it publicly given any indication of when it might have one. In a postsummit follow-up meeting with his Russian counterpart, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, stated in August that the administration was “very, very early in the process of considering” what to do about New START.11 Bolton was a strong critic of the treaty before joining the administration. In congressional testimony in September, senior officials from the departments of State and Defense emphasized that U.S. policy toward extension of New START was still being deliberated within the administration. David Trachtenberg, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, noted that “any decision on extending the treaty will, and should be, based on a realistic assessment of whether the New START treaty remains in our national security interests in light of overall Russian arms control behavior.”12

So, the key question is whether it is in U.S. national security interests to extend New START before it expires in 2021. Significantly, many members of the one domestic constituency that ought to be the most concerned about the size and posture of the U.S. and Russian nuclear forces—the U.S. military—clearly believe that it is.


At first blush, it may seem counterintuitive that those in charge of the institution with responsibility for designing, developing, and operating nuclear-capable bombers and ballistic missiles would also support an agreement that places constraints on the number of those forces that can be deployed. Yet, ever since the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) started in 1969, U.S. military officers have been actively involved in the negotiations leading to nuclear arms control agreements as members of the U.S. negotiating teams and as participants in the interagency deliberations regarding U.S. goals and objectives. Admittedly, a principal objective of the military with respect to this process has been to ensure the U.S. negotiating teams were well versed in the practical realities of fielding and operating nuclear forces and did not inadvertently offer or accept proposals that would unduly impinge on the military's ability to effectively maintain its bombers and missiles and train their crews.

Arms Control Rationale

Senior U.S. military leaders have also accepted a more conceptually based rationale for supporting the nuclear arms control process. During the 1960s, several U.S. scholars and policymakers had advanced the notion that “armed readiness” and “arms control” can be simultaneously pursued as complementary approaches to protecting national security. Many of the seminal writings associated with this view were studied within military schools during the Cold War. For example, in the 1970s, all U.S. Air Force Academy cadets were required to take a semester-long course on U.S. defense policy that included excerpts from Thomas Schelling's and Morton Halperin's Strategy and Arms Control as assigned reading.13

Regrettably, the treatment of nuclear policy and arms control in professional military education has declined significantly over the past two decades as the focus of attention has shifted to the conduct of military operations in Southwest Asia and countering the threat of terrorism. Nevertheless, a generation of senior military leaders, schooled early in their careers in the classic texts of nuclear deterrence theory, have consistently cited, in their public statements and in their congressional testimony, the benefits that arms control agreements confer.

Foremost among these beliefs is the strongly held view that the transparency and verification measures in the more recent nuclear arms control agreements provide insight into the size, capabilities, and operations of the other side's nuclear forces beyond that provided by more traditional intelligence collection and assessment methods. For example, writing in support of the ratification of New START in 2010, seven former, four-star commanders of U.S. strategic nuclear forces stated that “we will understand Russian strategic forces much better with this treaty than would be the case without it.” They also emphasized that the treaty would contribute to a more stable relationship between the United States and Russia.14

Equally important to senior military leaders has been the role arms control agreements have played in constraining the size and, in certain instances, the capabilities of the other side's nuclear forces. The U.S.-Russian nuclear arms competition during the Cold War was fueled in part by a concern that the other side might achieve a technological breakthrough or build up its forces in such a way as to threaten the survivability of one's own nuclear forces and the ability to retaliate in response to nuclear aggression, thus increasing the incentives for one side or the other to strike or respond quickly, thereby undermining a fundamental prerequisite of stable, mutual deterrence.

Arms control agreements served to ameliorate this concern by capping the overall number of deployed nuclear forces, precluding either side from achieving an overwhelming advantage.15 For the U.S. military, this helped reduce uncertainty and enhance predictability about Russia's capabilities and intentions, allowing it to size and shape U.S. forces with greater confidence in the adequacy of its own investment plans and programs. It also helped free up funding for conventional military capability that might otherwise have been allocated to nuclear forces.

This general view of the benefits of arms control as a complementary strategy to maintaining a survivable, reliable, and effective nuclear deterrence force has carried over to the current considerations of extending New START for an additional five years. In contrast to the noncommittal public statements of civilian national security officials this fall, senior military leaders have been more forthcoming. For example, in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in March 2017, General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, each expressed strong support for New START, the latter stating that “bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.”16 Lieutenant General Jack Weinstein, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, publicly stated that same month that the treaty was of “huge value” to the United States, adding that it has “been good for us.”17 Trump's statements in October 2018 regarding a possible U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty has also prompted letters from former national security officials, including retired senior military officers, to salvage the INF Treaty and extend New START.18

Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command Air Force General John Hyten testifies at a House Armed Services Committee hearing March 8, 2017. He expressed support for New START, saying that that “bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.” (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)In addition to concerns about strategic stability and mutual deterrence, the U.S. military's support for New START reflects very practical considerations about current programs and defense budgets. The Defense Department has embarked on a comprehensive, multiyear effort to modernize its aging fleet of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and nuclear submarines. The current “program of record” seeks to replace existing strategic nuclear delivery systems on a roughly one-for-one basis. The new systems would thus fit within the New START limits on deployed and nondeployed systems. Moreover, as long as these limits remain in force, Russian nuclear forces will also be constrained to current and predictable levels. Therefore, the U.S. military can assume with some confidence that its modernization program will be adequate to the task of providing for an effective deterrent for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, the U.S. nuclear sustainment and modernization program that Trump inherited from his predecessor, even within New START force limits, is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $1.2 trillion dollars over 30 years (in 2017 dollars and, therefore, higher when accounting for inflation).19 An unconstrained buildup would certainly cost far more. The United States and Russia would not necessarily embark on a significant buildup of their respective strategic offensive forces in the absence of New START or a subsequent agreement, but there would be no treaty obligations preventing them from doing so.

Finally, most senior military leaders acknowledge privately, but for understandable reasons do not state in public, that support for the current nuclear modernization program in Congress over the past decade has depended on a bipartisan consensus based in large part on a “grand bargain” that nuclear modernization and nuclear arms control will be pursued simultaneously. The change of leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives will surely test the resiliency of that consensus in the months ahead. Allowing New START to expire without anything to replace it, coupled with a possible formal withdrawal from the INF Treaty, would most likely place additional stress on that consensus, making it much more difficult to rally support for the current program of record to replace the existing force of aging nuclear delivery systems and revitalize the national laboratories and production facilities of the Department of Energy's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.20

Viable Alternatives?

Are there any viable alternatives to extending New START that would provide U.S. military planners the same level of certainty about U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear balance and thus the adequacy of current and future U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities? Although this topic requires considerable thought and discussion, a few general points can be ventured at this stage.

One possible option is to negotiate a new treaty that retains the most salient features of New START, such as limits on deployed forces and robust transparency and verification measures, but addresses matters of particular importance to the United States. The Senate resolution on ratification of New START had expressed concern about the disparity in the number of nonstrategic (theater) nuclear weapons possessed by Russia compared to the number of nonstrategic nuclear weapons deployed by the United States in Europe, and the Obama administration sought to quickly follow New START with negotiations to deal with these systems.21 Those negotiations never took place. More recently, the United States has expressed concern about several new types of nuclear delivery systems that have been developed by Russia and publicly touted by Putin.22 Of course, in any negotiations for a new treaty, the Russians will have their own list of desiderata, including limiting U.S. missile defenses and the deployment of highly precise conventional weapons that could potentially be used to attack Russian nuclear forces and command, control, and communications systems. Even in the unlikely situation that these technically complex and politically fraught issues could be set aside or speedily resolved in the interest of negotiating a successor agreement, the process would still take time, certainly longer than the two years that remain before the treaty expires, if history is any guide.


Another option that has been floated is to replace New START with an agreement like the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty. Bolton has reportedly described this notion as a “possibility.”23 The treaty was signed by President George W. Bush and Putin in May 2002 after negotiations that lasted only six months. It required both sides to reduce the number of “operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons” to a level between 1,700 and 2,200. Unlike previous U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreements that included many pages of lengthy articles, protocols, and annexes, this treaty was less than two pages long, in large part because it did not include any verification provisions. For Bush administration officials, these were unnecessary because the treaty could rely on the verification regime established in the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which was still in force at the time and would be in place for at least another seven years.24 As it turned out, START I expired in 2009 with no replacement or verification mechanism in place until New START entered into force in 2011 and superseded the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.

For these and other reasons, this treaty has been criticized as not being “serious arms control.”25 This charge belies a rather narrow view of what constitutes arms control. Despite its brevity, the treaty nevertheless codified in a legally binding manner the desire of both sides to significantly constrain the number of warheads and bombs deployed on ICBMs, on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and on nuclear-capable bombers. For the United States, this meant reducing the existing force of these weapons by roughly two-thirds. Moreover, because it was framed as a treaty, the agreement was subject to consideration by the U.S. Senate. The resolution of advice and consent to ratification was passed by a unanimous (95-0) vote, thus placing a bipartisan stamp of approval on the process of the further nuclear arms reductions that Bush had signaled he was willing to take unilaterally.26 If that is not serious arms control, it raises the question of what is.

Whether the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty constitutes a model for replacing New START is an entirely different matter. Treaty critics have a point in arguing that it was the product of a unique set of political and economic circumstances in both countries when it was negotiated and that the strategic context and relationship between the two countries are very different today. For example, if New START expires in 2021, there would be no legally binding verification regime in place to give either side the same level of confidence that the other was abiding by the terms of a successor agreement like the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. Given the emphasis the Congress has traditionally placed on verification and compliance, this would certainly be a political deal breaker.

A third possible option would be to allow New START to expire with U.S. and Russian presidents unilaterally or jointly declaring that their countries will voluntary abide by the existing limits. They could even add that they would continue to follow the major practices of the current verification regime (e.g., data exchanges, notifications, and on-site inspections). The notion of a less formal approach to arms control certainly has a respectable scholarly pedigree. In 1961, Schelling and Halperin wrote that “a more variegated and flexible concept of arms control is necessary—one that recognizes that the degree of formality may range from a formal treaty with detailed specifications, at one end of the scale, through executive agreements, explicit but informal understandings, tacit understandings, to self-restraint that is consciously contingent on each other’s behavior.”27

In fact, all of these elements have been part of the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship at some time and in some form and fashion. During the Cold War, for instance, the two superpowers developed certain norms and modes of behavior regarding military actions that were implicit and, in some cases, explicit in nature, such as avoiding situations in which their military forces might come into direct contact during a crisis or conflict. Whether a nonbinding, informal, or tacit agreement to limit the number of strategic nuclear forces possessed by Russia would provide the level of transparency and predictability that senior U.S. military leaders have come to value is questionable.

Pursuing any of these options or some variant or combination of them will certainly take time. Given the current state of U.S.-Russian relations and the fact the 2020 presidential campaign for all intents and purposes has already begun, it is highly unlikely that two years will be sufficient to accomplish the task. Whatever happens, the existing mutual limits on strategic nuclear forces and the associated transparency and verification measures of New START should not be allowed to expire without replacement. It is manifestly in the best interests of the United States and Russia to agree to extend New START as soon as possible, rather than waiting until the last minute to broker a deal.

Difficult Environment

The difficulties of getting to “yes” on an agreement to extend New START, much less an entirely new nuclear arms control agreement or treaty, should not be underestimated. As noted earlier, the U.S.-Russian relationship is currently burdened by sharp differences in the nuclear realm, such as compliance issues and development of new strategic capabilities. The INF Treaty compliance disputes, in particular, cast a shadow over the prospects. In December, General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed this out. “I will obviously not make this decision. I’ll make recommendations,” he said. “But it’s very difficult for me to envision progress in extending (New START)…if the foundation of that is non-compliance with the INF Treaty.”28

To make matters worse, U.S.-Russian discussions on nuclear matters have virtually ground to a halt. They certainly do not exhibit the same intensity, nor do they occur with the same frequency as they did during the Cold War and the first two decades thereafter. Efforts to hold “strategic stability” talks over the past two years have unfortunately faltered due a lack of purpose and seriousness on both sides and as Washington and Moscow take various “retaliatory” measures against one another that render holding talks on any topic politically problematic.

Yet, even at the height of the Cold War and despite profound differences in many other aspects of their relationship, the United States and Russia managed to engage in substantive official and unofficial (Track II) discussions on strategic nuclear matters and, over time, to develop a deeper understanding of each other’s points of view and concerns. Moreover, this ongoing dialogue laid the groundwork necessary to successfully negotiate several different nuclear arms control agreements over a 40-year period. The best way to start the process of addressing the factors that currently cloud the nuclear relationship between the two countries would be to launch a new, more robust series of discussions on nuclear deterrence and arms control involving current and former U.S. and Russian diplomats, senior military officials, and technical experts and to consciously insulate that dialogue from other vagaries in the overall bilateral relationship.

Finally, the current political situation within the United States will present challenges in achieving a broad domestic consensus in support of extending New START. In November, bills in support of doing so and bills designed to constrain the administration's freedom of maneuver on the issue were introduced in the Senate and the House.29 Whether any of the proposed language will ever become law is questionable, especially given the new reality of divided control of the two chambers.

Yet, Congress may well become the focus of debate on extending New START before it expires, especially given the executive branch's current reticence to elaborate its views in public. Proactively engaging members of Congress and their staffs in discussions on how nuclear arms control in general and New START in particular serve U.S. military and national security interests would be time well spent.



1. U.S. Department of State, “Press Availability at NATO Headquarters,” December 4, 2018, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/12/287873.htm. On the same day, the United States’ European allies “strongly supported” the U.S. finding of material breach. NATO, “Statement on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Issued by the NATO Foreign Ministers,” December 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_161122.htm.

2. For the text of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), see U.S. Department of State, “New START: Treaty Text,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/t/avc/newstart/c44126.htm (accessed December 16, 2018).

3. U.S. Department of State, “Annual Report on Implementation of the New START Treaty,” January 2018, p. 4, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/280780.pdf.

4. The treaty limits each side to an aggregate total of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit); and 800 deployed and nondeployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

5. U.S. Department of State, “New START,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/t/avc/newstart/ (accessed December 16, 2018).

6. U.S. Department of State, “New START Treaty Inspection Activities,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/t/avc/newstart/c52405.htm (accessed December 16, 2018). The United States actually carried out more reductions than Russia. The number of systems removed can be derived by comparing the aggregate numbers held by both sides in February 2011 to those held in February 2018. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC), U.S. Department of State, “New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms," June 1, 2011, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/164722.htm; AVC, “New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms," Feburary 22, 2018, https://www.state.gov/t/avc/newstart/278775.htm.

7. Jonathan Landay and David Rohde, “Exclusive: In Call With Putin, Trump Denounced Obama-Era Nuclear Arms Treaty - Sources,” Reuters, February 9, 2017.

8. Jenna Johnson and Anton Troianovski, “Trump Congratulates Putin on His Reelection, Discusses U.S. Russian 'Arms Race,’” The Washington Post, March 20, 2018.

9. For example, see Alexandra Bell and Kingston Reif, “A Real Triumph for Trump: Extend New START,” Breaking Defense, July 14, 2018.

10. “Chris Wallace Interviews Russian President Putin,” Fox News, July 16, 2018.

11. Karen DeYoung, “Bolton and His Russian Counterpart Discuss Arms Control, Syria and Iran,” The Washington Post, August 23, 2018.

12. Kingston Reif, “Republican Senators Back New START,” Arms Control Today, October 2018.

13. Mark E. Smith III and Claude J. Johns Jr., eds., American Defense Policy, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), pp. 116-128. Smith and Johns were members of the Department of Political Science faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

14. General Larry Welch et al., Letter to Senator Carl Levin et al., July 14, 2010, https://s3.amazonaws.com/ucs-documents/nuclear-weapons/New-START-Letter-2010.pdf.

15. Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961), pp. 9–14.

16. Military Assessment of Nuclear Deterrence Requirements: Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services, 115th Cong. 29 (2017). See Stephen Young, “New START Is a Winner,” Union of Concerned Scientists, March 16, 2017, https://allthingsnuclear.org/syoung/new-start-is-a-winner.

17. Aaron Mehta, “Air Force Nuclear Officer: New START Treaty Is ‘Good for Us,’” Defense News, March 2, 2017.

18. Rick Gladstone, “In Bipartisan Pleas, Experts Urge Trump to Save Nuclear Treaty With Russia,” The New York Times, November 8, 2018.

19. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046,” October 2017, pp. 1–2, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/reports/53211-nuclearforces.pdf.

20. For information on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) modernization plans and programs, see NNSA, U.S. Department of Energy, “Fiscal Year 2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan—Biennial Plan Summary: Report to Congress,” October 2018, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2018/10/f57/FY2019%20SSMP.pdf.

21. “Treaty With Russia on Measures for Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,” Congress.gov, n.d., https://www.congress.gov/treaty-document/111th-congress/5/resolution-text (accessed December 16, 2018).

22. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, p. 8, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF. See Anton Troianovski, “Putin Claims Russia Is Developing Nuclear Arms Capable of Avoiding Missile Defenses,” The Washington Post, March 1, 2018.

23. DeYoung, "Bolton and His Russian Counterpart Discuss Arms Control, Syria and Iran." As undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton was a key figure in the negotiations that led to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.

24. For the text of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and related documents, see U.S. Department of State, “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions (The Moscow Treaty),” May 24, 2002, https://www.state.gov/t/avc/trty/127129.htm. The author was one of these nuclear policy and arms control officials in the Bush administration.

25. For example, Steven Pifer, “John Bolton Keeps Citing This 2002 Pact as an Arms-Control Model. It’s Really Not,” Defense One, November 4, 2018.

26. For example, see Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by the President to Students and Faculty at National Defense University,” May 1, 2001, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/05/20010501-10.html.

27. Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1961), p. 77.

28. Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed, “Russia Must Scrap or Alter Missiles U.S. Says Violate Arms Treaty,” Reuters, December 6, 2018.

29. For example, Office of Congresswoman Liz Cheney, “Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Senator Cotton Introduce the Stopping Russian Nuclear Aggression Act,” November 28, 2018, https://cheney.house.gov/2018/11/28/stopping-russian-nuclear-aggression-act/; Office of Senator Elizabeth Warren, “Warren, Merkley, Gillibrand, Markey Introduce Bill to Prevent Nuclear Arms Race,” November 29, 2018, https://www.warren.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/warren-merkley-gillibrand-markey-introduce-bill-to-prevent-nuclear-arms-race.


Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Frank Klotz was undersecretary of energy for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2014 to 2018 and commander of Air Force Global Strike Command from 2009 to 2011.

The difficulties of getting to “yes” on an agreement to extend New START, much less a subsequent strategic
nuclear arms control accord, should not be underestimated.

Open Skies Treaty: A Quiet Legacy Under Threat

January/February 2019
By Alexandra Bell and Anthony Wier

On a pleasant day in August 2017, a low-flying jet pierced secure airspace near the White House, the Capitol, and the Pentagon that had been mostly off-limits since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Surprise turned to suspicion when news reports revealed the midday flight was a Russian military aircraft taking photographs.

A U.S. Air Force OC-135B aircraft, one of two modified Boeing 707s used for Open Skies flights, prepares to take off September 14, 2018, at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. (Photo: Charles J. Haymond/U.S. Air Force)Was this some outgrowth of President Donald Trump’s campaign call for friendlier relations with Moscow? No. The Russian Tupolev Tu-154 had U.S. permission to fly over Washington that day because of an idea President Dwight Eisenhower had in 1955 and a treaty President George H.W. Bush forged in 1992.

The little-known Open Skies Treaty provided the authority for that surveillance flight and many like it elsewhere across the Euro-Atlantic region. The United States carries out similar surveillance flights over Russia and other treaty member states using two U.S. Air Force OC-135B observation aircraft. Yet despite its long history of enhancing mutual understanding and lowering military tensions, the 34-nation pact, centered around transparency and information sharing, has operated mostly unseen and unknown by the public.

Now, with several disputes hampering aspects of the treaty’s implementation and a U.S. administration openly questioning other bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements, the Open Skies Treaty is at risk. This is troubling because abandoning the treaty would destroy concrete national security benefits. It would deny the United States real-time, comprehensive images of Russian military facilities. It would pull the rug out from under long-standing U.S. allies. It would sap the confidence that is built through the treaty’s intense but cooperative implementation process. Above all, ending the Open Skies Treaty would be one more move by Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, to squander an arms control and national security inheritance that Bush and other Republican presidents worked so hard to hand down.

The Concept

In July 1955, Eisenhower shocked the Soviet Union and the world. In a bid to calm superpower tensions and lower fears of all-out surprise attacks, Eisenhower offered to allow unarmed Soviet aircraft to make unlimited surveillance flights over U.S. territory if the Soviet Union would permit U.S. planes to do the same over Soviet territory. Just a few months after Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) had spun the country into a red-scare frenzy, a scheme to let communist Soviet spy planes into U.S. airspace seemed sure to go over poorly.

Instead, the American public loved the idea. Eisenhower’s highly publicized offer brought him some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency.1 Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Tex.) praised the Republican president’s gambit. Eisenhower’s approach, Johnson said, would “separate the warmongers from the peacemakers” at a time when the “American people yearn for peace.”2

Decades would pass, however, before Eisenhower’s vision could become reality. For years, Moscow shunned Eisenhower’s proposal with a suspicion bordering on paranoia. It finally took another war vet to use a Cold War’s thaw to bring the vision to life. In May 1989, Bush spoke to the new graduates of Texas A&M University.3 In sweeping remarks dreaming of a path beyond the Cold War, he revived the long-forgotten Open Skies transparency plan.

Yet, Bush went even further. He called for a regime built “on a broader, more intrusive and radical basis.” His key twist was to propose applying overflight rights and duties to all of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. As Bush put it, Soviet willingness to embrace the Open Skies idea could prove their commitment to real change. Moscow balked again, but by 1992, a newly formed Russian government finally agreed to open its entire territory to observation and overflight. Twenty-four states signed the new Treaty on Open Skies in Helsinki on March 24, 1992.4 Eventually, membership would rise to 34 states.

At its core, the treaty aims to lower the temptation and fear of surprise attack by guaranteeing that there will be photographic evidence of any major military preparations and movements across the Euro-Atlantic region. Each state-party must allow a certain number of flights over its own territory and then may conduct an equal number of flights over the territories of other states-parties.

Observing countries give very short notice of their specific flight plan. Each party’s cameras must be verifiably limited to a resolution well below state-of-the-art technology, even for 1992. The cameras just need to be good enough to distinguish a tank from a truck. The treaty explicitly permits a range of imagery, including optical and video cameras, as well as infrared and synthetic aperture radars, while barring collection of any other electromagnetic signals. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any state-party.

The treaty is simple in concept but excruciatingly detailed in its operation. The implementation process carries its own confidence-building benefit by creating more opportunities for interaction among parties.

U.S. Ratification

The Bush and Clinton administrations each thought the Open Skies Treaty provided valuable national security advantages. Before the United States could become a party to the treaty, however, the U.S. Senate had to give its advice and consent. Given the current congressional atmosphere, one might expect that a treaty signed by a just-defeated Republican president would have had trouble winning approval from a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Fortunately, things were different in the early 1990s. Both sides of the aisle queried administration officials, worked through a few concerns, and signed off with a few minutes of floor debate and without a single opposing vote.

Russian and American representatives sign an agreement on August 5, 2006, before a U.S. flight over Russia conducted under the Open Skies Treaty. (Photo: OSCE)The Senate Armed Services Committee concluded that the treaty represented “the broadest international effort to date to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.”5 Even so, senators knew that the treaty was not the most important treaty they had ever considered. They knew that the United States had intelligence capabilities that far outstripped any other potential treaty partners. They understood that U.S. satellites could generally see more than what the treaty’s resolution limits would allow.

What they did not know was that Open Skies Treaty aircraft would become the best tool available for imaging significant parts of Russia.6 Senators also did not fully grasp then what experience has taught since, that it is a lot easier to use pictures acquired through Open Skies Treaty flights instead of sensitive satellite sources to gain diplomatic advantage. The conflict in Ukraine has put this aspect of the treaty’s value on display. By early 2014, the United States and its allies had already been able to use more than 10 Open Skies Treaty overflights covering “thousands of square miles” of Ukrainian and Russian territory to collect photos of Russian forces and military movements.7 These photographs could be shared among European governments without the usual delays or concerns that accompany sensitive intelligence declassification. As recently as December 2018, the United States and Ukraine again partnered to take advantage of the treaty to collect shareable, incontrovertible imagery following a Russian attack on Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov.8

Senators did understand that the treaty would help build transatlantic transparency, confidence, and stability. The Senate backed the treaty so unreservedly because European allies valued it.9 The United States’ security partners, after all, do not have the same imaging capabilities as the United States. For most European allies, Russian tanks have just a border to cross, not a wide ocean. Those allies need and want U.S. backing in securing the rights of European countries to periodically fly east and take a look around.

After the other countries met their own treaty approval requirements, the treaty came into force in 2002. Since then, the United States, Russia, and 32 other countries have flown 1,426 picture-snapping flights over each other’s territories.10 The United States and its allies have been able to fly more than 500 times over Russian territory with Russian permission.11

Current Disputes

Implementation issues arise with any arms control treaty. For the Open Skies Treaty, these questions are managed through the Open Skies Consultative Commission. With 34 parties and more than 100 pages of detailed rules, the commission has seen its share of disputes. Frustrations have risen over the last few years on a couple of key issues, mostly having to do with Russians activities.12

Unlike Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which Trump currently plans to withdraw the United States in early 2019 unless Moscow returns to compliance, the U.S. concerns regarding the Open Skies Treaty have focused on specific practices that do not fundamentally undermine what the United States and its allies gain from the treaty.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. David Dines changes out the film aboard an OC-135B Open Skies observation aircraft during pre-flight checks January 16, 2010, at Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Photo: Perry Aston/U.S. Air Force)One ongoing dispute relates to flights near the border between Russia and Georgia. Article VI says that flights cannot happen within 10 kilometers of “the border with an adjacent State that is not a State Party.” Russia defies most of the world by asserting that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are independent states. To be consistent, Russia also has to deny treaty overflights along those disputed borders. In addition, Russia has created general implementation problems for Ukraine.

The Open Skies Treaty thus has become collateral damage in Russia’s deteriorating relationship with its neighbors. Yet, Russia is not the only country to prevent flights near a sensitive border. In 2016, Turkey prevented a Russian flight from getting too close to the Syrian border, a source of heavy Russian complaints.13 In all of these cases, problems are connected to broader national disputes.

More troubling is Russia’s unilateral imposition of a 500-kilometer sublimit for certain observation flights over Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, despite the limitation having no basis in the treaty. Russia is allowing treaty-compliant planes to fly over Kaliningrad, just not for the flight distances technically permitted. The Russians imposed the restriction because some past flights over Kaliningrad have zig-zagged across the small territory, creating problems for civilian flights and air traffic control. One 2014 overflight by Poland causing such problems has been cited as the origin of the dispute.14

Based on this cumulative activity, the United States determined in 2016 that Russia has not been meeting its obligations and has therefore limited certain Russian overflight privileges here.15 Specifically, the United States has restricted flights under the treaty over the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the missile defense interceptor fields
at Fort Greely, Alaska.16

Although such reciprocal measures might be a natural response, by themselves they do not actually resolve disputes. The United States and Russia nevertheless have been able to find solutions in some cases. For instance, in its April 2018 report to Congress on treaty compliance, the Department of State stated that a long-standing disagreement about how to deal with overflights during major events had been settled.17 The April 2017 report confirmed that previous U.S. concerns about altitude restrictions over Chechnya had also been resolved.18

Such progress has been complicated by those in the United States who seem happy to impede the treaty. The United States has caused particular trouble with regard to Russian moves to upgrade its treaty observation aircraft and replace film cameras with digital sensors. Congress has fueled the challenges to new Russian equipment. As early as 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives led Congress to require a report at least 30 days prior to signing off on any Russian proposal to modify or replace its treaty observation aircraft or sensor.19 The next year, the House pushed Congress to triple that warning time, unilaterally imposing an artificial three-month diplomatic cooling-off period.20 In August 2018, Congress defied administration objections and passed restrictions virtually guaranteed to force the United States to oppose any state-party’s bid to use infrared or synthetic aperture radar sensors in exactly the way the treaty envisions.21

On the heels of this congressional direction, in early September 2018, the Trump administration caught allies and Congress by surprise when it blocked the consultative commission against certifying a new Russian Open Skies plane and its associated digital sensors. The United States eventually relented, but the incident served as a reminder of the administration’s disrespect for multilateral agreements that allies support.22

September’s diplomatic dust-up had followed a late 2017 act of apparent neglect that resulted in no regularly planned Open Skies flights for 2018. Unlike in previous years, the United States and other partners had failed to coordinate on a plan for navigating a long-running dispute between Russia and Georgia. As a result, the treaty states-parties did not reach agreement on a regular schedule of flights for 2018.23 The same mistake did not happen in October 2018, and a regular program of flights is back on schedule for 2019.24

Not content to stop at Russian aircraft, Congress has gotten in the way of upgrades to U.S. observation aircraft, as well. The Department of Defense has been seeking funds to overhaul and replace the 1960s-era OC-135B aircraft and its film-based cameras. According to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, in 2017 the United States could not complete roughly one-third of its scheduled Open Skies missions over Russia.25 In May 2018, the Omaha World-Herald revealed one U.S. flight crew’s harrowing experience during a 2016 mission over Russia, when an equipment failure caused one unplanned landing and then a cabin fire forced an emergency landing on the second attempt to leave Russia.26

The Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee nevertheless led Congress in 2018 in putting restrictions on the funding for replacing the aging aircraft and its outdated film camera unless the administration imposes reciprocal measures for Russia’s compliance shortfalls.27 In a hopeful turnaround for the treaty, however, a month after imposing those restrictions, Congress nevertheless appropriated nearly $150 million for two replacement observation aircraft.28

All this adds up to a few positive signs and a treaty that will still be in serious danger without a more concerted effort to actually fix the problems and get matters back on track. It would be reckless to keep going down this route; none of what has been going wrong with the Open Skies Treaty should be enough to risk losing what is right with it.

A Worthy Fight

For the last 16 years, the United States made the most of the treaty, overflying Russia nearly three times as often as the Russia overflew the United States.29 Whatever the treaty’s shortcomings, the United States should strive to preserve a right for nations across the transatlantic region to collectively acquire images that distinguish tanks from trucks in all weather. Despite the problem areas, the overwhelming majority of Russia is available for overflights. With tensions between Russia and NATO on the rise, the treaty’s goal to provide mutual transparency is more important than ever.

Some U.S. critics have dismissed the value of imagery obtained under the treaty.30 They assert that the United States can get the same or better pictures from its own intelligence satellites while other countries could rely on intelligence shared by Washington or use commercial satellite digital imagery. Conversely, in 2016 testimony before the House Armed Service Committee, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, mused that Russia could use processing techniques on treaty-obtained digital imagery to somehow gain an unfair advantage.31

The critics’ contentions are all faulty. The U.S. government had the chance to thoroughly examine the new Russian sensor and aircraft after the initial questions were raised. It certified that both fully fit within the treaty’s guidelines. It is also difficult to reconcile the call for relying solely on commercial digital imagery with the fear about processing lower-resolution, treaty-obtained digital imagery. Russia presumably could apply the same processing techniques to commercially obtained digital satellite imagery as would be applied to imagery acquired through the treaty.

As for U.S. flights over Russia, satellite imagery can surpass the limited resolution of cameras aboard Open Skies flights, but planes enjoy much more flexibility in choosing flight paths. The three to four days’ warning that observed countries get before a satellite overpass gives them ample time to move military assets. Treaty flights provide only 24 hours’ notice, increasing the odds that overflights capture an accurate assessment. Planes can also double back to provide a more comprehensive set of images than fixed-orbit satellites can.

Danish jets accompany a Russian An-30 aircraft during an Open Skies Treaty observation flight over the territory of Denmark on  June 12, 2008. (Photo: OSCE)Moreover, every party, observers and observed, can see the same set of certified Open Skies pictures. Any time the United States challenges Russia over new misbehavior in the region, Russia will look to exploit the public mistrust that still lingers from faulty U.S. claims about Iraq. The United States benefits immensely from having common Open Skies images that offer an indisputable level of authenticity and do not force the United States to expose its own intelligence means. Besides, 15 years after Iraq, many poorer, smaller allies would be loathe to lose Open Skies imagery and become the United States’ imagery intelligence client-state.

The treaty-mandated collaboration helps build confidence in its own right. The treaty forces countries’ military and government officials to work with one another, jointly solve air traffic or other logistical questions, inspect planes together, and confront problems in a broadly inclusive, transatlantic diplomatic framework. All these acts and the choice by the larger powers to submit themselves to them increase mutual trust and predictability.

This is why U.S. allies are voting for the Open Skies Treaty with their wallets, investing large sums in new Open Skies planes and digital sensors. They reject suggestions of nefarious activities connected to overflights; no treaty party has ever tried to employ prohibited technology during a flight. They know that the incredibly intrusive pre-flight inspection process, in which an aircraft is all but taken apart, should remove concerns that any observing party is somehow capturing unauthorized information. They appreciate that the treaty even lets a nervous observed country insist that its own Open Skies plane be used for an observation flight.

Mattis also apparently values the national security benefits of the treaty enough to invest more in it. “In order to maximize U.S. benefits from the Treaty,” Mattis wrote, “the United States needs to recapitalize and modernize its sensors and aircraft.”32 Mattis’s advocacy looks more and more likely to set up a showdown at some point with Bolton. When that happens, the fate of a national security legacy passed down from Eisenhower and Bush may hang in the balance.

A Squandered Inheritance?

Bush used his 1989 Open Skies proposal to test the Soviet Union’s commitment to changing its relationship with the world. The U.S. approach toward the treaty now will test its own commitment to a once-honored U.S. strategy of using adroit diplomacy and collective action to secure key national security interests.

It is no coincidence that Bush, the last World War II military veteran to serve as president, valued an arms control concept put forward by Eisenhower, the first World War II vet to occupy the Oval Office. They, along with President John Kennedy, another combat veteran of that war, grasped the urgency of averting modern great-power war because they survived the worst conflict the world had ever known. They understood the true costs of war. They knew that avoiding war between great powers was at least as important as any thoughts about “winning” such a war.

To be sure, the Open Skies Treaty by itself will not guarantee that major conflicts will never return to the Euro-Atlantic region. Yet, the treaty joins other arms control agreements and a larger institutional order to form a safety net that has kept the world from falling back into the chaos and destruction of great-power war. There can be no doubt that, with each and every discarded international agreement, the inherited safety net frays and the United States slips further down an uncertain and unsafe path.

Opponents of arms control thrive on attacking the shortcomings of each treaty or agreement one by one. The compliance problems are easy to see, while most of a treaty's benefits only truly reveal themselves in the shadow left by their absence. The full potential of each individual treaty or agreement can only be seen if it sits within a larger, complementary ecosystem of other agreed rules and behaviors.

More difficult still to prove, but perhaps most important of all, is the benefit that comes from the spirit of collaboration and mutual problem solving required of the leaders who create and sustain arms control treaties and agreements. As valuable as the Open Skies Treaty has been and will continue to be, the real inheritance that Bush left was the example he set in forging the treaty in the first place. He was fundamentally committed to working cooperatively with heavily armed adversaries to avoid the mutual catastrophe of war, even when doing so meant assuming new obligations and denying himself the fantasy that instead he should simply aim to destroy those adversaries.

Walking away from a treaty that Eisenhower imagined and that Bush built would cost more than the national security insights lost and the alliance resentments generated. Rejecting the treaty would be one more step away from the spirit of confidence, patience, and problem solving that made the treaty possible in the first place.

The Open Skies Treaty has existed mostly out of sight, but its dissolution would be felt across the Euro-Atlantic region. As the United States continues to reflect on the passing of a president who led us out of a Cold War, it is important to sustain the legacy he left behind.



1. “Legal Agreement Pertaining to the Oral History Interview of Harold E. Stassen,” National Archives and Records Administration, February 4, 1994, p. 7, https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/oral_histories/oral_history_transcripts/Stassen_Harold_519.pdf (interview of April 29, 1977); See FiveThirtyEight, “How Popular Is Donald Trump?” n.d., https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/ (accessed October 25, 2018).

2. W.W. Rostow, Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), p. 166.

3. George H.W. Bush, “Commencement Address at Texas A&M University,” May 12, 1989, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/may-12-1989-commencement-address-texas-am-university.

4. The Treaty on Open Skies, March 24, 1992, https://www.osce.org/library/14127?download=true.

5. “Treaty on Open Skies: Report,” Executive Report 103-5, 103rd Congress, 1st Session, August 2, 1993, p. 141.

6. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC), U.S. Department of State, “Key Facts About the Open Skies Treaty,” June 6, 2016, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2016/258061.htm.

7. U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Negotiations: Ukraine and Beyond; Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, 113th Cong. 13 (2014) (testimony of Anita E. Friedt, principal deputy assistant secretary for nuclear and strategic policy, AVC).

8. U.S. Department of Defense, “DOD Statement on Open Skies Flight Over Ukraine,” December 6, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1703977/dod-statement-on-open-skies-flight-over-ukraine/.

9. 139 Cong. Rec. 10801 (1993) (remarks of Senator Claiborne Pell [D-R.I.]).

10. U.S. Delegation, Open Skies Consultative Commission, “Open Skies Treaty Observation Flights 2017,” OSCC.DEL/2/18, May 8, 2018, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/282711.pdf. The total number includes an extraordinary flight flown on December 6, 2018.

11. AVC, “Key Facts About the Open Skies Treaty,” June 6, 2016, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2016/258061.htm.

12. AVC, “2018 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 2018, p. 8, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/280774.pdf (hereinafter 2018 AVC report); AVC, “2017 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 14, 2017, https://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2017/270330.htm#OST (hereinafter 2017 AVC report).

13. “Turkey Dismisses Russia’s Charges Over Breaking Aviation Treaty,” Hurryiet Daily News, February 4, 2016.

14. U.S. government officials, discussions with author, Washington, D.C., November 2018

15. Brett Forrest and Nathan Hodge, “In Tiff With Russia, U.S. Moves to Restrict International Military Flights Over Hawaii,” The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2017.

16. Aaron Mehta, “U.S., Russia Remain at ‘Impasse’ Over Open Skies Treaty Flights,” Defense News, September 14, 2018.

17. 2018 AVC report.

18. 2017 AVC report.

19. Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, Pub. L. No. 113–29, sec. 1242.

20. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, Pub. L. No. 114–92, sec. 1244.

21. John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, Pub. L. No. 115–232, sec. 1242.

22. Kingston Reif, “U.S. Reverses Course on Open Skies Treaty,” Arms Control Today, October 2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-10/news/us-reverses-course-open-skies-treaty.

23. Ibid.; U.S. government officials, discussions with author, Washington, D.C., November 2018.

24. Open Skies Consultative Commission, “Decision No. 2/18: Distribution of Active Quotas for Observation Flights in the Year 2019,” OSCC.DEC/2/18, October 22, 2018, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/287236.pdf.

25. Jim Mattis, Letter to Senator Deb Fischer, May 22, 2018, https://www.fischer.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/b2df2cf7-3828-4d81-aa57-2963ce8d70b0/sd-response-to-senator-fischer-regarding-the-open-skies-treaty-osd070739-18.pdf (hereinafter Mattis letter).

26. Steve Liewer, “Despite Danger to Offutt Crews, U.S. House Drops New Open Skies Jets From 2019 Budget,” Omaha World-Herald, May 16, 2018.

27. 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.

28. Office of Senator Deb Fischer, “Fischer, Fortenberry, Bacon Applaud Open Skies Funding in FY2019 Defense Funding Bill,” September 14, 2018, https://www.fischer.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2018/9/fischer-fortenberry-bacon-applaud-open-skies-funding-in-fy2019-defense-funding-bill.

29. AVC, “Key Facts About the Open Skies Treaty.”

30. Edward R. Royce, Devin Nunes, and William M. “Mac” Thornberry, Letter to President Barack Obama, June 14, 2016.

31. World Wide Threats; Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services, 114th Cong. 13 (2016), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg99649/pdf/CHRG-114hhrg99649.pdf (testimony of Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, director, Defense Intelligence Agency).

32. Mattis letter.


Alexandra Bell is senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Anthony Wier is legislative secretary for nuclear disarmament and Pentagon spending at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.



With tensions between Russia and NATO on the rise, the treaty’s goal to provide mutual transparency is more important than ever.

The Guterres Disarmament Agenda

January/February 2019
By Randy Rydell

The adage “where you stand depends on where you sit” aptly summarizes the state of the literature and policies on disarmament today, especially nuclear disarmament. Hence, the nuclear-weapon states and their allies defend their possession of such weapons as fully consistent with their international disarmament commitments.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks at a news briefing after presenting his disarmament agenda at a conference at the University of Geneva on May 24, 2018 in Geneva. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)Meanwhile, the non-nuclear-weapon states maintain that the “grand bargain” in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has not been implemented. In frustration, many in civil society, working with several governments, are promoting the newly concluded Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

One characteristic of this predicament is the entrenched nature of the positions and the lack of any sense that the protagonists are pursuing opportunities for dialogue in good faith. In terms of communication across these political lines, one finds two models: a “dialogue of the deaf” and a “dialogue of the like-minded.” In such a climate, dialogue degenerates into parallel monologues guided by the spirit of a zero-sum game regulated by a bizarre form of rules that could have come from the Marquess of Queensberry, complete with rounds, a winner and loser, and boisterous audiences, minus a referee and prohibited punches. This has long been the case inside and outside the UN multilateral disarmament machinery.

Rejecting this business-as-usual approach, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched his disarmament agenda with an address at the University of Geneva on May 24, 2018.1 The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) simultaneously released a 73-page non-paper that elaborated this new agenda,2 and in October, it issued the agenda’s implementation plan.3

This article will describe the initiative’s key themes and proposals and identify those features that represent continuity or change relative to proposals advanced by his predecessors. It will also discuss obstacles to implementation and opportunities for progress. Finally, it will reflect on the broader role of the United Nations, its Secretariat, and its secretary-general in advancing global disarmament objectives.


That a UN secretary-general would speak out on disarmament should hardly evoke surprise. After all, each leader since 1946 has addressed the issue as a UN priority, especially nuclear disarmament. Dag Hammarskjöld referred to nuclear disarmament in 1955 as the UN’s “hardy perennial,” while U Thant stressed the social and economic costs of the Cold War. Kurt Waldheim elaborated on disarmament at length in his annual reports on the work of the UN. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar presided over the establishment in the Secretariat of the Department for Disarmament Affairs. Boutros Boutros-Ghali approached disarmament as part of a larger process of peace building. Kofi Annan often addressed disarmament in his speeches, emphasizing the norm-setting role of the UN and its contributions in strengthening the multilateral principles of disarmament.

Guterres’ immediate predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, was also a prominent advocate for disarmament. He was the first incumbent secretary-general to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, and the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He created the post of high representative in the new Office for Disarmament Affairs, and he was the first secretary-general to offer his own comprehensive disarmament proposal, which addressed nuclear weapons, conventional arms, missiles, space weapons, and military spending.4

All of these secretaries-general recognized that real progress, especially in nuclear disarmament, depended on actions by member states. They understood well that the lack of progress was a reflection of the interests and priorities of states, not any failure on the part of the UN. They knew the severe limitations facing their initiatives absent a good faith effort by states to fulfil their disarmament commitments.

Overall, their combined intention was less to cause disarmament than to cultivate a political environment conducive to progress on a global level. They sought to raise questions, gather data, and identify specific actions that would advance disarmament goals, elevate priorities, rally support among concerned member states and civil society groups, and educate the public about how disarmament advances the principles and goals of the UN and its charter.

New Elements

Although consistent with the views of his predecessors, the Guterres agenda contains some new elements that help to distinguish it from their proposals.

Guterres, who became secretary-general in January 2017, had been known for his competent service as Portugal’s prime minister and for his work in humanitarian affairs, having served as the UN high commissioner for refugees. As a candidate for secretary-general, he did not identify disarmament as his top priority, a stance that might not be helpful in gaining the support of the permanent members of the Security Council, which are the five NPT-recognized nuclear powers (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Yet in announcing a detailed, comprehensive disarmament agenda a year later, he clearly identified this set of issues as a personal priority and a hallmark of his incumbency.

His proposal coincides with a growing interest in multilateral arenas in the humanitarian approach to disarmament. This approach is prominent in the deliberations of the UN General Assembly and in meetings of the NPT parties. The General Assembly’s adoption of the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty in 2017 and the subsequent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize later that year to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons were direct reflections of that approach.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the current UN high representative for disarmament affairs and the secretary-general’s most senior adviser in the Secretariat on disarmament matters, also comes from a background in humanitarian affairs, most notably on issues relating to refugees and development. In the UN Secretariat, the Guterres/Nakamitsu team no doubt will have the strong support from governments and civil society groups advancing the humanitarian approach to disarmament. This, in turn, will help in gaining recognition from elsewhere in the Secretariat of the importance of disarmament to the advancement of virtually all formal UN goals as set forth in the UN Charter.

Thus, in contrast to his predecessors, Guterres has placed himself at the vanguard of a significant political movement in support of concrete progress on disarmament matters. He will undoubtedly face obstacles in convincing other parts of the UN family of the importance of disarmament in advancing their own issues—obstacles that former High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane collectively called the “disarmament taboo”—but his humanitarian credentials and his explicit linkage of disarmament to development, peace-building, and other UN mandates will likely help in overcoming many of these obstacles. The greatest barriers, however, remain those that have faced his predecessors: the unwillingness or inability of the nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their disarmament commitments and the broader, misguided assumption that national security is a direct function of the weapons a state possesses.

Broad Themes

Guterres framed his agenda to advance three priorities, each embodying a humanitarian theme: “disarmament to save humanity,” focused on weapons of mass destruction; “disarmament to save lives,” dealing with conventional arms control; and “disarmament for future generations,” examining challenges posed by new technologies.5 His agenda combines many overarching themes.

Comprehensive disarmament. The Guterres agenda is not simply a nuclear disarmament proposal. Instead, it offers a comprehensive approach to disarmament that resembles the venerable UN goal of “general and complete disarmament under effective international control,” a subject on the General Assembly’s agenda since 1959 and which the assembly declared in 1978 was the UN’s “ultimate goal” in this field.6 Although the non-paper makes only a passing reference, the agenda clearly draws on decades of efforts to advance this goal in multilateral arenas.

Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (C), a prominent advocate for disarmament, looks at a model of the 1945 nuclear bombing in Hiroshima at the Peace Memorial Museum on August 6, 2010. Ban was the first UN secretary-general to attend a Peace Memorial Ceremony on the anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima. His successor, António Guterres, became the first UN secretary-general to an annual commemoration of the attack on Nagasaki, held August 9, 2018. (Photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)This is quite significant because critics of disarmament have constantly declared that disarmament is a naive and even dangerous approach to dealing with security issues. They argue that nuclear disarmament would create inviting new opportunities for conventional war. They point to the problem of cheating, as disarming countries would inevitably become vulnerable to what amounts to general and complete noncompliance.

A comprehensive approach, by contrast, incorporates wider security issues in its treatment of disarmament. It recognizes the relationship between nuclear disarmament and conventional arms control and hence the need to pursue both simultaneously. It emphasizes verification, transparency, irreversibility, universality, and binding legal commitments. It recognizes the social and economic opportunity costs of excessive military spending, a problem also identified in the UN Charter (Article 26). It associates disarmament and arms control as vital to the future of international peace and security and frames the relationship between disarmament and security as mutually reinforcing and interdependent. The contrary view, that security is a prerequisite for disarmament, is heard from nuclear-weapon states to explain their failure to disarm.

International malaise. In making his case for disarmament, Guterres, in his agenda document, emphasizes the risks associated with the world “on the brink of a new Cold War,” characterized by a “deteriorating international security environment,” “unrestrained arms competition,” and “surreptitious interference in domestic political processes and the increasing pursuit of malicious and hostile acts just below traditional thresholds for the use of force.” He regrets the decline of multilateralism and the lack of disarmament negotiations. He calls the current nuclear risks “unacceptable” and “growing.”

The norm against using nuclear weapons. Guterres endorses the joint statements by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” adding that “[a]ny effort to expand the possible range of situations in which nuclear weapons are designed to be used could be destabilizing and jeopardizes the 72-year practice of non-use.”

Challenges facing the UN. Guterres has a great deal to say about UN shortcomings in advancing disarmament. He states, “Despite [its] proven benefits, disarmament is not well integrated in the work of the United Nations in conflict mediation and prevention. And its tool set needs to be brought up to date, especially in the collection and use of data.” He affirms that “the total elimination of nuclear weapons remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations. But our efforts towards this end remain in a state of severe crisis.” He has recommendations for improving the relevance and work of the General Assembly First Committee on disarmament and international security, the Conference on Disarmament, the UNODA, and even his own Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters.

Various dimensions of disarmament. More than his predecessors, Guterres stresses the risks facing urban populations from the lack of progress on disarmament and the perpetuation of military confrontations worldwide. “Civilians,” he states, “continue to bear the brunt of armed conflict around the globe.” He stresses that “humanitarian and security considerations are not mutually exclusive, and they both underpin and lend urgency to all the efforts of the international community…. As armed conflict has moved from open fields and into villages, towns and cities, the humanitarian impact has been devastating.”

With regard to development goals, he says that “excessive spending on weapons drains resources for sustainable development. It is incompatible with creating stable, inclusive societies; strong institutions; effective governance and democracy; and a culture of respect for human rights.” Further, he says that “mobilizing sufficient resources in support of disarmament and arms regulation is critical to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Reflecting on nuclear-weapon risks, he says that this “demands that disarmament and nonproliferation are put at the [center] of the work of the United Nations,” emphasizing that “the existing norms for the disarmament and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons are mutually reinforcing and inextricably linked.”

Dialogue and negotiations. His agenda places a particularly heavy emphasis on the importance of “engagement, dialogue, and negotiations.” He stresses that “[i]n order to realize an improvement in the international security environment, it will be necessary for the international community not only to work to devalue the role of military options in seeking security, but also to revalue the role of political dialogue and negotiations for disarmament and arms control as the safer, smarter, and more effective means for achieving the same ends.”

New technologies. Guterres identifies several risks from emerging technologies, including lethal autonomous weapons systems, hypersonic glide vehicles, long-range conventional weapons, maneuverable re-entry vehicles, and cyberweapons. “We could even face the creation of cyberweapons of mass destruction,” he warns.

New partnerships. He addresses the importance of diversifying the base in support of disarmament. “Disarmament initiatives have been most successful when they involved effective partnerships between all the relevant stakeholders—governments, the expert community, and civil society organizations—as well as strong interest and support from the general public and well-functioning international negotiation forums.” He adds, “There also needs to be more efforts to include other actors with a stake in the disarmament processes, including from private sector and industry, in the work of the United Nations.”

Specific Actions

Ironically, Guterres’ proposals for nuclear disarmament in many ways are the most disappointing, especially regarding the details in the implementation plan. The recommendations read like a compilation of standard proposals routinely included in annual General Assembly resolutions, with very few innovations. He is in favor of reducing stockpiles, ensuring nonuse, reducing their role in security doctrines, constraining modernization, bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force, increasing transparency, developing verification, halting the production of fissile material for weapons, resuming disarmament and arms control negotiations, strengthening and expanding nuclear-weapon-free zones, adhering to the Iran nuclear deal, and supporting the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

There is very little discussion of exactly how states are to be persuaded to implement these desired actions. He offers a recitation of ends, but with respect to means, his heaviest emphasis is on the vague recipe for dialogue and engagement.

With regard to chemical and biological weapons, he emphasizes accountability and further progress on achieving universal adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention. He stresses the Security Council’s primary responsibility to halt further erosion of the norm against chemical weapons use by ending impunity and ensuring accountability for any use.

He calls for new leadership and unity among the Security Council and secretary-general to restore respect for the global norm against chemical weapons use, including through the creation of an impartial mechanism to identify those responsible for the use in Syria. He proposes the establishment of a UN core, standing, coordinating capacity to conduct independent investigations of the alleged use of biological weapons. He also draws a connection between other UN public health-related activities and efforts to respond to or prevent the use of biological weapons.

Guterres seeks establishment of risk reduction measures, including commitments not to introduce cruise missiles, and re-engagement with the international community to address issues related to missiles. He proposes a study by the UNODA and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on the implications of long-range conventional weapons, including those using hypersonic technologies, and encourages the United States and Russia to “resolve their dispute” over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty constraints on long-range nuclear forces. (The United States announced its intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty after the Guterres agenda was released.)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks with María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, president of the 73rd General Assembly session, during the high-level plenary meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on September 26, 2018. At left is Izumi Nakamitsu, UN undersecretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs. (Photo: Ariana Lindquist/UN)Conventional arms are the focus of several of the more innovative proposals in the Guterres agenda. He supports a political declaration relating to the use of such weapons in populated areas. He supports increased transparency and accountability on the use of armed drones while favoring the development of common standards for the transfer, stockpiling, and use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles. He promotes more effective state and regional action on excessive and poorly maintained stockpiles. He recognizes the importance of exploring opportunities for regional dialogue on building confidence on military matters, including by encouraging mutual restraint in military expenditures and arms acquisitions, stockpiling, and transfers.

For the UN, he calls for creating casualty recording mechanisms among human rights components of UN peace operations. He supports the introduction of “civilian harm mitigation cells” within the military structure of UN and member states’ forces involved in conflicts. He says that the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy should include, as part of risk assessments, information from UN entities about the types of weapons and their use on the battlefield. He urges a strengthened and coherent UN interagency coordination on improvised explosive devices to ensure a whole-of-system approach.

Guterres says that he will pursue a new UN model for sustained funding for international assistance for the control of small arms and light weapons and will establish a UN multipartner trust facility through the Peacebuilding Fund to provide a more sustainable solution with a strong development focus. He calls on the UNODA and UNIDIR to study how knowledge of the impact of arms, especially excessive and destabilizing accumulations, can be incorporated into analyses of risk.

Addressing new and emerging weapons technology, his goals include preventing the emergence of new and destabilizing strategic weapons, including in outer space; fostering a culture of accountability and adherence to norms, rules, and principles for responsible behavior in cyberspace; exploring how UN entities can facilitate the exchange of information on new weapon reviews; facilitating the exchange of information and experiences between states on reviews of new weapons; working with scientists, engineers, and industry to encourage responsible innovation of science and technology; ensuring that humans remain at all times in control over the use of force; and making the secretary-general’s good offices available to contribute to the prevention and peaceful settlement of conflict stemming from malicious activity in cyberspace.

The Guterres agenda identifies some additional reforms, largely procedural, relating to the Conference on Disarmament, General Assembly, UNODA, and UNIDIR. More generally, it calls for efforts to improve coordination among the disarmament organs, reduce redundancy in their deliberations, utilize available expertise better and achieve more equitable representation, and undertake studies by the UNODA and UNIDIR on ways to better coordinate and integrate the work and expertise among the various disarmament bodies. Yet, there is little discussion of reforms needed in the Security Council, except with respect to arrangements to ensure accountability for chemical or biological weapons use.

The agenda calls for efforts to facilitate strategic security dialogue at the regional level and to revitalize existing regional forums or establish new ones aimed at developing common regional approaches to global problems. It calls for increased engagement between the UNODA and the UN Department of Political Affairs to strengthen existing platforms for regional dialogue on security and arms control. It encourages the establishment of new regional nuclear-weapon-free zones. The agenda underscores the need for UN efforts to ensure equal, full, and effective participation of women in all decision-making processes related to disarmament and to make gender parity “a moral duty and an operational necessity.”

The agenda’s goals for civil society and youth include efforts to facilitate participation by nongovernmental organizations in disarmament forums; encourage greater public engagement on security priorities, including on military spending; ensure that civil society investments are fully consistent with international legal norms; engage entrepreneurs and business leaders to build further momentum for societal engagement in advancing the shared norms of humanity; achieve the greater integration of experts, industry, and civil society representatives into the meetings of all UN disarmament bodies; establish more disarmament education and training opportunities for youth; and facilitate the public’s access to tools, training, and networks useful for addressing local problems “where measures for disarmament, demilitarization and the prevention of armed violence can make a difference.”

Looking Ahead

This agenda faces numerous obstacles. Some are political, the most challenging being to win the support of the nuclear-weapon states. Developing countries will generally support the agenda, but some may resist its full implementation, especially on issues such as the use of explosives in cities, the arms trade, reductions in military expenditures, and enhanced transparency.

Other obstacles are economic: How will the agenda be funded? Will the UN’s work in disarmament receive additional financial and personnel resources? The agenda does not address this challenge. There are also many technical problems to be resolved relating to evolving weapons technologies and including some familiar problems of developing the means to verify effectively that nuclear disarmament is actually occurring and verifying that fissile material is not being produced for use in weapons. Other work remains to be done at the International Atomic Energy Agency and among states on solving the technical problems of verifying stocks of fissile material and their movement within and across borders.

Yet, the agenda may open up new opportunities for progress in disarmament. The emphasis on data collection is surely an area where the UN has a potential contribution to make. Unfortunately, the agenda failed to mention the UNODA’s own repository of nuclear weapons information, which it created following a mandate established at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.7 Although meager in its present state, it at least offers an opening for future improvement, which would be fully consistent with the secretary-general’s emphasis on data collection elsewhere in his agenda.

The agenda’s repeated emphasis on the importance of cities in the field of disarmament offers many possibilities for constructive action in the years ahead. The international nongovernmental organization Mayors for Peace has members from more than 7,600 cities worldwide.8 Each year for the last dozen years, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has adopted a resolution in support of nuclear disarmament, arms control, and reductions in military spending and the redirection of such resources to meeting the needs of cities.9 City mayors, joined by state and local governments, have much to contribute in building political support for disarmament, mainly by bringing the issue down to earth by establishing its relevance to individual citizens. Yet, they were not in the agenda.

The Guterres agenda has only just been announced, and it remains a work in progress. Its weaknesses, especially apparent in the nuclear disarmament field, should not obscure its many contributions to the evolution of national and multilateral efforts to advance disarmament, nonproliferation, and arms control while limiting military spending. It has already contributed to advancing the humanitarian approach to disarmament and has the potential to deepen cooperation between the UN and city, state, and local governments in addition to national parliaments.10

The agenda’s implementation plan will require some modifications over the years to come, and if U.S.-Russian relations improve and enable a resumption of strategic nuclear arms control, if not progress in disarmament itself, this agenda will have gone far in establishing an overarching framework for enhancing security through disarmament.

States view the world through the lenses of their own particular interests, but Guterres has attempted to approach disarmament as a challenge facing the entire world community, actually all of humanity, including future generations. His disarmament agenda offers a view from the world community’s “center,” a welcome contrast to the prevalent countervailing trends of rising nationalism and militarism.



1. António Guterres, “Remarks at the University of Geneva on the Launch of the Disarmament Agenda,” May 24, 2018, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2018-05-24/launch-disarmament-agenda-remarks (hereinafter Guterres remarks).

2. UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), “Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament,” 2018, https://front.un-arm.org/documents/SG+disarmament+agenda_1.pdf.

3. UNODA, “Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament,” December 4, 2018, https://www.un.org/disarmament/sg-agenda/en/#actions (Implementation Plan).

4. Ban Ki-moon, Address before the EastWest Institute, SG/SM/11881-DC/3135, October 24, 2008.

5. Guterres remarks.

6. Final Document of the Tenth Special Session of the General Assembly, A/S-10/2 (28 June 1978), https://s3.amazonaws.com/unoda-web/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/A-S10-4.pdf.

7. This repository was established pursuant to Action 21 as agreed at the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. UNODA, “Repository,” n.d., https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/repository/ (accessed December 16, 2018).

8. For more information, see Mayors for Peace, http://www.mayorsforpeace.org/english/ (accessed December 16, 2018).

9. The latest resolution was adopted this year in Boston. U.S. Conference of Mayors, “Resolutions,” n.d., https://www.usmayors.org/the-conference/resolutions/?category=c9179&meeting=86th%20Annual%20Meeting (accessed December 16, 2018).

10. Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) has been working for many years to promote parliamentary support for disarmament. PNND, http://www.pnnd.org/ (accessed December 16, 2018).


Randy Rydell, executive adviser to Mayors for Peace, was a senior political affairs officer in the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs from 1998 to 2014. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Mayors for Peace.


UN Secretary-General António Guterres has attempted to approach disarmament as a challenge facing the entire
world community, actually all of humanity, including future generations.

After the INF Treaty, What Is Next?

January/February 2019
By Kingston Reif

If the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty collapses in 2019, the United States, key U.S. allies, and Russia will face critical questions of how to respond, including whether to develop and deploy new intermediate-range missile systems and whether to seek restraint measures to prevent a renewed missile race in Europe and beyond.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on the screen during an annual meeting with high-ranking military officers on December 18, 2018 in Moscow. Putin told them that if the United States “breaks the [INF] treaty,” Russia will be “forced to take additional measures to strengthen [its] security.” (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)Washington and Moscow have not shown a willingness to go the extra mile to resolve their years-long INF Treaty compliance dispute, as the clock runs down on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Dec. 4 ultimatum, under which Russia has 60 days to return to “full and verifiable compliance” or the United States will suspend its obligations and issue a formal notice of its intent to withdraw from the treaty.

Rather, each side has been laying the groundwork to blame the other for the treaty’s demise and, in that case, to advance new weapons systems.

At the direction of Congress, the Defense Department began early research and development activities on concepts and options for conventional, intermediate-range missile systems in late 2017. If the administration moves to withdraw from the treaty, it could ramp up funding to accelerate development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on Dec. 18 that if the United States “breaks the treaty,” Russia will be “forced to take additional measures to strengthen [its] security.” He further warned that Russia could easily conduct research to put air- and sea-launched cruise missile systems “on the ground, if need be.”

Since 2014, Washington has accused Moscow of violating its commitment not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) having a range prohibited under the INF Treaty. The Trump administration later identified the missile as the 9M729. In 2017 the Pentagon alleged that Russia began fielding the missile.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in November that Russia has “fielded multiple battalions of 9M729 missiles, which pose a direct conventional and nuclear threat against most of Europe and parts of Asia.”

Moscow has denied these charges and accused the United States of violating the treaty, most notably by deploying missile defense interceptor platforms in eastern Europe that Russia claims could be used for offensive purposes.

“If Russia admits its violations and fully and verifiably comes back into compliance, we will, of course, welcome that course of action,” Pompeo said at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 4. “But Russia, and Russia only, can take this step.”

The impasse is complicated by the fact that neither President Donald Trump, Pompeo, nor any other administration official has publicly acknowledged as legitimate Russia’s concerns about U.S. compliance or suggested that Washington would be willing to engage in talks that address the concerns of both sides.

Pompeo also cited China, which is not a party to the treaty, as a reason why the agreement no longer makes sense for the United States. This suggests the administration sees benefits to withdrawal from the treaty beyond its concerns about Russia’s noncompliance.

“There is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China,” Pompeo declared, “in particular when these weapons are being used to threaten and coerce the United States and its allies in Asia.”

For its part, Russia continues to deny that the 9M729 violates the treaty while suggesting that it remains open to dialogue. But Russia does not appear to have tabled any specific proposals to address the U.S. and Russian concerns and rather has ramped up public statements blaming the United States.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said in a Dec. 19 interview with Kommersant that U.S. officials made it clear to Russia that Trump’s announcement in October that he intended to “terminate” the treaty was “final and is not ‘an invitation for dialogue.’”

Although Russia has open production lines for the 9M729, the United States is still in the early stages of development of a treaty-busting missile. The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act required “a program of record to develop a conventional road-mobile [GLCM] system with a range of between 500 to 5,500 kilometers,” including research and development activities. (See ACT, December 2017.)

The law also required “a report on the cost and schedule for, and feasibility of, modifying United States missile systems in existence or planned as of such date of enactment for ground launch with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers as compared with the cost and schedule for, and feasibility of, developing a new ground-launched missile using new technology with the same range.” Such existing and planned systems include the Tomahawk cruise missile, the Standard Missile-3 anti-missile interceptor, the long-range standoff weapon, and the Army tactical missile system.

As of the end of 2018, the Pentagon had yet to submit this report.

The Defense Department requested and Congress approved $48 million in fiscal year 2019 for R&D on and concepts and options for conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems in response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty. (See ACT, November 2018.)

Prior to the conclusion of the INF Treaty in 1987, the United States deployed several hundred nuclear-armed, intermediate-range Pershing II ballistic missiles and GLCMs in Europe, the latter of which were an adaption of the Tomahawk. The Pentagon spent $2.6 billion, in fiscal year 1987 dollars, to develop and procure 247 Pershing II missiles and associated launchers and $3.5 billion to develop and procure 442 GLCMs through fiscal year 1987, according to a 1988 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Yet, the cost today to develop a new ballistic missile system would be higher given that several decades have passed since the development of the Pershing II. In addition, the range of the new missile would likely need to be much greater than the 1,800-kilometer range of the Pershing II to have any utility against China in the Pacific region.

Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in March 2017 that “there are no military requirements we cannot currently satisfy due to our compliance with the INF Treaty.” But a U.S. withdrawal could lead to the establishment of a new military requirement and accelerated efforts to develop ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles.

Even if the United States were to develop the weapons, they would need to be deployed on the territory of allies neighboring Russia and China. So far, no country has said that it would be willing to host such missiles.

At an event in Washington on Dec. 14, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said that the Pentagon should rapidly develop new intermediate-range missiles despite uncertainty about where they could be fielded. “Basing questions can obviously be controversial, but that will be a decision to be made for the future,” he said.

The collapse of the INF Treaty also raises questions about how to prevent the buildup of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia.

Russia approached the United States in 2007 and the two sides then jointly proposed in a UN General Assembly resolution to multilateralize the INF Treaty. The idea of multilateralizing the treaty has been around for more than a decade, but neither Moscow nor Washington have devoted serious effort into the concept, and China is highly unlikely to join an agreement that would require eliminating the bulk of its missile arsenal.

Other options that might be pursued include a pledge from the United States and Russia not to be the first to deploy intermediate-range missile systems anywhere in or within range of NATO members in Europe, limiting the number of intermediate-range missiles instead of banning them completely, and prohibiting nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.


U.S. Counts Down to Quitting INF Treaty

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a 60-day countdown to notification of U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia during a Dec. 4 press conference, drawing warnings from Russian officials and criticism from congressional Democrats.

Administration officials rolled out the U.S. case supporting President Donald Trump’s decision to “terminate” the 1987 treaty after five years of unresolved U.S. complaints that Russia’s 9M729 missile violates the INF Treaty’s range restrictions. Russian officials now acknowledge the missile exists, but deny that it has been tested at or is able to fly at treaty-prohibited ranges.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, at a Nov. 30 news briefing, said that Russia’s noncompliance stems from having first conducted legally allowable tests of the 9M729 from a fixed launcher at a range well beyond 500 kilometers followed by tests from a mobile launcher at a range of less than 500 kilometers. Taken together, however, the tests show Russia has developed and fielded an INF Treaty-noncompliant missile that could be launched from a ground-mobile platform.

Coats’ briefing provided the public foundation for Pompeo’s announcement on the sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels that the United States has found Russia in “material breach” of the treaty and will suspend treaty obligations after 60 days unless Russia returns to “full and verifiable compliance.”

Pompeo indicated that the administration would issue a formal notice of withdrawal at the end of the 60 days, which would begin a six-month withdrawal period under the treaty. The 60-day waiting period was largely attributed to the request of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Pompeo sought to respond to criticism that Trump’s decision was hasty, noting that the United States had raised the issue of Russian noncompliance “on at least 30 occasions” since 2013. Abiding by the INF Treaty constraints, which Russia is violating and which do not bind U.S. adversaries such as China, means the United States will “get cheated by other nations, expose Americans to greater risk, and squander our credibility,” he said.

Although the U.S. move worries European allies, Pompeo succeeded in having the NATO foreign ministers for the first time publicly back the U.S. conclusion that Russia is violating the INF Treaty. “It is now up to Russia to preserve the treaty,” they said in a Dec. 4 statement that did not include an endorsement of Pompeo’s ultimatum.

In response to U.S. and NATO statements, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that Moscow would respond “accordingly” to a U.S. withdrawal. Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Russian military chief of staff, reportedly warned European officials that U.S. missile defense sites on allied territory could become “targets of subsequent military exchanges.”

Since then, Russian Foreign Ministry officials have raised the prospect of mutual inspections to address Russian allegations of U.S. noncompliance with respect to the Mk-41 U.S. missile defense launch system in Europe, which can also be used to fire cruise missiles.

Russian media reported there was no U.S. response after Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoigu, in several messages sent to the U.S. embassy in Moscow, suggested holding discussions with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Any prospective movement on such a high-level military-to-military dialogue is uncertain given Mattis’ protest resignation following Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and to reduce their numbers in Afghanistan.

At the United Nations, Russia sought General Assembly approval of a resolution calling on states-parties to renew their efforts to preserve and strengthen the INF Treaty through “full and strict compliance,” continue consultations on compliance with treaty obligations, and resume a “constructive dialogue on strategic issues premised on openness, mutual confidence and real opportunities.” The resolution failed on Dec. 21 by a vote of 43–46, with 78 abstaining.

Meanwhile, congressional reaction to Trump’s withdrawal plan was divided along partisan lines.

On the Republican side, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) led a Nov. 29 letter to Trump signed by more than 40 House Republicans commending the decision to withdraw, and Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) led 24 other Republican senators in a Nov. 28 letter to Trump against extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) because of Russia’s INF Treaty noncompliance.

Among Democrats, 26 senators, led by Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) called on the president in a Dec. 13 letter to redouble diplomatic efforts to salvage the treaty. In a Dec. 3 letter, Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Jack Reed (R.I.), and Mark Warner (Va.), the ranking members of the foreign relations, armed services, and intelligence committees, respectively, urged Trump to engage with Congress on the implications of withdrawal before taking steps to withdraw or suspend participation in the treaty.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

U.S. and Russia trade blame as they look to develop new weapons systems.

Stakes Grow for Possible Trump-Kim Summit

January/February 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea reiterated that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula must include removal of U.S. nuclear weapons in the region, a statement that underscores that diplomatic advances in 2019 will require addressing simultaneously North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its security concerns.

In an image provided by South Korean Defense Ministry, North Korean soldiers (left) talk with a South Korean soldier during mutual on-site verification of the withdrawal of guard posts along the Demilitarized Zone on December 12, 2018. The two Koreas have begun to destroy 20 guard posts along their heavily-fortified border under an agreement reached during the September 2018 Pyongyang summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  (Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)The state-run Korean Central News Agency said on Dec. 20 that denuclearization means “removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted.” The United States has focused on a deal in which North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and related facilities in return for a lifting of U.S. and UN sanctions and possibly ending the Korean War.

The United States removed its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, but the country remains under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea and Japan. U.S. President Donald Trump announced in June that certain joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea would be suspended, and subsequent exercises were modified, but North Korea is still looking for the United States to take additional steps to address its security concerns.

With little negotiating progress evident in late 2018, Trump said he is in no rush for an agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, even though he had sharply criticized President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” as Pyongyang increased its nuclear and missile capabilities.

The apparent impasse increases the stakes heading to a second Trump-Kim summit, which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a Dec. 20 radio interview is expected “not too long after the first of the year.”

Kim, in his annual New Year’s address Jan. 1, said that he is “ready to meet the U.S. president again anytime” but that it is up to the United States to take the next steps. If the United States “responds to our proactive, prior efforts with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions, bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace through the taking of more definite and epochal measures,” he said.

Kim warned, however, that if the United States fails to follow through, persists in imposing sanctions, and attempts to “unilaterally enforce something,” North Korea “may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”

Kim referenced North Korea’s decision to suspend its nuclear warhead and missile tests in 2018, which Trump frequently cites, as evidence of its commitment to denuclearization, but North Korea is thought to be increasing its stockpile of nuclear materials for warheads. As a result, time works in Pyongyang’s favor and may make a diplomatic solution more difficult.

Further, the protest resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a strong advocate of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance, may raise anxieties in Seoul even as President Moon Jae-in has worked to ease tensions with Pyongyang.

That is because the Trump administration is pressing Seoul to bear more of the burden for keeping 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, leading to speculation that Trump might be willing to pull out some U.S. forces in a concession to Kim. The U.S. troops help with South Korea’s defense preparations and act as a trip wire to reassure South Koreans that the United States would engage if the North attacks.

North Korea’s Institute for American Studies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated in a Dec. 17 commentary that North Korea is waiting for the United States to take action to move the process forward, arguing that Pyongyang has taken “proactive denuclearization steps” and Washington must respond in a corresponding manner.

North Korea’s expansive definition of denuclearization is not new. Pyongyang made a similar statement in July 2016 emphasizing that U.S. nuclear weapons in the region must be part of the diplomatic process.

The July 2016 statement said that “the denuclearization being called for by [North Korea] is the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity.”

North Korea cited five specific demands in July 2016 to remove the U.S. nuclear threat: public disclosure of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea, removal and verification that such weapons are not present on U.S. bases in South Korea, U.S. guarantees that it will not redeploy nuclear weapons in South Korea, U.S. assurances that it will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea, and withdrawal from South Korea of U.S. troops authorized to use nuclear weapons.

This list might provide insight as to what Pyongyang will be wanting from Washington if talks progress.

It was also clear after Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June that Washington and Pyongyang do not share the same definition of denuclearization, which many experts predicted could complicate negotiations.

At a July hearing held by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo was pressed on whether the two countries agree on what constitutes the Singapore summit’s commitment to pursue denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Pompeo said that the United States shared its definition with Pyongyang and that North Korea “understands” U.S. expectations for what that process will accomplish, but he would not confirm that North Korea agreed with the U.S. terms.

North Korea may be emphasizing its definition of denuclearization to influence the diplomatic process going forward.

Since the June summit in Singapore, negotiations between the United States and North Korea have failed to gain traction. Initially, the U.S. insistence that Pyongyang complete denuclearization before any U.S. concessions on sanctions or an end of the Korean War appeared to stymie progress, as North Korea insisted on a step-by-step approach with each side taking reciprocal actions.

North Korea’s Dec. 20 commentary may be intended as a reminder that Pyongyang expects the United States to take steps that address Pyongyang’s security concerns as the country rolls back its nuclear weapons program.

The Dec. 17 commentary made a similar point, stating that the United States must realize “before it is too late” that maximum pressure will not work and Washington should take a “sincere approach to implementing” the Singapore statement.

Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang in November initially appeared to reinvigorate the process when the two sides agreed to more regular contacts and the establishment of working groups, but there has been little evidence that these developments are being realized. Still, Pompeo described the negotiations thus far as a “great process” in a Dec. 21 interview with NPR.

Although the announcement of working groups meeting regularly would be a step forward in establishing a process for negotiations to proceed, commentary from North Korea suggests that Pyongyang may prefer to deal directly with Trump.

The Dec. 17 statement said that Trump “avails himself of every possible occasion to state his willingness to improve [North Korean-U.S.] relations” and targeted the U.S. State Department as “bent on bringing” the relationship between the United States and North Korea “back to the status of last year which was marked by exchanges of fire.”


Diplomacy stalls over meaning of denuclearization as the United States and North Korea seek next steps.

Smith, Inhofe Clash on Nukes

January/February 2019
By Kingston Reif

The incoming chairmen of the House and Senate armed services committees ended 2018 by trading blows on nuclear weapons policy, presaging what is poised to be a contentious fight between Democrats and Republicans on the issue during the 116th Congress.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) speaks to reporters about the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act on Capitol Hill July 11, 2018, as Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) looks on. In the new Congress, Inhofe is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Smith is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has long maintained that the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and can reasonably afford. This has raised the ire of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has expressed strong support for the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report and its emphasis on augmenting the role of nuclear weapons and developing new nuclear capabilities. (See ACT, March 2018.)

At a November event in Washington hosted by Ploughshares Fund, Smith called for putting U.S. nuclear policy on a different path by reducing the size and cost of the arsenal, renegotiating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), adopting a no-first-use policy, and forswearing new, low-yield nuclear weapons.

President Donald Trump has declared his intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty in February if Russia does not return to compliance with the agreement and has yet to decide whether to extend New START by up to five years as allowed by the treaty.

In response to Smith’s comments, Inhofe told reporters that rebuilding the nuclear arsenal “is the most important area of” upgrading the military.

“I don’t know why Smith or anyone else would single out nuclear modernization as an area to cut,” Inhofe said. “That allows someone who’s not otherwise a formidable opponent to destroy the United States of America.”

Smith quickly fired back, lamenting “that Senator Inhofe seems to want to…publicly question my intelligence and publicly question my ability to adequately lead the committee.”

As a result of the midterm elections on Nov. 6, Democrats gained 40 seats and retook control of the House of Representatives. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Smith will have a platform to conduct aggressive oversight of the Trump administration’s nuclear policy and spending proposals, especially through the annual national defense authorization process.

The annual bill, which has been passed and enacted each year for 58 years in a row, establishes spending ceilings and legal guidelines for Defense Department programs and the activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Smith has indicated that he plans to oppose continued funding to develop and field the two new, low-yield nuclear capabilities proposed by the NPR report. Those are a low-yield warhead option for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a new sea-launched cruise missile.

In addition, Smith appears likely to question the rationale for developing new fleets of nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles and expanding the NNSA’s capability to develop new nuclear warheads.

Such actions by Smith would set up a clash with the Republican-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee, which will strongly support the Trump plans under Inhofe.

Although Smith and Inhofe will have considerable say over the direction of U.S. nuclear policy, congressional appropriators wield the most power over funding decisions.

During the first two years of the Trump administration, not only has the Republican-controlled Congress backed the administration’s hefty budget requests for nuclear modernization, but in some cases it has increased funding above the requested levels. (See ACT, November 2018.)

Congress largely supported the Obama administration’s spending plans as well, but not without controversy. For example, the Democratic-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee sought to scale back NNSA plans for the B61 mod 12 life extension program (LEP) in 2013 and block funding for the W80-4 ALCM warhead LEP in 2014. Both efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

While Smith and Inhofe were drawing their own personal battle lines, other lawmakers closed out 2018 by issuing additional partisan salvos in response to the Trump administration’s NPR and intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty.

In a Nov. 29 letter led by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), 25 Republican senators urged Trump to think twice before supporting an extension of New START due to Russia’s violation of several international agreements, the imbalance posed by Russia’s development and modernization of nuclear capabilities unlimited by arms control agreements, and the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal. The letter added “that continued funding of the U.S. strategic modernization program, including for low-yield warhead options, as proposed in your [NPR], is critical in the face of dangerous international security developments since the New START was ratified.”

Two weeks later, on Dec. 13, 26 Democratic senators called on the president to address Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty instead of unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement and for him to extend New START.

“A collapse of the INF Treaty and failure to renew New START would lead to the absence of verifiable limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces for the first time since the early 1970,” the letter said.

The Democratic senators added that the administration’s “proposed new types of nuclear weapons threaten the bipartisan consensus that investments in the U.S. nuclear weapons deterrent and supporting infrastructure must be accompanied by pursuit of continued arms control measures.”




Empowered House Democrats will challenge priorities favored by Senate Republicans.

Russia Blocks Consensus at CWC Conference

January/February 2019
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

When states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) gathered in The Hague in late November to review the treaty, their work to uphold the norm against chemical weapons amid repeated use in Syria was challenged by a country that had played a leading role in negotiating the accord.

A sign points the way for delegates to the Chemical Weapons Convention conference sessions at The Hague in November 2018. (Photo: Alicia Sanders-Zakre/Arms Control Association)Russia, now seeking to cover for a Middle Eastern ally, tried largely unsuccessfully to thwart international efforts to investigate chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. Moscow’s actions defied the international consensus that has undergirded the legal prohibitions on the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.

Together with the United States, Russia had worked to secure the adoption of the 1997 chemical weapons ban and for many years played a constructive role in upholding the treaty. In 2013, Russia forged a deal to eliminate more than 1,300 metric tons of Syrian chemical weapons. In 2015 it agreed to a United Nations-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to investigate chemical weapons users in Syria.

Over the past several years, however, Russian behavior regarding chemical weapons shifted dramatically. In March, Russia blatantly violated the convention by using a nerve agent in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom. (See ACT, April 2018.)

It has also worked more subtly to weaken or eliminate the chemical weapons investigations it had once helped to construct. In November 2017, Russia vetoed the extension of the JIM mandate. (See ACT, December 2017.) Russia had increasingly belittled the reports that found that the Syrian military uses chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

With Russia exercising its Security Council veto to block efforts to restart investigations, a special session of CWC states-parties sought to get around Russia by voting in June 2018 to create a new investigative body through the OPCW. (See ACT, July/August 2018.)

The dispute spilled over to the sessions of the CWC annual conference of states-parties and the five-year review conference held Nov. 21–30, where Russia sought to obstruct implementation of the June decision.

At the start of the conference, Russia, joined by China, introduced a draft decision that would have postponed the beginning of investigations until after an open-ended working group had reviewed the decision to start investigations. The Russian effort failed by a vote of 82–30.

Russia and Iran then fought to amend and vote down the 2019 OPCW program and budget. The program and budget is typically agreed by consensus in the OPCW Executive Council meeting preceding the conference of states-parties.

This year, however, Russia refused to accept the proposed budget that included funding for an investigative mechanism to attribute chemical weapons attacks, and so the budget was brought to a vote at the conference. The budget passed by a vote of 99 to 27, after rejections of Russian and Iranian amendments that would have gutted the budget’s allocated funds for the investigations.

States-parties did succeed in adopting a final conference report, but only after a delay due to difficulty in agreeing on final report language. As a result of the dispute, however, states-parties for the first time in CWC history failed to reach consensus on a final document at the subsequent treaty review conference.

Russia’s success in blocking a consensus review conference document and forcing the OPCW budget to a vote undercut what was otherwise near-universal international support for the norms represented by the CWC.

“We should be under no illusion as to why we have not reached consensus,” the United Kingdom said in a statement Nov. 30. “A very small minority who have used, or defended those that use, chemical weapons have obstructed our efforts.”

For its part, Russia accused the West of breaking consensus. Russia has repeatedly denied that it is seeking to obstruct the chemical weapons ban. “Our critics may rest easy: we are not trying to ‘kill’ the budget of the organization thus paralyzing the implementation of the tasks of the convention. Quite the opposite: we are trying to find the only possible consensus-based variant of the budget,” Georgy Kalamanov, Russian deputy minister of industry and trade, told the conference of states-parties on Nov. 19.

Some analysts now wonder what Russia’s next move will be to undermine the new investigative body, which it has repeatedly characterized as “illegitimate.” Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent disarmament researcher who runs The Trench website, told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 17 interview that Russian and Syrian actions immediately following the approval of the OPCW budget could be indicative of their future strategy.

On Nov. 24, Russia and Syria announced a chlorine gas attack that it attributed to rebel groups in northwestern Aleppo, which analysts and Western governments have since denounced as staged or inaccurate. Syria formally requested that the OPCW investigate the attack.

“It is likely that this was either a staged incident intended to frame the opposition, or an operation which went wrong and from which Russia and the regime sought to take advantage,” the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office wrote in a press release on Dec. 7. The United States alleged in a State Department press release on the same day that Syrian and Russian personnel likely used tear gas against civilians on Nov. 24. Local reports have not shown any indication of chlorine gas, Zanders said.

Furthermore, the United States expressed concern that Syrian forces retained control of the site where the attack occurred, “allowing them to potentially fabricate samples and contaminate the site before a proper investigation” by the OPCW.

Russia and Syria have failed to block investigations, but they could attempt to prevent investigations from operating effectively, by actions such as seeking to waste limited OPCW resources with investigations of staged incidents or providing tampered evidence to investigators. “You can see how this is a trap that could be sprung,” said Zanders.


Tensions are evident over international efforts to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria.

BWC Meeting Stumbles Over Money, Politics

January/February 2019
By Jenifer Mackby

States-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), facing cancellation of meetings due to longstanding financial arrears by some member countries, achieved agreement on a funding mechanism that will allow them to meet and to continue paying the accord’s small secretariat staff.

Medical workers disinfect the coffin of a suspected Ebola victim on August 13, 2018, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In December, delegates to the Biological Weapons Convention conference in Geneva considered how to improve international measures against diseases such as Ebola, misuse of scientific advances such as gene editing, and possible covert bioweapons programs. (Photo: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)Delegates attending the meeting of states-parties in Geneva on Dec. 4–7 established a working capital fund, financed by voluntary contributions, to provide short-term financing pending receipt of contributions from member countries.

Yet, despite the broad support for outcomes from the BWC experts meeting held in August, delegates did not reach consensus on measures proposed by the experts to strengthen the convention. Many delegations blamed Iran, supported by Venezuela and a few others, for the lack of consensus. There was also evident tension between the United States and Russia.

The annual meetings of experts and of states-parties will provide further opportunities for consideration of measures to strengthen the convention prior to the BWC ninth review conference in 2021.

In Geneva, one day was cut from the December meeting’s planned four-day schedule due to lack of funding. The financial problems of the BWC, which outlaws biological arms, stem from some states being years late in annual payments and from slow payment by many other states, as well as from UN financial rules and practices. The United Nations now stringently requires that funding for meetings and staff contracts be received before spending is committed, rather than anticipating that funds will cover expenses as states pay later in the year, as had been the practice.

Although a number of states-parties are in arrears, five of them—Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria, Libya, and Argentina, in descending order of arrearages—account for more than three-quarters of the debt. This produced tensions in the meetings, as the nonpayers were seen to be jeopardizing the efforts of the majority who meet their financial commitments.

In the report of the Geneva meeting, states-parties in arrears were requested to pay outstanding amounts, and all parties were urged to pay invoices more quickly. The working capital fund is expected to enable the BWC to hold meetings and to provide the secretariat staff, known as the Implementation Support Unit, with one-year contracts rather than the current shorter-term contracts.

Nevertheless, the accumulated deficit may force some curtailment of BWC meetings planned for this year.

A number of substantive topics were discussed in Geneva. For example, Russia and the United Kingdom presented a working paper and side event recommending ideas on how to respond following a BWC violation and request for assistance. Such support would include measures such as well-equipped, on-call response teams and mobile diagnostic laboratory capabilities.

France and India proposed a database that, if a state-party were exposed to danger from a violation, would match requests for assistance with offers of help such as specific expertise; protection, detection, decontamination assistance; and provision of medical and other equipment.

India and the United States authored a paper suggesting ways to strengthen national implementation measures with appropriate legislative, regulatory, and administrative provisions; national export controls that would penalize offenders; a list of items requiring authorization before export; and cooperative training and capacity-building activities.

A Chinese initiative on a code of conduct continued to interest many states-parties, while Kazakhstan presented a working paper about a seminar it held in October on national implementation measures, cooperation, and assistance.

The BWC has gained 17 states-parties since 2012, bringing the total to 182. However, there are still 10 nonsignatory states, and five signatories that have not ratified the convention. Of particular concern to many experts are countries in the Middle East: Israel has not signed, and Syria and Egypt have not ratified
the convention.

The BWC faces evolving challenges that include scientific advances, such as gene editing, that raise new dangers if abused, while many countries believe that more should be done to improve protections against threats from naturally occurring diseases, such as Ebola, from possible covert state biological weapons programs and from terrorist groups seeking biological weapons.

In addition to the worsening relations between Russia and the United States outside of the BWC context, the two countries have traded accusations of noncompliance with the convention. The U.S. State Department 2018 report on compliance stated that Russia’s annual BWC submissions “have not satisfactorily documented whether its bioweapons program was completely destroyed or diverted to peaceful purposes.”

For its part, Russia has questioned the presence of U.S. Defense Department personnel at public health laboratories in former Soviet states, in particular at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Georgia. Russia suggested that this center and others were producing biological weapons. In November 2018, Georgia hosted a group of international experts for a “transparency visit” to the Lugar Center to dispel Russian allegations. Such on-site visits are seen to enhance confidence in compliance. Russia and the United States have also traded charges recently at meetings of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

At the outset of the Geneva meeting, the United States refused to accept Venezuela as a vice-chair because of its humanitarian, economic and political crisis, in addition to its non-payment of dues to the BWC. As a result, the meeting proceeded “on an exceptional basis” without any vice-chairs. This upset Venezuela and a number of members of the Non-Aligned Movement. In addition, the United States challenged the status of the “State of Palestine” as a BWC state-party.

A Dec. 5 statement endorsed by 15 nongovernmental organizations and 27 individuals warned that the BWC is “in a precarious state” due to the financial and political issues. Nevertheless, the group noted the substantive discussions held at the 2018 BWC experts meeting and said that states should focus on governance mechanisms to prevent scientific advances that could undermine the norm against biological weapons.

(Article has been corrected to remove a reference to Venezuela as a "rogue state.")

States-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention agree on a financial fix, but little else.

U.S., Iran Spar Over Ballistic Missiles

January/February 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

The United States and Iran sparred at the UN Security Council last month over Tehran’s ballistic missile program and allegations that Iran is violating UN restrictions on missile activities.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chats with Karen Pierce, UK permanent representative of to the UN, during the Security Council meeting on Iran held December 12, 2018. (Photo: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)The dispute at the Dec. 12 council meeting came as the United States is ratcheting up its rhetoric on the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program and seeking support for more stringent restrictions. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the council session that the United States will “continue to be relentless in building a coalition of responsible nations who are serious in confronting the Iranian regime’s reckless ballistic missile activity.”

The meeting focused on a biannual report from UN Secretary-General António Guterres on implementation of Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and put in place restrictions on the country’s ballistic missile and conventional arms activities. Ballistic missiles and conventional arms are not covered by the Iran nuclear deal.

“No nation can dispute that Iran is in open defiance” of Resolution 2231, Pompeo said.

The report, released Dec. 8, did not definitively conclude that Tehran violated UN provisions prohibiting the transfer of ballistic missiles, but it included evidence that missiles used by Houthi fighters in Yemen originated in Iran.

Debris from missiles that landed in Saudi Arabia bore features similar to Iranian ballistic missiles, the report said, and noted that the UN Secretariat would continue to try and determine if the systems were transferred before or after the council resolution entered into force in January 2016.

Pompeo said the United States has “hard evidence that Iran is providing missiles, training, and support” for the Houthis and transferring ballistic missiles to Shia militias in Iraq. He called on the Security Council to “establish inspection and interdiction measures” to “thwart Iran’s continuing efforts to circumvent” UN restrictions.

Iran, although not a member of the Security Council, was permitted to speak at the meeting. Eshagh Al Habib, Iran’s deputy ambassador to the UN, said Iran faces real threats and “will not and cannot compromise on its security and its conventional defensive capability.”

He also said the United States is in violation of Resolution 2231 by withdrawing from the nuclear deal and “punishing” states for supporting the resolution.

Resolution 2231 calls on all UN member states to support implementation of the nuclear deal and refrain from actions that undermine it. As a result of U.S. sanctions, foreign entities have pulled out of the Iranian market.

The report did not describe the U.S. reimposition of sanctions as a violation of Resolution 2231, but Guterres said that U.S. actions “do not advance the goals set out” in the resolution and expressed regret over the Trump administration’s actions.

The report detailed the dispute over whether Iran’s ballistic missile testing and use of ballistic missiles violated Resolution 2231, which also calls on Iran to refrain from developing ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The resolution language on missile development is nonbinding, and there are different interpretations of what “designed to be nuclear capable” means. The Dec. 8 report quoted a letter from Iran arguing that there is no evidence that Iran’s ballistic missiles possess the necessary features for delivering nuclear weapons and the resolution does not prohibit Iran from pursing its ballistic missile program.

In a Nov. 20 letter to Guterres, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany described ballistic missiles fired by Iran into Syria in October as “inherently capable of [the] delivery [of] nuclear weapons.” The three countries did not describe the action as a violation of Resolution 2231, but said it constituted “an activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” saying it was “destabilizing and increased regional tensions.”

Iran acknowledged targeting terrorists in Syria that Tehran says were linked to an attack in Iran and argued that it was acting in “legitimate self-defense” recognized by the UN Charter.

Pompeo said the United States would work with other states to bring back more stringent restrictions on Iranian ballistic missiles, similar to those adopted by the Security Council in Resolution 1929 in 2010. That required Iran to halt development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, which is commonly understood to include systems capable of delivering a 500 kilogram nuclear warhead a distance greater than 300 kilometers.

The restrictions in Resolution 1929 were superseded by Resolution 2231, but could be snapped back into place if one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) overturns Resolution 2231. Pompeo did not indicate that the United States is planning to take that step at this time.


EU Advances Payment Channel for Iran

The European Union is making progress on an alternative payment channel for doing business with Iran, but the so-called special purpose vehicle will likely be limited to humanitarian transactions exempt from U.S. sanctions.

France and Germany reportedly have agreed to host the special purpose vehicle and are aiming to have it set up by early this year.

An alternative payment mechanism is necessary because U.S. sanctions, reimposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May, target Iranian banks and foreign financial institutions that facilitate financial transactions with Iran.

In September, the EU and Iran announced that they would set up the alternative payment mechanism, which is designed to preserve legitimate trade by setting up a barter-like system for entitles importing and exporting goods to Iran. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini initially said the special purpose vehicle would be designed to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran permitted by the 2015 nuclear deal, including payments for oil.

European officials have since indicated that the scope of the mechanism will be reduced to cover humanitarian trade exempt from U.S. sanctions, such as food and medicine. Despite the U.S. sanctions exemptions for humanitarian goods, it is difficult to find financial entities willing to process the transactions.

Bahram Ghasemi, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, rejected the idea that the special purpose vehicle will be limited to medicine and food. The mechanism “must cover a range of transactions and economic and industrial cooperation,” he said Dec. 17.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Dec. 12 that the United States will examine the payment mechanism when it is set up. The United States will not pursue sanctions penalties for activities consistent with humanitarian exemptions, but “to the extent that there are violations of our sanctions, we intend to enforce them with great rigor against any party who is a participant in those violations,” he said.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a Dec. 8 report on implementation of Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal and called on all states to support it, that he welcomes “initiatives to protect the freedom” of entities pursing “legitimate business” with Iran.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accuses Tehran of being in “open defiance” of Security Council resolution.

U.S. Conducts Special Open Skies Flight

January/February 2019
By Kingston Reif

The United States and several allies on Dec. 6 conducted an “extraordinary flight” over eastern Ukraine under the Open Skies Treaty, the first and only treaty flight worldwide during 2018.

A U.S. Air Force OC-135B Open Skies aircraft parked on a ramp at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., September 14, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The flight followed a Russian attack in late November on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea and as Ukraine said Russia has been increasing its forces near its border with Ukraine.

The U.S. Defense Department said U.S., Canadian, French, German, Romanian, UK, and Ukrainian observers were aboard the OC-135B aircraft during the observation flight, which was requested by Ukraine.

“The timing of this flight is intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations,” the Defense Department said in a Dec. 6 news release.

“Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea near the Kerch Strait is a dangerous escalation in a pattern of increasingly provocative and threatening activity,” the statement added.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2002 and has 34 states-parties, aims to increase confidence in and transparency of military activities, particularly in Europe, by allowing unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants for information-gathering purposes. The parties have yearly quotas on overflights and must make the information they acquire available to all treaty parties.

For example, the treaty permits up to 42 overflights of Russia by states-parties, of which 16 can be flown by the United States.

A dispute between Georgia and Russia over the inclusion of Russian observers on treaty flights over Georgia prevented agreement on quotas for 2018, thereby freezing flights for all member states.

But the treaty includes a provision allowing for two states-parties “on a bilateral and voluntary basis to conduct observation flights over the territory of each other.” The last such extraordinary observation flight over Ukraine took place in 2014 as part of the U.S. response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Normal flights appear set to resume in 2019. States-parties at an Oct. 22 meeting of the Open Skies Consultative Commission, the treaty’s implementing body, agreed to active quotas for observation flights this year.

In recent years, disputes over implementation and concerns from some U.S. officials and lawmakers about the value of the treaty have threatened to derail the pact.

The agreement on quotas for 2019 followed a U.S. decision in September not to certify a new Russian aircraft outfitted with an upgraded digital electro-optical camera for flights under the treaty, a decision that was reversed several days later. (See ACT, October 2018.)

Washington for several years has raised numerous concerns about Russian compliance with the pact. The State Department’s annual compliance report released in April determined that Russia is violating the treaty by restricting observation flights over Kaliningrad, which is a sensitive Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, to no more than 500 kilometers, and within a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The United States said the 500-kilometer restriction is about half the distance needed to fully cover Kaliningrad and, in response, has placed restrictions on some of Russia’s treaty flights.

Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 18 that “recently Russia has resolved one violation of its obligations and has made overtures that suggest it could resolve another.” But she added that Russia had refused to address the violation related to Kaliningrad.

The Open Skies Treaty has also become a point of contention in Congress. (See ACT, July/August 2018.)

The fiscal year 2019 defense authorization act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on Aug. 13, waters down language in the original U.S. House of Representatives version of the bill that would have blocked the Air Force’s budget request to replace the aircraft that the United States uses to conduct Open Skies Treaty flights, including over Russia. Instead, the law conditions funding necessary to acquire an upgraded digital imaging system for treaty flights and implement certain decisions of the treaty’s implementing body.

Treaty dispute with Russia grounded routine transparency overflights last year.


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