“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022
January/February 2021
Edition Date: 
Friday, January 1, 2021
Cover Image: 

U.S. Urges CW Norms for Global Partnership

January/February 2021
By Julia Masterson

The United States used its 2020 chair of a multilateral nonproliferation forum to prioritize restoring the norm against chemical weapons usage. Nations should work toward “calling out abuses where they occur, imposing consequences for such atrocities, and standing together to reestablish and reinforce global [chemical weapons] nonproliferation norms,” said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, in remarks to a Nov. 18 virtual plenary meeting of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

During a November 2020 meeting, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford, shown testifying in 2019, urged members of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction to strengthen norms against chemical attacks. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)The partnership was created in 2002 and comprises 30 member states plus the European Union. Leadership of the group rotates annually, and a U.S. State Department official told Arms Control Today in June 2020 that, as chair, the United States aimed to make restoration of the norm against chemical weapons use a “centerpiece” of the partnership’s work in 2020. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

Toward this end, Ford told the plenary the State Department Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, which he leads, has taken steps to strengthen the partnership’s work, including by organizing a series of tabletop exercises designed to learn from and prevent state-sponsored assassinations using chemical agents. The exercises focused on steps to “overcome active measures to obfuscate the origin of such an attack and how to protect the credibility of agencies investigating such incidents,” Ford said. The exercises were likely inspired in part by the recent poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny using a Novichok nerve agent. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Navalny’s poisoning, alongside the assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal using Novichok in 2018 and the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, using VX in 2017, highlight the erosion of the global norm against chemical weapons use.

According to Ford, increased action can be taken by the Global Partnership to condemn instances of chemical weapons use and to hold perpetrators accountable. Specifically, he noted that several partnership member states are not yet involved with the Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, an initiative established by France in 2018 to name, shame, and sanction those in violation of the norm against chemical weapons. Ford also invited Global Partnership members who participate in the Australia Group export control regime to support the group’s efforts to shore up export controls and other counterproliferation measures designed to prevent the spread of chemical and biological weapons.

Acknowledging the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and its monitoring body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ford added that “all countries who take seriously the dangers of chemical weapons and do not wish to be seen as helping the perpetrators of [chemical weapons] atrocities hide from accountability should also strongly support the OPCW itself.” He said Global Partnership member states should maintain strong support for the OPCW Technical Secretariat and its Investigation and Identification Team, which has a mandate to investigate and attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. (See ACT, July/August 2018.)

The year-long U.S. chair of a multilateral nonproliferation forum focused on reinforcing norms against the use of chemical weapons.

U.S. Emerging Technologies Gain Support

January/February 2021

Reflecting a bipartisan consensus, U.S. lawmakers have authorized the Defense Department to accelerate the weaponization of emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic, autonomous, and hypersonic weapons systems. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was enacted after Congress overrode a Dec. 23 presidential veto of the bill.

Marine Corps Gen. Michael Groen leads the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which saw its status upgraded by the 2021 defense authorization bill. (Photo: Cuong Le/U.S. Marine Corps)To speed the utilization of AI by the military, for example, it upgrades the status of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center by bringing it under the deputy secretary of defense and by investing the center’s director with authority for acquisition decisions. The act also calls on the Air Force to speed development of its Low-Cost Attributable Aircraft Technology program, intended to create an armed drone, or Skyborg, that can accompany piloted aircraft on high-risk missions over enemy territory. The “attributable,” in this case, means unmanned aircraft that can be attrited, or sacrificed in large numbers, to help defend piloted aircraft. The omnibus appropriations bill, when passed in late December, did not accede to all of the spending measures in the NDAA, but did allocate substantial sums for the continuing development of cutting-edge systems, including $136 million for ground robotics, $259 million for large and medium-sized unmanned surface vehicles, and $1.2 billion for hypersonic missiles.—MICHAEL T. KLARE

U.S. Emerging Technologies Gain Support

Middle East WMD-Free Zone Meeting Postponed

January/February 2021

The second annual conference on a weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-free zone in the Middle East has been postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. The session was scheduled to be held in New York on Nov. 16–20.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted the announcement Oct. 3. The conference was planned as a follow-on to the inaugural session that met in November 2019, when participating states adopted a political declaration codifying their commitment to establishing a WMD-free zone in the region. (See ACT, March 2020.)

The idea for the conference originated in 2018 when Egypt introduced a resolution to the UN General Assembly that called for convening an annual conference to make progress on the zone. The UN resolution adopted in 2018 mandated that states convene for an annual independent conference devoted to the Middle Eastern zone on an annual basis until that zone is achieved.

The United States has not commented publicly on the conference since its postponement was announced, but it did not participate in the 2019 session. Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, wrote in an Aug. 4, 2020, essay that “it is too early to tell what damage the new conference will do—already it has already done some.” He cited a Trump administration view that the WMD-free zone conference will not advance substantive discussions or constructive engagement because it fails to account for the perspectives of all states in the region, particularly Israel.

Jeffrey Eberhardt, U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today in a February 2020 interview that the United States “support[s] the establishment of such a zone if it is freely arrived at among the parties in the region.”

The prospective zone will also be subject to contentious debate at the next nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, which was scheduled to be held in April 2020 but postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic.—JULIA MASTERSON

Middle East WMD-Free Zone Meeting Postponed

CEND Working Groups Discuss Disarmament

January/February 2021

With the 10th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference delayed until August, a U.S. initiative to discuss nuclear disarmament issues will have the opportunity to hold more sessions before the conference. The Trump administration announced the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative in 2018, saying the planned meetings were aimed at addressing the underlying issues that may currently preclude global nuclear disarmament. Initiative participants met mostly virtually on Nov. 24 to exchange updates on the program’s three working subgroups and to discuss further engagement with civil society.

Civil society experts have played an important role in the initiative’s work, serving as facilitators for each subgroup, which focus on reductions in the perceived incentives for states to retain their nuclear arsenals, mechanisms to bolster nonproliferation efforts, and measures to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons in the interim. At the November meeting, an open conversation centered on modalities for the CEND initiative to work most effectively and on efforts to engage civil society.

“The CEND initiative has now ‘graduated’ to being something more [than a U.S. initiative]. It is clearly now a much broader initiative that belongs to all of its participants. That is gratifying and very important,” said Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, who leads the effort, in opening remarks to the meeting.

Ford said the United States anticipates hosting two to three in-person CEND meetings each year, and he added that plenary sessions have been scheduled for late autumn 2021 and spring 2023.—JULIA MASTERSON

CEND Working Groups Discuss Disarmament

A Better Missile Defense Strategy

January/February 2021
By Laura Grego

U.S. President Joe Biden will inherit a missile defense program with a bloated, out-of-proportion budget and an unfocused agenda, the costs of which are exceeding the benefits. Strategic missile defense has long been more promise than delivery. Despite decades of work and hundreds of billions of dollars invested to build defenses of the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missiles, it still has no clear path to working against a real-world threat. Rather than narrowing the focus to more achievable goals, President Donald Trump expressed a goal in January 2019 of defending against “any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”1 Although such an aim is widely recognized as unachievable, as well as unwise, his administration expanded the budget and scope of missile defense. It pushed more money into the failing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system and then drafted theater and regional systems into a “layered” homeland defense to make up for the GMD system’s deficiencies, attempted to start a space-based missile defense program, and initiated a program to defend the homeland against future hypersonic missiles from Russia and China.

A Ground-based Interceptor launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in a 2019 test. The interceptor is part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, an expensive investment that has never been tested in a realistic way. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)At the same time, the strategic costs incurred by the pursuit of missile defenses have become undeniable. Russia and China see the unbounded nature of U.S. missile defense programs as a long-term concern for which they need to plan. Investments they are making support this assessment: Russia has unveiled six new nuclear delivery systems, designed to evade or overwhelm U.S. missile defenses, and China is considering its own strategies to assure the United States that its limited nuclear deterrent would survive a U.S. first strike and U.S. missile defenses, including equipping its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with multiple warheads. Russia explicitly links its participation in further arms control discussions to the willingness of the United States to discuss missile defense. Left unbounded, strategic missile defenses will interfere with reducing the importance of nuclear weapons to security, without providing the intended benefits.

The Trump administration’s approach was to double down on investments, but the Biden administration instead should make smart choices about how much is enough. First, it should establish a clear, limited purpose for missile defense. The rationale when the United States exited the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty 20 years ago was the need to build a strategic defense against a few ballistic missiles launched either accidentally or from an emerging missile state, such as North Korea or Iran. Despite the serious difficulties in building such a system, the immaturity of the North Korean nuclear and missile program permitted the fiction of staying ahead of the threat. The Obama administration essentially declared mission accomplished on homeland missile defense and shifted focus to regional systems, initiating the European Phased Adaptive Approach, a program based on the regional Aegis missile defense system that would produce increasingly capable interceptors to defend Europe from a putative Iranian missile threat.

President Donald Trump speaks at a 2019 release event for the administration's Missile Defense Review. He said the aim of U.S. missiles defenses was to protect against “any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”(Photo: Martin H. Simon/Getty Images)The Biden administration inherits an expensive and complex system, the GMD system, that like any midcourse system will be vulnerable to decoys and other countermeasures. It has yet to be tested in a realistic way, and prospects are remote that it would ever be put through its paces well enough to provide confidence against more than the most simple of threats.

Current plans call for keeping pace with North Korean arsenals, which the Pentagon estimates will soon move beyond the capabilities of the GMD system. It has already been shown to be difficult to do the simple job cost effectively. The Biden administration should resist the temptation to get in a tail chase. On this, even the policy director for the Obama administration’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review agrees. Brad Roberts’ assessment that building a system aimed at keeping ahead of maturing “rogue” states’ threats would be “unnecessary and unreliable” and that “the United States would be best served by a choice to restore but modify the goal of protection against limited strikes.”2

The United States should focus its efforts solely on those systems that can be most clearly distinguished as regional systems and at most consider strategic defense for a limited case.

This not only makes financial sense, it makes strategic sense. The challenge is that a midcourse missile defense designed to work against an increasing number of modestly sophisticated North Korean ICBMs will be relevant against the small number of mobile ICBMs China would expect to survive a U.S. first strike. So in addition to limiting and clarifying the purpose of missile defense, the United States should be clear what it is not. The United States should reaffirm that its ballistic missile defenses are not designed to defend against Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals and that it does not seek to use missile defense as an element of a strategy to unilaterally negate their nuclear deterrents. Although this has been consistent policy for decades, it is worth clarifying because it has been clouded by declaratory statements (Trump in 2019) and by the exploration of approaches that could be integrated to provide an expandable, global defense, such as space-based missile defense systems and the incorporation of the regional Aegis missile defense system into homeland defense.

For these reasons, the repeated attempts to start space-based and other global missile defense systems should cease. A U.S. commitment to forgo building such a system could additionally help pave the way for a more secure and stable space environment.

Proposals to build a regionally focused boost phase missile defense system designed to be more effective against North Korean missiles, but having little capability against Chinese or Russian systems, have not progressed very far, at least in part because it has not been clear they could be built with existing technology. Some open-source analysis has suggested it may be possible in certain circumstances. Understanding this matters; if such systems are still technically or operationally infeasible, making this clear to Russia and China, perhaps in the form of joint technical analyses, may help allay their concerns.

Russia has repeatedly stated that to engage on another round of nuclear reductions, it wants to discuss missile defense; and such talks are likely to be one of the only ways to interest China in strategic arms control, given their much lower level of nuclear forces. The United States has its own priorities for the next round of arms control, including limits on tactical nuclear weapons.

The United States can better secure its interests by considering limits or concessions on strategic defenses of dubious value to secure significant limitations to offensive weapons. On the table eventually could be limits on interceptor types, numbers, and basing locations.

Given precedent, accepting any limits on missile defense systems is a tough sell domestically. Political and industrial interests are entrenched. Before getting to the difficult part, the United States may consider strategies that build confidence that U.S. missile defenses are indeed not aimed at Russia or China and provide transparency to help defuse an action-reaction cycle. These may include transparency about missile defense policy and planned architectures, a moratorium on tests of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 Block IIA missile against ICBM-range targets, and high-level technical discussions.


1. Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump and Vice President Pence Announcing the Missile Defense Review,” January 17, 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-vice-president-pence-announcing-missile-defense-review/.

2. Brad Roberts, ed., “Fit for Purpose? The U.S. Strategic Posture in 2030 and Beyond,” Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, October 2020, pp. 38–54, https://cgsr.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/The-US-Strategic-Posture-in-2030-and-Beyond.pdf.

Laura Grego is a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

U.S. President Joe Biden will inherit a missile defense program with a bloated, out-of-proportion budget and an unfocused agenda, the costs of which are exceeding the benefits.


Subscribe to RSS - January/February 2021