"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
January/February 2022
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
Cover Image: 

On Nuclear Weapons, Actions Belie Reassuring Words

January/February 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

(Photo by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament/Henry Kenyon)The U.S., Chinese, French, Russian, and UK effort was designed in part to create a positive atmosphere for the 10th NPT review conference, which has been delayed again by the pandemic. It also clearly aims to address global concerns about the rising danger of nuclear conflict among states and signals a potential for further cooperation to address this existential threat.

The question now is, do they have the will and the skill to translate their laudable intentions into action before it is too late?

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price hailed the statement as “extraordinary.” A more sober reading shows that it falls woefully short of committing the five to the policies and actions necessary to prevent nuclear war. In fact, the statement illustrates how their blind faith in deterrence theories, which hinge on a credible threat of using nuclear weapons, perpetuates conditions that could lead to nuclear catastrophe.

The statement asserts that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” Yet, such broad language suggests they might use nuclear weapons to “defend” themselves against a wide range of threats, including non-nuclear threats. Given the indiscriminate and horrific effects of nuclear weapons use, such policies are dangerous, immoral, and legally unjustifiable.

At the very least, if the leaders of these states are serious about averting nuclear war, they should formally adopt no-first-use policies or, as U.S. President Joe Biden promised in 2020, declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or possibly respond to a nuclear attack.

Even this approach perpetuates circumstances that could lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. The only way to ensure nuclear weapons are never used is “to do away with them entirely,” as President Ronald Reagan argued in 1984, and sooner rather than later.

But on disarmament, the statement only expressed a “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” This vague, caveated promise rings hollow after years of stalled disarmament progress and an accelerating global nuclear arms race.

A year ago, Russia and the United States extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but they have not begun negotiations on a follow-on agreement. Meanwhile, both spend billions of dollars annually to maintain and upgrade their nuclear forces, which far exceed any rational concept of what it takes to deter a nuclear attack.

China is on pace to double or triple the size of its land-based strategic missile force in the coming years. Worse still, despite past promises “to engage in the process leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” Chinese leaders are rebuffing calls to engage in arms control talks with the United States and others. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, announced last year it would increase its deployed strategic warhead ceiling.

Fresh statements by the five NPT nuclear-armed states reaffirming their “intention” to fulfill their NPT disarmament obligations are hardly credible in the absence of time-bound commitments to specific disarmament actions.

At the same time, the five, led by France, have criticized the good faith efforts by the majority of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to advance the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Contrary to claims by the nuclear-armed states, the TPNW reinforces the NPT and the norm against possessing, testing, and using nuclear weapons.

Rather than engage TPNW leaders on their substantive concerns, U.S. officials are pressuring influential states, including Sweden, Germany, and Japan, not to attend the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as observers. Such bullying will only reinforce enthusiasm for the TPNW and undermine U.S. credibility on nuclear matters.

The leaders of the nuclear five, especially Biden, can and must do better. Before the NPT review conference later this year, Russia and the United States should commit to conclude by 2025 negotiations on further verifiable cuts in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces and on constraints on long-range missile defenses. China, France, and the UK should agree to join nuclear arms control talks no later than 2025 and to freeze their stockpiles as Washington and Moscow negotiate deeper cuts in theirs.

Instead of belittling the TPNW, the five states need to get their own houses in order. Concrete action on disarmament is overdue. It will help create a more stable and peaceful international security environment and facilitate the transformative move from unsustainable and dangerous deterrence doctrines toward a world free of the fear of nuclear Armageddon.

On Jan. 3, the leaders of the five nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) issued a rare joint statement on preventing nuclear war in which they affirmed, for the first time, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Obstacles to Reducing Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

January/February 2022
By Adam Mount

President Joe Biden entered office with two objectives for nuclear weapons policy: declaring that “the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter—and, if necessary, retaliate against—a nuclear attack” and implementing the sole purpose policy as part of a broader effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Although Biden has not clearly defined either goal, his support for both has signaled an intention to produce a significant shift in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Public hints about the structure and the content of his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) suggest, however, that Biden will not achieve his goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. plans and posture.

During a January 11, 2017 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Joe Biden said that he and President Barack Obama “strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.” (Photo by Chris Kleponis/AFP via Getty Images)If Biden’s NPR walks back these commitments, it would be only the latest example of a president trying and failing to reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. This pattern is the result of concerted opposition from partisan opponents and Pentagon officials, structural impediments to the president’s ability to shift policy, and the failure of political appointees to learn the lessons of past attempts. Even more than in previous nuclear policy reviews, these trends have been publicly visible throughout the 2022 NPR process and represent a cautionary tale for future administrations.

The Past as Prologue

For Biden, the 2022 NPR process is a familiar story. With Biden at his side, President Barack Obama entered office in 2009 also determined to reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. Although this was the subject of his first major international address, Obama did not come equipped with a firm plan for how to do it. He left the issue up to the NPR process. For example, the Obama review explicitly did not adopt the concept of sole purpose as the role of nuclear weapons although it promised to “work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.”1 Instead, the review stated that the United States “would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”2 The administration reopened the question of the sole purpose concept in its last year in office, but Obama’s secretaries of defense, state, and energy all argued against it.3

In January 2017, nine days before he would leave office, Vice President Biden delivered a wistful speech to a Washington audience, reporting that “the President and I strongly believe we have made enough progress” toward creating the conditions for the sole purpose doctrine.4 Despite their conviction, they had not made the change. After eight years, the U.S. nuclear arsenal was still configured to deter the same threats for the same reasons.

The 2018 NPR reversed course and instead took steps to increase the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. Worried that adversaries could conduct a limited nuclear strike for coercive purposes, the Trump administration argued that new nuclear weapons were the answer. The 2018 review proposed new low-yield warheads, a new sea-launched cruise missile, and a delay in retiring the last megaton-class gravity bomb. That review also produced new language warning that the United States would consider employing a nuclear weapon in response to a “non-nuclear strategic attack,” a vague phrase the administration never defined. After critics warned that the new policy could permit a nuclear response to a cyberattack, officials hastened to dispute the claim, but never really clarified it.5 To this day, it is not clear who wrote the document. In short, it was not the kind of process that the Biden team should want to emulate.

In the past year, former President Donald Trump’s allies and advisers have worked hard to prevent the Biden administration from revisiting these decisions. Instead, they apparently hoped the new team could be coerced or cajoled into abandoning Biden’s stated goals and reaffirming the Trump policy.6 In a series of hyperbolic articles, they have argued that any change to U.S. policy would alarm allies and embolden adversaries, despite the fact that the Biden administration has not fully articulated its policy. According to this view, raising the bar for a U.S. nuclear response would give a green light to attacks that fall below that bar. Rather than engaging with any specific formulation of the sole purpose doctrine, these arguments tend to conflate the policy with a no-first-use strategy and object generally to any related change in existing policy.7

Admiral Charles Richard,head of the U.S. Strategic Command, has said that the purpose of Biden's NPR should be “validation, that we like the strategy we have.” (Photo by Department of Defense)In October, former Trump administration officials released a declassified document that was required to report on presidential guidance for nuclear employment plans that had been issued in April 2019.8 Although legally required to inform Congress of the change before it occurred, the outgoing team only sent the document to Capitol Hill in December 2020, after Trump lost the election. It is a strikingly partisan document that explicitly refutes policies to which Biden had committed on the campaign trail by arguing that “the United States sees no benefit and significant risk in adopting a ‘sole purpose’ policy” and claiming that doing so “would dispirit allies and partners.”9 The document does not provide Congress with information about Trump’s employment guidance, but rather serves as a handbook for civil servants, military officials, and sympathetic officials in allied countries who intended to resist Biden administration policies. It is more a partisan strategy than a nuclear strategy.

Consistent with that document, Admiral Charles Richard, who oversees the nation’s nuclear forces, said that the purpose of Biden’s NPR should be “validation, that we like the strategy we have.”10 With that perspective, Richard went before Congress in April to argue against options that the Biden administration was then considering, including a sole purpose policy and any changes to existing plans for acquiring new weapons.11 Further, an unnamed Pentagon official stated that it was “not likely” that sole purpose or no-first-use policies will be presented as options.12

Closing Off Options

This campaign effectively is an attempt to deprive Biden of the ability to set his own nuclear weapons policy. In this context, it would require a concerted effort to advance the president’s objectives. In practice, the Biden administration has taken steps in the structure and staffing of the review that further constrain its ability to pursue the president’s goals.

Biden’s first budget request, submitted in April, was an early opportunity to build leverage and set the tone of the review. Rather than pause or cancel questionable programs to preserve decision space, the request fully supported Trump’s accelerated schedule to procure new air-launched cruise missiles and continue developing a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) and the low-yield submarine-launched warhead that Biden had called “a bad idea” during the campaign. The budget request is 28 percent higher than projected two years ago.13 These decisions guaranteed that the default position in the NPR would be to retain the existing policy, ensuring that debate would center around low-hanging fruit such as the SLCM that had been carefully positioned by the previous administration to divert attention from other policies.

The crucial moment for an administration seeking to shift nuclear weapons policy comes when the National Security Council (NSC) issues presidential guidance to initiate, indicate the president’s expectations for, and structure the NPR. For the Biden administration, this took the form of a public interim national security guidance document and a classified presidential study directive. Neither document referred to a sole purpose policy directly. Rather than explicitly direct that the Pentagon develop the president’s preferred options, the guidance was negotiated among a range of offices across the government, including officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, there is no political appointee on the NSC staff empowered to represent and interpret the president’s guidance in the NPR process. Instead, the responsibility is divided between the offices of the NSC senior directors for defense and nuclear issues. The director for strategic capabilities in the defense office is customarily a uniformed general officer and so will tend to be more comfortable implementing settled policy than defining a shift in policy such as a sole purpose policy.

A visitor to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima walks by images of the mushroom cloud that erupted when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. An estimated 70,000 people were killed instantly and afterward, many thousands more died from radiation. Nearly four decades later, nuclear weapons remain a serious threat. (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)In the months leading up to the NPR, Leonor Tomero, the deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of managing the review, came under fire from Senate Republicans and civil servants who worried that her views were too progressive.14 In particular, she was accused of favoring the sole purpose declaration that Biden supported and had written into the Democratic party platform. Rather than defend her, Pentagon leadership showed her the door, saying she was removed as part of a larger reorganization.15

The Biden administration began its NPR in July with the intention to release its report in January, along with the National Defense Strategy.16 Tomero’s removal meant there was no Pentagon political appointee in the NPR process who was prepared to implement the president’s sole purpose policy. Following Tomero’s departure, the NPR was led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Melissa Dalton and Richard Johnson, the deputy assistant secretary tasked with preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, who also served in an acting capacity in Tomero’s previous role, despite the apparent reorganization. Even capable officials such as Dalton and Johnson will have difficulty influencing the highly politicized and complex debates of nuclear weapons policy without experience with those arguments, without a portfolio that allows them to focus their full attention on the review, and without clear guidance from the president.

As a result, the administration has been unable to engage in a complete discussion on a sole purpose policy with allies, many of whom have been understandably apprehensive about potential shifts in an established U.S. policy. With firm guidance from the president and a concerted effort to adjust policy, U.S. officials might have engaged allies on their concerns about specific proposals. Without firm presidential guidance, allies have been left to fret about undefined concepts and rumors, allowing opponents of the president’s objectives in the Pentagon, Congress, and outside of government an opening to flood allies with misleading speculation. This mix of uncertainty and misinformation created an environment that made it easy for Pentagon political appointees to avoid serious consideration of the sole purpose issue altogether.

The administration also complicated the NPR process by folding nuclear weapons policy into a concept of “integrated deterrence.” The concept held considerable promise for Biden’s stated objectives for the review. If the United States was to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, an integrated review could examine the utility and credibility of nuclear and non-nuclear options for performing specific missions and identify ways to safely reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.17 In principle, an integrated review could also communicate the benefits of Biden’s goals to allies, demonstrating how reduced reliance could lead to increased credibility in the overall U.S. deterrence posture.

A Soviet-era SS-23 missile is destroyed in 1989 under the now-defunct Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)The 2022 NPR and the National Defense Strategy did not undertake this assessment. There is no indication that the strategy was tasked with reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, and the bureaucratic silos that have divided the NPR and the broader National Defense Strategy remain intact. Instead, combining the documents could decrease the transparency of nuclear policy, concealing areas where the review failed to reach agreement or advance the president’s objectives. An integrated review that does not engage with the difficult questions of operational plans and posture might reduce the word count assigned to nuclear weapons policy, but not the missions assigned to the weapons.

Without firm presidential guidance, staff empowered to implement that guidance, and a detailed examination of the utility of nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities, the Pentagon is unlikely to produce a policy that significantly reduces reliance on nuclear weapons. The administration evidently acquiesced in a broad effort to undermine the president’s stated objectives and his ability to set policy. As it stands, the 2022 NPR will not only preserve the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons, but if its practices are adopted by future administrations, will make it more difficult to accomplish the goal in coming years.

The Path Forward on Reducing Reliance

It is still possible that the administration could adjust declaratory policy through other means. The undersecretary of defense for policy or the national security adviser could choose to rewrite the NPR material or make significant amendments at the 11th hour, similar to the process that occurred in the 2010 NPR. Although such intervention might further Biden’s stated objectives, it would also underline that the NPR failed to perform that task and that the review process had to be circumvented to adjust policy. Furthermore, the administration should avoid last-minute changes that are simply cosmetic. Declaratory policy is consequential and credible to the extent that it reflects a strategy that shifts reliance away from nuclear weapons in operational plans.

Nevertheless, one option is to declare that the United States would use nuclear weapons only in the event of an “existential attack” against the United States or its allies.18 Although Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, spoke approvingly about this possibility in the spring of 2021, the formulation raises its own questions. Could a cyberattack or chemical weapons attack ever threaten the existence of an ally? Would attacks that leave U.S. allies intact but exposed to subsequent attacks count as existential? These questions permit widely divergent interpretations by allies and adversaries and, depending on the exact language in the document and the statements of U.S. officials, might fail to raise the bar significantly for nuclear use.

The administration will have another opportunity to adjust nuclear weapons policy when it drafts its own nuclear employment guidance over the next year or two. This could serve as an opportunity to translate shifts in declaratory policy into operational plans and require planners to develop more credible, flexible nonnuclear options for specific contingencies. This would require a more active and directed employment guidance process than in previous years. Without fixing the decisions that constrained the NPR process, it will be even more difficult to affect the complex and parochial planning process. It will require that the president issues clear implementation guidance if he selects new declaratory language and empowers expert officials to create a significant change in strategy.

An administration committed to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons will have to learn three lessons from the 2022 NPR process if it is to succeed where its predecessors have failed. First, the president should issue clear guidance about what they want, including an explicit description of how to reduce nuclear reliance and what options should be developed and presented to the president for decisions. Second, the president will have to select and appoint expert officials to lead the NPR process who are ready to defend and implement that guidance. Third, civilian leaders must ensure that military officers, civil servants, and political appointees follow the president’s guidance and hold them accountable if they refuse to do so or attempt to subvert the review process, for example, if they mislead allies, undermine political appointees, or coordinate with the administration’s opponents in Congress. If Pentagon officials disagree with the president’s guidance, they have a duty to try to convince the president to change it, but they also have a duty to provide options requested by the president.

Whether or not Biden, confronted with political resistance or additional information, changed his mind on a sole purpose policy, the 2022 NPR demonstrates that the existing process for developing nuclear weapons policy is deeply flawed. Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer optimistically promised that “this is going to be the president’s posture review and the president’s posture.”19 It is also possible that, in his final days in office, Biden may find himself delivering another wistful speech lamenting that yet another administration has failed to establish a sole purpose policy as a guiding principle of U.S. nuclear policy or to significantly reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.


1. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, p. 16, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf.

2. Ibid.

3. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” The New York Times, September 6, 2016.

4. Office of the Vice President, The White House, “Remarks by the Vice President on Nuclear Security,” January 12, 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/12/remarks-vice-president-nuclear-security.

5. George Perkovich, “Really? We’re Gonna Nuke Russia for a Cyberattack?” Politico, January 18, 2018, http://politi.co/2Dpp28s; Scott D. Sagan and Allen S. Weiner, “The U.S. Says It Can Answer Cyberattacks With Nuclear Weapons. That’s Lunacy.” The Washington Post, July 9, 2021; Patrick Tucker, “No, the U.S. Won’t Respond to a Cyber Attack With Nukes,” Defense One, February 2, 2018.

6. Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller, “President Biden, Don’t Help Our Adversaries Break NATO,” The Washington Post, November 4, 2021; Jim Risch, “The U.S. Must Reject a ‘Sole Purpose’ Nuclear Policy,” Defense News, October 25, 2021. Those arguments were mirrored by editorials boards and some Democratic politicians. “Folding America’s Nuclear Umbrella,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2021; Seth Moulton, “We Must Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, but a ‘No First Use’ Policy Is Not the Answer,” The Hill, November 29, 2021, https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/583433-we-must-eliminate-nuclear-weapons-but-a-no-first-use-policy-is. Reports on allied concerns about President Joe Biden’s objectives featured prominently in arguments made by opponents and in media accounts of the review. Demetri Sevastopulo and Henry Foy, “Allies Lobby Biden to Prevent Shift to ‘No First Use’ of Nuclear Arms,” Financial Times, October 30, 2021.

7. Patty-Jane Geller, “What Experts and Senior Officials Have Said About Adopting a No-First-Use or Sole-Purpose Nuclear Declaratory Policy,” Heritage Foundation Factsheet, No. 219 (October 20, 2021), https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/FS219.pdf.

8. Robert Soofer and Matthew R. Costlow, “An Introduction to the 2020 Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” Journal of Policy and Strategy, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall 2021): 2–8, https://nipp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/1.1R.pdf.

9. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States - 2020,” 2020, p. 8, https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/FOID/Reading%20Room/NCB/21-F-0591_2020_Report_of_the_Nuclear_Employement_Strategy_of_the_United_States.pdf.

10. Charles R. Richard and Ronald R. Fritzmeier, Remarks to the Defense Writers Group, January 5, 2021, https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.gwu.edu/dist/2/672/files/2021/01/DWG-Admiral-Charles-R.-Richard.pdf.

11. “To Receive Testimony on United States Strategic Command and United States Space Command in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2022 and the Future Years Defense Program,” April 20, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/download/transcript2042021.

12. Bryan Bender and Lara Seligman, “Biden’s Nuclear Agenda in Trouble as Pentagon Hawks Attack,” Politico, September 23, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/23/leonor-tomero-pentagon-nuclear-hawks-513974.

13. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 13, No. 4 (July 9, 2021), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2021-07/bidens-disappointing-first-nuclear-weapons-budget.

14. “To Receive Testimony on the Department of Defense Budget Posture for Nuclear Forces in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2022 and the Future Years Defense Program,” May 12, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/download/transcriptnuclear51221; Bryan Bender and Lara Seligman, “Biden’s Nuclear Agenda in Trouble as Pentagon Hawks Attack,” Politico, September 23, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/23/leonor-tomero-pentagon-nuclear-hawks-513974.

15. Lara Seligman, Alexander Ward, and Paul McLeary, “Pentagon’s Top Nuclear Policy Official Ousted in Reorganization,” Politico, September 21, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/21/pentagon-top-nuclear-official-ousted-reorganization-513502.

16. Kingston Reif, “Biden Administration Begins Nuclear Posture Review,” Arms Control Today, September 2021, pp. 26–27, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2021-09/news/biden-administration-begins-nuclear-posture-review.

17. Adam Mount and Pranay Vaddi, “An Integrated Approach to Deterrence Posture,” Federation of American Scientists, January 2021, https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/An-Integrated-Approach-to-Deterrence-Posture.pdf; Brad Roberts, “It’s Time to Jettison Nuclear Posture Reviews,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 76, No. 1 (2020): 31–36.

18. This formulation would presumably apply to nuclear attacks and other existential attacks in order to maintain an option to employ U.S. nuclear forces to prevent any nuclear attack, not only existential nuclear attacks. For a recently proposed version of this option, see George Perkovich and Pranay Vaddi, “Proportionate Deterrence: A Model Nuclear Posture Review,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 21, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/01/21/proportionate-deterrence-model-nuclear-posture-review-pub-83576. This version specifies that nuclear weapons could be used “only when no viable alternative exists to stop” an existential attack in order to confine potential use to preemption of an attack and to accommodate the “nuclear necessity principle.” Jeffrey G. Lewis and Scott D. Sagan, “The Nuclear Necessity Principle: Making U.S. Targeting Policy Conform With Ethics and the Laws of War,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fall 2016, https://www.amacad.org/publication/nuclear-necessity-principle-making-us-targeting-policy-conform-ethics-laws-war.

19. Emma Belcher, “Press the Button,” podcast, Ploughshares Fund, November 2, 2021, https://soundcloud.com/user-954653529/the-white-houses-jon-finer-on-all-things-nuclear.


Adam Mount is director of the Defense Posture Project and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

Public hints about the Nuclear Posture Review, to be released early this year, suggest President Joe Biden will not achieve his goal of reducing the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons.

The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Resetting the Requirements for Nuclear Deterrence

January/February 2022
By Sharon K. Weiner

As the Biden administration finalizes its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), it faces the same challenges as the architects of the four earlier NPRs: how to make choices about nuclear deterrence and translate them into nuclear strategy and force structure. If it chooses to learn from the experience of its predecessors, the administration will confront two sets of requirements that are central to U.S. nuclear deterrence policy yet limit its freedom of action. The NPR managers would be wise not to just buy into those requirements but instead to be explicit and transparent about questioning them in order to enable choices that are based on a clear understanding of the trade-offs, as well as other possible options.

Airmen from the 90th Maintenance Group at F.E. Warren missile complex in Wyoming work on maintaining an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), one leg of the nuclear triad, in December 2019. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)One set of deterrence requirements that is almost certainly being presented to President Joe Biden by the nuclear weapons establishment as strategic or military necessities are actually choices. A second set of requirements is the taken-for-granted assumptions that are often overlooked. All of these so-called requirements are presumed to be based on evidence and are never challenged in a way that would determine their actual validity. They are more aspirational than necessary. They are rooted in stories that strategists, policymakers, and the military tell themselves, each other, and the public about how they hope deterrence will work.

Discussions of nuclear strategy and force structure are full of references to things that are required. A modernized triad is a requirement for deterrence, and anything less will leave the United States vulnerable.1 The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) system, a fleet of next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), meets U.S. Strategic Command’s requirements, but the current fleet of Minuteman III missiles does not.2 Operational requirements necessitate no fewer than four concurrent warhead life extension programs.3 Nuclear weapons plutonium pit production at a rate of least 80 pits per year by 2030 is a requirement, otherwise U.S. nuclear weapons will not work as intended.4 A national military uranium-enrichment plant is a requirement, otherwise there will be no way to make tritium for nuclear weapons or fuel for naval nuclear reactors.5 These and many other immutable positions held by the nuclear enterprise can make it seem as if everything is a requirement and that there can be no serious alternatives without a collapse of the whole deterrence structure.

Labeling something a requirement suggests it is necessary to avoid failure. In Pentagon jargon, however, a requirement is not required. It is the culmination of a decision-making process that found a particular outcome desirable, given other goals and constraints.6 In other words, something becomes required because it was the result of due process, not because it was the only option for achieving a national security goal. Requirements are, in fact, malleable bureaucratic constructions. They reflect and can change with the decision-making process and its inputs and constraints.

The unwillingness to confront the challenge of entrenched interests and ideas has led critics to judge that “all prior NPRs…have generally—and disappointingly—rubber-stamped the nuclear status quo.”7 This also underpins the broader observation by Admiral Charles Richard, the head of Strategic Command, that “this nation has had basically the same strategy dating back to the Kennedy administration. It’s been repeatedly validated through multiple administrations. It would be useful to do that again.”8 If the Biden NPR continues this trend, it should do so only after actively challenging the requirements and assumptions.

Choices, Not Requirements

The contextual nature of requirements can be seen in the shifting arguments in support of the GBSD program. Initially, the requirement for this weapons system was based on cost. Advocates argued that it is cheaper to design, develop, and build a new fleet of 659 ICBMs and to rebuild the command-and-control systems in the 450 missile silos and 45 missile launch control facilities than to sustain the existing Minuteman III fleet.9 When independent analysis suggested otherwise, the requirement argument shifted to technology: the GBSD program is required because the Minuteman III can no longer be maintained or upgraded indefinitely. Yet, numerous options to replace parts of the Minuteman system and keep it functioning for the foreseeable future have been offered. Today, arguments for the GBSD program increasingly focus on new threats that cannot be covered by the Minuteman III. Thus, the GBSD program now is a requirement for deterrence.

Nuclear-powered submarines constitute one leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.  (Photo by U.S. Navy)Before accepting that deterrence and also presumably U.S. national security rely unequivocally on the GBSD program, the administration should ask exactly what ICBMs in general and the GBSD system in particular contribute to deterrence that is necessary or unique and explore other choices to meet this requirement. For example, China’s nuclear modernization may create new targets or make existing targets more difficult to hold at risk. Yet, is deterring China somehow less effective if those targets are covered by submarine-launched nuclear weapons alone or in combination with Minuteman IIIs? More specifically, if the nuclear-armed submarines can hold at risk 95 percent of the targets in China, is it worth the estimated $264 billion life cycle cost of the GBSD program to increase that margin to 97 percent?

These are not rhetorical questions. The imbalance between the arsenal necessary to meet military requirements and the existing stockpile has been an enduring characteristic of U.S. nuclear decision-making. In the early 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that assured destruction of the Soviet Union would require the ability to destroy 20 to 25 percent of the Soviet population and half its industrial capacity.10 He calculated that this would necessitate 400 one-megaton warheads. At the time, the United States had just under 18,000 megatons in its arsenal. McNamara felt that he needed to translate deterrence into a precise requirement or it would be difficult to constrain spending on nuclear weapons.

In 2012 the military concluded it could meet all necessary military requirements with about 1,000 deployed strategic warheads rather than the approximately 1,550 deployed strategic warheads agreed under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.11 Almost 10 years later, in April 2021, Richard told the House Armed Services Committee that the triad is designed to meet all presidential requirements even if one leg is lost.12 Put simply, current nuclear deterrence goals could be met without ICBMs, either the Minuteman III or the GBSD program. There is plenty of additional evidence to suggest that the size of the arsenal is derived from something other than military requirements and that there is room for significant reductions without compromising deterrence.

Another requirement that is likely to be examined by the NPR is the production of pits, which are the hollow metal cores that enable the initial explosive reaction in a nuclear weapon. The nuclear establishment has asserted that large-scale pit production is vital because without it, nuclear weapons may not function as specified. If nuclear weapons do not work, then deterrence suffers because deterrence rests on the capability to inflict damage and on the ability to hold at risk things that the enemy values. The debate over pit production, however, is not about whether the weapons will work but how well they will work.

Military requirements for weapons performance are classified, but presumably the administration can be briefed on these requirements and on the degree to which they could suffer if pits do not function exactly as intended. For example, if the government has 90 percent confidence that a nuclear weapon will explode on target with 98 percent of its anticipated yield, does that deter less than a weapon in which there is 95 percent confidence? Given that the United States has about 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and perhaps twice that number in the arsenal of reserve warheads known as the hedge, how many of these weapons have to work at what level to deter? Does the country have enough redundant capability at least to call into question the need to spend $18 billion—a figure certain to increase, perhaps significantly—on the required pit production capability?

The GBSD system, pit production, and multiple other choices about force structure should be considered requirements only after they survive comparison to alternative means for achieving robust deterrence, including force structure trade-offs and possible changes to presidential guidance about targeting and the acceptable margin for error. To make such choices, the administration first needs to scrutinize the myriad requirements for deterrence that often go unexamined.

Requirements for Deterrence

Nuclear weapons are said to deter many things. In April 2021 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Richard outlined numerous threats facing the United States.13 The list was ominous. China is bent on establishing hegemony in East Asia and denying the United States the ability to project power in the region and to maintain stable relationships with traditional allies. Russia too is focused on expanding its sphere of influence, challenging U.S. leadership, and eroding international norms. North Korea threatens the stability of the Korean peninsula, and Iran is using proxy forces in an attempt to destabilize the Middle East.

In outlining these national security challenges, Richard is no different from other Department of Defense witnesses. Indeed, there seems to be a strong consensus that the United States faces multiple, growing threats, especially in East Asia. What makes Richard’s testimony stand out is not his assessment of the security situation but the nuclear arsenal that he is in charge of mustering in response. He made expansive claims about the power of nuclear deterrence, saying it is “the foundation of our national defense policy and enables every U.S. military operation around the world.”14 More explicitly, he said, nuclear weapons provide the “maneuver space” necessary for the United States “to project conventional military power strategically.”15

An aging Minuteman III missile, slated to be replaced by the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent system, is fitted with a new cable by members of the U.S. Air Force. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)The administration’s NPR should make clear its perspective on the expansive role for nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence advocated by Strategic Command. Nuclear deterrence as cover for conventional military operations around the globe and as a requirement for nuclear forces and a posture able to “deter all countries, all the time”16 is a significant expansion of the original mission of these weapons, namely deterring existential threats against the United States. Twenty-plus years after the Cold War, a “bolt from the blue” surprise attack intended to destroy the United States is increasingly dismissed as unlikely.17 Deprived of the main raison d’être, one might expect nuclear weapons to be marginalized or at least relegated to a smaller role in U.S. strategy.

The review also needs to consider what next steps will be necessary if nuclear weapons fail to deter conventional or other aggressive actions. Most specifically, how will escalation be controlled? The experience of Strategic Command is that escalation control never works. “It ends the same way every time,” explained General John Hyten, the Strategic Command chief, in 2018 after the annual Global Thunder wargame. “It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”18

In the event that Russia uses a nuclear weapon for the first time, even on a limited basis, to what extent does Strategic Command planning and U.S. credibility dictate that the president respond not in kind but by escalating, by using just a bit more? This supposedly is the logic behind the escalate-to-deescalate doctrine, under which a country would threaten to ratchet up the violence to make an adversary back down. If Russia and the United States adopt this logic, then escalation is unlikely to be controlled, and the use of even low-yield nuclear options runs a significant risk that it will lead to mutually assured destruction.

From the perspective of deterrence, if the review endorses low-yield nuclear options, it means the administration has examined the requirements for escalation control, brinksmanship, and competitive risk-taking and has concluded that limited goals are worth the danger of total nuclear war.

At the deepest level, the most important requirement that the NPR should examine is that of rational decision-making, a concept fundamental to nuclear deterrence yet most often under-analyzed. Deterrence assumes leaders can weigh rationally the costs and benefits of their actions under any and all circumstances, if not completely then at least sufficiently to justify a final decision. Anyone who has been involved in a crisis understands, however, that this assumption is unrealistic. This is confirmed by a vast literature on foreign policy decision-making, behavioral economics, and behavioral psychology that shows people rely on a variety of less-than-rational shortcuts, especially in a crisis and when the stakes are high, information is missing or uncertain, and time is short.

Research has shown that people tend to assume the current situation is “just like” one they recently experienced or that they make a decision on the basis of a “gut feeling” rather than analyzing the available data or seeking additional relevant data. In a crisis, people tend to assume their motivations are clearly understood and assume that they are more in control of a situation than they actually are. Of particular concern is the tendency in crises for people to be biased toward risk taking rather than playing it safe. Given that in a nuclear crisis a U.S. president is likely to have 15 minutes or less to make a decision with unimaginably profound consequences, the NPR managers should ask themselves the degree to which they expect themselves and any adversary to behave rationally in a crisis and be prepared to explain the answer in detail and in public.

Choices and Assumptions

Given the experience of the past four NPRs, Biden can expect the review process to offer him few real options for nuclear policy reform; these options will likely allow, at best, only narrow deviations from the status quo. The nuclear weapons establishment will limit choice by presenting everything as an interlocking set of military requirements instead of multiple options for meeting deterrence goals.

As the administration weighs inputs into its review, managers could start by searching for and replacing every mention of “military requirement” with “presidential choice.” Biden can treat the requirements with which he is presented as choices that a president is entitled to make and seek new opportunities to satisfy national security needs with fewer nuclear weapons and with less reliance on the threat of their use. Biden finally could choose to reset the guidance to Strategic Command on nuclear deterrence goals. As Richard has recognized, for Strategic Command, “[T]here is a total amount of capability and capacity that's required to execute the responsibilities that I have been given.… We don't have capacity…to start to change that unless we change the guidance, right? And we can always do that.”19

The wisdom of developing new options for nuclear strategy and policy becomes even clearer if all questions of nuclear deterrence are seen not simply as questions of a calculus of nuclear forces and nuclear postures but as sets of unproven assumptions about the likely behavior of the United States and its potential adversaries under conditions of extraordinary uncertainty and stress with no basis for expecting a good outcome.


1. John E. Hyten, Statement before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, February 26, 2019, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Hyten_02-26-19.pdf.

2. John A. Tirpak, “New GBSD Will Fly in 2023; No Margin Left for Minuteman,” Air Force Magazine, June 14, 2021.

3. Charles Richard, Testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, April 20, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/21-22_04-20-2021.pdf (hereinafter Richard testimony).

4. Sharon K. Weiner, “Reconsidering U.S. Plutonium Pit Production Plans,” Arms Control Today, June 2020.

5. Frank N. von Hippel and Sharon K. Weiner, “No Rush to Enrich: Alternatives for Providing Uranium for U.S. National Security Needs,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2019, pp. 10–15.

6. For a discussion of this lexicon, see Mark Cancian, “Bad Idea: Using the Phrase ‘Military Requirements,’” Defense 360, December 6, 2018, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-using-the-phrase-military-requirements.

7.  Stephen I. Schwartz, “Ready, Aim, Fired: Can Biden Rescue the Nuclear Posture Review?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 30, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/09/ready-aim-fired-can-biden-rescue-the-nuclear-posture-review.

8. Charles Richard, Remarks to the Defense Writers Group, Project for Media and National Security, George Washington School of Media and Public Affairs, January 5, 2021, https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/blogs.gwu.edu/dist/2/672/files/2021/01/DWG-Admiral-Charles-R.-Richard.pdf.

9. Amy Woolf, “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues,” CRS Report, RL33640, July 13, 2021, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/nuke/RL33640.pdf.

10. John T. Correll, “The Making of MAD,” Air Force Magazine, July 27, 2018.

11. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Obama Administration Embraces Major New Nuclear Weapons Cut,” Center for Public Integrity, February 8, 2013, https://publicintegrity.org/2013/02/08/12156/obama-administration-embraces-major-new-nuclear-weapons-cut.

12. Richard testimony.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Charles Richard, “Forging 21st-Century Strategic Deterrence,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2021.

16. Richard used this phrase on April 22, 2021, when he told the press, “I don't have the luxury of deterring one country at a time, right? I have to deter all countries, all the time, in order to accomplish my mission sets.” “Admiral Charles Richard, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, Holds a Press Briefing,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 22, 2021, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2582171/admiralcharles-a-richard-commander-us-strategic-command-holds-a-press-briefing (hereinafter Richard press briefing).

17. For example, see “The Future of Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Modernization: A Conversation With Admiral Charles Richard,” The Brookings Institution, May 7, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2021/05/fp_20210507_strategic_deterrence_richard_transcript.pdf.

18. John Hyten, Speech at the Mitchell Institute Triad Conference, July 17, 2018, https://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/1577239/the-mitchell-institute-triad-conference/.

19. Richard press briefing.


Sharon K. Weiner is an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University. This article draws on and includes parts of testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Forces strategic forces subcommittee on June 16, 2021.

What nuclear weapons are really needed to deter adversaries? The unwillingness to confront the challenge of entrenched interests and ideas has locked the United States into a decades-long status quo.

The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Defense, Offense, and Avoiding Arms Races

January/February 2022
By Steven Pifer

President Joe Biden’s administration is conducting a missile defense review in parallel with its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Those reviews will determine whether to adjust the nuclear and missile defense programs that the administration inherited from its predecessor. They will also shape decisions on the contribution that negotiated arms control could make to meet the increasingly complex challenges of maintaining strategic stability and enhancing U.S. and allied security.

A ground-based interceptor (GBI) rocket is launched in May 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Photo by Gene Blevins/AFP via Getty Images)One question the administration should consider is whether it can design a missile defense approach that would protect the homeland against limited attacks by rogue states such as North Korea while avoiding an offense-defense dynamic that would frustrate efforts to achieve nuclear arms reductions with Russia that go beyond the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) or to agree on any constraints on nuclear forces with China.

The Offense-Defense Relationship

In June, the administration launched a missile defense review, which should be completed early in 2022, about the same time as the NPR. The two documents produced by the reviews should be considered in tandem.

Washington and Moscow have long recognized the interrelationship between strategic offense and defense. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1972 produced agreements addressing both sides of the equation. The Interim Offensive Agreement constrained intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty limited strategic missile interceptors and prohibited a national missile defense. The two accords were seen as enhancing strategic stability, a situation in which incentives for the United States or the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to strike first with nuclear weapons were minimized.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan took a different approach in 1983 with the Strategic Defense Initiative. He sought to defend the United States against ballistic missile attacks of any size, although the limitations of technology and cost frustrated that goal. The National Missile Defense Act of 1999 set U.S. policy so as to “deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.”1

The George W. Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and subsequently began deploying ground-based interceptors (GBIs) to engage strategic ballistic missile warheads. The United States maintains 44 GBIs, with plans to add 20 more by 2030. The military also deploys Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors, which are designed to engage short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile warheads.

The Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review affirmed the idea of defending against “a limited ICBM attack” mounted by a rogue state, although the president’s comment that the U.S. goal was to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace” suggested that he might have something more ambitious in mind.2 As for Russian and Chinese strategic ballistic missiles, the review said the United States “relies on nuclear deterrence to prevent potential Russian or Chinese nuclear attacks.” The review spelled out, however, new technologies for exploration and possible development.3 Moreover, in 2020, the Pentagon successfully tested an SM-3 interceptor against an ICBM warhead-class target as part of an effort to develop a second layer of interceptors to supplement the GBI system.

Although Russian officials regularly voice concern about U.S. missile defenses, their fears appear overstated given Russia’s large ICBM and SLBM warhead numbers. Still, the Russian military has developed systems such as the Avangard boost-glide vehicle to penetrate missile defenses. In addition, Russia maintains its own missile defense systems, including the A-135 system protecting Moscow, the S-400, and the new S-500. The latter two systems are advertised as having capabilities similar to the SM-3 and THAAD systems.

Beijing too has expressed concern about U.S. missile defenses, including their ability to negate a retaliatory strike following a U.S. attack on China’s nuclear deterrent. That concern could explain the recent Chinese test of what appears to have been a hypersonic glide vehicle mounted on a fractional orbital bombardment system.4 Such a system could approach the United States from the south, thus potentially evading U.S. missile defense radars that are oriented toward threats from the north or the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. At least for the near term, Beijing’s concerns have a stronger base than Moscow’s, given the significantly smaller number of Chinese strategic warheads.

Offense Wins and Arms Race Concerns

With existing missile defense capabilities, offense will win the strategic offense-defense competition, a point acknowledged in September by General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, “The defensive capabilities that we have been building tend to be very cost prohibitive on us.… And when our interceptor costs more than the weapon attacking us, that’s a bad place to be.”5 This echoes the argument made by U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze in 1985 that missile defenses should be judged on, among other things, whether they are cost effective at the margin.6

Current U.S. missile defenses fall short of that criterion. The cost of a GBI missile and kill vehicle is $65–75 million. Although the Pentagon says GBI systems have succeeded in 55 percent of their tests, skeptics argue that, given the scripted nature of the tests, this record likely overstates their performance. If these interceptors could replicate their test performance in a real attack, it would take three GBIs, costing $195–225 million, to have a 91 percent chance of destroying an incoming warhead. Russia, China, and North Korea could each build many additional warheads and decoys for that same amount of money.7

This calculation could change, most probably if a missile defense technology based on directed energy were to prove feasible. For the foreseeable future, however, spending heavily on existing strategic missile defenses appears a losing game. An adversary can increase the number of its strategic warheads and decoys at far less cost. Although existing U.S. strategic missile defenses may not be that effective, the other side will assume they will improve and increase in number. That will affect the adversary’s calculation of what strategic offensive force it needs to be able to absorb a first strike and overcome U.S. missile defenses to inflict a powerful retaliatory blow.

If missile defenses remain unconstrained and grow in number, the other side may conclude that it must expand its strategic offensive forces. This may well be a factor behind China’s apparent effort to increase its strategic nuclear forces. Russian military planners, facing questions about the future of U.S. missile defenses, might question whether Russia can afford reductions below New START’s limits. The situation could devolve into something similar to the competition between the United States and Soviet Union in the 1960s with both sides increasing ICBM and SLBM forces in part to have confidence in defeating the other’s developing strategic missile defenses. In the worst case, Washington might find itself in offense-defense races with both Russia and China.

Missile Defense Review

The Biden administration’s Missile Defense Review should address several questions. First, should the objective of U.S. missile defense policy remain protecting against a limited ballistic missile attack on the United States? If so, are specific programs unnecessary for that goal, or do they suggest to potential adversaries a desire to defend against larger-scale attacks?

Looking out over the next 10 to 20 years, will U.S. GBIs and other interceptors improve their ability to destroy ICBM and SLBM warheads and come closer to meeting Nitze’s cost-effectiveness criterion? It is not just about a higher probability of hitting the target; the interceptor should not cost so much that an adversary could cheaply overwhelm the defense by adding warheads and decoys. A major factor affecting the answer to these questions will turn on the ability of radars, other sensors, and the interceptor itself to discriminate between warheads and decoys. GBI tests to date have not involved decoys and other countermeasures that are realistic.8

Another issue is whether there is some level of missile defense capability that the United States would consider adequate to deal with limited rogue-state attacks and, if so, what level that would be. Could that level be sufficiently low that it would not create incentives for Russia and China to increase their strategic offensive forces?

The review should also examine the pluses and minuses of giving SM-3 and THAAD missiles the capability to intercept ICBM- and SLBM-class targets. Creating a second layer to defend the United States may seem attractive. Yet, such capabilities may count for little if the warships carrying the SM-3 interceptors and the ground units equipped with THAAD missiles are deployed forward and thus not positioned to defend the U.S. homeland. Even so, these systems could still incentivize Russia and China to increase their ballistic missile numbers out of concern that the interceptors could be redeployed if needed to defend the homeland.

Missile Defense and Arms Control

Following up on the summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, U.S. and Russian officials began a strategic stability dialogue. Senior U.S. officials have said they want to reduce reliance on nuclear arms and engage Russia in a negotiation to cover all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, not just the deployed strategic warheads constrained by New START. Russian officials, however, have different priorities, including missile defense and long-range conventional-strike weapons.9 Reconciling these competing priorities could pose a major challenge.

The Trump administration’s review stated repeatedly that it would not agree to any limits on missile defenses that are intended to protect against rogue-state ballistic missiles. The Obama administration resisted Russian efforts to bring missile defense into the New START negotiations. The treaty preamble notes the “interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms,” but contains just one limit related to missile defense: a prohibition on converting ICBM or SLBM launchers so that they could launch missile interceptors.

One option for Washington is to continue to reject any constraints on missile defense. Unlike its Russian and Chinese counterparts, the U.S. military seems relatively unconcerned about the ability of adversary missile defenses to prevent U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs from reaching their targets. Notably, the Pentagon has not sought limits to constrain Russian missile defenses.

A launcher for a Russian anti-ballistic missile system was on display at the Russian Army's 2021 International Military and Technical Forum near Moscow.  (Photo by Sergei Karpukhin\TASS via Getty Images)Russian officials, however, could continue to insist on addressing missile defense. In that case, the Biden administration would have to decide whether the U.S. interest in a negotiation covering all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons is such that it justifies agreeing to confidence- and transparency-building measures on missile defense or even actual limits.

Washington has offered transparency measures in the past. In 2013 the Obama administration proposed an agreement mandating annual data exchanges with current numbers of certain missile defense systems, such as interceptors and radars, and projected numbers each year for the next 10 years. The Russians did not take up the idea.10 Other proposals have included exchanging notifications on missile launches through a Joint Data Exchange Center, an idea that was agreed by the United States and Russia in 1998 but never implemented. The idea was revived in 2011 in discussions regarding a NATO-Russian data fusion center, but the sides reached no agreement.

Washington might also consider actual limits. One idea would be to offer a time-limited ban on the testing or deployment of space-based interceptors. Such systems could pose stability concerns, but neither the U.S. military nor the Russian military has them at present.11 This could offer a way to defuse Moscow’s worst-case fears about U.S. plans.

Another approach would entail numerical constraints on missile defenses. Assuming that a successor to New START would have a duration of 10 to 15 years, with a provision for extension, Washington and Moscow might reach an agreement of similar duration on missile defenses. It appears possible to have a limit that would accommodate the U.S. desire for a capability to defend against limited rogue-state ballistic missile attacks while offering Russia and perhaps China assurance that their strategic ballistic missiles would not require a build-up.

For example, a limit of 100 to 125 strategic interceptors, along with transparency and verification measures, would permit the U.S. military to boost the number of GBIs beyond the 64 it plans to have in 2030. That would provide significant capability against North Korea, but should leave peer competitors with confidence that they could still hold at risk a large number of targets in the United States. Trying to include SM-3, THAAD, S-400, and S-500 missiles would significantly complicate this arrangement.

For the administration, negotiating such GBI limits would prove controversial politically, given the support among Republicans in Congress for strategic missile defense. It might also turn out to be only one of several issues the Russians try to link to a U.S.-desired limit on all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

It appears, however, that a limit could be possible that would allow the U.S. military to maintain a capability to defend against a rogue-state ballistic missile attack while assuring Russia and China that their nuclear deterrents would not be rendered ineffective. That could enable further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions, lower the likelihood of U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese arms races, and perhaps open the door to a productive strategic stability discussion with Beijing. Hopefully, the Missile Defense Review will offer Biden such options.


1. Greg Thielmann, “The National Missile Defense Act of 1999,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2009, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009-07/national-missile-defense-act-1999.

2. Kingston Reif, “Trump Seeks Missile Defense Buildup,” Arms Control Today, March 2019, pp. 30–32, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-03/news/trump-seeks-missile-defense-buildup.

3. Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, “2019 Missile Defense Review,” n.d., https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Interactive/2018/11-2019-Missile-Defense-Review/The%202019%20MDR_Executive%20Summary.pdf.

4. Cameron Tracy, “De-Hyping China’s Missile Test,” Union of Concerned Scientists, October 21, 2021, https://allthingsnuclear.org/guest-commentary/de-hyping-chinas-missile-test/.

5. “A Conversation With Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John E. Hyten,” The Brookings Institution, September 13, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/fp_20210913_hyten_jcs_transcript.pdf.

6. Strobe Talbott, Master of the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 217.

7. Andrey Baklitskiy, James Cameron, and Steven Pifer, “Missile Defense and the Offense-Defense Relationship,” Deep Cuts Commission Working Paper, No. 14 (October 2021), pp. 23-24, https://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/DeepCuts_WP14.pdf.

8. David Wright, “Decoys Used in Missile Defense Intercept Tests, 1999–2018,” Union of Concerned Scientists, January 2019, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2019/01/Missile-Defense-Intercept-Test-Decoys-white-paper.pdf.

9. Amy F. Woolf, “Nuclear Arms Control After the Biden-Putin Summit,” CRS Insight, IN11694, September 30, 2021, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IN/IN11694.

10. Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Arms Control Choices for the Next Administration,”
Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Series Paper, No. 13 (October 2016), p. 15, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/acnpi_20161025_arms_control_choices_final.pdf.

11. James Timbie, “A Way Forward,” Daedalus, Vol. 149, No. 2 (Spring 2020): 190–204, https://doi.org/10.1162/DAED_a_01797.


Steven Pifer is a William Perry Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. This article is based on the Deep Cuts Commission working paper “Missile Defense and the Offense-Defense Relationship” co-authored with Andrey Baklitskiy and James Cameron.


As the United States and Russia contemplate new nuclear weapons reductions, the U.S. missile defense program stands as a complicating factor.

Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control

January/February 2022

A Call to Arms Control

Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control
Michael Krepon
Stanford University Press
October 2021
640 pages

Reviewed by Heather Williams

Michael Krepon’s book Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control comes at the perfect time. On the one hand, 2021 was a relative boon for arms control compared to the past five years. In January, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years. Following a summit in June, they also committed to hold strategic stability dialogues to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” On the other hand, the past 20 years have seen a steady erosion of arms control agreements due to Russian violations and U.S. withdrawals. This trajectory raises questions about how this era should be viewed in the context of arms control history and how arms control could contribute to future security. Enter Krepon, who provides both a comprehensive historical narrative and a call to action.

Krepon’s book takes a decidedly U.S. and nuclear focus. It begins with the image of a mushroom cloud and tracks the evolution of efforts to control the bomb’s massive power from the 1946 Acheson-Lillienthal Report through New START and to today. At first glance, the book is intimidatingly long, possibly the longest book solely dedicated to arms control; but in the end, this proves to be justified. Krepon draws on original sources, including dozens of interviews with decision-makers and his personal experiences, to offer an unprecedented level of detail covering multiple cases. One feature that makes the book particularly worth the length are the personal vignettes of the key actors about their origins and family backgrounds. This had an overall humanizing effect on arms control negotiations and helps to avoid the trap of arms control becoming an abstract phenomenon. Rather, arms control is practiced by individuals with unique perspectives and experiences, all of which they bring to the business at hand.

The book makes three important contributions. First, it should become the definitive text on the topic of arms control and the volume of choice for university courses on arms control, deterrence, and nuclear policy more broadly. Although it does not dwell too long on arms control theorizing—for this, I recommend Strategy and Arms Control by Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin, Anatomy of Mistrust by Deborah Welch Larson, and The Revolution that Failed by Brendan Rittenhouse Green—it provides a comprehensive history that puts today’s arms control challenges in context. Second, in telling such a detailed history, Krepon, albeit indirectly, provides a playbook for understanding when, why, and how arms control has succeeded in the past. This is a timely contribution. Finally, Krepon’s vision for the future of arms control is an ambitious one that may face practical challenges but should inspire scholars to engage with the first principles of arms control.

Familiar Challenges

Many of the challenges, opportunities, and experiences examined by Krepon are familiar. Perhaps the most pressing is the impact of domestic politics on potential arms control agreements. For example, the U.S. Senate seems highly unlikely to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has languished since its signing in 1996. Krepon notes the historical importance of building blocks to achieve arms control, including bipartisanship in Washington, an acceptance of “sufficiency,” an acknowledgment of mutual vulnerability, and respect for national borders. Although Russia challenges the last of these, Congress is unlikely to acquiesce in the others.

Emerging technologies are another familiar theme throughout the book. Advanced technologies such as cyberweapons, artificial intelligence, and quantum physics have the potential to create strategic asymmetries and undermine strategic stability, thus requiring new thinking for the future of arms control. Nuclear weapons themselves were once a novel development that required rethinking the strategic landscape and inspired the first arms control agreements. During the 1950s, Krepon notes, the United States and Soviet Union carried out, on average, one nuclear test every two weeks.

Although the superpowers eventually limited nuclear testing, that was after decades of competition. Krepon observes, “The easiest arms races to stop are the ones that haven’t begun.” This might be true in theory, but unfortunately, it has not proven the case historically, with the possible exception of missile defense. The United States and Soviet Union failed to limit multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles and countless other new technologies with strategic implications. This suggests that arms control will continue to flounder as states are reluctant to place constraints on technologies that have yet to be fully developed or understood.

A final familiar historical theme is the importance of geopolitics. Ultimately, arms control reflects geopolitics more than it shapes them. In the case of the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II treaty, for example, “Linkage did not fare well for either side in the SALT negotiations…. [N]either side was prepared to concede anything of value in order to gain something of equivalent value.” Given rising geopolitical tensions, particularly arms racing dynamics and regional tensions among the United States and Russia and China, the timing would seem nearly impossible for arms control at present.

An Arms Control Playbook

In the process of relating history to contemporary arms control challenges, Krepon recounts specific diplomatic maneuvers, compromises, and solutions that ultimately led to successful outcomes. Combined, they form a playbook that can point the way forward for arms control amid today’s challenges of domestic politics, emerging technologies, and geopolitical tensions.

U.S. President H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev hold a press conference at their summit in Helsinki in September 1990. (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)The first lesson is the value of building on past success. Krepon argues that the George H.W. Bush administration was able to deliver on numerous arms control agreements when they were most needed because it had two decades of experience on which to build. During the early years of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union laid important groundwork and then, in the late 1980s, were able to seize on favorable political conditions in order to agree to major arms reductions. This seems pertinent to the current climate given that, for domestic and competitive reasons, treaties are unlikely to be negotiated any time soon. Therefore, today’s arms control agenda may have to be one of preparation, as occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, setting the stage for a time when more ambitious progress, potentially including reductions, is possible.

The second lesson is the complementarity of arms control and deterrence. The nuclear age ushered in a competition among nations with unprecedented potential consequences for humanity. Krepon describes this as “deeply unsettling” and concludes that “[d]eterrence between adversaries without some form of reassurance is unsafe.” Arms control can act as “guardrails” in tandem with deterrence. As Krepon writes, “The nuclear peace cannot count only on deterrence or on instruments of reassurance, including arms control; to be extended, the nuclear peace requires embracing both.” A consistent theme of his book is that arms control is not about numbers and has not always led to disarmament. When it did, “[d]eterrence helped produce conditions for these reductions; the reductions themselves flowed from obligations embedded in treaties.” Given the continued reliance on nuclear weapons, arms control is an essential tool.

The third lesson is that when arms control has seemed impossible, negotiators broadened the scope and focused on small steps. Historically, this has included mechanisms such as hotlines, updated hotlines with new communication technologies, technical exercises, and rapid-response initiatives such as the Nunn-Lugar Act, which was named after Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and facilitated the securing and dismantlement of Soviet-era nuclear weapons. As Krepon describes, “The nuclear peace was also nurtured by codes of conduct, tacit or explicit.” These efforts could be particularly useful in addressing the potential risks of emerging technologies and in exploring how emerging technologies could contribute to arms control, such as through verification activities. Risk reduction has been a burgeoning theme in the nuclear community, particularly with regard to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in the lead-up to the NPT review conference in January 2022. Risk reduction efforts have brought together states with nuclear weapons arsenals and those without these arsenals in a shared sense of purpose to prevent nuclear escalation and use. In the future, these efforts could include expanding crisis communication channels or increasing transparency into countries’ nuclear doctrines.

Finally, Krepon is explicit about the importance of expertise as a component of success in arms control. “Conceptualizing arms control was one predicate for success,” he writes. “Another was creating a place in the executive branch that could be staffed with experts, carry out research, conceive of proposals, champion these proposals in bureaucratic deliberations, and engage in as well as backstop negotiations.” In the early days of the nuclear age, these efforts included scholars, such as Schelling and Halperin, who offered important conceptual insights with which to explore the objectives of arms control and its relationship with security and nuclear strategy. As arms control efforts gained momentum with the U.S. government, this expertise came to include champions within administrations and Congress. Nunn and Lugar are perhaps the epitome of arms control champions who took action in the face of a pressing nuclear risk. Yet, the history of arms control is full of unsung heroes who led efforts to conclude the strategic arms limitation agreements, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and its successor, and other agreements. Krepon brings to the forefront arms control leaders such as Susan Burke, Jim Timbie, and Rose Gottemoeller, all veteran State Department officials, and drives home the message that the future of arms control will require not only a favorable geopolitical environment and diplomatic tools but also people who believe in it with relevant expertise and experience.

The Need for Norms

Krepon concludes this rich history with a vision for the future of arms control, asserting that “the numbers that matter most are zero mushroom clouds and zero nuclear tests. I propose that we seek to extend these zeroes to the 100th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He argues that arms control should focus on sustaining the norms of no use of nuclear weapons in warfare, no further nuclear weapons testing, and no proliferation. At first glance, this emphasis on norms seems to clash with the book’s examination of mechanisms and tools. If arms control practitioners have managed historically to develop tools tailored to the strategic environment, why not simply continue this trend? Can norms replace more practical mechanisms?

Krepon’s response is that the current environment is uniquely complex and therefore requires a further broadening of arms control. This is the final piece of the Krepon Arms Control Playbook. A future promoting these three norms is not mutually exclusive from continuing to apply existing arms control mechanisms and designing new ones. Tools of reassurance can play an important role in buttressing norms and preventing escalation. One example would be a multilateral agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, India, and Pakistan to observe these three norms. Krepon calls on all readers to advance the arms control mission, but in reality, enshrining these norms will first require addressing significant challenges.

Norms do not happen in a vacuum. They require entrepreneurs and a favorable security environment. At present, neither of these exist. The Biden administration is still in its early days, and to be sure, the extension of New START and the strategic stability dialogues are a significant step forward. The administration may yet offer a vision for arms control that builds on past successes, links arms control to deterrence, broadens the scope of arms control to include norms, and invests in arms control experts. If that leadership does not come from the United States, European actors may attempt to fill the void, but this can only go so far. Given that the United States possesses one of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals and is the historical champion of arms control, its leadership is essential. Favorable geopolitical relations are also vital at some point. Krepon writes that “the state of the nuclear peace depends on the state of relations between nuclear-armed rivals,” but given the rising near-peer competition and regional ambitions of Russia and China, these, too, may prove elusive.

Another challenge for a normative-based future for arms control is that norms do not always spread. Although these norms may resonate and deepen in Western democracies, they will not necessarily do the same in Moscow or Beijing. Krepon acknowledges this when he writes that “[e]ach of the five states with dynamic nuclear modernization programs has good reason to engage--as long as everyone engages.”

The United States and its NATO allies are already working to achieve a lasting arms control architecture that largely aligns with Krepon’s vision. It is based on risk reduction, crisis communication, a broad scope, and the goal of seizing opportunities when they arise. The burning question, however, is whether others will join. If they do not, how long can the United States maintain its course?

Where does that leave the playbook? Krepon’s objective is not to provide all the answers. Rather, his book is a call to action for arms control practitioners and experts to work even harder to manage the rising nuclear competition and develop creative solutions. His recommendation for observing the three norms—no use, no testing, no proliferation—through the 100th anniversary of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing is one such vision. Beyond that, he offers readers a playbook to develop other initiatives on their own.

Heather Williams is a visiting fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior lecturer in defense studies at King’s College London where she teaches arms control and deterrence.


Michael Krepon, co-counder of The Stimson Center, has written a comprehensive history that puts today’s arms control challenges in context and offers a playbook for future arms control success.

NPT Nuclear-Weapon States Reject Nuclear War

January/February 2022
By Shannon Bugos and Julia Masterson

The five original nuclear-weapon states have pledged that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” in a rare joint statement intended to reduce tensions and avoid nuclear conflict.

Representatives of the five original nuclear-weapon states met for the first time in nearly two years in Paris in December. They reaffirmed their commitment to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (Photo credit: Permanent representation of France to the Conference on Disarmament)“As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war. We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented,” China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States said in the statement, issued on Jan. 3.

The five are the only nuclear-weapon states recognized under the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and their pledge was among several coordinated steps taken in advance of the treaty’s 10th review conference, which was supposed to start Jan. 4 but has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” was articulated in 1985 by Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan and reaffirmed by U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their June 2021 summit in Geneva. At the last gathering of the NPT nuclear-weapon states in 2020, the United States balked over a proposal by China for a joint declaration on this principle.

Although the statement, coming at a time of rising international tensions, was welcomed by many experts, nuclear activists were quick to note the contradiction between the words and deeds of the nuclear-weapon states. “They write this ‘nice’ statement but doing exactly the opposite in reality. They’re in a nuclear arms race, spending billions on modernizing and constantly prepared to start a nuclear war,” tweeted Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

On Dec. 2–3, representatives from the five states gathered for the first time in nearly two years in Paris to reaffirm their commitment to the NPT and prepare for the review conference. The meeting produced a joint communiqué reaffirming their adherence to Article VI of the treaty and expressing support for “the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.”

Article VI commits the countries to pursuing “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Non-nuclear-weapon states have long expressed frustration with the nuclear powers over their commitment to this treaty obligation, given the nuclear-weapon states’ expanding nuclear arsenals and nuclear weapons modernization programs.

Certain non-nuclear-weapon states have rejected calls to adopt additional obligations under the global nonproliferation regime until the nuclear-weapon states demonstrate clear progress toward compliance with Article VI.

The five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Their December meeting was held to advance the P5 Process, which was established in 2009 to focus on such goals as increasing clarity about nuclear doctrines and strengthening strategic risk reduction.

According to the meeting communiqué, the five countries reviewed progress on issues related to the review conference. This included exchanging updates on their respective nuclear doctrines and policies, recognizing “their responsibility to work collaboratively to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict,” and communicating an intent “to build on their fruitful work on strategic risk reduction within the P5 Process throughout the course of the next NPT review cycle.”

On Dec. 7, the five countries also submitted to the review conference a working paper on strategic risk reduction, which they described as “complementary to the treaty’s overarching goals and… consistent with the nuclear-weapon states’ long-term efforts towards disarmament.”

The P5 Process last convened in person in February 2020. (See ACT, March 2020.) France chaired the process in 2021 and planned to continue that role through the review conference. The United States will take over as chair in 2022, although it is not clear when, given the conference postponement. (See ACT, March 2021.)

The five issue a rare joint statement on preventing conflict and arms racing.

U.S., Russia Broaden Strategic Dialogue

January/February 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball and Shannon Bugos

Senior U.S. and Russian officials have agreed to meet in Geneva on Jan. 10 to discuss a long list of security issues, including a wide-ranging set of Russian proposals that Moscow says are designed to provide “security guarantees.” In recent weeks, tensions have flared as Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped up Russian military activity near Ukraine, which Russia invaded in 2014, and complained about NATO military support for Ukraine and Georgia.

President Joe Biden speaks to the press as he departs the White House on Dec. 8, a day after a virtual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Another virtual summit was held on Dec. 30 as tensions over Ukraine heated up.  (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)On Dec. 15, Karen Donfried, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who transmitted two draft agreements outlining political and military security guarantees Moscow wants from the United States and NATO. They include demands that NATO renounce any expansion eastward into states of the former Soviet bloc, including Ukraine, and limit troop and weapons deployments and military drills on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two days later, Russia published its proposals, one between Russia and the United States and another between Russia and NATO. “We hope that the United States will enter into serious talks with Russia in the near future regarding this matter, which has critical importance for maintaining peace and stability, using the Russian draft treaty and agreement as a starting point,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The White House quickly announced it would engage on the proposals, but insisted its European partners would also be involved. The Russian-U.S. strategic stability dialogue in Geneva is expected to be followed on Jan. 12 by talks in Brussels within the NATO-Russia Council, which has not met in more than two years.

“We’ll listen to Russia explain its proposals and the underlying concerns motivating them. We’ll respond and share our own concerns, and we do have many,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Jan. 4 of the Geneva meeting.

He stressed that the talks are narrowly focused on strategic stability matters and described the U.S. goal as being able to “identify a few issues where there might be enough common ground to continue discussions and ultimately address together.”

Price also emphasized that the talks would deal strictly with bilateral matters and “we’re not going to talk above the heads of our European allies and partners.”

On Dec. 30, President Joe Biden spoke with Putin on security matters, the second such conversation that month. According to a statement released by the White House, Biden “… urged Russia to deescalate tensions with Ukraine. He made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine. President Biden also expressed support for diplomacy, starting early next year [and] reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of deescalation rather than escalation.”

The January meetings were scheduled as fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine continues and as concerns linger about Russia’s military activities along its common border with Ukraine. Last month, U.S. officials said Russia has amassed around 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border that could be used against Ukraine. On Dec. 25, Reuters reported that more than 10,000 Russian troops were leaving regions near Ukraine, including Crimea, Rostov, and Kuban, and returning to permanent bases in Russia.

The Russian-U.S. talks will occur in the context of the strategic stability dialogue launched after the June summit between Biden and Putin to discuss nuclear weapons-related issues. The previous two rounds, in July and September, were led by Ryabkov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

The dialogue was originally designed to explore future arms control options. After the September dialogue, Moscow and Washington agreed to establish two working groups, one on “principles and objectives for future arms control” and the other on “capabilities and actions with strategic effects.”

How the broadened dialogue will affect progress toward negotiations on new nuclear arms control arrangements is not yet clear. Both sides have indicated interest in a new agreement or agreements to supersede the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires in February 2026. The treaty caps Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles and heavy bombers each. The Bilateral Consultative Commission, the treaty’s implementing body, last met Oct. 5–14 in Geneva.

One Russian security proposal calls for the United States not to deploy outside its borders any missiles formerly banned under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Under that treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union banned all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, leading to the elimination of a total of 2,692 missiles.

After Washington withdrew from the accord in 2019, Putin proposed that the two countries impose a moratorium on the deployment of INF Treaty-range missiles and later added mutual verification measures to the proposal. Russia also indicated that its 9M729 cruise missile, which the United States alleged was a violation of the INF Treaty, would be covered by its proposal.

At the time, the Trump administration and NATO dismissed the Russian proposal. The Biden administration has not clarified whether it would consider the Russian concept or offer a counterproposal.

The draft Russian-U.S. agreement proposes that the two countries “shall undertake not to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles outside their national territories, as well as in the areas of their national territories, from which such weapons can attack targets in the national territory of the other party.”

The draft Russian-NATO agreement also includes a moratorium, proposing that “the parties shall not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach the territory of the other parties.”

Additionally, Moscow proposed that Russia and the United States “refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories” and “not train military and civilian personnel from non-nuclear countries to use nuclear weapons.”

This refers to the U.S.-NATO nuclear sharing agreement, under which Washington is estimated to deploy more than 100 B61 gravity bombs across Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, with all but the Turkish air force assigned and trained to carry out nuclear strike missions with the U.S. weapons.

Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, outlined the key concepts for U.S. arms control efforts in a Sept. 6 speech. “First, we will look to capture new kinds of intercontinental-range nuclear delivery systems. Second, we will seek to address all nuclear warheads, including those which have not been limited previously, like so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons. Third, we will seek to retain limits on Russian intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments after New START expires in 2026,” she said.

It remains unclear how the two sides could bridge their nuclear differences and when they might transition from the dialogue to more formal negotiations on a successor to New START. Biden said in June that “we’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters.”

Russian, U.S. officials planned security talks for Jan. 10.

NPT Review Conference Again Delayed

January/February 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Days before the Jan. 4 start of the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), states-parties postponed the meeting yet again due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. They acted by consensus after officials from the United Nations said the world body could not safely support what was supposed to be a month-long, in-person event.

In a Dec. 30 letter to the states-parties, the president-designate of the conference, Gustavo Zlauvinen, said he will ask the UN Secretariat to place a tentative hold on the dates of Aug. 1–26 for the rescheduled meeting, assuming the pandemic abates. “A formal decision on the dates will need to be taken at a later time, but not later than 3 months before the opening of the review conference,” he wrote.

Repeated COVID-related delays are preventing the states-parties from a pivotal opportunity to address a growing array of nuclear dangers.

In an opinion essay published on Dec. 25, UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote that “the existential threat that cast a shadow over the first half of my life no longer receives the attention it should. Nuclear weapons have faded from headlines and Hollywood scripts. But the danger they pose remains as high as ever and is growing by the year.”

“What happens in the NPT negotiating rooms in January matters to everyone—because any use of nuclear weapons will affect everyone,” Guterres said. “I hope people everywhere will push governments to step back from the abyss and create a safer, more secure world for all: a world free of nuclear weapons.”

The 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is delayed until August.

Iran Nuclear Talks Show Some Progress

January/February 2022
By Julia Masterson

Parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal seem to be making some progress in their negotiations, reviving hope that they could soon agree on mutual steps to restore the accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Ali Bagheri Kani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, speaks to journalists in front of the Palais Coburg in Vienna, the venue for negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, on Dec. 27. (Photo by ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images)After months of stalemate, recent talks in Vienna suggested a growing convergence among the negotiating states (China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on a baseline for negotiations and the identification of key gaps requiring further discussion, according to participants.

The measured optimism was apparent before the eighth round of negotiations resumed on Jan. 3 after a break for the New Year’s holiday. Ali Bagheri Kani, the chief Iranian negotiator, said that when the talks paused on Dec. 30, there had been “relatively satisfactory progress.” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, speaking the same day, agreed that “there may have been some modest progress" in the negotiations. Earlier in the week, Price acknowledged progress on “identifying the hard issues left to be negotiated” and stressed the need to “add real urgency” to discussions in Vienna.

U.S. officials have hinted that there must be significant headway by late January or early February for the negotiations to continue. The United States and Iran have yet to meet directly in Vienna. The eighth round of talks began on Dec. 27, less than two weeks after the seventh round concluded on Dec. 17, reinforcing the growing urgency to restore the JCPOA.

For Iran, the ability to restart and maintain its oil exports without international sanctions is a top priority. As a trade-off for sanctions relief, Tehran has indicated its willingness to forgo aspects of the advanced civilian nuclear program it developed since first breaching the JCPOA in 2019.

Bagheri Kani said on Dec. 27 that the United States must lift sanctions and provide guarantees that it will not again withdraw from the JCPOA, as President Donald Trump did in May 2018. Bagheri Kani pledged that when sanctions are lifted, Iran will take steps to revert its nuclear program back to JCPOA levels.

As the eighth round began, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Dec. 28 that if the parties continue to negotiate in good faith, a deal could be reached quickly. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, reinforced this view when he tweeted on Dec. 28 that the talks had achieved “indisputable progress,” particularly on the nuclear file. Senior European diplomats confirmed to reporters that technical progress had been made.

But the negotiators remain clear eyed about the limited time left to restore the deal, given Iran’s nuclear advances. “We are reaching a point where Iran’s nuclear escalation will have eliminated the substance of the JCPOA,” the European diplomats said, noting that “this means we have some weeks and not months to reach an agreement.”

Even as Price acknowledged some “modest progress,” he said that “it is too soon to tell if we are making real progress toward an understanding on mutual return to full compliance” with the JCPOA. Price said that “Iran is at best dragging its feet in the talks while racing forward in its nuclear escalation…[and] that won’t work.”

U.S. officials are concerned that, within the first quarter of 2022, Iran’s breakout window, or the time it would take to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, will “approach the margin of error.” That is effectively one week, according to officials quoted anonymously in a Dec. 7 report by journalist Laura Rozen.

Given that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducts in-person inspections in Iran on a weekly basis and that Iran has previously faltered on its commitments to allow continuous agency camera monitoring, a one-week window could be sufficient time for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb, absent IAEA monitoring.

A senior U.S. official told Rozen that “if we get into the latter part of [the first quarter], close to the margin of error, we will reach a decision point” on whether to continue negotiations to restore the JCPOA. Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than ever and has accelerated during the talks in Vienna, the IAEA says.

Midway through the seventh round of negotiations, which began on Nov. 29, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had begun operating 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its Fordow enrichment facility in flagrant breach of the JCPOA, which dictates that Iran enrich and accumulate uranium using only first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz plant.

Iran has not given any indication that it plans to slow nuclear development while the Vienna talks are in progress. Even so, Tehran insists it is not dashing for a bomb. Mohamad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said on Dec. 25 that Iran will not enrich uranium to a level greater than 60 percent uranium-235 even if talks fail.

But diplomats have begun to reconcile with the reality that a revived JCPOA could be a weakened agreement due to Iran’s repeated breaches and to question whether the practical nonproliferation benefits of the accord can be fully restored. At a Dec. 4 briefing, a senior State Department official said the United States “[cannot] accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy.”

Negotiations to restore JCPOA compliance resumed in late November after a five-month hiatus. The first six rounds of talks were held in April-June 2021,but talks stalled with the election of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who campaigned on a more rigid approach to negotiations.

When the United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord in May 2018, it reimposed all sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the JCPOA. One year later, Iran began to violate the deal’s nuclear limits. That decision has since shrunk Iran’s nuclear breakout window from more than one year, when the deal was fully implemented, to about three weeks as of mid-December.

When talks resumed in November, it was unclear if the Raisi administration would adopt its predecessor’s position toward them or begin anew by forswearing the progress of the first six rounds. After new Iranian proposals were tabled, senior European diplomats judged that “Iran is breaking with almost all of the difficult compromises reached in months of tough negotiations.”

But ahead of the eighth round, negotiators were able to achieve progress on clarifying an agenda for talks on the nuclear file, incorporating Iran’s drafts and the texts previously agreed on in June.

Meanwhile, Iran on Dec. 30 launched a rocket carrying three devices some 470 kilometers into space, according to Ahmad Hosseini, an Iranian Defense Ministry spokesman. It is not clear whether any of the objects carried by the Simorgh satellite launch vehicle entered orbit.

Similar Iranian launches have escalated tensions with the United States. Iran’s evolving space program provides a credible, nonmilitary reason to test a satellite launch vehicle, but the technology closely resembles that used to build long-range ballistic missiles.

The eighth round of negotiations on reviving the 2015 deal resumed in January.

Iran, IAEA Resolve Access Dispute

January/February 2022
By Julia Masterson

Iran has granted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to replace the cameras at a key site that manufactures components for centrifuges, easing a months-long impasse and averting a crisis that could have derailed talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

Director-General Raphael Mariano Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, displays the kind of surveillance camera used to monitor Iran's nuclear program. (Photo by ALEX HALADA/AFP via Getty Images)Under the Dec. 15 agreement, the agency will install four new cameras at the Karaj facility before the end of 2021. According to a Jan. 3 tweet by Laurence Norman of The Wall Street Journal, installation of the cameras was completed "on planned timing." He cited unnamed senior sources. Data from the cameras originally installed at Karaj remain in Iran’s possession, but will be transmitted to the IAEA once the nuclear deal is restored.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on Dec. 17 that the new cameras will help the agency “put the story back together” and retroactively reconstruct a timeline of Iran’s activities at the workshop since the four cameras originally installed there were removed in June, following an alleged sabotage attack on the facility.

“The agreement with Iran on replacing surveillance cameras at the Karaj facility is an important development for the IAEA’s verification and monitoring activities in Iran. It will enable us to resume necessary continuity of knowledge at this facility,” Grossi explained two days earlier in a press release.

The IAEA has not had access to the Karaj centrifuge workshop since February 2021. Even so, the cameras recorded data for the agency in accordance with a special arrangement reached between Iran and the IAEA to preserve continuity of knowledge after Iran suspended implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement on Feb. 23.

The special monitoring arrangement stipulated that Iran would transmit recorded data to the IAEA after the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is restored. The arrangement was originally negotiated to last three months, but was extended for an additional month in May. Although the arrangement nominally expired on June 24, Grossi said on Dec. 17 that the IAEA will service the equipment installed at other facilities subject to the special monitoring arrangement, suggesting the equipment remains operational.

The Dec. 15 agreement staved off the convention of a special meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors to censure Iran for failing to comply with the agency’s request for access to Karaj. The Biden administration had said it would convene such a session if the access issue were not addressed before the end of the year. A senior State Department official said in a Dec. 17 press briefing that the new access agreement was a “welcome step,” but warned that a board meeting will be “inevitable” if Iran fails to follow through.

After traveling to Tehran on Nov. 23, ahead of the quarterly board meeting, for talks aimed at resolving the access issue, Grossi said discussions were “inconclusive.” One day later, he warned that the IAEA was “close” to the point where it would be unable to maintain continuity of knowledge. (See ACT, December 2021.)

Although the access agreement solved the IAEA’s most urgent concern about Karaj, a key question remains unanswered. Iran removed the cameras from the workshop after they were damaged by an apparent sabotage attack on the site on June 23 that Tehran blames on Israel. Iran did not permit the IAEA to examine the equipment until Sept. 4, when the agency found the data storage unit was missing from one camera.

The IAEA continues to press Iran for information. Grossi said the IAEA doubts the camera’s data storage unit vanished, and he is “hopeful that they are going to come up with an answer because it’s very strange that it [disappeared].”

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran insisted in a statement on Dec. 18 that “the records were destroyed by sabotage.” Iran has suggested that the IAEA cameras may have been hacked by a foreign power to carry out the June attack and has cited its ongoing investigation into that incident as justification for stonewalling IAEA access to the workshop.

But Grossi sought to quell suspicions that the camera could have been used in such a way, saying “[T]hese cameras cannot be tampered with…[they] cannot be violated by anybody.”

“It is absurd to say that the IAEA cameras [were] part of some sort of sabotage,” he insisted.

The prolonged dispute over access to the facility, coupled with the IAEA’s already reduced presence in Iran, has driven speculation that Iran was diverting equipment from Karaj for malign use.

Iran resumed operation of the facility in August and accelerated production activities in November, according to a Nov. 16 report by The Wall Street Journal.

Concerns about the facility heightened after the newspaper reported that Iran had produced parts for more than 170 advanced centrifuges since August and after the IAEA verified the installation of new, advanced centrifuges at Iran's enrichment facility at Fordow.

On Dec. 1, the IAEA confirmed that Iran began enriching uranium using a chain of 166 IR-6 centrifuge machines at Fordow, an activity that is prohibited by the JCPOA. Asked by a reporter on Dec. 17 whether the new centrifuges were produced at the Karaj centrifuge workshop, Grossi responded that “it would be a logical conclusion.”

Iran granted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to replace cameras at a site that manufactures centrifuge parts.


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