"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
July/August 2023
Edition Date: 
Saturday, July 1, 2023
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New Indian Missile Moves Closer to Deployment

July/August 2023
By Jupiter Kaishu Huang

India completed the first pre-induction night launch of its latest medium-range ballistic missile, the Agni-Prime (Agni-P), from an island off the coast of Odisha on June 7, marking a significant milestone in the development of the missile.

The Indian Defence Ministry considers the Agni-P part of a new generation of ballistic missiles. The launch aimed to validate the “accuracy and reliability of the system,” and “all objectives were successfully demonstrated,” the ministry said in a press release shortly after the flight test.

Observed by senior officials from the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Strategic Forces Command, the test “has paved the way for the induction of the system into the armed forces” following three prior developmental trials of the missile, the ministry added. The Agni-P, a two-stage, solid-fueled rocket with a range of 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers, can carry nuclear or conventional warheads and features a host of novel technologies first incorporated into India’s newest long-range ballistic missile, the Agni-V.

Notably, the new missile can be stored in a sealed, climate-controlled tube that protects it during transportation. This process enables the warhead to be mated and stored with the missile, significantly reducing the time required for preparation and launch. (See ACT, September 2021.) A test in June 2021 with two decoys also indicates that the DRDO may develop and deploy multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles on the Agni-P.

India’s draft nuclear doctrine calls for the fielding of a credible minimal deterrent, and the government reiterated its commitment in 2020 to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. But the development of improved surveillance technology and delivery systems with higher readiness puts that posture
under scrutiny.

“[A]vailable evidence suggests that India may be developing options toward Pakistan that would permit it to engage in hard nuclear counterforce targeting, providing India a limited ability to disarm Pakistan of strategic nuclear weapons,” Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang wrote in a 2019 analysis for International Security.

Given the missile’s range, analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies believe the Agni-P primarily counters Pakistan and will replace older, less compact short-range ballistic missiles such as the Agni-I and Agni-II.

But some Indian media outlets laud the Agni-P as the nation’s own “carrier-killer missile” similar to the Chinese Dongfeng-21D missile. A December 2022 article published by the Centre for Air Power Studies, an Indian think tank, asserted that the weapons system fields a maneuverable reentry vehicle that “can hit a mobile target on land or at sea,” a capability that “will give India an edge in the Indian Ocean [r]egion where China is looking to increase its influence.”

The latest test moves the Agni-P closer to deployment amid ongoing Chinese-Indian border disputes and enduring distrust between India and Pakistan.

The first pre-induction night launch of the Agni-Prime missile on June 7 marks a significant development.

A Plan to Reduce Nuclear Dangers in a Time of Peril

July/August 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

Deteriorating relations between the major nuclear powers have stymied progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament for more than a decade. Russia’s war against Ukraine and its brazen threats of nuclear weapons use have further heightened the risk of nuclear conflict and unconstrained nuclear competition in ways unseen since the darkest days of the Cold War.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan addresses the Arms Control Association’s Annual Meeting, June 2, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Allen Harris, ACA).The last remaining treaty limiting the massive U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals is in jeopardy and will expire in less than 950 days. There are no talks underway on what might replace it. Meanwhile, China is quickly expanding its relatively smaller nuclear arsenal, refusing U.S. overtures for a bilateral nuclear dialogue, and resisting calls to halt fissile material production for nuclear weapons.

As bleak as the situation is, reports of the death of nuclear arms control are greatly exaggerated. Last month, the Biden administration outlined a viable path for moving back from the nuclear brink that deserves serious attention and support.

Addressing the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting on June 2, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declared that the United States is ready to engage in nuclear arms control diplomacy with Russia and with other nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “without preconditions.”

Sullivan criticized Russia’s suspension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) but noted that “Russia has publicly committed to adhere to the treaty’s central limits.”

“It is in neither [U.S. or Russian] interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces,” and the United States is “prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does,” he said.

With New START due to expire in 2026, Sullivan suggested that “rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework.”

On June 5, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia remains open to dialogue with the United States on arms control. He described Sullivan’s comments as “important and positive,” but said Russia wants to learn more about the proposal through formal diplomatic channels.

The negotiation of a complex, bilateral nuclear arms control framework to replace New START would be difficult in good times and extraordinarily difficult so long as Russia's war on Ukraine continues.

Nevertheless, there is scope for the White House and the Kremlin to reach a unilateral, reciprocal arrangement that neither will exceed the deployed strategic warhead limit set by New START until a more permanent arms control arrangement comes into effect. In the absence of such an arrangement, each side could upload warheads on their strategic delivery systems quickly, and China might accelerate its ongoing strategic nuclear buildup.

Importantly, Sullivan also said that U.S. President Joe Biden supports “new multilateral arms control efforts,” involving all five nuclear-armed members of the NPT. “We’re under no illusions that reaching risk reduction and arms control measures in that setting will be easy. But we do believe it is possible,” he said. If pursued smartly and at a senior political level, this might open space for dialogue with China on nuclear restraint.

Sullivan proposed that all five states agree on greater transparency on nuclear doctrines, more effective crisis communications channels, common rules for missile launch notification, and policies to keep “humans in the loop” for command, control, and use of nuclear weapons.

A starting point for more responsible nuclear behavior should be to reaffirm and update the 1973 U.S.-Soviet Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, which pledges that those two states will “refrain from the threat or use of force against the other party, against the allies of the other party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.” It requires that “if at any time there is the risk of a nuclear conflict [each side] shall immediately enter into urgent consultations…to avert this risk.”

Although constructive, such “behavioral arms control” alone cannot erase the tensions that can lead to nuclear war, obviate the inherent dangers of nuclear deterrence, or prevent pernicious arms racing. Only a disarmament process leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons will eliminate the threat.

Now is the time for leaders of non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society groups to demand that all five NPT nuclear-armed states engage in good faith efforts to halt and reverse the arms race.

Building on the Biden administration proposals, they should demand that these five observe a global nuclear freeze, by which China, France, and the United Kingdom would cap the overall size of their nuclear arsenals and halt fissile material production so long as Russia and the United States cap their stockpiles while negotiating a new framework to cut their arsenals.

More nuclear weapons make us less secure. Embarking on a safer path through disarmament diplomacy is imperative.

Deteriorating relations between the major nuclear powers have stymied progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament for more than a decade. As bleak as the situation is, however, reports of the death of nuclear arms control are greatly exaggerated, and last month, the Biden administration outlined a viable path for moving back from the nuclear brink that deserves serious attention and support.

AUKUS as a Nonproliferation Standard?

July/August 2023
By Toby Dalton and Ariel Levite

In September 2021, upon concluding the initial agreement to supply Australia with nuclear-propelled submarines, the three AUKUS parties explicitly pledged to subject the accord to the highest nonproliferation standards.

Even after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L), U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met in San Diego in March to move their AUKUS defense agreement forward, many questions persisted about how their plans to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines would affect efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States stated that “Australia is committed to adhering to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety, and security of nuclear material and technology…[and] to fulfilling all of its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state, including with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA].” They also asserted, “Our three nations are deeply committed to upholding our leadership on global non-proliferation.”1

Eighteen months on, however, the official release in March 2023 of the AUKUS implementation plan makes clear that the arrangements do not meet the high nonproliferation bar that the parties have set for themselves.2 Recognizing the serious concerns raised by the unprecedented transfer of conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines, a new class referenced as the SSN AUKUS, from two nuclear-weapon states to a non-nuclear-weapon state, the three parties have gone some distance to reassure the international community about their intentions.3 The practical implementation arrangements, which include the transfer of sealed power units, would make it exceedingly difficult for Australia to divert without detection the highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel during the operational lifetime of the submarines. Furthermore, statements by IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi affirm the progress made in the extensive discussions between the three parties and the IAEA on special safeguards arrangements. They indicate that the agency is now confident it could ascertain that the nuclear fuel has not been diverted, notwithstanding the severe national security restrictions imposed by the AUKUS parties on the agency’s access to the fuel and the submarines.4

Welcome as these positive steps are, they nevertheless fall short of the stated aspiration to achieve the highest standards for nonproliferation. Even the AUKUS parties’ explanation that cost and convenience were the driving rationale for choosing HEU fuel over the far less sensitive and precedential option of low-enriched uranium fuel, for example, shows that they put other considerations well ahead of nonproliferation.5

There is still time and opportunity for Australia, the UK, and the United States to remedy outstanding concerns and come closer to establishing a stronger nonproliferation baseline for such endeavors and for the international community to develop a broader framework for building reassurance around more sensitive applications of fissile material and related activities of proliferation concern.

Proliferation Concerns

Two serious, interrelated proliferation concerns pertaining to the submarine transfer remain to be tackled. First, the nonproliferation commitments that Australia has made thus far in the AUKUS context reflect narrow, inherently reversible, unilateral or trilateral policy choices. This is disconcerting because a future Australian government, perhaps in consultation with its partners, may opt to walk them back with the same ease and speed that the previous government reversed the earlier contract to acquire French diesel electric submarines, opting for UK/U.S. nuclear-powered ones instead.

One important element pertains to the announced Australian commitment “not (to) enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel as part of this program.”6 This pledge does not preclude Australia from developing a parallel, indigenous nuclear fuel cycle unconnected to AUKUS activities. Although the Australian government has given no indication of a desire to do that, the policy option remains. Notably, Australia has extensive prior experience in developing uranium-enrichment technology and at one time had a strong interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.7

Until it struck an agreement with the United Kingdom and the United States for nuclear-propelled submarines, Australia planned to replace its Collins-class diesel-electric submarines, such as the one shown, with a conventionally-powered French model. To assuage concerns about the AUKUS nuclear technology transfer, Australia has made new nonproliferation commitments but would Canberra renege on those as it did on the French deal? (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)As a matter of policy involving the UK and the United States, Australia also could decide to convert the AUKUS submarines to carry U.S. nuclear weapons under a dual-key arrangement similar to that by which the United States “shares” nuclear weapons with its NATO allies. This would require the United States to develop and deploy new nuclear-armed cruise missiles for sea-based platforms, a capability that is already under active consideration as part of U.S. nuclear modernization plans.8 Such dual-key arrangements are not simply relics of the Cold War because Russia now officially seems determined to set up a similar arrangement with Belarus, claiming merely to be emulating a standard NATO practice.9 With creative lawyering, the AUKUS parties could argue that such a development would not contravene any of their legal obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or Australia’s obligations not to station nuclear weapons on its territory under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, commonly known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, although it is clear that such a move would violate the spirit of these agreements. In any case, the elaborate and tight integration of the Australian navy, through the AUKUS initiative, with the UK and U.S. nuclear navies could make such a reversal easier, faster, and smoother to imagine.

This possibility may seem farfetched today, but in the past, the UK and the United States had collaborations with Australia involving nuclear weapons. Australia pursued several paths to acquire nuclear weapons after 1945.10 Through the late 1960s, Australia and the UK discussed the potential for Canberra to co-develop or procure UK nuclear weapons, part of a broader UK program of engaging in defense and security with its Commonwealth partners.11 Australia also built infrastructure to support an indigenous nuclear weapons program and purchased U.S. F-111 dual-capable fighter bombers.12 Australia still engages in activities that support U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.13 The two governments also are planning for the United States to deploy nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Australia and have not ruled out that those bombers could carry nuclear weapons.14

A second, related concern with the AUKUS arrangement derives from how its nonproliferation assurances are operationalized. In the context of the potential reversibility of stated policies, the weight of demonstrating Australia’s continued abjuration of nuclear weapons falls almost exclusively on the application of its IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement and additional protocol, while invoking the agreement’s Article 14 exemption from safeguards for so-called nonproscribed military nuclear activity, i.e., military applications not prohibited by the NPT. Granted, these are absolutely necessary first steps. Yet, they do not constitute a sufficient reassurance package given the unprecedented nature of the planned AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation.

Although the geopolitical rationale behind the AUKUS arrangement is understandable, the parties lamentably have failed to come to terms with its core problems: cooperation between two NPT nuclear-armed states (the UK and the United States) and a non-nuclear-weapon state on the military use of nuclear technology, the transfer of tons of HEU to Australia, and cooperation in developing extensive capabilities for the command, control, and operation of strategic nuclear submarines. Australia also will have to acquire significant expertise in handling spent fuel as part of the plan to dispose of this material within its territory. These perceived risks have triggered international concerns about the AUKUS agreement, however misplaced or contrived some of them may seem.15

All of these issues are exacerbated by the fact that IAEA safeguards were not expressly designed for activities and cooperation of this nature and scope. The security sensitivities inevitably associated with such military applications of nuclear technology and the impracticality of inspecting submarines that are to be deployed stealthily for extended periods at sea will result in substantial restrictions on transparency and IAEA access to the information, facilities, people, and materials involved in the AUKUS cooperation. Such access and information restrictions circumscribe traditional modalities for reassuring the international community about a state’s intent to forswear nuclear weapons and raises questions about the IAEA’s ability to do so for Australia. In this case, Australia’s dependence on highly secretive UK and U.S. naval propulsion and weapons technologies, much of it also supporting UK and U.S. nuclear weapons-carrying submarines, greatly narrows the options available to Australia and its AUKUS partners to persuade others that statements about their non-nuclear strategic intentions are credible.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, with headquarters in Vienna, is expected to play a large role in ensuring that Australia’s nuclear program, as stipulated in the AUKUS agreement, is focused on propelling submarines and not directed at nuclear weapons. (Photo by Liu Xinyu/Xinhua via Getty Images)The stress created by the AUKUS project thus far on the nonproliferation regime broadly defined and on the IAEA safeguards system at its core has far broader implications for the agency’s continued role as the primary international nuclear watchdog. These precedents cause worry that others might engage in similar sensitive activities, whether indigenously or in cooperation with their security partners, that would widen the fissure between the agency’s verification mission and the nonproliferation assurances that it can practically deliver. Indeed, it is plausible that some states, citing the AUKUS precedent, may invoke an exemption to remove fissile material from safeguards and then aim to use that material for nuclear weapons activities. Among such states are those that profess a desire to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines or, in the future, spacecraft and undertake indigenous nuclear fuel production, yet resist ratification of an IAEA additional protocol and have a far less honorable contemporary nonproliferation track record than Australia. What the AUKUS project exposes, therefore, are gaps in the entire regime that cannot be filled readily by traditional nonproliferation norms and mechanisms.

Against this background, it becomes easier to appreciate the inadequacy of what the AUKUS parties have done to reassure the world that their unorthodox agreement will not further erode the already stressed nonproliferation regime. How would they have reacted if their adversaries took similar action? How keen would they be to see other aspirants of nuclear-propelled submarines and other non-proscribed nuclear applications stand behind similar policy-oriented and limited reassurances? Would they be critical of the loopholes and shortfalls similar to the ones they have left in the AUKUS arrangement for reasons of national security, geopolitics, cost, and convenience? It is difficult to imagine that Australia, the UK, and the United States would shy away from pointing out the flaws in such initiatives.

The concern that an NPT member state might one day renege on its nonproliferation obligations and seek nuclear weapons through use of assets it acquired legitimately is neither theoretical, new, or unique to Australia. Notably, in January 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol explicitly discussed the possibility that his country could need nuclear weapons to defend against North Korea, notwithstanding Seoul’s robust nonproliferation commitments.16 What makes the Australian case especially disconcerting is that if Canberra were to decide to abandon its nonproliferation commitments, it would be in a far more advanced position to develop a nuclear weapons option thanks to the AUKUS arrangement. Again, accepting that few believe Australia harbors such ambition today, the mere perception that the arrangement could provide a path to this future is provoking regional concerns and creates an unhelpful precedent with which the nonproliferation regime to contend.

Thankfully, the final verdict on the AUKUS agreement is still out. There is time for the AUKUS partners to address outstanding proliferation concerns, reassure others about Australia’s long-term peaceful nuclear intentions, and set a genuinely high nonproliferation bar. The objective should be to establish parameters that would be sufficient to dispel suspicions that the nuclear activities of the AUKUS partners or any other countries that might emulate their agreement might have a weapons orientation. Australia, the UK, and the United States would be well advised to work individually and collectively for such a stronger baseline, but decisions have to be made well before the submarines approach Australian shores. Others, such as Brazil, are also embarking on projects involving nonproscribed military nuclear applications under safeguards exemptions.17

Establishing a Stronger Precedent

To address the two main concerns raised by the AUKUS agreement, Australia first would need to take steps to demonstrate that any reversal of course toward nuclearization would be detectable, difficult, and costly. The more that Australia’s AUKUS nonproliferation commitments are institutionalized through domestic laws and international commitments, the more difficult they become to reverse. Such measures could include passing a law stipulating that Australia would not deploy nuclear weapons on its submarines under any arrangement. It also could establish a mechanism for international monitoring of the new submarines to verify nondeployment of nuclear weapons, a step that could discourage or restrict nuclear sharing arrangements by other states. Australia also could expand in law its commitments not to build national enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

In addition, in conformity with its aspiration to remain a nonproliferation champion and build stronger assurances around the AUKUS arrangement, Australia could pioneer new practices that other states using a safeguards exemption could then be expected to follow. For example, under the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, Australia could augment its declaration of nuclear material and facilities with a list of dual-use activities that fall under the Nuclear Suppliers Group Part II guidelines pertaining to research, development, and testing of nuclear weapons.18 In Australia’s case, such a “weaponization” declaration would make a material contribution to the IAEA process of reaffirming its so-called broader conclusion that Australia’s nuclear program remains entirely peaceful or at least not directed toward nuclear weapons. This precedent would be exceedingly beneficial for the IAEA if and when it is asked to monitor and inspect programs involving weapons-usable fissile materials in other non-nuclear-weapon states.

Individually, none of these steps are irreversible, but implementing them would still make it a little more difficult, through political friction and the potential for international consequences, to reverse course. Collectively, they would greatly reassure the international community and therefore set a stronger precedent. Because the AUKUS agreement is such a special case, it demands special arrangements to go further than the parties have thus far committed to go. Actions of the nature suggested here would lend considerable credibility to Australia’s claim to be a nonproliferation and nuclear responsibility champion.

The UK and the United States also should consider complementary steps that would help achieve the high nonproliferation standard they promised. First, although the safeguards measures that Australia will undertake with the IAEA to monitor the HEU transferred for submarine fuel will create reasonable assurances that this material would not be diverted for use in nuclear weapons in the immediate future, there is the long-term matter of what happens to that fuel once the submarine has reached the end of its operational life. Ideally, this irradiated HEU would not remain in Australia, but would be transferred back to the UK or the United States for disposition so that Australia would not possess or store any spent fuel on its territory. In parallel to existing programs to take back irradiated HEU from research reactors around the world and to its domestic program to manage its own spent submarine fuel, it is reasonable that the United States should create a legal avenue to enable the return of Australian submarine fuel.19 In the unwelcome but likely event that at least some spent fuel remains in Australia, Canberra should anchor its pledge not to undertake any spent fuel reprocessing of any type on its territory in a law that requires an especially large parliamentary majority to overturn. Together, these acts would create a much higher standard with respect to the disposition of submarine spent fuel.

As international reaction to the AUKUS initiative demonstrates, there is palpable concern that the AUKUS partners might someday choose to deploy U.S. or, secondarily, UK nuclear weapons on Australian submarines. To address this criticism and reassure the international community as to the defensive purpose of the initiative, the partners should join Australia in making a nuclear weapons nondeployment commitment and in establishing an inspection protocol, most reasonably with the IAEA, to ascertain that no nuclear weapons are on board. This protocol could entail the use of information barriers or other black-box techniques that would permit confirmation that nuclear material is not present in the vertical launch payload section of the submarine.

Beyond the AUKUS Arrangement

Looking ahead, the international community faces the prospect of further growth in novel and nonproscribed nuclear military applications and, with it, pressure on the IAEA and its traditional safeguards measures to sustain nonproliferation assurances. These applications include not only naval propulsion, but also micro- and mobile reactors deployed on military bases or used in space or other nonterrestrial activities, for example. Such developments occur against a sobering backdrop of a broader and growing global interest in nuclear enrichment technology and related indigenous activities, as well as in the accumulation of higher enrichment levels for and quantities of uranium-235.20 On the face of it, none of these activities is illegitimate, precluded, restricted, or even subject to special scrutiny under any international regime currently in place, given that the long-discussed fissile material cutoff treaty has never materialized. Unfortunately, geopolitical rivalries do not inspire much hope for breaking the deadlock on negotiating new arms control and nonproliferation treaties or conventions that could generate new or additional legally binding approaches to reassurance in cases involving these proliferation sensitive activities.

Thus, it is imperative for the international community to look for alternative means to supplement traditional legal nonproliferation and arms control regimes. Namely, it will be necessary to develop voluntary, cooperative, complementary measures. Such measures should aim to provide reassurance that nuclear activities involving safeguards exemptions for military applications, especially classified programs such as naval propulsion or other atypical uses of nuclear materials, are not conducted in support of a weapons program, while giving timely and credible early warning of any potentially alarming changes. For example, states undertaking nonproscribed military nuclear activity, in addition to implementing a comprehensive safeguards agreement and an additional protocol, should be expected to provide additional forms and means of transparency to the IAEA, such as wide-area environmental sampling, declarations of their other technical activities that could contribute to nuclear weapons design,and regulated access to military facilities where such activities occur. These states also should commit voluntarily to address all pertinent IAEA queries, even when they go beyond nominal safeguards obligations. Expanding the voluntary exchange of information around best practices in all aspects of nuclear operations—safety and security, as well as safeguards—would be a useful and expedient means of building confidence at a time of growing geopolitical tension.

To secure broad buy-in, new arrangements must meet significant criteria. First, they should be constructed carefully so as not to stand in the way of activities that might be sensitive yet legitimate, such as naval propulsion projects such as the AUKUS arrangement. Second, as it is unlikely that new binding obligations can be negotiated, it would be more expedient to frame new reassurance measures as expectations for responsible nonproliferation conduct. Third, they must be directed at all parties involved in proliferation-sensitive activities: exporters, importers, governments, and enterprises alike, including when the activity is purely indigenous. Such expectations should also be nondiscriminatory in nature, meaning they would apply equally to all non-nuclear-weapon states, not just those favored by one major power or another. Finally and perhaps most critically, it is useful to consider how to meaningfully incentivize responsible behavior with sensitive nuclear materials and technologies.

When viewed in this light, many of these proposed AUKUS-related reassurance actions could thus also pioneer a broader reassurance regime, should a global increase in the military uses of nuclear technology indeed materialize. Such actions might not quell the criticism of those opposed to the AUKUS arrangement on geopolitical grounds, but it could assuage genuine, although perhaps exaggerated concerns and provide a road map for innovating nonproliferation regimes that risk failing to keep pace with developments. In doing so, Australia, the UK, and the United States could credibly claim to be setting the highest standards for such activities going forward.



1. The White House, “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” September 15, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/.

2. The White House, “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” March 12, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/13/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus-2/.

3. Frank N. von Hippel, “The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Mitigating Proliferation Concerns,” Arms Control Today, November 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2021-11/features/australia-uk-us-submarine-deal-mitigating-proliferation-concerns; Laura Rockwood, “The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Submarines and Safeguards,” Arms Control Today, December 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2021-12/features/australia-uk-us-submarine-deal-submarines-safeguards.

4. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Director General Statement in Relation to AUKUS Announcement,” March 14, 2023, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/director-general-statement-in-relation-to-aukus-announcement.

5. U.S. officials, briefing for nongovernmental experts via zoom, Washington, March 10, 2023.

6. The White House, “Trilateral Australia-UK-US Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” March 13, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/13/fact-sheet-trilateral-australia-uk-us-partnership-on-nuclear-powered-submarines/.

7. Mary Beth Nikitin and Bruce Vaughn, “U.S.-Australia Civilian Nuclear Cooperation: Issues for Congress,” CRS Report for Congress, R41312, January 18, 2011; Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1997, https://www.nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/npr/walsh51.pdf.

8. John Gower, “AUKUS After San Diego: The Real Challenges and Nuclear Risks,” APLN Policy Brief, March 2023, https://cms.apln.network/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/PB-99-Gower.pdf.

9. “Russia's Actions in Ukraine and Belarus,” The New York Times, March 26, 2023.

10. Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000); Christine M. Leah and Crispin Rovere, “Chasing Mirages: Australia and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella in the Asia-Pacific,” NPIHP Issue Brief, No. 1 (March 2013).

11. Reynolds, Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb.

12. Walsh, “Surprise Down Under.”

13. Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone, “There's a Part of the US-Australia Alliance We Rarely Talk About: Nuclear Weapons," United States Studies Centre, February 27, 2019, https://www.ussc.edu.au/analysis/theres-a-part-of-the-us-australia-alliance-we-rarely-talk-about-nuclear-weapons.

14. Andrew Greene, "Defence Won't Confirm If US Bombers Carry Nuclear Weapons," ABC News Australia, February 15, 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-15/defence-wont-confirm-if-us-bombers-carry-nuclear-weapons/101978596.

15. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Nuclear Naval Propulsion: Working Paper Submitted by Indonesia,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.67, July 25, 2022.

16. Choe Sang-Hun, “In a First, South Korea Declares Nuclear Weapons a Policy Option,”
The New York Times, January 12, 2023.

17. Francois Murphy, “Brazil Initiates Talks With IAEA on Fuel for Planned Nuclear Submarine,” Reuters, June 6, 2022.

18. Nuclear Suppliers Group, “Guidelines for Transfers of Nuclear-Related Dual-Use Equipment, Materials, Software, and Related Technology,” INFCIRC/254/Rev.12/Part 2, n.d.

19. U.S. congressional authorization would be required for the return of spent fuel from an SSN AUKUS submarine to the United States. See James M. Acton, “How to the Solve the AUKUS Nuclear Submarine Deal’s Spent Fuel Problem,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 13, 2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/06/13/how-to-solve-aukus-nuclear-submarine-deal-s-nuclear-fuel-problem-pub-89958.

20. See Edward Wong, Vivian Nereim, and Kate Kelly, “Inside Saudi Arabia’s Global Push for Nuclear Power,” The New York Times, April 1, 2023.


Toby Dalton is a senior fellow and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Ariel Levite is a nonresident senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program and the Technology and International Affairs Program at CEIP.

Although the geopolitical rationale for the arrangement is understandable, the parties have failed to come to terms with its core problems. 

As World Order Shifts, So Does South Korean Security Policy

July/August 2023
By Seukhoon Paul Choi

With the international order in flux, South Korea is at a critical juncture. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China’s aggressive behavior toward Taiwan, and North Korea’s transforming nuclear force posture pose distinct but interconnected challenges.

In this image from the South Korean Defense Ministry, two U.S. Air Force B-52H strategic bombers (top L) flying with South Korean Air Force F-35A (top R) and U.S. Air Force F-16 (front) fighter jets during a joint air drill in South Korea in April. South Korea is accelerating plans to deploy the F-35A and other systems to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats.  (Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)As in the cases of China and Japan, this strategic landscape has inspired changes to South Korea’s national security strategy. The administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol has adopted a defense-driven nuclear nonproliferation policy that centers on deterrence as its principal approach to risk reduction and arms control. South Korea is seeking to address the increasing threats of aggression, inadvertent escalation, and nuclear use by signaling advances in its conventional capabilities and its military cooperation with the United States. While continuing to forgo nuclear armament, South Korea is aiming to deny North Korea gaining an advantage from its expanding nuclear weapons arsenal and to shape conditions that are more conducive to a productive dialogue on arms control.

Threat Environment and Security Challenges

Rising geopolitical tensions pose multiple security challenges for South Korea. Host to a U.S. joint force presence of nearly 30,000 troops, South Korea likely would be implicated in any major regional conflict that involved the United States. South Korea is within China’s anti-access area-denial perimeter and is situated closer to China’s Northern Theater Command than Washington D.C. is to Boston. Joint exercises by China and Russia within South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone, their force presence in the eastern and western seas, deployment of space and cyberwarfare capabilities, and increasing support for North Korea underscore South Korea’s precarious environment.

These challenges compound the acute threat that North Korea poses. South Korea’s most populous cities are within range of nearly 6,000 North Korean artillery systems. An unrestrained North Korea continues to build increasingly sophisticated missile capabilities and delivery platforms for its proliferating nuclear arsenal. The regime has simulated nuclear strikes on South Korea. It has displayed long-range missiles in sufficient volume to overwhelm U.S. homeland missile defense systems and challenge the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments to South Korea. The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has rejected explicitly the possibility of denuclearizing the country without the global elimination of nuclear weapons.1 Instead, it has declared its determination to grow exponentially its arsenal of theater nuclear warheads and to develop a rapid intercontinental counterstrike option.

Through enactment of its 2022 Nuclear Forces Policy Law, North Korea also has adopted a nuclear first-use doctrine that lowers the threshold for employing such weapons on the Korean peninsula. Previous laws specifically limited the role of North Korean nuclear weapons to deterrence and messaged conditional restraint of use against non-nuclear-weapon states. Now, vague conditions have been set to allow North Korea to use nuclear weapons preemptively, including to seize the initiative in conventional contingencies, to end a protracted conflict, and even to respond to a catastrophic political or economic crisis.2

The perceived threat of nuclear weapons to South Korea also has increased with a recognition of the various ways that they can be used across the timeline of crisis and conflict. Interpreting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear weapons use as having influenced the type and pace of support that the United States and other countries have provided Ukraine, North Korea and China may view these weapons as enabling them to manage escalation. Such nuclear threats are now more likely to be considered effective in limiting conventional support to a country from its allies. This would make the shadow of nuclear weapons a conventional force multiplier, shifting the balance of non-nuclear forces in a conflict and reducing the strategic advantage that alliances may provide.

In addition to influencing escalation dynamics, nuclear threats may mitigate the political impact of operational defeat and lead to more favorable terms in conflict termination negotiations. In a major war, nuclear threats may provide insurance for regime survival. Mutual vulnerability between Russia and the United States is likely to be understood by North Korea as explaining the absence of U.S. threats to end the Putin regime. This understanding can be expected to strengthen North Korea’s resolve to expand its capacity to conduct a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland.

Such a capability need not threaten complete destruction to be effective. Neither parity in arms nor in vulnerability is necessary to achieve the desired political effect. Establishing reasonable confidence in a limited but survivable nuclear second-strike capability may be sufficient for North Korea to curb threats to its regime. Strategically aligned with South Korean efforts to counter the North Korean nuclear threat, U.S. declaratory policy states that any North Korean nuclear attack would result in the regime’s end. The dynamics of the Russian war on Ukraine are likely to strengthen North Korea’s focus on expanding its arsenal so that it can inspire a degree of U.S. restraint similar to how the United States treats Russia and China.

These trends in the strategic environment are exacerbating South Korean concerns about the design and operation of its alliance with the United States. Russia’s war in Ukraine provides sobering reminders of similarities between South Korea and Ukraine. South Korea is a non-nuclear-weapon frontline state, lacking its own strategic depth but constituting such for the United States and partner countries. As in the case of Ukraine, this may inspire differences in perspective among partners on approaches to deterrence and waging war. Concerns about a conflict escalating to expand geographically likely will vary depending on whether a country’s defense strategy entails deploying forces to fight a conflict away from its shores or whether a country is already the battleground, as in the case of South Korea. As with Ukraine’s decision to give up its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal in return for security assurances, a major factor in South Korea’s policy of forgoing nuclear armament has been U.S. security guarantees, including a commitment of credible nuclear deterrence.

South Korea security considerations are affected by the fact that the primary strategic priority of the United States is China. Here, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in June. (Photo by Leah Millis/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)South Korea’s status as a U.S. treaty ally inspires greater confidence in the U.S. security commitment than Ukraine enjoyed and in Washington’s readiness to back this guarantee with the full range of its capabilities, including nuclear weapons. Seoul appreciates that the forward deployment of U.S. forces to South Korea, as well as broad economic cooperation and the depth of its people-to-people ties with the United States, underwrites the U.S. commitment to support South Korea’s defense. Seoul also recognizes, however, the inherent uncertainty of future U.S. political leadership and decision-making. It understands that when faced with resource constraints, the primary strategic priority of the United States is competition with China.

These considerations inspire nuanced fears of abandonment that are a factor in South Korea’s threat assessments. There is a persistent concern that the potential reelection of former President Donald Trump or the election of someone with a similar foreign policy outlook will result in the reduction or elimination of U.S. military support for South Korea. In any less extreme shift of U.S. political leadership, South Koreans generally have high confidence in the credibility of U.S. defense commitments. Nevertheless, there is growing concern, regardless of U.S. administration, about the U.S. willingness to assume greater risk, including a potential nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland, to deliver military support at the level and speed that South Korea may deem necessary for effective deterrence and defense in a crisis. Simply, it is less a question of whether the United States will come to the defense of South Korea than of when, how, and with what means it will do so in an environment of increasing risk.

This uncertainty about the nature of U.S. support is derived in part from the understandable U.S. focus on China, as well as the need to consider the risks of opportunistic aggression and of simultaneous conflicts. Discourse on “strategic discipline,” or the need for near-singular U.S. concentration on the challenge of China’s revisionism, highlight for South Korea the potential constraints on U.S. support in contingencies on the Korean peninsula.3 South Korea would rely on assets from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and support from other U.S. combatant commands in any major contingency on the peninsula, and it fears that the United States may be reluctant to fully meet its commitment to South Korea as it seeks to ensure readiness against potential Chinese action in the Taiwan Strait. Similarly, South Korea must prepare for a scenario in which the United States is already engaged in a conflict with China and North Korea considers this an opportunity to conduct its own attack. Although sharing U.S. concerns about confronting two near-peer nuclear adversaries in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea understands that it and the United States also must prepare for simultaneous intraregional crises.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats and war against Ukraine are influencing thinking on defense by South Korea, among other states. Here, Ukrainian troops train on Leopard 2 tanks at a test site in May.  (Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)Finally, even if the United States has the political will to deliver military support to South Korea, there is growing concern about its capacity to do so in the near term due to defense supply chain challenges. As a result of the Russian war in Ukraine, diminishing stockpiles have required the United States to “borrow” 500,000 artillery shells from South Korea.4 To assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia, the U.S. Department of Defense also has sought to draw from U.S. military stockpiles prepositioned on the Korean peninsula for potential contingencies there.5 The United States is expanding its defense manufacturing capacity, but creating new sources of production will take time. Further, even when such conventional stocks are available for deployment, shortfalls in strategic lift and increasingly contested logistics pose significant challenges to the timely provision of such support.6

Drivers of Change

These threats and challenges have inspired a redesign of South Korea’s security strategy. Whereas the former Moon administration pursued an engagement-driven nonproliferation policy, that of the Yoon administration is led by defense. This change reflects a need to respond pragmatically to past and ongoing limitations to nuclear nonproliferation efforts and to the growing threats that South Korea faces. South Korean policy aims to convince North Korea that, despite its nuclear proliferation, its weapons will be “unusable” as coercive tools enabling lower-level conventional aggression or ordnance detonated in theater as part of an attack.7

South Korea’s prioritization of and design for deterrence aims to reduce the risk of an emboldened nuclear-armed North Korea acting aggressively, as well as to establish favorable conditions for arms control diplomacy that would limit the utility and negotiating leverage of these weapons. In addition to strengthening its own non-nuclear strategic capabilities, South Korea is working with the United States to increase the credibility of a combined alliance deterrence posture.

South Korea’s military drones fly in formation during a joint military drill with the United States in Pocheon in May.  (Photo by Yelim Lee/AFP via Getty Images)The government of President Moon Jae-in pursued dialogue with North Korea as a means to establish inter-Korean peace and denuclearize the peninsula. It balanced engagement with defense efforts, implementing a vision of “peace through strength” that invested heavily in bolstering South Korea’s advanced conventional capabilities. It also worked to make its forces and its alliance with the United States appear less threatening to North Korea. It muted deterrence signaling, such as shows of force. It reduced the scope and scale of combined theater-level exercises with the United States, relabeled these efforts to emphasize a focus on defensive training, and ceased the work of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultative Group, which advanced policy coordination to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat. Through engagement, the Moon administration aspired to demonstrate its reconciliation-focused agenda and to reduce the risk of conflict by lowering tensions. It sought to facilitate dialogue between North Korea and the United States aimed at détente and denuclearization. The Moon government also forged a Comprehensive Military Agreement with North Korea, through which the two countries adopted behavioral arms control and confidence-building measures.

The Yoon administration has continued efforts by the Moon administration and the conservative governments that preceded it to strengthen South Korea’s sovereign defense capabilities, while remaining open to diplomacy with North Korea to advance denuclearization and improve inter-Korea relations. In a significant shift from the preceding government, however, the Yoon administration is prioritizing a strengthened deterrence posture in response to the transformed security challenges facing South Korea. This approach emphasizes that in addition to building a more robust military, active signaling of defense capabilities is required to counter the perception of new advantages that adversaries may now harbor.

Expanded drills; defense cooperation with the United States, Japan, and other partners; the deployment of increasingly capable advanced conventional forces; and overt messaging about increased readiness are intended to disabuse North Korea of the belief that its nuclear arsenal would protect it from prompt, cost-imposing responses if it were to attack. This defense-led approach deliberately assumes certain risks, including raising tensions that could trigger conflict. The Yoon administration’s strategic rationale is that clear communication about South Korean and alliance capabilities will be more effective at averting North Korean aggression than engagement-led appeasement. Also, scaling back South Korean armaments or military preparedness would do little to pacify North Korea as it would still fear attack by the United States.

To support this enhanced emphasis on deterrence, South Korea is striving to transform the posture that wages it. As in the past, this entails strengthening South Korea’s advanced conventional capabilities and its defense cooperation with the United States. To counter North Korea’s nuclear threat, the Yoon administration has accelerated plans to develop or acquire and deploy capabilities, such as military surveillance satellites, F-35A radar-evading fighters, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles, and GBU-28 earth-penetrating bombs, that strengthen South Korea’s Kill Chain, Korea Air and Missile Defense, Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation [3K] System. It is working to establish a non-nuclear joint operational “Strategic Command” aimed at more effectively operationalizing this 3K system, including by exploiting precision, synchronization, and advanced missile technologies to penetrate North Korea’s underground bunkers and target the regime.

The 3K system is designed to deter North Korean nuclear attacks through response options across the continuum, from imminent threat to post-use. The advancing nuclear and missile posture of North Korea poses increasing challenges, however, to early warning and effective missile defense, which are essential for responding to an imminent or in-flight nuclear threat. This has increased the significance of having a survivable second-strike strategic deterrent, whether through the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation component of its 3K system or a credible “effective and overwhelming” response from the United States.

To avoid North Korean perceptions that it can use nuclear blackmail to coerce one ally to restrain the other, South Korea seeks strategic redundancy in its alliance with the United States by developing non-nuclear strategic capabilities. The South Korean-U.S. alliance sends additional signals that even if North Korea were to launch a crippling attack against South Korea, it would face a regime-ending reprisal from the United States. Related to this are South Korea's efforts to become more integrated in U.S. nuclear weapons planning and operations, which would enhance mutual understanding, force readiness, and thus the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Against a regime that has demonstrated little regard for the life of its people, this messaging, whether through a South Korean, U.S., or combined alliance-and-partner show of force, is tailored to threaten North Korea’s leadership.

The Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation concept is explicitly designed as a response to a North Korean nuclear attack. The South Korean military capabilities for ending the North Korean regime would be conventional. This post-North Korean nuclear use caveat and the conventional nature of the concept highlight the misunderstandings reflected in criticism by policy analysts that the concept signals a disproportionate response and is to blame for increasing inter-Korea tensions.8 Relatedly, some South Korean strategists and defense experts prefer this type of conventional action over a U.S. nuclear response. That is because they expect any nuclear use to be indiscriminate, causing collateral damage and postuse contamination that would impact not only subsequent military operations but also life for all Koreans on the peninsula after the conflict.

In addition to emphasizing the 3K system and retaliation concept to deter a North Korean nuclear attack, South Korea’s accelerated development of its missile capability is seen as a way to prevent inadvertent escalation while denying North Korea’s use of nuclear threats to manage it. South Korea lacked limited options to respond effectively to North Korea’s 2010 attack on Yeonpyeong Island. The only military option Seoul had at the time was to conduct air strikes that required a larger mobilization of supporting forces and escalation with greater risk of being perceived as a prelude to war. South Korea continues to develop an effective response to North Korea’s lower-level aggression under the shadow of nuclear threats with measured escalatory responses that impose significant costs but limit the risk of misperception. There is a common perception in South Korea that only nuclear weapons can deter nuclear use, and this inspires concern about the limitations of South Korea’s advanced conventional capability in countering North Korea’s nuclear threat. Discourse about developing a South Korean nuclear arsenal has become pervasive because there is growing doubt that North Korea will denuclearize and increasing concern about the potential for coercive use of its nuclear weapons.

It is important to acknowledge the real defense concerns driving this debate. Advocates for South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons do not seek to end the country’s alliance with the United States, but rather to see South Korean nuclear weapons become a means to strengthen the combined deterrence posture of the alliance. Further, contrary to some commentary, South Korean support for nuclear armament is not due to some nationalist desire to be part of a “nuclear club.”9 South Korea’s national pride is based on its technological prowess, successful democratization, and the increasing global appeal of its culture. Both its nuclear armament discourse and evolving defense policy reflect a perceived need to address failures of the nonproliferation regime to prevent and now to constrain a growing North Korean nuclear threat.

South Korea’s pursuit of advanced conventional strategic capabilities and of strengthened U.S. nuclear deterrence through greater alliance integration reflects Seoul’s enduring support for the nonproliferation regime. This is in spite of the regime’s failures with respect to North Korea, growing concerns about the threat environment, and domestic support for South Korean nuclear armament. Critical to South Korea maintaining this approach will be efforts to advance non-nuclear strategic deterrence and to strengthen the credibility of U.S. security guarantees, including its nuclear umbrella. The spirit of the “Washington Declaration,” recently agreed by Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden, reflects an appropriately balanced effort in support of addressing real security challenges through enhanced deterrence and nonproliferation.10 As a statement from the two leaders, it has deterrent value because of the political commitment it reflects and the cohesion it messages. How faithfully it is implemented will determine its enduring significance.



1. Yoonjung Seo, Larry Register, and Heather Chen, “North Korea Declares Itself a Nuclear Weapons State, in ‘Irreversible’ Move,” CNN, September 9, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/09/asia/north-korea-kim-nuclear-weapons-state-law-intl-hnk/index.html.

2. Jun Bong-geun, “Comparing North Korea’s Nuclear Forces Policy Laws,” Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, November 21, 2022, https://www.apln.network/analysis/commentaries/comparing-north-koreas-law-on-nuclear-forces-policy-2022-with-the-law-on-consolidating-the-position-of-nuclear-weapons-state-2013; Ellen Kim, “North Korea States It Will Never Give Up Nuclear Weapons,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, September 9, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/north-korea-states-it-will-never-give-nuclear-weapons.

3. “Strategic discipline” is a term used to advocate for the United States to focus on its competition with China and strategic challenges, as well as to avoid involvement in other conflicts.

4. Hyonhee Shin, “South Korea to Lend 500,000 Rounds of Artillery Shells to U.S.,” Reuters, April 12, 2023.

5. David Choi, “Moving U.S. Military Stocks From South Korea for Ukraine Leaves No Readiness Impact, Pentagon Says,” Stars and Stripes, January 20, 2023, https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/2023-01-20/military-stockpiles-south-korea-ukraine-8826947.html.

6. Jan Tegler, “Air Force Under Pressure as Airlift Capacity Falls,” National Defense, June 3, 2022, https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2022/6/3/air-force-under-pressure-as-airlift-capacity-falls.

7. Hong Jaesung, “Kim Tae-Hyo ‘Despite North Korea’s Possession of Nuclear Weapons, Deterrence Will Make Them Unusable,’” Yonhap News, October, 21, 2022, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20221121117300504 (in Korean).

8. Doyeong Jung, “South Korea’s Revitalized ‘Three-Axis’ System,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 4, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/blog/south-koreas-revitalized-three-axis-system.

9. Jeffrey Robertson, “The (South) Korean Nuclear Threat,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, April 13, 2023, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-south-korean-nuclear-threat/.

10. The White House, “Washington Declaration,” April 26, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/04/26/washington-declaration-2/.


Seukhoon Paul Choi is principal advisor at Stratways Group, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Seoul. From 2013 to 2018, he was a strategist and international relations specialist for the UN Command and the Combined Forces Command in South Korea.

The Yoon administration has adopted a defense-driven nuclear nonproliferation policy that centers on deterrence.

Toward Verifiable Definitions of a Nuclear Weapon

July/August 2023
By Alexander Glaser

Defining a nuclear weapon is difficult. At first, this observation may seem counterintuitive given the unique nature and unmatched destructive power of nuclear weapons, but previous attempts to agree on a definition have emphasized the physical processes that occur once such a weapon is used.

These phenomena and effects cannot be verified, for example, during an inspection. Unsurprisingly, nuclear arms control agreements generally have avoided defining a nuclear weapon altogether even when they sought to limit the deployed numbers of these weapons or manage their proliferation.1 For more than 30 years, wapons and verification experts have tried to find an answer to this question.

The plutonium cores of the Trinity Device tested in New Mexico on July 16, 1945 (shown here) and the “Fat Man” nuclear weapon that destroyed the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 (below) were insertable, primarily for safety reasons.  (Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)A different path to achieve this goal is possible. First and foremost, it would be timely and important to agree on a verifiable, broadly supported definition of what is not a nuclear weapon. This is by no means a trivial task, but one in which nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states actively could engage, even today. Verification of several possible future arms control measures can be supported by such a negative definition, including the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from entire geographical regions, verification procedures relevant for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and verified limits on total stockpiles.

A Brief History of Definitions

One of the earliest legal definitions of a nuclear weapon appears in the Modified Brussels Treaty of 1954, by which the Western European Union was established and West Germany undertook “not to manufacture in its territory atomic, biological and chemical weapons.” Annex II of the treaty includes definitions for these weapons, including defining an atomic weapon as “any weapon which contains, or is designed to contain or utilise, nuclear fuel or radioactive isotopes and which, by explosion or other uncontrolled nuclear transformation of the nuclear fuel, or by radioactivity of the nuclear fuel or radioactive isotopes, is capable of mass destruction, mass injury or mass poisoning.”2

Most other attempts to define a nuclear weapon have referred similarly to the capability of explosive energy release, its ability for mass destruction, or its possible use for warlike purposes. For example, the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean, defines a nuclear weapon as “any device which is capable of releasing nuclear energy in an uncontrolled manner and which has a group of characteristics that are appropriate for use for warlike purposes.”3 Other nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties have continued to use definitions that are, in essence, equivalent to the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Most recently, the glossary of key nuclear terms agreed by the working group of the five nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, first issued in 2015 and expanded in 2022, describes a nuclear weapon as a “weapon assembly that is capable of producing an explosion and massive damage and destruction by the sudden release of energy instantaneously released from self-sustaining nuclear fission and/or fusion.”4

All these formal definitions, spanning a period of more than 60 years, have one major problem: they are de facto unverifiable because an inspector cannot confirm the very characteristics that are used to define a nuclear weapon itself. The topic reemerged, implicitly, in the early 1990s, when specialists from Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories initiated then-unprecedented discussions on the verification of warhead reductions. The talks were focused on how to confirm that a declared item was a genuine warhead, with the goal of devising methodologies that would protect sensitive design information. Unfortunately, these efforts ended before a broad consensus on concepts, definitions, and verification approaches was reached. In any event, it appears that such a conversation today would need to involve additional participants, such as China but ideally also other nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, to lay the basis for broader future arms control and disarmament efforts.

What Is Not a Nuclear Weapon

Despite the long-standing, persistent challenges of verifiably defining a nuclear weapon, even when using concepts such as templates or attributes, a work-around has proven valuable in the context of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The goal is to confirm the absence of a nuclear weapon or, in other words, define what is not a nuclear weapon. Under New START, parties declare the number of warheads deployed on a missile that is accountable under the treaty, and additional items that may be present during an on-site inspection must be shown to be “non-nuclear objects.”5

The New START procedures to confirm the non-nuclear nature of an object rely on gross neutron counts. Such measurements work for weapons that contain kilogram quantities of plutonium, but weapons that contain uranium only would have negligible neutron emissions and cannot be detected by the procedures developed for New START. Concepts to confirm the absence of uranium-based weapons have been proposed, but they have not been fully demonstrated and require further analysis.6

Building on the New START model, an explicit definition of an object that is not a nuclear weapon could be as simple as this: “An object is accepted not to be a nuclear weapon if (a) it does not exceed an agreed neutron or gamma radiation level or (b) the inspector can confirm its nature as a non-treaty-accountable item, for example, through direct visual access.”

There are many ways to draft such a negative definition, and there will be trade-offs between simplicity and specificity. It is not the intention here to provide a definitive formulation, but a reference to the absence of nuclear radiation appears important.

One major challenge will be agreement on criteria for an inspectable “object” and, in particular, on a minimum size of such an object. New START largely avoided this dilemma by focusing on deployed weapons, namely objects located on the front section of ballistic missiles, but an agreement that seeks to confirm the absence of nuclear weapons anywhere at an inspected site or in a geographical region could not as easily dodge this question. For example, there could be concerns that a party stores nuclear weapons partly disassembled. Indeed, the nuclear components of the first implosion-type nuclear weapons—“Gadget” and “Fat Man”—were inserted only hours before the use of those weapons, and early postwar weapon designs also had removable nuclear components.

Depending on the scope of future arms control agreements, key nuclear components such as those used in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki (shown here) and in the Trinity Device (above) could be considered “treaty accountable” or “prohibited” even when they are separate from the main body of the weapon. (Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)In the 1980s, there were proposals to reintroduce such “clip-in” or “insertable” warheads into the U.S. stockpile, perhaps for lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, a prospect considered an “arms control nightmare” by some analysts.7 The negotiators of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty ended up banning all intermediate-range missiles, nuclear and conventional, thus avoiding possible ambiguities and complications with regard to verification. Ultimately, if the absence of nuclear weapons is to be confirmed with some reasonably high confidence, it may be necessary to consider for inspection even relatively small objects. Some items used for civilian or military research purposes may not automatically pass an absence test and may only be “cleared” after a visual inspection.8

Absence measurements such as those proposed here have important advantages. The instruments and measurement techniques are relatively simple, sensitive information does not need to be protected, and measurements do not require any form of information barrier. Moreover, inspector access to relevant sites could be much easier overall because sensitive nuclear items should not be present. Verification approaches based on such measurements may be the most promising path forward for nuclear arms control efforts in the medium term, especially given the current mistrust among nuclear-weapon states, which could make more intrusive approaches unrealistic.

Although confirming the non-nuclear nature of an object has already proven useful as part of New START, other types of agreements could similarly rely on this concept of negative definitions. In that regard, two possible directions for nuclear arms control are presented below.

Zero Deployment or Regional Removal of Nuclear Weapons. One can imagine future agreements that require parties not to have deployed nuclear weapons in storage facilities near military bases with airfields or delivery systems. This could help prevent inadvertent escalation of a crisis and would be particularly meaningful in Europe.

The core of such a zero-deployed arrangement, as first proposed by researchers at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, would be the transfer of nuclear warheads associated with nonstrategic delivery systems to a small number of storage facilities, either in the same host country or elsewhere.9 Confirming the absence of nuclear weapons at those former deployment sites could become a key verification task, and it could be implemented using a negative definition as proposed above.

This scenario would also become relevant once a country that previously hosted nuclear weapons joins the TPNW. Such a country would have 90 days for the removal of those weapons,10 which would likely be followed by verification procedures to be agreed by the TPNW states-parties.

Confirming Numerical Limits on Total Stockpiles. It is often assumed that arms control agreements eventually could place limits on all nuclear weapons in the stockpiles, including those in storage and perhaps those slated for dismantlement, so that the gap between existing weapons and those captured by arms control regimes gradually can be closed.11 Such agreements could be bilateral or multilateral and have separate ceilings for different parties or even envision nonbinding declarations to discourage major nuclear buildups over short periods of time.12 The most basic approach to confirming numerical limits as part of such an “all-warhead agreement” is to rely solely on baseline declarations followed by regular data exchanges. In this case, during an on-site inspection, the host would get credit for the number of items declared for that site and identify those items as such. These declared items could be accepted as treaty-accountable items and never accessed or inspected.13 The inspectors would then be allowed to confirm that other items available at the site are in fact not treaty accountable using the concepts discussed above. If an object does not pass the absence test, it simply could be considered a treaty-accountable item. Taken together, the required verification activities and technologies could be relatively simple and nonintrusive even though such an all-warhead agreement would represent a major milestone in nuclear arms control.

Looking Further Ahead

Negative definitions can go a long way in supporting nuclear arms control and disarmament. If they can be agreed, it is unlikely that more specific definitions will be needed in the foreseeable future, even under the most optimistic circumstances. Ultimately, however, positive definitions may be considered preferable to support specific reduction efforts. For example, nuclear-weapon states tend to deploy only a few types of weapons at any given time.14 It is possible that negotiators may find it useful to constrain arsenals by warhead type, that is, to gradually phase out and eliminate specific types of weapons while allowing others to remain in the stockpiles. In this case and following a more traditional verification approach, warheads that are subject to reductions or removals could be inspected prior to dismantlement to confirm their identity.

Indeed, research since the 1990s has focused on unique characteristics or attributes of nuclear weapons that can be confirmed with radiation measurements. This led to the introduction of a series of concepts that are still being researched today and include, in particular, templates, attributes, and information barriers.15 Unfortunately, these concepts and approaches have introduced new challenges: The data acquired in these measurements are highly sensitive, and information barriers to protect these data have proven difficult to certify and authenticate. Significant progress has been made over the years in overcoming some of these technical challenges,16 and efforts have included several international collaborations and original research at governmental laboratories and universities.17 A sustained research and development effort should be able to demonstrate the concepts and technologies needed, even for such verification approaches involving warhead inspections.

It is also possible, however, that radiation measurements for warhead inspections in an arms control setting will always remain elusive, most likely for political reasons. As argued previously, radiation measurements on sensitive nuclear items are not needed for some verification approaches relevant for the removal of nuclear weapons from specific regions and for verified stockpile limits.18 Indeed, if warhead inspections remain a persistent source of controversy among parties, it may be possible to avoid them altogether, even in scenarios in which there are deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals.

Despite the current crisis of nuclear arms control, it may be beneficial to address some of these questions soon. In fact, jointly exploring verifiable warhead definitions and relevant inspection approaches, while acknowledging concerns with regard to access and intrusiveness, may be more amenable than directly discussing even more complicated topics at this time, such as the scope of possible treaties.



1. Most famously, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not define a nuclear weapon even though the term is used throughout the treaty text. The issue of defining a nuclear weapon rose to the top of the agenda as recently as 2020, when the United States and Russia last discussed the possibility of a warhead freeze. Michael Gordon and Ann M. Simmons, “U.S., Russia Near Deal to Extend Nuclear Treaty and Freeze Warheads for a Year,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2020.

2. Modified Brussels Treaty, October 23, 1954.

3. Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, February 14, 1967, 634 U.N.T.S. 9068.

4. P5 Working Group on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms (Beijing: China Atomic Energy Press, 2015); P5 Working Group on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, “P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, 2015 Edition,” n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/243293.pdf.

5. Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, April 8, 2010, https://www.acq.osd.mil/asda/ssipm/sdc/tc/nst/annexes/inspection-activities/index.html (annex on inspection activities).

6. Eric Lepowsky, Jihye Jeon, and Alexander Glaser, “Confirming the Absence of Nuclear Warheads via Passive Gamma-Ray Measurements,” Nuclear Instruments & Methods in Physics Research, Vol. 990 (February 21, 2021).

7. Fred Hiatt, “Insertable Nuclear Warheads Could Convert Arms,” The Washington Post, June 15, 1986.

8. One example is the so-called BeRP Ball, which contains 4.5 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium. The solid sphere was machined in 1980 and has been used for thousands of radiation measurement experiments.

9. Pavel Podvig and Javier Serrat, “Lock Them Up: Zero-Deployed Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2017, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/lock-them-up-zero-deployed-non-strategic-nuclear-weapons-in-europe-en-675.pdf.

10. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Report of the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” TPNW/MSP/2022/6, July 21, 2022. See Moritz Kütt and Zia Mian, “Setting the Deadline for Nuclear Weapon Removal From Host States Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2022): 148-161.

11. James Fuller, “Verification on the Road to Zero: Issues for Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement,” Arms Control Today, December 2010; Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, Monitoring Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear-Explosive Materials: An Assessment of Methods and Capabilities (Washington: National Academies Press, 2005).

12. Amy Nelson and Michael O’Hanlon, “Putin’s Treaty Withdrawal Doesn’t Spell Doom for Arms Control,” The Hill, March 7, 2023.

13. Similarly, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification has introduced the concept of “items declared as weapons.” International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), “Working Group 4 Deliverable,” June 2019, pt. II, http://www.ipndv.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04
(“Potential Options for Declarations on Nuclear Weapons”).

14. The United States currently has seven types of warheads and bombs in its arsenal, which is many fewer than during the height of the Cold War. Similarly, France is believed to deploy three warhead designs today, and the United Kingdom only has one. It is likely that Russia retains a more diverse arsenal of nuclear weapons, but a trend to consolidate that stockpile could exist, especially in the absence of explosive nuclear testing since the 1990s.

15. Office of Nonproliferation Research and Engineering, U.S. Department of Energy, “Technology R&D for Arms Control,” Spring 2001, https://www.ipfmlibrary.org/doe01b.pdf.

16. For more information, see IPNDV, “Related Resources,” n.d., https://www.ipndv.org/relatedresources/ (accessed June 22, 2023).

17. The U.S. Department of Energy has recently expanded its research in this area via the new Arms Control Advancement Initiative. Jill Hruby, Remarks at the 16th Annual Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century Symposium, May 26, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-administrator-hrubys-remarks-16th

18. Alexander Glaser, “Monitoring Regimes for All-Warhead Agreements,” in Toward Nuclear Disarmament: Building Up Transparency and Verification, ed. Malte Göttsche and Alexander Glaser (Berlin: German Federal Foreign Office, May 2021).


Alexander Glaser is co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and an associate professor in the university’s School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.


Answering the question, what is a nuclear weapon, could help in verifying future arms control agreements.

The Arms Control Association’s 2023 Annual Meeting: Excerpts of Remarks by Keynote Speakers, as Prepared for Delivery

July/August 2023

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake SullivanACA photo by Allen Harris

60 years ago next month, in grainy, black and white video, President Kennedy addressed the nation.…

“My fellow citizens,” he said, “I speak to you tonight in a spirit of hope.... Negotiations were concluded in Moscow on a treaty to ban all nuclear tests.”

After years of nonstop negotiations, or stop-and-start negotiations to be more precise, years of dialogue, years of commitment and courage, establishing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was a huge moment. Not only for our own national security, but for the security and stability of the world.

And as this group knows well, it was one of the first steps that would help slowly usher in an era of responsible arms control and nuclear deterrence measures. An era where nations could compartmentalize the issues of strategic stability, even if they couldn’t cooperate on much anything else. An era where adversaries could disagree and debate across basically every domain, but could always find ways to work together to limit nuclear risks. An era where world leaders chose transparency even during times of tension—especially during times of tension—because what was at stake was too important, too vital to our shared future.

That is the foundation of nuclear stability and security that we’ve depended on for decades.…

But over the last few years, that foundation has begun to erode. And today, we now stand at what our President would call an “inflection point” in our nuclear stability and security.…

Taken together, the cracks in our post-Cold War nuclear foundation are substantial, and they are deep. And today, we’re entering a new era, one that demands new strategies and solutions to achieve the goals we’ve always had: Prevent an arms race, reduce the risk of misperception and escalation, and most importantly, ensure the safety and security of our people and people around the world from nuclear threats.…

That’s the core of our approach to strategic stability—one that can be boiled down to two main lines of effort. First, update our deterrence capabilities and plans, and second, advance new arms control and risk reduction measures.…

Responsibly enhancing our deterrent capabilities allows us to negotiate arms control from a position of strength and confidence, and new arms control helps limit and shape our adversaries’ decisions on nuclear capabilities.…

First, we’re modernizing our nuclear program here at home. In practice, that means replacing each leg of our nuclear triad: land-based ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers. It means updating our nuclear command, control, and communications architecture by replacing aging capabilities with next-generation systems. And it means investing in our nuclear complex and defense industry to help ensure that we have a responsive nuclear enterprise and a resilient base for long-term competition.

And I want to be clear here: the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them. We’ve been there. We’ve learned that lesson.

Nor does the United States need to deploy ever-more dangerous nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence. Rather, effective deterrence means that we have a “better” approach, not a “more” approach. It means ensuring that we have the capacity and capabilities necessary to deter and, if necessary, defeat major aggression against our country, our allies, and our partners.…

But we can’t go at it alone, which leads me to the second prong of our deterrence strategy: investing in and strengthening our alliances abroad. That has been President Biden’s overriding priority—indeed in many ways, his strategic North Star—since his very first day as President of the United States.

And as we’ve worked to further deepen our alliances, we’ve always remembered that one of our greatest nonproliferation accomplishments of the nuclear age has been U.S. extended deterrence, which has reassured so many of our partners that they do not need to develop nuclear weapons of their own.

Together with our NATO allies, we’ve been laser-focused on modernizing the alliance’s nuclear capabilities, from ensuring broad participation in the alliance’s nuclear deterrent mission to certifying our F-35 aircraft to be able to deliver modern nuclear gravity bombs. All of these new steps, from revitalizing our nuclear program here at home to reinvigorating our alliances abroad and all of the elements that fall into those two categories, are necessary in their own right. But taken together, they’ll help achieve the same strategic stability goals we’ve always had.

They’ll show our adversaries and competitors that, in an arms race with the United States—that any arms race with the United States—is counterproductive at best and destructive at worst. And they’ll help the United States negotiate arms control agreements from that position of strength and confidence that I described.…

And under the President’s leadership, we’re advancing three new approaches to strengthen arms control and decrease nuclear risks in this changing nuclear age. First, we have stated our willingness to engage in bilateral arms control discussions with Russia and with China without preconditions. 

In one of four panels at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting, Thomas Countryman, ACA board chair; Jon Wolfsthal of  the Center for a New American Security and Global Zero; Lynn Rusten, a vice president with the Nuclear Threat Initiative; and  Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed ways to prevent a three-way nuclear arms race. (ACA photo by Allen Harris)And before I jump into this, let me just step back and say that “without preconditions” does not mean “without accountability.” We’ll still hold nuclear powers accountable for reckless behavior, and we’ll still hold our adversaries and competitors responsible for upholding nuclear agreements. For example, the United States will continue to notify Russia in advance of ballistic missile launches and major strategic exercises, in line with preexisting nuclear agreements.

But yesterday, we adopted lawful, proportionate, and reversible countermeasures in response to Russia’s violations of New START, including suspending our day-to-day notifications to Russia that are required under the treaty. These steps will help guarantee that Russia does not receive benefits from a treaty they refuse to abide by and that the principle of reciprocity—a key tenet of strategic arms control—is upheld.

It will also demonstrate to Russia the benefits of returning to full compliance, including once again receiving detailed information regarding our nuclear forces, a conversation we continue to press for directly with Russian officials.

But, while claiming to suspend New START, Russia has also publicly committed to adhere to the treaty’s central limits, indicating a potential willingness to continue limiting strategic nuclear forces through 2026.

We agree. It is in neither of our countries’ interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces, and we’re prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does.

And rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework. We are prepared to enter into those discussions.

Now, the type of limits the United States can agree to after the treaty expires will of course be impacted by the size and scale of China’s nuclear buildup. That’s why we’re also ready to engage China without preconditions, helping ensure that competition is managed and that competition does not veer into conflict.

Next, the United States is willing to engage in new multilateral arms control efforts, including through the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the P5: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France. We’re under no illusion that reaching risk reduction and arms control measures in that setting will be easy. But we do believe it is possible.



Ambassador Alexander KmenttACA photo by Allen Harris
Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and
Non-Proliferation Department, Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs

I wanted to try to contribute to the discussion in D.C. the perspective that I believe is widely shared among the non-nuclear majority of states. I believe the needed U.S. leadership on these issues requires a better understanding of and more engagement with these perspectives.

It is a perspective that goes beyond the 92 states that have signed or ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) or the 125 states that vote for it in the UN General Assembly. At the last [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] NPT review conference, 150 non-nuclear-weapon states again joined a statement about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. 

It is a perspective of concern that the nuclear sword of Damocles still hangs above humanity with existential nuclear risks imposed on the entire international community [and that there is an] apparent inability of nuclear-armed states to extract themselves from a security paradigm that relies on the threat of mass destruction. It is also a perspective informed by significant new scientific research and facts about the grave, complex, and global humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, as well as the risks associated with these weapons and the practice of nuclear deterrence. This perspective is, thus, based on profound arguments and legitimate security concerns of non-nuclear-weapon states. 

Nevertheless, it is mostly disregarded in the international security and nuclear weapons discourse that is dominated by the geopolitical interests and strategic relations of the major military powers. There is a whole world out there in the nuclear debate beyond the United States, Russia, and China. 

The result has been an increasing disenfranchisement and a deep sense of injustice about the nuclear treaty regime and the nuclear status quo as a whole. 

The TPNW should be understood as the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states wanting to democratize this discourse and claim agency on one of the gravest existential and civilizational risks that humanity faces. 

Nuclear risks were on the rise long before the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the subsequent implicit and unmistakable nuclear threats issued by President [Vladimir] Putin and others. 

These are heightened geopolitical competition, arms race dynamics, the decline of arms control, and the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime. Nuclear risks are increasing, including through new technologies and corresponding vulnerabilities among others. 

But this already disconcerting state of affairs is dramatically compounded by Russia's irresponsible nuclear rhetoric and the potential for nuclear escalation of the war in Ukraine.… 

We are now at a fork in the road on the nuclear weapons issue. One conclusion that states may draw from this crisis is an even stronger emphasis on nuclear deterrence. We heard this also this morning. This likely takes us down the path of more competition, new nuclear arms races, more proliferation pressure, and further increasing global nuclear risks. 

The non-nuclear-weapon majority hopes that this moment of heightened nuclear dangers finally leads to an alternative conclusion, namely, that the crisis has brought into sharp focus the fragility of nuclear deterrence, that nuclear arms races much be avoided, that the situation in Ukraine is so much more dangerous because of nuclear weapons; that this increases concerns about the sustainability of the nuclear status quo; and that a paradigm shift on nuclear weapons is needed. 

A paradigm shift would mean two things: a critical reassessment of the veracity of the arguments that underpin nuclear deterrence and a weighing of these arguments against the empirical evidence on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. This is what non-nuclear-weapon states are demanding and what is now enshrined in the TPNW.… 

Nuclear deterrence is seen as the ultimate security guarantee. It is believed to have prevented nuclear conflict in the past decades and to do so in the current circumstances and in the foreseeable future. This belief is very deeply entrenched. Nothing must challenge it. 

The problem in this is that, in reality, we lack the hard empirical evidence. Nuclear deterrence is a theory. It assumes and projects actions, intentions, consequences, and expected outcomes. 

We can’t prove that nuclear deterrence has worked in the past or will work in the future, just as much as it cannot be proven that it has not prevented conflict in the past or will not do so in the future. Even a clear deterrence “success” in a particular crisis would not prove that, in the next, different situation, it would work again. 

Like any human belief system, nuclear deterrence depends on assumptions and carries within it the risk of overconfidence and a potential confirmation bias.… 

By contrast, here we have a lot of empirical evidence and a growing body of research on the broad range of humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and of the risks of accidents, miscalculations, and human and technical error. 

All the research and new modeling that I have seen concludes that the consequences of a nuclear conflict are graver and more complex and likely global.… 

Would it not be prudent to base policy decisions regarding nuclear weapons primarily on these empirical facts rather than on the assumptions that underpin deterrence and that are fraught with uncertainties?... 

The whole world carries the risks of nuclear deterrence failing.… This raises profound legal, ethical, legitimacy, and international and intergenerational justice questions.… 

At this moment of very high nuclear risks and in the face of Russia’s aggression and nuclear rhetoric, the international community should really strive to be united in reenforcing the taboo against use or threat of use and nuclear blackmail; taking all actions to reduce nuclear risks; and recommitting to the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime and to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.…

I appreciate the comments by Jake Sullivan from today of wanting to keep engaging with Russia and China on arms control without preconditions, but the future of arms control is similarly conditioned by nuclear deterrence. Here, I just want to point out that the failure of the United States and Russia and other NPT nuclear-armed states to engage in negotiations to end the arms race and achieve disarmament would be a violation of the NPT and a threat to the NPT.

This overarching conditionality was again obvious at the recent NPT review conference. Yes, Russia blocked the outcome document, but what was on the table for adoption was deeply disappointing for non-nuclear-weapon states. Nuclear-weapon states are not ready to conceptualize nuclear disarmament in any other way than as an aspirational goal to be achieved maybe in a distant future security environment when nuclear weapons may not be needed. There are no credible plans how to actually achieve this goal.… 

[H]ow long can we continue to assume that nuclear deterrence will hold and nuclear weapons will not be used? We see Russian roulette being played at the moment. How can we be confident of this in the future, in tensions with China, with [North Korea], or between India and Pakistan, or in a potential Middle East proliferation context?...

The TPNW codifies the delegitimization of nuclear weapons because of their unacceptable humanitarian impact and risks.… 

The TPNW is not a silver bullet answer for future security challenges, but nuclear deterrence most definitely is no silver bullet either and certainly not a sustainable one. In these extremely dangerous times, we need leadership, and we need cooperation. The TPNW is a constructive and serious investment into international law and the common security of all.


Excerpts of addresses by the two keynote speakers at the 2023 Arms Control Association annual meeting, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Austrian diplomat Alexander Kmentt, a key architect of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, have been edited for length and clarity.

For the video recordings of the keynote speeches and panel discussions, visit:


For the text of Sullivan’s speech, visit:


For the text of Kmentt’s speech, visit:


Excerpts of Remarks by Keynote Speakers, as Prepared for Delivery

Daniel Ellsberg (1931-2023)

July/August 2023
By George Perkovich

Daniel Ellsberg, a former U.S. military analyst who exposed Washington’s secret war plans for Vietnam in 1971 and later campaigned for nuclear disarmament, social justice and an end to war, was photographed in Dresden in 2016, when he won the seventh International Peace Prize. (Arno Burgi/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)Dan Ellsberg lived an original life on the frontlines of academia, war, and international political debate. If his life were a movie, the title would be “Walking Point.” The trailer would include Ellsberg staffing not one, but two, U.S. departments—Defense and State (Paul Nitze and Walt Rostow, respectively)—in the Kennedy White House’s secret deliberations to manage the Cuban missile crisis; two years embedded with combat units in Vietnam, often walking point; the secret copying and leaking of the Pentagon Papers; the moves by President Richard Nixon and his “plumbers” to discredit and silence him by any means necessary, including violence; Nixon’s subsequent resignation; and decades of activism, protest, and arrest trying to end nuclear arms racing and threat-making. Yet, these dramatic snippets—each one a lifetime of achievement for most of us—would not do Ellsberg justice.

Born in Chicago in 1931 and raised largely in Detroit, he went to Harvard University on a Pepsi-Cola Co.-funded scholarship not long after losing his mother and sister to a car accident when his father fell asleep at the wheel. The accident left Ellsberg in a coma for 36 hours.1 After graduating third in his class with an economics degree from Harvard in 1952,2 Ellsberg enlisted in the U.S. Marines.

Everyone who met Ellsberg quickly recognized his brilliance. In conversation, his mind raced ahead and around corners while his interlocutors were still pondering his first point. In his Harvard doctoral dissertation in 1962, he presented a game theoretical decision-making tendency that remains famous among economists as the Ellsberg Paradox. The ultimate U.S. warrior in Vietnam, John Paul Vann, said that Ellsberg had “the most brilliant mind ever exposed to the realities of Vietnam.”3 Henry Kissinger called him “the most brilliant paranoic” he knew.

He was exceptionally courageous, almost manically so. Yet, he did not have a death wish and dedicated his long life to political struggle. “Dan raged without ever being pious,” his friend, the great Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, told me. “He was brilliant and unafraid of taking sides without ever simplifying what he wanted to say.”

Daniel Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia Marx Ellsberg, walk from court after a federal judge dismissed the Pentagon Papers case against him. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)In conversation, he was charming. I first met him in June 1981, at a Student Pugwash Conference at Yale University. Ellsberg was an informal after-dinner speaker. The setting was one of those large homes that wealthy universities buy and convert into offices for quirky new interdisciplinary programs. Ellsberg sat in a living room-like chair; a few score of young people sat on the floor and chairs around him. I was 22 and had never met someone so notorious, the man who broke the rules and brought down a president, the anti-war, anti-nuke publicity hound. What I remember were his blue-grey eyes and how his extremely powerful intelligence and passion burned behind them. At the time, I was not informed enough to judge his message, but I was awed by his mastery and his energy.

Ellsberg’s courage may have come from relentless curiosity. He loved to question things and chase answers, however dangerous that might become. After Harvard and extremely sensitive work on nuclear war planning at the RAND Corp. and the Pentagon, covered fascinatingly in his second memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Ellsberg sought to rejoin the Marines in Vietnam, but he was told that his security clearances made it too risky in case he was captured. So, Ellsberg found a position doing field work trying to improve pacification programs in the countryside. U.S. soldiers and foreign service officers saw him as one of a small band “who cared and dared.”4

Daniel Ellsberg and author Kay Boyle, a fellow political activist, in San Francisco in December 1975. (Photo by Janet Fries/Getty Images)One weekend in December 1965, Ellsberg and his friend Vann decided to drive north through the kind of dangerous territory that all other Americans flew over. As Neil Sheehan recounted in his biography of Vann, A Bright Shining Lie, the two men wanted to explore conditions on the ground. Vann drove with one hand, holding in the other an M-16 automatic rifle perched on the door facing the rain forest. When the jungle encroached in a perfect setup for ambush, Ellsberg, the skinny Harvard doctorate, “glanced down at this side to be sure a grenade was handy and lifted the carbine he had been cradling in his lap so that he could immediately open fire out the window.”5 When they arrived at Ham Tan, they pulled in front of a building that housed the province military advisers. One U.S. officer noticed the Scout vehicle and asked whether Vann and Ellsberg had driven there.6 They were the first Americans to do that in nearly a year.

One of the more astounding stories in The Doomsday Machine is Ellsberg’s belated discovery that his father had been a nuclear dissident too. In late 1949, Harry Ellsberg had resigned his lucrative job as a lead structural engineer at a firm that helped build the Hanford plutonium-production plant in Washington state. Yet, Dan never knew why until a conversation in 1978 when his father told him he left the job “because they wanted me to help build the H-bomb [and] I didn’t want to make an H-bomb.”7 Dan protests that this cannot be correct because President Harry Truman’s decision to proceed with the H-bomb was not made until January 1950, and the whole subject was “supersecret.” His father explained that “somebody had to design [the necessary plutonium-production] plant if they were going to go ahead. I was the logical person. I had a Q clearance.” Ellsberg said, finally, “‘Dad, how could I not ever have heard of any of this before? How come you never said anything about it?’ My father said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t tell any of this to my family. You weren’t cleared.”’8

Ellsberg was not always a critic of government. He began his career as a conservative hawk trained on game theory. It was experience in the Defense Department and the adjacent RAND Corp. that made Ellsberg a critic of government. He encountered nuclear war planning that was irrational or at least needing much more debate and public consent. This is conveyed in a passage of The Doomsday Machine that illuminates much of his life’s work.

For several years [beginning in late 1960] one of my highest objectives for my own personal influence on national defense was moving a few pieces of paper from one level of authority to a higher one, from a military to a civilian level. In particular, I wanted to move one document, the JSCP [Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan] with its Annex C, from the offices of the Joint Staff or Air Staff to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and to the Oval Office, so that civilian authority could become aware of and then act to control and change the nature of our general war plans. (A decade later, my personal objective was very similar, with a different level of civilian authority in mind: I wanted to move seven thousand Top Secret pages—the Pentagon Papers—from the Pentagon and RAND to the Senate and the American public).9

This motive was honorable and, in practice, outrageously difficult to achieve. In a revealing story, Ellsberg recounts how the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to deceive President John Kennedy’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, and Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric by giving them what the Joint Chiefs portrayed as the nuclear war plan but was in fact a sanitized, less crazy version. Drawing on his memory of a copy of the actual JSCP that he had seen earlier while at RAND, Ellsberg alerted these civilian leaders and later borrowed a copy from a friend in the Pentagon. With Gilpatric’s blessing, Ellsberg then drafted pointed questions for the Joint Staff and their chiefs while feigning that the civilians had not actually seen the military plans.

“The questions were the message,” Ellsberg writes. “They were intended to leak into the [Joint Chiefs] the news that their processes, their conflicts, compromises, and maneuvers, had become transparent to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.” Among the questions, indicative themselves, were, “To what extent, and in what precise ways, does the planned attack upon urban-industrial centers and bonus targets differ from an attack intended to maximize population loss in the Soviet Union? In Communist China? Does the plan procced on the assumption that it is national policy to hold the population of the USSR and Communist China responsible for acts of their governments? Are Communist Chinese people held responsible for acts of the Soviet government?”10

As far as Ellsberg knew, the Joint Chiefs never answered the questions, although they knew that the White House had approved of them. To Ellsberg’s surprise, the Joint Chiefs did answer a related question: how many people would die as a result of the plan’s successful execution. The answer was 600 million in and around the Soviet Union and China.11 Ellsberg concluded that this was evil, whatever the character and intentions of the plan’s authors.

The insight that motivated so much of Ellsberg’s work for 60-plus years was that leaders, as human beings, are fallible and often banal, easily captured by the prevailing institutional mindset. Sound decision-making requires multiple angles of analysis and prescription with rigorous debate among them. The analysis and debate should be informed by all relevant data, not just the data that supported the position of the group conducting the deliberation. Where uncertainty is a fact because the right data do not exist, admit it.

In a White House “eyes only” memo dated July 22, 1971, Charles Colson, who masterminded political tricks for President Richard Nixon, updated White House Chief of Staff John Ehrlichman on plans to go after Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers case. (Photo by Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images)Ellsberg’s relationship with secrets was intense and complicated. He was fascinated, captivated, and troubled by them. In 1965, when Ellsberg wanted to leave his influential job advising John McNaughton, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and go to Vietnam, McNaughton did not try to dissuade him. As Sheehan recounts, McNaughton “was becoming skittish about Ellsberg. A need to boast about what he knew made Ellsberg somewhat indiscreet under normal circumstances.”12

In his memoir Secrets, Ellsberg recalls this profound warning to Kissinger as he was about to take office as Nixon’s national security advisor:

You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret. … [I]t will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening.… You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.13

I have sensed this tension in many conversations with U.S. government officials and have found only a few who appeared to recognize the risk of entrapment in secrecy and the need to get out of offices and meeting rooms and go out and see and hear the people and places that will be affected by their prospective policies and actions.

Such processes of quality control are most important when war is the question, especially nuclear war. Time and again, Ellsberg saw decision-making processes being corrupted or short-circuited by the withholding of information. “[W]hat seems to me beyond question is that any social system (not only ours) that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put a trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons, in the hands of one human being—anyone, not just this man, still worse in the hands of an unknown number of persons—is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness.14

This idea animated Ellsberg from the 1980s and beyond. It was manifested in a multi-year research and advocacy project, which he dubbed The Manhattan Project II and was aimed at seizing upon the end of the Cold War to accelerate nuclear disarmament.

Daniel Ellsberg was an American original. He had a talent and drive greater than most others, in a country whose power befitted and then horrified him. He would have been jailed or killed in Russia and China. In Nixon’s America, Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office was burgled; plots were hatched to spike his drink with LSD and to pummel him on the Capitol steps; but ultimately, he was brought to a court of law, and the judge dismissed his case due to government impropriety. Only in America. Yet, I cannot leave it there. I wish I could have asked him, before he died on June 16 at the age of 92, if he believed that in a 2020s Republican administration he would receive the protection from law and judges that he received 50 years ago.


1. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 590.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p. 593.

4. Ibid., p. 615.

5. Ibid., p. 595.

6. Ibid., p. 596.

7. Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 291.

8. Ibid., p. 296.

9. Ibid., p. 105.

10. Ibid., p. 132.

11. Ibid., p. 138.

12. Neil Sheehan, Bright Shining Lie, p. 593.

13. Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets (New York: Penguin, 2003), pp. 237-239.

14. Ellsberg, Doomsday Machine, p. 332.

George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Daniel Ellsberg (1931-2023)

United States, Iran Resume Nuclear Talks

July/August 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

After a monthslong stalemate, Iran and the United States resumed indirect talks over Iran’s advancing nuclear program. It is unlikely that the two governments will reach an agreement to restore the 2015 nuclear deal or a new accord soon, but both sides appear willing to take steps to deescalate tensions.

Haitham bin Tariq (R), sultan of Oman, is welcomed by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (C) in Tehran on May 28. Two weeks later, an Iranian spokesperson confirmed that Iranian and U.S. officials held proximity talks in Oman in May. (Photo by Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)Such steps could reduce the likelihood of conflict because Iran’s current nuclear trajectory is increasing the risk that the United States or Israel will determine that military action is necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Since talks to restore the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), stalled last August, the political space for the United States and Europe to reach a deal with Iran has narrowed. Iran’s illegal transfer of drones to Russia for use in its war on Ukraine and Iran’s brutal crackdown on civilian protesters make it highly unlikely that the Biden administration will negotiate a deal with Iran that provides broad sanctions relief prior to the 2024 elections.

Furthermore, the United States is unlikely to accept the draft deal under consideration last August to restore the JCPOA given Iran’s nuclear advances over the past 10 months. U.S. officials have suggested that the Biden administration is open to taking steps to deescalate if Iran is prepared to do the same, and they conveyed that message to Iran.

In a June 12 interview with the newsletter Diplomatic, a senior U.S. official speaking anonymously said that if Iran shows it is open to changing the “current trajectory,” it would “open up different possibilities.” The United States also made clear that if Iran takes certain steps to ratchet up its nuclear program, “it could lead us to a very dangerous spot,” the official said.

Iranian officials long have maintained that they are only interested in a deal to revive the JCPOA. When Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nassar Kanaani confirmed on June 12 that Iranian and U.S. officials met for proximity talks in Oman in May, he said there are no discussions on an interim deal or any arrangement not based on the JCPOA.

But Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that Tehran may be open to other approaches. In a June 11 visit to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), he said that it is “not a problem” to reach agreements in certain areas so long as Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains intact.

Khamenei also reiterated that Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons and that if Iran “wanted to build nuclear weapons, we would have done so” and the West would not have been able to stop them.

Given the polarization over the JCPOA in Washington and Tehran, unilateral deescalatory steps may be a more politically viable alternative than negotiating a new agreement or a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal at this time.

In the U.S. view, deescalation reduces the risk that Iran’s nuclear program advances beyond U.S. or Israeli redlines to trigger military action. Capping certain nuclear activities and increasing transparency would also make it more challenging for Iran to take steps toward nuclear weapons development without rapid detection.

An understanding that both sides will take unilateral steps also may avoid triggering the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, a 2015 U.S. law that allows Congress to vote on any Iranian-U.S. nuclear agreement. If both chambers pass a resolution of disapproval, the president cannot lift sanctions on Iran. Given the current political dynamics, any congressional review would be contentious. On the Iranian side, deescalation would reduce the risk of military strikes on the nuclear infrastructure and bring economic benefits.

Deescalatory steps also would allow both sides to retain leverage for future talks and could be enacted more swiftly than returning to talks over the JCPOA.

It is unclear exactly what steps both sides might take if there is a mutual interest in deescalation. Iran’s nuclear program is one of several issues being discussed in the proximity talks.

On the nuclear side, U.S. and Iranian officials quoted in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal suggest that Iran would cap its stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235, refrain from enriching above that level, and increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These actions likely would reduce the most immediate proliferation risk and provide greater assurance that any attempt by Iran to pursue nuclear weapons development or divert materials for a covert program would be detected. The United States would allow Iranian assets held abroad to return to the country through humanitarian channels and allow certain regional trade.

Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent-enriched U-235 poses a more immediate proliferation risk because it can quickly be enriched to weapons-grade levels, or 90 percent U-235. Tehran has threatened to enrich to 90 percent U-235 in response to future U.S. provocations. Israeli officials have suggested publicly that producing 90 percent-enriched U-235 would trigger military action.

In the short term, capping Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent-enriched U-235 would have some modest nonproliferation benefits. According to a May 31 report from the IAEA, Iran’s stockpile of 60 percent-enriched U-235 is 114 kilograms. If Iran were to enrich that stockpile to 90 percent U-235, it would have enough weapons-grade material for nearly three bombs in about three weeks.

But establishing a limit on the 60 percent-enriched U-235 stockpile will make it more time-consuming to produce additional weapons-grade material, increasing the likelihood of IAEA detection and giving the international community more time to respond. Limiting the stockpile at this point will not affect Iran’s ability to produce enough material for one bomb, which U.S. officials say is less than two weeks, but one nuclear weapon does not provide Iran with a nuclear deterrent.

Iran took limited steps to increase cooperation with the IAEA in May, but it is not clear if those actions were part of a March 4 agreement with the agency to increase transparency voluntarily or because of progress made during the Oman proximity talks. Further steps to increase transparency could provide significant benefits, given that Iran suspended its more intrusive safeguards agreement in February 2021 and switched off monitoring equipment at key sites in June 2022. The IAEA has warned multiple times that the gap seriously affects its ability to verify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA limits. It reported on May 31 that Tehran allowed inspectors to reinstall cameras at a centrifuge production facility in Esfahan in early May. Behrouz Kamalvandi, the AEOI spokesperson, suggested in June that the agency reinstalled cameras at certain facilities in Natanz, but the AEOI later denied the report.

Although the cameras may deter Iran from diverting materials for a covert program, reinstalling them provides few immediate benefits. The IAEA needs to be able to access the recordings from February 2021 to June 2022 and from the reinstalled equipment to begin reconstructing a history of Iran’s nuclear activities during the monitoring gap. When Iran agreed to allow IAEA cameras to continue recording in February 2021, after it limited inspector access, Tehran said it would hand over the data to the agency as part of an agreement to restore the JCPOA.

But the monitoring gap makes it more difficult for the IAEA to reestablish reliable baselines for certain inventories, such as uranium centrifuge components and uranium ore concentrate. IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned in the past several IAEA reports that the agency will not be able verify certain JCPOA limits if the deal is restored, even with Iran’s cooperation, due to the monitoring gaps.

In a May 31 report, Grossi called for access to the new recordings and the data from the February 2021-June 2022 period “without delay.”

Iran also allowed the IAEA to install enrichment monitors at the Fordow uranium-enrichment facility and in the area of the Natanz enrichment facility. Both sites produce 60 percent-enriched U-235.

According to Grossi, installation of the monitors will provide the IAEA with more immediate and accurate data on Iran’s enrichment activities. This should deter Iran from enriching uranium to a level higher than 60 percent U-235 and quickly detect any spikes, such as the uranium enriched to 84 percent U-235 that the IAEA detected at Fordow in January.

The IAEA said in its May 31 report that Iran provided a “possible explanation” for the 84 percent-enriched U-235 particles and that it has no further questions at this time. Despite maintaining that the spike was accidental, Iran could have been experimenting with higher enrichment levels. In the future, the enrichment monitors would detect more accurately and swiftly any anomalies from declared levels.

The two sides are unlikely to restore the 2015 nuclear deal but they could take steps to reduce tensions.

Allies Prepare for Crucial NATO Summit

July/August 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández

NATO members will discuss the future of the alliance at a July 10-11 summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, during a tumultuous time in which Russia continues waging war on Ukraine and Ukraine pushes for commitments that it will be welcomed into NATO after the fighting ends.

Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvidas Anusauskas (L to R), German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda visit soldiers taking part in a Lithuanian-German military exercise in Lithuania, on June 26. Germany says it will station 4,000 troops in Lithuania, which asked NATO to strengthen its eastern flank. (Photo by Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)Although NATO members have pledged to continue supporting Ukraine, they differ on its eventual accession to the alliance. “This is not a situation where the entire alliance has agreed language for how to describe Ukraine’s membership aspirations, and there’s one or two countries that stand outside of that group in opposition,” Julianne Smith, U.S. ambassador to NATO, said June 14 during a U.S. State Department briefing from Brussels.

“We are having and we have had a series of conversations where allies are looking at both an array of concrete deliverables and an array of options for describing their membership aspirations,” she said.

Compromises under consideration appear designed to suggest that Ukraine is moving closer to NATO membership, but fall short of a commitment by the 31 allies to come to Ukraine’s collective defense, as guaranteed under Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

At a June 16 press conference in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We are now close to finalizing an agreement to establish the NATO-Ukraine Council, and that will be something different than the Commission, where we 31 allies meet Ukraine.”

The commission, established in 1997, has provided a forum for consultation on security issues of common concern, including Russia and its war on Ukraine. Stoltenberg said that, under the council format, “Ukraine will be equal to NATO allies” and have the same rights as they “consult and decide on issues of mutual concern.” But the allies would not be sworn to defend Ukraine if it is the victim of another armed attack.

Despite being the biggest military supporter of Ukraine, the United States has been reluctant to endorse Ukraine’s early accession to NATO. The Washington Post reported on June 15 that Washington is tentatively backing a plan that would remove barriers to Ukraine’s entry without setting a timeline for admission.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implored NATO to put Ukraine on a clear path to membership, even threatening to skip the summit if the allies do not send a signal on the matter, according to Politico. “We understand that we will not be in NATO or in any powerful security alliance during this war. But tell me, how many [Ukrainian] lives is one sentence at the Vilnius summit worth?” Zelenskyy told the The Wall Street Journal on June 3.

Stoltenberg said, “At the Vilnius summit and in the preparations for the summit, we’re not discussing to issue a formal invitation.”

Members of NATO’s eastern flank—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia—released a statement on June 6 calling for upgraded ties with Ukraine. "We expect that in Vilnius, we will upgrade our political relations with Ukraine to a new level and launch a new political track that will lead to Ukraine’s membership in NATO, once conditions allow," they said, according to Reuters.

French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed support for “something between Israel-style security guarantees and fully-fledged [NATO] membership,” according to Politico. Some NATO leaders say support for Ukraine’s membership bid will pressure Russia to negotiate an end to the war.

At the summit, the allies will discuss new regional defense plans. “I think we’ll look back at the rollout of these new regional plans as, really, a new chapter for the alliance in terms of how it thinks about not just planning but…its command and control, its force structure requirements, its resourcing,” Smith said.

A new “defense investment pledge” is also on the agenda. In 2014, the allies promised to strive for a 2 percent goal on national defense spending. “Now, there is…an immediate need, to increase defense spending.… I think more and more allies also agree to the fact that 2 percent should not be some kind of ceiling, but a minimum,” Stoltenberg said.

Because NATO is looking now at conventional deployments that would not necessarily be considered under the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, members could be expected to comment on the status of that agreement’s future. The act is also an issue on which the allies do not have a unified view. (See ACT, May 2023; July/August 2022.) It states that NATO will not permanently deploy substantial conventional forces, which are typically assumed to mean more than one brigade, in new member states. The act also stipulates that NATO has no intention, reason, or plan to deploy nuclear weapons or nuclear storage sites in the territories of states that joined NATO after the Soviet Union disintegrated.

On June 26, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense announced that Germany was ready to deploy a permanent brigade of 4,000 troops to Lithuania. The move is contingent on the construction of the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the soldiers and military exercise facilities, according to the German newspaper Der Spiegel.

Plans by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to move nuclear weapons to Belarus on July 7-8, days before the NATO summit, have prompted discussion about an alliance response. (See ACT, June 2023.) On June 16, NATO noted that it had seen some preparations for the move. “We don’t see a reason right now to alter our strategic posture, but this is a live debate and an issue that again we take very seriously, and we will continue to monitor very closely here across the alliance,” Smith said.

Meeting on June 13 at the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden and Stoltenberg said they look forward to welcoming Sweden into the alliance. A year ago, NATO formally invited Finland and Sweden to join. (See ACT, July/August 2022.) Since then, Finland has completed its accession, but Turkey and Hungary have yet to ratify Sweden’s membership bid.

“The message here coming both from the United States and many other allies is that we very much hope that Sweden will become the 32nd member of the alliance either before or by Vilnius. In our view, Sweden is ready,” Smith said.

On June 14, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put a hold on new U.S. arms sales to Hungary until it acts on Sweden’s bid.

Despite Stoltenberg’s intention to retire as secretary-general in September after serving since 2014, NATO allies agreed on July 4 to extend his mandate for one more year. The decision highlights the allies’ failure to achieve consensus on a potential successor. In response, Stoltenberg tweeted, “Honoured by #NATO Allies’ decision to extend my term as Secretary General until 1 October 2024.”


The meeting takes place amid Russia’s war on Ukraine and Ukraine’s push for NATO membership. 

Russia to Consider U.S. Arms Control Proposal

July/August 2023
By Shannon Bugos

Russia has suggested it will consider a U.S. proposal for Moscow and Washington to engage without preconditions in bilateral talks on nuclear risk reduction and a potential new arms control framework.

Russian spokesperson Dimitri Peskov (R), seen at the Kremlin on June 5, called an arms control proposal announced by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “important and positive.” (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan outlined the proposal in a speech to the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington on June 2. “Rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework” to follow the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) after its expiration in 2026, he said.

“It is in neither of our countries’ interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic nuclear forces,” Sullivan acknowledged.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to dismiss the prospect of arms control talks, specifically on tactical nuclear weapons, most recently in a June 16 address to an international economic forum in St. Petersburg.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has emphasized that Moscow’s position against participating in such talks until the United States withdraws from Ukraine remains the same.

But other comments from Russian officials suggest that Moscow may not have shut down all potential dialogue on arms control.

On June 5, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, described Sullivan’s remarks as “important and positive,” noting that “we are expecting it to be supported with steps that will be made de facto through diplomatic channels.”

Meanwhile, Ryabkov said on June 8 that when the Biden administration sends an official diplomatic proposal based on Sullivan’s remarks to Moscow, “we will consider it.”

U.S. President Joe Biden commented on June 17 that he continues to worry about the possibility of Putin employing tactical nuclear weapons. “It’s real,” he told reporters.

In his June 2 remarks, Sullivan outlined the three components making up the Biden administration’s nuclear arms control and risk reduction strategy. The first piece includes engaging in bilateral arms control discussions with Russia and with China without preconditions.

Sullivan reiterated that the United States continues to observe the central limits on its strategic nuclear arsenal under New START, as well as to notify Russia ahead of ballistic missile launches and major nuclear exercises under ongoing separate agreements. (See ACT, June 2023.)

But as of June 1, the United States adopted reversible countermeasures to Russia’s violations of New START,
including withholding day-to-day treaty notifications on the
status and the location of treaty-accountable items, refraining from on-site inspections on U.S. territory, and withholding telemetric information on ballistic missile launches. In March, Washington had suspended participation in the treaty’s biannual data exchanges.

A State Department official told reporters on June 2 that the United States and Russia engaged bilaterally the week prior, at which time Moscow “refused to change their current course on New START.”

Sullivan said that the countermeasures “will help guarantee that Russia does not receive benefits from a treaty they refuse to abide by and that the principle of reciprocity—a key tenet of strategic arms control—is upheld.” This will “demonstrate to Russia the benefits of returning to full compliance,” he said.

Furthermore, Sullivan noted that the limits on the U.S. nuclear arsenal in any new arms control arrangement with Russia after 2026 will be affected by the size of and the capabilities in China’s nuclear arsenal. At the same time, he emphasized that “the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them.”

On a bilateral basis with China, the Biden administration still has not seen Beijing express a willingness to come to the table for an arms control dialogue or demonstrate an effort to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues between the two countries, Sullivan said.

China also has rebuffed military-to-military communications, rejecting a proposed meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at an annual security forum in Singapore in early June and, two weeks later, an effort by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to resume military-to-military communications during a visit to Beijing.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters in late May that, since 2021, China “has declined or failed to respond to over a dozen requests from the Department of Defense for key leader engagements, multiple requests for standing dialogues, and nearly 10 working-level engagements.”

Blinken met Chinese President Xi Jinping, top diplomat Wang Yi, and Foreign Minister Qin Gang in Beijing on June 18-19. The visit was rescheduled from February, when the Biden administration canceled Blinken’s trip due to a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the United States.

“The two sides had candid, substantive, and constructive discussions on key priorities in the bilateral relationship and on a range of global and regional issues,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of State. Blinken further noted in a June 20 interview that, “in the months to come,” Biden and Xi may meet in person.

The two other components of the U.S. arms control strategy include engaging in new multilateral arms control efforts, such as within the P5 process, involving the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and helping to establish and support the norms and values of “the new nuclear era,” according to Sullivan. P5 members last met on June 13-14 in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Russia and Belarus continued with plans to transfer Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, formalizing the arrangement on May 25. (See ACT, May 2023.) “The first nuclear warheads have been delivered to Belarus but only the first batch,” Putin said June 16. “There will be more.” He said on June 9 that the new nuclear weapons storage facilities in Belarus will be completed by July 8, a week later than the original schedule, after which the process to deploy the weapons would begin.

Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, tweeted on June 10 that he remains “skeptical about the prospects of nuclear weapons being physically transferred to Belarus (though cannot rule it out).”

Belarus is expected to host the weapons, but Russia has said that Putin will retain control over their use. Lukashenko warned on June 13 that “there will be no hesitation [to use these weapons] in the event of an aggression against us,” but added that he would “coordinate launching a strike” with Putin beforehand.

The United States and NATO continue to monitor Russia’s actions, but have yet to see any reason to change their respective nuclear postures, according to statements from Blinken and the alliance on June 16.

A senior Russian official said the Kremlin is waiting for an official diplomatic communication from the Biden administration following a speech outlining the U.S. approach by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.  


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