“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
June 2020

Arms Control Today June 2020

Edition Date: 
Monday, June 1, 2020
Cover Image: 

Begin With New START, Not a New Arms Race

June 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Three and a half years since taking office, the Trump administration has failed to develop, let alone pursue, a coherent nuclear arms control strategy. The administration’s official nuclear policy document, the “2018 Nuclear Posture Review,” barely discusses arms control as a risk reduction tool. It passively states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit.”

A Trident II D-5 intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from the water after being launched from the submerged nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine USS Tennessee (SSBN-734). (Photo: The U.S. National Archives)But President Donald Trump says he would like to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin “to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.” Since April 2018, Trump and his advisers have talked about somehow involving China in nuclear arms control yet they have failed to explain how to do so.

Meanwhile, Trump has rebuffed Russia’s offer to extend the only remaining nuclear arms control treaty, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), by five years. This can be accomplished through an executive agreement that must be concluded before the treaty expires Feb. 5, 2021.

Having wasted valuable time, team Trump is now threatening to allow New START to expire and launch a new arms race unless Russia, as well as China, agree to a new and more ambitious arms control deal involving all types of nuclear weapons, strategic and nonstrategic. The Washington Post reported May 22 that senior administration officials even discussed the option of a demonstration nuclear test explosion as a way to pressure the Russian and Chinese leaders to accept the U.S. terms. This would not advance arms control; it would be an invitation for other nuclear-actors to follow suit; and it would blow apart the nonproliferation regime.

The president’s new “arms control” envoy, Marshall Billingslea, told The Washington Times on May 7 that before there is talk about extension of New START, Russia must “bring the Chinese to the negotiating table.” In remarks on May 21, Billingslea said that “any potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control.”

Serious pursuit of deep cuts in all types of nuclear weapons in the bloated U.S. and Russian arsenals and engaging other nuclear-armed states in disarmament talks are crucial. But there is no possibility of concluding a new and complex nuclear deal before New START expires, and discarding New START without a replacement agreement would be foreign policy malpractice.

Negotiations to account for, reduce, and eliminate U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons are overdue, but they will not be easy. Russian officials say they are prepared to talk about these weapons, but only if U.S. leaders are prepared to address Russian concerns, including U.S. missile defenses—an issue U.S. officials, including Billingslea, say is non-negotiable.

Leaders in Beijing have repeatedly said they are not interested in an arms control deal as long as Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals remain orders of magnitude larger than China’s. Russian officials say they are open to talks with China, but it is up to Washington to bring Beijing to the table, and they want France and the United Kingdom involved in any such talks.

Unfortunately, the administration’s entire approach seems to be based on an exaggerated and naive belief that tough talk and threats will somehow coerce Russia and China to make major unilateral concessions. In remarks broadcast on May 21, Billingslea said the United States would not hesitate to engage in a costly nuclear arms race if China and Russia do not agree to U.S. terms. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said.

Even the Trump administration’s former undersecretary for arms control and nonproliferation, Andrea Thompson, is skeptical about the administration’s tactics. “China is not going to come to the table before February of next year,” Thompson told Newsweek on May 14. “There's no incentive for them to come to the table.”

U.S. allies and U.S. military and intelligence officials greatly value the New START limits and its inspection capabilities, which provide predictability and transparency. As Adm. Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on April 29, “Put me down in the column of extension, and the reason for that is the clock is running. Certainly, in my experience, getting to the right specifics in a very complex treaty takes a long time.”

The administration’s unserious approach on New START—a pattern of behavior that led to its decisions to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Iran nuclear deal—suggests it may simply be seeking a pretext for exiting yet another valuable risk reduction agreement without a plan B.

If Trump genuinely wants to constrain and reduce the nuclear capabilities of major adversaries, the first and best step is to promptly agree to extend New START by five years. This would create the time and the right environment for follow-on disarmament talks with Russia and serious give-and-take discussions with China on risk reduction options, including a possible freeze of the size of China’s arsenal and joint stockpile declarations.

Unless the White House shifts course and soon, the United States may lose the benefits of New START, and Trump will have opened the door to a more dangerous and costly phase of the global nuclear arms race, which everyone stands to lose.


Three and a half years since taking office, the Trump administration has failed to develop, let alone pursue, a coherent nuclear arms control strategy. The administration’s official nuclear policy document, the “2018 Nuclear Posture Review,” barely discusses arms control as a risk reduction tool.

Reconsidering U.S. Plutonium Pit Production Plans

June 2020
By Sharon K. Weiner

U.S. efforts to produce and maintain the plutonium cores of its nuclear weapons have endured a troubled history of safety and environmental problems since the first plutonium was produced in Hanford, Washington, in 1944. These hollow metal cores, each weighing several kilograms, enable the initial, explosive chain reaction in nuclear weapons.1 The last pit production facility at Rocky Flats was closed in 1989 due to widespread contamination and negligence. In the 1990s, pit production essentially stopped as arsenals declined. Although pit production was eventually relocated to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lab struggled to produce more than a handful, if any, pits in any given year.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. (left), then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, watches a demonstration of the transporters used for Minuteman III ICBMs at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in 2016. The Air Force is planning to replace all of its W87 ICBM warheads with new W87-1 warheads that will require newly produced plutonium pits. (Photo: Dominique Pineiro/U.S. Navy/Joint Chiefs of Staff)Yet, pit production ambitions persisted. The Obama administration’s nuclear modernization plans gave impetus to a variety of schemes and in the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress required the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semiautonomous nuclear weapons agency of the Department of Energy, to build a facility that could demonstrate an annual production capacity of 80 pits. Although several plans for such a facility at Los Alamos were proposed, each was postponed or abandoned because of unclear justifications, budget shortfalls, or both.

Under the Trump administration, pit production efforts have enjoyed new momentum. In 2019, Congress set the requirement not only to demonstrate capacity but to produce at least 80 pits per year by 2030. The administration also made pit production a budget priority. The Energy Department’s fiscal year 2021 budget request asks for about $1.4 billion to support plans for production of new plutonium pits, a massive increase of $570 million over the fiscal year 2020 appropriated level. The NNSA plans to build two pit production facilities: one at Los Alamos and a second, larger facility in South Carolina at the Savannah River Site.

Pit production, however, is not the requirement it is claimed to be. Current pit production plans are likely to cost significantly more than estimated, putting increased pressure on an already strained federal budget. Moreover, assessing the underlying assumptions makes clear there are credible alternatives to the scale and planned start date for pit production. Additionally, current plans and their latent potential to ramp up to larger pit production rates raise concerns that the United States is also interested in developing new types of nuclear weapons and expanding the arsenal. This may well feed the potential for an arms race with Russia or China and will also undermine long-standing U.S. commitments to arms control and to a reduction in reliance on nuclear weapons.

Cost and Schedule Problems (Again)

To meet the production goal of 80 pits by 2030, the NNSA intends for Los Alamos to make 30 pits per year, with the rest to be produced at the Savannah River Site. According to a January 2019 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the estimated cost of NNSA pit production plans are $9 billion over the next decade.2 Yet, past performance and multiple independent assessments raise questions about the ability of the NNSA to deliver on time and within budget.

One set of concerns involves the facilities at Los Alamos. Since the closure of Rocky Flats, Los Alamos has led the charge for reconstituting pit production despite numerous setbacks to its plans and facilities. Its Plutonium Facility Building 4 (PF-4), the site of current pit production activities, is supposed to install a production capacity of 10 pits per year and then ramp up to a capability of making 30 pits per year by 2026, but the facility may not be up to the task. Los Alamos produced only five prototype pits in fiscal year 2019, which are not the “war reserve” pits that meet that standards for deployment on nuclear weapons. PF-4 is seeking to be able to produce its first such pit in 2023.

Designed in the 1970s, PF-4 lacks important safety features and has a history of safety problems. For example, in 2013, Los Alamos paused work at PF-4 for three years after the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board noted a variety of ongoing problems, including violations of rules intended to ensure the safe storage of plutonium. According to safety experts, Los Alamos lacked enough personnel “who knew how to handle plutonium so it didn’t accidentally go ‘critical’ and start an uncontrolled chain reaction.”3 In 2016 the lab had to cancel its plans to resume work at PF-4 because of concerns over safety. The lab also has repeatedly been criticized for lacking plans to mitigate risks from local forest fires and seismic activity, even though concerns about both have increased in recent years. Although pit work resumed in 2017, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board documented problems with delayed and incomplete upgrades to safety controls.4 Add in broader problems with the safety culture at Los Alamos, and this suggests that accidents will remain a concern.

Note: The chemical explosive can be a conventional high explosive or an insensitive high explosive.  Source: International Panel on Fissile Materials


PF-4 is also crowded because of its other plutonium missions. In addition to pit production, the facility converts excess weapons-grade plutonium into plutonium dioxide in preparation for its storage or disposition. It also supports NASA by processing plutonium-238, which is used as an energy source for space missions. Yet, there are limits on how much plutonium can be in an area at any one time. It is not clear that PF-4 can expand pit production without shortchanging disposition activities or NASA or violating safety standards.

Los Alamos’s planning of pit-related facilities has also been problematic. Technical analysis on pit sample material was to be performed at a new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility. That project was terminated in 2014 after significant cost overruns and a failure to meet environmental regulations for the handling and disposal of nuclear waste. The Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, which provides facilities for a variety of activities related to plutonium work, was completed in 2010, but had a leak in its radioactive waste system in 2019. Prior to current pit production plans, the NNSA was criticized for pushing the adoption of Los Alamos’s “modular” plan to increase space for plutonium work without adequate analysis of the risk of failure, alternatives, or cost.5

The military’s frustration with Los Alamos’s repeated failures is rumored to be behind the addition of a second pit production facility. This larger facility, the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF), is intended make 50 pits per year. The SRPPF will be housed in a repurposed building that was to have been the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, originally intended to convert excess weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel. The NNSA was finally persuaded to cancel the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel project in 2018 after its original cost of $1.6 billion ballooned to potentially more than $100 billion.6 Left behind was an unfinished concrete shell primed for plutonium work. In 2018 the building was estimated to be about 70 percent complete. About one-quarter of this construction, however, needed to be redone because of improper installation, failure to meet required regulations, and a host of other problems.7 It is unclear what other problems may arise in trying to turn this incomplete building into a pit production facility.

Independent analysis has called into question the NNSA’s ability to meet pit production requirements at Los Alamos and Savannah River. A 2019 assessment found that although redundant facilities would provide a buffer against natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or fires, or geopolitical developments leading to a more hostile international environment, neither Los Alamos nor the SRPPF could alone produce 80 pits per year.8 The assessment also concluded that because the NNSA has difficulties managing large projects, it is very risky to assume current pit production plans will be finished on schedule and without significant cost overruns.

Any pit manufacturing facility is likely to take significantly longer than anticipated, cost much more than planned, and require significant revisions to succeed. These problems may not be amenable to a better management solution. They reflect what has been identified as a larger, enduring problem at the NNSA and the Energy Department. Despite years of trying to improve project management, the NNSA remains on the Government Accountability Office’s list of government organizations that are at high risk of “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” due to its track record and current practices.9

Even if current plans succeed, other complications flow from the redundancies built into them. The 2019 NDAA requires Los Alamos to make plans to produce up to 80 pits per year on its own, in the event that the SRPPF is not ready in time.10 Additionally, the SRPPF is a large facility that could make 80 pits per year or more on its own.11 The potential redundancy built into the twin pit production projects could lead to an effective capacity to produce at least 160 pits per year.

There are political risks to this redundancy. Domestically, pit production has raised concerns about the ability of Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site to ensure environmental safety. Los Alamos, for example, is on or near several known earthquake faults, and the Savannah River Site is vulnerable to wind and flood damage from hurricanes. The politics of “not in my backyard” are also significant. South Carolina, for example, sued the Energy Department for failing to meet its promise of removing all plutonium from the state. Further, pit production at the Savannah River Site will require moving more plutonium across the United States. Instead of shipping pits some 300 miles from their current storage site at the Pantex Plant in Texas to Los Alamos, they will travel almost 1,000 additional miles to get to the Savannah River Site.

Internationally, the plan raises concerns that the United States may be interested in expanding its nuclear arsenal with many more weapons or a large number of warheads with new capabilities. At a rate of 160 pits per year, the United States in less than three years would be able to build as many new nuclear weapons as are believed to be in China’s current arsenal. The uncertain future of the U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits each country to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, is a particular concern. That agreement is set to expire in 2021, and the Trump administration has resisted efforts to work toward a five-year extension. If the treaty expires with nothing to replace it, there will be no legally binding limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time in half a century.

The Argument for 80

The NNSA provides two main justifications for creating an 80-pit-per-year production capability by 2030. One rests on assumptions about pit aging, and the other on enhancing warhead safety.

The most frequent argument in support of pit production focuses on size of the U.S. stockpile as warheads age. The current U.S. arsenal is estimated to include about 3,800 warheads, of which 1,750 are currently deployed and the remainder are in a reserve in various stages of readiness.12 The pits for these warheads were all manufactured between 1979 and 1990. Even though all warheads that will remain in the arsenal are scheduled to undergo life extension programs (LEPs), current plans assume that all of these pits must be replaced before they reach an age past which they might no longer work reliably due to problems with corrosion or plutonium decay. As explained by Peter Fanta, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters late last year, “Want to know where 80 pits per year came from? It’s math. Alright? It’s really simple math. Divide 80 per year by the number of active warheads we have—last time it was unclassified it was just under 4,000—and you get a timeframe.”13

How old is too old for a pit? In the early 2000s when the NNSA was considering building a capacity for producing between 125 and 450 pits per year, the weapons labs argued that pits will perform as designed for 45 to 60 years.14 In 2006 that estimate was significantly increased based on a series of studies at the weapons labs, plus an external evaluation by JASON, an independent group of scientists who consult on technical matters related to national security. According to the JASON study, “[m]ost primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium; those with assessed minimum lifetimes of 100 years or less have clear mitigation paths that are proposed and/or being implemented.”15 A 2012 assessment by the weapons lab at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory went even further, putting pit lifetimes at 150 years.16 In 2019, a few months after the NNSA took over the funding contract for JASON research from the Department of Defense, the group issued a letter explaining that “the present assessments of aging do not indicate any impending issues for the stockpile” but implying discomfort with pits beyond 80 years old and supporting the “expeditious” reestablishment of a pit production capacity because “a significant period of time will be required to recreate the facilities and expertise” needed to manufacture plutonium pits.17

Under the conservative estimate of 100 years of pit life before replacement, the youngest pits in the stockpile today will age out in 2090. If pit production begins in 2030, that would require 63 pits per year in order to replace all pits before the last one reaches 100 years of age sometime in 2090. At the rate of 80 pits per year, pit production need not begin until 2042 (table 1).

Another variable is the size of the nuclear arsenal. As part of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, the military agreed that it could meet its deterrence and war-fighting requirements with about 1,000 deployed nuclear weapons.18 Each of those 1,000 deployed weapons having a backup in the stockpile would result in an overall arsenal size of 2,000 warheads, rather than the 3,800 warheads today, which relaxes even further the requirements for pit production. Assuming pits age out after 100 years, a requirement to replace all 2,000 warheads could be met by producing 33 pits per year starting in 2030 or by producing 80 pits per year starting in 2065. The arguments for pit production starting in 2030 or for 80 pits per year appear to be choices rather than requirements (table 1).

Rather than assumptions about plutonium aging, it appears that the push to begin pit production by 2030 is based on plans for the newly designed W87-1 warhead and arguments about the need for enhanced warhead safety features.19 All warhead pits are encased in an explosive shell that surrounds the pit and compresses it to begin the chain reaction that produces the explosion. Three warheads currently use conventional high explosive (CHE): the W88 and W76 warheads on submarines and the W78 warhead on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Moving to insensitive high explosive (IHE), which is less vulnerable to shock and heat, would lower the risk for accidents that could lead to the dispersal of plutonium. Because a greater weight and volume of IHE is required to drive compression in a primary, for some warhead types a shift to IHE may require a different pit design and thus the manufacture of new pits.20

The Navy has long argued that it prefers its own warheads even if they contain CHE. Shifting to IHE would have implications for missile range and the design of reentry vehicles.21 Naval resistance is one of the reasons for the demise of plans for an interoperable warhead, a suite of three new warhead designs proposed under the Obama administration that would have allowed the same IHE warhead to fit on Navy and Air Force ballistic missiles. Similarly, the Navy opted to “refresh” the CHE on the W88 rather than redesign warheads and missiles. The close quarters on a submarine, plus the periodic removal of missiles and refit of the submarine, would presumably make the Navy especially sensitive about warhead safety. Unlike the Air Force, the Navy has never had an accident that led to the dispersal of plutonium. The Navy’s safety record, plus its resistance to opting for IHE-based warheads, calls into question the merits of NNSA arguments about the need to redesign warheads and make new pits in order to increase safety.

The Air Force, which operates land-based ICBMs and has had plutonium-dispersal accidents, prefers warheads with IHE. The NNSA and the Air Force have approved replacing the W78, which contains CHE, with a new warhead named the W87-1 because it is based on the design of the W87-0, the other ICBM warhead, which already uses IHE.22 Once completed, all ICBM warheads would contain IHE. According to the NNSA, the new W87-1 is to be in place by fiscal year 2030, in time to arm the next-generation ICBM, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which is optimistically slated for deployment starting in 2029 and lasting through 2036.23 Meeting this eight-year schedule requires the capability to produce on average 75 pits per year if the estimated 600 W78s in the current arsenal are all replaced with the new W87-1 by the time all the new GBSD missiles are deployed.24 To be ready in time, the NNSA argues that the United States has to begin building a pit production facility now, partially because it may take as long as 15 years to bring any new pit production facility into operation.25

There are several reasons why 2030 is still not a hard start date for pit production. The schedule for the GBSD program may slip; delays are not uncommon in major acquisition programs. More significantly, instead of making a new warhead, the Air Force could replace any problematic W78 warheads with W87-0 warheads. The W87-0 completed an LEP in 2004. This gave additional shelf life to the estimated 200 such warheads already deployed on Minuteman III missiles. Plus, there are believed to be enough extra W87-0 warheads in the stockpile to replace the 200 deployed W78 warheads and even have spares left over.26 The NNSA has argued that fear of a failure in an entire class of warheads means it is prudent to have at least two different designs for each delivery system. Plans to replace the W78 with a warhead based on the design of the other ICBM warhead, however, suggest there is room for compromise.

Even if all ICBMs are not outfitted with the W87, the W78 likely still has some life left, even though it is the oldest warhead in the arsenal. Manufactured between 1979 and 1982, the pits in these warheads have at least another 40 years of life before they may need to be replaced.

Pits at Any Price

Irrespective of production numbers and start date, both the NNSA and U.S. Strategic Command have stated that pit production is one of their highest priorities. Their justifications, however, are derived from ambiguous evidence that suggest judgment calls shaped by institutional self-interest rather than strict technical requirements.

A technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory manipulates plutonium as part of the U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program in 2005. The laboratory has sought a major role in producing new plutonium pits despite an uneven safety record.  (Photo: U.S. Energy Department)One argument is that pit production is necessary as a hedge against the unexpected discovery of a problem that may affect an entire class of warheads. Details about such “significant findings” that might suggest issues that could mandate replacing an entire class of warheads are classified. In 1996 the General Accounting Office reported that from 1958 to 1996, there were about 1,200 significant findings of which less than 200 identified failures in some component of a weapon system.27 Unknown is how many of these problems were associated with pits. In 2001 the Energy Department’s inspector general provided an update, stating that “[s]ince 1958, more than 1200 significant findings have been identified. About 120 findings have resulted in retrofits or major design changes to the nuclear weapons stockpile.”28 Although five years had passed since the 1996 report, it seems that the number of significant findings was largely unchanged. This should suggest confidence in the Stockpile Stewardship Program rather than plans to replace all pits.

More reasons to question the need for pit production can be found in the results of warhead surveillance testing since 2001 (table 2). Even with a robust testing schedule, the number of findings that required modifications to some part of the warhead has declined over time and remains at or near zero. Moreover, according to the NNSA, some significant findings can be mitigated in ways that do not require a new pit.29

The 30-year absence of pit production capability, plus the focus on warhead LEPs instead of replacement, suggest major unexpected problems seldom or never appear. Additionally, if a technical problem goes undetected for decades but suddenly calls into question the functionality of an entire class of warheads, there are enough spares in the active and reserve stockpiles to replace those warheads or provide additional deployed warheads on other delivery systems.

The NNSA has argued that warheads need to function “as designed.”30 The nuclear weapons research and design labs have also made the case that new designs are necessary in order to maintain a cadre of experts in weapons design. Specialty nuclear weapons for niche functions, such as the mid-2000s proposal for a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, have also been a driver. Collectively, these justifications raise concerns that conservative assumptions about pit age and replacement are at least partially a function of concern for jobs and future missions.

Another area that is open to interpretation is the relationship between pit age and military requirements. Military requirements focus on the degree of certainty that a nuclear weapon will launch, arrive, and explode as planned within a defined range of planned parameters. Military requirements are also classified, but it is not clear that a warhead’s ability to meet requirements drops precipitously once it reaches a certain age. Further, it may be possible to relax requirements or modify delivery systems in other ways without jeopardizing the deterrent value of nuclear weapons. For example, in 2016 the Nuclear Weapons Council authorized an increase in the amount of tritium in U.S. nuclear weapons because of concerns about performance reliability.31

The current U.S. moratorium on explosive nuclear testing is sometimes offered as a justification for pit production. The Pentagon's “Nuclear Matters Handbook 2020” suggests uncertainties about warhead performance might be addressed by changing warhead designs. According to the Defense Department, “Eventually, all of the weapons in the legacy stockpile will need to be replaced by new warheads whose designs place a premium on yield margin so that they can be certified without the benefit of nuclear explosive testing.”32 Yet instead of setting military requirements for individual components of the warhead, those requirements could apply to the weapon system overall. This would allow for any deficiencies in yield to be compensated by improvements in accuracy or other changes.

Pits and Politics

In assessing the many justifications offered for pit production, Congress has often deferred to the self-interest of a few members. The New Mexico congressional delegation has led the charge for keeping pit production at Los Alamos, but done little to support a more rigorous investigation of environmental safety or oversight of pit production plans.33 Once the MOX fuel project was terminated, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) shifted positions to become a staunch supporter of two pit production facilities because one of these sites would be in his state.

Seen more broadly, although justifications largely focus on warhead safety and reliability, pit production plans go beyond what is necessary to replicate current nuclear arsenal capabilities. This, in turn, raises concerns that part of the driver for pit production is an interest in new warhead designs and laying the foundation for a potential expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Both would likely have adverse effects on the global nonproliferation regime and exacerbate tensions with Russia and China.

Pit production is not a policy goal in itself. The ultimate purpose of making pits is not to replace those in the current nuclear arsenal or add to this arsenal. It is to maintain a robust nuclear force and posture that can deter potential adversaries. If nuclear deterrence rather than reproducing the status quo or expanded pit replacement is the goal, current pit production plans are not a requirement but one option of many. Given the likely cost and possible adverse effects of current plans, it is important to reevaluate their underlying assumptions and justifications in order to consider the full range of alternatives.


1. U.S. Department of Energy, “FY 2021 Congressional Budget Request: National Nuclear Security Administration,” DOE/CF-0161, February 2020, p. 163.

2. Congressional Budget Office, “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028,” January 2019, p. 5, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2019-01/54914-NuclearForces.pdf.

3. R. Jeffrey Smith and Patrick Malone, “Safety Problems at a Los Alamos Laboratory Delay U.S. Nuclear Warhead Testing and Production,” Science, June 30, 2017, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/safety-problems-los-alamos-laboratory-delay-us-nuclear-warhead-testing-and-production.

4. Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Letter to Secretary of Energy James Perry, November 15, 2019, https://ehss.energy.gov/deprep/2019/FB19N15B.PDF.

5. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “DOE Project Management: NNSA Needs to Clarify Requirements for Its Plutonium Analysis Project at Los Alamos,” GAO-16-585, August 2016, pp. 23–27.

6. Aerospace Corp., “Plutonium Disposition Study Options Independent Assessment Phase 1 Report,” TOR-2015-01848, April 13, 2015, p. 4.

7. “Plutonium Disposition and the MOX Project,” hearing before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Committee on Armed Services, 114th Cong. (2015).

8. Institute for Defense Analyses, “Independent Assessment of the Two-Site Pit Production Decision: Executive Summary,” May 2019, https://www.ida.org/-/media/feature/publications/i/in/independent-assessment-of-the-two-site-pit-production-decision-executive-summary/d-10711.ashx.

9. GAO, “High-Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed to Achieve Greater Progress on High-Risk Areas,” GAO-19-157SP, March 2019, pp. 217–221.

10. John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, Pub. L. No. 115–232, 132 Stat. 1636 (2018), sec. 3120.

11. Colin Demarest, “Study: Savannah River Pit Hub Could Meet National Demand for Nuclear Weapon Cores,” Aiken Standard, April 9, 2020.

12. For stockpile estimates, see Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2020,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 76, No. 1 (2020): 46–60.

13. Colin Demarest, “Why 80? Defense Leaders Discuss the Need for Plutonium Pits,” Aiken Standard, December 28, 2019.

14. U.S. Department of Energy, “Draft Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Stockpile Stewardship and Management for a Modern Pit Facility,” DOE/EIS-236-S2, May 2003, p. S-12.

15. R.J. Hemley et al., “Pit Lifetime,” MITRE Corp., JSR-06-335, January 11, 2007, p. 1.

16. Arnie Heller, “Plutonium at 150 Years: Going Strong and Aging Gracefully,” Science and Technology Review, December 2012, pp. 12, 14.

17. JASON, Letter to Todd Caldwell, November 23, 2019, p. 2.

18. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States Specified in Section 491 of 10 U.S.C.,” June 12, 2013, p. 6.

19. Greg Mello, “U.S. Plutonium Pit Production Plans Advance, With New Requirements,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, December 23, 2019, http://fissilematerials.org/blog/2019/12/us_plutonium_pit_producti_2.html.

20. David Kramer, “Concerns About Aging Plutonium Drive Need for New Weapon Cores,” Physics Today, July 2018, p. 24.

21. Frank N. von Hippel, “The Decision to End U.S. Nuclear Testing,” Arms Control Today, December 2019.

22. GAO, “Nuclear Weapons: NNSA Has Taken Steps to Prepare to Restart a Program to Replace the W78 Warhead Capability,” GAO-19-84, November 2018, p. 3 n.9.

23. Amy F. Woolf, “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues,” CRS Report, RL33640, January 3, 2020, p. 21.

24. Kristensen and Korda, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2020,” p. 47.

25. Harold M. Agnew et al., “FY 2000 Report to Congress of the Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile,” February 1, 2001, p. 10.

26. Kristensen and Korda, “United States Nuclear Forces, 2020,” p. 47.

27. Victor S. Rezendes, “Nuclear Weapons: Status of DOE’s Nuclear Stockpile Surveillance Program” (Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Committee on Armed Services, GAO/T-RCED-96-100, March 13, 1996), p. 2.

28. Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Energy, “Management of the Stockpile Surveillance Program’s Significant Finding Investigations,” DOE/IG-0535, December 2001.

29. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), U.S. Department of Energy, “Fiscal Year 2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan - Biennial Plan Summary: Report to Congress,” October 2018, p. 2–5.

30. U.S. Department of Energy, “Draft Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Stockpile Stewardship and Management for a Modern Pit Facility,” p. S-11.

31. NNSA, “Fiscal Year 2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan - Biennial Plan Summary,” p. 2–18.

32. Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Matters Handbook 2020,” n.d., p. 254, https://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/nmhb/docs/NMHB2020.pdf.

33. Susan Montoya Bryan, “U.S. Lawmakers From New Mexico Hold Out on Review of Nuke Plan,” U.S. News and World Report, January 13, 2020.

Sharon K. Weiner is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University. She thanks Frank von Hippel and Zia Mian for their comments in drafting this article.


The Trump administration’s plan to ramp up production of plutonium is unnecessary and likely to exceed current budget and schedule goals.

Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation in Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic

June 2020
Rüdiger Lüdeking

Just a few weeks ago, no one could have imagined that the crisis sparked by the spread of the coronavirus would have such a far-reaching impact on daily life. The effects on almost all spheres of life as well as on global politics are severe. The broader effects of the pandemic cannot yet be conclusively assessed, but it is fair to say it adds to the already overburdened global agenda.

To battle coronavirus disease, Iran converted the fairground of Iranmall, Tehran's largest shopping mall, into a hospital. The pandemic offers insight into the consequences of other global threats, such as climate change or nuclear war. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)As the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned in January of this year, even before the coronavirus pandemic entered the public consciousness, there are two simultaneous, existential threats—climate change and the possibility of nuclear war—that put humanity closer to disaster than ever before since the end of the Second World War. The Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock has been set to just 100 seconds to midnight. Even more importantly, the international community and world leaders have been complacent in the face of this dire state of affairs and have failed to address these two key challenges together and effectively. The trend toward national isolationism and inadequate international cooperation has exacerbated the terrible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Climate change is the subject of intense political debates and an impressive engagement and commitment on the part of civil society, and in the past few weeks, there have been increasing warnings not to lose sight of this topic despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, the growing danger of nuclear war is being largely ignored by the public and by most policymakers. In the 1980s, which seems as though it was a long time ago, the perceived threat posed by nuclear weapons was the subject of an unprecedented civil society mobilization, especially in my home country of Germany.

Just as the possibility of deadly disease outbreaks such as Ebola appeared to be an abstract and far-off danger, especially to people in Europe and other industrialized and wealthy nations, many today see nuclear weapons and the possible outbreak of nuclear war only as a theoretical danger that does not directly affect their daily lives. Unsurprisingly, little attention was paid to the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) on March 5, 2020, the treaty that commits 191 states to achieve total disarmament and to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. Likewise, the news about the postponement of the NPT review conference announced at the end of March was largely ignored by the public.

Setbacks to Stability

Regarding the threats posed by nuclear weapons, such carelessness or complacency can no longer be afforded. The rapid change and fragmentation of international relations, return to great power politics, and reawakening of nationalism in key countries create the potential for conflict. The NPT is not just a matter for government experts and a small group of scientists. The intensifying rivalry among the United States, Russia, and China, which has resulted in a new qualitative nuclear arms race, can no more leave us indifferent than the nuclear weapons ambitions of individual countries in conflict-prone regions outside Europe.

Particularly since President Donald Trump took office, the United States has pushed ahead with its nuclear weapons program. It is no longer just a matter of modernizing existing systems, but also of developing and introducing new systems, especially of lower yields, in order to expand and render more flexible nuclear options in a regional context. Recent estimates suggest the cost of the U.S. nuclear weapons program could be a staggering $500 billion between 2018 and 2028.

Russia, not surprisingly, does everything in its power not to lag behind the United States. In recent years, President Vladimir Putin has pushed Russia to make significant efforts to develop new delivery systems for nuclear weapons. These range from a new heavy, land-based intercontinental ballistic missile to various hypersonic weapons systems to a nuclear-armed strategic torpedo and a cruise missile with intercontinental range. These developments were triggered by the Russian interest in evading U.S. missile defenses and ensuring a second-strike capability.

The two nuclear superpowers’ push to further upgrade their already massive nuclear weapons capacities is liable to undermine strategic stability and lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The latter also applies in view of the fact that the United States and Russia in their doctrines assign an increased role to nuclear weapons and do not rule out the first use of these weapons in a regional conflict.

There have also been major setbacks recently regarding the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, the second key objective of the NPT. North Korea’s ongoing ballistic missile tests reaffirm its leadership’s determination to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities while talks with the United States on denuclearization and peace remain stalled.

Perhaps of even more immediate concern for European security and the NPT is the crisis provoked by the unilateral U.S. withdrawal in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal. When the agreement was concluded in 2015, it was clear to all Western parties that it would not resolve every problem posed by Iran, particularly its behavior in the Middle East. Rather, the aim was to subject Iran’s nuclear activities to strict verification measures and to prevent Iran from being able to produce the necessary quantities of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons undetected within a short period of time.

President Donald Trump displays his order reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, 2018. The move was one of several agreement withdrawals that have undermined strategic stability. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)The concrete gain in security achieved by the 2015 multilateral agreement has recklessly been called into question by the U.S. withdrawal. In addition, at least for the time being, the prospect of gradually building trust with Iran has been destroyed, trust that will be necessary to achieve viable solutions to other questions of stability in the Middle East. Instead, U.S. policy has strengthened the conservative and clerical forces in Iran who are opposed to domestic reforms and international engagement.

If the Trump administration tries in the coming months to reimpose UN nuclear sanctions on Iran that were waived when Iran implemented the 2015 deal, hard-liners in Tehran might feel encouraged to press for the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program and the withdrawal from the NPT. This would have fatal consequences for security in the Middle East and could trigger a domino effect. States such as Saudi Arabia could be forced to reconsider their renunciation of nuclear weapons.

Toward a Successful NPT

It would have been up to the 10th NPT review conference, which was to take place in New York from April 27 to May 22, to address these developments. It was generally expected that this conference would be very contentious because of stark differences between and among key groups of NPT states-parties, in particular the frustration of the non-nuclear-weapon states over the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament and the growing tensions between the United States and Russia and China. The postponement, however, frees up time to work toward a more productive review conference, but only if key states are prepared to meet several necessary prerequisites for success.

First, the U.S. leadership must be convinced that a successful conference is in their interest and that they can make a decisive contribution to that success through a constructive and results-oriented posture and a spirit of compromise. Unfortunately, the current administration has relied so far on national egotism in international relations and is trying to dodge any multilateral commitment and responsibility. Instead of dialogue and disarmament and arms control agreements, the Trump administration, as was often the case during the administration of President George W. Bush, relies on a unilateral, confrontational approach to conflict resolution and military superiority as a guarantee of security. Fueling the nuclear arms race through the modernization of its own nuclear arsenal, as well as the unilateral withdrawals from the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia in 2019, place high burdens and strains on the NPT review process.

In addition, by beginning a dialogue process on the conditions for nuclear disarmament, known as the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament initiative, the United States is clearly attempting to gain time and call into question the disarmament steps agreed by previous review conferences. The prospect of achieving a more constructive U.S. stance may be slim even if Trump is defeated in the November election by former Vice President Joe Biden and the NPT review conference is held after Inauguration Day on January 20. Nevertheless, despite its declining relative power in international relations, a more constructive U.S. role is key to the success of the NPT because the United States remains the pacesetter and linchpin for more effective global disarmament and nonproliferation policies.

Second, the contracting states must find new common ground and unity. The NPT remains an indispensable framework for nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states share an interest in effectively preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the absence of more effective and constructive leadership from Washington and given the Trump administration’s erratic nonproliferation policy, it is important for a range of other relevant and influential states to pursue joint efforts to forge agreement on key NPT issues.

In addition, there is a need for constructive openness and painstaking management regarding the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, which has always been a politically charged and particularly sensitive issue of crucial importance to NPT implementation. Unfortunately, divergent views on the approach and policies to be adopted toward that end, as well as growing divisions in the region, have made it more difficult than ever to achieve early results. Although there is agreement that such a zone cannot be imposed from outside the region, all states should support in a constructive spirit the pursuit of the process started with the first conference regarding the zone, which was held in New York in November 2019. In addition, they should urgently call for steps to be undertaken to build confidence in the Middle East. One such step could consist of the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention by Egypt and Israel and the intensification of investigations into the persistent allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Finally, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by 122 states in 2017, has proven to be particularly divisive. This division of the international community must be overcome. The treaty expresses understandable frustration with the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament, but does not provide a basis for greater consensus at this time because it is rejected by all nuclear-weapon states and a number of important non-nuclear-weapon states. Furthermore, there are fundamental questions regarding its design, including ensuring a stringent verification regime, and its integration into the existing regime of disarmament and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Instead, it would be important to agree on an incremental approach consisting of meaningful concrete next steps on nuclear disarmament and nuclear risk reduction, which must not be too ambitious given currently unfavorable conditions. Germany has long been an advocate of the incremental approach, and within the so-called Stockholm Initiative, Germany and 15 other non-nuclear-weapon states from all continents agreed on a list of such steps at a ministerial meeting in February in Berlin. The credibility of the disarmament process hinges on the readiness in particular of the nuclear-weapon states to make a move forward in embracing and implementing such steps. For example, the start of negotiations on an internationally verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty could create long overdue momentum and help the NPT to get back on track.

Third, the United States and Russia must serve as role models and take the lead in nuclear disarmament. Together, the two countries have more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, more than 6,000 each. The Trump administration’s insistence on China's involvement in any disarmament agreement has little or no chance of success in the near term given the still comparatively small Chinese arsenal of some 300 nuclear warheads. Instead, to underscore their commitment to nuclear disarmament, the United States and Russia should announce that they will extend the bilateral limitations set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is due to expire in February 2021, and launch new bilateral talks designed to reach agreements on strategic stability and arms control, including numerical limitations of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, new weapons systems such as hypersonic missiles, conventional precision weapons, missile defense, and cyberthreats. This would be a signal of paramount political importance. Especially after the end of the INF Treaty, new restraint arrangements on the development and deployment of medium-range systems would be of major significance and constitute an important step toward rebuilding confidence between the two sides.

Fourth, the five nuclear-weapon states must jointly demonstrate their willingness to meet their NPT disarmament obligations. Due to major differences, measures and possibly unilateral steps regarding the transparency about potentials and doctrines should be seriously considered. In addition, it is in the mutual security interests of the five NPT nuclear-armed states to agree to measures to reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons and to prevent an uncontrolled escalation. The so-called P5 process accompanying the review process could become the nucleus of a discussion and negotiation forum for the nuclear-weapon states on strategic stability, including geostrategic issues, new weapons, and threat perceptions, as well as regional stability and balance of power questions.

Fifth, the NPT review conference should not be overloaded. After the failure of the 2015 review conference to reach an agreed outcome and disappointments about the failure to fully implement commitments agreed at the conferences in 2000 and 2010, the first step must be to reaffirm the foundations of the international nuclear order as defined by the NPT.

The focus should be on the credible renewal of the “deal” on which the treaty is based: nuclear disarmament in exchange for nonproliferation and renunciation of nuclear weapons. This requires a clear political signal from the nuclear-weapon states that they remain committed to the goal of nuclear disarmament. In recent months, the five nuclear-weapon states have discussed the possibility of affirming a fundamental insight that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev underscored at their summit in 1985: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” At first glance, this seems to be simple and straightforward, enunciating what seems to be common sense. Yet, apparently not all nuclear-weapon states are willing to go along with such a reaffirmation, which sheds light on and is indicative of the current state of relations among them.

Takeaway Lessons

The coronavirus pandemic, which understandably is dominating the public debate, should reshape perceptions and responses to other transnational challenges. It provides lessons that need to be taken to heart and that should have an impact on the way in which nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are addressed in the future.

The coronavirus crisis was initially largely underestimated. Likewise, the danger of nuclear war is currently almost completely ignored. The experience of the past few weeks should raise awareness not only of the danger of pandemics, but also of other global challenges that have so far been in the slipstream of attention. There should be room again for the insight that the danger of nuclear war, particularly in view of growing rivalries between the major powers, is not abstract but real and existential.

After the global coronavirus crisis has been overcome, it will be necessary to clarify what needs to be done to be better prepared in the future, to effectively prevent a pandemic outbreak and keep the effects under control. A passive, wait-and-see attitude according to the motto “everything will be fine” should now be discredited. Preventive security policy, disarmament, and arms control efforts, which must always be seen as “proactive conflict prevention,” should become more of a focus.

It should be clear to all states, especially the United States, which has been among the worst hit by the virus, that national “go it alone” efforts are inappropriate and far less efficient. In a globalized world, global challenges can only be met effectively through cross-border, multilateral cooperation.

As of today, the medium- to long-term consequences of the coronavirus pandemic cannot be predicted in detail. Yet, it is already clear that immense financial expenditures will be necessary to remedy the economic damage caused. The question arises whether, in view of this, the nuclear powers still want to proceed with or can afford an expensive arms race or whether, as at the end of the Cold War, they want to take the path of containing great power competition through arms control and disarmament agreements.

It is by no means certain that a new window of opportunity for international cooperation and for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation will follow from sober and rational reflection and new imperatives after the coronavirus crisis. Some might say that this is just a pious wish. Maybe it is more likely that once the pandemic is overcome, there will be a relapse into old and well-known behavioral patterns. Nevertheless, every effort should be made to use the crisis as an opportunity to create a new momentum for a successful NPT review conference.

The tough lessons of the pandemic for international relations are a wake-up call. Even if the prospects are poor, patience, perseverance, and persistence have always been a requirement of multilateral diplomacy. It was only toward the end of East-West confrontation that the arms control policy seeds sown in previous years of sustained and unwavering efforts could bear fruit. Germany, which was at the dividing line between East and West, has been fully aware of the importance of dialogue and cooperation for overcoming the Cold War. That is why it should not let up in its commitment to disarmament and arms control.

Rüdiger Lüdeking served in the German Federal Foreign Office for more than 38 years before retiring in 2018. Among other positions, he served as Germany’s permanent representative to the Office of the United Nations and to other international organizations in Vienna, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, as director of nuclear arms control and nonproliferation at Foreign Office, and as deputy commissioner of the Federal Government for Disarmament and Arms Control.

The coronavirus disease illustrates the consequences of global catastrophes. Now is the time to strengthen nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts.

Old Chemical Weapons: Moving the OPCW to an Active Role

June 2020
By Dominique Anelli

The global inventory of chemical weapons was once enormous, especially in the United States and Soviet Union, but today 98 percent of them have been destroyed. Most of this destruction took place after the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) took effect in 1997, and the treaty’s implementation body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has verified the elimination process.

Old chemicals weapons await treatment in Belgium's destruction facility at Poelkappelle. (Photo: OPCW)As its verification-of-destruction role recedes, the OPCW has undertaken additional responsibilities that, for some, were not originally defined during the CWC’s negotiation. For example, the OPCW has increased its counterproliferation efforts by annually inspecting about 240 industrial sites to ensure their peaceful nature. In 2018, a special session of the OPCW Conference of States Parties empowered the OPCW to investigate and identify the perpetrators, organizers, sponsors, or those otherwise involved whenever chemical weapons are used. The agency’s Technical Secretariat is currently working to establish the basis for this investigation and identification team.

Another important task remains for the OPCW: to assist in the recovery and destruction of old chemical weapons worldwide that were buried on land or dumped in water. Such munitions represent a dual threat for the international community. Their chemical agents could still be used as weapons, and they could damage the environment by contaminating soil and water. Many CWC states-parties do not have the means to address such a massive task on their own. If no action is taken, however, centuries could pass before old chemical weapons would fully deteriorate.

By taking this action, the OPCW will move ever closer to achieving its ultimate objective: the eradication of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.

The Scope of the Problem

For buried old chemical weapons, it is difficult to make an estimation of the remaining quantities. About 20 states-parties have declared stocks of old chemical weapons to the OPCW, and many have begun to destroy them. Old chemical weapons continue to be found regularly, but because of the destruction burden and the absence of international incentives, some countries have not declared their discoveries. It is known that buried old chemical weapons exist in China, Europe1, Japan, and the United States and in some extraterritorial chemical weapon burial sites where they could be considered as abandoned chemical weapons.

As for munitions dumped at sea, one estimate assesses that 1.6 million tons of chemical munitions have been discarded at sea.2 In European waters, for example, nations have dumped about 450,000 tons of a mix3 of dumped chemical and conventional weapons, the most affected area being the Baltic Sea. In France, 250 tons of old chemical weapons are stored at the Suippes military facility in a northeastern region of the nation, and 10 to 20 metric tons of buried old chemical weapons are recovered annually, although these numbers can jump significantly when old munitions are discovered in the course of construction4 or roadwork. The provisional pace of destruction at newly opened destruction facilities in France is about 20 tons per year, with capacity expected to double during the first 20 years, allowing for the destruction of the Suippes munitions depot. This means some known, existing buried stockpiles will remain untouched for the next two decades or more, representing a permanent threat and an environmental risk.

Fortunately, with respect to dumped munitions in France, numerous destruction facilities were constructed up until 1950 to destroy the chemical arsenal inherited from World War I. Yet despite those destruction sites, delays in destruction operations forced the French authorities to dump chemical weapons at sea. In 1921, 11,456 tons of chemical weapons were dumped 40 miles from Dunkirk. Around 1950, 250,000 grenades filled with mustard agent and about 800,000 conventional munitions, all from World War I, were dumped off the coast of Toulon.5 After World War II, due to its political stance at this time, France did not actively participate in the massive dumping in European waters. Notwithstanding, chemical munitions from the Second World War were dumped by the Allies in North Gascogne, the Gulf of Gascogne, and off the coast of Saint Raphael, France.

Belgium has a smaller inventory of old chemical weapons and for the last 30 years has been able to destroy old munitions as they are recovered at its destruction facility at Poelkapelle. The historical recovery rate suggests, however, that destruction activity will continue for the next few centuries. Belgium has assisted other nations as well, destroying one old chemical weapon from the Netherlands in 2013, using an OPCW procedure that Austria employed in 2007.

With respect to dumped munitions, a technical assessment of Belgium’s Paardenmarkt sandbank, in front of Knokke beach, was launched recently. After World War I, in the absence of any destruction facilities at that time, more than 15,000 tons of chemical weapons were dumped there in shallow waters. Should a decision be taken to recover these munitions, Belgium will require international support6 to take on this challenge. In any case, substantial work will be needed to secure these dumped chemical weapons because they are near populated areas and in shallow waters.

Meanwhile, fishing vessels from Baltic nations regularly recover sea-dumped chemical munitions in their nets. Those old chemical weapons do not belong to the nations that recover them—the Baltic countries never produced chemical weapons—but now they must store them or destroy them with little support from the international community. As a result, these discoveries are not reported to the OPCW.

Germany and the United Kingdom have officially declared their old chemical weapons stockpiles as destroyed, but they retain latent destruction capabilities from their earlier programs. Germany has assisted with the destruction of old chemical weapons recovered in Austria, after the OPCW determined that those munitions posed an imminent environmental danger.

Europe is not the only problematic region. The United States also has notable quantities of old chemical weapons. “Approximately 250 sites in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and three territories are known or suspected to have buried chemical warfare materiel,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense.7

To tackle this challenge, the United States created the Recovered Chemical Materiel Directorate (RCMD) in 2012 under the umbrella of the U.S. Army Chemical Material Activity (CMA). The RCMD maintains a large resource of expertise and equipment to continue8 the destruction of recovered old chemical weapons in full transparency with the OPCW. As for munitions dumped at sea, the Defense Department “believes it is best to leave the sea-disposed munitions in place unless there is an explosives emergency or serious threat to human health or the environment.”9

Security and Environmental Risks

As old chemical weapons remain around the world, generally in known locations, some of them buried or dumped in shallow water could be easily accessible to malicious actors. The munitions would not function as originally designed, but they could nevertheless be used as a type of chemical dirty bomb that would cause serious psychological effects and mass disruption.

Such effects were evident, for example, following the 2018 chemical agent in Salisbury, UK. Everybody remembers the tremendous efforts deployed to isolate and decontaminate the potentially contaminated areas. If the Salisbury incident involved just a few grams of a chemical agent, imagine the devastating aftermath of a dirty chemical bomb containing 500 grams of mustard gas in an urban area. The cost of life might not be so high but the psychological and economic impacts would be serious.

OPCW inspectors have their equipment checked during a 2009 training session in the Czech Republic.  The OPCW is uniquely qualified to support nations in their efforts to discover and destroy old chemical weapons. (Photo: OPCW)The risks to the environment may be more substantial. A program funded by the European Union called CHEMSEA has investigated the environmental impacts of chemical munitions dumped in the Baltic Sea, detecting at least one chemical agent in one-third of the sediment and sea life samples collected.10 Those positive samples included chemical agents in cod and mussels that could make their way into kitchens around the world. Another study of sea-dumped chemical munitions developed a model that predicted that sunken chemical munitions containers will release their agents over the course of decades. Underwater shells containing mustard, for example, would begin to leak about 70 years after they were dumped and then continue for more than 250 years.11

The CHEMSEA program provides a snapshot of the current situation in the Baltic Sea, just one dumping ground and one where sea currents are not strong and waters are shallow. Despite its Baltics-focused research, it suggests there are much wider concerns when all dumping grounds are considered.

Tailored Solutions

This ticking time bomb cannot be ignored, but OPCW states-parties have been slow to act, discouraged by high costs and the lack of substantial international support. For many, all they can manage is compliance with existing CWC requirements, not additional activities. The OPCW should adopt a larger role in supporting efforts to identify, recover, declare, and destroy old chemical weapons.

Solutions exist, providing there is political willingness on the part of states-parties. With their support, the OPCW could serve as the catalyst for international awareness on this issue. To do this, the CWC would need to be updated and modified. Then, the OPCW would need to work in collaboration with other multilateral organizations involved with this issue. In addition, financial support would be required, and the private sector could be included. For example, Kanda Harbour (Japan) and Nord Stream (the Baltic Sea) have already proven their ability to find technical solutions to address the destruction of underwater munitions.

The OPCW is uniquely qualified to launch and lead this ambitious objective. As a first step, the states-parties need to establish the legal framework, from their decisions or CWC modifications, and increase their financial support12 to the OPCW. The Technical Secretariat already possesses the necessary in-house human resources expertise and technical tools to enable implementation of the different tasks.

The organization has already shown its ability to take on and fund new tasks. In 2013, the international community was able to mobilize hundreds of millions of dollars for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. A OPCW-UN team was mandated to oversee the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapons in the safest possible way and within a strict international time frame. Importantly, part of the plan adopted by states-parties and the UN Security Council called for disposing of the Syrian chemical agents outside the nation’s borders, marking a groundbreaking development not contemplated in the treaty.

Since the end of the First World War, at least 1.6 million tons of captured, damaged, obsolete, or unwanted chemical weapons agents and munitions have been dumped into the world's oceans. Source: The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation, 2017.


Investing in destroying old chemical weapons would be saving for the future. In Europe, some states-parties build and maintain old chemical weapons destruction sites at huge costs to destroy their own stockpiles. Others are not encouraged to declare their suspect discovered items because by declaring new discoveries, states-parties are obliged to host OPCW inspections13 and to destroy any chemical munitions in dedicated facilities. A better way would be for the EU Working Party on Disarmament and Arms Control (CODUN) to coordinate the efforts by states-parties to encourage EU cooperation for the destruction of old chemical weapons. By doing so, the facility built by one member could serve other nations. In the future, CODUN could coordinate, finance, and delegate the service to the OPCW of one or more mobile destruction facilities. When necessary, such a mobile unit could be deployed worldwide to perform destruction activities under the leadership of the EU and the OPCW.

With this in mind, the time seems ripe for the OPCW, with the support of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions, the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), and the Oslo-Paris Convention to now take on the challenges of buried and sea-dumped old chemical weapons. With more than 20 years of experience verifying the destruction of chemical weapons, the OPCW could support and coordinate work on the destruction of buried old chemical weapons and launch investigations and recoveries of underwater dumped chemical munitions.

As a first step, states-parties would need to rethink the CWC. In pondering this question, it would be wise to remember that when the CWC was negotiated during the 1980s, stockpiles were huge.14 At the time, two blocs were opposing each other’s vision of the world order. The threats are different today; they are diffused, multidimensional, and changeable. The OPCW needs to adapt the treaty’s content to face such new challenges. For example, at a time when chemical weapons destruction deadlines have largely passed, is it necessary to keep such obligations? For old chemical weapons, the treaty established two definitions: munitions produced before 1925 and those produced between 1925 and 1946 that have deteriorated to such extent that they can no longer be used as chemical weapons. In 2020, are such definitions still relevant? It would be preferable to adopt a single definition: chemical weapons produced before 1946. This would simplify the old chemical weapons declaration process and states-parties’ destruction obligations.

Secondly, the OPCW needs to identify and engage with multilateral organizations in charge of buried or sea-dumped munitions. The United Nations has an important role to play and already has taken some steps. In December 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution titled “Cooperative measures to assess and increase awareness of environmental effects related to waste originating from chemical munitions dumped at sea.”15 Without creating any formal legal obligation to implement, the resolution called for studies and recommendations “for the purpose of promoting international cooperation in the economic…and health fields.”16 In addition, UN Secretary-General António Guterres established a special envoy for the ocean in 2017, appointing Peter Thomson of Fiji to the post.

Other needed institutions include the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, which was opened for signature at the ministerial meeting of the Oslo and Paris Commissions in September 1992. It was adopted with a final declaration and an action plan. The convention entered into force on March 25, 1998.

At the regional level, there is the Barcelona Convention, which was adopted in 1976 to prevent and abate pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. Similarly, there is HELCOM,17 an intergovernmental organization that governs the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area.

Despite their existence, none of organizations have the legal authority nor the necessary tools to compel OPCW states-parties to retrieve old chemical weapons. Until such time as that changes, nothing will be done to recover the thousands of tons of chemical weapons buried or dumped underwater.

In parallel with political, financial, and organizational endeavors, it will be necessary to address the technical challenges of destroying old chemical weapons, buried or submerged. The last 25 years of chemical weapons destruction demonstrate that unforeseen costs and technical difficulties are likely to emerge. For buried old chemical weapons, the real challenge is the transport of the munitions from the recovery site to the destruction facility. At times, some states-parties, such as the United States, have opted to deploy a mobile destruction unit close to the recovery site. In Europe, however, there is no such capacity; states-parties are obliged to carry out in situ destruction, sometimes beyond the scope of CWC obligations.18 Some mobile destruction facilities financed by the EU and served by the OPCW would fill this capacity gap.

For underwater old chemical weapons, some innovative solutions have been used in Japan and the Baltic Sea. At Kanda Harbor in 2004, Japan found some dumped chemical munitions, which they declared to the OPCW. After scanning the bay and assessing the problem, authorities decided to place two mobile destruction facilities on a maritime platform. After underwater packaging, the munitions were treated in one of the two DAVINCH system detonation chambers.19

In 2011 the Nord Stream I project, the first part of a twin underwater gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, needed to clear a seabed path for the pipeline and encountered dumped old chemical weapons. The submerged items, at depths of approximately 70 to 120 meters, were screened and then destroyed on-site when necessary.20

The dumped chemical munitions stockpile of the Paardenmarkt sandbank in Belgium could be used as a case study. It would offer the opportunity to put in place some funding and to develop all the political, organizational, and technical tools necessary to address internationally the problems of dumped chemical munitions. With states-parties’ support, the OPCW could serve as the forum where such projects are discussed, approved, coordinated, and managed. At the end of 2013, when choosing four industrial sites21 to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons, the OPCW clearly demonstrated its abilities to manage international destruction processes.

The fact that buried or sea-dumped old chemical weapons do not receive much notice in a world of problems competing for attention does not mean the security and environmental threats are any less. Without the leadership and support of an international organization, most individual nations do not have the financial means, the technical resources, or the incentive to take on such a challenge. Only through international cooperation can this worldwide peril be addressed.


1. Austria, Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Switzerland and the UK have declared recoveries and destruction of old chemical weapons.

2. Ian Wilkinson, “Chemical Weapon Munitions Dumped at Sea: An Interactive Map,” September 7, 2017, https://www.nonproliferation.org/chemical-weapon-munitions-dumped-at-sea/.

3. Chemical weapons represent approximately 20 to 30 percent of this amount.

4. During construction of the railway line from Paris to Strasbourg over a four-year period, the number of old chemical weapons recovered annually increased.

5. Daniel Hubé, Sur les traces d’un secret enfoui (Paris: Michalon, 2016), pp. 222–223.

6. Pending political decisions to be taken by states-parties, and with EU financial support, the OPCW could serve as the catalyst for such destruction efforts with the financial support of the European Union.

7. National Research Council, Remediation of Buried Chemical Warfare Materiel (Washington: National Academies Press, 2012).

8. In the United States, recovered old chemical weapons are considered and treated as chemical weapons, and OPCW inspectors are invited to oversee the destruction.

9. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, U.S. Department of Defense, “Research Related to Effect of Ocean Disposal of Munitions in U.S. Coastal Waters,” December 2016.

10. A total of 180 sediment samples were taken during the campaign.

11. Wojciech Jurczak and Jacek Fabisiak, “Corrosion of Ammunition Dumped in the Baltic Sea,” Journal of KONBiN, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2017): 227–246.

12. Should states-parties allow, the financial support provided for the destruction of chemical weapons from Syria could continue to be used for such purposes.

13. For buried old chemical weapons, the OPCW needs to move from a declaration mode to an assistance mode.

14. More than 70,000 tons of chemical weapons were declared to the OPCW after entry into force of the treaty.

15. UN General Assembly, A/RES/68/208, January 21, 2014.

16. UN Charter, arts. 13(1)(b), 13(2).https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/68/208https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/68/208

17. In 2014, the Helsinki Commission with the support of the EU released an important study on the assessment of chemical munitions dumped in the Baltic Sea. Chemical Munitions Search and Assessment Project, “CHEMSEA Findings: Results From the CHEMSEA Project,” 2014.

18. When made aware of such difficulties, the OPCW Technical Secretariat tries to help states-parties to destroy the old chemical weapons, an overriding objective of the OPCW. In the absence of incentives by the OPCW, some states-parties do not declare their recoveries.

19. The DAVINCH system is a vacuum detonation chamber in which the munitions are destroyed by explosive donor charges. The chamber is followed by a waste treatment system to avoid any atmospheric pollution. The metallic parts are recovered and packed for further treatment, in case of arsenic content.

20. Nord Stream, “Nord Stream Preparing for Munitions Clearance,” October 2, 2009, https://www.nord-stream.com/press-info/press-releases/nord-stream-preparing-for-munitions-clearance-366/.

21. Four sites were selected: Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Dominique Anelli is a consultant in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense matters. He served at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as head of the chemical demilitarization branch from 2007 to 2016. He has been recognized for his role in the verification of destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons.

With its original mission nearing completion, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should increase its support for the discovery and destruction of old chemical weapons.

Julian Perry Robinson (1941–2020), Martin B. Malin (1961–2020)

June 2020

Julian Perry Robinson (1941–2020)
Dedicated to Eradicating Chemical and Biological Weapons

By Daniel Feakes

Julian Perry Robinson, UK scholar and inspiration to generations of experts in the field of chemical and biological weapons disarmament, passed away April 22 at the age of 78 from COVID-19.

From his student dissertation at Oxford University to his most recent research on the Novichok family of chemical agents and the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Julian devoted himself to the prohibition of the use, development, and possession of chemical and biological weapons. For much of this time, Julian collaborated closely with the Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, with whom he established the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons in 1990.

After graduating from Oxford, Julian worked as a patent agent in London before moving to the newly established Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 1968. At SIPRI, he met his partner of more than 50 years, Mary Kaldor, and wrote much of the seminal six-volume publication The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare, which is still required reading for anyone entering the field of chemical and biological weapons.

Around the same time, he became a key figure in the chemical and biological weapons work conducted under the auspices of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Through its chemical and biological weapons study group, Pugwash convened scientists from East and West and had a direct impact on the chemical weapons negotiations in Geneva, which were finally concluded in the early 1990s.

Julian moved back to the United Kingdom in 1971 to join the new Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, where he stayed for the rest of his life. As an academic, he was a polymath who could discuss on equal terms with experts from any number of disciplines. Technically skilled, he understood that eradicating chemical and biological weapons also requires diplomacy and politics.

Despite his intellectual range, Julian was a modest man who disliked being called an expert. He shunned the limelight, often turning down media interviews in favor of quietly assisting journalists and researchers. He was most at home in his book-lined office, his archive, or the nearby pub where hours were spent with visitors discussing ideas and pushing the boundaries of their knowledge.

I started working with Julian in 1996 when he was already well established as an authority on chemical and biological weapons, whether from a scientific, legal, historical, military, or policy perspective. Legions of researchers and students would visit to seek his wisdom and to scour his archive, which is probably the largest nongovernmental source of information on chemical and biological weapons in the world. The late 1990s were heady days for those working to rid the world of chemical and biological weapons. I remember the champagne in Julian’s office with which we celebrated the April 1997 entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the high hopes for a legally binding instrument to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Although the optimism of the late 1990s was dashed, Julian continued to take the long view, concerned that dramatic advances in chemistry and biology could be subverted for hostile purposes and continually emphasizing the need for international treaties to keep pace with such advances. Before it became commonplace, Julian was attuned to the convergence between biology and chemistry and supported strong links between the BWC and CWC.

Julian’s passing leaves a great void in the international chemical and biological weapons community. It is tragically ironic that it was the result of COVID-19 and came on the anniversary of the first battlefield use of chemical weapons in Belgium on April 22, 1915. His legacy will live on, however, physically in the substantial archive that he established at the University of Sussex and intellectually in the generations of academics, researchers, students, diplomats, and officials whom he mentored and assisted. His passing will hopefully serve as a reminder of the importance of international dialogue and multilateral solutions in preventing the future development and use of chemical and biological weapons.

Daniel Feakes is chief of the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit in Geneva.


Martin B. Malin (1961–2020)
Sustaining Security Studies With a Legacy of Mentoring

By Mahsa Rouhi

Photo: Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy SchoolAn outstanding scholar, extraordinary mentor, and a community builder, Martin Malin passed away on April 19. His warmth, humility, and kindness made him more than a colleague and a close friend to many.

Professionally, he will be most remembered for 13 years as executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He made the project feel like a home for countless students and fellows he mentored and trained throughout his career. It is rare to meet a scholar from the nuclear policy community who has not known Marty. The mere mention of his name will bring a smile across the face of all who knew him.

Before the project, Marty studied political science in graduate school at Columbia University, where he received a master’s in international affairs, a doctorate in political science, and was editor-in-chief of Journal of International Affairs. Later, he directed of the Program on Science and Global Security at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where he chaired the Committee on International Security Studies and helped to implement many of the committee’s tasks and ventures. He co-authored War With Iraq—Costs, Consequences and Alternatives and co-edited the book series American Academy Studies in Global Security.

Marty participated in numerous other studies, including co-authoring and co-editing on issues of nuclear terrorism, nuclear weapons, black market nuclear trade, nonproliferation, and a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, about which he was truly passionate.

His most profound legacy will be his impact on the many scholars he mentored. He truly believed that, with sound scholarship and by empowering generations of scholars in the nuclear field, we can hope to tackle the world’s problems.

I met Marty when I joined the Project on Managing the Atom as an intern in 2008. Along with Matthew Bunn and Steven E. Miller, he built the project with a great sense of community and encouragement for all those around him. For many of us fellows at the project, this community became a place we could call home during our brief time there. I returned to Belfer again in 2010 as a pre-doctoral fellow and from 2016 to 2018 as a postdoctoral fellow. For international fellows in particular, he cared deeply about ensuring they had a second home. From lending an ear when I felt homesick to helping me navigate the U.S. health care system to providing writing and editing support to those who did not speak English as their first language, he was always there to support fellows.

Through his mentoring, Marty encouraged all those around him to speak up, to write, and to collaborate without ever making anyone feel pressured to do so, giving voice to those whom he mentored. He especially cared to encourage the diversity of this voice from underrepresented scholars, including women, international students, and those from different ethnic backgrounds.

As a mentor, Marty was generous with his time to support our professional and personal endeavors, always there and willing to listen. He helped us to find our own way in a field that can present a puzzling number of career paths. Marty held our hands through difficult times, provided us with opportunities to grow, and celebrated our achievements, simply giving us his genuine unconditional support.

In 2017, I was in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen at the same time the Trump administration issued its first round of travel bans, which included my home country of Iran. I was becoming a citizen of a country that would not allow my family to visit. The process was an emotional rollercoaster, and Marty was so supportive and understanding during that arduous time. It was because of genuine people like him that I thought I should feel proud to become a U.S. citizen. Marty gave hope and confidence that what we all do matters and that if we work together, we can truly make the world a better place.

Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the Nonproliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Julian Perry Robinson, UK scholar and inspiration to generations of experts in the field of chemical and biological weapons disarmament, passed away April 22 at the age of 78 from COVID-19.

An outstanding scholar, extraordinary mentor, and a community builder, Martin Malin passed away on April 19. His warmth, humility, and kindness made him more than a colleague and a close friend to many.

The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War

June 2020

The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War
By Fred Kaplan (Simon and Schuster, 2020), 384 pages

Reviewed by Nina Tannenwald

Reining in Nuclear War Planners: A Checkered History of U.S. Civilian Leaders

In the late 1980s, Fred Kaplan’s book The Wizards of Armageddon was required reading if you hoped to pass your exams in security studies. That book, as its title aptly suggested, focused on the theorists of nuclear deterrence and other “defense intellectuals” whose novel ideas about deterrence helped shape U.S. nuclear strategy during the Cold War. Now a cult classic for nuclear nerds, it was a path-breaking intellectual history of the people and ideas behind the concept of nuclear deterrence.

Kaplan’s newest book, 36 years later, synthesizes a lifetime of research and reporting to provide an overview of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, from 1945 to the present, with the perspectives of presidents, their advisers, and the generals in charge of the nuclear arsenal. Kaplan, the long-time national security columnist at Slate, traces their efforts to wrestle with the political, military, and moral paradoxes of threatening all-out nuclear catastrophe as a way to protect the country. Kaplan brings to the task his expert command of the issues, a historian’s appreciation for the archives, and a journalist’s gift for lively, accessible writing and vivid storytelling. He appears to have interviewed every important person, looked at every archive, and viewed every TV interview. The outlines of this story are generally known, especially with regard to the Cold War years, but Kaplan’s account provides important new detail while carrying the story up to the present. The result is an overview of the politics and logic of seven decades of U.S. nuclear war planning that is gripping, illuminating, and ultimately frightening. This book should have wide readership, including in the classroom.

The title of Kaplan’s latest book is slightly misleading. It is not about nuclear war but rather about U.S. war plans and planning, as well as the efforts of U.S. leaders to avoid nuclear war in crises. As Kaplan’s own account drives home, the Pentagon’s war plans may or may not have any meaningful relationship to any actual nuclear war a president might wage. Since nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, nuclear war planning is an abstract exercise conducted in the absence of any real evidence about how nuclear exchanges might actually take place. Presidents and their military planners can only imagine such a war, leading one scholar to refer to nuclear strategy as the “imaginary science.” The numerous unknowns of nuclear war planning give rise to many of the political dynamics and the tortuous strategic logic explored in Kaplan’s book.

The book focuses on the ambitious and often unsuccessful efforts of presidents and their civilian advisers to impose some restraint on the size of the nuclear arsenal and to shift the targeting plans away from a massive, all-out strike to more “controllable” options. Kaplan introduces us to the people and personalities who have shaped the U.S. nuclear arsenal and plans for its use, while taking us into discussions deep inside the Pentagon, at the White House, and at Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha. Throughout, Kaplan tells dramatic stories of presidents often standing up to their hawkish military advisers to avoid getting into a nuclear war or even just to pursue arms control. He provides new details about how John Kennedy faced crises in Berlin and Cuba, Jimmy Carter dealt with arms control, Ronald Reagan at first embraced nuclear warfighting and then nuclear abolition, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush dealt with North Korea, and Barack Obama put disarmament on the agenda.

Interservice rivalries between the Army, Navy, and Air Force drove nuclear policy in the early years after 1945 and helped set the precedent for a steady nuclear arms build-up and a U.S. nuclear war plan that threatened massive, all-out nuclear strikes on the Soviet Union and China.

Subsequent chapters then delve into the efforts of presidents and their advisers, beginning with Kennedy, to seek alternatives to the massive first-strike plan of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) for nuclear war, that would have killed millions of Soviet and Chinese citizens. The civilian leaders also faced steady resistance from the generals at SAC and the Joint Chiefs of Staff who would actually control the nuclear strikes. Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, famously toyed with the idea of a “counterforce” doctrine that would target Soviet missiles rather than cities, but abandoned it when he realized that it would lead the military chiefs to ask for even more weapons. In the end, McNamara compromised by letting them have 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles, more than he thought necessary for deterring the Soviet Union. He also accepted a public declaratory doctrine that emphasized “assured destruction,” a policy he knew to be inconsistent with the SIOP’s first-strike plans.

Inconsistency and contradiction became dominant themes. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were frustrated by the lack of options in the SIOP and wrestled with the puzzle of how to fight a “limited” nuclear war to protect allies in Europe and Asia. Given that no one could figure out how to keep a limited war limited, however, they could not come up with a scenario in which the United States was better off using nuclear weapons first. Kaplan traces how Carter, who abhorred nuclear weapons, reluctantly approved medium-range missiles in Europe because they were politically useful although of marginal military value. Ironically, as Kaplan shows, it was under the hawkish Reagan administration, which advocated “prevailing” in a nuclear war, that the first effective effort to take a scalpel to the SIOP began, resulting in the biggest cuts in the nuclear arsenal until then.

Kaplan brings important new detail to both familiar and lesser-known cases. Particularly notable are his expansive account of Deputy National Security Advisor Carl Kaysen’s first-strike planning during the 1961 Berlin crisis, as well as the fascinating and detailed story of the successful efforts of Frank Miller and a group of civilians in the Pentagon during the late 1980s to make deep cuts in the number of strategic weapons. Closer to the present, drawing on recent reporting and interviewing, he provides an illuminating account of how Obama, the “disarmament” president, was beaten back by the defense establishment and its strategic dogmas. He also traces the writing of and arguments behind the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and its controversial revival of the concept of limited nuclear war.

Kaplan’s sympathies clearly lie with the civilian leaders trying to reel in overkill in the face of resistance from recalcitrant generals. Yet, even former Obama Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, once the boy wonder of “nuclear winter” analysis in the 1980s, comes in for criticism for drinking the Kool-Aid on the need to maintain a threat of first use and resisting Obama’s efforts to move to a “sole use” policy.

Overall, the book provides a devastating portrayal of the insanity of the nuclear targeting process. In one case, 69 warheads were targeted on a single Soviet anti-ballistic missile site. In 1990, SAC commander Jack Chain told Congress that he needed 10,000 weapons because SAC had identified 10,000 targets, rather than defining any strategic goal. Achieving excessive destruction was a goal in itself. As Kaplan writes, “The SIOP was a broken machine, the discombobulated aggregate of compartmentalized calculations.”

Kaplan’s account makes clear that civilian leaders from Kennedy to Obama, as well as some military officers, were appalled by the massive overkill of the war plans. Kissinger called the SIOP a “horror strategy.” Yet, every president faced stiff resistance in trying to wrest control over the nuclear arsenal from SAC and the Joint Chiefs. Regardless of the publicly stated nuclear doctrine, the generals have pushed for a first-strike capability from the beginning and remained skeptical of graduated options. People who knew better, such as McNamara, argued for larger than necessary arsenals simply for political and bureaucratic reasons. Still, even those who advocated for “controlled” options had to admit that, in the end, this was magical thinking.

The take-home message of Kaplan's book is sobering. Despite the much-vaunted civilian control over the military that supposedly exists in the United States, the story told here suggests the opposite. The SIOP did not necessarily reflect the president’s desires or policies. Even when there was guidance for limited options, SAC did not follow it. Moreover, when war plans might have looked like they contained options, a closer look would reveal that even the smallest strike was still massive, and SAC consistently had ways of understating the damage.

This is not a very reassuring story for the command and control of the nuclear arsenal today. At the same time, it may reflect a point on which, ironically, the hawkish generals and the pro-nuclear abolition advocates might agree: the notion of a limited nuclear war is simply meaningless.

It also suggests that, in the end, there seem to be no answers to the paradoxes of nuclear strategy. Kaplan employs the metaphor of “going down the rabbit hole” to describe the effort to parse nuclear abstractions or to resolve the paradox of threatening a catastrophically destructive war you would never really want to fight, until you finally give up because the questions, such as whether there is such thing as a limited nuclear war, are ultimately unanswerable. As this masterful book shows, every U.S. administration has begun with an effort to get a rational grip on the nuclear arsenal and, in the end, like every administration before it, has gone down the rabbit hole of nuclear abstractions.

Nina Tannenwald is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Brown University.

Fred Kaplan examines the history of U.S. nuclear war planning and the efforts of American leaders to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.

June 2020 Books of Note

June 2020

The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump
William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina
June 30, 2020

Former Defense Secretary William Perry and Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, join forces to write a history of U.S. nuclear launch authority policy.

The president of the United States holds sole authority to launch nuclear weapons from the U.S. arsenal, a policy the authors call dangerous, as it could cause nuclear powers to blunder into a nuclear war by mistake. To illustrate that point, the book opens with a simulation in which a U.S. president becomes alerted to an incoming Russian nuclear strike and decides to respond in kind before receiving word that the alert was false. At that point, however, hundreds of U.S. nuclear weapons are already en route to Russia with no option of recalling them.

Such sole authority is not the only dangerous U.S. nuclear policy. Others include the policies that allow for the United States to launch nuclear weapons first, to keep nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and to sustain the land-based leg of the nuclear triad.—SHANNON BUGOS


The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy: New, Updated and Completely Revised
Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey Michaels (Fourth edition, 2019)

Updating the classic 1981 work on the history of the thinking about the role of nuclear weapons, the Kings College London duo of Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey Michaels have produced a new, comprehensive, and nuanced overview of military and diplomatic thinking about the role of nuclear weapons from the beginning of the nuclear age to the present day. This edition, which substantially reworks earlier editions, covers—in 678 pages—a vast range of developments and debates over the role of nuclear weapons, and unique problems they present.

In particular, the book explores how “states attempt to incorporate nuclear weapons into their security policies,” despite “the horrific consequences of their use, and the possibility that any use might lead to retaliation in kind.” They conclude that there are no definitive answers. “The likely dynamics and consequences of nuclear employment remain matters for inference and conjecture.”

In clear language, Freedman and Michaels cover a vast range of topics from the early rationale behind the bombing of Hiroshima, through the Cold War-era of U.S.-Soviet nuclear deterrence and war-fighting plans, how other nuclear actors factor nuclear weapons into their policies, and nuclear weapons deterrence strategies of the current era.

The new edition of The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy remains an important reference guide to the sometimes esoteric, but consequential field of official nuclear strategy, and how it may or may not align with reality.

The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump, William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina

The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy: New, Updated and Completely Revised, Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey Michaels

U.S. to Withdraw From Open Skies Treaty

June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States officially notified its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, prompting bipartisan opposition in Congress and expressions of regret from U.S. allies.

Danish F-16 fighter aircraft escort a Russian observation aircraft during a flight over Denmark in 20008. (Photo: OSCE)President Donald Trump justified the withdrawal decision on the grounds that Russia was violating the agreement, but he said, “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that the withdrawal will take effect in six months. “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty,” Pompeo added.

Pompeo cited Russian noncompliance with the accord as “making continued U.S. participation untenable.” The United States asserts that Russia has violated the agreement by requiring that observation missions over Kaliningrad limit flight paths to 500 kilometers, establishing a 10-kilometer no-fly corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and denying a requested overflight by the United States and Canada in September 2019.

Pompeo also alleged that “Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

Pressed to provide further information on this allegation on May 21, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.” He then added, “[W]hile not a violation per se, it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

Asked about what Russia would need to do in order to return to compliance with the treaty, Ford said, “I would say that that’s a fact pattern we’ll have to deal with when we encounter it.”

The Defense Department said in a statement that “we will explore options to provide additional imagery products to Allies to mitigate any gaps that may result from this withdrawal.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. exit from the agreement in a May 22 statement, calling it “a deplorable development for European security.”

On the U.S. allegation that Russia is using the treaty to gather inappropriate intelligence, the statement said the “charge is being made by the party that insisted from the beginning on opening the entire territory of the participating states (above all, naturally, the [Soviet Union] and later Russia) to observation flights.”

The statement added that Russia’s future participation in the treaty “will be based on its national security interests and in close cooperation with its allies and partners.”

U.S. allies expressed varied responses to the U.S. exit from the treaty, but none of them signaled support for the move or indicated that they plan to follow the United States out of the agreement.

In a joint statement, 11 European countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) expressed “regret” over the U.S. decision.

“We will continue to implement the Open Skies Treaty, which has a clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security,” they said. “We reaffirm that this treaty remains functioning and useful.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia to return to compliance with the treaty after a May 22 meeting of the North Atlantic Council. He said that the United States withdrew in a manner “consistent with treaty provisions.”

Poland said in a statement that efforts to return Russia to compliance “have proved unsuccessful.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Germany, along with France, Poland, and the United Kingdom, had previously told Washington that Russian noncompliance concerns did not justify a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

Prior to the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Trump administration consulted U.S. allies and other states-parties to the treaty, including by distributing a written questionnaire earlier this year. Throughout the process, allies expressed their support for continued U.S. participation in the treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Several Democratic and Republican members of Congress excoriated the withdrawal decision and accused the administration of breaking the law.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, called the Trump administration's move to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty a "dangerous and misguided decision."(Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images)“The dangerous and misguided decision to abandon this international agreement cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) first sounded the alarm about the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw the United States from the treaty last October. (See ACT, November 2019.) Reacting to the withdrawal announcement, he said that “the president’s reckless plan…directly harms our country’s security and breaks the law in the process.”

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required that the Trump administration notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which it failed to do. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that he does “not accept the legitimacy of the administration’s reckless decision.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, echoed the legal concerns and called the withdrawal “a slap in the face to our allies in Europe.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents Offutt Air Force Base, where America’s OC-135B treaty aircraft are based, called the administration’s decision a “mistake.” He also urged that the administration adhere to the requirements in the defense authorization bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a longtime treaty critic, voiced support for the withdrawal. He said that he was “particularly heartened” that the United States would now not have to fund the replacement efforts for the two treaty aircraft.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million last year to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any of the 34 states-parties.

Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 1,500 flights took place.


Citing Russian noncompliance, the Trump administration has triggered the Open Skies Treaty’s withdrawal provision.

U.S., Russia to Meet on Arms Control

June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia have agreed to discuss nuclear arms control issues, according to U.S. President Donald Trump’s arms control envoy following a May 8 phone call.

Marshall Billingslea, shown speaking in Latvia in 2019, has been tapped to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He outlined the Trump administration's plans at a May event at the Hudson Institute.  (Photo: Latvian State Chancellery)Marshall Billingslea, whom Trump also has nominated to serve as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov agreed “to meet, talk about our respective concerns and objectives, and find a way forward to begin negotiations” on a new arms control agreement.

“So, we have settled on a venue, and we are working on an agenda based on the exchange of views that has taken place,” he said.

Billingslea described the conversation during May 21 remarks at a Hudson Institute event in Washington, where he also criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and sketched out some of the Trump administration’s goals for a new trilateral agreement with Russia and China.

New START expires in February 2021 unless Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it by up to five years. Russia stated in December 2019 that it is ready to extend New START without any preconditions, but the Trump administration has yet to make a decision on the treaty’s fate.

“Any potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control,” Billingslea emphasized on May 21. Earlier, in a May 7 interview with The Washington Times, he also stated that the administration wants “to understand why the Russians are so desperate for extension, and we want the Russians to explain to us why this is in our interest to do it.”

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. Under its monitoring and verification regime, the treaty allows for short notice, on-site inspections.

Billingslea views the agreement as flawed. “One main failing of New START, among the many problems with it, is that it does not include the Chinese,” he told the newspaper.

Bringing China into nuclear talks would appear to be a challenging task, particularly as China has repeatedly stated that it wants no part in them. Most recently, a Chinese spokesperson told reporters on May 15 that Beijing “has no intention to take part in a trilateral arms control negotiation.” Even Billingslea’s State Department predecessor, Andrea Thompson, said on May 14 “that China’s not going to come to the table before” New START expires next February. “There’s no incentive for them to come to the table,” she said, citing China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

But Billingslea insisted that Beijing could be incentivized to negotiate.

“If China wants to be a great power, and we know it has that self-image, it needs to behave like one,” he said May 21. “It should engage us bilaterally and trilaterally with the Russians.”

Billingslea added that “Russia must help bring China to the negotiating table.” Moscow previously said that it
will not try to persuade China to change its position.

He further asserted that the United States would hold Russia to its “public commitments to multilateralizing the next treaty after New START.” Moscow has long said that a future arms control agreement should include additional nuclear-armed states, including U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom.

A new agreement also must include Russia’s large arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and stronger verification measures than those contained in New START, Billingslea argued.

Billingslea did not say what the United States might be prepared to put on the table in return for limits on additional Russian weapons or concessions from China, nor did he clarify what precisely the administration is seeking from China on arms control.

Russia has frequently raised missile defense as an issue that must be on the table in the next round of arms control talks, but the special envoy said that he did not foresee the United States agreeing to limitations on missile defense.

Billingslea claimed that the United States is in a strong negotiating position and could win a new arms race if necessary.

“We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

Russia criticized Billingslea’s May 7 interview with The Washington Times. “The unmistakable impression” is that Billingslea “has not been brought up to speed on his new job,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 14.

She also noted that the Trump administration’s desire to include China in arms control talks was “far-fetched.”

Trump and Putin discussed arms control on a May 7 phone call.

“President Trump reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race,” said the White House in a statement following the call. The statement made no mention of New START.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two presidents agreed to work to resolve “the urgent problems of our time, including maintaining strategic stability.”

The United States and Russia last held formal talks on strategic security in January. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said on May 5 that Trump had agreed to Russia’s January proposal that the heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) hold a summit to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control.

“It’s my understanding that the substance and logistics of such a meeting are under consideration,” said Sullivan.

On April 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that all parties agreed that the summit “must be face to face.” He added two days later that “the conceptual content” of the summit is in the works.

“There is agreement, an understanding,” Lavrov said, “that it should be devoted to all the key problems of the modern world, strategic stability, and global security in all its dimensions.”

In Washington, Billingslea could be facing a controversial Senate confirmation process before he can officially assume the position to which Trump named him on May 1. Some senators are likely to question his reputation as a critic of arms control and to examine his human rights record. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing.

Billingslea previously served as assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. He was an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed U.S. ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In 2019, Trump nominated Billingslea for the top human rights post at the State Department, but his nomination stalled in early 2020 amid concerns about his role in promoting enhanced interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture while serving in the Pentagon from 2002 to 2003 during the George W. Bush administration.


Officials have agreed on a venue to discuss arms control, but not an agenda.

Trump Officials Consider Nuclear Testing

June 2020
By Greg Webb

Senior Trump administration officials recently discussed the possibility of resuming explosive nuclear testing, a practice the United States last undertook in 1992, The Washington Post reported on May 22. No nuclear-armed nation has conducted a nuclear test explosion since 1998 except North Korea, and U.S. resumption would threaten to raise already increasing tensions with China, Russia, and others.

The Nevada National Test Site was the location of 928 nuclear weapon detonations before the United States began its testing moratorium in 1992. (Photo: Sydney Martinez/Travel Nevada)The recent consideration was taken up by a group of national security officials on May 15, but the participants reportedly did not reach a decision. The idea is “very much an ongoing conversation,” one person familiar with the national security meeting told the Post.

Despite the interest of some officials, others argued against the idea. “There are still some professionals in the room who told them this is a terrible idea, thank God,” a congressional aide told The Guardian. Defense Department official Drew Walter later said there “has been no policy change” regarding explosive nuclear testing, Defense News reported.

The justification for resuming testing would not be a technical one having to do with a design flaw in one of the existing types of warhead, but would be political. According to the Post, a senior official said that demonstrating that the United States could “rapid test” could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration pushes for a new, trilateral arms control deal with Russia and China.

Such a test could take only months to prepare, Walter said. “Ultimately, if the president directed because of a technical issue or a geopolitical issue, a system to go test, I think it would happen relatively rapidly.”

At the May 15 meeting, the officials “discussed underground testing in the context of trying to bring China to the table for the trilateral agreement,” a former official said to The Guardian. “Among the professionals in the administration, the idea was dismissed as unworkable and dumb,” while the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was “definitely not on board” and the State Department likely was not in agreement either, the former official said.

Part of the discussion reportedly focused on the administration’s assessment that China and Russia may have conducted nuclear weapons activities that are inconsistent with the zero-yield standard established by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear experiments that produce an explosive yield. The treaty is not in force, as eight specific countries, including the United States and China, have not ratified the pact.

The State Department made its allegations in its most recent annual report assessing nations’ compliance with arms control agreements. The report says some Russian activities since 1996 “have demonstrated a failure to adhere to the U.S. ‘zero-yield’ standard, which would prohibit supercritical tests.” The report added that “the United States does not know how many, if any, supercritical or self-sustaining nuclear experiments Russia conducted in 2019.” (See ACT, May 2020.)

According to the U.S. nuclear test readiness guidelines, a "simple test" with limited instrumentation could be conducted by the NNSA, a semiautonomous agency in the Energy Department, at the former Nevada Test Site within six to 10 months once the president decides to resume nuclear testing.

News of the renewed testing consideration drew widespread condemnation. “I burst into tears when I read that,” said Mary Dickson, a longtime activist for Americans who suffer health problems from decades of U.S. testing in the atmosphere. “I live every day with watching the effects that testing all those years ago had on so many people I know and love. We’re still living with the consequences of fallout from testing…. Their cancers are coming back. They are more at risk during the pandemic. But we think of doing it again,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune on May 26.

China was quick to respond to the report. “We’re gravely concerned about the report,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian at a Beijing press conference on May 25. “Though [the CTBT] has not yet entered into force, banning nuclear testing has become an international norm. The CTBT is of great significance for nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and world peace and security. All five nuclear-weapon states, including the U.S., have signed the treaty and committed to a moratorium on nuclear tests.”

The administration’s openness to testing raises concern that Washington will move to “unsign” the CTBT, a pact the United States was first to sign in 1996 but the Senate has never approved. The United States has nevertheless adhered to a moratorium on testing and is the leading financial contributor to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which maintains and operates the worldwide monitoring system to verify compliance with the treaty.

The Trump administration has already worked repeatedly to pull the United States out of arms control commitments. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, announced May 21 that Washington would withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty in six months time. Previously, the administration withdrew the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that banned an entire class of missiles, and it also stepped away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In addition, it has “unsigned” the Arms Trade Treaty, another pact that the United States had signed but not ratified.

U.S. national security officials discussed the possibility of resuming U.S. nuclear testing for political purposes, but have made no decision so far.


Subscribe to RSS - June 2020