"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
March 2018
Edition Date: 
Thursday, March 1, 2018
Cover Image: 

A Dangerous Retreat From Disarmament Diplomacy

March 2018
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States has played a leadership role in global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy to help advance U.S. and international security. Past presidents have actively led efforts to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons leading to their eventual elimination, a key obligation undertaken by all states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

For decades, U.S. presidents have pursued arms control agreements under difficult circumstances, often when relations with foreign adversaries were at their worst. Dwight Eisenhower pursued a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets, and John Kennedy concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Under Lyndon Johnson, the United States led the way on the negotiation of the NPT and initiated strategic arms talks with the Soviets, which opened the way for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter to conclude strategic arms limitation treaties.

At their 1985 Geneva Summit, president’s Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev declared: "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." (Photo: White House Photo Office)Ronald Reagan, under strong public pressure to freeze the arms race, negotiated agreements with the Soviets to ban intermediate-range missiles and verifiably reduce strategic nuclear arsenals. George H.W. Bush took bold steps to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons during the tumultuous final days of the Soviet Union.

Bill Clinton’s administration convinced three former Soviet republics to give up their nuclear weapons, pushed for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), secured the indefinite extension of the NPT, and negotiated a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program. Even George W. Bush accelerated the pace of U.S. strategic arms reductions under an agreement with Russia. Barack Obama prioritized the negotiation and ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and, despite worsening relations with Russia, put enormous effort into the negotiation of the complex deal to curtail and contain Iran’s nuclear program.

Now, citing a “threatening security environment,” the administration of Donald Trump is effectively abandoning the United States' traditional global leadership role on nuclear arms control. At the same time, it is accelerating costly plans to rebuild the oversized U.S. nuclear arsenal, pushing to develop and deploy new nuclear capabilities, and expanding the range of circumstances in which the United States might consider using nuclear weapons.

As Trump explained on Feb. 12, the United States is “creating a brand new nuclear force.... We’re gonna be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.” He continued, “Frankly I’d like to get rid of a lot of ‘em [nuclear weapons]. And if they [other nuclear-armed states] want to do that, we’ll go along with them. We won’t lead the way, we’ll go along with them.”

Trump’s passive and aggressive attitude on nuclear matters is fraught with peril. History shows that nuclear risk reduction and proliferation prevention does not just magically happen. It requires persistent, creative, and energetic U.S.-led diplomacy and engagement with adversaries.

But the Trump administration’s newly completed Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) does not offer any new nuclear risk reduction initiatives. Instead, the report meekly states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit.” The report does reiterate U.S. support for the nonproliferation elements of the NPT, but omits any mention of the U.S. disarmament commitments under Article VI of the treaty. Nevertheless, U.S. diplomats gamely claim that Trump “remains firmly committed to nonproliferation” and will continue to abide by the NPT commitments.

The NPR report does not even commit to the extension of New START, which will expire in three years. If the treaty is allowed to lapse in 2021 with nothing to replace it, there will be no limits on U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces for the first time since 1972. At a time when U.S.-Russian relations are strained, New START is even more vital for strategic stability and risk reduction. The NPR report also declares, without any explanation, that the United States will not seek ratification of the CTBT, a treaty the United States and 182 other states have signed that has not entered into force. Worse still, the Trump administration is actively undermining the global nuclear nonproliferation regime by threatening to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal if the other parties do not agree to extend indefinitely the current limits on Iran’s nuclear capacity. The better approach is to fully implement the agreement and seek opportunities to build on its nonproliferation value.

Responsible nations do not ignore their legal and political commitments on nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament. They cannot afford to undercut effective treaties and miss opportunities to reduce and eliminate nuclear risk, especially now. This applies to U.S. dealings with North Korea, which has finally indicated it is open to direct talks with Washington. This also applies to Russia, which is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Absent U.S. leadership, other states and the United Nations will need to put forward creative approaches to bring about a cessation of the arms race, draw all nuclear-armed nations into the disarmament enterprise, and reduce the nuclear danger.

The monthly “Focus” editorials from Arms Control Today are available for reprint on a non-exclusive basis
with permission from the Arms Control Association and link to the original publication online.


Since the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States has played a leadership role in global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy to help advance U.S. and international security.

The Trump Administration’s ‘Wrong Track’ Nuclear Policies

March 2018
By Lynn Rusten

Public opinion pollsters often ask, “Is America moving in the right direction, or is it on the wrong track?” When it comes to nuclear policy, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) decidedly puts the country on the wrong track in that it fails to lower the risk that nuclear weapons will be used, to increase strategic stability, to reduce the chances of miscalculation, and to ensure our national security at reasonable cost.

Further, it puts the country on the wrong track to maintain U.S. global leadership on nonproliferation and arms control. It also puts the United States on the wrong track by discounting the role of diplomatic and nonmilitary tools in countering nuclear threats and potential adversaries.

Increasing Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

Four successive Republican and Democratic administrations since the end of the Cold War had sought to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. This NPR makes a dangerous and unjustified U-turn by expanding the role of nuclear weapons and the purposes for which they could be used, making a case for their enduring contribution to national security, failing to uphold reduced reliance as a desired goal, and elevating the contribution of U.S. forward-based nuclear weapons in Europe to the security of NATO.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (center), State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon Jr. (left), and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette brief reporters on the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon on February 2. (Photo: Kathryn E. Holm/DoD)Expanding the role of nuclear weapons. Like the 2010 Obama administration NPR report1, this one states that the United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners.”2 It redefines “extreme circumstances,” however, to include not only nuclear attacks but also significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, including but not limited to “attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

This is a wrong-headed departure from the 2010 NPR. It dangerously lowers the threshold for nuclear use against a range of potential non-nuclear threats, including cyberattacks, and thereby raises the risk of miscalculation and the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used, particularly if other countries adopt the same policy. Under this policy, a cyberattack could lead to options for a nuclear response being presented to a president who would have to decide in a compressed time frame with potentially incomplete information who did it and for what purpose. Conversely, if Russia or China were to adopt a similar policy, the United States could be at risk of nuclear attack as a result of inaccurate attribution or miscalculation due to differing perceptions of what constitutes a strategically significant cyberattack meriting a nuclear response. There is also the question of whether the use of a nuclear weapon would ever be judged a proportionate response to a cyberattack under international law.

Further, the new NPR underscores that nuclear weapons will continue to play a critical role in deterring nuclear attack and in preventing large-scale conventional warfare between nuclear armed states for the foreseeable future because non-nuclear forces alone “do not provide comparable deterrence effects” and “do not adequately assure many allies and partners.”

In contrast, the 2010 NPR deemed that “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners,” adding that the United States had already reduced and would continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. Although noting “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring” a conventional, chemical or biological weapons attack, the previous NPR committed to working to establish conditions under which sole purpose—a policy to threaten nuclear use only in response to a nuclear attack—could be safely adopted. It affirmed the United States could provide deterrence and reassurance for allies at lower nuclear-force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons, taking into account not only the security environment but also unrivaled U.S. conventional military capabilities and improvements in missile defenses. It committed to strengthening conventional capabilities and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.

Diluting the negative security assurance. For non-nuclear-weapon states, the 2018 and 2010 NPR reports offer an identical negative security assurance: “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” The new NPR, however, adds a caveat so broad it risks undermining the very purpose of the assurance, which is to assure non-nuclear-weapon states that they will not be subject to nuclear attack and thus have no incentive to acquire nuclear weapons. It “reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat”; the 2010 NPR caveat was limited to adjustment warranted by “the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capabilities to counter it.”

Questionable declaratory policy on nuclear terrorism. The 2018 NPR breaks new ground with a threat to use nuclear weapons to deter or punish nuclear terrorism.

The United States will hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or employ nuclear devices. Although the role of nuclear weapons in countering nuclear terrorism is limited, for effective deterrence our adversaries must understand that a terrorist nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners would qualify as “an extreme circumstance” under which the United States could consider the ultimate form of retaliation.3

Implementation of this policy raises difficult questions of attribution and responsibility. If an insider in one of the U.S. national labs were to provide the Islamic State group with nuclear materials for a dirty bomb, would Russia be justified in attacking the United States at all, let alone with a nuclear weapon? The logic and value of this policy is not obvious.

Elevating the role of U.S. forward-based nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. The latest NPR reverses the decades-long movement by the United States and NATO to reduce the relevance and number of U.S. forward-based nuclear weapons in NATO’s deterrence and defense posture, in particular going significantly beyond current NATO policy to assert that these weapons contribute to the supreme guarantee of alliance security.4 The NPR report’s wording foreshadows a potentially divisive reopening of painstakingly negotiated NATO nuclear policy language in the run-up to the July 2018 summit in Brussels.

The 2010 NPR committed to retain the capability to forward-deploy U.S. nuclear weapons on tactical fighter bombers and heavy bombers, without presuming what NATO would decide about future deterrence requirements (e.g., maintaining U.S. weapons in Europe). These weapons are primarily political symbols of U.S. commitment to NATO. They have virtually no military utility, and the cost-benefit assessment of keeping them in multiple European locations is unpersuasive given threats from political instability and terrorism. Rather than instigate a fight in NATO to elevate their role, the United States should be removing nuclear weapons from harm’s way, particularly in Turkey, where political instability, deteriorating relations with the United States, terrorism, and war with the Syrian Kurds underscore the risks of keeping nuclear weapons reportedly based 70 miles from the Syrian border.

Calling for New Types of Nuclear Weapons Systems

The NPR goes in the wrong direction by seeking to add new “nonstrategic” nuclear weapons capabilities to the already formidable U.S. arsenal. Rejecting the 2010 NPR report pledge of “no new nuclear capabilities,” it identifies a “regional deterrence capabilities gap” that must be addressed by two new types of low-yield nuclear weapons—one to be deployed on a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and the other a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is launched during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., September 5, 2016. The NPR calls for replacement of all three legs of the nuclear triad, including fielding the Minuteman III replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, beginning in 2029.  (USSTRATCOM courtesy photo)Citing a “dramatic deterioration of the strategic environment,” the NPR asserts the need for these new weapons in order to enhance the flexibility and responsiveness of U.S. nuclear forces. The report posits that these new capabilities will make deterrence more credible against regional aggression and the threat of limited first use, for instance from Russia, by giving the president an expanding range of limited and graduated options to credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks. It claims these capabilities will “raise not lower” the threshold for nuclear use and are not intended to enable nuclear war-fighting.

To quote The New York Times editorial board, this argument is “insane.”5 First, the United States has a robust, flexible nuclear deterrent, including low-yield options. To suggest the current U.S. nuclear arsenal does not provide a sufficient deterrent to Russia or any other nation is preposterous.

Second, new low-yield nuclear weapons would not “raise the bar” for nuclear use; they would lower it because they increase the contingencies and planning for use and fuel the illusion that a use of nuclear weapons could remain limited and not escalate into a large-scale nuclear exchange. As former Secretary of State George Shultz recently testified, “A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. You use a small one, then you go to a bigger one. I think nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons and we need to draw the line there.”6

Third, it is disingenuous to deem a low-yield warhead on an SLBM a nonstrategic nuclear weapon. Nuclear warheads are neither strategic nor nonstrategic; that nomenclature refers to their delivery vehicle. A low-yield nuclear warhead on an SLBM is still a strategic nuclear weapon. To underscore the point, when an SLBM is launched from a submarine, how would an adversary know to expect one “small” low-yield weapon? Why would it not assume the attack was the leading edge of a full-scale strategic nuclear attack?

Fourth, resurrecting nuclear SLCMs reverses the 25-year trajectory set by President George H.W. Bush, who removed nuclear weapons from surface ships and nuclear-powered attack subs in 1991, and President Barack Obama’s 2010 NPR, which retired nuclear SLCMs and the capacity to redeploy them on attack subs. Co-mingling nuclear and conventional capabilities at sea is costly and operationally complex and introduces risks of miscalculation and likelihood of use. If a dual-capable SLCM were launched, how would an adversary know whether it was conventional or nuclear?

Rather than compelling positive changes in Russian behavior as the 2018 NPR report intimates, pursuit of nuclear SLCMs is more likely to stimulate Russia to deploy more nuclear weapons at sea and more missiles on land that violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russian investments in new intermediate-range strike capabilities appear driven by perceptions of vulnerability to U.S. and NATO prompt-strike and missile defense capabilities. Compounding Russia’s perceived vulnerabilities will prompt more countermeasures, not submission. By what logic should the United States fuel an incipient arms race by pursuing nuclear weapons systems it does not need?

These “supplemental” capabilities add to the already unachievable $1.2 trillion Obama plan for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure over the next 30 years. As General Frank Klotz, recently retired administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, observed, the capacity of the nuclear weapons complex to refurbish and dismantle nuclear warheads and components is already overstretched.7 A more responsible NPR would have strived to rationalize and prioritize the program of record inherited from the Obama administration by considering what elements could be cancelled, postponed, or modified to put the nuclear modernization program on a more stable, affordable, and politically sustainable footing, with a focus on survivable forces intended primarily if not exclusively for deterrence of nuclear attacks.

Abdicating U.S. Global Leadership

In contrast to the 2010 NPR, the 2018 review puts almost exclusive emphasis on nuclear weapons and military means and insufficiently promotes diplomacy and nonmilitary instruments of national power to address national security threats. It overstates the degradation in the threat environment since 2010 and fails to explain why more types of and uses for nuclear weapons is an effective means to address threats that have legitimately worsened. These include increased Russian assertiveness, the growing North Korean threat, Chinese actions in South China Sea, and the spread of new technologies, including cyberabilities.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with General Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, at the 8th Army Operational Command Center at Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul, on November 7, 2017. The Nuclear Posture Review makes no mention of the role diplomacy could play in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)The new NPR report fails to make a convincing case that the United States is slipping from a position of nuclear parity with Russia and facing a regional deterrence gap necessitating new nuclear capabilities, or that the United States is newly threatened by China’s still significantly smaller nuclear arsenal. It fails to explain why all other nuclear-armed countries except Russia will not be deterred by a nuclear force that is primarily sized and postured to deter Russia, whose arsenal is orders of magnitude larger than any other potential adversary, including China. It undersells what the 2010 NPR report termed the “unrivaled conventional capabilities” of the United States—capabilities that are still unrivaled and contribute immensely to deterrence and the defense of our nation, allies, and partners.

Against that backdrop, the 2018 NPR heralds a retreat from U.S. global leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. Although it reaffirms commitment to the NPT and supports the International Atomic Energy Agency and mechanisms to constrain, deny, and sanction proliferators, it falls short in advancing a positive strategy for addressing proliferation threats through diplomacy and pursuing steps related to the disarmament pillar of the NPT. This is a stark contrast with the 2010 NPR, which envisioned a comprehensive approach to reducing nuclear dangers and pursuing the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons, including through practical steps of further nuclear reductions with Russia, pursuit of a fissile material cutoff treaty, and ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The new NPR report is silent on multilateral nuclear arms control, other than to reject CTBT ratification while upholding, with caveats, the testing moratorium.8 On bilateral arms control with Russia, it notes fairly that the current environment makes bilateral progress extremely challenging, but offers no proposals to improve the environment, failing even to endorse a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

The latter is an easy call: As long as Russia is complying with New START, it is strongly in the U.S. interest to extend the treaty’s limits and most importantly its robust and intrusive verification regime, providing essential long-term predictability and insight into each other’s strategic nuclear forces. Russia’s violation of and mutual recriminations over the INF Treaty make this especially important. Extension is not a favor to Russia; it would be a mutually beneficial and stabilizing step as the United States and Russia seek to address bilateral problems and rebuild trust.

The policies in the NPR will further erode strategic stability, notwithstanding the report’s stated desire for stable relations with Russia and China. While calling for nuclear dialogue and transparency with China, it offers no strategy for what do to about the erosion of strategic stability with Russia other than to rev up the engine for an arms race. It is devoid of any consideration of how the nuclear policies and forces it prescribes will be perceived by other countries, particularly Russia and China; how they might react and thus affect strategic stability; and how U.S. national security will be affected if they and other countries adopt similar policies and postures.

The overarching problems with the nonproliferation and arms control element of the NPR are what it portends for U.S. policy and how it will be received internationally. Substantively, it offers no strategy and few proposals for reducing nuclear dangers, encouraging nuclear reductions, peacefully advancing nonproliferation, and sustaining international adherence to and support for the NPT regime. It fails to acknowledge the positive contribution of diplomacy in the Iran nuclear agreement and makes no mention of the role diplomacy could play in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. It fails to reaffirm, in contrast to the 2010 NPR, that it is in the interest of all nations to extend forever the now 73-year record of nuclear non-use.

The new nuclear weapons prohibition treaty, criticized in the NPR, is largely an outgrowth of the frustration and disappointment that has grown among non-nuclear-weapon states with the pace of progress by the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom on their NPT Article VI disarmament commitment.9 With the international community increasingly polarized, this NPR adds fuel to the fire and offers little to work with for allies and partners who have joined the United States in advocating a practical step-by-step approach as the most viable path toward verifiable disarmament. Rather than leading and helping to unify the international community with a positive and actionable nonproliferation agenda, the United States will find itself on the defensive trying to explain a nuclear policy likely perceived as evidence of a failure to uphold its end of the NPT bargain.


The goal of U.S. nuclear policy should be to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by deliberate act, miscalculation, or accident and to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials to states and terrorists. Achieving these goals requires the United States to marshal all instruments of national power and to cooperate effectively with the international community.

The Trump administration’s NPR takes the country in the wrong direction by increasing reliance on nuclear weapons and expanding the circumstances contemplated for their use; calling for new types of nuclear weapons systems that will provoke or exacerbate an arms race and will raise the risks of miscalculation and use; failing to set forth a realistic nuclear force posture and modernization plan that emphasizes stability and survivability and is affordable, executable, and politically sustainable; failing to articulate a positive strategy for U.S. leadership in nonproliferation and practical steps in furtherance of U.S. obligations under NPT Article VI; and failing to set forth a comprehensive strategy for addressing nuclear and regional threats through diplomacy and other nonmilitary tools, along with strengthening conventional defenses and ensuring a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent.

The American public and Congress have a responsibility to consider whether this new nuclear posture is taking the country in the right direction and, if not, to encourage a course correction. Lawmakers should advance an alternative vision for U.S. nuclear policy and global nonproliferation leadership, deny funding for the dangerous and unnecessary new types of nuclear weapons systems proposed, and reassess the $1.2 trillion cost, feasibility, and necessity of the full range of nuclear modernization programs proposed for the next three decades. The Department of State should be given the opportunity to put more meat on the bones of a nuclear policy and strategy largely devoid of diplomatic initiatives.

The damage to U.S. global leadership on nuclear nonproliferation as a result of the plans and policies in the NPR is real, and the stakes are far too high to allow these dangerous policies to go unchallenged. The time to start steering toward a better and safer track for U.S. nuclear policy and posture is now.


1 Office of the Secretary of Defense, "Nuclear Posture Review Report," April 2010, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf

2 Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, p. 21, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF (hereinafter 2018 NPR report).

3 Ibid, p. 68.

4 The 2018 NPR report states, “The United States will make available its strategic nuclear forces, and commit nuclear weapons forward-deployed to Europe, to the defense of NATO. These forces provide an essential political and military link between Europe and North America and are the supreme guarantee of Alliance security.” 2018 NPR report, p. 36. Current NATO policy as reflected in the July 2016 Warsaw summit communiqué states, “The strategic forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies…. NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture also relies, in part, on United States’ nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe.” “Warsaw Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw 8-9 July 2016,”
press release (2016) 100 (July 9, 2016), para. 53.

5 “False Alarm Adds to Real Alarm About Trump’s Nuclear Risk,” The New York Times, January 13, 2018.

6 Connor O’Brien, “Schultz Warns Congress Against Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons,” Politico, January 25, 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/25/nuclear-weapons-george-schultz-369450.

7 Aaron Mehta, “As Trump Seeks New Nuke Options, Weapons Agency Head Warns of Capacity Overload,” Defense News, January 23, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/space/2018/01/23/as-trump-seeks-new-nuke-options-weapons-agency-head-warns-of-capacity-overload/.

8 The 2018 NPR report rejects Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratification; supports the International Monitoring System; commits to maintaining the testing moratorium, “unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal” or to meet “severe geopolitical challenges”; and encourages others to declare or maintain a moratorium.

9 China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the five states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as nuclear-weapon states. NPT Article VI requires all parties to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Lynn Rusten is a senior adviser at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. From 2011 to 2014, she was senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on the National Security Council staff.

Why the new Nuclear Posture Review doesn’t make the country safer. 

A Question of Dollars and Sense: Assessing the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review

March 2018
By Madelyn Creedon

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is consistent in many respects with long-standing nuclear policies. Yet, certain elements are deeply troubling.

In terms of consistency, it reiterates that the primary mission of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack; rejects a declaratory no-first-use policy; retains the long-standing policy of ambiguity as to what constitutes U.S. vital interests, although with less ambiguity; seeks to assure allies; and reinforces the U.S commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). These are pillars of U.S. deterrence policy.

Sandia National Labratories technologists Curt Tenorio, left, and Jessie Fowler install instrumentation on a B61-12 nuclear bomb unit for a vibration and shaker-shock test. Sandia has sophisticated tests and computer models to qualify non-nuclear components under its nuclear-weapons stockpile stewardship role. (Photo: Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs)The choices that are troubling include the intention to seek a new low-yield nuclear capability, the rejection of future arms control agreements, and the plan to increase U.S. nuclear weapons production capability. These matters, in particular, deserve close scrutiny by Congress and public debate.

Certainly, the international security environment has been evolving since the Cold War ended and since the previous NPR during the Obama administration. Change was the backdrop for the 2010 NPR and remains the backdrop for the 2018 review, which highlights major nuclear modernization programs by Russia and China, rapid nuclear weapons advances by North Korea, and growing cyberthreats by state and nonstate actors.1

The report on the 2010 NPR concluded that “the threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased.” This conclusion remains valid. The underlying assumption in the 2018 NPR, however, is that the risk of nuclear attack, although not quantified, has increased, that it is the greatest risk facing the United States, and that the country’s deterrent is not sufficiently robust to counter or deter the increased risk. Alternatively, even if the risk has not increased, the latest NPR report seemingly calls into question whether the U.S. deterrent is sufficiently robust to deter the same level of risk.

Thus, the new report concludes that U.S. nuclear forces must be “supplemented” now. To that end, it calls for the nuclear complex to be positioned to develop new nuclear weapons, possibly resume explosive nuclear testing, increase the size and makeup of the nuclear stockpile, and increase the diversity of the delivery systems. The report argues that without expanding the capabilities of the nuclear enterprise, particularly the ability of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to move beyond its current focus on life-extension programs for warheads, this and future administrations will not be able to tailor deterrence to the changing nature of potential adversaries.

In contrast, the prior NPR report determined that the greatest risks were presented by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear or radiological capabilities, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities to states such as North Korea. Based on this conclusion, significant emphasis was placed on addressing these proliferation and terrorism threats, including securing, consolidating, and eliminating highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium that could be used by terrorists in an improvised nuclear device. Although there is no indication that these threats have diminished, they are not given priority in the 2018 NPR report. One can only hope that the language urging funding trade-offs among programs does not include the programs that prevent proliferation and ensure the security of weapons-usable materials.

The 2010 NPR report by no means ignored “the more familiar challenge of ensuring strategic stability with existing nuclear powers—most notably Russia and China.” Although it identified five pillars to address threats across the spectrum, it certainly did not diminish the importance of deterrence, clearly stating that the United States would maintain safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear forces. It recognized that nuclear forces continue “to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world as long as nuclear weapons exist.”

Realistically, however, the 2010 review also recognized that nuclear deterrence alone was not the answer but rather that a wide spectrum of highly capable U.S. conventional capabilities, including missile defense, in conjunction with nuclear forces would provide the best deterrent for the United States and its allies and partners.

In a bold step, the 2010 NPR report tried to identify and set the conditions for meaningful compliance with the disarmament provision in NPT Article VI, while clearly recognizing that the conditions were not currently suited to achieve those goals and might not be for many years. Since 2010, unfortunately, the global security conditions have become even less conducive to achieving a world without nuclear weapons. The 2010 report, while aspiring to these goals, reflected a growing concern that the world was approaching a nuclear tipping point where more states and more weapons would be the norm.

Although the nuclear deal with Iran has removed that country’s nuclear weapons capability for the time being, North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability has qualitatively and quantitatively improved, China and Russia have embarked on nuclear weapons modernization programs, and the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan have grown.

Russia, China, and even North Korea are expanding their conventional and nuclear programs to match or offset the U.S. conventional force advantage. The United States has been very public about Russian deployment of a new nuclear-capable missile system in violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.2 China has continued its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, growing and diversifying its conventional capabilities and modernizing its nuclear forces. While remaining small in number, their nuclear forces are becoming increasingly more capable and survivable.

These disturbing trends are unlikely to change in the near term.

Philosophies articulated in the 2010 NPR report, including the need for a strong and credible deterrent, continue in the new report. The prior report reaffirmed long-standing U.S. policy that “[t]he United States will continue to ensure that in the calculations of any potential opponent, the perceived gains of attacking the United States or its allies and partners would be far outweighed by the unacceptable costs of response” and that “any attack on the United States or our allies and partners, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.” Similarly, the 2018 NPR report concluded that “the highest nuclear policy and strategy priority is to deter potential adversaries from nuclear attack of any scale.”

Different in Tone and Tenor

Notwithstanding such similarities, the new NPR report is remarkably different in tone and tenor from its predecessor, placing the bulk of the emphasis on the nuclear forces and much less emphasis on nuclear terrorism and nonproliferation. This NPR is consistent with the National Security Strategy’s shift to a new era of great power rivalries.3

Chinese soldiers applaud during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China's northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30, 2017. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review says China’s military modernization “has resulted in an expanded nuclear force, with little to no transparency into its intentions.” (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)Although focused and driven primarily by Russian behavior, China’s growing conventional capabilities, including space and cyber capabilities, also shape the decisions in the 2018 report. In addition to the near-term decision to “supplement” the nuclear forces with a low-yield variant of the W76-1 warhead for ballistic missile submarines, the new report lays out a long-term plan to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. In short, prepare for a new arms race.

This new version of a hedging strategy—being able to address geopolitical and technical uncertainty, a key tenant of the 2010 and previous reports—includes a decision to retain more weapons longer and make new weapons faster.

The United States can hedge in two complementary ways. One is by having a robust nuclear weapon production infrastructure that has the design, engineering, and manufacturing capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons needed to address changes in the threat environment. Another approach is to retain a significant non-deployed inventory of weapons that can be added to current delivery vehicles to address geopolitical threat or technical failure.

One disturbing aspect of the new approach is the apparent decision to keep the last megaton weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the B83. How long this warhead will be retained is unclear, but one section of the NPR report indicates that it will be retained until replaced.

On the other hand, the report continues previous decisions to maintain the nuclear triad and replace the delivery systems: a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a new long-range bomber, and a new air-launched cruise missile. A new addition to the ongoing programs is a sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). Whether the SLCM goes forward is highly dependent on Russia and whether it continues to violate the INF Treaty or returns to compliance.

The new low-yield warhead, although designed to counter Russia’s growing arsenal of novel nonstrategic systems, may prove to be counterproductive. To deploy the new low-yield warhead, the United States, unlike Russia, will sacrifice some of its strategic warheads because nonstrategic nuclear warheads are not counted under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Russia has taken advantage of this fact by substantially increasing its arsenal of nonstrategic weapons, while complying with the limitations on strategic systems. Because the Trident II D5 ballistic missile on U.S. ballistic missile submarines and any warheads on it are counted under New START, the low-yield warhead will be subject to the treaty limits, just like the higher-yield W76-1. In other words, it is a one-for-one trade-off. How many low-yield weapons will be produced is unknown, but having fewer high-yield warheads, such as the W76-1, seems to advantage Russia.

A concept of operations has yet to be explained for the new low-yield weapon. The sea leg of the nuclear triad is the most survivable leg in large part due to the ability of Ohio-class submarines to be invisible in the open ocean. Launching a high-value D5 missile from a ballistic missile submarine will most likely give away its location. China and Russia are expanding their ability to detect a missile launch and will be able to locate a U.S. submarine if it launches a D5 missile. Is having a low-yield warhead worth the risk of exposing the location of a ballistic missile submarine at sea?

Moreover, if the reason to have a low-yield warhead is to respond to Russian first use of a low-yield weapon, rather than sticking to the promise of the 2010 NPR report to use overwhelming force in response to nuclear use, responding with a low-yield warhead also seems to advantage Russia and weaken deterrence. Signaling that a low-yield weapon would be used to respond to low-yield weapon use might persuade Russia to lower the nuclear threshold, thus risking nuclear war-fighting. President Ronald Reagan cautioned against this in 1984 when he said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used.”

Budget Challenges

Whether there is the political and budgetary will to implement the 2018 NPR report remains to be seen.

The biggest challenge laid out in the 2018 report is the new assignment for the NNSA. The NNSA is well into the process of fixing its aging infrastructure, but has a long way to go. It cannot fund these very expensive, one-of-a-kind nuclear facilities within its existing budget plan. A new state-of-the-art HEU storage facility is complete, and the design of the new uranium processing facility is well along. The NNSA is deciding where to build a new plutonium facility, but needs new funding, and the 1976-era PF-4 plutonium facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory must be replaced at some point. Continuing resolutions in Congress and changing requirements add to the cost and delay schedules.

Air Force General John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command commander, addresses the 5th Bomb Wing airmen at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., June 6, 2017. "The ICBMs that we have here are the most ready element [of the nuclear triad], the bombers that we have here are the most flexible, the submarine element is the most survivable, and when you put those three together, you come up with a deterrent capability that our adversaries fear and they need to fear those capabilities,” he told the Bismarck Tribune during the visit. “I hope to never have to employ them but they have to be ready all the time.” (Photo: J.T. Armstrong/U.S. Air Force)The NNSA does not have out-year funding to implement the next generation of stockpile stewardship, build new experimental facilities, conduct and diagnose more subcritical experiments at the Nevada National Security Site, expand computational capabilities necessary to maintain the current stockpile, identify and resolve future problems, conduct life extension programs, and support the fight against nuclear terrorism and proliferation.

New capabilities such as the stockpile responsiveness program and other new efforts to challenge the design and manufacturing skills of the nuclear complex will also need new funding. As the 2018 NPR report points out, although there is a new tritium-extraction facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the NNSA needs a new tritium loading facility. Lithium facilities must be constructed or a commercial source identified. In the long term, enrichment capabilities must be built to provide suitable low-enriched uranium fuel to produce tritium. If indeed the 2018 NPR is setting the NNSA on a course to build more weapons and new weapons, the NNSA budget must increase significantly.

Not mentioned at all in the NPR report is the cost, which could run into the low billions, to safely tear down the old buildings, such as building 9212 at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as the new buildings become operational. Transporting nuclear weapons, materials, and parts is also a mission not mentioned. Because funding for the new secure trailers for the Secure Transportation Asset program4 has been delayed, the new trailers will not be available until 2024, and the program is understaffed.

The fiscal year 2019 budget that President Donald Trump sent to Congress in February calls for $11 billion for NNSA weapons activities. That would be an increase of about $800 million, or 8 percent, from the fiscal year 2018 request and $1.8 billion more, a 20 percent jump, from the enacted funding for fiscal year 2017. It is not clear how much of those budget requests will be enacted by Congress, nor is it clear necessary increases will be sustained under future administrations.

Historically, neither Congress, the Department of Defense, nor the Office of Management and Budget have shown an inclination to fully fund the NNSA program of record, let alone the new initiatives such as those outlined in the 2018 NPR report. Even though the NNSA budget has increased by 60 percent since 2010, the efforts to address the decades of inattention to the infrastructure have not been fully funded. Similarly, stockpile surveillance work and the extremely successful Stockpile Stewardship Program have been cut back to support the ongoing warhead life extension programs.

The NNSA’s challenge is further complicated by an inability, imposed by Congress, to hire the skilled federal workforce needed to design and oversee implementation of the existing programs. Even though the NNSA’s work has grown significantly over the past five years, Congress continues to impose an arbitrary cap on federal staff at 1,690 employees.

The labs, plants, and the NNSA will need to recruit and train new staff and retain new and existing staff to carry out the life extension programs, maintain a robust Stockpile Stewardship Program, and take on the many new initiatives. Staffing efforts, including for the Secure Transportation Asset program, is further hindered by the year-long security clearance process, and the backlog is growing.

Although the 2018 NPR report puts considerable emphasis on the relatively low cost of nuclear deterrence in the overall defense budget, the NNSA’s entire budget already supports the spectrum of deterrence. There are no trade-offs and no untapped sources of funding.

A significant omission in the NPR report is how the NNSA will get the new funding. History has taught us that having the Defense Department move its money to the NNSA is not the answer. That approach, although well meaning, led to dissent and discord in the Defense Department-NNSA relationship. Only an increase in the overall defense budget, which includes the Defense Department and NNSA, can support the full range of efforts. Even the new low-yield weapon will be expensive, despite assertions in the NPR report that it will be easy, fast, and cheap.

The Defense Department must not neglect its efforts to maintain its nuclear enterprise and the existing delivery systems until the new platforms are fielded. This effort, started under Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is essential to the long-term well-being of the nuclear enterprise. The well-documented loss of focus on all things nuclear starting with Operation Desert Storm forced the military services to devote resources, attention, and a renewed commitment to sustain the nuclear deterrent and the men and women who support it.

The NPR report includes language supporting this ongoing effort, which has already shown results. “The Service reforms we have accordingly implemented were long overdue, and the Department of Defense remains fully committed to properly supporting the Service members who protect the United States against nuclear threats.”

The 2018 NPR report also expresses strong support for upgrading the nuclear command, control, communications, and early-warning system known as NC3.5 Here again, efforts to revitalize the system have been underway for years, such as new secured protected communications and early-warning satellites, but funding is always a challenge, particularly for the related terminals and ground systems.

Role for Arms Control

Finally, the NPR report argues that “arms control can contribute to U.S., allied, and partner security by helping to manage strategic competition among states. By codifying mutually agreed-upon nuclear postures in a verifiable and enforceable manner, arms control can help establish a useful degree of cooperation and confidence among states. It can foster transparency, understanding, and predictability in adversary relations, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.”

New START meets these criteria. Extending New START, whose central limits were achieved on February 5 by Russia and the United States, would further support these goals. Russia has not shown any interest in a new treaty, but it did leave open the door for discussion to extend New START by five years, an option provided in the treaty. Discussions beginning this summer or fall to extend New START would go a long way toward demonstrating that arms control remains important.

Does the Trump administration NPR put an end to the decades-long reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security and military strategy? Does it position the United States for a new nuclear arms race and a return to nuclear weapons testing after a 26-year moratorium? Is there the political and budgetary will to implement this new, more aggressive nuclear force posture and policy and its supporting infrastructure? Does the NPR report present an appropriate approach given an increasingly uncertain and competitive world? These questions need to be addressed as the administration’s newly released fiscal year 2019 budget request is considered by Congress.


1 Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF; U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf.

2 Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Has Deployed Missile Barred by Treaty, U.S. General Tells Congress,” The New York Times, March 8, 2017.

3 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

4 Office of Secure Transportation, National Nuclear Security Administration, “Ten-Year Site Plan FY2012 Through FY2021,” April 2011, https://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/inlinefiles/OST%20TYSP%202012-2021%20053111%20cjs.pdf.

5 U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: Update on Air Force Oversight Effort and Selected Acquisition Programs,” GAO-17-641R, August 15, 2017.

Madelyn Creedon was the Department of Energy’s principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2014 to 2017 and was assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs from 2011 to 2014.


The new NPR comes with a high price tag. That is not the only issue.

Nuclear Nonproliferation: Six Lessons Not Yet Learned

March 2018
By Pierre Goldschmidt

If one had to choose the most exceptional year in the history of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards regime, it would be 2003. That year saw four events that, it is clear after 15 years, represented important challenges and in some respects missed opportunities for the governments seeking to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

On January 10, 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), a unique case so far. On February 21, IAEA inspectors discovered at Natanz in Iran a pilot centrifuge enrichment facility ready to start operation, as well as the existence of undeclared nuclear material. On March 20, U.S. forces invaded Iraq on the pretext that the country still had a weapons of mass destruction program that included nuclear weapons. On December 19, Colonel Moammar Gaddafi announced that Libya was abandoning its 20-year covert nuclear weapons program; and as a result, the IAEA discovered the existence of a vast international network of clandestine nuclear traffic headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan of Pakistan.

A South Korean protester sprays paint on a portrait of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a rally January 23, 2003 in Seoul protesting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Fifteen years later, North Korea, led by Kim Jong Un, has an arsenal of nuclear weapons in defiance of world powers. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)Incidentally, it was also the year during which, after some 15 years of an IAEA budget policy of zero real growth, the agency’s Board of Governors agreed to increase the regular budget of the safeguards department by 22 percent (in real terms) over a period of four years.

Still, the international community failed to take bold steps similar to what it had done a dozen years earlier. At that time, following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the world discovered that Iraq had developed a clandestine nuclear weapons program over an extended period of time in parallel to its declared peaceful nuclear activities. This was despite the fact that Iraq was a party to the NPT and had had a comprehensive safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA since 1972.

Realizing that a comprehensive safeguards agreement1 did not provide the IAEA with the necessary tools to verify the declarations of non-nuclear-weapon states, the IAEA board in 1997 approved the Model Additional Protocol to provide the tools to draw the so-called broader conclusion that there are no undeclared nuclear material and activities in a non-nuclear-weapon state and that its declarations are correct and complete.

It is disturbing that no comparable measures were adopted after the 2003 events. The following analysis will focus on Iran’s noncompliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement, North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, and the lessons not yet fully learned.

The Lessons From Iran

Three major lessons from the experience with Iran relate to dealing with a state found in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement.

Lesson 1: In a case of noncompliance, the IAEA must refer it to the UN Security Council without undue delay. In November 2002, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said, “I believe that while differing circumstances may necessitate asymmetric responses, in the case of noncompliance with nonproliferation obligations, for the credibility of the regime, the approach in all cases should be one and the same: zero tolerance.” Yet, by failing to declare Iran in noncompliance in the IAEA director-general’s November 2003 report and in the ensuing Board of Governors resolution, the IAEA created a damaging precedent with far-reaching consequences still felt today.

When noncompliance is detected by the safeguards department, time is of the essence in reporting it. Any noncompliant state should know that it will be referred within a short period of time first to the IAEA board and then to the UN Security Council. If it proactively cooperates to correct the situation, it should be referred to the council for “information purposes only,” as was the case with Libya in March 2004. If the state in noncompliance adopts a “policy of concealment, with cooperation being limited and reactive, and information being slow in coming, changing and contradictory,”2 as was the case in Iran, the issue should be reported without delay to the council for action.

In the case of Iran, the IAEA board adopted on September 12, 2003, a consensus resolution that called on Iran to “suspend all further uranium enrichment-related activities” and to grant “unrestricted access, including environmental sampling, for the [IAEA] to whatever locations the [IAEA] deems necessary for the purposes of verification of the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations.”

The problem with such a resolution, which the board might well adopt in a future case of noncompliance, is that it is not legally binding. The only way to make it legally binding is to have it adopted by the Security Council. In the case of Iran, a binding resolution was not adopted by the council until December 2006.3 Three crucial years were lost, making the situation practically irreversible.

Lesson 2: In case of noncompliance, the IAEA should temporarily receive expanded verification authority. Under the governing IAEA statute, safeguards are “designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials, services, equipment, facilities, and information…under [IAEA] supervision or control are not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.” To reach that objective, the statute provides that the agency will have the right and responsibility “to send into the territory of the recipient State inspectors…who shall have access at all times to all places and data and to any person who by reason of his occupation deals with materials, equipment, or facilities which are required by this Statute to be safeguarded, as necessary…to determine whether there is compliance with the undertaking against use in furtherance of any military purpose.”

Pierre Goldschmidt (center), deputy director-general and head of the safeguards department of the International Atomic Energy Agency, visits Iran's Karaj Nuclear Research Centre for Medicine and Agriculture in February 2003. Ambassador Ali Akbar Salehi, who later became the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, stands on the far right. In the back is a medical-isotope cyclotron from the Belgian firm IBA.(Photo: Pierre Goldschmidt)Last year marked the 60th anniversary of this forward-looking mandate coming into force. In practice, unfortunately, the commitments accepted by non-nuclear-weapon states under a comprehensive safeguards agreement and even an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement are much more limited, particularly as relates to access to information, persons, locations, and data and documents.4 Iran is well aware of those limitations.

The record shows, particularly in the cases of Iran and North Korea, that the agency will temporarily need expanded verification authority when a state is found in noncompliance or in breach of its obligation to comply with its safeguards agreement and does not show full transparency and cooperation in resolving questions with regard to its nuclear program. This expanded authority needs to go beyond that granted under a comprehensive safeguards agreement and an additional protocol as clearly reflected in the September 2005 IAEA report on Iran, which stated,

Given Iran’s past concealment efforts over many years, such transparency measures should extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol and include access to individuals, documentation related to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military owned workshops and research and development locations. Without such transparency measures, the [IAEA] ability…to verify the correctness and completeness of the statements made by Iran will be restricted.5

The problem is that these additional transparency measures have not been defined in any precise way. Also, they were not included in Security Council Resolution 1737, in which the council in 2006 decided “that Iran shall provide such access and cooperation as the IAEA requests to be able…to resolve all outstanding issues, as identified in IAEA reports.”

These broader access rights, conducted under “managed access” conditions, must not exclude military sites because it is likely that the military or related actors would be involved in nuclear activities associated with a weapons program, should one exist.6 Denial of, unwarranted delays in, or limitations to access should be reported by the IAEA director-general to the board and, as appropriate, to the Security Council.

Lesson 3: The UN Security Council should adopt a generic resolution preventively dealing with cases of noncompliance.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and Iranian technicians disconnect the connections between the twin uranium-enrichment cascades at the Natanz facility on January 20, 2014, as Iran halted production of 20 percent enriched uranium under terms of a deal with world powers to curtail capabilities that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. (Photo: KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty Images)In order to give the IAEA the verification tools it needs in cases of noncompliance, the Security Council should adopt a generic resolution under Article 41 of the UN Charter stating that if the IAEA finds a state to be in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement in accordance with Article XII.C of the IAEA statute, the Security Council upon request by the agency would automatically adopt a state-specific resolution requiring that state to temporarily grant to the agency extended access rights.7 These rights, defined in the Model Temporary Complementary Protocol published in April 2009, would be terminated as soon as the agency’s secretariat and board have drawn the so-called broader conclusion that there are no undeclared nuclear material and activities in the state and that its declarations to the IAEA are correct and complete.8

This generic resolution should also require the noncompliant state to (1) immediately suspend all nuclear fuel-cycle-related activities as long as the IAEA has not been able to draw the broader conclusion and (2) conclude with the agency, within a limited period of time, a facility-specific safeguards agreement for all its nuclear facilities. The latter requirement is necessary to close the most damaging safeguards agreement loophole detailed below in Lesson 6.

This generic resolution should provide that if the IAEA director-general is unable to report within 60 days of the adoption of the corresponding state-specific resolution that the noncompliant state has concluded the required facility-specific safeguards agreement or that it is fully implementing the other requirement of the resolution, the Security Council would immediately convene to adopt a new Article 41 resolution sanctioning the noncompliant state. The level of sanctions would not be predetermined, and the permanent members of the Security Council would still have a veto right, but it would make the adoption of sanctions at an early stage much more likely and therefore constitute an improved deterrence.

One should bear in mind that, for almost 10 years, the Security Council’s legally binding sanctions against Iran were very limited and essentially targeted designated individuals and entities involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities. These limited sanctions did not stop Iran from continuing to make progress on its nuclear program in contravention of legally binding Security Council resolutions. At the time of the November 2003 report, Iran had no operating uranium hexafluoride-conversion plant and no operating centrifuge plant at Natanz, and the construction of a heavy-water research reactor at Arak had not yet started.

By early 2006, when the IAEA finally reported Iran’s noncompliance to the Security Council, the situation was very different, and there was no way Iran could be compelled to return to the status of its nuclear program at the time of the November 2003 IAEA report.

This fact is reflected in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concluded in July 2015 between Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which allows Iran to continue enriching uranium under a range of restrictions.

The nuclear agreement’s main objective is to ensure that Iran is constrained and monitored for 15 years so that it cannot break out and manufacture a nuclear weapon in less than one year.9 As long as all parties meet their obligations, this objective will be attained. Some of the constraints accepted by Iran represent a remarkable and largely unexpected achievement. Yet, this is really not a long period for Iran; it will soon be 15 years since the IAEA visited Natanz for the first time.

There is little doubt that around 2030, if not before, Iran will be a nuclear threshold state, that is, a state capable of manufacturing more than one nuclear weapon in a period of a few months and having the necessary delivery means. With that in mind, while the nuclear deal’s negotiations were underway, in March 2014 this author recommended privately to high-ranking officials at the U.S. Department of State the inclusion of two provisions.

The first was a requirement that Iran place each of its nuclear facilities under an IAEA facility-specific safeguards agreement. The second was a requirement for Iran to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as requested in June 2010 under Security Council Resolution 1929. Unfortunately, neither was included in the nuclear deal.

It is difficult to understand on what basis Iran could have objected to these two requirements since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had issued a fatwa stating that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam, and the agreement’s preamble states that “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” France, Germany, Russia, and the UK have ratified the CTBT. So it is most likely that the United States, because it has not yet done so, did not push for inclusion.

The Lessons From North Korea

There are three further lessons to be drawn from the safeguards experience in North Korea.

North Korea shows off a purported nuclear device in a photo released by its official Korean Central News Agency on September 3, 2017. Under leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has conducted four underground nuclear test explosions in the past five years, after years of failed international nonproliferation efforts. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)Lesson 4: In case a nation withdraws from the NPT, the UN Security Council must act promptly and decisively to condemn the action and impose sanctions. Shortly after North Korea submitted its initial report to the IAEA in May 1992 under its safeguards agreement, inconsistencies emerged between its initial declaration and agency findings, centering on a mismatch between declared plutonium production and solutions containing nuclear waste. On April 1, 1993, the IAEA board declared that North Korea was in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement and promptly reported the case to the UN Security Council.

In the meantime, North Korea had declared on March 12, 1993, its intention to withdraw from the NPT. The Security Council in May 1993 adopted Resolution 825, calling on North Korea to reconsider its withdrawal. Since then, North Korea has repeatedly been declared by the IAEA to be in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement.

The Agreed Framework concluded between the United States and North Korea in October 1994 resulted in the latter suspending its NPT withdrawal and agreeing to freeze the operation of a number of sensitive facilities. Unfortunately, because of the imprecise formulation of the framework, North Korea subsequently did not agree to some IAEA verification measures, such as the taking of samples and nondestructive analysis measurements. The North Koreans also did not submit accounting reports to the agency for the facilities covered by the freeze.

In October 2002, the Bush administration said that a North Korean official, confronted with a U.S. assessment, admitted the existence of a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. That was the starting point of a crisis that led to North Korea’s announcement on January 10, 2003,
of its NPT withdrawal.

For a period of 13 years after North Korea was first reported to the Security Council for noncompliance, the council failed to adopt a single resolution condemning Pyongyang, even during the three and a half years that followed its NPT withdrawal. Only after the North Koreans tested a nuclear weapon on October 9, 2006, did the council five days later take legally binding action for the first time by adopting Resolution 1718, which imposed an embargo on arms and luxury goods, an asset freeze, and a travel ban for persons designated as involved in the nuclear program. Further, it imposed a ban on a range of imports and exports and prohibited Pyongyang from conducting nuclear tests or launching ballistic missiles.

These sanctions were much too mild and came much too late to dissuade North Korea from continuing with its nuclear weapons program. Since then, North Korea accelerated testing of nuclear weapons and launched increasingly more capable ballistic missiles.

The main factor leading to this serious situation is China’s consistent opposition, until 2017, to effective Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. China’s stated justification was concern that harsh sanctions could precipitate the collapse of the regime, potentially driving hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees into China and increasing the likelihood of Korean unification under the leadership of the democratic South. China would then have a border with a U.S. ally that is home to more than 25,000 U.S. troops.

Although China’s concerns are legitimate, the consequence of its unconstructive and ineffective attitude until very recently is that North Korea today has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, which it is unlikely to abandon in the foreseeable future. In any case, it is critical for the Security Council to adopt new measures to minimize the risk that other states could one day follow North Korea’s example.

Lesson 5: The Security Council needs to deter withdrawal from the NPT by making the use of the veto right less likely. As exemplified by the cases of Iran and North Korea, one of the greatest difficulties in deterring states from violating their nonproliferation undertakings and from ignoring legally binding Security Council resolutions is the hope that at least one of the five veto-wielding council members will oppose the adoption of effective sanctions.

As a step toward strengthening the nonproliferation regime, the Security Council should adopt a generic and legally binding resolution deciding that if a state notifies its withdrawal from the NPT (an undisputed right under Article X.1), such notification constitutes a threat to international peace and security as defined under Article 39 of the UN Charter.10 This generic resolution should make sure that the Security Council would meet immediately with a view to decide, under Article 41 of the UN Charter, which measures would apply as soon as the withdrawal becomes effective.

This generic resolution should include a statement by the council’s five permanent members that they consider the withdrawal to be such a major threat to international peace and security that, in such a case, they do not intend to exercise their veto right against any state-specific sanctions resolution if they are the only permanent member to do so.

Because this declaration of intention is not legally binding, that generic resolution would not deprive those members of their veto right on any state-specific resolution. It would ensure that the council consider the matter without delay and increase the risk of immediate sanctions for the withdrawing state.

Lesson 6: All nuclear fuel-cycle facilities should be subject to irreversible IAEA safeguards. One of the main outstanding safeguards loopholes that deserves prompt attention is the absence of a requirement for IAEA safeguards to irreversibly remain in force should a state leave the NPT. If one day Iran or any other NPT non-nuclear-weapon state decides to withdraw, its safeguards agreement with the IAEA would automatically lapse under the terms of that agreement. As a result, a state may withdraw from the NPT and use previously safeguarded nuclear materials and facilities to produce nuclear weapons without violating any international treaty. NPT members therefore should strengthen safeguards rules and practices by creating a legal requirement to maintain safeguards even if a state exercises its right to withdraw from the NPT.

Over the past 15 years, states and organizations have submitted proposals designed to close this significant loophole. For example, Luxembourg submitted a working paper on behalf of the European Union to the 2005 NPT Review Conference recommending that states “[a]ffirm as a matter of principle that all nuclear materials, equipment, technologies and facilities, developed for peaceful purposes, of a State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons remain, in case of a withdrawal from the Treaty, restricted to peaceful uses only and as a consequence have to remain subject to safeguards.”11 Germany and France made similar proposals in 2004.

The UN Security Council attempted to address this issue in 2009, passing Resolution 1887, which urges states to “[r]equire as a condition of nuclear exports that the recipient State agree that, in the event that it should terminate its IAEA safeguards agreement, safeguards shall continue with respect to any nuclear material and equipment provided prior to such termination, as well as any special nuclear material produced through the use of such material or equipment.” However, this resolution does not extend to domestically produced nuclear material, equipment, and facilities. Moreover, because it was not adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, it is not legally binding.

None of these proposals have created an effective legal barrier to a state’s utilization of previously safeguarded facilities and materials for military purposes after its withdrawal from the NPT. It seems unrealistic to expect, as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) does, that a country deciding to leave the NPT and expel IAEA inspectors would agree thereafter to enter into a facility-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA, return previously delivered material and equipment to the supplier state, or accept inspectors from the exporting state to conduct verification work that IAEA inspectors are no longer allowed to do.

As this author recommended in March 2015,12 it would be much more effective to require states to conclude a facility-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA before any materials or technology are transferred, rather than as a bilateral and limited fallback obligation after a state has withdrawn from the NPT, as foreseen by the NSG. Indeed, in contrast to comprehensive safeguards agreements, facility-specific safeguards agreements, known as INFCIRC/66-type agreements, do not lapse if the state withdraws from the NPT.

NSG members should formally agree to interpret their “effective safeguards in perpetuity” export criterion13 as requiring the recipient state to have an INFCIRC/66-type safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA before enrichment- or reprocessing-related equipment, technology, or expertise is transferred. NSG non-nuclear-weapon states should lead by example and place all their enrichment and reprocessing facilities under facility-specific safeguards agreements with the IAEA.

For non-nuclear-weapon states, INFCIRC/66-type safeguards agreements concluded with the IAEA are and would continue to be subsumed under existing comprehensive safeguards agreements. They would become operational only if the latter were terminated.

This approach does not create a new safeguards standard, as the Model Additional Protocol did in 1997. Instead, it involves the simple adoption of an older type of safeguards. Therefore, it should face fewer political obstacles, would impose no operational financial burden on the state or the IAEA, and would require only a little extra paperwork at the outset.

By virtue of the current roster of NSG members, if this approach could be achieved, nearly all non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the NPT and currently operate enrichment and reprocessing facilities would have endorsed this new mechanism. The only exception would be Iran.

Nuclear-weapon states should also lead by example when it comes to their own facilities. Currently, nuclear-weapon states have a voluntary offer agreement with the IAEA, under which they determine which facilities they will make available for safeguards. The nuclear-weapon states provide the IAEA with a list of these “eligible” facilities. In order to demonstrate commitment to the principle of irreversible safeguards, each nuclear-weapon state should agree to place any enrichment or reprocessing facility on its list under INFCIRC/66-type safeguards agreements.

In such a case, enrichment facilities in China, France, the UK, and the United States, as well as French and UK reprocessing plants, would be subject to irreversible IAEA safeguards. With negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty stalled, this would provide an alternative means of achieving a first step toward a similar goal and may enable the nuclear-weapon states to demonstrate some concrete progress in this area.

What Now?

It is likely that an increasing number of non-nuclear-weapon states will acquire the necessary scientific, technical, and industrial capability to manufacture nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, thereby becoming nuclear threshold states. Indeed, a September 2008 IAEA report on Libya stated that even nuclear weapons designs existed in electronic form.14

It is therefore crucial to adopt without delay measures to deter nuclear threshold states from manufacturing nuclear weapons and then withdrawing from the NPT. As well summarized by Nicholas Miller and Vipin Narang in August 2017,

Nonproliferation efforts relying primarily on export controls and efforts to limit technology may buy time but are clearly insufficient against a motivated proliferator…. To be successful against isolated countries like North Korea, nonproliferation policies must either address the proliferator’s underlying motives—in other words, their sense of insecurity—or they must enlist a strong multilateral coalition that enforces sanctions vigorously, with few exploitable cracks. This is a tall order, but North Korea shows that the stakes are rarely higher.15

To this end, members of the Security Council should discuss and agree on legally binding generic procedures for responding to noncompliance and NPT withdrawal. Because council members would not know which states might be involved in the future, such discussions should be easier and less acrimonious than they would be during the heat of a crisis. An agreement on a set of standard responses to be applied evenhandedly, regardless of the noncompliant state’s allies, would significantly enhance the credibility of the nonproliferation regime.

If adopted, the measures recommended in this paper would make a real difference in protecting against nuclear proliferation. Yet, all countries, most of all the five permanent members of the Security Council, will need to acknowledge that these measures should be adopted now in order to mitigate the consequences of the next proliferation crisis.


1 Under a comprehensive safeguards agreement, the IAEA has the right and obligation to ensure that safeguards are applied on all nuclear material in the territory, jurisdiction or control of the State for the exclusive purpose of verifying that such material is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

2 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2003/75, November 10, 2003, para. 50.

3 UN Security Council, S/RES/1737, December 27, 2006. It was only after finding Iran in possession of a document on the production of uranium metal hemispheres, a process related to the fabrication of nuclear weapons components, and after Iran resumed enrichment activities in January 2006 that the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution on February 4, 2006, deciding to report the Iranian file to the UN Security Council. IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2006/14, February 4, 2006.

4 For a detailed analysis of these additional protocol limitations and the way they should be temporarily corrected when a state found to be in noncompliance is not fully and proactively cooperating with the IAEA, see Pierre Goldschmidt, “IAEA Safeguards: Dealing Preventively With Non-Compliance,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 12, 2008, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/Goldschmidt_Dealing_Preventively_7-12-08.pdf.

5 IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report by the Director-General,” GOV/2005/67, September 2, 2005, para. 50.

6 “The IAEA’s existing authorities should be interpreted to give the Agency the responsibility to inspect for indicators of nuclear weaponization activities.” IAEA Board of Governors and IAEA General Conference, “Report of the Commission of Eminent Persons on the Future of the Agency: Note by the Director General,” GOV/2008/22-GC(52)/INF/4, May 23, 2008 (containing an annex titled “Reinforcing the Global Nuclear Order for Peace and Prosperity: The Role of the IAEA to 2020 and Beyond,” p. 19).

7 Other generic resolutions are UN Security Council Resolution 1373 concerning acts of international terrorism and Resolution 1540 concerning the acquisition of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and their means of delivery by nonstate actors.

8 Pierre Goldschmidt, “Concrete Steps to Improve the Nonproliferation Regime,” Carnegie Papers, No. 100 (April 2009), pp. 29-41.

9 The nuclear agreement with Iran includes transparency measures extending beyond 15 years, such as a long-term IAEA presence in Iran, IAEA monitoring of uranium ore concentrate produced by Iran from all uranium ore concentrate plants for 25 years, and containment and surveillance of centrifuge rotors and bellows for 20 years.

10 In Resolution 1540 (2004), the Security Council is “[a]ffirming that proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery, constitutes a threat to international peace and security.” It has reaffirmed that statement many times thereafter, but has never “decided” that this is the case under an operative paragraph of a legally binding Chapter VII resolution.

11 "Withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," Working paper submitted by Luxembourg on behalf of the European Union, May 10, 2005, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N05/339/76/PDF/N0533976.pdf?OpenElement

12 Pierre Goldschmidt, “Securing Irreversible IAEA Safeguards to Close the Next NPT Loophole,” Arms Control Today, March 2015.

13 Nuclear Suppliers Group, “Guidelines for Nuclear Transfers,” NSG Part 1, June 2013, para. 6(a)(iv).

14 “Much of the sensitive information coming from the [Abdul Qadeer Khan] network existed in electronic form, enabling easier use and dissemination. This includes information that relates to uranium centrifuge enrichment and, more disturbing, information that relates to nuclear weapon design.” IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” GOV/2008/39, September 12, 2008, para. 38.

15 Nicholas Miller and Vipin Narang, “How North Korea Shocked the Nuclear Experts,” Politico, August 26, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/26/north-korea-nuclear-tests-shock-experts-215533.

Pierre Goldschmidt is a former nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was deputy director-general and head of the Department of Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency from May 1999 to June 2005. This paper is based on the author's presentation at a November 2017 conference held by the Wilson Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

More action is needed to avert the next nuclear proliferation crisis. 

BOOK REVIEW: Daniel Ellsberg’s Essential Truths About Our Nuclear Age

March 2018
Reviewed by Robert S. Norris

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
By Daniel Ellsberg
Bloomsbury, 2017. 420 pp.

In the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, the Russian ambassador revealed that his country’s “Doomsday Machine,” if triggered by an attack on Russia, would destroy all human and animal life on earth. Today, the same can be said about the U.S. nuclear war plans, policies, and forces to carry them out, says Daniel Ellsberg in his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

Ellsberg, of course, is best known for disclosing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. In light of his latest book, he may also become known for revealing essential truths about our nuclear age, the reflections of an insider during the early days of the nuclear arms race. The Vietnam War mistakes he famously documented more than four decades ago have receded into history, but nuclear weapons are still very much here. The mere possession of such weapons creates the conditions for catastrophe, he says. They cannot just sit on a shelf, there must be plans for their use, they must be maintained and guarded, and there has to be a communications network that ensures that an order to use them
is authentic.

The book is mainly about Ellsberg’s role at the Rand Corp. and as a Pentagon adviser in helping create this capability, how dangerous it has become, and how it might be dismantled. Of mankind, he declares, “This is not a species to be trusted with nuclear weapons.”

The book starts off with divulging a secret. In addition to the 7,000 pages Ellsberg copied that became the Pentagon Papers, there was an equal or greater number of pages that he planned to release devoted to nuclear war planning, the command and control of nuclear weapons and nuclear crises, his other areas of expertise. These pages unfortunately were lost through an odd series of events, and Ellsberg laments that he did not make known what he had copied. The book revisits these issues, and he calls on those who have access to similar information today to reveal the policies and plans that may assist in reversing course in all nuclear-weapon states.

After graduating from Harvard University, Ellsberg spent three years in the Marine Corps, some of the time in South Vietnam. He joined Rand in 1959 as an analyst and traveled widely, mainly to the Pacific. His discoveries alarmed him. He found that, in defiance of treaties, nuclear weapons were stored in Japan. Further, he found that the so-called nuclear football that follows the president’s every step was essentially a hoax to keep up the pretense that only the president can initiate nuclear war. In fact, there was widespread predelegation at the time of authority to military commanders, meaning there were many fingers on the nuclear launch button.

“Whatever the publDaniel Ellsberg (Photo: Mark Costantini/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris Images)ic declarations to the contrary, there has to be delegation of authority and capability to launch retaliatory strikes, not only to officials outside the Oval Office but outside Washington too, or there would be no real basis for nuclear deterrence,” he writes.

The book is a warning that the main elements of a Doomsday Machine are still with us. A permanent military bureaucracy that devises the nuclear war plans and its Air Force and Navy affiliates who develop and procure the missiles, submarines, and aircraft to carry them out are in place no matter the policy or the president. Even though President Barack Obama stated that the abolition of nuclear weapons should be a goal, did the nuclear war plans of the United States truly change as a result? Probably not. As a former deputy director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, the late U.S. Admiral Gerald E. Miller, once wrote,

The nuclear weapons strategy of the United States, like that of the Soviet Union, France, China, and England, is highly classified, as it should be. Any nation would be less than smart to publish such a strategy or to permit its implementers to write or talk about the subject. The United States is far more open than most, but the actual details remain privy to only a few, those involved in the implementation—the converting of the words into a plan of action. It is in the implementation that the true strategy evolves, regardless of what is generated in the political and policy-meeting rooms of any Administration.1

A life-changing moment came in the spring of 1961 when Ellsberg saw a graph that had been prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to answer the question of how many fatalities would result if the United States carried out a first strike on the Soviet Union. After he followed up with more questions, the answer was approximately 600 million. From that day, Ellsberg writes, his overriding life purpose has been to prevent the execution of any such plan.

Nevertheless, the arms race took off with the Soviet Union. Its Doomsday Machine interacted with its U.S. counterpart, creating a dangerous situation that continues to this day. A major culprit on the U.S. side was the growing number of targets. With intelligence from U-2 overflights and then reconnaissance satellites, the target list grew to astounding proportions, in the tens of thousands. With more targets designated, the “need” for nuclear weapons to hit them grew.2 Other factors were interservice rivalry, design lab competition, technological improvements, and the money and jobs that flowed to lawmakers’ home states and districts, all justified by an expansive definition of deterrence. The U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile reached a peak of more than 31,000 in 1967.

Daniel Ellsberg(C), former military analyst who released the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, speaks to the media during an anti-war protest December 16, 2010 in front of the White House. (Photo: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)Ellsberg was an observer or a participant in many key milestones of the Cold War. From Rand, he joined the Department of Defense and was instrumental in helping to draft and implement the first nuclear war plan, known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan.3 He had the highest clearances and briefed Pentagon officials, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the president’s assistants. He witnessed the handling of the Berlin crisis and Cuban missile crisis. His revelations about them make the book and the footnotes, which show familiarity with the latest scholarship, a valuable addition to the historical record.4 A true history of the Cuban missile crisis, he concludes, shows that the existence of many nuclear weapons, even in the hands of leaders who are about as responsible, humane, and cautious as we have seen, still poses a danger to the survival of civilization.

As a measure of what nuclear weapons might do if used, Ellsberg often cites nuclear winter, a condition that would eventually destroy all human and animal life on the planet. Although reduced in number from the swollen arsenals of the mid-1980s, when the phenomenon was first described, there remain enough nuclear weapons to cause such an environmental cataclysm, as Ellsberg reminds us several times.

There is an interesting chapter devoted to the early thoughts and calculations during the Manhattan Project about the chances of a nuclear explosion igniting the atmosphere. Ellsberg notes there was genuine uncertainty at the time. It was stated that there was a “negligible” chance, a remote possibility, but not a zero chance. That they proceeded, he concludes, is an example of the gamble taken by intelligent and rational men in the name of national security.

Similar logic applies today by those gamblers who devise war plans that have the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people.

It is often said that nuclear weapons have not been used since August 1945. Ellsberg asserts that this is false. In fact, they are used repeatedly in the form of threats. He lists more than two dozen crises in which such threats were made overtly or covertly or when discussions about potential nuclear weapons use occurred. These are the known instances for which there is a documentary record. How many others have there been that we do not know about, and what about other nuclear nations, he wonders.

Ellsberg offers a few policy prescriptions, including advocacy of a no-first-use nuclear policy and further measures to reduce the hair-trigger status of nuclear forces, which could lead to accidental or ill-considered use. To a sizable degree, Ellsberg pins his hopes for change on public education with a belief that Americans, if they knew the true situation, would be outraged and bring change. Yet, although there are many proposals to change the current dangerous situation,5 the Trump administration’s newly issued Nuclear Posture Review moves policy in ways antithetical to Ellsberg’s views.

Ellsberg looks back with misgivings and wonders how he did the things he did to help create a Doomsday Machine. Indeed, years after those early fears of the Manhattan Project bomb makers about the potential consequences of nuclear detonation, Ellsberg recounts his own brush with those prepared to engage with the fundamental forces of nature in the name of security.

Ellsberg recalls that, as a Rand analyst, he was tasked to evaluate a proposal from the U.S. Air Force known as Project Retro. The problem at hand was ensuring that a Soviet first-strike intercontinental ballistic missile attack on U.S. missile silos would not destroy the capability to launch a retaliatory missile strike. The apparently serious idea was to assemble 1,000 first-stage Atlas rocket engines and affix them in the opposite position to the rotation of the earth. Under attack, the United States would ignite the engines simultaneously in an effort to momentarily stop the earth’s rotation, thereby causing the Soviet missiles to miss their targets. Today, Ellsberg asks, how much crazier is this idea than the overall situation created throughout the nuclear era?

As with the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg has performed a public service in writing a candid book that states where we are more than seven decades into the nuclear era. This book provides abundant evidence that describes our nuclear predicament and how we got here, as well as ideas and insights that may help extricate us from the potentially devastating path we now walk.


1 Gerald E. Miller, “Beres and Others Have No Access to the ‘True Strategy,’” Center Magazine, November/December 1982. Miller wrote at length on the factors that led to a large U.S. stockpile. Jerry Miller, Stockpile: The Story Behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010).

2 Admiral Stansfield Turner discovered that the Single Integrated Operational Plan called for a railroad bridge spanning a river in Bulgaria to be hit with a nuclear weapon. Stansfield Turner, Caging the Nuclear Genie: An American Challenge for Global Security (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), p. 8.

3 The “single” plan has turned into a “family of plans” with a name change. The nuclear war plan of the United States is now called OPLAN 8010. For details, see Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Ivan Oelrich, “From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons,” FAS Occasional Paper, No. 7 (April 2009).

4 Ellsberg has a website that supplements the book and on which he posted some of the lost documents. There are also notes and memos from his files and material gained through the Freedom of Information Act. For more, see http://www.ellsberg.net/.

5 Kristensen, Norris, and Oelrich, “From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence”; Bruce Blair, “Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority,” Arms Control Today, January-February 2018.

Robert S. Norris is a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists and author of Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (2002).



In the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, the Russian ambassador revealed that his country’s “Doomsday Machine,” if triggered by an attack on Russia, would destroy all human and animal life on earth. Today, the same can be said about the U.S. nuclear war plans, policies, and forces to carry them out, says Daniel Ellsberg in his new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

March 2018 Books of Note

Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation
Helen Caldicott, ed., The New Press, October 2017, 256 pages

Helen Caldicott, a physician and veteran nuclear disarmament campaigner, has assembled a fresh and wide-ranging set of essays from scientists, scholars, journalists, and activists on the threats posed by nuclear weapons. Caldicott, who helped mobilize a generation of doctors on the public health catastrophe of nuclear war, writes that the volume’s purpose is to provide a wake-up call and a prescription for action for a new generation just beginning to recognize that nuclear dangers persist. The short compositions address nuclear weapons and the consequences of their use, the politics of nuclear weapons, and remedies to alleviate the threat. There are vivid essays from authors Seth Baum, Alan Robock, and Lynn Eden on the effects of nuclear weapons use; works from Michael Klare and Julian Borger on global nuclear flashpoints; three contributions from key leaders of the movement to prohibit nuclear weapons; and a thought-provoking essay by Kennette Benedict on the undemocratic nature of nuclear weapons decision-making. Caldicott’s collection would have been stronger if she had included works that focused on nuclear programs beyond those of the United States and Russia or an essay or two on policy options to further reduce their arsenals and those of the world’s other nuclear actors. Still, Caldicott’s book is an important read for anyone who does not believe that people are, indeed, sleepwalking to Armageddon.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Getting Nuclear Weapons Right: Managing Danger & Avoiding Disaster
Stephen J. Cimbala, Lynne Rienner Publishers, December 2017, 269 pages

Stephen J. Cimbala, a distinguished professor of political science at Penn State Brandywine, provides a comprehensive assessment of nuclear weapons issues. The first chapters ask what kind of international system would be most conducive to stability and find that the preferred system would be a world without nuclear weapons. There are, however, myriad obstacles to getting there. Because nuclear abolition may be unrealistic, many have proposed a minimum-deterrence posture, which Cimbala examines in depth. He then poses a question that engenders a paradoxical answer: How can a nuclear war be controlled or limited? The second half of the book ventures more into practical specifics. Cimbala examines nuclear proliferation and U.S. policy options, determines that it is the responsibility of the United States and Russia to forge the way on nuclear issues, and considers the challenges of bringing China into the nuclear arms reduction process. The final chapters explore further challenges of the 21st century, including those facing NATO and those tied to managing a nuclear crisis in the information age.—KELLY SMITS

Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation By Helen Caldicott, October 2017
Getting Nuclear Weapons Right: Managing Danger & Avoiding Disaster By Stephen J. Cimbala, December 2017

Arms Control ‘Under Fire’

March 2018
By Sharon Squassoni

Arms control treaties and nonproliferation agreements are mechanisms that nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states alike rely on to help provide transparency, predictability, and stability for regional and global security. In the last year, several elements of this key architecture have come under fire.

U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control is a key element because both countries together still possess about 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Without bilateral progress, there is little incentive for others to move forward. However, for the first time in many years, no U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations are under way. If the draft U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is any guide to U.S. policy, there will be no U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations for the foreseeable future. Instead, we could see a return to a nuclear arms race.

(Photo: www.thebulletin.org)Russian officials consistently have asked to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for another five years, to 2026, including an early call from President Vladimir Putin to President Donald Trump. Extending that treaty is an easy, positive step to take, but it hasn't been done. The landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is on the rocks. For four years, both sides have alleged violations, but Russia last year actually fielded a ground-launched cruise missile that violates the treaty. The United States has stated it will remain in compliance, but the NPR puts Russia on notice that the status quo is untenable.

More broadly, the NPR describes the re-emergence of great-power competition and blames Russia for rebuffing U.S. overtures on follow-on negotiations for New START on tactical nuclear weapons. It elevates the reported Russian interest in limited nuclear weapons use to a strategic imperative and concludes that the only response is more U.S. nuclear weapons.

Russia, for its part, has engaged in provocative and illegal behaviors thought to be part of Cold War history. The NPR declares that Russia has not only violated that INF Treaty, but also the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum, the Helsinki accords, presidential nuclear initiatives … the list goes on. In the words of the NPR, the Cold War is over, but its language on tailored deterrence for Russia is as harsh as any during the Cold War.

With U.S.-Russian relations so strained, there is little room for progress anywhere else, which brings us to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has been consistent in his dislike of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which puts additional constraints on Iran's capabilities to develop nuclear weapons. In October, Trump did not certify to Congress that Iran was in compliance, but Congress was unable to pass legislation that would provide an alternative approach. Earlier this month, Trump continued to waive sanctions, but called on the Europeans to craft a supplementary deal by May. Trump himself has never offered a single viable alternative. But, so far, he hasn't been willing to unilaterally pull out of the deal as he has threatened. Nonetheless, this is hardly a recipe for stability and predictability going forward.

Other multilateral agreements are in trouble. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty turns 50 years old in 2020. Twenty-five years ago, in exchange for the indefinite extension of the treaty, the nuclear-weapon states promised to conclude a nuclear test ban, end the production of fissile material for weapons, reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, and in general, progress toward reducing the risks from nuclear weapons. Well, as you know, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was signed 20 years ago, but it still hasn't entered into force. No longer does the United States promise not to test nuclear weapons until the CTBT enters into force, but instead the new NPR states that the United States will not resume nuclear testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Finally, the 2020 review of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will not be pretty, in spite of the conclusion last year of a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons won a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts related to the ban treaty, and more than 50 states have signed it so far. Nuclear-weapon states, on the other hand, boycotted the negotiations and have rejected it.

We need more than symbolic victories to achieve a safer, more secure future. We need to do more.

Sharon Squassoni is a research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy in the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and is a member of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The following remarks, edited for space and style, were made at a January 25 news conference announcing the advance of the Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock by 30 seconds to two minutes to midnight, signifying the most dangerous situation since 1953 following the first U.S. test of a thermonuclear device.



Trump Seeks Expanded Nuclear Capabilities

March 2018
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, unveiled Feb. 2, puts deterrence of nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks at the top of the U.S. nuclear agenda and pivots away from a number of key Obama administration policy priorities and commitments that sought to lower reliance on nuclear weapons.

“[G]lobal threat conditions have worsened markedly since the most recent 2010 NPR, including increasingly explicit nuclear threats from potential adversaries,” states the review, citing Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. “The United States now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (L), and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify on the Nuclear Posture Review before the House Armed Services Committee on February 6. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)The review, the fourth since the end of the Cold War, makes a case for what it presents as a more flexible, resilient, and adaptable U.S. nuclear posture to meet current and future challenges. But critics warn that the Trump administration is moving in ways that will be costly and potentially destabilizing.

Most controversially, the review addresses the circumstances under which the United States would consider the first use of nuclear weapons to include cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities; calls for the development of two sea-based, low-yield nuclear options that do not currently exist in the arsenal; and gives relatively short shrift to arms control and nonproliferation.

Whether the NPR has the impact the administration intends is far from certain in light of questions in Congress about the need, effectiveness, and affordability of the strategy; opposition from rival powers Russia and China; and concerns about President Donald Trump’s intemperate and bellicose rhetoric on nuclear weapons.

The United States is “creating a brand-new nuclear force,” Trump said on Feb. 12. “[W]e’re gonna be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before.”

Since the end of the Cold War, each administration has conducted a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy. These strategy documents outline the president’s views on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, maintenance of and upgrades to nuclear forces, and the overall U.S. approach to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

The Obama administration’s review, completed in April 2010, concluded that the top priority of the U.S. nuclear agenda should be nonproliferation and prevention of nuclear terrorism. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report stated that “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries” and that prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically. (See ACT, May 2010.)

In a January 2017 executive order, Trump directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to produce a national defense strategy, an NPR, and a ballistic missile defense review. Mattis initiated the NPR in April 2017. (See ACT, May 2017.) A draft of the document was leaked to the Huffington Post on Jan. 11, nearly a month before the planned release date. The final draft largely mirrored the leaked version.

Reactions Mixed

The NPR report contains elements of continuity with long-standing U.S. nuclear policy, such as affirming the strategic triad of land- and sea-based missiles and bombers, continuing the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, and stating that deterrence of nuclear attack is not the sole purpose for U.S. nuclear weapons.

“This review is consistent with U.S. nuclear policies since the end of the Cold War,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at a Feb. 2 press briefing. “It reaffirms that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence and continues our clear commitment to nonproliferation and arms control.”

But several of the proposed changes in the review have sparked controversy. Critics fear that the changes reverse decades of efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, increase the risk of nuclear conflict, and add to the crushing financial burden to sustain and upgrade the arsenal in the coming decades.

In a Jan. 29 letter to Trump based on the leaked version of the document, 16 Democratic senators wrote that “creating new nuclear capabilities and widening their possible use constitute an increase in America’s nuclear warfighting capacity that will pressure other nuclear weapons states to follow suit.” The senators criticized the document for failing to address how the administration plans to pay for new nuclear capabilities “on top of the already-unsustainable costs of modernizing our existing U.S. nuclear forces.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the plans Trump inherited from Obama to maintain and upgrade the arsenal over the next 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion in current dollars. (See ACT, December 2017.)

The NPR report acknowledges that the upgrade costs are “substantial,” but claims that they are affordable and, at their projected peak in the late 2020s, will consume no more than 6.4 percent of the Pentagon budget. This estimate does not include the additional costs that must be borne by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.

Republican lawmakers have generally expressed support for the recommendations in the NPR report. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a Feb. 2 statement that the review “takes a number of steps in the right direction.”

“[S]ince the end of the Cold War, we have let our nuclear capabilities atrophy under the false belief that the era of great power competition was over,” McCain added.

As with Congress, the reception to the NPR report among allies has also been mixed.

“Japan highly appreciates the latest NPR which clearly articulates the U.S. resolve to ensure the effectiveness of its deterrence and its commitment to providing extended deterrence to its allies including Japan,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in a Feb. 3 statement.

But German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel blasted the NPR report. “The U.S. administration’s decision to develop new tactical nuclear weapons shows that the spiral of a new nuclear arms race has already been set in motion,” he said Feb. 4. “We need new disarmament initiatives rather than new arms systems.”

Meanwhile, Russia and China reacted harshly. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated on Feb. 3 that “the document is focused on confrontation and is anti-Russian” and the claim that Russia has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons has no “connection with reality.” The following day, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman reiterated China’s commitment that it will not use nuclear weapons first and said that Beijing hopes “the U.S. side will discard its ‘cold-war mentality’ [and] shoulder its own special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament.”

Updated Roles

The NPR report says that the use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the “vital interests” of the United States and its allies. It also includes a so-called negative security assurance that Washington “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”

The 2010 NPR report used identical language. Yet, unlike the previous administration, the Trump administration defines “extreme circumstances” to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

The document does not explicitly define “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” but at various points says it could include chemical and biological weapons attacks, large-scale conventional aggression, and cyberattacks. The report references the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks more than 30 times.

The 2010 NPR report, in contrast, described “a narrow range of contingencies” in which nuclear weapons may play a role in deterring a conventional, chemical, or biological weapons attack and called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. Cyberattacks or attacks on nuclear command, control, and communications capabilities were not cited as grounds for a nuclear response.

The 2018 NPR report also caveats the negative security assurance by retaining “the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.”

The Trump administration argues that the new revised language on declaratory policy does not signal an expansion of the circumstances under which the president would consider nuclear first use but rather makes explicit threats that have always been implicit.

“The Obama policy didn’t rule out anything as a potential extreme circumstance,” Greg Weaver, deputy director of strategic capabilities for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon before the release of the NPR report. “Our intent is to clarify the kinds of things that might constitute extreme circumstance so adversaries don’t miscalculate and cross that threshold unwittingly.”

But some analysts warn that the language of the NPR report could have the effect of lowering the bar for first use of nuclear weapons and that threatening such use in response to cyberattacks or attacks on U.S. command and control capabilities would lack credibility.

The review “opens questions about whether the United States would consider using [nuclear] weapons more readily than it might have in the past or in response to attacks that are less than fully catastrophic,” Rebecca Hersman, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a Feb. 6 commentary.

Using nuclear weapons in response to attacks on command and control capabilities would “violate any notion of proportionality,” argued James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a Feb. 5 article for the War on the Rocks website. “Russian or Chinese non-nuclear strikes on U.S. satellites would almost certainly cause no human casualties.”

New Nuclear Capabilities

The NPR report calls for the development of two additional low-yield nuclear capabilities, primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use or threaten to use its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in a conventional conflict or crisis, a strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate.”

These “supplements,” as the report describes them, include the near-term deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and, in the longer term, development of a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

According to the report, the development of the two options “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’”

“Rather,” the report argues, “expanding U.S. tailored response options will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely.”

Critics maintain that the report misconstrues Russian nuclear doctrine and that additional low-yield options are unnecessary. “Rather than lowering the threshold of nuclear use, the Russians are actively seeking to increase it,” wrote Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, in a Feb. 13 article.

Other analysts have noted that the United States already possesses two types of low-yield warheads for delivery by strategic bombers, making redundant the NPR report’s proposed third and fourth low-yield options.

The Defense Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 released on Feb. 12 includes $22.6 million for developing a low-yield SLBM option. The request does not contain funding for a new SLCM. The NNSA budget request does not include additional funds to modify SLBM warheads or to begin development of a warhead for the SLCM.

The NPR also seeks to retain the B83-1 gravity bomb, the only remaining megaton-class warhead in the U.S. stockpile. The decision reverses the Obama administration’s proposal that the warhead be retired once confidence in the under-development B61-12 gravity bomb is achieved.

The plan to keep the B83-1 bomb is part of a larger proposed expansion of NNSA nuclear weapons work that the NPR report says would provide “capabilities needed to quickly produce new or additional weapons” beyond the estimated 4,000 warheads currently in the active U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The administration requested $11.2 billion for the NNSA nuclear weapons account in fiscal year 2019, an increase of $780 million over last year’s request and $1.8 billion over the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.

Arms Control Takes a Back Seat

The NPR report states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit” and if such accords “advance U.S. and allied security, are verifiable, and enforceable.” It adds that the administration “will continue to pursue the political and security conditions that could enable further nuclear reductions.”

But the report does not offer any proposals to advance U.S.-Russian arms control or address the growing challenges to strategic stability more broadly. It also does not commit to an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is slated to expire in 2021. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

In addition, the report says, without offering a reason, that the administration will not pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

“One of the things that’s missing in this NPR is a focus on nuclear diplomacy,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, in a Jan. 18 interview with WNYC New York Public Radio. “How are we going to get to our goals of reducing the dangers, reducing arsenals, reducing the role of nuclear weapons?”


Nuclear Posture Reviews, Then and Now

The Trump administration's Nuclear Posture Review is the fourth since the end of the Cold War. It differs from the Obama administration's 2010 review in some key areas.

IssueObama, 2010Trump, 2018
Conditions for nuclear useUnder “extreme circumstances” to defend U.S. and allies’ “vital interests”; policy to reduce nuclear role in deterring non-nuclear attacks with the goal of achieving sole-purpose nuclear deterrence“Extreme circumstances” include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” on United States or ally population, infrastructure, nuclear forces, and/or command and control capabilities; no reference to reducing nuclear weapons’ role or implementing sole-purpose policy
Negative security assurancesUnited States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); contains caveat if biological
weapons threat advances
United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with NPT; contains caveat if non-nuclear strategic threat advances
Arms reductionsNew START, 1,550 strategic deployed warheads; calls for future reductions to include nondeployed and tactical weaponsSupports New START implementation though 2021, silent on possible five-year extension; open to future arms control if conditions permit and it enhances U.S. and allied security, is verifiable,
and enforceable
New weapons and testingRatify Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); no nuclear testing; no new weapons development; no new missions for nuclear weaponsOpposes CTBT ratification; calls for development of additional low-yield options and ability to rapidly prototype new weapons designs


The Nuclear Posture Review marks significant change from the Obama years.

North Korea Signals Potential Talks

March 2018
By Kelsey Davenport and Terry Atlas

North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games eased tensions on the Korean peninsula and opened space for potential dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. But that opportunity may not last as the United States plans to resume military exercises with South Korea and North Korea threatens to resume it nuclear and ballistic missile testing activities.

In the immediate aftermath of the Olympics, held in South Korea, North Korea signaled its willingness to engage in direct talks with the United States, though on what terms remains to be determined. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who conveyed word of North Korea’s overture Feb. 25, called on the United States to lower its threshold for talks and for Pyongyang to “show its willingness
to denuclearize.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, sits next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics on February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Though nearby, Pence did not acknowledge or speak with Kim Yong Nam (top left), president of the Presidium of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, and Kim Yo Jong (top right), sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Secret plans for a February 10 meeting collapsed at the last minute, according to U.S. officials. (Photo: Patrick Semansky - Pool /Getty Images)Moon has sought to build on the fledgling North-South dialogue to bring about U.S.-North Korean talks to reduce the risk of war over Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear weapons program. His efforts, however, may not be fully supported by the Trump administration. “We want to talk only under the right conditions,” President Donald Trump said Feb. 26.

The developments will focus attention on the uncertain diplomatic skills of the new U.S. administration. It hasn’t filled the key U.S. ambassador post in Seoul and just lost a key State Department official, Joseph Yun, who retired March 2 as special representative for North Korea policy. The public diplomatic exchanges over potential talks followed the collapse of secret plans for U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to meet with senior North Korean officials Feb. 10 during the Olympics’ opening days. U.S. officials said the North Koreans backed out, although North Korean officials said publicly on Feb. 7 that there was “no intention” of meeting with U.S. officials during the games.

That breakdown came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, through sister Kim Yo Jong, invited Moon to come to Pyongyang for talks. The North Korean delegation was in South Korea for the Feb. 9 Olympics opening ceremony.

The Trump administration has taken a wary view toward the favorable attention focused on North and South Korea’s joint participation in the Olympics, saying Pyongyang continues to press ahead with a nuclear weapons program that will soon put all of the U.S. mainland at risk. U.S. officials say time is running out before the United States may take military action.

Kim’s moves threaten to open a rift between South Korea and the United States, particularly if the U.S. administration is seen as hindering outreach efforts by Moon, who seeks to continue the inter-Korean dialogue that began in January. En route to South Korea, Pence told reporters he would urge Moon to return to a policy of maximum pressure and “diplomatic isolation” toward the Pyongyang regime once the games ended.

U.S. officials on Feb. 21 confirmed a report in The Washington Post that Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, pulled out of the scheduled meeting at the last minute. Trump had approved plans for the meeting, at which Pence was to reiterate Washington’s demands and threats of further punitive actions, the article said. Pence said in an Feb. 11 interview, just after the then-secret meeting plan failed, that the United States is willing to engage diplomatically if North Korea wants to talk.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a Feb. 18 interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” said he “does not know precisely” how much time is left, although “diplomatic efforts will continue until that first bomb drops.” Mixed messages and failure to provide clarity about the diplomatic approach have complicated his efforts. Trump previously tweeted doubts about the likelihood of a diplomatic resolution.

U.S. threats to use military force and plans for joint military exercises may overshadow the most recent overtures and could reignite tensions. A Feb. 19 editorial by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said North Korea is open to “both dialogue and war” with the United States. The commentary called a U.S. threat to “pull the trigger” for military action a “hideous attempt to block the improvement of inter-Korean relations and again coil up the military tension on the Korean peninsula.”

Last August, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said a so-called limited preventive strike was on the table as an option. While other officials have since downplayed or denied a “bloody nose” scenario is being considered, Victor Cha, whose anticipated nomination to become U.S. ambassador to South Korea was abruptly dropped by the White House, said he had warned administration officials against any such plan.

“The answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike,” Cha wrote on Jan. 30 in The Washington Post. He warned that such action could lead to an escalation that, in addition to Koreans, “would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans” in South Korea and Japan.

Cha, who served as the National Security Council’s director for Asian affairs in the George W. Bush administration, wrote that a preventive strike would “only delay North Korea’s missile-building and nuclear programs” and “would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it.”

The United States is planning to resume U.S.-South Korean military exercises, delayed for the Olympics and the subsequent Winter Paralympic Games on March 9-18. U.S. officials said on Feb. 20 that there would be no changes to the original size and scope of the drills.

Pyongyang has long viewed the joint exercises, particularly the so-called decapitation drills, which simulate strikes on North Korea’s leadership, as provocative. China and Russia called for the United States and South Korea to suspend the joint military exercises in exchange for a nuclear and missile testing moratorium from North Korea, an offer which Pyongyang made to the Obama administration in 2015. (See ACT, January/February 2015.) McMaster has rejected this “freeze for freeze” proposal.

Although North Korea has refrained from missile testing since December, Pyongyang did hold a parade Feb. 9 that displayed its intercontinental ballistic missiles and a new short-range ballistic missile.


False Missile Alert Panics Hawaii

A false missile attack alert in Hawaii was caused by human error when a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) employee thought an exercise was a real attack, officials said.

The agency employee mistakenly sent out an emergency alert Jan. 13 warning of an incoming ballistic missile and directing residents to take shelter. Despite quickly discovering the mistake, it took the agency 38 minutes to notify the public, which is longer than the flight time for a North Korean missile to reach the Hawaiian Islands.

ALISON TEAL/AFP/Getty ImagesGov. David Y. Ige (D) called the mistake “totally unacceptable” and apologized for the “pain and confusion” caused by the false alert. The unidentified employee reportedly was fired.

Heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea compounded the fear invoked by the false alert. In response to North Korean threats and tests of ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, Hawaii began testing attack-warning sirens in December for the first time in 30 years and updating emergency management plans in the event of a nuclear attack. HI-EMA Administrator Vern T. Miyagi said in December that Hawaii “couldn’t ignore these constant threats and missile tests from North Korea.”

In a Jan. 15 Politico column, William Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration, argued that the false alarm is a “new manifestation of an old problem,” namely that human error or technological failure could lead to a “horrific nuclear catastrophe.” Perry wrote that the incident demonstrates the critical need to re-engage with Russia to reduce nuclear dangers, including giving up the launch-on-warning policy.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Next steps will focus attention on the uncertain diplomatic skills of the Trump administration.

U.S. Targets Support for North Korea

March 2018
By Kelsey Davenport

The United States continues to ratchet up pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons and missile development, with Washington imposing additional sanctions and calling for better implementation of UN sanctions.

A U.S. Treasury Department news release Jan. 24 stated that nine entities, 16 individuals, and six ships were added to the sanctions list as part of U.S. efforts to “systematically target individuals and entities financing the [Kim Jong Un] regime and its weapons programs.” The effort is to target “illicit actors in China, Russia, and elsewhere” for working on behalf of North Korean financial networks and for entities that “continue to provide a lifeline to North Korea” in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

This photo, released on February 9 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, shows Hwasong-15 intercontinental-range ballistic missiles during a military parade in Pyongyang. Analysts believe the missile is capable of reaching much or all of the continental United States, depending on the weight of its payload. (Photo: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images)Earlier in the month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on all states to improve sanctions implementation during a meeting of 20 countries in Vancouver. The countries represented were the 18 that supported South Korea during the Korean War by sending troops under UN command, plus South Korea and Japan.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Jan. 16 that the states agreed to take “significant steps to keep North Korea from evading sanctions and to sever financial lifelines for the country’s weapons of mass destruction.”

Sanctions implementation remains a problem, according to a leaked report from a UN panel of experts that assesses implementation of Security Council measures on North Korea.

The experts report, obtained by the Associated Press in early February, said that North Korea is using “deceptive practices” to circumvent financial sanctions and noted that there are “critical deficiencies” in sanctions implementation. The report concluded that Pyongyang is engaging in prohibited ballistic missile activities with Syria and Myanmar and exceeding caps on oil imports, including through illegal ship-to-ship transfers.

Tillerson, at the Vancouver meeting, specifically called for improving maritime interdiction activities and putting an end to ship-to-ship transfers.

The report found that North Korea evaded UN sanctions on coal by shipping it through other countries and using deceptive practices to hide the origin of the coal. Coal purchases were fully banned by Security Council Resolution 2371 in August 2017. The UN report also noted that China imported iron ore from North Korea in violation of sanctions.

China and Russia were not invited to participate in the Vancouver meeting, but Tillerson specifically called on both countries to do more to implement UN sanctions. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a Jan. 16 press briefing that China opposed the Vancouver meeting and that it has “no legality.”

Leaders at the Vancouver meeting emphasized the importance of full implementation of UN sanctions, but they appeared split on how to engage with North Korea diplomatically.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said “tough sanctions and pressure” and “the offer of a different, brighter future” must work hand in hand.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said that North Korea’s decision to engage in inter-Korean dialogue was proof that the sanctions regime is working. Kono said that it would be “naïve” to reward North Korea for engaging in inter-Korean dialogue and that now is the time to “fully and rigorously” implement UN measures. He also called for states to consider additional measures, such as cutting diplomatic ties with North Korea and repatriating North Korean workers.

Sanctions implementation remains a problem, according to a UN panel of experts.


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