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Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
March 2021
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Enough Already: No New ICBMs

March 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

President Joe Biden entered office with a deep knowledge of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the arms race. During the campaign, he said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and “will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Realizing that vision will require a sober-minded reassessment of outdated nuclear deterrence assumptions, a fresh look at Trump-era nuclear weapons spending plans, and political courage.

Biden can start by directing his team to put on hold the Pentagon’s scheme to develop, test, and deploy beginning in 2029 a new fleet of 400 land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). If pursued, the new missile would cost in excess $264 billion over its anticipated 50-year life cycle.

The new weapon—the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)—is just one part of the staggeringly expensive plan left over from the Trump era to replace and upgrade the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at a projected cost of upward of $1.5 trillion over the next quarter-century.

This GBSD program pause would deemphasize the role of ICBMs, allow for a serious evaluation of the option of extending the life of the existing force of 400 Minuteman III ICBMs at a lower cost, and provide for the pursuit of deep mutual reductions in the bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Not only is the U.S. nuclear arsenal costly, it is excessive and redundant. The land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is the most destabilizing. U.S. ICBMs are maintained on high alert, ready to launch within minutes of an order by the president. This posture is ostensibly designed to avoid a massive, surprise nuclear attack by Russia, which deploys its own massive, land-based missile force in a similar “launch under attack” posture.

Each country’s deadly ICBM force perversely justifies the existence of the other’s, perpetuating the risk of a massive nuclear exchange that might be triggered by a false alarm or a future cyberattack on nuclear command-and-control systems.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Air Force wants you to believe that ICBMs are needed to act as a warhead “sponge” that requires Russia to expend a large portion of its nuclear inventory in a potential all-out war scenario. This is important, the argument goes, because it would give the United States a numerical advantage in second-strike strategic forces.

Even veteran lawmakers such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) seem to accept this bizarre nuclear war-fighting theology. “They can’t risk a ‘first strike’ against us unless they take those out,” Reed told Bloomberg last month.

Such arguments do not hold up. Why would Russia or China deliberately launch a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear first strike against U.S. ICBM fields if, as is the case, this would assure their own annihilation? With or without ICBMs, the United States could still launch a devastating nuclear retaliatory strike from just a portion of its invulnerable fleet of 12 strategic submarines and dispersed bomber-based weapons that can be distributed before the hypothetical adversary nuclear attack.

Just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine, carrying 160 thermonuclear warheads, each with an explosive yield of 100 kilotons or greater, could devastate a large country and kill tens of millions of people. The reality is that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Even if one believes that ICBMs are useful targets in the event of a Russian nuclear attack, why not opt for a cheaper nuclear sponge? Some or all of the existing force of Minuteman III ICBMs can be life-extended for decades more and at a much lower cost. By deferring the GBSD program and extending the existing Minuteman III force, the United States could save at least $37 billion through the mid-2030s, according to a 2017 Congressional Budget Office estimate.

Corporate and military GBSD boosters disingenuously argue against Minuteman III by saying it cannot meet their “requirement” for 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075. That assumes, incorrectly, that the United States needs 400 ICBMs into the indefinite future. Presidents can change outdated military requirements, and future arms reduction agreements can certainly reduce the number of ICBMs.

The reality is that the United States can deter and, if necessary, respond to nuclear attack without the 400 nuclear warheads atop its 400 ICBMs. Today, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is at least one-third larger than necessary to deter a nuclear attack.

Accordingly, Washington can reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads from roughly 1,400 today to 1,000 or fewer, as validated by a 2013 Pentagon review, and challenge Russia to do the same. The ICBM force, which is the most vulnerable to attack and the most destabilizing in a crisis, is the place to start cutting the bloated U.S. arsenal.

As the new Biden administration prepares its fiscal year 2022 spending proposal, which is scheduled for release in May, it should freeze funding for the GBSD program at the 2021 level of $1.5 billion while it undertakes a broader review of U.S. nuclear policy and budget alternatives. Doing so would save $1 billion that could be put toward higher-priority national security needs. That review should include life-extending the Minuteman III and ultimately phasing out ICBMs.

President Joe Biden entered office with a deep knowledge of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the arms race. During the campaign, he said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and “will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Toward a Just U.S. Nuclear Declaratory Policy

March 2021
By George Perkovich and Pranay Vaddi

When adversaries consider each other’s capabilities and intentions, they focus on whichever is most threatening. With nuclear weapons, force posture and operational practices are usually considered more important than what leaders declare are circumstances in which they would consider unleashing nuclear weapons. Still, nuclear policies and forces require rationales to guide them. Declaratory policy articulates such rationales, even if decision-making on the development of nuclear weapons and other capabilities sometimes has a bureaucratic-political-economic logic of its own.

A pair of U.S. Air Force missile combat crew commanders simulate key turns of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile weapon system at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., February 9, 2016. U.S. ICBMs are currently ready for launch on warning within minutes of an order authorized by the president. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Wiese.)There is no perfect or nonproblematic nuclear weapons declaratory policy. One that sets the threshold for nuclear use too low invites international and perhaps domestic recriminations, along with arms racing and crisis instability. “These people are a menace,” competitors will say. “We must build up to stop them.” Nuclear disarmament advocates and non-nuclear-weapon states will say, “These people are a menace; we must disarm them.”

A declaratory policy that nearly rules out the use of nuclear weapons may make domestic opponents and dependent allies fear that adversaries will behave more aggressively. “When push comes to shove, this administration will lack the resolve to stop a determined, fast-moving aggressor,” critics will charge.

Rather than seeming too permissive or too restrictive in describing the circumstances surrounding nuclear use, some nuclear-armed states often take refuge in an ambiguous public declaratory policy that leaves much to the interpretation of the audience. The United States has done this, although less so than the other nuclear-armed Western democracies that might use ambiguity to avoid criticism: the United Kingdom, France, and Israel. The Obama and Trump administrations nuclear posture reviews, in 20101 and 20182 respectively, declared rather vaguely that the United States “would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners.”

As the Biden administration prepares its own review of nuclear policy, various actors and interests are pushing different options for defining when the United States would or would not consider using nuclear weapons. On the “permissive” side are champions of the Trump administration’s declaratory policy, which added a coda that extreme circumstances “could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against the United States or its allies and partners. On the “restrictive” side are many U.S. activists and analysts, along with much of the rest of the world, who want the United States to declare a no-first-use policy.

In a major speech on nuclear security issues on January 11, 2017, Vice President Joe Biden offered his own formulation:

Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter and defend ourselves and our allies against non-nuclear threats through other means. The next administration will put forward its own policies. But seven years after the Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] charge, the President and I strongly believe we have made enough progress that deterring and if necessary, retaliating against a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.3

Unsurprisingly then, the 2020 Democratic Party platform declared “that the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter—and, if necessary, retaliate against—a nuclear attack.”

After analyzing these options, there is an alternative closer to “just right”: a policy that posits a less ambiguous, higher threshold for U.S. employment of nuclear weapons than the Trump or Obama administrations did; is more prudent and alliance-cohering than a no-first-use policy would be; and is more adaptable to evolving threats than the sole-purpose policy would be. That policy would state that the United States would consider the use of nuclear weapons “only when no viable alternative exists to stop an existential attack against the United States, its allies, or partners.”

Such a formulation, called an existential threat policy (ETP), would reflect U.S. and allied interests better than the alternatives. By adhering more closely to the law of armed conflict than the current policy of “calculated ambiguity,” an ETP would better position the United States in political contests with Russia and China. By offering a logic of proportionality that any nation could justifiably use in defending itself or its allies, an ETP would raise the level of international debate over nuclear deterrence and disarmament.

Current Policy

U.S. officials choose to “retain some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a U.S. nuclear response,” as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) admits. Ambiguity spares presidents from making commitments based on hypothetical scenarios and preserves the flexibility to act based on the real-world situation at the time. Ambiguity also can help alleviate allies’ fears that the United States might abandon them when they are under attack.

In addition, ambiguity is a tempting way to try to inflate the effects of deterrence. The arguably low threshold of “extreme circumstances” in the 2010 and 2018 reviews could make adversaries more cautious or restrained in using any kind of force than they would be otherwise. This seems to be the French and UK approach too, making potential adversaries guess what their threshold is.

An Air Force aide carries the ‘nuclear football’ out of the White House as he accompanies U.S. President Joe Biden to Delaware for the weekend on February 5, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)Yet, this temptation to inflate the currency of nuclear weapons comes with risk. Bitter experience shows that possessing nuclear weapons does not deter all forms of aggression or coercion, nor does it guarantee winning wars. If nuclear deterrence did work against all forms of aggression and guarantee victory in war, many more states would want to acquire these weapons, which poses other risks. Overreliance on nuclear deterrence also can create a strategic and moral hazard of decreasing the resolve of politicians and polities to prevent conflicts at the outset and to acquire conventional and other defenses to deter or defeat less-than-existential threats.

The United States and others should be clearer in recognizing that nuclear use can be justified strategically and legally only when the threat to be deterred or stopped is proportionate to the likely consequence of nuclear weapons use. As the “Department of Defense Law of War Manual” declares, “[T]he overall goal of the State in resorting to war should not be outweighed by the harm that the war is expected to produce.”4

This argument for more clarity about the height of the nuclear threshold becomes more urgent in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s declaration that the United States could rightly consider nuclear use in response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.” Presumably, this means attacks involving conventional, cyber-, chemical, or biological weapons. The 2018 NPR report elaborated somewhat that targets warranting potential nuclear response include “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.”

There are ominous tensions here. The United States is committed to “adhere to the law of armed conflict…in the initiation and conduct of nuclear operations,” in the words of the 2018 NPR report. How would the legal criteria of necessity, distinction (not targeting civilian objects or personnel), and proportionality be met in using nuclear weapons to defeat attacks by conventional, cyber-, chemical, or biological weapons?

More importantly, adversary leaders might perceive the 2018 declaratory policy as justifying intentions and capabilities to conduct disarming first strikes on them. Defense officials in these countries already assume in the worst case that U.S. conventional, cyber-, and nuclear forces will be preemptively employed to destroy their nuclear deterrents, with missile defenses meant to block whatever survives. The widened ambiguity of declaratory policy will only affirm worst-case thinking. This may drive or rationalize these states’ development and deployment of more, technologically better nuclear weapons and operational plans to avoid destruction or disablement by the United States. The arms race and crisis instabilities that result are arguably in no one’s interest.

No-First-Use Policy

The concept of pledging not to be the first to initiate nuclear weapons use has been a feature of the nuclear policy debate for decades. It has long been an element of the official public policies of China and India. In recent years, U.S. policymakers, encouraged by other countries and civil society groups, have once again considered whether to adopt a no-first-use policy, most recently the Obama administration in 2016. In its most restrictive form, such a policy would pledge the United States to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. The goals are to establish or clarify that the United States would not start a nuclear war and to reduce politically the salience of nuclear weapons nationally and globally.

Informed advocates argue that there are “few, if any”5 scenarios in which U.S. first use would constitute a necessary or credible threat against Russia, China, or North Korea, the three states currently “eligible” for potential first use of nuclear weapons under U.S. policy. Yet, allies, partners, adversaries, and U.S. policymakers understandably will and should focus on the word “few.” Does it mean that there are indeed some scenarios in which the first use of nuclear weapons would be a viable last option for the United States to defeat an adversary’s strategic non-nuclear aggression or imminent nuclear attack? If so, what would Washington plan to do in these contingencies if it subscribed to a no-first-use policy?

For example, if North Korea, which has nuclear weapons that might be able to penetrate U.S. missile defenses, were detected preparing to carry out orders to launch nuclear weapons against U.S. allies or the homeland, should the United States forswear the option of using nuclear weapons first to interdict such an attack if there was no other way to do so? Beyond the North Korean scenario, a few other hypothetical cases are evident, involving Russia and European allies, and China vis-à-vis Taiwan. These adversaries also could weaponize biological technologies and inflict chaos and massive casualties on allied and U.S. populations, making U.S. leaders conclude that these governments and their militaries must be defeated immediately in ways that conventional weaponry could not accomplish. As horrific as chemical weapons use can be, it is extremely difficult to see how they would pose an existential threat necessitating U.S. nuclear use.

Allies are an important audience for U.S. declaratory policy. They are more likely than adversaries to believe U.S. policy statements and plan accordingly. Yet, allies are not uniform. Some may oppose any nuclear weapons use, particularly in and around their countries. Others may see a no-first-use policy more broadly as a sign of U.S. withdrawal from its historic commitments to alliances, an issue that became more salient in recent years. Still others, privately at least, think a no-first-use policy would weaken collective deterrence of Russia or China without securing any restraint from them in return. Any consideration of declaratory policy change must involve sustained, wide-ranging consultations with allies.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden highlights Obama-Biden administration accomplishments and future challenges in dealing with nuclear weapons in an address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C., January 11, 2017.  (Photo by Chris Kleponis/AFP via Getty Images)Ultimately, Russia and China, like the United States, pay more attention to capabilities than declared intentions. A no-first-use declaration would be relatively meaningless to Moscow and Beijing without reductions in the weapons that are most tied to such a policy. Yet, the political capital that a president would expend to push this declaration through the U.S. system and allied governments would leave little to overcome traditional resistance to alter the force posture. Opponents, including vocal members of Congress, would produce quotes from current and recently retired military leaders decrying the change and accusing the president of being weak on national security and the threats from Russia and China. To balance the perceived diminution of nuclear deterrence, the administration would face added pressure, including from Democratic members of Congress, to increase spending on nuclear modernization or at least not to pause or cut controversial programs under review.6 Allied governments in Europe, Japan, and Australia would fret that this policy shift exacerbates their loss of confidence in U.S. leadership—“even the Trump administration did not do this,” some will say.

In sum, for the purposes of reducing current destabilizing dynamics among the United States, Russia, and China, pursuing a no-first-use declaratory policy would do much less good than negotiating limits on offensive and defensive systems that exacerbate arms racing and crisis instability.

Sole-Purpose Policy

Another alternative is to declare, in the words of the 2020 Democratic Party platform, “that the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter—and, if necessary, retaliate against—a nuclear attack.” A third option would operationalize Biden’s January 2017 formulation, which goes slightly further than “sole purpose” and comes close to a no-first-use policy. This formulation would leave open the possibility of employing nuclear weapons if it were the only way to preempt an imminent nuclear attack by a country such as North Korea. It appears to rule out, however, in words anyway, use of nuclear weapons as a last resort against Russian or Chinese non-nuclear forces that were defeating U.S. and allied forces and threatening to inflict massive harm on their populations, perhaps with biological weapons. A U.S. administration that adopted a sole-purpose policy would need to demonstrate that NATO and U.S. allies and partners in Asia were significantly improving their conventional military capabilities, their resilience, and their overall cooperation and cohesion to deter, defeat, and survive major conventional aggression and possible biological weapons attacks by Russia, China, and North Korea. Until that is accomplished, declaring a sole-purpose policy would risk straining U.S.-allied relations.

Existential Threat Policy

Despite the flaws of alternatives such as no-first-use and sole-purpose policies, U.S. declaratory policy should not remain the same. The threshold of “extreme circumstances” to defend “vital interests” is too ambiguous and, depending how it is interpreted, too low to serve the physical, strategic, political, and legal interests of the United States and allied and partner nations.

The potential, perhaps likely, consequences of employing nuclear weapons against an adversary that can retaliate in kind are so threatening to the populations of the countries involved and to nonbelligerent nations that nuclear weapons should only be detonated when the alternative would be worse destruction. Thus, the United States should declare it would consider employing “nuclear weapons only when no viable alternative exists to stop an existential attack against the United States, its allies, or partners.”

An ETP would reflect a realistically restrained approach to the conduct of nuclear deterrence and war and would bring U.S. policy more in line with the law of armed conflict. It would be credible because it would not pledge the United States to forswear the right to use all legal7 and necessary means to forestall a threat to its existence or that of its allies, as no-first-use and sole-purpose policies might. It could improve international security by encouraging U.S. and allied publics to deploy and rely on non-nuclear means to defeat all but existential threats. It could be advantageous in international politics because this declaratory policy could be a defensible model for any nuclear-armed state to articulate.

Critics will argue that an ETP is ambiguous—what is an existential threat? This is a fair question, but an ETP would be significantly less ambiguous than the current policy’s thresholds of “extreme circumstances” and “vital interests.” Many forms of attack or coercion could create extreme circumstances and threaten what in that moment politicians and pundits would call vital interests, but many of those threats would not be as destructive as escalatory nuclear war would be. Something more than irony occurs when analysts criticize the ambiguity of an ETP but commending the even wider ambiguity in the current policy.

Reducing Ambiguity

Nuclear weapons should be used only when “no viable alternative” exists because the law of armed conflict requires that a chosen military action must be necessary to defeat a given threat. If less destructive alternatives, such as conventional strike capabilities, are available, then they must be pursued first. The same logic should apply to explosive yield of weapons too, as the lowest yield sufficient to disable or destroy a legitimate target should be used. An ETP also conforms better to the law of armed conflict requirement of proportionality because no one, including the United States, would be wise and justified to use nuclear weapons in response to an injury that is less grave than a potential nuclear war.

What is an existential threat? Obviously, nuclear attack on populations meets this criterion, as would a genocidal non-nuclear aggression, including a massively effective biological weapons attack. Other existential thresholds are more difficult to define.

The Trump administration, echoing many observers, suggested that a cyberattack that disabled large swaths of the U.S. electrical supply would be the sort of “significant non-nuclear strategic attack” that could cause the United States to employ nuclear weapons. Yet, cyberattacks are strategically attractive to adversaries and to the United States (e.g., Stuxnet) in part because they do not necessarily cause destruction or even irreversible damage, let alone widespread death. Moreover, there are many ways, which realistically do not exist against nuclear attack, that government, tech industries, electric utilities, and hospitals, for example, can and should prepare themselves to defend against and survive cyberattacks. Nevertheless, in a scenario in which a cyberattack inflicted as many deaths as the COVID-19 pandemic has, if the United States could with a 99.9 percent certainty attribute the cyberattack to the Kremlin, which would take considerable time, would it be legally and strategically justified in responding to the attack by ordering a nuclear strike against Russia? Which targets? What if China or North Korea were the villain in the same scenario?

Nuclear retaliation would not stop a cyberattack or undo its damage, but it could trigger more death and destruction among belligerent and nonbelligerent nations alike. Even the threat to use a nuclear response to a cyberattack against civilian infrastructure, which did not cause damage commensurate with that caused by nuclear weapons, could normalize other states’ or nonstate actors’ threats or use of nuclear weapons, including in response to U.S. cyber operations. Blurring cyberweapons and nuclear weapons thresholds also could encourage some states or nonstate actors to conduct “false flag” cyberattacks, for instance, by using leaked U.S., Russian, or Chinese malware, to catalyze conflict between the United States and Russia or the United States and China.

Would a non-nuclear attack that removed a government’s leadership pose an existential threat warranting nuclear retaliation? If the attacks of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, were backed by a nuclear-armed adversary and had succeeded somehow in overturning the judicially validated presidential election and illegally imposing a head of state, the regime-changing insurrection clearly would be an “extreme circumstance” that threatened a “vital interest” of the United States. Would anyone in their right mind say that using nuclear weapons in response was a tolerable thing to do, or the least bad of bad alternatives?

Law and common sense argue that nuclear use should be predicated on the scale of violence and destruction inflicted by an adversary, not merely on the “damage” to one’s own government. Threats that do not harm societies on a scale proportionate to the destruction caused by even a limited nuclear war should be countered by non-nuclear means, even if procuring such means would be more costly than acquiring additional or different nuclear weapons. Attempts to invoke nuclear threats to deter such attacks amounts to a bluff and a moral hazard because belief in the power of nuclear deterrence could lead governments to avoid spending on more usable defensive capabilities.

Nevertheless, a state with an ETP would be justified in considering nuclear use in response to attacks of any kind, including cyberattacks, on its nuclear command, control, and communication assets on land or in space. The judgment would depend crucially on whether the attacker was perceived to have the intention and capability to inflict further violence and destruction on the United States or allies on a scale warranting nuclear response. If so, an attempt to render the U.S. nuclear deterrent blind, deaf, and dumb could be an existential threat.

Critics may claim that an ETP would invite Russia or China to act maliciously up to this declared nuclear threshold, which is higher than “extreme circumstances.” The prudent response is to enhance non-nuclear defenses and nuclear command, control, and communication capabilities rather than to expand the role of nuclear weapons, especially with the risks that regional conflicts could escalate inadvertently to nuclear war.

Of course, bolstering U.S. capabilities, whether nuclear or non-nuclear, often prompts alarm and countervailing reactions in Russia and China. To forestall these reactions and build international support for its position, U.S. declaratory policy should make clear the U.S. willingness to negotiate arms control and disarmament arrangements that enhance stability for all concerned.


Ultimately, if the United States wishes to retain or restore its international leadership in a global nuclear order, its declaratory policy should be one that Americans and others would find relatively acceptable if other states adopted it. Because deterrence could fail, it would be folly for anyone to posit using nuclear weapons in situations where ensuing action-reaction dynamics would probably leave one and one’s allies and partners worse off than if nuclear weapons were not used. Conversely, it would be imprudent to promise not to use nuclear weapons when there appears to be no better alternative to defend the viability of one’s nation or allies.

An ETP would clarify to adversaries and allies better than today’s “calculated ambiguity” does that the United States will not be too quick to pull the nuclear trigger and must maintain other means necessary to defeat the most probable forms of coercion or aggression. It would signal better than a no-first-use or sole-purpose policy that the United States recognizes that Russia, China, and North Korea still need to do more to assure their U.S. ally and partner neighbors that they will not wage massively destructive warfare against them. This latter requirement is key. If through deterrence, defense preparation, resiliency, and diplomatic resolution of tensions, the United States and its allies and partners can achieve mutual confidence with Russia, China, and North Korea that armed conflict will be eschewed and the potential for its escalation limited, then a no-first-use policy would become a recognized fact and would not need to be a declaratory policy.


1. Nuclear Posture Review Report, U.S. Department of Defense, April 2010, https://dod.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/NPR/

2. Nuclear Posture Review, U.S. Department of Defense, February 2018, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF

3. Remarks by the Vice President on Nuclear Security, Washington, D.C., January 11, 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/12/remarks-vice-president-nuclear-security

4. Office of General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Law of War Manual,” December 2016, p. 86, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/DoD%20Law%20of%20War%20Manual%20-%20June%202015%20Updated%20Dec%202016.pdf?ver=2016-12-13-172036-190.

5. Steve Fetter and Jon Wolfsthal, “No First Use and Credible Deterrence,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2018): 102–114.

6. Paul McLeary, “New Hicks Memo Sets Acquisition, Force Posture 2022 Budget Priorities,” Breaking Defense, February 24, 2021.

7. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, para. 105(2)(E), https://www.icj-cij.org/public/files/case-related/95/095-19960708-ADV-01-00-EN.pdf.

George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Pranay Vaddi is a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at CEIP. This article is based on the authors’ January 2021 report, “Proportionate Deterrence: A Model Nuclear Posture Review.”

The arrival of the Biden administration opens the door for possible changes in U.S. policy on nuclear use and non-use.

Debating Missile Defense: Tracking the Congressional Record

March 2021
By Leah Matchett

“When you vote [against missile defense] as a member of Congress, you are telling your own 575,000 constituents in your district that you are going along with an agreement that leaves them exposed deliberately to missile attack," according to U.S. Representative Duncan L. Hunter (R-Calif.).1 Hunter, a strong proponent of missile defense, put his finger on a challenge that missile defense skeptics in Congress have faced for years: it is difficult to vote against “defense.”

A Missile Site Radar stands long-abandoned in Nekoma, N.D., where the United States briefly operated the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system in the 1970s. The radar guided two types of nuclear-armed interceptors to protect U.S. ICBM silos.  (Photo: Terry Robinson/Flickr)The arguments from the expert academic and strategic nuclear policy community against homeland missile defense, which largely focus on the strategic impact of missile interceptors in stimulating countermoves, technical challenges, and high costs, have mostly ignored this feature of the politics surrounding the issue. Particularly in recent years, opponents of missile defense in Congress generally have failed to make key strategic arguments. This article outlines key gaps in congressional arguments against national missile defense aimed at defending the American public from a nuclear attack.

Close examination of the congressional debate on national missile defense shows a significant distinction between how members of Congress talk about these systems and how the expert academic and nuclear policy community does. The following analysis is based on a computerized model of congressional debates on missile defense to explore these dynamics. The data suggest that when considering the technical feasibility of missile defense, members of Congress express views that track closely with the debate in the academic nuclear policy circles. Yet, members of Congress who are critical of missile defense have largely ignored the debate over its strategic shortcomings, instead focusing on cost and trade-offs. This leaves the “defending the country” argument unanswered and misses a real opportunity to leverage the arguments of experts on the strategic risks of missile defense. It also reflects the broader worry Democratic members of Congress have about being seen as soft on defense, which is an outcome that need not be inevitable.

Congress Listening to the Experts on the Technical Challenges

Since the earliest days of congressional debate about missile defenses, arguments about its desirability have been inextricably intertwined with questions about its technical feasibility. There was so much skepticism about the prospects for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, for instance, that opponents dubbed it “Star Wars” after a literal fiction.

Part of the reason for the slew of fanciful technology that has been proposed for missile defense over the years—everything from “rods from god” to X-ray lasers—is that missile defense is a difficult problem. Immediately following an offensive ballistic missile launch is its boost phase. Targeting it during this phase with a missile defense interceptor is fairly straightforward, due to the high heat signature of a booster rocket. Missiles remain in this stage, however, for a very brief period. In order to successfully intercept a rocket fired from China or Iran during the boost phase, the intercept would likely have to be initiated within seconds of launch and the interceptor stationed inside or directly adjacent to the country in question—an unlikely prospect.

After the missile finishes the boost phase, it enters a midcourse stage, where it travels through space and the outer atmosphere along a ballistic trajectory. A significant number of U.S. missile defense programs have been designed to target enemy missiles at this stage, but the incoming rocket can easily deploy decoys, some as simple as mylar balloons. In space, these travel at the same velocity as the missile itself and are difficult to distinguish from an incoming nuclear-armed warhead, making interception challenging.

Once the missile and the decoys reenter the atmosphere, they quickly become distinguishable, marking the terminal phase of missile flight. During this phase, missile defense systems have a very limited time to target an incoming missile, usually less than a minute. Because of this, terminal-phase interceptors are most effective in a small area surrounding the interceptor’s launch site. In the words of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), “[I]is like a catcher behind the plate in a baseball game. As long as the pitch is near the plate, the catcher can catch the throw.”2

Kinetic missile interceptor technology has improved over the decades, a point often highlighted by proponents of missile defense in Congress.3 Representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) in 2009 described in detail a successful test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, providing information about how the “interceptor hit the target dead center and blew it to smithereens.”4 On another occasion, in 2001, Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) noted, “We had a test…. It was a remarkable test. It shows that we are well on our way towards coming up with the technology that is necessary to deploy a missile defensive system for our country.”5

A SM-3 Block IIA is launched from the USS John Finn, an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System-equipped destroyer, November 16, 2020, as part of Flight Test Aegis Weapons System-44 (FTM-44). (Photo: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)This testing has drawn its own critiques from the expert academic and nuclear policy community. For years, the testing of missile defense systems did not involve realistic scenarios such as countermeasures against intercept. Although the realism of testing has improved, critics note that the United States has never carried out a strategic missile defense test against multiple simulated targets, at night, or when the sun is in the interceptor’s field of view, which could make for a more challenging sensing environment.

Just as proponents of missile defense rely on evidence from successful tests, opponents in Congress are quick to note when a test has failed. In 2003, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) declared that “[n]ational missile defense does not work. It has failed three tests that were much simpler than real-life scenarios.”6

Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, head of the MDA, has dismissed the problem by simply saying that the MDA “tests against the types of threats we expect our adversaries could employ.”7

Proponents of strategic missile defense systems also note that the testing record has improved dramatically in recent years, and more complex tests are being carried out as the system develops and the program sees continued financial investment.

These technical challenges and the efforts to overcome them have become a key part of the expert debate on missile defense and one largely mirrored by the congressional debate.

Using computerized text analysis methods, this history of congressional committee debates on missile defense programs from 1995 to the present, which total almost a half-million statements, produces a vectorized model of text, a computer model that preserves the context of words and allows the researcher to ask questions about the context in which a particular discussion occurs. This model was used to determine the most important partisan differences in congressional discussion of missile defense.

The data shows that both parties spend significant time debating the technical feasibility of missile defense. Republican statements tend to focus on “atmospheric intercepts,” “demonstrations,” and “programmatic feasibility,” while Democratic members of Congress tend to echo outside experts’ concerns over testing validity, stressing the need for “independent validation,“ more “extensive oversight,” and “proven scalable technologies.”

In general, Democratic members are more critical of the technical prospects for missile defense, including an emphasis on the need for a “fundamental rethink” and a look at “assumptions underpinning” the system, while the Republicans are more bullish, often emphasizing “revolutionary concepts” and “American exceptionalism” in the context of missile defense.

These debates are largely similar to the expert debate, with one side expressing skepticism of technical feasibility and the other noting progress through time and expressing confidence in the future. Where members of Congress diverge from the academic and nuclear policy community on missile defense is mainly with respect to the discussion of its strategic consequences.

Failing to Make the Strategic Case Against Missile Defense

Most proponents of homeland missile defense are aware that it is unlikely to constitute perfect protection from missile threats, particularly against adversaries with larger arsenals and more advanced missile systems. They suggest, however, that even limited protection would reduce the costs the United States would incur if struck by an adversary’s missiles, and this could be beneficial strategically in a number of ways.

One argument made in favor of missile defense is that it strengthens the extended deterrence commitments of the United States. Proponents argue that key allies rely on the U.S. commitment to employ nuclear weapons in defense of an ally—the so-called nuclear umbrella. A robust U.S. homeland missile defense, even with limited capability, could reduce the damage the United States is likely to incur in a limited nuclear exchange, thereby increasing the credibility of the U.S. commitment to defend allies against other nuclear-armed states. In the Congressional Record, discussion of missile defense is more likely to be associated with allies such as Israel, Poland, and South Korea than it is with adversaries such as Iran and North Korea. This suggests that a good portion of congressional debates also focuses on extended deterrence and the role of missile defense in alliances.

A separate argument made by advocates of missile defense is that any reduction in nuclear costs that the United States would pay increases its potential bargaining power in a crisis with a nuclear power. U.S. missile defense “could steel the country’s resolve in a war in which the enemy might well have long-range ballistic missiles,” thus leading to better outcomes crisis bargaining.8

Many expert critics of missile defense dispute this point, arguing that this reduction in costs is only meaningful if it changes the balance of U.S. costs and interests. If the damage the United States might suffer remains high enough, then missile defense does little to enhance the credibility of threats to escalate.9 If 100 million Americans are under threat, reducing that number to 50 or even 30 million would be admirable, but does not affect the willingness of the United States to incur those costs, because 30 million is still an unthinkably high price to pay for any foreseeable interest.10

Even so, proponents note it might be possible to avoid these costs altogether. As part of a crisis, some expert proponents of missile defense have argued that missile defense increases the viability of a preemption strategy against a state with a relatively small ballistic missile force.11 Preemption, in a nuclear context, involves wiping out the nuclear forces of an adversary before they fire. Usually, preemption is considered risky to the point of being infeasible. If the United States were to miss even one of an opponent’s missiles, it would be almost ensured a nuclear retaliation. Missile defense proponents argue that a robust missile defense system could deal with as many as 10 missiles that were not taken out by the preemptive strike, lowering the barrier to preemption.12 Critics of missile defense use this same argument to suggest that other states, aware of the increased feasibility of U.S. preemption, would face a “use it or lose it” dilemma. This could actually make them more likely to launch their nuclear weapons in a crisis.13

These nuanced debates are part of a long line of argument carried forward by scholars since the 1950s. During the Cold War, it was also a feature of the way Congress talked about these systems. It is only more recently that these arguments are largely missing from the Congressional Record.

After all, the rationale for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union was grounded in the strategic logic that the unconstrained deployment of large-scale strategic ballistic interceptor systems would only stimulate an even more massive build-up of the offensive strategic ballistic missile forces of each side, thus making the defenses irrelevant in an all-out conflict and making the Cold War nuclear arms race even more expensive for both sides.

This view was reflected in the critique offered on September 10, 2001, by then- Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) at the National Press Club regarding the George W. Bush administration’s plan to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in order to deploy a more robust midcourse strategic missile interceptor system in Alaska.

Biden, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee at the time, said implementation of the president's missile defense plan could trigger a new nuclear arms race involving Russia and China.

“Are we really prepared to raise the starting gun in a new arms race in a potentially dangerous world?” Biden asked. “Because make no mistake about it, folks, if we deploy a missile defense system that is being contemplated, we could do just that. Step back from the ABM Treaty. Go full steam ahead and deploy a missile defense system, and we will be raising the starting gun. Let's stop this nonsense before we end up pulling the trigger.”

Compared to the early focus by congressional critics on missile defense as a possible strategic loss, the data on more recent congressional discussions show a largely one-sided assertion that missile defense is good for nuclear deterrence that has gone largely unanswered.

In the text model, discussion of deterrence is one of the best ways to tell whether a statement was made by a Republican. Phrases such as “deterrence equation,” “deter enemies,” “deter coercion,” and “crisis deterrence” are an important part of the Republican justification for missile defense. In contrast, the Democratic Party overall has had relatively little to say about the strategic arguments against missile defense.

Instead, most Democratic members try to focus the discussion of missile defense on its very high costs. The words most likely to indicate that a statement on missile defense was made by a Democrat include those such as “exceedingly expensive” and “hidden cost,” or those that compare missile defense to trade-offs in other expenditures, such as infrastructure and health care.

It is these strategic arguments where the congressional debate on missile defense diverges most strikingly from the academic one. Although many Republican members of Congress talk about missile defense as an aid to deterrence, Democrats often do not directly rebut this argument and discuss strategic issues measurably less than their Republican colleagues. At the same time, missile defense as a whole has become less controversial. Throughout the Cold War, Congress routinely made significant revisions to the president’s proposed budget for missile defense, sometimes increasing or decreasing requests by as much as 30 percent. Now, these requests are often passed without significant changes.

The expert academic and nuclear policy community debate suggests that missile defense might be strategically undesirable, even if feasible, and might do little to affect deterrence calculation when such high stakes are involved. Democratic members of Congress, however, generally avoid the topic of deterrence. This is not to suggest that no critic of missile defense in Congress is making the strategic arguments against the system. These arguments can still be found.14 Yet, the data suggest that they are the exception and that most Democratic criticism of missile defense systems focuses on cost and feasibility.

The problem with the Democratic focus on cost is that there is no clear standard for how many tax dollars the government should spend to protect human life. It is unconvincing to answer a strategic argument (missile defense is important for the defense of the nation) with the suggestion that defending the nation is too difficult (feasibility) or too expensive (cost). This helps to explain why Democratic members of Congress debating missile defense often focus on trade-offs with other national security priorities.

The result of this gap is that a powerful academic argument, that missile defense is undesirable, even if economically and technologically feasible, because it makes the country less safe, is largely underutilized by congressional opponents of strategic missile defense. Many members of Congress could be unaware of this argument, although this seems unlikely. Given the high volume of debate on the issue over the years on this issue, there may be other reasons why these strategic arguments are not made more often.

Making the Argument: Moving Beyond ‘Soft on Defense’ Fears

One explanation for this gap is that the strategic argument against missile defense, although sound, is deemed a political loser by a Democratic Party that is constantly concerned about being branded soft on defense. Democrats from President Lyndon Johnson to President Bill Clinton have struggled with this aspect of missile defense. How do you tell the American public it is a bad idea to try to defend them?

The inability to answer this question, which left Democrats “groping for a way to respond” to the SDI program,15 stems fundamentally from a failure to effectively engage on the strategic arguments against missile defense. The way to respond to the argument made by Hunter that opposing missile defense means leaving constituents “exposed deliberately to missile attack” might be to make the counterargument: that homeland missile defense could lead a determined enemy to actually increase its offensive missile capabilities to evade or overwhelm any defense and that the best protection against missile attack is to reduce the possibility that there will be an attack in the first place.

The American public can and has responded to strategic arguments when presented with them. There is no reason to think that they would not do so in this case. As the Democratic Congress is grappling with the next steps for this system, it is essential they consider the strategic arguments. The first step to this is holding a hearing on the strategic arguments for and against homeland missile defense, including the consequences that continued expansion of this program is likely to have on arms control efforts.16

Public opinion is deeply shaped by elite cues. Work on public opinion and the use of military force suggests that same-party elites have a significant amount of influence on public opinion.17 Without leadership from opponents of missile defense within Congress pointing out the strategic problems with this technology, the public is unlikely to make the connection on their own.

The Biden administration and congressional Democrats should worry less about being considered soft on defense and more about how they can make good defense policy and explain their choices to the American public. Whether on missile defense or anything else, it is important to make the argument.


1. 141 Cong. Rec. H5,937-H5,977 (daily ed. June 14, 1995).

2. U.S. Missile Defense Agency, “Ballistic Missile Defense Challenge,” MDAfacts, January 30, 2004, https://media.nti.org/pdfs/10_5.pdf.

3. In the 1960s, the United States pursued the development of strategic missile defense systems that utilized interceptors armed with nuclear warheads. The Johnson/Nixon-era Safeguard program involved two types of interceptors: one armed with a five-megaton-yield warhead, another with a one-kiloton warhead. Following, the conclusion of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, the scope of the program was scaled back and focused on the defense of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile launch sites. It was cancelled by Congress in 1975, the same year it officially became operational. Since then, U.S. missile defense research and development has focused on non-nuclear kinetic destruction technologies.

4. 155 Cong. Rec. H13,131-H13,139 (daily ed. May 20, 2009).

5. 147 Cong. Rec. H15,259-H15,265 (daily ed. July 31, 2001).

6. 149 Cong. Rec. H17,130-H17,158 (daily ed. July 8, 2003).

7. Mike Stone, “Lack of Real-World Testing Raises Doubts on U.S. Missile Defenses,” Reuters, August 9, 2017.

8. James M. Lindsay et al., “Correspondence-Limited National and Allied Missile Defense,” International Security, Vol. 26, No. 4 (2002): 190-196.

9. Charles L. Glaser and Steve Fetter, "Should the United States Reject MAD? Damage Limitation and U.S. Nuclear Strategy Toward China," International Security, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2016): 51.

10. Charles L. Glaser and Steve Fetter, "National Missile Defense and the Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy," International Security, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2001): 40–92.

11. Lindsay et al., "Correspondence-Limited National and Allied Missile Defense."

12. Ibid.

13. Glaser and Fetter, "Should the United States Reject MAD?”

14. See Kingston Reif, Twitter post, December 4, 2020, https://twitter.com/KingstonAReif.

15. Steven V. Roberts, “The Political Campaign; Reagan Emphasizes ‘Star Wars’ Plan on Stump,” The New York Times, October 27, 1986, p. A19.

16. Jeffrey Lewis, “The Nuclear Option: Slowing a New Arms Race Means Compromising on Missile Defenses,” Foreign Affairs, February 22, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-02-22/nuclear-option.

17. Alexandra Guisinger and Elizabeth N. Saunders, "Mapping the Boundaries of Elite Cues: How Elites Shape Mass Opinion Across International Issues," International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (2017): 425–441.

Leah Matchett is a Knight-Hennessy Scholar pursuing a doctorate in political science at the Stanford University School of Humanities and Sciences.

A review of the decades-long debate on missile defense reveals consistent patterns and missed opportunities.

George Shultz (1920–2021) American Statesman and Nuclear Abolitionist

March 2021
By Michael Krepon

George Shultz, former Cabinet official and an ardent nuclear abolitionist, has passed away. He was 100 years old.

George Shultz testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during the confirmation hearing on his appointment as U.S. Secretary of State, Washington D.C., July 13, 1982. (Photo: Benjamin E. 'Gene' Forte/CNP/Getty Images)Shultz died on February 6 after an extraordinary life in service to his country, his causes, and his loved ones. He was a man of great moral clarity, uncommon skills, and common sense. Shultz succeeded in whatever ways he chose to apply his prodigious talents. His commitment to public service was inculcated at home by quietly purposeful parents and at Princeton University. After graduation, he joined the Marines to fight for the country in World War II.

After his stint with the Marines, he received his doctorate and taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then joined the faculty of the business school at the University of Chicago, where he became its dean. From there, President Richard Nixon recruited him to be his secretary of labor, after which he ran the Office of Management and Budget and was secretary of the treasury. In this latter capacity, he rejected the White House’s importuning to look into the tax returns of those on Nixon’s “enemies list.”

Shultz moved on to the next challenge in running Bechtel, the largest construction firm in the United States with a portfolio of immense projects overseas.

Then, in mid-1982, President Ronald Reagan picked up the phone to ask for his help at the Department of State, where Secretary Alexander Haig had quickly worn out his welcome. Reagan knew what he wanted to accomplish, but his ambitions were sometimes in conflict, and he lacked some of the skills needed to get things done. Shultz lacked none of them. He excelled in the arts of bureaucratic maneuver and negotiation. His storied poker face masked a fierce will to get meaningful things done. If Shultz was in your foxhole, you had good company.

Shultz and his éminence grise, Paul Nitze, helped steer Reagan toward his crowning achievement of abolishing Soviet and U.S. intermediate- and short-range ground-launched missiles. In so doing, they helped Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, break the back of the nuclear arms race and pave the way for negotiations that led to the deep, verifiable cuts in strategic forces through the 1991 and 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties.

This story of how Reagan and Gorbachev achieved the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has been well told. What remains a mystery is how Shultz came to adopt abolitionist views. Did Reagan steer and convert Shultz, or was Shultz already converted before joining the Reagan administration? I have not been able to discover the answer.

Shultz was steaming back to San Diego after an intense tour of duty in the South Pacific in 1945 when he heard about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent Japanese surrender. His views about nuclear weapons, however, remained largely unexpressed in public until he emerged as Reagan’s staunchest supporter for abolition.

Reagan had long held that nuclear weapons were evil, but he kept this mostly to himself. Few expected him to act on his beliefs. He was after all a staunch anti-Communist, and he had endorsed a major defense buildup, including strategic modernization programs, after a “decade of neglect” to such matters that was, if truth be told, imaginary. Reagan was intent on using the buildup to do something heroic about nuclear weapons. He was not a church-going man, but he took scripture seriously, and he was dead set against Armageddon happening on his watch.

Reagan conveyed this to Shultz over dinner on February 12, 1983, when Washington was shut down by a heavy snowfall. Shultz told me in an interview that this was when he first learned of Reagan’s staunch abolitionism. Thereafter, Shultz knew he would have the president’s backing in his intense bureaucratic warfare with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger over nuclear arms control.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (L) stands alongside former Secretary of Defense William Perry (R) and former Senator Sam Nunn (2nd R) as former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (2nd L) speaks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington on May 19, 2009, after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss key priorities in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy.  (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)James Timbie, who worked with many secretaries of state on arms control, found Shultz to be “a sophisticated man who navigated very tricky waters.” Timbie stresses that he was also an uncommonly good listener. If you made a persuasive case, Shultz would take it in and carefully consider the pros and cons. Shultz listened to Reagan. Something must have struck a chord—perhaps it was Reagan’s moral clarity on the nuclear issue—but Shultz was not someone who turned on a dime. His friend and guide on matters of the spirit, Episcopal Bishop William Swing, knew Shultz as someone who could change his mind. After doing so, he would become a tenacious advocate.

Shultz was methodical in his pursuits. After his snowbound dinner with Reagan, he sought small tests of trust and modest accomplishments with the Kremlin even during the annus horribilis of 1983, one of the most intense periods of the Cold War.

With the arrival of Gorbachev in 1985, Shultz was primed to serve Reagan’s pursuit of nuclear abolition, whether as a convert or from long-held belief. He sat in the room at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze when Reagan and Gorbachev traded proposals for abolition.

When details of the historic meeting became public and other Reagan officials scurried for cover afterward, Shultz remained steadfast. The Reykjavik summit led directly to the INF Treaty. Afterward, when other voices sought to call a time-out, Shultz was intent to move quickly to achieve deep cuts in strategic forces.

At this point, he acted not as a dutiful Cabinet officer following his president’s wishes, but as a problem solver focused on reducing the nuclear danger. He, like Reagan, viewed the nuclear dilemma as an unsustainable situation. They tried their best to fundamentally change it.

Shultz’s abolitionism was unwavering after he returned to California, as if he were channeling not only his own belief but also Reagan’s, who was unwell.

Shultz became an integral part of a group on the campus of Stanford University, where he joined forces with former Secretary of Defense William Perry, along with his close advisors Sidney Drell and James Goodby. Shultz and Perry constituted half of the “four horsemen,” joining with Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn to co-author influential opinion pieces calling for bold steps toward abolition. According to Goodby, Shultz’s concern and persistent advocacy for nuclear disarmament continued into his final days.

George Shultz was Bishop Swing’s parishioner. The fervency of his belief in abolition is reflected in a “nuclear prayer” written by “Bill” Swing that he adopted as his own:

The Beginning and the End are in your hands, O Creator of the Universe. And in our hands, you have placed the fate of this planet. We, who are tested by having both creative and destructive power in our free will, turn to you in sober fear and in intoxicating hope. We ask for your guidance and to share in your imagination in our deliberations about the use of nuclear force. Help us to lift the fog of atomic darkness that hovers so pervasively over our Earth, Your Earth, so that soon all eyes may see life magnified by your pure light. Bless all of us who wait today for your Presence and who dedicate ourselves to achieve your intended peace and rightful equilibrium on Earth. In the Name of all that is holy and all that is hoped. Amen.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center. His latest book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, is scheduled to be published this fall.

George Shultz (1920–2021) American Statesman and Nuclear Abolitionist

U.S., Russia Extend New START for Five Years

March 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

With only two days remaining until its expiration, the United States and Russia officially extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years, keeping in place the treaty’s verifiable limits on the deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

Then‑Vice President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images)The U.S. State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued separate statements Feb. 3 announcing that the formal exchange of documents on the extension had been completed. The treaty was set to expire Feb. 5.

Biden administration officials stressed that the extension would buy time and space to pursue follow-on talks on new arms control arrangements.

In a Feb. 3 statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that President Joe Biden “made clear” that the New START extension “is only the beginning of our efforts to address 21st century security challenges. The United States will use the time provided…to pursue with the Russian Federation, in consultation with Congress and U.S. allies and partners, arms control that addresses all of its nuclear weapons.”

“We cannot afford to lose New START’s intrusive inspection and notification tools,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a Jan. 21 statement after news first emerged that the Biden administration would pursue a five-year extension. “Failing to swiftly extend New START would weaken America’s understanding of Russia’s long-range nuclear forces.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized on Feb. 3 the importance of New START’s extension for maintaining strategic stability. In a statement, the ministry said, “Considering the special responsibilities that Russia and the U.S. carry as the world’s largest nuclear nations, the decision taken is important as it guarantees a necessary level of predictability and transparency in this area, while strictly maintaining a balance of interests.”

The ministry also signaled that Moscow “is ready to do its part” to return the U.S.-Russian dialogue on arms control “back to a more stable trajectory [and] reach new substantial results which would strengthen our national security and global strategic stability.”

Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time Jan. 26 and “discussed both countries’ willingness to extend New START for five years, agreeing to have their teams work urgently to complete the extension,” according to the White House readout of the call.

Although Biden did not need to secure the Senate’s approval for the extension, Russian domestic law required that Putin obtain the consent of the Russian parliament for his decision to extend the treaty. The Kremlin submitted the necessary bill to parliament Jan. 26.

Russian officials had warned that it could take weeks, if not months, for the Russian legislature to act on an extension, but the State Duma and the Federation Council each approved the extension law in less than a day. Putin signed the law Jan. 29, which allowed the two countries to officially seal the extension with an exchange of diplomatic notes Feb. 3.

Russia in recent weeks had reiterated its long-standing support for an unconditional five-year extension of New START, the maximum amount allowed by the treaty. Although Biden had expressed his support for an extension on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, he did not specify how long of an extension he would seek. Some of his advisers were reportedly encouraging a shorter extension. (See ACT, November 2020.)

The Washington Post reported on Jan. 21 that the Biden administration would seek a five-year extension, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the report later that day.

Biden “has long been clear” that the treaty extension “is in the national security interest of the United States, and this extension makes even more sense when the relationship with Russia is adversarial as it is at this time,” she said.

New START’s extension comes after the Trump administration did not seriously pursue arms control talks with Russia for more than three years and then, in the last six months of 2020, hinged a short-term extension of New START on additional conditions that Moscow repeatedly rejected.

Last October, the two countries exchanged proposals on a one-year extension of New START paired with a one-year freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads. The Trump administration maintained that there was an agreement in principle on this concept, but Russia firmly dismissed any agreement and rejected the Trump administration’s insistence that a freeze be accompanied by detailed definitions of a warhead, a warhead stockpile declaration, and a plan to verify a freeze. (See ACT, November 2020.)

Extending New START for five years “really abandons all the leverage one has with the Russians,” said Marshall Billingslea, the former U.S. special envoy for arms control, in January. Appointed as special envoy in April 2020, Billingslea led the Trump administration’s failed discussions with Russia on New START and arms control.

“We’re aware that the last administration engaged in negotiations on an extension of…New START for months but was unable to come with an agreement,” a senior U.S. official told The Washington Post. “We also understand there have been various proposals exchanged during those negations, but we’ve not seen anything to suggest that at any point an agreement on the terms that have been reported was in place,” the official said.

The Trump administration also had initially insisted on the inclusion of China in trilateral arms control talks as a prerequisite for a New START extension. That demand eventually fell away as Beijing repeatedly refused to join talks. (See ACT, June 2020.)

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Jan. 27 that Beijing welcomes New START’s extension. “It is conducive to upholding global strategic stability and promoting international peace and security, which meets the aspiration of the international community,” he added.

In the Feb. 3 statement, Blinken said that the Biden administration “will also pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.” Unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration plans to seek bilateral talks with China in parallel with a U.S.-Russian dialogue, rather than trilateral arms control talks.

When dialogue between the United States and Russia might begin remains unclear.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Jan. 29 that the treaty’s extension “is the beginning of the story on what is going to have to be serious, sustained negotiations around a whole set of nuclear challenges and threats that fall outside of the New START agreement, as well as other emerging security challenges.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov struck a similar tone on Jan. 27. “We now have a significant amount of time in order to launch and hold profound bilateral talks on the whole set of issues that influence strategic stability, ensure security of our state for a long period ahead,” he said.

Without extending New START for five years, “this task would have been much more difficult,” Ryabkov argued.

The United States has expressed concern about Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapons delivery systems, two of which, the Sarmat and Avangard, Moscow has already said would be covered by New START, as well as China’s advancing nuclear capabilities. For its part, Russia has said that, in future talks, it would like to take into account U.S. missile defenses, hypersonic weapons, missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the inclusion of France and the United Kingdom in arms control measures.

Ryabkov told the RIA Novosti news agency on Jan. 27 that the October proposal involving a warhead freeze “came in a package” with the Trump administration’s proposal to extend New START for one year and has since been canceled under the new Biden administration. “Now there is no reason to return” to the previous proposal, he said. “We will negotiate from a different starting point.”

Meanwhile, U.S. allies and partners welcomed the news that the Biden administration planned to seek a five-year extension of New START and encouraged further dialogue on arms control.

“I have repeatedly stated that we should not end up in a situation where we have no limitation whatsoever on nuclear warheads,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Jan. 22. “NATO allies have made clear that the preservation of New START is of great importance.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Peter Stano, European Commission spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, also said that they applauded the extension of the accord. In addition, France, Germany, and the UK issued statements of support.

In the U.S. Congress, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), who had introduced bipartisan legislation in 2019 calling for the extension of New START, released a statement on Jan. 22 welcoming the Biden administration’s decision.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) also commended the treaty’s extension. “Despite Russia’s wide-ranging malign activities, ensuring limits on and insight into Russia’s nuclear arsenal is unquestionably in the national security interest of the United States,” they wrote.

Most Republican lawmakers, however, criticized the extension decision. They echoed former Trump administration officials in arguing that the treaty was a deeply flawed agreement and that a shorter extension would have enhanced U.S. leverage in follow-on talks with Russia.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said on Jan. 22 that although he agreed with the president’s decision to extend the treaty, he was “concerned with the length of extension given Russia’s continued undertaking of massive modernization and its building of new capabilities that leaves out entire classes of nuclear weapons.”

Also on Jan. 22, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said in a statement that “[h]aving secured the longer extension he desired, President Putin has no incentive to negotiate with the United States and will, as he has done, decline to engage in any further discussions.”

Signed in 2010, New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. Inspections under the treaty and meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the treaty, have been suspended since early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Ryabkov commented on Feb. 11 that Washington and Moscow have launched efforts to restart the inspections.

The loss of the only remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest arsenals is averted as Washington and Moscow pledge to pursue further arms control measures.

Iran, IAEA Reach Monitoring Agreement

March 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached a special, temporary agreement for monitoring the country’s nuclear program two days before Tehran suspended more intrusive verification measures required by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The arrangement comes as senior Iranian leaders and the new Biden administration continue to signal their interest in returning to compliance with the JCPOA but have yet to agree on the steps and sequencing for that process.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi addresses the media after his arrival at Vienna International Airport on Feb. 21. (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)According to a joint statement issued by the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), the two parties reached a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” that will allow the agency to “continue with its necessary verification and monitoring activities” for three months.

The specific activities were detailed in an annex that was not made public, but the AEOI said in a Feb. 21 statement it will continue recording and collecting certain information and will give that data to the IAEA if sanctions relief is granted. The data will be erased if JCPOA sanctions are not fully removed within the three months, according to the statement.

The special arrangement was announced after IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi traveled to Tehran on Feb. 21 for talks ahead of Iran’s deadline for halting certain monitoring mechanisms required by the JCPOA.

At a Feb. 21 press conference, Grossi described the technical arrangement as a “reasonable result” that will “stabilize” an unstable situation.

Iran notified the IAEA on Feb. 15 of its intentions to suspend its adherence to an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement and other monitoring measures required by the nuclear deal. This was mandated by a December 2020 law designed to pressure the United States to move more quickly to waive JCPOA-related sanctions.

An additional protocol is a voluntary arrangement that gives inspectors greater access to sites and information about a country’s nuclear program. Iran is required to implement it, as well as other verification measures such as continuous surveillance at key sites, as part of the JCPOA.

In a Feb. 18 joint statement, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States warned Iran against limiting IAEA access and urged Tehran “to consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity.”

Iran will continue to implement its comprehensive safeguards agreement, which is required by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), according to the Feb. 21 joint statement. That agreement gives inspectors access to sites where nuclear material is produced and stored.

Grossi confirmed that Iran will suspend implementation of its additional protocol Feb. 23 as required by Iran’s law but that the specific bilateral arrangement will allow the agency to “bridge this period in the best possible way.” He said that inspectors will have less access but the special arrangements will avoid a situation where the agency would “lack information about important activities.”

Iran’s decision to suspend compliance with its additional protocol and other JCPOA-required verification measures is the most recent in a series of steps taken in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and the sanctions reimposed by U.S. President Donald Trump. (See ACT, June 2018.) Iranian officials have repeatedly stated that they will reverse breaches of the deal and return to compliance with the JCPOA if the United States lifts sanctions.

U.S. President Joe Biden has continued to express support for returning the United States to compliance with the JCPOA if Iran does likewise.

Despite both leaders supporting full implementation of the JCPOA, neither side appears to want to make the first move toward restoring compliance. But the United States and Iran appear interested in the European Union playing a coordinating role.

In a Feb. 1 interview with CNN, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the EU could “choreograph” the steps necessary to return the United States and Iran to compliance with the accord.

The U.S. State Department said on Feb. 18 that the United States “would accept an invitation” from the EU high representative to attend a meeting with the JCPOA’s participants “to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program.”

The EU coordinated that group of states, known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the United States) that negotiated the JCPOA with Iran.

That announcement came after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his French, German, and UK counterparts Sept. 18. A joint statement released by the four ministers said that the United States is “prepared to engage in discussion with Iran” on a mutual return to compliance with the nuclear deal.

Zarif said on Feb. 23 that Iran is “considering an informal meeting” with the other participants in the nuclear deal, noting that the United States is not a member of the P5+1 but would be invited.

The Biden administration did take a step necessary for restoring the JCPOA when it rescinded the U.S. position that UN sanctions on Iran had been reinstated. In a Feb. 18 letter to the UN Security Council, the Biden administration said that it was withdrawing letters from the Trump administration attempting to reimpose the measures and that the UN sanctions “remain terminated.”

The Trump administration tried to use a mechanism in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal and modified UN sanctions on Iran, to snap back those sanctions to prevent the arms embargo on Iran from expiring. The snapback is set up in such a way that it cannot be vetoed. The Security Council rejected the U.S. attempt, stating that the United States withdrew from the deal and the mechanism for reimposing the sanctions was available only to JCPOA parties. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Zarif tweeted the same day that Iran agrees with the United States that the attempt to reimpose UN sanctions “had no legal validity.” He further called for the United States to unconditionally lift all U.S. sanctions put in place by the Trump administration and come into compliance with Resolution 2231.

Temporary deal softens the impact of Iranian move to stop compliance with enhanced inspections as U.S. and Iranian leaders prod each other to meet JCPOA obligations.

Iran Ratchets Up Nuclear Program

March 2021
By Julia Masterson

Iran has started production of uranium metal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed in a Feb. 23 monitoring report circulated to its Board of Governors and obtained by Arms Control Today. According to that report, Iran began production on Feb. 6 at its Esfahan fuel-fabrication plant.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during the inaugural session of the new parliament in Tehran on May 27, 2020. The parliament approved legislation in 2020 mandating that the government take certain steps to breach the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal in order to pressure the United States to return to the agreement and waive sanctions. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)Uranium metal production is prohibited by the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), for 15 years. Iran’s most recent technical violation of the accord is significant due to the fact that Iranian scientists are not believed to have engaged in uranium metal work prior to the JCPOA. Technical knowledge gained through the process of producing uranium metal could be applied to nuclear weapons development and cannot be unlearned.

Iran first informed the IAEA of its intent to pursue uranium metal production on Jan. 12, 2019. Iranian officials stated their intent to design an improved type of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which runs on fuel fabricated from uranium enriched to 20 percent uranium-235. After several exchanges between Tehran and the IAEA, Iran notified the agency of its modifications to parts of the Esfahan plant aimed to accommodate research and development into uranium metal work. The IAEA inspected the facility on Jan. 10, 2021 and confirmed in a Jan. 13 monitoring report that the processes for producing uranium metal had been initiated.

The Feb. 23 IAEA monitoring report highlighted that Iran has produced only a small amount of natural uranium metal, meaning that the metal was not enriched.

Iran’s recent step to produce uranium metal was taken in line with its December 2020 nuclear law, which was passed in an effort to increase leverage on the United States to reenter the JCPOA and on all JCPOA participants to lift sanctions imposed against Iran. The law requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to rachet up Iran’s nuclear program over the course of 2021 if sanctions relief is not granted.

According to the law, Iran must install and operate advanced centrifuges, resume enriching uranium to 20 percent U-235, and produce 120 kilograms of material enriched to that level every year. The AEOI must also build a new heavy-water reactor and inaugurate a uranium metal production plant. Most significantly, the law outlines the suspension of Iran’s implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement if sanctions remain in place. Iran announced the suspension on Feb. 23 after the conclusion of a bilateral monitoring agreement between Iran and the IAEA.

Since resuming enrichment to 20 percent U-235, Iran has accumulated 17.6 kilograms of the material at the Fordow enrichment facility. Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile now totals 2,968 kilograms of uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas, comprised of 1,026 kilograms of uranium enriched to 2 percent U-235, 1,890 kilograms enriched between 2 and 5 percent, and 17.6 kilograms of material enriched to 20 percent. Iran has also produced 13.3 kilograms of uranium in the form of uranium oxides, 10.5 kilograms of uranium in fuel assemblies and rods, and 10.9 kilograms of uranium in liquid and solid scrap. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s stockpile is supposed to be limited to 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride enriched to 3.67 percent U-235, or about 202 kilograms of uranium by weight.

Iran has also taken steps to implement requirements set out in the new law regarding centrifuges, the sensitive machines that enrich the uranium. On Dec. 2, 2020, Iran notified the IAEA of its intent to install three cascades, or chains, of 174 IR-2m centrifuges. The agency reported on Feb. 23 that Iran had installed two cascades and that installation of the third was ongoing. Iran informed the IAEA on Feb. 15 of its intent to install an additional two cascades. Once completed, Iran will have a total of six IR-2m cascades installed at Natanz.

At Fordow, Iran continues to enrich uranium using 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges. Iran alerted the IAEA on Feb. 1 that it would install two IR-6 centrifuge cascades to aid in the production of fuel enriched to 20 percent U-235.

According to the IAEA report, Iran is also installing cascades of IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz, which are being transferred from the pilot fuel enrichment plant. As of Feb. 21, the IAEA verified that Iran had installed the IR-4 cascade and was in the process of installing the IR-6 cascade. The JCPOA limits Iran’s uranium-enrichment program to output from 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz, and the installation, operation, and accumulation of enriched uranium from advanced machines violates the accord.

Consistent with the requirements of the Iranian nuclear law, the government announced the construction of a new heavy-water reactor Jan. 11. Abolfazl Amouyee, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said the new “IR2M” reactor will be similar to the Arak heavy-water reactor. The law also requires Iran to eventually revert the 40-megawatt Arak reactor to its original design. Under the JCPOA, Iran has been engaged in efforts to modernize the reactor and convert it to a light-water design, which poses a significantly lower proliferation risk.

Had the Arak reactor been completed as originally designed, Iran would have had the capacity to produce enough plutonium for two nuclear weapons per year. If completed, reversion of the Arak reactor and construction of a new heavy-water reactor would pose a significant proliferation risk. As of Feb. 23, Iran has not pursued construction of the Arak reactor based on its original design. But its heavy-water stockpile grew 3.4 metric tons since the last reporting period and now measures 131.4 metric tons, which surpasses the JCPOA’s heavy-water limit by 1.4 metric tons.

Senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, maintain that each of Iran’s provocative steps are entirely reversible following full restoration of the JCPOA. But political tensions are rising, and the window for U.S. reentry to the deal may be narrowing.

On Feb. 5, the IAEA reported that samples taken from two previously undeclared facilities in the fall of 2020 revealed traces of radioactive material. Three unnamed diplomats briefed on the IAEA report told The Wall Street Journal the findings could indicate that Iran previously undertook work related to nuclear weapons. Although concerning, the ongoing IAEA investigation relates to Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities, and there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has pursued a nuclear weapons program while under the JCPOA.


Domestic law requires provocative actions designed to bring the United States back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

U.S. Arms Sales Under Review

March 2021
By Jeff Abramson

In a significant reversal from the Trump administration, President Joe Biden said that the United States would end its support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” His announcement came a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that the administration was pausing recent arms sales in order to review them, putting in question the fate of billions of dollars of Trump-era deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Biden administration decision to end U.S. support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales, will affect the transfer of certain Raytheon Technologies munitions, including the proposed sale of 7,000 Paveway IV smart bombs for $478 million to Saudi Arabia. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)During his first major foreign policy address, delivered from the State Department on Feb. 4, Biden also pledged support for a ceasefire and revitalizing peace talks between warring factions in Yemen, including through the appointment a special envoy to the conflict. On Feb. 16, the State Department lifted the Jan. 19 designation of one of the major actors, the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization. The designation was one of the last acts by the Trump administration related to the conflict.

Writ large, the break with the previous administration's approach was expected based on pledges made by Biden to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The administration has been short on specifics about the scope of weapons halted and duration of the review, but National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that they did include precision-guided munitions sales to Riyadh that the Trump administration notified to Congress in late December. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Precision-guided munitions have been particularly controversial in recent years, with President Donald Trump vetoing joint resolutions from Congress to block their sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

On Jan. 15, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) introduced a joint resolution of disapproval to block the precision-guided munitions sales. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had introduced a similar resolution Jan. 1. Although the 30-day initial review period had passed before the administration could move forward, such resolutions if they are approved by the House and Senate are binding if the administration does not move ahead with concluding letters of offer and acceptance. At present, there are no indications that Congress is likely to take up such resolutions, especially given Biden's indication he was stopping the sales.

But Biden indicated on Feb. 4 that the United States would continue to support Saudi Arabia “to defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity,” pointing to threats from “Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.” Exactly what this would mean in terms of arms transfers is not clear, leading to questions of how to define “relevant” arms sales that Biden promised to stop. Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), have called for stopping all arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On Feb. 11, more than 75 civil society organizations and experts issued a letter detailing $36.5 billion in arms sales and services to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they believe should be considered relevant to "offensive operations" and permanently halted.

The Biden administration is also reviewing major arms sales to the UAE that were highly controversial. Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that the administration had spoken with senior UAE officials about the review and was “pursuing a policy of ‘no surprises’ when it comes to these types of actions so they understand that this is happening and they understand our reasoning and rationale for it.”

In December, the Senate narrowly failed to pass resolutions of disapproval on portions of a $23 billion package for which the Trump administration notified Congress a month earlier. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) On the day of Biden's inauguration, reports emerged that the Trump administration had concluded agreements with Abu Dhabi for F-35s and armed drones, possibly just an hour before Biden was sworn into office.

In November, Trump notified Congress of potential sales of up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles valued at $490 million.

The Biden administration has not entirely stopped arms sales during the review. By the end of February, the administration had notified Congress of more than $500 million combined in potential arms sales to Chile, Egypt, Finland, Jordan, and NATO members.

Biden’s actions have taken place as international concern about arms sales to states involved in the war in Yemen is growing. In January, Italy permanently revoked existing licenses to export more than 12,000 bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, making permanent a suspension that had been announced in 2019, while continuing to deny any new licenses.

On Feb. 11, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that welcomed the U.S. actions and reiterated its call “for an EU-wide ban on the export, sale, update and maintenance of any form of security equipment to members of the coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, given the serious breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law committed in Yemen.”

President Biden announced an end to support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

Russia May Leave Open Skies Treaty

March 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

Russia announced in January that it would begin domestic procedures for withdrawing from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, but later clarified that it could reverse the decision if the United States returned to the agreement.

Danish jets accompany a Russian An-30 aircraft during an observation flight under the Open Skies Treaty over the territory of Denmark in June 2008. (Photo: OSCE)The Biden administration, meanwhile, has begun a review of whether and, if so, how it would be possible to return the United States to the treaty after the Trump administration exited the multilateral agreement last year over objections from members of Congress and key European allies.

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in November 2020 “destroyed the balance of interests of the State-Parties reached when the Treaty was signed, inflicted a severe damage to its functioning, and undermined the role of the Open Skies Treaty as a confidence and security building measure,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said Jan. 15.

The domestic procedures are estimated to be completed by this summer, according to a Feb. 22 remark by Konstantin Gavrilov, Russian head of negotiations in Vienna on military security and arms control. “If the United States does not inform us before that time about its readiness to return to the treaty framework,” Gavrilov said, Russia will give official notice to the treaty depositaries, Canada and Hungary. Once states-parties are notified, Moscow could officially withdraw in six months’ time, as stipulated by the treaty text.

But Russia has hedged on its withdrawal threat. If the Biden administration signals a willingness to return the United States to the treaty, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Feb. 11, “we might somehow adjust the decision to launch internal procedures.”

“But nobody should expect Russia to make any concessions,” he added.

NATO immediately criticized Moscow’s decision to begin the withdrawal process. “Russia’s selective implementation of its obligations under the Open Skies Treaty has for some time undermined the contribution of this important treaty to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region,” said NATO Deputy Spokesman Piers Cazalet on Jan. 15.

Russia last November outlined the two conditions under which it would remain party to the treaty: the remaining states-parties must give written legal guarantees not to prohibit overflights of U.S. bases in Europe nor continue to share data collected under the treaty with the United States.

“If the remaining participants bow to the United States, it will not take us long to provide a harsh response,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Dec. 29. “We have not yet received such guarantees, so the further fate of the Open Skies Treaty is highly questionable.”

German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on Jan. 3 that Russia notified the remaining states-parties Dec. 22 that it would seek to withdraw from the treaty unless the parties provided the written guarantees by Jan. 1. The foreign ministers of 16 states-parties, including France and Germany, ultimately rejected Russia’s request and encouraged further discussion of these issues during the next meeting of the Open Skies Consultative Commission (OSCC), the implementing body of the treaty, on Jan. 25.

“We did all we could to save it,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on Jan. 21, but “our proposals were dismissed.”

“In doing this, the Western countries scrapped forever the once vital measure of transparency and mutual trust in the Euro-Atlantic space from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” she continued.

During the OSCC meeting, Gavrilov criticized the remaining states-parties for not agreeing to Moscow’s terms and claimed to have “clear evidence” that Washington demanded from its allies signed documents saying that they would continue to transfer information obtained from treaty overflights to the United States and deny Russian requests to fly over U.S. bases in Europe.

“We regret that the lack of political realism and constructive approach on the part of the states-parties led to this situation,” he said. “If our Western partners wish to make reproaches, they should only address them to themselves.”

Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary-general and U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told The Economist that, in her view, “the Russians wanted to send a message that they won’t be pushed around on arms control and NATO.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed his support for the Open Skies Treaty and denounced the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the United States. But he has yet to say whether he would seek to have Washington reenter the agreement or whether he views the withdrawal as illegal as it was done in violation of the law.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Feb. 2 that the Biden administration is “studying” the issue of the treaty’s future. “We’ll take a decision in due course. To the best of our knowledge, Russia is still not in full compliance with the treaty.”

Lavrov commented the same day that “[i]f the United States fully returns to observing the treaty, the Russian Federation would be ready to constructively consider that new situation.”

Moscow says it might reverse the process for withdrawal if the United States takes steps to return to the multilateral agreement.

AI Commission Warns of Escalatory Dangers

March 2021
By Michael T. Klare

For the past two years, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), established by Congress, has been laboring to develop strategies for the rapid integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into U.S. military operations.

Inside the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command Integrated Cyber Center and Joint Operations Center. (Photo credit: NSA) On Mar. 1, the commission is poised to deliver its final report to Congress and the White House. From the very start, this effort has been deemed an essential drive to ensure U.S. leadership in what is viewed as a competitive struggle with potential adversaries, presumably China and Russia, to weaponize advances in AI.

According to its charter, embedded in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, the NSCAI was enjoined to consider the “means and methods for the United States to maintain a technological advantage in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other associated technologies related to national security and defense.”

To allow the public a final opportunity to weigh in on its findings, the NSCAI released a draft of its final report at the beginning of January and discussed it at a virtual plenary meeting Jan. 25. Three main themes emerge from the draft report and the public comments of the commissioners: (1) AI constitutes a “breakthrough” technology that will transform all aspects of human endeavor, including warfare; (2) the United States risks losing out to China and Russia in the competitive struggle to harness AI for military purposes, putting the nation’s security at risk; and (3) as a consequence, the federal government must play a far more assertive role in mobilizing the nation’s scientific and technical talent to accelerate the utilization of AI by the military.

The report exudes a distinct Cold War character in the degree to which it portrays AI as the determining factor in the outcome of future conflicts. Whereas competition involving nuclear-armed ballistic missiles was the issue of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War era, the NSCAI warns that a potential adversary—in this case, China—could overtake the United States in mastering the application of AI for military purposes.

“In the future, warfare will pit algorithm against algorithm,” the report states. “The sources of battlefield advantage will shift from traditional factors like force size and levels of armaments, to factors like superior data collection and assimilation, connectivity, computing power, algorithms, and system security.”

Although the United States enjoys some advantages in this new mode of warfare, the report argues, it risks losing out to China over the long run. “China is already an AI peer, and it is more technically advanced in some applications,” it asserts. “Within the next decade, China could surpass the United States as the world’s AI superpower.”

To prevent this from happening, the NSCAI report argues the United States must accelerate its efforts to exploit advances in computing science for military purposes. As most of the nation’s computing expertise is concentrated in academia and the private sector, much of the report is devoted to proposals for harnessing that talent for military purposes. But it also addresses several issues of deep concern to the arms control community, notably autonomous weapons and nuclear escalation.

Claiming that autonomy will play a critical role in future military operations and that Russia and China, unlike the United States, cannot be relied on to follow ethical standards in the use of autonomous weapon systems on the battlefield, the commission rules out U.S. adherence to any binding international prohibition on the deployment of such systems.

In contrast to those in the human rights and arms control community who warn that fully autonomous weapons cannot be trusted to comply with the laws of war and international humanitarian law, the final report affirms that “properly designed and tested AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems have been and can continue to be used in ways which are consistent” with international humanitarian law. A treaty banning the use of such systems, the NSCAI report contends, would deny the United States and its allies the benefit of employing such systems in future conflicts while having zero impact on its adversaries, as “commitments from states such as Russia or China likely would be empty ones.”

But in one area—the use of AI in battlefield decision-making—the report does express concern about the implications of its rapid weaponization.

“While the [c]ommission believes that properly designed, tested, and utilized AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems will bring substantial military and even humanitarian benefit,” it states, “the unchecked global use of such systems potentially risks unintended conflict escalation and crisis instability.”

This section of the report echoes statements to the commission made by a group of arms control experts in an informal dialogue with commission representatives organized by the Arms Control Association on Nov. 24, 2020.

On that occasion, the arms control experts argued that excessive reliance on AI-enabled command-and-control systems in the heat of battle could result in precipitous escalatory actions, possibly leading to the early and unintended use of nuclear weapons, a danger likely to be compounded when commanders on both sides relied on such systems for combat decision-making and the resulting velocity of battle exceeded human ability to comprehend the action and avert bad outcomes.

To prevent this from happening, the arms control experts insisted on the importance of retaining human control over all decisions involving nuclear weapons and called for the insertion of automated “tripwires” in advanced command-and-control systems to disallow escalatory moves without human approval.

Recognizing that these escalatory dangers are just as likely to arise from the automation of Chinese and Russian command-and-control systems, the arms control experts proposed that the United States and Russia discuss these risks in their future strategic security dialogues and that such talks be conducted with China.

All of these recommendations were incorporated into the commission’s final report in one form or another.

Advisory panel pushes the U.S. military to accelerate work on AI-enabled systems but also calls for restraint measures.


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