“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022
May 2021
Edition Date: 
Saturday, May 1, 2021
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Back From the Brink? Next Steps for Biden and Putin

May 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two major nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled he will confront Russia when necessary. But, he also stressed, “where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should, and we will”—specifically on reducing the risk of nuclear conflict.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks from the White House on April 15, 2021 and calls on Russia to engage in "a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security." (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)In remarks April 15, Biden said his proposed summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin could be a launching point for talks on strategic stability and nuclear arms control. Serious, sustained disarmament diplomacy is overdue and essential, but achieving new agreements will be challenging.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean region in 2014, long-simmering U.S.-Russian tensions have risen to a boil. Disarmament discussions have been pushed to the back burner. Instead, treaty compliance disputes have dominated bilateral engagements. Meanwhile, each side is rushing to replace and upgrade its bloated nuclear arsenal. China and the United Kingdom, among other nuclear-armed states, are also increasing their nuclear capabilities.

As Melissa Dalton, acting assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities, recently told a House committee, “The range of Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization makes the task of making progress on further arms control all the more necessary.”

Early this year, Biden and Putin wisely agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years. As a new bicameral congressional working group on nuclear arms control noted in its April 20 letter to the president, “Although New START is necessary, it is not by itself sufficient to tackle the threat that nuclear weapons present.”

The two sides can and must move quickly to find effective new solutions before New START expires in 2026. To make progress, they will need to tackle four difficult but resolvable issues.

Reducing strategic arsenals further. A key objective of the next round of talks should be deeper, verifiable reductions in the total number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems. In 2013 the Obama administration, with input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, determined that the United States and Russia could further reduce their strategic nuclear forces by up to one-third below New START levels, to approximately 1,000 warheads, and still meet core nuclear deterrence goals. These limits will need to factor in new systems being developed by both sides, including hypersonic weapons.

Tackling tactical nuclear weapons. New START follow-on negotiations should also address nonstrategic nuclear weapons, beginning with a transparency agreement requiring detailed declarations on tactical nuclear stockpiles, including warheads in storage. Making progress on tactical nuclear arms control, however, should not become a prerequisite for lower ceilings on the two sides’ strategic nuclear arsenals.

Limiting strategic interceptors. U.S. efforts to further limit Russian nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process are unlikely to gain traction unless Washington agrees to seriously discuss constraints on its long-range missile defense capabilities. Fielding sufficient numbers of U.S. missile interceptors to mitigate the threat of a limited ballistic attack from North Korea or Iran and agreeing to binding limits on the quantity, location, and capability of missile defense systems should not be mutually exclusive.

Averting a race on intermediate-range missiles. In the absence of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the risk of a new missile race is Europe will grow. Biden, in coordination with NATO, should counter Russia’s 2020 proposal for a verifiable moratorium on the deployment in Europe of missiles formerly banned by the INF Treaty. Although imperfect, the Russian proposal is a starting point. Another option would be to verifiably ban nuclear-armed ground-launched and sea-launched cruise and ballistic missiles.

To broaden the disarmament effort, Biden and Putin could call on China, France, and the UK to report on their total nuclear weapons holdings and freeze their nuclear stockpiles as long as the United States and Russia pursue deeper verifiable reductions in their far larger arsenals.

New crises, such as the Kremlin’s mistreatment of Russian political dissidents or further Russian meddling in Ukraine, could make U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation even more difficult. Still, as Biden notes, “[t]hroughout our long history of competition, our two countries have been able to find ways to manage tensions and to keep them from escalating out of control.”

It is by no means certain that the two sides will continue to have enough good luck, responsible leadership, and managerial competence to avoid catastrophe. Once a nuclear weapon is used by accident or miscalculation or in response to nonnuclear aggression, there is no guarantee that all-out nuclear war can be averted. Sustaining progress on disarmament is not a choice but a necessity for human survival.

After more than a decade of rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the two major nuclear-weapon states, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled he will confront Russia when necessary.

Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests Or the National Interest?

May 2021
By William D. Hartung

As former Secretary of Defense William Perry noted, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because the president would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, thus greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war.1

In 1962, Kimball, Nebraska marked its place in history when construction began on a vast complex of Minuteman Missile silos. Kimball, Co. is the center of the largest complex of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world, with about 200 Minuteman III ICBMs in silos in the tri-state (Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming) area. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)President Joe Biden has an opportunity to mitigate this threat as he and his administration consider a Pentagon spending plan that is on track to invest $500 billion to maintain and replace the U.S. nuclear arsenal through 2028. One major decision involves the future of ICBMs.2

Over the years, there have been numerous proposals for reducing this risk, from adopting a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons to eliminating ICBMs altogether. A June 2020 report makes the case for taking ICBMs off high alert and forgoing the development of a new ICBM as first steps toward taking these systems out of the U.S. arsenal.3 A nuclear force consisting of nuclear-armed bombers and submarines would be more than sufficient to deter any other nation from attacking the United States. As MIT’s David Wright has noted, “[S]ubmarines are virtually undetectable and therefore invulnerable at sea, while ICBMs are sitting ducks. Their vulnerability has prompted the Air Force to keep them on high alert, which is dangerous and could trigger a nuclear war.”4

The commonsense case for a dyad of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a reserve bomber force is made in detail in the alternative nuclear posture put forward by the disarmament organization Global Zero. That proposal would shift the U.S. nuclear strategy from one that engages in planning for elaborate and dangerous nuclear war-fighting to one that establishes the nuclear arsenal as a second-strike force meant to deter nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies—a deterrence-only strategy.5

A recent poll found that 60 percent of Americans favored either forgoing the development of a new ICBM, eliminating ICBMs, or eliminating all nuclear weapons, an indication that a change in current ICBM policies would have significant public support.6 In addition, nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed a preference for delaying the new ICBM, known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), while continuing to extend the life of existing land-based missiles as the GBSD program undergoes a comprehensive review.

Despite that, there has been little progress in changing U.S. policy on the procurement or deployment of ICBMs, in significant part due to the activities of the ICBM lobby: nuclear weapons contractors and their allies in Congress. ICBMs have been sustained as much by parochial interests as they have by strategic need. Support for a new ICBM is tied closely to the money to be made in developing, building, deploying, and maintaining it. The Pentagon is slated to spend more than $110 billion to develop and buy the missiles and related warheads; the total price tag is projected to exceed $264 billion once the costs of operating and supporting the systems are taken into account.7

Inside the ICBM Lobby: The ICBM Coalition

One reason the ICBM force and the bases that house it have survived criticisms of their strategic utility within and outside of government has been the staunch support of the ICBM Coalition, a group of U.S. senators from states where ICBMs are deployed and maintained. The composition of the coalition has shifted over the last decade as members leave Congress and are replaced, but it has always been a bipartisan group, including senators from Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, where the nation’s three ICBM bases are located, and from Utah, where the missiles are maintained and developed.

On key issues, the coalition has drawn support from other advocates of the nuclear triad, including senators from Louisiana, the home of Barksdale Air Force Base, which hosts the Air Force Global Strike Command and three squadrons of B-52H bombers. The coalition has been largely successful in fending off changes in the number of ICBMs, the number of bases where they are deployed, and any initiatives that might make it easier to reduce the ICBM force in the future or delay or cancel the new ICBM, the GBSD system.

Senators from states with an economic stake in the ICBM mission have included Republican senators John Hoeven (N.D.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Mike Lee (Utah), and John Barasso (Wyo.) and Democratic Senator Jon Tester (Mont.). Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who replaced Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) at the end of 2020, has been a vocal proponent of ICBMs and the ICBM mission and introduced several pro-ICBM amendments while a member of the House of Representatives.

Tester will have an especially influential role as the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. In an interview conducted shortly after he took charge of the defense panel, Tester called ICBMs “an incredible deterrent” and urged moving forward with the GBSD system. He noted, however, that he had “never served on any of the committees that give classified briefings on the threat. So we’ll be getting briefings moving forward about the threat and the deterrent levels of those ICBMs.”8

Over the past decade, the ICBM Coalition has succeeded in limiting the reduction of deployed ICBMs under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to 50, leaving a force of 400; keeping the 50 unused silos in “warm status,” ready to receive missiles again should there be a shift in U.S. nuclear policy requiring deployment of additional ICBMs; preventing the Pentagon from doing a study of the environmental and economic impacts of further reductions in the ICBM force; and helping to support the Pentagon’s plans for development of the next-generation ICBM. In doing so, the coalition has taken dozens of actions, including writing letters to five defense secretaries and a succession of chairs of the Senate Armed Services Committee and arranging meetings with key Pentagon and military officials, to make the case for continuing the ICBM mission. The coalition has also advocated for amendments restricting the Pentagon’s ability to reduce or take modest steps that could eventually lead to a reduction of the ICBM force.

Members of the Senate ICBM Coalition have benefited from generous campaign contributions from Northrop Grumman and its major subcontractors on the ICBM program (table 1).

The ICBM Lobby: ICBM Contractors

Northrop Grumman emerged as the sole contractor bidding for the new ICBM and won a $13.3 billion contract for the development phase of the system in September 2020. The company flexed its lobbying muscles in 2019 when it helped kill an amendment that would have required the Pentagon to explore alternatives to the GBSD system. In July 2020, it lobbied vigorously to block an initiative by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that would have cut $1 billion from the budget for the new ICBM. The company will only have more lobbying clout going forward because it has named a dozen major subcontractors to work on the project while claiming that the next phase of work will generate 10,000 jobs nationwide.9 Northrop Grumman has provided no documentation for its jobs estimate.

The Northrop Grumman team has powerful tools at its disposal for fending off any changes in the ICBM program. The company and its major subcontractors have given $1.2 million to the current members of the Senate ICBM Coalition since 2012 and more than $15 million over the same time period to the 64 members of the key committees that play a central role in determining how much is spent on ICBMs: the Senate and House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittees and the Senate and House Appropriations defense subcommittees.

Perhaps even more important than campaign contributions are the extensive lobbying operations of ICBM contractors. The top 11 contractors working on the new ICBM spent more than $119 million on lobbying in 2019 and 2020 and employed 380 lobbyists (table 2).10 Although obviously not all of these lobbyists were employed to work on the ICBM issue, the substantial lobbying resources of the ICBM contractors give them preferred access to key members of Congress and help build relationships that can be leveraged for a variety of purposes.

Many of the lobbyists who work on behalf of ICBM contractors have passed through the “revolving door” from work in top governmental posts to work in the arms industry. For example, Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the next-generation ICBM, employed 51 lobbyists, in house and for hire, in 2020, 41 of whom came from positions in government. Prominent examples of revolving-door hires in that group have included Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, former California Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; G. Stewart Hall, the former legislative director for Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee; and Bud Cramer, a former Democratic representative from Alabama who served on the appropriations defense subcommittee and was a strong advocate for defense-related activities. Others are Jonathan Etherton, who once was a Senate Armed Services Committee professional staff member, and Shay Michael Hancock, a former staffer for Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who serves on the Budget Committee. Hancock also worked for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

Another major lobbyist for Northrop Grumman is former Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who led the charge against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, opposed New START, and is a staunch supporter of the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization program. In 2017 and 2018 alone, Kyl earned $1.9 million working for Northrop Grumman and other clients.

ICBMs and the Jobs Argument

The greatest leverage that ICBM contractors can bring to bear in support of their projects comes from their claims about the jobs generated in key states and congressional districts by the development and production of the GBSD system. Northrop Grumman has claimed that there will be 10,000 new jobs associated with the development phase of the project. This is a tiny fraction of a national work force that is approaching 160 million people, but the jobs impact is still politically important in key states and localities. A map on the Northrop Grumman website identifies more than 125 facilities run by ICBM suppliers in 32 states, averaging 80 jobs per facility. Obviously, some sites will have more than others, but this figure is indicative of the fact that most of the places represented in the 125 facilities will have a minimal number of GBSD-related jobs. As history has proven, proponents’ claims of the numbers of jobs and production locations for projects like the GBSD system are often exaggerated. Despite requests by the author, Northrop Grumman did not provide documentation for its estimates.

The strongest parochial interest in the ICBM mission comes from the states where ICBM bases are located. A closure or scaling back of activities at any of the three ICBM bases, which now employ a combined 13,000 personnel, would have a substantial impact on the state and local economies. Even so, the communities at these sites in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Great Falls, Montana; and Minot, North Dakota, would be well advised to diversify their economies as much as possible and do advance planning to provide alternatives in case their local facility is downsized or closed. Despite the strong lobby in favor of keeping and modernizing the ICBM force, strategic and budgetary pressures could still lead to a reduction or elimination of the force in the years to come.

There is a significant record of communities recovering from base closures over time, often creating more civilian employment than the base itself provided, but each case is unique. Successful conversion by no means is guaranteed, but the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment, which was established to help communities cope with the impact of base closures or reductions in defense manufacturing activities, in 2020 completed an unpublished report on 35 successful base conversions in 19 states. It concluded that after the military facilities closed, more than 157,000 new civilian jobs were created, more than double the number lost at the time of the base closure.

Successful cases had some common themes. Specific authorities were established to plan for the transition of the base in question in consultation with government, business, and community representatives. Officials thought creatively, envisioning diverse uses for the land freed up by the base closure, including everything from commuter airports and industrial/research parks to residential areas, parks, and university campuses. Most importantly, leaders commenced planning before a base was closed. Transitions can take years given the need for environmental cleanup, transfer of land, and identification of governmental or private investment funds. Yet, the effort is worth it given the prospect of new economic activity and employment at the sites of closed military facilities.

The Office of Economic Adjustment has recently been renamed the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation. Although it retains the mission of helping communities adjust to base closures, its website does not emphasize that clearly or strongly, merely stating that it aims “to assist states and communities hosting installations dealing with a changing Department of Defense presence.” The Biden administration should make a point of ensuring that the office maintains its traditional mission of helping states and localities adjust to base closures and give it adequate funds to do the job.

There are better uses of scarce funds than spending tens of billions of dollars on a new ICBM. Whether it involves ICBM bases or ICBM contracting, virtually any other public investment would create more jobs than spending on the GBSD program. For the same amount of money, clean energy and infrastructure create 40 percent more jobs, while health care creates 100 percent more.11 If even part of the savings from canceling the GBSD program and eliminating existing ICBMs was directed toward alternative economic activities, it could provide a significant cushion as the affected communities transition to replace the jobs tied to those facilities.

Different Policy Options, Different Economic Impacts

Different options for the future of the ICBM force would have dramatically different economic impacts. The United States could greatly diminish the risk of accidental war if it adopted a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons or took ICBMs off of high alert. By themselves, such decisions would not necessarily involve any changes in the deployment of ICBMs and therefore would have no negative economic impacts on the communities where they are located.

A second policy option would be to abandon the plan to build a new ballistic missile and rely instead on refurbished versions of existing ICBMs, a substantially cheaper option. A Congressional Budget Office study estimates that the development of a new ICBM could be pushed back by at least two decades by refurbishing current systems.12 A review of studies by the Air Force, the RAND Corp., and the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that the life of current ICBMs could be extended even further.13 Forgoing the new ICBM would impact the contractor side of the ledger—the 10,000 jobs that Northrop Grumman claims would be involved in the development phase of the GBSD system—but would not reduce current employment levels at ICBM bases or their communities. Furthermore, because there would be some jobs associated with refurbishing existing ICBMs, the net loss of employment from canceling the GBSD program could be considerably less than 10,000 jobs.

The greatest economic impact would come from eliminating ICBMs altogether, because it could mean closing existing ICBM bases and eliminating potential jobs in the development of the new system. These economic effects would be manageable at the national level, but would require transition assistance for the impacted areas of Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

The Debate Continues

The decision on whether to build a new ICBM should be based on strategic and budgetary concerns, not pork barrel politics. At a time when pandemics, climate change, and racial and economic injustice pose major threats to the safety and security of the United States, it would be wise to shift resources away from unnecessary military programs to address these challenges. The Biden administration and Congress should carefully scrutinize the new ICBM program and consider canceling it outright as a first step toward eliminating the land-based leg of the nuclear triad altogether. The decision on whether to build a new ICBM should be based on the merits, not contractor lobbying and the self-interest of elected officials.



1. William J. Perry, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap America’s ICBMs,” The New York Times, September 30, 2016.

2. Kingston Reif and Alicia Sanders-Zakre, “U.S. Nuclear Excess: Understanding the Costs, Risks, and Alternatives,” Arms Control Association, April 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/Reports/Report_NuclearExcess2019_update0410.pdf.

3. David Wright, William D. Hartung, and Lisbeth Gronlund, “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles: Sensible Risk-Reduction Strategies for U.S. ICBMs,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2020, pp. 2–3, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-06/rethinking-land-based-nuclear-missiles.pdf.

4. Union of Concerned Scientists, “U.S. ICBMs Are Superfluous and Increase the Risk of Mistaken Nuclear War, Report Finds,” June 22, 2020, https://www.ucsusa.org/about/news/icbms-are-unnecessary-according-union-concerned-scientists.

5. Bruce G. Blair, Jessica Sleight, and Emma Claire Foley, “The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Moving to a Deterrence-Only Posture,” Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, and Global Zero, September 2018, https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/ANPR-Final.pdf.

6. Aaron Mehta, “Majority of Voters Support ICBM Replacement Alternatives, New Poll Finds,” Defense News, February 5, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nuclear-arsenal/2021/02/05/majority-of-voters-support-icbm-replacement-alternatives-new-poll-finds/; Matt Korda and Tricia White, “Public Perspectives on the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force,” Federation of American Scientists, January 2021, https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Public-Perspectives-ICBM.pdf.

7. Anthony Capaccio, “New U.S. ICBM Could Cost Up to $264 Billion Over Decades,” Bloomberg, October 3, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-03/new-u-s-icbms-could-cost-up-to-264-billion-over-decades.

8. Joe Gould, “New Senate Defense Appropriations Chair Talks Nuclear Modernization, Defense Cuts and Earmarks,” Defense News, March 1, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2021/03/01/senate-defense-appropriations-chair-talks-nuclear-modernization-defense-cuts-and-earmarks/.

9. Marcus Weisgerber, “Northrop Announces Suppliers for New ICBM. Boeing Is Not on the List,” Defense One, September 16, 2019, https://www.defenseone.com/business/2019/09/northrop-icbm/159886/. Suppliers include Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, L3Harris, Collins Aerospace (United Technologies), Textron, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Honeywell, Parsons, BRPH, Clark Construction, Bechtel, and Kratos.

10. For data on lobbyists and lobbying expenditures from the Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets database, see https://www.opensecrets.org/.

11. For information on defense-related jobs versus other types of expenditures, see Heidi Peltier, “War Spending and Lost Opportunities,” Costs of War Project, Brown University, March 2019.

12. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046,” October 2017, p. 31, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/reports/53211-nuclearforces.pdf.

13. Wright, Hartung, and Gronlund, “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles,” pp. 18–19.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the author of “Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests or the National Interest?” from which this article was adapted.

Support for a new ICBM is tied closely to the money to be made developing, building, deploying and maintaining it. Yet the American public would eliminate the weapon altogether, a recent poll shows.

Advice From a Missile Defense Sleuth: How the Defense Department Can Fix The Troubled Weapons Program

May 2021
By Cristina Chaplain

Each new administration has reshaped the U.S. missile defense vision and architecture to align with its perception of changing threats, technological advancements, program setbacks, budgets, and political considerations. The Biden administration will likely do the same. One of the most important questions the new administration will face is the direction to take with homeland defense.

Cristina Chaplain, who formerly directed reviews of the missile defense program for the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress, testified in December 2017 before the House subcommittee on space.  (Photo: U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, & Technology)The Department of Defense is already on a path to acquire a new interceptor for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which is the only system designed to defend the United States against a limited intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack from North Korea and Iran. Yet, there are questions about the extent to which the United States should rely on the GMD system given the changing threat, the system’s troubled development and expense, and the need to fund new programs such as those focused on new hypersonic threats and tracking missiles from space.

Moreover, there are questions about the role the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which is responsible for developing U.S. missile defenses, should be playing. Over the years, the agency has transitioned from one focused largely on advancing technology to one now largely focused on procurement and production. Congress and the secretary of defense have also been considering whether systems now in production or fielded should be transferred to the service branches, as originally planned or remain with the MDA for the foreseeable future and whether MDA programs should have more oversight.

The work of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, does not involve making or proposing policy, and the GAO must be independent. Nevertheless, it has a lot to offer on policy execution, including regarding the missile defense program. Thirty years of working for this agency, including directing its reviews of missile defense for over a decade, have convinced me of that. Getting the rocket science correct will be important no matter which path President Joe Biden chooses for missile defense. To this end, there are some lessons to be learned from the GMD program.

Fly Before You Buy

If there is one lesson the MDA should take from the GMD program, it is to fly before you buy. That means making sure the system works before firing up the production lines and putting new interceptors into the ground. Specifically, technology invention should be done before design, and design should be done before production. Program managers and senior leaders should use quantifiable data and demonstrable knowledge to make decisions on cost, schedule, technology readiness, design readiness, production readiness, and relationships with suppliers. The GAO has repeatedly seen these practices contribute to success in the private sector and in government.1

The GMD program did not follow this model. Shortly after its inception in 2002, the MDA was directed by President George W. Bush to deploy an initial set of missile defense capabilities by 2004. Given considerable flexibility and authority to do so, the GMD program concurrently matured technology, designed the system, tested the design, and produced and fielded a system. Although this approach allowed the program to rapidly field a limited defense, it resulted in cost increases, schedule delays, test problems, and performance shortfalls. This “rush to fielding” mandate became a more or less pervasive part of the GMD culture.

The GAO raised concerns about this approach in 2003. It warned that critical technologies would not work as intended in planned flight tests, and would result in the MDA spending additional funds to identify and correct problems by September 2004 or accept a less capable system.2 In subsequent years, the GAO documented numerous setbacks in the GMD program, many due to avoidable errors. Although problems are expected in any sophisticated endeavor, the issues are how and when then they are discovered. In the GMD program, it happened late in development, when the errors are more expensive and time consuming to fix.

In 2006, for example, the GAO reported that interceptor production slowed because of technical problems, mostly in the kill vehicle. These were traced back to poor oversight of subcontractors, too few qualification tests, and other quality assurance issues.3 In 2010, a flight test failed because of design problems with the kill vehicle’s inertial measurement unit for the interceptor. At the time of the discovery, 12 of 23 interceptors had been manufactured and delivered even though a successful flight test had not yet happened. The cost to fix and flight-test the weapon increased from $236 million to nearly $2 billion as a result of the need to conduct failure reviews, additional flight tests, mitigation development efforts, and a retrofit program.4

Quality was a persistent problem, partly due to the rush to deliver. In one case, a flight test in 2010 failed because a lockwire in the kill vehicle was not installed. The following year, a GAO review found the GMD program had to cancel a major flight test due to flaws in a telemetry unit that were discovered during final assembly. GMD officials told the GAO that in the process of accelerating the GMD schedule, they became inattentive to weaknesses in the program’s quality control procedures.5

There are reasons to question how much the United States should rely on the Ground-based  Midcourse Defense system, shown here being tested in 2019 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, including the weapon's troubled development and cost, a former Government Accountability Office investigator says. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)Some problems were not necessarily the fault of the GMD program itself, but were indicative of the program’s willingness to take risks. A flight test in 2007, for example, was unsuccessful because the target missile failed. The GAO has frequently recommended that the MDA test targets before flight tests, but this was often not done because of expediency.

The GMD program’s most recent effort to update the interceptor, known as the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), started out with plans incorporating knowledge from the GMD program. Yet, the new kill vehicle program also ended up accepting too much risk and experiencing development challenges that set it back four years and increased costs by at least $600 million.

The RKV was intended to be more reliable, producible, testable, and cost effective, partly by using a modular open architecture that would make future upgrades easier and broaden the vendor and supply base. Among other actions, MDA plans called for conducting more flight testing before production. In 2016, the GAO viewed the plans as a positive indication of the MDA’s intent to improve its acquisition outcomes. Still, the GAO cautioned that the schedule was aggressive and questioned whether the MDA was allowing enough time for modifying and maturing technologies.6

In 2017, the MDA, responding to the growing North Korean missile threat, accelerated development while reducing the number of flight tests. The GAO found that the new plan was more likely to prolong the RKV effort rather than accelerate it. That was inconsistent with the fly-before-you-buy best practice because the MDA would begin production based on the results of design reviews rather than flight testing. The GAO reported that the RKV program was already experiencing development delays prior to the acceleration of the schedule and was operating with no schedule margin.7

The most significant development issue that emerged for the RKV in 2018 pertained to the planned use of commercial, off-the-shelf hardware and reuse of components from the Aegis system’s newest interceptor. In multiple reports, the GAO, along with some in the Defense Department, raised concerns about the use of these components as well as the aggressive schedule for the RKV. Facing time delays, cost increases, and design challenges, the Defense Department canceled the RKV program in August 2019. By then, the MDA had spent a total of $1.2 billion on development, which was $340 million more than the agency’s original estimate.8

In 2020, the agency began developing a next-generation ground-based interceptor for the GMD program. It recently awarded two contracts, with an estimated maximum value of $1.6 billion, to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to carry two designs into the technology development and risk reduction phase of the program. The MDA plans to execute two intercept flight tests before starting interceptor production and to base decisions on knowledge about technical and design maturity rather than on some arbitrary schedule. It plans to reduce technical risk with early testing of interceptor parts and is considering having the government take a more direct role in the program rather than relying on the prime contractor to determine the technical direction of the program, as it did with Boeing.9

These are hopeful signs that the MDA may have finally learned the fly-before-you-buy lesson. The GAO recently found that the approach the MDA is using to assess progress is in line with best practices. Promoting competition in the GMD program, particularly through design, could reduce cost and encourage industry innovation. Earlier testing of parts is another GAO-recommended practice that could enable the MDA to address problems with parts without major disruptions to the program, but the GMD program’s history provides only cautious optimism.

Be Transparent

The flexibilities granted the MDA so it could meet the presidentially mandated deadline for an initial homeland defense capability also came at the expense of transparency and accountability. For example, unlike other major weapons programs, cost, schedule, and performance baselines did not have to be established or approved outside the MDA. In addition, most major weapons programs were required by statute to obtain an independent verification of cost estimates, but the MDA was not.

Compounding matters, until 2011 the MDA had employed at least three different processes to track its acquisitions. The different structures for reporting cost, schedule, and performance data exacerbated transparency and accountability challenges. Each time a process changed, the connections between the old and new planned scope and resources were obscured.

In 2011, the GAO testified that the lack of baselines for missile defense, along with high levels of uncertainty about requirements and program cost estimates, effectively set the missile defense program on a path to an undefined destination at an unknown cost. There was limited knowledge and few opportunities for crucial management oversight and decision-making concerning the agency’s investment and the warfighter’s continuing needs.10

Over the past two decades, the MDA has made incremental progress in providing Congress and others with information needed for decision-making. In response to congressional direction, for example, the MDA established resource, schedule, test, operational capacity, technical, and contract baselines for its systems. It established processes for reviewing baselines and approving product development and initial production jointly with the service branches that will ultimately be responsible for those assets. It began producing independent cost estimates. Although these are positive steps, the GAO has made additional recommendations to strengthen these processes. For example, the MDA requests a billion dollars or more in funding each fiscal year for tests, but the GAO analysis found that these estimates were inconsistent and difficult to trace. The GAO recommended detailed changes to each test in the master test plan. It also recommended improvements to the process used to calculate cost estimates for tests.11

Moreover, the GAO reported in 2020 that more work needs to be done in terms of providing clarity into testing progress. The MDA frequently revises its test schedule by adding new tests and deleting or delaying scheduled tests, in some cases multiple times. As a result, less testing is being conducted prior to delivery than originally planned, which means less data are available to understand capabilities and limitations. The GAO recommended the MDA have an independent assessment conducted for its process for developing and executing its annual flight-test plan.12

Engage Stakeholders

Since the early 2000s, the MDA has had a reputation for going its own way and being somewhat adversarial with and unresponsive to Defense Department entities that had a stake in missile defense. These include members of the war-fighting community who were the ultimate customers of MDA-developed systems, the testing community, the acquisition oversight functions within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the intelligence community, and the service branches.

In a 2008 study on the mission, roles, and structure of the MDA led by the Institute of Defense Analyses for the Defense Department, the military raised concerns about inadequate visibility into planning, programming, and budgeting; insufficient involvement in the requirements process; and insufficient attention to integrating missile defense capabilities with other joint forces. The Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commands believed warfighters needed a stronger role in setting requirements for missile defense while officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense believed that the MDA should be merged with normal acquisition processes, while retaining sufficient flexibility to respond to a wider range of threats and technology opportunities. They asked for earlier involvement in the agency’s planning efforts and independent analysis to help ensure that trade-offs were adequately examined and evaluated.13

Navy Vice Adm. Jon A. Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency, speaks at the 11th annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference, in Washington, D.C., in 2020. (Photo: Defense Department)Although MDA flexibilities remain in place, the Defense Department has acted to increase the agency’s cooperation with its stakeholders. For example, the department established the Missile Defense Executive Board in 2007 to bring together senior Defense Department executives, representatives of the Department of State, and national security staff to review and provide guidance for missile defense. In 2008, the deputy secretary of defense created processes that enabled the military, the Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and other directorates within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to participate in and influence the development of the annual MDA program plan and budget submittal. Further, in June 2009 the MDA adopted a new approach toward test planning that integrated recommendations made by the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, among others.

Those were all important steps, but the RKV program demonstrated that more was needed. In 2017 the GAO found that the MDA requirements-setting process tended to put the needs of the developer ahead of those of the warfighter. Designs for the RKV and other new systems included trade-offs that favored fielding capabilities sooner and less expensively. Officials from multiple entities within the Defense Department warned that these trade-offs compromised performance and reliability, which could leave warfighters with weapons that were insufficient to defeat current and future threats.

A 2021 GAO report documented program meetings in 2010, 2015, 2017, and 2018 in which subject matter experts and officials within and outside of the RKV program raised concerns about performance issues that went unheeded.14 Concerns about reusing a component from the Aegis interceptor along with commercial, off-the-shelf parts were so serious that the program was ultimately cancelled in 2019.

More broadly, the GAO has recently recommended that the MDA increase its collaboration with the defense intelligence community. Although it had taken some steps to do so, a 2019 review found that the MDA provides the intelligence community with limited insight into how the agency uses threat assessments to inform its acquisition decisions. That is a serious failing given that the intelligence community is uniquely positioned to assist the MDA and its involvement is crucial for helping the MDA to keep pace with rapidly emerging threats. Moreover, this limited insight has prevented the intelligence community from validating threat models that the agency builds to test the performance of its weapon systems. Without validation, any flaws or bias in the threat models may go undetected, which can have significant implications on the performance of MDA weapons systems.15

In 2021 the GAO reported that the MDA was working closely with stakeholders on the next-generation interceptor’s requirements and acquisition strategy and on implementing specific GAO recommendations on collaboration. For example, the agency engaged the defense intelligence community in producing an analysis of alternatives to defend against new hypersonic glide vehicles. Over the past several years, officials from several Defense Department organizations have told the GAO that MDA engagement with their organizations was improving.16 The GAO’s own relationship with the agency improved under the two most recent MDA directors.

Last year, the deputy secretary of defense took additional action to involve more participants in the oversight of missile defense programs, such as requiring the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation to provide independent cost estimates before MDA program development and production decisions are made. Also, more oversight would be given to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment and less to the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. The MDA director stated that the directive essentially codifies what the MDA has already been doing.17

Sustain Support for Lessons Learned

The steps the MDA is taking are encouraging, but adopting and sustaining an effective knowledge-based acquisition approach will be challenging. For example, more resources may be needed to mature technology, carry two contractors through design, and ensure the government can play a stronger role in overseeing the program. Yet, those funding dollars may be difficult to find given overall budgetary concerns and the need to fund the MDA’s new hypersonic and other programs.

Moreover, pressures to proceed quickly, whether they are rooted in threats, budgets, politics, industry, or all of the above, will not go away. In fact, proceeding quickly and streamlining acquisition oversight is now in vogue for the broader weapons community because it is believed the development process most weapons systems follow takes too long and hampers innovation. At the direction of Congress, decision-making for many major defense acquisition programs has been shifted from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the service branches. The Defense Department has also begun using new pathways referenced as “middle-tier acquisition” to rapidly produce prototypes and field some new weapons systems within two to five years. It is unknown how successful these programs will be, and it may stay that way given that the Defense Department has not yet fully determined how to measure performance.

It would be prudent for the Biden administration to insist that the MDA follow better acquisition practices for the next-generation interceptor versus stepping on the gas pedal. The agency already faces a steep technical challenge in developing a homeland missile defense system that can keep pace with the threat. The past has shown that rushing programs into production merely exacerbates the inherent technical challenges the MDA already faces, resulting in delays, added costs, and questionable performance.

That is not to say that following best practices for the next-generation interceptor will enable the Pentagon to fully protect the homeland from an ICBM attack. The United States is still in the beginning phases of addressing a very complex problem, and the threat will assuredly adapt and evolve. There are technical hurdles beyond the next interceptor that need to be overcome, such as maturing a discrimination capability, making testing more operationally realistic, and ensuring that supporting systems are seamlessly integrated. There are also broader questions to be answered about what can really be expected from the GMD system and what are the best investments for addressing the threat. Until those questions are answered, it is best to make sure this new interceptor can do its job as intended.



1. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Best Practices: Better Support of Weapon System Program Managers Needed to Improve Outcomes,” GAO-06-110, November 30, 2005, pp. 5–10.

2. GAO, “Missile Defense: Knowledge-Based Practices Are Being Adopted, but Risks Remain,” GAO-03-441, April 30, 2003, p. 20.

3. GAO, “Defense Acquisitions: Missile Defense Agency Fields Initial Capability but Falls Short of Original Goals,” GAO-06-327, March 15, 2006, p. 11.

4. GAO, “Missile Defense: Opportunity Exists to Strengthen Acquisitions by Reducing Concurrency,” GAO-12-486, April 20, 2012, p. 74; GAO, “Missile Defense: Opportunities Exist to Reduce Acquisition Risk and Improve Reporting on System Capabilities,” GAO-15-345, May 6, 2015, p. 63.

5. GAO, “Space and Missile Defense Acquisitions: Periodic Assessment Needed to Correct Parts Quality Problems in Major Programs,” GAO-11-404, June 24, 2011; GAO, “Defense Acquisitions,” pp. 27-30.

6. GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of DOD's Reports on Status of Efforts and Options for Improving Homeland Missile Defense,” GAO-16-254R, February 17, 2016.

7. GAO, “Missile Defense: The Warfighter and Decision Makers Would Benefit From Better Communication About the System's Capabilities and Limitations,” GAO-18-324, May 30, 2018, p. 72.

8. GAO, “Missile Defense: Delivery Delays Provide Opportunity for Increased Testing to Better Understand Capability,” GAO-19-387, June 6, 2019, pp. 60-61; GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist,” GAO-20-432, July 23, 2020, pp. 61–63.

9. GAO, “Missile Defense: Observations on Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Acquisition Challenges and Potential Contract Strategy Changes,” GAO-21-135R, October 21, 2020.

10. GAO, “Missile Defense: Actions Needed to Improve Transparency and Accountability,” GAO-11-555T, April 13, 2011.

11. Ibid.; GAO, “Missile Defense: Cost Estimating Practices Have Improved, and Continued Evaluation Will Determine Effectiveness,” GAO-15-210R, December 12, 2014.

12. GAO, “Missile Defense: Some Progress Delivering Capabilities, but Challenges With Testing Transparency and Requirements Development Need to Be Addressed,” GAO-17-381, May 30, 2017; GAO, “Missile Defense: Lessons Learned From Acquisition Efforts,” GAO-20-490T, March 12, 2020.

13. Gen. Larry D. Welch and David Briggs, “Study on the Mission, Roles, and Structure of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA),” Institute for Defense Analyses Paper, No. P-4374 (2008), ch. IV.

14. GAO, “Missile Defense: Some Progress Delivering Capabilities, but Challenges With Testing Transparency and Requirements Development Need to Be Addressed,” pp. 49-69; GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist,” pp. 61–62.

15. GAO, “Missile Defense: Further Collaboration With the Intelligence Community Would Help MDA Keep Pace With Emerging Threats,” GAO-20-177, December 11, 2019.

16. GAO, “Missile Defense: Lessons Learned From Acquisition Efforts,” p. 6; GAO, “Missile Defense: Assessment of Testing Approach Needed as Delays and Changes Persist,” p. 14.

17. Jen Judson, “New Pentagon Directive Will Put Programs on More Solid Ground, Says MDA Boss,” Defense News, September 10, 2020.

Cristina Chaplain retired in 2020 after working 30 years for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative agency for Congress. For more than a decade, she directed the agency’s reviews of missile defense programs.

Getting the rocket science correct will be important no matter which path President Joe Biden chooses for missile defense.

Can Disarmament Be Revived? An Interview With Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde

May 2021

Sweden has long played a significant role in seeking to advance nonproliferation and disarmament. For example, Sweden was part of the New Agenda Coalition, which has sought to bridge the divide between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states that surfaced during negotiations regarding the indefinite extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde says the Stockholm Initiative, which aims to prod the world to revive progress on disarmament, is more important than ever. (Photo: Kristian Pohl/The Government Offices of Sweden)In 1998, Sweden co-authored a joint declaration calling for a new agenda for nuclear disarmament and deploring the fact that “countless resolutions and initiatives [with respect to the elimination] of nuclear weapons in the past half century remain unfulfilled.”

In February 2020, the 16 countries involved in the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament endorsed 22 measures, or “stepping stones,” to reinforce the disarmament goals of the NPT.

To help readers understand what this latest initiative has achieved and where it is headed, the following questions were posed by email to Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: How do you think the Stockholm Initiative can accelerate progress on nuclear disarmament? What do you hope it
can achieve in the short term and the long term? Is the effort more or less necessary since the initiative was launched in June 2019?

Foreign Minister Linde: The Stockholm Initiative and the 22 specific stepping stones adopted in Berlin last year are proposals for concrete measures for nuclear disarmament. They are honest suggestions for measures that we believe can be taken now—in the current security situation—to implement commitments and obligations from previous NPT review conferences. In parallel, these measures will contribute to building confidence and pave the way for further progress and additional steps. Nuclear risk reduction is a key area for the Stockholm Initiative, but our proposals also cover doctrines and policies, transparency, and disarmament verification.

The initiative is as important today as it was in June 2019, if not more so. The global security situation continues to deteriorate, and disarmament diplomacy remains highly polarized. This was a main reason for launching the initiative in Stockholm almost two years ago. At our latest ministerial meeting in Amman in January this year, we agreed that the challenges persist and that the initiative’s raison d’être and proposals for stepping stones remain valid. It is crucial that we move away from the deadlock and instead contribute to building an inclusive process that can lead to real progress at the next NPT review conference in August and beyond. In a nutshell, this is what the Stockholm Initiative is about. I sincerely think that it is possible to achieve progress if there is unity of purpose.

ACT: Many of the stepping stones call for nuclear-weapon states to open or deepen discussions on such issues as nuclear doctrine and strategic stability. How will the Stockholm Initiative encourage not only discussion but also action by nuclear-weapon states on these measures?

Linde: Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in doctrines and policies is crucial. The trend in the opposite direction that we have seen in recent years is deeply worrying and must be reversed.

This is why the issue figures prominently in the stepping stones package, in line with the commitments made at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Doctrines and policies will be high on our agenda in discussions with nuclear-weapon states. Increased transparency from the nuclear-weapon states with regard to their policies is certainly a welcome step, but more needs to be done. We should seek an outcome at the upcoming review conference that paves the way for concrete progress in the next review cycle.

ACT: What specific outcomes does Sweden envision coming out of these discussions, particularly in the next round of nuclear arms talks between Moscow and Washington following the five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)? How, specifically, could you prod other major nuclear armed states to engage more effectively in the nuclear disarmament process?

Linde: The five-year extension of New START was obviously of fundamental importance. But as was rightly pointed out by the United States, it should be seen as the beginning, not the end, of nuclear arms control efforts.

Negotiating new arms control agreements is difficult and time consuming, so I hope new talks can be launched soon, primarily between the United States and Russia. With an arsenal that is both expanding and becoming more diversified, the relevance of China’s participation is clearly also growing.

As for the agenda, I would hope that negotiators are ambitious and set out to do the following: (1) seek further reductions in the strategic arsenals; (2) for the first time, regulate arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons; (3) seek effective ways of mitigating the consequences of the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and (4) enhance awareness of how emerging technology, including space-related technology, could impact future arms control.

ACT: The Stockholm Initiative last met in January 2021. Afterward, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas released a statement that said the initiative “will reach out to all groups and initiatives, both governmental and from civil society.“ Has this outreach occurred since this meeting, and if so, how has it been going? Have additional states signaled support for the initiative?

Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde (center) poses with officials from other countries involved in the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament at a ministerial meeting in Berlin in February 2020. (Photo by Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)Linde: We have been happy to note strong interest for the initiative from other countries that are NPT states-parties. Several countries have chosen to align with the stepping stones proposals that were agreed in Berlin in February last year and we hope that more will follow. In any case, we hope that the initiative will be considered an effective method to achieve further disarmament and that our proposals can help stimulate discussion.

The pandemic and the current uncertainties related to the holding of the 10th NPT review conference complicate our work, but I am pleased to see that the engagement nonetheless remains strong.

ACT: One of the initiative’s recommendations is for “visits to and interaction with communities affected by nuclear weapons, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and former nuclear test sites.“ Why do you believe this is important? Should heads of state and foreign ministers commit to visiting sites where nuclear weapons have inflicted health and environmental consequences?

Linde: Such visits would serve several purposes. We are obliged to learn from history and to use our knowledge to make better choices in the future. Visits could help raise awareness of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and contribute to putting these issues back at the top of our political and public agendas. It would also be a key part of further engaging the younger generations, which in turn could promote a much-needed growth of knowledge and innovation in these areas.

Increased and inclusive knowledge of nuclear disarmament affairs is something that I find of utmost importance at all levels. Nationally, we are establishing a knowledge center with the purpose to engage in education and research in related areas, guarantee future expertise, and provide cross-disciplinary support for policy work. It is also a part of the broader quest to raise public awareness on nuclear disarmament and to stimulate a public debate.

ACT: In the February 2020 statement on the Stockholm Initiative, the group resolved “to strengthen the NPT against the background of disturbing trends—the unravelling of the arms-control fabric that has served and must continue to serve global security well, increasingly tense relations between nations, and risks arising from new and emerging weapon technologies.“ What specifically does Sweden believe needs to emerge from the 10th NPT review conference, tentatively scheduled for August, in order to jump-start progress on disarmament and to address new and emerging weapons technologies? Is it your goal to see the conference not only reaffirm past commitments and obligations on the Article VI disarmament pillar, which describes the mechanism by which disputes over the treaty may be settled, but also adopt an updated consensus action plan on specific disarmament-related measures?

Linde: The upcoming NPT review conference provides an important—and long awaited—opportunity for states-parties to strengthen all three pillars of the NPT. Much is at stake. Political engagement at the highest level is therefore essential. The format must allow for in-depth discussions, negotiations, and deliberations. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to not underestimate the value and power of honest in-person exchanges of views in order to achieve results.

We need to collectively reaffirm the continued validity of previous commitments made within the NPT framework. Equally important is that real progress must be made in implementing these commitments, not least when it comes to Article VI. We need not only to review what has been done so far, but also to look into the future and examine what lies ahead and how greater progress can be made, regardless of the prevailing security environment. This is not the time to abandon or set aside what has once been agreed. There is only one possible direction, and that is going forward. There can be no backtracking.

In this regard, we would do well to remind ourselves that all states-parties to the NPT carry a responsibility to help make sure that the review conference achieves the desired outcome. Yes, it is true that nuclear-weapon states carry a special responsibility, particularly in terms of disarmament. However, this does not mean that the rest of us should not work hard to make sure that we reach our common goals. All efforts are needed. With the Stockholm Initiative and its stepping stones, Sweden, along with the initiative’s 15 other partner countries, is trying to do just that, to contribute in an ambitious yet realistic manner that embraces differences of opinion and that allows for an inclusive process. Only with everyone seated at the table can real progress be achieved.

ACT: Have you discussed the initiative with the Biden administration, and if so, what has been its response? Will the United States be an active participant?

Linde: Nuclear disarmament is a central Swedish foreign policy priority. I took the opportunity to raise the Stockholm Initiative with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in our first conversation just days after he had taken up his duties. We had a brief discussion then, and I have since, together with my Canadian and German colleagues and on behalf of the members of the Stockholm Initiative, sent a letter encouraging the new administration to seriously consider the 22 stepping stone proposals to advance nuclear disarmament. These proposals are aimed at providing an ambitious and realistic set of measures that we hope that all NPT states-parties, not least the nuclear-weapon states with their special responsibility, will study with an open mind and act on.

The United States is a critical partner and without a doubt will be highly active and engaged in all our deliberations ahead of the review conference. I look forward to continuing the conversation with Secretary Blinken on how we can move forward on an implementation agenda.

ACT: In March, the United Kingdom announced that it will raise the ceiling on its total nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40 percent, from its earlier goal of 180 by the mid-2020s to 260 warheads. Do you view this action as consistent with the UK’s political and legal commitments under the NPT, which include pursuing “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament“? If this decision is inconsistent with those obligations, what can be done about it?

Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, addresses the 2015 Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which fell apart when members could not reach consensus. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde says the next conference, tentatively set for August, cannot afford such failure.  (Photo: United Nations)Linde: First of all, we regret that the UK is set to increase the cap on its nuclear arsenal and no longer provide public figures on operational stockpiles, deployed warheads, and deployed missiles. I believe this to be a clear step in the wrong direction, at a time when our focus should be on achieving progress on disarmament ahead of the review conference. It adds to a deeply worrying trend, with also China increasing and diversifying its arsenal and with major modernization efforts going on elsewhere, not least in Russia. We must do everything in our power to avoid a costly and dangerous arms race.

This has also been my message in recent discussions with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. It should be pointed out, however, that while the UK has announced a raised ceiling, the arsenal has not increased so far, and we certainly hope it never will. The UK has made clear that they will continue to press for key steps to achieve multilateral disarmament and that they remain strongly committed to the full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament. I trust that they plan to honor this commitment. I should also mention that the UK has been and continues to be a great partner to Sweden in areas such as nuclear disarmament verification through the Quad Nuclear Verification Partnership.

We will now have to find constructive ways to go from here. I would welcome further engagement by the UK on key areas such as nuclear risk reduction, transparency, and declaratory policy, and I do believe that the Stockholm Initiative offers a path forward in this regard.

ACT: In 2019 the United States launched the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative, which U.S. officials described as an effort to overcome obstacles to and create conditions for furthering nuclear disarmament. Almost all members of the Stockholm Initiative are also members of the CEND initiative, and Sweden is one of those. Where might the CEND and Stockholm initiatives’ efforts converge and diverge?

Linde: At the outset, let me make clear that I welcome all efforts and initiatives aiming to find ways forward on disarmament and to bring us closer to making our common goal of a world free from nuclear weapons a reality. There are quite a lot of groupings out there, be it at the regional, the cross-regional, or the thematic level; and in my opinion, they all bring something to the table. We have consistently underlined that the Stockholm Initiative is not there to replace or go against any other existing formats. Rather, we see efforts as complementary. If anything, the Stockholm Initiative proposes an agenda that can be supported by a large number of countries. Many of the countries of the Stockholm Initiative are also, as you rightly pointed out, active participants in other initiatives such as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), the CEND initiative, or the Non-Aligned Movement, to name a few.

The CEND initiative gathers a broad group of countries, including states that are not part of the NPT but nevertheless possess nuclear weapons. In that sense, it fills a gap, providing a much-needed platform for discussions that go beyond treaties or commitments and possibly helping to build confidence, trust, and better understanding of positions among countries. However, the Stockholm Initiative is a more focused effort in that it proposes concrete steps that can be taken now, in the short term, and that could lead to further, substantive measures down the road. It also proposes a method in this regard, a stepping stones approach, and puts an emphasis on high-level political engagement. Committed and sustained political leadership is crucial if we are to achieve concrete and sustainable results.

ACT: Since the Stockholm Initiative was launched, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has entered into force, and the first meeting of states-parties will likely be held in January 2022. Should the TPNW be recognized as a positive contribution to efforts to reinforce the basic goals and obligations of the NPT, including disarmament, and to reinforce the taboo against nuclear weapons? Do you believe, as the five NPT nuclear-armed states put it in their joint statement in 2018, that it does not contribute to the development of customary international law and “is creating divisions across the international non-proliferation and disarmament machinery, which could make further progress on disarmament even more difficult“?

Linde: The entry into force of the TPNW constitutes a significant development in multilateral nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

It is clear that there are different views regarding the TPNW. For example, Sweden is one of the countries that decided not to sign or ratify the treaty due to what we perceived as a series of shortcomings. Nevertheless, Sweden intends to become an observer to the treaty as soon as a framework and process for this is put in place by states-parties.

It is essential that the upcoming NPT review conference does not turn into an argument for or against the TPNW. We must not let the differences in views add to further polarization among states-parties to the NPT. Digging ourselves deeper into trenches will not solve anything. Rather it may risk having a negative spillover effect on other issues. Only through understanding each other’s points of departure can we reach our common destination—a world free from nuclear weapons.

ACT: At the start of 2021, you became the chairperson-in-office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In 2020 the United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, and in January of this year, Russia announced that it would begin domestic procedures to withdraw from the treaty if the United States remains outside the treaty. From Sweden’s perspective, how does this treaty contribute to European and international security? What does Sweden believe can be done to preserve the treaty, and what would Sweden like to see the United States and Russia do to ensure the treaty does not collapse?

Linde: The Open Skies Treaty plays a key role in contributing to transparency, predictability, and confidence building in the OSCE region. There is great value in maintaining it.

Although all OSCE countries are not parties to it, the Open Skies Treaty is a part of the comprehensive OSCE arms control framework. It is therefore a concern for the OSCE. As chairperson-in-office, I would regret to see any state withdraw from the treaty. Sweden would welcome the United States rejoining it.

The signals that Russia is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty are also worrying. A situation where neither the United States nor Russia would be parties to the treaty would be negative for confidence building and security in the OSCE area. Full implementation by all parties is key to preserving the treaty.

As global security deteriorates and the world becomes more polarized, Sweden is advocating moves to stabilize the situation and create a new opening for arms control progress.

Once More Into the Breach: Physicists Mobilize Again to Counter the Nuclear Threat

May 2021
By Zia Mian, Stewart Prager, and Frank N. von Hippel

In Princeton 75 years ago, Albert Einstein announced the formation of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists to educate and mobilize other scientists and the public on the dangers to humanity of the nuclear weapons recently developed by the United States and used to destroy two Japanese cities. The committee of distinguished scientists, almost all of whom had been part of the nuclear weapons program, declared, “We scientists recognize our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of the simple facts of atomic energy and its implications for society. In this lies our only security and our only hope. We believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not for death.”1

Albert Einstein, center, and other members of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists meet in Princeton, N.J., on Nov. 18, 1946 where they issued an appeal for $1 million to finance a nation-wide educational campaign on the social implications of atomic energy. (Photo via Oregon State University Library)The scientists feared for the future. Faced with the nuclear threat, the committee proclaimed, “there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.” They began fundraising, with a goal of $1 million (about $10 million in today’s dollars), and published leaflets, gave lectures and talks in person and on the radio, and supported some of the first documentary films on nuclear weapons issues. The group disbanded in 1951, and Einstein died in April 1955. One legacy is that physicists have inherited a special credibility and responsibility for nuclear issues, perhaps more than we deserve.

Today, we see growing political, financial, institutional, and technical commitments to a new generation of nuclear weapons. If realized, nuclear weapons at current levels will become entrenched as part of national and international politics for the rest of this century. To contend against this future, last year we joined other colleagues in establishing the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, with the goal of educating and organizing physicists for nuclear arms control advocacy by engaging Congress and the public on the continuing danger posed by nuclear weapons.

Early Efforts

Scientists, including Einstein, had been active on nuclear policy even before World War II.2 In August 1939, Einstein famously signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt warning “that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium…and it is conceivable…that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may…be constructed.”3 During the war, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who had presided over the shaping of our modern understanding of the atom, managed to meet with Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, urging them to talk to the Soviet Union, a wartime ally, about the secret bomb program in the hope of preempting a postwar nuclear arms race. For his troubles, Bohr raised Churchill’s ire, with Churchill suggesting, “It seems to me Bohr ought to be confined or at any rate made to see that he is very near the edge of mortal crimes.”4

In the spring of 1945, led by James Franck, a group of scientists at the University of Chicago working on the atomic bomb program, made the same argument in the “Franck Report” and urged that the United States not use nuclear weapons on Japan or at least not do so without first consulting with its allies, including the Soviet Union. The report begins,

The scientists on this project do not presume to speak authoritatively on problems of national and international policy. However, we found ourselves, by the force of events, the last five years in the position of a small group of citizens cognizant of a grave danger for the safety of this country as well as for the future of all the other nations, of which the rest of mankind is unaware. We therefore felt it our duty to urge that the political problems, arising from the mastering of atomic power, be recognized in all their gravity, and that appropriate steps be taken for their study and the preparation of necessary decisions.5

The physicists’ wartime efforts to impact U.S. nuclear policy were cloaked by secrecy, and all failed. After Hiroshima, however, the secret was out, and some scientists from the Manhattan Project that had built the atomic bomb rushed to inform the public of the terrible new weapons they had helped create and of their ideas for international control. It was an uphill battle. Polling in the days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima found that more than 80 percent of Americans approved of dropping an atomic bomb on Japan and almost as many welcomed the development of the bomb.6

Public education by the scientists, the pioneering journalism by John Hersey about Hiroshima, and the work of countless activist groups did get traction. When the public was listening, activist scientists began to have some successes in Congress.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of scientists, led by Linus Pauling, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, provided technical support to the public’s desire to end atmospheric nuclear testing and its associated global radioactive fallout.7 This effort helped enable the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear testing everywhere but underground, and Pauling was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.

Linus Pauling outside the White House, Washington DC, protesting against nuclear weapons testing, April 28, 1962. (Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives.)A decade later, with the public aroused by the Army’s proposal to put nuclear-armed interceptors for Soviet ballistic missiles in the suburbs, Congress listened to the arguments of scientist critics that the defenses being proposed could easily be blinded and overwhelmed by the Soviets. That led to the 1972 Soviet-U.S. treaty limiting anti-ballistic missile defenses and the offense-defense arms race that had already been triggered.8

In the 1980s, scientists led the resistance to President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative program, commonly known as “Star Wars,” with thousands of scientists and engineers signing a pledge not to seek or accept funding to work on this space-based weapons program.9

Scientists actively supported the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s. This included Carl Sagan and others who alerted the world to the risk of possible global atmospheric and climate consequences of large-scale nuclear war, including a years-long “nuclear winter” created by sunlight-blocking soot in the stratosphere from burned cities.10

In the mid-1980s, U.S. and Soviet scientists joined together to demonstrate in-country monitoring of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s unilateral nuclear test moratorium, reviving U.S. congressional interest in and pressure for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was finally realized in 1996.11

With the end of the Cold War, however, many activist scientists set the nuclear weapons issue aside as public concern about the danger from the weapons waned. The focus shifted from U.S. nuclear weapons postures, policies, and budgets to the security of nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Although a few stalwarts of nuclear arms control continued to press for progress, members of Congress who had been engaged and educated by activists and scientists in the nuclear freeze movement were succeeded by members with other concerns. Nuclear weapons policy became primarily the province of entrenched interests: members representing states and districts with nuclear bases, nuclear weapons laboratories and military-industrial corporations, and nuclear strategists and lobbyists.

The Nuclear Challenge Renewed

When the Cold War ended 30 years ago, there was hope among many that nuclear weapons soon might be abolished. That passed, however, and more recent prospects for progress and leadership on disarmament by the United States raised by President Barack Obama in his speeches in Prague and Hiroshima have dimmed. Reductions of the Russian and U.S. arsenals have stalled, and in most of the seven other nuclear-armed countries, stockpiles of operational nuclear weapons are increasing.

Today, the world has about 10,000 operational and reserve nuclear warheads, plus several thousand weapons set aside for dismantlement. On average, they are about 10 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; almost 2,000 of those weapons are on alert, ready to be launched on short notice.12 U.S. policy continues to maintain the option of first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Over the next several decades, nuclear weapons spending by the United States alone is expected to exceed $1.5 trillion.13

Why should today’s physicists have a special responsibility to deliver the message of the urgent need to challenge the continuing dangers from nuclear weapons? We did not invent the atomic bomb, and outside the three large multibillion-dollar-per-year U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, few U.S. physicists have much to do with nuclear weapons. At its most fundamental level, the catastrophic potential of thousands of nuclear warheads can be understood by anyone. Contending with these dangers involves a mixture of technical, policy, geopolitical, and ethical considerations that is not taught in physics or any other discipline but must be learned on the job by activists and government officials alike.

Through our knowledge of physics and reading and discussion, some physicists have become more expert in some aspects of nuclear weapons issues than most of our fellow citizens, but many of them understand the human and ethical aspects as well or better than we do. Whether justified or not, the voice of physicists on this problem seems to carry special weight. We have learned this as members of our local peace group, where we are invited along as their “experts” when they have constituent meetings on nuclear weapons policy with members of Congress or their staffers.

All physicists are aware in principle of the tremendous explosive potential of nuclear processes. Yet, like the general public after the Cold War, most do not view nuclear weapons as a high-priority issue. This seems especially true of younger physicists who did not experience the recklessness, near misses, and political struggles of the Cold War. We believe there is a latent interest in the topic, however, because of the history of leading physicists’ engagement as citizen-scientists during the second half of the 20th century.

The Physicists Coalition began work in September 2020. It is sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS), a national scientific society with 55,000 physicists as members, and is partly supported by an APS Innovation Fund award. The coalition is currently partnering with the APS Office of Government Affairs, which coordinates APS-backed advocacy campaigns. Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security hosts the coalition. Our goal is to develop a new national network of citizen-physicists as a strong voice for nuclear threat reduction.

During our first year, the coalition has been built through a grassroots process of outreach to the physics community. The coalition has a team of 12 arms control experts who have given virtual colloquiums on the dangers of nuclear weapons at 60 university physics departments and one Department of Energy national science laboratory. The universities mostly are in districts and states whose U.S. representatives or senators serve on their respective armed services committees and so have responsibility for nuclear weapons budget issues. We hope to expand to other relevant committees and to all 50 states.

The presentations vary, but all provide an overview of the danger posed by nuclear arsenals around the globe, on the threatened state of the nuclear arms control and nonproliferation regimes, and on possible immediate steps to reduce the threat. The colloquiums are followed by a meeting offering more in-depth discussion for those interested in learning about or joining the coalition.

Thus far, there has been little to no pushback to our core message that the nuclear status quo poses an existential, unacceptable danger. In fact, the colloquiums often lead to extended discussions on policy and technical aspects with strong expressions of support for threat reduction measures. Our site visits, plus a few webinars to which the larger membership of the APS Forum on Physics and Society has been invited, have resulted in a current coalition membership of more than 400 spread across the United States. Although initially focused on recruiting physicists, the coalition welcomes all interested physical scientists, including those in engineering science.

The coalition is making a special effort to recruit and support physicists who are women, people of color, or otherwise underrepresented in nuclear weapons policy debates. To this end, we have initiated a one-year Next-Generation Fellowship targeting early-career scientists and underrepresented groups. The first four fellows are working with more senior mentors to learn nuclear policy through practice and to train in policy communication and advocacy.

Those who join the coalition do so to learn more about nuclear weapons issues and to be active advocates. In the fall of 2020, as one small part of a larger mobilization by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), coalition members advocated for congressional support of the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and for striking $10 million in funding in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act designated for preparations for renewed U.S. nuclear weapons testing. The membership (about 250 at the time) generated about 400 separate contacts with Congress via emails, phone calls, and virtual meetings with staff. Both legislative goals were achieved.

Currently, the coalition is preparing to argue for the United States to adopt a more restrictive nuclear policy, either no first use of nuclear weapons or that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by other countries. There is renewed hope this effort can be successful given the past support expressed by President Joe Biden for such a declaration by the United States. Other near-term advocacy goals are under discussion. Coalition members have also been developing expert policy papers on adopting a no-first-use policy, ending the U.S. policy of having a launch-on-warning option, and retiring rather than replacing U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles.14

Ultimately, the elimination of the nuclear threat will require much more than a coalition of physicists and will involve more fundamental policy shifts. We are reaching out to see whether other scientific communities in the United States are interested in making common cause. As Einstein and the Emergency Committee understood, succeeding at nuclear threat reduction will require an informed public consistently engaged with nuclear weapons policy. We therefore are beginning to collaborate with citizen groups and NGOs working on the shared goal of educating the public and Congress on steps toward removing the nuclear shadow over
our future.

Public support for this goal, albeit mostly passive, already exists. A 2020 survey found that two-thirds of Americans, including majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans, agreed that no country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons.15 As a result of advocacy by the Back From the Brink campaign and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, 53 U.S. cities and towns and four state legislatures (California, Maine, New Jersey, and Oregon), many organizations, and some civil leaders, including in Congress, have expressed support for specific steps to reduce nuclear threats and for nuclear disarmament.16

Finally, because the nuclear problem is global, its solution requires an international effort. The coalition is beginning to explore with communities of physicists in other countries their interest in educating their own governments. There is already interest from members of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a movement that emerged from the Bertrand Russell-Albert Einstein Manifesto of 1955 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.17

The engagement of activist-physicists with their national nuclear politics is especially important now in the nine countries that have nuclear weapons, the five countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) that host U.S. nuclear weapons, and the more than 25 additional countries that the United States has promised to use its nuclear weapons to defend if they come under attack. In some of these countries, the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans the use and the threat of use of such weapons, has already gained broad public support.18 The treaty entered into force in January 2021 and has 86 state signatories so far. There may be new allies here for the scientists of today who carry on with the crucial task set out by Einstein’s Emergency Committee so many years ago.



1. The group included Albert Einstein, Robert F. Bacher, Hans A. Bethe, Edward U. Condon, Selig Hecht, Thorfin R. Hogness, Philip M. Morse, Linus Pauling, Leo Szilard, Harold C. Urey, and V.F. Weisskopf. The Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists records are part of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers at the libraries and publishing arm of Oregon State University. For some of the records, see “Dear Professor Einstein: The Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in Post-War America,” Oregon State University, n.d., http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/ecas (accessed April 12, 2021).

2. Zia Mian, “Out of the Nuclear Shadow: Scientists and the Struggle Against the Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 71, No. 1 (2015), pp. 59–69; Zia Mian, “Scientists and the Struggle Against Nuclear Weapons Today: What Would Szilard Do?” Physics and Society, Vol. 48, No. 4 (October 2019): 2–9.

3. Letter from Albert Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt, August 2, 1939, http://www.fdrlibraryvirtualtour.org/graphics/07-27/7-27-FDR-24a.pdf.

4. Martin J. Sherwin, “Niels Bohr: Spurned Prophet of Arms Control,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 42, No. 9 (1986), pp. 41–45.

5. Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America, 1945–47 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1965), ch. 1, 15.

6. Craig Kafura, “Americans Want a Nuclear-Free World,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, August 6, 2020, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/commentary-and-analysis/blogs/americans-want-nuclear-free-world.

7. Linus Pauling, Nobel Peace Prize lecture, December 11, 1963, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1962/pauling/lecture/.

8. Joel Primack and Frank von Hippel, Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (New York: Basic Books, 1974), ch. 13.

9. Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright, “Saying No to Star Wars: The National SDI Boycott,” Physics and Society, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 1986); Fred Hiatt, “6,500 College Scientists Take Anti-SDI Pledge,” The Washington Post, May 14, 1986.

10. Richard P. Turco et al., “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions,” Science, Vol. 222, No. 4630 (December 3, 1983), pp. 1283–1292.

11. Thomas Cochran, “The NRDC/Soviet Academy of Sciences Joint Nuclear Test Ban Verification Project,” Physics and Society, Vol. 16, No. 3 (July 1987): 5–8.

12. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of Atomic Scientists, March 2021, https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces.

13. Kingston Reif and Alicia Sanders-Zakre, “U.S. Nuclear Excess: Understanding the Costs, Risks, and Alternatives,” Arms Control Association, April 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/Reports/Report_NuclearExcess2019_update0410.pdf.

14. Stewart Prager, “A No-First-Use Policy,” Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, December 1, 2020, https://www.aps.org/policy/nuclear/upload/A-No-First-Use-Policy-Stewart-Prager-1-December-2020.pdf; Frank von Hippel, “Eliminate the Launch-on-Warning Option for U.S. Ballistic Missiles,” Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, November 15, 2020, https://www.aps.org/policy/nuclear/upload/Ending-launch-on-warning.pdf; Frank von Hippel, “Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles Need Not and Should Not Be Replaced Because of the Danger of Their Launch-on-Warning Posture,” Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, November 14, 2020, https://www.aps.org/policy/nuclear/upload/Future-of-US-ICBMs.pdf. See also Frank N. von Hippel, “The United States Would Be More Secure Without New Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 11, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/02/the-united-states-would-be-more-secure-without-new-intercontinental-ballistic-missiles.

15. Kafura, “Americans Want a Nuclear-Free World.”

16. Back From the Brink, “Who’s on Board,” n.d., https://preventnuclearwar.org/whos-on-board/ (accessed April 12, 2021); International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “ICAN Cities Appeal,” n.d., https://cities.icanw.org/ (accessed April 12, 2021).

17. Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, n.d., https://pugwash.org (accessed April 12, 2021).

18. Kate Hudson, “New Poll Shows Mass Backing for TPNW,” Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, January 22, 2021, https://cnduk.org/new-poll-shows-mass-backing-for-tpnw; Daniel Hogsta, “Polling on the TPNW,” ICAN, December 11, 2019, https://pledge.icanw.org/polling_on_the_tpnw; ICAN, “Populations in 6 NATO States Overwhelmingly Support the TPNW,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/nato_poll_2021; ICAN, “Poll: 74% of Canadians Support Joining the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/poll_74_of_canadians_support_joining_the_un_treaty_on_the_prohibition_of_nuclear_weapons.

Zia Mian, Stewart Prager, and Frank N. von Hippel are members of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and are co-founders of the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, which is hosted by the program.

Decades ago, Albert Einstein & other scientists led the way in warning about the nuclear threat. Can a new generation of scientists rally the public against a growing investment in ever more lethal weapons?

Iran, U.S. Take Steps Toward Restoring Nuclear Deal

May 2021
By Julia Masterson

World powers were back in Vienna the week of April 27, trying to accelerate their efforts to bring the United States and Iran into compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Representatives of the European Union, Iran and others attend the Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel on April 15 in Vienna, Austria. Representatives from the United States, Iran, the European Union, Russia, China and other participants from the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are meeting directly and indirectly over possibly reviving the plan.  (Photo: EU Delegation in Vienna via Getty Images)Iran, the five other members of the deal, and the United States have spent most of April in the Austrian capital discussing ways to restore the accord. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed on April 20 that work is underway on a document outlining steps that Iran and the United States must take to return to compliance. Negotiators aim to have a concrete proposal by mid-May, Reuters reported.

U.S. and Iranian delegates did not meet face to face, but substantial progress was made through indirect negotiations mediated by the other members of the agreement—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Delegations from the intermediary countries first gathered with Iran on April 2 to discuss restoring the deal, with Enrique Mora, European external action deputy secretary-general, chairing those discussions. The participating states established formal working groups to address the two primary issues impeding restoration of the accord: the sanctions against Iran that the United States must lift to reenter the deal and the nuclear limits to which Iran must revert in order to meet its own obligations under the agreement.

States met for plenary sessions to deliberate the two working groups’ findings on April 9, April 15, April 17, April 20, and April 27.

After their April 20 session, Mora released a statement remarking that “participants took stock of progress made in the ongoing discussions in Vienna regarding specific measures needed in terms of sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation.” He said that given the progress made, participants would establish a third working group to consider how the United States and Iran could sequence mutual steps toward compliance with the agreement. The negotiating parties agreed to resume discussions in Vienna the week of April 27.

Overall, the participating states appear optimistic, despite the complicated nature of indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States. According to U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, the talks have remained “positive” and “businesslike.” He said the discussions “have not been without difficulty, in part because these talks are indirect,” but that still “there has been some progress.”

U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to reenter the deal after President Donald Trump unilaterally abrogated the accord in May 2018 and reimposed stringent sanctions that had been lifted under the agreement.

Price announced on April 7 that the Biden administration is “prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.” But he added, “I am not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be.”

An impasse exists, given that Washington and Tehran appear to have different interpretations of what specific sanctions the United States must lift to return to the deal. The United States appears hesitant to sweep away all sanctions reimposed since 2018, which Iran has demanded as a condition for face-to-face discussions.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, told The Wall Street Journal on April 15, “Our position is quite clear…. As far as we are concerned every sanction imposed or reimposed or relabeled by the Trump administration are JCPOA-related and should be lifted.” But he hinted during the interview that Tehran may be open to compromise, saying, “Of course, there are different ways to see that, and that’s why we negotiate.”

Araghchi outlined one potential path forward on April 16, when he noted in a separate interview that the United States could explicitly name the sanctions it could lift and, in return, Iran could list the nuclear steps it would take to return to compliance with the deal. In his view, this approach could achieve an “agreement on this that can be implemented quicker.” It is not clear whether negotiators adopted this approach in Vienna or what the details are of the drafting process already underway.

Expressing support for the compliance-for-compliance approach to restoring the deal, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on April 18 that “the United States is not going to lift sanctions unless we have clarity and confidence that Iran will fully return to compliance with its obligations under the deal.” He described the indirect talks in Vienna as “constructive.”

Apart from sanctions, irreversible advances in Iran’s nuclear program further complicate restoring the JCPOA. That is because although Iran could return to the enrichment-level and stockpile limits required by the deal, critical knowledge gained by advancing enrichment and operating sophisticated centrifuges in violation of the accord cannot be unlearned.

After the United States abrogated the agreement, Iran in May 2019 began gradually violating its commitments. In November of that year, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on the research and development of advanced centrifuges. Since then, Iran has introduced new centrifuges not covered by the nuclear deal and is operating advanced machines in violation of the accord’s limits.

Also, the Iranian Parliament passed a law in December 2020 calling on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to take a series of escalatory steps in violation of the accord, some of which may result in irreversible knowledge gain, including the production of uranium metal, which Iran is prohibited from producing for 15 years under the JCPOA. Iran began producing uranium metal in February. (See ACT, March 2021.)

The situation was made more complicated by an April 11 sabotage attack against Iran’s Natanz nuclear site widely believed to be Israeli in origin. In response, Iran announced it would further boost its enrichment levels of uranium-235 to 60 percent purity, which is closer to bomb-grade quality. Araghchi broadcast the move in Vienna and said that, in addition to replacing the centrifuges damaged in the sabotage attack, Iran would install 1,000 additional machines at Natanz that would be used to produce higher-enriched uranium.

Iran confirmed it began enriching to 60 percent U-235 purity on April 16 under International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring.

Although the attack on Natanz and Iran’s retaliatory measures did not derail productive dialogue, France, Germany, and the UK issued a statement on April 14 condemning Iran and noting that “this is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon.” They added, “Iran has no credible civilian need for enrichment at this level.”

A European official told Reuters on April 16 that Iran’s decision to boost its enrichment “is not making the negotiation easier” but that informal talks between the JCPOA participants and the United States would continue in Vienna as planned.

For now, all states participating directly or indirectly in the negotiations in Vienna appear committed to moving forward. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reinforced this view April 21 when he said the United States is “seemingly serious at this stage” and that, for Iran, it would take only a short time to verify sanctions removal and revert back to compliance.

Progress reportedly continues despite efforts by opponents, especially in Iran and Israel, to blow up the discussions.

States Censure Syria for Chemical Weapons Violations

May 2021
By Leanne Quinn and Julia Masterson

Member states of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog have voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in an effort to hold that country accountable for repeated chemical weapons use.

Delegates participate at the 25th Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention in April 2021. (Photo: OPCW)The decision, adopted April 21 by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), marked a historic step toward restoring the global norm against chemical weapons. It was the first time the organization had suspended a member’s rights since the OPCW’s inception in 1997.

Led by France and supported by 46 member states, the move means that Syria's rights to vote, stand for election, and hold any office within the organization have been suspended. The measure, which required a two-thirds’ majority to pass, was adopted on a 87–15 vote at the second session of the 25th conference of the CWC in The Hague. Syria, China, and Russia, a major ally of the Syrian government, were among the nations opposed. There were 34 abstentions. Negotiations on a consensus proposal failed.

The decision came as no surprise. On April 12, the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) released its report concluding that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that on Feb. 4, 2018, a Syrian Air Force helicopter hit eastern Saraqib by dropping at least one cylinder that disbursed toxic chlorine gas over a large area.

The IIT’s first report, issued in 2020, found the Syrian Air Force responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on Syrian territory in March 2017, using sarin, a volatile nerve agent, and chlorine. The IIT was established in June 2018 with a mandate to identify the perpetrators of all instances of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Following that first report, the organization’s 41-member Executive Council condemned Syria for its documented and repeated use of chemical weapons. The council gave Syria 90 days to declare all of its chemical weapons and related facilities, as well as to resolve 19 outstanding issues regarding its facilities and stockpile declaration to the OPCW.

The council recommended that the conference take action pursuant to CWC Article 12, which provides that the conference may “restrict or suspend the State Party’s rights and privileges...until it undertakes the necessary action to conform with its obligations,” at its next meeting if Syria failed to meet the deadline. In October, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias confirmed that Syria had not made progress toward meeting any of the mandates, setting the stage for this month’s action.

Joanna Roper, the UK ambassador to the organization, said the decision was “a measured response” to uphold the CWC provisions and the integrity of the oversight organization. Rania Alrifaiy, Syria’s delegate, urged member states to “reject the fabricated allegations” and vote against the draft to prevent the OPCW from being converted into a political tool.

Arias said, “[T]he conference of the states-parties reaffirmed that the use of chemical weapons is the most serious breach of the convention there can be, as people’s lives are taken or destroyed.” He added, “By deciding to address the possession and use of chemical weapons by a state-party, the conference has reiterated the international community’s ethical commitment to uphold the norm against these weapons.”

Many of the countries voting against the measure expressed concern about the perceived politicization of the OPCW and the legitimacy of the IIT. Some states also took issue with the motivation behind the decision and the voting procedures.

Russia, in particular, complained that the organization and its investigators exceeded their mandate. Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s representative to the UN, alleged that the OPCW was being used as a political tool. “Our Western colleagues...attempt to mobilize public opinion against Syrian authorities with a sole purpose, and it is not about upholding the nonproliferation regime. It is all about regime change.” But other countries defended the impartiality and integrity of the organization’s technical experts.

The latest report considered various hypotheses as to how the incident occurred, including Syria’s claim that it was staged by terrorist groups. The investigation found those leads were “not supported by any concrete evidence” and appeared to be based on conclusions that involved materials the Syrian government did not share with the IIT, despite requests for access.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned the report and “categorically denies its use of poison gas in the town of Saraqib or any other Syrian town or village.”

During the April conference, 58 member states also issued a joint statement that “condemn[ed] in the strongest possible terms the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon in the Russian Federation against Alexei Navalny,” the Russian political dissident who was attacked in August 2020 on a domestic airplane flight in Russia. They reaffirmed that “any poisoning of an individual with a nerve agent is considered use of a chemical weapon” and that “the use of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances is unacceptable and contravenes international standards and norms against such use.”

The OPCW collected biomedical samples from Navalny in September and determined he had been exposed to a toxic chemical of the Novichok family.

Novichok is a form of nerve agent, and certain Novichok agents are included on the CWC Schedule 1 annex on chemicals, which demarcates those chemicals as banned under the treaty. The agent that sickened Navalny is not included on that list, but the use of any chemical as a weapon is expressly prohibited by the CWC.

The 58 states committed to stay engaged with the issue until the OPCW investigation into Navalny’s poisoning is resolved. “It is our firm conviction that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable,” the members concluded. The OPCW Executive Council is due to meet July 6–9, when Navalny’s poisoning will again be discussed.

For the first time, member states of the world's chemical weapons watchdog have suspended a state's rights under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

U.S. Military Debates Ground-Launched Missiles

May 2021
By Kingston Reif

As the Defense Department continues to develop conventional missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an internal debate within the department about the rationale for the missiles and uncertainty about where they might be based has spilled out into the open.

Air Force Gen. Timothy M. Ray, chief of the Air Force Global Strike Command, is among those questioning the wisdom of plans to develop a suite of conventional ground-launched missiles once banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. He is shown speaking to students at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. last November. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)“I genuinely struggle with the credibility” of the Army’s plan to develop the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, Air Force Gen. Timothy M. Ray, chief of the Global Strike Command, said April 1 on an Air Force Association podcast. “I just think it’s a stupid idea to go invest that kind of money to re-create something that [the Air Force] has mastered,” he said.

The Army is developing a suite of ground-launched missiles with a range exceeding the 500-kilometer limit prohibited by the INF Treaty, including the Precision Strike Missile, a midrange missile capability, and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon. (See ACT, October 2020.) The Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon is slated to have a range of several thousand kilometers, according to Army officials. The projected total cost of the weapon is unknown. Congress provided $861 million for the program in fiscal year 2021.

Several Pentagon officials have made a strong push for the development of longer-range ground-launched missiles to complement the long-range air and sea capabilities already provided by the Air Force and Navy. “A wider base of long-range precision fires…is critically important to stabilize what is becoming a more unstable environment in the western Pacific,” Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9. The Army and Marine Corps are enthusiastic “to embrace some of the capabilities that the Navy and Air Force have already developed,” Davidson added.

But Ray’s criticism of the Army’s plans suggests the Pentagon is not unified on the best way forward for the long-range strike mission. “Why would we entertain a brutally expensive idea, when we don’t, as a department, have the money?” he asked in reference to the projected cost of the Army’s long-range missile efforts.

Ray also raised questions about the ability of the Army to find basing options for the weapons. The Army, he said, is trying to “skate right past that brutal reality to check that some of those countries are never going to let you put…stuff like that in their theater…. Just go ask your allies.”

Whether the Pentagon could base the missiles in Europe and East Asia is unclear. Despite their concerns about Russia and China, U.S. allies have not appeared eager to host the missiles. Stacie Pettyjohn, the director of the defense program at the Center for American Security, raised concerns about rushing to develop a military capability without knowing where it might be based. “Building a missile [without] base access is risky [because] its location dictates range requirements,” she said in a March 30 tweet. “Unlike aircraft a missile’s range cannot be extended by in-flight refueling.”

Some Army officials have acknowledged the diplomatic challenge associated with basing. “It may be that none of our allies and partners in the Pacific want long-range fires” on their soil, Col. Jason Charland, a senior Army strategist at the Pentagon, told Breaking Defense on March 26. Meanwhile, Davidson noted that there needs to be “policy interaction” with allies in order to field the missiles on their territory.

Regarding the potential deployment of ground-launched missiles in Europe, Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of the U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 13 that NATO allies are “becoming more comfortable” with that prospect. But he did not provide further information about the status of formal discussions between the United States and NATO on basing.

It remains to be seen how much emphasis the Biden administration will place on continuing to develop longer-range ground-launched missiles. An initial version of the administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request published on April 9 stated that the intention is to invest “in the development and testing of hypersonic strike capabilities while enhancing existing long-range strike capabilities to bolster deterrence and improve survivability and response timelines.”

Meanwhile, Russia continues to denounce U.S. efforts to develop ground-launched missiles and warned of the potential fallout should the United States move ahead with deployment of the weapons. “We want to point out again that the deployment of American land-based intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, regardless of what they carry, in various parts of the world, including in the Asia-Pacific Region, would have an immensely destabilizing effect in terms of international and regional security,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on March 12.

Zakharova also reiterated Moscow’s proposal for a moratorium on the deployment of missiles previously banned under the INF Treaty and some associated mutual verification measures. The Trump administration had dismissed that proposal.

A general is asking: Can the United States afford these new weapons and will allies agree to let them be based overseas?

U.S. Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Fails Test

May 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

A long-anticipated, first booster flight test of the Air Force’s air-launched hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, known as the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), failed on April 5.

U.S. Air Force crews secure the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) under the wing of a B-52H bomber at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 2020. The first booster flight test of the ARRW, an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, failed when it took place in April. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The test vehicle was meant to launch from a B-52 bomber, but “the test missile was not able to complete its launch sequence,” and the bomber returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California, according to an Air Force statement.

The test followed seven captive-carry flight tests, in which the aircraft carries the vehicle but does not release it, during 2019 and 2020. The April test, which was delayed from a scheduled December 2020 date, was intended to assess booster performance and simulate the separation of the booster from the boost-glide vehicle.

“The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward,” said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the program executive officer for weapons and director of the armament directorate at the Air Force Materiel Command, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. “While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test.”

The Air Force plans to achieve an initial operating capability for the program in fiscal year 2022. Congress appropriated $387 million for it for fiscal year 2021.

The program is one of several prototype hypersonic boost-glide vehicle development programs underway at the Pentagon. The Army and the Navy have teamed up on the development of a common hypersonic glide-body vehicle, which conducted a successful flight-test experiment in March 2020. (See ACT, April 2020.) The Army plans to use the vehicle on mobile ground platforms in its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program, while the Navy aims to pair it with a submarine-launched booster system for its Conventional Prompt Strike program.

Congress in fiscal year 2021 appropriated $861 million for the Long-Range Hypersonic Program and $768 million for the Conventional Prompt Strike program.

Hypersonic weapons travel at least five times the speed of sound. Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles are distinguished from traditional ballistic missiles by their ability to maneuver and fly at lower altitudes.

The ARRW test followed the release of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on March 22 that called for the Pentagon to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the 78 or more U.S. government organizations involved in hypersonic weapons development.

The GAO identified 70 efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and related technologies across the Defense Department in collaboration with the Energy Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, at a projected price tag of about $15 billion from fiscal years 2015 through 2024. “Without clear leadership roles, responsibilities, and authorities,” says the GAO report, the Defense Department “is at risk of impeding its progress toward delivering hypersonic weapon capabilities and opening up the potential for conflict and wasted resources as decisions over larger investments are made in the future.”

The report added that defense officials describe “their development approach as acknowledging and accepting technology risk early in the program in order to achieve an operational hypersonic capability sooner, in line with [Defense Department] modernization priorities and in accordance with senior leaders’ guidance.”

Pentagon officials have given varying rationales for rushing forward with development. One involves keeping pace with China and Russia as they build similar weapons. Others include augmenting U.S. conventional war-fighting capabilities to defeat the air and missile defenses of advancing adversaries and to destroy time-sensitive targets.

Some experts have warned that new hypersonic weapons could increase the risk of rapid escalation in a conflict or crisis. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

The GAO report also highlighted sharp cost increases in two hypersonic weapons programs in particular, the ARRW and Conventional Prompt Strike programs, and the “ambitious” and “difficult to achieve” flight-test schedules for U.S. hypersonic weapons programs.

“Current plans call for as many as 40 flight tests over the next 5 years,” says the report, and the Defense Department relies on one long-range flight-test corridor that cannot handle such a busy schedule.

“If programs are unable to conduct as many flight tests as they planned, they will be forced to either proceed to an operational capability with fewer tests (and thus less knowledge), or to accept the delay, with schedule and cost consequences,” according to the report.

The test vehicle was unable to complete its launch from a B-52 bomber, a setback as the Air Force hastens to make the weapon operational in fiscal year 2022.


Navy Presses Ahead With Unmanned Vessels

May 2021
By Michael T. Klare

Despite suffering a severe setback in last year’s budget allocations, the Navy is pressing ahead with plans to increase its reliance on unmanned ships, planes, and submarines.

Despite congressional skepticism and budget cutbacks, the Navy is moving forward with plans to build more ships like the Sea Hunter, an entirely new class of unmanned sea surface vehicles. (Photo: U.S. Navy)When concluding work on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and military appropriations bill for fiscal year 2021, Congress voted to scrub $370 million from the $464 million requested by the Pentagon for the procurement of unmanned surface vessels and demanded more testing before approving any additional funds for the program.

Nevertheless, the Navy has proceeded with two initiatives intended to speed the development and deployment of unmanned systems. In March, it published a blueprint for future work in this area, titled “Unmanned Campaign Framework.” In April, it conducted its first major combat exercise incorporating such systems alongside more traditional manned vessels.

In addition to operational and other issues, there are language problems with the program. By using the term “unmanned” to refer to ships and planes devoid of humans, the Navy is perpetuating a stereotype of weapons platforms “manned” entirely by male sailors and fliers. The practice has generated criticism from analysts who argue for the use of a more gender-neutral term, such as “uncrewed” or “uninhabited” vehicles. At the same time, unmanned suggests a lack of human control over lethal systems, which is a problem in its own right because there is limited or non-existent human control and many experts and ethicists are deeply concerned about empowering machines to make life-and-death decisions.

For Pentagon officials, the deployment of ever-growing numbers of uncrewed ships and planes is considered imperative if the Navy is to confront two well-armed adversaries, China and Russia, simultaneously. Under the national defense strategy issued February 2018, the Navy, like all the armed services, is expected to accord its highest priority to preparations for all-out, high-intensity combat with those two countries. This is an especially daunting obligation for the Navy because it is expected to bear the brunt of any conflict with China, given the paucity of land features in the Pacific Ocean from which to conduct air and ground operations against Chinese forces. Further complicating the Navy’s task, China has been modernizing and expanding its own navy and has deployed hundreds of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles for possible attacks on U.S. warships and their Pacific support bases.

If money were not a problem, the Pentagon would prefer to address these challenges by building additional crewed warships, such as carriers, cruisers, and destroyers. But big ships of this sort with large human crews are extremely costly. With defense spending expected to remain flat in the future and the Army and Air Force also seeking funds for additional weaponry, the procurement of so many crewed ships is simply not in the cards, hence, the Navy’s rush to develop less costly uncrewed vessels that can be procured in relatively large numbers. As suggested in October 2020 by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the acquisition of numerous uncrewed warships “will add significant offensive and defensive capabilities to the fleet at an affordable cost in terms of both sailors and dollars.”

To jump-start this effort, the Pentagon requested $580 million in its fiscal year 2021 budget submission for unmanned vessels, including $239 million for two prototype Large Unmanned Surface Vessels, $215 million for development work on Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels, and $116 million for development of Extra-Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. The request also envisioned total spending of $4.2 billion on these programs over fiscal years 2021–2025, allowing for the procurement of three prototype and seven deployable large unmanned vessels, one prototype medium-sized unmanned vessel, and six deployable extra-large unmanned vessels. (See ACT, November 2020.)

But Congress put a hold on this plan, denying funds for acquisition of the medium-sized and large unmanned vessels until the Navy could demonstrate that all their component systems had been tested and shown to work as intended. Some members of Congress are deeply skeptical this goal can be met in the near term. Moreover, reflecting concern about the lack of human officers to oversee the operations of unmanned ships when engaged in combat, the 2021 NDAA mandates that no lethal weapons system be installed on such a vessel until the defense secretary can certify that the system “will comply with applicable laws, including the law of armed combat.”

Seeking to reassure Congress on these points and secure fresh funding for its unmanned ship program, the Navy is now aiming to proceed in a more deliberative fashion, as evident in its “Unmanned Campaign Framework” report. Described as a “comprehensive strategy for realizing a future where unmanned systems serve as an integral part of the Navy’s warfighting team,” the document is intended to persuade skeptical lawmakers that the Navy will proceed in a step-by-step fashion to develop, test, and evaluate the components of fully autonomous naval vessels before rushing them into active duty. The governing concept, the report asserts, is to perfect the underlying “capabilities”—sensors, processors, guidance systems, and so forth—before rushing into the production of physical platforms. At the same time, proper consideration will be accorded to ethical and legal concerns. “As these unmanned systems become increasingly sophisticated,” it states, “an enduring central tenet of their use will be the continued exercise of appropriate levels of human judgment.” Despite the reassuring words, how this will be accomplished is not explained.

Meanwhile, to demonstrate the validity of its unmanned combat strategy, the Navy conducted its first combat exercise involving unmanned ships and planes, termed Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21, in late April. During the exercise, a Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer, the USS Michael Monsoor, exercised oversight of two experimental medium-sized unmanned surface vessels, Sea Hunter and Sea Hawk, as well as the MQ-8B Fire Scout Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the MQ-9 Sea Guardian UAV, and “swarms” of small drones. According to Adm. Robert Gaucher of the Pacific Fleet, the exercise was designed to simulate a “Pacific warfighting scenario” and included “maneuvering in contested space across all domains, targeting and fires, and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance.”

Some Pentagon officials say deploying rising numbers of uncrewed ships and planes is vital to confronting two well-armed adversaries—Russia and China—at the same time.


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