“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
November 2017
Edition Date: 
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Cover Image: 

The North Korean Missile Crisis

The nuclear danger posed by North Korea is not new. But since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, a bad situation has become far worse. Now, as Trump readies for a trip to East Asia, the crisis enters a critical phase.

This July 28, 2017 picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 29, 2017 shows North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-14 being lauched at an undisclosed place in North Korea. Kim Jong-Un boasted of North Korea's ability to strike any target in the US after a second ICBM test that weapons experts said could even bring New York into range - in a potent challenge to US President Donald Trump. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)The risk of conflict through miscalculation by either side now may be as severe as during the tense days of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Now, as then, miscalculation could lead to war and escalation to the nuclear level. Millions of lives in South and North Korea and Japan are at risk. Each side must refrain from further threats and taunts and open a direct, private, and high-level diplomatic channel of communication.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration said its North Korea policy would involve “maximum pressure and engagement.” Since then, we have seen pressure, reckless rhetoric, and threats, not engagement.

North Korea responded with accelerated ballistic missile testing, including two intercontinental-range tests. That led China, North Korea’s major trading partner, to announced it was halting imports of coal, iron, and lead from North Korea.

On Sept. 3, North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test—a thermonuclear blast having a yield of 150 to 250 kilotons. In response, China and Russia voted for new sanctions at the UN Security Council. China’s central bank has also instructed other Chinese banks to stop providing financial services to North Korea.

In his inaugural address to the United Nations on Sept. 19, Trump worsened the situation. “We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if it threatens U.S. allies in the region, he said. Trump has ordered regular B1-B strategic bomber flights near North Korea, which Pyongyang sees as a prelude to war. He called North Korea’s authoritarian leader, Kim Jong Un, a “rocket man” on “a suicide mission.”

In his clumsy style, Trump appears to be trying to intimidate Kim. But the history of the nuclear age has shown that 
smaller states, even those without nuclear weapons, are not easily intimidated by U.S. nuclear threats. North Korea is 
no exception.

To show Pyongyang’s determination, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned that North Korea might conduct a hydrogen bomb test explosion over the Pacific. Ri claims that the United States has effectively declared war on his country and therefore North Korea reserves the right to shoot down any U.S. aircraft that fly over or near its territory.

In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy worked very hard to carefully coordinate all U.S. government messages and signals toward Moscow so U.S. intentions were clear. He exchanged direct, private messages with his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, to seek a way out of the crisis. Kennedy was careful not to rule out certain compromises that would later prove to be essential to resolving the crisis.

But Trump is no Kennedy. The lack of discipline and coordination shown by the Trump administration greatly increases the risk factor. “I think there’s a 10 percent chance the wheels really come off, and we have a full-on war on the Korean peninsula, which would include nuclear use,” warned former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis on Sept. 28.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, and other U.S. officials have unwisely knocked down Chinese proposals to de-escalate tensions that would involve North Korea halting further nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the United States pausing certain military exercises that North Korea sees as particularly threatening.

If each side can refrain from further threats, it may still be possible for a direct U.S.-North Korean dialogue, without preconditions, that sets a new course toward a negotiated or brokered agreement that addresses the concerns of the international community and the security concerns of North Korea.

A commonsense first step would be an immediate halt to further North Korean nuclear and intermediate- or long-range ballistic missile tests and U.S. military exercises and maneuvers that could be interpreted to be practice runs for an attack.

Given that neither Kim nor Trump has ever been known to publicly back down, however, an outside diplomatic intervention may be in order. The UN secretary-general could convene an emergency, closed-door meeting with senior leaders from the members of the past six-party talks (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) and initiate a serious dialogue designed to lower tensions and address issues of mutual concern. A trusted emissary from a third party, such as the Vatican, could pursue shuttle diplomacy. Alternatively, Trump could authorize a personal representative to meet with a senior representative of Kim to work out a plan to reduce tensions.

As Kennedy said 55 years ago following the Cuban missile crisis, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war.”

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


The nuclear danger posed by North Korea is not new. But as Trump readies for a trip to East Asia, the crisis enters a critical phase.

How Will Trump Change Nuclear Weapons Policy?

November 2017
By Jon Wolfsthal

President Donald Trump has made a number of sometimes contradictory comments related to nuclear weapons during his political campaign and since his election.

This 2013 photo shows members of the 91st Missile Wing’s missile maintenance teams at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. performing maintenance tasks at a launch facility for a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Kristoffer Kaubisch/DVIDSHe said he would be the “last to use” nuclear weapons,1 yet implied first use when he said North Korean threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” should it threaten the United States or its allies.2 As a candidate, he described the U.S. nuclear arsenal as being in “very terrible shape,”3 while on August 9, 2017, after six months in office and no changes to U.S. nuclear forces, he tweeted that the nuclear arsenal “is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

Most recently, Trump denied an NBC News report that he told his national security advisers during a July meeting that he wanted what would amount to a tenfold increase in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons, returning to Cold War levels.4 “I want modernization and I want total rehabilitation” so the current arsenal is “in tip-top shape,”5 he told reporters October 11 at the White House, suggesting he will continue or accelerate the nuclear stockpile management program begun during the previous administration.

All that has created some uncertainty about how U.S. nuclear policies will change with a new administration led by a president who took office without experience in foreign policy or strategic thinking, let alone the complexities of nuclear weapons and deterrence. How his views and the changing strategic environment may alter the direction of U.S. nuclear policy will become clearer when the Department of Defense completes its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), expected late this year or in early 2018.

Posture reviews have been completed by three presidents since 1994 and have proven to be consequential documents. Much of the work and details behind the policies are classified, although it is expected that an unclassified NPR Report will be made public, affecting how the United States, its president, and its nuclear capabilities are seen by allies and adversaries alike. More importantly, the review establishes a guide for decisions that underpin the management, maintenance, and modernization of the nuclear arsenal and influences how Congress views and funds the nuclear forces.

Context Matters

One critical element of past nuclear posture reviews and likely this one as well is context. The first, completed under President Bill Clinton, was needed to define the purpose and possible role of nuclear weapons in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The resulting “lead but hedge” strategy provided a continuing rationale for nuclear weapons and sought to preserve capabilities against a future Russian threat.

The George W. Bush administration was seized with the challenge of addressing proliferation by countries such as North Korea and Iran and focused on the inability of the United States to hold deep underground targets at risk. This led to the pursuit of new nuclear capabilities, such as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, that implied use as a battlefield weapon, not just a deterrent against attack on the United States or its allies. When combined with the global war on terrorism and the reliance on using U.S. military forces for regime change, the Bush administration was seen as much more reliant on nuclear weapons than the actual policy record reflects.

2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report: Key Elements

Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Terrorism

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Report prioritized measures to strengthen nonproliferation efforts and to accelerate the securing of nuclear materials worldwide.
“As a critical element of our effort to move toward a world free of nuclear weapons, the United States will lead expanded international efforts to rebuild and strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation regime—and for the first time, the 2010 NPR places this priority atop the U.S. nuclear agenda,” the report stated.

The Fundamental Role of Nuclear Weapons

The report stated that “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.”

In the case of non-nuclear-weapon states, the Obama administration committed to strengthening negative security assurances. That is, the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against such states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with nuclear nonproliferation obligations, the report said. The United States will only consider the use of nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

The United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. The United States is “not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that the ‘sole purpose’ of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and partners, but will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted,” the report stated.

Strategic Deterrence and Stability

The U.S. nuclear triad will be maintained under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The report states that the treaty does not constrain U.S. missile defenses and allows the United States to pursue conventional global strike systems. All U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles having multiple warheads will be restructured to having a single warhead each to increase stability. The United States will pursue post-New START arms control with Russia that addresses not only strategic weapons, but also nonstrategic and nondeployed nuclear weapons, the report said.

Regional Deterrence and Reassurance of Allies

Nuclear forces will “play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies and partners around the world,” the report said. The United States will retain the capability to forward-deploy U.S. nuclear weapons on tactical fighter-bombers and heavy bombers. The administration is pursuing a comprehensive approach to broaden regional security architectures, including through missile defenses and improved conventional forces, the report said.

No ‘New’ Nuclear Warheads or Explosive Testing

The United States will modernize its nuclear weapons infrastructure and sustain the science, technology, and engineering base. The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities, the report said. The United States will not resume nuclear testing and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

President Barack Obama came into office at a time when the United States was seen internationally as a threat to the global nonproliferation and disarmament regime it had helped over decades to create and support. The previous administration’s false weapons of mass destruction (WMD) justification for the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s pursuit of the earth-penetrating warhead and a series of new “reliable replacement warheads” and that adminstration’s broader pursuit of regime change as a nonproliferation tool had reduced the credibility of the United States as a nonproliferation leader and a responsible nuclear-weapon state. This perception was part of the context for Obama’s NPR. He and his national security team saw restoring U.S. leadership of the global nonproliferation and disarmament effort as critical to addressing two dominant threats: nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

Historians will establish whether this emphasis was well placed, but there is no question about the motivation of the Obama team. The president’s Prague speech in 2009 set the frame that was filled in by the NPR Report, released in 2010.6 The speech sought to balance the U.S. recommitment to eventually achieving the peace and security of a “world without nuclear weapons”—a U.S. goal dating back to the creation of such weapons—with the need to maintain at present a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal for the security of the United States and that of its treaty allies.

Furthermore, it directly recognized that the objectives of nonproliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism need to influence how the United States manages its nuclear arsenal. First and foremost in the minds of decision-makers was the pressing nuclear challenge of Iran, and the U.S. recommitment to disarmament was key to convincing states to apply the pressure on Iran needed to negotiate a nuclear agreement and avert a new war in the Middle East.

The Trump administration is now developing its nuclear policy and must wrestle with new challenges. Because of the president’s statements and unorthodox behavior, the context for this administration is already negative and likely to get worse. Bombastic and inflammatory statements by Trump toward North Korea and his decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, cement a public view that the administration is willing to take greater risks than its predecessors with nuclear weapons and potential nuclear conflicts.

Thus, the Trump NPR is being produced in an environment where the president is seen as less responsible and cautious with nuclear threats than any president since Ronald Reagan in his first term.

Key NPR Questions

Key to any posture review is a set of questions from which answers help to justify a set of programs, either new or carried over from past work. Central to any review are two key and interrelated questions: Why does the United States need nuclear weapons, and under what circumstances would the president consider using them to protect U.S. interests?

The answers have been remarkably similar from president to president, and it is reasonable to anticipate that the Trump NPR will come out in a similar place. As the Obama NPR Report states, “The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.”7 It goes on to state that the “United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

It would be a remarkable break with long-standing U.S. policy were the Trump vision for the possible use of nuclear weapons to diverge from this concept, but the ways in which a president pursues these goals can and has been quite different. The Trump team likely will seek more robust language to bolster the perceived willingness of the United States to use nuclear weapons. The president seems less concerned about how such statements may undermine U.S. nonproliferation policies and global standing and thus likely to put more weight on the need for stronger statements justifying the potential use of nuclear weapons and their continued development and possession.

The review is expected to move away from the Obama administration’s approach in a number of ways but to retain some continuity as well. Although it is impossible at this point to predict the precise tone or language, some issues are expected to emerge.

New Nuclear Weapons

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the National Security Council before a meeting at the Pentagon on July 20. Trump subsequently denied an NBC News report that, during the meeting, he said he wanted to return U.S. nuclear forces to Cold War-era numbers.  (Photo credit: Sgt. Amber Smith/DVIDS)U.S. nuclear weapons were designed in the 1970s and built in the 1980s and 1990s. Almost all are undergoing or will soon undergo what are known as life extension programs (LEPs). Congress has provided funding for these programs, and initial Trump budgets have shown strong support for these as well. Some of these LEPs involve minor updates and refurbishment, and some are complete renovations of existing weapons inside old containers. All result in weapons that are safe and reliable and can be expected to remain so for many decades.

Yet, there are growing concerns among some in the policy and technical communities that the age of U.S. weapons impose an excessive cost and has strategic implications. The worry is that, as these weapons age, Russia or some other adversary may see them as less reliable and that perception will make U.S. defense commitments to allies more difficult to fulfill. If this is the case, producing new weapons would provide a greater deterrent effect vis-á-vis Russia and others and be more reassuring to allies.

There is no evidence to back up this argument, but it also cannot be disproven. Since the United States conducted its last underground nuclear test explosion in 1992, the U.S. national laboratories have certified that their science-based stewardship programs have been able to ensure that U.S. nuclear weapons remain safe, secure, and effective. At the same time, the laboratories responsible for designing and maintaining nuclear weapons have struggled to attract and retain the necessary experts, often competing with Silicon Valley, and have argued that enabling scientists to design new weapons or at least conduct new weapons research would be helpful to maintaining a range of nuclear capacities.

These arguments have been around for a long time, ever since the end of the Cold War. Under Obama, because there was not a need to pursue the development of new weapons to ensure the nuclear deterrent, technical interest in some quarters to design and develop new weapons was not seen as a priority. Unbound by such considerations, as evidenced by Trump’s statements that if there is to be an arms race, let there be an arms race,8 the new NPR may authorize the laboratories to undertake design work on new weapons, possibly even for new missions.

Smaller Nuclear Weapons

For U.S. deterrent and nuclear reassurance statements to be credible, allies and potential adversaries must believe that the United States is prepared to use its nuclear weapons to deny an adversary the objective it seeks or to raise the costs of achieving that objective to the point where it is unappealing.

Some experts and analysts, including some now in the Trump administration, have maintained that because most but not all U.S. nuclear warheads are quite large by nuclear standards—some 10 to 20 times the size of the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they are too large for any threatened use to be credible. Under that argument, an adversary could convince itself that the United States will be self-deterred from using nuclear weapons because of the collateral damage to civilians and the environment.

If that is seen as a problem, the solution proposed by some is U.S. development of smaller, more usable nuclear weapons.9 Options include development of a new tactical nuclear weapon or modifications to existing strategic weapons that would produce a much smaller detonation than they were originally designed to produce. The prospect that Trump would support the development of such weapons is uncertain, but may be included at least as an aspiration in the NPR.

To be clear, there is no evidence from direct engagement with U.S. allies or countries such as Russia or China that proves or even strongly indicates that the size of U.S. nuclear weapons is seen as undermining U.S. deterrence or reassurance commitments. For the most part, this is a debate inside the U.S. nuclear security and military community that worries that a president might be self-deterred from using nuclear weapons for fear of collateral damage or other legal or moral considerations. It remains to be seen if the Trump NPR will seek such weapons, perhaps using such justification. It is not evident that there is a self-deterrent problem with the U.S. nuclear arsenal that requires a nuclear solution along these lines. Moreover, any such move is likely to replay the alarm during the 2000s that the president is eager to have and possibly employ nuclear weapons, a perception that would weaken strategic stability and undermine U.S. nonproliferation efforts.

Nuclear Modernization

All indications are that modernizing U.S. nuclear forces remains the Pentagon’s top priority for the NPR. The United States is in early stages of research and development of replacements for its current nuclear arsenal. Most of the delivery systems—land-based missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and long-range aircraft—are nearing the end of their lifecycles.

Under Obama, it was decided that the United States would pursue replacements for all three legs of the nuclear triad while investing resources to ensure that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its laboratories, which maintain and monitor U.S. nuclear weapons, have what they need to keep U.S. weapons safe, secure, and effective. As these programs took shape, it became clear that the cost associated with a full-scale modernization of all three legs at the same time was a fiscal challenge, and a debate began about how to cover the costs along with the other demands associated with conventional military modernization.

Clearly, the costs associated with the nuclear modernization program are skyrocketing. An original outside estimate that the programs might cost $1 trillion over 30 years now appears to significantly underestimate the costs. The true costs could be 50 to 100 percent higher once all associated cost increases and programs are included. There is no way these programs will be sustainable if buying them means the U.S. military cannot also afford new fighter aircraft, surface ships, and advanced conventional capabilities needed to support broad U.S. defense requirements.

Thus, one issue the NPR needs to address is the intersection of policy requirements and budget resources. It would be the height of irresponsibility for the administration to call for continuing or expanding nuclear programs without explaining how these costs will be covered. Many options to adjust the pace and composition of future nuclear forces exist and need to be evaluated. These include delaying some programs, such as the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent designed to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, while possibly eliminating others. One prime candidate for elimination is the nuclear long-range standoff cruise missile.10 The NPR likely will not end or slow down these programs. In fact, it is possible the NPR will seek to accelerate their development. Yet, it will be critical that the NPR and Defense Department explain the costs of these programs and how they will be funded in a constrained budget environment.

Negative Security Assurances and Sole Purpose

The Obama administration took as a starting point in its review the concept that the United States should continue its tradition of only assigning to nuclear weapons the minimum roles necessary to ensure U.S. security and that of allies. The more that the role of nuclear weapons is reduced, the more credible U.S. strategy becomes and the greater the ability to achieve good security and nonproliferation outcomes.

Second Lt. Chris Davis, 321st Missile Squadron deputy missile combat crew commander, and 1st Lt. Paul Lee, 321st Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, simulate key turns of the Minuteman III weapon system during a Simulated Electronic Launch-Minuteman test inside the launch control center at a missile alert facility in  the 90th Missile Wing's missile complex in Nebraska, April 11, 2017.  (Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano/DVIDS)Past administrations considered nuclear weapons suitable for all manner of security and military threats from terrorism to cyberspace. Obama and his national security team, however, narrowed the scope. To do so, the Obama team put real money, effort, and priority behind enhancing the non-nuclear options for dealing with military requirements. The NPR Report states, “The United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”11

They took the view that to have and retain political and moral leadership in the effort to confront Iran’s nuclear program, it was important to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons to the lowest level consistent with national security requirements. This was not seen as a favor to any other country or constituency, but rather to ensure that the United States was acting consistently with a desire to reduce the risks of nuclear use and to support the global nonproliferation and disarmament system.

These policies focus on two groups of states: those with nuclear weapons and those without nuclear weapons. For those countries with nuclear weapons, the NPR Report stopped short of declaring deterrence as the “sole purpose,” as arms control and disarmament advocates sought.

[T]here remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners. The United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons, but will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.12

Trump has not tipped his hand about when and against whom he might consider using nuclear weapons, although he has threatened North Korea with either a U.S. first-strike or nuclear retaliation if it strikes the United States, its territories (Guam), South Korea, or Japan. He also said during the campaign that he would not rule anything out, including the first use of nuclear weapons in Europe and elsewhere.13

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Energy Secretary Steven Chu hold a news briefing on the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon April 6, 2010.  (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)To be sure, many of these issues are influenced by Russia’s stated willingness to use nuclear weapons to escalate its way out of a failing conventional conflict. Russian defense strategists have discussed scenarios in which Moscow launches early, limited first use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to offset NATO’s conventional weapons superiority and force NATO to back off to avoid the even greater destruction of a full nuclear war.14

U.S. General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in March that “our adversaries started to articulate a doctrine of escalation to deescalate, and we have to account for in our nuclear doctrine what that means…as we look at an adversary that expresses in their rhetoric a willingness to use nuclear weapons.”15 Selva is one of the key officials involved in shaping the NPR.

For states that do not possess nuclear weapons and are in full compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations, the Obama NPR was very clear. There are no military requirements for the United States to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against any state that does not have nuclear weapons, and threats to do so are arguably less than credible. The NPR Report set out parameters for providing negative security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

[T]he United States affirms that any state eligible for the assurance that uses [chemical or biological weapons] against the United States or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response—and that any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders, would be held fully accountable. Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.

In the case of countries not covered by this assurance—states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations—there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.16


Having worked to build and maintain the taboo on nuclear use for 70-plus years, the United States has every reason to seek its maintenance. The NPR Report language in this context will be critical, as will be the underlying policy choices. It remains unclear, however, how the NPR will balance traditional U.S. restraint when it comes to nuclear policies and the president’s own thinking and his strong desire to distinguish himself from Obama’s policies on all issues.

In the end, Trump will have to determine, drawing on input from his cabinet and national security team, any changes in nuclear weapons policy and how to frame those decisions in communicating to audiences at home and abroad. Some issues are ripe for support from both the left and the right in Congress, such as modernizing existing nuclear forces and ensuring the national laboratories have the skills and resources needed to monitor and keep the weapons safe, secure, and reliable.

Others, including pursuit of new nuclear weapons or broadening the conditions under which the president might use nuclear weapons, threatens to make nuclear policy yet another partisan battleground to the detriment of U.S. security policy and nonproliferation aspirations.



1 “Campaign Flashback: Trump’s 2016 Nuclear Weapons Stance,” NBC News, October 6, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/video/campaign-flashback-trump-s-2016-nuclear-weapons-stance-1064516163692.

2 Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Trump Before a Briefing on the Opioid Crisis,” August 8, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/08/remarks-president-trump-briefing-opioid-crisis.

3 David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, “Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World,” The New York Times, July 21, 2016.

4 Peter Baker and Cecilia Kang, “Trump Threatens NBC Over Nuclear Weapons Report,” The New York Times, October 11, 2017.

5 Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada Before Bilateral Meeting,” October 11, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/10/11/remarks-president-trump-and-prime-minister-trudeau-canada-bilateral.

6 Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama in Prague As Delivered,” April 5, 2009, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-barack-obama-prague-delivered.

7 U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf (hereinafter NPR Report).

8 “President-Elect Trump Calls for Nuclear Arms Race, Stunning Experts,” NBC News, December 23, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/president-elect-trump-calls-for-nuclear-arms-race-stunning-experts-840644675837.

9 Bryan Bender, “Trump Review Leans Toward Proposing Mini-Nuke,” Politico, September 9, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/09/trump-reviews-mini-nuke-242513.

10 Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who has described himself as undecided about the long-range standoff weapons system, said a decision “will come out of” the NPR. See Kingston Reif, “Air Force Nuclear Programs Advance,” Arms Control Today, October 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2017-10/news/air-force-nuclear-programs-advance.

11 NPR Report, p. ix.

12 Ibid., p. viii.

13 “Donald Trump Won’t Take Nuclear Weapons Off the Table,” Hardball With Chris Matthews, March 30, 2016, http://www.msnbc.com/hardball/watch/donald-trump-won-t-take-nukes-off-the-table-655471171934.

14 Anya Loukianova Fink, “The Evolving Russian Concept of Strategic Deterrence: Risks and Responses,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2017, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2017-07/features/evolving-russian-concept-strategic-deterrence-risks-responses.

15 Rebecca Kheel, “Pentagon Starts Review of Nuclear Posture Ordered by Trump,” The Hill, April 17, 2017, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/329137-pentagon-official-starts-nuclear-posture-review.

16 NPR Report, p. 16.

Jon Wolfsthal served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council in the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017. He is now senior adviser to Global Zero and director of the Nuclear Crisis Group. He is also a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Policy will become clearer when the Defense Department completes its Nuclear Posture Review by early 2018.

Ballistic Missile Defense: Proceed With Caution

November 2017
By Boris Toucas

The ballistic missile defense review underway by the Trump administration may end years of shifting approaches and decisively strengthen programs that have experienced ups and downs since the 1990s.

A medium-range ballistic missile target is launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, during a test August 29. The target was successfully intercepted by SM-6 missiles fired from the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones.  (Photo credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)Incrementally, missile defenses, despite current technical limitations, haves acquired a genuine operational dimension for military planners and political leaders. Going forward, technological advances and business interests will make increased spending on such programs appealing, accelerating the development of systems designed to counter advanced offensive arsenals. The missile defense revolution may be taking shape slowly, but it is almost inevitable.

The aim is to enhance the overall security of the United States and its allies in a world of increasing ballistic missile threats. Yet, that appealing goal may be jeopardized if the process is driven primarily by technological advances and business interests and without adequate political vision and consideration of the implications for strategic stability. Absent such safeguards, this evolution may lead to increased strategic instability as other countries seek to counter U.S. developments. Alternatively, ensuring meaningful political oversight in the United States and encouraging other countries to join in regulatory efforts would guarantee that the overall security contribution remains positive.

After the end of the Cold War, U.S. missile defense, once a divisive topic, gained bipartisan support.1 Although Iraqi and North Korean missile capabilities spurred the development of new defensive systems, the combination of incremental technological progress and Russia’s momentary loss of diplomatic clout created the necessary political momentum. In 1997 in talks with the United States, Russia agreed under pressure to the deployment of theater missile defenses on the condition that they were not to be used against the other side. Russia expected to preserve the core of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in return, but the United States withdrew from that treaty in 2002 to complete development of a new generation of systems aimed at intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The 1999 National Missile Defense Act called for the United States to deploy “an effective national missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” At that time, the stated level of ambition was modest, emphasizing technical improvements to theater missile defenses over advancing territorial systems.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses ballistic missile defense capabilities with Lt. Cmdr. Brian Gauthier in the combat information center aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry on September 7.  (Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham)Progress was achieved on the theater systems while technical success was more elusive for new systems directed against key strategic threats, such as the emerging long-range missile capabilities of Iran and North Korea. Still, President George W. Bush’s declared goal in 2002 to deploy a homeland missile defense “within two years” did not reflect the actual performance of available technology, such as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. That system, which was fielded with untested prototype kill vehicles that suffered malfunctions, is an illustration of the dissonance between political and technological timelines. As of 2017, the GMD program has cost roughly $40 billion, and the Department of Defense assesses that the reliability and availability of the ground-based interceptor missiles remain low.

The official narrative on missile defense programs is a subtle mix between the call for staying ahead of the threat by attempting to capitalize on continuous technological progress, the permanent need to secure funding, and an acknowledgment of the limited effectiveness of fielded systems. As a result, the U.S. posture may seem to fluctuate greatly over short periods of time, sometimes sowing confusion among allies. In Europe, for example, U.S. missile defense projects were first aimed at protecting the United States against a future Iranian ICBM threat. That shifted to the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy in Europe is formally known, to defend NATO’s European territory against a salvo of Iranian shorter-range missiles. Yet for several European countries, the phased adaptive approach was primarily relevant as a symbol of U.S. political assurances against Russia, an issue unrelated to the ballistic threat it was meant to tackle.2 Although the United States clarified that Russia was not a target, the uncertainty surrounding the final shape of the system fueled a debate about whether it posed a potential threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, a situation that Moscow used as a pretext to justify its own military buildup in Europe.

Tech Breakthrough

Recent developments will add more uncertainty regarding U.S. intentions. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, although enhancing the “stabilizing benefits” of missile defense, calls for the establishment of a “robust layered missile defense system” capable of defending against the “increasingly complex” missile threat. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in February 2017 proposed the development of new types of defenses while other lawmakers urged increasing the number of GMD interceptors and initiating a space-based missile defense program. Analysts argue that the vocabulary used in the authorization act is in line with previous documents, the absence of the term “limited” paves the way for more ambitious objectives.

The new ballistic missile defense review likely will echo this call for more action. Further progress is necessary before ballistic missile defense can be considered a strategic game-changer from the perspective of the defender. Yet, predictions of such technological breakthroughs are credible with certain caveats, suggesting the potential for limited protection against Russian and Chinese missiles.

As the latest North Korean launches of the ICBM-range Hwasong-14 missile demonstrate, the spread of offensive capabilities in third countries will trigger a legitimate debate on the need for more advanced defenses. Approximately 30 countries possess ballistic missiles, and more countries in the Middle East and Asia will acquire them.

In the meantime, progress on specific systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, create the reassuring impression among the public that missile defense may nullify the risk of an attack. It provides a long-awaited political justification for the $123 billion invested by the Missile Defense Agency in the missile defense sector since 2002 and even opens the perspective of a return on investment through exports. In fact, as the perceived threat grows, the United States holds a quasi-monopoly position on a potential $23 billion global market.3 These factors seem to call for a more ambitious missile defense policy that would involve interception capabilities against advanced systems and would seek to offset its costs through a more aggressive export policy.

Such a policy, of course, comes at a price. The creation of a global missile defense network implies agreements with hosts for forward-based sensors and interceptors, which generates new liabilities and commitments toward third states on the periphery of the traditional U.S. areas of influence. It raises the issue of defending new critical assets, especially radars, located on allied territories, which are more vulnerable to preventive destruction. For example, Russia threatened to destroy fixed ballistic missile defense assets assigned to NATO in Poland, Romania, and Turkey. In a crisis, it is not clear that all hosting states would accept responsibility for systems they do not supervise, such as in South Korea, or when the bilateral relationship is tense, as with Turkey. Eventually, such a global network could reduce the U.S. political margin of maneuverability in a conflict instead of improving it.

The economic factor also may drive missile defense programs in a direction inconsistent with U.S. long-term strategic interests. First, the export-driven approach, which favors off-the-shelf acquisitions, has a mixed impact on the resilience of U.S. allies. For limited defense budgets, the acquisition of costly missile defense systems may come at the expense of more cost-efficient reforms in other sectors and put an end to the development of indigenous capabilities, as has been the case in Europe. It also will diffuse sensitive technologies among a much broader range of business partners while prompting adversaries of these countries to invest even more in offensive capabilities so as to overwhelm their defenses. As a result, the missile threat could grow rather than diminish, but proponents argue that more effective and numerous defensive systems could compensate for this.

Impact on Stability

In the longer run, a policy to develop interception capabilities against advanced systems could have an impact on strategic stability and crisis stability. Concerns expressed by China and Russia that U.S. missile defenses already undermine strategic stability are far-fetched. Their views are mostly unrelated to current deployment but nurtured by an insecure view of the future, including extreme interpretation of projections that in 2030 the United States could possess 350 to 550 missiles4 on Aegis ships with enhanced detection and interception capacities.

The U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) station Aegis Ashore Romania, part of what the United States calls the European Phased Adaptive Approach for BMD, at the military base in Deveselu, Romania is shown in a May 12, 2016 photograph. Aegis Ashore is a land-based capability of the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system.  (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)In theory, missile defenses coupled with continued investment in conventional long-range, precision-strike capabilities could help disable significant portions of an adversary’s arsenal during a first strike while complicating retaliation, with the consequence of increasing the risk of escalation to early use of nuclear weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s 2008 statement that “it is most likely that in the foreseeable future we will hear of hundreds and even thousands of interceptor missiles in various parts of the world, including Europe,”5 indicates that such concerns, although exaggerated, are real. This is a reminder that, on the international stage, mutual confidence matters as much as observable facts.

A U.S. breakthrough might ideally create an important rift between the major rival powers and aspiring competitors. It could complicate the efforts of potential adversaries to keep U.S. territory or forces under the threat of a missile strike. Regional powers, such as Iran and North Korea, would not give up their programs because they consider ballistic missile capabilities a political guarantee against regime change. However, they would be forced to devote far more of their limited resources to countering missile defenses with decoys or increased maneuverability while less advanced proliferators may abandon ballistic missile ambitions to focus instead on cheaper, asymmetric strategies. Such tactical achievements, even if limited and temporary, will be used in the United States to dismiss any restraint on missile defenses as counterproductive.

Yet, efforts to obtain a capability to reliably shoot down advanced ballistic missiles would almost certainly trigger a renewed arms race with the greatest powers. It would not only increase the risks of a misunderstanding, but also justify a surge in modernized nuclear stockpiles and delivery systems, harming prospects for nuclear disarmament. Potential adversaries would use an ambitious U.S. missile defense policy as a pretext to infringe on existing multilateral regimes if they believe that such accords will eventually become obsolete anyway due to technologically driven developments. For instance, this could be used by Russia to justify formal withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and deployment of more short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad.

For the same reasons, an increased level of ambition for missile defense programs would harm the prospects for U.S.-Russian talks on strategic stability. Instead, a competition on missile defense systems accompanied by a diversification of offensive arsenals would encourage new, therefore unstable weapons concepts and doctrines, fueling the risk of misunderstanding. Russia’s delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense systems to Iran and Russian efforts to field S-400 area defense capabilities against air and missile threats have spread alarm within NATO, worried that anti-access/area denial capabilities might give Russia tactical superiority in disputed areas, such as the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Syria.

Notably, these concerns have been high in peacetime, a period during which Russia never activated them against NATO assets. This suggests that any U.S. sense that relying more on missile defenses will lead to increased stability and security could vanish as China and Russia also invest in this sector and start implementing similar strategies.

Missile Defense Policy

For two decades, the United States chose to reinforce and expand missile defenses as new needs arise while ensuring the modernization of nuclear arsenals to maintain the credibility of nuclear deterrence. As missile defenses gain the power to shape the strategic environment, it is worth examining policy options for the United States and its allies.

There are ways to defuse some of the risks associated with missile defense development without changing the existing framework. Currently, only minimal deconfliction efforts are pursued, primarily through public emphasis on the limited aim of missile defense systems. In this regard, NATO summit statements offer remarkable examples of unilateral transparency. More concrete verification measures could be proposed to monitor territorial ballistic missile defense sites, such as Aegis Ashore in Romania, but such steps could backfire because they would be deemed intrusive6 and of limited effectiveness. The United States and Russia could agree on prohibiting the deployment of theater systems in certain areas under shared control or restrain their coverage when these assets overlap foreign territories. Yet in the longer run, none of these measures would prevent missile defenses from generating an arms race.

A different policy could be pursued by abandoning the perception that missile defenses may not be subject to arms control talks. After all, it was a pillar of such talks until the 1990s. Advertising restraint, however, is not an easy task because the United States and U.S. allies have hinted at missile defenses as the best security assurance possible and a quasi-deterrent against potentially hostile powers such as Iran, North Korea, and even Russia. Yet, recent developments in Northeast Asia, where missile overflights of Japan tamper high expectations that such systems could act as a deterrent, would weigh in the debate.

An important goal is to prevent too many actors from joining the club of missile-defensible states. To begin with, sensitive technologies associated with missile defenses, for example hit-to-kill vehicles, should be placed under closer scrutiny. Moreover, rather than aggressively promoting off-the-shelf procurement, the United States could support indigenous missile defense development efforts among their most skilled partners only, in exchange for a bilateral commitment not to re-export them. In the meantime, the United States would insist on China and Russia taking responsibility in curbing missile proliferation.

North Korea’s demonstration that it possesses an ICBM capability complicates the equation. Still, China and Russia have some leverage on North Korea. In return for effective action on their side, the United States should let the door open to a rollback on deployed systems, in particular the THAAD system in South Korea, if the threat were suppressed. The United States, China, and Russia could also explore capping territorial missile defense development according to missile threat evolution, but this would require coordinated monitoring efforts of proliferating states.

The perception by some allies that missile defenses are a symbol of the U.S. commitment to protect their territory further complicates matters. Yet, the need for reassurance in Europe mostly stems from Russia’s attempt to bully its neighbors into submission in the Baltic region. If Russia wishes to avoid the future establishment of an Aegis Ashore site in Poland, it should offer to decrease its military posture in Kaliningrad and the Black Sea significantly; Poland could still host U.S. personnel and equipment for security reasons. At the alliance level, this asymmetric bargain could compensate for the very limited loss of protection against an Iranian threat. It could be cancelled if Russia failed to dissuade Iran from significantly augmenting the range of its missiles.

At present, the notion of capping missile defense development is not being explored by the United States, in part on dubious grounds that missile defense activity is morally legitimate. Such an assertion is not justified in theory, nor is it effective in practice. Although primarily a defensive concept, missile defenses support offensive missions on the theater level and shapes the evolution of other powers’ deterrence strategies to an extent. Moreover, it is a powerful diplomatic irritant, which makes it a strong bargaining chip in any negotiation.

It is uncertain what price China and Russia would pay to cap U.S. missile defense development. Their willingness to pay a high price may decline over time because both countries are becoming increasingly efficient themselves in this emerging domain. Hence, it is not certain that time will always be an asset for the United States, especially as China’s funding potential grows. Yet, the immediate interest for China and Russia is to negotiate in good faith. A refusal on their part to engage in serious discussions would discredit their narrative about a U.S. military buildup in their respective regions.

Additionally, China and Russia would benefit from negotiating because a strategic arms race on missile defenses would risk disrupting China’s deterrence strategy and would certainly strain Russia’s economic capabilities. With the United States, China, and Russia on board, this club would have the critical mass to diffuse good practices to the entire international community, mitigating the potentially destabilizing consequences of missile defense development.


1. “Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States,” 1998, https://fas.org/irp/threat/missile/rumsfeld/toc.htm.

2. “[Polish and Czech] goals were political, having nothing to do with Iran and everything with Russia; the US deployments on their soil would be a concrete manifestation of US security guarantees against Russia beyond our commitment under the NATO treaty.” Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 403.

3. Strategic Defense Intelligence, “The Global Missiles and Missile Defense Systems Market 2015-2025,” March 2017, https://www.reportlinker.com/p03605945/The-Global-Missiles-and-Missile-Defense-Systems-Market-Major-Programs-Market-Profile.html?.

4. George Lewis, “Strategic Capabilities of SM-3 Block IIA Interceptors,” Mostlymissiledefense.com, June 2016, https://mostlymissiledefense.com/2016/06/30/strategic-capabilities-of-sm-3-block-iia-interceptors-june-30-2016/.

5. Interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Gazeta Wyborcza, February 7, 2008.

6. For example, monitoring the Aegis Ashore MK-41 platform would probably involve an in-depth investigation of the tubes and software involved.


Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expressing personal views. Previously, he served in the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament office at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2013 to 2016 and was responsible for nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense as a member of the negotiating team during the NATO summit in Warsaw.


The envisioned security benefits may be jeopardized if the process is driven primarily by technological advances and business interests and without adequate political vision and consideration of the implications for strategic stability.

BOOKS IN BRIEF: Humanization of Arms Control, by Daniel Rietiker; Iran's Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback, by Farhad Rezaei

Humanization of Arms Control:
Paving the Way for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

By Daniel Rietiker, Routledge, 2018, 322 pp.

Daniel Rietiker provides a thorough and timely review of humanitarian arms control agreements, with an eye toward the benefit of applying humanitarian values to the field of nuclear arms control as exemplified by the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Rietiker first examines non-nuclear humanitarian arms control agreements: the Chemical Weapons Convention, Ottawa Convention, Oslo Convention, and Arms Trade Treaty. He then turns to existing nuclear treaties, such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, evaluating the role of civil society in their negotiation and implementation. He also reviews the issues of legality of nuclear weapons under human rights law.

Rietiker makes several recommendations to advance disarmament by applying humanitarian principles to nuclear arms control, including reinforcing existing multilateral disarmament forums with more participatory discussions, adopting additional regional disarmament proposals, and providing a legal basis for the imposition of criminal sanctions on perpetrators of nuclear weapons use.

The interplay between humanitarian principles and nuclear arms control is ripe for exploration in light of the newly negotiated prohibition treaty, as well as the growing body of other humanitarian arms control treaties. The book provides a valuable reference for the evolving dynamics in nuclear arms control.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback
By Farhad Rezaei, Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, 272 pp.

Farhad Rezaei, a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara, presents a history of Iran’s nuclear program. He contends that foreign policy makers, intelligence experts, and scholars have failed to understand the internal dynamics underlying Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.

In his account, Iranian militants and pragmatists, envisioning nuclear weapons as a deterrent, prevailed over then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who “took the idealistic position that the Quran was not compatible” with weapons of mass destruction. Iran was able to create an illicit supplier network and to “skillfully manipulate” the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, he writes. He credits falling oil prices, economic pain from international sanctions, and domestic pressure from “normalizers” such as President Hassan Rouhani with leading to the negotiated rollback known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.—TERRY ATLAS

BOOKS IN BRIEF: Humanization of Arms Control, by Daniel Rietiker; Iran's Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback, by Farhad Rezaei

IN MEMORIAM: Tom Halsted (1933-2017) Former Executive Director, Arms Control Association

Thomas A. Halsted, one of the early leaders of the Arms Control Association and a veteran of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) in the 1970s, died of cancer on Oct. 7 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He was 83.

Tom HalstedHalsted was hired as the first executive director of the Arms Control Association shortly after its founding in 1971. He established the organization's role as a key source of information and analysis on the nuclear arms control and nonproliferation and launched the Arms Control Association Newsletter, which would later become Arms Control Today (ACT).

After serving in the U.S. Army from 1954 until 1961, Halsted worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and later at ACDA. He served for four years as the Council for a Livable World’s national director before he joined the staff of Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) as a legislative assistant.

In January 1972, at age 38, Halsted became the Arms Control Association’s executive director. Under his leadership, the newly formed organization, with a board of directors consisting of many former U.S. officials and negotiators, jumped into the national debate on
how to slow and reverse the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race and curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

With Halsted at the helm, the association held workshops and briefings for reporters and congressional staff and published analyses and commentaries on the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT); controversial, new strategic nuclear weapons systems such as the B-1 bomber and the proposed MX missile; and the newly in-force nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Striking a theme that the organization still maintains, Halsted consistently wrote and spoke about the importance of more energetic and hard-hitting measures to reduce nuclear arsenals. In the spring 1972 edition of the Arms Control Association Newsletter, Halsted welcomed the SALT agreement, but warned that “the existence of quantitative controls on some weapons systems…will undoubtedly provide enormous incentives to go all-out on a qualitative arms race and on the procurement of those non-prohibited weapons systems.”

Writing on behalf of the organization that year, Halsted deplored the long delay in achieving concrete results and called for follow-on negotiations to take on additional issues. He called for “a moratorium on further qualitative and quantitative strategic weapons construction,” an immediate halt to all nuclear testing while negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty were pursued, and limits on ballistic missile flight testing to inhibit the development of multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs).

He would later write in Arms Control Today that the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear explosions with yields larger than 150 kilotons TNT equivalent, “dealt a serious setback to the cause of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons” because it “permits continued testing of most of the weapons each side is likely to want to develop in the future” and failed to outlaw so-called peaceful nuclear explosions.

In 1975, Halsted organized an Arms Control Association conference in Europe of nongovernmental experts and governmental representatives ahead of the first NPT review conference and attended the conference in Geneva that year. His June 1975 report in Arms Control Today warned of the challenges facing the NPT. “It must be remembered, however, that those 96 states that have ratified the NPT still do not include in their number the half dozen or so most likely to retain an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons…. The Treaty cannot stop proliferation, only make it a little harder to facilitate.”

In words that still resonate in today’s nuclear debates, Halsted returned from that first NPT review conference urging the nuclear powers to “set a better example. They can and must do more…toward ending nuclear tests, reversing the qualitative strategic arms race, and adopting some form of commitment not to use nuclear weapons against those who have agreed to forswear them.”

“We live in a world of mutual deterrence. Both sides have so many nuclear weapons that if one side were to use them that would insure its own destruction. This deterrence works at many levels and it would work at much lower levels of nuclear arms than both sides have today,” Halsted told The Washington Post in February 1977.

Four decades later, we still live in a world of mutual deterrence and in a world in which there are still far too many nuclear weapons and too many risks than are acceptable.

Halsted is survived by Joy, his wife of 62 years; his son Tom; daughter Beth Paddock; four grandchildren; and three siblings, Nell Moore, Charles Halsted, and Bella Halsted.

The Arms Control Association family, including current and former staff members, interns, members of the board, and Arms Control Today contributors, will miss our friend Tom Halsted and appreciate the legacy of arms control and disarmament education and advocacy he created.

Thomas A. Halsted, one of the early leaders of the Arms Control Association and a veteran of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) in the 1970s, died of cancer on Oct. 7 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He was 83.

Trump Boxes U.S. In on North Korea

November 2017
By Kelsey Davenport

U.S. President Donald Trump is boxing himself in on options for responding to the North Korean nuclear crisis, appearing to rule out deterrence as an approach for dealing with Pyongyang and undercutting calls for negotiations by his own top diplomat.

Representatives from the United States (left), South Korea (center) and Japan (right) take part in three-way talks on North Korea in Seoul on October 18. (Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)Continued confusion regarding U.S. policy toward North Korea comes ahead of Trump’s visit the region Nov. 3-13, which includes stops in South Korea, Japan, and China, and as North Korea downplays the chances for diplomacy with the United States after Trump insulted leader Kim Jong Un at the UN General Assembly in September. (See ACT, October 2017.)

Choe Son-hui, director-general of the North America Department of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, said at a conference in Moscow on Oct. 20 that North Korea is “not planning to hold talks on nuclear weapons” at this time. Choe’s statement reiterated recent messages from Pyongyang that North Korea will not negotiate while the United States engages in a hostile policy.

Choe, describing North Korea’s nuclear weapons as “designed for the protection of our homeland from the constant nuclear threat from the U.S.,” said Washington will have to “get along” with North Korea’s nuclear status. Trump administration officials continue to reject the idea of any acceptance of North Korea having nuclear weapons.

U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster, speaking Oct. 19 at an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that Trump will not accept North Korea “threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon” and that an approach of “accept and deter is unacceptable.” The United States is in a “race to resolve this short of military action,” he said.

McMaster’s comments were echoed by CIA director Mike Pompeo. Speaking at the same event, Pompeo said that the United States is “running out of time” to stop North Korea from developing the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. Trump has been very clear that he will not allow North Korea to “hold America at risk” and will use military force if necessary to prevent it, he said.

A photo released July 30 by the South Korean Defense Ministry shows a U.S. Air Force B-1B  bomber (top) accompanied by South Korean F-15 fighter jets over the Korean peninsula in response to North Korea's missile tests.  (Photo credit: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)Trump has made comments in the past alluding to the use of military force or a preventative strike against North Korea’s missile capabilities. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an Oct. 11 interview with VOX that the president “has sent us very clear signals about his enthusiasm for military conflict with North Korea.”

“Given the stakes of a potential strike against North Korea, we have to act under the assumption that he’s serious,” Murphy said.

Although prior U.S. presidents have not ruled out such use of military force, Trump’s rhetoric and actions far exceed past threats.

For instance, the United States in September flew B1-B bombers farther north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea than “any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century,” according to a Sept. 23 press release from Pentagon spokesperson Dana White. The mission was a “demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat,” according to the statement.

Concern about a possible preventative or pre-emptive military strike against North Korea without an authorization for the use of military force from Congress has prompted a bipartisan group of 60 members in the House of Representatives to support a bill calling for a prohibition on “unconstitutional” strikes against North Korea.

The bill, led by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), says that the president must seek an authorization from Congress before conducting a strike. In an Oct. 19 letter to colleagues about the bill, Conyers and several other members wrote that the legislation is meant to “ensure that President Trump cannot launch an unconstitutional strike that experts say would lead to catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula.”

The legislation also includes a sense of Congress that “conflict on the Korean peninsula would have catastrophic consequences” and that “the president, in coordination with U.S. allies, should explore and pursue every feasible opportunity to engage in talks with North Korea on concrete steps to reduce tensions and improve communication, and to initiate negotiations designed to achieve a diplomatic agreement to halt and eventually reverse North Korea’s nuclear and missile pursuits and to move toward denuclearization.”

Although several different versions of a so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal have been put forward, Russia and China support a version that calls for North Korea halting nuclear and missiles tests in return for the United States and South Korea rolling back joint military exercises.

McMaster has dismissed the idea of an interim deal intended to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. McMaster also said in September that he would not comment on the specific preconditions for talks with North Korea, but gave some examples of confidence-building measures that Pyongyang could take, including allowing inspectors into its nuclear facilities before talks on denuclearization can begin.

More recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said that the U.S. objective remains a “denuclearized Korean peninsula.” Speaking to reporters Oct. 18 following a trilateral meeting in Seoul with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, he said that the Trump administration is “dedicated” to diplomacy and will continue to use a “campaign of pressure to bring North Korea to the negotiating table without preconditions.”

Sullivan’s remarks coincide with previous statements on diplomacy without preconditions made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but McMaster’s rhetoric appears to reject talks without conditions, and Trump himself tweeted on Oct. 1 that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate” with North Korea.

Much of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign has focused on ratcheting up sanctions, including an executive order in September that targets companies and banks doing business with North Korea, but former officials are doubtful that sanctions alone will be enough to get North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Former CIA director James Woolsey told Voice of America in a September interview that sanctions “probably won’t get the job done” but that the United States should do what it can on sanctions, including working with China to “bring them along” on tougher sanctions.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

U.S. draws a hard line on denuclearization and raises the prospect of military action.

Trump Sets U.S. Up to Violate Iran Deal

November 2017
By Kelsey Davenport

President Donald Trump directed his administration to work with Congress to address “serious flaws” in the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, but with Tehran and Washington’s negotiating partners rejecting renegotiations, his approach is unlikely to yield results and risks resulting in the United States violating the agreement.

Outlining his Iran policy in an Oct. 13 speech, Trump said he would terminate the accord if Congress and the U.S. negotiating partners in the P5+1 group—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—fail to address areas of concern, such as the expiration of certain nuclear constraints and Iran’s ballistic missile development.

President Donald Trump speaks October 13 at the White House about his decision to deny quarterly certification of the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)Trump also said he was withholding a quarterly certification to Congress tied to the nuclear deal on the grounds that sanctions relief provided to Iran was not proportionate to the restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program. That was an expected step after Trump said in July that he was unlikely to issue the certification. (See ACT, September 2017.)

The certification is a U.S. legal requirement comprised of several determinations. In addition to the determination on sanctions proportionality, the certification includes determinations related to Iran’s compliance with the deal and the national security value of the accord. In the weeks leading up to the certification deadline, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that Iran was meeting its obligations; and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the deal is in the U.S. national security interest, indicators that key advisers in Trump’s cabinet opposed his decision to withhold certification.

Withholding certification does not violate the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump said that the United States intends to remain party to the agreement for now, while he looks to Congress and U.S. allies to "address the deal's many serious flaws."

Despite Trump’s threats to terminate the accord if changes are not made, Washington’s negotiating partners and Iran rejected renegotiating elements of the deal. Shortly after Trump’s Oct. 13 announcement, Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief and head of the P5+1, said that the deal is working, the EU will continue to implement it, and it is “not up to a single country to terminate it.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is under pressure from regime hardliners, said Iran “will not be the first to withdraw from the deal but, if its rights and interests in the deal are not respected, it will stop implementing all its commitments and will resume its peaceful nuclear program without any restrictions.”

Washington’s actions prove that the United States is “not a reliable negotiating partner,” he said, a statement that could have ramifications for any future talks with Iran, as well as for U.S. efforts to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement Oct. 13 expressing “concern about the possible implications” of Trump’s decision to withhold certification and encouraging him and Congress to consider “the implications to the security of the U.S. and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the JCPOA, such as re-imposing sanctions on Iran lifted under the agreement.”

Withholding certification allows Congress to introduce legislation within 60 days to reimpose sanctions waived under the deal using an expedited legislative process, but it appears unlikely that Congress will pursue this route, which would clearly violate the agreement.

The current approach espoused by several Senate Republicans would seek to address Trump’s concerns about ballistic missiles and limits that expire under the deal and refrain from reimposing sanctions. Still, if enacted as described, this approach would violate the terms of the accord by seeking to pressure Iran, under threat of sanctions, to abide by limits for a longer duration than required under the deal.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) released a factsheet Oct. 13 summarizing his legislative approach, titled “Fixing the Iran Deal,” which outlines that U.S. sanctions waived under the deal will be reimposed automatically if Iran takes certain steps, including activities that are permitted under the nuclear deal or will be permitted in the out years of the agreement.

For instance, the factsheet says that U.S. sanctions waived under the deal will snap back automatically if Iran’s nuclear weapons “breakout” time, commonly defined as the time it would take Iran to amass enough weapons-grade fissile material for one bomb, drops to less than one year.

For the first 10 years of the nuclear deal, the combination of limits on Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and stockpile of enriched uranium holds Iran to a 12-month breakout time. By year 15, however, certain limits expire; and Iran could choose to expand its uranium-enrichment capacity, at which point breakout would likely drop below 12 months.

Despite the deal permitting Iran to expand uranium enrichment, U.S. sanctions would be automatically reimposed at that point, which many experts contend violates the agreement. Corker’s factsheet, however, argues that approach is “ridding the JCPOA of sunset provisions as they apply to U.S. sanctions.”

Trump did not specifically mention Corker’s initiative in his speech, but said he supported congressional efforts to “make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under U.S. law” and “prevent Iran from developing” an intercontinental ballistic missile.

It seems unlikely that Democrats would support any approach that violates the deal. In the Senate, any such effort to bring legislation altering the terms of the nuclear deal up for a vote would require 60 votes; and key Senate Democrats, including several who opposed the deal in 2015, signaled they do not support abrogating the deal.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the deal in 2015, but denounced Trump’s decision to withholding certification as “reckless” and “without factual or material evidence” to warrant such a move.

Cardin said that “we will not buy into the false premise that it is Congress’ role to legislate solutions to problems of [Trump’s] own making” and that it is “up to Congress to show the world that there is bipartisan support for the United States to uphold its commitments, including the JCPOA.”

An official from a European country that participated in the negotiations told Arms Control Today on Oct. 23 that the “deal is done” and that “any efforts to unilaterally change its terms” jeopardizes the agreement.

He said Mogherini was very clear at the United Nations in September that there is “no interest in or need to renegotiate or reopen the accord.” Concerns outside of the deal, such as ballistic missiles, can be addressed separately from implementation of the agreement, he added.

May, Macron, and Merkel made a similar statement in their Oct. 13 letter, saying that they “stand ready to take further appropriate measures to address” issues such as ballistic missile development “at the same time as we work to preserve the JCPOA.”

Corker’s factsheet does not explicitly mention ballistic missiles, but in interviews following Trump’s speech, he has said his approach may reimpose sanctions automatically in response to certain ballistic missile activities conducted by Iran.

The nuclear deal does not prohibit Iran from developing ballistic missiles, but the UN Security Council resolution endorsing the deal “called upon” Iran to refrain from testing ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons and regulates Iran’s purchases of materials and technology relevant to developing ballistic missiles.

The United States, as permitted by the accord, continues to sanction individuals and entities involved with Iran’s ballistic missile activities.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Next steps fall to Congress, as key allies appeal for U.S. to stick with the nuclear accord.

ICAN Wins Nobel Peace Prize

November 2017
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its long-standing work to call attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use and its integral role in the adoption of the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

“It is the firm conviction of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that ICAN, more than anyone else, has in the past year given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigor,” the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee stated.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) displays the group’s banner October 6 in Geneva after it won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. (Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)ICAN, a coalition of 468 nongovernmental organizations in more than 100 countries, has pushed for a legal ban on nuclear weapons for a decade. The organization was thanked repeatedly by leading negotiating states on the prohibition treaty for its persistent efforts to bring the accord to fruition, including by the chair of the negotiations in remarks following the treaty’s adoption July 7. (See ACT, October 2017.)

“[T]he courage it took for a bunch of activists to pursue an idea through to international law, despite being stripped of funding and at times dignity, and the courage it took for 122 governments to stand up to the power of the bomb wielded by a handful of aggressive, warmongering governments, is what reflects the best of humanity and the most promise for our future as a species,” wrote Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will and a member of the ICAN steering committee, in an Oct. 9 editorial.

Following the award announcement, ICAN credited the “many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide” who helped achieve the treaty’s adoption, singling out for special note the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the hibakusha, “whose searing testimonies and unstinting advocacy were instrumental in securing this landmark agreement.”

Japan, while opposing the prohibition treaty despite the hibakusha’s central role in advocating for it, welcomed the increased awareness of disarmament and nonproliferation that could result from the prize. “Although ICAN’s activities to date are different from the Japanese government’s approach, we share the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons,” Japanese Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Norio Maruyama said in an Oct. 8 statement.

ICAN drew congratulatory comments from representatives of dozens of states meeting in the UN General Assembly First Committee, from countries that attended the nuclear prohibition treaty negotiations to a few that had boycotted them.

All nuclear-armed states and most NATO members boycotted the prohibition treaty negotiations, meaning the accord will have little immediate impact on existing nuclear arsenals. (See ACT, November 2016.) The Nobel committee acknowledged that the treaty will not “in itself eliminate a single nuclear weapon,” but said that it does fill a “legal gap” as the first prohibition of nuclear weapons.

The award not only is prestigious recognition of ICAN, but also is intended to be what the Nobel committee said is a “call” on nuclear-armed states in particular to begin “serious negotiations” to eliminate nuclear weapons.

“I therefore hope this prize serves to inspire new momentum, dialogue and serious efforts by the international community to pursue disarmament as a means for preventing conflict, reducing international tensions and achieving sustainable peace and security,” said UN High Representative for Disarmament Izumi Nakamitsu in an Oct. 6 statement.

For its part, ICAN intends to use the Nobel Prize to achieve greater treaty adherence. “We hope the Nobel Prize will help us in our campaigning to get countries to sign and ratify this vital agreement,” Tim Wright, campaign director of ICAN Australia, said at an Oct. 9 press conference.

Fifty-three states have signed the treaty since it opened for signature Sept. 20, and three—Guyana, the Holy See, and Thailand—have ratified it. An additional 47 states will need to ratify the treaty for its entry into force.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE


Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 98 times to 131 Nobel laureates—104 individuals and 27 organizations—between 1901 and 2017. This is the sixth time since 1985 that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has recognized organizations and individuals for their disarmament work. Past winners include:

  • Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons” (2013)
  • International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Mohamed ElBaradei “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way” (2005)
  • International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and Jody Williams “for their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines” (1997)
  • Joseph Rotblat and Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs “for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms” (1995)
  • International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War for “service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare” (1985)

Nobel committee said the group gave “new vigor” to efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

Russia Showcases Military Capabilities

November 2017
By Maggie Tennis

A large-scale Russian military exercise last month triggered new questions about NATO security and European conventional arms control. The week-long Zapad 2017 exercise, which simulated a Russian military response to a confrontation at the border with a NATO-allied country, displayed a range of technologies and maneuvers seemingly targeted at U.S. and NATO capabilities.

Military jets fly during the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad 2017 at a training ground near the town of Borisov on September 20. (Photo credit: SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty Images)The September exercises occurred against the political backdrop of worsening relations between Russia and NATO countries since the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea. Russia showcased integrated maneuvers, such as those seen in Crimea and Syria, as well as improved technologies involving drones and electronic warfare, demonstrating the transformation of its military over the past decade into a modern, sophisticated force capable of challenging NATO and the United States.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Western analysts have commented on NATO’s neglect of European defense amid growing Russian aggressiveness. The governments of the Baltic states and Poland have pressed NATO to strengthen its presence and capabilities on their territories. Over the past few years, NATO has implemented a number of deterrence-by-punishment measures aimed at bolstering defense at the border, including increased troop rotations in the front-line nations that have, in turn, raised Russian anxiety. U.S. and NATO military officials worry alliance forces are underprepared to respond to Russian capabilities for rapid troop mobilization.

The Zapad 2017 scenario envisioned Russian and Belarusian military forces defending against military incursions by a hostile neighboring state labeled “Veyshnoria,” at the Belarusian border with Poland and Lithuania, two NATO members. Throughout the week, drills illustrated how, in Moscow’s perception, a conflict with NATO would unfold. An emphasis on concealing large force movements and utilizing air defense capabilities, such as the S-300 and S-400 missile systems, Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems, and Iskander-M ballistic missile complexes, indicated a Russian preoccupation with the strength of NATO air capabilities. Drills also featured enhanced command and control, coordination of air support and naval forces, and anti-submarine warfare.

Although Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu described Zapad as a “purely defensive” exercise against a hypothetical invading alliance, the exercise transitioned after a few days into a counteroffensive campaign against an advanced conventional military, presumably representing NATO and U.S. forces. In fact, many of the drills featured defense operations against technologies that only the United States would possess, such as high-speed drones. An exercise element featuring a large number of units from Russia’s Northern Fleet, a force intended for strategic deterrence and the maritime defense of northwest Russia, indicates that Moscow envisioned the war games reflecting a conflict with NATO over the Baltic states.

Zapad also featured a test launch of the nuclear-capable Iskander-M missile at a maximum range just short of the 500 to 5,500 kilometer range prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The missile was launched from the Kapustin Yar range in the southern Astrakhan region and hit its target in the Makat range in Kazakhstan after traveling 480 kilometers. In addition, the Russian military twice test-fired its new RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles, the first a few days before and another during the Zapad exercises. Gen. Lori J. Robinson, head of the Pentagon’s Northern Command, told The New York Times that Russia’s stock of medium- and long-range missiles allows Moscow “to hold targets at risk at ranges that we’re not used to.”

Belarusian surface-to-air missile launchers and S-300 anti-aircraft systems move to firing positions during the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad 2017 at a training ground near the village of Volka, about 200 kilometers southwest of Minsk, on September 19, 2017. (Photo credit: SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty Images)Zapad indicated a preparedness on the Russian side to raise the stakes in a conventional clash with NATO, meaning that NATO will need to evaluate whether it has the ability to maintain a deterrent with Moscow. The wake of the exercises could also bring attention to the possibility of renewing conventional arms control efforts between NATO and Russia.

Experts such as Ulrich Kühn at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are revisiting conventional arms control as an additional instrument of European security. Although Moscow suspended its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in 2007, prior to the 2008 Russian occupation of Georgia, Kühn believes Moscow’s existential concerns about U.S. conventional strike capabilities and the security of Kaliningrad could make renewed talks on conventional arms control attractive to the Kremlin, despite Russian awareness that the “global balance of power” advantages the United States.

In a Sept. 27 article for the blog War on the Rocks, Kühn proposed extending CFE Treaty counting rules to include heavy weaponry and limiting further troop deployments to the Baltic region. Yet, even if current tensions and European ambivalence make conventional arms restrictions difficult to coordinate, Kühn suggests implementing a range of confidence- and security-building measures that could improve communication and transparency among NATO members and between NATO and Russia.

An official at the German Foreign Ministry told Arms Control Today, "We want to keep the channels of communication open. We seek a more constructive and predictable relationship with Russia and we encourage Russia to act within the norms and rules of the international community."

To achieve such results, according to Kühn, measures could include updating the Vienna Document, a security agreement among the participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which requires advance notice for military exercises exceeding 9,000 troops and observers for those involving 13,000 troops. Russia circumvents the rules and has opposed efforts to tighten them, he wrote. Ahead of the exercise, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said Zapad would involve fewer than 13,000 personnel, while Western analysts estimated the number of personnel involved to be as high as 100,000. In the end, Western governments conceded that the number of troops involved was likely closer to the official figure.

During the weeklong Zapad exercise, Dominik Jankowski, the head of the OSCE unit in the Polish Foreign Ministry, told the German broadcasting agency Deutsche Welle, "We need to continue efforts to modernize the Vienna Document, even if we are still waiting for a Russia willing to engage in that issue." He said there are “numerous vital proposals on the table ranging from greater transparency regarding snap exercises to risk reduction mechanisms and incident prevention efforts.”

Kühn noted that both sides have contributed to an increased risk of an accidental confrontation at the NATO-Russian border. “NATO’s current deterrence approach in the Baltic region also creates dangers of inadvertent escalation that could be addressed through improved communication,” he wrote. Both the OSCE and German government have called for expanding conventional arms control. But to be effective, conventional arms negotiations with Russia would necessitate agreement by all 29 NATO member-states.

Although NATO holds military drills in Europe regularly, it has never performed a multicorps event on the scale of Zapad 2017. In early October, NATO held its annual Steadfast Noon nuclear strike exercise, The Wall Street Journal reported. The exercise practices NATO’s nuclear strike mission with dual-capable aircraft and the B61 tactical nuclear bombs that the United States deploys in Europe. —MAGGIE TENNIS

The Zapad exercise scenario was a border conflict with NATO countries.

Russia Destroys Last Chemical Weapons

November 2017
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Russia finished destroying its chemical weapons arsenal, once the largest in the world at nearly 40,000 metric tons, and criticized the United States for its delays in doing likewise.

Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, speaks at a ceremony October 11 following the completion of the destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons. The event was held at the residence of Ambassador Alexander Shulgin, the permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the OPCW. (Photo credit: OPCW)Russia was mandated under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to destroy its chemical weapons by 2007, although it received several extensions, most recently to 2020. Similarly, the United States originally had a 2007 deadline, which was pushed to 2012 and then 2023. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)

The CWC, which entered into force in 1997, has 192 states-parties. It is implemented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which to date has verified the destruction of 96.3 percent of declared chemical weapons stockpiles of states-parties worldwide.

Russia’s chemical weapons destruction, completed Sept. 27, was “a momentous occasion” and a “historic milestone,” said OPCW Deputy Director-General Hamid Ali Rao at a commemorative ceremony. Russia declared an arsenal of 39,967 metric tons of chemical agents, including lewisite, mustard, phosgene, sarin, soman, and VX when it signed the CWC in 1993. It established its first on-site destruction facility in 2002, eliminating about 30 percent of its arsenal by 2009 and 85 percent by 2015.

Russia eliminated its arsenal by neutralizing the chemicals. Paul Walker, director of Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability program, described the technique in an Oct. 19 email to Arms Control Today as “a wet-chemistry process of draining all weapons and storage tanks of chemical agents, and then mixing the agents with hot water and caustic reagents such as sodium hydroxide to destroy the deadly toxic nature of the agents.”

Russia operated a total of five chemical weapons destruction facilities. All but the facility in the town of Kizner, about 620 miles east of Moscow, had finished destruction and been closed by 2015.

Russia’s method of chemical destruction produced as a byproduct large quantities of toxic waste. Russia will treat the waste in the future at chemical destruction facilities in Kambarka, Gorny, and Shchuch’ye, according to Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov, who addressed the issue in remarks at the commemorative ceremony held at Kizner. He asserted that Russia would decontaminate all chemical weapons destruction facilities.

Although Russia spent more than $5 billion to destroy its chemical weapons, according to Russian state media, it also benefited from significant international assistance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in remarks Sept. 27, credited more than 15 countries with cooperation. Vladimir Yermakov, deputy head of the foreign ministry’s Department for Weapons Control and Non-Proliferation, thanked the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and France specifically for their financial help. Some of the U.S. funding and technical assistance was provided though the 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar program.

Other States’ Destruction

With the elimination of Russia’s chemical weapons, the burden falls on the two remaining CWC member states who have yet to complete destruction of their declared arsenals: Iraq and the United States.

The size and quality of Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal is unknown, and ongoing conflict in the Middle East presents challenges for safe removal and neutralization. Planning is reportedly underway to begin elimination.

The United States has been destroying its declared arsenal of 28,000 metric tons of chemical agents, second in size to Russia’s, since the 1990s. It has destroyed about 90 percent and is scheduled to complete destruction by 2023. The United States, which has completed destruction of five of its stockpiles, currently operates a chemical weapons destruction facility in Colorado and plans to open one in Kentucky in a few years.

The United States has destroyed its chemical weapons at rate nearly one-third of Russia’s due in part to differences between the two countries’ stockpiles, according to Walker. Russian chemical agents were stored in large tanks without explosives or propellants, but U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles include more explosive components, requiring technically difficult and time-consuming destruction.

Since completing its chemical weapons destruction, Russia has criticized the United States for lagging. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club on Oct. 19, noted the U.S. delay to 2023, which “does not look proper for a nation that claims to be a champion of nonproliferation and control.”

The United States considers that it is operating in compliance with CWC requirements. “We remain on track to meet our planned completion date,” Kenneth Ward, U.S. permanent representative to the OPCW, said in an Oct. 10 statement to the OPCW Executive Council.

New Phase for CWC

With Russia’s chemical weapons elimination and the revised U.S. destruction deadline six years away, experts say that the CWC will soon be moving into a “post-chemical-weapons-destruction” phase.

John Hart, head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, outlined possible futures for the OPCW in a Sept. 29 blog post. “At least two visions may be realized: the first in which the OPCW is focused on chemical-weapon threats with most resources allocated accordingly, the second in which the OPCW serves as a model of international outreach and capacity building for the peaceful uses of chemistry.”

“Now the goal of a chemical-weapons-free-world is much nearer,” declared Sergio Duarte, president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and a former UN high representative for disarmament affairs, in a Sept. 27 statement. He laid out several steps for the CWC regime to pursue. “It is necessary…to ensure the 100 percent universality of the Chemical Weapons Convention and to further improve safeguards against any re-emergence of chemical weapons on the basis of traditional and new technologies and against any attempts by any actors to get hold of or to use these prohibited weapons.”—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Moscow had world’s largest chemical-weapons arsenal.


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