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June 2, 2022
November 2019

Arms Control Today November 2019

Edition Date: 
Friday, November 1, 2019
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A New Nuclear Deal Begins With New START

November 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Since 2017, the Trump administration has sought to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while withdrawing the United States from key agreements designed to reduce nuclear dangers.

At the same time, President Donald Trump claims he wants to negotiate a nuclear arms control deal with Russia and with China, which has never been part of a nuclear arms limitation treaty.

In an interview Oct. 21, Trump said, “I believe that we’re going to get together with Russia and with China, and we’re going to work out our nuclear pact so that we don’t all continue with this craziness. It’s very costly and very dangerous. It’s very, very dangerous. We should all get together and work out something—a cap, have a cap."

Nuclear weapons are certainly very costly and dangerous, and there are no winners in a nuclear arms race. But contrary to what the president may believe, Washington is not actively engaging with Moscow or Beijing on a nuclear disarmament deal and does not appear to have a viable plan for doing so.

Worse yet, Trump’s advisers have spurned Russian offers thus far to talk about extending the only existing treaty that does cap the deadly strategic arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear actors: the 2010 U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in February 2021.

In remarks at the United Nations last month, Thomas DiNanno, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense policy, emerging threats, and outreach, asserted that “we need a new era of arms control, one in which Russia and China are at the negotiating table and willing to reduce nuclear risks rather than heighten them.”

“The Cold War approach, with its bilateral treaties that covered limited types of nuclear weapons or only certain ranges of missiles, is no longer sufficient,” he said.

Talks with other nuclear-armed states aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating all types of nuclear weapons are necessary and overdue. But given the Trump administration’s lack of preparation and the complexity of such an endeavor, there is no possibility a new trilateral deal with Russia and China could be concluded before New START expires.

Contrary to DiNanno’s claims, New START, if extended, would provide the only near-term path to limit Russia’s ill-advised plans for new strategic delivery systems, including a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a long-range torpedo, an “unlimited range” nuclear-powered cruise missile, and hypersonic glide vehicles.

If Trump actually wants to avoid an arms race, the first step is to promptly agree with Russia to extend New START by five years.

New START is working. Allowing the treaty to expire without a viable substitute would be foreign policy malpractice. The treaty verifiably limits the number of deployed strategic warheads for each side to 1,550 and caps the number of deployed delivery vehicles at 700, far more than is necessary to deter a nuclear attack.

Military and intelligence officials greatly value New START inspections and its prohibition on interference with national technical means of verification, which provide predictability and transparency and promote a stable nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia.

U.S. allies strongly support a New START extension. There is bipartisan support in Congress and among the American public for the treaty’s extension. Extending the treaty would represent a significant policy win for Trump and would restore some of the United States’ lost standing in the world.

An extension of New START would provide a foundation for a more ambitious follow-on agreement with Russia limiting other types of nuclear weapons, including short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons systems, as well as for talks with China to curb future nuclear and missile competition.

China, however, which has an estimated 300 nuclear weapons, has made it clear it is not going to join New START or reduce the size of its nuclear force unless Washington and Moscow pursue far deeper cuts of their nuclear arsenals, numbering some 6,500 weapons each.

A more realistic approach would be for the United States and Russia agree to negotiate a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with limits well below those of New START by one-third or more if China agrees not to increase the size of its stockpile and adopts some transparency measures.

For instance, all three countries might agree to jointly declare their total warhead numbers, including type of warheads and delivery systems. The three countries also could engage in regular talks on strategic stability, including the interrelationship between strategic ballistic missiles and missile defense, limits on hypersonic weapons, and a joint understanding that cyber capabilities should not be used interfere with nuclear command and control.

These types of multilateral efforts will be difficult and will take time. In the meantime, without New START, the risk of unconstrained nuclear arms competition and conflict with Russia would grow and the task of bringing other states in the nuclear disarmament enterprise would become even more challenging. Extending New START is Trump’s best chance for a deal to reduce the nuclear weapons danger.


Since 2017, the Trump administration has sought to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while withdrawing the United States from key agreements designed to reduce nuclear dangers.

Cyber Battles, Nuclear Outcomes? Dangerous New Pathways to Escalation

November 2019
By Michael T. Klare

In January 2018, details of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) were posted online by the Huffington Post, provoking widespread alarm over what were viewed as dangerous shifts in U.S. nuclear policy. Arousing most concern was a call for the acquisition of several types of low-yield nuclear weapons, a proposal viewed by many analysts as increasing the risk of nuclear weapons use.

A U.S. F-22 fighter shadows a Russian Tu-95 bomber on May 20 in international airspace near Alaska. Aircraft and missile detection systems rely heavily on electronic communications, making them potential targets for cyberwarfare. (Photo: NORAD)Another initiative incorporated in the strategy document also aroused concern: the claim that an enemy cyberattack on U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) facilities would constitute a “non-nuclear strategic attack” of sufficient magnitude to justify the use of nuclear weapons in response.

Under the Obama administration’s NPR report, released in April 2010, the circumstances under which the United States would consider responding to non-nuclear attacks with nuclear weapons were said to be few. “The United States will continue to…reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks,” the report stated. Although little was said about what sort of non-nuclear attacks might be deemed severe enough to justify a nuclear response, cyberstrikes were not identified as one of these. The 2018 NPR report, however, portrayed a very different environment, one in which nuclear combat is seen as increasingly possible and in which non-nuclear strategic threats, especially in cyberspace, were viewed as sufficiently menacing to justify a nuclear response. Speaking of Russian technological progress, for example, the draft version of the Trump administration’s NPR report stated, “To…correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage, the president will have an expanding range of limited and graduated [nuclear] options to credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks, which could now include attacks against U.S. NC3, in space and cyberspace.”1

The notion that a cyberattack on U.S. digital systems, even those used for nuclear weapons, would constitute sufficient grounds to launch a nuclear attack was seen by many observers as a dangerous shift in policy, greatly increasing the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear escalation in a crisis. “The entire broadening of the landscape for nuclear deterrence is a very fundamental step in the wrong direction,” said former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. “I think the idea of nuclear deterrence of cyberattacks, broadly, certainly does not make any sense.”2

Despite such admonitions, the Pentagon reaffirmed its views on the links between cyberattacks and nuclear weapons use when it released the final version of the NPR report in February 2018. The official text now states that the president must possess a spectrum of nuclear weapons with which to respond to “attacks against U.S. NC3,” and it identifies cyberattacks as one form of non-nuclear strategic warfare that could trigger a nuclear response.

That cyberwarfare had risen to this level of threat, the 2018 NPR report indicated, was a product of the enhanced cybercapabilities of potential adversaries and of the creeping obsolescence of many existing U.S. NC3 systems. To overcome these vulnerabilities, it called for substantial investment in an upgraded NC3 infrastructure. Not mentioned, however, were extensive U.S. efforts to employ cybertools to infiltrate and potentially incapacitate the NC3 systems of likely adversaries, including Russia, China, and North Korea.

For the past several years, the U.S. Department of Defense has been exploring how it could employ its own very robust cyberattack capabilities to compromise or destroy enemy missiles from such states as North Korea before they can be fired, a strategy sometimes called “left of launch.”3 Russia and China can assume, on this basis, that their own launch facilities are being probed for such vulnerabilities, presumably leading them to adopt escalatory policies such as those espoused in the 2018 NPR report. Wherever one looks, therefore, the links between cyberwar and nuclear war are growing.

The Nuclear-Cyber Connection

These links exist because the NC3 systems of the United States and other nuclear-armed states are heavily dependent on computers and other digital processors for virtually every aspect of their operation and because those systems are highly vulnerable to cyberattack. Every nuclear force is composed, most basically, of weapons, early-warning radars, launch facilities, and the top officials, usually presidents or prime ministers, empowered to initiate a nuclear exchange. Connecting them all, however, is an extended network of communications and data-processing systems, all reliant on cyberspace. Warning systems, ground- and space-based, must constantly watch for and analyze possible enemy missile launches. Data on actual threats must rapidly be communicated to decision-makers, who must then weigh possible responses and communicate chosen outcomes to launch facilities, which in turn must provide attack vectors to delivery systems. All of this involves operations in cyberspace, and it is in this domain that great power rivals seek vulnerabilities to exploit in a constant struggle for advantage.

The use of cyberspace to gain an advantage over adversaries takes many forms and is not always aimed at nuclear systems. China has been accused of engaging in widespread cyberespionage to steal technical secrets from U.S. firms for economic and military advantages. Russia has been accused, most extensively in the Robert Mueller report, of exploiting cyberspace to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Nonstate actors, including terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, have used the internet for recruiting combatants and spreading fear. Criminal groups, including some thought to be allied with state actors, such as North Korea, have used cyberspace to extort money from banks, municipalities, and individuals.4 Attacks such as these occupy most of the time and attention of civilian and military cybersecurity organizations that attempt to thwart such attacks. Yet for those who worry about strategic stability and the risks of nuclear escalation, it is the threat of cyberattacks on NC3 systems that provokes the greatest concern.

Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on February 14. He warned that China and Russia are conducting sustained cybercampaigns against the United States. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)This concern stems from the fact that, despite the immense effort devoted to protecting NC3 systems from cyberattack, no enterprise that relies so extensively on computers and cyberspace can be made 100 percent invulnerable to attack. This is so because such systems employ many devices and operating systems of various origins and vintages, most incorporating numerous software updates and “patches” over time, offering multiple vectors for attack. Electronic components can also be modified by hostile actors during production, transit, or insertion; and the whole system itself is dependent to a considerable degree on the electrical grid, which itself is vulnerable to cyberattack and is far less protected. Experienced “cyberwarriors” of every major power have been working for years to probe for weaknesses in these systems and in many cases have devised cyberweapons, typically, malicious software (malware) and computer viruses, to exploit those weaknesses for military advantage.5

Although activity in cyberspace is much more difficult to detect and track than conventional military operations, enough information has become public to indicate that the major nuclear powers, notably China, Russia, and the United States, along with such secondary powers as Iran and North Korea, have established extensive cyberwarfare capabilities and engage in offensive cyberoperations on a regular basis, often aimed at critical military infrastructure. “Cyberspace is a contested environment where we are in constant contact with adversaries,” General Paul M. Nakasone, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command (Cybercom), told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2019. “We see near-peer competitors [China and Russia] conducting sustained campaigns below the level of armed conflict to erode American strength and gain strategic advantage.”

Although eager to speak of adversary threats to U.S. interests, Nakasone was noticeably but not surprisingly reluctant to say much about U.S. offensive operations in cyberspace. He acknowledged, however, that Cybercom took such action to disrupt possible Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections. “We created a persistent presence in cyberspace to monitor adversary actions and crafted tools and tactics to frustrate their efforts,” he testified in February. According to press accounts, this included a cyberattack aimed at paralyzing the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” in St. Petersburg said to have been deeply involved in generating disruptive propaganda during the 2016 presidential elections.6

Other press investigations have disclosed two other offensive operations undertaken by the United States. One called “Olympic Games” was intended to disrupt Iran’s drive to increase its uranium-enrichment capacity by sabotaging the centrifuges used in the process by infecting them with the so-called Stuxnet virus. Another left of launch effort was intended to cause malfunctions in North Korean missile tests.7 Although not aimed at either of the U.S. principal nuclear adversaries, those two attacks demonstrated a willingness and capacity to conduct cyberattacks on the nuclear infrastructure of other states.

Efforts by strategic rivals of the United States to infiltrate and eventually degrade U.S. nuclear infrastructure are far less documented but thought to be no less prevalent. Russia, for example, is believed to have planted malware in the U.S. electrical utility grid, possibly with the intent of cutting off the flow of electricity to critical NC3 facilities in the event of a major crisis.8 Indeed, every major power, including the United States, is believed to have crafted cyberweapons aimed at critical NC3 components and to have implanted malware in enemy systems for potential use in some future confrontation.

Pathways to Escalation

Knowing that the NC3 systems of the major powers are constantly being probed for weaknesses and probably infested with malware designed to be activated in a crisis, what does this say about the risks of escalation from a nonkinetic battle, that is, one fought without traditional weaponry, to a kinetic one, at first using conventional weapons and then, potentially, nuclear ones? None of this can be predicted in advance, but those analysts who have studied the subject worry about the emergence of dangerous new pathways for escalation. Indeed, several such scenarios have been identified.9

The first and possibly most dangerous path to escalation would arise from the early use of cyberweapons in a great power crisis to paralyze the vital command, control, and communications capabilities of an adversary, many of which serve nuclear and conventional forces. In the “fog of war” that would naturally ensue from such an encounter, the recipient of such an attack might fear more punishing follow-up kinetic attacks, possibly including the use of nuclear weapons, and, fearing the loss of its own arsenal, launch its weapons immediately. This might occur, for example, in a confrontation between NATO and Russian forces in east and central Europe or between U.S. and Chinese forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

Speaking of a possible confrontation in Europe, for example, James N. Miller Jr. and Richard Fontaine wrote that “both sides would have overwhelming incentives to go early with offensive cyber and counter-space capabilities to negate the other side’s military capabilities or advantages.” If these early attacks succeeded, “it could result in huge military and coercive advantage for the attacker.” This might induce the recipient of such attacks to back down, affording its rival a major victory at very low cost. Alternatively, however, the recipient might view the attacks on its critical command, control, and communications infrastructure as the prelude to a full-scale attack aimed at neutralizing its nuclear capabilities and choose to strike first. “It is worth considering,” Miller and Fontaine concluded, “how even a very limited attack or incident could set both sides on a slippery slope to rapid escalation.”10

U.S. servicemen conduct a defensive cyberoperations exercise at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on March 8.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Renae Pittman)What makes the insertion of latent malware in an adversary’s NC3 systems so dangerous is that it  may not even need to be activated to increase the risk of nuclear escalation. If a nuclear-armed state comes to believe that its critical systems are infested with enemy malware, its leaders might not trust the information provided by its early-warning systems in a crisis and might misconstrue the nature of an enemy attack, leading them to overreact and possibly launch their nuclear weapons out of fear they are at risk of a preemptive strike.

“The uncertainty caused by the unique character of a cyber threat could jeopardize the credibility of the nuclear deterrent and undermine strategic stability in ways that advances in nuclear and conventional weapons do not,” Page O. Stoutland and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer wrote in 2018 paper for the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “[T]he introduction of a flaw or malicious code into nuclear weapons through the supply chain that compromises the effectiveness of those weapons could lead to a lack of confidence in the nuclear deterrent,” undermining strategic stability.11 Without confidence in the reliability of its nuclear weapons infrastructure, a nuclear-armed state may misinterpret confusing signals from its early-warning systems and, fearing the worst, launch its own nuclear weapons rather than lose them to an enemy’s first strike. This makes the scenario proffered in the 2018 NPR report, of a nuclear response to an enemy cyberattack, that much more alarming.

Yet another pathway to escalation could arise from a cascading series of cyberstrikes and counterstrikes against vital national infrastructure rather than on military targets. All major powers, along with Iran and North Korea, have developed and deployed cyberweapons designed to disrupt and destroy major elements of an adversary’s key economic systems, such as power grids, financial systems, and transportation networks. As noted, Russia has infiltrated the U.S. electrical grid, and it is widely believed that the United States has done the same in Russia.12 The Pentagon has also devised a plan known as “Nitro Zeus,” intended to immobilize the entire Iranian economy and so force it to capitulate to U.S. demands or, if that approach failed, to pave the way for a crippling air and missile attack.13

The danger here is that economic attacks of this sort, if undertaken during a period of tension and crisis, could lead to an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks against ever more vital elements of an adversary’s critical infrastructure, producing widespread chaos and harm and eventually leading one side to initiate kinetic attacks on critical military targets, risking the slippery slope to nuclear conflict. For example, a Russian cyberattack on the U.S. power grid could trigger U.S. attacks on Russian energy and financial systems, causing widespread disorder in both countries and generating an impulse for even more devastating attacks. At some point, such attacks “could lead to major conflict and possibly nuclear war.”14

These are by no means the only pathways to escalation resulting from the offensive use of cyberweapons. Others include efforts by third parties, such as proxy states or terrorist organizations, to provoke a global nuclear crisis by causing early-warning systems to generate false readings (“spoofing”) of missile launches. Yet, they do provide a clear indication of the severity of the threat. As states’ reliance on cyberspace grows and cyberweapons become more powerful, the dangers of unintended or accidental escalation can only grow more severe.

‘Defending Forward’

Under these circumstances, one would think the major powers would seek to place restrictions on the use of offensive cyberweapons, especially those aimed at critical NC3 systems. This approach, however, is not being pursued by the United States and the other major powers.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Defense was empowered to conduct offensive cyberstrikes on foreign states and entities in response to like attacks on the United States, but any such moves required high-level review by the White House and were rarely approved. This approach was embedded in Presidential Policy Directive 20 (PPD-20), adopted in October 2012, which states that any cyberaction that might result in “significant consequences,” such as loss of life or adverse foreign policy impacts, required “specific presidential approval.”

Officials in the Trump administration found this requirement unduly restrictive and so persuaded the president to rescind PPD-20 and replace it with a more permissive measure. The resulting document, National Security Presidential Memorandum 13 (NSPM-13), was approved in September 2018 but has not been made public. From what is known of NSPM-13, senior military commanders, such as Nakasone, enjoy preapproval to undertake offensive strikes against foreign entities under certain specified conditions without further White House clearance. In accordance with the new policy, military planners can prepare for offensive cyberattacks by seeking vulnerabilities in adversarial computer networks and by implanting malware in these weak spots for potential utilization if a retaliatory strike is initiated.15

As translated into formal military doctrine, this approach is described as “defending forward,” or seeking out the originators of cyberattacks aimed at this country and neutralizing them through counterstrikes and the insertion of malware for future activation. “Defending forward as close as possible to the origin of adversary activity extends our reach to expose adversaries’ weaknesses, learn their intentions and capabilities, and counter attacks close to their origins.”16

In embracing this strategy, Nakasone and other senior officials insist that their intention is defensive: to protect U.S. cyberspace against attack and deter future assaults by letting opponents know their own systems will be crippled if they persist in malicious behavior. “For any nation that’s taking cyber activity against the United States,” said National Security Advisor John Bolton when announcing the adoption of NSPM-13, “they should expect…we will respond offensively as well as defensively.”17 For any potential adversary following these developments, defending forward will certainly be interpreted as preparation for offensive strikes in the event of a crisis, inviting stepped up defensive and offensive moves on their part.

Much less is known about the strategic cyberwar policies of other powers, but they likely parallel those of the United States. China, for example, has long been known to employ cyberspace to spy on U.S. military technological capabilities and steal what they can for use in developing their own weapons systems. Russia has been even more aggressive in its use of cyberspace, employing cyberweapons to cripple Ukraine’s electrical grid in 2015 and to influence elections. That Moscow has also sought to infiltrate the U.S. electrical grid suggests that it too intends to defend forward, by preparing for possible cyberattacks on U.S. command, control, and communications capabilities, including NC3 facilities.

Although occurring largely in secret, what can aptly be called “an arms race in cyberspace” is underway. Where this might lead is difficult to foresee, but it is certain to involve the development of ever more potent cyberweapons. Each nuclear power will seek to enhance its defenses against future cyberattack. Yet, just as is the case in missile warfare, it is easier and cheaper to devise new offensive cybersystems than defensive ones. In the event of a crisis, then, there will be a strong temptation to employ the new technologies early in the encounter, when they might be used to maximum effect, setting in motion an escalatory process resulting in nuclear weapons use. As noted, the mere fact that disruptive malware is known to have been embedded in the vital command-and-control systems of a nuclear power could lead it to distrust its early-warning and intelligence systems and, in a panicky response to ambiguous signals, assume the worst and launch its nuclear weapons.

Arms Control in Cyberspace

Given the various ways in which conflict in cyberspace could result in nuclear weapons use, steps must be taken to minimize the risk of escalation from one domain to the other, but conceiving of agreements to curb malicious and escalatory behavior in cyberspace is no easy task. Computer software cannot readily be classified and counted the way planes and missiles can, and states do not agree on definitions of offensive and defensive cyberweapons, let alone on measures to control them. Nevertheless, some efforts have been made to develop rules and protocols to restrain the destabilizing use of cybertechnologies, and these provide a framework for further consideration.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks November 12, 2018 at the Internet Governance Forum in Paris, where he introduced the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace," which has been signed by more than 50 nations, but not the United States. (Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)Perhaps the most extensive effort to adopt rules for acceptable behavior in cyberspace has been undertaken by the United Nations, in accordance with a series of General Assembly resolutions on the topic. This process first gained momentum in December 2011, when that body, “expressing concern” that emerging cybertechnologies “can potentially be used for purposes that are inconsistent with the objectives of maintaining international stability and security,” established a group of governmental experts to assess the dangers in cyberspace and consider “possible cooperative measures to address them, including norms, rules, or principles of responsible behavior of States.”18

In its initial report, released in June 2013, the experts group warned of increasing threats to the safety of what it described as the realm of information and communications technology (ICT). “States are concerned,” it noted, “that embedding harmful hidden functions in ICTs could be used in ways that affect secure and reliable ICT use…and damage national security.” With this in mind, it affirmed a basic principle: “International law, and in particular the Charter of the United Nations, is applicable” in the ICT domain. On this basis, it called on member states to work together in “the application of norms derived from existing international law relevant to the use of ICTs.” Furthermore, as part of this effort, it recommended the crafting of confidence-building measures, such as the creation of information-sharing mechanisms to investigate serious cybersecurity incidents, aimed at minimizing the risk of unintended consequences.19

As the evidence of dangerous developments in cyberspace multiplied, UN General Assembly Resolution 68/243, called for the formation of a new experts group to consider restraints on ICT malpractice. That body released its report in July 2015, providing the most comprehensive blueprint to date for the management of cyberspace. Building on the earlier experts group report, it articulated a set of norms that should govern behavior in this realm. Foremost among these was the precept that states “should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure” of another country. Other norms articulated in the report include the proviso that states should not allow their territory to be used for “internationally wrongful acts using ICTs” and should seek to “prevent the proliferation of malicious ICT tools and techniques and the use of harmful hidden functions.”20

By articulating a set of fundamental norms, the 2015 experts group report provides a useful starting point for further consideration of arms control in cyberspace. Lacking any decision-making authority, however, the UN group in advocating for those norms called only for conversations among states on their implementation and the adoption of “voluntary, non-binding norms” for responsible behavior. The General Assembly, addressing the topic on several occasions since then, has only reiterated the principles of the 2015 report and called on member states to follow its guidance without achieving any obvious, genuine progress.

Several other initiatives have been undertaken by states and nonstate entities to promote restraint in cyberspace. In February 2017, Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, called for the formulation of a “Digital Geneva Convention,” modeled on the existing, post-World War II Geneva Conventions, aimed at protecting civilians from the negative consequences of cyberattacks.21 Some academics, including scholars at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, have carried this notion further, calling for the worldwide embrace of "cyberpeace" based on the adoption of common norms and rules.22 “Just as the world’s governments came together in 1949 to adopt the Fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians in times of war,” he declared, “we need a Digital Geneva Convention that will commit governments to implement the norms that have been developed to protect civilians on the internet in times of peace.”

President Emmanuel Macron of France has advocated for similar measures at the international level. In November 2018, he unveiled the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace” at a major gathering in the French capital. Essentially a rewording of past UN resolutions and the 2015 experts group report, it called for international cooperation in reducing malicious behavior, especially cybercrime and political warfare.23 Although signed by leaders of more than 50 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom, President Donald Trump refused to endorse the Paris call, presumably because it might infringe on U.S. plans to employ cyberweapons in an offensive mode (no reasons were provided for the U.S. refusal to sign).24

At this point, the likelihood that the United States, Russia, and China will adopt and respect international constraints on the use of cyberweapons aimed at the critical information and communications systems of their adversaries appears virtually nil. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that UN officials, industry figures, and prominent national leaders continue to articulate such norms and call for their adoption. Hopefully, these precepts will form the basis for binding international agreements, when enough key governments are prepared to embrace such measures. In the meantime, it is essential that policymakers and arms control advocates pursue other routes to arms control in cyberspace.

Perhaps the most promising approach in this regard is the adoption of formal or informal agreements to eschew certain behaviors that would increase the risk of unintended or accidental nuclear escalation. This would involve meetings between U.S. and Russian officials, possibly under the auspices of the currently suspended Strategic Stability Dialogue; between U.S. and Chinese officials; or possibly all three together aimed at identifying certain rules of the road to which all sides would agree to adhere, such as a ban on the implantation of malware in the NC3 systems of their adversaries.

A precedent for such high-level accords is provided by U.S. President Barack Obama’s September 2015 agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping to bar the use of cyberspace for the theft of intellectual property. Although there is widespread debate over the extent to which China has abided by the 2015 accord, there is general agreement that it did result for a time in a diminished level of Chinese cyberespionage in the United States.25

Such an approach was advanced by Stoutland and Pitts-Kieter in their 2018 study of cyberweapons and nuclear stability. “As a priority first step,” they said, “the United States should seek to initiate a bilateral dialogue with Russia” intended to “develop mutual understanding on how cyber threats can affect deterrence and strategic stability.” Such talks, they wrote, “should be held with a view toward developing a shared understanding of our mutual interest in minimizing that risk and identifying practical ways to address it bilaterally and multilaterally.”26

At present, none of these approaches for the control of cyberspace appears to be making any headway. As a consequence, the arms race in cyberspace is rapidly gaining momentum, greatly increasing the likelihood that future confrontations among the major powers will entail the early use of sophisticated cyberweapons, magnifying the risk of rapid and uncontrolled nuclear escalation. Because this danger has received far less attention than other pathways to escalation, it is essential that policymakers and arms control advocates devote far more effort to controlling cyberspace than they have up until now.



1. U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review (draft), January 2018, p. 17, at https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/npr2018-draft.pdf.

2. Aaron Mehta, “Nuclear Posture Review Draft Leaks,” Defense News, January 12, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/space/2018/01/12/nuclear-posture-review-draft-leaks-new-weapons-coming-amid-strategic-shift/.

3. For background on these efforts, see Andrew Futter, “The Dangers of Using Cyberattacks to Counter Nuclear Threats,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2016, pp. 8–14.

4. For a comprehensive assessment of the cyberweapons threat in all its forms, see
David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon (New York: Crown, 2018).

5. For a thorough assessment of these vulnerabilities, see Beyza Unal and Patricia Lewis, “Cybersecurity of Nuclear Weapons Systems,” Chatham House, January 2018, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2018-01-11-cybersecurity-nuclear-weapons-unal-lewis-final.pdf.

6. Julian E. Barnes, “Cyberattack Neutralized Russian Trolls as U.S. Voted,” The New York Times, February 27, 2019.

7. For background on these operations, see Sanger, Perfect Weapon, pp. 7–36 and 276–283.

8. David E. Sanger, “Russian Hackers Train Focus on U.S. Power Grid,” The New York Times, July 28, 2018.

9. For a summary of such scenarios, see Page O. Stoutland and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, “Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age: Report of the Cyber-Nuclear Weapons Study Group,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, September 2018, p. 12, https://media.nti.org/documents/Cyber_report_finalsmall.pdf.

10. James N. Miller Jr. and Richard Fontaine, “A New Era in U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability,” Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Center for a New American Security, September 2017, p. 18, https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNASReport-ProjectPathways-Finalb.pdf.

11. Stoutland and Pitts-Kiefer, “Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age,” p. 12.

12. See Ivan Nechepurenko, “Kremlin Warns of Cyberwar After Report of U.S. Hacking of Electrical Grid,” The New York Times, July 18, 2019.

13. See Sanger, Perfect Weapon, pp. 43–47.

14. Miller Jr. and Fontaine, “New Era in U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability,” p. 19.

15. Zachary Fryer-Biggs, “The Pentagon Has Prepared a Cyberattack Against Russia,” Daily Beast, November 2, 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-pentagon-has-prepared-a-cyber-attack-against-russia.

16. U.S. Cyber Command, “Achieve and Maintain Cyberspace Superiority: Command Vision for U.S. Cyber Command,” n.d., https://www.cybercom.mil/Portals/56/Documents/USCYBERCOM%20Vision%20April%202018.pdf?ver=2018-06-14-152556-010 (released
April 2018).

17. Fryer-Biggs, “Pentagon Has Prepared a Cyberattack Against Russia.”

18. UN General Assembly, Resolution 66/24, December 2, 2011.

19. UN General Assembly, “Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/68/98, June 24, 2013 (containing the report).

20. UN General Assembly, “Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/70/174, July 22, 2015 (containing the report).

21. Brad Smith, “The Need for a Digital Geneva Convention,” Microsoft, February 14, 2017, https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2017/02/14/need-digital-geneva-convention/.

22. Scott Shackelford, "The Meaning of Cyber Peace," Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, https://ndias.nd.edu/news-publications/ndias-quarterly/the-meaning-of-cyber-peace/.

23. “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace,” November 12, 2018, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/paris_call_cyber_cle443433-1.pdf.

24. David E. Sanger, “U.S. Declines to Sign Macron Declaration Against Cyberattacks,” The New York Times, November 13, 2018.

25. See Adam Segal, “Is China Still Stealing Western Intellectual Property?” Council on Foreign Relations, September 26, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/blog/china-still-stealing-western-intellectual-property.

26. Stoutland and Pitts-Kiefer, “Nuclear Weapons in the New Cyber Age,” p. 27.


Michael T. Klare is a professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. This is the fourth in the “Arms Control Tomorrow” series, in which he considers disruptive emerging technologies and their implications for war-fighting and arms control.


Rapidly advancing cybertechnology threatens to undermine traditional thinking on when the use of nuclear weapons may be provoked.

Russia, China, Arms Control, and the Value of New START

November 2019
By Thomas Countryman

Until President Donald Trump took office in 2017, every U.S. president for the previous 50 years proposed and pursued negotiations with Moscow as a means to regulate destabilizing nuclear arms competition and reduce the risk of the United States and its allies being destroyed in a nuclear war. They sought and concluded a series of treaties, with strong bipartisan support, that have made the United States and the world much safer.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (left) and U.S. President Richard Nixon celebrate their signatures of the agreements resulting from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks on May 26, 1972.  The talks opened 50 years ago, on November 17, 1969. (Photo: Getty Images.)Nearly exactly 50 years ago, for example, the United States and Russia opened the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks on Nov. 17, 1969. Lead U.S. negotiator Gerard Smith wrote that his opening message that day was that “[t]he limitation of strategic arms is in the mutual interests of our country and the Soviet Union.”1

What was true then is true now. Sadly, Trump has not continued the efforts of his predecessors. The United States abandoned the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty this year and appears ready to allow the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to lapse in 2021. If New START expires, there will be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.

Instead, Trump says he wants to bring China into trilateral negotiations with Russia on a new agreement to limit nuclear weapons not covered by New START. Efforts to limit all types of nuclear weapons with other nuclear-armed states are admirable, but such negotiations would be complex and time consuming. There is no realistic chance that a new agreement along these lines could be finalized before New START expires.

This approach has drawn a bipartisan rebuke, and has prompted House and Senate lawmakers to introduce bills to support New START extension. In the House, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced the “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” bill, which expresses the sense of Congress that the United States should seek to extend New START so long as Russia remains in compliance. Similarly, in the Senate, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced a companion bill of the same title and purpose.

Extending New START would preserve verifiable caps on the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia. The treaty limits each side to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. Without these limits and verification measures, Russia is well positioned to rapidly upload more additional warheads than the United States could, and each side would have far less insight into the other’s nuclear deployment and modernization plans. As a result, the already difficult and uneasy U.S. nuclear relationship with Russia would become even more complicated, the risks of renewed nuclear competition would grow, and efforts to mitigate nuclear risks in other corners of the globe would become more difficult.

The Value of Nuclear Arms Control

Previous presidents, since Dwight Eisenhower have recognized the value of effective nuclear arms control. They understood that:

  • Talking to an adversary, whether a superpower such as the Soviet Union or a lesser challenger such as Iran, is not a sign of weakness but a hardheaded and realistic means to reduce threats posed to the United States.
  • Treaties provide rules of the road that enable the United States to pursue more effectively its economic and security interests while constraining other nations’ ability to act against U.S. interests more than they constrain U.S. freedom of action.
  • Arms control agreements are not a concession made by the United States or a favor done to another nation, but an essential component of and contribution to U.S. national security.
  • In a world in which the United States claims global leadership, Washington must take the lead bilaterally and multilaterally, proposing initiatives that greatly reduce the risk that weapons of mass destruction spread or are used.
  • The pursuit of reductions of nuclear stockpiles and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons as a moral and, since approval by the U.S. Senate of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1969, legal obligation, one that can and must be pursued regardless of the ups and downs of great-power relations.
  • There can be no winners in a nuclear war. Mutual assured destruction is not a theory or a philosophy; it is a reality. Since the time the Soviet Union achieved reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1960s, neither the United States nor Russia can launch a nuclear attack on the other’s homeland without the near-certain destruction of its own homeland. Arms control agreements and associated stability mechanisms serve to reduce the risk that a cycle of assured destruction will begin.

As a consequence of U.S. diplomatic leadership and the support of Congress, a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later Russia, verifiably reduced the two superpowers’ strategic nuclear arsenals by more than 85 percent below their Cold War peaks. The total destructive power of those weapons has been reduced from the equivalent of more than a million Hiroshima-size bombs to the somewhat less insane equivalent of 80,000 such weapons. One of those agreements, the INF Treaty, verifiably eliminated an entire class of destabilizing missiles that threatened European security and increased the risk of superpower miscalculation.

The United States helped lead the way to the negotiation and conclusion of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear test explosion, no matter what the yield. Although the CTBT has not formally entered into force due to the failure of eight key states to ratify, the treaty has been signed by 184 nations, including all five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT; has established a global monitoring network that is operating around the clock to help detect and deter clandestine testing; and created a global norm against nuclear testing. Today, no state is actively engaged in nuclear testing.

U.S.-led efforts to reduce the role and the number of nuclear weapons and to end nuclear testing, combined with political pledges from the United States and the other nuclear-armed states to take further disarmament steps, have helped to solidify international support for the NPT and paved the way for its indefinite extension in 1995.

Many of these positive trends have been reversed, and others are at risk. This is due in part to a deficit of U.S. leadership and the growing body of thought of many in the administration and Congress today who believe that the United States should not discuss vital national security issues or consider compromise with adversaries such as Russia and Iran until they have fully met U.S. demands in all fields. They think international treaties are inherently disadvantageous to the United States, as they constrain the freedom of action of the world’s leading military and economic power. They imagine that because arms control agreements involve a degree of compromise, they grant unwarranted concessions to opponents. They deem such agreements to have no value if they do not solve every problem between the parties, an all-or-nothing approach exemplified by the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. They credit the Cold War fallacy that there is a way to win a nuclear war, that a numerical or technical advantage can give the United States a dominance of power that would spare the country from destruction in a nuclear exchange. Sadly, no U.S. official today is able to repeat the obvious fact that motivated President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to declare that “[a] nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

Over the last two years, this line of thinking is evident in the Trump administration’s retreat from global leadership, its embrace of authoritarian leaders, its weakening partnership with democratic allies, its withdrawal from international agreements, and its inability to make any new and meaningful agreements. The administration has weakened restraints on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. It has refused to reconsider CTBT ratification or otherwise reinforce the de facto nuclear testing moratorium, which has preserved the important U.S. technical advantage in the nuclear field.

Now, with the demise of the INF Treaty and the looming expiration date of New START, the administration has failed to put forward a serious plan for constraining Russia’s nuclear arsenal. There is a serious risk that, without extension of New START and mutual restraints on INF Treaty-range missile systems after the end of that treaty, the conditions for an expensive, risky, and destabilizing nuclear weapons race will emerge, similar to but riskier and more expensive than the arms race in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the absence of responsible steps to prevent a dangerous new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race, Congress can and should be ready to point the way forward.

No INF Treaty, What Now?

The INF Treaty was a signature foreign policy achievement for Reagan. It was unprecedented in its requirement of the destruction of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, resulting in the elimination of 2,692 Soviet and U.S. missiles. It established the principle of on-site inspection, a concept still central today to effective agreements and to U.S. understanding of Russian systems. It resolved a dangerous split within NATO and reduced a genuine threat to U.S. allies and to peace in Europe. It was central to establishing the opportunity for genuine cooperation between Washington and Moscow.

Monitoring the INF Treaty, a Soviet inspector examines a U.S. ground-launched cruise missile prior to destruction on October 18, 1988. In August, the United States withdrew from the treaty. (Photo: Jose Lopez/Department of Defense)The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty will now free the Russian military to plan new generations of missiles aimed at Russia’s NATO and non-NATO neighbors while plausibly blaming the United States for the treaty’s demise.

The U.S. decision to terminate the treaty, now combined with the possibility of new U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, was risky and unwise. It opened the door to a new phase of destabilizing INF Treaty-range missile competition with Russia.

These missiles, whether nuclear armed or conventional, U.S. or Russian, would be able to strike targets deep inside Russia and in western Europe. Their short time-to-target capability increases the risk of miscalculation in a crisis. Any nuclear attack on Russia involving U.S. intermediate-range, nuclear-armed missiles based in Europe could provoke a massive Russian nuclear counterstrike on Europe and on the U.S. homeland.

This leaves open the questions: what happens next, and what can be done to mitigate the risks?

To encourage Russia to avoid expanding missile deployments, including the 9M729 intermediate-range cruise missile that the Obama and Trump administrations confirmed was tested and deployed in violation of the INF Treaty, a new and more serious NATO commitment to arms control is needed to protect Europe and the United States.

One option would be for NATO to declare as a bloc that no alliance members will field any INF Treaty-prohibited missiles or any equivalent new nuclear capabilities in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy treaty-prohibited systems where they could hit NATO territory.

This would require Russia to dismantle or move at least some of the currently deployed 9M729 missiles. As the United States and Russia dispute the range of that missile, they could simply agree to bar deployments west of the Ural Mountains or beyond. The U.S. and Russian presidents could agree to this “no-first INF Treaty-range missile deployment plan” through an executive agreement that would be verified through national technical means of intelligence, monitoring mechanisms available through the Open Skies Treaty and the Vienna Document, and, as necessary, new on-site inspection arrangements.

Another possible approach would be to negotiate a new agreement, perhaps as part of a New START follow-on, that verifiably prohibits ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic or cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. As a recent UN Institute for Disarmament Research study explains, the sophisticated verification procedures and technologies already in place under New START can be applied with almost no modification to verify the absence of nuclear warheads deployed on shorter-range missiles.2

Such an approach would require additional declarations and inspections of any ground-launched INF Treaty-range systems. To be of lasting value, such a framework would require that Moscow and Washington agree to extend New START.

The Future of New START

New START reduced deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals to their lowest level since the 1960s. It built on previously agreed systems of notification, verification, and inspection. To date, the two sides have exchanged more than 10,000 notifications of movement of delivery systems and have conducted dozens of on-site verification inspections on each other’s territory.

If New START expires, there will be no limits on deployments of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, such as this Russian SS-24 ICBM.  (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)As a result, the United States has a significantly clearer picture of Russian strategic capabilities than it could attain by national intelligence means alone. There have been no credible allegations of Russian violations of the agreement and, despite some questionable Russian concerns about verifying the conversion of U.S. strategic nuclear systems to conventional roles, the United States also continues to fully implement the treaty.

The Trump administration, however, appears to believe in the myth that Russia needs New START more than the United States does and that the treaty can be leveraged to gain something more from Moscow.

Taking these factors into account, the most important step that the two sides could take would be to take advantage of the option, as described in Article XIV, to extend the treaty by five years to 2026.

To do so, it is important that the two sides promptly begin consultations on key issues raised by each side. Russia has raised concerns about the verification of the permitted procedures to convert some U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems to conventional roles. The United States understandably has suggested that New START should account for new Russian strategic nuclear weapons systems, including the Status-6 nuclear-armed, long-range torpedo and the proposed nuclear-propelled, long-range cruise missile. If both sides are willing to engage in a professional dialogue relatively soon, using the mechanism contained in the treaty, the Bilateral Consultative Commission, these issues can be addressed in a mutually agreed manner before or soon after a decision to extend New START is taken.

New START extension is the most significant step Trump could take with Russia that would improve national security, lay the basis for progress in other areas of Russian misbehavior, and draw bipartisan support.

The United States does not need and cannot afford a new Cold War-style nuclear arms race, nor does it need to give China a cynical excuse to expand its arsenal, as is likely if the United States and Russia discard New START without a replacement agreement and pursue expanded deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the wake of the INF Treaty collapse.

As an insurance policy against increased Russian and U.S. strategic warhead deployments in the absence of New START, Congress could prohibit the use of funds for the purpose of increasing U.S. strategic warhead and delivery vehicles above New START limits so long as the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Russia remains under the New START limits.

During Senate consideration of the treaty in 2010, the White House made a strong commitment to sustain the funding necessary to replace and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems and for warhead life extension programs. Since then, the cost estimates for those programs have grown significantly, and the Trump administration has added a number of new requests that would add new nuclear capabilities to the arsenal.

If this administration, whether through inaction or proactively, forces the end of New START, Congress should not go along supinely with the administration’s plan for spending on new nuclear weapons, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates to be $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. Instead, Congress should seek more cost-effective program alternatives that can save hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars while still allowing for the deployment of a nuclear force more than sufficient to deter any and all nuclear adversaries.

A Broader Arms Control Agreement?

The Trump administration has delayed any action on extension of New START and has proposed instead expanding New START to include China as a treaty party and to set new limits on tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by New START. When described this way, such an approach may seem to make sense. Involving other nuclear-armed states and all types of nuclear weapons in the disarmament process should be a medium-term goal of any administration.

Yet, given the antipathy expressed toward New START and all other treaties by President Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, and the difficulties of engaging China on nuclear arms control matters, that approach appears to be a poison pill, a pretext for withdrawing from New START or allowing it to expire rather than to sustain meaningful limits on Russia’s strategic arsenal.

There are several obstacles in the way of a more ambitious trilateral nuclear arms control deal with China and Russia. First, China has very little incentive to participate. With a nuclear arsenal less than one-tenth the size of U.S. and Russian stockpiles, it argues that these two sides need to reduce before including China in their discussions. The United States has not defined what agreement it would want China to embrace—to commit to the limitations New START imposed on Moscow and Washington? This would mean blessing a fivefold increase in China’s weapons stockpile, which is hardly in the U.S. interest. Alternatively, would the United States agree to reduce U.S. and Russian deployments to China’s level, estimated at more than 300 warheads? That would be a real contribution to reducing the risk of nuclear war, but it is not currently achievable for political and security reasons.

Second, Russia counts the French and UK nuclear deterrents like the U.S. arsenal, as belonging to a potential adversary. It has suggested that multilateral discussions should include not only Beijing, but also Paris and London. Further, Moscow is not ready at this time to discuss its nonstrategic arsenal, particularly if the United States is not prepared to discuss issues of greatest concern to Moscow, such as U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense.

Third, the United States would not be ready to discuss reducing its own nonstrategic nuclear stockpile before completing consultations with NATO partners, which would inevitably be complex and time consuming.

Finally, even under ideal conditions, a bilateral negotiation on a single topic takes years. Even if Russia and China were willing to discuss the proposed Trump agenda, a trilateral discussion of multiple topics would inevitably take considerably longer, even if it were pursued by an administration committed to the topic and with successful experience in negotiations. This is not such an administration, which features officials long opposed to New START, combined with a nearly complete absence of experienced officials in the U.S. Department of State. It is utterly unrealistic to expect such an agreement could be achieved before the scheduled expiration of New START in a little more than a year.

Strategic Stability Beyond New START

If New START is not extended, the two superpowers will find themselves in 2021 with no legal restraints on their nuclear arsenals. This absence would be a foreboding political signal: if the two main nuclear powers cannot agree on the urgency of reducing the nuclear threat hanging over them, what chances will there be for reducing other areas of tension?

As U.S. intelligence leaders have testified, our national technical means alone, even if upgraded at great expense, could not fully substitute for the insight into the Russian arsenal gained from New START’s notification requirements. In the absence of confidence about the other side’s capabilities, U.S. and Russian planners will have greater incentive to engage in worst-case scenario planning, driving a spiral of increased spending on destabilizing systems.

A deep strategic stability dialogue between Washington and Moscow is necessary today to reduce the risk of unintended escalation and will be even more essential tomorrow if New START is allowed to expire. Central to this effort is the intensification of U.S.-Russian military-to-military contacts. The no-contact policy dating back to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was meant to show Moscow there can be no business as usual, but it now works against U.S. security interests because it prevents the kind of information exchange and relationships that could help prevent an incident from becoming a conflict.

For decades, U.S. presidents have pursued arms control agreements and dialogue with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, under difficult circumstances, because it is the U.S. national security interest to reduce the risks posed by the world’s most dangerous weapons, and especially between the two nations with the largest and deadliest nuclear arsenals.

Especially at this time of increasing tensions between leaders in Moscow and Washington, more serious and sustained U.S. leadership is needed to reduce nuclear risks, cut excess nuclear arsenals, and to engage other nuclear-armed states in the nuclear disarmament enterprise. By agreeing to extend New START, President Trump has an opportunity to get the United States and Russia back on track and to set the stage for more ambitious multilateral nuclear disarmament diplomacy.



1.  Gerard Smith, Doubletalk: The Story of SALT I (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p. 75.

2.  Pavel Podvig and Ryan Snyder, “Watch Them Go: Simplifying the Elimination of Fissile Materials and Nuclear Weapons,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, August 2019, https://unidir.org/publication/watch-them-go-simplifying-elimination-fissile-materials-and-nuclear-weapons.


Thomas Countryman served for 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and rose to become acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security before retiring in 2017. He now chairs the Arms Control Association’s board of directors. This article is adapted from testimony he delivered July 25 to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment.

Extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is essential to maintain stability between the United States and Russia.

Frustrations Surface at CTBT Conference

November 2019
By Shannon Bugos

The 11th international conference to discuss steps to bring the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force revealed tensions between Russia and the United States, which failed to attend. The meeting convened Sept. 25 at UN headquarters in New York.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the Article XIV conference for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in New York on Sept. 25. (Photo: CTBTO)The treaty text allows for conferences every other year to discuss approaches to encourage the signatures and ratifications that are still necessary to bring the treaty into force. According to Article XIV of the treaty, the agreement cannot enter into force until it has been signed and ratified by the 44 countries listed in Annex 2. Eight of those states—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States—have yet to deposit their instruments of ratification.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemned the United States, which avoided the conference, for failing to ratify the CTBT, calling this “the main destabilizing event.” Moscow ratified the CTBT in 2000.

During his remarks, Lavrov also declared that Russia has “not staged a single nuclear explosion” since observing the global moratorium on nuclear testing in 1991 and intends to continue observing the moratorium, but only so long as “other nuclear states follow the same line.” His remarks likely allude to a May statement made by the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, that “Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard outlined” by the treaty. The United States has yet to provide any credible information to back up that statement.

In addition to Lavrov, foreign ministers and other diplomats representing nearly 50 countries spoke to support the treaty’s entry into force. Signed in 1996, the pact prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any nuclear explosion” no matter what the yield, anywhere in the world.

Since the last conference in 2017, two countries have ratified the CTBT: Thailand in September 2018 and Zimbabwe in February 2019. Another, Tuvalu, signed it in September 2018. In total, there are now 168 ratifications and 184 signatures.

Izumi Nakamitsu, UN undersecretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, opened the conference, saying unequivocally that there is “no substitute” for the CTBT. Nakamitsu declared that the entry into force of the CTBT “must be a priority,” a call that the 50 states-parties in attendance, as well as the European Union and a group of more than 40 leaders from civil society, reinforced in their own statements.

Many states additionally stressed the importance of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which is responsible for developing and operating the treaty’s global monitoring and verification system. In his statement, CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo highlighted the organization’s achievements, specifically with regard to the International Monitoring System (IMS), which constantly monitors the world for any signs of nuclear explosions.

The IMS is nearing completion and, when finished, will consist of 337 facilities worldwide. “The progressive build-up of the [IMS],” Zerbo said, “has resulted in a level of maturity, readiness, and relevance that has been demonstrated on numerous occasions and in a variety of circumstances.”

Most recently, the IMS demonstrated its importance after an accident that set off an explosion and release of radioactivity off the coast of Russia that involved Moscow’s development of a new nuclear-powered, long-range cruise missile. Two days after the Aug. 8 incident, the CTBTO reported that some IMS stations in Russia began to halt transmissions of data. By Aug. 13, five of the seven radionuclide stations in Russia had gone silent, although when two came back online a week later, they backfilled information to the CTBTO.

The United States stayed away from an international meeting focused on bringing the CTBT into force.

The Demise of the ABM Treaty: An Insider Recounts the Final Days

November 2019
By Edward Ifft

Arms control is going through a very difficult period. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is gone, the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty is basically dead, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran is in tatters, the future of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is in doubt, it appears possible the United States will withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, and there are concerns over whether damage will be done to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at its review conference next year.

A Homing Overlay Experiment test vehicle is displayed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The prototypical hit-to-kill missile defense weapon was a potential component of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, a 1980s plan that began to unravel the 1972 ABM Treaty. (Photo: Kelly Michals/flickr)It is useful to consider the events surrounding what seems to have started this unhealthy trend: the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. This was the first major defection from a modern arms control agreement.

The ABM Treaty, which strictly constrained the ballistic missile defense systems of the U.S. and Soviet Union, was negotiated as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) process, was approved by the Senate in an 88-2 vote, and entered into force in 1972. Further constraints were imposed in a 1974 protocol. Although a relatively small but influential group of U.S. advocates never reconciled to the idea that the United States would remain vulnerable to a large ballistic missile attack, most attention during the next decade was focused on constraining offensive forces.

President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech advocating a large ballistic missile defense system to protect the entire country changed that. Although the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars,” proved to be neither wise nor feasible, its goal was never actually renounced by U.S. leaders. Against this background, the Defense and Space Negotiating Group labored throughout the late 1980s to persuade the Soviet Union to loosen or reinterpret the ABM Treaty. It grappled with the concepts of research, development, and testing and what was allowed under the treaty. It failed in this effort, leaving hard feelings on both sides. The other two components of the Nuclear and Space Talks in Geneva successfully negotiated the INF Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Against this contentious background, the treaty’s Standing Consultative Commission (SCC), which was formed to implement the ABM Treaty, became the forum for U.S.-Soviet discussions. It had taken on the difficult task of trying to formulate technical criteria that could separate air defense interceptors from ballistic missile defense interceptors. It seemed obvious that this would be desirable in order to establish a clear boundary between legal and illegal activities, but the very idea was opposed by some in the Bush administration and Congress. Although U.S. and Soviet officials did manage to formulate some such technical criteria in the SCC, they were not accepted in Washington.

Stanley Riveles retired as U.S. SCC commissioner, and I was appointed acting commissioner in the summer of 2000. About the only enjoyable part of this assignment was a trip in August 2000 to the U.S. base in Thule, Greenland, for consultations with Denmark on upgrading the U.S. early-warning radars based there. A routine SCC session was held in the fall of 2000, and the fateful final session was scheduled for November-December 2001. The administration insisted that the session be limited to two weeks, not nearly enough time to deal properly with the complicated issues in play, but higher official levels may have already decided on the outcome.

Strongly influenced by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, as well as the perceived future ballistic missile threat from Iran and North Korea, President George W. Bush’s administration sought to loosen or eliminate the ABM Treaty to gain greater freedom to conduct testing of more exotic ballistic missile defense systems and deploy limited defenses against accidental or unauthorized attacks, and those by what they called rogue states. The former Soviet states sought to block all this by preserving the ABM Treaty as written and interpreted. The administration had put forward the idea that the United States and Russia should withdraw from the treaty together. There was about as much chance of that as of the United States acquiring Greenland today. The rest of the world strongly supported the treaty, which had repeatedly been called “the cornerstone of international security.” One of the “13 practical steps” unanimously agreed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference called for “the preservation and strengthening” of the ABM Treaty.

Flanked by his top national security advisers on December 13, 2001, President George W. Bush announces the U.S. intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty.  Treaty-related talks were underway in Geneva at the time, and U.S. representatives received word of the decision only hours before the announcement. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)The question of who should be at the table in the SCC was somewhat awkward. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 15 independent countries instantly appeared, and the question arose of what to do about the international arms control obligations the Soviet Union had undertaken. International law on this subject had not been tested often. The successor states to START were the four that inherited nuclear weapons on their territory and would accept inspections: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. Successor states for the INF Treaty included all 15 former Soviet states, except for the three Baltic states, which had a special status. The CFE Treaty had eight successor states, and so on. It appeared obvious that the four START states would be successors for the ABM Treaty, and they showed up at the SCC. Some in the Bush administration claimed that only the Russian Federation should be there because all legal ballistic missile defense systems were deployed in Russia. In addition, it would be easier to get rid of a treaty with only one other party rather than four. The U.S. SCC delegation had no clear instructions on the matter, but were certainly aware of the controversy in Washington. Ukraine in particular felt strongly about this and told me the United States had no right to pick and choose for which treaties Ukraine would be allowed to be a successor state. There was also the inconvenient fact that the United States had taken the strong early position that the former Soviet republics must accept all the arms control obligations of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian commissioner put me on the spot in a plenary meeting by asking how I viewed Ukrainian participation. Avoiding the legal issue, I replied that I viewed him as a “valued participant.” That seemed to put the issue to rest. In any case, there were always four countries on the other side of the table; we treated them as equals, and they hosted meetings and participated fully. The new countries naturally found themselves with a shortage of diplomats to behave as sovereign countries. The Kazakhstani commissioner was actually a gynecologist, but made a good diplomat and represented his country well. The Russian commissioner was Colonel Viktor Koltunov, a respected arms control expert and friend from the START negotiations.

Working Hard in Geneva

The first SCC session began November 3, 2001, with meetings of commissioners only at the U.S. mission in Geneva. The next day, the opening plenary was held at the Russian mission and went well. On Wednesday, I hosted Koltunov for lunch at Roberto’s, probably the best Italian restaurant in Switzerland. The conversation was pleasant but without any noticeable progress. On the way back to the U.S. mission, I expressed my disappointment to my interpreter. He replied, “Russians don’t really get the concept of pasta.” This gave me the feeling that I had been not only unable to produce any substantive progress, but had bungled the menu as well. On November 6, I took the Ukrainian commissioner to lunch, where he showed a good understanding of U.S. concerns but could offer no solutions. He seemed comfortable with my made-up concept of valued participant.

During the next day’s plenary meeting hosted by Ukraine, we enlisted the help of the Cumaen Sybil. In Roman mythology, the Cumaen Sybil was a mysterious prophetess who offered King Tarquin nine books of prophecy but at a high price. The king refused, and the sybil burned three of the books and repeated the offer. He again refused, and the sequence was repeated. The king finally ended up buying three books for a price that could have brought him all nine. The analogy was clear: time for saving the treaty was running out, and the United States was not going to lower the price for preserving it.

The other side of the table was not impressed. I had hoped it at least might awaken memories on the Russian side of how Soviet ambassador Vladimir Semenov, a gentleman of high culture, often referred to classical mythology during the original SALT. The most memorable of these was his reference to the “Procrustean bed.” This sent the U.S. delegation in Vienna, in the days before Google, scrambling to figure out what he was talking about.


According to some reports, by this time, Bush had already called Russian President Vladimir Putin to inform him of the U.S. intent to withdraw from the treaty. If so, our hard work was irrelevant and in line with a long tradition of keeping U.S. delegations in the field in the dark about what is happening at higher levels.

On December 10, we gave an important presentation on the U.S. view of the ballistic missile threat from Iran. This received polite interest from the other side but little more. There were no meetings the next day, but we held a very pleasant reception for the other delegations at the government’s apartment overlooking Lake Geneva. Although the delegation sent in prompt and comprehensive written reports to Washington, I was required to make regular secure phone calls from the U.S. mission to the National Security Council staff to report on developments. During the December 11 evening call, my contact informed me that he would be out of town the next day. I expressed the hope there would be no surprises while he was gone. After a pregnant pause, he said, “Not tomorrow.” This was certainly ominous but hardly actionable. The following day, I was instructed to call that evening for an urgent message. After dinner in France with some delegation members, I stopped by the mission and called around midnight and was informed that the United States would give formal notice of its intention to withdraw in all four capitals the next morning.

That day, December 13, saw all the delegations assembled at the Russian mission for a planned plenary. Russia, as the host, was scheduled to speak before the United States; but while entering the meeting hall, I asked Koltunov to speak first so I could make an important statement. He granted the request, and I made a brief formal diplomatic statement announcing what had happened about two hours earlier in the four capitals.

This clearly shocked everyone on the other side of the table. Koltunov called a timeout to consult with his colleagues. After a few minutes, he returned and announced there was no point in having the four countries deliver their planned statements. As luck would have it, the Russians had planned for a reception following the plenary, in part in response to the U.S. reception two days earlier. Mercifully, the doors opened, and there was spread out in the next room a typically generous Russian buffet.

This was a rather awkward event. Koltunov at first avoided me, and I chatted with other Russians, who were principally interested in when I had heard the news. The U.S. reception had been moved up a couple of days, so it happened before the withdrawal notice. This could have appeared to the Russians as some rather sneaky choreography, which it was not. Eventually, Koltunov came over to chat. Searching for a way to smooth things over and minimize the damage to U.S.-Russian relations, I remarked that when we held our 10-year reunion, we would wonder why people had thought this was such a big deal. He instantly responded that we would wonder “how people could have been so stupid.” Of course, there was no 10-year reunion, and history can judge which of these two predictions was closer to the mark.

I have met Koltunov, (now I believe a retired General) several times at conferences in Moscow, where he is associated with a leading think tank. We are still friends and understand each of us was doing his best to represent his country. The final plenary was a brief and rather sad affair at the U.S. Mission the next day.


The formal U.S. withdrawal from the treaty took effect six months after these events, on June 13, 2002. Putin’s response was surprisingly restrained. He called it a “mistake” but one that did not damage Russia’s security. For his part, Bush was conciliatory, expressing his hopes for continued cooperation.

In retrospect, all the SCC hard work and drama was probably a sideshow, with no chance of success and little impact on capitals. On the other hand, having a forum where the five countries could hold in-depth confidential talks on this difficult subject, along with developing some measure of personal trust and understanding, was surely of some value. One might even speculate that the relatively restrained aftermath was influenced by that work.

No delegation showed a willingness to compromise on the ballistic missile defense question. Russia showed no flexibility whatsoever in all SCC discussions. The United States, in addition to being vague on how the treaty could be preserved, had sent out signals that even if Russia met its demands for loosening the treaty, more demands would be forthcoming later.

Seventeen years after these events, the United States has undertaken fewer ballistic missile defense tests and deployments than would have been expected. The changes to the treaty needed to legalize what has happened so far would certainly have been substantive but not monumental. One wonders whether Moscow has ever had second thoughts about its hard-line stance in 2001.

A U.S. ground-based missile interceptor is lowered into its silo at Fort Greely, Alaska in 2006. Today, unconstrained by the ABM Treaty, the United States has deployed 44 such interceptors in the United States. (Photo: U.S. Army)U.S.-Russian relations, of which arms control is a crucial component, have been spiraling downward in a way in which everyone loses. Russia itself bears much of the blame for this, especially for its actions in Georgia and Ukraine, along with attacks on Western electoral processes and its actions with respect to the INF Treaty. This has all been well documented and analyzed. Less well understood is the Russian perception that it is the West, principally the United States, that broke the agreements and understandings that formed the foundations for a new world order built up by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin. This list includes NATO expansion, the war in Iraq, the bombing and dismemberment of Serbia, the destruction of Libya, the disdain of the George W. Bush administration toward Russia, perceived involvement in the Color Revolutions in the near abroad and in unrest in Russia itself, and so on. In the view of many in Moscow, this all began with the shock of U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

In the military sphere, Russia’s massive expansion of its capabilities is partly a normal catching up from its decade of troubles following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, along with the normal replacement of aging systems. Yet, Russia has been quite open in saying that some of this, especially new, more exotic systems, is a response to unconstrained U.S. ballistic missile defense programs. Although the relatively restrained U.S. programs to date would hardly justify this, the fact that the United States refuses to provide any assurances about future programs or to even consider constraints on kill mechanisms in orbit, allows worst-case scenarios to run wild in Moscow (and Beijing). The preamble to New START sensibly addresses the relationship between current and future offensive and defensive systems, but this has not led to any useful negotiations on how to deal with this relationship.

People of goodwill, including Russian leaders right up to Putin in his early period as president, welcomed the “new world order,” “Europe whole and free,” “Europe to the Urals,” “Vancouver to Vladivostok,” and so on. Fulfillment of all these brave slogans was strongly dependent on cooperative and respectful if not friendly relationships between Russia and the West. Neither side has worked hard enough to make this happen, and one could make a strong case that the ABM Treaty saga was the point at which things began to fall apart.

In June 2002, U.S. State Department official David Nickels and I returned to Geneva for a week to close out the SCC. We went through voluminous files, organized them, boxed them up, and shipped them to the State Department archives in accordance with regulations. There is an understanding that SCC records will not be made public without the permission of both sides, but they remain there to this day, awaiting the attention of some future historian, who could seek declassification and access under the Freedom of Information Act.


Edward Ifft participated in negotiating and implementing many key arms control agreements of the past 45 years at the U.S. State Department, and at details to the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He served as the last U.S. commissioner for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty until the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty in 2002.

The 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty began today’s fraying of arms control.

Explosive Weapons Declaration Gains Momentum

November 2019
By Jeff Abramson

International efforts to create a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas reached a turning point in October. After more than 130 countries attended the Vienna Conference on Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare on Oct. 1–2, a process is now underway aiming to draft a declaration to be presented next year
in Dublin.

Humanity & Inclusion, an international nongovernmental organization, unveiled this Monument to the Unnamed Civilian on Sept. 26 in Paris to highlight civilian casualties of global conflicts. (Photo: Humanity and Inclusion)In recent years, a growing number of civil society groups and states have raised concerns about the harm caused by the use of weapons with wide-area effects in cities, both in terms of civilians immediately affected and the destruction of infrastructure that can leave populations vulnerable for months and years following conflict. A recent UN report cited data compiled by Action on Armed Violence from English-language media sources that found 20,384 civilians were killed and injured in 2018 by explosive weapons in populated areas.

In a Sept. 18 joint appeal supporting the development of a declaration, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer said, “Parties to conflict should recognize that they cannot fight in populated areas in the way they would in open battlefields. They must recognize that using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in cities, towns, and refugee camps places civilians at high risk of indiscriminate harm.”

The scope and details of a declaration, however, are still to be determined. Among the issues to be worked out in a declaration is how to discourage weapons use in populated areas, with the concept of “avoidance” being just one option. How the declaration might incorporate principles of international humanitarian law also must be resolved.

The United States, which actively participated in the conference, presented a two-page paper outlining its policies and recent reports on civilian casualties. Afterward, Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, argued against the negotiation of a joint declaration.

On Oct. 23 at the UN General Assembly First Committee, Wood said that “an effort to ban or stigmatize the use of explosive weapons is impractical and counterproductive because it could hamper efforts to protect civilians from bad actors like ISIS or encourage bad actors to use human shields and to hide in urban areas.”

Germany, which co-hosted a number of relevant international conversations on the issue in 2017 and 2018, said at the Vienna conference that “[s]trictly abiding by the rules and principles of [international humanitarian law] would provide effective protection of civilians.” The German statement added, “a declaration should focus on mitigating the various forms of harm through good practices that are designed to improve and enhance compliance” with international humanitarian law.

Wrangling over whether new agreements are needed has also animated the ongoing discussion on lethal autonomous weapons systems and, more broadly, efforts within the humanitarian disarmament framework. That approach, which also undergirds the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Mine Ban Treaty, and Convention on Cluster Munitions, places an emphasis on human security and the humanitarian consequences of weapons use.

According to the International Network on Explosive Weapons, the civil society coalition championing the effort, more than 80 countries have indicated support for a multilateral declaration.

In October, Ireland delivered a joint statement on explosive weapons on behalf of 71 countries at the First Committee. A similar declaration on behalf of 50 countries was delivered in 2018.

The next step in the process is set to occur Nov. 18 in Geneva when Ireland convenes the first in a series of meetings aimed at developing declaration text. The notional calendar aims for a conference in Dublin by the summer of 2020 where the text could be finalized or presented.

An international effort aims to draft a declaration before a 2020 meeting in Dublin.

REMARKS: Four Paths to Arms Control Effectiveness

November 2019
By Jens Stoltenberg

If arms control is to remain effective, it needs to adapt. I see four areas where we could act together: We need to preserve and implement the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), adapt nuclear arms control regimes to new realities, modernize the Vienna Document, and consider how to develop new rules and standards for emerging technologies, including advanced missile technology.

(Photo: NATO)First, on the NPT, NATO’s goal is a world without nuclear weapons, and the NPT is the only way to achieve this. The fundamental bargain of the NPT remains sound, that all states will work toward general and complete disarmament—so, a world without nuclear weapons. All states will work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and all states can access the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. For 50 years, the NPT has limited the spread of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear ban treaty is not a viable substitute. The ban treaty has no mechanism to ensure the balanced reduction of weapons, no mechanism for verification, and it undermines the NPT.

So with regimes such as North Korea that continue to seek and develop these weapons, preserving and implementing the NPT is critical.

Second, we must adapt the nuclear arms control regime to new realities. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated a whole category of weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads. As a direct consequence, almost 3,000 missiles were destroyed. When the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty entered into force in 1994, the United States and Russia were limited to 6,000 strategic offensive arms each. Now, under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, they are limited to no more than 1,550 each.

These treaties have worked. They have built up trust, promoted transparency, and cut down the number of nuclear weapons. They have made our world a safer place. We have to keep what we have built and maintain the gains made through these treaties.

In a post-INF Treaty world, NATO will do this by responding in a defensive, measured, and coordinated way to the new Russian missile threat. We have seen Russian calls for a moratorium on the deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles in Europe. This is not a credible proposal. It disregards the reality on the ground: Russia has already deployed its new missile system in violation of the INF Treaty.

So, unless and until Russia verifiably destroys the new system, the moratorium on deployments is not a real offer.

We also need to look beyond bilateral agreements between Russia and the United States. We must find ways to include other countries, such as China. I am firmly convinced that China, like the rest of the world, stands to benefit from increased transparency and predictability.

It might take time to get the parties to the table, and I’m not saying that it will be easy, but it is the right thing to do. Let’s not forget that it took a decade to negotiate the NPT, seven years for the INF Treaty, and many years to get the parties to the table.

Third, we must modernize the Vienna Document. There is more military activity in Europe than we have seen for decades. So, NATO allies and our partners have agreed on proposals for the most comprehensive modernization package of the Vienna Document since 1994 to reduce the risk of miscalculation and accidents on land, at sea, and in the air; to give greater transparency to snap exercises, by allowing snap inspections; and to tighten verification procedures that have not been modernized and improved in the last 25 years.

Fourth, we need to consider how to develop new rules and standards and apply them to the spread of emerging technologies, including advanced missile technology. Emerging technologies present challenges and opportunities. Hypersonic missiles, autonomous weapons systems, and offensive cybercapabilities are being developed specifically for a military use, and these technologies can have strategic effects. Of course, we cannot count algorithms as we do warheads. But we need transparency and predictability in this area as well, for example by developing norms on the military application of certain new technologies.

These are tough times for arms control, but we have gone through tough times before. In the past, it took patience, determination, and commitment to reach landmark agreements. NATO will and must play its part to ensure arms control remains an effective tool for our collective security now and in the future.


Adapted from a speech by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the High-Level NATO Conference on Arms Control and Disarmament, October 23, 2019.


NATO’s secretary-general outlines why arms control measures provide for alliance security.

U.S. Considers Open Skies Treaty Withdrawal

November 2019
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration appears to be preparing to withdraw the United States from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, according to lawmakers and media reports.

A Russian Tu-154 aircraft used for Open Skies flights awaits its mission at a Kamchatka air base in 2005. (Photo: OSCE)House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) first sounded the alarm about a possible U.S. withdrawal in an Oct. 7 letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and strongly urge you against such a reckless action,” Engel wrote. “American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful to our allies’ and partners’ national security interests.”

Engel did not specify the source of the reports that prompted his letter.

Slate columnist Fred Kaplan reported on Oct. 9 that former National Security Advisor John Bolton pushed for withdrawing from the treaty before departing the administration in early September. Following Bolton’s departure, Kaplan wrote, White House staff continued to advocate for withdrawal and persuaded President Donald Trump to sign a memorandum expressing his intent to exit the treaty. The Omaha World-Herald reported that same day that the memorandum directed a withdrawal by Oct. 26.

Trump has not, however, formally announced a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty and ongoing discussions have revealed differing views within the administration about whether to do so.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 30 that "the United States has not withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty."

"I've consulted with our ambassadors to NATO and the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and ... conveyed ... their view that we should continue to be members of the treaty," he added

Sullivan added that the administration has yet to consult with allies or Congress on a possible withdrawal and that any decision to withdraw would require the unanimous support of NATO "to make sure we don't do damage to our NATO alliance."

The Open Skies Treaty, which entered into force in 2002 and has 34 states-parties, aims to increase confidence in and transparency of military activities, particularly in Europe, by allowing unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants for information-gathering purposes. The parties have yearly quotas on overflights and must make the information they acquire available to all treaty parties.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking members of the foreign relations and armed services committees, respectively, joined Engel in an Oct. 8 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper denouncing a possible withdrawal. The lawmakers wrote that pulling out of the treaty “would be yet another gift from the Trump administration to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.” They also noted that the treaty “has been an essential tool for United States efforts to constrain Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Eleven other Senate Democrats, led by Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), wrote a separate letter to the secretary of state on Oct. 25 urging the administration not to exit the United States from the treaty.

Republican lawmakers also expressed concern about ditching the treaty. In an Oct. 8 statement, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) stated that he has “yet to see a compelling reason to withdraw” from the treaty, given the “valuable access to Russian airspace and military airfields” the United States gains from the treaty.

Several U.S. allies and partner nations, including Ukraine, are publicly calling for the preservation of the treaty, which was a topic of discussion at the High-Level NATO Conference on Arms Control and Disarmament held in Brussels on Oct. 25.

Daniel Drake, head of the Euro-Atlantic Security Policy Unit of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told a British parliamentary committee on Oct. 23 that the treaty “continues to perform an important role in transparency and risk reduction in the conventional arms control space."

The treaty “is one of the basic international treaties in the field of European security and arms control,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. “Ukraine is interested in maintaining and implementing this treaty,” the paper reported on Oct. 27.

The United States and several allies in December 2018 conducted an “extraordinary flight” over eastern Ukraine under the treaty. The flight followed a Russian attack in late November 2018 on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea. (See ACT, January/February 2019.)

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mari Zakharova said in an Oct. 8 statement that Russia had no comment on the concerns raised by U.S. lawmakers because the United States has made no official statement about withdrawing from the treaty.

“Russia is committed to its obligations under the treaty and exhibits the utmost flexibility for maintaining it,” she added.

According to the treaty, states-parties must give 72 hours advance notice before an overflight. At least 24 hours in advance, the observing state-party must supply its flight plan, which the host state-party can only modify for safety or logistical reasons. No territory is off-limits under the treaty.

A dispute between Georgia and Russia over the inclusion of Russian observers on flights over Georgia prevented agreement on quotas for 2018, thereby freezing all flights. Normal flights resumed in 2019. (See ACT, April 2019.)

In recent years, disputes over implementation and concerns from some U.S. officials and lawmakers about the value of the treaty have threatened to derail the pact.

For example, Washington raised concerns about Russian compliance with the treaty, citing in particular Russia's restriction of observation flights over Kaliningrad to no more than 500 kilometers and within a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In response, the United States has restricted flights over the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the missile defense interceptor fields in Fort Greely, Alaska.

Zakharova said that Russia would lift the ban on flights near Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Georgia met “its commitments on receiving Russian missions,” but “Tbilisi has not changed its position so far.”

The House-passed version of the fiscal year 2020 defense authorization act included a provision that would reaffirm congressional commitment to the treaty and prohibit the use of funds to suspend, terminate, or withdraw from the agreement unless “certain certification requirements are made.” The Senate version of the bill did not include a similar provision. The House and Senate continue to negotiate a final version of the bill.

The Trump administration may abandon the 1992 treaty that allows mutual overflights of traditional adversaries.

Iran Plans Further Nuclear Breaches

November 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

Iranian officials announced plans in October to take additional steps that would violate nuclear-related commitments Tehran made in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The threatened action followed failed efforts to conclude a plan to preserve the agreement and facilitate a new round of talks between Washington and Tehran.

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) and U.S. President Donald Trump meet  Aug. 24 before the G7 summit in France. A Macron effort to reconcile U.S.-Iranian nuclear tensions failed to materialize. (Photo: Neil Hall/Pool/Getty Images)After weeks of intensive diplomatic effort, French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly secured support from U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in late September to negotiate further limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from some of the sanctions the Trump administration reimposed after it withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, but the plan collapsed over a disagreement on sequencing.

According to Politico, Macron’s plan would have required Iran to return to full compliance with the JCPOA and to commence negotiations on a “long-term framework for its nuclear activities” with the multilateral group (France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union) that negotiated the original 2015 accord. The proposal also would have obligated Iran to reiterate its commitment to “never acquire a nuclear weapon” and agree to talks on regional security concerns. In return, the United States would have lifted sanctions imposed since 2017 to allow Iran to export oil without restrictions.

Politico reported that the proposal did not explicitly include an agreement to discuss Iran’s ballistic missiles, but French officials said Tehran understood that missiles would be an element of the regional security discussions.

Trump has described the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement as a “bad deal” because it did not include binding restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities or address Iranian actions in the Middle East that Washington views as destabilizing.

After meeting separately with Rouhani and Trump on Sept. 24 in New York, Macron said that the “conditions have been created for a quick return to negotiations” and that there is “mutual interest” in “creating the conditions for reducing tensions and reaching a long-term agreement.”

Rouhani said on Sept. 24 that although Iran would be willing to discuss “small changes, additions, or amendments” to the nuclear deal, sanctions relief must come first. He said that assurances from European partners that the United States would lift sanctions were “not acceptable” and Iran was looking for specific commitments from the United States on the sequence of sanctions relief before further talks could take place.

Rouhani decided not to join a phone call with Trump that Macron had attempted to set up because the Trump administration would not agree to announce that sanctions would be lifted ahead of the call. The Iranian president said that talks cannot take place in the “toxic atmosphere of maximum pressure,” and he told the UN General Assembly that “our response to any negotiation under sanctions is negative.”

Trump tweeted on Sept. 27 that “Iran wanted me to lift the sanctions imposed on them in order to meet. I said, of course, NO!”

Trump reimposed sanctions that Washington had waived as part of the nuclear agreement when he withdrew the United States from the accord in May 2018 and has imposed additional measures designed to pressure Iran into accepting terms more favorable to the United States. (See ACT, June 2018.)

The Trump administration claims it is willing to meet with Iran without preconditions. Iranian officials have consistently maintained that the United States must take the first step and ease sanctions before talks can take place.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said on Sept. 17 that if the United States “repents and returns to the nuclear agreement it violated,” Iran would engage in multilateral talks that included U.S. officials. Until Washington moves away from its pressure campaign, “no negotiations at any level” can take place between the United States and Iran, he said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French Parliament on Oct. 3 that Macron’s initiative is “still on the table” and the United States and Iran must seize the opportunity to pursue it “in a relatively short amount of time” because Iran plans to take additional steps to reduce compliance with its nuclear commitments. The steps “risk leading to a new period of tension and new escalation,” he said.

To date, the steps Iran has taken to exceed the JCPOA nuclear limits in response to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal have had little impact on Tehran’s so-called breakout capability, or the time it would take to produce enough nuclear material for one bomb, which is still estimated at about 12 months. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Iranian officials have also stated that the steps they have taken so far are quickly reversible and that Tehran will return to compliance with the agreement if the United States does the same.

Tehran is now planning to take a fourth step to reduce compliance in early November, although officials have not indicated specifically what actions will be taken.

Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, said on Oct. 17 that a committee is studying the options and will act if Iran’s demands are not met “in due time.”

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the Iranian Parliament on Oct. 8 that if Iran takes two more steps, it will “end all of Iran’s JCPOA undertakings and return the country to the pre-JCPOA conditions.” He said those steps include resuming uranium enrichment at Fordow and increasing the number of operating centrifuges. At that point, only the additional monitoring measures will remain in place, he said.

Under the terms of deal, Iran converted the Fordow site from a uranium-enrichment facility to a research and isotope production center and agreed not to enrich any uranium at the site for 15 years. The limits of the deal also required Iran to reduce the number of installed IR-1 centrifuges from about 19,000 to 5,060.


Iran Using Advanced Centrifuges for Uranium Enrichment

Iranian officials say Tehran is now accumulating enriched uranium produced by advanced centrifuges, breaching the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said on Sept. 7 that Iran was adding the enriched uranium from its advanced centrifuges to the stockpile. On Oct. 7, AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi announced that Iran would soon begin using 30 IR-6 centrifuges to enrich uranium.

A Sept. 26 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that several cascade lines in the research and development area “were accumulating, or had been prepared to accumulate, enriched uranium.” The IAEA reported these activities involved "one cascade of 20 IR-4 centrifuges and one cascade of 10 IR-6 centrifuges in R&D Line 2, and one cascade of 20 IR-6 centrifuges in R&D Line 3." Cascades are chains of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran’s uranium-enrichment production is limited to output from 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges for 10 years, and the country can stockpile no more than 300 kilograms of enriched material for 15 years. The deal permits Iran to conduct R&D with uranium on a designated number of advanced centrifuges, without withdrawing any enriched uranium.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared on Sept. 4 that Iran would no longer adhere to the R&D restrictions of the JCPOA in response to the U.S. reimposition of sanctions that had been waived under the terms of the JCPOA. An IAEA report on Sept. 8 verified that Iran had begun installing and testing advanced centrifuges, exceeding JCPOA limits. (See ACT, October 2019.)

At a press conference on Oct. 14, Rouhani stated that Iran’s “IR-6, IR-4, and IR-2 centrifuges are operating well” and that a new IR-9 centrifuge “will start working soon.”—JULIA MASTERSON

A French effort nearly brought together the United States and Iran to address the troubled JCPOA.

North Korea Threatens to Resume Tests

November 2019
By Julia Masterson

North Korea threatened to resume nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing if the United States does not change its approach to negotiations by the end of the year, Pyongyang’s chief negotiator said after October talks with U.S. officials.

Lead North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Myong Gil (center), shown here in 2007, described the latest round of nuclear talks with the United States as "sickening."  (Photo: Song Kyung-Seok/Pool/Getty Images)U.S. and North Korean negotiators met on Oct. 4–5 in Stockholm for the first time in seven months to resume discussions on denuclearization and peace-building on the Korean peninsula.

The U.S. State Department described the meeting as “good” in an Oct. 5 statement, but North Korea’s lead negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, said the talks were “sickening.” He said the U.S. came with “empty-handed” proposals that “greatly disappointed [the North Korean delegation] and sapped our appetite for negotiations.”

Kim said the U.S. position demonstrated the United States’ unwillingness to “solve the issue” and cautioned of the “terrible incident” that would result from the failure of the United States to adjust its position ahead of any future talks.

“Whether our discontinuation of nuclear and ICBM test fire will resume or not totally depends on the U.S. attitude,” Kim warned.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a voluntary moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing in April 2018.

But North Korea has consistently expressed frustration with the U.S. proposals to achieve the goals of denuclearization and peace-building on the peninsula agreed to by Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump at their first summit meeting, in Singapore in June 2018.

The North Korean leader warned in April 2019 that the United States must change its negotiating approach to one that is favorable to both sides before the end of the year or the “prospects for solving a problem will be bleak and very dangerous.” (See ACT, May 2019.)

In September, North Korean First Vice Minister Choe Son Hui invited working-level talks, but cautioned that Washington’s proposed “calculation method” would need shared approval by Pyongyang before future dialogue on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Ahead of the Oct. 4–5 meeting, the Trump administration signaled that it was considering a new approach to negotiations.

Trump described the U.S. approach to the negotiations in similar terms, saying on Sept. 14 that “a new method would be very good.”

On Sept. 20, responding to Washington’s apparent shift in negotiating posture, lead negotiator Kim voiced optimism that the United States could propose the “right calculation method” and praised Trump for taking a more flexible approach.

In keeping with North Korea’s insistence on a step-by-step approach, Kim said that North Korea and the United States should “solve feasible matters first, one by one in stages, while building confidence in each other.” He added that a new method of diplomacy is the “best option.”

The State Department announced in an Oct. 5 press release that Washington offered proposals that would allow for the United States and North Korea to make progress toward achieving goals set at the 2018 Singapore summit.

Vox reported on Oct. 2 that the U.S. delegation would propose waiving UN sectoral sanctions on textile and coal exports for three years in exchange for North Korea’s verifiable closing of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and one other measure, likely the cessation of uranium enrichment.

It is not clear whether this proposal was formally discussed in Stockholm, but it would represent a shift from the Trump administration’s prior position that sanctions relief would not be granted until denuclearization was complete.

U.S. negotiators accepted a Swedish offer to continue talks in two weeks, but North Korea appeared to reject the proposed time frame for further discussions. “The U.S. has made almost no method of calculation for around 100 days since the [U.S.-North Korea] meeting in Panmunjom, do you think they can make it within two weeks?” Kim asked on Oct. 6.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that if the United States does not change its negotiation stance, “the dealings between the DPRK and the U.S. might immediately come to an end.”

State-run newspapers showed pictures on Oct. 16 of the North Korean leader riding a white horse to the top of Mount Paektu, a sacred site, and emphasized the “mighty power and status” of North Korea. The statement said that “there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again,” and accompanying editorials emphasized North Korea’s self-reliance and noted that visits to Mount Paektu always preceded new strategic thinking.


North Korea Tests New SLBM

North Korea flight-tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on Oct. 2, illustrating Pyongyang’s continued interest in pursuing a sea-based nuclear deterrent.

North Korea conducts a test launch of a submerged missile in 2016, a precursor to this year's flight test on Oct. 2.  (Photo: KCNA)The SLBM, known as the Pukguksong-3, is a two-stage, solid-fueled system and was likely launched from a submerged barge off the east coast of North Korea in Yonghung Bay.

A statement from North Korea’s Academy of Defense Science, as reported by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), described the test as a success and said it “scientifically and technically confirmed” the missile’s key features. The Oct. 3 statement said the launch has “great significance” and bolsters North Korea’s “military muscle for self-defense.”

The missile was launched on a lofted trajectory and splashed down in Japan’s economic exclusion zone. The statement said the test was designed to have “no adverse impact” on the security of other states.

According to David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Pukguksong-3 would have a range of about 1,900 kilometers if flown on a standard trajectory. This range falls below the voluntary moratorium on long-range ballistic missile launches announced by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April 2018, but the missile launch still violates UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting missile activities. (See ACT, May 2019.)

The U.S. State Department responded to the test by urging North Korea to refrain from provocations, saying in an Oct. 2 statement that the Trump administration was still committed to negotiations on denuclearization and peace-building in the region.

European members of the UN Security Council described the test as a “clear violation” of council resolutions in an Oct. 8 statement and said it was a provocation that undermines regional security.

North Korea last tested an SLBM, the Pukguksong-1, in 2016. That missile has an estimated range of 1,200 kilometers. Three of the six tests six tests of the Pukgukson-1 appear to have been successful. Experts believe that the sole test conducted from a ballistic missile submarine damaged the vessel.

North Korea is continuing construction on a new Sinpo-class ballistic missile submarine at its Sinpo shipyard. According to satellite imagery examined by the independent research organization 38 North in September, Pyongyang may be preparing to test the ejection system for missile launches.

The Sinpo-class submarine is believed to be more advanced than North Korea’s ballistic missile-capable Gorae-class submarine, which was put on display in 2015 but is not believed to be operational.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Washington and Pyongyang made little progress at latest round of talks.


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