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January 19, 2011
September 2018
Edition Date: 
Saturday, September 1, 2018
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U.S., North Korea at Odds Over Talks

September 2018
By Kelsey Davenport

With the United States and North Korea at odds over how negotiations should proceed, the next steps will be critical to the diplomatic process.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during an August 15 ceremony in Seoul marking the 73rd anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Moon said that his planned September visit to Pyongyang will be a “bold step” towards formally ending the decades-old war with the North. (Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at their Singapore summit, called for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and for “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime” on the peninsula.

Yet, in failing to set out detailed steps or sequencing, the two leaders set the stage for misread signals and faulty expectations, as now seems to be the case. Both sides are showing some impatience with their diplomatic engagement, although it is unclear whether that is a bid for negotiating advantage or a danger sign from the two nuclear-armed adversaries.

Washington is seeking concrete action toward denuclearization by Pyongyang. North Korea complains that the United States is demanding unilateral disarmament while dragging its feet on steps to end the Korean War and build a peace regime on the peninsula. Trump told Reuters on Aug. 20 that he anticipates holding another meeting with Kim, but did not say when.                  

Before the June 12 summit, North Korea voluntarily announced a moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests and destroyed tunnels at a site used for nuclear testing. Since the summit, Pyongyang has begun dismantling a test stand used for satellite launches at a missile test site.

Pyongyang describes these actions as “practical denuclearization steps” that demonstrate North Korea’s goodwill and commitment to the process. But these actions have a limited impact, are quickly reversible, and have not been verified by on-site inspectors.

U.S. officials, including White House national security adviser John Bolton, have called on North Korea to do more. Bolton said the United States is still looking for “performance on denuclearization,” not rhetoric. In another interview, he said North Korea has not taken “effective steps” toward denuclearization.

Reporting on the negotiations, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July visit to Pyongyang, suggests U.S. proposals may be asking for too much, too soon. Vox reported on Aug. 8 that Pompeo has repeatedly proposed that North Korea give up 60 to 70 percent of its nuclear arsenal within six to eight months.

Given the uncertainty about the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it is unclear how the United States would verify that North Korea met such a target, even in the case that Pyongyang were to agree.

A North Korea Foreign Ministry statement Aug. 9, while not specifically mentioning the Pompeo proposal, denounced the “unilateral demand of denuclearization first” made by U.S. officials during a July visit to Pyongyang. The statement also asserted that North Korea had taken “practical denuclearization steps” but the United States had failed to deliver on other elements of the Singapore statement.

The Trump administration appears to prioritize getting a nuclear declaration from North Korea that provides information about the scope of North Korea’s nuclear program and activities. Such a disclosure is needed for verification although, given the loose talk of preventive strikes by members of the Trump administration, Pyongyang may fear that providing such a declaration so early in the process would amount to handing over a targeting list to the United States.

An Aug. 18 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called for “bold action” by Trump to break the “current deadlock.” KCNA said the lack of progress is “clearly attributable to the political scramble” in the United States, as “those opposed to dialogue” are trying to derail it with “a fiction” about secret North Korean nuclear facilities.

Some sites are well known, such as the Yongbyon facility where North Korea’s five-megawatt plutonium-production reactor is located, but evidence points toward additional uranium-enrichment facilities at undisclosed locations. Using open sources, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and The Diplomat publicly located in August what the United States suspects is a covert uranium-enrichment facility at Kangson.

Unsurprisingly, North Korea continues to produce fissile material, a fact confirmed by Pompeo at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 25.

Securing a verifiable halt in fissile material production would be a logical next step for the Trump administration. Not only would that prevent Pyongyang from further expanding its stockpile of weapons-usable materials, it would also test whether Kim will abandon his Jan. 1 call for North Korea to ramp up mass production of nuclear weapons and missiles.

While the Trump administration is pushing for additional steps on denuclearization, North Korea wants to see progress on formally ending the Korean War.

A KCNA statement on July 25 said that “adoption of the declaration on the termination of war is the first and foremost process in the light of ending the extreme hostility and establishing new relations” between North Korea and the United States. The agency said that the issue “should have been settled long before,” given the Singapore summit and inter-Korean dialogue.

There are some indications that South Korean President Moon Jae-in intends to proceed toward ending the war, regardless of progress in U.S.-North Korean negotiations.

In an Aug. 15 speech, Moon said that, at the next inter-Korean summit, scheduled for September, the two sides will “take an audacious step to proceed toward the declaration of an end to the Korean War and the signing of a peace treaty, as well as the complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. Moon said advances in inter-Korean relations will drive denuclearization.

North Korea also has lashed out against continued implementation of sanctions as poisoning the prospects for further talks. North Korea accused the United States of responding to its “practical steps” on denuclearization with “highly despicable actions,” including increased sanctions and hindering the activities of international aid organizations working in North Korea.

A KCNA statement on Aug. 10 called out enforcement of U.S. sanctions on North Korea as “beyond common sense and so outrageous” when Pyongyang has showed “sincere goodwill” by repatriating the remains of U.S. troops July 27 and shutting down its nuclear test site. The statement argued that sanctions are illegal and unlawful because Pyongyang has suspended the nuclear tests and missile launches that prompted UN Security Council sanctions.

The Security Council passed additional sanctions in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests, but the resolutions clearly require North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” manner. The resolutions also demand that North Korea return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

China has supported North Korea’s bid to reduce sanctions pressure, and there are signs that other states are backing off enforcement of sanctions on North Korea.

South Korea may need to request waivers on certain sanctions to go forward with inter-Korean projects referenced in the Panmunjom Declaration reached by Kim and Moon at their first meeting in April. Moon said on Aug. 15 that he wants to reconnect the railroads between the two countries by the end of 2018.

Although Trump declared an end to the U.S. “maximum pressure” approach after the Singapore summit, U.S. officials have consistently maintained that sanctions will remain in place and be fully implemented pending denuclearization.

The Trump administration seeks rapid steps toward denuclearization.

Congress Calls for Interceptors in Space

September 2018
By Kingston Reif

Lawmakers voted in July to require the Defense Department to begin developing a space-based ballistic missile defense interceptor layer regardless of whether a forthcoming review of missile defense policy recommends such an action and despite long-standing concerns about the financial costs and strategic risks of space-based defenses.

U.S. President Donald Trump signs the $716 billion John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019 at Fort Drum, New York, on August 13. Addressing troops at the Army base, Trump called for increasing U.S. military capabilities in space as well as creating a sixth military branch, his proposed U.S. Space Force.  (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)The United States has conducted research and development on space-based interception concepts, most notably under the auspices of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, but has never deployed an interceptor layer in space.

It remains to be seen whether the long-delayed missile defense review, which is intended to guide policy, will endorse proceeding with development of a space-based interceptor layer. (See ACT, May 2017.) The reasons for the delay in the completion of the review, originally expected to be released in February, are unclear.

The policy provision is part of the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which establishes spending ceilings and legal guidelines for Pentagon programs and activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The final version of the bill was passed July 26 by the House and Aug. 1 by the Senate. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Aug. 13.

According to the law, the space-based system should be regionally focused and capable of intercepting missiles during their boost phase and achieve an operational capability at the earliest possible date. The law requires the Pentagon to draw up a 10-year plan outlining different phases of development, including refined requirements; cost, schedule, and performance estimates; and a testing schedule.

The prior year’s authorization law also mandated the development of interceptors in space but only “[i]f consistent with the direction or recommendations of the Ballistic Missile Defense Review that commenced in 2017.” (See ACT, December 2017.) The 2019 law amends that provision by eliminating the link to the review and instead conditioning development on “the availability of appropriations.”

The authorization law and the Senate and House versions of the fiscal year 2019 defense appropriations bill do not include funding provisions for space-based defenses.

The new authorization language is a modified version of an amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) during the Senate Armed Services Committee’s consideration of the authorization bill in late May. The committee adopted Cruz’s amendment by a vote of 16–11. The House version of the bill did not include language on space defenses.

The White House expressed its opposition to the Cruz provision in a June policy statement on the Senate bill. The Defense Department “is examining multiple ways to enhance our missile defense capabilities; directing the development of a space-based layer is premature at this point and creates a large unfunded mandate,” the statement said.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said at a symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, on Aug. 8 that the agency is “developing options to pursue” a space-based missile defense “capability if the nation decides that is what we should be doing.”

“Congress has already written some language that would push us, direct us, guide us in that area,” he added, in reference to the language in the fiscal year 2017 and 2018 authorization measures.

Supporters of such a layer claim that it would enhance U.S. security by allowing the interception of adversary ballistic missiles during their boost phase, when a missile is traveling its slowest and unable to deploy countermeasures.

Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters at the Alabama symposium that putting interceptors in space is “a relatively easy technological challenge” and has been “a victim of unrealistically high, uninformed cost estimates.”

But critics argue that space-based interceptors are an unaffordable, ineffective, and counterproductive form of defense.

Former MDA Director Vice Adm. James Syring told the House Armed Services Committee in April 2016, “I have serious concerns about the technical feasibility of interceptors in space, and I have serious concerns about the long-term affordability of a program like that.”

A 2011 report from the Institute for Defense Analysis showed costs ranging from $26 billion for a limited mission to $60 billion for a “medium” capability system that could perform against near-term threats to more than $200 billion for a global system.

In addition to requiring development of space defenses, the authorization law mandates the development of an air-launched and/or ship-based boost-phase missile defense capability; a plan to accelerate by at least one year the deployment of 20 additional ground-based interceptors with redesigned kill vehicles at Fort Greely, Alaska; and a report on the projected costs over a period of 10 years to implement any recommendations of the missile defense review.

The law authorizes $9.7 billion for the MDA, a decrease of roughly $200 million from the administration’s initial request.

Overall, the law authorizes $716 billion for national defense programs, which matches the revised 2011 Budget Control Act spending cap for fiscal year 2019 agreed by Congress earlier this year. (See ACT, May 2018.) The last time Congress passed the authorization bill before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year was in September 1996, when Congress approved the fiscal year 1997 authorization legislation.

The authorization law supports and, in some cases, increases funding above the Trump administration’s proposed budget request for programs to sustain and rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure.

The law calls for a plan to accelerate the development of new fleets of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). (See ACT, October 2017.) The law also authorizes an additional $85 million above the budget request of $615 million for the long-range standoff weapon program to replace the existing ALCM, and $69 million above the request of $345 million for the program to replace the Minuteman III ICBM with a missile system called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent.

In addition, the law provides the needed approval and requested funding authorization for the development of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles as proposed by the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review report in February.

On arms control, the authorization law requires Trump to submit a report on whether he has raised with Russia the issue of limiting under the terms of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) Moscow’s development of several new strategic nuclear weapons systems and, if so, whether Russia has agreed to limit the systems.

In a March 1 address to the Russian Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about the development of a new heavy ICBM; an intercontinental undersea drone; a nuclear-powered, long-range cruise missile; and two hypersonic weapons, specifically the Kinzhal ALCM and the Avangard glide vehicle. (See ACT, April 2018.)

New START provides for discussions on emerging strategic offensive arms and possible limitation of them.

The authorization law includes a provision expressing the sense of Congress that, in light of Russia’s material breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, “the United States is legally entitled to suspend the operation of the INF Treaty in whole or in part for so long as the Russian Federation continues to be in material breach” of the treaty. The provision requires the president to certify that he is implementing requirements in prior laws to impose economic sanctions on Russia for its violation of the treaty.

The authorization law waters down language in the original House version that would have blocked the Air Force’s budget request to replace the aircraft that the United States uses to conduct Open Skies Treaty flights, including over Russia. (See ACT, July/August 2018.) Instead, the law conditions funding necessary to acquire an upgraded digital imaging system for treaty flights and implement certain decisions of the treaty’s implementing body.

The effort still faces questions about funding and the risks of pursuing space-based defenses.

Japan Expands Ballistic Missile Defenses

September 2018
By Monica Montgomery

Japan has advanced its planned ballistic missile defense system in recent months by launching a new destroyer and securing a contract for the Aegis Ashore system, despite rising costs and reduced tensions with North Korea that could encourage opposition to the plans.

Visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe listen to a briefing on the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air missile system while visiting the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces' Camp Narashino on January 18. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)Japan operates a ballistic missile defense system, with Aegis-equipped warships providing the first line of defense against an incoming missile during its midcourse trajectory. Japan’s second line of defense is its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) mobile systems that can be deployed to protect high-value targets, such as military bases and cities, using hit-to-kill interceptors during the terminal phase of an incoming missile’s flight path.

The planned expansion includes adding a land-based Aegis system and additional sea-based capabilities.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force launched the first of two modified Atago-class destroyers on July 30. The warship Maya is equipped with the Aegis Baseline J7 combat system and the Northrop Grumman AN/SPQ-9B radar system.

In addition, Japan operates four Kongo-class destroyers with Aegis missile defense systems and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IA interceptors. The other modified Atago-class destroyer is to be launched in March 2021, and Japan is planning to have two more Aegis-equipped destroyers, bringing the total fleet of ballistic missile defense destroyers to eight by 2021.

Japan plans to arm all its missile defense warships with SM-3 Block IIA interceptors after testing by the United States and Japan is completed. The new interceptors have a greater range and are designed to intercept missiles traveling at faster speeds. But the Block IIA missile has failed two of three intercept tests, most recently on Jan. 31. (See ACT, March 2018.)

In another development, the Japanese Defense Ministry announced on July 30 that it has chosen the Lockheed Martin Solid State Radar (SSR) for its two Aegis Ashore batteries. These are a new, less powerful variant of Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Discrimination Radar, which is being designed for the United States. Japan selected the Lockheed Martin system over Raytheon’s Air and Missile Defense Radar, citing the SSR’s better overall system performance and lower life-cycle costs.

The decision is seen as risky by some because the Japanese government chose an unproven developmental radar over one with demonstrated operational capability. Additionally, the defense ministry now estimates the system acquisition cost will be $3.6 billion, up from the $2 billion original estimate. The higher cost is attributed to the choice of the SSR system and the SM-3 Block IIA interceptors.

 The Japanese cabinet approved funds for two Aegis Ashore systems in December 2017. Japan’s move to beef up its ballistic missile defenses is largely seen as a response to the North Korean threat. Although North Korea currently has a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests as a part of its diplomacy with the Trump administration and South Korea, Pyongyang in recent years conducted multiple tests over the Sea of Japan, with some missiles splashing down in the Japanese exclusive economic zone. But state-run Korean Central News Agency said on Aug. 9 that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ballistic missile defense push while citing a North Korean threat is “no more than [a] reckless military move to attain its sinister political aims.”

The Aegis Ashore expansion may also draw criticism from China, which has objected to the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Seoul says the system is a response to the North Korean missile threat, but China considers the deployment a provocative move and claims the system could contribute to U.S. detection of Chinese missiles.

With regard to Japan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in December 2017 that “due to what happened in history, Japan’s moves in the fields of military and security are always followed closely by its Asian neighbors” and that “the missile defense issue should be handled cautiously.”

Additionally, Russia conveyed its concern over Japan’s planned Aegis Ashore system, calling it an expansion of U.S. missile defenses in the Asia-Pacific region, during in a July 31 meeting between Japanese and Russian defense and foreign ministers.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cites the North Korean missile threat.

Pence Envisions ‘Space Force’ by 2020

September 2018
By Shervin Taheran

Vice President Mike Pence announced on Aug. 9 that the Trump administration aims to create a Department of the Space Force by 2020, citing space as a growing conflict domain amid military advances by Russia and China that threaten U.S. dominance in that realm.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (R) stands alongside U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke about administration plans for a new military branch, to be called the Space Force, at the Pentagon on August 9. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)Pence’s speech at the Pentagon expanded on President Donald Trump’s June speech, in which he said just as the United States has an Air Force, “we are going to have the Space Force, separate but equal.”

Such a development likely will come with calls for additional military spending on personnel and space weapons, even as elements of Congress and the military leadership are cool to the Trump initiative. A new spending pipeline for offensive and defensive space weapons is an appealing prospect for defense contractors, an influential industry with lawmakers.

Pence said the administration is determined to act in order to “meet the emerging threats on this new battlefield.” There are few international restrictions on the weaponization of space, other than the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars states-parties from placing weapons of mass destruction in outer space and prohibits military activities on celestial bodies. Since the mid-1980s, the UN Conference on Disarmament has periodically debated provisions for a potential “prevention of an arms race in space treaty,” with the United States the dominant opponent of such a measure.

To prepare for creation of a new military branch, the administration plans to take four major actions in the next year: establish a Space Development Agency, affecting the Air Force’s Space and Missile Center; develop the Space Operations Force, to support the combatant commands; create a U.S. Space Command led by a four-star officer; and create a post of assistant secretary of defense for space, a senior civilian position.

Pence called for this new Department of the Space Force with a “secretary of the Space Force,” implying the creation of a military service alongside the departments of the Navy, Air Force, and Army. But Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, at a news media roundtable after the speech, said that “whether we call it a space corps or a department or a sixth branch, I think this goes to the next step, working with Congress.”

Much of the administration’s vision, most notably the creation of a sixth military branch, will require organizational and financial action by Congress. The administration plans to submit a legislative proposal by February for fiscal year 2020. Military services have powerful constituencies, and taking space activities away from the Air Force, if that is intended, could draw pushback.

Trump’s proposal has support among some House members, particularly Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. Rogers and Cooper have long been vocal advocates of a new structure for the military’s space activities, noting in a joint statement that they “look forward to the establishment of a much-needed independent Space Force.”

In its version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the House had included a “Space Corps” that would have been similar to the Navy Department’s Marine Corps in that it would be created as a unit within the Air Force. But the provision did not survive opposition from the Senate and the Pentagon. In a 2017 letter to Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote, “I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.”

Mattis has since moved to align himself with the commander in chief, saying to reporters Aug. 12 that he “was not going against setting up a Space Force; what I was against was rushing to do that before we define those problems.” The Pentagon is “in favor of war-fighting capability organized along the lines of what the president has laid out,” he said.

Many members of Congress, however, remain dubious, especially as the Trump administration has yet to release the cost estimates. Shanahan declined to cite a specific estimate, but noted that it would likely be billions of dollars.

But the Trump vision faces legislative hurdles.

Judge Blocks Closure of MOX Fuel Plant

September 2018
By Kingston Reif

A U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina issued a preliminary injunction preventing the Energy Department from closing down a controversial project intended to convert surplus plutonium into power-reactor fuel.

A 2011 rendering shows the exterior of the planned mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the U.S. Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. (Illustration: National Nuclear Security Administration)The ruling, issued in June, effectively prevents the department from moving to stop construction of the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The decision also imperils the department’s plan to re-engineer the partially constructed facility to provide a second source for plutonium cores for nuclear weapons.

The ruling came in response to a 42-page lawsuit filed in May by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson arguing that the termination of the project would cause irreparable harm to South Carolina and turn the state into a permanent nuclear repository.

The Energy Department appealed the district judge’s ruling to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is slated to hear the case in late September.

The MOX fuel plant, designed to turn 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into power-reactor fuel, has been plagued by major cost increases and schedule delays. The Energy Department has sought to end the program since 2014 in favor of a cheaper alternative, known as “dilute and dispose.” That process would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal at the deep underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Congress, led by South Carolina’s congressional delegation, blocked the department’s effort to transition to the alternate approach. But the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Donald Trump last November, included a provision allowing the energy secretary to stop construction if there is an alternative to dispose of the plutonium at “less than approximately half of the estimated remaining [life-cycle] cost” of the MOX fuel program. (See ACT, May 2018.)

Energy Secretary Rick Perry submitted the required waiver to Congress on May 10. (See ACT, June 2018.)

The dilute-and-dispose process would cost at most $19.9 billion, 40 percent of the $49.4 billion cost of continuing the MOX fuel program, according to a report prepared by the independent cost office of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA, which was certified by Perry and submitted to Congress on May 10. The agency had been preparing a second, more comprehensive cost analysis to be released in June or July, but final work on the estimate ceased after the judge’s ruling.

The fiscal year 2019 version of the defense authorization bill signed by Trump on Aug. 13 mandates the continued construction of the facility and authorizes $220 million for that purpose, but like last year’s bill allows the secretary to waive this requirement.

In a June 29 internal memo, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty warned that South Carolina’s efforts to prevent the closure of the MOX facility could force the agency to make major changes at the Savannah River Site, including relocating the site’s tritium mission.

“In light of this injunction,” the NNSA “must re-evaluate the viability to execute enduring missions at the Savannah River Site,” Gordon-Hagerty wrote.

Perry’s May waiver to begin closing down the MOX project coincided with the release of a joint statement from NNSA and Defense Department officials announcing that the MOX fuel facility would be adapted to join Los Alamos National Laboratory in the production of at least 80 pits per year by 2030.

“This two-prong approach—with at least 50 pits per year produced at Savannah River and at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos—is the best way to manage the cost, schedule, and risk of such a vital undertaking,” the statement said.

But significant questions remain about the affordability of the proposal and whether Congress will back it.

According to a May 2018 internal NNSA assessment obtained by Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Watch, producing plutonium pits at the Savannah River Site would ultimately cost at least $9 billion more than three alternative plans to expand plutonium-production capacity at Los Alamos.

Meanwhile, the fiscal year 2019 authorization bill requires the Trump administration to commission a federally funded research center to assess the new plutonium strategy and a separate NNSA report providing a detailed plan to produce 80 pits at Los Alamos.

The House and Senate versions of the fiscal year 2019 energy appropriations bill were harshly critical of the administration’s pit production plan and would require detailed assessments of alternatives before providing funding for the plan.

A federal appeals court will weigh the issue in September.

Experts Debate Biological Weapons Challenges

September 2018
By Jenifer Mackby

The meetings of experts of states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) on Aug. 7–16 discussed the potential for abuse of advances in gene-editing technology, along with other issues related to the treaty that bans biological arms.

Delegates to the meeting of experts of states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention hold talks at the Palais des Nations in Geneva in August. (Photo: Jenifer Mackby)The sessions in Geneva addressed sensitive issues including genome editing, benefits and risks of rapidly advancing biotechnology, a model voluntary code of conduct for biological scientists, and assistance to states-parties facing a biological attack.

The BWC meetings of experts had been routine annual events until the treaty’s eighth review conference in 2016, when delegations were unable to agree on a work program. Intensive efforts on the part of the depositaries (Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) resulted in an agreement at the meeting of states-parties in December 2017 on a new format for experts meetings on specified topics for each of the succeeding three years leading to the ninth review conference in 2021. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

In the sessions on scientific and technical developments, the discussion focused for the first time in a separate agenda item on a method of editing genetic sequences known as CRISPR/Cas9 and on so-called gene drives, a method that can make a genetic modification predominate throughout populations.

Such gene-editing tools can be used to benefit agriculture, the environment, and human health, although they also may be used for hostile purposes, such as in producing biological weapons. A limited number of delegations at the conference, such as Australia, Switzerland, the UK, and the United States, had the advanced technical expertise to submit papers and make presentations.

Many participants noted that gene-editing techniques need to be regulated. Iran and other countries shared the concerns but also noted that Article X of the BWC calls for the exchange of information and equipment and that developing countries should not be deprived of genome-editing technology and its benefits. France and the Netherlands noted that, over the next five years, the deliberate abuse of a naturally occurring organism is more likely than the use of one that has been engineered.

The meeting of experts covered other topics, including cooperation and assistance under the BWC; strengthening national implementation; assistance, response and preparedness; and institutional strengthening of the treaty.

China and Pakistan presented a voluntary model code of conduct for biological scientists that drew support from many countries as a way to help to prevent abuse of biotechnology. A code would address issues such as ethical standards, research integrity, and assessment of threats to human health.

Delegations addressed Article VII in the treaty, which deals with states-parties providing assistance to a country “exposed to danger as a result of a [BWC] violation.”

Pedro Luiz Dalcero of Brazil presides as chairman of the session reviewing developments in science and technology related to the Biological Weapons Convention. (Photo: Jenifer Mackby)In a proposal that drew considerable support, France and India called for the implementation of a database that would match aid requests with specific offers of assistance. Russia suggested providing the database with information on states-parties’ rapid response teams, which could be deployed to protect against biological weapons use. It requested the use of mobile biomedical units to provide protection, investigate the alleged use of biological weapons, and help suppress epidemics. Delegates also considered possible lessons from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, including the effectiveness of mobile biomedical units, that could be applied to a future disease outbreak caused by the use of biological weapons.

South Africa renewed its proposal that, in the event of a biological attack, a state-party has the right to seek assistance without first obtaining UN Security Council approval. Some delegations suggested that the BWC should have its own disease-response capacities, although funding for such activities is a question.

A number of delegations, in particular those from nonaligned countries, support the negotiation of a legally binding verification protocol; but EU states and others promoted confidence in compliance through less formal means, such as transparency, voluntary on-site measures, peer reviews, sharing of best practices, increasing cooperation, confidence-building measures, and strengthening the UN secretary-general’s authority, known as the Secretary-General’s Mechanism, to launch investigations into the use of biological weapons.

The chairman of the planned December 2018 meeting of states-parties, Ljupco Jivan Gjorgjinski of Macedonia, held consultations on the BWC’s tenuous financial situation. With some countries in arrears, he urged states-parties to make their contributions on time in order to maintain the secretariat body, known as the Implementation Support Unit. The BWC has 181 states-parties. Representatives of the nongovernmental organization community participated, presenting action points to strengthen the BWC in a joint position paper.

With eight days of meetings, delegates had only one or two days to consider each topic, forgoing the usual general debate. Further, the chairman of each of the five topic groups only had time to produce a procedural report, which the states-parties adopted. Each chairman plans to draft a subsequent paper summarizing the discussions, including possible outcomes.

These chairmen’s papers are to be circulated among the states-parties for comment and then submitted to the December meeting of states-parties. The same process will be followed in 2019 and 2020. The ninth review conference, to be held in 2021, will consider the outcomes of the various meetings and decide by consensus on any further actions.

One concern is the potential abuse of gene-editing technology.

Trump Resists Arms Sales Restraint

September 2018
By Jeff Abramson

An unusual mix of issues from the bombing of a school bus full of children in Yemen to alarm about possible 3D printing of untraceable guns is fueling controversy over the Trump administration’s promotion of conventional arms sales and military support. Yet, the administration seems poised to resist opposition to its practices coming from Congress and elsewhere.

Yemeni children raise protest signs during a demonstration in the capital Sanaa on August 12, after an air strike by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military coalition hit a school bus and reportedly killed more than 40 children in the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada. (Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)Even before the Aug. 9 bombing in Yemen using U.S.-supplied weapons killed more than 50 people, including more than 40 children, congressional leaders were seeking answers to their questions about the propriety of U.S. military support for the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that has frequently hit civilians and civilian infrastructure in its fight against the Houthi forces.

Following a string of congressional battles on arms sales and assistance (See ACT, April 2018.), Congress included a provision in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that requires the secretary of state to certify within 30 days that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are complying with U.S. laws on weapons use and “taking appropriate steps to avoid disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.”

But President Donald Trump indicated his belief that he may not be bound by the requirement. In his Aug. 13 signing statement on the authorization legislation, Trump explicitly listed the provision as one among many that “encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities.”

A separate action related to international arms regulation garnered widespread domestic opposition and drew a temporary restraining order from a U.S. district court judge in Washington state. In 2015 the State Department ordered an organization called Defense Distributed to remove online instructions for the 3D printing of firearms because such digital files created an export that is controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

Despite winning court challenges to its authority, the State Department settled the case on June 29, and it published a notification on July 27 that Defense Distributed would be exempt from licensing requirements.

During July, opposition to the settlement included a legal challenge to block the administration’s actions filed by 19 states and the District of Columbia. Judge Robert S. Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington granted a temporary restraining order July 31 that led Defense Distributed to take down its online publications and the State Department to remove the exemption. The Justice Department filed a brief Aug. 15 calling on the judge to lift the injunction, but on Aug. 27 he extended the order as a preliminary injunction.

A separate administration effort might result in the same deregulation of 3D firearm printing, but the results are not expected until next year. The public comment period closed July 9 on proposed changes to how semiautomatic and nonautomatic firearms and their ammunition are regulated. (See ACT, June 2018.) The transfer of such weapons from the State Department-controlled U.S. Munitions List to the Commerce Department-led Commerce Control List drew more than 6,000 comments, many of them negative.

Leading gun control and human rights organizations weighed in against the proposal, including Amnesty International USA, which wrote that the changes increase “the risk that irresponsible brokers of small arms and light weapons could evade regulation, and arms will be diverted to states or non-state actors with poor human rights records.”

The final rule is not expected until 2019, but the Commerce Department would not be expected to block online publication of 3D printing instructions under the circumstances of the Defense Distributed case. The Commerce Department would be expected to protect a commercial copyright, but Defense Distributed is actively working to publish material online rather than seeking such protection.

In addition to the provisions in the defense authorization law, members of Congress are taking other steps to circumscribe the administration’s actions involving sales of weapons for use in the Yemen war. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on June 28 he could not support the sale of precision-guided munition kits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of which Congress officially has not been notified.

Menendez said he is “not confident” that the weapons sales will help drive the parties toward a political settlement. “Even worse, I am concerned that our policies are enabling perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” he wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced on Aug. 1 that he would place a hold on the nomination of R. Clarke Cooper to be assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs unless the administration changes its policy on 3D gun printing. Cooper would be in charge of the department’s Directorate for Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), the office that published the short-lived exemption for Defense Distributed.

Tina Kaidanow, the acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, broadly defended the administration’s approach at a public event Aug. 8. In describing the implementation plan for the Trump administration’s conventional arms transfer policy, she focused on the economic benefits of a more aggressive governmental push to sell arms.

Although Kaidanow mentioned that human rights and nonproliferation objectives remain a part of U.S. conventional arms transfer policy, the plan’s three main elements are directed at increasing arms exports. Those elements include proactively ensuring that “U.S. products can win in the competitive global market place,” organizing governmental action to support that, and producing “conducive environments…to foster the efficient operations of U.S. defense trade.”

“What this initiative makes clear,” she said, “is that, under this administration, there will be no more active advocate for U.S. sales than the U.S. government itself.”

Critics seek to thwart the Trump administration’s arms policies over issues such as U.S. weapons that are killing civilians in Yemen.

U.S. Elevates India’s Defense Trade Status

The United States, the world’s largest arms exporter, elevated India, the world’s largest arms importer, to Strategic Trade Authorization-1 (STA-1) status, putting it in the same tier as the United States’ NATO allies.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross addresses the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on July 30. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)India’s STA-1 status, announced July 30, will significantly ease export controls for high-tech sales and allow India to access the latest U.S. defense technology. It will also potentially serve U.S. interests in allaying risks associated with China’s rapid military expansion and by reducing Russian arms business on the subcontinent, while making it easier for U.S. arms manufacturers to compete in the Indian market.

“STA-1 provides India with greater supply-chain efficiency, both for defense and for other high-tech products…and it will reduce the time and resources needed to get licensing approved,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, announcing the decision at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Washington. “We calculate that it will be a competitive advantage for the U.S. in providing those kinds of products to India.” The change would have affected about $9.7 billion in exports over the last seven years, according to the Commerce Department.

India also received a sanctions waiver for the U.S. Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) through an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019. The waiver will relieve India from punitive measures it would have otherwise experienced for importing weapons systems from Russia. In the past, India has explicitly denounced country-specific U.S. sanctions and rejected U.S. demands that it not buy the Russian S-400 long-range missile system. "We have told the U.S. Congress delegation [that visited India] that this is U.S. legislation and not a UN law,” Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said.

The U.S. actions fit with the Trump administration’s vision for increased arms sales, but how they fit with India's major push for a U.S.-style private defense sector of its own remains to be seen.—TRUSHAA CASTELINO

U.S. Elevates India’s Defense Trade Status

Defense Department Seeks Hypersonic Funding

The Defense Department asked Congress on July 11 to redirect $248 million in unspent funds to hypersonic weapons-related activities in an effort to keep pace with China and Russia. The speed, flight altitude, and maneuverability of such weapons result in less warning time than in the case of higher-flying ballistic missiles and make them much more difficult to target with missile defenses. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

The Pentagon requested $160 million for the Conventional Prompt Strike program, an effort to develop a hypersonic glide vehicle that could be deployed on long-range missiles to strike targets anywhere on Earth in as little as an hour. The Pentagon request also includes $49 million for two prototyping projects, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon; $20 million for the hypersonic Tactical Boost Glide, an air-launched tactical-range system; and $19.4 million for further developing defense capabilities against hypersonic weapons.

Spending on offensive and defensive hypersonic weapons has increased in recent years, with $380 million appropriated for that purpose in fiscal year 2018. The administration has requested $913 million for fiscal year 2019, but the House and Senate appropriations committees have indicated they will increase that amount.—MONICA MONTGOMERY

Defense Department Seeks Hypersonic Funding

Senators Want Limits in Saudi Nuclear Accord

Energy Minister Suhail Mohammed Faraj al-Mazroui of the United Arab Emirates leaves the stage following his address to the Nuclear Power in the 21st Century International Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi on October 30, 2017. The U.S.-UAE nuclear cooperation agreement is considered the “gold standard” for nonproliferation safeguards.  (Photo: Nezar Balout/AFP/Getty Images)The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution July 26 calling for any U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia to prohibit the kingdom from enriching uranium or separating plutonium and require it to bring into force an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. The resolution comes as the Trump administration negotiates a so-called 123 agreement with the Saudis, and it reflects the complications following recent threats by Saudi leaders to seek nuclear weapons if Iran does so. (See ACT, June 2018.) A 123 agreement, named after the relevant section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, sets the terms for sharing U.S. nuclear energy technology, equipment, and materials with other countries.

A key issue is whether the United States will insist that Saudi Arabia agree to forgo making nuclear fuel, as its neighbor the United Arab Emirates did in 2009 to obtain its 123 agreement. To date, Saudi Arabia has resisted the ban and suggested that it seeks to make its own reactor fuel. In addition, Riyadh has neither signed nor ratified an additional protocol, which provides the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with expanded verification rights. Prospects for consideration of the resolution by the full Senate are uncertain.—MONICA MONTGOMERY

Senators Want Limits in Saudi Nuclear Accord


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