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Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
September 2021

September 2021

Edition Date: 
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
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Preserving the Nuclear Testing Taboo

September 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

For the first five decades of the nuclear age, nuclear weapons test explosions were the most visible symbol of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war. Most of the 2,000-plus nuclear test blasts were used to confirm new warhead designs and develop more deadly weapons systems, which in turn fueled a dangerous spiral of global nuclear competition.

The Nevada Test Site was the location of 928 of the United States 1,054 nuclear weapons tests. The last U.S. nuclear test was conducted on September 23, 1992. President Clinton signed the CTBT on Sept. 24, 1996. Photo by Nevada National Security Site.Nuclear testing also produced radioactive contamination, not only immediately downwind from the test sites but globally. One independent study from 1991 estimates that nuclear testing led to nearly half a million additional cancer fatalities worldwide through the year 2000.

But since the conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), nuclear testing has become taboo. The treaty, which opened for signature on Sept. 24, 1996, has near-universal support with 185 signatories, including the five original nuclear testing states. All CTBT states agree that the treaty prohibits “any nuclear weapons test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion” no matter what the yield.

Even those nuclear-armed states that have not signed or not ratified the CTBT, including India, Israel, and Pakistan, observe nuclear testing moratoriums. Only one country has conducted nuclear test explosions in this century, and even that country—North Korea—halted nuclear testing
in 2017.

The CTBT has achieved its core goal: ending all nuclear testing. By this measure, the treaty is one of the most successful agreements in the long history of nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. Without the option to conduct nuclear tests, it is more difficult, although not impossible, for even the most advanced nuclear states to develop, prove, and field new warhead designs. The CTBT is a powerful brake on vertical and horizontal nuclear proliferation.

But we cannot take the nontesting norm for granted. It was only a year ago that some senior Trump officials suggested the United States should resume nuclear testing for the first time in 28 years to intimidate Russia and China. The treaty’s onerous entry-into-force requirement and the failure of eight holdout states, including the United States and China, to ratify the treaty has delayed its full implementation. As a result, the door to nuclear testing remains ajar.

Given the high stakes, there is no room for complacency from the U.S. and other governments, which should understand the importance of preventing the spread of ever more lethal nuclear weapons. States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) should strengthen their call to action on the CTBT at the upcoming NPT review conference.

President Joe Biden, a long-time CTBT advocate, should reaffirm U.S. support for the treaty and its entry into force. As he declared in 2020, “We have not tested a [nuclear] device since 1992, we don’t need to do so now. A resumption of testing is more likely to prompt other countries to resume militarily significant nuclear testing and undermine our nuclear nonproliferation goals.”

As importantly, the Biden administration needs to pursue the adoption of additional voluntary measures designed to detect and deter possible low-level, clandestine nuclear testing by the major nuclear powers.

Today, the United States, China, and Russia—all CTBT signatories—continue to engage in weapons-related activities at their former nuclear testing sites. Only France has permanently closed its former test site. Although the treaty’s International Monitoring System is operational and far more effective than originally envisioned, very low-yield nuclear weapons test explosions can still be difficult to detect without on-site monitoring equipment or on-site inspections.

In May 2019, the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency charged that “Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard outlined in the [CTBT].” In April 2020, the State Department claimed that, “during the 1995–2018 timeframe, Russia probably conducted nuclear weapons-related tests” at Novaya Zemlya. In April 2021, the State Department repeated the claim without specifying when such activities may have occurred.

Russia, which has signed and ratified the CTBT, has vigorously denied the charge and pointed to the failure of the United States to ratify the treaty.

If the U.S. government takes its own intelligence reports and arms control compliance seriously, it should develop a proposal for mutual confidence-building measures, such as notification and exchange of information about certain experiments and the installation of additional sensory devices.

Russia suggests such measures should only be pursued after entry into force. That is an unhelpful position. If Russia truly supports entry into force of the CTBT, it could leverage progress by agreeing to implement these voluntary, reciprocal transparency measures after the United States ratifies the CTBT.

A quarter century after it was negotiated, the CTBT has brought an end to nuclear testing. But to keep a de facto global nuclear test moratorium intact, friends of the CTBT will need to do more to rejuvenate efforts to achieve its entry into force and reinforce the taboo against nuclear testing.

For the first five decades of the nuclear age, nuclear weapons test explosions were the most visible symbol of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.

The CTBT at 25 and Beyond

September 2021
By Francesca Giovannini

This year marks a major milestone for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The multilateral body was founded to support implementation and compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which established a prohibition on all nuclear weapons test explosions anywhere. After a protracted and combative election process against incumbent Lassina Zerbo, Australian candidate Rob Floyd prevailed with a convincing majority; and as of August 1, he has taken over as the CTBTO’s fourth executive secretary.

View of infrasound station array at infrasound station IS49, Tristan da Cunha, U.K. (Photo by CTBTO )This change in leadership is expected to breathe new ideas into the management of the organization and could open new avenues for cooperation with countries in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. At the same time, Floyd and the organization face daunting challenges during a year that also marks the 25th anniversary of the CTBT’s opening for signature in 1996. Although the treaty has successfully halted nuclear testing for a quarter-century, the door to renewed testing and, with it, an accelerated expansion of global nuclear weapons capability remain open because the treaty has not yet formally entered into force.

Despite political and legal uncertainty, the CTBTO and its member states have shown remarkable ingenuity in establishing a successful global monitoring network—the International Monitoring System (IMS)—of unprecedented scale and sophistication. The system relies on superb and still unsurpassed technical capabilities for monitoring and verifying the global nuclear test ban. Nevertheless, serious technical and political challenges to the long-term sustainability of the organization and the monitoring system are slowly emerging. Consequently, although this would be undesirable and politically costly, the international community should consider taking steps to decouple the IMS from the treaty’s fate in order to maintain and expand on the extraordinary technical investments that the monitoring system represents.

Indispensable but Ignored for Too Long

For 25 years, experts in academia and the nuclear policy community have written and argued about the CTBT’s indispensable role as an instrument for preventing nuclear proliferation, including the geographical spread of nuclear weapons to additional states and the qualitative improvement or expansion of existing nuclear weapons arsenals. Nuclear testing is crucial in the acquisition of nuclear weapons and in the improvement of such weapons.1 Because of the vital role played by the CTBT in nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, efforts to achieve its entry into force have gone in all directions, from public outreach initiatives to advocacy campaigns and youth mobilization. These laudable activities have helped to elevate the treaty’s visibility and involve a new generation of arms control scholars in the organization’s mission. Yet despite all efforts, the treaty remains in a legal vacuum.

One complication is the CTBT ratification process, which is unique and obtrusive. It requires ratification by 44 countries (the so-called Annex II states) that at the time of the negotiations were deemed nuclear capable. Today, eight of those countries—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States—have still failed to ratify the treaty and thus are preventing its entry into force.

Each of these countries faces distinct security challenges, operating within specific security dynamics marked by military, technological and ideological entanglements (table 1).

Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, advocacy campaigns promoting the treaty’s entry into force focused mostly on building political coalitions within the U.S. Senate,2 moved by the untested but rational belief that ratification by the United States would incentivize other holdout countries to follow suit.3 That assumption might have sounded plausible then, but it appears far too simplistic today in a time of great-power competition, shifting regional loyalties, and a revival of a global arms race. Although U.S. ratification would very likely elicit positive support from other Annex II countries, it will not be sufficient to bring the treaty to the finish line.

The uncertain destiny of the CTBT has reinforced the view among many non-nuclear-weapon states that incremental strategies to advance nuclear disarmament, such as the CTBT, will inevitably continue to be subjected to power procrastination games among nuclear-weapon states and will never be able to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

Other CTBT advocates counter that even though the CTBT has not formally entered into force, it has succeeded in bringing about a global nuclear testing halt, which is the central purpose of the treaty, on a de facto basis. They note that the only country that has clearly engaged in nuclear explosive testing in this century is North Korea, and for now, even that country has halted nuclear explosive testing. These advocates caution that the taboo against testing cannot be taken for granted and that, until such time as the CTBT enters into force, thus allowing for short-notice on-site inspections, or new confidence-building measures are established, concerns about clandestine nuclear test explosions, particularly at low yields, will linger.4

These narratives capture tangible fears and disillusionment among many countries squeezed between a new global arms race and the paralysis of multilateral arms control and disarmament institutions. They also reinforce a growing sense of doubt regarding the CTBT’s fate.

Another, not so visible yet equally important concern relates less to the treaty’s entry into force and more to the sustainability of the actual organization and the monitoring system it has created. As the treaty’s entry into force lags, critical questions surface. How long will the international community support the work of an organization operating in the absence of a legally binding treaty? How long will member countries pour resources into a monitoring system that, at best, will continue to operate provisionally for the foreseeable future? How long will the IMS remain capable of attracting top-notch scientific and technical talent?

The International Monitoring System

The IMS is an impressive and unmatched global monitoring system with features that make it a marvel of science diplomacy and international technological cooperation. It is the only global verification system concurrently employing four main technologies: radionuclide, which detects atmospheric nuclear explosions and determines the source of underwater and underground nuclear explosions; seismic, which detects underground explosions; hydroacoustic, which detects underwater explosions; and infrasound, which focuses on the atmosphere (table 2).

The need to adopt a multitude of technologies stemmed from the treaty’s broad mandate to ban all nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere, and in all environments—underground, underwater, and in the atmosphere. Most treaties are not so comprehensive.

The work is carried out by a world-class scientific team of experts located in Vienna and at the CTBTO monitoring stations and technological hubs across Africa, Asia, South America, and beyond.

Although it is 92 percent complete, the system is operating on a provisional basis. That means that data originating from IMS operating stations are transmitted to the CTBTO’s Vienna headquarters through a satellite communications network. Once there, data is analyzed and screened by analysts with the CTBTO International Data Centre. Their findings are sent back to signatory states. Because of the provisional nature of the system, member states transmit the raw data on a voluntary basis. If suspicious activities are detected in the analysis of the data, members cannot make use of the treaty-enshrined follow-up mechanisms, such as consultations, clarification, and request for on-site inspections.

Regardless of its value, in the absence of a binding treaty, the provisional standing of the IMS raises important legal questions. As Masahiko Asada, professor of international law at Kyoto University, has remarked, “This presents a really unique situation in legal terms. Both the construction of the IMS network and its provisional operations have been carried out without the CTBT entry into force. What then is the legal basis for these developments?”5 For years, Article IV of the CTBT has been assumed to provide the authority for establishing the IMS in the absence of a legally binding treaty by stating that “[a]t the entry into force of this treaty, the verification regime shall be capable of being the verification requirements” of the CTBT.

Radionuclide Station RN73 Palmer Station Antarctica. (Photo by CTBTO)This formulation allowed the organization to establish the IMS in preparation for the treaty’s entry into force. Construction began immediately, propelled by a sense of optimism that the treaty would enter into force without delay. After all, on September 24, 1996, the United States was the first nation to sign the CTBT. President Bill Clinton cast himself as an active promoter of the treaty, which he called “historic” and reflective of a “decades-old dream that no nuclear weapons will be detonated anywhere on the face of the earth.” At a time of U.S. economic and military supremacy, many believed that, despite significant political hurdles,6 CTBT ratification was within reach.

To sustain momentum behind the ratification process, member states poured money into developing the IMS. By the time a nascent network of stations began to operate, however, the geopolitical landscape had changed dramatically. India and Pakistan conducted nuclear test explosions in 1998, the U.S. Senate rejected ratification in 1999, and the war in Kosovo had soured relations between Russia and the United States. Consequently, the build-up of the IMS slowed, but was never halted.

Two main drivers kept momentum going: First, many countries, including the United States, came to appreciate the value of the monitoring system as a provider of global data that national technical means could not match. Second, treaty supporters believed that by demonstrating the effectiveness of the system, negotiations on bringing the treaty into force would be revamped. As Zerbo remarked in 2016, “There is no better way to convince people to ratify the CTBT than showing them that they have a sustainable international monitoring system and the verification regime that can serve their purpose.”7

Despite its provisional status, the IMS has been consistently praised for exceeding expectations in detecting capabilities and enabling cross-domain scientific collaboration. The UN Security Council has officially recognized the effectiveness of the monitoring system and its role in enhancing peace and security by stating that “even absent entry into force of the treaty, the monitoring and analytical elements of the verification regime…contribute to regional stability as a significant confidence-building measure, and strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.”

In addition, the system has spurred enthusiasm for science and technology cooperation around the world and has democratized access to scientific data and know-how in unprecedented ways. Nations hosting IMS stations have concrete incentives to invest in their national scientific capacities to operate and maintain the stations and to benefit from the data. From Africa to Asia, a new global scientific community has emerged largely because of the IMS and the extensive investments by CTBTO in capacity building to sustain and expand the pool of scientific talent.

The IMS also represents a towering achievement in the democratization of science. As then-CTBTO Executive Secretary Tibor Tóth noted,

[T]he CTBT verification regime is a truly democratic and participatory system. The data and products of the CTBTO Preparatory Commission are made available to every signatory state, regardless of size or wealth or technological prowess, making sure that transparency is not limited to the few states who possess the necessary technical and financial resources. The credibility of our verification system does not only reside in its technical performance but also in the open and equal access of all signatory states.8

Challenges Facing the IMS

Although the capabilities of the IMS are often publicly praised, its emerging challenges are discussed in closed-door meetings among diplomats concerned about the future of the treaty and the organization. Like any technological system, to remain effective the IMS needs to attract and retain scientific talent, identify emerging technologies that could hinder or strengthen its operational capabilities, and attract the necessary resources to keep functioning even if only on a provisional basis.

These challenges would be complex to manage and address for any technological system, but the enduring legal limbo of the treaty could fatally undermine the ability to address these inherent vulnerabilities.

The race to secure scientific talent, for instance, is accelerating in all technical domains and across all continents. It is made more difficult by the rise in technonationalism and the pursuit of primacy and domination in strategic sectors, including artificial intelligence and space. Unsurprisingly, given the level of specialization required, the CTBTO has struggled to fill key technical positions and retain highly qualified experts as several national delegations have apprehensively noted.

As Mitsuru Kitano, Japan’s ambassador to the CTBTO, remarked, “[W]e appreciate the Provisional Technical Secretariat’s [PTS] continuous efforts to improve the system of recruitment. At the same time, we are concerned about the fact that there is still the issue of vacancies. It is essential to fill the vacancies as early as possible to provide a sound basis for a sustainable working environment for the organization to fulfil its mandate. We hope that the PTS will take appropriate measures to improve the situation.”9

Namibia’s Simon Madjumo Maruta, the representative of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), further underscored that the NAM, “while recognizing the difficulties faced by the PTS, reiterates its principled position that striving for equitable geographic distribution as well as gender balance in the overall composition of the PTS is of utmost importance. The [NAM] is encouraged by the renewed impulse given by the Executive Secretary to addressing the Human Resources issues that have been outstanding these past years.”10

There is also the threat of the IMS losing its technological edge. Because the treaty text is concluded but not entered into force, no technical changes or modifications can be made to the IMS design at this stage, including the adoption of new technologies that could make operating the system smarter and more cost effective. Meanwhile, national technical means continue to evolve and mature, potentially overtaking the IMS and making it redundant. For example, at the time of the treaty negotiations, satellite technology was deemed too costly and therefore not listed among IMS technologies. Today, the commercial satellite industry is flourishing, making the technology not only viable and accessible but ubiquitous and extraordinarily cheap. Nuclear expert George Perkovich once noted that the costs of verifying the transition to a world free of nuclear weapons would be substantial, exceeding initial forecasts. That is also proving true with the CTBTO. In fact, according to CTBTO sources, the costs incurred to build and run the IMS nears $1 billion, far exceeding initial estimates of roughly $80 million.

Most importantly, although initial investments to build the IMS might not have been especially high the costs of maintenance remain largely underestimated or, worse, unbudgeted. Building IMS stations around the world initially generated much enthusiasm, political visibility, and media attention. Yet, these stations need to be maintained and repaired, and the political fanfare that once accompanied their construction has waned. That is because it is relatively easier to sell something new than to convince domestic constituencies of the continued value of spending money to underwrite a treaty that has no viable prospects of entering into force soon.

Experts associated with the CTBTO's international system for monitoring nuclear testing gather gas samples from the ground to be examined for traces of the noble gas Argon as evidence of an underground nuclear explosion. (Photo by CTBTO)The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, making it imperative for countries to be more frugal about their own investments. As a result, negotiations to secure the funding to repair and maintain operating stations are becoming difficult and compromises more difficult to reach. In the most recent CTBT report, Zerbo encouraged CTBTO member-states to embrace “a holistic approach to establish and sustain the complex global network of the IMS. This is achieved through testing, evaluating, and sustaining what is in place and then further improving on this. Sustainment covers maintenance through necessary preventive maintenance, repairs, replacement, upgrades, and continuous improvements to ensure the technological relevance of the monitoring capabilities.”11

Decoupling the IMS From the Treaty

Throughout the past decade, as the prospect for the treaty’s entry into force became more remote, proposals emerged to shake up the status quo and revive the political process. All of them are incomplete, possibly implausible, and unquestionably suboptimal, betraying the ultimate spirit that inspired the international community to negotiate the CTBT. Nonetheless, these ideas reveal a sense of urgency and pragmatism as CTBT proponents desperately seek to prevent institutional paralysis from turning into institutional collapse and a multilateral crisis.

A few of the proposals have sought ways to bypass the cumbersome ratification process. In an excellent analysis on the prospects for rescuing the treaty, John Carlson, former director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, suggests four possible paths. They are: negotiate a new treaty, replicate the existing CTBT but with revised entry-into-force provisions, waive Annex II by adopting a protocol or a resolution by which ratifying states declare the CTBT is in force and waive the Annex II provision, or agree to have part of the CTBT enter into force provisionally, for instance, some technical and verification measures, pending the ratification by all Annex II states.12

These options have been rejected by powerful states, including the Russian Federation and the NAM members, because they fundamentally undermine the “comprehensive nature” of the CTBT by failing to bind nuclear-weapon states that do not join the treaty. Such options would thus perpetuate power asymmetries and the unfair bargain between the nuclear haves and the nuclear have-nots.

As the situation continues to stagnate, another approach that focuses more narrowly on the survivability of the monitoring system deserves consideration. Until the treaty enters into force, the IMS could be decoupled from the treaty and established as a separate international body, namely an independent, international observatory on nuclear testing, committed to certain specific principles. One principle would be neutrality in data collection and delivery of the analysis. The other principle would be inclusive, international representation with governmental institutions and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in securing the necessary technical and human resources.

Observatories have historical roots dating to 16th century Europe. They have traditionally been spaces of science and technology discoveries but also avenues for public engagement and social dialogue.

There are several advantages to this approach. It would allow more flexibility in introducing and adopting new technologies and enable the observatory to remain abreast of technical changes in nuclear verification. It would foster greater collaboration and elicit more direct involvement by academia, the private sector, and NGOs. It would promote data sharing among scientific institutions and would elevate further the importance of the IMS as a global hub for scientific and technological advancements in nuclear test verification. Finally, it would continue to serve as a technical avenue for cooperation among nuclear-weapon states invested in the establishment and maintenance of the IMS.

There is no question that such a proposal is at best suboptimal and at worst risky and undesirable. Decoupling the IMS from the treaty could undermine its symbolic and political standing vis-à-vis many of the countries that invested in the treaty in the first place. It also could set a dangerous precedent. Ratified treaties are a fundamental pillar of the modern, rule-based global order. Shifting to an easier yet less permanent cooperative mechanism could bring further instability and opportunism to an already unpredictable international environment. Finally, the proposal could turn into an observatory for rich nations only, thus further losing the universality that the treaty aspires to achieve.

Yet, the trade-offs that the international community might soon be forced to face between a treaty in limbo and a fully operational monitoring system capture a broader and more worrisome trend. In the face of growing global competition, achieving the entry into force of universal treaties will become increasingly difficult and unlikely. Hence, regional and global nuclear cooperation will have to take different forms from the ones they have taken in the past. Compromises will have to be made and suboptimal solutions, however distasteful and imperfect, will have to be accepted.

As the international community considers its options for defending, strengthening, and sustaining the CTBT regime, pressure is certain to build from those who argue that the treaty is not going anywhere and that no major initiatives are needed to secure its entry into force. Given that the CTBTO has matured into an effective operation over the past 25 years, the world will be able to muddle through uncertain times for another quarter of a century, or so that argument goes. That risky approach assumes member states will somehow continue to have the political will to stick with this treaty to a fading finish line. It also ignores the likelihood that new priorities will arise, that emergencies will take precedence, and that political support for the CTBT and financial support for the effective operation of the IMS will dwindle.

No path will be pain free. The international community is operating in a difficult period in which pragmatism should prevail and investments must be protected. For those who have been working on the CTBT for years, this observatory proposal might not be welcome, but the available alternatives could be much worse.


1. Sergio Duarte, “The Future of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty,” UN Chronicle, n.d., https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/future-comprehensive-nuclear-test-ban-treaty.

2. Daryl G. Kimball, “Learning From the 1999 Vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” Arms Control Today, October 2009, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009-10/learning-1999-vote-nuclear-test-ban-treaty.

3. Rizwan Asghar, “The Future of the CTBT,” CTBTO Spectrum, No. 22 (August 2014), p. 17,

4. Daryl G. Kimball, “U.S. Claims of Illegal Russian Nuclear Testing: Myths, Realities, and Next Steps,” Arms Control Association Policy White Paper, August 16, 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/PolicyPapers/ACA_PolicyPaper_CTBT_DK_2019.pdf.

5. Masahiko Asada, “CTBT: Legal Questions Arising From Its Non-entry Into Force,” Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Vol. 7, No. 1 (April 2002): 104.

6. Barbara Crossette, “UN Endorses a Treaty to Halt All Nuclear Testing,” The New York Times, September 11, 1996, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/09/11/world/un-endorses-a-treaty-to-halt-all-nuclear-testing.html.

7. Andreas Persbo, “Compliance Science: The CTBT Global Verification System,” Non-Proliferation Review, Vol. 23, Nos. 3-4 (2016): 1.

8. “Statement of the Executive Secretary, Mr. Tibor Tóth, on the Occasion of the Scientific Symposium,” August 31, 2006, https://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/content/reference/symposiums/2006/0831tothspeech.pdf.

9. Mitsuru Kitano, statement at the 45th session of the CTBTO, November 16, 2015, https://www.vie-mission.emb-japan.go.jp/itpr_en/PC45_statement_EN.html.

10. Simon Madjumo Maruta, statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China at the 46th session of the CTBTO, June 14, 2016, https://www.g77.org/vienna/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/CTBTOMatters_46th-Session-of-the-CTBTO-PrepCom-13-17-June-2016.pdf.

11. Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), “Advancing Verification Capabilities: Annual Report 2019,” September 2020, p. 12, https://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Annual_Report_2019/English/00-CTBTO_AR_2019_EN.pdf.

12. John Carlson, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Possible Measures to Bring the Provisions of the Treaty into Force and Strengthen the Norm Against Nuclear Testing”, VCDNP, March 2019, https://vcdnp.org/ctbt-possible-measures-to-bring-the-provisions-of-the-treaty-into-force-strengthen-the-norm-against-nuclear-testing/


Francesca Giovannini is the executive director of the Harvard Belfer’s Initiative on Managing the Atom and the research director of the Nuclear Deterrence Research Network funded by the MacArthur Foundation. She is an adjunct associate professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Prior to her Harvard appointment, she served as strategy and policy officer to the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), based in Vienna. In that capacity, she oversaw a series of policy initiatives to promote CTBT ratification as a confidence-building mechanism in regional and bilateral nuclear negotiations.

Although the CTBT has halted nuclear testing for a quarter- century, the door to renewed testing and an expansion of global nuclear weapons capability remains open because the treaty has not yet formally entered into force.

North Korea and the Proof of Nuclear Adherence

September 2021
By Ankit Panda and Toby Dalton

In May 2021, the Biden administration announced its intention to pursue a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy” with North Korea. The intention was to distance its approach from those of President Joe Biden’s two immediate predecessors. As White House spokesperson Jen Psaki emphasized, “[O]ur policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience.”1

In a subtle but potentially transformative decision, the administration also signaled it would seek “practical progress” with North Korea in ways that could increase “the security of the United States, our allies, and deployed forces.” This statement acknowledges the obvious: that U.S. and allied interests could be served by measures that fall short of the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which remains a long-term objective.

Although the administration does not use the phrase “arms control” in describing its North Korea policy, achieving any “practical progress” would require limiting the quantitative growth and qualitative improvement of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Among the many difficult issues that U.S. negotiators would have to address with Pyongyang, if and when negotiations resume, is how North Korean compliance with such limits could be verified and monitored.

Practical Verification for Practical Progress

In the past, verification has proved a source of considerable tension when implementing nuclear agreements with North Korea. Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, long before North Korea gained the range of nuclear capabilities it has, U.S. inspectors successfully obtained on-site access to suspected sites2 but only after protracted negotiation with North Korean officials. The North’s fundamental mistrust of the United States, other major powers, international organizations, and the entire, highly intrusive verification process complicated these efforts.3 In late 2008, Pyongyang’s misgivings about a verification protocol to the 2007 six-party talks4 gave way to a slow-simmering crisis that eventually boiled over, resulting in the expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors in April 2009. A month later, North Korea carried out its second nuclear test.5

Despite this, Pyongyang understands that verification and monitoring are a sine qua non of any potential nuclear agreement. For instance, after the Trump administration rejected North Korea’s proposed concessions at the February 2019 summit in Hanoi, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho emphasized that Pyongyang’s offer to dismantle “nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area”6 entailed doing so “in the presence of U.S. experts.” The Pyongyang Declaration of September 2018,7 agreed between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, similarly included a clause whereby the North would dismantle its Dongchang-ri (or Sohae/Yunsong)liquid-propellant engine test stand “under the observation of experts from relevant countries.”8Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant and other facilities at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2007.  (Image: Google Earth, © 2021 Maxar Technologies)

By 2021, the Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant had been renovated and expanded. Nuclear expert Olli Heinonen wrote for the 38North website that commercial satellite imagery shows that since 2009 "substantial changes" have taken place "indicating the gradual repurposing of this facility." Now known as the Uranium Enrichment Plant, it "has become the backbone of North Korea’s ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons," he wrote. (Image: Airbus Defence & Space, 38 North, and “Pleiades © CNES 2021, Distribution Airbus DS”)

Now that Biden administration officials have unambiguously stated9 that denuclearization is a “long-term objective” rather than the singular and immediate goal demanded by President Donald Trump, U.S. policymakers should begin working on creative, practical, perhaps even unorthodox approaches to verification and monitoring.

The U.S. government has considerable experience and expertise in monitoring and verifying nuclear and missile restraints. Yet, the shift in assumptions implied by the Biden policy, from a one-shot denuclearization agreement to incremental steps, means that verification experts will confront unprecedented challenges that will require new tools and approaches. If the administration does not plan for these situations now, negotiators may be inhibited in the types of progress they may be able to clinch when negotiations resume.

North Korea is likely to reject orthodox and invasive verification measures, such as “anytime, anywhere inspection,” at least at the beginning of a denuclearization process. With an ever-growing arsenal that includes an estimated 20 to 60 nuclear warheads and an expansive inventory of nuclear delivery systems, Pyongyang’s negotiating leverage is far greater than it has been in the past. As a result, “practical progress” is highly unlikely to begin with the return of IAEA inspectors to the Yongbyon nuclear complex or, more ambitiously, with on-site inspections at missile operating bases that North Korea has refused to acknowledge.

Even so, negotiators can and should seek to maximize the verifiability of any potential agreements. That will be critical to the political viability of these agreements and will ensure that progress toward denuclearization is observable and measurable. In this way, verification and monitoring will serve as a means toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization, rather than an end in themselves.

Novel Approaches to Verification and Monitoring

As the Biden administration began its North Korea policy review, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened a group of international technical experts to study potential new approaches to verification and monitoring. Part of the group analyzed novel approaches to verifying declared items in a potential future agreement, such as missiles, missile launchers, fissile material, and, eventually, nuclear warheads. Others explored conceptual, technical, and methodological approaches to building a layered monitoring system. This included an examination of probabilistic verification and compliance assessment, the applicability of open-source intelligence tools, and the promise of a nodal monitoring system.

The group also considered approaches to an export-import regime that might limit North Korea’s ability to procure critical goods for its weapons of mass destruction programs or to sell such items to third countries. Finally, despite the considerable differences between the cases of North Korea and Iran, the group assessed the applicability of some of the innovative verification and monitoring provisions that were included in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.10

These studies offer some suggestions for how the Biden administration could seek to verify and monitor prospective practical agreements with North Korea, such as a missile freeze, fissile material controls, and limitations on deployed missiles.

Missile Test Freezes and Beyond

North Korea has made important qualitative strides in its missile capabilities in recent years, particularly under Kim, and now possesses several types of missiles assessed to be nuclear capable. There is some precedence for Pyongyang to agreeing to negotiated, albeit temporary, missile restraints. With the goal of supporting then-ongoing diplomacy, the Berlin agreement in September 1999 formalized a nearly seven-year-long freeze on long-range missile tests by North Korea. The Leap Day deal in February 2012 established a moratorium on long-range missile launches, although it collapsed in less than two months over differences between the United States and North Korea on whether it covered space launches. Most recently, during the Trump administration’s diplomatic outreach with North Korea in 2018 and 2019, Kim voluntarily announced a moratorium on long-range missile testing, which has since been rescinded.

By 2021, the Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant had been renovated and expanded. Nuclear expert Olli Heinonen wrote for the 38North website that commercial satellite imagery shows that since 2009 "substantial changes" have taken place "indicating the gradual repurposing of this facility." Now known as the Uranium Enrichment Plant, it "has become the backbone of North Korea’s ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons," he wrote. (Image: Airbus Defence & Space, 38 North, and “Pleiades © CNES 2021, Distribution Airbus DS”)Pyongyang has never submitted to intrusive verification and monitoring of its missile capabilities and missile-related industrial complex, so whatever the form of future negotiations, this issue is sure to be contentious. Even so, missile freeze agreements could take various forms, with implications for how they might be verified.

By any measure, a test freeze remains the easiest objective for negotiators. It could cover the flight testing of fully assembled missile systems and the testing of certain subsystems, including static ground testing of rocket boosters. Both types can be verified remotely through the use of U.S. space-based infrared sensors, which are optimized for the detection of the hot plumes associated with missile launches and ground testing. North Korean testing of nuclear-capable cruise missiles, however, may present certain problems for space-based monitoring. Cruise missiles that have been tested are not known to be nuclear capable, but Kim has indicated that a new intermediate-range cruise missile under development may be nuclear capable.

The value of a test freeze decreases as North Korea generally becomes more sophisticated and experienced with missile technologies. Under a test freeze, for instance, there would be no restraints on North Korea producing more missiles of types that have already been proven or attempting other qualitative upgrades to existing missiles, such as improved guidance.

Because of this limitation, policymakers may choose to seek two considerably more ambitious objectives: a freeze on missile production or on missile deployments. Neither has any precedent with North Korea, but each would represent marked progress toward subsequent denuclearization steps. A production freeze would cap the growth of North Korea’s nuclear force. A deployment freeze would limit and perhaps, over time, degrade the size and readiness of North Korea’s deployed arsenal. Both freezes could be observed with some confidence via remote sensing capabilities, but verification and monitoring would benefit considerably from on-site inspections or other types of intrusive on-the-ground monitoring.

Although freezes on production and deployment would be infinitely preferable, a freeze on testing, implemented properly, could facilitate the conditions for further diplomatic progress with North Korea and open the door to the more complex verification arrangements required to support production and deployment freezes.

Applying Flexible Safeguards

Traditionally, U.S. and international efforts to restrain and reverse North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have focused on freezing the production of weapons-grade fissile material, as in the 1992 North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the 1994 Agreed Framework, and the agreements of 2005 and 2007 stemming from the six-party talks. Although the IAEA monitored the freezes, its activities fell well short of applying traditional IAEA safeguards to relevant facilities at the Yongbyon complex.

IAEA safeguards remain the standard for verifying that nuclear materials are not diverted to weapons use. Yet, future attempts to monitor and safeguard North Korean facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere need not begin with demands for complete access to these facilities, records, and, most critically, nuclear material. Instead, utilizing traditional safeguards tools through more flexible and gradual approaches to monitoring negotiated fissile material controls would initially make sense.

For example, rather than insisting that North Korea present a complete declaration of nuclear materials to be verified, a more practical agreement could stipulate a piecemeal approach involving the monitoring of specific facilities, such as the uranium-enrichment hall at Yongbyon; of materials, such as separated plutonium, not in weapons form; or stages of the fuel cycle, such as uranium conversion. Safeguarding declared waste materials, such as spent fuel, could also serve as a useful, early stepping-stone to more comprehensive safeguards.

Meanwhile, monitoring could initially be focused on verifying the nonoperational status of facilities or the presence of specific materials. As North Korea complied with such limited safeguards activity, more intrusive access could become feasible. A flexible approach along these lines would avoid the problem of placing high hurdles, such as a demand for a complete declaration or full access, too early in a negotiation, yet would still permit the IAEA to begin to assemble a more complete picture of the North Korean nuclear enterprise.

Broken seals that had been used to tag nuclear equipment under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. North Korea ceased cooperating with the IAEA in April 2009 and international monitors withdrew after removing all IAEA seals and switching off surveillance cameras. (Photo by IAEA)This piecemeal approach to safeguards need not preclude the IAEA’s eventual return to traditional verification and monitoring activities in North Korea. To the contrary, such an approach would be central to the final goal of complete denuclearization. Despite its lack of a presence in North Korea since 2009, the IAEA has continued to use open sources and a variety of analytical techniques to maintain its readiness for an eventual return to the country.

Monitoring Missile Bases

Introducing restraints on North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons would be an important means of reducing the threat to the security of the United States and its allies. No prior agreements with North Korea dealt with nuclear weapons as such, only with fissile materials and missiles. Pyongyang seems especially unlikely to permit inspections or other means of intrusive transparency at nuclear missile bases, none of which it has even declared, so how can meaningful restraints be implemented and monitored?

One approach could be to confine North Korean missiles to certain declared bases and monitor the perimeters of those bases to ensure that missiles do not leave. This type of restraint would not diminish the quantitative threat to the United States, but it could address it qualitatively by affecting North Korea’s nuclear posture and the readiness of its nuclear forces.

For this type of restraint, a nodal monitoring system could prove useful. Similar to perimeter portal monitors used in other nuclear security and arms control applications but making use of advanced sensor and network technologies, such a system would monitor the movement of specified items. Nodes consisting of a variety of sensors would be placed at specific ingress and egress points. This would require inspectors to have physical access to the perimeter of such a facility but not necessarily a persistent on-site presence. In a case where on-site presence might be tolerated by North Korea, for instance, at a well-known and declared complex such as Yongbyon, additional nodes could be arrayed in order to confine specific items to an individual building.

Although this approach could make verification more technologically complex, it would also be more flexible. It may be initially more acceptable to North Korea than intrusive inspections. With time and deeper implementation of restraints, Pyongyang may allow for the progressive expansion of nodal monitoring at certain sites.

The technology base for nodal monitoring is well developed, but building a robust networked system, especially one that could be left unattended, would require additional research, development, and testing. Beyond providing for multiple types of sensors, a ready-to-deploy node should include a secure, reliable, and encrypted data relay, in situ power generation, and the ability to operate without excessive maintenance. To assuage Pyongyang’s concerns about a nodal system facilitating unsanctioned intelligence gathering and to build trust, North Korean technical experts could participate in the testing and development of these nodes, subject to export control restrictions.

New Approaches and Tools

As the above examples indicate, verifying and monitoring the various elements of North Korea’s increasingly vast nuclear weapons and missile enterprise will require new approaches. Even a modestly successful process of denuclearization will require policymakers to cope with an expanding array of North Korean facilities, materials, and processes. Obstacles are likely to emerge as verification grows more complex and Pyongyang remains reluctant to permit international access. Meanwhile, political concerns about North Korean secrecy and noncompliance are certain to persist under any agreement. To make practical progress, policymakers must avoid letting perfect verification become an enemy of sufficient verification.

One way policymakers could address these issues would be to adopt a framework of probabilistic verification. In situations where high-confidence monitoring of the few key facilities or activities of interest is unavailable or infeasible, which is manifestly the case in North Korea, negotiators could instead seek to verify compliance by monitoring a broader range of facilities and activities with lower confidence levels. As long as enough of North Korea’s total nuclear and missile complex is covered by such an agreement, Pyongyang would be unlikely to gain a meaningful advantage even if it is able to successfully evade monitoring at one single facility.11

Similarly, to support verification, negotiators could rely more heavily on open-source intelligence. An often-overlooked set of tools with growing contemporary relevance, it involves information that is not derived from classified sources and is already a major source of analytical insight into North Korean activities among civil society organizations and journalists. Although governments have traditionally favored national technical means and other proprietary tools, the use of open sources in the North Korean context could usefully augment verification and monitoring, especially in the case of a limited agreement that may be likely to emerge early in a longer negotiating process.

By their very nature, open sources are shareable, which can help build confidence in compliance among parties to an agreement. This could also allow for reciprocity, whereby North Korea, despite lacking any national remote sensing capabilities, could use commercially available satellite imagery to verify, for example, certain types of U.S. military activities covered under an agreement. Although open-source intelligence methods may fall short of national technical means, they can complement proprietary verification tools and more readily be shared with the international community, especially when some parties to an agreement, such as Beijing and Washington, are unlikely to cooperate with each other. In particular, as commercial open-source sensors broaden to include thermal, near-infrared, and other nonvisible spectrum sensors, their role in verification can grow. Several North Korean facilities of interest to negotiators, including missile test stands, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and heavy-military-vehicle manufacturing plants, can already be usefully monitored with commercially available sensors.

Planning Ahead

At the moment, diplomatic momentum for any negotiated agreement with North Korea remains low. The United States and North Korea have had no meaningful bilateral interactions since the fizzled 2019 Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim. A working-level meeting in Stockholm in October 2019 was terminated almost immediately by the North Korean side, just days after Pyongyang carried out the inaugural launch of the Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile, making clear its disinterest in diplomacy.

Moreover, weeks before North Korea locked down its borders in January 2020, citing a threat to its “national survival” from the emerging COVID-19 virus, Kim disavowed his earlier April 2018 self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear testing in an address to the Workers’ Party of Korea plenum. With the apparent end of the diplomatic charm offensive that began with Kim’s outreach to South Korea ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in early 2018, North Korea’s self-restraint has waned. Two military parades, in October 2020 and January 2021, further exhibited the fruits of Pyongyang’s accelerated nuclear force modernization.

Against this backdrop, the task of verifying and monitoring prospective agreements to restrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities presents no shortage of challenges. Innovative and even unorthodox approaches and tools can help render these challenges more manageable. With realistic expectations about what is feasible given persistent mistrust between North Korea and the outside world, the Biden administration, along with allies South Korea and Japan and other international partners, could meaningfully realize its objective of near-term threat reduction. Traditional verification remains the preferred standard, but practical progress in the near term will require novel methods for verification and monitoring in North Korea.



1. “Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jen Psaki Aboard Air Force One en Route Philadelphia, PA,” The White House, April 30, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2021/04/30/press-gaggle-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-aboard-air-force-one-en-route-philadelphia-pa/.

2. Howard Diamond, “U.S. Says N. Korea Site Nuclear Free; Perry Visits Pyongyang,” Arms Control Today, April 1999, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1999-04/press-releases/us-says-n-korea-site-nuclear-free-perry-visits-pyongyang.

3. Joel Wit, “What I Learned Leading America’s 1st Nuclear Inspection in North Korea,” NPR, January 22, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/22/681174887/opinion-what-i-learned-leading-americas-1st-nuclear-inspection-in-north-korea.

4. Peter Crail, “Six-Party Talks Stall Over Sampling,” Arms Control Today, January 2009, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2009_01-02/sixpartytalksstall.

5. Choe Sang-hun, “North Korea Claims to Conduct 2nd Nuclear Test,” The New York Times, May 24, 2009.

6. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, press conference, Hanoi, February 28, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-NWGHQt_rk.

7. “Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018,” The National Committee on North Korea, September 19, 2018, https://www.ncnk.org/node/1633.

8. This test stand remains in place.

9. Colin Kahl, Keynote address at 2021 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, June 23, 2021, https://ceipfiles.s3.amazonaws.com/pdf/Colin+Kahl+Keynote_Transcript.pdf.

10. For summaries of each of these concepts, tools, and approaches to verification and monitoring, see New Approaches to Verifying and Monitoring North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal, eds. Ankit Panda et al. (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2021), https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Pandaetal_NorthKoreaNuclear1.pdf.

11. For a detailed discussion of probabilistic verification in the North Korean context, see Mareena Robinson Snowden, “Probabilistic Verification: A New Concept for Verifying the Denuclearization of North Korea,” Arms Control Today, September 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-09/features/probabilistic-verification-new-concept-verifying-denuclearization-north-korea.


Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Toby Dalton is a co-director and senior fellow in the program. With Thomas MacDonald and Megan DuBois, they are editors of New Approaches to Verifying and Monitoring North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal (2021), on which this article is based.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities present huge challenges. Nevertheless, innovative and even unorthodox approaches and tools can help render these challenges more manageable.

Syria, Russia, and the Global Chemical Weapons Crisis

September 2021
By Kenneth D. Ward

For much of its early history, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was a little-known international organization quietly verifying the destruction of Cold War-era stockpiles as required by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Today, the OPCW is the epicenter of a global chemical weapons crisis and a front line in a broader confrontation between the West and Russia.

A bulletproof vest worn by staff of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. For two decades, the OPCW has been key to the painstaking task of trying to eliminate the world's CW stockpiles. More recently, it has worked to hold Russia and Syria, instigators of the current CW crisis, to account. (Photo by John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)When the CWC entered into force in 1997, it seemed that all that remained to achieve a world free of chemical weapons was to verifiably destroy declared stockpiles and universalize membership. Instead, the international norm against chemical weapons use is under siege, most prominently by Syria and Russia, two states-parties to that very treaty. The world is now precariously perched on the knife’s edge of a new era of chemical weapons use.

Once the chemical weapons crisis erupted in Syria, the OPCW was forced to make a historic transformation, moving from being solely a standard arms control monitoring body to becoming an indispensable instrument of international peace and security, as recognized when the organization was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. This new role must be strengthened to address the chemical weapons threat that has metastasized globally as a result of recent chemical weapons use in the United Kingdom, Russia, Iraq, and Malaysia.

Ghouta: The Ieper of the 21st Century

The hope that chemical weapons use had been consigned to the 20th century was shattered on August 21, 2013, when the Syrian military launched a barrage of rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin against the opposition-controlled town of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Soon afterward, a UN investigation team confirmed the worst: 1,400 people were killed from exposure to sarin. The images of the Ghouta victims were seared into the collective conscience of humanity alongside Ieper, the site of the first major use of chemical weapons in World War I, and Halabja, where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1988 perpetrated a devastating nerve agent attack against the Kurds.

As the world reeled in horror from the Ghouta attack, Western powers considered military intervention to deter further carnage, but when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva to discuss the crisis on September 14, they achieved a diplomatic breakthrough known as the Joint Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons. The United States and Russia found common ground on only one point, namely that the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile needed to be removed and destroyed. To this end, Russia tacitly assumed responsibility as the guarantor, ensuring that its Syrian ally would not use chemical weapons and would fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile so it could be destroyed under international oversight. Syria initiated the process to formally join the CWC just 24 days after the Ghouta attack. During that brief period, the Assad regime certainly had not undergone a moral conversion, but rather bowed to pressure from the Western powers and Russia.

By the end of September 2013, the international community had legally anchored the U.S.-Russian joint framework in a decision of the OPCW Executive Council and in a UN Security Council resolution, which included measures to address any Syrian failure to comply with the resolution’s provisions or with the prohibitions of the CWC.

False Declaration and Chemical Weapons Attacks

In the spring of 2014, while Syria’s declared chemical weapons stocks were being removed from its territory for destruction, the first signs appeared that Damascus did not intend to comply fully with its commitments under the CWC and the UN resolution. The unraveling of the historic joint framework had begun.

Widespread reports emerged of chemical weapons attacks involving chlorine gas barrel bombs dropped by helicopters on opposition-controlled towns, resulting in injuries and fatalities. The claims prompted the OPCW director-general to establish a fact-finding mission, which later determined that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Syria repeatedly and systematically from April to August 2014.

During that same period, there were indications that Syria had not fully disclosed its chemical weapons program in its October 2013 declaration to the OPCW. The OPCW Technical Secretariat, after a detailed examination of the declaration and site visits in Syria, identified troubling discrepancies, prompting the organization’s director-general to establish a dedicated group, the Declaration Assessment Team, to continue engagement with Syrian authorities until the declaration could be fully verified as accurate and complete. To date, that group has conducted more than 20 rounds of consultations with Syria, yet 19 issues still remain unresolved.

Renewed concern over chemical weapons use in Syria prompted the adoption of another UN resolution in which the Security Council unanimously established the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). Since the fact-finding mission mandate was limited to determining only whether chemical weapons use occurred in Syria, the JIM was established as a panel of experts charged with identifying those individuals, groups, or governments involved in their use. In the fall of 2016, the JIM reported its findings, concluding that the Syrian military had been involved in the use of toxic chemicals (chlorine gas) as weapons in three attacks in 2014 and 2015.

Although Moscow refused to accept the JIM findings that its Syrian ally was using chemical weapons in violation of the CWC and the Security Council resolution, it begrudgingly agreed in November 2016 to renew the JIM’s mandate for another year and endorsed a new panel of experts to lead the effort. Within months, the JIM would become seized with the most devastating chemical weapons attack since Ghouta. On April 4, 2017, the Assad regime launched a sarin nerve agent attack against the opposition-controlled town of Khan Shaykhun. Damascus and Moscow quickly flooded the media with disinformation and outright fabrications, claiming the opposition itself had launched the attack to falsely accuse the Assad regime. To deter further chemical weapons use, the United States launched cruise missiles against the Syrian airfield where the attacking aircraft originated.

Despite Russian and Syrian efforts to bury the truth of what happened in Khan Shaykhun, the JIM determined that the Syrian military had used sarin in the attack. It was evident at the United Nations and the OPCW, however, that Russia would seek to block any international action against its Syrian ally, no matter how damning the evidence. Indeed, it was in direct reaction to the JIM’s competence that Russia vetoed three renewal resolutions at the UN, and the JIM ended in November 2017.

Deepening Chemical Weapons Crisis

Two chemical weapons attacks in the spring of 2018 escalated the threat to the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. In March, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, now a UK citizen living in Salisbury, and his daughter were poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent known to have been developed by the Soviet Union. The UK blamed Russia for the assassination attempt, underscoring the terrible risk the use of a such a nerve agent had posed to the local community. Indeed, a resident of the adjacent town of Amesbury later died. The UK requested a technical assistance visit by OPCW experts who confirmed that a nerve agent was used in the attack.

On April 18, 2018, the OPCW Executive Council met to address the experts’ findings. In the wake of the expulsion of Russian diplomats by the UK, the United States, and others, the meeting immediately escalated into high politics with Russia unleashing absurd counteraccusations and protesting that it was the victim of a Western smear campaign.

Before the day was over, it was clear that a front line in a broader international confrontation had opened up and that, in addition to the Syrian crisis, there was now an even more ominous Russian problem. Russia was no longer just an enabler of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, protecting it at the OPCW and the UN Security Council; it was itself a perpetrator, signaling to the world that it still illicitly possessed its own dangerous chemical weapons agent. Moreover, Moscow now viewed the OPCW Technical Secretariat as an adversary. Just a week earlier, as reported by the Dutch government, agents from the Russian military intelligence branch, the GRU, were deported from the Netherlands for attempting to conduct a cyberoperation against OPCW headquarters in The Hague from an adjacent hotel.

A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad adorns a wall as a United Nations vehicle carrying inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons leaves a hotel in Damascus, in October 2013.  (Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images)As the chemical weapons threat widened to the European continent, the crisis in Syria deepened. On April 7, multiple chlorine-filled barrel bombs were dropped on the Damascus suburb of Douma, killing dozens of civilians. Again, a highly charged special meeting of the OPCW Executive Council was convened on April 16, just two days after joint military strikes against Syrian government facilities by France, the UK, and United States. Russia and Syria falsely claimed that the UK and the United States “staged” the Douma chlorine attacks with the help of the White Helmets, an organization of volunteer first responders in Syria that Russia has tried to label as terrorists. Within weeks, OPCW fact finders went to Douma to further its investigation, which ultimately concluded that chlorine was used.

The OPCW also faced a grim new reality extending beyond Syrian and Russian transgressions. The Islamic State group had used chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, North Korea, although not a party to the CWC, was advertising its chemical weapons capabilities by assassinating the stepbrother of leader Kim Jong Un with VX nerve agent in a Malaysian airport.

OPCW Response to Widening Chemical Weapons Use

With increasing use of chemical weapons undermining the CWC, seriously eroding the international norm, and putting the world at risk of a new era of chemical weapons threats, the OPCW had to act or succumb to irrelevance.

Deeply aggrieved by Russia’s use of chemical weapons on its territory and concerned with a worsening chemical weapons crisis, the UK initiated a special session of CWC states-parties to forge an international response. After Russia and Syria tried unsuccessfully to block adoption of the agenda, the fourth special session of the conference of CWC states-parties on June 27, 2018, with broad international support took unprecedented steps to address the crisis by adopting the historic decision titled “Addressing the Threat From Chemical Weapons Use.”

Most importantly, the decision dealt with Syria’s continued possession and use of chemical weapons. To remedy the termination of the JIM, the conference directed the OPCW Technical Secretariat to “put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons” in Syria. Director-General Fernando Arias implemented that directive by establishing the Investigation and Identification Team, which, in April 2020, found reasonable grounds to conclude that Syria conducted three chemical weapons attacks against opposition-controlled areas in March 2017. In response to these findings, the conference of states-parties in April 2021 suspended Syria’s voting rights at the OPCW.

The decision further clarified the mandate of the OPCW Technical Secretariat in the context of the CWC. The director-general, if requested by a state party investigating a possible use of chemical weapons on its territory, was expressly authorized to provide technical expertise to help identify the perpetrators of any chemical weapons attack.

The decision also authorized the release of OPCW information to any entities established under the auspices of the UN investigating chemical weapons use in Syria. This provision would aid the ongoing investigation efforts of two such entities: (1) the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) established to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for committing war crimes in Syria, and (2) the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

The Fight for a Future Free of Chemical Weapons

Threats to the CWC and the international norm against the use of chemical weapons remain ominous and unabated as evidenced by Russia’s attempted assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent in August 2020.

Russia’s contempt for and repeated violation of the convention are appallingly evident. Moscow has enabled and protected its Syrian ally by relentlessly wielding its veto at the UN Security Council, opposing action by the OPCW, and engaging in a calculated global campaign of disinformation and distortion. In two assassination attempts against opponents, Russia has advertised to the world that it illicitly maintains a chemical weapons program, possesses Novichok nerve agents, and has no compunction about using such outlawed weapons against its adversaries. There should be no expectation that Russia’s contempt for the convention will ebb in the foreseeable future. Indeed, Moscow’s continued embrace of chemical weapons is not an isolated affront, but rather part of a much larger challenge to the West.

The Assad regime also remains a long-term threat to the convention and the international norm against chemical weapons use. It views chemical weapons as a vital tool of survival and as a strategic counterweight to Israel. There should be no expectation that Syria will finally comply with its CWC obligations once the conflict there is over. Rather, it should be expected that Syria will seek to produce and deploy chemical weapons as long as the Assad regime remains in power.

The fourth special session of the conference of CWC states-parties in June 2018 began an effort to push back against these threats and avoid a return of the chemical weapons horrors of the 20th century. This must continue and intensify as it will be a long-term struggle.

The United States must accord high priority to defending the CWC and lead an international effort to hold perpetrators accountable in all relevant forums. What would this entail? Chemical weapons use by North Korea and the Islamic State group are surely of concern, but they are not parties to the treaty and thus not a primary factor in the current crisis, which is largely a Russian problem. It is important to recognize that deterring Moscow from possessing or using chemical weapons or enabling their use by others is a challenging task. Increased pressure through sanctions and initiatives at the OPCW and UN General Assembly will continue to play a role. Just as importantly, the United States and its allies must mount a diplomatic and public messaging campaign to counter Russian disinformation and deprive Moscow of any credibility or support. This would include further isolating Russia from the international community by encouraging key states in Africa and Asia that have been sitting on the sidelines to join efforts to condemn chemical weapons use by Syria and Russia.

To be clear, the near-term prospects for deterring further Russian chemical weapons affronts are not favorable. The Russian chemical weapons problem is fundamentally rooted in Moscow’s broader confrontation with the West, and it should be expected that any progress would ultimately be dependent on the broader political landscape. In 2013, Russia worked constructively with the United States to diplomatically address the Syrian chemical weapons crisis. In the years that followed, however, Russia chose to abet rather than dissuade its Syrian ally from chemical weapons use and then went beyond that by targeting the Kremlin’s own opponents for assassination with chemical agents prohibited by its treaty obligations. All these premeditated decisions helped to precipitate the wider strained situation and are symptomatic of Moscow’s intractability.

Justice and deterrence require that a diplomatic strategy to defend the convention also ensure personal accountability for those individuals who ordered, enabled, or carried out chemical weapons attacks. Much of the groundwork for such an effort has been laid, but its promise may not be realized for years.

Internationally, two UN-established entities—the IIIM and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic—are mandated to investigate violations of international law and have reported on incidents involving chemical weapons use. France has spearheaded a multilateral initiative, launching in January 2018, called the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, with the mission of gathering and sharing information to facilitate national and international prosecution of chemical weapons perpetrators. Currently, 40 states and the European Union are members.

The United States and its allies should intensify efforts to substantially expand support for the partnership. Although prosecutions could take years, these cooperative efforts signal the international community’s determination to ensure that those who use chemical weapons will someday face a reckoning and their victims will see justice done.

To successfully weather the assault on the convention and the norm, diplomacy must be paired with concerted international investment in the OPCW. The Technical Secretariat must remain the calm eye of the political storm. The convention does not endow the OPCW with enforcement authority, but it does provide the secretariat with the ability to assess the accuracy of state party declarations, to investigate chemical weapons use, and to provide technical assistance to states parties. Indeed, in the Syrian case, the secretariat’s reports underscored that objective analysis from an independent organization is the best antidote to false claims from the perpetrator of a chemical weapons attack.

It is essential that the Technical Secretariat remain fit for its mission in an increasingly challenging environment. That will require annually increasing the budget to adjust for inflation. For almost a decade, the OPCW budget has remained virtually unchanged at about $85 million. Meanwhile, the international community has asked the organization to do more when inflation has left it with 25 percent less purchasing power than in 2009. States-parties have responsibly provided the secretariat with many millions in voluntary contributions to fund Syria-related operations, the 2016 removal of chemical weapons precursors from Libya, and other important initiatives. Yet, such donations are not a reliable or sustainable way to maintain the organization’s core activities and staffing. The OPCW is the best bargain in the international system and should be treated the same as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which in effect has been held to roughly zero real growth, with an annual increase reflecting inflation.

Keeping the Technical Secretariat highly capable and operationally agile will also require establishing a long-term training program and a dedicated training directorate to ensure that the next generation of inspectors, investigators, laboratory technicians, chemical weapons experts, and analysts are fully trained and prepared to face future challenges.

Given that the OPCW is regularly detecting increasingly sophisticated hacking attempts, another priority must be securing the organization’s computer network. The Technical Secretariat has initiated remedial measures to enhance security, but a broader revamp of the computer network along with additional cybersecurity resources are needed. These should be funded through the regular budget and voluntary contributions by states parties.

The final requirement is to ensure the OPCW continues to be well led. The director-general should always be a highly skilled, experienced diplomat with expertise in chemistry being optional. Since the beginning of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in 2013, the OPCW has been ably led by successive directors-general who have exemplified these attributes, faithfully implementing the convention while deftly navigating the diplomatic landscape.

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is needed for the evil of chemical weapons to triumph is for responsible nations to acquiesce. The CWC is a remarkable achievement in the progress of humanity, and the international community must continue to fight for it or risk losing it. The OPCW is an indispensable partner in this fight. With the broad support of its membership, the organization has taken unprecedented action to expose all perpetrators—countries, groups, and individuals—who use chemical weapons. More broadly, the world must redouble its efforts to ensure chemical weapons remain reviled and those who use them are held accountable. What was started with the signing of the convention must be finished, finally turning the page on an ugly chapter in history.

Kenneth D. Ward is a senior advisor in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at the U.S. Department of State. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from December 2015 to August 2020.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons transformed from a standard arms control monitoring body into an indispensable instrument of international peace and security. This role must be strengthened to address a chemical weapons threat that has metastasized.

Negotiating the New START Treaty

September 2021

How to Succeed at Arms Control Despite Tough Odds

Negotiating the New START Treaty
By Rose Gottemoeller
(Cambria Press, Amherst, New York, 2021)
244 pages

Reviewed by Linton F. Brooks

In January 2009, Rose Gottemoeller, recently returned from three years heading the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was given an impossible assignment by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was asked to negotiate the first comprehensive bilateral nuclear arms control treaty in more than a quarter of a century and to do so in less than a year, even though the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) took almost a decade. Compounding the hurdles, Gottemoeller was reliant on a U.S. government whose negotiating expertise had atrophied. She had to work with a Russian government in the early grip of Putinism and well known as a difficult negotiating partner. This fascinating book is her personal account of how she met those challenges.

The seniority and prestige of the six officials who provide blurbs on the back of the book demonstrate the high regard in which the author is held. Their view that the book provides unique insights is amply borne out. In addition to its policy importance, the book is a model of clear, understandable writing on a complex subject.

I have known the author as a professional colleague and personal friend for almost four decades. I am mentioned incidentally three times in her book. In her earlier two tours in government, I was one of a number of people with whom she would occasionally brainstorm. I have tried to write an objective review, but I am in no sense an impartial observer.

My observations focus on a handful of the most important topics and are seen through the prism of Cold War arms control negotiations, particularly those leading to the 1991 START for which I was the last chief negotiator. I hope to make it clear where things have changed and where they have not and thus help readers understand the challenges of the future.

The Main Players: Russia and the White House

As Gottemoeller makes clear, the least surprising thing she faced was the nature of her Russian counterparts. They were willing to play games, sometimes withdrew positions that the United States thought were settled, and were often hierarchal and misogynist. Such characteristics were well known to the author, who has decades of experience with the Russians and speaks the language fluently. They would have been equally easy to identify by any member of a Cold War arms control delegation.

The author correctly points out the advantage of having delegation members who speak Russian. She had far more Russian speakers than I had 30 years ago, Today, the number of U.S. career officials with first-hand Russian experience and often Russian language skills gained through arms control inspection teams and the expanding channels of communication between the United States and Russia is again on the rise. Those skills are a significant advantage that must not be squandered in future negotiations.

As a former negotiator, much of the book felt familiar. I remember the Russians repudiating positions they had previously accepted. I remember arguments over who got to go to high-level meetings and the difficulties resulting when one negotiator attended and the other did not. I remember operating on three hours sleep while trying to remain civil. I remember private discussions with my counterpart, often over lunch, to seek to settle issues.

When it came to relations with the White House, however, I could not relate at all to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Gottemoeller worked for the White House; I did not. That was in part because of President Barack Obama's deep personal involvement with the near-impossible goal he had set. It was also because the government’s capability to negotiate an arms control treaty had completely atrophied. Negotiating the first START took nine years and involved six chief negotiators. By the time I arrived, it was clear that arms control negotiations, like any other negotiations, were a responsibility of the Department of State, and there was a well-established system for providing guidance. My only White House involvement was trying to maximize how many of my delegation could attend the signing ceremony.

Despite the excellent people involved, the Obama White House never seemed to fully comprehend how international negotiations worked. It failed to understand the delegation’s need for time to brainstorm on the best approach. It acted as though the only requirement was to put out a draft proposal and get some comments. Treaties are written in Russian and English with each copy considered equally authentic. It takes immense work to ensure phrasing in both languages have the same meaning. Although the book does not say so explicitly, these weaknesses may have been exacerbated by a White House tendency to micromanage.

One example of the lack of understanding, which Gottemoeller was too gracious to mention, was the White House’s failure during a negotiation that went on for 15 months to give her the rank of ambassador. White House staff seemed oblivious to the fact that, in diplomatic negotiations, rank is viewed as a symbol of whether the negotiator is fully empowered with the status and influence to speak authoritatively for their government. That failure made Gottemoeller’s job even more challenging.

The Working-Level Essential: Backstopping

It is gratifying that Negotiating the New START Treaty gives attention to backstopping, the vital interagency process that produces formal instructions to an arms control delegation. It is designed to ensure that the interests of all major governmental agencies are adequately considered. Ideally, backstopping will result in instructions on which all agencies agree. When that is not the case, as was almost always true with the 1991 START, the process allows for the National Security Council staff to adjudicate disputes.

Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, who negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, speaks at a conference in the United Kingdom in 2012. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)Backstopping requires a unique leadership style. The leader must be able to bring about consensus, if possible; recognize when consensus is unlikely; and work to gain an appropriate decision to allow instructions to proceed. Gottemoeller recounts how well the process that supported her worked, largely because of the experience and skill of the chair of the backstopping committee, Lynn Rusten.

At least as portrayed in the book, there were relatively few significant disagreements among departments, a rarity in U.S. arms control history. In addition to ensuring that no relevant considerations are overlooked, good backstopping reduces the chance that those believing their interests were inadequately considered will stir political tensions by feeding their concerns to specific senators, gets instructions to the delegation in a timely fashion, and alerts the White House and State Department to issues that may arise in ratification. Officials with backstopping responsibilities in the future will benefit from this section of the book if they use it as a blueprint for their aspirations.

The Political Necessity: High-Level Reinforcement

Cold War negotiators were implementers, not originators. For example, the central limits of the 1991 START were all agreed during presidential summits or meetings between the U.S. secretary of state and the Soviet foreign minister. That does not mean the negotiators had nothing to do. The central limits of START can be listed on a single page; the implementing details, mostly verification, consume several hundred pages.

The negotiating team for New START faced a different problem. The central limits—1,550 deployed warheads, 700 launchers that contained missiles and an aggregate total of 800 launchers (bombers counted as one unit against each of these totals)—were negotiated by the delegation itself, then ultimately agreed by the two presidents .. Because these limits were primarily a military issue, when the Russians appeared to be stonewalling, Gottemoeller made the excellent decision that she needed negotiating support from a senior military officer rather than a more senior diplomat. She enlisted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to come to Geneva and meet his Russian counterpart. Although no decisions were reached, this meeting proved successful in gaining Russian agreement to work the issue seriously, ultimately leading to agreement. Mullen’s presence made it clear that there was U.S. military support for the treaty. That was significant because there appears to have been no senior uniformed officer on the U.S. delegation. Later in Moscow, Mullen was similarly influential in gaining Russian approval for the important concept of unique identifiers.

Although Clinton did not engage in direct negotiations with her Russian counterpart, as was generally true during the Cold War, she consistently supported Gottemoeller against White House criticism. Having a strong champion in Washington is a prerequisite for any successful negotiator, and Gottemoeller was fortunate she had one.

The Ultimate Goal: Ratification

There are countries where ratification of a treaty signed by the president is a pro forma matter. The United States is not one of them. The constitutional requirement that U.S. treaties require the “advice and consent” of the Senate by a two-thirds majority vote fundamentally shapes ratification politics. The United States has a deep commitment to freedom of action and tends to dislike being bound by any treaty, no matter how benign. Thus, it is always an uphill battle to achieve advice and consent.

Ratification has official and unofficial components. The official aspects are well understood. When submitted, the treaty is accompanied by a detailed article-by-article analysis so that the Senate and the executive branch can be clear on what they are approving. Hearings are held, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of questions for the record are asked and answered. Some questions may embody a deeply held concern that needs to be met by a skillful, nuanced answer. The crucial vote of a single senator could hang on that answer. Because it is difficult to know what questions could be important, immense effort must be put into all answers. The arduous nature of this process is only completely clear to those who have been through it.

Another aspect of ratification is building informal support from outside government. Gottemoeller's book is invaluable in illuminating this process. Working with long-time State Department official Terri Lodge, who performed a similar function with both treaties I negotiated but with far less help from me, Gottemoeller organized a deluge of pro-treaty letters aimed at individual senators, as well as pro-treaty statements from many religious denominations. The purpose was to strengthen support among senators already committed to the treaty and provide those who were still on the fence with further justification for favoring ratification.

The final aspect of ratification, also well described in the book, is to ensure that the resolution of ratification passed by the Senate does not contain any poison pills. The resolution for New START is six pages long. Few non-experts think it is important, and even fewer have read it. It provides some “sense of the Senate” nonbinding language and a long series of actions, ,primarily reports, the executive branch must take prior to ratification. What it does not include and what Gottemoeller and Lodge worked diligently to prevent was any condition requiring action by Russia that could preclude the treaty from coming into force. That is what happened in 1996 when the Senate’s approval of START II, which would have banned all intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, directed that ratification “shall not be interpreted as an obligation by the United States to accept any modification, change in scope, or extension” of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. After the Russian legislature’s ratification law required U.S. ratification of the 1997 ABM Demarcation Agreements as a condition for START II to enter into force, it became impossible to bring the treaty into effect.

The Indispensable Factor: Leadership

The United States prides itself on being a nation of rugged individualists. Yet, most significant accomplishments are made by groups motivated by and directed toward a common purpose. Providing that motivation and direction is the function of leadership. Without Gottemoeller’s consistent leadership, New START would never have been completed. That is true for any negotiation, but Gottemoeller’s style was unique.

Cold War arms control delegations were hierarchal. There were a head of delegation and usually a deputy, the members representing each of the major agencies, and technical experts. The delegation was certainly not run like a military organization, but the hierarchy was clear, and the leadership style was often characterized by top-down direction. By contrast, Gottemoeller worked to create a family atmosphere. She recounts the major effort it took to host a Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment and, later, an Easter dinner. Her book is replete with her concerns for keeping the family happy and functioning. Although she is kind enough to mention the efforts of my late wife when I was the chief START negotiator, we did nothing like this. Readers should also note that whenever she describes a success, she inevitably gives credit to those on her delegation who created that success. Whenever there are problems, she does not speak of individuals but simply acknowledges the problem. That shows graciousness and sound leadership.

Did this leadership style contribute to her success? That is inherently an unanswerable question, but she undoubtedly succeeded, and her unique leadership style pervades the book. Indeed, students of leadership may wish to read this book entirely to understand a leadership style that is uncommon in government.

Although most of Gottemoeller’s decisions struck me as correct, I do have two quibbles. I was surprised that, faced with the imminent expiration of START, she suggested that the two presidents sign the new treaty along with a protocol containing major verification provisions while leaving detailed technical verification annexes for a subsequent agreement. In the Cold War, such a proposal would have enraged conservatives who believed that verification deserved equal prominence with actual limits. Indeed, for the 1991 START, conservatives insisted that each of the seven annexes that dealt with verification be signed by the presidents individually to avoid any impression that verification was secondary. Because the Obama White House did not accept Gottemoeller’s idea, we will never know if modern conservatives would have had the same reaction.

I could find only one, understandable error. During the end of negotiations, the White House directed two senior State Department officials to visit Geneva to “assist” the delegation. When the delegation interpreted this as a lack of confidence, Gottemoeller sought to reassure them by claiming that an even larger group had been sent during the endgame of the first START. Although this was doubtless reassuring, it is incorrect. There was no one from Washington sent to Geneva in the final days of the 1991 negotiations.

The book’s last full chapter is a collection of lessons learned, each discussed in thoughtful detail. Readers who cannot spare the time for the whole book should read at least this final chapter.

At the same time, these are lessons for negotiating a bilateral arms control treaty, and they should not be misinterpreted. Although Gottemoeller is justly proud of what she and her team accomplished, it would be a mistake to assume her approach will be adequate for negotiating the follow-on to New START. Because the U.S. and Russian presidents made clear the limitations of what they were seeking to accomplish, Gottemoeller could insist, for example, that ballistic missile defense was not a subject for discussion. That is unlikely to be the case in the future.

The negotiations that will soon begin on what follows New START will be more complex and challenging. The two sides will need to deal with ballistic missile defense, with what the Russians call “conventional strategic strike,” and with the implications of space and cyberspace, as well as unmanned vehicles and artificial intelligence.

As China increases its strategic forces, it will be necessary to determine how that country influences bilateral negotiations with Russia. Although it is doubtful China will soon or perhaps ever join the United States and Russia in formal arms control negotiations, many topics, including space, could and should be discussed in separate multilateral negotiations.

The United States will have to be much better prepared for the follow-on negotiations. That will entail rebuilding the capability that used to exist within the government's career force, especially at the State Department. It will mean using the recently initiated Strategic Stability Dialogue to revitalize the interagency process and to develop procedures for backstopping. The government must integrate experts in space, cyberspace, and other disciplines with those traditionally involved in nuclear negotiations. It must bring new experts with fresh ideas into the career civil and foreign services. Only then will the country be ready to build on the significant accomplishments that New START represents.

This is a forward-looking and optimistic book, as reflected in the author’s last two sentences: “Despite deep differences between Washington and Moscow…we must continue to make progress in controlling and limiting nuclear weapons. It is our responsibility to humanity.”

I read those words as a public skeptic, having argued that New START would be the last bilateral nuclear arms control treaty.1 Yet, the notion of our responsibility to humanity, and to our grandchildren, is a powerful one. There is no doubt Gottemoeller is right in the long term. The question is whether she can be right in the few years left before 2026, when New START expires for good.

In her prologue, Gottemoeller says one of her aims in writing the book was “spurring people young and old to think about the opportunities and challenges in the field. In particular, my wish is that this book will inspire new negotiators to enter the game.” She adds that “negotiating a nuclear treaty…requires a clear-eyed sense of where U.S. national interest lies. Then, we must negotiate so that the treaty serves that interest.”

If arms control has a future, it will be because a new generation has taken up her challenge and embraced the optimism of her prologue. No matter how the challenges of the future are ultimately resolved, those trying to shape them will benefit from reading and rereading this remarkable book.


1. Linton Brooks, “The End of Arms Control,” Daedalus, Vol. 149, No. 2 (April 2020): 84–100.


Linton F. Brooks has over six decades of experience in national security. He served from July 2002 to January 2007 as administrator of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, responsible for the U.S. nuclear weapons program and for the department’s international nuclear nonproliferation programs. In the early 1990s, he was the chief U.S. negotiator for the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Currently, he is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University.

A veteran U.S. arms control expert analyzes how the author led the delegation that negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

New Chinese Missile Silo Fields Discovered

September 2021
By Shannon Bugos and Julia Masterson

China is constructing at least 250 new long-range missile silos at as many as three locations, fueling concerns that it aims to substantially expand its nuclear weapons arsenal. Beijing’s rapid nuclear buildup, recently revealed through open-source intelligence analysis, could significantly impact the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and arms control and strategic stability talks between the United States and Russia.

Yumen in northwestern China is among three locations where the Beijing government is constructing at least 250 new long-range missile silos. (Image: Planet Labs Inc. / Analysis: MIIS James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies)U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his concern with the “rapid growth” of China’s nuclear arsenal at an Aug. 6 meeting of foreign ministers at the ASEAN Regional Forum. He said this dramatic expansion indicates a sharp deviation from Beijing’s “decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence,” according to a readout of the meeting by State Department spokesman Ned Price.

Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, called the development a “strategic breakout” by China. “The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking, and frankly, the word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough,” he told the Space & Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Ala., on Aug. 12.

China has yet to officially respond to the discovery of two new missile silo sites at Yumen and Hami in northwestern China in June and a potential third in Inner Mongolia in July. The Chinese Foreign Ministry told the Associated Press on July 30 that, with respect to reports about the Hami site, it was not aware of the situation.

China’s nuclear stockpile remains small in comparison to those of the United States and Russia and only grew by an estimated 30 warheads, to 350, between 2020 and 2021, according to a June 2021 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The U.S. Defense Department’s 2020 military power report on China was more conservative, putting China’s nuclear warhead stockpile in the low 200s. (See ACT, October 2020.) Beijing currently has an estimated 20 silos for liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Comparatively, the United States and Russia are believed to have nuclear stockpiles of about 4,000 warheads each.

Republicans in Congress said that the recent revelations confirmed reports during the Trump administration that China was speeding its nuclear buildup and that Beijing’s actions demand an accelerated modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), ranking member on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, called China’s nuclear buildup “unprecedented” and suggested that China is “deploying nuclear weapons to threaten the United States and our allies.”

China’s nuclear posture has long been one of minimum nuclear deterrence, aimed at maintaining a small but technically sophisticated arsenal capable of a second-strike. Beijing has long asserted that it adheres to a no-first-use policy, meaning that it would only use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a first strike.

But the discovery of new missile silos provides some evidence for the claims made during the Trump administration that China aims to substantially expand the size of its nuclear arsenal in the coming years. In May 2019, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr. predicted that, “over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history.”

In April 2021, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, Ashley’s successor, shared his assessment that China is well poised to exceed that estimate. “China probably seeks to narrow, match, or in some places exceed U.S. qualitative equivalency with new nuclear warheads and their delivery platforms,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a briefing on the annual worldwide threat assessment.

At the new missile silo fields at Yumen and Hami, which are located roughly 236 miles apart, Beijing has 229 missile silos under construction. Each site features silos placed about two miles apart in a grid-like pattern, spanning an area of about 300 square miles. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies first identified the construction of an estimated 119 silos at the Yumen site, as reported by The Washington Post on June 30.

On July 26, the Federation of American Scientists announced its discovery of an additional 110 missile silos outside of Hami, on which construction had begun in March 2021. “The silo construction at Yumen and Hami constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever,” wrote Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen.

A potential third site, at Hanggin Banner, Inner Mongolia, was disclosed in a report on Aug. 12 that revealed construction of a silo field similar to those found at Yumen and Hami. According to Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, a U.S. Air Force education institute that publicized the location, satellite imagery indicates construction of at least 29 new silos, 13 of which have dome shelters.

Experts suggest that China’s DF-41, a solid-fueled ICBM capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads, may be destined for the silos at the new sites. It is uncertain, however, whether Beijing plans to fill every silo with a missile and how many warheads each missile will carry.

“Just because you build the silos doesn’t mean you have to fill them all with missiles,” Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, told The New York Times on July 26. “They can move them around.”

Employing such a shell-game strategy could be one of China’s motivations for constructing new missile silos. Alternatively, as suggested by Tong Zhao of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, leaders in Beijing may have adjusted their calculus to determine that “a bigger arsenal would make the country’s rivals respect China and exercise more self-restraint when dealing with Beijing.”

Although China once prioritized a sophisticated but small nuclear arsenal, Zhao suggests that recent evidence indicates Beijing “has become more willing to invest in quantity, in addition to its traditional focus on [the] quality” of its nuclear forces.

Caitlin Talmadge, an expert on Chinese nuclear issues at Georgetown University, shared her assessment July 1 on Twitter that “China is working hard to entrench [the United States] in a deeper state of mutual vulnerability” through its nuclear buildup.

“Beijing has a good ways to go still, but true nuclear stalemate would make it much more challenging for [the United States] to reassure [and] defend allies in the face of Chinese conventional threats,” she concluded.

U.S. defense officials are also watching to see if China will use its civilian nuclear power infrastructure to expand its weapons-grade fissile material stockpile. Richard warned in April that Beijing’s new nuclear power reactors “could change the upper bounds of what China could choose to do if they wanted to in terms of further expansion of their nuclear capabilities.” Nuclear infrastructure intended for civilian use could be maladapted for the production of weapons-grade material.

China’s rapid expansion has prompted questions about how it could affect arms control and strategic stability talks between the United States and Russia. Washington and Moscow kicked off the dialogue in July in Geneva.

The Trump administration pursued efforts in 2020 to bring China into trilateral arms control talks with Russia, but Beijing repeatedly refused. (See ACT, November 2020.) At one point, the Trump administration conditioned an extension of the 2010 U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which was set to expire in February 2021, on China’s involvement in a new trilateral arms control agreement. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

Trump left office with the treaty’s future in doubt, but the Biden administration agreed to extend New START just days before its expiration. Even so, Blinken said on Feb. 3 that Washington will not only seek future arms control covering all Russian nuclear weapons, but also “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal.”

On Aug. 10, Price echoed the secretary’s remarks after the silo field revelations, saying that “we encourage Beijing to engage with us on practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilizing arms races and conflict.”

The desire for a dialogue on strategic stability with China is shared by some U.S. military leaders. “A dialogue allows us to communicate our national security or diplomatic objectives, and then to understand Chinese national security diplomatic objectives,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Lutton, commander of the 20th Air Force, which has responsibility for the U.S. ICBM force, on Aug. 10. “I think it is beneficial to work with the Chinese.”

In addition to China’s construction of new missile silos, a July 30 report by National Public Radio revealed satellite images of the construction of a new tunnel and roads at Lop Nur, the former Chinese nuclear test site. The U.S. State Department has previously expressed concern that Beijing may be seeking to increase activities at Lop Nur. (See ACT, May 2021.)

China’s construction of new long-range missile silos is raising concerns.


Biden Administration Begins Nuclear Posture Review

September 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Biden administration has formally begun a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy against the backdrop of several competing pressures. These include President Joe Biden’s desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy and put the emphasis on a more holistic and integrated view of deterrence, concerns about increasingly aggressive Russian and Chinese nuclear behavior, the growing cost of the U.S. nuclear modernization program, and divisions in Congress about the future of U.S. nuclear policy.

As a candidate, President Joe Biden said the United States does not need new nuclear weapons. Whether he plans to act on that rhetoric will be reflected in the Nuclear Posture Review, which is intended to examine the size, role, and capability of the country's nuclear arsenal. (Photo by U.S. Air Force)“The Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] is currently underway,” Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Defense Department spokesman, told Arms Control Today on Aug. 13. “The review started in early July, and it will be finalized in conjunction with the National Defense Strategy early next year.”

The review will be the fifth since the end of the Cold War. The Trump administration’s review, conducted from 2017 to 2018, sought to expand the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid what the administration believed was a deteriorating nuclear threat environment. (See ACT, March 2018.)

Biden criticized his predecessor’s nuclear weapons policies during the presidential campaign. He told the Council for a Livable World in responses to a 2019 candidate questionnaire that the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and that his “administration will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Biden also expressed his belief that “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack” against the United States and its allies.

The 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released by the White House in March, stated that the administration would seek to “re-establish [its] credibility as a leader in arms control” and “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.”

But it remains to be seen whether Biden will order any adjustments to the policies and programs he inherited. The administration’s first budget request, released in May, would continue the expensive and controversial nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization efforts pursued by the Trump administration pending the outcome of the Nuclear Posture Review. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

In June, Melissa Dalton, the acting assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, told the House Armed Services Committee that the NPR “will consider and assess U.S. strategy, posture, and policy adjustments and consider program execution risk—all with a goal of maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent, ensuring strategic stability, and reducing risks of mistake and miscalculation in crisis and conflict.”

“This process will be informed by the 21st century security and fiscal environment,” she added.

Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told the 2021 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in June that the administration seeks “to make sure that the [NPR] does not stand on its own in its own silo…but is rather integrated into the analysis” of the National Defense Strategy.

It is unclear if the conclusions of the NPR will be published in a stand-alone report, as has been the case for past reviews.

“We will determine whether to integrate the findings into the [National Defense Strategy] or publish a stand-alone review,” Orland told Arms Control Today.

The commencement of the NPR comes as the Biden administration, like the Trump administration, has expressed growing concern about the nuclear behavior of Russia and China. The two countries are modernizing their arsenals and developing new weapons capabilities and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, are projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

“We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China,” Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said at the Space & Missile Defense Symposium in Alabama on Aug. 12.

“The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking,” he added.

In addition to a more challenging international security environment, the administration must also confront the rapidly rising price tag of the U.S. nuclear sustainment and modernization effort, which has jumped to a projected $634 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (See ACT, June 2021.)

Kahl said the administration has “concerns about the cost and scheduling issues” presented by the modernization program, but expressed confidence that “we can deliver the current modernization plan on cost and on schedule.”

He also noted that given that the NPR may not be complete until early 2022, after the release the fiscal year 2023 budget request next February, certain decisions about force structure and modernization will be accelerated during the review process to inform the next budget submission.

Meanwhile, members of Congress continue to debate whether the administration should use the review to adjust U.S. nuclear policy.

In a July 21 letter, the co-chairs of the bicameral Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group—Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.)—and 18 other lawmakers urged Biden to “reject a 21st century arms race and make bold decisions to lead us towards a future where nuclear weapons no longer threaten all humanity.” The U.S. should forgo new nuclear weapons, they said.

Similarly, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) advised the president in a letter on Aug. 9 “to ensure the nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable, affordable, and…balanced across the full spectrum of integrated deterrence.”

As part of the review, Smith also called on Biden “to take a hard look at whether every ongoing and planned [modernization] effort is necessary” in light of concerns about “affordability and executability.”

Republicans, on the other hand, have continued to urge the administration to plow full steam ahead with current policies and consider whether increases to the arsenal may be necessary given the threat posed by Russia and China.

“We have known that China has been undergoing a crash nuclear buildup for some time, and now it has been laid bare for all the world to see,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said on July 27 in response to reports that China is building new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“We need to have a serious discussion about what it truly means to have to deter two near-peer nuclear adversaries at the same time,” he noted. “It is abundantly clear that we must also rapidly modernize our nuclear infrastructure and bring our deterrent into the 21st century.”


The exercise will influence the future role, size and capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Iran Suggests Harder Line in Nuclear Talks

September 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

Newly inaugurated Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi pledged to continue talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, but his rhetoric increasingly suggests Tehran may complicate the process by demanding more concessions from the United States.

Will Iran's newly inaugurated President Ebrahim Raisi, shown at his Aug. 5 swearing-in ceremony in Tehran, insist on renegotiating certain issues as part of a nuclear deal with the United States? If so, the move could threaten the agreement.  (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)Prior to Raisi’s election in June, the United States and Iran participated in six rounds of indirect talks in Vienna to hash out the steps that each side would need to take to return to compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The European Union coordinated the negotiations on behalf of the other parties to the deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Although the parties did not reach an agreement, Washington and Tehran said that considerable progress was made on determining the actions the United States and Iran must take to restore the deal. (See ACT, June 2021.) But talks have remained paused since Raisi’s election.

Rob Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, told Politico on Aug. 19 that although a deal with the Raisi administration is still possible, “[i]t’s one big question mark” and “not something that [the United States] can fully control.”

Iranian officials informed the EU after the inauguration that they intend to return to talks in Vienna in September, and Raisi said during his Aug. 5 inaugural address that he would pursue “smart engagement” to achieve a lifting of U.S. and international sanctions on Iran. But his administration appears dissatisfied with the progress made during the first six rounds of negotiations and may attempt to renegotiate certain issues.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said on Aug. 9 that the Biden administration needs to return to talks in Vienna with a new “realistic approach” so that a conclusion is reached in the “shortest time.”

This was after an Iranian committee set up to review progress made during the negotiations for the incoming Raisi administration determined that the Vienna talks failed to produce an agreement on several key areas because of “bullying” by U.S. and European parties, Kayvan Khosravi, spokesperson for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said in July.

The committee included members of President Hassan Rouhani’s negotiating team, some advisers to Raisi, and several members of parliament.

Despite such Iranian comments, the Biden administration does not appear to be changing its approach to the negotiations. At an Aug. 5 press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States has made very clear it is prepared to resume talks in Vienna and expects that the “seventh round would pick up where the sixth round has left off.” He said the administration hopes Iran “seizes the opportunity now to advance diplomatic solutions.”

Price warned that the opportunity for restoring the JCPOA would not last forever. He indicated that if Iran’s nuclear program advances to the point where the nonproliferation benefits of the deal cannot be restored, the United States will change course. He did not provide details on when that threshold might be crossed.

Meanwhile, there are domestic pressures on Raisi, who is required under Iranian law to continue ratcheting up the country’s nuclear program.

In a July 8 speech, Rouhani blamed the law, passed by parliament in December 2020, for impeding negotiations to restore the deal. It included provisions requiring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to take certain steps to accelerate the country’s nuclear program in violation of the nuclear deal, including the resumption of uranium enrichment to a level of 20 percent uranium-235, the installation and operation of certain advanced centrifuges, a reduction in monitoring by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and the production of uranium metal. The law was passed in response to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh and as a means to pressure the United States to return to the JCPOA and lift sanctions. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

In accordance with the law, Raisi will be required to oversee the stockpiling of 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235, which is below the level of weapons-grade uranium but which can be more quickly enriched to that level, and the expansion of Iran’s use of advanced IR-6 centrifuges.

Raisi has given no indication that he would seek any suspension of the law’s requirements. Most recently, the IAEA reported on Aug. 16 that Iran has produced 20 percent-enriched uranium metal. Iran claims this capability is necessary to make fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which manufactures medical isotopes, but the process is also relevant to nuclear weapons development. Iran is prohibited from uranium-metal production under the JCPOA.

In an Aug. 16 statement, Price said that “Iran should cease its nuclear escalations and return to negotiations” to restore the deal. He said Iran has “no credible need to produce uranium metal” and noted its “direct relevance to nuclear weapons development.”

Despite Raisi’s rhetoric and Iran’s advancing nuclear program, the European parties to the deal remain optimistic that the JCPOA will be restored.

In an Aug. 12 interview with Arms Control Today, an official from one of the three European countries said that implementation of the deal “remains in the best interest of all parties” and is the “most likely scenario” once talks resume. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it would “be foolish not to be ready with a plan B,” such as a smaller, interim deal that suspends certain Iranian nuclear activity in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

Even if Raisi is posturing and takes a more pragmatic position when talks resume, Iran’s nuclear advances may “make it impossible to keep the door open for restoring the deal,” the EU official acknowledged. He expressed concern that the nuclear deal could also “end up a casualty of escalating regional tensions.”

Malley also said in his Politico interview that the United States must be “prepared for a world in which Iran’s intentions are not to go back” into the nuclear deal.

Recent incidents in and around the Persian Gulf underscore the risk of external issues exacerbating tensions and hindering efforts to restore the nuclear deal. The United States attributed a July 30 attack on a commercial vessel off the coast of Oman that killed two crew members to an Iranian manufactured drone. The Group of Seven countries condemned the attack in an Aug. 6 statement, calling it a violation of international law.

In addition to delays that could result if Raisi attempts to renegotiate progress made in the first six rounds of talks and if external spoilers such as drone attacks continue, the negotiations will be complicated by the need to address several issues that were not resolved prior to Iran’s change in government.

First, the United States is looking for a commitment from Iran to engage in further negotiations after the nuclear deal is restored. President Joe Biden pledged to pursue a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran that builds on the nuclear deal by addressing regional security issues.

Raisi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appear to have rejected the idea of follow-up talks. In a July 28 speech, Khamenei said that future Iranian administrations should “avoid tying their plans” to negotiations with the West “for they’ll certainly fail.”

Meanwhile, Iran is seeking a commitment that Biden’s successors will not withdraw from the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, as President Donald Trump did in May 2018.

The United States appears unlikely to make such a commitment. A senior State Department official said in a June 24 press call that “there is no such thing as a guarantee” that the United States will not withdraw from the deal again.

There are signs that newly inaugurated Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi may demand more concessions from the United States.

U.S., Russia Expected to Continue Stability Talks

September 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia are expected to continue talks in September in an attempt to make progress on nuclear arms control before the last remaining agreement limiting the two countries’ nuclear arsenals expires in less than five years.

Flags representing Russia and the United States. Strategic stability talks between these nuclear powers will substantially determine the future of arms control. (Photo by Vladimir Gerdo\TASS via Getty Images)U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to relaunch a bilateral strategic stability dialogue during their June summit, and delegations representing Washington and Moscow held their first meeting in Geneva on July 28. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

During the “professional and substantive” talks in Geneva, “the U.S. delegation discussed U.S. policy priorities and the current security environment, national perceptions of threats to strategic stability, prospects for new nuclear arms control, and the format for future strategic stability dialogue sessions,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

Biden pronounced himself “hopeful” in brief comments to journalists on July 30 when asked about his views on how the talks went and the prospects for success.

The Russians have not been much more forthcoming. In a statement on July 28, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the two countries held “a comprehensive discussion of the sides’ approaches to maintaining strategic stability, the prospects for arms control, and measures to reduce risks.”

“We have significant differences on key issues,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said after the talks concluded, but “there are also points of convergence, and we intend to capitalize on them.”

Following the dialogue, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on an Aug. 11 call “to support transparency and risk-reduction efforts,” according to a Pentagon statement.

In the weeks ahead of the July meeting, multiple Russian officials called for the dialogue to focus first on conducting “a joint review of each other’s security concerns,” given the differing priorities on strategic stability.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led the U.S. delegation in a first round of the U.S.-Russia stability talks in Geneva in July with the Russian delegation, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. The two sides are expected to meet again this month. (Photo by Vladimir Gerdo\TASS via Getty Images)The U.S. delegation was led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Bonnie Jenkins, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. The U.S. team included officials from the National Security Council and the Defense, Energy, and State departments. Ryabkov led the Russian delegation.

This was the first round of U.S.-Russian strategic stability talks since Biden took office and the two countries extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until 2026. (See ACT, March 2021.) The Trump administration held multiple rounds of the dialogue between September 2017 and August 2020, but failed to agree on extending New START, which was scheduled to expire in February 2021.

A key goal of the dialogue is to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures,” according to the joint U.S.-Russian presidential statement from the June 16 summit in Geneva. Biden told reporters afterward that he expected results relatively quickly. “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters,” he said.

The two countries have agreed to meet again formally in September and to meet informally before then “with the aim of determining topics for expert working groups at the second plenary,” Price said. But so far, no specific dates have been announced.

“This focused approach has been used repeatedly in strategic stability consultations in the past,” commented Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, on July 29. “It has proven to be effective in situations where the parties need to discuss a wide range of issues and not superficially.”

The number of working groups and their topics remain to be decided. Last year, the two countries formed three strategic stability working groups on nuclear warheads and doctrine, verification, and space systems. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters after the dialogue that, in addition to arms control, the two sides touched on issues related to space and the strategic implications of artificial intelligence and cyberspace policy, which suggests possible subject matters for the groups. Rose Gottemoeller, chief U.S. negotiator for New START, told Defense One that some topics could be missile defense, new and emerging technologies such as hypersonic glide vehicles, and the framework for a successor agreement to New START.

As for the different priorities, the Biden administration has expressed a desire to address Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons and new nuclear delivery systems, as well as to bring China into the arms control process.

Beijing repeatedly rejected calls by the Trump administration to join trilateral talks with Washington and Moscow, but expressed a willingness to engage in arms control discussions in other settings, such as a meeting with the five nuclear-weapon states or in a bilateral dialogue.

Russia, meanwhile, wants to focus on developing “a new security equation” that addresses all nuclear and nonnuclear, offensive and defensive weapons that affect strategic stability. That would include U.S. missile defense systems, which Washington has long resisted putting on the table.

The State Department official noted that the Russian delegation brought up U.S. missile defenses during the dialogue and that the U.S. delegation responded by arguing that those defense systems are meant to counter threats from Iran and North Korea rather than Russia.

Moscow has suggested including France and the United Kingdom, as well as China, in arms control discussions. It has also continued to propose a moratorium on the deployment of ground-launched missiles that would have been prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (See ACT, November 2020.)

Although separate from any formal negotiations on an arms control agreement or arrangement to follow New START, the strategic stability dialogue and its corresponding working groups could help establish the foundation for those formal talks in the future.

New START, signed in 2010, caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads
and 700 deployed delivery vehicles and heavy bombers each. Ryabkov noted on June 25 that the two countries are working on restarting the inspections conducted under the treaty, which have been paused since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but “there are no agreements yet.”


Neither side has said much about where the process stands.

Pentagon Raises Concerns About NNSA Budget

September 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Nuclear Weapons Council, which coordinates planning for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, certified in July that the Energy Department’s fiscal year 2022 budget request is adequate to sustain and modernize the country’s nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is among those who agree with the Pentagon's Nuclear Weapons Council in arguing for more spending on nuclear weapons. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)But the council also warned that the request “injects risk into the longer-term schedule required to ensure modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.”

The certification letter to Congress, which is required annually by law, raises further questions about the affordability and executability of the modernization plans of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) as the Biden administration begins its Nuclear Posture Review, a comprehensive assessment of U.S. nuclear strategy and capabilities.

The letter said the proposed 2022 funding level “contains minimally sufficient immediate investment to ensure a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.” It added that members of the council “express unanimous and grave concern that accepting increased programmatic risk” within the nuclear weapons activities of the NNSA, a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, “will further increase operational risk at a time when [the Energy and Defense departments] are executing the nuclear modernization program of record.”

The administration is requesting about $15.5 billion for nuclear weapons activities at the NNSA in 2022, an increase of $139 million above the 2021 level appropriated by Congress, but a decrease of about $460 million from the Trump projection of $15.9 billion for 2022. (See ACT, July/August 2021.) The request did not continue any projected spending levels beyond 2022.

The council cautioned in its letter that “additional growth beyond a two percent assumed inflation rate in the [NNSA] budget may be necessary to fully fund and successfully execute modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.”

The weapons activities request for 2022 is the first decrease from a prior-year request since fiscal year 2013 and from a prior-year projection since fiscal year 2016, albeit from a much larger baseline. Last year, Congress provided approximately $15.4 billion, a mammoth increase of $2.9 billion above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Overall, spending on NNSA weapons activities grew by nearly 70 percent during the Trump administration. The agency revealed last December that the projected 25-year cost of its warhead and infrastructure sustainment and modernization plans rose from $392 billion to $505 billion between 2019 and 2020. (See ACT, April 2021.)

In a July 27 statement publicizing the council’s letter, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking members on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, said they agreed with the council’s warnings.

“It’s irresponsible that this White House…put forward a budget that puts our nation in such a dangerous position,” they said.

But House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the growth in the NNSA budget in recent years demands greater oversight.

The NNSA “has had an increasing number of requirements levied upon it, not only by [the Defense Department], but also Congress,” Smith wrote in an Aug. 9 letter to President Joe Biden.

“In nearly every instance, NNSA programs have seen massive cost increases, schedule delays, and cancellations of billion-dollar programs,” he said. “This must end.”

“As we near the budgetary heights of the ‘nuclear modernization mountain’ we can ill afford further delays and cost overruns,” Smith added.

A Pentagon council that oversees the U.S. nuclear stockpile raises new doubts about the affordability of the nuclear modernization plans, terms funding for fiscal year 2022 “minimally sufficient.”


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