I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control

Nuclear False Warnings and the Risk of Catastrophe

December 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball

Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). U.S. bomber and missile forces went on full alert, and the emergency command post, known as the “doomsday plane,” took to the air.

Former Titan II Missile in its silo, Sahuarita, Arizona. Source: The Titan Missile Museum.At 3 a.m., National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by a call from his military assistant. He was told that NORAD computers were reporting that 2,200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. According to Brzezinski, just one minute before he planned to call President Jimmy Carter to recommend an immediate U.S. nuclear retaliatory response, word came through that the NORAD message was a false alarm caused by software simulating a Soviet missile attack that was inexplicably transferred into the live warning system at the command’s headquarters.

The 1979 incident was one of the most dangerous false alarms of the nuclear age, but it was not the first or the last. Within months, three more U.S. system malfunctions set off the U.S. early-warning systems.

The Soviet Union also experienced false alarms. On Sept. 26, 1983, a newly installed early-warning system erroneously signaled that the United States had launched a small salvo of missiles toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge that night, would later report that he defied standard military protocol and refused to pass the alert to Moscow because “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.”

On Jan. 25, 1995, a large weather rocket launched off the coast of Norway created the appearance on Russian radars of an initial phase of a U.S. nuclear attack. Russian President Boris Yeltsin reported that the launch prompted him to activate Russia’s mobile nuclear command system.

Although the Cold War standoff that gave rise to massive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals ended decades ago, the nuclear strategies that could lead to the firing of hundreds of nuclear weapons remain susceptible to false alarms.

Today, each side deploys some 1,400 strategic nuclear warheads on hundreds of sea- and land-based missiles and long-range bombers—far greater than is necessary to deter an attack and more than enough to produce catastrophic devastation. Each side maintains hundreds of warheads that can be fired within minutes of a launch order from the president, and both leaders retain the option to retaliate before they confirm that nuclear weapons have been detonated on their territory. These dangerous launch-under-attack postures perpetuate the risk that false alarms could trigger a massive nuclear exchange.

Complicating matters, Washington and Moscow each reserve the option to employ nuclear weapons first in a crisis or conventional conflict. Each possesses hundreds of so-called tactical nuclear bombs, which produce relatively smaller explosive yields, for use on the battlefield. Both sides regularly conduct drills and exercises involving their respective nuclear forces.

Today, U.S. and Russian leaders have a responsibility to pursue immediate and decisive actions to reduce these grave risks. To start, they should invite all nuclear-armed states to affirm the 1985 pledge made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Given the risks of escalation, no plausible circumstance could justify legally, morally, or militarily the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. All nuclear-armed states should announce policies that rule out the first use of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons before nuclear use on their soil has been confirmed.

In fact, the dangerous launch-under-attack policies of the United States and Russia are unnecessary because a large portion of their nuclear forces could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of their forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Another key line of defense against nuclear catastrophe is dialogue. Washington and Moscow can and should resume a regular military and political dialogue on strategic stability. Such talks can avoid miscalculation over issues such as the use or nonuse of cyberattacks against nuclear command-and-control systems, missile defense capabilities and doctrine, nuclear launch exercises, and more. Similar talks with China should also be pursued.

Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin also should promptly agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by five years, as allowed by the treaty, and begin talks on a follow-on deal to set lower limits on all types of nuclear weaponry. Without the treaty, which expires in 2021, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972; and the likelihood of a dangerous, all-out nuclear arms race would grow.

We were lucky the false alarms of the Cold War did not trigger nuclear war. Because we may not be so lucky in the future, our leaders must act now to take the steps necessary to reduce and eliminate the nuclear danger.

Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

Fifty Years Ago, the First Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Began

Fifty years ago, on Nov. 17, 1969, the United States and the Soviet Union launched the first-ever Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Helsinki, Finland. The chief American negotiator was Gerard Smith, who had been appointed the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency by then-president Richard Nixon. Smith’s opening message that day: “The limitation of strategic arms is in the mutual interests of our country and the Soviet Union.” Negotiated in the midst of severe tensions, the SALT agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were the first restrictions on the...

Select Statements of Support for New START

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), which entered into force in 2011, will expire on February 5, 2021, unless the U.S. and Russian presidents decide to extend the treaty by up to five years. New START is the latest in a series of agreements negotiated by Republican and Democratic presidents that verifiably limit and reduce the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals. Under the treaty’s terms, the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads; 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-...

A New Nuclear Deal Begins With New START

November 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

November 2019
By Edward Ifft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Hard in Geneva

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, Oct. 17, 2019

Trump Poised to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of withdrawing from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty , according to lawmakers and media reports. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, first sounded the public alarm in an Oct. 7 letter to National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien. “I am deeply concerned by reports that the Trump Administration is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and strongly urge you against such a reckless action,” Rep. Engel wrote. “American withdrawal would only benefit...

Abandonment of Open Skies Treaty Would Undermine U.S. and European Security



For Immediate Release: October 9, 2019

Media ContactsKingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Tony Fleming, director for communications, 202-463-8270 ext 110.

(WASHINGTON, D.C.)—The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of withdrawing from yet another key arms control treaty: the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. If President Trump decides to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, it would undermine the security of the United States and European allies, including Ukraine, say leading arms control and national security experts.

The Open Skies Treaty entered into force in 2002 and currently has 34 states-parties, including the United States and Russia. The treaty allows for information-sharing that increases transparency about military forces among members, thereby contributing to stability and improving each participating state’s national security.

The treaty allows aerial imaging through short-notice, unarmed observation flights over each other's entire territory. The flights allow observing parties to identify significant military equipment, such as artillery, fighter aircraft, and armored combat vehicles. Open Skies aircraft can only be equipped with cameras verifiably limited to a resolution below state-of-the-art technology, and the treaty disallows the collection of any other electromagnetic signals. The 34 states-parties have yearly quotas on overflights and must make the collected information available to all treaty parties.

Since entering into force, the United States has conducted almost 200 flights over Russian territory. Russia has carried out more than 70 flights over U.S. territory. U.S. allies continue to value and rely on the Open Skies Treaty for imagery collection.

National security officials, members of Congress, and arms control experts are warning the Trump administration that withdrawal would be "reckless" and would reduce the ability of the United States and European allies to monitor and counter Russian aggression against Ukraine.


"The Open Skies Treaty provides information about Russian military activities for the U.S. and our allies and provides the Russians with insight on our capabilities. Such transparency reduces uncertainty and the risk of conflict and miscalculations due to worst-case assumptions."
Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association

"U.S. flights over Ukraine and western Russia have yielded valuable data, easily shared between allies. The flights strengthen ties between the United States and its allies and reassure non-NATO members on Russia’s periphery. Withdrawing from the treaty would be another step in the collapse of U.S. leadership and further alienate U.S. allies and partners."
Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy



To schedule an interview with or appearance by an expert on U.S-Russian arms control agreements, please contact Tony Fleming, director for communications, (202) 463-8270 ext 110.

  • Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, [email protected], (202) 463-8270 ext. 104

  • Amb. Bonnie Jenkins, former Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Department of State, and member of the Board of Directors of the Arms Control Association, [email protected], (571) 264-7053

  • Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, [email protected], 202-277-3478

The treaty provides transparency about Russian military activities for the U.S. and our allies. Withdrawing from the treaty would be another step in the collapse of U.S. leadership and further alienate U.S. allies and partners, note arms control experts.

Country Resources:

Members Briefing on the Future of New START



October 1, 2019
3:00pm Eastern U.S. time

The New START agreement between the United States and Russia—now the only agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear weapons arsenals following termination of the INF Treaty—is scheduled to expire in February 2021 unless Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin mutually agree to extend it by five years.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton was a harsh critic of extending New START. What does Bolton's departure from the administration in September mean for the future of the treaty?

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction, and Thomas Countryman, board chair and former acting undersecretary of state for arms control, briefed members on what could be the most important national security decision in a generation.

These calls are open to members of the Arms Control Association. Audio recordings of the call may be made available for nonmembers at some point following the call. Join or renew your membership today to receive details on how to join us for our next members call and be part of the conversation. 

AUDIO RECORDING: The Future of New START, October 1 Members Call


Join Kingston Reif and Thomas Countryman for a members-only briefing on the future of the New START agreement between the United States and Russia.

Country Resources:

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, Sept 13, 2019

U.S. Tests Ground-Launched Cruise Missile On Aug. 18, less than two weeks after the official collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States tested a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile that would have been prohibited by the treaty. The test was a clear signal that the United States can and will pursue such systems in the absence of the INF Treaty. In a statement, the Defense Department said the “test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight. Data...

If Trump Ends Another Nuclear Treaty, it Will Be the Height of Folly

During his first two and a half years in office, President Donald Trump and his administration have laid waste to numerous international agreements originally designed to strengthen US security, bolster US alliances, and constrain US adversaries. The toll has been particularly high with respect to deals concerning nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. Over the past 14 months, the administration has withdrawn from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and abandoned the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty . Both of these valuable agreements have been discarded without a viable plan to...


Subscribe to RSS - US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control