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Issue Briefs

A Case for More Oversight of Military Aid to Ukraine



Volume 14, Issue 6, August 9, 2022

Even before Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States and some of its allies were providing weapons to Kyiv. In the immediate aftermath of Russia's assault, the United States and its allies rushed additional and more advanced weaponry to Ukraine to help the government fend off the Russian offensive and improve Ukraine’s bargaining position in future negotiations on an end to the war.

The United States alone has committed $9.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration. In July, the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, appealed to Congress for more weapons. “I’m asking for something now I would never want to ask. I’m asking for weapons, weapons that would not be used to wage a war on somebody else’s land, but to protect one’s home in the right to wake up alive in that home, I’m asking for air defense systems in order for rockets not to kill children in their strollers, in order for rockets not to destroy children’s rooms and kill entire families,” Zelenska said July 20.

Currently, there are no signs that Russia seeks any sort of negotiation nor that it will cease to brutally attack Ukraine. On July 24, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, blatantly admitted that Russia sought to “help the Ukrainian people to free themselves from their anti-people and anti-historical regime” during his trip to Egypt after denying that Russia sought regime change in Kyiv multiple times in the past.

Pallets of ammunition bound for Ukraine are secured onto a commercial plane during a security assistance mission at Dover Air Force Base, Del., July 21, 2022. (Photo: Air Force Senior Airman Faith Schaefer)

Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine has now entered its sixth month, but arming Ukraine comes with potential security risks and consequences. These risks include equipment being sold for monetary gain within or outside of Ukraine and arms entering the illegal arms market, especially after the end of the conflict as commonly happens in any conflict. At the moment, there is no evidence that weapons sent to Ukraine are getting into the wrong hands. However, Europe, Ukraine, and the United States must work to mitigate these risks. As Ukrainians valiantly fight for their country against unprovoked aggression, the United States and its partners must improve oversight mechanisms to ensure they are used for their intended purpose and prevent arms supplies from falling into the wrong hands, especially after the end of the war.

In partial recognition of these needs, the EU launched a new platform in mid-July with the inclusion of its Ukrainian and Moldovan counterparts to discuss how to prepare to tackle organized crime in connection with the war in Ukraine. EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson announced that the main subject on the agenda was illegal arms smuggling of weapons originally sent to the Ukrainian armed forces. 

“We have some indications [of this already happening], but we also know by experience that this very often happens, that firearms travel around afterward or during the war,” said Johansson despite providing little evidence that this was occurring.

On July 22, Europol stated that it was working with Ukrainian officials to reduce the risk of illegal arms trafficking into the European Union. Europol noted that it had full confidence in its Ukrainian partners as they implement new measures to mitigate these risks.

Concerns about the issue from foreign partners prompted politicians and lawmakers in Ukraine to call for and establish a special monitoring committee of their own. On July 19, the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament of Ukraine, created a temporary oversight committee to particularly track the use and receipt of arms transferred to their country by international partners. More recently, The Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine refuted allegations about Western arms disappearing in Ukraine in a CBS News documentary titled “Arming Ukraine” by declaring that a EUCOM Control Center of Ukraine operates in Stuttgart, Germany directly oversees the provision of weapons and their use.

In addition, the Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine also announced on August 7 that Brigadier General Gerrick M. Harmon, Senior Defense Official and Defense Attaché of the United States, has been put in charge of overseeing the transfer and use of these weapons by Kyiv. Overall, these and other measures will help Ukraine monitor the use of these weapons and counter Russian allegations and misinformation about lax export controls.

The Call to Arm Ukraine and The Risks

The United States and its allies have committed a wide range of weapons to Ukraine. According to the most recent fact sheet released by the Department of Defense, the U.S. has contributed hundreds of howitzers, 400,000 artillery rounds, 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 6,500 javelin anti-armor systems, loitering munitions, MANPADS, and 16 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and ammunition, among other weaponry.1

To facilitate these arms transfers, the Biden administration has employed rarely used legal authorities to accelerate weapons transfers to Ukraine (See ACT May 2022). In late April, U.S. officials declared an emergency under the Foreign Military Sale Program to provide Ukraine with over $165 million of ammunition. By invoking this authority, the executive branch is allowed to bypass mandatory congressional review periods before concluding the arms sale. Congress then approved the Ukraine Democracy Defend Lend-Lease Act, which removes some obstructions to providing Ukraine and other Eastern European countries with defense assistance. And, the May approval of a $40 billion emergency allocation for Ukrainian and European security contained little constraints as to how the executive branch can use these funds.

Allies have also promised—and delivered in some instances—a diverse set of sophisticated equipment. For instance, France notably sent Caesar self-propelled Howitzers, Poland signed a contract with Ukraine to deliver Krab self-propelled Howitzers among other equipment, and Canada notably delivered M777s. On top of this, countries such as Australia, the UK, Norway, Italy, and Greece pledged critically needed artillery systems and ammunition, and recently, Germany announced that Ukraine had finally received the heavy weapons that it had pledged to deliver months ago such as the first Gepard anti-aircraft vehicles and ammunitions, plus the Multiple Rocket Launchers Mars II and self-propelled Howitzers. Not to mention the thousands of small arms provided.

Along with committing a diverse set of military weaponry, the West has also been training Ukrainians to use them. This appears to be a long-term commitment and one designed to overhaul Ukraine’s weapons inventory as NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, stated on June 27 that “over the longer term, we will help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era military equipment, to modern NATO equipment. And further, strengthen its defense and security institutions.”

Providing such training in the middle of a war and doing so without putting U.S. and allied combat forces on the ground in Ukraine creates training challenges. In April, the Pentagon confirmed that it would resume direct weapons training of the Ukrainian military on the howitzers, counter artillery radar systems, and other equipment as part of the assistance packages, but do so outside of Ukraine. Canada similarly confirmed that it was training Ukrainian soldiers to use M777s elsewhere in Europe. In July, London announced that up to 10,000 recruits from Ukraine would arrive in the UK for specialized military training.

Training also takes time, which must be factored into all decisions. This was notable when the Pentagon announced in June that it would be transferring the HIMARS as Russia made several advances in its attempt to take the Donbas region through its use of heavy artillery. The Pentagon stated that it would take about three weeks to teach Ukrainians how to operate these systems, and another few weeks to teach them how to maintain them. However, those tasked with maintenance would not necessarily operate them.

Throughout the conflict, concerns about escalation and its shifting dynamics have been front and center and are expected to continue. In response, the United States has set limits on certain systems like the HIMARS. On May 31, President Biden declared in an op-ed in The New York Times that the United States would “not encourage or enable Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.” The Pentagon announced that it would only provide Ukraine with munitions up to 70 km in approximate range for the HIMARS, a system that the Ukrainians had been requesting for over two months. As pointed out by the Stimson Center, this transfer may have set a significant precedent for U.S. arms transfers, for the United States had earlier only transferred the system to select partners.

Questions about the conditionality established through agreements between the United States and Ukraine regarding the use of these weapons are also likely to return. On June 1, the Pentagon declared that Ukraine had given assurances that it would not use the HIMARS to strike targets beyond its borders.

Nonetheless, when asked about the repercussions if Ukraine violates these assurances during a news conference, DoD Undersecretary for Policy, Dr. Colin Kahl replied that “they've given us their assurances that they're not going to use these systems for striking Russian territory. And we trust the Ukrainians will live up to those assurances.” On July 20, the DoD assured that the Ukrainians are effectively using the HIMARS by targeting Russian ammunition depots and have made due on their assurances.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has requested even longer-range ammunition such as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). At a recent DoD news conference, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III replied that the weaponry that Ukraine received “has really given them a lot of capability” and the decision on longer-range weapons will “be based upon how they're prosecuting this fight and what their needs are.

However, at the Aspen Security Forum in late July, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reiterated that President Biden had said that there were certain capabilities that the Biden administration was not prepared to provide. “One of them is long-range missiles, ATACMS that have a range of 300 kilometers (max range)” because of escalation concerns.Just a week later, CNN reported that House Representative Elissa Slotkin said that there was bipartisan support to provide Ukraine with ATACMS, which can strike as far as 180 miles.

Oversight Initiatives

Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, Oleksii Reznikov, told the BBC on July 15 that the weapon smuggling narrative is part of a Russian disinformation campaign, but he also confirmed what analysts following the conflict have known and predicted for months: that a limited number of Western weapons (some next generation Light Anti-tank Weapons) have fallen into Russian hands when Ukrainian troops retreated from certain cities in the Donbas as it happens in every war. As the media has extensively noted, Ukrainian forces have also acquired Russian equipment, especially following the retreat of Russian forces from the Kyiv axis earlier in the war.

As for monitoring, Reznikov affirmed that Ukraine uses a NATO logistics and account control system in a limited but functional way and that he has invited foreign emissaries to observe. Reznikov also stated that representatives of some of Ukraine’s partners had already done this and had no questions. Additionally, Reznikov clarified that some of the weapons sent to Ukraine possess GPS trackers. This move and the creation of the temporary special commission entrusted to the Verkhovna Rada to oversee weapons transfers during martial law are good first steps toward addressing the risks of weapons transfers.

The development of arms transfer monitoring mechanisms shows that Ukraine is willing to be transparent with its Western partners and work toward the standardization of an oversight initiative.2 During the first few months of the war, such initiatives were understandably difficult to execute because of active combat and the security concerns around the transfer of these weapons.

Nonetheless, Ukraine needs not only needs to continue to be transparent with its Western partners about its use of foreign-supplied weaponry, but also with its own people. To do this, they need to continue to develop their own capacity for accountability. As we are now entering the sixth month of this brutal war and Ukrainian civil society experts have a key role to play in ensuring oversight and advising the Ukrainian government via workshops, roundtables, and/or working groups while taking into account the security concerns regarding the weapons deliveries.3

In the United States, members of Congress and many others have voiced their concerns regarding the subject and continue to do so. While Senator Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) efforts to condition the $40 billion package in May upon establishing an inspector general for its spending, the law does include requirements for the Defense Department’s inspector general to provide a report on the funds within 120 days, a report on end-use monitoring efforts within 45 days, and an unclassified report every 30 days detailing defense articles and services provided to Ukraine. Congress should pay special attention to such reports and work with Ukrainian officials as they further implement new measures to improve their capacity to absorb these weapons deliveries.

In late June, the Pentagon announced that it was considering sending weapons inspectors to Ukraine. Lawmakers have also pushed for further oversight. A June letter from the DoD Acting Inspector General to Senator Charles E Grassley (R-Iowa) reveals that the Inspector General office had partnered with Inspector General offices at the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development to form a joint working group.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)In May, Senator John Kennedy (R-La.) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to establish a Special Inspector General for Ukraine to oversee the use of these funds to assist Ukraine. Just a month later, Rep. Bob Wittman (R-Va.) introduced companion legislation to Senator Kennedy’s bill in the House to introduce a special inspector to oversee how aid packages are appropriately spent. Earlier this month, Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) wrote a letter to President Joe Biden requesting rigor and accountability when it came to the assistance provided to Ukraine among other allegations.

As colleagues from the Stimson center point out in Defense One, the United States should develop a plan and mechanisms to account for the weapons provided. The United States should also engage with external experts from civil society and provide detailed information about the procedures undertaken to track these weapons and ammunition stockpiles.

The possibility of arms supplies getting into the wrong hands is not unique to the military assistance that the United States is providing to Ukraine although it would not be fair to state that the case of weapons assistance to Ukraine is a replica or even compares to the case of Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet poor military equipment accountability practices are common in active combat zones. For instance, SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) reports and congressional hearings in the last decade noted poor accountability when it came to small arms deliveries in Afghanistan due to poor record keeping when they were received in Afghanistan along with other funds. Proper accountability was also an issue in Iraq. The Center for Civilians In Conflict and other organizations have also pointed out the shortcomings of U.S. monitoring practices.

It is very likely that for the foreseeable future the United States will continue to provide Ukraine with very substantial military assistance in accordance with the needs of the Ukrainian armed forces. Further oversight of the assistance provided to Ukraine can ensure the weapons are used for the intended purposes (to assist Ukrainians in the defense of their country) and are not diverted elsewhere. Transparency is the best antidote when it comes to countering attempts to ruin Ukraine’s credibility in the face of aggression, especially, when military aid from Ukraine’s partners is so crucial for Ukraine to defend its sovereign territory. Thus, every party has something to gain through enhancing transparency.—GABRIELA ROSA, research associate



1. For more details and a timeline of arms transfers to Ukraine, see the Forum on the Arms Trade's resource "Arms Transfers to Ukraine," https://www.forumarmstrade.org/ukrainearms.html, Accessed Aug. 9, 2022.

2. ACA Interview with anonymous Ukrainian civilian.

3. ACA Interviews with Dr. Olya Oliker (Director of Europe and Central Asia Department at the International Crisis Group) and anonymous Ukrainian civilian experts.


For the foreseeable future, the United States will likely continue to provide Ukraine with substantial military assistance in accordance with the needs of the Ukrainian armed forces to repel the Russian offensive. Oversight of the assistance provided to Ukraine can ensure the weapons are used for the intended purposes and not diverted elsewhere, especially after the conflict.

Country Resources:

The Last Chance to Restore Compliance with the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal



Volume 14, Issue 5, July 13, 2022

After a three-month stalemate, indirect talks between the United States and Iran over restoring compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), resumed in Doha June 28. Rather than producing a breakthrough and de-escalating tensions, the two days of talks underscored that the inflexibility of the U.S. and Iranian positions on issues extraneous to the JCPOA continue to jeopardize efforts to restore mutual compliance with the original 2015 nuclear deal.

Given the intransigence on both sides and the growing proliferation risk posed by advances in Iran’s nuclear program, it is increasingly likely that efforts to restore the JCPOA will soon collapse—unless Washington and Tehran are willing to be more creative and flexible in bridging the remaining gaps that stand in the way of an agreement to resurrect the nuclear deal.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell directly emphasized the urgency of the current situation when he tweeted July 5 that “decisions are needed now” if the parties want an agreement to restore the JCPOA. He warned that the political space to revive the nuclear deal “may narrow soon.”

Despite Borrell’s warning, no further talks are scheduled, and the United States and Iran continue to point fingers over who is to blame for the impasse.

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley described the round of negotiations as “a wasted occasion” in a July 5 interview with NPR and noted that Iran came to Doha with added demands that have “nothing to do with the nuclear deal.” According to Malley, the EU, which is mediating between the United States and Iran, “put on the table a very detailed outline of what they think a fair outcome would be” and the United States is “prepared to take that deal,” but Iran “has not said yes.” Malley went on to say the Biden administration assesses that Tehran needs to “come to a conclusion about whether there are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks in May to Iran’s first international event on privatization. (Photo credit: Iranian government website)

Iran’s attempt to reopen old issues may appear to support the assessment that Tehran is uninterested in a deal or stalling to further build leverage—but this is a tactic Tehran has used in negotiations in the past. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said July 5 that Tehran is pursuing “no claims that go beyond the JCPOA” and is “determined to seek a good, strong and lasting accord,” suggesting that Iran is still interested in a deal to restore the JCPOA.    

But time is not on Iran’s side if it hopes to string out talks to increase its leverage and extract more from the United States. Nor is it on the side of the Biden administration if it attempts to wait Iran out.

Both Tehran and Washington must seize the moment now to find a creative approach to address the outstanding issues in the talks, namely Iran’s demand to lift sanctions designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization and for guaranteed economic benefits.

Iran’s advancing nuclear program confirms Borrell’s assessment that Washington and Tehran must act with greater urgency to address these issues and restore the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran is closer now to a nuclear bomb than it has been at any point in its history and is subject to the bare minimum of monitoring. At this point, there is no guarantee that the international community could quickly detect an attempt by Iran to amass enough fissile material necessary for a nuclear weapon.

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But even if Iran demonstrates restraint—which it so far has been unwilling to do— and takes no new steps to expand its nuclear activities, the current trajectory of its program and the reduction in monitoring will threaten efforts to restore the JCPOA and increase proliferation risk. If the Biden administration lets the door close on reviving the JCPOA, it has no good alternatives for effectively and verifiably reducing the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

At that point, the best possible outcome would be for the Biden and Raisi administrations to take actions to deescalate tensions and stabilize the current crisis, which would build up time to negotiate an interim deal. Even this approach would be very difficult and time consuming to negotiate, is fraught with risk, and would be subject to spoilers, further highlighting the critical necessity for a last-ditch effort to restore the JCPOA before it is too late.

Breakout on the Brink

Iran’s ongoing and accelerating violations of the JCPOA are heightening proliferation risk and decreasing the window for restoring the nuclear deal. The impacts generally fall into three categories: reduction in breakout time (the time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one bomb), irreversible research and development, and decreased transparency.

The reduction in Iran’s breakout time—from more than 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented to less than 10 days as of early June 2022—poses the most significant short-term proliferation risk. If Tehran decided to dash for a bomb, the 10-day timeframe would allow Iran to attempt to break out between IAEA inspections, which currently occur on roughly a weekly basis, and transfer its weapons-grade uranium to a covert site to complete the weaponization process. Building a bomb would likely take another 1-2 years but that process would be more difficult to detect and disrupt, which is why the United States has historically focused on ensuring that Iran could not quickly produce the nuclear material for a weapon and negotiated limits that produced a breakout time under the JCPOA (12 months for more than a decade) that would create ample time for the international community to respond to any attempt by Iran to move toward a nuclear weapon.

The precipitous drop in breakout since 2019, when Iran began to breach its obligations in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA a year earlier, is due to several factors. Most notably, Iran began ratcheting up enrichment to 60 percent uranium-235 in April 2021, a level just shy of the 90 percent considered weapons-grade, and can now enrich uranium more efficiently than it could in the pre-JCPOA period due to its development, installation, and use of more advanced centrifuge machines.

As of the May 30 IAEA report, Iran had produced an estimated 43.3 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent. Iran claims 60 percent enriched uranium is necessary for research reactor fuel and a future submarine program, but there is no legitimate civil justification for Tehran to be taking this step—no other non-nuclear weapon state enriches to this level. Now, having produced more than 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, Tehran could use that stockpile of material exclusively as feed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, or about 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent.

Iran’s enrichment capacity is also nearly three times what was permitted by the JCPOA, which limited Iran to enriching uranium with 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges and strictly regulated the testing of advanced centrifuge machines. As of the May 30 IAEA report, Iran has installed an additional 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges at its enrichment facility at Natanz, as well as about 1,000 IR-2 centrifuges and about 500 IR-4 centrifuges. Iran also has plans to install 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges, distributed between the Natanz and Fordow sites, about 500 of which were installed as of the May 30 report.

Even more concerning is the fact that Iran notified the IAEA July 9 that a cascade of IR-6 centrifuges installed at Fordow is configured in a way that allows Iran to switch enrichment levels more quickly. While Iran informed the IAEA that the planned enrichment level is 20 percent, that could change if Tehran seeks to build further leverage. That this activity is taking place at Fordow, a facility buried deeply into the mountains near Qom, will likely be even more concerning to U.S. policymakers as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to destroy or damage the site with a conventional military strike.

As a result of these advances, Iran could produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb (25 kilograms of 90-percent enriched uranium) in less than 10 days. The Biden administration confirmed the risk posed by this shortened timeframe when U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley testified May 25 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran “could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we can know it, let alone stop it.”

Restoring the JCPOA’s limitations will not push the breakout back to 12 months, as Iran’s irreversible knowledge gains have eroded that timeframe. However, the JCPOA’s limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program will have an immediate impact of increasing the breakout to an estimated six months through at least 2030, alleviating the heightened risk of an undetected breakout and giving the international community adequate time to respond to any move toward a bomb.

While breakout poses the most significant and immediate proliferation risk, it is not currently a driving factor in the Biden administration’s calculations regarding the viability of a restored JCPOA. Nor does Iran’s crossing the threshold of undetectable breakout appear to be spurring any urgency toward reaching an agreement.

In late 2021, undetectable breakout appeared to be a red line for the United States. Now, however, the Biden administration appears willing to tolerate this increased risk level in the short term, or at least as long as restoring the JCPOA remains a viable option. This may be because while breakout can be useful in measuring the time it would take for Iran to produce weapons-grade material, it does have limitations in measuring threat. Breakout relies on worst-case scenario calculations and assumptions, and more importantly, it does not take into account intent. The Biden administration may feel more confident that the risk posed by a short breakout can be managed if they believe that national technical intelligence means would be sure to detect a breakout, even if it occurs between IAEA inspections, and/or they feel confident that Iran has not, and likely will not, decide to build a nuclear weapon. Iran’s continued rhetoric in support of a deal to restore the JCPOA suggests that Tehran still concludes the costs of pursuing nuclear weapons outweigh the benefits.

In the longer term, particularly if restoring the JCPOA is no longer a viable option, such a short breakout could be destabilizing and increase the risk of conflict. A sudden decision by Iran to pursue the bomb, a new government in Israel that views the short breakout time as a more imminent threat, or faulty intelligence assessments could all push the United States to use force. Even if Iran does not undertake new nuclear activities, given the short breakout time, leaders in Washington may assess at some point that military options are the only means to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. While that could increase breakout in the short term, Iran would likely respond, as it has in the past, by ratcheting up its nuclear activities even further. At worst, it could push Tehran to assess that covertly or openly pursuing nuclear weapons is the best option to prevent further attack by the United States or Israel.

Irreversible Research and Development

While the shorter breakout timeline does not appear to be driving the Biden administration’s current calculus regarding the window of opportunity for restoring the JCPOA, Iran’s research and development activities may drive the United States to reassess the value of the JCPOA, as the irreversible knowledge that Iran gains from these activities will continue to decrease the nonproliferation benefits of the accord.

After EU lead negotiator Enrique Mora visited Tehran in early May to encourage progress on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said his government had introduced special initiatives and proposals and it was time for the United States to act.  (Photo: Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA)Iran’s initial violations of the JCPOA were carefully calibrated to pressure the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on the relief envisioned under the accord after the United States withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions. These early breaches, which began a year after Trump pulled out of the accord, consisted of activities that Tehran had undertaken before the JCPOA’s implementation—actions that could quickly be reversed and posed no new challenge to the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits. These actions included enriching to 5 percent uranium-235, slightly above the 3.67 percent limit established by the JCPOA but below the 20 percent Iran had produced before 2013. Iran also breached the stockpile cap of 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent—a clear violation of the deal, but one easily rectified by shipping out or blending down excess stocks.

Iran’s breaches, however, have grown more serious and more difficult to reverse as Tehran has taken increasingly drastic steps in an attempt to increase its leverage and to respond to attacks against its nuclear facilities and assassinations of its scientists, acts which Israel has often claimed credit for.

For instance, after the November 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a nuclear scientist deeply involved with Iran’s pre-2003 organized nuclear weapons program, Iran passed a law requiring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to take certain steps to expand its nuclear program. While some of the required steps, such as resuming 20 percent enrichment, were activities Iran had undertaken before the JCPOA’s negotiation, most of the required actions broke new ground and resulted in the acquisition of irreversible knowledge. The law, for instance, required Iran to install and operate 1,000 IR-2 and IR-6 centrifuges, which are much more efficient models that Iran had little to no experience using for large-scale enrichment before the JCPOA’s negotiation. As a result, Tehran has gained knowledge that cannot be reversed about the production and operation of these more advanced machines.

The law also required Iran to begin work on a facility to produce uranium metal. While the IAEA has confirmed that Iran completed the installation of the equipment necessary for the first stage of metal production but is not operating it, the AEOI did begin laboratory experiments that resulted in small quantities of uranium metal. Iran claims this work is necessary to develop fuel for its reactors, but uranium metal is also directly relevant to nuclear weapons development. While Iran conducted uranium metal experiments as part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, it does not appear to have mastered the capability nor did it have such a facility when the JCPOA was implemented, as the deal prohibited uranium metal work for 15 years.

Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have raised particular concern about Iran’s uranium metal work and its potential impact on JCPOA restoration. In a June 7 statement, the three countries said that uranium metal “is a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon” and the “more Iran is advancing and accumulating knowledge with irreversible consequences, the more difficult it is to come back to the JCPOA.” The E3 warned that “it is essential that Iran does not resume these activities or commence any further work.”

Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 60 percent in response to an act of sabotage at its Natanz site also broke new ground. After testing several configurations for 60 percent production, Iran appears to have settled on a particular uranium enrichment process, suggesting that it is mastering this new enrichment level, which is dangerously close to weapons-grade levels (greater than 90 percent uranium-235).

To date, the Biden administration appears to assess that the knowledge Iran has gained from these new research activities can be managed under a restored JCPOA and the deal’s nonproliferation benefits of the accord remain strong.

However, given that Iran appears intent on continuing to build leverage, it is likely that Tehran’s research and development activities will expand over the coming months. But the reduced transparency and the undetectable breakout timeframe give Tehran little room to maneuver. There is an increasing likelihood that Iran’s quest for leverage will lead Tehran to take steps that render the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits beyond repair or, at worst, trigger a military response. Vague and contradictory statements that the Biden administration has made about its red lines for military action against Iran’s nuclear program and upcoming elections in Israel increase the risk of Iranian miscalculation.

For instance, some officials within the Raisi administration are pushing to begin enrichment to 90 percent, a move that the U.S. intelligence community warned that Iran will consider if it does not receive sanctions relief in its 2022 Worldwide Threat Assessment. While the Raisi administration may view this step as just another means of increasing its negotiating leverage vis-a-vis the United States, even a small-scale effort to produce 90 percent would result in new knowledge for Iran that would likely kill any prospect of restoring the accord.

Furthermore, given the immediacy of the risk posed by enriching to 90 percent, such a step would significantly increase the likelihood that the United States and/or Israel assess that Tehran intends to pursue nuclear weapons, in turn triggering the use of military force to prevent Iran from accumulating enough bomb-grade uranium material for a weapon.

There are other actions, short of enriching to 90 percent, that Iran could take which are less likely to prompt a military response but would jeopardize the nonproliferation value of a restored JCPOA. Experimenting with more efficient centrifuges and different cascade designs would further erode breakout under a restored JCPOA. Another such action might be using 20 percent or 60 percent enriched material as feed for centrifuges, even if Iran does not withdraw the enriched uranium product.

If Tehran does not show restraint and continues to pursue new capabilities, the Biden administration will have to take these advances into account when determining if restoring compliance with the JCPOA will still provide nonproliferation benefits that address U.S. security concerns and are equal to the sanctions relief Iran would receive under the deal. Washington and its JCPOA partners will also need to determine what steps Iran may need to take to mitigate the proliferation potential of these capabilities, prolonging negotiations to restore the accord and the risk of spoilers disrupting those efforts.

Bare Minimum of Monitoring

Iran’s reductions in monitoring and transparency further complicate efforts to assess the impact of Iran’s research and development activities, detect breakout, and maintain an accurate record of Iran’s nuclear activities—a history that will be necessary to reimplement the JCPOA.

Iran has announced it is accumulating uranium enriched by more advanced technology, including these IR-4 centrifuges.  (Photo: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran)The monitoring regime established by the JCPOA is the most intrusive ever negotiated. Iran has always been legally required as a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA, which gives inspectors access to facilities where nuclear materials are present to ensure that Iran’s declared nuclear activities are peaceful and must continue to implement that agreement regardless of the JCPOA’s future. CSAs, however, have proven inadequate in preventing states from conducting illicit nuclear activities, underscoring the importance of the JCPOA’s additional monitoring provisions, particularly for a country like Iran that violated its legally binding NPT commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons in the past.

The JCPOA builds on the legally required CSA by requiring Iran to implement an additional protocol (AP) to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which gives IAEA inspectors access to more information about a country’s nuclear activities and to any facility that is part of the program. Under an AP, for instance, inspectors can access centrifuge production facilities, which are not included under a CSA because there is no nuclear material present. The JCPOA also requires continuous surveillance of key sites, real-time monitoring of enrichment levels, and daily access to enrichment facilities.

Furthermore, the Joint Commission, the body established to oversee the implementation of the JCPOA, can vote by a majority to require Tehran to allow the IAEA access to any site in Iran to investigate evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities within a set time frame (JCPOA, Annex I, Section Q). This is designed to prevent Iran from stalling IAEA investigations, as it has in the past.

As a result of Iran’s JCPOA breaches, only the CSA currently remains in place. After Iran announced it would stop implementing its AP and other JCPOA-specific monitoring measures in February 2021, Tehran and the agency reached an agreement whereby IAEA cameras would continue to collect data during the period of reduced agency access that would be handed over to inspectors if the JCPOA was restored. The data collected would allow the IAEA to reconstruct a history of Iran’s nuclear activities and maintain its continuity of knowledge about Tehran’s actions, which would provide a baseline for monitoring a restored JCPOA.

Iran, however, announced June 9 that it was disconnecting 27 of the IAEA’s cameras that were critical to maintaining continuity of knowledge. While Tehran does not appear to have destroyed the data collected to that point, the gap in the monitoring of even a few weeks will have significant consequences. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi described Iran’s decision as dealing a “fatal blow” to efforts to restore the JCPOA within 3-4 weeks. While that period has now passed, and the Biden administration assesses that continuity of knowledge can be restored after a longer period of reduced visibility, the gap will certainly cause significant challenges, both politically and from a verification perspective.

The lack of adequate international monitoring and transparency increases the risk that Iran could break out undetected or move equipment and materials for a covert program to an undeclared site. It would be time-consuming and difficult—if not impossible—for the IAEA to reconstruct history and definitively determine that Iran had not taken such steps if the JCPOA is restored.

As Germany, France, and the United Kingdom noted in a June 9 statement, Iran’s decision to remove the cameras “will only aggravate the situation and complicate our efforts to restore full implementation of the JCPOA.” The decision also casts “further doubt on Iran’s commitment to a successful outcome.”

Even if the IAEA can account for Iran’s activities, the gap will fuel speculation that Iran engaged in illicit actions during the period of reduced monitoring. Whether there is evidence to support this conclusion or not, it risks undermining the sustainability of JCPOA.

In addition to the challenges, this poses for quick detection of illicit activities and/or diversion, the reduction in monitoring will complicate efforts to restore the JCPOA and garner the necessary political support in the United States to sustain the accord.

In his June 9 news conference, Grossi raised concerns about being able to reestablish a baseline to accurately verify compliance with a restored JCPOA. When the JCPOA was first implemented, Iran had to provide the IAEA with certain access and information before receiving any sanctions relief. This allowed the IAEA to establish a baseline against which to verify Iran’s JCPOA commitments. A similar process would likely be included in a deal to restore the JCPOA.

If Iran delays or stalls on that process, or if the IAEA is unable to establish such a baseline, it could prove challenging to verify the deal and for the Biden administration to certify to Congress that the IAEA has the capacity to monitor the deal—an assessment that will have to be submitted within five days of an agreement to restore the deal being reached as required by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Depending on the sequence of actions that Iran must take, the United States may need to submit the verification assessment before the IAEA can determine if such a baseline can be reestablished and if Iran will provide the information necessary to do so. This could undermine support for the JCPOA in Congress before the agreement could be restored.

The JCPOA Remains the Best Option

If Iran’s advancing nuclear program is not prompting the Biden administration to act with greater urgency to close a deal to restore the JCPOA, the lack of viable alternative options for reducing Iran’s nuclear risk should.

The Biden administration is already previewing its approach for countering Iran if talks to restore the JCPOA should fail: increasing sanctions pressure and diplomatic isolation to push Iran back to negotiations; shoring up military defenses in the region; and threatening military action if necessary to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

This playbook worked for the United States in the past when the Iranian nuclear program was far less advanced and before the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA. The Obama administration spearheaded a campaign to shore up international support for UN and US sanctions, including from China and Russia, countries that are outspoken against sanctions overreach, a particularly unilateral measure which they describe as an infringement of sovereignty. The Obama administration paired this pressure campaign with credible offers for diplomatic negotiations that ultimately produced the JCPOA.

However, it is very unlikely that the Biden administration would be able to reconstitute the same level of support for sanctions that it did in the lead-up to the negotiations on the JCPOA in 2013.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions targeting Moscow have only reinforced opposition to these measures in Russia and China. The current global energy crisis, as well as the perception that the United States caused the current nuclear crisis with Iran by withdrawing from the deal without cause in May 2018, will make it more difficult to build global support for sanctions and likely give Tehran more willing partners in its attempts to evade sanctions. Even France raised the need to explore the possibility of using Iranian oil to stem rising prices and meet global demand in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine squeezing the energy market.

It is also extremely unlikely that the Security Council will take any action on Iran, even if the IAEA Board of Governors refers Iran to that body for failing to meet its safeguards obligations (the IAEA is investigating undeclared nuclear materials from the pre-2003 period) or for engaging in new, undeclared nuclear activities. Absent convincing evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, a Russian or Chinese veto is almost certain.

France or the United Kingdom could attempt to use the sanctions “snapback” mechanism in Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, to force the reimposition of Security Council sanctions that were modified when the JCPOA was implemented in January 2016. But that move, which cannot be vetoed, will be more difficult after the Trump administration attempted snapback in September 2020 without any legal standing to do so. The Europeans may also be reluctant to take such as step, given that it would likely spark further divisions between the states party to the JCPOA.

Given the challenges of reconstituting international support for sanctions, it will be a long and arduous process for the United States and its partners to build enough pressure so that Iran determines negotiations and restraint are in its best interest. During that time, Iran will also have had the opportunity to continue expanding its nuclear program—which it can do much more quickly—giving Iran more leverage in future negotiations. Iran could use its new capabilities, such as higher-level enrichment and advanced centrifuge development, to bargain for more concessions in future talks. Having to take these capabilities into account in a future accord could result in the United States giving up more to reach an agreement as effective as the JCPOA.

While Iran’s short-term escalation dominance could give it an upper hand in any new negotiations, Tehran’s expanding nuclear program also increases the risk of the United States and/or Israel resorting to military force to reduce the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Israel’s ongoing efforts to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities and assassinate nuclear scientists suggest that kinetic action to try and roll back the program will continue. Biden, like his predecessors, has also made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, implying that Washington will use force, if necessary, to achieve that goal.

Iran’s ability to break out undetected and its apparent determination to continue upping the pressure on the United States by expanding its nuclear activities significantly increase the likelihood that Tehran miscalculates in expanding its nuclear program and crosses a U.S. and/or Israeli red line.

While a military strike may set back Iran’s nuclear program in the short term, it is far more likely to drive Tehran to further harden its nuclear facilities against an attack and expand its nuclear program, as it has in the past in response to acts of sabotage. An attack will also fuel the arguments of policymakers in Tehran that favor pursuing nuclear weapons and that withdrawing from the NPT and building a nuclear deterrent is the only way to thwart future attacks. Even if an attack is successful in the short term, the United States could, at worse, face a full-blown war with Iran and the prospect of Tehran openly pursuing nuclear weapons, or, at best, driving further nuclear advances that it will have to contend with in any future negotiations.

An unrestrained Iranian nuclear program could also lead to further proliferation challenges in the region that the United States is ill-equipped to address. Saudi Arabia has openly threatened to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran’s nuclear program is not limited. Riyadh has thus far refused to negotiate new safeguards with the IAEA, despite its intention to expand its civil nuclear program and the fact that its current IAEA monitoring regime is based on an outdated protocol deemed insufficient by the agency and foreswear developing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities in its nuclear cooperation negotiations with the United States. Satellite imagery also suggests that Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own ballistic missile production capabilities, which would give it the means to deliver nuclear weapons.

If Saudi Arabia follows through on its threats or attempts to build a nuclear hedging capacity that preserves its option to move quickly for a bomb in the future, the typical tools of statecraft that the United States relies on for countering proliferation will likely be inadequate. It will be more challenging to sanction Saudi Arabia, given its military relationship with the United States and its oil reserves, and to diplomatically isolate it.

If a restored JCPOA is no longer on the table, the best of this list of bad options would be for the United States and Iran to negotiate an interim deal after first agreeing to a set of de-escalatory steps to stabilize the current situation. Since negotiating even an interim deal would itself be a time-consuming, complex undertaking that could be threatened by spoilers, it would behoove each side to take voluntary steps to build time for diplomacy and avert the risk of war.

On the Iranian side, Tehran should consider steps that would increase transparency and give IAEA inspectors greater access to the country’s nuclear program. Greater transparency would provide more assurance that Tehran does not intend to pursue nuclear weapons and that moves in that direction would be quickly detected. Even if Iran continues to try and build pressure by further expanding its nuclear program or engaging in new nuclear activities, an increase in transparency and monitoring would reduce the proliferation risk that these activities pose. It would ideally prevent a precipitous move to use military force based on bad intelligence that was suggesting a dash to a bomb and provide a better baseline for implementing any future deal.

In return, the United States and its P4+1 partners could include limited sanctions relief that targets humanitarian sectors in Iran and/or unfreeze a limited amount of Iranian assets held abroad for those purposes. That could provide Iran with an infusion of cash to address the worsening economic crisis in the country.

Actions along these lines would allow both sides to retain their most significant leverage and demonstrate a commitment to a peaceful resolution and prevention of war. Stabilizing the current situation would also create time for a new diplomatic foray that could focus first on negotiating an interim deal that halts and rolls back Iran’s more proliferation sensitive activities, such as enrichment to 60 percent, freezes the development and installation of further advanced centrifuges, and prohibits new research activities. In return, Iran could receive commensurate sanctions relief.

Ideally, by reducing the immediacy of the proliferation risk and building confidence in the diplomatic process, an interim deal would create the time and space to negotiate a new agreement along the lines of the JCPOA that considers Iran’s nuclear advances and Tehran’s legitimate concerns about the performance of sanctions relief.

Diplomacy With Iran Worth a Political Price

While critics of the JCPOA may applaud Biden for walking away from the JCPOA rather than removing the IRGC from the foreign terrorist organization list, he will pay a far higher price for allowing the opportunity to restore intrusive monitoring and strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program slip by. If Biden cannot find the flexibility to remove the symbolic designation that has failed to reign in the IRGC’s destabilizing regional activities, his administration must put forward additional practical, realistic solutions to address the current impasse. If Biden loses this opportunity and does not move quickly to stabilize the current situation and build time for new negotiations, he risks going down in history as the president that allowed Iran to get to the brink of a bomb or the president that went to war to stop it.

Just as it is critical for the Biden administration to demonstrate creativity and flexibility, Iran must also show some flexibility and some restraint. Iran has hinted that it has relaxed its demands on the IRGC issue, but has failed to articulate clearly what it wants instead, and continues to put unrealistic demands on the table, such as a U.S. guarantee that Washington will honor an agreement post-Biden and the IAEA dropping its safeguards investigation into undeclared nuclear activities and materials from pre-2003. Tehran’s adamance in expanding its nuclear program and reducing transparency, despite the heightened proliferation risk, further jeopardizes the accord and increases the risk that Iran miscalculates, and tensions escalate to military action. Neither side wins if talks to restore the JCPOA collapse.

The JCPOA is a proven and effective strategy that verifiably blocks Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. If fully implemented, it is the swiftest, most effective way to roll back Iran’s nuclear activities, put its program under a microscope, and provide Tehran with the sanctions relief necessary to revive its flagging economy. The United States and Iran must agree to return to talks and hammer out a path forward for restoring the JCPOA before it is too late.--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy


Resumed talks between the United States and Iran over restoring compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last month underscored the inflexibility of the U.S. and Iranian positions on issues extraneous to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Country Resources:

The Final Push for U.S. Chemical Weapons Demilitarization



Volume 14, Issue 4, March 14, 2022

For more than a century, chemical weapons have been recognized as one of the most horrific, inhumane, and militarily dubious instruments of war. These realities led to nearly universal support for the ratification and entry into force of the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC), including support from Russia and the United States—which were at that time the possessors of the world’s two largest chemical weapon arsenals.

Negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the CWC prohibits all signatories from developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, or retaining chemical weapons. It also bans the direct or indirect transfer of chemical weapons, and the assisting, encouraging, or inducing of other states to engage in CWC-prohibited activity. Since its ratification, the main mission of the CWC has been the verified and irreversible destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles.

Photographed on Nov. 23, 2021, palletized 105mm projectiles at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant await eventual destruction outside of the explosive containment room in the Enhanced Reconfiguration Building. (Photo credit: PEO ACWA)When the United States ratified the CWC on April 25th, 1997, it accepted the treaty mandate to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile and related facilities completely and verifiably by April 29, 2007, with the possibility of a five-year extension until 2012.

But both the 2007 and 2012 deadlines proved to be severe underestimates of the time and effort needed to safely demilitarize all nine declared U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles. The United States requested and received two additional deadline extensions from the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Now, the United States is pushing hard to finish destroying the last vestiges of its once-massive Cold War-era chemical weapons stockpile by Sept. 30, 2023.1

Current Status of the U.S. Chemical Demilitarization Effort

Despite the delays in its campaign to eliminate chemical weapons, the United States has achieved tremendous progress toward the destruction of its massive and highly toxic chemical weapons arsenal. According to the OPCW’s annual report for 2022, the OPCW confirmed that the United States has verifiably destroyed a total of 26,606.252 metric tons of priority Category 1 chemical weapons, which is 95.81% of the total U.S. declared stockpile.2 The United States has destroyed all of its Category 2 chemical weapons, such as phosgene, and Category 3 weapons, including unfilled munitions, devices, and equipment designed specifically to employ chemical weapons.

As of March 2022, 418.4 metric tons of mustard agent remain at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado and just under 300 metric tons of VX nerve agent are left to be destroyed at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky.3

With only a year and a half left to finish its chemical weapons demilitarization mission - an effort started nearly 40 years ago – the United States government must commit the necessary resources and funding to ensure it meets its treaty-mandated deadline of Sept. 30, 2023.

Congressional authorization of sufficient funding for chemical agents and munitions destruction this year will help ensure the work is done on time and according to stringent safety and environmental standards. Congress and the Biden administration must prioritize finally finishing destruction activities to maintain our standing as a dependable and influential member of the international disarmament community.

The Fiscal Year 2022 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, introduced to the House in July 2021, set aside $1,094,352,000 for the Army to make the final push in the chemical agents and munitions destruction mission.4 Of the total amount proposed, $995,011,000 is designated for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) program, the Army organization that oversees operations at the last two U.S. chemical weapons destruction facilities in Colorado and Kentucky. The remaining sum is distributed amongst operations/maintenance and the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP).

By the end of this fiscal year, the United States will have spent more than $41.7 billion (adjusted for inflation) since 1986 on chemical weapons stockpile elimination efforts.5

Why It Is Vital to Meet the 2023 Deadline

As a leader in upholding the norm against the possession and use of chemical weapons, the United States owes it to our international partners, and our local communities, to demonstrate our commitment to ridding the world of these inhumane weapons once and for all by meeting the 2023 stockpile elimination deadline.

U.S. credibility and leadership are on the line. Countries such as Russia and Iran have attempted to use the United States missed chemical weapons destruction deadlines to discredit U.S. commitment to the CWC, at a critical time in which the United States seeks to have a leadership role in holding countries like Syria and Russia accountable for their failure to comply with the CWC.

During a June 30, 2021, public meeting of the Colorado Citizens’ Advisory Commission, U.S. National Authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention and acting Deputy Secretary Assistant at the State Department, Laura Gross, emphasized the diplomatic importance of completing stockpile elimination.

“From our perspective at the State Department, we want to be able to […] demonstrate the commitment that the United States has against the use of chemical weapons,” Gross said. “That’s why it’s so important to be able to maintain that commitment to the timeline […] because we have adversaries in Russia, China, Iran, and Syria, who are using or developing chemical weapons for potential use, and we really want to be working at the OPCW to deter them.”

“We don’t want these countries to have the opportunity to use potential delays against us,” Gross added later in the meeting.

Domestically, the U.S. government owes it to the communities surrounding chemical weapons stockpiles and destruction facilities to finally finish eliminating these dangerous weapons. For well over 50 years, at least 9 states have had to deal with the health and environmental risks that come with the storage and destruction of chemical munitions and agents.

While U.S. President Joe Biden has not publicly commented on the importance of meeting the 2023 deadline, other government officials including Dr. Brandi Vann, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense, and the newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Threat Reduction and Arms Control, Kingston Reif, have reiterated the United States’ commitment to meeting the deadline.6

History of the U.S. Chemical Weapons Demilitarization

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union amassed enormous stockpiles of these dangerous weapons: by 1990, the United States had 31,500 U.S. tons (63,000,000 pounds) of chemical agents, and the Soviet Union had 39,967 metric tons (88,112,152 pounds).7 Highly toxic nerve agents, such as sarin, are lethal at as little as 100 mg.

The United States’ effort to eliminate its massive chemical weapons arsenal began before the end of the Cold War and well before the entry into force of the CWC in 1997. In 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-145, which called for the safe destruction of the United States’ stockpile of nonbinary lethal chemical agents and related facilities by Sept. 30, 1994.8

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Russia and the United States held several rounds of talks on chemical weapons disarmament and signed the 1990 Bilateral Destruction Agreement. However, faced with internal funding issues, Russia did not begin stockpile destruction efforts until 2000.9 The 1986 Congressional decision to begin stockpile destruction without reciprocal action by Russia demonstrated early on the United States’ commitment to chemical weapons disarmament.

Under this new congressional mandate, the U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC) (which was later renamed Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) in 1992) began construction of the Johnston Atoll prototype high-temperature incineration facility in 1988. Originally, the Army planned to build three centralized incinerators at 3 chemical weapons stockpile depots – one on Johnston Atoll, one in Utah, and one in either Alabama or Arkansas – and transport chemical weapons from the other 6 stockpile locations for destruction.10

However, the transport of these dangerous weapons was highly contentious and was later outright banned by Congress (50 U.S. Code 1512a, 1994). Instead of three centralized incinerators, the Army announced in 1988 that it would build 8 disposal facilities at each of the 8 chemical munition storage sites on the continental United States.11,12 In September of that same year, Congress extended the deadline to eliminate the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile to April 30, 1997, as the new approach was going to take far more time, planning, and resources.13

After multiple mechanical problems and several rounds of testing, the Johnston Atoll facility began burning agents in 1990 that had been previously stored by the U.S. military in Okinawa and Germany. These chemical munitions had been secretly relocated to Johnston Atoll in the 70s and 90s respectively.14 Construction for the second incineration facility began in Tooele, Utah in 1989.

As the U.S. chemical weapons demilitarization process got underway, civil society organizations including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, as well as Native American communities and local grassroots organizations, were actively researching and raising serious concerns about the impact of incineration of chemical warfare agents on the environment and the health of local communities.

The U.S. Army released a draft environmental impact statement in 1990 that concluded the incineration process would have a minimal environmental impact, and the commander of the U.S. demilitarization program, Colonel Walter Busbee, said that fears about pollution were overblown.15

Despite the promises from the Army, sites for incineration facilities were beset by litigation and protests over environmental and public health concerns regarding the danger of potential leakages and emissions during incineration. The Environmental Protection Agency fined the Army for a nerve agent stack release in March 1994, a group of civil society organizations sued the Army in June 2000 over the potential release of MC-1 Sarin nerve gas during the processing of a bomb, and the Pine Bluff citizens’ group filed an appeal with the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in September 2000 over whether future emissions would constitute as “pollution” under Arkansas law.

Throughout the 1990s, citizen activists and non-governmental research organizations continued to press the government to investigate and pursue alternatives to incineration. Preceding the construction of each U.S. incineration destruction facility were lengthy public hearings and environmental impact reports.

As early as June 1990, the U.S. Army confirmed that it expected to miss the 1997 deadline set by Congress. A GAO report attributed the expected delay to “(a) stringent environmental regulation of the operation of the first U.S. continental incineration plant, (b) program budget cuts, and (c) operational delays in testing the first disposal plant on Johnston Atoll.”16

By 1991, Congress pushed back the deadline for U.S. chemical weapons stockpile elimination further. During a December 1991 testimony in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, Assistant Secretary of the Army, Susan Livingstone, said, “I wish to state candidly that schedule will not be a primary driver for this program. We have always stated that safety is the paramount consideration in making decisions for this program.”17 Construction of additional incineration facilities began in Anniston, Alabama in 1991, Umatilla, Oregon in 1996, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 2002.

The concerns of communities surrounding chemical weapons destruction sites were echoed by key members of Congress. As part of the Senate resolution on advice and consent for ratification of the CWC, policymakers included a set of conditions, including a mandate that the president and the Army explore alternative, non-incineration technologies for the destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile “to ensure that the United States has the safest, most effective and environmentally sound plans for programs for meeting its obligations under the Convention for the destruction of chemical weapons.”18

Per the Congressional conditions, the U.S. Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment (ACWA) program was established to investigate and test alternative methods to baseline incineration to dispose of chemical weapons. In 2001, the Army announced that six alternative technologies for chemical weapons destruction had been identified and tested, with neutralization/biotreatment and neutralization/supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) progressing to the engineer design phase.19

The CWC required the United States to destroy its remaining 27,200 metric tons of chemical warfare agents within 10 years.20 However, due to delays attributed to the search for environmentally preferred alternatives to incineration, the treaty-mandated destruction deadline was pushed back from April 29, 2007, to April 29, 2012, with the approval of the other CWC States Parties.

While asking for the United States’ first deadline extension request, former U.S. permanent representative to the OPCW, Ambassador Eric Javits, explained that the U.S. would be unable to meet the 2007 deadline due to setbacks and delays caused by difficulties in constructing facilities, obtaining permits, and addressing safety and environmental concerns. He candidly noted that the United States was asking for the April 2012 deadline “as our extended deadline because that is the latest date the treaty allows us to ask for,” but that “based on our current projections, we do not expect to be able to meet that deadline.”21

In addition to the five incineration facilities, the U.S. Army CMA constructed and operated two neutralization facilities in Edgewood, Maryland and Newport, Indiana. Those two sites finished operations in 2007 and 2010 respectively. The Maryland bulk mustard agent storage site, located outdoors with limited protection, was expedited primarily due to security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

While the U.S. Army CMA was responsible for the first seven stockpile destruction facilities, the last two remaining chemical weapons destruction facilities, located in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky, are overseen by the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA). Both sites feature alternative destruction processes to incineration.

At the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (PCAPP), most of the mustard projectiles stored there are being destroyed in a two-step process: neutralization followed by biotreatment. Three Static Detonation Chambers (SDCs) are also being employed to destroy “problematic munitions,” including the stockpile of 4.2-inch mortar rounds.

At the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP), the majority of the nerve agents (including GB/Sarin and VX) are being destroyed through neutralization. Like the PCAPP process, several “problematic” munitions, mainly 155mm mustard projectiles, were destroyed by SDCs. The site’s remaining M55 rockets are also slated to be destroyed by the SDCs.

The Final Push to Eliminate What Remains

As of March 4, 2022, the United States has 418.4 metric tons of mustard in 105mm projectiles and mustard 4.2-inch mortar rounds left at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado. There are 296.6 metric tons of VX nerve agent in M55 rockets and GB nerve agent in M55 rockets left to destroy at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky.

Walton Levi, site manager for the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, confirmed that the facility is still on target to meet the September 2023 deadline in a recent interview with KUNC.22

Crews at the two remaining facilities have continued to work diligently throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and their dedication to helping the United States meet its treaty mandated deadline in such uncertain circumstances is truly commendable.

Following a public comment and testing period, the Pueblo, Colorado facility was granted an environmental permit to use Static Detonation Chambers to finish eliminating the remaining mustard munitions. 23

CWC Outlier States

The completion of the long campaign to eliminate the U.S. chemical weapons arsenal will also put more pressure on the remaining CWC hold-out states to join and meet their commitments.

Four countries remain outside the CWC: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. North Korea is estimated to possess a stockpile of approximately 5,000 metric tons of agent. The status of Taiwan, prohibited from joining all multilateral treaties by China, must also be resolved, especially given its large chemical industry. Syria, which joined the CWC in 2013 under intense international pressure and agreed to the elimination of the bulk of its former stockpile of some 1,300 metric tons of prohibited chemical agents, has failed to provide a full accounting of its stockpiles to the OPCW.24

Russia—which once possessed the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpile consisting of approximately 40,000 metric tons of chemical agent, including VX, sarin, soman, mustard, lewisite, mustard-lewisite mixtures, and phosgene—officially completed the destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal in 2017.

Like the United States, Russia received an extension of the original chemical weapons destruction deadline when it was unable to complete the task by the 2012 deadline set by the CWC. Russia’s destruction program benefited from technical assistance and funding through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Finally, the OPCW announced Sept. 27, 2017 that Russia completed the destruction of its declared chemical weapons stockpile.

However, Russia still retains some chemical weapons capacity. In March 2018, Russia used the advanced chemical agent Novichok to assassinate a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, in the UK. In a 2021 State Department report on compliance with the CWC, the United States accused Russia of non-compliance with the CWC for its alleged use of Novichok. The report also noted that “The United States cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations" under the Convention and asserted that Russia had not made a complete declaration of its stockpile.


As we enter the final year and a half of demilitarization efforts, the United States government must recommit to prioritizing its chemical weapons stockpile elimination efforts, while, at the same time, continuing to protect the security and safety of local communities. The active involvement of local communities, state regulators and authorities, environmental and public health experts and activities, and other interested stakeholders has been an excellent example of democratic and transparent decision-making.

Leaders in Washington, D.C. must provide the leadership and support necessary to meet international treaty commitments and maintain the United States’ standing as a responsible and influential leader in the global disarmament community.

When the United States does eliminate the last of its deadly chemical weapons, it will be a critical step in strengthening the taboo against chemical weapons and a strong boost for the CWC and the OPCW at a critical juncture in the long fight against these inhumane weapons.—LEANNE QUINN, Chemical Weapons Coalition Program Assistant


1. The 8 nations that have declared chemical weapons stockpiles to the OPCW are Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, South Korea, Syria, and the United States.

2. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Report of the OPCW on the Implementation of the Convention in 2020,” 1 Dec. 2021, https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2021/12/c2603%28e%29.pdf

3. ‘US Chemical Weapons Stockpile Destruction Progress,” Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, 4 March 2022, https://www.peoacwa.army.mil/destruction-progress/

4. “H.R.4432 - Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2022,” Congress.gov, 15 July 2021, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4432/text

5. This number was calculated by finding the sum of all congressional appropriations under the section “Chemical Agents and Munitions Destruction” since 1986. Each number was adjusted for inflation in relation to 2021. We have submitted a FOIA request for an official estimate and will update this issue brief when we receive a response.

6. See: Recording of “US Chemical Weapons Stockpile Elimination: Progress Update” webinar at https://www.cwccoalition.org/us_cw_demilitarization_webinar/

7. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “Report of the OPCW on the Implementation of the Convention in 2017,” 19 Nov. 2018, https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2018/11/c2304%28e%29.pdf

8. “Public Law 99-145-Nov. 8, 1985,” GovInfo.gov, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-99/pdf/STATUTE-99-Pg583.pdf, see: Sec. 1412 Destruction of Existing Stockpile of Lethal Chemical Agents and Munitions

9. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “Report of the OPCW on the Implementation of the Convention in 2000,” 17 May 2001, https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/CSP/C-VI/en/C-VI_5-EN.pdf, page 10

10. Paul Walker, “Three Decades of Chemical Weapons Elimination: More Challenges Ahead,” Arms Control Association, December 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-12/features/three-decades-chemical-weapons-elimination-more-challenges-ahead

11. “50 U.S. Code § 1512a – Transportation of chemical munitions,” Cornell Law School, n.d., https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/50/1512a

12. CMA also oversaw stockpile destruction activities of the chemical weapons stored at Deseret Chemical Depot, Utah; Umatilla Chemical Depot, Oregon; Anniston Chemical Activity, Alabama; Pine Bluff Chemical Activity, Arkansas; Newport Chemical Depot, Indiana; Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland; and Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Basin.[12][12]

13. “Public Law 100-456-Sept. 29, 1988,” US Code House, n.d., https://uscode.house.gov/statviewer.htm?volume=102&page=1934

14. “CMA Milestones in U.S. Chemical Weapons History,” U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity, n.d., https://www.cma.army.mil/wp-content/uploads/2021_02_05_CMA_FS_CMA-MILESTONES.pdf

15. Arms Control Reporter: A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons & Policy, 1990. Chalmers Hardenbergh (Brookline, MA: Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies, 1990), page 704.E-1.

16. Arms Control Reporter: A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons & Policy, 1990, Chalmers Hardenbergh (Brookline, MA: Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies, 1990), page 704.E-1.5.

17. Arms Control Reporter: A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons & Policy, 1991, Chalmers Hardenbergh (Brookline, MA: Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies, 1991), page 704.E-1.18.

18. “U.S. Senate’s Conditions to Ratification of the CWC,” United States Chemical Weapons Convention Web Site, 24 April 1997, https://www.cwc.gov/cwc_authority_ratification_text.html

19. Arms Control Reporter: A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons & Policy 2001, John Clearwater (Brookline, MA: Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies, 1991), page 704.E-1.1

20. “Closing U.S. Chemical Warfare Agent Disposal Facilities,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d., https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/demil/closing_facilities.htm

21. “Statement Concerning Request to Extend the United States’ Destruction Deadline Under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” U.S. Department of States Archive, 20 April 2006, https://2001-2009.state.gov/t/isn/rls/rm/64878.htm

22. Michael de Yoanna, “Static detonation chambers likely to be used to destroy Colorado’s final chemical weapons,” NPR for Northern Colorado, 18 Jan. 2022, https://www.kunc.org/news/2022-01-18/static-detonation-chambers-likely-to-be-used-to-destroy-colorados-final-chemical-weapons

23. Michael de Yoanna, “Static detonation chambers likely to be used to destroy Colorado’s final chemical weapons,” NPR for Northern Colorado, 18 Jan. 2022, https://www.kunc.org/news/2022-01-18/static-detonation-chambers-likely-to-be-used-to-destroy-colorados-final-chemical-weapons

24. “Syria’s Declaration of Compliance with Chemical Weapons Convention Still Inaccurate Due to Persisting Gaps, Inconsistencies, Top Disarmament Official Tells Security Council,” United Nations: Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, 5 January 2022, https://www.un.org/press/en/2022/sc14760.doc.htm


When the United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, it accepted the treaty mandate to eliminate its chemical weapons within a decade. But several extensions have come and gone, and the government is pushing hard to finish destroying the last vestiges of its once-massive Cold War-era stockpile by 2023.


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Russia’s War on Ukraine and the Risk of Nuclear Escalation: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions



Volume 14, Issue 3, Feb. 28, 2022

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director (202-463-8270 x107); Shannon Bugos, senior policy analyst (202-463-8270 x113)

Disponible en español

In the midst of his catastrophic, premeditated military assault on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin Feb. 27 ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to move to a higher state of alert of “a special regime of combat duty,” unnecessarily escalating an already dangerous situation created by his indefensible decision to invade another sovereign nation.

By choosing the path of destruction rather than diplomacy, Putin has launched a violent military assault that threatens millions of innocent civilians in independent, democratic Ukraine.

Putin has also sharpened tensions between Russia and member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), increased the risk of conflict elsewhere on the European continent, and derailed past and potential future progress on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, possibly for years to come.

Putin’s order to put Russia’s nuclear forces on higher alert is not a complete surprise given his previous implied threats against any nation that tried to stop him in Ukraine.

But clearly, inserting nuclear weapons into the Ukraine war equation at this point is extremely dangerous. It is essential that U.S. President Joe Biden along with NATO leaders act with extreme restraint and not respond in kind. This is a very dangerous moment in this crisis, and all leaders, particularly Putin, need to step back from the nuclear brink.

In justifying his actions, Putin has pointed to longtime grievances, such as NATO’s expansion eastward, and the specious claim that Kyiv has plans to build nuclear weapons or obtain them from the United States. Ukraine was neither headed for NATO membership any time soon nor seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Ukraine did not pose the kind of threat that Putin claimed to justify his invasion.

Tragically, Putin also bypassed diplomatic options that could have addressed many of Russia’s stated security concerns in Europe.

In December, Moscow transmitted to each the United States and NATO a proposal on security guarantees, which included several nonstarters, such as a prohibition on allowing Ukraine to join NATO.

Nevertheless, the Russian proposal, as well as the U.S. and NATO counterproposals, highlighted potential areas for negotiations to resolve mutual security concerns. Yet, with the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has made any further progress on arms control and risk reduction impossible, at least for the time being.

The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is the only remaining treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, expires in four years, which is a short period of time for negotiating and securing the necessary domestic support for a replacement arrangement.

As we wrote last week, “Although Putin’s regime must suffer international isolation now, U.S. and Russian leaders must eventually seek to resume talks through their stalled strategic security dialogue to defuse broader NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common sense arms control measures to prevent an all-out arms race.”

Below are answers to frequently asked questions about Putin’s war in Ukraine, Russia’s nuclear weapons, and the risks of escalation.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director, and SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst

What did Putin say, what does it mean, and how should we respond?

Putin’s statement is probably designed to reinforce his earlier implied threats that were clearly designed to try to ward off any military interference in his attack on Ukraine, a non-nuclear weapon state.

“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country, but leaders of major NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country,” Putin said Feb. 27 in a meeting with defense officials. “So, I order to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of combat duty.”

A few days prior in his speech announcing his decision to invade Ukraine, Putin threatened any country that “tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people” with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Putin’s threat is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era—and unacceptable. There has been no instance in which a U.S. or a Russian leader has raised the alert level of their nuclear forces in the middle of a crisis in order to try to coerce the other side's behavior.

The White House and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg immediately denounced the move but did not indicate they would follow suit.

“This is really a pattern that we’ve seen from President Putin through the course of this conflict, which is manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented Feb. 27. “At no point has Russia been under threat from NATO [or] has Russia been under threat from Ukraine.”

“We have the ability to defend ourselves,” assured Psaki.

“This is dangerous rhetoric,” Stoltenberg said. “This is a behavior which is irresponsible.”

It is not clear at this point, however, what changes to Russian operational readiness Putin has put into motion. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly told Putin Feb. 28 that all nuclear command posts have been boosted with additional personnel.

Yet, one senior U.S. defense cautioned that while there is “no reason to doubt the validity of this order[,]…how it’s manifested itself I don’t think is completely clear yet.”

Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, tweeted Feb. 27 that he is unsure that “we are dealing with elevated readiness level,” adding that, in his view, “it’s different.” Rather, he proposed that Putin’s order “most likely…means that the nuclear command and control system received what is known as a preliminary command.” This type of command, Podvig described, brings the nuclear systems into a working condition, but it “is not something that suggests that Russia is preparing itself to strike first.”

“The basic idea here is clearly to scare ‘the West’ into backing down. But part [of] the danger here is that it's not clear to me Putin has a clear de-escalation pathway in mind (except for the capitulation of Ukraine),” tweeted James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons also underscores is that nuclear weapons cannot prevent nuclear-armed states from launching major wars and that they increase the risk of an armed conflict between nuclear-armed states and nuclear-armed alliances. Rather than increasing security, they increase the danger of war by way of fostering the possibility of miscalculation and advertent or inadvertent escalation.

In the case of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Putin is essentially using the threat of nuclear weapons as a cover for his massive invasion of a non-nuclear weapons state. Key U.S. officials share the view that nuclear weapons can provide cover for projecting conventional military force. Admiral Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, said in remarks published in February 2021 that "We must acknowledge the foundation nature of our nation's strategic nuclear forces, as they create the 'maneuver space' for us to project conventional military power strategically."

Have U.S. or Russian leaders made any similar nuclear threats against one another since the end of the Cold War?

No. Putin’s public implied nuclear threats toward NATO and the United States and his decision to raise the alert status of Russia’s nuclear forces is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era.

However, during the Cold War, between 1948 and 1961 as well as the the period between the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and into the mid-1970s, there were numerous nuclear threats and alerts designed to change the behavior of adversaries.

For example, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger developed what he called the "madman theory," which posited that threatening massive, even excessive, levels of military violence, including nuclear attacks, would intimidate the North Vietnamese and their patrons in the Soviet Union into submission at the negotiating table.

On Oct. 9, 1969, Nixon and Kissinger instructed the Pentagon to place U.S. nuclear and other military forces around the globe on alert, and to do so secretly. For 18 days in October of that year, the Pentagon carried out one of the largest and most extensive secret military operations in U.S. history. Tactical and strategic bomber forces and submarines armed with Polaris missiles went on alert. This "Joint Chiefs Readiness Test" culminated in a flight of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers over northern Alaska.

The secret 1969 U.S. nuclear alert, though certainly noticed by Soviet leaders, failed to pressure them into helping Nixon win concessions from Hanoi. Nixon switched his Vietnam strategy from one of intimidation to one of steady troop withdrawals and Vietnamization—reinforced by rapprochement with China and détente with the Soviet Union. In the end, he exited Vietnam only after negotiating an unsatisfactory armistice agreement.

In the past, similar nuclear gambits have failed to work as intended. Such threats are unlikely to succeed when the side threatened possesses its own nuclear weapons capabilities, when a non-nuclear state or a guerrilla or terror group is presumably under the protection of a nuclear state, or when the nuclear threat is disproportionate and therefore not credible because it is aimed at a small country or non-state actor.

How many nuclear weapons do Russia, the United States, and NATO currently have?

The United States deploys 1,389 strategic warheads on 665 strategic delivery systems, and Russia deploys 1,458 strategic nuclear warheads on 527 strategic delivery systems as of September 2021 and according to the counting rules established by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Both countries are currently modernizing their nuclear delivery systems.

Strategic warheads are counted using the provisions of New START, which Biden and Putin agreed to extend for five years in January 2021 but will expire in 2026. New START caps each country at 1,550 strategic warheads deployed on 700 delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers assigned a nuclear mission.

The U.K. and France, also NATO members, are estimated to possess 225 nuclear warheads and 290 respectively.

The United States also has an estimated 160 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs that are forward-deployed across six NATO bases in five European countries: Italy, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The total estimated U.S. B-61 stockpile amounts to 230.

In addition, Russia is believed to have an estimated 1,900 non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons, all of which are thought to be in central storage, not deployed in the field.

Russia, like the United States, keeps its land-based ICBMs on a high state of readiness at all times, and it is believed that Russia’s SLBMs, like the U.S. forces, are similarly postured. The ICBM forces of both countries are maintained on a “launch-under-attack” posture, meaning they can be launched within minutes of an authorized “go” order by either leader and can arrive at their targets within 20 minutes or less. This posture leaves each side with very little time to make a decision about launching a retaliatory strike if they detect a launch of strategic nuclear weapons against their forces, which creates the risk that a false alarm could trigger nuclear war.

Sea-based strategic nuclear weapons, which are extremely hard to detect and destroy, can be fired nearly as quickly at their targets depending on their location. Other systems, such as strategic bomber-based weapons, take relatively more time to arm with nuclear weapons and reach their target launch points, but bombers can be recalled for a period of time after launch orders are given.

What are the policies governing U.S. and Russian nuclear use?

Both U.S. and Russian presidents have sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, meaning they do not require concurrence from their respective military and security advisers or by other elected representatives of the people.

Current U.S. and Russian military strategies reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first. In Russia’s case, its military policy allows for the president to order the use of nuclear weapons if the state is at risk or possibly if Russia is losing a major war. The theory is that a “limited” use of nuclear weapons could halt an adversary’s advances or even tip the balance back in favor of the losing side.

Some U.S. officials have argued for deployment of additional types of “more usable” low-yield nuclear weapons in the arsenal. However, even what are deemed low-yield nuclear weapons today still hold immense power. For instance, the low-yield W76-2, a new warhead deployed in late 2019 for U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles, is estimated to have an explosive yield of five kilotons, roughly one-third the yield of the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

But once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict involving nuclear-armed adversaries—even if on a so-called “limited scale” involving a handful of “smaller” Hiroshima-sized bombs—there is no guarantee the conflict would not escalate and become a global nuclear conflagration.

Biden and Putin both seem to understand that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” a statement originally endorsed in 1985 by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and reiterated by the five countries with the largest nuclear arsenals in January 2022.

The former head of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, described in 2018 how the command’s annual nuclear command and control and field training always ends. “It ends bad,” he said. “And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.”

However, such a recognition among leaders does not mean a nuclear war will not break out. After all, Putin has demonstrated that he is an extreme risk-taker.

To reduce the risk of nuclear war and draw a strong distinction between Putin's irresponsible nuclear threats and U.S. behavior, Biden should adjust U.S. declaratory policy by clarifying that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter the first use of nuclear weapons by others. A sole purpose policy would rule out the use of nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike or in response to a non-nuclear attack on the United States or its allies, increase strategic stability, and reduce the risk of nuclear war.

In fact, during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs: “As I said in 2017, I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”

Ultimately, even the best intentions of one side cannot ensure that the interests of all to prevent the use of nuclear weapons will win out. Therefore, the only action that can actually prevent the use of nuclear weapons is the removal of these weapons from the battlefield and their verifiable elimination.

What would be the effects from an outbreak of nuclear war?

Beyond the many dangers to the millions of innocent people caught in Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine, there is also an increased risk that the war might lead to an even more severe, if unintentional, escalatory spiral involving NATO and Russian forces, both of which have nuclear weapons at their disposal.

The indiscriminate and horrific effects of nuclear weapons use are well-established, which is why the vast majority of the world’s nations consider policies that threaten nuclear use to be dangerous, immoral, and legally unjustifiable and consequently have developed the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

If Russian or NATO leaders chose to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict in Europe, the result could be a quick escalation from a local disaster into a European nuclear war and then a global catastrophe. Millions, perhaps tens of millions, would die in the first 45 minutes.

A detailed study published in 2002 assessed the direct consequences of a major conflict between the United and Russia.

The study concluded that if 350 of the strategic nuclear warheads in the Russian arsenal reached major industrial and military targets in the United States, an estimated 70 to 100 million people would die in the first hours from the explosions and fires.

The U.S. president could quickly retaliate with as many as 1,350 nuclear weapons on long range missiles and bombers and, in consultation with allies, another 160 nuclear gravity bombs on shorter-range fighter-bombers based in five NATO countries in Europe.

Many more people would be exposed to lethal doses of radiation. The entire economic infrastructure of the country would be destroyed—the internet, the electric grid, the food distribution system, the health system, the banking system, and the transportation network.

In the following weeks and months, the vast majority of those who did not die in the initial attack would succumb to starvation, exposure, radiation poisoning, and epidemic disease. A U.S. counterattack would cause the same level of destruction in Russia, and if NATO forces were involved in the war, Canada and Europe would also suffer a similar fate.

More recent scientific studies indicate that the dust and soot produced by a nuclear exchange of 100-200 detonations would create lasting and potentially catastrophic climactic effects that would devastate food production and lead to famine in many parts of the world.

What are the past and present arms control treaties that have limited U.S. and Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons? What is the status of those treaties?

During the Cold War and after, arms control agreements helped to win and maintain the peace.

However, there has been growing mistrust between Russia and the West in recent years, leading to and fueling the loss of pivotal conventional and nuclear arms control and/or risk reduction treaties through negligence, noncompliance, or outright withdrawal.

Some of these treaties, which have acted as guardrails preventing the outbreak of catastrophic conventional and nuclear wars, included:

In the absence of these agreements, cooperation between the parties has eroded, concerns about military capabilities have grown, and the risk of miscalculation skyrocketed.

Of note is also the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear test explosions and established a global monitoring and verification network. The treaty has 185 signatories, including China, Russia, and the United States. During the course of the nuclear age, at least eight states conducted more than 2,000 nuclear weapon test blasts above ground, underground, and underwater. The CTBT has effectively halted nuclear test explosions. However, the treaty is not yet in force due to the failure of eight states to ratify, leaving the door to nuclear testing in the future ajar.

In addition, the United States and the Soviet Union—and later Russia—negotiated a series of treaties that capped and eventually reversed the nuclear arms race. These included:

  • The 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I): Though important as the first such treaty, it only slowed the growth of the two countries’ long-range nuclear arsenals. It ignored nuclear-armed strategic bombers and did not cap warhead numbers, leaving both sides free to enlarge their forces by deploying multiple warheads onto their missiles and increasing their bomber-based forces.
  • The 1979 SALT II: This treaty was never formally ratified because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan later that year, but Reagan agreed to respect its limits.
  • The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I): This agreement, which expired in December 2009, was the first to require the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce their strategic deployed arsenals and destroy excess delivery systems through an intrusive verification involving on-site inspections, the regular exchange of information, and the use of national technical means (i.e., satellites). START I was delayed for several years due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing efforts to denuclearize Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus by returning their nuclear weapons to Russia and making them non-nuclear weapons states under the nuclear 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and parties to START I.
  • The 1993 START II: This treaty called for further cuts in deployed strategic arsenals and banned the deployment of destabilizing multiple-warhead land-based missiles. However, it never entered into force due to the U.S. withdrawal in 2002 from the ABM Treaty.
  • The 1997 START III Framework: This framework for a third START included a reduction in deployed strategic warheads to 2,000-2,500. Significantly, in addition to requiring the destruction of delivery vehicles, START III negotiations were to address “the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads…to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.” Negotiations were supposed to begin after START II entered into force, which never happened.
  • The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow Treaty): This treaty required the United States and Russia to reduce their strategic arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads each. Unfortunately, it did not include a treaty-specific verification and monitoring regime. SORT was replaced by New START Feb. 5, 2011 .
  • The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START): This legally binding, verifiable agreement limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers assigned a nuclear mission. The treaty has a strong verification regime. The United States and Russia agreed Feb. 3, 2021, to extend New START by five years, as allowed by the treaty text, until Feb. 5, 2026.

As a result of these agreements, the total stockpiles of the two countries have been slashed from their peaks in the mid-1980s at almost 70,000 nuclear weapons to about 10,000 total U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons today. Plus, we no longer live in a world in which nuclear-armed states are detonating nuclear test explosions to perfect new and more deadly types of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the United States and Russia still currently possess far more nuclear weapons than necessary to destroy one another many times over and more than enough to deter a nuclear attack from the other.

Consequently, the United States and Russia should further reduce their nuclear stockpiles and work to get other nuclear-armed countries involved in the process and eventually in the agreements. In 2013, for instance, the Obama administration found that the United States could further cut its deployed nuclear arsenal to about 1,000 without sacrificing U.S. or allied security.

Unless Washington and Moscow resume talks to reach a new agreement to replace New START before its expiration, there will be no limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972—and we risk an all-out nuclear arms race once again.

Admittedly, however, Putin’s destructive, indefensible war on Ukraine will make that task much tougher.

How should the United States and NATO respond to Putin’s threat and minimize the risk of an outbreak of nuclear war?

The danger of miscalculation and escalation, including to the nuclear level, among adversaries is real and high.

Though Russia has yet to locate military forces along the Ukrainian-Polish border, for instance, there is a possibility that Russian and NATO forces will engage militarily, prompting the situation to quickly spin further out of control.

There is also the potential for close military encounters elsewhere involving U.S./NATO and Russian aircraft, warships, and submarines.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, leaders in Moscow, Washington, and Europe, as well as military commanders in the field, must be careful to avoid new and destabilizing military deployments, dangerous encounters between Russian and NATO forces, and the introduction of new types of conventional or nuclear weapons that undermine shared security interests.

For example, the offer from Russia’s client state, Belarus, to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons, if pursued by Putin, would further undermine Russian and European security and increase the risk of nuclear war. Unfortunately, Belarus voted Feb. 27 in a referendum to abandon its status as a non-nuclear state.

How can the United States and Russia get nuclear arms reduction efforts back on track?

Due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s regime will and should face the consequences and suffer international isolation imposed through a strong and unified front.

For the time being, this isolation includes a suspension of the bilateral U.S.-Russian strategic stability dialogue, which Biden and Putin resumed in June 2021 and last convened in early January 2022.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman confirmed Feb. 26 that Washington will not proceed with the dialogue under the current circumstances, saying that she sees “no reason” to do so. The day prior, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that while “arms control is something that will continue to be in our national security interest,…we don’t have another iteration of the Strategic Stability Dialogue planned.”

Eventually, however, U.S. and Russian leaders must seek to resume talks through their bilateral strategic security dialogue in order to prevent even greater NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common-sense arms control and risk reduction measures.

The Russian proposal on security guarantees from December 2021 and the U.S. (as well as NATO) counterproposal from January 2022 contain areas of overlap, demonstrating that there is room for negotiations to resolve mutual security concerns. The areas with the most promise are related to crafting a new agreement similar to the now-defunct INF Treaty; negotiating a follow-on to New START; agreeing to scale back large military exercises; and establishing risk reduction and transparency measures, such as hotlines.

Washington must test whether Moscow is serious about such options and, if possible, restart the strategic stability dialogue—and they must try to do so before New START expires in early 2026, else the next showdown will be even riskier.

In the long run, U.S., Russian, and European leaders—and their people—cannot lose sight of the fact that war and the threat of nuclear war are the common enemies. Russia and the West have a shared interest in striking agreements that further slash bloated strategic nuclear forces, regulate shorter-range “battlefield” nuclear arsenals, and set limits on long-range missile defenses.

Should Ukraine have kept its nuclear weapons that it inherited from the Soviet Union? Will Ukraine seek to have nuclear weapons once again?

Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the current invasion violate the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.

In 1994, the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom signed this important agreement, which extended security assurances against the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territory or political independence. In return, the newly independent Ukraine acceded to the nuclear 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state and gave up the 1,900 nuclear warheads it inherited from the Soviet Union.

Ukraine did not have operational control of and could not have safely maintained those nuclear weapons. Any attempt by Kyiv to keep these nuclear weapons would only have resulted in greater danger for Ukraine, Europe, and the world.

Arguments that a nuclear-armed Ukraine would be safer today are fallacies, as are any claims that Kyiv seeks to build or obtain nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons do not make anyone safer and instead pose an existential threat to all of us.

Putin’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 and this new, massive invasion in 2022 serve to undermine the NPT and reinforce the unfortunate impression that nuclear-armed states can bully non-nuclear states, thereby reducing the incentives for nuclear disarmament and making it more difficult to prevent nuclear proliferation.


Although Putin's regime must suffer international isolation now, U.S. and Russian leaders must eventually seek to resume talks through their stalled strategic security dialogue to defuse broader NATO-Russia tensions and maintain common sense arms control measures to prevent an all-out arms race.

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La guerra de Rusia contra Ucrania y el riesgo de una escalada nuclear: respuestas a preguntas frecuentes



Volumen 14, número 3, 28 de febrero de 2022

Contactos con los medios: Daryl Kimball, director ejecutivo (202-463-8270 x107); Shannon Bugos, analista sénior de políticas (202-463-8270 x113)

Read this in English.

En medio de su ataque militar premeditado y catastrófico contra Ucrania, el 27 de febrero, el presidente ruso, Vladimir Putin, ordenó a las fuerzas nucleares de Rusia pasar a un estado de alerta más alto de "un régimen especial de servicio de combate", lo que intensificó innecesariamente una situación ya peligrosa creada por su decisión indefendible de invadir otra nación soberana.

Al elegir el camino de la destrucción en lugar de la diplomacia, Putin ha lanzado un ataque militar violento que amenaza a millones de civiles inocentes en una Ucrania independiente y democrática.

Putin también agudizó las tensiones entre Rusia y los estados miembros de la Organización del Tratado del Atlántico Norte (OTAN), aumentó el riesgo de conflicto en otras partes del continente europeo y descarriló el progreso pasado y futuro potencial en la no proliferación nuclear y el desarme, posiblemente en los años venideros.

La orden de Putin de poner a las fuerzas nucleares de Rusia en alerta máxima no es una completa sorpresa dadas sus amenazas implícitas anteriores contra cualquier nación que intentara detenerlo en Ucrania.

Pero claramente, insertar armas nucleares en la ecuación de guerra de Ucrania en este punto es extremadamente peligroso. Es esencial que el presidente de los Estados Unidos, Joe Biden, junto con los líderes de la OTAN, actúen con extrema moderación y no respondan del mismo modo. Este es un momento muy peligroso en esta crisis, y todos los líderes, particularmente Putin, deben alejarse del borde nuclear.

Al justificar sus acciones, Putin ha señalado agravios de larga data, como la expansión de la OTAN hacia el este y la engañosa afirmación de que Kiev tiene planes para construir armas nucleares u obtenerlas de Estados Unidos. Ucrania no iba a alcanzar la membresía de la OTAN  en un plazo corto de tiempo ni buscaba una capacidad de armas nucleares. Ucrania no representaba el tipo de amenaza que Putin afirmó para justificar su invasión.

Trágicamente, Putin también pasó por alto las opciones diplomáticas que podrían haber abordado muchas de las preocupaciones de seguridad declaradas por Rusia en Europa.

En diciembre, Moscú transmitió tanto a Estados Unidos como a la OTAN una propuesta sobre garantías de seguridad, que incluía varios obstáculos, como la prohibición de permitir que Ucrania se una a la OTAN.

La propuesta rusa, así como las contrapropuestas de EE. UU. y la OTAN, destacaron áreas potenciales de negociación para resolver preocupaciones de seguridad mutua. Sin embargo, con la invasión de Ucrania, Putin ha hecho imposible cualquier progreso adicional en el control de armas y la reducción de riesgos, al menos por el momento.

El Nuevo Tratado de Reducción de Armas Estratégicas de 2010 (Nuevo START), que es el único tratado restante que limita los arsenales nucleares de EE. UU. y Rusia, vence en cuatro años, que es un período corto de tiempo para negociar y asegurar el apoyo interno necesario para un arreglo de reemplazo.

Como escribimos la semana pasada, “Aunque el régimen de Putin debe sufrir el aislamiento internacional ahora, los líderes de EE. UU. y Rusia deben eventualmente tratar de reanudar las conversaciones a través de su estancado diálogo de seguridad estratégica para calmar las tensiones más amplias entre la OTAN y Rusia y mantener medidas de control de armas de sentido común para evitar una carrera armamentista”.

A continuación se encuentran las respuestas a las preguntas frecuentes sobre la guerra de Putin en Ucrania, las armas nucleares de Rusia y los riesgos de una escalada.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, director ejecutivo, y SHANNON BUGOS, analista principal de políticas

¿Qué dijo Putin, qué significa y cómo debemos responder?

La declaración de Putin probablemente esté diseñada para reforzar sus amenazas implícitas anteriores que estaban claramente diseñadas para tratar de evitar cualquier interferencia militar en su ataque a Ucrania, un estado sin armas nucleares.

“Los países occidentales no solo están tomando medidas económicas hostiles contra nuestro país, sino que los líderes de los principales países de la OTAN están haciendo declaraciones agresivas sobre nuestro país”, dijo Putin el 27 de febrero en una reunión con funcionarios de defensa. “Por eso, ordeno trasladar las fuerzas de disuasión de Rusia a un régimen especial de servicio de combate”.

Unos días antes, en su discurso anunciando su decisión de invadir Ucrania, Putin amenazó a cualquier país que “trate de interponerse en nuestro camino o, más aún, cree amenazas para nuestro país y nuestra gente” con consecuencias “como nunca se ha visto en toda tu historia.”

La amenaza de Putin no tiene precedentes en la era posterior a la Guerra Fría, y es inaceptable. No ha habido ningún caso en el que un líder estadounidense o ruso haya elevado el nivel de alerta de sus fuerzas nucleares en medio de una crisis para tratar de coaccionar el comportamiento del otro lado.

La Casa Blanca y el secretario general de la OTAN, Jens Stoltenberg, denunciaron de inmediato la medida, pero no indicaron que harían lo mismo.

“Este es realmente un patrón que hemos visto del presidente Putin a lo largo de este conflicto, que está fabricando amenazas que no existen para justificar una mayor agresión”, comentó la secretaria de prensa de la Casa Blanca, Jen Psaki, el 27 de febrero. “ En ningún momento Rusia ha estado bajo la amenaza de la OTAN [o] Rusia ha estado bajo la amenaza de Ucrania”.

“Tenemos la capacidad de defendernos”, aseguró Psaki.

“Esta es una retórica peligrosa”, dijo Stoltenberg. “Este es un comportamiento que es irresponsable”.

Sin embargo, en este momento no está claro qué cambios ha puesto en marcha Putin en la preparación operativa rusa. Según se informa, el ministro de Defensa ruso, Sergei Shoigu, le dijo a Putin el 28 de febrero que todos los puestos de mando nuclear han sido reforzados con personal adicional.

Sin embargo, un alto defensor de los EE. UU. advirtió que si bien “no hay motivo para dudar de la validez de esta orden[,]… no creo que esté del todo claro todavía cómo se manifiesta”.

Pavel Podvig, director del Proyecto de Fuerzas Nucleares de Rusia, tuiteó el 27 de febrero que no está seguro de que “estamos lidiando con un nivel de preparación elevado”, y agregó que, en su opinión, “es diferente”. Más bien, propuso que la orden de Putin “muy probablemente… signifique que el sistema de comando y control nuclear recibió lo que se conoce como un comando preliminar”. Este tipo de comando, describió Podvig, pone los sistemas nucleares en condiciones de funcionamiento, pero "no es algo que sugiera que Rusia se está preparando para atacar primero".

“La idea básica aquí es claramente asustar a 'Occidente' para que retroceda. Pero parte [del] peligro aquí es que no me queda claro que Putin tenga en mente un camino claro de desescalada (excepto por la capitulación de Ucrania)”, tuiteó James Acton, codirector del Programa de Política Nuclear en el Fondo para la Paz Internacional de Carnegie.

Lo que la amenaza de Putin de usar armas nucleares también subraya es que las armas nucleares no pueden evitar que los estados con armas nucleares lancen guerras importantes y que aumentan el riesgo de un conflicto armado entre estados con armas nucleares y alianzas con armas nucleares. En lugar de aumentar la seguridad, aumentan el peligro de guerra al fomentar la posibilidad de un error de cálculo y una escalada deliberada o inadvertida.

En el caso de la guerra de Rusia contra Ucrania, Putin está utilizando esencialmente la amenaza de las armas nucleares como una tapadera para su invasión masiva de un estado sin armas nucleares. Funcionarios estadounidenses clave comparten la opinión de que las armas nucleares pueden servir de cobertura para proyectar una fuerza militar convencional. El almirante Charles Richard, jefe del Comando Estratégico de EE. UU., dijo en declaraciones publicadas en febrero de 2021 que "debemos reconocer la naturaleza fundamental de las fuerzas nucleares estratégicas de nuestra nación, ya que crean el 'espacio de maniobra' para que podamos proyectar estratégicamente el poder militar convencional".

¿Han hecho los líderes estadounidenses o rusos alguna amenaza nuclear similar entre sí desde el final de la Guerra Fría?

No. Las amenazas nucleares implícitas públicas de Putin hacia la OTAN y los Estados Unidos y su decisión de elevar el estado de alerta de las fuerzas nucleares de Rusia no tiene precedentes en la era posterior a la Guerra Fría.

Sin embargo, durante la Guerra Fría, entre 1948 y 1961, así como el período entre la Crisis de los Misiles Cubanos de 1962 y mediados de la década de 1970, hubo numerosas amenazas y alertas nucleares diseñadas para cambiar el comportamiento de los adversarios.

Por ejemplo, el presidente Richard Nixon y su asesor de seguridad nacional, Henry Kissinger, desarrollaron lo que él llamó la "teoría del loco", que postulaba que amenazar con niveles masivos, incluso excesivos, de violencia militar, incluidos ataques nucleares, intimidaría a los norvietnamitas y sus patrocinadores en la Unión Soviética a la sumisión en la mesa de negociaciones.

El 9 de octubre de 1969, Nixon y Kissinger ordenaron al Pentágono que pusiera en alerta a las fuerzas nucleares estadounidenses y otras fuerzas militares en todo el mundo, y que lo hiciera en secreto. Durante 18 días en octubre de ese año, el Pentágono llevó a cabo una de las operaciones militares secretas más grandes y extensas en la historia de Estados Unidos. Las fuerzas de bombarderos tácticos y estratégicos y los submarinos armados con misiles Polaris se pusieron en alerta. Esta "Prueba de preparación de los jefes conjuntos" culminó con un vuelo de bombarderos B-52 con armas nucleares sobre el norte de Alaska.

La alerta nuclear secreta de los EE. UU. de 1969, aunque ciertamente notada por los líderes soviéticos, no logró presionarlos para que ayudaran a Nixon a obtener concesiones de Hanoi. Nixon cambió su estrategia de Vietnam de una de intimidación a una de constantes retiradas de tropas y vietnamización, reforzada por el acercamiento a China y la distensión con la Unión Soviética. Al final, salió de Vietnam solo después de negociar un acuerdo de armisticio insatisfactorio.

En el pasado, tácticas nucleares similares no funcionaron según lo previsto. Es poco probable que tales amenazas tengan éxito cuando el lado amenazado posee sus propias capacidades de armas nucleares, cuando un estado no nuclear o un grupo guerrillero o terrorista está presumiblemente bajo la protección de un estado nuclear, o cuando la amenaza nuclear es desproporcionada y, por lo tanto, no es creíble. porque está dirigido a un país pequeño o actor no estatal.

¿Cuántas armas nucleares tienen actualmente Rusia, Estados Unidos y la OTAN?

Estados Unidos despliega 1389 ojivas nucleares estratégicas en 665 sistemas de entrega estratégica y Rusia despliega 1458 ojivas nucleares estratégicas en 527 sistemas de entrega estratégica a partir de septiembre de 2021 y de acuerdo con las reglas de conteo establecidas por el Nuevo Tratado de Reducción de Armas Estratégicas de 2010 (Nuevo START). Ambos países están actualmente modernizando sus sistemas de entrega nuclear.

Las ojivas estratégicas se cuentan utilizando las disposiciones del Nuevo START, que Biden y Putin acordaron extender por cinco años en enero de 2021 pero que expirará en 2026. El Nuevo START limita a cada país a 1550 ojivas estratégicas desplegadas en 700 sistemas de lanzamiento, incluidos misiles balísticos intercontinentales ( ICBM), misiles balísticos lanzados desde submarinos (SLBM) y bombarderos pesados ​​asignados a una misión nuclear.

Se estima que el Reino Unido y Francia, también miembros de la OTAN, poseen 225 ojivas nucleares y 290, respectivamente.

Estados Unidos también tiene un estimado de 160 bombas de gravedad nuclear B-61 que están desplegadas en seis bases de la OTAN en cinco países europeos: Italia, Alemania, Turquía, Bélgica y los Países Bajos. La reserva total estimada de B-61 de EE. UU. asciende a 230.

Además, se cree que Rusia tiene un estimado de 1.900 armas nucleares no estratégicas o tácticas, todas las cuales se cree que están en almacenamiento central, no desplegadas en el campo.

Rusia, al igual que Estados Unidos, mantiene sus misiles balísticos intercontinentales terrestres en un alto estado de preparación en todo momento, y se cree que los SLBM de Rusia, al igual que las fuerzas estadounidenses, tienen una postura similar. Las fuerzas de misiles balísticos intercontinentales de ambos países se mantienen en una postura de "lanzamiento bajo ataque", lo que significa que pueden lanzarse a los pocos minutos de una orden de "ir" autorizada por cualquiera de los líderes y pueden llegar a sus objetivos en 20 minutos o menos. Esta postura deja a cada lado con muy poco tiempo para tomar una decisión sobre el lanzamiento de un ataque de represalia si detectan un lanzamiento de armas nucleares estratégicas contra sus fuerzas, lo que crea el riesgo de que una falsa alarma pueda desencadenar una guerra nuclear.

Las armas nucleares estratégicas basadas en el mar, que son extremadamente difíciles de detectar y destruir, pueden dispararse casi tan rápido a sus objetivos dependiendo de su ubicación. Otros sistemas, como las armas estratégicas basadas en bombarderos, tardan relativamente más tiempo en armarse con armas nucleares y llegar a sus puntos de lanzamiento objetivo, pero los bombarderos pueden retirarse durante un período de tiempo después de que se dan las órdenes de lanzamiento.

¿Cuáles son las políticas que rigen el uso nuclear de EE. UU. y Rusia?

Tanto los presidentes de EE. UU. como los de Rusia tienen la autoridad exclusiva para autorizar el uso de armas nucleares, lo que significa que no requieren el consentimiento de sus respectivos asesores militares y de seguridad ni de otros representantes electos del pueblo.

Las estrategias militares actuales de EE. UU. y Rusia reservan la opción de usar armas nucleares primero. En el caso de Rusia, su política militar permite que el presidente ordene el uso de armas nucleares si el estado está en riesgo o posiblemente si Rusia está perdiendo una guerra importante. La teoría es que un uso “limitado” de armas nucleares podría detener los avances de un adversario o incluso inclinar la balanza a favor del bando perdedor.

Algunos funcionarios estadounidenses han abogado por el despliegue de tipos adicionales de armas nucleares de bajo rendimiento "más utilizables" en el arsenal. Sin embargo, incluso las que hoy en día se consideran armas nucleares de bajo rendimiento todavía tienen un poder inmenso. Por ejemplo, se estima que el W76-2 de bajo rendimiento, una nueva ojiva desplegada a fines de 2019 para misiles balísticos lanzados desde submarinos estadounidenses, tiene un rendimiento explosivo de cinco kilotones, aproximadamente un tercio del rendimiento de la bomba que Estados Unidos cayó sobre Hiroshima en 1945.

Pero una vez que se usan armas nucleares en un conflicto que involucra a adversarios con armas nucleares, incluso si en la llamada "escala limitada" que involucra un puñado de bombas "más pequeñas" del tamaño de Hiroshima, no hay garantía de que el conflicto no se intensifique y se convierta en un conflicto. conflagración nuclear mundial.

Biden y Putin parecen entender que “una guerra nuclear no se puede ganar y nunca se debe librar”, una declaración respaldada originalmente en 1985 por los presidentes Ronald Reagan y Mikhail Gorbachev y reiterada por los cinco países con los mayores arsenales nucleares en enero de 2022.

El exjefe del Comando Estratégico de EE. UU., el general John Hyten, describió en 2018 cómo el comando y control nuclear anual y el entrenamiento de campo del comando siempre terminan. “Termina mal”, dijo. “Y el mal significado de que termina con una guerra nuclear global”.

Sin embargo, tal reconocimiento entre los líderes no significa que no vaya a estallar una guerra nuclear. Después de todo, Putin ha demostrado que es un tomador de riesgos extremo.

Para reducir el riesgo de una guerra nuclear y establecer una fuerte distinción entre las amenazas nucleares irresponsables de Putin y el comportamiento de EE. UU., Biden debería ajustar la política declaratoria de EE. UU. aclarando que el único propósito de las armas nucleares es disuadir a otros de que las usen por primera vez. Una política de propósito único descartaría el uso de armas nucleares en un ataque preventivo o en respuesta a un ataque no nuclear contra los Estados Unidos o sus aliados, aumentaría la estabilidad estratégica y reduciría el riesgo de una guerra nuclear.

De hecho, durante la campaña presidencial de 2020, Biden escribió en Foreign Affairs: “Como dije en 2017, creo que el único propósito del arsenal nuclear de EE. UU. debería ser disuadir y, si es necesario, tomar represalias contra un ataque nuclear. Como presidente, trabajaré para poner en práctica esa creencia, en consulta con el ejército de los EE. UU. y los aliados de los EE. UU.

En última instancia, incluso las mejores intenciones de un lado no pueden garantizar que triunfen los intereses de todos para evitar el uso de armas nucleares. Por lo tanto, la única acción que realmente puede prevenir el uso de armas nucleares es la remoción de estas armas del campo de batalla y su eliminación verificable.

¿Cuáles serían los efectos de un estallido de guerra nuclear?

Más allá de los muchos peligros para los millones de personas inocentes atrapadas en la guerra elegida por Putin contra Ucrania, también existe un mayor riesgo de que la guerra pueda conducir a una escalada aún más grave, aunque involuntaria, en espiral que involucre a las fuerzas de la OTAN y Rusia, las cuales tienen armas nucleares a su disposición.

Los efectos indiscriminados y terribles del uso de armas nucleares están bien establecidos, razón por la cual la gran mayoría de las naciones del mundo consideran que las políticas que amenazan el uso nuclear son peligrosas, inmorales y legalmente injustificables y, en consecuencia, han desarrollado el Tratado sobre la prohibición de armas nucleares de 2017. Armas Nucleares (TPNW).

Si los líderes rusos o de la OTAN optan por usar armas nucleares primero en un conflicto en Europa, el resultado podría ser una rápida escalada de un desastre local a una guerra nuclear europea y luego a una catástrofe global. Millones, quizás decenas de millones, morirían en los primeros 45 minutos.

Un estudio detallado publicado en 2002 evaluó las consecuencias directas de un gran conflicto entre Estados Unidos y Rusia.

El estudio concluyó que si 350 de las ojivas nucleares estratégicas en el arsenal ruso alcanzaran objetivos industriales y militares importantes en los Estados Unidos, se estima que entre 70 y 100 millones de personas morirían en las primeras horas a causa de las explosiones y los incendios.

El presidente de EE. UU. podría tomar represalias rápidamente con hasta 1.350 armas nucleares en misiles y bombarderos de largo alcance y, en consulta con los aliados, otras 160 bombas de gravedad nuclear en cazabombarderos de corto alcance con base en cinco países de la OTAN en Europa.

Muchas más personas estarían expuestas a dosis letales de radiación. Se destruiría toda la infraestructura económica del país: Internet, la red eléctrica, el sistema de distribución de alimentos, el sistema de salud, el sistema bancario y la red de transporte.

En las siguientes semanas y meses, la gran mayoría de los que no murieron en el ataque inicial sucumbirían al hambre, la exposición, el envenenamiento por radiación y las enfermedades epidémicas. Un contraataque de EE. UU. causaría el mismo nivel de destrucción en Rusia, y si las fuerzas de la OTAN estuvieran involucradas en la guerra, Canadá y Europa también sufrirían un destino similar.

Estudios científicos más recientes indican que el polvo y el hollín producidos por un intercambio nuclear de 100 a 200 detonaciones crearían efectos climáticos duraderos y potencialmente catastróficos que devastarían la producción de alimentos y conducirían a la hambruna en muchas partes del mundo.

¿Cuáles son los tratados de control de armas pasados ​​y presentes que han limitado las armas nucleares estadounidenses y soviéticas/rusas? ¿Cuál es el estatus de esos tratados?

Durante la Guerra Fría y después, los acuerdos de control de armas ayudaron a ganar y mantener la paz.

Sin embargo, ha habido una creciente desconfianza entre Rusia y Occidente en los últimos años, lo que ha provocado y alimentado la pérdida de tratados fundamentales de control de armas nucleares y convencionales y/o reducción de riesgos por negligencia, incumplimiento o retiro total.

Algunos de estos tratados, que han actuado como barandillas para prevenir el estallido de guerras nucleares y convencionales catastróficas, incluyen:

  • El Tratado sobre Misiles Antibalísticos (ABM) de 1972, que fue diseñado para prevenir una carrera armamentista ofensiva-defensiva sin restricciones;
  • El Tratado sobre Fuerzas Nucleares de Alcance Intermedio (INF) de 1987, que redujo el peligro de una guerra nuclear en Europa al eliminar toda una clase de misiles;
  • El Tratado sobre Fuerzas Armadas Convencionales en Europa (FACE) de 1990, que fue diseñado para prevenir grandes acumulaciones de armas y fuerzas convencionales en el continente europeo; y
  • El Tratado de Cielos Abiertos de 1992, que brindó transparencia sobre las capacidades y movimientos militares.

En ausencia de estos acuerdos, la cooperación entre las partes se ha erosionado, ha aumentado la preocupación por las capacidades militares y se ha disparado el riesgo de errores de cálculo.

Cabe destacar también el Tratado de Prohibición Completa de los Ensayos Nucleares (CTBT) de 1996, que prohíbe las explosiones de pruebas nucleares y estableció una red global de monitoreo y verificación. El tratado tiene 185 signatarios, incluidos China, Rusia y Estados Unidos. Durante el transcurso de la era nuclear, al menos ocho estados llevaron a cabo más de 2000 explosiones de prueba de armas nucleares en la superficie, bajo tierra y bajo el agua. El Tratado de prohibición completa de los ensayos nucleares ha detenido de forma eficaz las explosiones de ensayos nucleares. Sin embargo, el tratado aún no está en vigor debido a que ocho estados no lo ratificaron, lo que deja entreabierta la puerta a las pruebas nucleares en el futuro.

Además, Estados Unidos y la Unión Soviética, y más tarde Rusia, negociaron una serie de tratados que limitaron y finalmente revirtieron la carrera de armamentos nucleares. Estos incluyeron:

  • El Tratado sobre la Limitación de Armas Estratégicas de 1972 (SALT I): aunque importante como el primer tratado de este tipo, sólo frenó el crecimiento de los arsenales nucleares de largo alcance de los dos países. Ignoró a los bombarderos estratégicos con armas nucleares y no limitó el número de ojivas, dejando a ambos lados libres para ampliar sus fuerzas mediante el despliegue de múltiples ojivas en sus misiles y aumentando sus fuerzas basadas en bombarderos.
  • El SALT II de 1979: este tratado nunca fue ratificado formalmente porque la Unión Soviética invadió Afganistán más tarde ese año, pero Reagan acordó respetar sus límites.
  • El Tratado de Reducción de Armas Estratégicas de 1991 (START I): este acuerdo, que expiró en diciembre de 2009, fue el primero en exigir a los Estados Unidos y la Unión Soviética que redujeran sus arsenales estratégicos desplegados y destruyeran los sistemas de entrega en exceso a través de una verificación intrusiva que involucraba en- inspecciones del sitio, el intercambio regular de información y el uso de medios técnicos nacionales (es decir, satélites). START I se retrasó varios años debido al colapso de la Unión Soviética y los esfuerzos subsiguientes para desnuclearizar Ucrania, Kazajstán y Bielorrusia al devolver sus armas nucleares a Rusia y convertirlos en estados sin armas nucleares en virtud del Tratado de No Proliferación Nuclear (TNP) de 1968. y partes de START I.
  • El START II de 1993: este tratado pedía más recortes en los arsenales estratégicos desplegados y prohibía el despliegue de misiles terrestres desestabilizadores de cabezas múltiples. Sin embargo, nunca entró en vigor debido a la retirada de Estados Unidos en 2002 del Tratado ABM.
  • Marco START III de 1997: este marco para un tercer START incluía una reducción de las ojivas estratégicas desplegadas a 2000-2500. Significativamente, además de requerir la destrucción de los vehículos de entrega, las negociaciones de START III debían abordar "la destrucción de ojivas nucleares estratégicas... para promover la irreversibilidad de las reducciones profundas, incluida la prevención de un rápido aumento en la cantidad de ojivas". Se suponía que las negociaciones comenzarían después de que START II entrara en vigor, lo que nunca sucedió.
  • El Tratado de Reducciones de Ofensivas Estratégicas de 2002 (SORT o Tratado de Moscú): Este tratado requería que Estados Unidos y Rusia redujeran sus arsenales estratégicos a 1.700-2.200 ojivas cada uno. Desafortunadamente, no incluía un régimen de verificación y monitoreo específico del tratado. SORT fue reemplazado por New START el 5 de febrero de 2011.
  • El Nuevo Tratado de Reducción de Armas Estratégicas de 2010 (Nuevo START): este acuerdo legalmente vinculante y verificable limita a cada parte a 1550 ojivas nucleares estratégicas desplegadas en 700 ICBM estratégicos, SLBM y bombarderos pesados ​​asignados a una misión nuclear. El tratado tiene un fuerte régimen de verificación. Estados Unidos y Rusia acordaron el 3 de febrero de 2021 extender el Nuevo START por cinco años, según lo permite el texto del tratado, hasta el 5 de febrero de 2026.

Como resultado de estos acuerdos, las reservas totales de los dos países se han reducido de sus picos a mediados de la década de 1980 en casi 70.000 armas nucleares a alrededor de 10.000 armas nucleares estadounidenses y rusas en la actualidad. Además, ya no vivimos en un mundo en el que los estados con armas nucleares están detonando explosiones de prueba nucleares para perfeccionar tipos nuevos y más mortíferos de armas nucleares.

Sin embargo, Estados Unidos y Rusia todavía poseen muchas más armas nucleares de las necesarias para destruirse mutuamente muchas veces y más que suficientes para disuadir un ataque nuclear del otro.

En consecuencia, Estados Unidos y Rusia deberían reducir aún más sus reservas nucleares y trabajar para involucrar a otros países con armas nucleares en el proceso y eventualmente en los acuerdos. En 2013, por ejemplo, la administración Obama descubrió que Estados Unidos podía reducir aún más su arsenal nuclear desplegado a unas 1000 sin sacrificar la seguridad de Estados Unidos o de sus aliados.

A menos que Washington y Moscú reanuden las conversaciones para llegar a un nuevo acuerdo que reemplace el Nuevo START antes de su vencimiento, no habrá límites para los dos arsenales nucleares más grandes del mundo por primera vez desde 1972, y corremos el riesgo de una carrera armamentista nuclear total una vez más.

Es cierto, sin embargo, que la guerra destructiva e indefendible de Putin contra Ucrania hará que esa tarea sea mucho más difícil.

¿Cómo deberían responder Estados Unidos y la OTAN a la amenaza de Putin y minimizar el riesgo de un estallido de guerra nuclear?

El peligro de error de cálculo y escalada, incluso al nivel nuclear, entre los adversarios es real y alto.

Aunque Rusia aún tiene que ubicar fuerzas militares a lo largo de la frontera entre Ucrania y Polonia, por ejemplo, existe la posibilidad de que las fuerzas rusas y de la OTAN se enfrenten militarmente, lo que provocaría que la situación se descontrolara rápidamente.

También existe la posibilidad de encuentros militares cercanos en otros lugares que involucren aviones, buques de guerra y submarinos de EE. UU./OTAN y Rusia.

En los días, semanas y meses venideros, los líderes en Moscú, Washington y Europa, así como los comandantes militares en el campo, deben tener cuidado de evitar despliegues militares nuevos y desestabilizadores, encuentros peligrosos entre las fuerzas rusas y de la OTAN y la introducción de nuevos tipos de armas convencionales o nucleares que socavan los intereses de seguridad compartidos.

Por ejemplo, la oferta del estado cliente de Rusia, Bielorrusia, de albergar armas nucleares tácticas rusas, si Putin la persigue, socavaría aún más la seguridad rusa y europea y aumentaría el riesgo de una guerra nuclear. Desafortunadamente, Bielorrusia votó el 27 de febrero en un referéndum para abandonar su condición de estado no nuclear.

¿Cómo pueden Estados Unidos y Rusia volver a encarrilar los esfuerzos de reducción de armas nucleares?

Debido a la invasión de Ucrania por parte de Rusia, el régimen de Putin deberá enfrentar las consecuencias y sufrir el aislamiento internacional impuesto a través de un frente fuerte y unificado.

Por el momento, este aislamiento incluye la suspensión del diálogo de estabilidad estratégica bilateral entre Estados Unidos y Rusia, que Biden y Putin reanudaron en junio de 2021 y convocaron por última vez a principios de enero de 2022.

La subsecretaria de Estado, Wendy Sherman, confirmó el 26 de febrero que Washington no continuará con el diálogo en las circunstancias actuales y dijo que “no ve razón” para hacerlo. El día anterior, el portavoz del Departamento de Estado, Ned Price, dijo que si bien “el control de armas es algo que seguirá siendo de nuestro interés para la seguridad nacional… no tenemos planeada otra iteración del Diálogo de Estabilidad Estratégica”.

Eventualmente, sin embargo, los líderes de EE. UU. y Rusia deben buscar reanudar las conversaciones a través de su diálogo de seguridad estratégica bilateral para evitar tensiones aún mayores entre la OTAN y Rusia y mantener medidas de control de armas y reducción de riesgos de sentido común.

La propuesta rusa sobre garantías de seguridad de diciembre de 2021 y la contrapropuesta de EE. UU. (así como la OTAN) de enero de 2022 contienen áreas de superposición, lo que demuestra que hay espacio para negociaciones para resolver preocupaciones de seguridad mutua. Las áreas más prometedoras están relacionadas con la elaboración de un nuevo acuerdo similar al ya desaparecido Tratado INF; negociar una continuación del Nuevo START; acordar reducir los grandes ejercicios militares; y establecer medidas de reducción de riesgos y transparencia, como líneas telefónicas de atención.

Washington debe probar si Moscú se toma en serio tales opciones y, si es posible, reiniciar el diálogo de estabilidad estratégica, y debe intentar hacerlo antes de que el Nuevo START expire a principios de 2026, de lo contrario, el próximo enfrentamiento será aún más riesgoso.

A la larga, los líderes estadounidenses, rusos y europeos —y su pueblo— no pueden perder de vista el hecho de que la guerra y la amenaza de una guerra nuclear son enemigos comunes. Rusia y Occidente tienen un interés compartido en llegar a acuerdos que reduzcan aún más las fuerzas nucleares estratégicas infladas, regulen los arsenales nucleares de "campo de batalla" de corto alcance y establezcan límites en las defensas de misiles de largo alcance.

¿Ucrania debería haber mantenido sus armas nucleares que heredó de la Unión Soviética? ¿Ucrania buscará tener armas nucleares una vez más?

La invasión de Crimea por parte de Putin en 2014 y la invasión actual violan el Memorando de Budapest de 1994 sobre garantías de seguridad.

En 1994, Estados Unidos, Rusia y el Reino Unido firmaron este importante acuerdo, que amplió las garantías de seguridad contra la amenaza o el uso de la fuerza contra el territorio de Ucrania o su independencia política. A cambio, la recién independizada Ucrania se adhirió al Tratado de No Proliferación Nuclear (TNP) de 1968 como un estado sin armas nucleares y renunció a las 1.900 ojivas nucleares que heredó de la Unión Soviética.

Ucrania no tenía el control operativo de esas armas nucleares y no podía haberlas mantenido en condiciones de seguridad. Cualquier intento de Kiev de mantener estas armas nucleares solo habría resultado en un mayor peligro para Ucrania, Europa y el mundo.

Los argumentos de que una Ucrania con armas nucleares sería más segura hoy en día son falacias, al igual que cualquier afirmación de que Kiev busca construir u obtener armas nucleares. Las armas nucleares no hacen que nadie esté más seguro y, en cambio, representan una amenaza existencial para todos nosotros.

La toma de Crimea por parte de Putin en 2014 y esta nueva invasión masiva en 2022 sirven para socavar el TNP y reforzar la desafortunada impresión de que los estados con armas nucleares pueden intimidar a los estados no nucleares, reduciendo así los incentivos para el desarme nuclear y haciendo que sea más difícil de prevenir una proliferación nuclear.


Si bien el régimen de Putin debe sufrir el aislamiento internacional ahora, los líderes de EE. UU. y Rusia deben buscar eventualmente reanudar las conversaciones a través de su estancado diálogo de seguridad estratégica para calmar las tensiones más amplias entre la OTAN y Rusia y mantener medidas de control de armas de sentido común para evitar una carrera armamentista total.

Country Resources:

The Logic of Restoring Compliance with the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal



Volume 14, Issue 2, Feb. 16, 2022

Six years and a month ago, Jan. 16, 2016, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) went into effect. The JCPOA, which was concluded in July 2015 after years of intensive negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), verifiably blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and provided incentives for Tehran to maintain an exclusively peaceful nuclear program.

Taken together, the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions dramatically rolled back Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and blocked its route to nuclear weapons using plutonium. It put in place an unprecedented multi-layered international monitoring regime that keeps every element of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle under surveillance. The combination of restrictions and limits extended to at least one year the time it would take for Iran to amass a significant quantity of bomb-grade enriched uranium to fuel one bomb. The point was to ensure that if Iran decided to cheat, the international community would have enough time to detect it and take remedial action.

The relief from nuclear-related sanctions that Iran received in return for adhering to the nuclear restrictions and nonproliferation commitments were a strong incentive for Tehran to follow through on its obligations. Iran was complying with the JCPOA until the administration of former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed and widened U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Trump’s exit from the JCPOA and his campaign to increase sanctions pressure on Iran ostensibly was intended to achieve a “better” or “more comprehensive deal.” Tragically, it not only failed to produce the promised results; it also opened the way for Iran to take steps beginning in 2019 to exceed the JCPOA’s nuclear limits and accelerate its capacity to produce bomb-grade nuclear material.

As a result of Trump’s policies, it is estimated that the time it would take Iran to produce a significant quantity (25 kg) of bomb-grade uranium (enriched to 90 percent U-235) is down from more than a year under the JCPOA, to approximately 60 days or less today.

Unless U.S., European, Russian, and Chinese negotiators can broker a deal to restore Iranian and U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, Tehran’s capacity to produce bomb-grade nuclear material will grow even further.

Unfortunately, some in Congress are threatening to try to block President Joe Biden and European allies from implementing the steps necessary to bring Iran back under the nuclear limits set by the JCPOA. If these opponents succeed, it is possible, and maybe even probable, that Iran would become a threshold nuclear-weapon state.

A prompt return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA is the best way to deny Iran the ability to quickly produce bomb-grade nuclear material. It would reinstate full international monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear facilities, thus ensuring early warning if Iran were to try to acquire nuclear weapons—and become the second state in the Middle East (in addition to Israel) with such an arsenal.

Trump’s Disastrous Policy Experiment

Trump campaigned against the JCPOA in 2016 and abruptly withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 on the mistaken belief that if the United States rejected the agreement and increased sanctions pressure on Iran, it could coerce leaders in Tehran to renegotiate a “better deal.”

Two weeks after Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s  (IAEA) quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program found that Iran was implementing its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.

In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised to "apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime," work with allies to deter Iranian aggression, and pursue a new deal based on 12 demands. These included requirements that Iran stop all uranium enrichment, end the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the development of nuclear-capable missile systems, and allow the IAEA to have "unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country."

Four years later, it is clear that Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA in an attempt to coerce Iranian leaders into a new deal that was more comprehensive and more favorable to the United States was an abject failure.

Iranian leaders, not surprisingly, refused to renegotiate the JCPOA. Worse still, Trump’s policy experiment isolated the United States from its European allies and opened the door for Iran to increase its capacity to enrich uranium.

In 2019, Iranian leaders began taking steps to improve the country’s nuclear capacity in violation of key limits set by the JCPOA. Among these were the accumulation of significant stockpiles of 20 percent and 60 percent enriched uranium-235, the deployment of significant numbers of advanced centrifuges, and the execution of some experiments, such as with uranium metal, that are relevant to weapons production. By 2020, Iran also began to impede the IAEA access necessary to monitor some of its sensitive nuclear activities.

Based on U.S. intelligence assessments, senior Biden administration officials are now warning that Iran could soon reach a “nuclear breakout” threshold, meaning that it could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb in a matter of a weeks. At that point, Iran would need still to master several additional, complicated steps to build a deliverable nuclear arsenal that would likely take an additional year or more to complete. Nevertheless, Iran effectively would become a nuclear-weapon threshold state.

As Tamir Pardo, former director of the Israeli Mossad from 2011-2016, described Trump’s decision to exit the JCPOA at a Nov. 23, 2021, conference at Reichman University in Tel Aviv: “What happened in 2018 was a tragedy. It was an unforgivable strategy, the fact that Israel pushed the United States to withdraw from the [Iran nuclear] agreement 10 years too early. It was a strategic mistake.”

Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy said in a speech in the Senate Feb. 9: “… to the extent there was any silver lining of President Trump's decision [to exit the JCPOA], it's that it allowed us for four years to test the theory of the opponents, the theory of the critics … of the JCPOA.”

“It was a spectacular failure. It was a spectacular failure in multiple respects,” Murphy said.

Last Best Chance to Block Iran’s Path to a Bomb

Biden has vowed to try to repair the damage from Trump’s disastrous decision to exit the JCPOA. During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Now, after nearly a year of on-and-off indirect multilateral negotiations to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, the parties may be nearing a win-win solution. According to senior U.S. officials, the United States and Iran "are in the ballpark of a possible deal" to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Other diplomats involved in the talks are also sounding more positive. “My assessment: we can finalize the exercise by the end of February, maybe earlier if nothing unexpected happens,” Russian negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov was reported to have said Feb. 11.

An agreement on an understanding to restore mutual compliance with the original terms of the JCPOA represents the most effective way to block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. Under a restored deal, Iran would have to down blend and ship abroad the vast bulk of its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent and 60 percent of U-235, dismantle most of its more advanced centrifuge machines, and limit the stockpile of enriched uranium to no more than 300 kilograms enriched to 3.67 percent U-235 until 2031, among other measures.

A return to mutual compliance with the original 2015 deal would reestablish long-term, verifiable restrictions on Iran's sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities; many of the restrictions are scheduled to last for 10 years (until 2026), some for 15 years (until 2031), and some for 25 years or longer.

As importantly, the agreement would fully restore the layered international monitoring regime, including robust IAEA inspections under Iran's additional protocol to its comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement. This will ensure that international inspectors have access indefinitely to any Iranian facility that raises a proliferation concern, including military sites. Under the JCPOA, Iran is required to provide early notification of design changes or new nuclear projects by Iran. (For a detailed assessment, see the August 2015 Arms Control Association report Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.)

Summary of Nuclear-Related Commitments and Limitations of the JCPOA

A return to full compliance with the JCPOA would also provide a basis for further negotiations on a long-term framework to address Iran’s nuclear program and create space to engage Iran on other areas of concern, such as regional tensions and its ballistic missile program.

Most of Iran’s violations of the JCPOA are reversible and could be undone within a few months. However, some escalatory breaches--research and development, the operation of advanced centrifuge cascades, experiments with uranium metal--have resulted in Iran’s acquisition of new knowledge and expertise that cannot be reversed.

Consequently, if, under a restored JCPOA, Iran ever decides in the future to “breakout” and try to amass a significant quantity of fissile material for a nuclear weapon, it may take less than the 12-plus month timeline that existed in January 2016 when the deal was formally implemented.

The new “breakout” time would likely be between six months and somewhat less than 12 months, which is still far more than it will be if an understanding to restore compliance is not achieved.

As a result, a restored JCPOA would provide more than enough time to respond to an overt Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons. And with the intrusive IAEA monitoring and inspection regime mandated by the 2015 deal, Iran’s ability to attempt a covert dash for nuclear weapons would also be very limited and run a high risk of being detected.

In other words, a restored JCPOA would ensure months of warning if Iran ever decided to try to amass enough bomb-grade material for just one device; without the JCPOA, there likely would be no such warning time.

For these reasons and more, it is in the interests of the United States and the international community to achieve a prompt return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director


The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) verifiably blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and provided incentives for Tehran to maintain an exclusively peaceful nuclear program.

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

U.S., Russia Must Elevate Action on Arms Control in Strategic Stability Dialogue



Volume 14, Issue 1, Jan. 13, 2022

As U.S. and Russian diplomats engage in a high-stakes negotiation on a broad range of challenging European security and nuclear arms control issues, it is in the interest of both sides to ensure that progress on new nuclear arms control arrangements does not fall victim to deep, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences over NATO’s relationship with Russia and the delays on the implementation of the Minsk II agreement, which was designed to avoid further conflict over Ukraine.

It has been nearly a year since U.S President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the only remaining treaty limiting their massive nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits each side to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery platforms.

It has been more than six months since Biden and Putin agreed in June 2021 to restart a Strategic Stability Dialogue (SSD) in order “to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”

Since then, too little progress has been achieved to negotiate a new agreement or agreements before New START expires in early 2026.

On Monday, Washington and Moscow concluded the third round of the bilateral strategic stability dialogue, which was focused on Russia’s new and broader package of proposals on mutual security guarantees. The initial two rounds of the SSD were held in July and September 2021.

Russia’s decision to inject additional demands on “security guarantees” has, unfortunately, further complicated the equation. As we and other U.S., Russian and European experts have suggested, the two sides can and need to develop new understandings on four sets of nuclear arms control issues through this process:

  • deeper verifiable cuts in the bloated U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals,
  • achieving new understandings designed to limit and account for Russian and U.S. non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons,
  • new measures to prohibit or limit the reintroduction of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and
  • new understandings on how to limit strategic missile defense capabilities.

On Jan. 10, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman noted, correctly, that “these kinds of arms control negotiations – as President Putin himself has said – don’t happen in just a day or even a week. They’re generally quite complex, very technical, and take some time. But we’re certainly ready to move as expeditiously as one possibly can in these circumstances.”

Concluding durable, new arrangements to supersede New START will ensure there are verifiable limits on the massive and deadly U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, which are critical to U.S. and Russian national, as well as for international, peace and security. Without such guardrails, U.S.-Russian relations will become even more dangerous.

We call on the two sides to redouble their efforts to keep their nuclear disarmament discussions moving forward so new, follow-on nuclear disarmament agreements can be concluded no later than 2025, and preferably sooner.

INF Missile Restriction Options

While some Kremlin demands, including Putin’s call for legally-binding assurances regarding NATO expansion, may reflect serious Russian concerns, they are non-starters. On the other hand, some other Russian proposals on arms control challenges are quite serious and deserve a substantive response from the United States.

For instance, Russia has reiterated its concept for a moratorium on U.S. and Russian deployment of missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Putin first proposed in 2019 and expanded in 2020 to include mutual verification measures.

Russia’s INF missile proposal needs further work, but it can serve as a starting point for negotiations on a deal with the United States that can help avert a new Euromissile race.

It is incumbent upon the Biden administration, in coordination with NATO, to put forward a constructive counterproposal regarding an INF-range missile moratorium.

One approach would be for U.S./NATO leaders to pledge not to field any INF Treaty-prohibited missiles in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy treaty-prohibited systems where they could hit NATO territory.

Other options that might be considered include agreeing to a verifiable ban on all nuclear-armed ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles of intermediate range (500-5,500 km) or a prohibition on ground-launched ballistic missiles of intermediate range. This would require a return to an INF Treaty-like verification system and would require Russia to move or destroy its currently deployed 9M729 missiles, which violated the terms of the original INF Treaty.

The U.S. and Russian presidents could codify these INF missile restrictions through an executive agreement. Progress on this issue could build momentum in other areas of nuclear arms control and improve the climate for talks broader security matters.

On Jan. 3, the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom issued a rare joint statement reiterating the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Now, the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals can start to put these words into action by empowering their negotiators to reach new agreements that sharply reduce nuclear risks and the number of nuclear weapons. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst, and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director


It is in the interest of both the United States and Russia to ensure that progress on new nuclear arms control arrangements does not fall victim to deep, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences. 

Country Resources:

Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget



Volume 13, Issue 4, July 9, 2021

As the Biden administration prepares to initiate a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, its first budget request proposes to continue every part of the unnecessary and unsustainable nuclear weapons spending plans it inherited from the Trump administration. This includes the controversial additions made by President Trump to the Obama-era program, such as additional, more usable lower-yield nuclear capabilities.

The budget submission is a disappointing and unfortunate missed opportunity to put the plans on a more stable and cost-effective footing. The request is also inconsistent with President Biden’s stated desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and seek new risk reduction and arms control arrangements with Russia and perhaps China.

During the campaign, President Biden rightly said 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.”

Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current modernization plan are rising fast amid a flat defense fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget request and the potential for no growth beyond inflation budgets over the next several years.

According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office assessment of the cost of nuclear forces published in late May, the United States as of the end of the Trump administration is planning to spend $634 billion over the next decade to sustain and modernize the arsenal. This is an increase of $140 billion, or 28%, from the previous 10-year projection just two years ago.

The Biden administration maintains that its budget request ensures that the nuclear modernization effort is “sustainable.” But the warning signs indicating that the plans cannot be achieved on budget or on schedule are everywhere. And they are increasingly flashing bright red. It is not at all clear that the Biden administration fully appreciates the magnitude of the challenge it is facing.

Whether the budget proposal turns out to be a placeholder pending the outcome of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that may lead to adjustments of the current program of record, or a harbinger that Biden intends to stick with the Trump administration’s more expansive nuclear plans remains to be seen.

Regardless, sticking with the Trump plans for another year could make it harder to adjust course later. The Biden administration could – and should – have paused some of the most controversial modernization efforts pending the outcome of its NPR.

In keeping with President Biden’s views, the administration’s forthcoming NPR should pursue a nuclear posture that is more stabilizing, supports the pursuit of additional nuclear risk reduction and arms control measures, and frees up taxpayer dollars for higher priority national and health security needs.

The Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request

The Obama administration committed to an overhaul of nearly the entire nuclear arsenal in 2010 as part of its effort to win Republican support in the Senate for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). At the time, the effort was estimated to cost approximately $200 billion over the ensuing ten years.

What the Obama administration kickstarted, the Trump administration continued and expanded in the name of countering Russian and Chinese nuclear advancements and more aggressive behavior. Spending on nuclear weapons grew significantly over the past four years, due in part to cost overruns in programs that began under the Obama administration and new nuclear capabilities proposed by the Trump administration. 

Now, the Biden administration is requesting $43.2 billion in fiscal year 2022 for the Defense and Energy Departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure. That includes $27.7 billion for the Pentagon and $15.5 billion for the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The proposed spending on nuclear weapons constitutes about 5.7% of the total national defense request of $753 billion.

A straight “apples to apples” comparison of the Biden submission to what Trump requested and Congress largely supported in fiscal year 2021 – $44.5 billion – and what Trump projected to request for FY 2022 – $45.9 billion – is difficult because the Biden proposal appears to reclassify how spending on nuclear command, control, and communications programs is counted, leading to a lower requested amount.

Based on the CBO’s estimates, continuing with the Trump administration’s plans would consume as much as 9% of the Biden administration’s plans for total national defense spending over the next decade. In the latter years of the decade, spending on nuclear weapons could exceed 10% of the military budget. 

The budget request would notably continue the Trump proposals to expand U.S. nuclear capabilities. The additions and their requested funding amounts include:

  • $15 million for early development of a new low-yield nuclear sea-launched cruise missile;
  • nearly $134 million for continued early development of a new high yield submarine launched ballistic missile warhead (the W93) and associated aeroshell;
  • $98.5 million to sustain the B83-1, the only remaining megaton class warhead in the arsenal, including to begin alterations to extend its service life; and
  • nearly $1.9 billion to build the capability to produce at least 80 plutonium pits – or cores – for nuclear warheads per year at two sites.

The requests for the W93, B83-1, and pit production are all very similar to the Trump administration’s projected funding levels in fiscal year 2022. It is not clear what the Trump administration would have proposed for the new sea-launched cruise missile.

As with most new administrations, the Biden administration only had time for a quick review of the fiscal year 2022 budget plans bequeathed by its predecessor. However, the Pentagon did review some nuclear weapons systems, notably the Trump plans for a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.

The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. The new cruise missile is undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapon. The CBO estimates the cost of the missile at $10 billion over the next decade.

The future of the new cruise missile appears to be a low priority for the Navy and rightly so given it is a redundant and costly hedge on a hedge. Despite the inclusion of funding for the weapon in the budget request, preliminary budget guidance issued by acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker on June 4 called on the service not to fund the weapon in fiscal year 2023.

Triad Budget Request Grows Beyond Projections

In addition to continuing with the Trump add-ons, the budget request would also sustain – and then some – plans that began during the Obama administration to replace long-range delivery systems for all three legs of the nuclear triad.

In fact, three legacy programs – the long-range standoff missile (LRSO) to buy a new fleet of air-launched cruise missiles, the Columbia class to buy a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and the ground based strategic deterrent (GBSD) to buy a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – are slated to receive a combined nearly 15% increase above what the Trump administration was planning to request. 

The LRSO would receive $250 million more in FY 2022 than the Trump administration was planning to seek. The Air Force has not explained the rationale for this large increase. The service accelerated the program last year following the decision to proceed with a single contractor for the weapon. (The Air Force awarded the development contract to Raytheon on July 1.)

The only major delivery system program that would receive a decrease below what was projected by Trump is the program to further life extend the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile in the wake of a Congressional cut to the program in FY 2021.

The Columbia-class, GBSD, and B-21 long-range bomber programs are each poised cost between $100-$150 billion after including the effects of inflation and likely cost overruns, easily putting them among the top 10 most expensive Pentagon acquisition programs.

NNSA Budget Is Flat But Remains High

While most of the debate about how to approach nuclear modernization focuses on the Pentagon and the delivery systems, the exploding price tag of the NNSA’s modernization plans continues to fly under the radar. Spending on NNSA weapons activities grew by nearly 70% during the Trump administration. 

The administration’s request of about $15.5 billion for nuclear weapons activities at the NNSA is an increase of about $139 million above the fiscal year 2021 level, but a decrease of $460 million below the Trump projection of $15.9 billion for fiscal year 2022.

In addition to funding the new warhead and facility projects proposed by the Trump administration, the request also keeps on track the Trump plans for the B61-12 gravity bomb, W87-1 ICBM warhead, and W80-4 air-launched cruise missile warhead upgrade programs. In order to prioritize warhead life extension programs and pit production recapitalization, the agency is proposing to reduce funding for stockpile research, technology, and engineering activities as well as efforts to replace aging infrastructure. 

The topline NNSA weapons request is the first decrease from a prior year request since fiscal year 2013 and from a prior year projection since fiscal year 2016 – though from a much bigger baseline. Last year, Congress provided approximately $15.4 billion, a mammoth increase of $2.9 billion above the FY 2020 appropriation. A mere two years ago, the FY 2020 budget request projected a FY 2022 request of $13 billion for weapons activities. Or $2.5 billion less than the actual FY 2022 request.

The reality is that the scope of the NNSA nuclear weapons modernization effort has been overloaded to such a degree that it cannot be executed in the absence of sustained significant growth above inflation over the next several years. And even then, such increases might not be enough to meet the aggressive schedule goals for many of the agency’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure replacement efforts.

For example, the budget request revealed that the estimated cost of a facility at the Savannah River Site intended to produce 50 plutonium pits per year pursuant to the current 80 pit annual goal has risen from up to $4.6 billion – a figure which the Trump administration’s plutonium strategy was based on – to up to $11.1 billion, which is a 141% increase. The agency has also said that completion of the project will be delayed by up to five years. To make matters worse, the design for the facility is only 30% complete.

In sum, the Biden administration has ignored these budget realities in its latest budget request for NNSA weapons activities. It acceded to the Trump baseline, but at a lower level than planned and without changing the scope of the modernization effort. Given the rampaging cost of the agency’s plans, the administration won’t be able to punt again in FY 2023 and beyond. It will need to either produce significant additional budget increases for weapons activities or reduce the ambition of the modernization plans.

Mounting Execution Challenges and Opportunity Costs

While supporters of the status quo on nuclear modernization continue to argue that the effort is affordable and achievable, the facts tell a different story. In the past year alone:

  • The projected 25-year cost of the NNSA’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure sustainment and modernization plans rose from $392 billion to $505 billion. On top of that, as noted above, the projected cost to build the pit production facility at Savannah River rose from up to up $4.6 billion to up to $11.1 billion, and the start date has been delayed by two to five years.
  • The projected GBSD program acquisition cost rose from $85 billion to $95.8 billion.
  • The FY 2022 budget request for the Columbia and LRSO programs is a combined $1 billion more than Trump planned as of last year.
  • The Government Accountability Office concluded that “every nuclear triad replacement program...and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays.”

The CBO report published in May showed that the projected cost of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans grew by a whopping $62 billion (or 29%) during the six common years (FY 2021-FY 2026) covered by their estimate as of the end of the Obama administration. And there appears to be no end in sight to the growth.

The rising cost of the nuclear weapons mission continues to force hard choices for the Pentagon as to what other priorities must be cut back. For example, Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the Navy’s budget director, told reporters on May 28 that the service’s decision to only buy one instead of two new destroyers “was absolutely an affordability question, where the goal of the department was to balance the first priority, which was investment in Columbia recapitalization.” For the second year in a row, members of Congress have strongly criticized the Navy’s shipbuilding budget proposal as inadequate.

In addition, the Pentagon is once again proposing to slash funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which supports global efforts to detect and secure dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus. The budget request for the program is clearly inconsistent with one of President Bidens’s top priorities, combatting the pandemic, as well as his call for augmenting nuclear material and global health security.

Recommendations for the Nuclear Posture Review

The Biden administration must keep these execution challenges and growing opportunity costs in mind as it conducts its NPR this year. Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

But planned spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.

It is imperative that the White House provide clear direction to the Pentagon to produce real options for decision by President Biden consistent with his goal of reducing the role of and spending on nuclear weapons and seeking new arms control arrangements. These options must include the posture and budget implications of more cost-effective alternatives to the current program of record, which would be in keeping with the administration’s desire to adopt a more integrated approach to deterring adversaries.

Examples of such options include reducing the size of the deployed strategic nuclear arsenal below the New START limits, deferring and/or adjusting the scope and pace of the GBSD program, and scaling back plans at the NNSA to build newly-designed ICBM and SLBM warheads and produce at least 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.

Reshaping the spending plans consistent with such adjustments could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Moreover, the longer it takes to begin the NPR, which has yet to formally start, the greater the danger that the administration could miss the window to include any potential changes to the current modernization plans in the FY 2023 budget request. Biden administration officials have stated that certain decisions about force structure and modernization will be accelerated during the review process to inform the next budget submission, as past NPR’s have typically taken about a year to complete. But the window will only be open for so long.

The Biden administration missed an opportunity in its first budget request to begin building back a better nuclear strategy. It can’t afford to waste another opportunity to do so. Continuing along the current course is a recipe for a major budget collision that would weaken American security.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research associate


As the Biden administration prepares to initiate a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, its first budget request proposes to continue every part of the unnecessary and unsustainable nuclear weapons spending plans it inherited from the Trump administration.

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Responses to Common Criticisms of Adjusting U.S. Nuclear Modernization Plans



Volume 13, Issue 3, May 18, 2021

With the Biden administration set to release its fiscal year 2022 budget request May 27 and conduct a more comprehensive review of nuclear policy later this year, the debate about how the United States should approach nuclear modernization has reached a fever pitch.

The nation is planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to maintain and upgrade nearly its entire nuclear arsenal. This explosion of spending comes at a time when a devastating global pandemic has redefined how many Americans think about security, China’s growing role on the global stage poses multifaceted challenges, and most experts believe that the U.S. defense budget will remain flat over the next several years.

While the Trump administration expanded the role of and spending on the arsenal and turned its back on arms control as a national security tool, the Biden administration in its interim national security strategic guidance released in March said that it “will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

The Biden administration smartly and quickly agreed with Russia to a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) without conditions and pledged to “pursue new arms control arrangements.”

But there is more work to do. Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast.

The Biden administration’s topline discretionary budget request released in April said that “While the Administration is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture, the discretionary request supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable.” But there are several modernization efforts that do not meet the “sustainable” criterion.

The administration can and should move the United States toward a nuclear strategy that will continue to ensure an effective nuclear deterrent, reflects a narrower role for nuclear weapons, raises the nuclear threshold, is more affordable, and supports the pursuit of additional arms control and reduction measures designed to enhance stability and reduce the chance of nuclear conflict.

Below are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 

Claim: Nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much.

Response: The reality is that the financial cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is growing increasingly punishing. President Trump’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons was a 19 percent increase over the previous year.

Though the sunk costs to date have been relatively minimal, spending on nuclear weapons is slated to increase dramatically in the coming years. In contrast, the topline national defense budget will likely be flat at best. (The Biden administration’s FY 2022 defense topline request does not keep pace with inflation.) Nearly the entire arsenal is slated for an upgrade and/or replacement at roughly the same time, and the bulk of the modernization portion of the cost will occur over the next 10 to 15 years.

One oft-heard claim in support of the status quo is that even at its peak in the late-2020s, spending on nuclear weapons is affordable because it will only consume roughly 6.4 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this figure is misleading for several reasons. The estimate, which was prepared to inform the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, is now nearly 4 years old. The projection also does not include spending on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous Energy Department agency whose nuclear weapons activities are part of the national defense budget. Since the end of the Obama administration, NNSA weapons activities spending has grown by roughly 70 percent. When NNSA spending is included, nuclear weapons already accounted for 6 percent of the total FY 2021 national defense budget request.

Program cost overruns and likely schedule delays are poised to exacerbate the financial challenge. Last year, the NNSA requested an unplanned increase of $2.8 billion relative to earlier planning. The agency’s 25-year plan published in December showed that projected spending on nuclear weapons activities has risen to $505 billion. That is a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

The scope and schedule goals for the nuclear modernization effort are highly aggressive and face major execution problems. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published in May, “every nuclear triad replacement program—including the B21, LRSO, GBSD, and Columbia class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and” Defense and Energy Department “wide risk factors.” Extending the schedule for these programs will increase their cost.

The growing price tag of the nuclear mission is coinciding with Pentagon plans to recapitalize large portions of the nation’s conventional force. The last time the United States simultaneously modernized its conventional and nuclear forces in the 1980s, it did so alongside an increasing defense budget, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work recently noted. “With such increases, the Pentagon did not have to trade conventional capability for nuclear forces,” Work points out, but “unless something changes, that will not be the case this time.”

Indeed, in order accommodate the multi-billion dollar unplanned budget increase in FY 2021 for the NNSA, the Navy was forced to cut a second Virginia-class attack submarine from its budget submission. Congress ultimately added the second Virginia back to the budget, but the episode illustrates the significant threat that spending nuclear weapons spending poses to other national security and military priorities.

As the cost of nuclear weapons continues to rise, the choices that are made about what not to fund to pay for them are going to get more difficult, especially amid a flat defense budget. And the longer the government waits to make those hard choices, the more suboptimal they are going to get.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear force structure and modernization plans in the face of growing Russian and Chinese nuclear threats would be unwise.

Response: The Biden administration is undoubtedly inheriting a less hospitable security environment than what existed when President Obama left office in 2016. On the nuclear front, Russia and China are modernizing their arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

But this does not mean the United States should follow suit – or maintain a nuclear arsenal in excess to what is needed for deterrence.

China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal has grown only modestly over the past decade. While the Defense Department projects that China may at least double its arsenal over the next decade, it estimates Beijing’s current arsenal to be in the low-200s. Should China’s nuclear stockpile double, it would still be many times smaller than the current U.S. stockpile of about 3,800 warheads. Relative to the many challenges China poses to the United States and its allies, the Chinese nuclear challenge is not among the most pressing.

With respect to Russia, in 2013, the Obama administration determined the security of the United States and its allies could be maintained while pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons below the level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems as stipulated by New START.

The case for a one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces remains strong. The size of the Russian strategic nuclear force has not changed since then and remains lower than that of the United States. What nefarious opportunities would Moscow be able to exploit in the face of a U.S. nuclear arsenal by 2030 consisting of, for example: 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads on 10 ballistic missile submarines, 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and at least 60 long-range bombers; two low-yield warhead delivery options; and 1,500-2,000 warheads in reserve?

The Biden administration should seek to make further reductions in the U.S. arsenal in concert with Russia, as well as bring China off the arms control sidelines. But it should not give Moscow or Beijing veto power over U.S. force adjustments as further reductions will not compromise U.S. national security. Decisions about force needs must take into account the long-term funding challenges posed by maintaining the U.S. arsenal at its current size and consider the opportunity costs.

After all, planned U.S. spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.

As Adm. Philip Davidson, the former head of Indo-Pacific Command, put it earlier this year: “The greatest danger to the future of the United States continues to be an erosion of conventional deterrence.” How does cutting attack submarines to pay for cost overruns at the NNSA address this greatest danger? How does replacing conventional sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines with a planned fleet of new nuclear cruise missiles address this greatest danger?

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans won’t save money.

Response: Supporters of the current modernization approach claim that the only choice is to proceed full steam ahead with the status quo or allow the U.S. nuclear arsenal to rust into obsolescence. This is a false choice. Adjusting long-standing and more recently adopted nuclear planning assumptions would enable changes to the current nuclear modernization effort and could produce scores of billions of dollars in savings to redirect to higher priority national security needs.

Of course, pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending, as a significant portion of the overall cost of nuclear weapons remains fixed. That said, changes to the nuclear replacement program could make it easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise.

For example, reshaping the spending plans consistent with an up to one-third reduction in deployed nuclear warheads could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Claim: The Minuteman III missile system can’t be life extended again.

Response: ICBMs are the least valuable, least essential, and least stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. What the nation invests to sustain ICBMs should reflect this reality. Spending approximately $100 billion to buy a new ICBM system over the next 10-15 years and billions more on an upgraded ICBM warhead and the production of plutonium pits for the warhead fails to reflect the limited utility of ICBMs.

The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs across five states. Supporters argue that the ICBM force presents an attacker with hundreds of targets on the U.S. homeland and is a hedge against a potential future vulnerability in the sea-based leg of the triad. However, even if one supports these arguments, there are cheaper options than going forward with the ICBM replacement program, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.

Past independent assessments indicate that it is possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III missiles beyond their planned retirement in the 2030 timeframe, as the Defense Department has done before, by refurbishing the rocket motors and other parts.

In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that deferring the new missile portion of GBSD by two decades, extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles, and proceeding with refurbishment of the system’s command and control infrastructure as planned could save $37 billion (in 2017 dollars) through the late 2030s. The option value of this approach would be significant as the Pentagon seeks to navigate the daunting conventional and nuclear modernization bow wave that is now upon it.

Defense officials have put forward several arguments against extending the Minuteman III based on the program analysis of alternatives conducted in 2014, but all of the arguments merit greater scrutiny.

The Defense Department claims that the price to build and operate a new missile system would be less than the cost to maintain the Minuteman III. But it seems the Pentagon arrived at this conclusion by comparing the total life-cycle cost of the two options through 2075. Since Minuteman III missiles cannot be extended for the full period, the department assumed a new missile eventually would be needed. Might comparing the two options over a shorter period produce a different answer? The CBO’s analysis suggested the answer is yes.

The Pentagon also argues that a new missile is essential to maintain the current force of 400 deployed ICBMs. While true that there eventually will not be enough Minuteman III motors to maintain a force of 400 ICBMs at the current rate of testing, this problem can be solved by reducing the number of deployed missiles to, say, 300. How did 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075 become a sacrosanct requirement for a modernization decision covering half a century? Furthermore, future arms control agreements could result in the need for fewer ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal, and presidents can also change military requirements to call for fewer ICBMs.

In addition, defense officials say that the ICBM leg of the triad requires new capabilities that the Minuteman III cannot provide, such as additional target coverage and the ability to penetrate advancing adversary missile defenses. These are curious claims.

First, what and how many targets are Minuteman III missiles unable to hit? Targets in China or North Korea that would require overflying Russia? Can these targets not be hit by other U.S. nuclear capabilities, notably the best mobile intercontinental-range missile on the planet: the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile?

Regarding the missile defense concern, is this a 2030 problem or a 2075 problem? Are the Russians and Chinese on the verge of unlocking the secret to intercepting scores of hypersonic ICBMs armed with decoys and countermeasures – a secret the United States has been unable to unlock? When the Russians express similar concerns about unconstrained U.S. missile defenses posing a threat to the credibility of their nuclear deterrent, U.S. officials dismiss their concerns as paranoia.

These are questions that need far more compelling answers before proceeding full steam ahead with GBSD. There is no evidence the Pentagon has studied the extension option across a wider range of parameters than those considered in 2014. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, conceded in April that the Pentagon “may be able to chart,” a life extension of the Minuteman III, “but there is an enormous amount of detail that has to go into that.” The Pentagon appears to have no choice but to consider alternatives. According to the GAO, GBSD “program schedule delays are likely.”

Might continuing to rely on the Minuteman III system beyond the 2030s entail some technical risk? Yes. Would it be preferable to replace the aging Minuteman III supporting infrastructure, which in many cases relies on parts that are no longer made, in one fell swoop rather than via incremental upgrades? Probably. Would a common configuration for all launch facilities, which GBSD would provide, make maintenance easier? Yes. Would new missiles built to accommodate future technology upgrades be easier to maintain in the long run? Yes.

But while building a new ICBM system might be preferable, it is not essential. Not given the limited utility of ICBMs. Not given the enormous cost of the GBSD program. Not given the availability of the extension and the incremental upgrade option. Not given other pressing priorities amid a flat defense budget. And not given that future arms control agreements could reduce U.S. nuclear forces.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would undermine the assurance of allies amid allied concern about the threats posed by Russia and China and the strength of the credibility of the U.S. commitment to their security.

Response: The Trump administration attempted to buttress extended deterrence with new nuclear capabilities and more ambiguous language about when it might consider the use of nuclear weapons. These changes do not appear to have assured allies, which suggests that the assurance challenge is more of a political “software” than a military “hardware” problem. Moreover, the most proximate threat Russia and China pose to allies comes from non-nuclear and asymmetric “grey-zone” capabilities that are harder to deter and more likely to lead to conflict escalation. Improving conventional deterrence and alliance cohesion would be more appropriate for this problem than greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

The United States can continue to assure its allies and partners as it reduces the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy, maintains second-to-none conventional military forces, and, most importantly, strengthens political relationships through reaffirmations of the value of alliances, stronger economic and cultural ties, and stepped-up dialogue that tie the United States more closely to the security of its allies.

As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Elaine Bunn recently put it:

“The precise make up...of the nuclear force [is] not likely to have the greatest impact on allies’ views of extended nuclear deterrence. That's about the overall relationship, the peacetime consultations, the crisis management exercises. It’s about that whole web of interactions that we have with allies. And so as long as there’s a baseline of an effective nuclear arsenal, I think if we are confident in our nuclear deterrence capabilities then with right consultation allies will be too.”

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would reduce U.S. leverage to achieve new arms control agreements.

Response: First, a close examination of the history of U.S.-Russian arms control raises doubts about the strength of the link between increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons and arms control success. For example, the U.S. and NATO decision to field new ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s is often cited as being essential to convincing Moscow to agree to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty prohibiting such weapons. But the actual fielding of the new weapons beginning in 1983 prompted Moscow to walk out of arms control talks. The talks did not resume until 1985 following the major political change in the Soviet Union that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to leader.

Second, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce an appreciable number of new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Third, the Trump administration’s repeated threats to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal did not force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands for a new arms control agreement.

Fourth, an up to one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces would still leave the United States with ample nuclear capability with which to trade as part of new arms control arrangements with Russia (or in the future China). Even after such a reduction, the United States would retain rough parity with Russia in the number of strategic delivery systems and warheads. Moreover, while past strategic nuclear arms control agreements have included equal ceilings on strategic forces, some agreements have included ranges for the ceilings.

Fifth, Moscow has identified constraints on U.S. non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts, especially cuts to Russia’s new “novel” strategic range delivery systems and large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads. The success or failure new arms control talks will rise or fall in large part based on how these issues are addressed, not whether, for instance, the United States builds a new ICBM.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research associate


Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast. Here are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 

Biden’s North Korea Policy Review: Toward a More Effective Strategy



Volume 13, Issue 2, April 13, 2021

When former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the outgoing Obama administration warned that North Korea's nuclear program posed one of the most significant security challenges facing the United States. Four years later, the threat has grown.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at their 2019 summit in Hanoi. Two decades of diplomacy, ranging from multilateral negotiations to high-level personal talks, have failed to meaningfully curb North Korea's nuclear weapons development. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)Trump’s approach toward North Korea got off to a rough start with exchanges of fiery rhetoric and military threats, followed by high-profile summits that failed to produce lasting results or an effective negotiating process for denuclearization and peace-building on the Korean peninsula. In the absence of meaningful diplomatic progress, North Korea has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile arsenals and it remains one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous proliferation challenges.

During his presidential campaign, President Joe Biden criticized Trump’s approach to diplomacy, including his decision to meet directly with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” and “to offer an alternative vision for a non-nuclear future to Kim and the people of North Korea.”

Since taking office January 20, the new administration has been conducting a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. To date, key officials have offered few details about their strategy beyond reiterating that denuclearization will remain the end goal and that the United States intends to work closely with allies.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty ImagesThe administration’s North Korea policy review is a critical opportunity to forge a more effective U.S. approach toward the long-running effort to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear progress and reduce the risks of a major conflict. The Biden administration’s policy should take into account the positive and negative lessons from the Trump era as the United States seeks to work with regional allies and the international community to move closer to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Building on the twin goals of denuclearization and peace established by Trump and Kim, Biden should adopt a more pragmatic, step-for-step approach that involves concrete actions on denuclearization in exchange for corresponding measures that address regional security dynamics and sanctions relief for North Korea.

North Korea’s Advancing Nuclear Weapons Program

During the first year of Trump’s presidency, North Korea accelerated its long-range missile testing, introducing three new systems: the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) tested six times (three tests failed), the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), tested twice, and the Hwasong-15, an ICBM tested once. The Hwasong-15 is powerful enough to deliver a nuclear warhead to the entirety of the continental United States, although the accuracy, reliability, and survivability of the warhead during reentry remain questionable after just one test.

North Korea also tested its largest yield warhead—likely a two-stage hydrogen bomb—in September 2017. Since then, North Korea has not conducted any nuclear tests and did take steps as part of its diplomatic overture to the United States to destroy testing tunnels at the Punggye-ri test site in 2018. It is not clear if, or how quickly, North Korea could rebuild that nuclear test site, or if another exists.

There is considerable uncertainty about the size of North Korea’s stockpile of fissile material, but it has likely grown over the past four years. In 2017, North Korea's stockpile was estimated to include 20-40 kilograms of separated plutonium and about 250-500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to Stanford physicist Sig Hecker, who visited North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon in 2010. Leaked U.S. and South Korean assessments put the HEU stockpile close to 750 kilograms in 2017. According to a 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, North Korea’s stockpile of weapons-usable material is enough for up to 60 warheads but Pyongyang has likely only assembled around 20-30 nuclear devices. Satellite imagery suggests continued activity at the uranium enrichment facility and intermittent operations the five-megawatt reactor during the past several years, which was used to produce plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons, at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, suggesting that North Korea continues to produce fissile material. 

Following a spate of testing and increased U.S.-North Korea tensions in 2017, Kim claimed in his 2018 New Year’s address that North Korea’s nuclear forces are “capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States” and announced that North Korea would mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for deployment. He also opened the door for diplomacy with South Korea and later the United States—perhaps assessing that recent long-range missile tests would give him greater leverage in negotiations.

As part of the diplomatic overture, Kim declared an official testing moratorium for long-range missiles and nuclear explosive devices from April 2018. While that moratorium ended in December 2020, the country has not since tested any nuclear devices or long-range systems. North Korea resumed short-range ballistic missile testing in May 2020, after talks with the United States appeared to stall.

Since then, Pyongyang has introduced and tested several new short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea also displayed a new ICBM during an October 2020 parade that is larger than the Hwasong-15 and introduced two new ballistic missiles likely designed for a submarine, one during the October 2020 parade and one in January 2021. Kim also said in December 2020 that the country intends to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, indicating that North Korea will continue refining and developing new nuclear capabilities to meet the perceived security threats.

Lessons Learned from Trump-Kim Diplomacy

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs expanded significantly during the Trump presidency, the diplomatic exchanges between Trump and Kim offer critical insights into North Korea’s approach to negotiations and what the country may be willing to put on the table in future talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they sit down with their respective delegations for the U.S.-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore, June 12, 2018.  (Photo:  Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)During his time in office, Trump met with Kim three times: first in Singapore in June 2018, then in Hanoi in February 2019, and briefly at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in June 2020. Although tension eased and North Korea has refrained from further long-range ballistic missile flight testing and nuclear testing since 2018, these summits, and the intermittent rounds of working-level talks between the leader-to-leader meetings, did not yield any sustained progress toward achieving the goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the peninsula. The United States did, however, gain further insights into North Korea’s negotiating position that should be useful for future diplomatic efforts.

During the first summit, Trump and Kim signed a four-point Joint Statement, whereby the United States and North Korea agreed to establish new bilateral relations, build a “lasting and stable” peace regime, work toward complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and recover the remains of soldiers missing in action. Trump also unilaterally announced additional commitments in a news conference that day, including the cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

While the Singapore summit established the broad parameters and goals of the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic negotiations, it soon became apparent that Washington and Pyongyang preferred different processes to make progress. North Korea expressed a preference for a step-by-step approach, whereas the Trump administration appeared most focused on denuclearization and wanted North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program before any sanctions were lifted. The two parties also did not share the same understanding of the agreed-upon goals, including what constitutes denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The differing interpretations over the processes and goals were compounded by mixed messaging and failure on both sides to sufficiently empower their negotiating teams. Despite the lack of progress and concrete action, Trump and Kim met for their second summit in Hanoi with cautious expectations for progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

In what appeared to have been a shift in the U.S. position, Steve Beigun, former deputy secretary of state and the U.S. special representative for North Korea, stated ahead of the second summit that the United States was prepared to move step-by-step with North Korea toward denuclearization while promoting peace on the peninsula.

Despite that shift, the Hanoi summit ended early and without agreement on subsequent steps. In a debrief of the meeting, Trump and Pompeo shared that the two sides had made progress, but said Trump rejected Kim’s call for sanctions to be entirely lifted in exchange for partial denuclearization. Pompeo remarked that Kim was “unprepared” to do more.

Countering the U.S. account of the meeting, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho stated that North Korea had requested the partial removal of sanctions in exchange for a permanent halt of nuclear and ballistic missile testing and the full, verifiable, dismantlement of facilities at North Korea’s primary Yongbyon nuclear complex. Trump reportedly demanded “one more thing” atop North Korea’s proposal, which some have speculated could have been a facility outside of Yongbyon that is part of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.

In April, Trump remarked that while he preferred a “big deal” with North Korea to “get rid of the nuclear weapons,” the door for “various small deals” remained open. Kim told the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly April 12 that he would be willing to meet with Trump “one more time” if Washington proposed the summit, but said the United States would have to have the “right stance” and “methodology.” He called for Trump to “lay down unilateral requirements and seek constructive solutions.”

Trump and Kim met briefly one final time in June 2019 at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and agreed to restart working-level negotiations. Following that meeting, in September 2019, North Korea’s First Vice Minister Choe Son Hui issued a statement suggesting that North Korea was interested in continuing talks, provided that the United States offered “a proposal geared to the interests of the DPRK and the U.S.” Trump remarked shortly thereafter that he was open to a “new method” for talks with North Korea, suggesting a softening of the U.S. stance toward sanctions relief.

Working-level talks began in October 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden, and ended shortly thereafter. Ahead of the meeting, North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil praised Trump for taking a more flexible approach and suggested that “second thought” be given to the possibility of a “step by step solution starting with the things feasible first while building trust in each other,” likely referring to North Korea’s preference for an incremental approach that exchanges steps on denuclearization for actions by the United States to lift sanctions and address Pyongyang’s security concerns. After talks commenced, however, he said the U.S. came with “empty-handed” proposals that “greatly disappointed [the North Korean delegation] and sapped our appetite for negotiations.”

Trump administration reportedly offered North Korea time-bound, limited sanctions relief in exchange for concrete, verifiable steps to halt activities at Yongbyon during the meeting, but talks fell apart on the second day and North Korea did not accept the invitation to resume negotiations. Kim said the U.S. position demonstrated the United States’ unwillingness to “solve the issue”

Nearly two years of off-and-on summit diplomacy between the United States and North Korea were ultimately unsuccessful in leading to concrete action to advance the goals agreed to in Singapore. Disagreements over sequencing, particularly if and when sanctions relief should be offered, and the scope of each sides’ respective actions could not be resolved at the leader-level summits.

The Trump-Kim diplomatic process also failed because the two sides did not establish and maintaining a regular dialogue between high-level meetings. Such working-level engagement provides a greater opportunity to share and test concrete proposals and to pave the way for leadership-level summits to produce more tangible outcomes.

Consistent working-level talks are also necessary to build trust and rapport between negotiating parties. Working-level negotiating teams must also have the support from leadership to be effective, but critical mixed messages from Trump and other senior administration officials, including his National Security Advisor John Bolton, about the goals of the negotiations undercut the credibility of working-level negotiators, like Steve Beigun. On the North Korean side, Kim Jong-un did not appear to empower the negotiating team to discuss in any level of detail the country’s nuclear program slowed preparation for the Hanoi meeting.

Recommendations for a More Effective U.S. Policy

The North Korea policy review that the Biden administration is undertaking is not simply a new U.S. administration’s opportunity to set the stage for future talks and signal to Pyongyang the U.S. approach for the next four years—it is much more. Given that North Korea may be on the cusp of significant advancements in its capability to deliver nuclear weapons using a variety of short- and long-range ballistic missiles, the next four years may be the last best chance to freeze and begin to roll back its growing nuclear capabilities and the threat they pose to regional and international security.

The mixed results of the United States’ policies toward North Korea throughout the Obama and Trump administrations offer four sets of key lessons for reshaping the approach under Joe Biden in ways that produce more meaningful and lasting outcomes.

1. The Limits of Sanctions

Sanctions have played a significant role in Biden’s predecessors’ North Korea policy. Former Presidents Trump, Barack Obama, and George Bush have all used sanctions to try to deny North Korea of the materials and funds necessary to pursue its nuclear and missile programs and to punish Pyongyang for violating its international nonproliferation obligations. While sanctions will likely remain a part of U.S. and United Nations Security Council policy toward North Korea, they are but one tool in a broader strategy.

North Korea has demonstrated a considerable tolerance for economic pain and skill in evading sanctions. In recent years, North Korea has become increasingly more adept and creative in its efforts to sidestep sanctions and it has shown that it is unwilling to make unilateral concessions in response to tougher U.S. or UN sanctions.

Furthermore, enforcement and implementation of UN and U.S. sanctions measures have been spotty, especially after Trump prematurely declared that he had achieved success in erasing the North Korean threat following his first summit with Kim Jong-un.

As a result, Washington cannot depend on sanctions pressure alone to push Kim to the negotiating table, especially in the absence of stronger support from regional allies, particularly China, which is North Korea’s largest remaining trading partner.

The Biden administration is unlikely to lift any sanctions absent significant moves from North Korea that roll back its nuclear program, but the North Korea policy review could signal to Pyongyang that there is a credible offramp from sanctions through concrete steps to halt, reverse, and eventually dismantle key nuclear and missile capabilities. This could include partial relief early in the process in exchange for concrete actions from North Korea. The Biden administration’s North Korea policy review should also consider how to better implement humanitarian exemptions for sanctions and support inter-Korean projects.

2. Reaffirming the Goals of the Singapore Summit

The United States’ diplomatic strategy should include reaffirming the objectives of the 2018 Singapore Summit joint statement and indicating clearly that the United States will engage in meaningful talks toward achieving those objectives without preconditions.

The Singapore goals envision a transformed relationship between the United States and North Korea that includes “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Given the role that nuclear weapons play in North Korea’s security calculus, transforming the U.S.-North Korea relationship and the security environment will be critical for moving toward denuclearization.

The Singapore summit declaration may also be North Korea’s preferred starting point. For Kim, the Singapore meeting was a considerable political achievement. Additionally, North Korea has long viewed denuclearization as encompassing the entire peninsula and including elements of the U.S. extended deterrence over North Korea. The Singapore summit declaration recognizes that regional security and stability directly impact the path to denuclearize and folds in addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns as part of a more holistic set of negotiations.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has already stoked some confusion by calling for “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “denuclearization of North Korea” interchangeably. This risks sending the wrong message to Pyongyang about U.S. intentions, as the denuclearization of North Korea suggests that the Biden administration is focused on dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons program and not taking into account Pyongyang’s understanding of the necessary conditions for denuclearization. Hopefully, once the policy review is completed, the Biden administration will demonstrate more consistent messaging.

Some experts favor abandoning the goal of denuclearization, arguing that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons, and instead advocate for pursuing an arms control-like strategy that reduces risk and preventsfurther qualitative and quantitative advances in the country’s warheads and nuclear-capable missile designs.

The arms control versus denuclearization debate, however, sets up a false choice. U.S. policy can retain denuclearization as a long-term goal while pursuing arms control-like agreements that build toward verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Retaining denuclearization as the long-term goal is important for both North Korea-specific policy purposes and reinforcing a nuclear nonproliferation regime writ large.

This does not mean, however, that the United States should pursue a comprehensive denuclearization agreement at the onset. A series of smaller deals that prioritize reducing risk and preventing North Korea from further refining and developing its nuclear and missile programs will lead toward denuclearization while building confidence in the process and contributing to stability in the region.

3. A Reciprocal Step-by-Step Approach

The Biden administration should also make clear that the United States will pursue a reciprocal, step-by-step diplomatic strategy that rewards concrete actions toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with sanctions relief and mutual confidence-building measures that reduce the risk of conflict and address North Korea’s security concerns.

There is value in working in phases rather than trying to negotiate a comprehensive agreement risks the talks ending without any concrete actions that reduce nuclear risk and increase stability in the region.

Overall, the essence and strength of this step-by-step approach is the flexible choreography and yet firm direction toward a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Korean peninsula that not only deals with North Korean nuclear and missile production but also addresses North Korea’s security concerns. A step-by-step process also stands a better chance for maintaining continuity and momentum between changing administrations, whereas if negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive deal, talks may falter in the transition to a new administration.

There are reasons to believe that this approach will still be amenable  to North Korea as Kim Myong Gil, the chief delegate of the North Korea-U.S. bilateral relations, said in September 2019 that the “[step-by-step solution] is something to give a second thought” and the preference toward an action-for-action approach to advance the goals of the Singapore declaration was clearly stated during the summits in Trump’s presidency.

Further, this step-by-step policy approach may garner more support from China—which the Biden administration has indicated it wants to encourage— as it aligns with Beijing’s approach and interests. China and North Korea released a joint statement March 22 calling for such a process.

As a first step, the Biden administration could explore an agreement based on the broad outlines of the proposal that North Korea put on the table in Hanoi: the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon and a cessation of nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing in exchange for partial UN sanctions relief. Dismantlement of Yongbyon would be a significant step toward denuclearization that prevents North Korea from producing further plutonium for nuclear weapons, as well as tritium, which can be used to boost the explosive yield of two-stage nuclear bombs. Partial UN sanctions relief could include putting in place time-bound caps for trade in certain sectors that would offer meaningful relief to North Korea, but snap back into place if the talks become stalled or if Pyongyang does not deliver on its denuclearization commitments.

There are several other actions—both larger and smaller—that the United States could pursue as a meaningful, concrete first step that would reduce risk and prevent further qualitative and/or quantitative advancements to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. These could include:

  • halting of fissile material production, which can be verified using remote monitoring technologies;
  • reinstating North Korea nuclear and long-range ballistic missile test moratoriums, and expanding it to include medium-range systems and rocket motors;
  • halting the production of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles;
  • verifying the closure of testing sites like the Punggye-ri; and
  • securing North Korean signature of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In response, United States, in coordination with allies and members of the UN Security Council, can take actions to address North Korea’s trade and security concerns, scaled to match Pyongyang’s actions. These include:

  • providing partial sanctions relief, including measures in United Nations Security Council resolutions,
  • modifying joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises so they do not involve force movements that appear to be part of preparations for a rapid strike at North Korean leadership targets,
  • establishing a joint statement declaring an end to the Korean War and/or initiating discussions on the negotiations of a formal peace treaty,
  • resuming inter-Korean trade and cultural exchange projects which can improve inter-Korean trade, and
  • providing assurances that the United States will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea,

Given that North Korea views its nuclear arsenal as integral to its security, addressing the regional threat environment should be an integral part of the reciprocal actions the United States puts on the table, alongside sanctions relief, in exchange for verifiable actions toward denuclearization.

North Korea has signaled on many occasions that it views certain exercises as provocative. A spokesman for North Korea’s State Affairs Commission pointed Nov. 13, 2019, to routine military training exercises as a factor in “the repeating vicious circle of the DPRK-U.S. relations.” Modifying US-South Korean joint exercises and pursuing a formal peace treaty would reduce tensions and begin addressing the security concerns that underpin North Korea’s reliance on nuclear weapons.

Bottom Line

While Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority. While Kim may not yet be ready to engage in talks, particularly while the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the United States must continue to send the message that diplomacy without preconditions is on the table and that Washington is ready to provide meaningful reciprocal actions in exchange for concrete steps to reduce nuclear risk.—SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Peace Fellow, and JULIA MASTERSON, research associate


While President Joe Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority.

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