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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Daryl Kimball

Roll forward the doomsday train

News Date: 
November 18, 2021 -05:00

Comments on the Nuclear Posture Review to the NPR Working Group



Comments on the Nuclear Posture Review
to the NPR Working Group Meeting, Nov. 22, 2021
by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Thank you for the opportunity to present our perspectives on the NPR. My comments today are based on recommendations put forward in a Sept. 15 memo to the President from the Arms Control Association and about two dozen of my fellow experts and nongovernmental leaders.1

Given time constraints I am going to focus on some, but not all the points in that memo, but I would be interested in engaging on any of the points we raised in our memorandum.

Allow me to start with a couple of comments about the NPR process.

We believe this NPR working group has a responsibility to produce a full and diverse range of options for the president to consider and not to exclude options designed to deliver on the president’s clearly stated goal in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy …”

We are deeply disturbed by press reports quoting unnamed Pentagon officials that its “not likely” to present certain nuclear policy options that the President has said he supports and wants to operationalize.

Quite frankly, a review that omits certain options or unfairly represent the pros and cons of programmatic or policy alternatives because they do neatly fit in with the views of certain agency officials would be a disservice to the president and our national security.

This review also needs to comprehensively re-examine existing assumptions calculations about issues such as the size of the arsenal, current nuclear modernization programs, and legal and political judgments about existing nuclear use doctrine, especially in consideration of the president’s stated goal of restoring the United States role as a leader on arms control.

If this working group’s NPR output does not undertake such a re-examination, it should explain to the President and the American people why it chose not to do so.

In fact, the rationale for certain judgments should also be presented to the President should also made far more transparent, especially if the NPR does not produce a standalone document but is instead more of an insert or annex to the National Defense Strategy.

Following our discussion today, I will share a written request to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy regarding whether this NPR study will or will not examine certain questions or provide the analysis behind certain judgments that will inform the options it examines.

Now, I’ll turn to some thoughts on how this NPR can advance the goals of:

  • reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use by any state,
  • narrowing the role and salience of nuclear weapons, and
  • advancing effective arms control and disarmament, particularly with Russia and China.
  1. The NPR can and should adopt a declaratory policy that substantially narrows the role of nuclear weapons, consistent with the president’s stated views.

President Biden’s views are quite clear: “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats — it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary,” he said in 2017. “Or make sense.”

We agree with that statement.

In 2020, Mr. Biden said that “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring— and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack” and that he “will work to put that belief into practice.”

To our knowledge, no major-party presidential nominee has ever expressed such views on a declaratory policy before taking office.

The 2018 NPR, in contrast, envisioned a greater role for nuclear weapons against a wider range of threats. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration defined the “extreme circumstances” under which the United States would consider nuclear use more broadly to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”

The risks to the United States and our allies, particularly front-line states, of the possible U.S. first use of nuclear weapons in conflict would be grave.

As McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1982 about nuclear weapons first-use contingency plans in Europe: “No one has ever succeeded in advancing any persuasive reason to believe that any use of nuclear weapons, even on the smallest scale, could reliably be expected to remain limited….”

We believe, the NPR should support a declaratory policy that reflects the President’s support for President’s previously stated views.

Whether the updated U.S. declaratory policy is described as a “no first use” policy or a “sole purpose policy,”2 I believe the NPR should communicate that the United States:

  • does not intend to use of nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike (before an adversary launches a nuclear attack) or on warning of attack (before a reported attack arrives), and
  • has no intention of using nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack on the U.S. or our allies.

Such a shift in declaratory policy would reduce the risk of nuclear war in response to bad intelligence or a false alarm or circumstances that do not threaten the survival of our nation. It would increase strategic stability and help operationalize the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

This would send an important signal about U.S. intentions and value to the world, and it would distinguish the United States policies from those of some other bad nuclear actors.

Some argue that shifting to a “sole purpose” policy would undermine extended U.S. nuclear deterrence. This assertion doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Such a policy would still protect U.S. allies from the threat of nuclear coercion or attacks. Due to the catastrophic consequences of nuclear conflict, the United States and its allies must be able to deter and defeat conventional attacks with conventional responses.

Moreover, the most important element of extended deterrence is the strength of the U.S. political commitment to the security of allies. President Trump’s assault on the U.S.-led alliance system has been a far greater threat to the underpinnings of extended deterrence than any potential U.S. changes to the nuclear declaratory policy.

It is certainly the case that in a few scenarios—such as a conflict with China over Taiwan, or a confrontation with Russia in the Baltic region—the United States and its allies could have difficulty promptly countering an attack with conventional weapons alone. It’s possible that China and Russia could even threaten the very existence of these nations using conventional weapons.

Yet retaining a nuclear first use option in such cases is not an effective or credible solution to this problem. Russia and China do not appear willing to forgo the ability to challenge and impose costs on the United States in a conventional conflict in their respective near abroad.

In any conflict over Taiwan, the United States is likely to have much lower interests at stake than Beijing. Threatening nuclear first use won’t ameliorate these problems and actual first use will almost certainly trigger a Russian and Chinese nuclear response resulting in devastation disproportionate to the damage inflicted by the initial aggression. The United States and its allies have no choice but to rely on conventional deterrence and non-military measures.

I hope to learn today whether the reported survey produced by the administration of allied views on this topic asked, as President Biden has suggested we should, whether “they can envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary, or would make sense?”

  1. The NPR should facilitate renewed U.S. leadership on nuclear arms control.

To strengthen U.S. and global security, the NPR should support a realistic strategy for risk reduction and nuclear arms control opportunities with our primary nuclear rivals: Russia and China. Accordingly, the NPR should reaffirm U.S. support for continued, mutual reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Before the review is completed, the U.S. government should be able to express its support at the upcoming NPT Review Conference for:

  • energetic efforts by the United States and Russia to reduce nuclear risks and maintain strategic stability, and to conclude talks on a New START follow-on agreement or agreements that achieve further, lower limits on strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems and limits for the first time on nonstrategic weapons no later than 2025
  • a pledge by all the NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals and reduce their fissile stockpiles, as the United States and Russia seek to achieve new agreements to reduce their offensive nuclear arsenals and address non-nuclear weapons that impact the strategic nuclear equation; and
  • deeper engagement between the five nuclear-armed states on nuclear disarmament pathways and on nuclear risk reduction, either bilaterally and/or through a new multilateral format.

Forging new arms control arrangements to address the range of nuclear and non-nuclear systems—strategic warheads and launchers, short-range and intermediate-range weapons, new hypersonic weapons, and missile defenses—will be difficult and time-consuming.

But such arrangements are possible and are the best way to reduce the threats posed by Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The president also recently proposed options for a nuclear risk reduction and arms control dialogue with China. If arms control with China is going to stand a chance of success, U.S. and Chinese leaders will need to exercise restraint and be willing to address the concerns of the other.

It would be unwise to condition any further arms control engagement with Russia, including further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, on the participation or cooperation from China. The Trump administration pursued such an approach and it failed.

  1. The NPR should put the U.S. in a position to further reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Despite reckless behavior on the part of Russia and China and their pursuit of a more diverse array of nuclear weapons, we believe the size and diversity of the U.S. nuclear arsenal still exceeds what is necessary to maintain an effective deterrent.

President Obama announced in 2013 that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third below New START levels. The analysis concluded the United States could independently reduce is deployed arsenal to this level and still hold adversary targets at risk so as to deter nuclear attack. But the administration made a political decision to pursue such reductions bilaterally with Russia. The rationale for a smaller force still holds.

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.

Any increase in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons above New START would not enhance deterrence in the face of China’s growing nuclear capabilities. In fact, it would make it more likely that China would pursue a more substantial buildup of its nuclear forces over the coming decade.

The NPR and the President should take a fresh look at the guidance and requirements that inform how many nuclear weapons the United States maintains to hold enemy targets at risk in order to deter nuclear attack. The development and installation of so-called super-fuze components appear to have made U.S. strategic warheads significantly more accurate and more reliable than previous warhead variants. While this may increase adversary concerns about the vulnerability of their second-strike forces, it also means that fewer deployed and reserve warheads are needed to hold key adversary targets at risk.

The Pentagon should develop a range of force sizing options based on the guidance and direction of the President, outline the damage expectancy assumptions for the targets in current U.S. nuclear war plans, and describe how combatant commands consider nuclear forces in their operational planning.

  1. The NPR should provide options for a more cost-effective nuclear modernization plan in keeping with a more integrated approach to deterring adversaries.

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.

The warning signs indicating that the current modernization plans cannot be achieved on budget or on schedule and will force painful cuts to other military priorities more relevant to countering Russia and China 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.

Adjusting long-standing and more recently adopted nuclear planning assumptions would enable changes to the current nuclear modernization effort that could advance U.S. arms control goals vis-à-vis Russia and China.

We have identified several options to reduce the scope of the modernization plans that would save scores of billions of dollars over the next decade and still allow the United States to maintain a devastating nuclear force.3

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.

Among other changes to the modernization program, we and others have recommended that the administration should delay the development of a new $264 billion ICBM via the GBSD program and believe the United States can continue to rely on the Minuteman III ICBM for an additional period of time and at less cost over that period than the GBSD program. We believe the assumptions undergirding the GBSD program are flawed and have called for a comprehensive assessment of the feasibility and cost of extending the life of the Minuteman III.

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 by refurbishing the rocket motors and other parts. In 2017, CBO projected that deferring the new missile portion of GBSD by two decades, extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles, and proceeding with the refurbishment of the system’s command and control infrastructure as planned could save $37 billion (in 2017 dollars) through the late 2030s.

It is our understanding that the Pentagon has rejected a proposal made by some Members of Congress to contract the JASON defense advisory group to assess the feasibility of extending the life of the Minuteman III and is instead working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to host a series of meetings with a spectrum of experts and former officials to consider how to proceed with the ICBM force.

A series of expert meetings and a report summarizing their discussion is all well and good. But it is not a substitute for an independent technical feasibility assessment by the JASONs or cost estimate from DoD’s CAPE office.

If the Pentagon fails to initiate such assessments, this NPR will have failed to explore a full range of reasonable policy options. I hope to learn today whether, and if so, why the Department has refused to look more fully at potential alternatives to GBSD.

We also believe this NPR should reverse the decisions made by the Trump administration to field the new lower-yield W76-2 warhead variant on Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile and begin development of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.

These weapons, which are ostensibly intended to provide more nuclear war-fighting options, are unnecessary to deter or, if needed, respond to limited adversary nuclear use and could exacerbate competition with Russia and China and invite miscalculation in a crisis by lowering the threshold for nuclear use.

We have also been disturbed to learn that the NPR is apparently not seriously evaluating potential alternatives to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) excessive and clearly un-executable warhead modernization and production facility recapitalization plans.

We also urge the NPR to scale back plans for pursuing an ever-wider array of costly new warhead types requiring the large-scale production of new plutonium pits, including the W87-1 and W93 as currently planned. By making a few commonsense choices, a sustainable stockpile can remain effective for decades at far lower cost and with substantially less risk than seeking to build new warheads with an excessive number of new pits.

To those who argue that adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would reduce U.S. leverage to achieve new arms control agreements, a reality check.

First, a close examination of the history of U.S.-Russian arms control shows that increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons does not translate into 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.

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 current U.S. 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.

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. Russia has also repeatedly said it is willing to negotiate a verifiable arrangement to limit intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles.

The success or failure of 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 or new ground-launched cruise missiles.

  1. U.S. nuclear plans should fully comport with international law.

In 2013, the Obama administration asserted that all U.S. nuclear weapons use plans “must …be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.” In 2018, the Trump administration reaffirmed that any U.S. nuclear military operations “would adhere to the law of armed conflict,” and its principles of distinction and proportionality. The United States also accepts that it is legally required, under the principle of precaution, to take all feasible measures to minimize incidental damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.

Unfortunately, as other experts have noted,4 these assurances are undermined by the fact that the United States has not to date foresworn the possibility that it might direct nuclear attacks against the civilian population, or otherwise launch attacks that cause disproportionate civilian harm, by relying on the customary international law doctrine of belligerent reprisal.

If we are to operate according to a “rules-based international order,” certain states cannot bend the rules to suit their narrow national security aims. In a democracy, we must also be transparent about what we think the rules are and why. Other states, and other serious lawyers, consider the potential use of nuclear weapons on the scale envisioned in the U.S. nuclear war plan to be incompatible with international law, particularly International Humanitarian Law.5

This NPR should provide a detailed explanation to support the assertion that U.S. nuclear weapons use plans are consistent with the Law of Armed Conflict and provide an explanation as to why the U.S. government believes it is permissible under customary international law, to target civilians intentionally or consequentially by way of reprisal using nuclear or other weapons.

  1. The MDR and the NPR

Closely related to the NPR is the Missile Defense Review. The MDR should take into account the interrelationship between strategic offenses and defenses and the effect of missile interceptor deployments that can exacerbate strategic offensive nuclear threats from Russia and China.

The stated goal of U.S. missile programs should be clearly focused on countering limited ballistic missile threats from regional adversaries, particularly North Korea and Iran. In addition, the United States should be able to define how much missile defense is enough to defend against limited rogue state missile attacks.

Further expansion of certain systems with strategic capabilities, such as the SM3 Block IIA interceptor, which has been tested against an ICBM-class target, is unlikely to provide meaningful additional capability against North Korea but will likely exacerbate Russian and Chinese offensive missile developments.

The Pentagon’s own assessments, including the annual report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China, consistently note that China’s nuclear advances are, in part, a response to concerns about how missile defense can affect its strategic nuclear retaliatory capabilities.

We believe the MDR should clearly outline the scope and limits of long-term U.S. plans to develop and deploy long-range missile defenses and specify what adversary actions might change those plans to help dissuade China and Russia from pursuing potentially dangerous offensive countermeasures.

Concluding Thoughts

When it comes to addressing the threats posed by nuclear weapons, the world is watching to see whether the United States is actually “back” as a leader.

Is the United States prepared to take real actions that reduce the role of nuclear weapons, to nuclear risks, and slow and reverse a burgeoning nuclear arms race?

Or is it just another major nuclear power, not unlike Russia or China, that is, albeit more transparently, developing new nuclear capabilities, ignoring its NPT disarmament obligations, and reacting to worst-case assumptions about the intentions its adversaries?

In the end, this NPR will be measured in terms of whether the United States:

  1. Meaningfully reduces the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy;
  2. Continues the pursuit of the new nuclear weapons capabilities launched during the Trump administration; and
  3. Reaffirms the United States commitment to the steadfast and pragmatic pursuit of effective arms control and disarmament measures that help to fulfill the United States’ solemn legal obligations and commitments under Article VI of the NPT on disarmament.

Thank you for your attention.


1. “A Call for Changes to Outdated Nuclear Weapons Thinking,” letter to President Biden, Sept. 15. Online at: https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/documents/Letter_NPR_POTUS-09152021.pdf

2. "Sole Purpose Is Not No First Use: Nuclear Weapons and Declaratory Policy," by Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang in War On the Rocks, Feb. 22, 2021. Online at: https://warontherocks.com/2021/02/sole-purpose-is-not-no-first-use- nuclear-weapons-and-declaratory-policy/

3. U.S. Nuclear Excess: Understanding the Costs, Risks, and Alternatives, an Arms Control Association report, April 2019. See: https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/Reports/Report_NuclearExcess2019_update0410.pdf

4. See: Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner,“The Illegality of Targeting Civilians by Way of Belligerent Reprisal: Implications for U.S. Nuclear Doctrine,” in Just Security, May 10, 2021. Online at: https://www.justsecurity.org/76049/the-illegality-of-targeting-civilians-by-way-of-belligerent-reprisal-implications-for-u-s-nuclear-doctrine/

5. See: Charles J. Moxley, Jr., John Burroughs and Jonathan Granoff, “Nuclear Weapons and Compliance with International Humanitarian Law and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Fordham International Law Journal (Vol. 34, No. 4, 2011). Online at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/603410a4be1db058065ce8d4/t/605b50629ac3ac26cb5d3eef/1616597090 889/Fordhamfinaljoint.pdf


by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

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A Small Step Toward an ASAT Ban

December 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Last month, the UN General Assembly First Committee, responsible for international security, approved a compromise resolution that sets into motion a new open-ended working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space. If key countries, including the United States, provide leadership, the initiative could help advance progress toward legally binding measures designed to prohibit counterspace activities that threaten international security, beginning with a ban on anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.

Launch of the SM-3 missile that intercepted USA-193 on February 20, 2008. (Photo by U.S. Navy)A core rationale for the resolution, which was sponsored by the United Kingdom, is “that the creation of long-lived orbital debris arising from the deliberate destruction of space systems increases the risk of in-orbit collisions and the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculations that could lead to conflict.”

As if to underscore the threat posed by ASAT weapons, on Nov. 15, Russia launched an interceptor from its Nudol ground-based ASAT system to destroy one of its own aging satellites in low Earth orbit. The collision created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris that will pose a threat to orbiting objects for years to come.

Russia is not the only nation to act in such an irresponsible manner. China, the United States, and India have also demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites with ground- or air-launched missiles. In 1985, the United States successfully tested an air-launched missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2007, China used a ground-based SC-19 ballistic missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2008, the United States used a modified ship-based SM-3 missile defense interceptor to destroy a failed U.S. intelligence satellite. In 2019, India used a ground-based Prithvi ballistic missile to destroy one of its own target satellites.

Each of these demonstrations of ASAT weapons capabilities is destabilizing. If these and other potentially hostile activities in space are not stopped, an acceleration of a space arms race is all but certain.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space, but there are no restrictions on other types of weapons in that domain. Efforts to launch talks that might produce new understandings on maintaining the peaceful use of space have been stymied for years.

China and Russia have long advocated for a treaty that only bars the placement of any weapons in space. Their proposal, called the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), defines a “space weapon” as an object placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects. This means that the Russian Nudol system, which flies a suborbital trajectory, would not be a violation. But their proposed ban would restrict potential U.S. efforts to develop space-based missile defense interceptors while allowing suborbital ASAT capabilities.

For years, the United States has been wary of any legally binding restrictions on ASAT systems in part because they might restrict U.S. ground-based missile defense capabilities or a possible space-based kinetic anti-missile system that could involve a number of orbiting interceptors that provide a thin defense against intercontinental missiles.

But earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance stated that the United States “will lead in promoting shared norms on space.” The U.S. National Space Policy, issued in December 2020 by the Trump administration, said Washington shall consider “proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.”

Curiously, although Beijing and Moscow voted “no” on the UK resolution for the working group on preventing an arms race in outer space, they refrained from pushing for discussions in a UN-sponsored forum for their PPWT proposal. This may be because the UK resolution allows for consideration by the new working group of legally binding measures of the kind that Russia and China have pursued, as well as voluntary rules designed to constrain threatening military activities.

The UK resolution, which was approved 163–8 with nine abstentions, is expected to win final approval by the UN General Assembly in December. It would authorize the working group to begin operating in 2022 with a final report due to the General Assembly in the fall of 2023. To its credit, the resolution also emphasized the need for verification of legally binding arms control regarding space systems.

The UK-led initiative is a small but much-needed breakthrough that creates the potential for positive results. As the process unfolds, the United States, Russia, China, and India could help build momentum and reduce tensions by declaring unilateral moratoriums on any further testing of their ASAT weapons that could create dangerous orbital debris and agree to participate in the working group next year.

Without commonsense rules of the road, a dangerous, destabilizing offensive-defensive space arms competition is on the way. It is past time for key states to engage in productive dialogue on space security, with a focus on halting ASAT weapons.

Last month, the UN First Committee, responsible for international security, approved a compromise resolution that sets into motion a new open-ended working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space.

NPT States Prepare for a Critical Conference

December 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will convene in January for meetings that will shape the future of international arms control at a time when nuclear restraints are under severe stress and the outcome of the event is highly uncertain.

NPT conference president-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen (center) and UN High Representative for Disarmament Izumi Nakamitsu (right) at a Nuclear Discussion Forum at the Mission of Kazakhstan, in October. (Photo by Mission of Kazakhstan to the United Nations.)After multiple delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the president-designate of the 10th NPT review conference announced in November that the meeting will finally be held Jan. 4–28 at UN headquarters in New York.

The conference caps a five-year cycle of meetings in which states-parties review compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on steps to overcome new challenges to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

The conference outcome is still very much in flux, according to diplomatic observers and participants. The president-designate, Argentine diplomat Gustavo Zlauvinen, and his three co-chairs are facilitating talks with more than 100 states-parties on a wide range of topics. Reaching consensus on a final document and action plan will be challenging, hinging on a handful of key issues, observers say.

The Disarmament Deficit

Ahead of the conference, tensions among the five nuclear-armed NPT members have risen as costly Chinese, Russian, and U.S. programs to modernize their nuclear arsenals speed ahead. These developments, along with the dissolution of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the failure of the United States and China to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, have increased frustrations over the failure of the nuclear-armed states-parties to meet their NPT disarmament obligations. As a result, a central conference issue will be reversing this trend.

As Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, described the situation in October, “Announcements and allegations related to growing nuclear arsenals and new means of delivery have caused disquiet not only amongst the other nuclear-weapon states, but also among non-nuclear-weapon states who see such developments as incompatible with the obligations contained in Article VI of the NPT.”

The NPT obligation to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date may have seemed quaintly outdated a decade ago, perhaps, [but] now seems worryingly relevant,” she said.

Another focus will be whether the conference will reaffirm the political commitments agreed by consensus at the 1995, 2000, and 2010 conferences, which all produced a final document.

In 1995, states-parties extended the treaty indefinitely on the basis of a package of decisions that included specific actions on disarmament and on establishing a “zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) in the Middle East. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, states-parties went further, setting forth 13 “practical steps” on disarmament. The 2010 NPT Review Conference consensus document identified 22 “actions” to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Some NPT nuclear-armed states argue that some outcomes of past NPT conferences have been overtaken by events, are no longer valid, or must be updated.

The vast majority of the non-nuclear-weapon states take the opposite view. As Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde told the Conference on Disarmament in February 2020, “The disarmament-related commitments and obligations from past review conferences, notably in 1995, 2000, and 2010, remain valid. Several are still outstanding and should be implemented urgently.”

One goal that remains valid is pursuing steeper reductions in and maintaining verifiable, legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Russia and the United States, which agreed at the 11th hour to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until February 2026, will likely tout their renewed strategic stability dialogue and plans to seek a new agreement to supersede New START.

The United States will also likely cite its decision to disclose the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal as a contribution toward greater transparency. The Oct. 5 declassification announcement indicates that the total number of “active” and “inactive” U.S. warheads is 3,750 as of September 2020.

U.S. officials have said little about what specific commitments they might endorse at the conference. Some decisions may hinge on the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which is not expected to be released until after the conference concludes.

The Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction held its first session, shown here, in November 2019 at UN Headquarters in New York. The second session is taking place Nov. 29–Dec. 3 in the same venue. Whether to establish such a zone is among the issues to be considered at the 10th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in January, also in New York. (Photo by United Nations)Asked by Arms Control Today what the U.S. message at the conference will be, Anthony Wier, deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said in an email, “We are deeply committed to restoring U.S. leadership on arms control and nonproliferation and to working closely with our partners and allies to address 21st Century challenges. At the NPT RevCon, the United States will do just that.”

He stressed that “a successful outcome will require each of us to be flexible” and said the United States will “work constructively with all NPT parties to achieve a positive outcome, one in which we reaffirm our commitment to the treaty.”

“The world is far more stable, secure, and prosperous today than before the NPT entered into force. We must preserve and prolong these benefits of the NPT, and strengthen the NPT itself,” Wier added.

With discussions moving slowly at best, several states have advanced proposals to encourage dialogue on disarmament and reducing nuclear risks. Among these is the 16-nation Stockholm Initiative, which emphasizes the value of “further work by the nuclear-weapon states on nuclear risk reduction, including more robust bilateral and multilateral dialogue and policies and doctrines that could reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies, prevent escalation leading to the use of nuclear weapons, and lessen the danger of nuclear war.”

Ahead of the conference, representatives of the five NPT nuclear-armed states will meet in Paris on Dec. 2 for their annual P5 Process meeting, which was established in 2007. The agenda includes nuclear doctrines and strategic risk reduction. At the group’s meeting in 2020, the United States balked at a proposed joint declaration that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” At their summit last June, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that statement. Diplomatic sources told Arms Control Today that the P5 Process group is working on a joint statement on nuclear risk reduction that references the Russian-U.S. statement.

As Nakamitsu noted in October, “Of course, while nuclear risk reduction can and should be a facilitator of nuclear disarmament steps, it cannot substitute for such steps.”

In recent months, other groups of states, including the Stockholm Initiative, the New Agenda Coalition, and the Non-Aligned Movement, issued statements and working papers that suggest how the conference can advance disarmament. Whether the delegations can converge around modest steps that build on previous conference statements could determine the success or failure of this one.

The Nuclear Ban

NPT states-parties are also expected to debate how to deal with the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which enjoys strong support from most NPT states-parties but not from the nuclear-armed states and many of their allies.

Diplomats told Arms Control Today that it makes sense for the conference to acknowledge that the TPNW has entered into force and is viewed by its supporters as a contribution to fulfilling the NPT obligations. Participants likely will press for language reinforcing the 2010 consensus that expresses “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirm[ing] the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”

There are indications that a few NPT nuclear-weapon states, all of whom criticized the TPNW in the past, may temper their opposition in the interest of reaching agreement on other more substantial issues.

At a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and disarmament, said in answer to a question about the TPNW that the United States “still has concerns about the treaty, but we are also not telling countries that they shouldn’t sign and we’re not nearly as assertive as we were in the past about it.”

Sweden, which is not a TPNW party but plans to attend the first meeting of the TPNW states-parties in 2022 as an observer, is among those urging an end to polarizing tactics over the treaty. “It is essential that the upcoming NPT review conference does not turn into an argument for or against the TPNW,” Linde told Arms Control Today in May 2021.

“Digging ourselves deeper into trenches will not solve anything. Rather it may risk having a negative spillover effect on other issues,” she said.

Regional Issues

Meanwhile, disagreements persist about the process of establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone, despite a decision by the UN General Assembly to convene a UN-sponsored meeting on the issue in 2019.

Establishing such a zone has long been a priority for states in the region concerned about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But disputes over the agenda and format of meetings have stymied progress.

At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the United States vetoed the draft final conference document because it called for the UN secretary-general to convene a conference by March 1, 2016, aimed at “launching a continuous process of negotiating and concluding a legally binding treaty” establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. (See ACT, June 2015.)

The U.S. delegation, however, “was unable to accept an early deadline” for holding an initial conference on the zone and it objected to “Egypt’s insistence on deleting from the mandate the key phrase that the conference be held ‘on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at’… [which was] necessary not only to make an initial conference acceptable to Israel, but also for the credibility of any process that followed an initial conference,” according to former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Following the impasse, Arab states encouraged the UN General Assembly in 2018 to convene a conference on the establishment of the zone. The first session was held in November 2019. The second session is scheduled for Nov. 29–Dec. 3 in New York.

Zlauvinen told a gathering of diplomats on Oct. 27 that his consultations indicate that key states-parties remain divided as to whether the UN-convened meeting on the zone could advance genuine progress. “Aside from nuclear disarmament, this is the second most important challenge we face at the review conference,” he said.

Other Complications

The NPT conference typically involves hundreds of representatives from most of the 191 states-parties to the treaty, as well as nongovernmental organizations and meeting support personnel.

Even after three pandemic-related delays, the virus continues to complicate the work of conference delegates. Most premeeting consultations between the conference president and states-parties are usually in person, but global pandemic travel restrictions have relegated the bulk of this work to video calls.

Although the meeting will be held at the United Nations, diplomats will not have normal use of the building, and organizers have mandated that national delegations be smaller than usual.

The U.S. delegation has also been hampered by the fact that the special representative nominated by Biden to lead the team, Adam Scheinman, who also performed that function for the 2015 conference, has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The review conference marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force. As Zlauvinen said on Oct. 27, “[O]ne way that governments can show their strong support for the treaty is by attending at least the first few days of the conference at the highest levels.” He noted that he cannot dictate who those officials might be but made clear that “heads of state or foreign ministers would be more than welcome.”

The U.S. State Department’s Wier did not rule out that Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken might address the conference.

Before the conference was delayed last year, Zlauven said almost 40 foreign ministers and six or seven heads of state or government had been expected to attend.

States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will convene in January for a review conference that will shape the future of international arm control.

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China’s nuclear advances and the increasingly competitive relationship with the United States make it more important than ever that Beijing agrees to engage in a meaningful dialogue on arms control and risk reduction. While China’s strategic nuclear arsenal is about one-tenth the size of the United States arsenal of more than 1,300 deployed strategic warheads, it still is still capable of producing catastrophic destruction. It is in the mutual interests of the United States, China and the world for Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping to agree to start a regular and meaningful arms control and...


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