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– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Kingston Reif

A Cheaper Nuclear Sponge

News Date: 
October 18, 2019 -04:00

Biden Administration Begins Nuclear Posture Review


September 2021
By Kingston Reif

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

U.S., Russia Expected to Continue Stability Talks


September 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Neither side has said much about where the process stands.

Pentagon Raises Concerns About NNSA Budget


September 2021
By Kingston Reif

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Cruise Missile Cost Rises


September 2021
By Kingston Reif

The projected cost of the U.S. Air Force’s program to build a new fleet of nuclear air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) has risen to between $14.2 billion and $16.2 billion as the service begins the main development phase for the weapons.

An AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile, shown here during a 2014 training exercise after being released from a B-52H Stratofortress over the Utah Test and Training Range. (Photo by U.S, Air Force)The updated cost projection is an increase of 30–50 percent from the Air Force’s earlier estimate of $10.8 billion for the program, known as the long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon, in 2016. (See ACT, September 2016.) Both the new and previous estimates include the impact of inflation.

Bloomberg was the first to report on the updated cost estimate for the LRSO system. The cause of the projected increase is unclear.

The latest projection does not include the upgraded warhead for the missile, dubbed the W80-4, which is expected to cost an additional $11 billion.

The new missile estimates were prepared by the Air Force and the Pentagon’s independent cost-estimating office ahead of the program’s Milestone B decision, a landmark for major Pentagon acquisition programs because it is considered the program’s official start.

Following the Milestone B decision, the Air Force in July awarded a $2 billion development contract to the Raytheon Co. for the program.

In a press release announcing the LRSO award, the Air Force wrote, “Raytheon provided the best overall value to the warfighter and taxpayers based on the selection process’ evaluation factors.”

The award of the contract to Raytheon did not come as a surprise.

The service had already decided in April 2020 to continue developing the missile with Raytheon as the sole contractor, citing the company’s superior design. (See ACT, May 2020.)

In August 2017, the Air Force awarded Raytheon and Lockheed Martin Corp. each a $900 million contract to proceed with development of the LRSO system. (See ACT, October 2017.) The contracts were intended to cover a 54-month period of development after which the Air Force would choose one of the contractors to complete development and begin production.

The Air Force later in 2020 decided to accelerate the Milestone B decision for the program to the spring of 2021, about nine months earlier than planned.

The Biden administration supported the acceleration of the program in its first budget request. The Pentagon is asking for $609 million for the LRSO program in fiscal year 2022, an increase of $250 million more than the Trump administration was planning to seek. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

It is not clear whether the unplanned increase reflects the growth in the projected acquisition cost for the program, the acceleration of certain program activities, or both.

Current Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles to replace the current fleet of AGM-86B missiles that have been operational since 1986. The service says a new ALCM is needed because the existing missiles are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain and are losing their ability to penetrate sophisticated air defenses. The new missile will be compatible with the B-52H and planned B-21 bombers.

The new missile will be dubbed the AGM-181 when it becomes operational.

The cost projection for a new long-range standoff weapon has increased 30–50 percent from the U.S. Air Force’s earlier estimate.

Members Discuss Open Skies Treaty After Russia Withdraws


September 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The remaining members of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty are moving forward with determining how the treaty will function after Russia withdraws in December 2021, a year after the United States also pulled out.

Royal Canadian Air Force members prepare their CC-130J aircraft for an Open Skies Treaty training flight in 2018. Now that the United States and Russia have withdrawn from the treaty, Canada and Hungary, the treaty depositaries, convened a video conference in July to chart the way forward. (Photo by John Hillier/U.S. Air National Guard/DVIDS)Canada and Hungary, the treaty depositaries, convened the states-parties for a videoconference on July 20 to discuss Russia’s announcement in June that it will withdraw from the accord Dec. 18. (See ACT, July/August 2021.) The conference brought together 183 representatives from the 33 states-parties, according to a statement by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The representatives discussed “the overall impact on operational functionality of the Treaty, the impact on the allocation of observation quotas and on financial arrangements within the Treaty, and other potential effects on the Treaty,” the OSCE statement said. “The discussion was extensive with 28 States Parties to the Treaty offering a broad range of views on several key topics pertaining to the effect of the decision by the Russian Federation to withdraw from the Treaty,” the statement added.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in his address to the conference that the U.S. withdrawal in 2020 destroyed “the balance of interests, rights, and obligations of the participants” in the treaty. He reiterated that the states-parties’ refusal to provide written guarantees that they will neither share data collected under the treaty with the United States nor prohibit overflights of U.S. bases in Europe informed Moscow’s decision to leave the accord. (See ACT, December 2020.)

Ryabkov also rejected the call made by NATO in its June communiqué for Russia to return to full compliance with the treaty and emphasized that Moscow will not change course. “The train has left,” he said during his closing remarks. “If you were really interested in Russia remaining in the [Open Skies Treaty], you would have acted differently.”

The deputy foreign minister concluded with a warning that if the treaty “is further terminated, the entire blame for such an outcome will also fall on the United States and its allies.”

Other states-parties at the conference, such as France and the United Kingdom, expressed their disappointment with Russia’s withdrawal decision and their intention to remain fully committed to the treaty. Susanne Baumann, German commissioner for disarmament and arms control, said that Russia’s withdrawal places “significant strain” on the treaty and that “a new approach to conventional arms control is much needed.”

Katarina Kertysova, a policy fellow at the European Leadership Network, in a July article encouraged the remaining states-parties to keep the treaty alive because there is “ongoing value in overflying Ukraine, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” as well as in conducting extraordinary observation flights, as occurred in Ukraine in 2014. Kertysova also suggested possible ways in which the treaty could be reimagined and expanded, such as by verifying international arms control agreements and extending the geographical scope of the treaty outside of the Euro-Atlantic region.

Meanwhile, Alexander Graef, a researcher at the Institute for Peace, Research, and Security Policy in Hamburg, emphasized on July 20 that “[n]o amount of national technical means can replace the value of [military-to-military] contacts” provided through the treaty’s implementation.

Entering into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. The Biden administration informed Moscow in May that it would not seek to rejoin the accord after the Trump administration withdrew Washington from the treaty in November 2020. (See ACT, June 2021.)

The remaining members of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty are trying to figure out how the treaty will function once Russia withdraws in December.

New Report Released on the Allure and Risks of Hypersonic Weapons

Sections:

Body: 

For Immediate Release: Sept. 14, 2021

Media Contacts: Shannon Bugos, research associate, [email protected], and Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, [email protected]

(WASHINGTON, DC)—A new report from the Arms Control Association details the growing allure but also the risks of the aggressive pursuit of hypersonic weapons by the United States amid a renewed emphasis on military competition with China and Russia. The report also proposes action items for Congress to better understand the Defense Department’s plans for the weapons and mitigate strategic stability risks.

The debate concerning hypersonic weapons has gained increased attention in recent years as the United States has poured billions of dollars—and plans to pour billions more—into accelerating the development of hypersonic weapons and as China and Russia make headway in developing and deploying their own such weapons. The Pentagon is funding no less than eight prototype hypersonic weapons programs with the aim of fielding an initial capability of at least some of those by 2022.

“[T]he U.S. rush to field hypersonic weapons merits a more critical examination by the Biden administration and Congress given the many unanswered questions about their rationale, technical viability, cost-effectiveness, and escalatory risks,” write Shannon Bugos, a research associate, and Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

“It is time—in fact, past time—for Congress to demand these answers before the military begins fielding the weapons in great numbers,” they say.

The report, Understanding Hypersonic Weapons: Managing the Allure and the Risks, outlines the scope of the unanswered questions about the case for hypersonic weapons, details the underappreciated risks to stability posed by the weapons, assesses the viability of arms control as a tool to reduce these risks, and suggests recommended action items for Congress to better its understanding about the Pentagon’s plans for the weapons, eliminate potential redundancies in weapons capabilities, and mitigate stability risks.

The full report is available for download at ArmsControl.org/Reports.

Description: 

This new report details the growing allure—and risks—of hypersonic weapons being pursued by the United States amid a renewed emphasis on military competition with China and Russia. The report also proposes action items for Congress to better understand the Defense Department’s plans for the weapons and mitigate strategic stability risks.

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