"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Issue Briefs

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.

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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. 

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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.

Country Resources:

Restoring the Nuclear Deal with Iran Benefits U.S. Nonproliferation Priorities



Volume 13, Issue 1, March 15, 2021

Iran has systematically breached key limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in May 2019 that Tehran would reduce compliance with the accord. Iran’s decision to violate the multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a direct response to former President Donald Trump’s decision a year earlier to withdraw from the accord and reimpose sanctions in violation of U.S. obligations.

Iran’s nuclear program does not currently pose an immediate proliferation risk and there is no indication from U.S. intelligence that Iran has resumed weaponization-related activities, but its breaches are becoming increasingly more serious and difficult—if not impossible—to fully reverse.

While these breaches are troubling, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has gone to great lengths to keep the door open to restore full implementation of the nuclear deal and reverse Iran’s violations, if the United States lifts sanctions in compliance with its obligations under the accord.

Time is short, however, as both the Biden and Rouhani administrations face considerable domestic pressure opposing restoration of the accord. Neither wants to be perceived as making the first move or making a unilateral concession.

President Joe Biden’s failure to take early action to send a signal of U.S. good faith intentions also appears to have spurred debate in Tehran over whether or not he is serious about his stated approach of “compliance for compliance” to restore the nuclear deal, or if he intends to try and renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

Biden faces pressure from policymakers, particularly opponents of the JCPOA in Congress, to use the Trump administration’s sanctions to leverage additional concessions from Iran on a range of issues. This rhetoric further reinforces doubts in Tehran about Biden’s intentions to restore the deal. However, the idea that the Trump administration’s sanctions have created viable leverage to pressure Iran to make further concessions fails to take into account that U.S. credibility was severely diminished by Trump’s reimposition of sanctions in violation of the deal. There is little support for reimposed U.S. sanctions, which are perceived as jeopardizing an agreement that advanced global nonproliferation interests, and Iran has no interest in new negotiations until the nuclear deal is restored.

If the JCPOA collapses and Iran continues to ratchet up its nuclear activities, some U.S. allies and partners may join a U.S. pressure campaign, but the Biden administration would be hard-pressed to reconstitute the level of international support seen before the negotiations on the JCPOA. Russia and China in particular would be unlikely to support a pressure-based approach after Trump’s treatment of the nuclear deal, barring a clear indication that Iran intended to pursue nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iran can also ratchet up its nuclear activities far more quickly than the United States could attempt to restore international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation, giving Tehran its own leverage.

A quick, complete compliance-for-compliance restoration of the JCPOA remains the best option to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, create the time and space for future negotiations on a range of issues, and restore U.S. credibility.

The EU, as the convenor of the negotiations on the JCPOA, is the logical choice to coordinate steps by both sides to resume full implementation of their JCPOA obligations and appears willing to take on that role. Concrete action by the United States to support its stated preference for returning to the deal may help pave the way for an EU-led approach, but with increasingly serious violations of the JCPOA on the horizon and Iran’s presidential elections in June, time is short. It may behoove the EU to present a proposal of its own detailing the necessary reciprocal steps for the United States and Iran to meet their JCPOA obligations.

Failure to restore the deal risks Tehran taking further steps that increase the risk posed by its nuclear program and igniting a destabilizing nuclear competition in the region, both of which would set back U.S security interests and international nonproliferation priorities.

Maximum Pressure Triggered Nuclear Breaches

Under the JCPOA Iran is subject to stringent limitations on its nuclear program and intrusive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, the P5+1 (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, the EU, and, formerly, the United States) committed to waiving sanctions imposed on Iran. The United Nations Security Council also endorsed the deal in Resolution 2231 (2015), which lifted certain UN sanctions on Iran and levied restrictions on Iranian conventional arms and ballistic missile transfers.

Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018— despite acknowledging Iran’s compliance with the multilateral agreement and over the objections of key U.S. allies. Trump also ordered the reimposition of sanctions that had been lifted or waived under the JCPOA, violating U.S. obligations under the accord. From May 2018 until Trump left office in Jan. 2021, the administration continued to aggressively deny Iran any benefit of remaining in compliance with the nuclear deal and actively opposed efforts by the remaining parties to the deal to engage in legitimate trade with Iran and complete cooperative nuclear projects—even those that benefited U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The failure of the remaining parties to the JCPOA to deliver on sanctions relief in the year after U.S. withdrawal drove Rouhani to announce in May 2019 that Iran would begin violating the JCPOA. He said Iran would continue to ratchet up its nuclear activities until sanctions relief in oil sales, banking transactions, and other areas of commerce were restored.

For nearly a year following Rouhani’s May 2019 announcement, Iran systematically announced new breaches to the JCPOA’s limits on uranium enrichment, research and development on advanced centrifuges, and stockpile size. Those breaches were carefully calibrated, overseen by IAEA inspectors, and were largely reversible, supporting Rouhani’s assertion that all JCPOA violations taken by Iran are about pressuring parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief and not intended to collapse the deal or impede a full restoration of the deal’s limits down the road.

In Dec. 2020, the Iranian parliament and Guardian Council approved a bill calling on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to significantly ramp up certain nuclear activities in violation of the deal. That law, hastened by the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, went into effect Dec. 23. The actions required by the nuclear law, some of which have already begun, pose a more serious risk to the JCPOA. The new law, for instance, requires Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its uranium enrichment program, such as boosting enrichment levels to 20 percent uranium-235—a purity Iran had not reached since 2013 when Tehran agreed to cap enrichment amid JCPOA negotiations. The law also includes new breaches, including suspending more intrusive monitoring activities and beginning the production of uranium metal, which would be more difficult to reverse.

To date, between the breaches announced in 2019 and steps taken in line with the Dec. 2020 legislation Iran has:

  1. Breached stockpile limits of 300 kilograms of uranium gas and 130 metric tons of heavy water;
  2. Enriched uranium above the 3.67 percent uranium-235 limit set by the deal;
  3. Operated advanced centrifuges in excess of the JCPOA’s limits and used certain models to produce enriched uranium in violation of the accord;
  4. Resumed enrichment at the Fordow facility in violation of the deal;
  5. Abandoned operational restrictions on its uranium enrichment program;
  6. Suspended the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and JCPOA-specific monitoring measures (a special arrangement with the IAEA is in place); and
  7. Produced gram quantities of natural uranium metal and begun work on a uranium metal production plant (the plant is not yet operational).

(For more information on the status of Iran’s violations of the JCPOA see “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action At A Glance.”)

Heightened but Manageable Proliferation Risk—For Now

In total, Iran’s violations have increased the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s activities to ratchet up its uranium enrichment capacity have reduced the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one bomb from about 12 months (when the nuclear deal is fully implemented) to about three months, as of Feb. 2021. That breakout time will continue to shorten if Iran installs and brings online advanced centrifuges, as required by the 2020 nuclear law, and its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20 percent continues to grow.

The Dec. 2020 nuclear law requirements stipulating that Iran stockpile uranium enriched to 20 percent and install and operate advanced centrifuges, in particular, accelerate the decrease in breakout. Iran’s advanced machines are much more efficient than the IR-1s to which Iran is limited to using under the JCPOA. The IR-2m centrifuge is estimated to be about three to four times more efficient than the IR-1 and the IR-6 an estimated seven to eight times more efficient. In total, if Iran operates 1,000 IR-2s (about half of which are already enriching) and 1,000 IR-6s (as required by the end of 2021 under the law), in addition to the 6,104 IR-1s already enriching uranium, Iran’s enrichment capacity will increase by about threefold.

Enriching to 20 percent also increases proliferation risk, as that level constitutes about 90 percent of the work necessary to enrich to weapons-grade (above 90 percent uranium-235). Once Iran has accumulated enough 20 percent enriched gas for a bomb, about 250 kilograms (or about 170 kilograms by weight), it could likely produce what is known as a significant quantity of nuclear material (one bomb’s worth, or 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to greater than 90 percent) in less than two months given its current enrichment capacity. As of mid-February, Iran had about 17 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent (by weight) and it intends to produce 120 kilograms (by weight) during 2021, suggesting that Iran will not reach a bomb’s worth of 20 percent material before the end of the year at the current pace.

The decrease in breakout time is a concern. But even if Iran decided to pursue nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that Iran would withdraw from the JCPOA and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce just one bomb, particularly given that Tehran has never tested a nuclear device. Any such move would be met by swift international condemnation and the reimposition of sanctions. Iran has uranium enriched to less than 5 percent that, when enriched to weapons-grade, would be enough for a second bomb, but it would take another two to three months. Then Iran would need to covert and weaponize the material—a process that could take another year to 18 months.

The 12-month breakout time can be restored relatively quickly by reversing Iran’s breaches of the uranium enrichment limits—a process that could itself likely be accomplished in under three months with significant political will. Enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram stockpile limit can be quickly shipped out or blended down to natural levels, excess machines dismantled and stored, enrichment halted at Fordow, and enrichment levels dialed back to 3.67 percent uranium-235. Knowledge gained by operating advanced centrifuges is not reversible, but the excess machines themselves will be dismantled and stored under IAEA seal, so Iran will not be able to access them without inspectors knowing. Furthermore, the efficiency of the advanced machines can be taken into account in calculating and determining an acceptable breakout time in follow-up negotiations.

Work on uranium metal is more problematic. The JCPOA bans uranium metal production for 15 years because of its applicability to weapons development. While Iran claims it is pursuing uranium metal for reactor fuel, the knowledge gained would still be relevant to weaponization processes.

Though it is widely suspected that Iran experimented with uranium metal as part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, it does not appear to have significant experience with large-scale production and much of the experimentation appears to have been done with surrogate metals. Restoring the JCPOA’s limits before Iran gains that valuable and irreversible expertise with metal production would benefit long-term U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The risk posed by these breaches is further amplified by Iran’s decision to suspend the more intrusive monitoring mechanisms required by the JCPOA, including the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. Inspectors will still be in place and have access to sites where Iran produces and stores its nuclear material as part of Iran’s legally required safeguards agreement under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, the suspension of the more intrusive measures could create gaps in the IAEA’s understanding of Iran’s nuclear program, as the additional protocol gives inspectors regular access to all facilities that support the nuclear program and complimentary access to follow up on concerns about undeclared nuclear activities. Decreased access will make it more difficult to monitor Iran’s breaches of the deal and likely increase speculation about illicit nuclear activities.

Iran and the IAEA did agree to a special three-month technical arrangement Feb. 21—two days before Iran’s suspension of the measures—that will allow certain agency monitoring beyond Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran also committed to collect certain information relevant to the additional protocol—including tapes of continuous surveillance activities—and hand that information over to the IAEA upon sanctions relief.

Ideally, the hand-over of information will allow for inspectors to reconstruct Iran’s nuclear program during the three-month period and will mitigate any speculation of illicit activities in the absence of stringent IAEA oversight. However, the special arrangement is not a viable solution in the long term, particularly if any concerns emerge about illicit activities and materials, but it does manage the risk and buy time for diplomatic action to restore the JCPOA.

Restoring Mutual Compliance with the 2015 Nuclear Deal

Although Iran’s systematic breaches of JCPOA limits constitute serious violations of the agreement, the deal itself has proven to be an effective, verifiable arrangement when it is fully implemented. It is possible to restore the deal’s nonproliferation benefits—but only if the parties to the deal act swiftly to fully implement the JCPOA’s obligations.

There is no indication at this point that Iran is pursuing or intends to pursue nuclear weapons, but the violations have increased speculation about illicit nuclear activities and worn the patience of the European members of the deal. E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) frustration was manifest in a recent gratuitous attempt to censure Iran for its suspension of the additional protocol during the March meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. While the E3 concern about the decrease in monitoring is warranted, pursuing the resolution risked the special technical arrangement and the space for Iran, the United States, and the parties to the JCPOA to meet to discuss restoring the accord.

Returning to full implementation of the deal will require coordination by the United States and Iran. Unsurprisingly, while both U.S. President Joe Biden and Rouhani support a restoration of the JCPOA and a mutual return to full compliance, neither wants to be perceived as acting first or unilaterally. Both appear interested in partaking in discussions facilitated by the EU, which the EU appears eager to do, but creating the necessary political conditions for all sides to accept an invitation remains a challenge.

Given that the Trump administration triggered this crisis—namely by reimposing sanctions in violation of the deal— and provoked Iran’s violations of the accord, further signaling by the Biden administration of U.S. good faith could promote an environment conducive to coordinating restoration of the nuclear deal. Biden’s failure to act early upon taking office in Jan. 2021 prompted concern in Tehran that the new U.S. president was not serious about restoring the deal as is, and that he might try to renegotiate it—a position unacceptable to Tehran.

To date, the Biden administration has insisted that it will not grant sanctions relief before talks on restoring full compliance with the deal. But the White House could take steps to signal good faith, such as reinstating waivers for JCPOA-required nonproliferation projects that would help facilitate Iran’s eventual return to compliance and more definitive action in support of humanitarian efforts. Such steps could help restore confidence in Tehran that Biden is serious about restoring the JCPOA and demonstrate that the United States acknowledges Rouhani’s efforts to keep the window open for diplomacy.

Failure to act swiftly risks the JCPOA collapsing. A collapsed JCPOA would have severe implications for regional stability and international security, as Iran’s program would be unrestrained and subject to far less monitoring at a time when the United States faces a significant credibility deficit.

Even in the absence of the accord, it is highly unlikely that Iran would make the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, but restricted IAEA monitoring and no limits on uranium enrichment would raise speculation over covert Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. This could spur other states in the region to match Iran’s perceived nuclear capabilities or attempt a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—an act that would only set back the program and be more likely to spur Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons to deter future attacks. Dissolution of the JCPOA would also significantly compromise the likelihood of Iran engaging in future nuclear nonproliferation agreements.

It is critical that the Biden administration not miss this window to restore the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA and use it as a platform for future diplomatic engagement.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy



Iran has breached key limits of the JCPOA since May 2019, gradually increasing the proliferation risk posed by its civilian nuclear program. Taken together, Iran's systematic and provocative violations of the nuclear deal are cause for concern and jeopardize the future of the deal. 

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Time Running Out: Extend New START Now



Volume 12, Issue 7, October 7, 2020

Four months remain until the last U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty is slated to expire Feb. 5, 2021, and with it the last remaining verifiable limits on the size of the still enormous U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has so far refused Russia’s offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years as allowed by the treaty.

Instead, the administration has conditioned consideration of a short-term extension of New START on Russia’s acceptance of a one-sided, 11th hour offer that Russia has rejected. In recent days, the two sides have exchanged additional ideas with U.S. officials claiming some measure of “progress.”

The stakes could not be higher. The untimely death of New START with nothing to replace it would open the door to a costly and dangerous new quantitative U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race.

Barring an October surprise in which President Trump orders a more reasonable approach than what the administration has currently offered to Russia, the fate of the treaty will likely be decided by the presidential election Nov. 3. Former Vice President Joe Biden has expressed support for an extension of New START without conditions.


The U.S. August Proposal

Following an August meeting in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea sketched out the U.S. proposal for a politically binding framework deal with Russia. The framework, he said Aug. 18, must cover all nuclear warheads, establish a verification regime suitable to that task, and be “extensible” to China in the future.

In addition, Billingslea characterized New START as “a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration” and alleged the agreement has “significant verification deficiencies.” He said President Trump would not agree to extend New START unless these purported deficiencies, including an inadequate number of inspections, are fixed. Billingslea later clarified that even if Russia agrees to the U.S. terms, only a short-term extension, likely no more than a year, is on the table.

“[I]f Russia would like to see that treaty [New START] extended, then it’s really on them to come back to us,” Billingslea said, citing a mandate from Trump. “The ball is now in Russia’s court.”

Trump administration officials insist that the conditions represent a reasonable offer. They note that China’s immediate participation in trilateral arms control talks is no longer a condition for consideration of an extension of New START (though they continue to insist that the framework agreement must specifically mention China and that the next arms control treaty must include China).

Left unsaid is what the administration is willing to put on the table in return for Russia agreeing to the U.S. demands. The answer appears to be that Russia must agree to the U.S. demands for free.

Meanwhile, the administration should not get credit for being mugged by reality and relaxing its insistence on China’s immediate participation in talks. There was never any chance that China would do so, despite Billingslea’s ineffective efforts to embarrass China to the table.

Predictably, Russia has repeatedly poured cold water on the administration’s proposal, calling it “absolutely unrealistic.” Ryabkov reiterated Oct. 1 that the U.S. proposal is “clearly a nonstarter for us.”

In addition to making unrealistic demands, the administration has resorted to wild threats and petty insults in an attempt to coerce and embarrass Russia to the table. Billingslea is now publicly saying that if Russia refuses the unrealistic U.S. terms, “we will be extremely happy to continue…without the START restrictions” and threatened that the United States would immediately begin building up its nuclear arsenal the day after New START expires. He has also threatened to slap additional conditions on the U.S. offer if Russia does not accept it by the November election.

Such an approach has zero chance of success and is far more consistent with running out the clock on New START (and trying to pin the blame on Russia and China) rather than a serious effort to make progress on further arms control.

The Latest Exchanges

Billingslea and Ryabkov met again Oct. 5 in Helsinki. A senior Trump administration official told The Wall Street Journal that “substantial progress” was made at the meeting and that Russia brought “concrete proposals” to the table for the first time. The official added that the framework agreement the sides are discussing would include a politically binding commitment to freeze the total number of warheads possessed by each side and entail a short-term extension of New START.

A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry after the talks said only that “further prospects on the track of bilateral cooperation on arms control” had been discussed. As Billingslea and Ryabkov were meeting in Helsinki, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his belief that New START "is going to die." He said that "The conditions they [the Trump administration] set are absolutely unilateral and do not take into account either our interests or the experience of many decades, when arms control was enforced to everyone’s satisfaction and was welcomed by all countries."

A politically binding warhead freeze could be a useful confidence-building measure as Washington and Moscow engage in what are sure to be complex and lengthy talks on a new nuclear disarmament agreement. However, it remains to be seen what such a freeze would entail, what Russia might seek in return, and whether the Trump administration is open to relaxing its heretofore unacceptable conditions for a deal, especially the demand for changes to the New START verification regime.   

The Case for Extending New START

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. It also put into place a verification regime greatly valued by the U.S. military for the insight it affords into the Russian nuclear arsenal.

Article XIV of the treaty allows for an extension “for a period of no more than five years” so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents mutually agree. Members of Congress from both parties and most U.S. allies have expressed support for the treaty’s five-year extension.

The pursuit of a new arms control agreement that captures all types of nuclear warheads and additional nuclear-armed states is a laudable goal. But not if that pursuit comes at the expense of or as a condition for extending New START. New START should be extended for the full five years in order to ensure that the verifiable limits put into place by the treaty do not disappear as talks on a new agreement are pursued. New START is too valuable to allow to expire.

If New START lapses with nothing to replace it, there would be no negotiated limits on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. The end of the treaty would further damage relations with our allies, undermine the fraying health of the global nonproliferation regime, exacerbate an already fraught U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, and provide Washington and Moscow with a greater incentive to make additional costly nuclear force investments.

Below are additional key points about the case for extending New START for five years and the problems with the Trump administration’s proposal for a new framework agreement with Russia.

The U.S. military greatly values and relies upon the verification regime established by New START. Billingslea has argued that the New START verification regime “has significant loopholes in the way verification is physically conducted, which the Russians have been exploiting.” But the U.S. military has raised no such concerns.

New START’s extensive monitoring and verification regime provides essential real-time insights directly into Russian strategic forces and modernization programs. Allowing the treaty to die would deprive us of a vital flow of information about Russia’s strategic forces that cannot be obtained via other means.

Vice Adm. David Kriete, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in July 2019 that “those verification procedures that the U.S. gets to execute all the time provides great insight into Russia’s capabilities, numbers, and all kinds of things associated with their nuclear weapons.” If those procedures disappeared, he said, then “we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps.”

The treaty’s verification regime is more than adequate to monitor Russia’s compliance with the treaty. Indeed, a State Department report published in February reiterated that Russia remains in compliance with the treaty and that the treaty limits and the “verification regime established by the treaty both regulate competition and provide key data, information, and insights regarding Russian strategic nuclear forces.”

Rose Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. negotiator of New START during the Obama administration, recently wrote that New START’s verification setup used what worked in previous treaties and discarded what was no longer necessary and cumbersome and costly to implement. “In the end,” she said, “the United States got what it wanted in the New START verification regime: streamlined inspection procedures at a sufficient level of detail to be effectively implemented.”

There is no evidence that withholding an extension of New START or dangling a short-term extension of the treaty enhances U.S. leverage to push Russia to agree to U.S. demands for a bilateral framework agreement or a new trilateral arms control treaty. The Trump administration believes that Russia is “desperate” to secure an extension of New START. But Russia has said that it will not agree to an extension “at any cost.” Ryabkov said Sept. 21 that the Trump administration needs to give up its preconditions for extension “and then we can start the talks about something, or there’s no deal.”

The administration’s refusal to date to extend the treaty by five years has produced no meaningful leverage. Moreover, assuming Moscow would even agree to multiple short-term extensions totaling less than five years, preparing and posturing for such extensions would distract from the broader talks the administration says it seeks.

A five-year extension would provide the most breathing room to pursue negotiations on a new deal. U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations have in the past been complex and time-consuming, and the Trump administration is proposing an agreement unprecedented in scope. The Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), for example, took place from November 1969 to May 1972. New START was notable for the relatively short time it took to negotiate, but it still took the United States and Russia 10 months.

The Trump administration does not have a successful track record trying to force Russia’s hand on arms control. For instance, the Trump administration’s threats to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty did not bring Russia back into compliance, and the United States officially withdrew from the treaty in August 2019. Likewise, the U.S. announcement in May of its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty has not pressured Russia to address U.S. concerns about Russia’s implementation of the accord. The United States is slated to formally exit the treaty shortly after the election.

The outcome of U.S. efforts to seek new arms control arrangements will succeed or fail based on whether those arrangements comport with the security interests and address the concerns of the parties involved. Neither Russia nor China can be coerced or embarrassed to the negotiating table (and Moscow has said that it will not cave to U.S. pressure to force Beijing to join trilateral arms control talks).

Apart from allowing New START to expire and threatening a nuclear buildup, the Trump administration has refused to detail what the United States is willing to put on the table to incentivize Russia (and China) to agree to the administration’s arms control goals. Any agreement as sweeping and unprecedented as the one proposed by Billingslea will, of course, require mutual concessions by both Washington and Moscow. But as it stands, the politically binding framework proposed by Billingslea demands unilateral concessions from Russia.

In addition to China, Russia has long called for France and the United Kingdom to join the next arms control agreement after New START. Moscow also seeks to capture other factors it deems essential to maintaining strategic stability, such as missile defense, ground-based short- and intermediate-range missiles, space weapons, and hypersonic weapons. As the United States wants an agreement that covers Russia’s unconstrained stockpile of nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons, so does Russia want Washington to remove the estimated 150 U.S. tactical nuclear bombs based in five European countries.

But Billingslea has already dismissed the idea of limits on U.S. missile defense as well as the removal of U.S. tactical weapons in Europe.

There is no national security need to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal above the New START limits, and the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are unprepared to do so anyway. Following Billingslea’s threat that the United States will start increasing the arsenal after New START expires, news reports revealed that the Pentagon has been asked to evaluate how long it would take to execute a buildup. Billingslea does not appear to have consulted the Pentagon before making his threat.

James Anderson, the undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in July that, “Our intention is to remain within the New Start limits of 700 strategic missiles and bombers and 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.” According to a July 30 report by the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon “is basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its force structure.”

The United States has not increased the size of the U.S. deployed nuclear arsenal in decades and doing so would be a major departure from longstanding U.S. policy.

Billingslea’s call for a nuclear buildup follows his outlandish claim earlier this year that the United States can spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in a new arms race. More U.S. spending on nuclear weapons won’t force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands and would be fraught with peril.

The United States is already planning to spend an excessive sum to sustain and upgrade the current arsenal, which is based on the New START limits. As a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office demonstrated, the possibility of unconstrained nuclear competition could create even greater costs that would divert funding from higher priority U.S. national and health security priorities.

Ever-increasing spending on nuclear weapons without an arms control framework that bounds U.S. and Russian nuclear forces is a recipe for a less secure United States. Such an approach also flies in the face of longstanding bipartisan Congressional support for the pursuit of modernization and arms control in tandem.

Extend New START Now

The Trump administration’s approach to arms control with Russia has not been a serious starting point for negotiations on extending or replacing New START.

With little more than four months until New START expires, the best course forward is to immediately extend the treaty for a full five years and then pursue follow-on agreements that address legitimate U.S. and Russian concerns about unconstrained nuclear weapons, the nuclear arsenals of other nuclear-armed states, and non-nuclear weapons and policies that could impact strategic stability.

Extending New START would prolong the limits on Russia’s deployed strategic forces, continue an otherwise unobtainable flow of information about those forces, and provide the necessary foundation from which to seek more far-reaching arms control goals.

The Trump administration’s demand for unilateral concessions from Moscow in exchange for a short-term extension of New START is a recipe for failure and risks setting the United States on the road to an expensive arms race that it can ill afford.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant


The stakes could not be higher. The untimely death of New START with nothing to replace it would open the door to a costly and dangerous new quantitative U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race.

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