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News Briefs

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack

OPCW Says Chlorine Used in Syria Attack


International investigators confirmed in March that a chemical weapon was used in an April 2018 attack in Douma, Syria. The Fact-Finding Mission established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was not asked to identify the responsible party for the April 7, 2018, attack that reportedly killed dozens and injured many more.

A laboratory technician examines a test vial at an OPCW laboratory near the Hague in 2017.  The agency has determined that an April 2018 attack in Syria used chlorine-based weapons.  (Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)Investigators from the OPCW, the implementing agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention, were unable to visit the attack site until about two weeks after the incident. Their report notes there was evidence of tampering at the site, but they were able to conclude that the “toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.”

Although the mission was not empowered to identify the party responsible for the chemical attacks, the report notes several details at the scene that independent analysts have argued would be consistent with aircraft use. The Syrian regime has access to aircraft, but no nonstate actors in Syria do. The OPCW has created a new investigative body, the Investigation and Identification Team, to assess who conducted chemical weapons attacks in Syria confirmed by the Fact-Finding Mission. (See ACT, July/August 2018.) The head of the new team has been selected, and the team should be fully operational within weeks, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told the OPCW Executive Council in mid-March.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

THAAD Sale to Saudi Arabia Moves Forward

THAAD Sale to Saudi Arabia Moves Forward


The U.S. Defense Department announced March 4 that it recently awarded Lockheed Martin a nearly $1 billion contract to begin work on a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense package for Saudi Arabia. The contract marks the start of a $15 billion deal for the kingdom to receive 44 THAAD batteries, including 360 missile interceptors.

The contract followed November 2018 letters of offer and acceptance between the United States and Saudi Arabia formalizing terms for the sale of the THAAD launchers, missiles, and related equipment. The $15 billion package is part of a larger $110 billion weapons deal that the United States negotiated with Saudi leaders in 2017.

The November letters were exchanged as the United States was under political pressure to reduce defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia following the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a commentator for The Washington Post, and amid concerns about U.S. support for Saudi military actions in Yemen.

The initial sale was approved by the State Department and Congress in August 2017 and November 2017, respectively, when there was speculation that Riyadh was negotiating to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems. Russian-Saudi talks on an S-400 transfer remain underway this year, according to Alexander Mikheyev, chief executive officer of Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

U.S., Israel Conduct Joint THAAD Exercise

U.S., Israel Conduct Joint THAAD Exercise

For the first time, the United States deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense battery to Israel for a month-long readiness exercise. The early March exercise served as “a demonstration of the United States’ continued commitment to Israel’s regional security,” said a March 4 statement by the U.S. European Command.

The deployment to southern Israel in the Negev desert was unrelated to a specific event, but helped Israel to integrate the system into the nation’s defenses and “simulate different scenarios,” according to Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

Designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the THAAD system uses an X-band radar that Israel has deployed at its Nevatim airbase since 2008.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the THAAD system, noting in a March 4 statement that “together with our defense systems we are even stronger in order to deal with near and distant threats from throughout the Middle East.” The deployment occurs during a push to tighten U.S.-Israeli military cooperation following U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of U.S. troop reductions in Syria and amid tensions with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israeli missile defense systems also include the Iron Dome system, designed to intercept short-range rockets and artillery shells, and Patriot and Arrow ballistic missile defense systems. Israel is testing an advanced version of David’s Sling, an air defense and tactical missile defense system.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Open Skies Treaty Flights Resume in 2019

Open Skies Treaty Flights Resume in 2019

The United States conducted an airborne surveillance mission over Russia under the auspices of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty on Feb. 21, the first routine treaty flight since 2017. Following agreed procedures, all treaty parties received advance notification of the mission, and six Russian officials flew on the unarmed U.S. aircraft “to monitor all phases of the flight,” said Defense Department spokesperson Lt. Col. Jamie Davis.

Using an OC-135B observation aircraft, shown here in 2000, the United States conducted an Open Skies Treaty flight over Russia in February. It was the first routine treaty flight since 2017. (Photo: Mike Freer/Touchdown Aviation)Last year, there were no regular treaty flights because of a dispute over on-board observers that was resolved in October. There was, however, one “extraordinary flight” on Dec. 6 over Ukraine, requested by Ukraine shortly after a Russian attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea.

The United States has accused Russia of violating the treaty by applying excessive restrictions on surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, a sensitive Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, but U.S. officials expressed hope that the dispute could be settled. Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said on Sept. 18 that Russia has “made overtures that suggest” it could resolve the alleged violation. (See ACT, January/February 2019.)

The Open Skies Treaty, which entered into force in 2002, aims to increase confidence and transparency between the United States, Russia, and European nations by allowing unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of its participants for information-gathering purposes. The 34 parties have yearly quotas on overflights and must make the collected information available to all treaty parties.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Germany Seeks Control for New Weapons

Germany Seeks Control for New Weapons

Potentially dangerous emerging technologies require a new multilateral approach to prevent their misuse, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told a March 15 security conference in Berlin.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has proposed an international approach to control dangerous new weapons technologies. (Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)“New technologies are far more susceptible to proliferation, manipulation, and misuse than conventional weapons,” he said. “The question is whether we are in control of technology or whether ultimately it controls us.”

Maas outlined a four-part approach “to rethink arms control.” First, citing the risk of automated conflicts escalating quickly out of control, he called for creating rules to ban fully autonomous weapons systems and to require ensure effective human control over all lethal weapons systems. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Second, he urged establishing an international dialogue about the swift advancements and proliferation of missile technology, including to nonstate actors who “already have access to short-range missiles.”

Third, Maas called for “articulating universal behavioral norms and standards in cyberspace” to protect the common interests of the international community.

Lastly, Maas highlighted concerns about the biotechnology sector and announced that Germany would “work to establish a permanent body of experts and scientists under the umbrella of the Biological Weapons Convention” to analyze risks and recommend action.—SASHA PARTAN

MOX Program Suffers ‘Irreversible’ Blow

MOX Program Suffers ‘Irreversible’ Blow

A U.S. federal appeals court delivered a further blow Jan. 8 to efforts to salvage a U.S. program to build a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called the U.S. decision to cancel construction of a mixed-oxide fuel fabrication plant in his state a "colossal mistake" and “shortsighted.” (Photo: Adem Altana/AFP/Getty Images)The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a district court injunction that prevented the U.S. Energy Department from pursuing its plans to end the controversial MOX fuel program. (See ACT, December 2018.)

Adding to the court ruling, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a Feb. 8 cancellation of contractor CB&I AREVA MOX Services’ license to continue with the project.

Tom Clements, director of the nuclear facility monitoring group Savannah River Site Watch, hailed the “irreversible step” to cancel the license and applauded the decision to end the “wasteful, mismanaged project.”

At one time, the United States intended to dispose of surplus plutonium from its nuclear weapons program by using the material to manufacture fuel for civilian nuclear power plants.  After years of ebbs and flows on that policy decision, the Energy Department decided in October 2018 to terminate plans for the fuel fabrication plant and pursue a “dilute and dispose” plan instead. Nearly $6 billion has been sunk into the canceled project, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated last year. The termination also resulted in more than 1,000 employee layoffs by the end of January, according to local news reports.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a MOX fuel project supporter, called the decision to terminate the program a “colossal mistake” and “shortsighted.”

There are now plans to turn the incomplete MOX fuel facility into a production center for plutonium pits, the fissile core of the first stage of a modern nuclear weapon, to implement the Trump administration’s directive to increase pit production.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Saudi Arabia Seen to Build Missile Factory

Saudi Arabia Seen to Build Missile Factory

Satellite imagery suggests that Saudi Arabia has built its first facility to produce ballistic missiles, according to U.S. open-source analyses completed in late January. Such a factory would augment Riyadh’s existing arsenal of Chinese-supplied, intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Images of the al-Watah missile base analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey indicate that Saudi Arabia has expanded the facility to include a rocket-engine production and test facility, although it is unclear if the facilities are actually producing missiles at this point. The plant’s characteristics indicate that the Middle Eastern power is pursuing ballistic missiles with solid-fueled rocket engines, which can be launched more quickly than liquid-fueled systems. Analysts asked by The Washington Post to study the images concurred with the Middlebury team.

The existence of a Saudi ballistic missile production facility and the uncertain future of the Iran nuclear deal raises concerns that Riyadh may be pursuing capabilities needed for a covert nuclear weapons program. Saudi Arabia is currently negotiating a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States and has been reluctant to forgo uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing for fuel production or agree to more stringent international oversight as part of the deal.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in March 2018 that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."

Saudi Arabia already possesses ballistic missiles that it purchased from China. Riyadh displayed one system, the DF-3 with a range of 3,000 kilometers, at a parade in 2014. Beijing reportedly took steps to ensure that the missiles could not be used to deliver nuclear warheads. The al-Watah base was likely built in 2013 to house these systems.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Report Blows Whistle on Saudi Nuclear Talks

Report Blows Whistle on Saudi Nuclear Talks

Trump administration efforts to promote the sale of civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia drew renewed congressional scrutiny in February. The U.S. House Oversight Committee released a Feb. 19 report describing White House efforts to rush the sale of nuclear power reactors while underplaying the legal obligations of the Atomic Energy Act, which requires the negotiation of a bilateral agreement to ensure nuclear technology is not misused.

Hashim Yamani, president of the King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy, arrives for a 2016 White House visit. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)The report describes the concerns of White House national security staff that the administration undertook “unethical and potentially illegal” actions in 2017 to see through a sale of nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. The report points particularly to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former National Security Council staff director Derek Harvey, among several other named former officials or associates of President Donald Trump, including his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to adopt the “gold standard” of these agreements, known as 123 agreements for the section of the law that applies to them, has worried nuclear nonproliferation experts. Nations adopting that standard, such as the United Arab Emirates in 2009 and Taiwan in 2013, agree to forgo enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium and to adopt an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm the peaceful nature of their nuclear activities. Concerns about Saudi Arabia grew after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year that Saudi Arabia would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did and after the October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (See ACT, December 2018.)

Meanwhile, members of Congress have continued to scrutinize the 123 agreement negotiations by introducing legislation that would increase congressional oversight. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs nonproliferation subcommittee, has offered bills to give Congress a more active role in approving 123 agreements. A Feb. 12 bipartisan resolution by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says that any agreement with Saudi Arabia should adhere to the gold standard.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Pentagon Seeks ‘Ethical Principles’ for AI Use

Pentagon Seeks ‘Ethical Principles’ for AI Use

Hoping to encourage artificial intelligence (AI) experts to support U.S. military programs, the U.S. Defense Department is pursuing plans to develop “ethical principles” for AI use in warfare, Defense One first reported in January. Defense Department leaders asked the Defense Innovation Board, an advisory group that includes Silicon Valley executives, to deliver a set of recommendations in June.

The effort to develop principles follows the expression of concerns by AI specialists over how their expertise would be used in defense programs. In May 2018, for example, more than 4,000 Google employees signed a petition urging the company to discontinue its work on Project Maven, a Pentagon-funded AI effort to evaluate drone footage of suspected terrorists and their hideouts. The employees expressed concerns that their work in the civilian sector would be used in a military manner.

Google subsequently announced that it would not renew the Maven contract and promised never to develop AI for “weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.”

Google’s actions have raised concerns at the Defense Department, where senior officials plan to enlist top U.S. software engineers in the design of AI-enhanced weapons and other military systems.

The Defense Innovation Board, an independent federal advisory committee established in 2016 to assist the secretary of defense, is chaired by Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The board has begun a series of public and private meetings around the country with scientists, academics, legal experts, and others to collect a range of views on the subject.—MICHAEL T. KLARE

U.S. Approves Missile Defense Sale to Japan

U.S. Approves Missile Defense Sale to Japan

The Trump administration gave its final approval Jan. 29 for a $2.2 billion sale of missile defense systems to Japan. Congress received notification of the deal, including two Aegis Ashore missile interceptor batteries, from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, triggering a 30-day opportunity for Congress to object, which happens rarely. The sale notification was delayed by the 35-day U.S. government partial shutdown, which slowed the Foreign Military Sales approval process, including a necessary green light from the U.S. State Department.

The sale reflects expanding U.S. support for Japan’s multilayered missile defenses, which already include multiple U.S.-provided Aegis systems on Kongo-class destroyers. Japan’s cabinet approved missile defense expansion plans in December 2017. (See ACT, September 2018.)

The Aegis Ashore systems are slated to feature the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA missile interceptor, which is currently completing testing. (See ACT, December 2018.) The interceptor uses hit-to-kill technology to defeat short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The scope of intended targets may increase because the Trump administration's 2019 Missile Defense Review calls for testing the interceptor against an intercontinental ballistic missile-class target in 2020.

The defense sale includes supporting equipment, software, U.S. construction and logistical services, and six vertical launchers.—SASHA PARTAN


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