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former IAEA Director-General

News Briefs

‘Killer Robot’ Debates Planned

‘Killer Robot’ Debates Planned

At the annual meeting of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), delegates from 91 states agreed to continue formal deliberations on the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems, the technology often popularly called “killer robots,” at two conferences this year.

The Defender, an experimental robotic platform able to perform reconnaissance, surveillance, and targeting tasks, is shown in a 2008 photo. The system was designed to be operated remotely by military personnel, although technology advances could make possible a similar system able to operate autonomously. (U.S. Air Force photo)The first meeting of the CCW group of governmental experts on these systems, which included interested states-parties and civil society groups, met on Nov. 13-17 in Geneva to discuss the topic for the first time in a formal session. Annual informal meetings of experts had been convened to discuss the systems from 2014 to 2016. The fifth review conference of the CCW in December 2016 established a formal group to meet in 2017 with a mandate to “explore and agree on possible recommendations” regarding the emerging technologies. (See ACT, January/February 2017). The experts group decided to extend its mandate and hold two more one-week sessions this year. The full conference of the CCW, which met in Geneva on Nov. 22-24, affirmed that decision.

Many nongovernmental groups advocating for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems welcomed the extension, but expressed frustration at the lack of progress in negotiating any legal instruments despite growing concerns among civil society groups, scientists, and parliamentarians. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition, said in a Nov. 24 statement that it “remains disappointed that all countries seem able to do is roll-over the previously agreed mandate and meet for just 10 days during 2018. This decision does not reflect a sense of urgency.”

According to the group, 22 states now support a legally binding instrument to pre-emptively prohibit these systems before they are deployed by any states. China, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are among the countries developing the technology.—MACLYN SENEAR

Posted: January 10, 2018

India Joins Wassenaar Arrangement

India Joins Wassenaar Arrangement

India was admitted into the Wassenaar Arrangement as its 42nd member Dec. 7 following the group’s annual plenary in Vienna. The Wassenaar Arrangement, established in July 1996, is a voluntary export control regime. Members share information on conventional weapons transfers and dual-use goods and technologies.

Experts assess that India is interested in joining export control regimes to bolster its bid to be included in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a nuclear technology control group. Despite U.S. backing, that group has not reached consensus on admitting India, which, alongside Pakistan, formally applied to join in June 2016, the same month India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). (See ACT, July/August 2016.)

Alexandre Ziegler, France’s ambassador to India, welcomed the admission decision, calling it in a tweet “one more recognition, after MTCR, of the growing role India plays in the world.” Critics contend that India should not have been admitted because it is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was a requirement for the admission of other Wassenaar Arrangement members.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: January 10, 2018

Defense Bill Restricts CTBTO Funding

Defense Bill Restricts CTBTO Funding

The most recent annual National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law on Dec. 12, includes language restricting U.S. financial contributions to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), except for funds related to the International Monitoring System, which detects nuclear test explosions. The CTBTO is the international organization that promotes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in advance of its entry into force and builds up its verification regime.

Infrasound arrays at the International Monitoring System station in Greenland is shown in this August 13, 2009 photo. The U.S. defense authorization bill allows for continued contributions to the monitoring system operated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization.  (CTBTO Preparatory Commission photo)The provision was originally inserted into the House version of the bill. Although not included in the Senate bill, the measure was incorporated into the conference bill, which passed the House on Nov. 14 and the Senate two days later.

The bill also includes an assertion that UN Security Council Resolution 2310, passed in September 2016, calling for the treaty’s early entry into force and the continuation of nuclear testing moratoria does not “obligate the United States nor does it impose an obligation” to refrain from actions that would run counter to the treaty. The amendment’s supporters argue that the United States should not be bound by or contribute financially to a treaty the Senate has not ratified. Opponents of the provision contend that it could signal a weakened U.S. commitment to the global moratoria on nuclear testing and undercut support for the treaty.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: January 10, 2018

U.S. Undoes Cluster Munitions Ban

U.S. Undoes Cluster Munitions Ban

In a policy shift, the United States removed a ban on the use of most of its cluster munitions inventory that was to take effect at the end of 2018. A Nov. 30 memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan revised a 2008 policy that called for completely phasing out the possible use of cluster munitions that fail to operate as intended more than 1 percent of the time.

The new policy keeps those weapons in active U.S. stocks until the “capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions.” How that might occur remains unclear. The last U.S. manufacturer who produced cluster munitions that Washington claims meet the 1 percent threshold stopped making them in 2016 and does not intend to renew production, according to The New York Times. The United States stopped buying new cluster munitions for its military in 2007 and, except for a single strike in Yemen in 2009, has not used them since early 2003.

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse explosive submunitions over wide areas. Many submunitions fail to detonate as designed, leaving explosive remnants that later injure or kill civilians. More than 100 countries are states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of the weapons. At the latest convention meeting, treaty members, which include a majority of NATO countries and many U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan, renewed their condemnation of any use. (See ACT, October 2017.)

The new policy retained the previous policy’s requirement for a combatant commander to authorize the use of cluster munitions that would have been phased out. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who in April 2017 introduced legislation that would have barred the use of such weapons, criticized the new policy. “It’s a shame the United States will continue to be a global outlier in using these unreliable and dangerous weapons, and I call on the president to reverse course and reinstate the 2008 policy,” Feinstein said.

Although the policy memo did not list specific places where cluster munitions would be needed, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Dec. 4 said the administration made a “prudent decision to preserve cluster munitions to deter North Korean aggression.”—JEFF ABRAMSON

Posted: January 10, 2018

Turkey Signs Missile Deal With Russia

Turkey Signs Missile Deal With Russia

Turkey and Russia signed an agreement for Moscow to supply Ankara with advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, according to a Dec. 29 Turkish government statement. The deal is controversial because Turkey is a NATO member and normally would buy weapons from allied-country suppliers that could be integrated with NATO’s defense architecture.

A Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system is displayed on August 22, 2017 during the first day of the International Military-Technical Forum Army 2017 near Moscow. NATO-member Turkey announced it is buying the Russian system, which is incompatible with NATO’s defense architecture.  (Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)The deal reportedly is valued at $2.5 billion and has been in the works for more than a year, Reuters reported. On Dec. 27, Sergey Chemezov, head of the Russian state conglomerate Rostec, told the Kommersant that Russia would supply Turkey with four S-400 batteries. In a statement, Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defence Industries said that an initial delivery is planned for the first quarter of 2020. The Turkish government said the deal covers two S-400 batteries, with one being optional, and added the systems would be used and managed “independently” by Turkish personnel, rather than Russian advisers, according to Reuters. Turkish newspapers cited President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as saying Turkey would get a Russian loan in rubles to help finance the purchase. Russia’s English-language RT news service headlined the deal as a “Blow to NATO?”

The Russian state-owned news agency Tass reported in December that Moscow is close to a deal for Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally, to buy the S-400 system. A sale to India is also close to completion, according to Russian officials cited by Tass.—TERRY ATLAS

Posted: January 10, 2018

Boost Sought for Missile Defense

Boost Sought for Missile Defense

The Trump administration laid the groundwork to aggressively expand U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities when it submitted an amendment to its fiscal year 2018 defense budget request. The supplemental request, sent to Congress on Nov. 6, asked for an additional $4 billion for ballistic missile defense programs, citing the need to “counter the threat from North Korea.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hands over the gavel to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) at the start of an Armed Services conference committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act on Capitol Hill October 25. (Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)In a press release later that day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairmen of the armed services committees, welcomed the request, noting their committees “in fact…have already authorized many of these missile defense programs in our respective defense bills.”

The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’s defense policy bill, authorizes increased procurement of interceptors for currently deployed missile defense systems to address near-term threats while endorsing development of proposed boost-phase and space-based intercept capabilities that could require even more substantial spending in the future.

The supplemental request follows congressional approval in October for the transfer of $440 million in unspent fiscal year 2017 Army operations and maintenance funds to missile defense programs as the administration and Congress make expanding missile defenses a priority. (See ACT, October 2017.) The House overwhelmingly passed the compromise authorization bill on Nov. 14, and the Senate followed on Nov. 16, sending the bill to President Donald Trump for his signature.—MACLYN SENEAR

Posted: December 1, 2017

Russian Vetoes End Syria CW Probe

Russian Vetoes End Syria CW Probe

The group charged with determining the party or parties responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria was forced to discontinue its work Nov. 17 after several failed attempts to extend its mandate. The UN Security Council authorized the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in August 2015 with the support of Russia and the United States. Recently, Russia has rejected the legitimacy of the JIM’s findings, which placed some blame on Russia’s Syrian government allies, and argued the process must be substantially reformed if its investigations are to continue.

Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Nonproliferation and Arms Control Department, and other officials hold a press conference in Moscow November 2 to dispute the report by UN investigators which blamed a sarin gas attack in Syria's Khan Sheikhoun on the Syrian government. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)The council on Nov. 16 failed to pass a resolution to extend the JIM’s mandate. Russia vetoed the U.S.-sponsored measure, which received 11 votes in favor out of 15. The Russian-backed alternative received four votes, far short of nine required for adoption. Japan’s last-minute resolution on Nov. 17 for a 30-day extension also was vetoed by Russia. When Russia vetoed another council resolution Oct. 24, it left open the possibility of changing its position depending on the results of the outcome of the JIM’s work, which subsequently cited the Syrian government for a major sarin gas attack. (See ACT, November 2017.)

“Russia’s actions today and in recent weeks have been designed to delay, to distract, and ultimately, to defeat the effort to secure accountability for chemical weapons attacks in Syria,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Nov. 17. The president of the Security Council in November, Sebastiano Cardi of Italy, claimed that the body will try to find a compromise to continue the JIM’s work. Even so, the disruption in the organization’s operation could lead to substantial delays for resumed investigations.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Posted: December 1, 2017

Qatar Arms Sale Sidesteps GCC Crisis

Qatar Arms Sale Sidesteps GCC Crisis

The Trump administration continues to offer arms to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries despite an ongoing crisis within the group. On Nov. 1, the administration notified Congress of a possible $1.1 billion sale to Qatar of design and construction services for runways, hangars, and other facilities. The Persian Gulf country is home to the al-Udeid air base, the largest U.S. military base in the region, and was by far the largest partner in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program in 2016, which included more than $20 billion for 72 F-15QA fighter aircraft and related weaponry. The deal notified last month “is vital to ensuring the [Qatar Air Force] partners can utilize the F-15QA aircraft to its full potential,” according to the U.S. administration.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps off a plane October 24 at the al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, after flying earlier in the day to Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo credit: ALEX BRANDON/AFP/Getty Images)Calling in part for Doha to cut ties with Iran and terrorist organizations, GCC members Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in June severed relations with and imposed a blockade on Qatar, also a member of the group. On June 26, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the committee would hold up further arms sales to GCC countries until there is “a path to resolve” its internal dispute. But the administration has continued to notify deals to the group, including more than $15 billion for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems to Saudi Arabia in October and more than $4 billion for F-16s to Bahrain in September.

The potential sale to Qatar is the first notified this year to that country through the FMS program, indicating the administration is not taking a side in the GCC crisis when it comes to arms deals. “Qatar is an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Persian Gulf region,” according to the notification.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Posted: December 1, 2017

NSG Renews Membership Debate

NSG Renews Membership Debate

Participating governments of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) convened an informal meeting Nov. 16 in Vienna to renew consideration of membership criteria for countries that have not joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), an issue that has been discussed on and off since 2011.

The NSG exempted India in 2008 from its long-standing full-scope safeguards requirement for nuclear trade with non-nuclear-weapon states on the basis of political commitments made by India, including a reiteration of its unilateral nuclear testing moratorium. In mid-2016, India filed a formal membership bid, with Pakistan submitting a separate membership request shortly thereafter. But the NSG, which operates by consensus, could not agree on a common set of criteria for membership by the two countries, which are not NPT signatories. Confidential discussions involving the 48 member-states did not produce a consensus. (See ACT, December 2016.)

The Nov. 16 meeting convened by the current NSG chair, Benno Laggner of Switzerland, was the first on the issue during the Trump administration. In response to Laggner’s request for input, U.S. representative Richard Stratford wrote Sept. 25 to say that the U.S. position is “that all relevant factors for consideration have been identified and that consensus on these factors is possible, if pursued.” Yet, diplomatic sources indicate that differences persist. China continues to insist that NPT membership must be one of the key criteria, while several other states insist that criteria should include, among other options, a binding commitment not to conduct nuclear test explosions, a declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency that identifies all current and future civilian nuclear facilities, and a commitment to support and strengthen the multilateral nonproliferation and disarmament regime by working toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Posted: December 1, 2017

Stratcom Completes ‘Global Thunder’

Stratcom Completes ‘Global Thunder’

The U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) concluded its “Global Thunder 2018” strategic nuclear forces exercise, which leaders said was intended to bolster the credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrence and the readiness for a possible nuclear conflict. “Quite frankly, if we ever come to a strategic exchange, nobody wins,” Navy Rear Adm. Daniel Fillion, Stratcom director of global operations, said in a Nov. 17 statement. “We are not looking for a fight by any stretch of the imagination, but everybody has to understand that, if pressed, we will deliver a fight and it will be very short and we will come out victorious.”

A 509th Security Forces Squadron member controls access to a B-2 Spirit during “Global Thunder 2018” at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., November 1.  (Photo credit: Taylor Phifer/U.S Air Force)Navy Rear Adm. William Houston, deputy director for strategic targeting and nuclear mission planning, said in the same statement that “effective” deterrence efforts now rest on more than just nuclear capabilities. “There are significant challenges we face in multiple domains: integrating space, cyber and our strategic weapons into the overall strategic deterrence we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “Those are key elements because any one of those areas could lead to a strategic imbalance between potential adversaries.”

Russia also held nuclear forces exercises in October, in which President Vladimir Putin participated. Putin test-fired four nuclear-capable ballistic missiles during the exercise, the Russian news agency Interfax reported on Oct. 27.—TERRY ATLAS

Posted: December 1, 2017

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