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Former IAEA Director-General
News Briefs

China Deploys New Missile Submarines


July/August 2020

China deployed two new submarines capable of carrying nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in April, expanding the sea-based leg of the country’s nuclear triad to include six vessels categorized as nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

A Chinese Jin-class nuclear submarine participates in a 2019 naval parade in in Shandong Province. (Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/AFP/Getty Images)The two new subs shore up the third leg of China’s air-, land-, and sea-based nuclear triad. An effective sea-based leg is likely intended to demonstrate China’s second-strike capabilities and to deter first-strike nuclear attacks from other states. Fielding a robust SSBN fleet is consistent with Beijing’s nuclear doctrine, which is believed to center on a small but effective nuclear arsenal to be used only in self-defense. Beijing’s 2009 white paper on its nuclear doctrine states that “China remains committed to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, pursues a self-defensive nuclear strategy, and will never enter into a nuclear arms race with another country.”

The two newly deployed SSBNs are variants of China’s Type 094, or Jin-class, submarine. They are outfitted with sophisticated radars and sonars and are equipped to carry up to 16 of China’s JL-2 intercontinental ballistic missiles. (See ACT, June 2013.)

According a 2020 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the current JL-2 missiles may soon be replaced with a longer-range and more advanced JL-3 missile. The JL-3 is not yet in service, but initial flight tests suggest its range nears 10,000 kilometers. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)—JULIA MASTERSON

China Deploys New Missile Submarines

Japan Suspends Aegis Ashore Deployment


July/August 2020

Japan will not deploy two U.S.-made Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems designed to protect Japan against North Korean ballistic missiles, officials announced in June, citing growing financial costs, unresolved technical issues, and local opposition.

“Due to considerations of cost and timing, we have stopped the process of introducing the Aegis Ashore system,” said Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono on June 15. The cost was too high, he said, to develop enough confidence that the system’s rocket booster would not fall on Japanese residents and buildings after detaching from the interceptor. Attempts to revise the missile’s software to ensure this outcome had failed, and costly hardware modifications will be necessary, Kono said. Japanese officials had proposed to site the two systems at the north and south ends of the nation’s main island, a decision met with protests from local communities and officials.

Purchasing, operating, and maintaining the two Aegis Ashore systems for 30 years had been estimated to cost about $4.2 billion, and Japan has already invested about $1.8 billion in the project, according to Japanese news sources.

With the cancellation, Japan’s missile defense capabilities will now rely solely on naval vessels armed with Aegis weapons. Japan plans to deploy eight such destroyers, the last of which began sea trials in June and is scheduled to be commissioned in 2021, Defense News reported.—MACKENZIE KNIGHT

Japan Suspends Aegis Ashore Deployment

Upgraded Nuclear Weapon Passes F-15 Test


July/August 2020

The F-15E Strike Eagle became the first aircraft to be certified to deliver the B61-12 nuclear bomb design, after two test flights at the Nevada Tonopah Test Range in March. The tests were run at two different altitudes, one at approximately 1,000 feet and the other around 25,000 feet. Both tests successfully hit the target.

The B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb is the product of a life extension program by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and will replace earlier variants of the weapon. The F-15E was the first aircraft to be fitted with the design, but the Pentagon plans to certify F-16 fighters and B-2 bombers, as well as NATO aircraft as part of the nuclear sharing arrangement with the United States. The NNSA, a semiautonomous agency in the Energy Department, is also planning to certify the B61-12 on the F-35 aircraft within the next decade.

The B61 first entered service in 1968. The B61-12 life extension program is one of five major NNSA modernization programs and is projected to cost $8 billion. The NNSA is expected to produce 400 to 500 B61-12 warheads.

The first production unit of the upgraded weapons system had been scheduled for completion in March 2020, but last year was delayed until 2022. (See ACT, November 2019.) At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in September 2019, Charles Verdon, deputy administrator for NNSA defense programs, attributed the delay to issues with off-the-shelf parts used in the weapon. Although the system is designed to remain in service for 20 to 30 years, stress testing raised concerns that certain components of the design would fail before reaching a three-decade lifespan.—MACKENZIE KNIGHT

 

Upgraded Nuclear Weapon Passes F-15 Test

Russia, China Skip Syrian Chemical Weapons Meeting


June 2020
By Julia Masterson

Russia and China boycotted a May 12 meeting of UN Security Council members and high-ranking officials of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held to discuss the findings of the OPCW’s April 2020 report that blamed the Syrian Air Force for three incidents of chemical weapons use in a rebel-held Syrian town in March 2017. (See ACT, May 2020.)

The meeting was originally intended to be held as a formal session to examine the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2118, which calls for the verified destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and preceded the international effort to destroy Syria’s declared stockpile. Instead, council president Estonia opted to hold the meeting in a closed setting using teleconference communications. Syria, although not a council member, was invited to participate in the discussion.

Russia did not join the dialogue and criticized the private setting of the meeting. Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said holding a meeting to discuss Resolution 2118 and the OPCW report behind closed doors contradicted “the slogans of openness and transparency of the Security Council” and “undermine[d] the prerogatives of states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” China abstained from the meeting without comment.

The United Kingdom criticized Russia’s absence, saying Moscow was politicizing the discussion of chemical weapons use in Syria and seeking to undermine the OPCW’s work.—JULIA MASTERSON

Russia, China Skip Syrian Chemical Weapons Meeting

Panel Vets U.S. Plutonium Disposal Plan


June 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. plan to dilute and dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium at the deep-underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is technically viable so long as the Energy Department addresses certain concerns, according to a top-level scientific review released April 30.

Workers prepare machinery used to move nuclear waste into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. A technical review found that a U.S. plan to store surplus plutonium at the site is conditionally viable. (Photo: Kelly Michals/Flickr)The dilute-and-dispose process replaced the controversial mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel program, which was designed to turn the surplus material into fuel for civilian power reactors but ran into major cost increases and schedule delays. Since 2014, the Energy Department has sought to end the MOX fuel program in favor of the cheaper process of dilution and disposal, which blends down the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal at WIPP.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine determined that the dilute-and-dispose process provided “a technically viable disposition alternative to the MOX [fuel] plan, provided that implementation challenges and system vulnerabilities that currently exist within the plan are resolved.” The determination was based on the success of earlier demonstrations of the individual steps of the dilute-and-dispose process through other Energy Department programs.

In 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that the process would cost $19.9 billion, or 40 percent of the $49.4 billion cost of continuing the MOX fuel program.

For fiscal year 2020, Congress appropriated $220 million for the Energy Department to close down the program. (See ACT, May 2019.) The Trump administration has requested $149 million for fiscal year 2021 to continue the dilute-and-dispose program.—SHANNON BUGOS

Panel Vets U.S. Plutonium Disposal Plan

Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy


June 2020
By Jeff Abramson

More than 100 members of Congress expressed their “disappointment” over a new U.S. landmine policy in a May 6 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The message noted that reductions in landmine use and casualties could be put in jeopardy.

Rather than geographically restricting landmine use and setting a notional goal of one day joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the new Trump administration policy announced at the end of January allows for using landmines outside the Korean peninsula. The updated policy also allows combatant commanders to authorize landmine emplacements, a power that was previously held only by the president. (See ACT, March 2020.) Thirty-four senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and including Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signed the congressional oversight letter. In addition, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined 105 Democrats on the message, led in the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

The letter asks Esper a list of 27 questions, grouped into sections. The initial six questions on “specific policy issues” are particularly pointed about whether circumstances have recently changed in terms of threats, weapons technology, and the decision-making process to use landmines. Other questions focus on Pentagon reports that might explain the rationale for the new policy, where landmines might be used, alternatives to the weapons, production, transfer, and stockpiling.

Former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has indicated he would reverse the Trump policy, Vox reported in February.—JEFF ABRAMSON

 

Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy

Iran Launches Military Satellite


May 2020

Iran launched its first military satellite into orbit using a new space launch vehicle on April 22.

The launch of the Noor-1 satellite was conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) space program using a new three-stage Qased launch vehicle. The Qased’s second stage is a solid-fueled missile that the IRGC unveiled in February.

IRGC Aerospace Force Brig. Gen. Amir Hajizadeh said April 24 that the launch was a success and that Iran is receiving signals from the satellite. He said the IRGC intends to launch a second satellite into a higher orbit in the “not-too-distant” future.

Iran has launched satellites into orbit in the past, including a failed attempt Feb. 9, for communications and remote sensing purposes, but this is the first in the military program. (See ACT, March 2020.)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the launch in an April 25 statement and said it proves that Iran’s space program is “neither peaceful nor entirely civilian” as Tehran has claimed. He told reporters that the launch was inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and said Iran needs to be “held accountable for what they have done.”

Resolution 2231 calls upon Iran to refrain from activities relevant to developing ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable, but the language is non-binding. Satellite launch vehicles and ballistic missiles do share features, but there are differences in their technical requirements and trajectories.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Iran Launches Military Satellite

Russian ASAT Test Sparks War of Words


May 2020

The U.S. military reported on April 15 that it tracked a Russian test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile (ASAT). The test did not involve the destruction of a satellite, which can produce space debris.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Ryabkov (right) speaks with Russian Ambassador Grigory Berdennikov at a 2017 meeting. Ryabkov said in April that Russia would not be the first nation to place weapons in space. (Photo: National Nuclear Research University (MEPhI)/CTBTO)The Pentagon pointed to Russia’s test as evidence of Russia’s malign intentions. The “test provides yet another example that the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing,” said Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command and Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force.

Raymond added that the “test is further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs.”

TASS reported April 16 that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Moscow remains committed to not being the first to place weapons in space and criticized the United States for refusing to engage with Russia on the subject.

For more than a decade, Russia and China have proposed talks on a treaty that would ban the placement of any type of weapon in orbit or on celestial bodies and obligate states-parties “not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.”

“If the United States rejects [the Russian] proposal, the natural conclusion that we draw is that they are headed for the creation of attack systems for deployment in outer space,” Ryabkov told TASS on April 16.

In an April 6 briefing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford called the Russian-Chinese proposal a “terrible” idea in part because “it would by careful design fail to address in any meaningful fashion the terrestrially–based ASAT systems.”

U.S. and Russian diplomats have held inconclusive on-and-off talks on limiting or banning ASAT systems for decades but have not taken up the question in many years.

Instead, Ford said “U.S. diplomats are looking ... to work constructively with their counterparts in other spacefaring nations to develop approaches to outer space norms that will help improve predictability and collective ‘best practices’ in the space domain.”

In 2007, China used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its aging weather satellites, which produced a large amount of harmful debris in orbit. The 2008, the United States used a modified SM-3 missile to intercept and destroy one of its aging weather satellites. In April 2019, India successfully test-fired an interceptor missile that shot down an orbiting satellite.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Russian ASAT Test Sparks War of Words

Firearms Export Changes Partially Blocked


April 2020

Despite opposition from some members of Congress and a wide range of civil society groups, Trump administration changes to its oversight of certain firearms exports took effect in March. A federal district judge, however, issued a temporary injunction on portions of the rules that deal with 3D gun-printing plans.

The rules came into effect on Mar. 9, despite congressional efforts such as those of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had twice sought holds on the new rules in 2019. The new system transfers overall authority for the export of certain types of semiautomatic and other firearms and their ammunition to the Commerce Department from the State Department. (See ACT, March 2020.) Renewing a letter delivered in May 2019 from more than 100 civil society organizations, 23 groups sent a message to Congress on March 4 encouraging them to stop or reverse the changes, arguing that the new rules “will thwart congressional oversight and exacerbate gun violence, human rights abuses, and armed conflict around the world.”

On March 6, Judge Richard Jones in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered a preliminary injunction in a case filed by more than 20 state attorneys general that sought to block all the changes. Jones limited the injunction to prohibit changes to how online 3D printing plans for firearms, sometimes called “ghost guns,” are regulated.

Some of the attorneys general criticized the president’s efforts. “If the Trump administration has its way, these ghost guns will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history…. We will keep fighting back against this unlawful, dangerous policy,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on March 9.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Firearms Export Changes Partially Blocked

Court Ends Final Bid to Save MOX Program


April 2020

A U.S. federal court dealt the final blow Feb. 20 to a troubled project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina that would have converted surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear power plants.

The H Canyon at the Savannah River Site had been intended to participate in the process to produce mixed-oxide fuel from surplus U.S. plutonium. (Photo: Energy Department)Judge J. Michelle Childs of the U.S. District Court in South Carolina formally terminated a lawsuit brought by the state in 2018 after the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced it would end construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Plant at the site.

Construction on the plant began in 2007 to implement a U.S.-Russian agreement for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium deemed unneeded by their nuclear weapons programs. Following years of cost overruns and scheduling delays, the Obama administration decided to end the project’s funding in 2016, sparking a backlash from lawmakers in South Carolina. Russia withdrew from the agreement later that year, citing U.S. noncompliance.

After U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry signaled in May 2018 that the department would scrap the project in favor of a less expensive alternative, South Carolina sued to prevent the site’s shutdown, winning a brief injunction. (See ACT, June 2018.) A federal appeals court later ruled in the department’s favor, and the Supreme Court declined to hear South Carolina’s appeal of that decision, leading Childs to put a end to the suit.

The Energy Department is now planning to adapt the MOX fuel facility to join Los Alamos National Laboratory in the annual production of at least 80 plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons, by 2030. The department aims for the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility to produce at least 50 plutonium cores per year by 2030.—PERI MEYERS

Court Ends Final Bid to Save MOX Program

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