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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
News Briefs

U.S. Emerging Technologies Gain Support


January/February 2021

Reflecting a bipartisan consensus, U.S. lawmakers have authorized the Defense Department to accelerate the weaponization of emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic, autonomous, and hypersonic weapons systems. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was enacted after Congress overrode a Dec. 23 presidential veto of the bill.

Marine Corps Gen. Michael Groen leads the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which saw its status upgraded by the 2021 defense authorization bill. (Photo: Cuong Le/U.S. Marine Corps)To speed the utilization of AI by the military, for example, it upgrades the status of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center by bringing it under the deputy secretary of defense and by investing the center’s director with authority for acquisition decisions. The act also calls on the Air Force to speed development of its Low-Cost Attributable Aircraft Technology program, intended to create an armed drone, or Skyborg, that can accompany piloted aircraft on high-risk missions over enemy territory. The “attributable,” in this case, means unmanned aircraft that can be attrited, or sacrificed in large numbers, to help defend piloted aircraft. The omnibus appropriations bill, when passed in late December, did not accede to all of the spending measures in the NDAA, but did allocate substantial sums for the continuing development of cutting-edge systems, including $136 million for ground robotics, $259 million for large and medium-sized unmanned surface vehicles, and $1.2 billion for hypersonic missiles.—MICHAEL T. KLARE

U.S. Emerging Technologies Gain Support

Middle East WMD-Free Zone Meeting Postponed


January/February 2021

The second annual conference on a weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-free zone in the Middle East has been postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. The session was scheduled to be held in New York on Nov. 16–20.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted the announcement Oct. 3. The conference was planned as a follow-on to the inaugural session that met in November 2019, when participating states adopted a political declaration codifying their commitment to establishing a WMD-free zone in the region. (See ACT, March 2020.)

The idea for the conference originated in 2018 when Egypt introduced a resolution to the UN General Assembly that called for convening an annual conference to make progress on the zone. The UN resolution adopted in 2018 mandated that states convene for an annual independent conference devoted to the Middle Eastern zone on an annual basis until that zone is achieved.

The United States has not commented publicly on the conference since its postponement was announced, but it did not participate in the 2019 session. Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, wrote in an Aug. 4, 2020, essay that “it is too early to tell what damage the new conference will do—already it has already done some.” He cited a Trump administration view that the WMD-free zone conference will not advance substantive discussions or constructive engagement because it fails to account for the perspectives of all states in the region, particularly Israel.

Jeffrey Eberhardt, U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today in a February 2020 interview that the United States “support[s] the establishment of such a zone if it is freely arrived at among the parties in the region.”

The prospective zone will also be subject to contentious debate at the next nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, which was scheduled to be held in April 2020 but postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic.—JULIA MASTERSON

Middle East WMD-Free Zone Meeting Postponed

CEND Working Groups Discuss Disarmament


January/February 2021

With the 10th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference delayed until August, a U.S. initiative to discuss nuclear disarmament issues will have the opportunity to hold more sessions before the conference. The Trump administration announced the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative in 2018, saying the planned meetings were aimed at addressing the underlying issues that may currently preclude global nuclear disarmament. Initiative participants met mostly virtually on Nov. 24 to exchange updates on the program’s three working subgroups and to discuss further engagement with civil society.

Civil society experts have played an important role in the initiative’s work, serving as facilitators for each subgroup, which focus on reductions in the perceived incentives for states to retain their nuclear arsenals, mechanisms to bolster nonproliferation efforts, and measures to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons in the interim. At the November meeting, an open conversation centered on modalities for the CEND initiative to work most effectively and on efforts to engage civil society.

“The CEND initiative has now ‘graduated’ to being something more [than a U.S. initiative]. It is clearly now a much broader initiative that belongs to all of its participants. That is gratifying and very important,” said Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, who leads the effort, in opening remarks to the meeting.

Ford said the United States anticipates hosting two to three in-person CEND meetings each year, and he added that plenary sessions have been scheduled for late autumn 2021 and spring 2023.—JULIA MASTERSON

CEND Working Groups Discuss Disarmament

U.S. Conducts Successful ICBM Intercept Test


December 2020

The U.S. Navy conducted a successful intercept test of an ICBM target using an Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile interceptor on Nov. 16, according to a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announcement.

The USS John Finn (foreground) exercises with an Australian destroyer in 2018. Based in Hawaii, the U.S. ship launched an SM-3 interceptor that successfully destroyed an ICBM target. (Photo: Jesus Sepulveda/U.S. Marine Corps)A threat-representative ICBM target was launched from Kwajalein Atoll toward the ocean northeast of Hawaii. The USS John Finn, a destroyer equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System, launched the interceptor which destroyed the target warhead, the MDA said. The test modeled a potential scenario for the defense of Hawaii.

The test, originally scheduled for May but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, fulfilled a congressional mandate to test the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM target before the end of 2020 as required by the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It was the sixth SM-3 Block IIA test from a vessel equipped with the Aegis BMD system.

The test marked the third test of the U.S. missile defense system against an ICBM target, all of which have been successful. The previous two tests were conducted using ground-based interceptors as part of the ground-based midcourse defense system.

Vice Admiral Jon Hill called the test “an incredible accomplishment and critical milestone for the Aegis BMD SM-3 Block IIA program” and “a step in the process of determining its feasibility as part of an architecture for layered defense of the homeland.”

Critics have warned that increasing the number of U.S. interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs could spur Russia and China to enhance the size and capability of their nuclear arsenals.—ANNA KIM

U.S. Conducts Successful ICBM Intercept Test

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise


December 2020

The Netherlands hosted NATO’s annual nuclear exercise in October, which included the German Air Force practicing delivery of U.S. nuclear bombs believed to be stored at Büchel Air Base, according to reports.

A German Eurofighter taxis at Nörvenich Air Base in 2013. The base was used as a site for this year's NATO exercise Steadfast Noon. (Photo: Neuwieser/Flickr)“Today’s exercise shows that allies are determined to ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg while visiting Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands for the exercise on Oct. 16. “The purpose of NATO’s nuclear deterrent is not to provoke a conflict but to preserve peace, deter aggression, and prevent coercion.”

This year, the training flights took place over parts of western Europe and the North Sea.

The annual exercise, known as Steadfast Noon, is designed to practice and assess NATO’s nuclear capabilities deployed in Europe. It is planned far in advance and involves more than 50 aircraft from several allied air forces. The aircraft do not carry live bombs during the exercise flights.

The United States deploys an estimated 20 B61 tactical bombs each at Büchel and Volkel air bases, according to the Federation of American Scientists. About 100 U.S. tactical bombs are believed to be deployed at bases in Belgium, Italy, and Turkey.

German reports said that this year’s nuclear exercise involved the Nörvenich Air Base, which is an alternative site for the nuclear bombs stored at Büchel.

The Russian Defense Ministry released a statement on Oct. 23 criticizing the exercise. “Such actions lead to a lowering of the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, provoke a further increase in tension along the Russia-NATO contact line, and negatively affect the level of trust in Europe,” said the ministry.—SHANNON BUGOS

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise

Pandemic Delays CTBTO Leadership Vote


December 2020

Members of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) have been forced to postpone deliberations that were scheduled to take place Nov. 25–27 to select the next head of the organization due to another COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdown in Vienna.

Two candidates are under consideration: current CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo and Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office. States were to have chosen who would serve as the executive secretary of the $128 million organization as of July 31, 2021, when Zerbo will complete his second four-year term. A new date for the leadership selection meeting has not been chosen.
—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Pandemic Delays CTBTO Leadership Vote

NPT Review Conference Postponed Again


November 2020

The tenth review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has been postponed until August 2021, according to the United Nations. Originally scheduled to begin in April 2020 at UN headquarters, the review conference has been repeatedly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. (See ACT, April 2020.)

The UN General Assembly Hall will have to wait until August 2021 to host the delayed 2020 NPT Review Conference.  (Photo: Sophia Paris/UN)Conference president Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina wrote to NPT states in late October that he “will request the [UN] Secretariat to book the necessary facilities and conference services for the period 2–27 August 2021 for the holding of the tenth NPT review conference at United Nations Headquarters, consistent with the review conference’s original requirements.” Zlauvinen requested a decision under the silence procedure with a deadline of Oct. 28.

In an October communication, Zlauvinen, who also serves as Argentina’s deputy foreign minister, had originally sought to reschedule the conference during Jan. 4–29. Those dates, however, proved difficult for many governments, according to diplomatic sources who spoke with Arms Control Today. In addition, the pandemic still makes it impractical to hold large meetings in the near future, they noted.

In his most recent communication, Zlauvinen noted that the new August 2021 dates are based “on the assumption that conference facilities and operations at UN Headquarters have fully returned to the pre-pandemic levels and with the understanding that it can only be confirmed at a later date, when all UN official mandated meetings have been programmed.”

The review conference typically involves hundreds of representatives from most of the 191 states-parties to the treaty, as well as nongovernmental organizations and meeting support personnel. The conference, which will take place 51 years after the NPT entered into force, is designed to review implementation and compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on action steps to overcome new challenges and fulfill core treaty goals and objectives.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

NPT Review Conference Postponed Again

Russia Expands Proposal for Moratorium on INF-Range Missiles


November 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested adding “mutual verification measures” to his proposal for a moratorium on the deployment of missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

These measures, he said on Oct. 26, would focus on Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems deployed at NATO bases in Europe and on Russian military facilities in Kaliningrad. Putin claimed that the latter measure would confirm the absence of the 9M729, a ground-launched cruise missile that the United States says violated the INF Treaty and cited as a reason for U.S. withdrawal from the accord in Aug. 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

Putin also reiterated that Russia believes the missile was compliant with the treaty and that Russia will continue “not to deploy 9M729 missiles in European Russia” as long as NATO members do not field similar missiles in Europe.

Thus far, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have acknowledged Putin’s offer, but none have definitely accepted or rejected it. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea called the proposal "a non-starter."

The United States believes that Russia has deployed four battalions of the 9M729, for a total of about 100 missiles, in areas of the country able to strike NATO countries. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Washington is moving quickly to develop and deploy this type of missile, according to Trump administration officials, but questions remain about exactly what missiles would be developed and where they would be based. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Putin first proposed the idea of this moratorium in Aug. 2019. NATO rejected it the following month. The United States has also dismissed the idea.—KINGSTON REIF and SHANNON BUGOS

Russia Expands Proposal for Moratorium on INF-Range Missiles

Cluster Munitions Used in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict


November 2020

Long-simmering tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region bordering Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out in late September with shelling between Azerbaijani forces and those of the Armenian-backed but internationally unrecognized state of Artsakh. The conflict has seen the use of cluster munitions, and civilian casualties have resulted.

Azerbaijan has been accused by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of using Israeli-made M095 cluster bombs. Switzerland, as president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, issued a statement expressing deep concern and condemnation of any use of the weapons by any actor involved. The treaty, which has 110 states-parties, bans the use of the weapons. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Israel have not signed the pact.

Azerbaijan made counterclaims that Armenia used cluster munitions in its own attacks on Azerbaijan, but has yet to provide evidence.

Cluster munitions, which are air dropped or artillery delivered, release up to several hundred smaller submunitions that often fail to explode as intended, at times detonating years later. Civilians account for the vast majority of victims.

States-parties to the convention are scheduled to meet for the treaty’s second review conference on Nov. 23–27.—ALEXANDER BERTSCHI WRIGLEY

Cluster Munitions Used in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Saudi Arabia, IAEA Discuss Safeguards


October 2020

Saudi Arabia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are engaging in talks to amend the country’s safeguards agreement, seeking to provide the agency with additional tools to verify the peaceful nature of Saudi Arabia’s expanding nuclear program.

Khalid Al-Sultan (left), leader of Saudi Arabia's nuclear energy program, meets with Cornel Feruta, the acting IAEA director-general, in September 2019. Saudi and IAEA officials have continued to discussing upgrading the nation's safeguards agreement with the agency. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Saudi Arabia currently has in place a small quantities protocol (SQP) with the IAEA, concluded in 2005. SQPs are applied to nations with little or no nuclear activities. They were designed in the early 1970s to fulfill the IAEA’s safeguards mandate without overburdening agency resources on states with negligible safeguards-applicable activities and material. Under the original SQP, the IAEA has a limited tool kit with which it can inspect and verify the peaceful nature of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program.

As Riyadh moves to grow its civilian nuclear program, including by pursuing construction of a facility possibly used for the production of uranium yellowcake, IAEA officials and states within the region have called on Saudi Arabia to expand the scope of its safeguards agreement with the agency. (See ACT, September 2020.) Saudi Arabia also plans to operate two large nuclear power reactors and is currently constructing its first research reactor at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Al Jazeera reported on July 21.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said on Sept. 14 that the agency is in talks with Saudi Arabia, adding that the kingdom is “interested in developing nuclear energy, for peaceful purposes of course.”

News of discussions between Saudi Arabia and the IAEA came amid a greater effort by Grossi to strengthen implementation of a revised SQP. “In 2020, the old standard SQP is simply not adequate,” Grossi told the agency’s Board of Governors on Sept. 14.

The agency adopted a revised SQP in 2005 that expands the IAEA’s safeguards privileges. Where the original SQP limited IAEA verification activities and did not require states to submit a declaration of nuclear activities, the revised SQP updates certain requirements, most notably the submission of a declaration report and the possibility of IAEA safeguards inspections.

Ninety-four qualifying states have adopted the revised SQP, but 31 maintain agreements under the original version, according to the IAEA. Saudi Arabia was the last state to conclude an SQP with the original text and has not amended its agreement. “I have decided to reinvigorate the agency’s efforts to encourage all remaining states to amend or rescind their SQPs,” Grossi urged.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program remains in its early developmental stages, meaning that it can still be effectively safeguarded under an SQP model agreement. But should Saudi Arabia introduce nuclear materials, such as low-enriched uranium, and operate a nuclear reactor, it will be obligated to rescind its SQP and transition to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement with the agency.

“When they upgrade their activities including by the introduction of nuclear material in the kingdom, then we will have to have a stronger safeguards system,” Grossi confirmed.

Grossi said Riyadh and the IAEA are also discussing implementation of an additional protocol to the nation’s safeguards agreement, which would further strengthen the agency’s safeguards in Saudi Arabia.
—JULIA MASTERSON

Saudi Arabia, IAEA Discuss Safeguards

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