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Posted: November 21, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Why More Warheads Bring Less Security

The focus of this collection of essays is the nuclear-warhead technology for placing multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles on a ballistic missile...

September 2016

Reviewed by James E. Doyle

The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age
Edited by Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler, and Shane Mason, Stimson Center, 2016, 204 pp.

Embracing theories of nuclear war-fighting and deploying capabilities to attack the nuclear forces of a potential adversary provide nations with little security advantage and obligate them to spend vast defense resources on nuclear forces for decades. Such reliance on this expansive approach to nuclear deterrence can also hinder the improvement of political relations and increase the chances of unintended nuclear war during a crisis. China, India, and Pakistan should be mindful of this as they structure their future nuclear forces. Further, the security interests of the two dominant nuclear-weapon powers, the United States and Russia, would be served by disavowing theories of victory in nuclear warfare. 

That is the basic message of “The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age,” an important recent study edited by Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler, and Shane Mason and published by the Stimson Center. This study fills a gap and breaks new ground in the scholarship on the technology of the nuclear arms competition.

The focus of this collection of six essays is the technology for placing multiple nuclear warheads on a single ballistic missile and providing those warheads the ability to attack the protected nuclear forces of an adversary. Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China have adopted this innovation, pioneered by the United States in the 1960s. India and Pakistan are developing this capability and are likely to deploy such missiles in the near future. 

This report makes a vital contribution to international security research and provides detailed history of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry in multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Through the writings of regional security experts and former military officials, it also analyzes the emerging nuclear forces and doctrines in China, India, and Pakistan.

The study cautions decision-makers in China, India, and Pakistan that if they wish to “avoid repeating the missteps of the United States and the Soviet Union during the first nuclear age,” they must limit the extent to which multiple warheads are placed atop missiles and proceed at a slow pace. Most importantly, they should reject nuclear counterforce targeting strategies and war-fighting doctrine. Such nuclear war-fighting strategies during the first nuclear age resulted in heightened insecurity and a prolonged nuclear arms race.

The advent of MIRVs combined with increases in missile accuracy enabled the targeting of opponents’ nuclear forces by means of prompt hard-target-kill capabilities. The authors correctly conclude that “when deterrence of nuclear attack is predicated on the ability to attack opposing forces quickly, it becomes very hard for national leaders to stabilize political relations and proceed with arms control.”

MIRVs propelled vertical proliferation more than any other technological advance during the first nuclear age and gave rise to pyrrhic notions of prevailing in a nuclear war. This lesson is drawn from the solid research on the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. This study comes at a critical time because the United States and Russia are entering a new round of this competition and other nuclear powers appear to be following suit.

Perceived Advantages

MIRV technology combined with greater missile accuracy enables ballistic missiles to target hardened missile silos, airfields, submarine bases, and command centers. For example, the United States and the Soviet Union placed up to 10 or more nuclear warheads on a single missile so that a force of 50 missiles could destroy 500 or more separate targets. The United States made extensive deployments of MIRVs first, rapidly expanding the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal. This was considered to have several important advantages. 

Most importantly, it was thought to provide a nuclear force superior to the Soviet Union. Although deterrence theory holds that nuclear war will be avoided because each side is equally vulnerable to destruction by the other, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union (or Russia today) has been satisfied with this condition. Each side sought nuclear forces that would provide some measure of advantage over the other. The United States, in particular, believed during the Cold War that the perception of nuclear superiority was vital to its entire national security and foreign policy strategies, as this study demonstrates with meticulous evidence from official documents, memoirs, and declassified sources.

This refusal to accept mutual vulnerability was expressed in many ways and drove the development of expanded nuclear doctrine and nuclear forces with ever-increasing capabilities. As Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long explain in the book’s first essay, “The Geopolitical Origins of US Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs,” U.S. “[p]olicymakers believed that the nuclear balance would shape the political choices of other states—the Soviet Union, NATO allies, and third parties.... American leaders also believed that perceptions of the strategic balance abroad might influence international politics to the detriment of US national and international security.”

International Perceptions

Because U.S. policymakers believed that international perceptions of the balance were of pivotal importance for U.S. interests, they supported superiority in MIRVs and other measures of nuclear competition. It was considered essential that U.S. nuclear forces conveyed military strength and political resolve in order to reassure friends and induce caution among potential adversaries. Arcane metrics for assessing the nuclear balance such as missile payload weight, the number of deliverable warheads, their ability to defeat missile defenses, and their explosive power were valued and painstakingly assessed by strategic analysts. 

It did not matter that asymmetries in these categories of nuclear strength had dubious efficacy on the outcome of war if deterrence failed and a major exchange of nuclear weapons occurred. The perception of advantage was thought to be more important than actual advantage. This belief system sets up an endless cycle of nuclear weapons competition that endures and is intensifying between the United States and Russia today. 

The authors drive this point home with quotes from key U.S. statesmen of the Cold War era. For example, President Richard Nixon said of the nuclear balance, “Our view of our advantages or disadvantages will determine whether we can pursue an aggressive or timid foreign policy.”

James Schlesinger, U.S. secretary of defense from 1973 to 1975, argued that the United States might need large numbers of MIRVs with hard-target-kill capabilities “[j]ust so they [the Soviets] don’t think they are ahead.” Henry Kissinger, who served as Nixon’s secretary of state and national security adviser, also acknowledged that nuclear perceptions could be decisive. “Our [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II] agreement can’t result in serious inequalities,” he argued, “if for no other reason than that other countries will look at these differences and assume we are inferior. Therefore, it will affect our foreign policy.” Stansfield Turner, CIA director from 1977 to 1981, also warned of the political consequences of letting the Soviets have a nuclear force that could attack U.S. land-based missiles and still have weapons in reserve: “I personally do not believe that [increasing U.S. missile vulnerability] means that the Soviets would be likely to be tempted to launch a strategic attack against us…. But I do believe that the perception of superiority that will give to the Soviets, and perhaps to our allies and others, is unacceptable to us.”

MIRV technology was also thought to provide the United States with several nuclear war-fighting advantages should deterrence fail. The first was so-called damage-limitation capability. The best way to limit an adversary’s ability to inflict damage on the United States was to promptly destroy as much of that nation’s nuclear arsenal as possible before it could be used. MIRVs allow an adversary’s nuclear arsenal to be heavily damaged by only a portion of an attacker’s overall force, leaving the attacker a potentially larger reserve of nuclear weapons to deter a weakened response. In the case of the Soviet Union, which deployed the vast majority of its nuclear forces on vulnerable silo-based missiles, this doctrine permitted one U.S. theory of victory in nuclear war. Following warning of an attack or pre-emptively, the United States could destroy much of the Soviet arsenal and national infrastructure and face only limited retaliation or possibly even termination of the conflict on favorable terms.

Of course, this theory also worked in reverse. Once the Soviets acquired a large force of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with MIRV capability, they too had the option to strike first. When both nations possessed such capabilities, the incentives to launch on warning of an attack increased. Because early-warning systems are imperfect and prone to false alarms, this raised the risks of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation, a situation that persists today. 

An undated U.S. Air Force photograph of LGM-118A Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile re-entry vehicles during a flight test. The 50 deployed Peacekeepers, the most powerful U.S. missile from 1986 to 2005, were deactivated following the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia. [Photo credit: U.S. Air Force]Another military advantage offered by MIRV technology was the ability to implement limited nuclear strikes over a protracted period of time. U.S. strategists embraced such limited nuclear options as a plausible alternative to a massive exchange of nuclear weapons. Green and Long explain that these were conceptualized as attacks “with a limited number of weapons to cause pain, demonstrate US resolve, and incentivize the Soviet Union to stand down in the early stages of a nuclear war.” They quote a 1973 U.S. National Security Memorandum that asserts that limited nuclear options “could potentially also provide a capability to conduct discrete limited attacks on enemy forces in an immediate area to deny a local objective.” The cost-effectiveness of MIRVs, where one missile can carry several warheads, made acquiring these capabilities more feasible and provided wider targeting options.

MIRVs made another theory of nuclear victory possible. This was a limited pre-emptive strike designed to “decapitate” the Soviet command-and-control system and its most vulnerable nuclear forces, thus preventing it from marshaling even a ragged, weak retaliation. Targets to be struck by the fastest-arriving U.S. weapons (missiles with MIRV capability on submarines near the Soviet borders) included the Soviet political and military leadership, launch control centers and communications links, missile fields, and submarine pens. This threat from U.S. forces eventually led the Soviets to deploy a system called “perimeter” or “dead hand,” which could be predelegated to automatically launch nuclear retaliation against the United States without requiring authorization from the Soviet command authority, most or all of whom would have died in the U.S. attack.1

Hardened Targets

The embrace of nuclear war-fighting concepts such as damage-limiting first strikes, limited nuclear options, and decapitation all required accurate MIRVs capable of destroying hard targets because most militarily critical targets, including missile silos and command bunkers, were hardened to survive nuclear strikes that did not land very close to their aimpoints. When the capability to place the target within the crater caused by the nuclear explosion was acquired, these strategies became possible. 

Ironically, as the authors point out, “the strongest advocates of MIRVing in the United States and the Soviet Union were the quickest to question the motives behind each other’s programs: Why go to such lengths—and to the high launch-readiness associated with vulnerable and lucrative targets—if not to signal a commitment to nuclear warfighting in the event of a breakdown in deterrence?”

This key observation leads to another negative consequence of nuclear counterforce strategies, which is highlighted in the report’s second chapter, “The Impact of MIRVs and Counterforce Targeting on the US-Soviet Relationship,” by Russian scholars Alexey Arbatov, a member of the Scientific Council of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Advisory Council of the Russian Prime Minister, and retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, who had served as an expert for the preparation of key U.S.-Russian bilateral nuclear treaties.

That consequence is mutual misperception, fear, and distrust in military relations that spills over to the political dimension. Arbatov and Dvorkin convincingly argue that had diplomatic efforts to constrain MIRVs succeeded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry would have been far less intense and dangerous. The authors rightly contend, “The interaction of ballistic missiles and MIRVs with strategic doctrines of the United States and the Soviet Union deeply affected the military relations of the two powers for at least a quarter-century and precipitated two rounds of a highly expensive and threatening arms race—with dire implications for international security.”

The dynamics of the U.S.-Soviet arms race were clear: the deployment of accurate ballistic missiles with MIRV capability gave the United States the theoretical ability to deliver a disarming strike against Soviet strategic nuclear forces. 

The Soviet Union responded by deploying MIRVed ballistic missiles of its own to achieve parity in the number of warheads and to increase its ability to penetrate the anti-ballistic missile system that the United States was expected to develop. This development placed at risk the United States’ silo-based missiles and command centers. The United States then hardened its command and control and MIRVed hundreds of ballistic missiles aboard submarines that were relatively invulnerable to a first strike. The Soviets then deployed missiles on mobile launchers; created mobile command centers; built reserve airfields for its strategic bombers; and increased the number of nuclear ballistic missile submarines on sea patrol.

Both sides failed to acknowledge that some of the characteristics and capabilities of these weapons systems constrained options and compressed the timescale for decisions in a crisis, outcomes that made war by miscalculation more likely. Assessing the impact of force postures on war probability was not a priority for either side until after the Cold War was over. Unfortunately, it appears that the lessons of this history remain unlearned and classic nuclear stability is again taking a back seat to U.S.-Russian nuclear muscle-flexing, especially in the realm of nonstrategic nuclear forces. Indeed, the current controversy over launch-on-warning strategies that allow a U.S. president only several minutes to decide to retaliate for an attack indicated by error-prone early-warning systems is a legacy of the U.S.-Soviet competition in MIRVs.2

The U.S.-Chinese strategic relationship now equals or exceeds that with Russia in terms of its consequences for international stability. Beijing maintains strategic capabilities far below those of Washington and Moscow, but is modernizing its nuclear forces and appears to have equipped its DF-5 ICBM with MIRVs. As author Jeffrey Lewis makes clear, there is little evidence “to conclude that this is driven by military requirements associated with the pursuit of a counterforce targeting strategy.” Rather, the primary reason for China placing MIRVs on the DF-5 is to ensure that some warheads could penetrate U.S. missile defenses, therefore deterring U.S. aggression.

As Lewis makes clear, the chances that nuclear war-fighting strategies will enter the U.S.-Chinese strategic balance are growing. China has deployed anti-satellite weapons on the ground and in space that could eliminate the surveillance and intelligence on which the United States depends to attack mobile targets and cue missile defense systems. These systems would be lucrative targets for the United States in any future regional conflict with China and could be attacked early with long-range conventional weapons. 

The MK-21 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles for the LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio. [Photo credit: U.S. Air Force]The recessed nature of the Chinese nuclear deterrent might also increase classic forms of deterrence instability. Most Chinese warheads that can reach the United States are deployed on mobile missiles that remain in their garrisons and increasingly on submarines that spend most of their time in port. In this configuration, they are vulnerable to a first strike by U.S. MIRVs. Lewis observes that if both sides judged that war was about to break out, incentives would be high for China to disperse its nuclear forces and for the United States to strike them before this could be achieved. Moreover, Chinese strategists are beginning to highlight the potential benefits of alerting their nuclear forces to signal resolve and avoid nuclear coercion by the United States. The United States might perceive such alerts as preparation for launch and consider pre-emptive attacks, sharply increasing crisis instability.

MIRV technology would also introduce instabilities to the Chinese-Indian and Indian-Pakistani nuclear balances. Most Indian strategists agree that any increase in China’s nuclear strength requires a response from India. India suspects China of developing ballistic missile defenses. If it does so, India would have greater incentives to use MIRVs on its ballistic missile force. Other incentives exist, such as cost-effectiveness and the desire for India to be seen as possessing a technologically “modern” nuclear force. In fact, authors Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran posit in their essay “India’s Slow and Unstoppable Move to MIRV” that making use of MIRVs in India may not even require political approval “because it is not viewed as a new weapon system, but one that is an extension of an existing (missile) technology.”

MIRVs or multiple warheads without independent targeting capability are not seen in India as inconsistent with its recessed deterrence forces. They could be developed for ballistic missiles that remain in a low state of day-to-day readiness. India does not possess the tracking or command-and-control capabilities to support counterforce targeting today, but will develop such capabilities over time. 

Pakistani nuclear doctrine differs fundamentally from Chinese and Indian doctrines. Pakistan sees nuclear weapons and the option to use them first as necessary to offset conventional force disparities with India. So, India’s pursuit of MIRVs and missile defenses challenge the effectiveness of Pakistani strategic deterrent. If India introduces MIRVs, Pakistan is likely to do so as well. This is the conclusion by Feroz Khan and Mansoor Ahmed in their chapter. Other priorities for Pakistan would be to increase the survivability of its nuclear forces through completion of a triad of delivery vehicles, the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles, and improvements to command, control, surveillance and targeting.

China, India, and Pakistan remain well behind the Unites States and Russia in counterforce nuclear capabilities, and their doctrines currently reflect these limitations. Over time, however, this study warns that “[t]he cascading effects of competitive MIRVing, flowing from the United States (and Russia) to China to India and finally Pakistan, have created a multidimensional security dilemma that appears to be leading inexorably to a new and complex problem in Asian security.” This dynamic will increase incentives for arms races, increased alert postures, and greater counterforce targeting capability—outcomes that decrease strategic stability in East and South Asia.

This report counsels that such negative developments are not inevitable but will flow from deliberate choices made by Asian nuclear powers. So far, China has exercised the most nuclear restraint, including the very limited size of its nuclear forces, its lack of counterforce capability, and the recessed nature of Chinese nuclear doctrine. In stark contrast to beliefs in the West that robust nuclear forces and war-fighting doctrine are essential enablers of successful foreign policy, China’s rise in world affairs has hardly been hindered by its modest nuclear strategy. Indeed, China may provide an example of strategically wise management of nuclear policy and resources. Although controversy surrounds China’s ambitions in the South and East China seas, its actions there have not been linked to expansive nuclear deployments or doctrine. India has also taken a measured pace to enlarging its nuclear arsenal and maintains a retaliatory doctrine. 

Whether this restraint will endure has grave implications for global security and depends on many unpredictable factors worthy of constant analysis. “The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age” is a powerful resource for scholars and policymakers concerned with these questions. Its global scope, as well as its intricate details of the technical and political dimensions of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War arms race, provides valuable reference material that is accessible, well organized, and well documented with primary sources. This book advances understanding of the dynamics of nuclear arms competitions, the forces that trap nations in endless counterforce strategies, and the burdens and dangers that result. 


1.   Aaron Stein, “Putin’s Dead Hand,” Arms Control Wonk, podcast audio, March 8, 2015, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/5263/putins-dead-hand/.

2.   Jeffrey Lewis, “Our Nuclear Procedures Are Crazier Than Trump,” Foreign Policy, August 5, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/05/our-nuclear-procedures-are-crazier-than-trump/.

James E. Doyle is is an independent nuclear security specialist. He was a technical staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1997 to 2014.

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Posted: September 1, 2016

No, Nuclear Modernization Doesn’t Cost Less Than You Think

Modernization proponents argue that the costs will only impose a small financial burden relative to the overall military budget. Are they right?

The Complex and Increasingly Dangerous Nuclear Weapons Geometry of Asia


Asian states Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea comprise four of the world's nine nuclear-armed states. The interconnections of these countries must be considered to fully understand how nuclear nonproliferation can be influenced.


July 27, 2016

While much of the world’s attention is focused on efforts to halt the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea, the nuclear arsenals and ambitions of India, Pakistan, and China also pose significant dangers and deserve more attention.

The complicated nuclear weapons geometry of Asia extends from the subcontinent to the other side of the world. While Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is designed to counter India’s conventional and nuclear forces, New Delhi measures its own nuclear weapons program against that of China. Beijing, in turn, judges the adequacy of its nuclear arsenal against the threat it perceives from the United States’ strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. And in its efforts to mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, the United States and it allies in the region are expanding their strategic and theater missile defense capabilities.

In order to fully understand how the pace and direction of nuclear proliferation can be influenced, the interconnections of these countries must be considered, along with the kinds of nuclear weapons they have at their disposal.

The full PDF of the Threat Assessment Brief is available here.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

Posted: July 27, 2016

Progress on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Inadequate to Meet Threats, New Study Finds



A new study suggests that President Obama, failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas during his second term.


For Immediate Release: July 15, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—President Barack Obama failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas over the course of his second term, but did achieve important steps to improve nuclear materials security and strengthen nonproliferation norms, namely the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, according to a new study released by the Arms Control Association, which evaluates the recent records of all the world’s nuclear-armed states.

The report, "Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 2013-2016," is the third in a series that measures the performance of 11 key states in 10 universally-recognized nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear security categories over the past three years. The study evaluated the records of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea—each of which possess nuclear weapons—as well as Iran and Syria, which are states of proliferation concern.

“The United States is investing enormous resources to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons delivery systems and warheads and is keeping its deployed nuclear weapons on ‘launch-under-attack’ readiness posture. The lack of U.S. leadership in these areas contributes to the moribund pace of disarmament,” said Elizabeth Philipp, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association, and a co-author of the report.

“Obama should use his remaining months in office to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategies and mitigate the risks of inadvertent use. Obama could consider declaring that Washington will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and co-author of the report.

“U.S. leadership could spur China and Russia to take positive actions and improve the prospects for further disarmament. Russia’s decision to develop a new missile in violation of its treaty commitments and Moscow’s rebuff of attempts by the United States to negotiate further nuclear reductions is very troublesome, as is the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal and Beijing’s steps toward increasing the alert levels of its forces,” Philipp added.

“Several states did take significant steps over the past three years to strengthen nuclear security, including action by the United States and Pakistan to ratify key nuclear security treaties,” said Davenport.

“The July 2015 nuclear deal struck between six global powers and Iran was also a significant nonproliferation breakthrough that has significantly reduced Tehran’s nuclear capacity and subjected its activities to more intrusive international monitoring and verification. While the international community must remain vigilant in ensuring that the deal is fully implemented, blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons negates a serious nonproliferation concern and demonstrates the consequences of flouting the international norms and obligations,” Davenport said.

“For the third time, the United Kingdom received the highest grade of all the states assessed, while North Korea remained at the bottom of the list with the lowest overall grades. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and its ballistic missile development require the next U.S. administration to pursue more robust engagement with Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities,” Philipp said.

“Our review of the record indicates that further action must be taken by all 11 states if they are to live up to their international disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. By tracking the progress, or lack thereof, of these states over time, we hope this report will serve as a tool to encourage policymakers to increase efforts to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons,” Davenport said.

A country-by-country summary can be viewed here.
The full report card can be downloaded here


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Posted: July 15, 2016

"Perceptions of WMD in the Media" — Presentation by Kelsey Davenport at the 2016 James Timbie Forum



Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy, at the 2016 Timbie Forum on engaging emerging professionals in the field


Kelsey Davenport, Director of Nonproliferation Policy

Kelsey Davenport, Arm Control Association's director of nonproliferation policy, spoke on "Perceptions of WMD in the Media" and how to engage emerging young professionals in the field of arms control at the U.S. State Department's 2016 James Timbie Forum.

Video of her remarks is available via our Youtube channel, or below.


Posted: July 14, 2016

2016 Report Card on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Efforts

Download the full report here.

Table of Contents

Posted: July 13, 2016

Resuming Negotiations with North Korea


The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear-armed ballistic missile systems is closing and Washington should explore every serious diplomatic overture from Pyongyang.


By Elizabeth Philipp, 2016 Scoville Fellow 

The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from fielding nuclear-armed ballistic missiles is closing. Diplomatic engagement with North Korea has been scant in recent years. In response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, the United States and other countries, through actions of the United Nations Security Council and independent policies, have adopted an approach of increasing political and economic isolation. Yet, during this time, Pyongyang has improved its nuclear weapons capability quantitatively and qualitatively.

The next presidential administration must prioritize reviewing and renewing Washington’s diplomatic approach to North Korea. With each successive nuclear and missile test, North Korea advances its knowledge and consolidates its capability. History has shown that it is far easier to convince North Korea to negotiate away a military capability it does not yet possess. Washington’s stated primary concern is a North Korean nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang will achieve this capability if it is not reined in through a diplomatic agreement or understanding. Once Pyongyang achieves this status, the security balance in Asia will be disrupted and U.S. diplomats will be hard-pressed to convince North Korea to abandon the capability.

To read the full brief, click here.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

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Posted: June 24, 2016

China Expands Missile Arsenal

China is expanding its arsenal of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, according to a report from the U.S. Defense Department. 

June 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

China is expanding its arsenal of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to ensure the viability of its nuclear deterrent, according to an annual report to the U.S. Congress from the Defense Department. 

The report, titled “The Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016” and released last month, noted an expansion in the number of China’s nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the development of a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, the DF-26. 

ICBMs have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers, whereas intermediate-range ballistic missiles have a range of 3,000-5,500 kilometers. 

The 2016 report said that these missiles have capabilities, including multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), that are “intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent in the face of continued advances” in areas such as ballistic missile defense and precision-strike capabilities by the United States and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

Precision-strike capabilities utilize advanced guidance systems to hit targets more accurately, which threatens China’s ability to execute a second strike in the event of an attack. 

The DF-26 is China’s first ballistic missile in the intermediate range and was unveiled for the first time in September 2015. When China deploys the nuclear variant of the DF-26, it would give Beijing its “first nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets,” according to the 2016 report. 

U.S. military bases in Guam would be within range of the DF-26.

Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said in a May 13 press briefing that China’s development of the DF-26 is an example of Beijing’s investment in military programs and weaponry that are designed in part to “improve power projection.”

The 2016 report estimated that China has between 75 and 100 road-mobile and silo-based ICBMs, up from the 50 to 60 ICBMs noted in the 2015 edition of the report. The increase in ICBMs came as a surprise to a number of experts. 

In a May 18 article for Strategic Security, the blog of the Federation of American Scientists, Hans Kristensen wrote that the increase in ICBMs is “inconsistent” with previous reports, which have listed the same number of missiles as missile launchers or slightly higher as the DF-4 ICBM launchers can be reloaded. Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the federation, wrote that the rationale is unclear for reporting a sudden increase in missiles to 25 more than the number of launchers. 

The 2016 report did not indicate that China deployed any new ICBM variants since the last report, but noted that a road-mobile ICBM still under development, the DF-41, is capable of carrying MIRVs. The 2015 report only said the DF-41 was “possibly capable” of carrying multiple warheads. 

According to the report, China deploys an ICBM, the DF-5B, that is equipped with MIRVs. Li Bin, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said at a May 5 event hosted by the group that it is unclear if China has deployed MIRVs on any DF-5B ICBMs. He argued that it would be more logical for China to use decoys on the missile instead of additional warheads. 

Bin said China’s nuclear activities are not designed to seek parity with any other country but to demonstrate that Beijing is not “lagging” behind technological developments. Perception of a lag could invite aggressive actions from other countries, Bin reasoned. 

The 2016 report also revised the estimate for China’s Jin-class ballistic missile submarines to begin conducting deterrent patrols. The 2015 report assessed that China would begin deterrent patrols in late 2015, whereas the 2016 report says “sometime in 2016.” China currently has four operational Jin-class submarines and a fifth under construction. The submarines are armed with the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The JL-2 has an estimated range of 7,200 kilometers. 

Despite the assertion in the 2016 report that the Jin-class submarines have not yet conducted a deterrent patrol, the report notes that the submarines are “China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent.” 

On a deterrent patrol, a submarine would carry nuclear-armed SLBMs.

China’s first-generation Xia-class submarine is believed to have been a technology test bed that never conducted a deterrent patrol.

Posted: May 31, 2016

Iran’s Missile Tests Raise Concerns

Controversy over the potential nuclear capability of two ballistic missiles tested by Iran last month prompted calls for new U.S. and UN sanctions on Tehran.

April 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

Iran tested two ballistic missiles last month, raising calls in the United States for new national and international sanctions on the country.

On March 9, Iran launched two different variations of the Qadr medium-range ballistic missile as part of a military drill from a site in the Alborz Mountains in northern Iran. One of the missiles, the Qadr-F, has a range of 2,000 kilometers; the other, the Qadr-H, has a range of 1,700 kilometers, according to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The calls by U.S. officials and members of Congress for additional sanctions stem from concerns that the missile tests run contrary to UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran not to develop or test ballistic missiles that are “designed to be nuclear capable.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on March 15 that the launches were permitted under the resolution because the missiles tested were not designed to be capable of delivering nuclear warheads. Zarif, in an address at the Australian National University, said that Resolution 2231 does not call on Iran “not to test ballistic missiles, or ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.”

The international community generally defines a ballistic missile as being nuclear capable if it can carry a 500-kilogram payload a distance of 300 kilometers.

Passed last July, Resolution 2231 endorses the nuclear deal reached between Iran and six countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) earlier in July and terminates past Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program, including Resolution 1929. (See ACT, September 2015.) Resolution 1929, which prohibited Iran from developing and launching missiles that were “capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” was terminated on Jan. 16, when the nuclear deal was formally implemented. Resolution 2231 came into effect that day.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on March 14 that she raised the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile tests being inconsistent with Resolution 2231 at a Security Council meeting that day. In remarks to press after the meeting, Power said the missiles were “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” and called the launches destabilizing and provocative.

Power said Iran’s reaction merits a response from the Security Council.

Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the UN, took a different view, saying that Iran’s tests did not violate Resolution 2231 because the resolution only “call[s] upon” Iran to abide by the restriction. Churkin said that “you cannot violate a call.” The earlier resolution said that Iran “shall not” undertake any activity related to nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Members of the U.S. Congress are also considering national sanctions against Iran.

One of the sanctions bills introduced in response to the ballistic missile tests was sponsored by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) on March 17 and co-sponsored by 11 other Republican senators. It includes new sanctions against individuals involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and entities that own 25 percent or more of Iran’s key ballistic missile organizations.

Ayotte said in a March 17 press release that she led efforts on the Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act of 2016 because “the potential danger to our homeland, as well as the urgent threat to our forward deployed troops and our allies like Israel, is only growing.”

Israel is in range of the ballistic missiles that Tehran tested on March 9. But Iran would need a ballistic missile with a range of more than 9,000 kilometers to target the United States. Iran has never tested or displayed a long-range ballistic missile.

Iranian officials have said that Tehran would limit its missiles to a range of 2,300 kilometers. (See ACT, March 2016.)

Democrats also are raising concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile tests. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a March 18 statement that “recent events in Iran underscore the need for a statutory framework to respond to Iran’s ballistic missile tests.”

Cardin said he is working on bipartisan sanctions legislation that will respond to Iran’s repeated ballistic missile launches.

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Posted: March 29, 2016


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