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December 2005
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Thursday, December 1, 2005
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Subcontinental Nightmares

Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons. By Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty

Robert M. Hathaway


Although tensions between India and Pakistan have ebbed over the past two years, South Asia remains a brew of festering national, religious, sectarian, communal, and ethnic animosities. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since the two countries achieved independence in 1947, and both tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Periods of “peace” routinely see artillery exchanges, cross-border infiltration, and the sponsorship of insurgency in the territory of the other. Many Pakistanis believe that India has unjustly occupied territory that rightfully belongs to their country. Kashmir remains a flashpoint, which as recently as 2002 contributed to the mobilization of one million heavily armed men along their common border.

It is unsurprising then that President Bill Clinton once famously called South Asia “the most dangerous place in the world.” Many South Asians view remarks such as those of Clinton as condescending and racist, implying that Asians, unlike Americans and Russians during the Cold War, cannot be trusted to manage their nuclear arsenals with restraint and common sense. These criticisms have come even as Pakistan has occasionally sought to play on U.S. nuclear fears to prod Washington into greater activity to help resolve the political disputes— Kashmir above all—that, left unchecked, might lead to war in the subcontinent.

After all, with the exception of the sharp but brief engagement on the heights of Kargil in 1999, India and Pakistan have not fought a full-fledged war since the Bangladesh crisis of 1971. So, how have these two bitter rivals, despite repeated crises and profound mistrust, avoided a major war over the past few decades? How crucial have the United States and other outside powers been in restraining such a conflict? Will this good fortune continue?

In Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons, Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty attempt what they describe as “the first comprehensive analysis of Indo-Pakistani crisis [behavior] in South Asia’s nuclear era.” They do not use “comprehensive” in the traditional sense of all-encompassing or exhaustive, but rather to indicate that their purview encompasses all the Indo-Pakistani crises, major and minor—six by their count—over the past 20 years. Short chapters offer concise but useful summaries of each of the six: the brief 1984 flurry when Islamabad (and Washington) worried that India might launch preventive air strikes against Pakistan’s nascent nuclear facilities; the 1987 “Brasstacks” crisis; the April 1990 war scare; the mutual fear of pre-emptive nuclear strikes that followed the May 1998 nuclear tests first of India, then Pakistan; the 1999 Kargil war, which may have resulted in nearly 2,500 battle deaths; and the 2002 standoff that followed the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament building in New Delhi.

The underlying premise of Fearful Symmetry is that Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons capabilities and the possibility that military conflict might escalate to the nuclear level have been the main deterrent to a major war in the six crises of the past 20 years. The authors quite sensibly place considerable emphasis on the “stability-instability paradox,” which holds that nuclear weapons can be simultaneously stabilizing and destabilizing. At the macro level, nuclear arsenals provide stability because both sides fear that full-scale hostilities could escalate to the nuclear level. However, the mutual possession of nuclear weapons also permits, even encourages, small-scale probes, such as that undertaken by Pakistan in Kargil in 1999, because decision-makers assume that their adversary’s response must of necessity be proportionate.

The study’s finding that nuclear weapons have been a force for peace in South Asia is plausible insofar as it goes, yet leaves the reader unsatisfied. The authors announce that they write from “a theoretical perspective” best described as “mere realism.” Still, one hungers for some tangible proof regarding the efficacy of deterrence, rather than its mere assertion. In this context, proof would probably require access to key internal documents central to the Indian and Pakistani decision-making process or unusually candid interviews with leading political and military actors who actually participated in the key decisions for war and peace. Ganguly and Hagerty are probably correct that a fear of escalation to the nuclear level was a factor in such decision-making. They may even be correct that it was the decisive factor. Nonetheless, they might have tempered their repeated assertions to this effect by conceding that the evidence leading to such a conclusion is lacking and their judgments are necessarily speculative.

Ganguly, a prolific scholar, has elsewhere argued[1] that Pakistani decision-makers have consistently and grossly underestimated Indian military prowess and likely Indian responses to military challenges, a theme to which he and Hagerty return in the current study. Nor has the record of Indian decision-making been exemplary; note the authors’ indictment of the misjudgments that left New Delhi unprepared to detect the Kargil incursion at an early moment. This being the case, then, one can draw little comfort from their confidence that nuclear deterrence, because it has succeeded in the past, can be relied on to save the region from large-scale war, conventional or nuclear. Indeed, the authors concede that India and Pakistan are each years away from adequate safeguards against the accidental launch of a nuclear armed missile. Nor do they give sufficient attention to the nightmarish scenario of a crazed fanatic or group of extremists deliberately throwing the region into nuclear Armageddon, a scenario that, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, one cannot absolutely dismiss.

A new, analytically sophisticated study by Indian scholar Arpit Rajain, Nuclear Deterrence in Southern Asia: China, India and Pakistan, reminds us that no consideration of nuclear deterrence in South Asia is complete if it focuses exclusively on India and Pakistan. China also is an integral element in the security equation of South, or, as Rajain prefers, “Southern,” Asia. To Rajain, this “triangular nuclear competition...is qualitatively different, has far more variables working simultaneously and remains geo-strategically more dangerous” than the Soviet-U.S. nuclear rivalry of the Cold War. Rajain also argues that the psychological attitudes of decision-makers at moments of crisis will perhaps influence their choices in irrational or at least unpredictable ways, which should further erode our confidence in deterrence theory predicated on a rational actor model. Decision-makers in Beijing, Islamabad, and New Delhi, Rajain warns, “should not lull themselves into thinking that a credible minimum deterrent posture would prevent crisis and outbreak of hostilities.” Ganguly and Hagerty would not disagree with this caution, but the tone of their study is considerably less emphatic on this point.

As for U.S. actions, Ganguly and Hagerty judge that in some instances, as during the 1999 Kargil war, the United States has played a constructive role in lowering tensions. On other occasions, however, especially during the 1984 and 1998 crises, Washington has been “inept,” “ineffective,” or “counterproductive.” The United States, they add, can and should do more to encourage forward movement on the contentious Kashmir issue, now as always the most likely trigger for a major Indo-Pakistani war. Washington must move from crisis management to conflict resolution, they contend. The book’s final chapter offers a step-by-step road map for Washington to encourage a more positive Indo-Pakistani relationship.

If all that were required was a more proactive U.S. policy. Yet, Ganguly and Hagerty acknowledge that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would undermine the dominance, even the legitimacy, of Pakistan’s major power brokers: the army, of course, but also neo-feudal landowners, the business establishment, and “Islamists of various sociopolitical hues.” A splendid new book by Husain Haqqani, Pakistani journalist, scholar, and former adviser to Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, makes much the same point. Continued hostility between India and Pakistan, Haqqani argues in Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, provides the Pakistan army with a justification for retaining the reins of political power.

Haqqani offers a sobering exploration of the unholy alliance, historical and current, between the Islamists and Pakistan’s all-powerful army. Almost from the moment of Pakistan’s creation, he writes, the country’s leaders, not seeing the mullahs as a serious threat and believing they could use an Islamic ideology for their own ends, promoted the idea of Pakistan as an Islamic state. Ayub Khan, who seized power in 1958 as Pakistan’s first military ruler, “envisioned Islam as a nation-building tool, controlled by an enlightened military leader rather than by clerics.” The parade of generals who succeeded him, up to and including Pervez Musharraf, have followed the same course. Yet, by embracing the notion of an ideological state, the nation’s civilian and military leadership opened the way for a time when the mullahs would demand a controlling voice in the affairs of that state.

To this day, Haqqani writes, Musharraf views the country’s secular politicians, not the Islamists, as his principal rival for political power and regards the latter as useful political allies. This gives Pakistan’s Islamist parties a greater influence than they could hope to exercise in an open, democratic political system because, when given the opportunity to vote in free elections, Pakistanis have consistently opted for secular rather than religious leadership. Today, as in the past, military rule foments religious militancy in Pakistan with sweeping implications for important U.S. national security objectives. The alliance between mosque and military, Haqqani judges, “has the potential of frustrating antiterrorist operations, radicalizing key segments of the Islamic world, and bringing India and Pakistan yet again to the brink of war.” In the struggle against terrorism, he cautions, Pakistan is a U.S. “ally of convenience, not of conviction.”

The Pakistani army for 50 years has been guided by a national security policy tripod, the three legs of which emphasize Islam as the national unifier, rivalry with India as the principal objective of the state’s foreign policy, and alliance with the United States as the handy means to defray the costs of Pakistan’s massive military expenditures. All three policy legs, Haqqani stresses, have served to encourage extremist Islamism. So long as this policy tripod continues to dominate the mindsets of Pakistan’s leaders, genuine peace with India will remain impossible.

Almost from the beginning, U.S. thinking about Pakistan has been characterized by willful self-delusion. Washington wrongfully assumed a similarity of U.S. and Pakistani aims during the Cold War. A Republican White House and a Democratic Congress thought they could use Pakistan’s intelligence services to unleash jihad in Afghanistan without having to worry about how else Islamabad might employ the jihadis. The United States allowed itself to believe that generous military assistance during the 1980s would give Pakistan the confidence to forgo the development of a nuclear weapons capability. Even in the face of compelling evidence that Pakistani officials at the highest levels have peddled nuclear secrets to anyone with cash, Washington has pretended that Islamabad shares its nonproliferation agenda. Successive U.S. administrations have seen the army as a bulwark against the Islamists and have viewed Pakistan as a force for moderation in the Islamic world. All comforting pipe dreams divorced from reality.

Today, the argument takes the form that abandoning Musharraf opens the door for religious extremism. This line of reasoning fails to recognize how responsible the army is for the rise of religious zealotry in Pakistan. Washington professes to see the army as the only realistic alternative to Islamist radicalism, but given the alliance between mosque and military, sustaining the military’s right to govern Pakistan has the effect of perpetuating the influence of radical Islamists. Continued U.S. support for the Pakistani military, Haqqani warns, “makes it difficult for Pakistan’s weak, secular, civil society to assert itself and wean Pakistan from the rhetoric of Islamist ideology.” The United States, in this analysis, becomes an enabler of the very extremism it opposes.

It is a lamentable fact that Pakistan’s civilian politicians have failed their country badly. Haqqani’s study reminds us, however, that the army has never permitted the politicians to govern nor allowed politics to take its course. Here as well, Washington has been something of a co-conspirator, making but meek protest as the military and the intelligence services manipulate elections, harass civilian politicians, and support Islamic parties that promote extremism and spew anti-American hatred. A senior U.S. official recently observed that Musharraf is a “hero in our eyes.”[2] Little wonder the general does not take Washington’s periodic comments about democracy seriously. Little wonder that the Pakistani man in the street finds it difficult to accept the sincerity of America’s fine words about promoting democracy in the Islamic world.

The United States, Haqqani writes, can no longer afford to ignore “ Pakistan’s state sponsorship of Islamist militants.” This dark picture of Pakistan contrasts starkly with the image of Pakistan as a moderate, tolerant, progressive state that Musharraf evokes when addressing Western audiences. Perhaps closer to the truth were his 2004 remarks to Pakistani editors, when he declared that “ Pakistan has two vital national interests: Being a nuclear state and the Kashmir cause.” Each, notably, brings Pakistan into conflict with the United States and with India.

So, what might be done to reduce the dangers inherent in the region? Rajain worries that deterrence may not suffice and urges all three Southern Asian nuclear powers to negotiate transparent confidence-building measures and to guard against miscommunication, misperception, and misinterpretation. Ganguly and Hagerty display greater faith in the efficacy of deterrence but call on the United States to be more proactive in brokering a political settlement in Kashmir. Haqqani believes that the Kashmir dispute will not be resolved nor peace between India and Pakistan ensured until Washington severs its support for military regimes in Islamabad. For starters, perhaps we can have a little less talk of Musharraf being a “hero in our eyes.”

Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


1. Sumit Ganguly, Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947 ( New York and Washington, DC: Columbia University Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001).

2. Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright, “Earthquake Aid for Pakistan Might Help U.S. Image,” The Washington Post, October 13, 2005.


A Review of Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons by Sumit Ganguly and Devin T. Hagerty

Space Weapons and the Risk of Accidental Nuclear War

Thomas Graham, Jr.

The United States and Russia maintain thousands of nuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles on 15-minute alert. Once launched, they cannot be recalled, and they will strike their targets in roughly 30 minutes. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the chance of an accidental nuclear exchange has far from decreased. Yet, the United States may be contemplating further exacerbating this threat by deploying missile interceptors in space.

Both the United States and Russia rely on space-based systems to provide early warning of a nuclear attack. If deployed, however, U.S. space-based missile defense interceptors could eliminate the Russian early warning satellites quickly and without warning. So, just the existence of U.S. space weapons could make Russia’s strategic trigger fingers itchy.

The potential protection space-based defenses might offer the United States is swamped therefore by their potential cost: a failure of or false signal from a component of the Russian early warning system could lead to a disastrous reaction and accidental nuclear war. There is no conceivable missile defense, space-based or not, that would offer protection in the event that the Russian nuclear arsenal was launched at the United States.

Nor are the Russians or other countries likely to stand still and watch the United States construct space-based defenses. These states are likely to respond by developing advanced anti-satellite weapon systems.[1] These weapons, in turn, would endanger U.S. early warning systems, impair valuable U.S. weapons intelligence efforts, and increase the jitteriness of U.S. officials.

The Dangers of Failed Early Warning Systems

The Russian early warning system is in serious disrepair. This system consists of older radar systems nearing the end of their operational life and just three functioning satellites, although the Russian military has plans to deploy more. The United States has 15 such satellites. Ten years ago, on January 25, 1995, this aging early warning network picked up a rocket launch from Norway. The Russian military could not determine the nature of the missile or its destination. Fearing that it might be a submarine-launched missile aimed at Moscow with the purpose of decapitating the Russian command and control structure, the Russian military alerted President Boris Yeltsin, his defense minister, and the chief of the general staff. They immediately opened an emergency teleconference to determine whether they needed to order Russia’s strategic forces to launch a counterattack.

The rocket that had been launched was actually an atmospheric sounding rocket conducting scientific observations of the aurora borealis. Norway had notified Russia of this launch several weeks earlier, but the message had not reached the relevant sections of the military. In little more than two minutes before the deadline to order nuclear retaliation, the Russians realized their mistake and stood down their strategic forces.

Thus, 10 years ago, when the declining Russian early warning system was stronger than today, it read this single small missile test launch as a U.S. nuclear missile attack on Russia. The alarm went up the Russian chain of command all the way to the top. The briefcase containing the nuclear missile launch codes was brought to Yeltsin as he was told of the attack. Fortunately, Yeltsin and the Russian leadership made the correct decision that day and directed the Russian strategic nuclear forces to stand down.

Obviously, nothing should be done in any way further to diminish the reliability of the space-based components of U.S. and Russian ballistic missile early warning systems. A decline in confidence in such early warning systems caused by the deployment of weapons in space would enhance the risk of an accidental nuclear weapons attack. Yet, as part of its plans for missile defense, the Pentagon is calling for the development of a test bed for space-based interceptors as well as examining a number of other exotic space weapons. In an interview published in Arms Control Today, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, touted what he said was “a very modest and moderate test-bed approach to launch some experiments.” Obering said the Pentagon would only deploy a handful of interceptors: “We are talking about onesies, twosies in terms of experimentation.”[2]

Despite Obering’s claims, however, establishing a test bed for missile defense in space, as opposed to current preliminary research, would be a long step toward space weaponization. Once space-based missile defenses are tested, they are likely to be deployed, and in significant numbers, no matter if the tests are successful.

To see the path that a space test bed is likely to follow, one need only look at the present ground-based program: the Pentagon claims there is little true difference between a test bed and an operational deployment. Moreover, in space the deployment could be more dramatic. Although the current ground-based configuration envisions a few dozen interceptors, continuous space coverage over a few countries of concern would likely require a very large number of interceptors because a particular interceptor will be above a particular target for only a few minutes a day. Today’s missile defenses provide very little real protection as the United States currently faces no realistic threat of deliberate attack by nuclear-armed long-range missiles. But space weapons could actually be detrimental to U.S. national security. They would increase the perceived vulnerability of early warning systems to attack and cause Russia and perhaps other countries such as China to pursue potentially destabilizing countermeasures, such as advanced anti-satellite weapons.

These dangers would be particularly worrisome for those components that are placed in geosynchronous orbits (GEO). Space objects in GEO are sufficiently far from the Earth (about 36,000 kilometers) so that their speed roughly matches the rotational speed of the Earth and they remain “stationary” above one location. To be sure, any country that can place a satellite in these farther orbits—and there are several—could potentially threaten another country’s satellites there. Yet, it would be easier to do so, and perhaps more importantly, the threat perception would be greater with weapons based in space than with existing ground-based technology. The 15 U.S. early warning satellites are almost entirely in GEO. The three functioning Russian early warning satellites utilize two different orbits. Two of the satellites use a highly elliptical orbit, which ranges from low-Earth orbit (LEO)—100 to 2,000 kilometers above the Earth where space objects travel at about 8 kilometers per second—out to GEO. The other satellite is permanently stationed in GEO.

Moreover, a space arms competition could hinder the flow of satellite imagery that can be used to track activities that might reveal programs to develop weapons of mass destruction in countries of concern. For example, activities detected through space-based collection systems can be used to trigger requests for inspections pursuant to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) (implicitly) or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (explicitly), should that treaty be brought into force. It is important in this respect to recall that the suspicions that Israel and South Africa may have conducted an atmospheric nuclear test in 1979 were driven by readout from a U.S. VELA satellite.

Similarly, the United States has benefited from the revolution in national intelligence that began with and is based on photographic reconnaissance satellites and related systems, which has helped bring to an end the worst-case analysis and close calls with nuclear war that existed throughout the Cold War. If a truly peaceful and stable world order is ever achieved, the advent of this technology beginning in the late 1950s will be regarded by future generations as a major historical turning point.

These are crucial efforts that must never be allowed to be disrupted, either by space-based weapons or with the relatively simplistic ground-based anti-satellite weapon systems that could today be deployed. The United States has considerable anti-satellite weapons capability. An F-15-based homing vehicle system was successfully tested in the 1980s, and the anti-ballistic missile system currently being deployed in Alaska and California has an inherent anti-satellite capability. Right now, no other country is developing a counterspace system, although the Soviet Union successfully tested a co-orbital anti-satellite system in the 1970s and 1980s and Russia and China are believed to be capable of doing so. Notably, 28 countries have ballistic missiles that can reach LEO satellites, and all have the technical capability to develop a LEO anti-satellite system by modifying these missiles.

Active defenses—the deployment of devices intended to deflect, destroy, or render unworkable offensive systems—cannot by themselves be expected to provide adequate protection of space assets either now or in the long term. These technologies, as well as hardening and other passive means of defense, may provide some means of defending against the current generation of anti-satellite technology. Eventually, however, our would-be attackers would find ways to counter those defenses. Thus, it would appear that an agreed legal regime, predicated on mutually beneficial and, of course, verifiable restraint, should at least be considered.

Protecting Early Warning Systems

Rather than building space weapons, it may be best to put space off-limits for arms. Domestic law in major spacefaring countries around the world could prohibit programs for developing space-based weapons. To reinforce this effort, there could be a worldwide understanding that placing weapons in space or further developing existing anti-satellite weapons capability is contrary to international law and thereby a basis for economic and political pressure and punitive sanctions by a united world community. The best way to accomplish these twin objectives is by the development and negotiation of an international treaty on space weapons and anti-satellite weapons. Treaties become domestic law when ratified, and they can establish worldwide norms of behavior.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is included in a unique class of arms control agreements sometimes referred to as nonarmament treaties. These agreements were intended to prevent and have been successful in preventing the deployment of weapons in areas where they have not previously been present. Today, after more than three decades, space remains free of weapons of mass destruction thanks to the Outer Space Treaty. Pursuant to the initiative of President Dwight Eisenhower, who at the time of his establishment of NASA made it clear that it was U.S. policy to keep space weapons-free, space remains free of weapons of all kinds. Space has long been militarized—early warning systems are military systems—but it has never been weaponized. This policy has served us well for decades, and there is a strong burden of persuasion on any who argue that it should be changed.

It was asserted during the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton that there was no need for limitations beyond the existing Outer Space Treaty as no arms race or threat of an arms race in space existed. The Eisenhower policy held in the United States and was supported everywhere else. Consistent with the Bush-Clinton position, over the years, the United States routinely opposed the creation of a negotiating mandate for outer space at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. A number of years ago, a more formal effort began in Geneva and New York called Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The United States did not support this, abstaining from voting on the resolution in the UN General Assembly each year. And this year it voted no. Moreover, the standard argument for continuance of the Bush-Clinton position is no longer valid in the wake of the January 2001 report of the Rumsfeld space commission, which declared that a serious risk existed of a “ Pearl Harbor in space.”

It has been suggested that a legal regime to prevent the weaponization of space could be crafted simply by expanding or building on the Outer Space Treaty. There may be some merit to this notion, especially considering that the treaty has more than 90 states-parties. However, the subject is complicated, and there are many important interests to protect in addition to space assets for early warning and for intelligence and verification such as remote sensing, telecommunications, navigation, and the enhancement of ground-based military capabilities.

An expanded Outer Space Treaty could include first and foremost a prohibition on all weapons in space, both offensive and defensive, as they are not distinguishable. “Weapon” would have to be defined for the purposes of this treaty so as to exclude space objects with a peaceful purpose and items that are not relevant to the objective of preventing space weaponization. Also, space objects designed to support terrestrial military operations such as the Global Positioning System maintained by the U.S. Air Force should be explicitly permitted. Some kind of inspection of payloads of space launches would be necessary, perhaps modified by the principle of “managed access” as found in the CWC. Provisions on transparency of space activities and on information sharing would be required. These amendatory provisions could be negotiated in a separate stand-alone protocol to reduce somewhat the risk of reopening other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty.

Some have argued that it is premature to consider additional legal obligations in space, that informal “rules of the road” would get far more support. Others argue that the United States must resist the call for any new international legal obligations inhibiting the deployment of weapons in space. It is asserted that any such agreement or arrangement would be unenforceable and unverifiable and that “the ignominious record of enforcing and verifying treaties prohibiting activities on Earth is proof enough to give pause to any conversation about a treaty governing activities in space.”[3]

Yet, where would we be without the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty? Likely, more than 40 states would be armed with nuclear weapons, meaning that every conflict would run the risk of going nuclear, and nuclear weapons would be so widespread it would be impossible to keep them out of the hands of terrorist organizations. Where would we be without the strategic arms limitation and reduction agreements of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s? Likely, the United States and Russia would have so many nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, they could never be controlled. Where would we be without the Outer Space Treaty? Nuclear weapons could be orbiting the Earth with the capability to strike anywhere, anytime without warning. Where are we now in the wake of the dissolution of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty? We possibly could be on the verge of actively considering the development and deployment of space-based ABM systems that would address no current or foreseeable threat but could unhinge strategic stability.

The history of the last 50 years teaches us that, if dangerous weapons and technologies are to be controlled to the safety and security of all, it must be done early, before the programs become entrenched. That time may well be now with respect to weapons in space. The United States does not have a secure future in space without broad and sustained international cooperation. The deployment of weapons in space, whether offensive or defensive, would make this necessary cooperation difficult if not impossible. There would likely be retaliation, which would seriously degrade the progress that has been made over the last five or six decades toward multilateral international cooperation in space.

The groundwork for a comprehensive treaty-based regime has been laid, and the importance of this objective is clear. Much work remains, but the creation of a space regime, under which the international community decisively enshrines space as a peaceful environment, ultimately is the only thoroughgoing alternative to a weaponized space free-for-all. The United States and the rest of the world risk being rendered forever vulnerable to the vagaries and fluctuations of technology development. In this age of a worldwide struggle against international terrorism, this is the last thing we should want.

Preventing the weaponization of space is of paramount importance to world stability. Any deployment of weapons of a significant nature in space, particularly highly capable weapons systems such as a space-based missile defense, could provoke countermeasures. There are many important assets in space, and it is highly likely that they will only continue to flourish in the current sanctuary environment in place since the days of Eisenhower. Above all, we should never take the slightest chance of impairing early warning systems on which the long nuclear peace between the United States and Russia may continue to depend.

Thomas Graham, Jr. is a former special representative of the president for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament. In this and other senior capacities, he participated in every major arms control and nonproliferation negotiation in which the United States took part from 1970 to 1997. Graham is the author of Disarmament Sketches (2002), Cornerstones of Security with Damien LaVera (2003), and Common Sense on Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004).


1. Michael Krepon, “Space Weapons and Proliferation,” Nonproliferation Review, September 2005.

2. “Defending Missile Defense: An Interview With Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Henry Obering,” Arms Control Today, November 2005, pp. 6-11.

3. Jeff Kueter and Andrew Plieninger, “Saving Space: Securing Our Space Assets,” Marshall Institute Policy Outlook, July 2005.


Action/Reaction: U.S. Space Weaponization and China

Hui Zhang

Chinese officials have expressed a growing concern that U.S. space and missile defense plans will stimulate a costly and destabilizing arms race. In particular, the prevailing view in Beijing is that the United States seeks to neutralize China’s strategic nuclear deterrent, freeing itself to intervene in China’s affairs and undermining Beijing’s efforts to prod Taiwan to reunify. If U.S. plans are left unchecked, therefore, Beijing may feel compelled to respond by introducing its own space weapons.

Beijing, however, would prefer to avoid this outcome. Chinese officials argue that weaponizing space is in no state’s interest, while continued peaceful exploitation redounds to the benefit of all states. Rather than battling over space, China wants countries to craft an international ban on space weaponization.

U.S. Moves Toward Space Weaponization

China ’s concerns are prompted by evidence that U.S. moves toward space weaponization are gaining momentum. In January 2001, a congressionally mandated space commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, who is now secretary of defense, recommended that “the U.S. government should vigorously pursue the capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.”[1]

Moreover, the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 has given the United States a free hand to move forward with missile defenses, and space-based missile defenses are envisioned as part of the U.S. mix. In the clearest official sign yet of support for space weaponization, last year the U.S. Air Force publicized its vision of how “counterspace operations” could help achieve and maintain “space superiority,” the “freedom to attack as well as the freedom from attack” in space.[2]

Already the United States is pursuing a number of military systems[3] that could be used to attack targets in space from Earth or targets on Earth from space. To China, current U.S. deployment of a Ground-Based Midcourse Missile Defense system represents an intentional first step toward space weaponization.[4] China experts argue that the interceptors of the system based in Alaska and California could be used to attack satellites.[5]

After all, such systems could be easily adapted to target satellites, which are more fragile and more predictable than ballistic missile warheads. If the United States is determined to ensure “space dominance,” it would first want to use such weapons to negate an adversary’s satellites.

Beijing is even more concerned about U.S. plans for a robust, layered missile defense system. Such a system would provide the capability to engage ballistic missiles in all phases of flight: soon after they are launched, at the height of their trajectory, and as they descend. These are known as the boost, midcourse, and terminal phases, respectively. In particular, China is concerned about interceptors and other defenses that the United States would like to position in space.

The Pentagon announced in December 2002 that the United States would continue the “development and testing of space-based defenses, specifically space-based kinetic energy [hit-to-kill] interceptors and advanced target tracking satellites.” The Pentagon has indicated that a Space-Based Interceptor Test Bed, intended to develop and test plans for a lightweight space-based kinetic kill interceptor, is expected to conduct its first experiment in 2012.

Within the next year, the Pentagon expects to launch into low-Earth orbit (LEO) its first Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite, designed to gather information on ballistic missiles during the first few minutes of their flight. Although the NFIRE at this point is only charged with gathering information, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had originally planned to include a kill vehicle in the NFIRE’s payload and could presumably change its mind again.

Moreover, research on a Space-Based Laser (SBL) had been conducted for some time for boost-phase missile defense. Although MDA cancelled the SBL program in 2002, a number of directed-energy initiatives can still be found in various other programs. The possibility of reviving the SBL program in MDA is still there.

Similarly, other space programs could be turned into weapons. For instance, the Air Force has a research project on small satellites, the Experimental Satellite System (XSS), that seeks to use such satellites to conduct “proximity operations,” maneuvers around other satellites. Some have said the XSS satellites could be used to inspect, service, or attack other satellites.[6] The Air Force in April launched the satellite XSS-11 as part of the series. In addition, the Air Force has considered using weapons for prompt global force projection through space, such as the common aero vehicle and Hypervelocity Rod Bundles (often termed “rods from God”).[7] Such space-based global strike capability would allow the United States to target and strike any point on earth in less than 90 minutes with complete surprise and provide the capability for flexible strikes for different types of targets, such as hard and deeply buried targets or mobile targets.

Space Weapons and China’s Security

The United States clearly has legitimate concerns about its space assets, given that U.S. military operations and the U.S. economy are increasingly dependent on them. Satellites are inherently vulnerable to attacks from many different sources, including ground-based missiles, lasers, and radiation from a high-altitude nuclear explosion. However, it does not mean that the United States currently faces credible threats from states that might exploit those vulnerabilities.[8] Most analysts believe no country seriously threatens U.S. space assets.[9]

Only the United States and, in the Cold War era, the Soviet Union have explored, tested, and developed space weapons; Russia placed a moratorium on its program in the 1980s. To be sure, a number of countries, including China, are capable of attacking U.S. satellites with nuclear weapons, but such an attack would be foolhardy, as it would almost certainly be met by a deadly U.S. response. Moreover, as many experts point out, space-based weapons cannot protect satellites because these weapons are nearly as vulnerable to attack as the satellites themselves.[10] No wonder that many countries, including China and Russia, have sought multilateral negotiations on the prevention of space weaponization.

A Loss of Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Capability

Many Chinese officials assume that China is the real target for U.S. missile defense and space planning. From Beijing’s perspective, it is inconceivable that Washington would expend such massive resources on a system that would be purely defensive and aimed only at “rogue” states. As seen by Chinese leaders, China’s own small strategic nuclear arsenal appears to be a much more plausible target for U.S. missile defenses.[11]

Chinese experts are concerned that even a limited missile defense system could neutralize China’s fewer than two dozen single-warhead ICBMs that are capable of reaching the United States. “It is evident that the U.S. [national missile defense] will seriously undermine the effectiveness of China’s limited nuclear capability from the first day of its deployment,” said Ambassador Sha Zukang, the former director-general of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This cannot but cause grave concerns to China,” he said.[12] Some Chinese fear that, whether or not the U.S. missile defenses are as effective as planned, U.S. decision-makers could act rashly and risk a disarming first strike once the system is operational.

Beijing is particularly concerned about the refusal of the United States, unlike China, to declare a no-first-use nuclear policy. The Bush administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) feeds these anxieties. The NPR specifically mentions the possibility of using nuclear weapons during a conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. The Pentagon’s draft Doctrine on Joint Nuclear Operations would maintain an aggressive nuclear posture including the possible use of nuclear weapons to pre-empt an adversary’s attack with weapons of mass destruction and increasing the role of such weapons in regional (theater) nuclear operations.[13] Thus, some experts fret that the U.S. policy of possible first use of nuclear weapons, in combination with its missiles defenses and a lowered nuclear threshold, could encourage Washington to resort to the threat or use of nuclear weapons against China over Taiwan.

U.S. plans for global force projection would pose another threat to China. Some proposed space weapons such as common aero vehicles would be used to target hard and deeply buried as well as mobile targets. Such weapons would pose a major threat to the nuclear arsenal of mobile ICBMs that China is in the process of developing.

Consequently, China worries that the combination of future U.S. space weapons and its missile defense system could subject China to political or strategic blackmail. Such systems would give the United States much more freedom to intervene in China’s affairs, including undermining China’s efforts at reunification with Taiwan. This concern is enhanced by U.S. moves in recent years to boost cooperation in research and development of advanced theater missile defense with Japan and potentially with Taiwan.

Arms Competition in Space and On Earth

One major Chinese concern about U.S. space weaponization plans, as addressed frequently in statements at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), is that the deployment of space weapons “will disrupt strategic balance and stability, undermine international and national security and do harm to the existing arms control instruments, in particular those related to nuclear weapons and missiles, thus triggering new arms races.”[14]

Because space weapons are at once threatening and vulnerable, it is reasonable to assume that other countries would attempt to block such a move by political and, if necessary, military means. One possible response, for example, would be the development of anti-satellite weapons to target space-based weapon systems. It is widely believed that space weapons and sensor satellites would themselves become prime high-value targets and the most vulnerable elements for defense suppression attacks.[15] It is reasonable to believe that other countries could resort to a number of low-cost and relatively low-technology anti-satellite devices to counter those critical and vulnerable U.S. space-based weapons. Eventually, China fears that the U.S. space weaponization plan would lead to an arms race in outer space and turn outer space into a battlefield.

Moreover, space weaponization would seriously disrupt the arms control and disarmament process. The initiation of U.S. space-based missile defenses would likely cause Russia as well as the United States (in response to Russia) to make smaller reductions in their nuclear arsenals. China would likely be forced to build more warheads to maintain its nuclear deterrent, which could in turn encourage India and then Pakistan to follow suit. Also, Russia has threatened to respond to any country’s deployment of space weapons. Failure to proceed with the nuclear disarmament process would also further undermine the already fragile nuclear nonproliferation regime. As Ambassador Hu Xiaodi warned in 2001, “With lethal weapons flying overhead in orbit and disrupting global strategic stability, why should people eliminate [weapons of mass destruction] or missiles on the ground? This cannot but do harm to global peace, security and stability, hence be detrimental to the fundamental interests of all states.”

Limitations on China’s Civilian And Commercial Space Activities

As addressed in a Chinese proposal to hold talks on a proposed agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS) at the CD in 2002, Beijing argues that “outer space is the common heritage of mankind and plays an ever-increasing role in its future development.” In its 2004 defense White Paper, Beijing further emphasized that “ China hopes that the international community would take action as soon as possible to conclude an international legal instrument on preventing the weaponization of and arms race in outer space through negotiations, to ensure the peaceful use of outer space.”[16]

China is particularly concerned that space weaponization could limit its civilian and commercial space activities and negatively affect its economic development. Today, China has various operational civilian satellites in space, a family of launchers, a modern space-launch complex, and a growing list of customers in the international satellite-launch market.[17] Since launching its first satellite in 1970, China has made steady progress both in launch vehicle design and in other areas of space technology development for civilian and commercial purposes. China has developed manned spacecraft and a high-reliability launching vehicle. Between November 1999 and December 2002, China launched four unmanned experimental Shenzhou (Magic Ship) spacecraft. In October 2003, China successfully launched the Shenzhou-5 manned spaceship and, in October 2005, the Shenzhou-6 manned spaceship. China is now planning to explore the moon with unmanned spacecraft. The U.S. pursuit of space control would threaten China’s civilian and commercial space activities and perhaps even deny China access to space.

Space Debris

China also fears the increasing population of space debris. Such debris, resulting from 50 years of space activity, already poses a considerable hazard to spacecraft. Under U.S. space weaponization plans, this crowding problem could worsen as a large number of space weapons could be deployed in LEO. The launching and testing of weapons would also increase space debris. Moreover, deploying space-based weapons in the increasingly crowded realm of LEO would leave less room for civilian systems.

Those problems would also occur during periods of peace. If a number of satellites were to be destroyed during the course of a war, some scientists warn, they would create so much debris that it would prevent future satellites from being stationed in space and generally limit space access. Indeed, pointing to the debris problem, Chinese scientists and officials have said that space weaponization should be considered an environmental threat as well as a security problem.

China’s Options

Historically, China’s stated purpose for developing nuclear weapons was to guard itself against nuclear blackmail. Beijing’s official statements do not discuss potential responses to U.S. space weaponization, but many Chinese officials and scholars argue that China must ensure that U.S. efforts do not negate the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent. As one Chinese official stated:

China is not in a position to conduct an arms race with the United States and it does not intend to do so, particularly in the field of missile defense. However, China will not sit idly by and watch its strategic interests being jeopardized without taking necessary measures. It is quite possible and natural for China to review its military doctrine and a series of policies on the relationship with big powers, Taiwan issues, arms control and nonproliferation, etc.

Certainly, the best option for China is to reach an arms control agreement to prevent space weaponization, as it is advocating now. However, if this effort fails and if what China perceives as its legitimate security concerns are ignored, China would very likely develop other responses to neutralize the perceived threat. Because it is not clear what type of missile defense system the United States will finally deploy or whether the U.S. space control plans will be implemented, it is difficult to identify conclusively China’s specific countermeasures. Yet, there are certain options that it would be likely to consider. It should be noted that these discussions are based on China’s capabilities and do not characterize China’s intentions.

Build More ICBMs

One of China’s simplest options would be to build more ICBMs. Until now, although China has the smallest declared nuclear arsenal of the five nuclear-weapon states, its modernization efforts have been aimed more at quality than quantity. The current effort focuses mainly on enhancing the survivability of its strategic nuclear force through greater mobility. By contrast, the size of the force has grown quite modestly. Absent U.S. missile defense plans, China might be expected to build no more than 50 ICBMs by 2015.

China’s plans could change significantly were the United States to deploy a more comprehensive or more operationally successful missile defense. To maintain a credible minimum retaliatory capability, the size and quality of China’s nuclear arsenal would have to shift.

Predicting an exact response is difficult without knowing the specifications of a U.S. missile defense system, including the numbers of interceptors and the firing doctrine. However, one could project the potential changes in size of China’s nuclear arsenal based on a few simple assumptions. For example, China might need about 100-300 ICBMs to defeat the current U.S. system if that system employed 100-250 interceptors. Clearly, China would need even more warheads to penetrate a layered ballistic missile defense system.

Missile Defense Countermeasures

China could also employ a number of technically feasible and cost-effective measures so that its warheads would stand a strong chance of penetrating a missile defense system.

A number of countermeasures could defeat a midcourse missile defense system like the current one in Alaska.[18] For example, each ICBM could be deployed with decoys. Conversely, China might also disguise the warhead as a decoy by enclosing it in a radar-reflecting balloon, covering it with a shroud, hiding it in a cloud of chaff, or using electronic or infrared jamming measures. Beijing has already demonstrated that it can use decoys and similar capabilities. It has been reported that China has already made some missile flight tests with penetration aids, such as the 1999 flight test of China’s new DF-31 ICBM.

Similarly, a number of measures could be developed to counter a space-based interceptor.[19] One countermeasure would be to develop technology to boost rockets faster, rendering important boost-phase defenses impotent. China has already made steps in this direction by developing solid-fuel ICBMs that burn faster than its previous liquid-fueled missiles.

If the spaced-based laser were to be revived, specific countermeasures could be developed. The countermeasures could include rotating the missile to distribute the laser energy over a wide area, thus preventing the missile from being damaged, or protecting the vulnerable parts of the ICBM with reflective or ablative coatings.[20] Moreover, the attacker could simultaneously launch several ICBMs or an ICBM with some theater or tactical ballistic missiles used as decoys from a compact area to overwhelm space-based weapon systems.

Anti-Satellite Weapons

Moreover, it is reasonable to believe that China could resort to asymmetric methods, such as anti-satellite weapons, to counter critical and vulnerable space-based components in LEO such as space-based interceptors, a space-based laser, or space-based tracking satellites.

China’s best anti-satellite pick might be small, ground-launched kinetic-kill vehicles, which can be used to destroy their target by colliding with it at extremely high velocity. Such weapons are relatively cheap and technically easy and should be well within China’s grasp. These vehicles could reach a satellite in LEO; if mated with a larger booster, they might be capable of reaching higher orbits. Another possible anti-satellite weapon would be a space mine armed with conventional charges. China could also resort to using missiles to deliver a cloud of shrapnel to a particular spot in LEO at a precise time and destroy a space-based interceptor or space-launch satellite as it arrives there.

Countries such as China that have the ability to place objects in orbit or lift them to geosynchronous altitude can also track objects closely in space. Beijing should thus have the ability to develop weapons that could attack satellites either in low-Earth or geosynchronous orbit.

Still, it should be noted that, although China has some technology capabilities that could be used potentially as anti-satellite weapons, it does not mean China has already developed them or has the intention to do so. Several recent editions of the Pentagon’s Chinese military power report claim China is developing and intends to deploy such weapons, including a direct-ascent system, ground-based laser anti-satellite weapons, and microsatellites for weapons purposes.

However, there is no evidence to back up these claims, and China would have been foolish to pursue such weapons, given the diplomatic damage it would have caused amid its two-decade-long ardent support for preventing the weaponization of outer space. However, if the United States moves forward with space-based weapons, there would far less diplomatic cost to doing so.

Reconsidering China’s Arms Control Participation

U.S.-led space weaponization might also lead China to reconsider its participation in some multilateral nuclear arms control treaties. As Ambassador Sha Zukang stated, “ China cannot afford to sit on its hands without taking the necessary measures while its strategic interests are being jeopardized. China, inter alia, may be forced to review the arms control and nonproliferation policies it has adopted since the end of the Cold War in light of new developments in the international situation.”

For example, a need for more weapons would mean a need for more plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel those weapons and thus likely hurt China’s support for a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). My conservative estimate is that China’s existing stockpile contains about two tons of weapons-grade HEU and one ton of separated plutonium, which could fuel approximately 300 warheads. Thus, this existing stockpile would be sufficient for its current modernization program. However, if China were driven to expand its ICBM arsenal significantly because of missile defense deployments, it might feel compelled to be able to retain the option to restart production of fissile materials and be unwilling to join an FMCT.

Indeed, China has linked these issues since 2000, contending that the space weaponization issue “is just as important as fissile material cut-off, if not more.” For several years, China demanded that FMCT and PAROS talks be launched at the same time. But the United States opposed any negotiations on the outer space issue, and the disagreement prevented the CD from continuing any arms control negotiations for several years. Aiming to break the deadlock at the CD and to promote the international arms control and disarmament process, China dropped in 2003 its linkage between an FMCT and the PAROS negotiations and agreed to a negotiation of an FMCT. China is still seeking PAROS talks, however.

A U.S. move into space could also lead China to reconsider its support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). China signed the CTBT in 1996 and has not yet ratified it, partly because it was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1999. However, U.S. missile defense and space weaponization plans would make Chinese ratification even more difficult. China may feel the need for additional nuclear tests if the need to counter a missile defense drives Beijing to develop new warheads that include decoys or maneuverable warheads. Already, China faces concerns from some experts who think that the CTBT will put more direct constraints on China’s nuclear weapons program than on the weapons programs of other states.

Conclusion: A Ban on Space Weaponization

Given the possibility of effective and cheap countermeasures, it seems foolish to many Chinese that the United States would bother to deploy highly expensive space-based weapons or anti-satellite technologies. If Washington really wants to reduce the potential vulnerability of its space assets, there are a number ways to improve space security, including technical approaches, rules of the road, and arms control agreements. By contrast, weaponizing space can only further worsen space security. As Hu emphasized recently, “[F]or ensuring security in outer space, political and legal approaches…can still be effective, while resorting to force and the development of space weapons will only be counter-productive.”

In China’s view, the most effective way to secure space assets would be to agree on a ban on space weaponization. As its working paper to the CD emphasizes, “Only a treaty-based prohibition of the deployment of weapons in outer space and the prevention of the threat or use of force against outer space objects can eliminate the emerging threat of an arms race in outer space and ensure the security for outer space assets of all countries which is an essential condition for the maintenance of world peace.”

China’s stance on banning weapons in outer space has been consistent since 1985 when it first introduced a working paper to the CD on its position on space weapons. China’s most recent working paper on the issue, introduced in June 2002, emphasizes three basic obligations:

  • Not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons, not to install such weapons on celestial bodies, or not to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

  • Not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.

  • Not to assist or encourage other states, groups of states, and international organizations to participate in activities prohibited by this treaty.

In order to advance the CD work on the PAROS issue, in August 2004 China together with Russia prepared two nonpapers on the issues of “verification aspects of PAROS” and “existing international legal instruments and the prevention of the weaponization of outer space” and in June 2005 one more nonpaper on the issue of “definition issues regarding legal instruments on the prevention of weaponization of outer space.”

The nonpaper on verification offers a view that a verification regime in a future outer space treaty will be highly complicated and difficult and will encounter great technological and financial challenges. It does not rule out a verification protocol in the future but seeks to sidestep this from becoming an obstacle to getting started on PAROS negotiations. So, it urges that an outer space legal instrument be formulated without verification procedures for the time being. It cites the case of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to show that, even without a verification mechanism, a treaty can be effective and play an important role.

The Chinese initiative has considerable support. In recent years, the UN General Assembly has adopted by overwhelming majorities resolutions calling for the CD to start a negotiation on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space agreement. These votes do not appear to have impressed the United States. John Bolton, then-U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation, told the CD in 2002 that “the current international regime regulating the use of space meets all our purposes. We see no need for new agreements.”

Yet, Bolton is clearly in error. No existing treaties effectively prevent the testing, deployment, and use of weapons other than those of mass destruction in outer space. In addition, none of these instruments covers the threat or use of force from Earth, including land, sea, and atmosphere, against objects in outer space. If the history of proliferation tells us anything, it is that banning the testing and deployment of weapons from the outset is much more effective than attempting disarmament and nonproliferation after the fact.

Hui Zhang is a research associate in the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


1. “Report to the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” Washington, DC, January 11, 2001.

2. U.S. Air Force, “Counterspace Operations,” Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, August 2, 2004.

3. The scope of space weaponry, generally accepted by many Chinese, includes not only weapons stationed in outer space but also weapons anywhere that target objects in outer space. See Liu Huaqiu, ed., Arms Control and Disarmament Handbook ( Beijing: National Defense Industry, 2000).

4. Fu Zhigang, “Concerns and Responses: A Chinese Perspective on NMD/TMD,” Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defense & Alternative Security Arrangements, Ottawa, September 28-30, 2001.

5. Qiu Yong, “Analysis on the ASAT Capability of the GMD Interceptor,” Presentation at the 16th International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs, Beijing, July 17-25, 2004.

6. Jeffrey Lewis, “Programs to Watch,” Arms Control Today, November 2004.

7. Bob Preston et al., Space Weapons, Earth Wars, MR-1209 ( Washington, DC: RAND, June 2002); Bruce DeBlois et al., “Star-Crosses,” IEEE Spectrum, May 2005.

8. See Federation of American Scientists, “Ensuring America’s Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space,” October 2004.

9. See Jeffrey Lewis, “False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities,” Arms Control Today, November 2004.

10. See David Wright et al., The Physics of Space Security: A Reference Manual ( Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, May 2005); Bruce DeBlois et al., “Space Weapons: Crossing the U.S. Rubicon,” International Security, vol. 29, no. 2 (Fall 2004).

11. Sha Zukang, “U.S. Missile Defense Plans: China’s View,” Disarmament Diplomacy, no. 43, 2000.

12. Sha Zukang, “The Impact of the U.S. Missile Defense Programme on the Global Security Structure,” CPAPD/ORG Joint Seminar on Missile Defense and the Future of the ABM Treaty, Beijing, March 13-15, 2000.

13. Hans Kristensen, “The Roles of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: New Doctrine Falls Short of Bush Pledge,” Arms Control Today, September 2005.

14. Statement by Ambassador Hu Xiaodi at the Plenary of the 2nd Part of the 2005 Session of the Conference on Disarmament, June 30, 2005.

15. See Ashton Carter, “The Relationship of ASAT and BMD Systems,” in Weapons in Space, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986).

16. Information Office of the PRC State Council, “White Paper on China’s National Defense in 2004,” December 27, 2004.

17. Information Office of the PRC State Council, “White Paper on China’s Space Activities,” November 22, 2000.

18. Andrew Sessler et al., “Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System,” April 2000; Huang Hai, “Technical Analysis of National Missile Defense and Its Effects on World Arms Control,” Presentation at the 13th International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs, Berlin, July 21-30, 2001.

19. American Physical Society, “Report of the APS Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense,” Washington, DC, July 2003.

20. See Du Xiangwan, Science and Technology Foundation for Nuclear Arms Control (Beijing: National Defense Industry, 1996).


Letters to the Editor

Reprocessing Is Less Risky

Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel notwithstanding (“Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk?,” ACT, September 2005), new reprocessing technologies can increasingly make plutonium inaccessible for diversion by terrorist groups and by governments and can reinforce the ability of the United States to oppose the spread of current pluto­nium-separation tech­nology to additional countries.

Like it or not, nuclear reactors are destined to play a much larger role in the world’s energy mix. Those among us who are serious about international stability and controlling nuclear weapons must get to understand what modern nuclear technology can and cannot do.

Fetter and von Hippel make a convincing case against cycling plutonium back into today’s reactors. We fully agree, and in fact one of us [George S. Stanford] has published a technical analysis making that very point.

Nonetheless, we have to flag a serious problem. Fetter and von Hippel equate reprocessing with plutonium separation, a blanket association that is no longer valid. Their narrow focus on the drawbacks of current recycling technology—PUREX reprocessing and mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in thermal reactors—could be taken to mean that all recycling of reactor fuel is to be deplored. This is definitely not the case.

The expansion of nuclear power will necessitate the processing of reactor fuel. The important point is that the recycling must be into new-generation fast reactors. Current thermal reactors, with or without recycle, can extract no more than a hundredth of the energy in the original ore.

Metal-fueled fast reactors, which Fetter and von Hippel dismiss without serious consideration, are the key.

  • Their fuel cycle is proliferation-resistant since the nature, amount, and disposition of plutonium are limited as outlined below.
  • They can consume plutonium and other long-lived actinides (such as uranium, neptunium, and americium), reducing to less than 500 years the required isolation time for waste in a repository, and postponing, perhaps indefinitely, the need for more repositories.
  • Their fuel can be recycled pyrometallurgically, a procedure that is inherently incapable of separating pure plutonium from used reactor fuel. To make it chemically pure enough to be used for weapons, a proliferator must process it further in a PUREX-type facility.
  • They can extract all the energy, making uranium a power source that can last indefinitely.

The world is already awash in reactor- and weapons-grade plutonium, and the supply is increasing daily in spent fuel from current reactors. Fast reactors with pyroprocessing will increasingly make that plutonium inaccessible for diversion.

  • Fast reactors can be set up to be net consumers of plutonium or to breed plutonium, but that does not give them any special proliferation potential because any reactor can be subverted for the production of weapons-grade plutonium and a fast reactor is no worse than any other. All reactors need safeguards to prevent diversion.
  • They take plutonium out of storage and out of commerce. Once plutonium has entered an integrated fast-reactor/pyroprocessing facility (IFR), none ever needs to come out unless more is wanted to prime new reactors.
  • Diversion by terrorists would be essentially impossible from an IFR system. A Livermore National Laboratory study has shown that, even given successful diversion, the heat generation alone from pyroprocessed fuel would be so intense that a bomb’s high explosive (not the plutonium) would self-detonate or melt. Not even a nation seeking nuclear weapons would waste any time on it.

The key to preventing proliferation during the inevitable worldwide expansion of nuclear power is a concerted effort to amend the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to eliminate the right of each nation to develop its own full-scale fuel cycle. In return, the “nuclear club” needs formally to guarantee fuel supplies and waste disposal at reasonable prices through an international entity such as the International Energy Agency or the International Atomic Energy Agency. The negotiations will not be easy, but because preventing proliferation is in everyone’s interest, they may succeed.

Fetter and von Hippel say that reprocessing would be too expensive, a claim that is true of PUREX and thermal reactors but has two serious problems in the context of pyroprocessing and fast reactors. First, it neglects external costs. The overall cost of energy from a given source depends not only on direct costs, but also on “externalities,” the hard-to-quantify costs of outside effects. Economic comparisons that ignore such costs are unrealistic and misleading. For example, burning coal causes thousands of excess deaths per year in the United States alone. Fissioning uranium in nuclear reactors causes none, nor does it release carbon dioxide. By absorbing such external costs, society subsidizes fossil-fueled power.

The second error is the assumption that, even neglecting externalities, costs are well established. They’re not. At least one external analysis concludes that an IFR-type system would be competitive. By contrast, Fetter and von Hippel quote from a 1996 study by the National Academy of Sciences to the effect that “the excess cost for an S&T [separation and transmutation] disposal system...easily could be more than $100 billion.” But the report included an important caveat right before the passage they quoted: “Assuming the feasibility of pyroprocessing of spent LWR [light-water reactor] fuel, the design information for a commercial-scale reprocessing facility needed to make cost estimates is not available.” Apparently the committee was estimating the cost of a separation and transmutation disposal system other than one involving pyroprocessing, so a higher cost for such a system cannot be assumed at this time.

The energy and dollars needed to implement large-scale deployment of MOX recycle technology would be better spent on wrapping up the development of fast reactors and their fuel cycle, thus achieving ultimate closure of the fuel cycle, an assured energy supply in perpetuity, removal of plutonium from commerce, proliferation-resistant nuclear energy, and optimal utilization of the Yucca Mountain repository.


Gerald E. Marsh is a physicist, retired from Argonne National Laboratory. He was a consultant to the Department of Defense on strategic nuclear technology and policy in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations and served with the U.S. START delegation in Geneva. George S. Stanford is a physicist, retired from Argonne National Laboratory. He is co-author of Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats From Cold-War Weaponry (2004).

Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel Respond:

We are gratified that Gerald Marsh and George Stanford agree that it makes no sense to use existing commercialized reprocessing technologies to separate plutonium for recycle in light-water reactors. This would be more expensive, present much greater proliferation risks, and have no waste-disposal advantages over the direct disposal of spent fuel. This is an important conclusion because this is the only approach to reprocessing and recycling that could be deployed in the near term.

The technologies that Marsh and Stanford advocate—fast reactors with pyrometallurgical separation and recycling of the minor transuranic isotopes in addition to plutonium—are not commercially proven. Past failed attempts, in which tens of billions of dollars have been spent in efforts to commercialize fast reactors in France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, produced reactors with high costs, questionable safety, and poor reliability.

The technical barriers to full transuranic recycle in fast reactors may be overcome in time, but the economic barriers to their adoption are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Marsh and Stanford are wrong when they say “[t]he expansion of nuclear power will necessitate the processing of reactor fuel.” Fast reactors can indeed make far more efficient use of uranium, but even with inefficient light-water reactors, the cost of uranium currently constitutes less than 2 percent of the price of nuclear-generated electricity. In a recent article in Nuclear Technology, one of us [Steve Fetter] has estimated that the price of uranium would have to grow by a factor of five to 10 in order to make full transuranic recycling in fast reactors cost effective. There is enough lower-cost uranium to sustain a substantial expansion of nuclear power using current once-through technologies for at least 50 years and probably much longer. By that time, we should have a much better sense of the longer-term role of fission power among our energy options. There is no urgency to develop and deploy fast reactors.

The waste-disposal advantages of full transuranic recycle cited by Marsh and Stanford are overstated. The direct disposal of spent fuel is inexpensive: $0.001 per kilowatt-hour, or less than 2 percent of the cost of electricity. Fast reactors would greatly reduce (but not eliminate) required repository space only if all transuranics are separated and recycled until they are fissioned and if the long-lived fission products were also separated and stored on the surface for several centuries, thereby defeating the main safety advantages of storing spent fuel underground. Admittedly, there are political barriers to expanding geologic waste disposal, but it is by no means obvious that the political barriers to the widespread deployment of fast reactors and associated reprocessing and surface waste-storage facilities would be substantially smaller.

They also exaggerate the potential nonproliferation benefits. One of us [Frank von Hippel] has completed a technical analysis of the nonproliferation aspects of the pyroprocessing technology that has been developed at Argonne National Laboratory. The analysis, soon to be published in Science and Global Security, indicates that the proliferation benefits claimed by Marsh and Stanford are quite short-lived. Unless spent fuel is pyroprocessed and recycled within two years after discharge from the reactor, the penetrating radiation emitted by the minor transuranics and those fission products that remain with the plutonium would not make it so dangerous to handle that it would be self-protecting by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s standards. This exception is irrelevant to the current debate over the reprocessing of U.S. spent fuel, which is on average already about 20 years old.

Moreover, Marsh and Stanford are wrong when they argue that the heat generated by the minor transuranics that remain mixed with plutonium make it unusable in a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the same analysis indicates that this mixture could even be used in a nuclear weapon like that dropped on Nagasaki. In any case, because the radiation dose rate from the mixture is relatively low, the plutonium could easily be chemically separated from the minor transuranics in a glove box.

In summary, despite the continuing enthusiasm of Marsh, Stanford, and some of their Argonne colleagues for the long-term possibilities of fast-neutron reactors and pyroprocessing, the promotion of those technologies is a diversion from the nearer-term issue we analyzed. Our article focused on the proposal recently agreed to in the November 2005 House-Senate conference on the energy and water appropriations bill that calls for the secretary of energy to submit a detailed plan for recycling by March 31, 2006, with “construction of one or more integrated spent fuel recycling facilities” to begin in fiscal year 2010.

As explained in our article, interim spent-fuel storage would be much less costly and less undermining of U.S. nonproliferation policy. With interim storage, any potential future energy value of the spent fuel will be preserved. There is much more time available to debate the long-term future of nuclear power than there is to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and dispose of the huge quantities of already separated nuclear weapons materials.

Steve Fetter is a professor and dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.

U.S. Trims Nuclear Material Stockpile

Wade Boese

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman announced Nov. 7 that the United States would reduce by 200 metric tons the amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU) stockpiled for nuclear weapons. Once the decades-long process is completed, the United States would still retain hundreds of metric tons of this nuclear bomb-making material.

Nuclear weapons require plutonium or HEU to function. A typical U.S. nuclear weapon employs both, a plutonium primary and an HEU secondary.

The 200 tons of HEU, which Bodman said could produce 8,000 weapons, would be allocated for three different purposes. The largest portion, 160 metric tons, would be reserved for powering the U.S. Navy’s nuclear vessels, currently numbering 82 submarines and surface ships. Bodman claimed this move would postpone the need to build a new naval HEU fuel production facility for at least 50 years.

Another 20 metric tons would be preserved for reactors burning HEU fuel and for space missions. The reactor fuel would be needed primarily during a transition period until 2014 when Washington hopes to complete work on converting 105 research reactors worldwide to operate on less bomb-ready fuel known as low-enriched uranium (LEU). By contrast, “space reactor applications would be minimal at this time but may evolve as NASA reexamines its long-term mission needs,” a spokesperson with the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration e-mailed Arms Control Today Nov. 18.

The remaining 20 metric tons would be blended down into LEU for purchase both by domestic and foreign users. This amount is distinct from the September U.S. initiative to blend down 17 metric tons of HEU for an emergency LEU fuel reserve. (See ACT, November 2005.)

The HEU stockpile size for military purposes—weapons and naval fuel—is classified, but government disclosures and actions have provided some basis for estimating its magnitude. In June 1994, the Energy Department revealed that until 1992, when it ceased production, it had churned out 994 metric tons of HEU. Months later, the Clinton administration declared 10 metric tons as excess to the military stockpile and subsequently approved removing another 174 metric tons.

The non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that the U.S. weapons-grade HEU stockpile, including material in existing warheads, equaled roughly 480 metric tons at the end of 2003. This estimate factors in past use for nuclear weapons tests and other purposes, double counting of some production, and the presumed assignment of 100 metric tons for naval fuel purposes. ISIS also calculates that the U.S. plutonium weapons stockpile at that time amounted to about 47 metric tons.

The latest move when fully implemented would then leave the United States with approximately 280 metric tons of weapons-grade HEU. This translates into enough material for roughly 11,200 nuclear warheads, using Bodman’s scale.


U.S. Puts Onus on India for Nuclear Ties

Wade Boese

U.S. government officials are putting the onus on India to advance a bilateral initiative to expand global civil nuclear trade with New Delhi.

Specifically, the officials say that India must take the first step in separating its nuclear infrastructure into civilian and military spheres to prevent future nuclear trade from aiding New Delhi’s nuclear weapons program. Until then, Bush administration officials have said they will not make any specific proposals to modify any U.S. law or international restriction to enable India to import more nuclear materials or technologies. President George W. Bush promised such changes to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh July 18. (See ACT, September 2005.)

In 1974, India improperly used nuclear technologies imported for “peaceful purposes” to explode a nuclear device, prompting the United States and other nuclear suppliers to curtail their nuclear dealings with India significantly. Still, New Delhi defied international pressure, continued to build a nuclear arsenal, and conducted a series of nuclear tests in May 1998. India is one of three countries never to have signed the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

To guard against further Indian abuse of civil nuclear trade, India’s separation “must be both credible and transparent,” Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Nov. 2. He added that the plan “must ensure…that cooperation does not in any way assist in the development or production of nuclear weapons.”

Joseph detailed some ways this could be done. He suggested India should designate as many of its facilities as possible as civilian and subject them to international safeguards “in perpetuity.” Safeguards are measures designed to deter and detect the diversion of nuclear materials and technologies for civil purposes to nuclear bomb-making. “Nuclear materials in the civil sector simply must remain in the civil sector,” Joseph declared.

This prescription conflicts with earlier Indian expectations that New Delhi would retain the flexibility to reassign facilities from one sector to another. A July 29 Indian government press release stated that the United States has “the right to shift facilities from the civilian category to military and there is no reason why this should not apply to India.”

New Delhi has repeatedly maintained it wants to be treated the same as the United States and the other four recognized nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. All five of these states have voluntary safeguards agreements, which Joseph ruled out as an acceptable option for India.

The issue has stirred protest in India. Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has led a chorus of criticism that separation would be too difficult and costly and impinge too much on India’s nuclear weapons program. Yet, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told a New Delhi audience in late October that “it makes no sense for India to deliberately keep some of its civilian facilities out of its declaration for safeguards purposes if it is really interested in obtaining international cooperation on as wide a scale as possible.”

Although assessing the separation process as “complex” and “time-consuming” at the Nov. 2 hearing, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns also described it as “arguably the most important of [ India’s] obligations.” He noted New Delhi had yet to formulate a separation plan and predicted its implementation might not start before April.

Indeed, negotiations between Burns and his Indian counterparts have yet to yield an implementation schedule. Burns has invited Saran to Washington, D.C., in December and will travel to New Delhi in January for further talks.

Bush administration officials previously suggested that the deal would move at a faster pace in an effort to show tangible progress before Bush visits India early next year. A day after the July 18 agreement, Burns asserted, “I know that, over the next month or two, and especially when Congress comes back from the summer recess, we will want to put in front of the Congress a specific program.”

But such a plan has not been delivered, and lawmakers have indicated they will be in no rush to act once it is received. House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) cautioned Oct. 26 against “needless haste,” while the panel’s ranking minority member, Tom Lantos ( Calif.), echoed the same day, “[T]here is no hurry.”

Hyde also warned the administration against taking congressional approval for granted. “I am troubled by a number of public statements by administration officials that congressional support for the overall agreement is broad and that our consent is virtually guaranteed.” Several days earlier, Burns had asserted that “substantial support” existed for the agreement in Congress.

Similarly, top senators have yet to embrace the deal. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) labeled India’s nuclear record Nov. 2 as “unsatisfying.” Contradicting repeated administration statements about India’s stellar nonproliferation credentials, Lugar cited a case last year in which Indian scientists were sanctioned for “providing nuclear information to Iran.” The panel’s top Democrat, Joseph Biden ( Del.), described the proposed cooperation as a “gamble” and “not a slam dunk.”

Despite the deal’s lukewarm reception by several lawmakers, Joseph urged them not to try and remedy any perceived shortcomings on India’s behalf. Specifically, he advised them against conditioning their approval of the deal on obtaining additional Indian commitments to cease production of fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—for building nuclear weapons, sign the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or renounce nuclear weapons and join the NPT. Such demands would be “deal breakers,” Joseph said.


Russia Joins Diplomatic Push on Iran

Paul Kerr

A Nov. 18 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to the agency’s Board of Governors indicated that Iran has only partially complied with a September board resolution that found Tehran in “non-compliance” with its agency safeguards agreement. But the board took no action at its Nov. 24 meeting. Instead, the United States is continuing to support European and Russian diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to resume negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

With U.S. and European support, Moscow also has made Iran a potentially face-saving offer tied to a resumption of negotiations. The proposal would allow Iran to operate a uranium-conversion facility permanently if Tehran renounces the ability to enrich uranium on its own territory.

European-Iranian talks, which were designed to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear fuel programs, began in December 2004 but broke down in August when Iran restarted its uranium-conversion facility. Iran had agreed to suspend such operations for the duration of the negotiations. (See ACT, November 2005.)

A Department of State official and a Western diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the Europeans want to give such diplomacy a chance to succeed before moving forward with a referral to the UN Security Council. They also agreed that even an Iranian refusal to negotiate would help build international support for such a referral and for more effective Security Council action because Tehran would be seen as unwilling to compromise.

Under the IAEA statute, the board is required to notify the Security Council if a member state is found in noncompliance with its agency safeguards agreement. Such agreements, required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military purposes. The Security Council may then take action against the offending state.

In September the board found that Iran had not complied with its safeguards agreement but did not specify when or under what circumstances it would refer the matter to the Security Council. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters Nov. 21 that Washington believes Tehran “should be referred to the Security Council, but we will reserve the right to seek that action at the time of our choosing.”

Speaking to a Vienna audience Nov. 17, U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Gregory Schulte reiterated the U.S. view that the council would “reinforce” the agency’s efforts, perhaps by giving the IAEA “enhanced” investigative authority. The IAEA has determined that Iran violated its safeguards agreement by conducting clandestine work on several nuclear programs. The agency is still attempting to resolve a number of questions about Tehran’s nuclear activities, especially its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, October 2005.) Uranium enrichment can produce low-enriched uranium (LEU), used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, or highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore, or “yellowcake,” into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. Under the NPT, Iran is permitted to operate uranium-enrichment facilities under IAEA safeguards, but the United States and the Europeans are concerned that Iranian expertise gained from operating enrichment facilities could support a nuclear weapons program.

Diplomacy Continues

The three European governments say that they will not resume negotiations unless Iran suspends operations at its conversion facility, but both the State Department official and Western diplomat said that the Europeans are willing to have discussions with Iran about resuming negotiations. These talks would likely not be conditioned on Iran suspending conversion.

Iranian officials told the Europeans earlier this month that they would engage in talks, but Tehran has shown no sign that it will stop converting uranium. According to ElBaradei’s report, Iran resumed converting yellowcake Nov. 16 after stopping the facility for a short maintenance period.

According to the State Department official, Iran’s European interlocutors have outlined a new diplomatic approach in a paper circulated to other countries. Under this approach, Iran would be allowed to produce uranium hexafluoride but would have to forswear uranium enrichment on its territory. In return, Iran would receive the economic, technical, and security incentives described in a detailed proposal that the Europeans presented in August. Iran has shown no sign of having seriously considered the proposal.

Under the Europeans’ new approach, Iran would be required to limit its conversion activities to only its domestic uranium reserves and export any converted nuclear material, the official said. This provision is apparently designed to prevent Iran from augmenting its limited indigenous uranium reserves, thus constraining Iran’s nuclear aspirations to some extent. The United States estimates that these reserves are sufficient to produce 250-300 nuclear weapons. (See ACT, September 2005.)

Permitting Iran to produce uranium hexafluoride is a change from the previous U.S. and European policy of opposing any Iranian conversion capabilities. The Western diplomat explained that the Europeans changed their position because the previous one “had not been getting us anywhere.”

As for Washington, the State Department official said that the Europeans have persuaded Bush administration officials that, by demonstrating a good-faith diplomatic effort on their part to resolve the matter outside the Security Council, the compromise would aid efforts to increase international pressure on Tehran to cooperate. The Europeans also argued that, in the event that Tehran makes a genuine decision to forswear enrichment, its conversion program will then be unnecessary and Iran will end it for pragmatic reasons.

Rallying additional international support, especially from Russia and China, is another key component of the U.S.-European diplomatic strategy. Both countries still oppose referring Iran’s case to the Security Council. Their support is considered to be crucial because, as permanent members of the Security Council, either can veto a council resolution.

Indeed, the United States and Europeans are supporting Russian diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis partly because they believe that Russia will support a referral if those efforts fail.

Both the Western diplomat and the State Department official confirmed press reports that Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov presented a proposal to the Iranians earlier in the month that dovetails with the European approach. The proposal is apparently conditioned on Tehran resuming negotiations with the Europeans and would give Tehran part-ownership of a centrifuge plant located in Russia that would enrich Iranian-produced uranium hexafluoride. (See ACT, November 2005.) Iran would not have access to the centrifuges, the State Department official said.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley expressed explicit U.S. support for Moscow’s diplomacy Nov. 18, calling the Russian proposal “a good avenue to explore.” Although Iranian officials have been cool to the idea, Hadley stated that it has not yet been rejected.

Despite these diplomatic efforts, the United States and the Europeans may be running out of patience. Both Schulte and the European Union (EU) issued statements to the board indicating that Iran only has a limited time to comply with the September resolution. Neither statement specified a date, however.

Report Details

ElBaradei’s report provides a mixed picture of Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA board’s September resolution.

The resolution called on Tehran to suspend its conversion efforts, as well as provide agency inspectors with procurement documents, interviews with Iranian officials, and access to two sites where Iran is suspected of conducting undeclared nuclear weapons-related activities. These steps are not required by Iran’s safeguards agreement, but the IAEA believes them necessary for developing a complete history of Iran’s nuclear efforts.

ElBaradei told the board Sept. 24 that “[c]larification of these issues is overdue.”

According to the report, Iran has provided a considerable amount of additional information related to its P-1 centrifuge program but comparatively little with respect to other outstanding issues, such as the nature of Tehran’s program based on more-advanced P-2 centrifuges. Iran also has not yet allowed the IAEA access to all of the sites the agency has asked to visit.

Both U.S. and IAEA officials have said previously that Iran’s failure to account fully for its centrifuge procurement activities may indicate that the government has pursued undisclosed centrifuge programs.

Iran also has failed to take other steps called for by the September resolution, such as reconsidering its ongoing construction of a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor. Iran claims the reactor is intended for peaceful purposes, but the United States argues that Iran intends to use it to produce plutonium.

Uranium-Enrichment Program

During a series of meetings with the IAEA held in October and November, Iran gave the agency additional documents that Tehran said came from a nuclear procurement network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, who helped found Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Iran also allowed the agency to interview two unnamed Iranian officials.

Iran had previously admitted to receiving centrifuge designs and related components from the Khan network. (See ACT, October 2005.) According to the report, the recently submitted documentation related to offers it received from foreign intermediaries in 1987 and around 1994.

Many of the new documents related to the 1987 offer date from “from the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s,” the report says. They include drawings of P-1 centrifuge components, technical specifications related to assembling centrifuges and manufacturing related components, and drawings for a 2,000-centrifuge plant.

Iran also has provided information about its late 1980s and early 1990s procurement efforts, as well as centrifuge components it obtained in the mid-1990s. The report says that the information about the earlier efforts “seems to be consistent with Iran’s declarations” of what it had procured in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, it draws no conclusion about the materials Iran obtained in the mid-1990s.

By comparison, Iran has apparently provided little new information about its P-2 centrifuge program. According to the report, the agency is assessing documentation that Iran has provided since September indicating that an Iranian contractor who had worked on the P-2 program obtained related materials that it had apparently not disclosed to the IAEA.

ElBaradei’s report says that the agency remains concerned that Iran has conducted undisclosed work on the project. The IAEA has requested additional documentation regarding both programs.

The report also says that the agency is still investigating the origin of some LEU particles found in Iran by IAEA inspectors. Iran has admitted to enriching uranium to very low levels, but the uncertainty regarding these LEU particles suggested that Iran may have conducted additional centrifuge experiments that it concealed from the IAEA.

According to the report, environmental samples taken from a location in an unnamed country where centrifuge components from the Khan network were stored “did not indicate any traces of nuclear material.” That country is known to be the United Arab Emirates.

Although the Western diplomat said these findings indicate that the particles did not come from these components, the State Department official said that Washington is almost certain that, based on an examination of uranium samples taken from Iranian facilities and Pakistani centrifuge components, all the LEU particles in question originated in Pakistan.

Arms Control Today reported in October that, for all practical purposes, the investigation has resolved similar concerns about HEU particles found in Iran.


According to the report, Iran has turned over a document detailing the “procedural requirements” for reducing uranium hexafluoride to “metal in small quantities.” The document also discussed the “casting and machining of enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispherical forms.”

Iran claims that the document had been “provided on the initiative of the procurement network,” rather than at Iran’s request.

This revelation has generated additional concern about Iran’s nuclear program because shaping uranium in such a fashion is used in developing explosive cores of nuclear weapons. According to the EU statement to the board, “Such a process has no application other than the production of nuclear warheads.”

The Western diplomat said that the document is not a “smoking gun” but does constitute “potential evidence of weaponization.”

Whether the document is evidence of a previously unknown Iranian capability to develop nuclear weapons is unclear. Iran has previously acknowledged that it was offered equipment for casting uranium but maintains that it has never received any such equipment.

Transparency Visits

After months of agency requests, Iran granted IAEA inspectors access to Iran’s Parchin military complex Nov. 1. The visit was the inspectors’ first since January. According to the report, the inspectors “did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited,” but the IAEA is awaiting the results of environmental samples taken during the visit before assessing whether Iran conducted any nuclear activities there.

The United States and the IAEA have both expressed concern that Iran has been testing conventional high explosives at Parchin for use in an implosion-type nuclear weapon. In such weapons, conventional charges compress a core of fissile material in order to start a nuclear chain reaction. (See ACT, October 2004.)

The report also says that the IAEA wishes to “undertake additional visits” to the site but does not say why. However, the State Department official said that the agency may still have “suspicions” about Iranian activities at the site. The official also confirmed a Nov. 18 Agence France Presse report that the inspectors saw a high-speed camera during their visit. Such cameras can be used to monitor experiments with high explosives, such as those used in an implosion-type nuclear weapon.

Iran has still not cooperated with the IAEA’s investigation of a physics research center that was operating at a site called Lavizan-Shian between 1989 and 1998, the report says. (See ACT, April 2005.)


North Korea Nuclear Talks Stall

Paul Kerr

Participants in the Nov. 9-11 six-party talks in Beijing attempted to build on a September breakthrough in resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis, but they apparently made little headway. Differences between the United States and North Korea, especially regarding the proper sequencing of rewards and obligations, continue to block progress.

The participants have divided this round—the fifth since August 2003—into at least two phases. President George W. Bush told reporters Nov. 8 that the session was “really to prepare for the longer meetings” where more detailed discussions would take place. Chinese and South Korean diplomats made similar comments.

Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Dawei stated Nov. 11 that the participants have agreed to hold the second session “at the earliest possible date,” but no date has yet been set. Japan and Russia are the other participants in the talks.

The November meeting was the parties’ first attempt to discuss implementing the statement of principles, which was adopted in September to guide future talks. North Korea committed in that statement to abandon all of its nuclear programs and return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In return, the other parties pledged to respect Pyongyang’s sovereignty, normalize their diplomatic relations, and provide North Korea with economic cooperation and energy assistance.

But since the talks ended, the United States and North Korea have accused each other of failing to take the negotiations seriously. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in South Korea Nov. 16 that “the jury is out” on whether Pyongyang is willing “to get serious about dismantlement and verification.”

North Korea continues to question Washington’s commitment to respecting its sovereignty, arguing that the Bush administration remains intent on pursuing a policy of regime change, even while participating in the talks.

The current nuclear crisis began in October 2002 when Washington announced that North Korean officials had admitted to possessing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. That bilateral agreement froze Pyongyang’s graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and related facilities located at Yongbyon. Both plutonium, which is obtained from spent reactor fuel, and highly enriched uranium can serve as fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Since then, North Korea has expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors charged with monitoring the freeze, withdrawn from the NPT, and taken several steps that have likely enabled it to increase its fissile material stockpile.

The Talks

Washington vs. Pyongyang

The United States and North Korea appear to agree that improved bilateral relations will remove the need for Pyongyang to have a nuclear weapons program. But the Bush administration argues that Pyongyang should first begin the process of eliminating its nuclear programs in order to pave the way for better relations. North Korea takes the opposite view.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill described these different perspectives while speaking to reporters Nov. 11. North Korea “is always urging that there be a good atmosphere in order to make progress,” he said, adding “[m]y point is, if you make progress, there will be a good atmosphere.”

Hill said the previous day that Washington is “prepared to live by” its commitments outlined in the joint statement. But Hill made it clear that the Bush administration wants the current round of talks to focus on devising a plan for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs quickly and verifiably.

The United States wants North Korea quickly to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, as well as prepare a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Washington will not promise rewards to Pyongyang for taking such a step.

The Bush administration did not provide any further details about implementing its part of the joint statement. Hill said that the U.S. delegation would contemplate the recent discussions and return next time “with some very specific ideas.”

A Department of State official familiar with the talks told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the United States wants North Korea to demonstrate that it will implement its portion of the joint statement before Washington presents a more detailed proposal. Shutting down the research reactor would be one way for Pyongyang to do so, the official said.

For its part, North Korea proposed to dismantle its nuclear program in several phases, although details remain unclear. According to United Press International, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said Nov. 14 that North Korea had pledged that it would first refrain from testing nuclear weapons, producing additional nuclear weapons, or transferring nuclear technology or materials to other countries. Pyongyang would then freeze and dismantle its nuclear facilities. Finally, North Korea would return to the NPT and its IAEA safeguards agreement, as well as allow inspectors to verify North Korea’s dismantlement, Chung said. This scheme is not substantively different from previous North Korean proposals.

Hill criticized Pyongyang’s proposed denuclearization approach, arguing that it would unnecessarily prolong the talks.

North Korea did not mention any conditions for halting work at its nuclear facilities, Hill told reporters. But North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, told the Associated Press Nov. 12 that Pyongyang would only freeze its reactors following the provision of an unspecified reward.

Despite the U.S. refusal to negotiate a freeze, a South Korean delegate to the talks indicated that the United States and other parties could take unspecified reciprocal gestures if North Korea were to shut down the reactor, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Nov. 10.

Kim said at the talks’ end that Pyongyang intends to follow through on its commitments but wants Washington to lift “financial sanctions” on North Korea. The Bush administration decided Oct. 21 to freeze the U.S. assets of eight additional North Korean entities for their unspecified “involvement” in the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or related delivery vehicles. The action was taken pursuant to an executive order Bush issued in June. (See ACT, September 2005.)

Hill said that North Korea also protested U.S. efforts to crack down on a bank located in Macau for allegedly laundering money for North Korean firms engaged in illicit activities, such as counterfeiting.

Kim warned that these measures violate the September joint statement and “are going to hinder the implementation of the commitment we have made.”

Pyongyang also has said that other recent U.S. actions, such as labeling North Korea as a state that limits religious freedom, signal the administration’s continued commitment to its “hostile policy.”

Whether these issues will ultimately derail the talks or further complicate them is unclear. North Korea has issued similar threats and complaints numerous times in the past but has never broken off the talks completely. Pyongyang did, however, cite U.S. criticism as a reason for its months-long refusal to attend talks before the previous round. (See ACT, March 2005.)

On the other hand, Hill said that North Korea devoted little attention during the November session to its previous demand that the United States provide a light-water nuclear reactor. North Korea said immediately after the last round that it would not rejoin the NPT or the IAEA until it received such a reactor but later softened this demand. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Other Parties Weigh In

Some other participants continued to exhort both Washington and Pyongyang to be more flexible in their diplomacy. For example, Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said in a Nov. 16 joint statement that “each party to the talks should show sincere flexibility on its position…in order to ensure continued progress in the six-party talks,” Yonhap reported.

South Korea and Japan also attempted to present more concrete proposals for implementing the September statement. Officials from both countries said they proposed that the participants separate outstanding issues into three categories: the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, provision of economic and energy assistance to North Korea, and Pyongyang’s bilateral issues with Washington and Tokyo.

Hill told reporters that South Korea offered suggestions for implementing each of the principles in the September statement, but he did not elaborate. South Korea had previously proposed a plan that would provide energy assistance to North Korea, but that proposal received little attention during the session, Hill said.

Japan proposed that the six parties establish working groups responsible for the first two issue areas. Likewise, Hill said Nov. 11 that the participants may designate groups of lower-level officials to work on the technical details related to North Korea’s declaration and dismantlement of its nuclear facilities. The six parties should also hold “technical discussions” before the next session in order to devise a proper implementation scheme, he added. The other participants appear to support the concept of establishing working groups, but no final plan has been formulated.

Japan, North Korea Meet

Japanese and North Korean officials also met in early November to discuss issues related to normalizing their relations, such as constraining North Korea’s ballistic missile programs and resolving concerns related to abductions of Japanese citizens during the Cold War.

The two sides did not appear to make progress, but Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi suggested that they might meet later in December, the Kyodo News Service reported Nov. 28.


"Getting Serious" About North Korea

Daryl G. Kimball

Despite the breakthrough agreement in September on a Joint Statement of Principles outlining a series of action-for-action steps to denuclearize North Korea in a verifiable manner, the main antagonists are again at odds over the substance and sequencing of the deal.

Following an unproductive round of six-party talks last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on North Korea to “get serious” about dismantling its nuclear program. North Korea, however, insists that the United States must act first before it freezes and then dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

Enough already. To break the cycle and test Pyongyang’s seriousness, President George W. Bush should borrow a page from his father’s playbook: unilateral, reciprocal actions that demonstrate the good faith of both sides and improve the likelihood of success.

Fourteen years ago, North Korea and South Korea were at odds over an agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. To help break the impasse, the first Bush administration decided in late 1991 to remove U.S. tactical nuclear warheads from the peninsula. On December 31 of that year, the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed.

Unfortunately, the rules and methods for verification were left for later, and North Korea resisted calls for international inspections. A year later and after considerable internal debate, officials in the George H. W. Bush administration decided to take a second, bold, but low-cost step: it temporarily suspended the annual “Team Spirit” military exercises with South Korea, prompting North Korea finally to announce it would allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Although the denuclearization agreement and the subsequent 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration ultimately fell apart, it was because leaders on each side failed to follow through on their baseline commitments through concrete action.

Today, following the 2002 disclosures about North Korea’s secret uranium-enrichment efforts and its ejection of inspectors in 2003, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States understand they must hammer out verification arrangements in advance. The task is to ensure that North Korea has frozen its nuclear material production activities, accounted for all of its plutonium, and dismantled any nuclear weapons it may have. Washington is reportedly preparing a list of sites that will be subject to intrusive monitoring, a list that the North will not easily accept.

Bush administration officials are urging North Korea to begin the disarmament process by suspending its plutonium separation operations at Yongbyon. Doing so would give both sides more diplomatic breathing space and restore the valuable plutonium production freeze established by the Agreed Framework.

Bush hard-liners, however, have not allowed U.S. negotiators to bargain with North Korea to achieve this result for fear that they appear to be pursuing Clinton’s past policy. That is counterproductive. Unless it reimposes a freeze, North Korea can continue to produce and perhaps to export nuclear bomb material.

For its part, North Korea has said it wants a light-water nuclear power reactor before it “dismantles its nuclear deterrent” and rejoins the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The United States has balked, saying it will be willing to discuss the civilian nuclear assistance at “an appropriate time.” That is the right stance for now. No state, whether it is India, Iran, North Korea, or South Korea should have access to such nuclear assistance if it is not in compliance with the NPT and does not allow for comprehensive safeguards.

But the nuclear reactor and sequencing issues should not be allowed to become deal-breakers. The United States and others should recognize that Pyongyang’s demand for reactors represents something more fundamental: the importance of tangible steps on the part of each side to show their good-faith commitment to terms of the Joint Statement.

North Korea is particularly interested in steps that recognize its sovereignty and provide assurances against attack. A North Korean government editorial published Oct. 26 by the state-run news agency urges the United States “to show…a practical action to remove mistrust and hostility between the two sides and create an atmosphere of confidence.”

To overcome present-day hurdles, the United States could announce it will cancel the next round of annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which continue to rile the North Korean regime. If North Korea reciprocates by suspending activities at Yongbyon, the United States might also pledge to withdraw some of its strike aircraft from the region to demonstrate its commitment to its pledge in the Joint Statement that it has no intention to attack or invade the North.

The opportunity for progress through the six-party process may be fleeting. All sides, especially the United States and North Korea, must be willing to undertake the bold and necessary steps to keep the diplomatic process moving, reduce longstanding tension, and prevent the emergence of a ninth nuclear-armed state.


North Korea Increasing Weapons Capabilities

Paul Kerr

It is not certain that North Korea has nuclear weapons. But Pyongyang’s continued operation of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as well as tests of a new solid-fuel missile engine, have enabled it to make progress toward being able to produce and deliver such weapons.

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, provided new details about North Korea’s nuclear program during a Nov. 8 presentation to a Washington, D.C., audience. Hecker visited North Korea in August of this year as well as in January 2004. According to Hecker, North Korea has been able to produce enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear weapons since resuming operations at Yongbyon in early 2003.

The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Pyongyang acquired enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons before freezing operations of its nuclear facilities under the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Under that bilateral agreement with the United States, North Korea agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the freeze, which included its five-megawatt graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and related facilities, as well as approximately 8,000 spent fuel rods. But after the most recent North Korean nuclear crisis started in October 2002, Pyongyang ejected the inspectors, announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, restarted the reactor, and claimed to have reprocessed the spent fuel to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons.

In the ongoing six-party talks, which are designed to persuade North Korea to abandon its current nuclear programs, the United States has refused to negotiate an interim agreement with North Korea that would freeze Yongbyon’s facilities.

It is unclear whether Pyongyang’s reprocessing claim is true. Hecker’s North Korean interlocutors claimed during his first visit, which included a trip to the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, that reprocessing was completed in June 2003. Hecker was not able to verify this claim but noted in his presentation that it would be technically feasible.

South Korea’s defense minister, Yoon Kwang-ung, offered a slightly different view in February, saying that North Korea had reprocessed “only part of the spent fuel rods.” (See ACT, March 2005.)

During Hecker’s August visit, North Korean officials provided him with an account, consistent with previous North Korean statements, of their more recent activities at Yongbyon. They said that North Korea operated the reactor from February 2003 until the end of March 2005. (See ACT, June 2005.) After refueling the reactor, Pyongyang resumed operations this past June, they said.

Hecker also said he was told that North Korea began reprocessing the batch of recently produced spent fuel rods in June and that the task was nearly complete at the end of August. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Moreover, North Korean officials updated Hecker about their progress in building two larger nuclear reactors, whose construction also had been frozen under the Agreed Framework.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said in September that North Korean officials had told him that they were proceeding with construction on the 50-megawatt reactor. But Hecker’s interlocutors provided him with more details, such as North Korea’s revelation that it has completed redesign for the reactor.

Additionally, one official implied that Pyongyang is attempting to complete construction within “a couple of years” but did not give a completion date. Hecker said he was told that North Korea is working on the reactor core elsewhere, adding that this off-site work explains why recent satellite images have shown only limited construction activity at the reactor site. North Korea has not decided whether to proceed with construction on the 200-megawatt reactor, he said.

New Solid-Fueled Missile

Pyongyang also appears to have made at least a modest advance in its ballistic missile programs, testing its first solid-fueled ballistic missile May 1.

An October report from Australia’s Ministry of Defense describes the missile as a “variant of the Russian SS-21, known as the KN-02.” A road-mobile, solid-fueled ballistic missile, the two versions of the SS-21 have estimated ranges of 70 kilometers and 120 kilometers, according to a 2003 National Air and Space Intelligence Center report.

A senior South Korean Ministry of Defense official told legislators several days after the test that the new North Korean missile’s range is estimated to be 100-120 kilometers, South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency reported.

Solid-fuel missiles are considered superior to liquid-fueled missiles because they are more mobile, can be deployed more rapidly, and can be launched on shorter notice.

In an Oct. 26 interview with Arms Control Today, a Department of State official would not confirm that the test took place but did say that such a test could be a “stepping stone” to produce solid-fuel engines for longer-range ballistic missiles.

North Korea has deployed longer-range missiles, such as the 1,300-kilometer-range Nodong missile, and flight-tested a 2,000-kilometer-range missile called the Taepo Dong-1. Both missiles, however, are liquid fueled.

The official said that the KN-02 program is unrelated to North Korea’s development of a road-mobile, intermediate-range ballistic missile said to be based on the liquid-fueled Soviet SS-N-6. That missile has a range estimated to be 2,500-4,000 kilometers. (See ACT, September 2004.)

The May test did not violate Pyongyang’s 1999 moratorium on flight-testing ballistic missiles because that pledge applies only to longer-range missiles. North Korea has not flight-tested any such missiles since declaring the moratorium, although its foreign ministry stated in March that Pyongyang is no longer bound by the pledge. (See ACT, April 2005.)



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