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

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Conventional Arms Control and Trade

Russia Completes S-300 Delivery to Iran

December 2016

By April Brady

Russia completed delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran last month, concluding an $800 million deal signed between the two states in 2007, state-run Russian press agency RIA Novosti reported. The S-300 mobile surface-to-air missile system can counter multiple aircraft at a range of 195 kilometers and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 50 kilometers. 

In September 2010, following pressure from the United States and Israel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suspended the agreement in compliance with a stricter UN arms embargo passed in June of that year. (See ACT, October 2010.)

An Iranian military truck carries parts of the S300 missile system during an annual military parade in Tehran on September 21. (Photo credit: Chavosh Homavandi/AFP/Getty Images)Iran protested the decision, filing a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia’s defense export agency and embarking on the manufacture of its own long-range, mobile air defense system, the Bavar-373, which President Hassan Rouhani unveiled in August. 

After Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to constrain and roll back Iran’s nuclear program in July 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted the ban on weapons sales to Iran and signed a new agreement with Tehran, sending the first shipment of parts in April.

Despite classification of the S-300 system as defensive, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly raised objections with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the transaction, said State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau during a May 10 press briefing. “[W]hile we’re opposed to the sale, it is not a violation” of the Iran nuclear deal or UN Security Council Resolution 2231, she said. That resolution formally endorsed the accord.

Since the conclusion of the S-300 system’s sale, Russian state news services have reported that Iran and Russia plan to negotiate a $10 billion deal to supply arms to Iran, which is expected to include artillery systems, helicopters, planes, and T-90 tanks.

Russia completed delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran last month, concluding an $800 million deal signed between the two states in 2007.

The Logic of Integrating Conventional and Nuclear Planning

November 2016

By Vincent A. Manzo and Aaron R. Miles

In September, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for NATO to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence. “Across the Atlantic, we’re refreshing NATO’s nuclear playbook to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence, to ensure we plan and train like we’d fight, and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO—from trying to ‘escalate to de-escalate,’ as some there call it.”1

Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher stated that the Department of Defense is “working to ensure an appropriate level of integration between nuclear and conventional planning and operations.”2 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks September 26 to troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, which is home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. (Photo credit: Sergeant Brigitte N. Brantley/Defense Department)At first glance, these statements may seem discordant with the long-standing U.S. view that nuclear weapons are distinct and apart from other military capabilities. This fundamental distinction is reflected in almost every aspect of how nuclear weapons are treated. Only the president can authorize the employment of nuclear weapons, and the United States maintains a unique declaratory policy explaining and limiting the conditions under which their use would be considered. Nuclear weapons require special operational considerations and safeguards. Personnel with access to nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials require additional screening and monitoring. The notion of conventional and nuclear weapons integration is often portrayed as threatening to weaken or break down the special status and “profound caution” afforded to nuclear weapons. 

Yet, the statements by Carter and Scher are consistent with U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and the underlying philosophy from which it stems. Much of the integration debate boils down to differing characterizations of the ends and ways of conventional and nuclear weapons integration, a question of objectives, and how to achieve them. Ensuring “an appropriate level of integration” requires a mix of maintaining and improving key aspects of integration. Doing so serves U.S. security interests, in particular, providing effective nuclear deterrence, without increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, blurring the distinction between non-nuclear and nuclear conflict, or lowering the threshold for nuclear use. 

Indeed, better integration will reduce the likelihood of an adversary’s nuclear use while maintaining the U.S. threshold at its appropriately high level. Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century. 

Fulfilling an Enduring Role 

The primary role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not changed since the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, that is, to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies and partners. Deterrence is strengthened by the arsenal’s capacity to perform its secondary role of “achieving U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails.” Neither of these roles is new, but the security environment in which U.S. nuclear posture and strategy must support these roles is changing. So too are the nuclear deterrence challenges for which the United States must prepare.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report illuminated this changing context, stating that U.S. nuclear forces communicate to “potential nuclear-armed adversaries that they cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.”3 More than a massive surprise nuclear attack in peacetime or a suicide attack on the U.S. homeland, the QDR highlights the danger of a calibrated and limited attack amid a conventional conflict gone awry.

Developments in Russia, North Korea, and China demonstrate why this is a salient deterrence challenge. These countries may see tacit or explicit nuclear threats as a potent means of demonstrating to U.S. leaders that U.S. stakes are materially lower than their own, thereby weakening U.S. commitment to come to the aid of allies should they find themselves in a regional conflict.4 Numerous analysts have observed that Russia sees limited nuclear attack as a potential means of de-escalating a conventional conflict by demonstrating a favorable asymmetry of stakes or at least views threatening such a course of action as useful for deterring U.S. engagement at the outset. The working assumption would be that following an initial limited nuclear attack, the side with more skin in the game would be more willing to continue the fight and accept the attendant risk of further nuclear escalation. At the other end of the capability spectrum, North Korea may see the threat of limited nuclear escalation early in conflict as an effective means of deterrence and wartime coercion in the face of vastly superior U.S. and South Korean conventional forces. Finally, China has a no-first-use declaratory policy, but debates within China over what constitutes first use and whether the declaratory policy would hold in a conflict suggest some consideration for threatening or using nuclear weapons for purposes other than responding to nuclear attack. 

There is a strategic logic to these considerations of threatening nuclear use for purposes other than deterring nuclear attack. Notions of accepting and even enhancing escalation risk and of utilizing nuclear weapons to achieve a favorable outcome in conventional war have precedent in the theory of military strategy and the actual strategies of nuclear-weapon states, including the United States during the Cold War.5 

Because there is escalation risk inherent in any conflict between nuclear-armed states, it would be irresponsible to extend security commitments to U.S. allies and pledge to deter conventional aggression without taking into account how potential foes may deliberately or haphazardly bring nuclear weapons into play. Thus, when dealing with a nuclear-armed adversary, there is intrinsic and unavoidable linkage between the conventional and nuclear realms. Ignoring that fact invites peril. 

Why Integration?

Managing escalation in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries is an essential element of U.S. national security strategy. Escalation management seeks to protect the vital interests of the United States and its allies while convincing an adversary to refrain from using the full military means at its disposal. Deeper integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations serves three ends of escalation management. Preparing to achieve these ends weakens the coercive nuclear strategies adversaries may develop when contemplating aggression and therefore ultimately strengthens the United States’ ability to deter a conflict from starting in the first place. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a conference at the main command center of the Russian armed forces in Moscow on June 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)The first objective of integration is to strengthen one’s ability to deter adversaries from choosing nuclear escalation in a conventional conflict. Because nuclear weapons enable a country to rapidly inflict massive levels of damage, a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state is fundamentally different from one with a non-nuclear adversary. Whatever other political objectives brought the United States into such a war, deterring first use of nuclear weapons would automatically become a central U.S. objective. 

Second, integration aims to strengthen one’s ability to achieve U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails. Presumably, the United States would enter any conventional conflict with a set of war aims tied to political objectives. Those aims and objectives are unlikely to disappear after a limited nuclear attack, although they might change somewhat in substance or priority. Integration facilitates efforts to keep conventional operations and nuclear posture aligned with the political objectives they are designed to support.

Third, integration increases the likelihood of successfully restoring deterrence following an adversary’s nuclear weapons use. If an adversary resorts to using nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, the possibility that it would use them again will seem very real. Just like deterring first use of nuclear weapons would be a central U.S. objective in any conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary, deterring further nuclear use and escalation would automatically become a central objective once an adversary crossed the nuclear threshold. Scher touched on this as well, saying that “integration means being prepared to restore deterrence following adversary nuclear use, so that failure to deter first use does not translate into failure to deter subsequent nuclear use.”6 

Strengthening Integration 

There are three principal ways to improve integration consistent with the special status afforded to U.S. nuclear weapons. The first two represent areas where improvement is needed, and the third is principally a matter of ensuring that current capabilities remain viable. Together, these aspects of integration strengthen U.S. escalation management strategy by helping the United States avoid miscalculation leading to nuclear war. If deterrence fails, they help ensure that the president’s options for responding to a nuclear attack are not limited to ceding victory to the aggressor or ordering a massive nuclear counterattack. Integration enables the additional options of continuing the conventional war after adversary nuclear weapons use without responding in kind or responding in kind while continuing conventional military operations. 

Planning conventional campaigns to shape adversary escalation calculus. Deterring nuclear escalation within a conventional conflict is an important 21st century challenge. The United States must prepare to operate under the nuclear shadow while navigating through the fog of conventional war. The core principles of nuclear deterrence remain the same after the fighting starts: willingness to respond forcefully and purposefully to nuclear weapons use and willingness to show certain forms of restraint as long as the adversary does not use nuclear weapons. Yet, effectively communicating resolve and restraint—the ying and the yang of the deterrence message—amid the confusion and emotion of war may require additional measures.

The threat of response must effectively convey that the United States and its allies will not allow an adversary to escalate its way to victory, split alliances through coercive threats or nuclear attack, or achieve a favorable military situation by using nuclear weapons. At the same time, U.S. officials must sustain and communicate the promise of restraint that is inherent in every deterrence threat, the assurance that choosing to remain below the nuclear threshold will spare the adversary the threatened cost of crossing it. 

Harmonizing this deterrence strategy with U.S. conventional operations is a key point of integration. As Scher explained, “[I]ntegration means conventional operations must be planned and executed with deliberate thought as to how they shape the risk that the adversary will choose nuclear escalation.”7 The United States may need to forgo certain objectives, such as regime change, that would likely lead adversary leadership to see nuclear weapons use as its only viable option for survival. In order for the adversary to understand and believe that this restraint is contingent on it not using nuclear weapons, the United States would also need to avoid military operations the adversary is likely to perceive as a precursor to regime change or disarming strategic attacks. This would likely require withholding attacks on adversary nuclear forces, nuclear command and control, political leadership, and assets or capabilities critical to an adversary’s basic ability to defend its homeland. 

As the United States, Russia, China, and others expand their strategic postures and operational concepts to include conventional, space, cyber, and nuclear forces, integration requires looking across domains and functional capabilities to fully analyze escalation risks. Will a particular cyber- or space operation impact an adversary’s nuclear operations? How will adversary leadership interpret the intent of the operation? If an operation is intended to strip away adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, how will it impact the adversary’s ability to gauge U.S. and allied limited aims?

The twin objectives of effectively waging the conventional campaign and seamlessly executing a nuclear deterrence strategy will likely engender tension and require difficult trade-offs. For example, the United States may be at a disadvantage in executing in a conventional conflict if it does not launch conventional strikes against adversary air defenses or conventional missile systems. If these targets are located in a nuclear-armed adversary’s homeland, however, U.S. officials may be concerned that adversary leadership will perceive such actions as indicative of a drive for regime change. Integration cannot eliminate these tensions and trade-offs, but it can help illuminate critical decision points. This will help senior decision-makers weigh the benefits and escalation risks of certain courses of action. Ultimately, whether certain conventional military operations should be ruled out or curtailed in order to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation is a presidential decision. The purpose of this aspect of integration is to enable informed decisions about U.S. strategy in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries and to ensure U.S. military and diplomatic means are poised to execute that strategy as precisely as possible. 

Strengthening conventional resiliency to nuclear operations. An adversary may see nuclear escalation as an efficient means to shift the conventional military balance in a conflict, even if only for a short period of time. Strengthening the resiliency of conventional operations to adversary nuclear attack is a second way to strengthen integration. 

Conventional resiliency includes the ability to communicate, operate, and resupply in a nuclear environment. There are a variety of means for enhancing resiliency, including hardening, redundancy, and dispersing forces and points of debarkation to reduce vulnerable single points of failure.8 Yet, enhancing resiliency is also a matter of intelligence and imagination. How might an adversary employ its nuclear forces to disrupt U.S. conventional operations? What are the vulnerabilities an adversary may target? Exploring these questions will be essential as the United States enters a period of technological and operational innovation to maintain conventional deterrence against Russia and China.9

This aspect of integration contributes to managing escalation for two reasons. First, it preserves presidential flexibility in the face of limited nuclear use. Wherever possible, the president should have the option of continuing the conventional fight even after an adversary employs nuclear weapons. Furthermore, this should not be a binary strategy where conventional and nuclear options for responding to a nuclear attack are mutually exclusive. Denying presidential flexibility would essentially offer the adversary the ability to dictate the means of the conflict by choosing nuclear escalation. This would more likely favor the side that perceives itself as conventionally weaker and therefore more reliant on nuclear weapons. 

Second, conventional resiliency reduces the potential benefits of attacking U.S. forces with nuclear weapons. If a limited nuclear attack is unlikely to result in a decisive operational-military advantage, then using nuclear weapons carries high risk but scant rewards. In other words, conventional resiliency contributes to deterrence. 

For both of these reasons, ignoring conventional resiliency invites adversaries to elevate the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies. 

Providing integrated response options that are limited and credible. Possessing credible options for responding to first use of nuclear weapons reinforces all three ends of escalation management (deterring nuclear escalation and, if deterrence fails, restoring deterrence and achieving other U.S. and allied objectives). Potential adversaries may conclude they can calibrate a nuclear attack to coerce the United States into capitulating without causing sufficient destruction to provoke a large nuclear response. The ability to respond to an attack purposefully and proportionately helps convince adversaries that no such sweet spot exists. Of course, what constitutes a purposeful and proportionate response would depend on the context. As a general rule, the U.S. response would need to be integrated into the conventional campaign to avoid disrupting U.S. conventional operations. In order to deter rather than spur another nuclear attack, the response would need to be consistent with U.S. efforts to communicate its resolve and its limited war aims to the adversary. Finally, it would also need to be integrated into the broader political strategy for orchestrating an end to the conflict. 

This ability underpins the strategic message that the United States will defend the core interests of its allies even in the face of nuclear threats. Relying solely on large-scale response options may indeed be credible for deterring attacks on the U.S. homeland, but as the sole means for reacting to a limited attack overseas, it runs the risk of appearing as a hollow bluff to allies and adversaries alike. Limited options are thus an important part of extending deterrence and assuring U.S. allies. 

This is not a call for returning to nuclear artillery or using nuclear weapons for tactical military effects that could be achieved with conventional forces. Rather, the United States should retain the diversity and flexibility of its current arsenal, particularly its nuclear-capable bomber and fighter aircraft. These aircraft are key to effectively deterring and responding to limited nuclear attack because they can be used to demonstrably signal deterrence messages (they are the only component of U.S. nuclear forces that is visible and recallable), they can be forward deployed in crisis and conflict and well as in peacetime, and the weapons they can carry contribute to the range of yields in the U.S. stockpile. Under the current stockpile reduction plan, these aircraft will carry a single type of gravity bomb (the life-extended B61), and the bomber force will also carry a single type of nuclear-armed cruise missile (the air-launched cruise missile, to be replaced with the modernized long-range standoff weapon).

Owing to tremendous reductions in warhead numbers and types over the past three decades as a result of negotiated and unilateral actions, the U.S. arsenal and suite of delivery platforms have reached a minimum acceptable level of diversity and flexibility. Although some numerical reductions may still be possible, warhead and delivery platform types should not be further reduced in the near term. On the contrary, those remaining capabilities should be sustained and, where necessary to remain viable, modernized to maintain the existing range of credible and proportionate response options.

In concert with U.S. land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, this suite of capabilities is minimally sufficient for enabling integrated, limited options for achieving U.S. objectives after a limited attack when the president judges that non-nuclear responses alone are insufficient. For example, after a limited nuclear attack on U.S. forces fighting abroad, the president may judge that the United States needs to demonstrate its willingness to respond with nuclear weapons. A conventional response, even if capable of destroying the same target on a comparable timescale, would not have the same psychological impact as a response in kind and risks inviting a follow-on nuclear strike or fracturing an alliance. A larger nuclear response could be disproportionately destructive, triggering physical and operational effects that provoke rather than deter further escalation. 

Under these conditions, a limited nuclear response might succeed in restoring nuclear deterrence and sustaining the alliance. Success would not be guaranteed, but the risks of alternative options would likewise be severe. 

Addressing Counterarguments

Some contend that the objectives of U.S. escalation management strategy, including deterring an adversary from escalating across the nuclear threshold and restoring deterrence if ever it fails, would be better served by reducing nuclear integration rather than by maintaining or increasing it. These critiques typically reduce integration to just its third element—limited response options—and advance one or more of three basic arguments. 

U.S. Army Col. Phil Brooks observes a live-fire demonstration as two High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rockets are fired during Anakonda 2016, the Polish-led exercise held in June that involved about 31,000 participants from more than 20 NATO and partner countries. (Photo credit: SFC John Fries/DVIDS)First, some believe efforts to ensure nuclear and conventional integration lower the nuclear threshold by making it easier for the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. These claims are often tied to the supposed pursuit of new nuclear weapons with lower yields that make them more “usable” than those in the existing arsenal. Neither this general claim nor its supporting elements are consistent with the scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization plans or the defense strategy it supports. Low-yield weapons have been a part of the U.S. stockpile for half a century, and Pentagon officials have stated unequivocally that current plans, including the life extension of the B61 gravity bomb, do not entail expanding the range of yields already available.10 More generally, despite the deliberate ambiguity inherent in U.S. declaratory policy, the notion of U.S. first use for tactical advantage or for de-escalating a conventional conflict is far removed from U.S. nuclear strategy, which focuses on credible options for responding to and therefore deterring nuclear attack. 

Second, some would claim that forgoing the ability to respond in a limited way would strengthen deterrence because it would imply the threat of massive nuclear retaliation in response to even a limited attack. Eliminating limited options would thus decrease the likelihood of adversary first use. Although automatic large-scale retaliation would indeed negate any rational gains an adversary may hope to achieve through a limited attack, the threat to do so only works if the adversary believes it. The United States cannot responsibly count on all adversaries concluding that the threat of massive retaliation is always credible. It is difficult to imagine that, in the immediate aftermath of a limited nuclear attack against a U.S. ally, even critics of limited response options would advise the president to order a massive strike on the grounds that credibility demands it or that total escalation is inevitable. Removing limited options would weaken deterrence if adversaries believe available U.S. nuclear responses are far less likely to produce an acceptable outcome for the United States and its allies, let alone a desirable one. Similarly, sole reliance on large-scale nuclear response options would do a poor job of dissuading allies from seeking independent deterrent capabilities.

Given the costs of capitulating to nuclear coercion and the risks of a strategy based on threatening massive response, what would the United States gain by removing the option of a limited nuclear response? Some contend that a conventional response to limited nuclear use is the better course under any circumstances. They believe that limited options are undesirable because they make it more likely a president will unnecessarily choose a nuclear response and because pursuing them drives requirements for types of nuclear weapons that do not increase U.S. security. A purely conventional response might indeed be the best way to limit further nuclear escalation and achieve U.S. and ally war aims in some cases, but it is unreasonable to assume a priori that this will always be the case. 

Contrary to the objectives of escalation management strategy, solely continuing the conventional fight might encourage further nuclear attacks aimed at finding the U.S. and allied pain threshold or measuring the relative stakes and resolve of the two sides. This is especially likely if the adversary’s goal is to stop the conventional campaign and its initial nuclear attack fails to achieve this goal but does not elicit the type of U.S. response it most fears. Furthermore, a strategy of continuing the conventional campaign toward victory after adversary limited nuclear use would likely provide the enemy with ample time and incentive to employ additional nuclear attacks. Ultimately and in anticipation of or in response to further nuclear attacks, holding to the conventional-only response might create pressure for negotiating a cessation to hostilities at all costs, implying U.S. capitulation and an adversary’s successful implementation of its nuclear coercion strategy. 

Moreover, credible options for deterring subsequent nuclear strikes provide an essential underpinning of a conventional-only response to nuclear attack. In order to restore deterrence, the United States would need to convince the adversary that any further nuclear use would result in costs that outweigh potential gains. For example, an adversary may believe that a limited nuclear attack or even a demonstration shot will compel the United States to capitulate. If that strategy fails and the United States continues fighting, adversary leadership might resort to a nuclear strike on U.S. military forces in the theater to raise the stakes and blunt the ongoing campaign. The fact that deterrence already failed once would no doubt raise questions about U.S. defense strategy, but the likelihood of a U.S. nuclear response in this case might be perceived as higher than the chance the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapons in response to a first attack that inflicted little or no damage. 

The threat of a large-scale response might succeed in deterring follow-on attacks, but it might not be perceived as credible, particularly if the adversary has a survivable arsenal. A large-scale response may also be incompatible with the U.S. political objectives associated with the conventional fight. Thus, we find it difficult to imagine a U.S. president sustaining conventional operations after an initial nuclear attack if massive retaliation is the only nuclear option for responding to a second limited attack. 

The better course is neither to prejudge presidential decisions nor surrender the option most likely to be credible and aligned with political objectives. Some fear that calls for greater integration imply a dangerous level of confidence in U.S. escalation-control strategy. Yet, effective deterrence requires an approach to escalation risk that avoids absolutism of either extreme. Confidence in one’s ability to deliberately start a limited nuclear war between major nuclear powers and control subsequent escalation would be the ultimate miscalculation, but inherent uncertainty about one’s ability to control escalation should not translate into certainty that any nuclear use would automatically lead to uncontrolled escalation up to global annihilation. 

The point about uncertainty is that no one can know for certain what the eventual outcome would be. Virtually everyone would want the president at least to try to limit escalation following an adversary attack. Consequently, it makes no sense to voluntarily relinquish the kind of credible response options below the level of massive retaliation that every president has required since the Soviet Union first acquired the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States. 

Nuclear weapons are unique in their ability to inflict and deter violence and should never be treated as more powerful analogues to conventional munitions. Ensuring and strengthening integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations is consistent with this long-standing principle. It is also critical to maintaining an appropriately balanced approach to escalation management and meeting the most salient of contemporary deterrence challenges.


1.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” September 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/956079/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-minot-air-force-base-north-dakota.

2.   Robert Scher, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, February 9, 2016, p. 3, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Scher_02-09-16.pdf (hereinafter Scher statement).

3.   Department of Defense, “Quadrennial Defense Review,” p. 14, March 2014, http://archive.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf.

4.   Nikolai N. Sokov, “Why Russia Calls a Limited Nuclear Strike De-Escalation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 13, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/why-russia-calls-limited-nuclear-strike-de-escalation; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “Coercive Nuclear Campaigns in the 21st Century: Understanding Adversary Incentives and Options for Nuclear Escalation,” PASCC Report, No. 2013-001 (March 2013); U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf. See Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).  

5.   David S. Yost, “The History of NATO Theater Nuclear Force Policy: Key Findings From the Sandia Conference,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (June 1992): 228-261. 

6.   Scher statement, p. 3.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Joint Defense Science Board/Threat Reduction Advisory Committee Task Force, “The Nuclear Weapons Effects Enterprise,” U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, June 2010, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ADA523661.pdf

9.   For more information, see Bob Work, speech on the Third Offset Strategy at the Reagan Defense Forum, November 7, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/628246/reagan-defense-forum-the-third-offset-strategy

10.   Scher statement.

Vincent A. Manzo is a fellow in the Defense and National Security Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Aaron R. Miles is a fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views are those of the authors.

Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure that U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century.

U.S. Seeks Rules for Armed Drones Trade

November 2016

By Alicia Jensen

The United States has won support from almost 50 countries for an initiative intended to “ensure the responsible export and subsequent use” of armed drones. Absent from the list are key supplier states such as China and Israel and important buyers such as France and the United Arab Emirates.

The State Department on Oct. 5 published a “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)” with 44 countries. By late in the month, a total of 48 countries had signed on to the U.S.-led effort, which aims to increase responsible use of drones by clarifying their legal status and promoting trade transparency.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle takes off on a mission in Afghanistan October 1. The MQ-9 designed and produced by General Atomics has nearly nine times the range, can fly twice as high, and carries more munitions than the MQ-1 Predator. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)The declaration asserts that use of armed UAVs is subject to international law, including the law of armed conflict and human rights law, and that exports should be conducted “in line with relevant international arms control and disarmament norms.” It calls for greater transparency, including reporting of military exports “where appropriate,” and for further international dialogue. 

The declaration is intended to provide a basis for talks, which are to begin in early 2017, on more detailed international standards covering such lethal systems, according to a State Department fact sheet. It is unclear whether other governments will feel much urgency to advance to more specific rules.

The effort is “both desirable and needed,” Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, said in a statement. “However, the joint declaration does not go far enough to ensure that the standards are meaningful, nor does it set a high enough bar to ensure responsible transfer and proper use of military drones.”

Although the size of trade in armed drones is unclear, sales of UAVs and related technology are growing. The total UAV market is expected to more than triple from $4 billion in 2015 to $14 billion in 2025, according to an August 2015 study by the Teal Group. This would total $93 billion in sales over the decade counting the military and commercial sectors. The study projected that the military sector will account for about 72 percent of the UAV market during the period.

The declaration states that transparency is important given that misuse of armed UAVs “could fuel conflict and instability and facilitate terrorism and organized crime.” According to a study last year by New America, countries that have used armed drones include Iran, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The United States has used armed UAVs, sometimes covertly, against alleged terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries. Human rights groups have expressed concerns about civilian casualties over the years. 

In February 2015, the United States established what the State Department describes in the fact sheet as “stringent” export rules for military UAVs and announced its intent to work with other countries on international standards on their sale, transfer, and subsequent use. “While it remains to be seen where exactly this conversation will take us, we hope that even more countries will join us at the table” with that goal in mind, said David McKeeby, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which is responsible for overseeing this effort.

The United States leads an effort to establish norms for “responsible export and subsequent use” of armed UAVs.

Much more needed from top presidential candidates on arms issues

This guest post is written by Jeff Abramson, organizer for the Forum on Arms Trade and nonresident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association. The assessments here are not endorsed by other experts, the Arms Control Association, the Forum on the Arms Trade, nor the candidates. The next U.S. president will need to make many decisions that are fundamental to how the United States provides weapons and training to other parties, supports (or disregards) agreements to responsibly trade arms and in some cases ban those the international community has deemed unacceptable , as well as how it...

Textron to Halt Cluster Bomb Production

October 2016

By Jeff Abramson and Alicia Jensen

In a busy period from the end of August through the first week of September, U.S. and global leaders took new steps to condemn the use of cluster munitions, halt their production, and expand efforts to clear land contaminated by their unexploded remnants.

The first of these actions came from the business sector when Textron Inc. announced on Aug. 30 that it would discontinue production of the last cluster munitions manufactured in the United States. The company stated in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would end production by March 2017, citing “reduced orders” and difficulties in obtaining required executive branch and congressional approval in the “current political environment.”

A Textron executive (2nd from left) presents a sensor fuzed weapon CBU-105, a cluster bomb, to Emirati Major General Mohammed bin Suwaidan Saeed Al-Qamzi, then-commander of United Arab Emirates’ Air Force, (center) during the Dubai Air Show, November 14, 2007. (Photo credit: Haider Shah/AFP/Getty Images)That political environment includes a decision, first reported by Foreign Policy on May 27, that the Obama administration had suspended cluster munition transfers to Saudi Arabia following evidence of civilian casualties from their use in attacks in Yemen. A U.S. House of Representatives action to make that suspension more durable nearly passed in a June vote of 204-216 on an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations bill that would have barred the use of U.S. funds to authorize the transfer of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Under a 2008 policy, the United States only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. Textron’s CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon is the only cluster munition that the United States claims meets that standard. Beginning in 2007, the United States announced deals to sell CBU-105s to India, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates, but has not budgeted new funds itself for purchasing the weapons since then. It is unclear whether Textron may still complete existing orders before ending production and, if so, how many.

The CBU-105 has drawn renewed scrutiny because Saudi Arabia used the munition in its war in Yemen last year, the first documented use by a recipient country. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power in Sanaa. Almost immediately after the coalition began its airstrikes, there were reports about the use of cluster munitions. Many of the cluster munitions were supplied before the year 2000, but field researchers from Human Rights Watch documented multiple examples of CBU-105 submunitions, or “skeet,” from a BLU-108 canister failing to disperse or detonate. 

Those failures have raised questions whether the CBU-105 meets the 1 percent criteria. Further, apparent use of the weapons near civilian areas may violate U.S. end-use restrictions that require cluster munitions “will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present.” 

Massachusetts Peace Action and members of other Quaker and peace groups protested production of cluster bombs and sales to Saudi Arabia at Textron’s Weapon & Sensor Systems facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts July 6. (Photo Credit: Karina Aguilar/Massachusetts Peace Action)

Cluster Munitions Condemned

Use of cluster munitions in Yemen, as well as in Syria in the past year, was condemned at the most recent meeting of states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). Held Sept. 5-7 at the United Nations in Geneva, treaty members adopted a political declaration that “condemn[s] any use of cluster munitions by any actor” and specifically lists their concerns “most notably in Syria and Yemen.” 

At least 248 casualties were caused by cluster munitions in Syria and 104 in Yemen in 2015, according to the latest annual report released just before the meeting by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. Preliminary data also suggested that, by the end of May this year, an additional 270 casualties had occurred in Syria. Airstrikes in Syria using cluster munitions have increased as of September 2015 when Russia initiated joint military operations with the Assad regime.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2010, has 100 states-parties and 19 signatories. 

Obama Tackles Past Use

Although not a CCM party nor an observer at states-parties’ meetings, the United States made a major new commitment to address the harm caused by cluster munitions when President Barack Obama visited Laos in early September.

Recognizing the U.S. role in bombing Laos during the Vietnam War, Obama pledged to increase U.S. spending to a total of $90 million over three years to conduct a comprehensive unexploded ordnance survey of Laos and for continued clearing operations, as well as to continue to assist victims. The pledged sum would be twice the yearly amount that has recently been allocated to the project. According to a White House fact sheet, the United States has contributed more than $100 million to such activities in Laos in the last 20 years, helping reduce annual casualties from more than 300 to fewer than 50. 

In a Sept. 7 speech, Obama noted that, during the Vietnam War, “America’s intervention here in Laos was a secret to the American people…. Over the course of a decade, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than Germany and Japan during World War II. Some 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped on this country.” 

Although not addressing broader U.S. policy on cluster munitions, he also said, “I believe that we have a profound moral and humanitarian obligation to support this work.”

Saudi use in Yemen renews criticism of such munitions.

Arms Sales to Kingdom Draw Scrutiny

October 2016

By Jeff Abramson

Amid growing concern about Saudi Arabia’s harm to civilians in its war in Yemen, U.S., and UK lawmakers last month failed in attempts to block arms sales to Riyadh. Legislators in each country promised to continue their efforts, while states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) avoided directly addressing the issue at their annual meeting.

On Sept. 21, 27 senators voted in support of a resolution to block a proposed $1.2 billion sale of tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia. Co-sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) when introduced on Sept. 8, Murphy said after the vote that “Congress is watching, and we will not sit on the sidelines.” 

Yemenis gather on September 22, 2016 amidst the rubble of buildings destroyed during Saudi-led air strikes in the rebel-held Yemeni port city of Hodeida the previous day. (Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)A number of the resolution’s opponents acknowledged concerns about Saudi conduct. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued that the arms sale “is about giving a nation that is under attack by an Iranian-sponsored militia the arms that it needs to defend its people and its territory.”

“As we support the Saudis in the defense of their territorial integrity, we do not refrain from expressing our concern about the war in Yemen and how it is being conducted,” McCain added.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. The coalition’s actions, as well as those of the Houthi, have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. In August, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for independent investigations into abuses in Yemen after suggesting in March that the Saudi-led coalition may be committing “international crimes.” (See ACT, July/August 2016.)

The European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution on Feb. 25 finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers. Most European countries have now taken steps to tighten arms transfers and licenses to Saudi Arabia, according to a report issued in August by the ATT Monitor.

The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia, the leading developing-world arms purchaser according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The Obama administration formally notified Congress of the $1.2 billion sale during its summer recess on Aug. 8. Congress can block the president from agreeing to a sale if it passes a resolution of disapproval within 30 calendar days of notification. 

In August, a bipartisan group of 64 House members asked the president to withdraw the Saudi arms sale notification, arguing in part that they had not been given sufficient time to exercise their review authority. Some senators chose to start the 30-day clock following their return from summer recess, setting up the unsuccessful September vote. Congress may still act on these transfers because it can block or modify an arms sales at any point up until delivery.

UK Committee Split on Suspensions

In the United Kingdom, members of the Committees on Arms Export Controls produced two separate reports in September that drew different conclusions about whether UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia should be suspended. One report concluded that they should be halted while the other recommended waiting until a review is concluded next year, leaving the committee deadlocked.

Chris White, the Parliament member who chaired the committee’s inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured weapons by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, said in publishing one of the reports that “the government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.” 

The ATT Monitor reported that the UK issued more than $4 billion in arms sales licenses to Saudi Arabia from April 2015 to July 2016 and exported 12 combat aircraft and more than 170 missiles and missile launchers in 2015. The UK government has not suspended current licenses or forbidden new ones. 

In December, prominent UK legal experts released a legal opinion finding that the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia violated national law and EU rules, as well as the ATT, in light of Saudi military intervention in Yemen. In June, the High Court in London agreed to review whether UK exports violated UK and EU law, with the case expected to be heard by the court in January 2017.

Arms Treaty Members Skirt Saudi Issue

At the second annual conference since the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force in 2014, states-parties established new working groups and took other administrative decisions while generally avoiding formal discussion of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.

The ATT requires the establishment of national export control systems, as well as assessments of whether exported arms would “contribute to or undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, acts of terrorism, or transnational organized crime.

During the session on treaty implementation at the Aug. 22-26 gathering in Geneva, civil society members called for stopping weapons transfers to the Saudis. Cesar Jaramillo, speaking on behalf of the Control Arms coalition, said, “[W]e are appalled that states-parties, signatories and aspirant states, including France, the UK, the U.S. and Canada, continue to authorize weapons [sales] to Saudi Arabia.” Other groups echoed this sentiment, but states did not take up the issue.

On the topic, the final report of the meeting simply lists that two documents were submitted by Control Arms: an early 2016 report on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and an August update.

In an opening statement to the meeting, William Malzahn, the head of the U.S. delegation, said that although only a signatory to the treaty, “the United States is already fully compliant with the requirements of the treaty as the U.S. national control system exceeds those requirements.” In a Sept. 22 discussion with Arms Control Today, he defended U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, explaining that they had undergone internal review procedures and been deemed appropriate.

On other matters, he said he found it positive that the meeting had decided to establish working groups on transparency and reporting, treaty universalization, and implementation, as well as reached agreement on procedures for a voluntary trust fund to assist states in implementing the treaty. States also selected a permanent head for the treaty’s small secretariat.

Malzahn suggested that meetings of the implementation working group, as well as annual conferences of states-parties, could be good forums for discussing how states make their own arms transfer decisions in cases such as the Yemen conflict but that a blanket ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not be consistent with treaty implementation.

With ratifications by Cape Verde and Madagascar since the conference, the treaty now has 89 states-parties and 44 signatories.

Senators fall short in their effort to block the proposed $1.2 billion sale of tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia. 

Proposed Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia Should be Withdrawn; Future Transfers Put on Hold



Volume 8, Issue 4, September 6, 2016

During the middle of the summer legislative recess, the Barack Obama administration notified the U.S. Congress Aug. 8 of the proposed sale of $1.15 billion in tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia, starting a 30-day clock for House and Senate review.

Within a week, news broke of yet more civilian deaths at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen, including a strike on a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF); that strike subsequently led the organization to withdraw its staff from multiple facilities in the country. Last week, airstrikes reportedly targeted an imam’s family, killing civilians, including children.

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams with TUSK equipment (Photo: Wikipedia)In response to the hospital bombing, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said “U.S. officials have regularly engaged with Saudi officials… as well as other coalition members on the importance of mitigating harm. As part of this, we’ve also encouraged them to do their utmost to avoid harm to entities protected by international law such as this hospital.”

If the administration is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and leverage such sales in ways that encourage it to change its behavior, President Barack Obama should withdraw this sale and suspend delivery on those agreed earlier, rather than continue to reward Riyadh for its actions. Such steps would reinforce the importance of human rights and international law in U.S. arms transfer decisions.

Congress on Alert

Last week, a bipartisan group of 64 House representatives asked the president to withdraw the Saudi arms sale notification, arguing in part that they had not been given sufficient time to exercise their review responsibilities. That is a wise request, as Congress, which resumes work on Sept. 6, will have a small window of time to consider and vote on legislation in both the House and Senate to block the sale before the 30-day period expires.

After the initial review period, the president can proceed with the arms transfers. Nonetheless, Congress can still act up until delivery, which often occurs years later. If the president fails to withdraw the sale, then Congress should pursue a blocking path.

The Arms Export Control Act was amended in 2014 to allow Congress to request notification at least 30 days before delivery. Such pre-delivery notifications, however, require a joint request of the chair and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) or House Foreign Affairs Committee. SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) used these provisions for the first time late last year over a separate arms transfer to Saudi Arabia. Once again, they should exercise their authority to receive pre-delivery notification for this deal.

A Better Path

The problems with the proposed arms sales, however, go far beyond the limited time for congressional review. Arming Saudi Arabia only encourages irresponsible behavior and the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons, despite U.S. commitments to take into account such abuse in arms transfers.

The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia. The country is the leading developing world arms purchaser (according to a recent Congressional Research Service report), and has increased its arms imports by 275 percent from 2011 to 2015 relative to the previous five years (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-SIPRI). In addition to the August notification, the administration has recently proposed providing support services, Phalanx weapons systems (February 2016), and more than $1 billion in guided bombs and air-to-ground munitions (November 2015).

The Saudi-led coalition’s actions (as well as those of the Houthi) have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. Last week, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for independent investigations into abuses in Yemen. In March, he said: “It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones—which are protected under international law—is at best woefully inadequate … . And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the [Saudi-led] Coalition."

Internationally, Saudi actions have been widely condemned and are leading to growing censure of arms sales to Riyadh.

On Feb. 25, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers. Most European countries have now taken steps to tighten arms transfers and licenses to Saudi Arabia, according to a report issued last month by the ATT Monitor.

In revising U.S. conventional arms transfer policy in January 2014, the president included the goal “Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.”

The United States is also a signatory to the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which requires consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. Although treaty members last month were unprepared to tackle transfers to Saudi Arabia, the United States should set a better example.

Withdrawing the recently proposed sale to Saudi Arabia and holding delivery on those in the works is an opportunity to signal to Riyadh that it must act responsibly and ensure that future U.S. arms transfers are not used to target civilians and violate human rights.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, non-resident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, and program manager of Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition 


If the U.S. is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, it can and should existing U.S. law and its signatory status on the Arms Trade Treaty to encourage better behavior.

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No Further Excuses: Report from Arms Trade Treaty Conference

Rachel Stohl, board member of the Arms Control Association, wonders why more could not have been accomplished at the Second Conference of States-Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Time to Ban Cluster Munitions Transfers, Rethink Approach to Treaty



Volume 8, Issue 3, July 13, 2016

The raging civil war in Syria, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the ongoing fighting in Yemen have led to massive civilian casualties. The belligerents target civilian population centers and use certain types of weapons, including cluster munitions, that indiscriminately harm civilians. The situation has led many responsible policy makers to call for adjustments in U.S. policy that would reduce access to these weapons—which the United States has not used this decade—and to hold those who would use them accountable.

A man passes by the remains of an Uragan rocket lying in front of a burning house in Donetsk, Ukraine, on October 5. Uragan rockets can be used to deliver cluster munitions. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)In June, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly voted down an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations act that would have barred the use of funds to authorize or transfer cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. The congressional action came after Foreign Policy reported just before the Memorial Day holiday that the Obama administration had suspended such transfers, following evidence of civilian casualties from cluster munitions attacks in Yemen. These actions again drew cluster munitions into the U.S. public spotlight, highlighting both the stigma on these weapons and controversy over U.S. military support for Riyadh’s ongoing war in Yemen.

As the end of the Obama administration approaches, it is time for the United States to put in place a policy that would permanently cease transfers of cluster munitions, move fully toward ratifying the international treaty banning these weapons, and exercise greater responsibility for arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other states that fail to adequately guard against civilian casualties in conflict.

Weapons No Longer Used by the United States

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse explosive submunitions over wide areas. Many submunitions fail to detonate as designed, leaving explosive remnants that later injure or kill civilians. In the 20th century, the United States was a leading user, manufacturer, and provider of the weapons, directly using cluster munitions in at least a dozen countries and supplying them to some 30 more. In Laos alone Washington still spends millions of dollars a year—with much more needed—to assist in the cleanup of cluster munitions it dropped more than 40 years ago.

Despite official policy that cluster munitions have military utility, the reality is that Washington is no longer using the weapons. The United States last used them in significant numbers in Afghanistan (2001-2002) and Iraq (2003) and evidence shows that Washington employed as many as five Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with cluster munitions during a December 2009 strike in Yemen. Perhaps due to stigma or the use of other weapons (such as armed drones) no evidence exists of U.S. use of cluster munitions in this decade.

According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, the United States last budgeted funds for U.S. production of new cluster munitions in 2007, but has since sold them to India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. 

U.S. Cluster Munitions Policy Essentially Unchanged Under Obama

In a questionnaire for Arms Control Today in 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama recognized U.S. “forces have been moving away from using cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines ourselves,” and said “these trends can be accelerated.” 

The Obama administration made significant progress on landmines in 2014 by setting U.S. policy to eventually accede to the Mine Ban Treaty and prohibiting U.S. antipersonnel landmines except on the Korean Peninsula. The Korea exception must be overcome, however, before the United States can fully comply with the ban on antipersonnel mines.

The administration has not however changed its general approach on cluster munitions. The United States continues to follow a 2008 policy that bars the transfer of cluster munitions that fail to operate as intended more than 1 percent of the time, resulting in unexploded ordnance. Until 2018 the policy only allows U.S. use of weapons not meeting that criteria if approved by a combatant commander. After 2018, the United States will no longer use, manufacture, or transfer cluster munitions that fail to meet the 1 percent or less unexploded ordnance standard.

The stigma against cluster munitions has grown considerably since the 2008 policy was announced by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In recent years, senior U.S. officials have criticized others for using cluster munitions in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Washington has voted in favor of UN General Assembly resolutions expressing outrage at the continued use of cluster munitions in Syria, most recently in December 2015. It has also supported UN Security Council resolutions and called on the OSCE to investigate and report cluster munitions use allegations. 

Today, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the weapons, has 100 states-parties and an additional 19 signatories. Twenty-one of NATO’s 28 members are states-parties to the treaty, including Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. So too are traditional U.S. military allies such as Australia and Japan. U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a new protocol on cluster munitions at the Convention on Conventional Weapons failed in 2011. This leaves the 2008 ban treaty as the sole international instrument dedicated to addressing the suffering caused by cluster munitions.

Yet Washington stubbornly continues to ignore the treaty. It abstained on a nonbinding UN General Assembly resolution on the convention in December. Unlike its allies and the majority of the world’s nations, it does not participate in any meetings associated with the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Recent Use by Saudi-led Coalition Highlights Need for New Thinking

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of countries began an air campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power in Sanaa. Almost immediately after the coalition began its airstrikes, reports emerged about the use of American-made cluster munitions, including in civilian areas in contravention of U.S. imposed end-use conditions. Many of the cluster munitions used in Yemen were supplied in the 20th century. 

However, the more modern CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons manufactured by Textron, the only cluster munitions that meet U.S. export criteria, where also discovered and reported by Human Rights Watch field researchers. They have documented multiple examples of submunitions or “skeet” from a BLU-108 canister failing to disperse or detonate. The failure of these last cluster munitions and their misuse should lead policymakers to permanently end U.S. transfers of cluster munitions. 

More broadly, the Saudi-led coalition’s actions and as well as those of the Houthi have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. Saudi actions, including use of cluster munitions, have been widely condemned and are leading to growing censure of arms sales to Riyadh. On Feb. 25, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers due to Saudi behavior in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. 

On March 18, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, more widely addressed the conflict and said: “It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones—which are protected under international law—is at best woefully inadequate…. And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the [Saudi-led] Coalition.” Civil rights groups in late June called for Saudi Arabia to be removed from the UN Human Rights Council.

Deservedly, Washington’s arms sales to Riyadh are drawing more scrutiny. The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia, a country that is the leading developing world arms purchaser (according to a recent Congressional Research Service report), and one which increased its arms imports by 275 percent during 2011-2015 as compared to the previous five years (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-SIPRI). 

In April, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed legislation that would require that U.S. sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia be subject to a certification process guaranteeing that the Saudis are targeting terrorists and not civilians in Yemen. 

In their review of a November 2015 notification of a potential $1.3 billion sale of advanced air-to-ground weapons to Riyadh, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment. Such pre-delivery notifications, which were written into the Arms Export Control Act in December 2014 with the Middle East in mind, have not been invoked previously. 

Peace activists demonstrated in front of Textron’s world headquarters in April for its role in supplying cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. (Photo: RiFuture.org/@SteveAhlquist)In March 2015, the U.S. wing of the Cluster Munition Coalition requested that President Obama review the 2008 policy, including the exception allowing for cluster munitions that may result in less than one percent unexploded ordnance, and commit the United States to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

More recently, attention has been focused on the manufacturer itself, Textron, via public protests outside its facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island denouncing its production of cluster munitions after reports of civilian harm from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s use of these weapons. American banks and financial institutions have also been listed in the “Hall of Shame” by the global Stop Explosive Investments campaign and its June 2016 report detailing institutions that fund companies producing cluster munitions.

Given how out of step U.S. policy on cluster munitions now stands, with the U.S. allowing export of weapons it no longer uses and which its allies condemn, now is the time to end transfers and more seriously consider accession to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. At the same time, the president and Congress can take steps to be much more circumspect in their arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, refusing to allow new supplies until the country shows more responsibility in its military activities to protect civilians and live up to international humanitarian and human rights law.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, non-resident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, and program manager of Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition


How should the United States exercise responsibility in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other states that fail to adequately guard against civilian casualties in conflict?

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States Link Efforts to Curb Arms Flows

July/August 2016

By Jeff Abramson

Delegates at a biennial UN meeting held last month in New York reached consensus on how to link instruments related to the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons to newer initiatives, including the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and UN-agreed development goals

The June 6-10 meeting was the sixth biennial and final formal meeting before a 2018 review conference on the 2001 Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, and its sister agreement, the 2005 International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (ITI). 

Some states that have not yet joined the ATT, objected to proposals to explicitly mention the treaty in the program of action meeting’s outcome document. The ATT, which entered into force in the period since the fifth biennial meeting in June 2014, is the first legally binding instrument addressing the transfer of nearly all conventional weapons. (See ACT, October 2014.

On the final day of the meeting, Darren Hansen, the head of the Australian delegation, read a statement on behalf of more than 60 countries calling for language mentioning the ATT by name. Ultimately, the final document only made indirect reference to “complementarities” with other instruments.

Hansen told Arms Control Today in a June 27 email that although “Australia would have liked to have seen a reference to the ATT,…[w]e were satisfied with the outcome document in which it was agreed that complementarities between the [program of action] and relevant global instruments, including those that are legally binding, need to be taken into account.”

The United States, which is a signatory to the ATT, joined in the group supporting a direct reference to the treaty. A State Department official told Arms Control Today in a June 22 email that “the important point is that all countries establish export/import controls consistent with the ATT if they are States parties, or with the [program of action] if they are not…. When implemented effectively, laws and regulations make illicit trafficking more difficult.”

Although only indirectly referencing the ATT, delegates did welcome the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September that replaced the Millennial Development Goals. In particular, the final document referenced SDG target 16.4, which calls for the global community to “significantly reduce illicit…arms flows” by 2030.

As part of the SDG effort, indicators are being created for each target. Regarding the objectives to promote peaceful and inclusive societies in target 16, a draft indicator is “[p]roportion of seized small arms and light weapons that are recorded and traced, in accordance with international standards and legal instruments.” In the meeting’s final document, states encouraged the development of national indicators based on the program of action and ITI that could support measuring and reporting on SDG target 16.4.

Reporting on arms issues is also one of the topics to be addressed at the second annual conference of states-parties to the ATT, set to occur in Geneva on Aug. 22-26. As of June 29, only 35 states had submitted their treaty-mandated annual report on authorized imports and exports, which was due May 31. The pact has 85 states-parties and another 48 signatory states.

One issue that may emerge at the August meeting is arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups have documented Saudi use of foreign-supplied weapons, including cluster munitions, in attacks on civilians in Yemen and accused Riyadh of violating international law. On March 18, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights said, “It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones—which are protected under international law—is at best woefully inadequate…. And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the [Saudi-led] Coalition.” 

On Feb. 25, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers due to Saudi conduct in the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Requests by civil society delegates attending an extraordinary ATT meeting on Feb. 29 to discuss whether arms transfers to Saudi Arabia violated the ATT were rejected. 

In April and May, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed legislation that would require that U.S. sales of certain weapons to Saudi Arabia be subject to a certification process guaranteeing that the Saudis are targeting terrorists and not civilians in Yemen. 

“[A]nti-American sentiment is spiking as locals blame the U.S. for the thousands of civilians killed in the coalition bombing campaign. This will come back to haunt us. We need to put real conditions on our military aid to the Saudis,” Murphy said in a May 26 press release.

In response to news reports that the United States had suspended transfers of certain weapons to Saudi Arabia, the State Department official said June 22 that “U.S. officials have regularly engaged with Saudi Arabia and other coalition members on the need to investigate all credible reports of civilian casualties allegedly caused by coalition air strikes…encouraging them to do their utmost to avoid harm to civilians and damage to critical infrastructure.”

Delegates at a biennial UN meeting on decade-old agreements addressing illicit small arms trade made connections to the newer Arms Trade Treaty and Sustainable Development Goals.


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