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May 2010
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
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Prague One Year Later: From Words to Deeds?

Paul Meyer

In his April 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama used soaring rhetoric to express a vision of a transformed international security context. The speech personally engaged Obama in the effort to realize the goal of total nuclear disarmament: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”[1]

This clear vision was accompanied by a series of steps that Obama committed his administration to undertake to advance the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. A year after his clarion call, it is appropriate to review the agenda laid out so eloquently in Obama’s address and determine how successful he has been in delivering on its great promise. Such an accountability session is particularly apt this spring as the 189 states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) gather in New York this month for their quinquennial review conference to consider the health of this core international security agreement. Perceptions of the U.S. role in supporting the fundamental purposes of the NPT and assessments of the Obama administration’s performance in realizing the Prague agenda will be major factors in shaping the political environment for the review conference.

There can be little debate over the positive impression Obama left on his Prague audience and on the wide global readership for this landmark foreign policy address. It represented a sharp break from policies of the previous administration, which had banished the term “disarmament” from its official vocabulary. The speech also broke with past nuclear policy pronouncements that suggested an expanded role for nuclear weapons in the nation’s defenses.

The Prague address, in its opening sections rendering homage to the heroes of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, subtly associated Obama’s championing of the elimination of nuclear weapons with the actions of the great Czech revolutionaries of the Cold War. In the speech, Obama remarked that the Velvet Revolution “proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.” Applying the context of the Cold War political upheavals and by extension the Cold War thinking that still characterizes some nuclear establishments, Obama criticized those “who told them that the world could not change.” He was suggesting that this moral leadership, which once liberated people from authoritarian rule, now needs to be directed at eliminating the nuclear weapons that represent “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.”

In this struggle for nuclear disarmament, Obama claimed a leadership role for the United States. This role was not asserted simply as a function of power or the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but as a matter of “moral responsibility,” given that the United States is the only country to have used a nuclear weapon. Having set up the moral imperative for action, which itself is a remarkable change in the presidential lexicon for international security policy, Obama enumerated a series of steps his administration would implement to put the vision into practice. This article assesses the Obama administration’s performance in implementing the key steps articulated in the Prague speech.

Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

In Prague, Obama vowed to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” The long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on April 6, set out a changed nuclear strategy, but the document regrettably was far less “transformative” than the Prague speech would have led one to believe. To a large extent, it reads like the type of document one would expect to be the product of four thematic working groups and 102 interagency meetings.[2] It represents a refinement of existing strategic policy with some troubling reformulations and a few vague commitments to consider more far-reaching measures in an eventual further round of review. The fundamental rethinking promised in the Prague speech was not in evidence.

On the core question of the function of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the NPR puts off to the indefinite future the acceptance of a policy that would unequivocally limit the role of U.S. nuclear weapons to deterring the use of such weapons by others. For now, this is the “fundamental” rather than the “sole” role for U.S. nuclear forces.[3] A residual deterrent role is still claimed for potential future biological weapons threats and against nuclear-weapon states and noncompliant states to deal with an unspecified “narrow range of contingencies”[4] in which U.S. nuclear weapons could deter attack by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons. In brief, U.S. declaratory policy still seems to want to cover all the bases with its nuclear forces.

On the issue of security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states, the NPR manages to muddy the waters on a matter of prime importance for these states. The NPR usefully removes the caveat that security assurances would not apply to non-nuclear-weapon states in cases when they were involved in an attack against the United States in association with a nuclear-weapon state. That caveat, directed at the Warsaw Pact, was a relic of the Cold War.

At the same time, however, the NPR introduces a new condition that these non-nuclear- weapon states must be parties to the NPT and “in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” Exactly what nonproliferation obligations would this entail? The NPT? International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards? UN Security Council Resolution 1540?[5] Perhaps more importantly, who would decide what constitutes noncompliance? Unilateral U.S. judgment? Security Council or IAEA Board of Governors’ decisions? Furthermore, despite the frequently asserted desire to strengthen the NPT, the NPR is silent on responding to the 2000 NPT Review Conference decision that negotiation of legally binding negative security assurances would help strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Instead of any opening to a process of making such security assurances legally binding, the NPR appears to want to keep them at the level of declaratory policy, subject to change at any time. This is hardly a reassuring outcome for non-nuclear-weapon states looking to the United States for some accommodation of their long-standing concerns regarding security assurances.

With respect to reducing the operational status of deployed nuclear forces (a commitment under the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document and, for many, a litmus test of the willingness of the nuclear-weapon states to abandon Cold War postures), the NPR concludes that the existing alert levels are just fine as they are. There is a reference to the Department of Defense initiating studies regarding “survivability” of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the future although this is not linked to reducing alert levels, but rather to “reducing incentives for prompt launch.”[6]

Regarding NATO, the NPR, far from heralding any new thinking on the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, is stuck on the status quo. The Cold War-era bromides of “the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons” contributing to “Alliance cohesion” are reproduced as if the integrity of an alliance that is currently engaged in major military operations in Afghanistan is somehow ensured by the existence of several hundred U.S. nuclear bombs on European soil.[7] Those NATO allies who were counting on the Obama administration to take the lead on reform of alliance nuclear policy as part of this year’s revision of the Strategic Concept will find little comfort in the dusty text of the NPR.

Those observers who were hoping for more significant reductions of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals in the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) process, will have to be satisfied with the NPR’s pledge to “conduct follow-on analysis to set goals for future nuclear reductions”[8] and to address nonstrategic and nondeployed nuclear weapons in some future round of negotiations. One might question why this very analysis was not undertaken by the NPR and why “conservative assumptions to determine acceptable reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons”[9] were used.

Get rid of one of the legs of the triad as a signal of nuclear transformation? No thanks, says the NPR, we like things as they have always been. Retention of the bomber leg of the triad is justified in the NPR as a hedge against technical challenges with another leg (an implausible eventuality) and because they can be “visibly forward deployed, thereby signaling U.S. resolve and commitment in crisis.”[10] This desire to maintain a capacity for nuclear saber-rattling may be understandable on the part of some in the military establishment, but it seems misaligned with Obama’s direction to put an end to Cold War thinking. As with the failure to insist on greater reductions in this round of strategic arms control, Obama seems to have acquiesced in the status quo preferences of the armed services.

The NPR devotes considerable attention to investments for maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal and contains several specific commitments. This presumably is aimed at reassuring members and supporters of the nuclear weapons complex that this administration will ensure that even more funding will be coming their way, thereby gaining their support for treaty ratification and other elements of the Obama plan. Refreshingly, there is also a pledge to expand “work on verification technologies and the development of transparency measures”[11] although no details or budget allocations are provided. This promise is helpful in the NPT context. It responds to a commitment made in the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document and suggests that some research and development effort will be devoted to developing the capacities required for eventually eliminating, as opposed to sustaining, the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

With respect to Obama’s Prague commitment to urge other nuclear powers to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies, presumably this advocacy will now get underway. In the absence of major changes in U.S. posture, however, it will be difficult to lobby others to reduce the profile of nuclear weapons in their declaratory policy. At New START levels of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and with nuclear doctrines that still project roles for nuclear forces beyond deterring nuclear attack, neither the United States nor Russia is likely to have much influence on the nuclear ambitions of China, India, and others. Although the NPR is clearly the prime expression of Obama’s intention to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, he also deserves credit for raising the global profile of nuclear issues by convening a summit-level session of the UN Security Council to consider this subject. Resolution 1887, which was adopted on this occasion, refers to many aspects of the NPT-centered nonproliferation regime.[12] Yet, the resolution is silent on the specific issue of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security policies.

Assessment: FAIR

Cutting Nuclear Arsenals

In Prague, Obama promised to negotiate a new arms pact with Russia “by the end of this year that is legally binding and sufficiently bold.” Although the negotiators missed the end-of-2009 deadline, New START was finally concluded and signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, symbolically back in Prague, on April 8. The “sufficiently bold” test is necessarily subjective, but the final results do not constitute major progress over those already agreed in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) concluded by the Bush administration. The White House claims a 30 percent reduction compared to the 2,200 warhead figure of SORT, but if the lower level of the SORT range for warheads (1,700) is referenced, the 1,550 deployed warheads of New START represent a reduction of less than 10 percent.[13] Theoretically, if the “one bomber equals one warhead” counting rule were exploited, one might have no reduction at all in the actual numbers of deployed warheads. Ironically, the timeline for achieving these reductions has also lengthened as those under SORT would have to have been implemented by 2012, whereas those under New START will only be required to be achieved seven years after entry into force of the treaty (2017 at the earliest). The modest results of New START in turn raise doubts about the timing and feasibility of Obama’s promise to follow START with “further cuts” involving all nuclear-weapon states. If the United States and Russia had agreed in New START to reduce their strategic warheads to less than 1,000 each, there would have been real political momentum to engage the other nuclear-weapon states in further collective cuts. The modest reduction levels and extended implementation timelines of New START enable other nuclear powers to excuse themselves from participating in any common nuclear weapons reduction negotiation. The fact that New START punts the tricky if crucial issue of missile defenses to the future is understandable in light of the need to secure Senate consent for ratification. It would have bolstered Obama’s stance in favor of new thinking, however, if some express commitment had been made to address this Russian as well as Chinese concern. If the security accords negotiated between Russia and the United States are truly to be “bold” and reinforce the downward direction in arsenals, then the important interrelationship between offensive and defensive arms is going to have to receive more than recognition in a preamble.

Assessment: FAIR

Ratifying the CTBT

In Prague, Obama pledged to “immediately and aggressively pursue” U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was subsequently dispatched to participate in the September conference on CTBT entry into force after years of the Bush administration boycotting such events, the lack of follow-through on the president’s promise is striking. This is especially worrisome as CTBT entry into force was identified as the top priority of the NPT members at the 1995 and 2000 review conferences. It is widely known that other prominent holdouts, such as China and Indonesia, are unlikely to ratify the treaty before the United States does. Perhaps Vice President Joe Biden’s February 18 speech promising a 10 percent increase to $7 billion for the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s stockpile management programs is a harbinger of a more dedicated effort to win over opponents in the Senate.[14] The administration has not yet shown signs of mounting the sort of energetic and coordinated effort that has been required in the past to obtain Senate consent for ratification of major international treaties, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention or China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. As always, domestic issues have consumed much of the administration’s time and political capital. In light of those demands and the priority that will be afforded to the ratification of New START, it would appear that the aggressive pursuit of CTBT ratification that the president promised in Prague is not going to occur anytime soon.

Assessment: POOR

Negotiating an FMCT

A year ago, Obama reaffirmed that the United States would seek a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. This is a decades-old U.S. arms control goal. The only notable contribution to date by the Obama administration on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) was to reinstate the requirement for verification that had been rejected by the Bush administration. The Obama administration has shown little energy and less creativity in its pursuit of an FMCT since Prague. For most of the past year, the United States has continued to look to the moribund Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva to negotiate such an accord. In the face of diplomatic sabotage of the CD by Pakistan and other spoilers, the United States until now has done little more than suggest that parallel, informal seminars be held on the chief topics of an FMCT. A potentially significant development is the omission of a reference to the CD in the relevant NPR passage affirming U.S. interest in “prompt negotiation of an FMCT.”[15] This may herald a decision to consider other negotiating forums for this treaty. For some time, this author has advocated the necessity of creative diplomatic solutions to the prolonged impasse on an FMCT in the CD.[16] The U.S. president enjoys enormous convening authority to initiate action on any international file. The Bush administration employed this power to good effect on the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Given the attention Obama has just devoted at the April summit to programs for securing nuclear material, it is strange that the Obama administration has not yet initiated a serious diplomatic effort to start negotiations to prohibit fissile material production, the source of the problem. If the tap is left running, mopping up the overflow is ultimately going to be futile.

Assessment: POOR

Strengthening the NPT

The section regarding the NPT was probably the weakest part of the otherwise impressive rhetoric of the Prague speech. Besides reaffirming that “[t]he basic bargain is sound,” there is little clarity and coherence in Obama’s remarks as to what the chief challenges to the NPT are and what remedial action is necessary. There is an emphasis on monitoring (“more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections”) and enforcement (“we need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules”), but there is no overriding commitment to balanced compliance with all three pillars of the treaty—nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The problems besetting the NPT go well beyond the defiance of North Korea or the machinations of Iran. To limit the prescription to finding better ways to hold these two states accountable is to overlook the deeper sources of malaise within the NPT.

The Prague speech contains rather vague references to a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, and little in the way of concrete proposals for strengthening this core security treaty. In the context of North Korea and Iran, Obama spoke of the need for “a structure” that will ensure that violators of the rules face consequences, but he provided no elaboration of what this structure would entail. Obama’s positive remarks on international inspections suggest that he supports more funds for the IAEA, but there is no recognition of the NPT’s institutional deficit or the means to overcome it. With no annual meetings of states-parties, no governing council, and no dedicated secretariat, the NPT is oddly the poor cousin of international agreements, despite its acknowledged importance. The inability to acknowledge the governance deficiencies of the NPT, while calling for the institutionalization of auxiliary processes such as the PSI, reveals an administration blind spot that will make it difficult to reinforce the NPT’s authority. The NPR’s treatment of this theme, unfortunately, showed little evolution of thinking since the Prague speech. The recently concluded Group of Eight meeting of foreign ministers issued a statement regarding the upcoming NPT review conference that contains a tantalizing pledge to “work collectively to strengthen the institutional framework of the Treaty, which will contribute to its effective and efficient implementation.”[17] It is not yet clear what the United States intends to propose on this or any other theme at the May conference, but it will be important to show that the administration is taking the president’s aim of strengthening the NPT as much more than a declaratory exercise.

Assessment: POOR

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

In Prague, Obama characterized the potential acquisition of a nuclear weapon by terrorists as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” He announced a new international effort “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.” The president called for the existing “processes” of the PSI and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism to be transformed into “durable international institutions.” He further committed to convening a global summit on nuclear security within the year. This aspect of the Prague agenda seems to have received the greatest attention by the Obama administration with a series of international preparatory meetings leading up to the summit. Obama hosted 46 nations as well as the heads of the United Nations, IAEA, and European Union at a global nuclear security summit April 12-13 in Washington. The communiqué issued at the conclusion of the summit calls for international cooperation on a range of practical measures to bolster nuclear security.[18] Although participants joined Obama’s call to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years, there is no detailed plan for accomplishing this. The United States is setting a good example as it commits to continue the substantial funding flow required to sustain programs to secure vulnerable fissile material and to destroy old stocks of weapons of mass destruction, but it remains to be seen whether other states have the same financial stamina or set of priorities. Given that military holdings of highly enriched uranium (HEU) dwarf civilian stocks, it would have been desirable to see some initiatives on this front at the nuclear security summit. A commitment, for example, to research options for converting U.S. naval nuclear reactors from HEU to low-enriched uranium would have sent a positive signal for change and would have contributed to facilitating the eventual verification of an FMCT as well.

Assessment: GOOD


The commitments enumerated above represent the practical content of a speech that radiated idealism and appealed to people around the world to seek security through cooperation rather than confrontation. For many listeners in that Prague audience and beyond, the president’s address was a reassuring assertion of U.S. commitment to and leadership in the effort to rid the world of its most devastating weapons. In another part of the speech, however, Obama affirmed that “[w]ords must mean something.” The warm glow of Obama’s oratorical success will soon fade if his administration does not follow up with demonstrable action and achievement.

The Obama administration’s record to date in translating words into deeds on the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament front has been modest. Despite Obama’s assertion that the NPR “will move beyond outdated Cold War thinking,” this key policy document still suffers from a surfeit of “old think” and status quo postures. There are openings for more fundamental change in the future (the commitment to pursue strategic stability dialogues with Russia and especially China is important), but these will require sustained presidential direction if the inertia of the nuclear establishment is to be overcome. Clearly, domestic political factors have affected the president’s follow-up on his Prague agenda. Gates’ April 6 cover letter for the NPR notes that its implementation “will be the work of multiple administrations and Congresses, and will require sustained bipartisan consensus.”[19] Such a bipartisan consensus on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament policy does not currently exist, and Obama will need all his intellect and powers of persuasion to obtain support for the program he has outlined. A challenging domestic context is a reality for many a democratic leader but cannot obviate Obama’s responsibility to deliver on the commitments he made to a global audience a year ago. Domestic constraints were not absent in April 2009. The real question is how successful Obama will be in sustaining his vision and his specific goals in the face of these constraints. Those inspired by the president’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons deserve to see greater evidence of actual progress being made toward that goal. There is still time for Obama to channel that “Yes, we can” spirit that he so eloquently invoked in Prague into worthy action on the nuclear weapons issue. It would be a sad day for disarmament diplomacy and global aspirations “to live free from fear” if the hopes of another “Prague Spring” were to be dashed by failures of will or the forces of reaction.

Paul Meyer is director-general of the Security and Intelligence Bureau in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. A career Canadian Foreign Service officer, he served as Canada’s ambassador and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament from 2003 to 2007. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.


1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradèany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

2. U.S. Department of Defense, “Background Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review from the Pentagon,” April 6, 2010.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report.pdf, p. vii (hereinafter NPR).

4. Ibid., p. 16.

5. UN Security Council, Resolution 1540, S/RES/1540, April 28, 2004. This resolution obliges states to take a series of measures to prevent nonstate actors from engaging in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

6. NPR, p. 27.

7. Ibid., p. 32.

8. Ibid., p. xi.

9. Ibid., p. 20.

10. Ibid., p. 24.

11. Ibid., p. vii.

12. UN Security Council, Resolution 1887, S/RES/1887, September 24, 2009.

13. Many analysts argue that 2,200 is the operative number because it establishes the ceiling, but 1,700 is part of the range stipulated in SORT and therefore is valid as a point of comparison between the targets for reductions under that treaty and New START.

14. Office of the Vice President, “Remarks of Vice President Biden at National Defense University,” February 18, 2010.

15. NPR, p. 46.

16. See Paul Meyer, “Is There Any Fizz Left in the Fissban? Prospects for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty,” Arms Control Today, December 2007.

17. “G8 Foreign Ministers’ Statement on Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Disarmament and Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy: A Contribution to the 2010 NPT Review Conference,” March 30, 2010, Gatineau, Canada.

18. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Communiqué of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit,” April 13, 2010.

19. NPR, p. i.


In his April 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama used soaring rhetoric to express a vision of a transformed international security context. The speech personally engaged Obama in the effort to realize the goal of total nuclear disarmament: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

A Flawed and Dangerous U.S. Missile Defense Plan

George N. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol

On September 17, 2009, the Obama administration announced that it would shelve the Bush administration’s European missile defense system and replace it with an entirely new missile defense architecture. This decision to stop the deployment of 10 interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in the CzechRepublic had two extremely positive results: it scrapped a technically flawed missile defense system that could never produce a useful level of defense for Europe, and it averted a potentially disastrous foreign policy confrontation with Russia.

Less than five months later, in February, the Obama administration produced an extensive elaboration of the September decision in a document called the Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report. The report asserts that ballistic missile defense technologies have already produced a reliable and robust defense of the United States against limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attacks. According to the report, the technologies now in hand will make it possible for the United States to build a global missile defense system that is so capable, flexible, and reliable that potential adversaries will see that they have no choice but to de-emphasize their efforts to use ballistic missiles as a way to obtain their political goals.

However, a review of the actual state of missile defense technologies reveals that this new vision put forth by the report is nothing more than a fiction and that the policy strategy that follows from these technical myths could well lead to a foreign policy disaster.

With regard to current missile defense technologies, there are no new material facts to support any of the claims in the report that suggest that the United States is now in a position to defend itself from limited ICBM attacks or that any of the fundamental unsolved problems associated with high-altitude ballistic missile defenses have been solved. In fact, as this article will show, the most recent ballistic missile defense flight-test data released by the Department of Defense and the most recent failed test of the ground-based missile defense system in January show quite the opposite.

The Report’s Promises

According to the missile defense report, the continental United States is “now” and for the “foreseeable future” protected against limited ICBM attacks.[1] The report further asserts that this “advantageous position” is the result of well-informed “investments” made over the past decade by the Clinton and Bush administrations in the ground-based midcourse ballistic missile defense (GMD) system, which, according to the report, currently protects the continental United States from ICBM attack.[2]

In the area of regional missile defenses, the report asserts that “recent successes” have demonstrated that the United States can now rely on missile defense systems such as the Navy’s Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems.[3]

According to the report, the SM-3 Block IA has been proven highly reliable in numerous flight tests and will be immediately deployed. Under the administration’s schedule, an upgraded variant, the Block IB, will be deployed in 2015. It is to be followed in 2018 by an even more capable Block IIA, and in 2020 by a yet more capable Block IIB.

Because the SM-3 tests have been so successful, these new variants of the SM-3 will be able to accomplish a wide range of major regional ballistic missile defense missions, including enhancing the already in-hand ICBM defenses of the continental United States, the report says.

The basic plan for the already functioning GMD ICBM defense will eventually be 30 silo-based interceptors in two existing silo fields—26 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A third field of 14 additional silos will be built as a “hedge” against an unexpected need for additional interceptors.

In addition, the SM-3 and its modernized variants will be widely deployed on ships and on land, in the latter case using ship launch systems that have been modified for land deployment. Elaborate communications and command and control systems will link radars on land and sea with space-based infrared early-warning systems, creating a highly flexible integrated global missile defense with components that can be quickly moved and concentrated as circumstances dictate.

The report, apparently derived from 10 months of intense technical analysis by the Defense Department, therefore lays out a vision of how the United States intends to construct over the next decade a highly reliable, robust, mobile, and adaptable global missile defense system. According to the report, this system will be able to defeat and deter threats of nuclear and conventional attacks against the United States, its allies, and friends and will be so reliable and robust that adversaries confronted by it will realize that they have no choice but to de-emphasize their reliance on ballistic missiles.

However, the Defense Department’s own test data show that, in combat, the vast majority of “successful” SM-3 experiments would have failed to destroy attacking warheads. The data also show potential adversaries how to defeat both the SM-3 and the GMD systems, which share the same serious flaws that can be readily exploited by adversaries. The long record of tests of the GMD system, and the most recent test in January of this year, shows that it has only been tested in carefully orchestrated scenarios that have been designed to hide fundamental flaws and produce appearances of success. The report provides no material facts or allusions to facts that indicate any technical advances that would counter the long record of orchestrated and dumbed-down missile defense tests.

The proof of these flaws is in the data that the Defense Department cites as evidence of the robustness of the GMD and SM-3 systems. That should be a strong warning to policymakers who believe that the missile defense systems promoted in the report will actually discourage future adversaries from pursuing ballistic missile programs.

The New Architecture

The new plan will depend on a globally distributed system of radars and surveillance and communications systems, which mostly already exist, to provide detection and tracking information needed to guide SM-3 and GMD interceptors to their intercept points.Once interceptors are launched and guided to designated intercept points, interceptor on-board infrared sensors try to find, home in on, and destroy enemy warheads by direct impact. The GMD system uses large interceptors weighing about 50,000 pounds and costing roughly $70 million each. These interceptors will be launched from underground missile silos at FortGreely and Vandenberg. U.S. Navy systems will initially use SM-3 BlockIA interceptors, which weigh about 3,000 pounds and cost about $10 million each. As noted earlier, there will be three upgraded follow-on interceptors to the SM-3 Block IA, which are supposed to add to the capabilities of SM-3-based forces. According to the missile defense report, the advantage of the SM-3 system is that interceptors can be deployed on ships and in land-based launchers that can be moved to locations where missile defense forces are most needed.

In order to understand how the SM-3 system is supposed to work and how it could fail, it is necessary to understand the many steps that the system must perform when it is in use.

When a ballistic missile is launched, U.S. early-warning satellites at an altitude of 40,000 kilometers observe its hot exhaust plumes while it is in powered flight. The satellites provide information about launch locations to within roughly a kilometer and launch times to within seconds. By observing the missile during its several minutes of powered flight, the satellites can also provide very rough estimates of the location of the missile at burnout and its initial direction of motion. This information is passed in near real time by global communications systems to the appropriate components of the missile defense.

In some situations, the missile defense system might also have high-flying unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs) fitted with infrared sensors to track ballistic missiles both during and after burnout. Once the powered flight of a missile ends, however, countermeasures could be instantaneously initiated to prevent these airborne sensors from identifying the warhead.

In the case of launches from Iran or North Korea, the components that would receive information obtained from satellites and airborne vehicles would include relatively short-range forward-based X-band radars deployed near those countries. The data from the satellites and airborne vehicles would be used to cue the forward-based radars to the direction of the attacking missiles, greatly reducing the demanding and time-consuming need for the radars to scan back and forth across the sky looking for potential targets. The forward-based radars would then obtain much more refined tracking data on the attacking missiles and pass that information to other radars in the global surveillance system and to ships at sea equipped with the Aegis weapons system.

The forward-based X-band radars will have only a modest ability to discern differences in the radar signals from different objects deployed by ballistic missiles at the end of their powered flight. For that reason, these radars will not be able to guarantee that warheads will be confidently distinguished from pieces of debris or decoys. The radars will be able to observe at a range of thousands of kilometers the bodies of rockets that launch warheads, but the radars will have little or no capacity to track warheads deployed by these rockets at these ranges, as the shape and geometry of such warheads make them inherently stealthy relative to the missile bodies.

If ballistic missile trajectories rise above the curved earth into the line of sight of any low-frequency, low-resolution giant U.S. early-warning radar, all of their components, including the warheads, can be tracked. Unlike the much higher-frequency, higher-resolution, shorter-range X-band radars, however, the early-warning radars have no ability whatsoever to discern differences in the radar reflections from distant objects. In fact, the ability of the low-frequency early-warning radars to tell one object from another is so poor that they could not distinguish warheads from two-foot-long wires. Tens to hundreds of thousands of such wires can be used to create a massively confusing clutter of decoys and would weigh no more than a pound.

The necessarily small size of the radar antennas on Aegis-equipped ships and the low power of these radars typically result in detection and tracking ranges against warheads and missiles that are too short to allow adequate time for SM-3 interceptors to reach their targets. The new defense architecture attempts to address this problem by assuming that ships will launch their interceptors before their Aegis radars actually observe attacking targets. In many actual engagements, ships would likely never see the inherently stealthy warhead targets with their radars. However, if the external tracking radars have provided the ships with sufficiently precise tracking information, such “blind launches” could be used to guide interceptors to the minuscule volumes of space, roughly 10 kilometers on a side, where interceptors might then be able to use their infrared sensors to find and home in on target warheads.

If an adversary deployed thousands of wires on slightly different trajectories along with warheads, the early-warning radars would not be able to determine which radar signal was from a warhead and which was from a wire. The Aegis ships then would not have the precise tracking information they would need to make a blind launch. This same strategy could also be implemented, with minor adjustments, against the much higher-resolution but inherently shorter-range X-band radars that are also supposed to provide precise tracking data as part of the new architecture and against any airborne infrared sensors carried by UAVs that might, by chance, be in a position to observe the complex of objects launched by missiles.

Thus, any of the many simple countermeasures that disrupt the ability to provide precision tracking data to the Aegis ships could make it impossible for the ships to execute a blind launch. The same kind of basic engagement problems also apply to the GMD system.

Hitting Warhead Targets

In circumstances in which the Aegis ship has sufficiently precise tracking information from external radars for a blind launch, the SM-3 would be launched toward the volume of space where it can then use its on-board infrared sensors to locate and home in on target warheads.

Hitting the warhead once it is “acquired,” i.e., located by the interceptor, is a relatively easy task, but locating the warhead is by far the most demanding task for both the SM-3 and GMD systems. The warhead must be found, identified, and located precisely, and it must be directly hit if it is to be destroyed by impact. Experience shows that hitting parts of a missile’s airframe, even when the warhead is still attached to it, will not destroy the warhead or prevent it from continuing on a nearly unchanged trajectory toward its target.

The three stages of launched interceptors would burn for more than a minute, placing the third stage and its kill vehicle higher than 80 kilometers on a trajectory toward the volume of space where the target is expected. At third-stage burnout, the kill vehicle is released and performs final homing maneuvers for about 30 seconds before it arrives at the selected target, assuming that the system has been able to select the right target or find the location of the warhead on a selected target.

The SM-3 kill vehicle is designed to hit the target at a relatively low closing speed of about four to five kilometers per second and to acquire and home in on targets at ranges of less than 150 kilometers. At this range, the objects in the search volume look like points of light to the infrared sensor on the kill vehicle, so it is not possible for the kill vehicle to obtain information about the shape or size of different objects ahead of it. These substantial limits on what the SM-3 kill vehicle can see makes distinguishing the warhead from other objects a considerable challenge.

The effects of these challenges can be clearly seen in SM-3 intercept test data made public by the Defense Department.[4] In eight or nine of the 10 SM-3 intercept tests from 2002 to 2009 involving these relatively slow closing speeds, the SM-3 kill vehicle failed to hit the warhead target directly. This means that, in real combat, the warhead would have not been destroyed but would have continued toward the target and detonated in eight or nine of the 10 SM-3 experimental tests.[5] Yet, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has reported these 10 tests as “successful” without explaining that the test outcomes would not have resulted in true combat intercepts.[6]

The flight-test data, taken from videos published by the MDA, are shown in Figure 1. Each of the images is the last video frame taken by the interceptor just before it hit the target. The flight-test data show that the SM-3 kill vehicles in these tests almost always missed hitting target warheads.[7]

The details of the process by which the kill vehicle tries to identify and hit the warhead make clear why the task of directly hitting the warhead is so difficult and prone to catastrophic failure in real combat conditions.

One to two seconds prior to impact, the images on the SM-3 kill vehicle’s sensor look like slightly elongated dots at the center of the screen. If the kill vehicle hits the body of the rocket, the kill vehicle will tend to shatter and pass through the rocket body much like a bullet hitting a thin-walled drinking glass or an empty soda can, leaving the warhead undamaged and still falling on a nearly unchanged trajectory toward its target.

The flight-test data from the 2002-2009 tests show many striking artificialities that would not be present in actual combat conditions. There are not multiple objects in the threat volume, there are large fins on the back end of the target missiles, the target missiles are always side-on to the interceptor, and the exact geometry of the target missile is known. All these factors considerably simplify the interceptors’ job. Yet, in spite of these artificial advantages built into the tests, the Defense Department’s own data show that the interceptors almost always failed to achieve necessary hits on the warheads.

These test data show potential adversaries such as Iran and North Korea exactly how to defeat the SM-3 and GMD interceptors with technologies they already have flight-tested. The information also shows that the Defense Department’s own technical oversight and assessment of the missile defense program, as described by the missile defense report, is deeply flawed and unreliable. It is yet another example of why measures need to be taken to provide a truly independent source for the White House and Congress to confirm the veracity of claims being made by the MDA and others in the Defense Department about missile defense performance.

Figure 2 shows a very simple countermeasure using rocket technologies that Iran and North Korea have already demonstrated in their ballistic missile flight-test programs. Figure 2A depicts the missile target that has been used in the most recent SM-3 flight tests after flight test FM-7, which occurred in February 2005.

By using simple explosive techniques to cut the one-stage rocket-target into multiple pieces, a potential adversary could substantially further increase the chances that an SM-3 or GMD interceptor would miss the warhead. Iran and North Korea successfully demonstrated this cutting technique when they separated the stages in the multistage rockets they have already flown.[8] The same could be done to the upper stage of a multistage rocket to counter the homing of the GMD kill vehicle, creating the same confusion of objects to conceal the true location of the warhead from the GMD system.

The scenario illustrated in Figure 2 understates the complexity of the scene that would have to be analyzed by the homing kill vehicle, as the images were generated by assuming that the fragments only tumble in the plane perpendicular to the line of sight of the approaching interceptor. It also does not assume that additional false targets have been created by balloons or unfolded objects that might be deployed as part of this countermeasure.

In the case of the GMD system, which is designed to be able to hit ICBM warheads, the problem is essentially the same. Because the sensor must work at long range, there is little time during the homing process to analyze complexes of multiple targets that could be intentionally and easily created by adversaries. In these situations, the closing speeds will be much higher than those encountered in SM-3 tests, about 12 to 15 kilometers per second compared to four to five kilometers per second. The higher speed requires that the kill vehicle see its targets at much longer range, 450 to 600 kilometers. In order to provide adequate time to maneuver to hit the target, the kill vehicle must have a much larger optical aperture to collect signals from the more distant targets and a much narrower field of view (about 1 degree instead of the roughly 3.5 degrees used in the SM-3 kill vehicle) to be able to get comparably accurate spatial information. In other words, the vulnerabilities of the SM-3 and GMD kill vehicles to countermeasure technologies that have already been demonstrated by Iran and North Korea are the same.

The same fundamental system vulnerability that led to the failure to hit warheads in the SM-3 tests also led to the failure of the X-band radar in the January 31, 2010, GMD missile defense flight test, the FTG-06. The source of this fundamental system vulnerability is the inability of ground-based long-range radars and interceptor-based infrared homing sensors to provide the kind of accurate and detailed images that make it possible to identify the warheads unambigously. Without such true and unambiguous image data, it is fundamentally not possible to recognize the warhead when it is attached to or surrounded by unexpected objects that also individually appear to be different from what was expected.

On April 6, 2010, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that the sea-based X-band radar being used in the FTG-06 flight test failed to identify the warhead because it encountered “an unfamiliar threat scene,” the set of objects observed by a distant sensor.[9] In the case of an ICBM, it might include a nose cone, a warhead, the upper rocket stage or pieces of the upper rocket stage that were created by an adversary who intentionally cut the stage into pieces, balloons that are spherical, or shaped like warheads, and the like.

In the case of the FTG-06 test, the spent solid-propellant upper rocket stage unexpectedly expelled chunks of rocket materials that created numerous unforeseen radar signals comparable to those expected from the warhead. The radar “scene data” were passed to computers that were programmed to look for a scene that was expected. Because the scene was totally unexpected, the computer analysis failed completely, resulting in a failure to identify the warhead and possibly even a failure to track the entire complex of targets properly.

Because the false radar signals were created by objects that were smaller than the warhead, if the radar had been properly programmed, it could have removed the confusing signals from the small objects before they were passed to the “scene recognition” process. This would not be possible if the objects had been intentionally created by an adversary to have the same length as the warhead or if the warhead had been made to appear different from what the radar expected to see.

According to the Aviation Week article, the GMD kill vehicle observed the target complex with its on-board infrared sensors and picked out the warhead. As will be discussed shortly, however, this fact does not mean the GMD kill vehicle could not have been defeated in the same way as the X-band radar and the SM-3 kill vehicle.

The FTG-06 test illustrates that no matter what sensor is being used, radar or infrared, if the missile defense system knows exactly how the warhead appears to the sensor, then the system can potentially identify a warhead among many other objects. It also illustrates that the appearance of the warhead must be exactly known, and that the warhead must look distinctly different from the other objects.

If the other objects look similar to the warhead or if the warhead looks different from what is expected, the warhead can only be selected as a target by pure chance. Even if the warhead is correctly selected, hitting it may be problematic if it is attached to or enclosed in something that makes it not possible for the kill vehicle to determine where it must arrive to hit the warhead directly. The adversary can easily, perhaps inadvertently, change the scene and target appearance using simple measures, like cutting the upper stage into pieces. The adversary can also change the appearance of the warhead by covering it with radar-absorbing materials, surrounding it with a balloon, or other methods, with totally devastating consequences for the defense.

The failure of the FTG-06 test illustrates the fundamental vulnerability to catastrophic failure of the GMD, SM-3, and all similar such high-altitude defense systems that operate in the near-vacuum of space, about which the authors have been writing for more than a decade.[10] During the first two flight tests, known as the IFT-1A and IFT-2 tests, in June 1997 and January 1998, certain decoys looked enough like the warhead to make it impossible to identify the warhead reliably. In response, the MDA concealed the problem and removed all the decoys that were identified as effective from all subsequent missile flight tests.[11] Now, more than 10 years later, the same fundamental flaw in the GMD system is again revealed, in this case by false targets that were unexpectedly expelled from a solid rocket motor. Notably, the MDA has still not conducted a single GMD intercept flight test against the same combination of warhead and decoys used in the IFT-1A and IFT-2 tests.

Unless the Defense Department can demonstrate convincingly to the world, friends and adversaries alike, that it can deal with such simple countermeasures, no informed adversary or ally will or should believe that either the SM-3 or GMD interceptors will be as robust and reliable in combat as asserted in the missile defense report. The strategy proclaimed by the report rests on assertions that the United States has the technology to build defenses that are so robust that adversaries will simply give up using ballistic missiles as instruments of their foreign policy when confronted by them. In the words of the report, “The United States, with the support of allies and partners, seeks to create an environment in which the acquisition, deployment, and use of ballistic missiles by regional adversaries can be deterred, principally by eliminating their confidence in the effectiveness of such attacks, and thereby devaluing their ballistic missile arsenals.”[12]

If the missile defenses deployed by the United States were unambiguously reliable and robust, they could certainly cause countries such as Iran and North Korea to de-emphasize their reliance on ballistic missiles as instruments of their foreign policies. If the missile defenses are instead fragile and unworkable, as the Defense Department’s own missile defense test data show, aggressors might instead conclude that their goals can best be met by continuing or increasing their use of ballistic missiles as instruments of intimidation.

Thus, the Defense Department’s ballistic missile strategy assumes the existence of adversaries sophisticated enough to build nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and missile defense countermeasures, but not sophisticated enough to understand that current U.S. missile defenses will be no more than a transparent bluff.

The New Emphasis on the SM-3

The domestic implications of the decision to aggressively expand and modernize a flawed SM-3 ballistic missile defense system and to uncritically continue expanding the GMD system are already becoming clear. The Obama missile defense plan creates a framework for putting forward unquestioned and ill-considered rationales for more interceptors and expanded missile defense systems. It will foster an environment of constant lobbying for more interceptors and more sensors to support them. How far this process will go is unknowable at this time, but the indicators of pressure toward uncontrolled and unjustified system growth already exist.

For example, according to the fiscal year 2009 budget, the United States was initially planning to procure a total of 147 SM-3 Block IA and IB interceptors, 133 of which were scheduled for deployment on ships that had been modified to have Aegis missile defense systems. In June 2008, the MDA was already suggesting in congressional briefings that the number of SM-3 interceptors should be increased to 249. In July 2009, the Senate Armed Services Committee upped the ante by raising the number of SM-3 interceptors to be procured in the 2010 defense authorization bill from 147 to 329. Rear Adm. Alan “Brad” Hicks, Aegis/SM-3 program manager for the MDA, laid the groundwork for even higher numbers of interceptors in a January 2009 public meeting by claiming a need for 450 to 500 SM-3 Block IA and IB interceptors. Meanwhile, in August 2009 the U.S. Navy decided that it should upgrade all of its 60-plus DDG-51-class destroyers to have ballistic missile defense capabilities.[13] On April 15, 2010, the current director of the MDA, Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, testified before the House Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon was planning to procure 436 SM-3 Block IA and IB interceptors for the Navy and 431 THAAD interceptors for the Army by 2015.[14]

The requirement for so many interceptors indicates, at a minimum, three important hidden and questionable assumptions about the SM-3 system. The first assumption is that it is militarily useful to commit one or more interceptors that cost an estimated $10 million each to intercept low-accuracy 1,000- to 2,000-pound conventional bombs that have been launched against unspecified targets or open areas. The second assumption is that these interceptors would actually have a good chance of hitting and destroying the targeted warheads. The third is that the SM-3 could have a meaningful chance of accomplishing the enormously more difficult task of intercepting a mass attack of ballistic missiles. As has already been shown, the last two assumptions wrongly presume that warheads would reliably be destroyed even if the interceptors are able to hit attacking missiles routinely.


If policymakers decide that a strategic defense system should continue to be a central part of the U.S. approach, there are alternative defense systems that could defend the United States from ICBM attack from Iran and North Korea and defend northern and western Europe from intermediate-range ballistic missile attack from Iran.[15] Yet, because the new missile defense plan assumes that everything works and nothing is broken, it de-emphasizes these defense systems in favor of unproven, unworkable, and far more expensive alternative systems.

By deploying ballistic missile defenses that are easy to defeat, the United States could fail to deter or actually stimulate ballistic missile proliferation. Proliferators such as Iran and North Korea have already demonstrated the capability and can be expected to introduce highly effective countermeasures against the missile defense systems (GMD, SM-3, THAAD, and possibly even Patriot) that the United States has currently chosen to emphasize. These proliferators could and likely would sell these countermeasures to client states.

The United States could damage its relations with allies and friends by pushing on them false and unreliable solutions to real security problems. It will antagonize Russia and China with massive defense deployments that have the appearance of being designed to be “flexibly” adaptable to deal with Russian and Chinese strategic forces.

The negative effects of a costly and energetic U.S. program that appears to Russian and Chinese leaders to be aimed at blunting Russian and Chinese strategic retaliatory strike forces will sow distrust of the United States within those governments and will create significant barriers to future arms reductions efforts with Russia. This has already been seen in recent U.S.-Russian discussions over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.[16]

If future arms reduction efforts with Russia come to a halt, this will have serious adverse effects on Russian and U.S. efforts to maintain the viability of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which is already under considerable pressure.

In general, the new missile defense architecture will produce serious doubts about the reliability of small nuclear forces for deterrence. These doubts are unjustified by detailed technical analysis of the true capabilities of these systems, but they will occur and could produce impenetrable new barriers to further nuclear arms reductions.[17] None of these unwanted outcomes need to be a result of the current Obama plan, but without a judicious and careful national assessment of the capabilities and limitations of these ballistic missile defense systems, the pressure to expand them will be both tremendous and without rationale. This new missile defense program could then lead to the usual results: gigantically expensive systems that have little real capability but create uncertainties that cause other states to react in ways that are not in the security interest of the United States.

George N. Lewis has a Ph.D. in experimental physics and is associate director of the Peace Studies Program at CornellUniversity. Theodore A. Postol is professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations.


1. U.S. Department of Defense, “Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report,” February 2010, pp. iv and 15 (hereinafter BMD Review).

2. Ibid., p. iv.

3. Ibid., p. 19.

4. Many of the videos from which the image data in figure 1 were derived were initially obtained from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Web site. See www.mda.mil/system/aegis_bmd.html. As of the writing of this article, the site has been changed to have one video with data for the FTM-17 test only. For the same video and the data from the other experiments in figure 1, see www.youtube.com.

5. For details on the tests, see http://web.mit.edu/stgs.

6. The MDA published a list of the successful SM-3 “hits,” but the list does not explain that “hit” does not necessarily mean that the warhead would have been destroyed. The preface to the list states, “Since the first intercept test conducted in January 2002, the Missile Defense Agency’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense element of the overall Ballistic Missile Defense System has demonstrated 20 hit-to-kill intercepts [emphasis added] out of 24 at sea firing attempts, including two intercepts by two interceptors during one test.” See MDA, “Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense,” n.d., www.mda.mil/system/aegis_bmd.html.

7. This misleading omission in reporting is similar to what happened following the Persian Gulf War. According to the Army’s testimony to Congress, a successful “intercept” meant that a “Patriot and a SCUD passed in the sky.” See “Patriotisms,” Science, April 17, 1992, p. 313. The Army’s initial claim in congressional testimony of a 96 percent intercept rate was later shown by the authors of this article to be “almost certainly zero” as defined by destruction of the SCUD warhead. Even today, the Army claims a Patriot “success rate” of more than 40 percent in Israel and more than 70 percent in Saudi Arabia. Thus, current and past evidence of performance claims being made about proven ballistic missile defense capabilities need to be taken with caution.

8. North Korea demonstrated this technology in successful stage separations during the launch of the Taepo Dong-1 in 1998 and of the Unha-2 in 2009. Iran demonstrated it in February 2009 when it launched the Omid satellite on the Safir space-launch vehicle and in March 2009 when it tested the two-stage Sajjil solid-propellant ballistic missile.

9. Amy Butler, “GBI Test Failure Result of Two Problems,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, April 6, 2010.

10. Theodore A. Postol and George N. Lewis, “We Can’t Tell the Missiles from the Mylar,” The New York Times, July 7, 2000, p. A19.

11. William J. Broad, “Antimissile Testing Is Rigged to Hide a Flaw, Critics Say,” The New York Times, June 9, 2000, p A1.

12. BMD Review, p. 12. For reiterations of this key goal of the administration’s ballistic missile defense strategy, see ibid., pp. vi and 31.

13. Ronald O’Rourke, “Sea-Based Ballistic Missile Defense—Background Issues for Congress,” CRS Report for Congress, RL33745, October 22, 2009.

14. Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, “Fiscal Year 2011 Missile Defense Programs” (unclassified statement before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, April 15, 2010).

15. One potential alternative system is to use a small number of stealthy drones that carry very fast interceptors to shoot down cumberome liquid-propellant ICBMs shortly after launch. These are the only long-range missile threats that can be deployed in the foreseeable future or likely ever by Iran or North Korea. Because these ICBMs would have to be launched from known fixed locations, only a small number of such drones would be needed, and they would only need to be operated when ICBMs are being readied for launch. This defense system requires no technologies that are not already well in hand. It could be operated in crisis outside of the borders of the target country and could be built and operated with Russian cooperation. See Theodore A. Postol, “Defensible Missile Defense,” The New York Times, March 12, 2009, p. A23.

16. Peter Baker, “Twists and Turns on Way to Arms Pact With Russia,” The New York Times, March 27, 2010, p. A4.

17. William J. Perry and George W. Shultz, “How to Build on the Start Treaty,” The New York Times, April 11, 2010, p. WK11.


On September 17, 2009, the Obama administration announced that it would shelve the Bush administration’s European missile defense system and replace it with an entirely new missile defense architecture. This decision to stop the deployment of 10 interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in the CzechRepublic had two extremely positive results: it scrapped a technically flawed missile defense system that could never produce a useful level of defense for Europe, and it averted a potentially disastrous foreign policy confrontation with Russia.

Obama’s NPR: Transitional, Not Transformational

Daryl G. Kimball and Greg Thielmann

On April 5, 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obama embraced the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In pursuit of that objective, he called for “an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.”[1] One year later, his administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which fleshes out policies to meet those aspirations.

The new NPR narrows the circumstances under which the United States might use nuclear weapons and formally establishes some commonsense constraints on U.S. nuclear warhead modernization. It does so in ways that should help reduce the salience of nuclear weapons, help curb proliferation, and open the way for further nuclear arms cuts.

Unfortunately, the new U.S. nuclear policy review is not as different from the two previous reviews as it could or should be, particularly with respect to U.S. nuclear weapons declaratory policy and the size and structure of U.S. forces.

Still, the policies articulated in the unclassified 65-page document do represent a positive shift in U.S. nuclear thinking and practice. Unlike earlier post-Cold War reviews in 1994 and 2001,[2] the new NPR finally recognizes that deploying thousands of strategic nuclear weapons organized to perform a wide range of missions, including defending U.S. forces or allies against massive conventional, chemical, and biological attacks, is neither appropriate nor necessary for security and stability in the 21st century.

Instead, it correctly posits that, “[b]y working to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and moving step-by-step toward eliminating them, we can reverse the growing expectation that we are destined to live in a world with more nuclear-armed states, and decrease incentives for additional countries to hedge against an uncertain future by pursuing nuclear options of their own.”[3]

Obama’s NPR identifies preventing the use of nuclear weapons, preventing nuclear proliferation, and reducing the potential for nuclear terrorism as “our most urgent priorities”[4]—not defending against a large-scale attack from Russia, which, the new NPR notes, is no longer an adversary.

A major and important theme throughout the NPR is that “by reducing the role and numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons…we can put ourselves in a much better position to persuade our NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] partners to join with us in adopting the measures needed to reinvigorate the nonproliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.”[5]

The document forthrightly states, “It is in the U.S. interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever. As President Ronald Reagan declared, ‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.’”[6]

Declaratory Policy

The new NPR emphasizes that the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack” on the United States and its allies and that the goal is to make deterring nuclear attack the “sole purpose of nuclear weapons.”[7] “Sole purpose” is thus identified as a goal rather than a reality of current U.S. nuclear force posture.

The NPR updates and strengthens U.S. pledges of nonuse toward non-nuclear-weapon states that are in good standing with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations, even in the unlikely event that one of those states attacks the United States or its allies with chemical or biological weapons.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained in an interview broadcast April 11 on CBS’s Face the Nation, “[T]he negative security assurance that we won’t use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, in conformity with or in compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty, is not a new thing. The new part of this is saying that we would not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that attacked us with chemical and biological weapons.”

This revised negative security assurance[8] expands the security benefits for non-nuclear-weapon states of good-faith membership in the NPT regime. In addition, it makes it easier for these states to agree to updating and strengthening the treaty, as Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller explained at an April 14 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee: “A number of states party to the nonproliferation treaty have made clear in previous review conferences that the United States posture…makes it more difficult for them to agree to the types of steps that the United States has proposed to strengthen the treaty, steps that would include having the additional protocol applied to all states that have nuclear energy capability.”

However, U.S. officials should be more careful not to imply, as Gates did when he cited Iran and North Korea in an April 6 press conference, that it is any more likely than before that the United States would use nuclear weapons against states not covered by the assurance. Gates said on that occasion, “If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is: If you are going to play by the rules, then we will undertake certain obligations to you, and that is covered in the NPR.” He added, “But if you are not going to play by the rules, if you are going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table.”[9]

Such statements are misleading and counterproductive. The text of the 2010 NPR explains clearly that withholding the negative security assurance from some countries “does not mean that our willingness to use nuclear weapons against countries not covered by the new assurance has in any way increased.”[10]

Unfortunately, the NPR contains some unnecessary qualifications in describing the narrowed role of nuclear weapons, preventing the United States “at the present time” from adopting a policy that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. It says that, in the case of “states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations—there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical and biological weapons] attack.”[11]

This unhelpfully implies, for example, that there are circumstances in which the United States would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against an Iran without nuclear weapons. It draws no distinction in its nuclear posture toward Iran, which is still in partial compliance with its NPT obligations, disavowing an intention to develop nuclear weapons and declaring them “un-Islamic,” and North Korea, which has completely withdrawn from the NPT, has detonated nuclear devices, and threatens to use nuclear weapons if it is attacked.

Among the “narrow range of contingencies” that presumably prevents the NPR authors from adopting a sole-purpose policy is the possibility of a North Korean attack on South Korea using conventional weapons. Pyongyang’s large standing army deployed close to Seoul has long given it the ability to attack with little warning. Such an attack would start with a massive artillery bombardment of Seoul and an invasion of the South by North Korea’s conventional forces, the first elements of which could be on the outskirts of Seoul very quickly. As a result, any U.S. nuclear counterattack against the invading forces, even with nuclear forces stationed nearby, would come too late to prevent this invasion. Moreover, a nuclear response would result in massive collateral damage, killing millions of civilians, and still would not necessarily end the war. An effective nuclear defense protecting South Korea from a North Korean conventional strike is not possible. Only an adequate conventional defense can do that effectively.[12]Keeping open the option of nuclear first-use against an invading North Korean conventional force complicates the broader goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons everywhere. So long as U.S. doctrine argues that nuclear weapons are needed to counter conventional imbalances, it will be difficult to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the nuclear doctrines of Israel, Pakistan, and Russia, which posit that nuclear weapons are needed to deal with nonnuclear threats. There is no way to get the world on the road to zero nuclear weapons without giving up this doctrine.

“Deterrence,” as Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command recently noted, “is a combination of capability and credibility.”[13] This should have led the NPR team and Obama to recognize that the enormous destructive effects of today’s nuclear weapons make them an inappropriate and noncredible response to anything but a nuclear attack. The United States should adopt a sole-purpose policy now rather than later. Reserving the option to use nuclear force in nonnuclear situations provides little or no deterrent value at a high cost. It undermines the credibility of conventional deterrence, complicates U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy, and can be used by other countries to justify their pursuit or improvement of nuclear weapons.

The NPR unambiguously seeks to shrink the role of nuclear weapons with regard to responding to chemical weapons. During his Face the Nation interview, Gates said, “[T]ry as we might, we could not find a credible scenario where a chemical weapon could have the kind of consequences that would warrant a nuclear response.” This moves the United States beyond the position expressed by three previous presidents. Yet, even this advance is hobbled by the NPR’s exception concerning the “narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring” an attack by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons.

The administration came close to removing biological weapons from the list of threats potentially justifying a nuclear response. Ultimately, however, the NPR hedged by stating, “Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.”[14]

The message here undermines the political impact of the NPR in two ways. It implies a future retreat from the goal of establishing nuclear deterrence and defense against nuclear attack as the sole purpose of nuclear weapons. Also, it provides encouragement to those who might seek to translate biological weapons capability into political power by inaccurately equating the potential destructiveness of such weapons with that of nuclear weapons.

No “New” Nuclear Weapons

One of the most dramatic turnarounds from President George W. Bush’s 2001 NPR is the Obama NPR’s support of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification and entry into force. Another is prohibiting new nuclear warhead development and forgoing the pursuit of new military missions or new military capabilities for the warheads.

The 2001 NPR sought to provide the president with a broader range of nuclear weapons employment options, reportedly calling for the development of new types of nuclear warheads that reduce collateral damage as well as possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility. The 2001 review specifically cited the need to improve earth-penetrating weapons, designed to threaten hardened and deeply buried targets, such as command and control and weapons storage bunkers. Like its 1994 predecessor, the 2001 NPR endorsed pursuit of a modified version of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. The Bush administration followed its NPR with a proposal for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which was eventually rejected by Congress as an unnecessary and provocative program.

In contrast, the 2010 NPR explicitly states, “The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs [LEPs] will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”[15]

Although the NPR does not clearly define what a “new nuclear weapon” is,[16] the policy is the right one from a number of perspectives. There is no technical need for new-design warheads and renewed nuclear testing to maintain the reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile, given the success of ongoing U.S. warhead LEPs. The JASON independent technical review panel’s September 2009 report concluded that the “lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.”[17] The JASON panel findings underscore the fact that new-design replacement warheads are not needed to maintain reliability for the foreseeable future, and they clearly influenced the outcome of the NPR on this point.

The NPR does, however, contain a potential loophole because it could allow for the replacement of certain nuclear components at some point in the future to improve reliability, safety, or surety, if they are based on previously tested designs and are expressly approved by the president. As noted by Thomas D’Agostino, the head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), at the April 14 House Armed Services Committee hearing, the NPR will allow the national nuclear weapons laboratories to “study all options for ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear warheads, and we’ll do so on a case-by-case basis.”

Nonetheless, Obama’s no-new-nuclear-weapons policy is a step forward, and it should be emulated by other nuclear-armed states to further reduce nuclear competition.

The NPR calls for the implementation of “well-funded stockpile management and infrastructure investment plans that can sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal at significantly reduced stockpile levels without nuclear testing or the development of new nuclear warheads.”[18] In February, the Obama administration proposed a fiscal year 2011 budget of just more than $7 billion, 10 percent more than the current year’s level, for NNSA weapons activities.

The NPR should put to rest any lingering concerns about the “aging” U.S. nuclear arsenal and the quaint but dangerous notion that the United States might need to resume nuclear testing. As Gates wrote in his preface to the NPR, “These investments, and the NPR’s strategy for warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation’s deterrent.”[19] Now, with more than enough resources available for stockpile management, the administration should move the Senate to reconsider and approve the CTBT.

Further Reductions?

Prior to the release of the NPR, Obama stated on numerous occasions that it would “open the way for further nuclear weapons reductions,” presumably below the ceilings established by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. One of the NPR’s stated goals is to “pursue high-level, bilateral dialogues on strategic stability with both Russia and China, which are aimed at fostering more stable, resilient, and transparent strategic relationships.”[20]

Coupled with Obama’s April 8 call for continued discussions between Moscow and Washington on further reductions involving all warheads, including deployed and nondeployed, strategic and nonstrategic, it is clear the United States wants to pursue deeper and broader bilateral nuclear limits with Russia in the years ahead and move beyond to engage other nuclear states as well.

Although the NPR acknowledges that the United States and Russia “each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence,”[21] the NPR unfortunately does not spell out how much further the Obama administration is prepared to reduce the U.S. arsenal. Instead, it calls for a “follow-on analysis of the goals for future arms reductions below the levels expected in New START,” noting that “Russia’s nuclear forces will remain a significant factor in determining how much and how fast we are prepared to reduce U.S. forces.” The failure to state a desired range of reductions represents a missed opportunity to challenge other nuclear-weapon states and to demonstrate further the seriousness of U.S. intentions to carry out the obligations of the NPT’s Article VI.

Given that the “fundamental role” of U.S. (and Russian) nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others and that China has no more than 300 nuclear weapons, Washington and Moscow could and should reduce their arsenals to 500 or fewer deployed warheads each, so long as other nuclear-armed states do not increase their arsenals.

To make further progress in nuclear disarmament, the United States and Russia must make good on their professed goal of cooperating on regional missile defense and avoiding strategic missile defense deployments that could affect offensive strategic capabilities and hamper progress on nuclear disarmament.

A positive feature is the NPR’s call for the long-overdue retirement of nuclear-equipped, sea-launched cruise missiles (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear [TLAM-N]). The NPR notes that the United States will retain options for forward deployment of bombers with bombs or cruise missiles, as well as forward deployment of dual-capable fighters, and that U.S. intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles “are capable of striking any potential adversary.” The NPR says, “The deterrence and assurance roles of TLAM-N can be adequately substituted by these other means.”[22]

On the other hand, the NPR is neutral on whether the United States should continue to station the residual arsenal of 200 forward-deployed nuclear gravity bombs at six bases in five European NATO countries. Those weapons are a subject of the ongoing Strategic Concept review by the alliance that is due in November. The NPR repeats the stale NATO refrain that “the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons…contribute[s] to Alliance cohesion and provide[s] reassurance to allies and partners who feel exposed to regional threats.”[23]

Yet, two successive German governments have made clear that Berlin favors the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Germany. One NATO ally that sometimes expresses concerns about regional threats is Poland, but Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski wrote in February, “We still face security challenges in the Europe of today and tomorrow, but from whichever angle you look, there is no role for the use of nuclear weapons in resolving these challenges.”[24] Maxime Verhagen, foreign minister of the Netherlands, another NATO member hosting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, suggests there are other means for constructively maintaining alliance cohesion: “A more modest option would be for NATO to retain a nuclear task without U.S. nuclear weapons being stationed in Europe.”[25]

These weapons clearly can and should be retired because they serve no practical military role in the defense of NATO, are a greater security liability in the age of terrorism, and are an impediment to opening talks with Russia on accounting for and reducing the larger Russian stockpile of tactical nuclear bombs. For the same reasons that the NPR calls for retirement of forward-deployed sea-launched cruise missiles, the Obama administration should urge its NATO partners to support the withdrawal of obsolete tactical nuclear bombs from Europe.


Obama’s new nuclear policy narrows the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy and moves the United States and Russia toward a more stable strategic relationship at lower levels of nuclear arms. The policy is framed to support action for the immediate next steps toward a world without nuclear weapons that were outlined by Obama in his Prague speech one year ago: conclusion of a new strategic arms treaty, accelerated action to secure nuclear weapons-usable material, entry into force of the CTBT, and the strengthening of the NPT.

Obama’s Prague speech aimed for the mountaintop, but the NPR leaves U.S. nuclear policy in the foothills. Cautious rather than bold, the policy has won strong backing from the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and the military, but at a cost. The 2010 NPR ends up being a transitional, rather than transformational, document. In order to realize fully the promise of a world without nuclear weapons, Obama and his team must do more to change outdated Cold War thinking and reduce the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons that are more of a liability than a useful military asset in the 21st century.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association (ACA). Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the ACA, where he directs the Realistic Threat Assessments and Responses Project. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the ACA’s directors or members.


1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradčany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

2. The 2001 NPR reportedly argued that U.S. nuclear weapons “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and large-scale conventional military force.” The review also said that “nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities).” See Philip Bleek, “Nuclear Posture Review Leaks, Outlines Targets, Contingencies,” Arms Control Today, April 2002, www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_04/nprapril02.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report.pdf, p. vi (hereinafter NPR).

4. Ibid., p. v.

5. Ibid., p. vi.

6. Ibid., p. 16.

7. Ibid., p. viii.

8. The 2010 NPR eliminates the so-called Warsaw Pact caveat from the previous U.S. negative security assurance and removes ambiguity about the potential use of nuclear weapons in response to the threat of chemical or biological attack from non-nuclear-weapon states. On February 22, 2002, Department of State spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated the 1995 version of a U.S. negative security pledge first outlined in 1978. He stated, “The United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon state parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies or on a state toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.” Boucher subsequently qualified the pledge, saying, “We will do whatever is necessary to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests. If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response.”

9. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), U.S. Department of Defense, “DOD News Briefing With Secretary Gates, Navy Adm. Mullen, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Chu From the Pentagon,” April 6, 2010, www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4599.

10. NPR, p. 16.

11. Ibid.

12. During the Korean War, when the United States had a massive nuclear advantage over North Korea’s Soviet ally and China had no nuclear weapons, neither President Harry Truman nor President Dwight Eisenhower seriously countenanced such an attack, even when China intervened on the side of North Korea.

13. Kevin P. Chilton, Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2010.

14. NPR, p. 16.

15. NPR, p. 39.

16. In Section 3143 of the fiscal year 2003 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress defined a “new nuclear weapon” as one that “contains a pit or canned subassembly” not already in the active or inactive stockpile or in production. A pit is the plutonium component in a warhead’s primary stage, and a canned subassembly is the uranium and lithium-deuteride component in the secondary stage. Together, these parts are known as the warhead’s nuclear explosive package.

17. JASON Program Office, “Lifetime Extension Program (LEP) Executive Summary,” JSR-09-334E, September 9, 2009.

18. NPR, p. 46.

19. Ibid., p. i.

20. Ibid., p. 46.

21. Ibid., p. 5.

22. NPR, p. 28.

23. NPR, p. 32.

24. Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, “Next, the Tactical Nukes,” The New York Times, February 1, 2010.

25. “Nederlands initiatief voor kernontwapening,” Nieuwsbericht, February 26, 2010 (translation provided by the Netherlands Foreign Ministry).


On April 5, 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obama embraced the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In pursuit of that objective, he called for “an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.”[1] One year later, his administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which fleshes out policies to meet those aspirations.

The new NPR narrows the circumstances under which the United States might use nuclear weapons and formally establishes some commonsense constraints on U.S. nuclear warhead modernization. It does so in ways that should help reduce the salience of nuclear weapons, help curb proliferation, and open the way for further nuclear arms cuts.

A New Nuclear Posture

Morton H. Halperin

A year after President Barack Obama set very high expectations with an April 2009 speech in Prague outlining his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, his administration has released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which goes some distance toward meeting Obama’s stated goal of reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons.

Perhaps more importantly, the NPR, made public in its entirety, places U.S. nuclear policy within a conceptual framework based on two important ideas. First, the United States has a compelling interest in preventing any use of nuclear weapons. Second, preventing the use of nuclear weapons requires cooperation as much as, if not more than, it requires deterrence. This is a profound change.

The NPR asserts that “[i]t is in the U.S. interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever.”[1] Moreover, instead of listing the many dangers that the potential U.S. use of nuclear weapons may deter, the NPR warns that the greatest danger of nuclear use comes from suicidal terrorists or unfriendly regimes such as North Korea and Iran. Implicitly, the NPR recognizes the threat of nuclear weapons use as a common danger that compels the United States to cooperate, even with potential adversaries.

The NPR flatly states that the United States must align its nuclear policies and posture to meet these urgent priorities. In particular, the NPR concludes that the United States can contribute most effectively to these objectives by reducing both the size of its nuclear forces and its reliance on nuclear weapons. The NPR rejects the notion that the United States can most effectively prevent proliferation by maintaining a robust nuclear arsenal and seeking to make credible the threat to use nuclear weapons in a variety of situations. Critics will seize on the obvious fact that Iran and North Korea are unlikely to abandon their nuclear programs simply because the United States reduces its reliance on nuclear weapons. Yet, this view overlooks the fundamental realization that the United States can prevent proliferation only with the cooperation of other countries—cooperation that does require that the United States demonstrate that, consistent with its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it is reducing its nuclear forces and its reliance on nuclear weapons.

The NPR also states that “[t]he fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.”[2]

Arms control advocates, including this author, have argued that what the United States says about the purpose of its nuclear weapons should reflect the fact that the use of nuclear weapons is not in the country’s national interest. For many years, they hoped a more sensible U.S. declaratory policy would state that the United States would not use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack.

Recognizing the political and diplomatic baggage associated with a so-called no-first-use pledge, many of these advocates urged the administration at least to make clear that it maintained nuclear weapons for the “sole purpose” of deterring their use by others, while declining to speculate on hypothetical scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be used. The text of the document makes clear that this option was considered. In the end, the Obama administration asserted that “[t]he United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies or partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”[3] Thus, for the first time, the United States has established the goal of aligning its declaratory policy with its broad interest in the nonuse of nuclear weapons.

Rejecting Nuclear Ambiguity

The administration took two other important steps in moving declaratory policy away from the calculated ambiguity that was at odds with the U.S. interest in the nonuse of nuclear weapons.

First, the administration finally issued a “clean” negative security assurance, asserting that “[t]he United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”[4] Non-nuclear-weapon states that faithfully adhere to the NPT were surely entitled to such a pledge from the start. How can the United States ask other states to sign a treaty that prohibits them from possessing nuclear weapons, while also exposing them to nuclear weapons threats by those who are permitted them?

Some press reports have interpreted this as a new threat against Iran and North Korea. It is not a new threat in any sense. Every previous administration has made this “threat” against every adherent to the NPT. What Iran and North Korea have been given is a clear choice: come into compliance with the NPT in exchange for immunity from nuclear attack or remain outside and at risk. The NPR goes one important step further by delimiting the circumstances in which the United States would consider using nuclear weapons against states that either have nuclear weapons or are working toward them. It says that the United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances” to defend “vital interests.”[5] The United States no longer intends to use nuclear weapons whenever it is convenient, but only reserves the right to decide to do so in extraordinary circumstances.

In addition to issues relating to declaratory policy, the debate within the administration focused on how to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal while meeting Obama’s objectives of reducing the number of nuclear weapons and their role in U.S. policy so as to advance the country’s nonproliferation objectives.

Although the NPR, to the disappointment of many, commits to substantial expenditures on the nuclear weapons stockpile and infrastructure, in terms of doctrine and policy it sets out a policy fully consistent with Obama’s goals. The NPR announced three very firm nos. First, it says flatly and without qualification that “[t]he United States will not conduct nuclear testing.”[6] It goes on to call for Senate consent to ratification as well as entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which means persuading many other recalcitrant countries to adhere to the treaty. The second no is that the United States will not “develop new nuclear warheads.”[7] Again, there is no equivocation, and the NPR says that the program to maintain a safe and effective nuclear arsenal will use only previously tested designs. The NPR also expresses a strong preference for refurbishment or reuse of an existing configuration: “Replacement of nuclear components would be undertaken only if...goals [of the program] could not be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”[8] Such replacement would have to be with a plutonium pit that had been tested for another purpose. The third no is that the program will not be aimed at developing new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.

The NPR promises that this approach will permit substantial reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nondeployed weapons. These weapons are now maintained as a hedge against technical failures or a change in the international situation that required a larger deployed force. A more robust research effort would provide a substitute hedge for both of these purposes. The NPR does not provide any specific numbers for either the existing nondeployed stockpile or for the number or timing of the proposed reductions. The administration made a decision at the outset to write only one version of the NPR and to release it in its entirety. There was apparently an intense debate at the last moment about whether these numbers could be declassified and included in the report. The review of this question continues, and one can only hope that Obama’s commitment to transparency, which strongly influenced this entire effort, will prevail here as well.

A robust commitment to maintaining a safe, secure, and effective arsenal within these very clear policy guidelines does not interfere in any way with U.S. nonproliferation efforts or a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons. It is also, practically speaking, a necessary precondition for Senate consent to ratification of the CTBT. The administration now appears confident that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) will be ratified, perhaps even this year, and with an overwhelming vote. Because New START is a modest step, following in every important detail the recommendations of the bipartisan Perry-Schlesinger Commission,[9] on which the author served, the Senate should overwhelmingly support the treaty. There will certainly not be the same level of Senate support for the CTBT, which split the commission. Securing a bipartisan supermajority in the Senate for ratification will require, along with other steps, persuading key senators that the administration is serious about the modernization of the nuclear complex and that Congress as a whole is prepared to provide the funding.

The decisions on declaratory policy and stockpile management now appear to enjoy the firm support of the departments of Defense, Energy, and State, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nuclear weapons complex. The administration also consulted actively with key allies in the process. In doing so, it seems to have come to understand that Germany and Japan, often cited as the countries most concerned about extended deterrence, were comfortable with the changes announced by the NPR and would have supported more far-reaching changes. These discussions led to the decision to retire the TLAM-N nuclear cruise missile and to leave open for NATO discussions the role of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe. These consultations also revealed that the South Koreans, as well as newer NATO members such as Poland, continue to have lingering concerns about more dramatic changes, such as a no-first-use policy. The key to maintaining momentum for the Prague agenda will be to reinvigorate NATO’s conventional planning while educating key participants in all of these nations, in both official and track two conversations, about the limited role that nuclear weapons can and should play in their defense.


The most disappointing part of the NPR is the section dealing with decisions about the size of the deployed force and the continued reliance on a version of mutual assured destruction as the basis for determining force size and posture. The business-as-usual approach resulted in part from the way that the NPR was conducted. In order to permit the negotiations with the Russians to begin early in the administration, and to do so without opening itself to the charge that it was negotiating before completing its own review, the Pentagon was instructed to do an early minireview that focused on the issues relevant to the New START negotiators. To do this quickly and without intense dispute, the minireview proceeded on the basis of existing guidance from the Bush administration. The strategy worked in the sense that the reductions consistent with that guidance were more than sufficient for the modest changes envisioned in New START.

Further reductions, however, will require significant follow-on study and new presidential guidance that could take years to complete. With the treaty text settled and the NPR released, the administration must now undertake a variety of actions, including “[c]omplet[ing] the Presidentially-directed review of post-New START arms control objectives, to establish goals for future reductions in nuclear weapons, as well as evaluating additional options to increase warning and decision time, and to further reduce the risks of false warning or misjudgments relating to nuclear use.”[10]

The NPR rightly rejected the idea of de-alerting forces now because of the difficulty of doing so in any meaningful way with the existing forces and the current presidential guidance, which does not seem to have been reviewed as part of the NPR process. The agreed numbers in New START were dictated by and will enable the military to meet the requirements imposed by the presidential guidance. This requires the force to be able to survive a massive out-of-the-blue Russian attack and promptly deliver a massive strike on a very wide range of targets in Russia with very high confidence that each of the targets will actually be destroyed.

Consistent with the realities spelled out in the NPR, Obama needs to provide the military with new guidance as to what is needed to deter the very, very unlikely, if not impossible, scenario of a massive Russian surprise attack. Obama needs to make it clear that he does not intend to respond quickly and that there is no requirement for a prompt and massive retaliatory option. Rather he should indicate that high confidence in relatively modest (by war-planning standards) levels of destruction of Russia is sufficient to deter such an unlikely event.

In issuing this guidance, the president should make clear he does not intend to micromanage what retaliatory options with what target sets would be appropriate. Instead, he should seek the design of a force over time that does not rely either on maintaining alert in peacetime or on moving to such a state in a crisis for survivability. Moreover, the president should make it clear to the Russian and Chinese leadership that the United States neither has today nor seeks in the future the capability to negate their deterrents.

Changing the guidance for what is sufficient for deterrence would not by itself determine what size force the United States needs in relation to the Russian nuclear force. However, it would eliminate such calculations from being any obstacle, as it was in the New START negotiations from the U.S. side, in future negotiations on further substantial bilateral reductions with Russia and later multilateral reductions with all of the existing nuclear powers. In addition, it would make possible a more considered conversation of how far the United States could reduce its stockpile in the absence of further agreements with Russia.

The NPR pays homage to Obama’s commitment to seeking a world without nuclear weapons. Verbal commitment to that goal plays a positive role in maintaining support for the NPT regime, and it encourages efforts to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons until their sole purpose is deterring nuclear attacks. A better lodestar for fundamentally rethinking the U.S. nuclear force posture is the set of tasks set out in the NPR for the short term. These include moving toward universal no-first-use and a force posture that is designed to survive any possible attack and poses no threat to the nuclear forces of potential adversaries. This would permit the United States to reduce its total stockpile of nuclear weapons far below 1,000 total warheads. That is a goal that can be reached in Obama’s lifetime and that would significantly reduce the risk of nuclear use by a terrorist or any government and would help to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

Morton H. Halperin is a senior adviser at the Open Society Institute and was a member of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which released its report in May 2009. He served in the Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton administrations working on nuclear policy and arms control. The observations presented in the article are based on the text of the Nuclear Posture Review, briefings (on and off the record) by administration officials, and more informal conversations with administration officials.


1. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report.pdf, p. 16 (hereinafter “NPR”).

2. Ibid., p. 15.

3. Ibid., p. 17.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 16.

6. Ibid., p. 38.

7. Ibid., p. 39.

8. Ibid.

9. Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, “America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States,” United States Institute of Peace, 2009, http://media.usip.org/reports/strat_posture_report.pdf.

10. NPR, p. 47.


A year after President Barack Obama set very high expectations with an April 2009 speech in Prague outlining his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, his administration has released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which goes some distance toward meeting Obama’s stated goal of reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons.

Perhaps more importantly, the NPR, made public in its entirety, places U.S. nuclear policy within a conceptual framework based on two important ideas. First, the United States has a compelling interest in preventing any use of nuclear weapons. Second, preventing the use of nuclear weapons requires cooperation as much as, if not more than, it requires deterrence. This is a profound change.


News Briefs

Israel Charges Syria-Hezbollah Scud Transfer

Peter Crail

Israeli officials in April accused Syria of transferring short-range ballistic missiles to Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based militia group the United States classifies as a terrorist organization. Such a transfer would provide Hezbollah with its first ballistic missile capability and extend the reach of its offensive systems to cover all of Israel.

During an April 13 meeting with French Prime Minister François Fillon, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Syria is playing “a double game,” Peres’ spokesman said afterward. “On the one hand it talks peace, yet at the same time, it hands over accurate Scud missiles to Hezbollah so that it can threaten Israel,” he said.

Syria and Lebanon have denied the claim. Hezbollah is also a Lebanese political party that holds seats in parliament.

Iran has reportedly supplied Hezbollah with “many types of rockets since 1992,” according to a U.S. intelligence report submitted to Congress in March. During the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese conflict, Hezbollah reportedly fired several thousand rockets into Israel.

The longest-range rocket Hezbollah is believed to maintain, the Iranian-supplied Zelzal-2, has a range of 350 to 400 kilometers.

It is unclear what type of Scud missile Syria is accused of transferring to Hezbollah. A 2009 National Air and SpaceIntelligenceCenter report indicates that Syria maintains the Scud-D variant, which has a range of about 700 kilometers.

Although U.S. officials have indicated that they have not yet determined whether the Scud transfer took place, the Department of State on April 19 summoned Syrian Deputy Chief of Mission Zouheir Jabbour to discuss long-standing concerns regarding the arming of Hezbollah.

Following that meeting, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said that “the United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah.”

The accusation comes as the United States prepares to appoint a new ambassador to Syria, Washington’s first in five years.


EU Calls for NPT Action Plan

Oliver Meier

The European Union is promoting the adoption of an “ambitious action plan” by members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) at this month’s review conference to strengthen efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and prevent their spread.

In the March 29 EU Council Decision for the review conference, which begins May 3 at the United Nations, disarmament measures figure more prominently in the EU’s agenda than they did in the analogous document that the EU adopted for the 2005 NPT meeting. The EU reaffirms its “commitment to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons,” the new document says. It stresses “the need for more progress in decreasing” U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and reducing “the operational readiness of their nuclear weapon systems to the minimum level necessary.”

However, EU countries failed to agree on a joint working paper on tactical nuclear weapons because of the opposition of France and some central European states, diplomatic sources said. In an April 20 interview, a senior German official said there was “a misperception in some member states who viewed this as an introduction of internal NATO discussions into the NPT.”

The document emphasizes “the need to take resolute action in response” to the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. The EU also supports a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and calls on all states in the region “to refrain from taking measures that preclude the achievement of this objective.” In addition, the EU endorses strengthened nuclear export controls, particularly on technologies for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies, and promises to work within the Nuclear Suppliers Group toward making “adherence to the Additional Protocol a condition for nuclear supply.”

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton is expected to present the EU’s position at the review conference.


U.S. Launch Stirs Space Weaponization Concerns

Jeff Abramson

The U.S. Air Force launched a reusable orbital test vehicle April 22, sparking concerns in some quarters about a space weaponization race. At a media briefing two days before the launch, Gary Payton, undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, highlighted the possibility of using the X-37B to conduct experiments with new technologies and stressed that the launch was primarily to test the vehicle itself. He did not provide details on the exact payload and some other features of the spacecraft. International media and U.S. experts pointed to potential military uses of a cargo-carrying, maneuverable space plane. An April 26 editorial in China’s Global Times, which is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, pointed to Chinese and Russian concerns about space security and said the world should demand greater public detail and request that the United States “commit to not using the space plane for military purposes.” At the media briefing, Payton said, “I don’t know how this could be called weaponization of space. It’s just an updated version of the space shuttle kind of activities in space.” The vehicle, built in part by Boeing, is much smaller than the space shuttle, unmanned, designed to land itself, and capable of staying in space up to 270 days. Payton indicated that a second X-37B could be launched before the first one returns.


Probe of Ship Sinking Halts Outreach to N. Korea

Peter Crail

Months-long efforts to convince North Korea to return to multilateral disarmament talks have been stalled over the past month by suspicions Pyongyang may have been behind the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March.

An explosion sank the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan March 26 near the maritime border between North and South Korea. That border has been the site of prior naval skirmishes between the two countries.

During an April 25 press briefing, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said “a bubble jet caused by a heavy torpedo is thought to be one of the most likely things to be blamed, but various other possibilities are also under review.”

North Korea has denied any involvement.

Although the cause has not been officially determined, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak cited the incident as an indication that Seoul must strengthen its military alertness, calling North Korea “the world’s most warlike power.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told reporters April 19, “I believe the resumption of the six-party talks will not be possible for some time, if we find evidence that clearly shows North Korea’s involvement.” China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have held six-way talks addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs intermittently since 2003.

Yu also said that Seoul would refer the matter to the UN Security Council if Pyongyang was found to be behind the incident.

U.S. officials have echoed Seoul’s calls to halt outreach to North Korea until the Cheonan incident is resolved. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters April 14, “At this juncture, we told our South Korean friends that our primary objective is to work with them on the recovery of the ship,” adding, “and at that point, we will be able to make some judgments about the way forward.”

Meanwhile, North Korean state media reported April 21 that Pyongyang has issued a memorandum detailing its nuclear policy, declaring that it will join international nonproliferation and disarmament commitments “on an equal footing with other nuclear weapons states.”

Portions of the document were carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, which said that the memorandum sought to provide a “correct understanding” of the causes of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.

The memorandum appears to link Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament to broader global nuclear disarmament, claiming that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are intended “to deter and repulse aggression and attack on the country and the nation till the nuclear weapons are eliminated from the [Korean] peninsula and the rest of the world.” It further declares that North Korea will produce nuclear weapons “as much as it deems necessary” but will not participate in a nuclear arms race.

The document repeats Pyongyang’s call to replace the current ceasefire agreement on the Korean peninsula with a formal peace treaty prior to its nuclear disarmament. (See ACT, March 2010.) The United States and its allies in the region have maintained that North Korea must first abandon its nuclear weapons and nuclear programs before such a treaty could be concluded.

At an April 21 press briefing, Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley rejected Pyongyang’s call for a peace agreement prior to giving up its nuclear weapons. “This is not a new request from North Korea,” he said, adding that “they cannot expect a different relationship until they take specific actions first.” Crowley said those actions included fulfilling a September 2005 six-party agreement in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons and adhering to UN Security Council resolutions calling on Pyongyang to carry out that pledge.


Months-long efforts to convince North Korea to return to multilateral disarmament talks have been stalled over the past month by suspicions Pyongyang may have been behind the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March.

An explosion sank the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan March 26 near the maritime border between North and South Korea. That border has been the site of prior naval skirmishes between the two countries.

India, U.S. Agree on Terms for Reprocessing

Daniel Horner

India and the United States in late March concluded negotiations on an agreement for the reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel, removing one of the key remaining barriers to nuclear trade between the two countries.

The two countries issued similar statements March 29, with both characterizing the accord as “an important step” toward implementing their nuclear cooperation agreement, which was signed in July 2007 and entered into force in December 2008. Other hurdles, related to technology transfers and liability limits for companies building nuclear plants in India, still remain.

However, “of all the things that were left, [the reprocessing agreement is] the thing [the Indians] really wanted,” Ted Jones, director of policy advocacy for the U.S.-India Business Council, said in an April 7 interview.

The agreement covers spent fuel that comes from U.S.-supplied fresh fuel or was irradiated in a U.S.-supplied reactor. Such spent fuel is described as “U.S.-origin” or “U.S.-obligated.”

The March agreement is the latest step in a process that began with a joint July 2005 statement by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laying out an approach to easing U.S. and international trade restrictions on India, which is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and conducted nuclear test explosions in 1974 and 1998. In return for its renewed access to the world nuclear market, India agreed to place some of its power reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In separate actions in 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which has more than 40 member countries, and the U.S. Congress approved the plan. (See ACT, October 2008.)

The 2007 U.S.-Indian pact, known as a 123 agreement, after the section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act that requires the United States to negotiate such agreements before doing nuclear business with another country, partially deferred the question of reprocessing by providing for a separate set of talks that would establish the arrangements under which India could reprocess U.S.-obligated spent fuel.

Unlike most U.S. nuclear trading partners, India will not have to seek U.S. consent each time it wants to reprocess U.S.-obligated spent fuel. Instead, it has obtained a broad consent covering the 40-year duration of the 123 agreement.

According to accounts during the negotiations on the 123 agreement, India insisted on such a provision as an indication of its status as an advanced nuclear state. The section of the agreement that covers reprocessing begins by referring to “a commitment to full civil nuclear cooperation” that the two countries have with “other states with advanced nuclear technology.”

Under the 123 agreement, a prerequisite to the long-term consent is that India “establish a new national reprocessing facility dedicated to reprocessing safeguarded nuclear material under IAEA safeguards” and that the parties agree on “arrangements and procedures”—the document on which the two sides recently agreed.

According to sources who were following the negotiations on the reprocessing agreement, a major issue was whether India could have more than one such facility. The agreement says it can, stipulating that the reprocessing “may take place in India at two new national reprocessing facilities.” Sources said the Indians wanted that provision because the two sites designated for U.S. reactors are on opposite sides of the country, at the Mithi Virdi site in Gujarat and the Kovada site in Andhra Pradesh. They argued that having two sites would remove the need to transport spent fuel and plutonium across the country because each U.S. reactor complex would have a reprocessing facility to deal with the spent fuel generated at that site.

In an April 7 interview, a congressional source said that “there is an argument to be made for” allowing two facilities. However, he said, it should be noted that the 123 agreement had to be “redefined” because it refers to “a” reprocessing facility.

Fred McGoldrick, a former Department of State official responsible for negotiating 123 agreements, said the shift from one to two facilities was not a major issue in itself. “The big deal is giving them [long-term] consent in the first place,” he said April 6. The United States is giving a non-NPT country an advantage that Washington has not given to most NPT countries, he said.

He noted that the 123 agreements with Japan and the European Union are the only other ones that allow a country to reprocess spent fuel on its own territory; Switzerland has long-term U.S. consent to bring back plutonium from France and the United Kingdom, where Switzerland sent its spent fuel for reprocessing.

Japan, Switzerland, and the 27 members of the EU are parties to the NPT.

Suspension Conditions

Another contentious issue, the sources said, was the terms for suspending reprocessing. According to the March agreement, the “sole grounds” for seeking suspension are “exceptional circumstances limited to” a determination by either party that “continuance of reprocessing of U.S.-obligated material at the Facility would result in a serious threat to the Party’s national security” and a determination that “suspension is an unavoidable measure.”

The parties must “give special consideration to the importance for India of uninterrupted operation of nuclear reactors that provide nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and potential loss to the Indian economy and impact on energy security caused by a suspension,” the agreement says. If there is a suspension and it lasts more than six months, “both Parties shall enter into consultations on compensation for the adverse impact on the Indian economy due to disruption in electricity generation and loss on account of disruption of contractual obligations,” the pact says.

McGoldrick noted the provision requires consultations but does not compel a particular result from the consultations. In particular, it “does not create a U.S. obligation to compensate India,” he said.

The reprocessing agreement does not clearly spell out how its termination provisions relate to those in the 123 agreement. The two sets of termination provisions are “conflicting” and “deliberately made so,” the congressional source said. “Highly informed intelligent people give different opinions,” he said.

However, another observer pointed to a provision of the reprocessing agreement that says, “[I]n the case of any conflict between these Arrangements and Procedures and the Agreement for Cooperation, the terms of the Agreement for Cooperation shall prevail.” Also, he said, some of the questions may be more theoretical than practical. For example, the reprocessing agreement does not specifically say whether it could remain in force if the 123 agreement were suspended. However, the 123 agreement recognizes the right of the country suspending the agreement in response to a violation by the other to require the violator to return any material or other items that had been transferred. By exercising that right under the 123 agreement’s suspension provisions, the United States could halt Indian reprocessing of U.S.-obligated spent fuel, the observer said.

McGoldrick said that although the reprocessing agreement’s suspension criteria are framed narrowly, they leave the United States with some “wiggle room.” For example, he said, if India conducted a nuclear test explosion, the United States could suspend the consent for reprocessing on the grounds that the test raised questions about the intent of the reprocessing.

Under the Atomic Energy Act, conducting a nuclear test is grounds for terminating nuclear cooperation.

Supply of Sensitive Technology

It is not clear where India would acquire reprocessing equipment and technology if it sought foreign assistance for the reprocessing plant. A 2006 U.S. law known as the Hyde Act, which opened the door to nuclear trade with India but also applied certain nonproliferation conditions, generally bans U.S. exports of reprocessing and other sensitive technology to India. Last year, the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries agreed to tighten its export rules and urged the NSG to break a long-standing stalemate on the issue. (See ACT, September 2009.) The new rules would spell out specific criteria that non-nuclear-weapon states would have to meet to be eligible for sensitive exports related to uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. One of the criteria is that a recipient of such exports must be an NPT party.

France and Russia, which have active reprocessing industries and are in an intense competition with each other and U.S. companies for nuclear business in India, are members of the G-8 and the NSG.

The March reprocessing agreement is considered a “subsequent arrangement” under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act. Under that law, Congress has 15 days of so-called continuous session to review the arrangement, after which time it goes into effect unless Congress has passed a law blocking it. In the case of India, under a provision in the 2008 law approving the 123 agreement, the review period is 30 days. A U.S. official said in an April 27 e-mail that the departments of State and Energy were preparing the documents that need to be submitted to Congress to start the 30-day clock.

Other Obstacles

Still pending between India and the United States is an agreement to meet the requirements of the Hyde Act’s “nuclear export accountability program,” which requires detailed reporting on U.S. nuclear technology exports to India. Jones said India did not have a “model” for its private sector to provide the kinds of assurances that are required, but that the government is preparing regulations to do that.

Meanwhile, India’s ruling coalition in March postponed parliamentary consideration of a bill that would set limits on the liability of companies building nuclear plants in India. Liability protection is particularly important to U.S. companies, which, unlike their French and Russian competitors, are privately owned.

Jones said addressing Indian concerns about liability was likely to be more difficult than finding agreement on the technology-transfer question. Both those issues must be resolved before U.S. companies can complete reactor sales, but once the reprocessing agreement goes into effect, U.S. firms can sell fuel in India, he said.

India had made the reprocessing agreement a prerequisite for any U.S. sales.


India and the United States in late March concluded negotiations on an agreement for the reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel, removing one of the key remaining barriers to nuclear trade between the two countries.

Iran to Mass-Produce Improved Centrifuges

Peter Crail

Iranian officials announced last month that Iran would begin mass-producing a second-generation centrifuge in the coming months, a step that could lead to an increase in the rate at which Iran enriches uranium.

Centrifuges spin at high speeds to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope to levels of around 4 percent for nuclear fuel or to much higher levels for possible use in nuclear weapons. Iran’s second-generation machines are believed to be capable of enriching uranium about 2.5 times faster than the centrifuges Iran is currently operating. (See ACT, November 2007.)

In a CBS Evening News interview that aired April 13, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) chief Ali Akbar Salehi said that Iran is considering installing more-advanced centrifuges at its commercial-scale uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. A February International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report stated that the Natanz plant has about 8,600 centrifuges installed, although only about one-half are operating. The agency noted in a 2004 report that Iran intended to install more than 50,000 machines at Natanz. However, Salehi told CBS that Iran may expand that number to as many as 60,000 in order to provide fuel for its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr as well as any additional nuclear power plants that Iran may build.

Iran’s Russian-built Bushehr plant is expected to begin operations in August. Russia has already provided the first load of fuel for the reactor. Moreover, the proprietary specifications for that fuel are owned by the Russian state-owned nuclear conglomerate Rosatom. A Russian diplomat said in April 2009 that he doubted that Rosatom sold Iran the right to make this fuel. (See ACT, May 2009.)

Aside from the Bushehr plant, Salehi said the second nuclear power reactor Iran plans to construct, at Darkhovin, will be finished “probably 10 years from now.” Iran provided preliminary design information for the plant to the IAEA last September, and construction is not believed to have begun.

Despite Iran’s lack of near-term need for enriched uranium to fuel its power reactors, the 1970s-vintage centrifuges it has been using, called the P-1, are known to be inefficient. (See ACT, December 2009.) Pierre Goldschmidt, former IAEA deputy director-general for safeguards, said in an April 16 e-mail that, because 50,000 P-1 centrifuges would be insufficient for one annual reload of the Bushehr reactor, it would “make a lot of sense” to move to more-advanced centrifuge designs to produce fuel if Iran were to produce the fuel domestically rather than importing it.

He added that the possible expansion of the Natanz plant to house additional machines would not have an impact on the way the plant is safeguarded.

Iran acquired the P-1 designs in the 1980s from the nuclear smuggling network led by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan, who had stolen the design from the enrichment consortium Urenco while working in the Netherlands in the 1970s.

Iran’s second-generation centrifuges are based on the P-2 design, which Khan also sold Iran in the 1990s. Because of Iranian difficulties manufacturing key P-2 components using maraging steel, however, Tehran modified the design to use carbon fiber. According to an Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) report on April 13, centrifuge rotors using carbon fiber spin faster than those using maraging steel. Iran is still dependent on foreign sources of carbon fiber, and the primary manufacturer in Japan tightly controls such goods, ISIS President David Albright said in an April 19 interview. Carbon fiber materials that may be of relevance to a centrifuge program are subject to international controls, including UN sanctions against Iran.

Iran’s second-generation centrifuges, which it began testing in January 2008, include various P-2-based models referred to as the IR-2, the IR-2m, and the IR-3. It is unclear which model or models Iran intends to mass-produce.

During April 9 festivities marking Iran’s fourth annual “National Nuclear Day,” Iranian officials unveiled what they called a third-generation centrifuge design capable of enriching uranium six times faster than the P-1. The ISIS report says the third-generation model is “theoretically capable” of achieving this output because the rotor assembly is twice as long as that of Iran’s IR-2 centrifuge.

Salehi told reporters that Iran would begin testing the third-generation machines with uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for uranium-enrichment plants, in the coming months and that it may be a year before a cascade of linked centrifuges is tested.

In addition to working on more-advanced centrifuges to increase enrichment capacity, Iranian officials also claimed in April that Iran would begin constructing one or two additional enrichment facilities this year. (The Iranian calendar year began in March.)

Last November, Iran announced that it would build 10 additional enrichment plants and that construction on two of them would begin this year. (See ACT, December 2009.) Iran is continuing to expand its Natanz plant and is constructing a second, smaller facility called Fordow near the city of Qom.

During his April 13 interview, Salehi said that construction would begin at one or two of the sites selected for these facilities, depending on a decision by the Iranian president. He indicated that it takes about four years to construct such a facility.

Although the IAEA has stated that Iran is legally obligated to provide design information for such facilities once a decision has been made to construct them, Salehi reiterated Iran’s claim that it is not required to do so until six months prior to the introduction of nuclear material. Tehran’s interpretation is based on a pre-1992 version of a safeguards provision regarding the time frame for informing the agency of the construction of nuclear facilities. Iran agreed to the newer version in 2003, but declared in 2007 that it would revert to the older requirement.

Assessing Timelines to a Weapon

As Iran takes steps to improve its enrichment capabilities, U.S. officials in April provided assessments for when Iran may be able to use those capabilities to build a nuclear weapon.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 14, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess said “the general consensus” is that “we’re talking one year” as the time period in which Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one nuclear weapon if it decided to do so. Burgess added the caveat that the estimate was made without knowing “the exact number of centrifuges that we actually have visibility into.” A 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said the intelligence community did not know whether Iran had made the decision to produce nuclear weapons, and that judgment “still stands,” Burgess said.

An annual U.S. intelligence report submitted to Congress in March similarly said it was uncertain whether Iran would decide to build an nuclear weapon. Unlike the report from last year, however, the 2010 document did not include reference to the 2007 NIE judgment that Iran had halted work related to weaponization in 2003. (See ACT, December 2007.)

Burgess indicated that an updated NIE is being produced but that the intelligence community has not yet made a decision on when it will be finished or released.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently questioned whether it would be possible to verify whether Iran decided to make a nuclear weapon once it had all of the capabilities. “If their policy is to go to the threshold but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled?” he said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press broadcast April 11.

Iran’s declared nuclear facilities and its known stores of enriched uranium are currently under IAEA safeguards, but Iran’s uranium mines are not under such monitoring. It is unclear whether Iran maintains in secret the additional facilities required to convert this uranium into a form usable for weapons.

Beyond the time frame to produce HEU, a U.S. official stated in Senate testimony that it would take Iran three to five years to produce a nuclear weapon once it has sufficient HEU.

At the April 14 Armed Services Committee hearing, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, in response to a question about when Iran may have a nuclear weapon, said that “three to five years is a historical estimate of how long it takes a nation with a low-enriching capability to move, both through the high-enrichment protocols and then to the things that would put it together to make it a weapon.”

Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, said in an April 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that he was puzzled by Cartwright’s statement. “I find it hard to understand the application of some general, rule-of-thumb timetable to this question because each proliferator is apt to be in a different situation regarding the relative progress made on the separate tasks of fissile material production and weapons design,” Pillar said.

He added that “the principal pacing element” determining when a country acquires a nuclear weapon is the production of fissile material.


Iranian officials announced last month that Iran would begin mass-producing a second-generation centrifuge in the coming months, a step that could lead to an increase in the rate at which Iran enriches uranium.

Bill on Iran Gasoline Sanctions Nears Approval

Peter Crail

Congress began the final steps in April to prepare new U.S. legislation sanctioning foreign companies that provide gasoline to Iran.

The House of Representatives appointed conferees April 22 to a committee that must reconcile the versions of the legislation adopted by the House in December and the Senate in January to create a final bill for President Barack Obama to sign. The Senate appointed its conferees March 11.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said following the vote on the House conferees, “Today marks a major step towards preventing Iran from acquiring the ability to produce nuclear weapons.” The House action urged the conference committee to complete its work by May 28.

The appointment came as members of Congress were expressing increasing concern with the pace of U.S. efforts to secure a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters April 22, “In my opinion, we have waited long enough for the diplomacy to work,” adding, “Iran is a festering sore in the world.” Administration officials have said they want to pursue multilateral sanctions before applying unilateral measures.

House and Senate members sent letters to Obama in April urging the administration to carry out sanctions under current U.S. law. “We urge you to move rapidly to implement your existing authority on Iran and the legislation we send you, and to galvanize the international community” for immediate steps against Iran, read the nearly identical letters signed by 363 representatives and 81 senators.

U.S. law adopted in 1996 imposes penalties on foreign firms that invest more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector. The House and Senate versions of the pending legislation are intended to expand those penalties to firms that provide Iran with refined petroleum or assist in expanding its refining capacity. The Senate bill includes a number of additional measures to target Iran’s financial sector and enhance export controls in countries at risk of diverting sensitive materials and technologies to Iran. (See ACT, March 2010.)

Due to a lack of domestic refining capacity, Iran imports an estimated 30 to 40 percent of its gasoline. Berman has called Iran’s reliance on such imports its “Achilles’ heel.” (See ACT, January/February 2010.) Iran heavily subsidizes gasoline for domestic use.

In the face of the potential sanctions, a number of Iran’s primary suppliers of gasoline have declared an end to such sales over the past several months. The firms include Russia’s Lukoil, India’s Reliance, the United Kingdom’s Royal Dutch Shell, and Switzerland’s Vitol and Trafigura.

A January 2010 Department of Energy country analysis notes, however, that Iranian efforts to increase its refining capacity “could eliminate the need for imports by 2013.” It adds that Iran has discussed joint ventures with countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to carry out such an expansion. Such ventures could be targeted if the pending sanctions bill becomes law.

Although the U.S. law targeting energy investment in Iran has been in effect since 1996, no firms have been sanctioned to date. Since the law’s passage, U.S. administrations have preferred to seek international cooperation to place pressure on Iran rather than risk alienating key U.S. allies.

In particular, Washington came to an agreement in 1998 with the European Union that it would not sanction European firms under the law in exchange for an EU commitment to take action against Tehran’s nonconventional weapons programs.

U.S. officials testifying before Congress in March reiterated this preference for multilateral action, arguing that such efforts would have a greater impact on Iran than unilateral sanctions.

“There are steps that we can take unilaterally, and we have taken unilaterally. But our judgment is that if we really want to impose pressure on Iran that actually affects their calculus, the only way to be effective is to do that multilaterally,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy told a Senate panel April 14.

During the same hearing, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns added that U.S. allies in Europe have expressed a “very strong preference” to achieve a UN resolution first. The resolution could then serve as a legal basis for EU countries to adopt additional sanctions beyond those imposed by the UN Security Council, he said.

Burns said that “intensive negotiations on the text of that resolution have just begun,” adding that Russia and China are actively taking part in that effort. The two countries, along with France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, are veto-wielding members of the Security Council.

Moscow and Beijing have traditionally been wary of supporting sanctions, but Russian officials have expressed support for additional penalties on Tehran in recent months, so long as those penalties target Iran’s leadership and not its energy sector. Beijing agreed in April to begin discussions on new sanctions, moving the prospect of such a resolution forward.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told reporters April 8 that Moscow would seek “targeted” and “tailored” sanctions and rejected the gasoline embargo sought by the United States, claiming it would be “a huge shock for the whole [Iranian] society.”

China, on the other hand, has been far more reluctant to engage in discussions over any new sanctions, calling for negotiations with Iran to continue. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters April 20, “We have always believed that dialogue and negotiations are the best channels for resolving the Iran nuclear issue.”

The United States and its allies have maintained that Tehran has rebuffed their diplomatic outreach because it continues to reject an International Atomic Energy Agency-brokered deal to swap much of Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile for research reactor fuel. (See ACT, September 2009.) Tehran claims that it is still open to negotiations on the proposal, but it continues to seek changes to any such agreement.

U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Jeffrey Bader told reporters following an April 12 meeting between Obama and Chinese Premier Hu Jintao that the two presidents “agreed to instruct their delegations to work with” the P5+1 and Security Council representatives on a sanctions resolution, signaling China’s willingness to engage in talks on new sanctions.

The P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany. The six-country group has been engaged in a diplomatic effort to address Iran’s nuclear program since 2006.

Once the five permanent members agree on a draft resolution, they have to negotiate with the council’s 10 rotating members. That group includes states such as Brazil and Turkey, which have continued to oppose new sanctions. Although only nine votes are needed to approve such a measure, resolution sponsors generally want support for the measure to be as broad as possible.

Despite the remaining hurdles, U.S. officials have indicated they expect the council to adopt sanctions in the coming weeks. Vice President Joe Biden told ABC’s The View April 22, “I believe you will see a sanction[s] regime coming out by the end of this month, beginning of next month.”


Congress began the final steps in April to prepare new U.S. legislation sanctioning foreign companies that provide gasoline to Iran.

The House of Representatives appointed conferees April 22 to a committee that must reconcile the versions of the legislation adopted by the House in December and the Senate in January to create a final bill for President Barack Obama to sign. The Senate appointed its conferees March 11.

Gates Outlines Export Control Overhaul

Jeff Abramson

The Obama administration is shifting U.S. policy on export controls by focusing its efforts on “crown jewel” technology and items, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said last month.

The plan, announced April 20 in a speech to a Business Executives for National Security meeting in Washington, would align procedures across multiple bureaucracies in the near term without new legislation. It also calls for working with Congress to adopt new laws that would make a single agency responsible for export licenses, possibly by the end of this year. Many key elements have yet to be detailed, including which specific weapons and dual-use goods might be moved to new tiers or removed entirely from control lists. Dual-use goods are items, technology, and information that have both military and civilian uses.

Gates said that President Barack Obama hopes to work with Congress “to turn these proposals into legislation that the president can sign sometime this year.” That plan, however, has not garnered significant congressional support.

After the April 20 speech, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Gates had “delivered a forceful rationale” for revising U.S. export control systems. Berman has been working on a new Export Administration Act (EAA), which regulates dual-use items. He said that he has been “closely consulting” with the administration and expects to introduce legislation “shortly.”

He was more noncommittal on the broader overhaul. He noted that Gates had “set forth his own vision of how the…export control systems might be fully merged. Should the president propose such a step later this year, I will carefully consider it.” A congressional source said in an April 22 interview that, for now, legislators considered the administration proposals as only a “study.”

In a statement, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said, “I am confident that we can work closely with Secretary Gates on a bipartisan basis and with other committees in the Congress to make sure that the system protecting our technology is as excellent as the technology itself.” Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, welcomed the chance to “carefully study” the proposal and stressed “national security as the paramount factor in the export control system.”

On Jan. 27, Gates and other administration officials briefed congressional leaders on the ongoing review. According to congressional sources, there was some resistance at that time to aspects of the review and some of its assumptions. In the April 20 speech, Gates said, “I valued the feedback and the suggestions they provided at the time, and look forward to further dialogue.”

Opponents of export control overhaul cite concerns about national security and the danger of weapons and technology ending up in the hands of enemies of the United States and its allies. In the speech and in responses to questions, Gates admitted that previous export control reform efforts had failed, noting that the Department of Defense at times contributed to those failures. The Pentagon “has not overflowed in the past with enthusiasts for this kind of change,” he said.

The new element this time, he argued, is broad interagency support for the reform effort. He specifically identified Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher as backing the effort.

In his speech, Gates criticized the current system for trying to control too much and argued that requiring licenses on spare parts for certain military equipment already exported, such as F-16 fighter jets, hampers cooperation with allies. He said that defense trade cooperation treaties with the United Kingdom and Australia, which remain in the Senate awaiting its advice and consent, would be a “step in the right direction,” but that fundamental reform was needed. (See ACT, January/February 2010.) “Frederick the Great’s famous maxim that he who defends everything, defends nothing certainly applies to export control,” Gates stated.

Gates emphasized that the administration, rather than Congress, needed to act first. “[M]y hope is that as we streamline the process that the executive branch is responsible for, that there will be those in the Congress who can then lead some efforts to streamline the effort up there,” he said.

Higher Walls and Consolidated Processes

The guiding concept behind the administration’s export control reform approach is often described as “higher fences around fewer items.” Obama previewed that theme in a March 11 speech at the Export-Import Bank’s annual meeting when he said, “What we want to do is concentrate our efforts on enforcing controls on the export of our most critical technologies, making America safer while enhancing the competitiveness of key American industries.”

In the April 20 speech, Gates added a bit more detail, identifying items and technologies “relating to global terrorism, the proliferation and delivery of systems of weapons of mass destruction, and advanced conventional weapons” as being of primary concern. Goods that “have no significant military impact or that use widely available technology could be approved for export more quickly,” he said.

Currently, the departments of Commerce, Defense, and State all play major roles in approving and monitoring U.S. exports of defense items and dual-use goods. Under the Arms Export Control Act, the Defense and State departments oversee the transfer of defense articles and services listed on the U.S. Munitions List. Under the EAA, the Commerce Department oversees the Commerce Control List covering dual-use goods. (See ACT, January/February 2008.) Gates specifically called this “bureaucratic apparatus” a “major obstacle” and one that “results in confusion about jurisdiction and approval.”

The administration plan aims to consolidate the export control system via four “singles.” They are a single control list, a single licensing agency, a single enforcement agency, and a single information technology (IT) system.

In the first two phases of the three-phase plan, the administration would refine existing control lists and create a new tiered system that would allow for an item or technology to “be cascaded from a higher to a lower level of control as its sensitivity decreases,” according to Gates. During this period, congressional notification would be required to remove items from the munitions lists or transfer them to the dual-use list, according to a White House fact sheet released the same day as Gates’ speech. In the final phase, which would require new legislation from Congress, the two lists would be merged.

According to the fact sheet, licensing would similarly be streamlined to harmonize procedures among existing agencies at first, in order to “achieve significant license requirement reduction.” Whether the eventual single licensing agency would be housed in an existing agency or within an entirely new one is still under consideration, according to one of the senior Pentagon officials who conducted a background briefing April 19. Gates said he expects a presidential decision this spring on the agency’s location.

The administration also has not determined where it would locate the consolidated enforcement agency, but the officials said that it is currently being considered as separate from the licensing agency. They stressed the coordinating role of the enforcement agency, explaining that “even once reform is accomplished… there will still be multiple players involved in enforcement.” One of the officials cited “ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], State [Department] enforcement, Commerce Export Enforcement Office, FBI, and many others” as part of the enforcement system.

The proposed single IT system would encompass licensing as well as enforcement information. Like the other steps, an enterprise-wide IT system would be fully implemented only in the final phase of the plan.

Tackling IT issues has been an ongoing effort. The Bush administration called for reforms of underlying technology so that all agencies could review the same data. (See ACT, March 2008.)

A senior Defense Department official indicated at the April 19 briefing that the Pentagon’s IT system is “likely to be the backbone of where we go forward.”

Plan Support and Antecedents

Aspects of the plan, including an emphasis on administration-based action, can be traced to a 2009 National Academy of Sciences study, which found that “the current system of export controls now harms our national and homeland security, as well as our ability to compete economically.” Until December 2006, when he became defense secretary, Gates co-chaired the committee associated with the study.

Industry groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Aerospace Industry Association, expressed general support for the new approach, which echoes arguments they have made for years in favor of loosening control on widely available technologies and streamlining licensing processes. In an April 20 statement, NAM Vice President for International Economic Affairs Frank Vargo said, “Manufacturers are pleased the Administration is moving forward with changes to modernize the current Cold-war era system.”

The Obama administration announced the start of its export control review in August 2009. (See ACT, September 2009.) At the April 19 briefing, a senior Pentagon official said that the National Intelligence Council assessed the U.S. export control system and came to “the frank and unfortunate conclusion” that “the system itself poses a potential threat to national security.” Gates simply noted the need for urgent action “given the harmful effects of continuing with the existing set of outdated processes, institutions, and assumptions.”


The Obama administration is shifting U.S. policy on export controls by focusing its efforts on “crown jewel” technology and items, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said last month.

The plan, announced April 20 in a speech to a Business Executives for National Security meeting in Washington, would align procedures across multiple bureaucracies in the near term without new legislation. It also calls for working with Congress to adopt new laws that would make a single agency responsible for export licenses, possibly by the end of this year. Many key elements have yet to be detailed, including which specific weapons and dual-use goods might be moved to new tiers or removed entirely from control lists. Dual-use goods are items, technology, and information that have both military and civilian uses.


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