I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
November 2011
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Cover Image: 

Books of Note

Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: The Role of Missile Defense

Tom Sauer, Columbia University Press, 2011, 155 pp.

Tom Sauer’s short but comprehensive volume analyzes the interaction between the goals of eliminating nuclear weapons and having a missile defense system to protect against any illicit nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that may appear. Judging nuclear deterrence unsustainable, Sauer assumes ultimate elimination of nuclear arsenals worldwide and does not dwell on the near-term difficulty of further reducing strategic offensive arsenals in an environment of unconstrained strategic missile defenses. He suggests that policy choices on missile defense will help determine whether global nuclear disarmament will be able to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Key to Sauer’s overall analysis is his contention that the actual technical capabilities of the current generation of missile defenses have been greatly exaggerated and that it is “extremely doubtful” a reliable missile shield could be built over the next couple of decades. He ranks the desirability of three possible configurations of missile defenses for achieving a stable and effective ban on nuclear weapons: Best would be a regime banning all defensive as well as offensive ballistic missiles; second best would be limiting missile defenses to theater systems; and third would be sharing large-scale strategic missile defense systems with all major powers. Sauer contends that other scenarios for missile defenses, including the current trajectory of U.S. programs, will lead to new arms races in defensive and offensive weapons.—GREG THIELMANN


Deterrence: Its Past and Future

George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby, eds., Hoover Institution Press, 2011, 230 pp.

This two-part book discusses the evolving role of deterrence and its utility against emerging international security threats. Part I is a compilation of summaries of papers presented at a conference on deterrence held in November 2010 at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Remarks delivered at the conference by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), and Admiral Michael Mullen also are included in the volume. The summaries touch on a variety of issues, including the feasibility and challenges of preventing states from reconstituting nuclear arsenals after the elimination of nuclear weapons, the debate over de-alerting nuclear forces, and the need to reassess conventional thinking on nuclear deterrence in a multipolar environment in which nonstate actors challenge national security. In Part II, Steve Andreasen and Michael Gerson analyze how states with nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom), NATO, and Iran perceive the broader international security environment, view the role that nuclear weapons play in deterrence, and think about the abolition of nuclear weapons. The two authors focus on how these viewpoints are known and understood in the United States. The purpose of this approach, according to Andreasen and Gerson, is to prevent misinterpretation of other states’ views on the role and utility of deterrence. —KELSEY DAVENPORT

Russian Arms Smuggler Faces Jury

More than three years after his arrest, the trial of suspected arms trafficker Viktor Bout began Oct. 11 at a U.S. federal court in New York.

Xiaodon Liang

More than three years after his arrest, the trial of suspected arms trafficker Viktor Bout began Oct. 11 at a U.S. federal court in New York.

The Russian national pleaded not guilty last November to conspiracy charges stemming from his March 2008 arrest in Bangkok in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation conducted in partnership with Thai authorities. (See ACT, April 2008.) Prosecutors say he conspired to supply undercover agents with anti-aircraft missiles, to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, and to kill U.S. nationals and officials.

If convicted, Bout could be sentenced to life imprisonment. He was extradited from Thailand in November in spite of Russian objections. (See ACT, December 2010.)

According to a criminal complaint filed by the DEA in 2008, from November 2007 to February 2008, Bout was engaged in negotiations with DEA agents posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Colombian rebel group designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. According to a subsequent indictment, Bout agreed to provide surface-to-air missiles, assault rifles, rocket launchers, explosives, ammunition, and landmines to the bogus FARC members.

Bout has long been suspected by U.S. officials of supplying arms to state and nonstate clients in Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan, and West Africa. The New York Times reported Aug. 17 that Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who is presiding over the trial, will allow only limited evidence of Bout’s prior activities to be presented in court, so as not to prejudice the jury. For example, prosecutors will be allowed to inform the jury that Bout has been subject to UN sanctions, but are barred from explaining in detail the connection between the sanctions and the repeated violations of arms embargoes documented by the United Nations.

Bout’s lawyer, Albert Dayan, claims that his client traveled to Bangkok with an interest in selling two cargo planes, not arms, Voice of America reported Oct 14.

U.S.-China Ties Weather Taiwan Arms Deal

Although news of a $5.9 billion U.S. arms agreement to Taiwan initially caused China to warn that the deal could derail U.S.-Chinese relations, the relationship appears to be stable.

Benjamin Seel

Although news of a $5.9 billion U.S. arms agreement to Taiwan initially caused China to warn that the deal could derail U.S.-Chinese relations, the relationship appears to be stable.

Speaking in Indonesia on Oct. 23, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta commended the Chinese for handling news of the arms deal “in a professional and diplomatic way.”

Panetta noted that he had “heard nothing that indicates that [China is] taking any steps in reaction” to the deal.

China’s immediate response to the news of the deal was a statement by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun to U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke on Sept. 21, warning that sales to Taiwan would “inevitably cause damage to Sino-U.S. relations,” according to a ministry press release.

Initially, China threatened to respond by cutting off military ties and canceling diplomatic meetings.

At an Oct. 11 meeting between Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Cui said he wanted to discuss the two countries’ differences to “prevent them from excessively interfering in the normal development of China-U.S. relations,” according to The Washington Times.

The sale includes a package to retrofit 145 F-16 A/B fighter jets with new radar, weapons systems, and structural upgrades; an extension of a training program; and parts for three types of aircrafts.

New F-16 C/D planes, requested by Taiwan since 2006, are not included. However, a senior administration official speaking during a Sept. 21 conference call with reporters said the sale of new planes “is still under consideration.”

In a press release the same day, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said that not selling new F-16s was a “capitulation” to China and a “failure by the Administration to live up to its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.”

The Obama administration has sold more than $12 billion in arms to Taiwan in the last two years. Taiwan’s current fleet of F-16 A/Bs was purchased in 1992.

Bahrain Arms Sale Conditioned on Review

The Department of State has tied a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain to the outcome of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) investigation into alleged human rights abuses...

Xiaodon Liang

The Department of State has tied a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain to the outcome of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) investigation into alleged human rights abuses committed during protests in the Persian Gulf state in February and March, a department official said in a letter to Capitol Hill last month.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency of the Department of Defense notified Congress of the planned sale Sept. 14, according to an agency press release. The proposed package includes High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles, known as Humvees, and guided anti-armor and anti-bunker missiles.

In an Oct. 14 letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), David Adams, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said the State Department would review the BICI’s findings and the Bahraini government’s subsequent efforts to implement the committee’s recommendations. Adams said the department would “weigh these factors and confer with Congress” before proceeding with the sale.

Wyden introduced a Senate resolution Oct. 6 that would block the sale until the secretary of state reported that Bahrain had taken a series of specific steps to improve human rights. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) sponsored an identical resolution in the House of Representatives.

Wyden and five other senators sent an Oct. 12 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to delay the sale until Bahrain releases political prisoners, addresses the BICI recommendations, and starts a dialogue with opposition groups. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a separate letter to Clinton Oct. 13 also asking her to delay the sale at least until the BICI issued its report. The BICI has said the report will be released Nov. 23.

Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), a signatory of the Oct. 12 letter and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee handling Middle Eastern affairs, called the State Department decision a “welcome development” in an Oct. 19 press release.

At a press briefing that day, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that even if the sale were to go through, the items would be subject to end-use monitoring to ensure their proper use.

Letter to the Editor: Time to Step Up on Banning Cluster Munitions

It should come as no surprise that participants in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) failed to agree on a draft protocol on cluster munitions during a recent meeting in Geneva (“Cluster Bomb Protocol’s Status Uncertain,” October 2011).

Senator Dianne Feinstein

It should come as no surprise that participants in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) failed to agree on a draft protocol on cluster munitions during a recent meeting in Geneva (“Cluster Bomb Protocol’s Status Uncertain,” October 2011).

Since 2001, the parties to the CCW have been negotiating limits on the use of these deadly weapons, but they have consistently failed to come to any meaningful agreement. This failure is due in no small part to a lack of leadership from the United States, which continues to regard cluster munitions as “legitimate weapons with clear military utility in combat,” in the words of the June 2008 policy memorandum issued by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The U.S. position has given cover to other producers of cluster munitions, such as China and Russia, to block tougher international standards.

Cluster munitions—large bombs, rockets, or artillery shells that contain many smaller submunitions, or “bomblets”—are often used to attack enemy troop formations and armor covering a wide radius. Unfortunately, civilians are often the victims of their use.

Cluster bombs threaten civilians because they leave hundreds of unexploded bomblets, which often experience high failure rates, spread over wide areas. They are also notoriously inaccurate.

The human toll has been devastating:

• In Laos, approximately 11,000 people, 30 percent of them children, have been killed or injured by U.S. cluster munitions since the Vietnam War ended.

• In Afghanistan, between October 2001 and November 2002, 127 civilians lost their lives due to cluster munitions, 70 percent of them under the age of 18.

• An estimated 1,220 Kuwaitis and 400 Iraqi civilians have been killed by cluster munitions since 1991.

• In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Israeli cluster munitions, many manufactured in the United States, injured and killed 343 civilians.

The devastating effect of these weapons on civilians has compelled the international community and Congress to take action beyond the scope of the CCW.

In 2007, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law a provision prohibiting the sale and transfer of cluster bombs with a failure rate higher than 1 percent. The ban has been extended several times and remains in force.

In December 2008, 94 countries came together to sign the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions. Today, 111 nations have signed the treaty, and 66 have ratified it. The convention prohibits the production, use, and export of cluster bombs and requires signatories to eliminate their arsenals.

With an arsenal of more than 700 million bomblets, the United States did not participate in the Oslo process and refused to sign the treaty. It has preferred to work through the never-ending discussions at the CCW and take unilateral actions.

Gates’ 2008 memo stated that, after 2018, the use, sale, and transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate higher than 1 percent would be prohibited. That policy moves us in the right direction, but it means the Pentagon still has authority to use cluster bombs with high failure rates for years to come.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and I have introduced the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act, which would impose an immediate ban on the use of cluster bombs with failure rates higher than 1 percent and restrict their use in civilian areas. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has introduced the same legislation in the House.

It is time for the United States to join the international effort and take a leadership role in protecting innocent civilians and countless others from these deadly weapons.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.


Science and Politics, People and Process: Coping With Biological Weapons Dilemmas

Biological weapons seem to have lost their appeal—as an object of policy concern, that is. From the early 1960s, when nonproliferation emerged as an international security challenge, until the 1990s, the nonproliferation agenda was dominated by nuclear issues. Chemical and biological weapons were deemed a comparatively minor matter, the province of only a small, largely technical community laboring in relative obscurity as far as senior policymakers were concerned. Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, as the product of an unusual combination of developments in Iraq, the Soviet Union, and Japan, chemical and biological weapons began to climb up the global security agenda.

Reviewed by Michael Moodie

Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond

By Amy E. Smithson

Stanford Security Studies, 2011, 384 pp.


Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security

By Gregory D. Koblentz

Cornell University Press, 2011, 272 pp.


Biological weapons seem to have lost their appeal—as an object of policy concern, that is. From the early 1960s, when nonproliferation emerged as an international security challenge, until the 1990s, the nonproliferation agenda was dominated by nuclear issues. Chemical and biological weapons were deemed a comparatively minor matter, the province of only a small, largely technical community laboring in relative obscurity as far as senior policymakers were concerned. Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, as the product of an unusual combination of developments in Iraq, the Soviet Union, and Japan, chemical and biological weapons began to climb up the global security agenda.

For about a decade, significant amounts of time, money, and analytical capability were devoted to bolstering policymakers’ understanding of the challenges posed by these weapons, in particular biological weapons. That attention peaked after the tragedies of the September 11 attacks and the anthrax mailings in 2001. After that, attention began to wane. The biological weapons agenda became familiar, comfortable, and hardly cutting-edge. Financial resources for further groundbreaking work, especially from nongovernmental sources, began to dry up. The nonproliferation agenda reverted to the “all nukes all the time” focus of its initial decades. That is where things stand today.

Two recent books demonstrate that the situation should be otherwise. One of them, Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond by Amy E. Smithson, is another valuable product from a long-time leader of the still-small band of experts on biological weapons. The other, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security by Gregory D. Koblentz, is the work of one of the “next generation” of biological weapons analysts. It is gratifying to see that although interest in the issue has declined at least temporarily among senior policymakers, the torchbearers who have led the work on biological weapons are being joined by a new group of analysts who bring fresh and useful insights and perspectives for those policymakers willing to pay attention. More importantly, these books show that policymakers should take notice. They underline the need to understand better that challenges flowing from the misuse of the life sciences remain significant, difficult, and dangerous.

Germ Gambits is primarily an account of a key chapter in the history of efforts to rid the world of biological weapons. It details the work of the biological inspectors of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), established following Iraq’s 1991 defeat in the Persian Gulf War with the mission of finding and destroying Iraq’s non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction programs. Drawing on what is clearly remarkable access to all key UNSCOM players, Smithson allows the participants themselves to tell their story, focusing not just on their successes, but also on their failures, frustrations, and mistakes.

As in most good stories, the characters are central in Germ Gambits. This is as it should be because this book shows that people are the key to addressing biological risks successfully, especially in an environment of utmost difficulty. UNSCOM’s biological weapons experts were remarkably diverse in profession, skill, training, experience, personality, and country; but they came together as a team, not least as a result of the low-key but highly effective leadership of  the UNSCOM chairman, Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekéus, who emerges as one of the heroes of this account for his steadfastness, astute judgment, and deft political touch. They overcame enormous barriers inhibiting their ability to determine the nature and scope of Iraq’s biological weapons program, find all the places where it had operated, discover the materials and equipment it had used, identify all the military hardware it involved, and destroy the whole lot of it.

The barriers to UNSCOM’s success in rooting out Iraq’s biological weapons program began with deliberate Iraqi efforts to undermine the commission’s effectiveness. Smithson’s book relates numerous occasions on which the inspectors stood fast in the face of Iraqi lies, stonewalling, delays, destruction, “forgetfulness,” fabrication, gamesmanship, and physical intimidation. Some of these occasions would have been hilariously funny had the stakes not been so high. Smithson writes, “To wiggle out of contradictions, the Iraqis usually blamed them on a person’s drunkenness or stupidity. At times, however, their contorted tales would get them into such impossible positions that everyone would laugh.” The lengths to which Iraqis went to prevent UNSCOM from doing its job can only leave readers shaking their heads at the absurdity of it all.

Smithson’s account shows, however, that the challenges confronting the UN biological weapons team went well beyond Iraqi machinations. In particular, she does an excellent job of explaining the complex scientific and technical issues that the inspectors had to confront, and she does so in a way that nonexperts can readily grasp. However, nontechnical types should not assume that because Smithson makes it easy to understand the technological dimensions of biological weapons challenges in the UNSCOM case, those dimensions more generally are either easy or unimportant. In fact, Smithson’s treatment of technical issues, whether scientific, technological, engineering, or commercial, provides two invaluable reminders. First, success in responding to biological weapons challenges today and in the future will come only when good policy is based on good science. Second, the interaction of the scientific and technological dimensions with the political dimensions of the problems posed by biological weapons creates a multifaceted challenge whose complexity should never be underestimated.

In New Territory

Another important aspect of UNSCOM’s biological weapons work that Smithson usefully captures is the innovation and creativity of the UN team. She notes that although inspections had been conducted under other arms control agreements, those experiences held little relevance for the UN inspectors searching for biological weapons. They had no handbook on which to rely for best practices and procedures, no certainty as to what equipment would prove most useful, and no long-standing strategy to guide the sequence, focus, or timing of their activities. Smithson’s story artfully relays how, as a result, the members of the biological weapons team drew on their wits, exploited their powers of observation, learned on the fly, and adapted their approach as necessary to accomplish their mission.

“Connecting the dots” has become all the rage in national security analytical and operational circles. Smithson’s account portrays UNSCOM’s biological weapons inspectors as an important positive example of what is needed to make the connections (creativity deeply seated in experience may be at the top of the list) and what to do once the connections have been made.

Such creativity and innovation can ameliorate what Smithson calls “the encumbrances of the ‘Western’ frame of reference,” that is, the important differences between investigators and the investigated. Such differences include the experts’ thinking that everyone would put a program together as they would; culture clashes and sensitivities, for example, distinct views of the acceptability of prevarication; and the application of widely divergent safety standards under which potentially dangerous biological work is conducted. Smithson usefully explores how these “encumbrances” plagued even the experienced and cosmopolitan UNSCOM members, who compensated for them through their creative strengths.

Smithson also usefully discusses the biological weapons inspectors’ views of the interaction of politics and science, particularly as it relates to Iraq’s compliance with its obligations to disarm and destroy its biological weapons program. What catches a reader off guard, however, is the author’s sense of frustration or surprise that those on the political side, largely in the person of UN diplomats, did not always accept, acknowledge, or act on the information inspectors provided. She concludes by arguing that “policymakers and scientists alike should spare no effort to ensure that every scrap of relevant factual data can be presented to policymakers” to inform “really hard decisions about compliance” with biological weapons prohibitions.

This conclusion implies that politicians and diplomats universally place a high priority on compliance. They do not—at least not all of them and not all the time. It is not just a question of avoiding difficult decisions, although sometimes diplomats do that. At least as often, policymakers decide that emphasizing compliance is not in their country’s interest. At the very least, acknowledging noncompliance requires one to do something about it, something that states would often prefer not to do because of the interests they have in play, not least with the state identified as the miscreant. The history of nonproliferation of biological weapons as well as chemical and nuclear weapons is replete with examples of inaction in the face of strong evidence of noncompliance; the reaction too often has been an unwillingness to investigate or take action. The sad reality is that, in the nonproliferation world, politics almost always trumps science.

The issue of the interaction of politics and science is especially noteworthy here because it relates to one of the goals of Stimson’s book, to examine the UNSCOM experience for what it might imply for addressing biological weapons challenges in the future. Since UNSCOM was disbanded in 1999, there has been a debate among experts about whether it stands as a model for future efforts to investigate suspected or identified biological weapons programs, particularly under the auspices of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). What emerges from Germ Gambits is the stark realization that no cookie-cutter approach to inspections or other investigative practices will be adequate. No set of procedures, no matter how robust, intrusive, or elaborate, can guarantee success. The story of UNSCOM’s biological weapons work draws one to the reality that, in the end, it is not the process that is decisive, but the quality of the people.

Smithson reports that UNSCOM biological weapons inspectors themselves were divided on the question of whether its experience can be “extrapolated to the monitoring of the international bioweapons ban.” One group proclaimed the effort a commendable success applicable to other settings. A second group’s view was captured by a senior inspector who argued that “it is extremely doubtful that any inspection regime will or can be successful.” Smithson herself seems to agree with the former view. Noting that the BWC has been described as “inherently unverifiable,” she argues that “[t]he achievements of UNSCOM’s biological inspectors directly challenge this platitude.”

In Living Weapons, Koblentz takes a different view: “[T]he conditions that made [UNSCOM’s] accomplishment possible are not readily generalizable to the verification of the BWC…. UNSCOM had several advantages that a multilateral verification for the BWC could not have.” In Koblentz’s view, these advantages included strong support from the UN Security Council, which bolstered UNSCOM’s work with “the most comprehensive economic sanctions ever on Iraq” and which used the leverage of ongoing sanctions to force the Iraqis to change their behavior. (Smithson describes how that support waned in UNSCOM’s later years with a concomitant decline in the success of the inspectors.) He also includes as advantages the ever-present threat of the renewal of military operations, the exhaustive declarations required of Baghdad, and what Koblentz deems UNSCOM’s “extraordinary powers” that, in his view, go far beyond anything that could be agreed in a large, multilateral negotiation.

Koblentz’s discussion of UNSCOM is far less detailed than Smithson’s, as one would expect given the broader scope of his book. However, it is still useful because he uses it to elaborate on the extremely knotty problem of verifying compliance with arms control obligations dealing with biological weapons. Although a reader may disagree with his conclusions, one cannot but admire the careful consideration he brings to this complex issue and the conscientious research he has conducted to support that discussion.

Facing Complex Issues

Indeed, these are strengths of the book more generally, particularly Koblentz’s willingness to take on several of the most problematic issues, such as verification, at the core of the challenge of responding effectively to the constantly evolving and increasingly complex set of biological risks. One is the management and oversight of biological weapons programs in a realm where secrecy is paramount and transparency stands about as far from common practice as one can get. In this chapter, Koblentz illustrates with examples from the Soviet Union, Russia, and South Africa the “range of pathologies” that the unusually high level of secrecy that has traditionally attached to biological weapons programs can introduce into the decision-making and supervision of such programs. In particular, Koblentz contends, the strict compartmentalization that is a central feature of such secrecy restricts the information available to senior officials about the nature and conduct of the program and limits the range of knowledge of participants. As a result, such programs often achieve a high degree of autonomy, thereby escaping review by senior officials and creating a “dissonance between the military means and political ends in a state’s grand strategy.”

A second issue relates to profound problems associated with collecting, evaluating, and exploiting intelligence related to biological risks. In Koblentz’s view, those intelligence-related problems are so great that “intelligence on biological threats will most likely not be sufficient to prevent surprise.” Koblentz describes well the impact of operating with inadequate intelligence: complicating the development and deployment of effective defenses, hampering efforts to verify state compliance, increasing the challenges of rallying domestic and international support for diplomatic efforts when states are noncompliant, hindering military action, and engaging in worst-case planning that leads to exaggerated reactions to perceived threats.

A third difficult question he addresses is the dimension of the biological risk spectrum that has emerged relatively recently, the potential misuse of the life sciences by nonstate actors, particularly terrorists. Koblentz provides a balanced assessment of the problem, neither hyping the challenge nor conveying complacency. He rightly argues that today the problem may not be as severe as some public commentators contend. He suggests, however, that there is no guarantee the future will resemble the past and, for a variety of reasons, the prospects of terrorist misuse of the life sciences in the future represent a worrisome contingency.

For each of these issues, Koblentz draws on a rich research foundation to map out clearly and concisely the contours shaping the conceptual and policy terrain of the challenge. He then provides a variety of useful examples drawn from the experiences of the last three decades to help readers navigate their way to an appreciation of just how difficult it will be to combat this challenge in the years ahead.

Each of these books is valuable for readers who are interested in future international security challenges, but each also can be vexing. Some of the introductory material in Living Weapons on the nature and characteristics of biological weapons has been well covered elsewhere in a wide variety of sources. Germ Gambits can overload the reader with overwhelming and perhaps unnecessary details of virtually every biological inspection UNSCOM conducted.

Moreover, although the value of the inspectors themselves telling their story is apparent, the account in Germ Gambits would be enriched by discussion of the political context within which their work proceeded, especially the politics in play at the UN Security Council. These developments are not ignored, but their mention is relatively perfunctory and leaves the reader asking such questions as why a key member country of the council took the decisions it did to advance or inhibit the work of the inspectors.

Finally, even as both books conclude with recommendations for addressing the daunting challenges they so articulately lay open, they do so without seriously addressing a central question that will shape the effectiveness of any future efforts to manage biological risks. The biological realm is evolving at an astonishing pace. The changes in the life sciences and associated technology are so profound that they are leading some respected observers to label the next hundred years “the century of biology.” In neither case do the authors of these admirable books systematically examine their otherwise well-considered suggestions in light of this remarkable phenomenon or explore how the utility of such measures might be affected by it. Most of the policy tool kit for combating biological risks was assembled in the 20th century. Only a decade into the 21st, the utility of those tools is beginning to be seriously questioned. It can only be hoped that these two experts will turn their prodigious talents to examining the implications of that future and that policymakers will be paying attention as they do. ACT


Michael Moodie is assistant director for foreign affairs, defense, and trade at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). He is a former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and president of a policy research center, in which capacities he focused on chemical and biological weapons issues. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent positions or policies of the Library of Congress or CRS.

Ambition and Realism for the BWC Review Conference: An Interview With President-Designate Paul van den IJssel

Interviewed by Oliver Meier

Interviewed by Oliver Meier

Paul van den IJssel, the Dutch ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, is president-designate of the 2011 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference, which is scheduled to take place December 5 to 22. He is a career diplomat in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Van den IJssel spoke with Arms Control Today by telephone from Geneva on September 30 about the upcoming review conference. He said he was seeing a “convergence of views” on many of the key issues, but emphasized that there still is much work to be done to close the remaining divisions on technical and political issues.

The interview was transcribed by Xiaodon Liang. It has been edited for clarity. A shorter version appeared in the November issue of Arms Control Today.  

ACT: Mr. Ambassador, you have made “ambitious realism” the motto of framing expectations for the review conference. What specific decisions to strengthen the BWC do you think the review conference can adopt? On which issues do you expect states-parties to focus? During your consultations so far, have there been particular issues where you think more work is needed to achieve consensus?

Van den IJssel: Let’s start with your last point. We are more than two months away from the review conference. A lot of work has been done, but of course a lot of work still has to be done as well. I think we have a lot of areas where we already have a kind of convergence of views. But there are also other areas where more work is to be done. Sometimes these are divisions of views that have to do with just technical issues, and sometimes there are slightly more politically based differences. So, that’s as a general comment.

It is unlikely that more than two months away you will have already consensus on many issues. But I’m still very positive. I think we’ve seen thinking developing in capitals, in delegations, and I think there is a lot of common ground on which we can work. That’s one.

What are the issues? Of course, it’s up to the states-parties to say what the issues are. But I tried to speak to as many as possible and quite frequently. I go to the regional groups, and I go to seminars and workshops. What I read and what I hear is basically that we more or less agree on what the main topics are. I’ll just give them in the order in which they come into my head; this is not a kind of priority order, certainly not my priority or the priority order of a particular state-party.

The first I want to mention is Article 10, the issue of assistance and cooperation on peaceful use of science and biotechnology. There is an interest among many states-parties to improve assistance and cooperation. So that is an issue, we will have to see how we can better organize ourselves. A lot is being done already, not always under the heading of the BWC because if you have public health programs, they may well be useful in the context of the BWC, but they probably are labeled under development cooperation or health cooperation.

Many countries would like to better organize that. Of course, there are different ideas on how to do that. Some say “I don’t want to have that”; others say “I want to have that.” That is a problem still. It is something we will have to look at.

Second issue is the issue of the intersessional process. We have five-year review conferences, but we also have had in the past years annual meetings, both on the expert level and of states-parties. We’ll have to discuss how we’re going to organize that in the next period, at least the next five years, perhaps longer, but certainly the next five years, and that is important.

First of all, we have to take a decision on that because if we don’t take a decision, there will be no intersessional meetings. This is not something where we can just sit on our hands and then everything will continue as it was. So basically, the discussion is there on how best to organize ourselves and what issues we want to discuss.

I must say there is a great convergence of views. What I hear is that most people say yes, we should continue with an intersessional process. Meeting every five years is not enough; we should meet annually. Most countries say there should be an intersessional process in one form or the other. I always have to be careful, but I think most countries say yes, and it’s also good to have a combination of experts meet and diplomats, representatives of states. Perhaps they jointly meet, or sometimes they separately meet. But that is considered by most states-parties as a good thing, and we should continue that. There are some proposals on the table to organize it slightly differently, so that is important.

Then of course, there is an issue there, and we have different views, whether we should be able to take some decisions in the intersessional process.[1] There you have different views, but we have to see whether we can find common ground there. If you talk about strengthening the convention, and that’s actually also true for Article 10, this is very much about strengthening the convention, because I think the point of departure is what we have. I think the proposals which are on the table aim to make it better.

Third point, science and technology. Again we have a lot of convergence of views that it’s important that we regularly have an idea on what’s happening in the fields of bioscience and biotechnology, to see whether everything we do is still relevant. I think everyone agrees. We have to decide on how to better structure that. There are some ideas on the table that we have a kind of annual review of developments in the field of science and technology. All very interesting ideas.

As I see it, there is a lot of convergence of views that we need to have a more structured approach to this thing because everyone is aware that developments in the field of bioscience and biotechnology are taking place at a very rapid pace and on a global scale. This is not just taking place in some countries, but many countries in the world are involved in bioscience and biotechnology and are becoming increasingly important players. So there we have to see how best to organize ourselves again. If we would find a mode where we would more structurally reflect on these issues, I think that is certainly strengthening the convention and the regime.

Another topic: confidence-building measures [CBMs]. We have a set of  CBMs agreed in 1986, politically binding, not legally binding but politically binding.[2] States-parties have committed to send information every year to the ISU [Implementation Support Unit], and the ISU then distributes that information to states-parties or makes it available on its Web site for states-parties. That includes informational things like how many BSL [biosafety level]-3, BSL-4 labs[3] do you have, unusual outbreaks of diseases, that kind of information.

We have a number of problems there. First of all, only half the states-parties participate and the question is, are these measures still as relevant as when they were developed? Now there is a lot of information which is available on the Internet. Thinking about some things has changed. So we have to look at these measures carefully to see whether we can perhaps make them more up to date, more relevant, and that also includes an effort to increase the participation. Perhaps we have to look at [whether] some questions pose an undue burden on administrations, on industry, on the scientific community. We have to look at that.

I think this analysis is shared by many parties, so we will have to look at whether we can find consensus on what the new measures would be, or what we’re going to change. I know some countries are very active in this and doing a lot of work. Again, my idea at present, and I’ve discussed this already with states-parties, is that we should try to take already some decisions at the RevCon [review conference], also some substantive discussions if possible, but also this is an issue on which further work may be required during the intersessional process. Then of course, you come back to this question, can we take decisions? If we can’t take decisions, then the intersessional process has to make a recommendation to the RevCon. If they can’t take decisions, then they can’t take decisions.

Next issue is the ISU. Again, this is not a priority order. I stress that. The ISU is very dear to my heart. We do not have a full-fledged organization like the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] or the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. We have a very small unit consisting of three persons working very hard. Their main job is to help states-parties to implement the treaty, and they help the president [of the review conference], and I’m glad they do.

First of all, we have to decide on whether we continue with an ISU because its mandate expires.[4] I hear a lot of convergent views that we have to continue; at a minimum, we have to continue with the ISU in its present form because everyone is quite appreciative of its work and recognizes it’s important to have this small unit dedicated to the BWC. So that seems to be the point of departure.

But then, the discussion is, do we have perhaps to expand? They are now three persons; do we need to have four or five, and what do they have to do? Basically in a different order of course. First, what do they have to do, and do we need additional manpower or womanpower for that? Again, that’s a discussion. I think a lot of delegations say yes, it would be good if they had one or two additional staff members, because, for example, in the field of Article 10, they may have to do more, perhaps in the field of CBMs. If we’re going to change the intersessional process structure, that may cause some more work for them. Even now they have difficulties to do everything we want them to do. The end result will be, I hope, certainly if we expand [the ISU], that it would be strengthening of the convention.

Then the universality issue. This convention has, as of May this year, 164 members. That is quite a lot because 164 states is the overwhelming majority of states in this world. But still, it’s not enough. We would like to have universal membership. That’s also a special responsibility of the president.

I’ve had meetings with the states which are not yet parties to this treaty quite regularly, and I urged them to join. We had some positive responses, so I hope that we will have one or two more member states before the conference starts.[5] But this is very much ongoing work, work in progress. Maybe we have to decide on the kind of activities we will undertake in the next five years to encourage other states to become a party to this treaty. That is important because although the norm that you will not use bioscience as a weapon of war or a weapon of aggression or a weapon of terror is recognized by all governments and certainly by all populations, it would be still very useful if by subscribing to this norm, which is contained in this treaty, everyone would clearly see that this is really something notable. So I see it as a personal task, personal responsibility of the president as well, but it is also something where the broader group of states-parties has to do something.

Then another issue is the issue of compliance and verification that has been, over the last 10 years, always a bit controversial. There was a negotiation on a protocol which contained, among others, provisions on verification. That was turned down in 2001 because the United States had a great problem with that.[6] We are still discussing how we can still perhaps think of some other measures—compliance measures, demonstrating compliance, voluntary—we’ll have to see. There are also states that say, “No, we still should work toward a legally binding verification regime.” So that is a bit of a difficult knot to untie.

I hope that we will have a kind of nonideological, flexible debate and see what is achievable. I think that taking into account the positions of some countries, it’s very difficult to start to pick up the 2001 protocol negotiations again. But I hope we, or, I mean it’s not just me of course, but the states-parties, and the ISU, have some ideas where we could enhance compliance and measures which are acceptable to all. So that’s a challenge; we’re not yet there. But I’m hopeful because I hear on the one hand the ambitions of people who want to do something; on the other hand realism, knowing that you have to do it with 164, you need to have consensus on these measures.

So that is basically it. I may have forgotten one or two topics, but these are the topics which probably will play a main role at the RevCon. If we can find good solutions, in my view they strengthen the convention. You asked about “ambitious realism.” My ambition is that we will just do a little bit more than what you sometimes do in multilateral disarmament: find the lowest common denominator. No, we’ll find the highest common denominator. That’s what I hope.

ACT: Thanks very much. Can I follow up on a couple of the issues that you mentioned, maybe first on the last one that you mentioned: verification? One of the ideas that has been floated is to agree on a mechanism at the review conference to evaluate possible transparency and verification measures leading up to the next review conference, particularly in light of new technical developments over the last decade since the ad hoc group [established by the BWC parties to negotiate a legally binding compliance regime for the treaty] has failed. Do you think this is something that could achieve consensus, that you have such a new mechanism to look at monitoring and verification possibilities?

Van den IJssel: As I said, there is a discussion that, for example, we could have during the intersessional process, compliance and compliance measures. Perhaps. There are some suggestions that that could be kind of a revolving topic that comes back every year. Well, we can look at that. I wouldn’t [use] the word “mechanism,” but [rather] we say every year we’re going to discuss the possibility of enhancing compliance. How do we do that? Well, there are a number of ideas circulating, and states-parties may have different ideas. That may result in a number of agreements we strike on what we do. One of the ideas, for example, which circulated is voluntary visits to BSL-3 or BSL-4 facilities. There are a number of ideas out there. I think they could be perhaps the way in which we have to go. As I said, the word “mechanism”—well, we can call it a mechanism. I would say that it’s identified by many states as a topic on which we have to do further work on an annual basis in the intersessional process. That is how I understand what a lot of states-parties say.

ACT: You mentioned that some of the ideas to strengthen the CBM process would be agreed at the review conference. At the same time, the United States and others have mentioned the idea of a follow-on process to review the CBMs between this review conference and the next review conference. Do you think that is realistic?

Van den IJssel: Yes, that’s absolutely compatible with what I say. My idea, and I think a lot of states-parties have at least given me the idea that they have similar thoughts, is that we should try a two-track approach. The first track is being tried to get some decisions or some substantive measures on the CBMs at the RevCon. The second track is to give a mandate or an instruction, however you call it, a mandate to the intersessional process to discuss further work on the CBMs, because the CBMs are sometimes quite complicated, quite technical, and it’s very difficult in three weeks to come up with real conclusions on some of these issues. So they may need further work. My idea is not just to refer everything to the intersessional process. But as I said, two tracks. First track, take some substantive discussions and then say, “What is the further work which has to be done at the intersessional process?” Second track is that the intersessional process will do this further work. Then again the question, is that with the view to take decisions in the intersessional process or with the view to make recommendations to the next RevCon? That depends on this other discussion, but I think what you just said is completely compatible with this idea. From what I hear, at least, many countries are thinking along these lines.

ACT: I have a more general question also on the focus of the BWC. The U.S. national strategy for countering biological threats emphasizes the threat from nonstate actors misusing biological agents for hostile purposes. Is it your impression that this perspective is shared by the majority of states-parties?

Van den IJssel: I think that most states-parties agree. When the convention was drafted and negotiated and entered into force, it was the mid-1970s. Then, we had a different world. We had a world which was basically divided between East and West, and things like terrorism, nonstate actors, were, well, almost unknown entities. I exaggerate a bit because of course we always had nonstate actors, but if you talked about disarmament and arms control, you didn’t think about them. You thought about states and massive armies and strategies and tactics. I think we have all become aware, certainly since the 1990s, and certainly in the first decade of this century, that terrorism, nonstate actors have become a much more important element in discussions. I think that is widely shared.

The sixth review conference [in 2006] had wording on the use of biological agents as a terrorist weapon by, for example, nonstate actors, so I think there is a lot of agreement there.[7] We might again have to pay attention to that. But of course, nonstate [actors] are by nature not members of the convention. So it’s still states that have to do things. I haven’t noticed that there is broad disagreement on the idea that we should pay more attention not only to states, but also to nonstate actors and groups who would, may abuse bioscience for offensive purposes. The example always is the anthrax letters [in the United States in 2001]; that was not another state that did that, it was an individual, I think, who used that as a plot to spread horror and to kill people. Five or six people got killed. We are very much aware that is certainly a threat. Again, I don’t see any basic difference in the analysis

ACT: In past review conferences, sometimes specific allegations of noncompliance against states-parties have been a problem, and the United States continues to allege that some BWC members are not in compliance with their obligations under the treaty. How do you expect the review conference to address those and other concerns of noncompliance?

Van den IJssel: First of all, I haven’t heard of any country wanting to express specific allegations at this RevCon. I don’t know, maybe they haven’t told me. I haven’t heard. If they come, we will discuss them. Of course, you have a consultation mechanism that actually is not related to RevCons; you can use that at any time. It has been used once, when Cuba alleged the United States was using certain biological agents against crops.[8] Let’s again approach this from a more general point of view. I think that we have to look at the issue of compliance, transparency again, and see whether we can strengthen it. If you have concerns about specific countries, that may well be, but I think it’s also in the interest of all states-parties if we look at possibilities to better deal with these kinds of concerns. That would be my answer, and this is the discussion I’m involved in. I haven’t heard of, let’s say, at this point in time, any state that would like to make specific allegations. There may be concerns, but I haven’t heard of that in more specifics.

ACT: You mentioned the issue of universality. One region that’s of particular interest is the Middle East, which is in a period of political transition. Is it your impression, in your consultations also, that this opens up new opportunities for progress on universality?

Van den IJssel: I hope so. Of course, in the Middle East a lot is happening. In my consultations, I have talked to some countries in the Middle East who are not yet parties to this treaty. I very much urged them to join. I know that their position is slightly different from other parties, states who are not yet parties, because they link the behavior of other states to whether they will join the BWC. There is that link between the NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention], and the BWC. In my consultations with them, I continue to tell them that—I, of course, listen very carefully to what they say, but I still think that there is no good reason not to join the BWC. I think there are a lot of states that subscribe to this norm, and I think [the Middle Eastern nonparties] do. I see no good reason [to refrain from joining the BWC] because then you don’t subscribe to the norm but nevertheless you abide by it. So what is the idea, that you’re going to break out? I don’t think so. So I urge them to join.

Second point is there may be a conference next year on a weapons of mass destruction [WMD]-free zone in the Middle East.[9] That is a conference, a first step, I hope, an important step toward a WMD-free zone. The topic of that conference is not just nuclear weapons; it’s all weapons of mass destruction including [biological weapons]. I already get invitations from events which are taking place in the context of that conference. We don’t even know where it will take place, but already the [European Union] had a seminar. I know there are other countries that have seminars, conferences, on this topic, and I very much try [to make sure] that the biological weapons element to it is present, to outline that it’s not just about one category of weapons of mass destruction, but certainly also about biological weapons, and again, I don’t see any reason why [the BWC] can’t be acceded to. As I said, I [listen] very carefully, and I must say my discussions with these countries are quite open, they’re very transparent and very friendly, and I hear what they say about linking the NPT and CWC and BWC to one another, but still I think [there is] no good reason not to sign up to the BWC. Hopefully, this conference next year—if it takes place, and I hope it does—will be another encouragement for these countries to accede to the convention.

ACT: Can I turn to one of the other specific issues that you mentioned, which is the ISU? You mentioned the discussion about strengthening that body. One other proposal that has been mentioned is to turn it into a permanent body to support the BWC. There’s also been a proposal to set up a bureau of regional representatives to improve interaction among states-parties. Are these two ideas something that states-parties might agree on at the review conference?

Van den IJssel: They are two separate things, of course. The first one is making the ISU more permanent. That is possible, that we will say that we’re not having the mandate expire by definition in 2016 but that it will continue unless we decide otherwise. That is a possibility. We have to see whether that is feasible. I think it’s quite logical to have a moment where you look at what you have decided in the past and say whether that’s all still appropriate. So you could do that in any different way. You say we continue unless we decide otherwise, for example, then you decide to evaluate what has happened. We have to see. I must say, so far, discussions where I’ve been present didn’t focus on that particular aspect; it was more on the expansion of the ISU and the continuation of the ISU. But it is a possibility.

Second point. I know that some countries, although I haven’t seen a concrete proposal yet, have argued that it would be good if we have some more state-party or political guidance process. Now it is more or less handed over from president to president, and if the review conference is over, I still may be involved. But that is not all formally quite clear and depends very much on the persons in question and whether you have time and if you are still in Geneva; if it’s somebody else, it’s difficult. So the idea I’ve heard most is to have a kind of permanent bureau, based on regional distribution as well—all the regions should be represented—which would be a kind of, call it, “administration”—more in the American sense than in the European sense—guiding body, however you like to call it—also giving guidance to the ISU in the period between RevCons.

I know this idea is out there, at least in the minds of some. Interesting ideas. It will be interesting to see what will happen in the next two months, whether that will get support. It could be an element to enforce, to strengthen the regime. That’s why I have a very open mind to such proposals. But I haven’t seen it in writing yet. But it’s interesting.

There have been in other fields actually similar proposals. I remember at the NPT [review] conference such a suggestion was made. I very much agree with the idea that is behind it. After all, the states-parties own the convention; it’s not the ISU. The ISU is there to help us, and they do a great job. But at the end of the day, the success or the failure of some things we do is due to states-parties and not to the ISU. I think we all want to have a successful regime, so maybe this idea of having some more kind of small standing, guiding—“standing” is a big word, but [the idea] that you have kind of a guiding organ, is an interesting one. But we’ll have to see whether it flies. I must say I have heard it only a couple of times and haven’t seen a paper yet, but maybe that will change. As I said, we still have more than two months to go.

ACT: Final question. From your very personal perspective: This is a very broad range of issues here, but which three issues do you really think the review conference needs to focus on and address most urgently?

Van den IJssel: No, I can’t. I’ll just say there are two issues we have to take a decision or else things are changed. Those are the intersessional process and the ISU. The other things are important and different states may attach different value to different points. I think we have to solve them all and we have to look forward, and I think we can.

ACT: Thanks very much.



1. Since 2003, parties to the Biological Weapons Convention have held meetings in years in which a review conference did not take place. At these meetings, which address specific topics, the parties do not make decisions that would be legally binding.

2. Pursuant to understandings reached at the BWC review conferences in 1986 and 1991, BWC member states are politically bound to submit annual confidence-building measure data declarations covering a variety of topics relevant to compliance with the convention, including unusual outbreaks of infectious disease, maximum-containment laboratories, facilities that produce human vaccines, and national biodefense programs, facilities, and activities.

3. A biosafety level indicates the biocontainment precautions required to isolate dangerous biological agents in an enclosed facility. BSL-4 is the highest level.

4. At the last review conference, in 2006, the parties established the ISU; but at the insistence of the United States, the mandate contains a sunset clause according to which the next review conference will evaluate the unit’s performance and mandate. See Oliver Meier, “States Strengthen Biological Weapons Convention,“ Arms Control Today, January/February 2007.

5. Since the interview, Burundi became the 165th party to the treaty.

6. In 2001 the United States rejected a compliance protocol for the BWC on the grounds that the proposed verification mechanism would not improve or increase trust in compliance with the convention. See Rebecca Whitehair and Seth Brugger, “BWC Protocol Talks in Geneva Collapse Following U.S. Rejection,” Arms Control Today, September 2001.

7. In the final declaration of the 2006 review conference, the parties agreed that “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and whatever its motivation, is abhorrent and unacceptable to the international community, and that terrorists must be prevented from developing, producing, stockpiling, or otherwise acquiring or retaining, and using under any circumstances, biological agents and toxins, equipment, or means of delivery of agents or toxins, for nonpeaceful purposes.”

8. In 1997, Cuba accused the United States of releasing Thrips palmi insects over its territory in order to attack the island’s agriculture. The incident became the first case to be discussed under the BWC Article 5 consultation mechanism. Under the consultations, it was not possible to reach a definitive conclusion with regard to the concerns raised by Cuba, but no follow-on actions were recommended.

9. At the 2010 NPT review conference, the parties to that treaty agreed to convene a conference in 2012 to be attended by all states in the Middle East “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states.” See Patricia Lewis and William C. Potter, “The Long Journey Toward a WMD-Free Middle East,” Arms Control Today, September 2011.

Reviewing Nuclear Guidance: Putting Obama's Words Into Action

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Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris

The success of President Barack Obama's goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons and setting out on a path toward their elimination is at a critical juncture. Two and a half years after his Prague speech reinvigorated the international community with a promise to "put an end to Cold War thinking" by "reduc[ing] the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,"[1] Obama has ordered a review of the requirements for how the military should plan for the potential use of nuclear weapons.

The review is probably Obama's most important and perhaps last chance to change the role that nuclear weapons have traditionally played in U.S. national security strategy. The result of the review will be a broad rewriting of directives and analyses that are used to guide military planners in preparing the country's forces and strategic nuclear war plan. How different the new guidance will be depends in no small measure on how efficiently the president is able to steer the review through a morass of interservice competition, institutional inertia, Cold War mind-sets, defense contractor lobbying, and personal preferences.

Like all policy reviews, this one will trigger fierce battles among departments, agencies, and individuals who support or disagree with the president's vision. Some will argue that the United States can and should reduce its nuclear forces and that the nuclear mission and war plan, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, still are dominated by Cold War thinking. Others will argue that the current force structure has served the United States and its allies well and that the world is too dangerous and uncertain to scale back forces and mission further until Russia and China become less adversarial.

Obama will need to maintain keen and persistent oversight to ensure that the review is being implemented according to his wishes. If he is not attentive or loses focus, the review will almost certainly be co-opted and diffused by various bureaucracies.

This is not a public process. Reviewing the basis for the strategic nuclear war plan is as secret as it gets. Traditionally, the war plan has had its own level of classification. When it was known as the SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan), it was SIOP-ESI, for Extremely Sensitive Information. The more recent versions are likely the same. Despite its importance, few in the White House or Congress have ever seen the plan, much less understand how it is created. Unlike the process the administration used in drafting its "Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report," there will be no unclassified document to inform the public debate or the international community. If the past is any indication, the only information the world will hear about the result of this review is a carefully leaked story to a major newspaper and a few general remarks by officials, if that.

Preparing for Further Reductions

According to national security adviser Tom Donilon, the Obama administration is "making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions." As a consequence, the strategic requirements for the U.S. nuclear posture will need to be reassessed, including "potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures."[2] General Robert Kehler, the head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), acknowledged the administration's intention to "review and revise the nation's nuclear strategy and guidance on the roles and missions of nuclear weapons."[3]

Outdated presidential nuclear guidance can be a hindrance to reducing nuclear arms and lead to wasteful spending on excessive force levels. During the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) III talks in 1996-1997, for example, it became clear that the presidential guidance dated back to October 1981 (President Ronald ReaganΓÇÖs National Security Decision Directive-13), a decade before the end of the Cold War. In November 1997, the Clinton administration issued an updated nuclear weapons employment policy (Presidential Decision Directive-60, or PDD-60) that reduced strike planning against Russia, but increased strike planning against China and so-called rogue states (or "states of concern," as they later were known) with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, the military's interpretation of PDD-60 still translated into a stockpile of 10,000 nuclear warheads. When the administration of George W. Bush sought to reduce the stockpile, it issued an updated nuclear employment policy (National Security Presidential Directive-14, or NSPD-14) in June 2002. That directive lowered the planning requirement against Russia, allowing for a stockpile decrease of nearly 50 percent while increasing planning against regional proliferators.

The force levels set by New START, which entered into force earlier this year, also are based on the Bush administration's guidance. "The force level that was agreed to and the assessments that were made... were based upon a series of deterrence objectives that have been in place for quite some time," according to Kehler.[4] In other words, the U.S. nuclear force level had been in excess of national security needs for some time, making it possible to trim the force level for New START without changing the guidance. Under the terms of the treaty, the new force level does not have to be reached until 2018. Thus, there is not an urgent need to update the guidance if no further cuts are made.

If there are negotiations on a new round of reductions, however, the administration needs to develop a series of force structure options, and that will require new guidance. "Reductions below the level that we have now are going to require some more fundamental questions about force structure," according to Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and WMD terrorism. Samore said the United States has "reached a level in our forces where further reductions will raise questions about whether we retain the triad or whether we go to a system that only is a dyad."[5] The triad currently includes intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range (heavy) bombers.

Shortly before stepping down from his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen offered a similar assessment. "At some point in time, that triad becomes very, very expensive... [A]t some point in time, in the future, certainly I think a decision will have to be made in terms of whether we keep the triad or drop it down to a dyad," he said. [6]

The Bureaucratic Labyrinth

The targeting review began this summer with Obama ordering the Department of Defense to develop options for reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons. It will end with publication of an updated or a new strategic nuclear war plan. Between those two points lie 12 to 18 months of working groups, studies, simulations, and the creation of guidance documents that culminate in the war plan itself.[7]

Along the way, scores of officials from the military services, federal agencies, and defense contractors will pore over existing guidance, planning documents, and war plans to determine Obama's intentions and how they might affect the posture. Emerging from this initial review process will be a series of options that that will be provided to Obama. He will either choose one or ask for modifications and revisions. Eventually, there will be a presidential policy directive (PPD) that describes his priorities on what the new nuclear weapons employment policy is.

That is only the beginning of the process. From the time the new PPD leaves ObamaΓÇÖs desk, scores of civilian and military officials will begin to "translate" the guidance by adding their own interpretation of the president's words that may alter or even undermine his intentions.

This is the fate of almost any policy generated from top levels of the executive branch. Former STRATCOM Commander Admiral James Ellis recalls that "[the] president's direction to me was less than two pages; the Joint Staff's explanation of what the president really meant to say was twenty-six pages."[8] In the words of Admiral James Miller, who was deputy director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff under President Richard Nixon, "It is in the implementation that the true strategy evolves, regardless of what is generated in the political and policy-meeting rooms of any Administration."[9]

Guidance for the Employment of the Force. The first step in implementing the PPD will be preparation of the Guidance for the Employment of the Force (GEF), a document created by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The current GEF dates from 2008 and is a combination of the previous Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy and several other guidance documents. The GEF contains a list of specific strike options and targeting objectives against specific adversaries based on the presidential guidance. The options include Emergency Response Options, Selective Attack Options, Basic Attack Options, and Directed/Adaptive Planning Capability options. They range in size from employment of hundreds of nuclear warheads in a single strike against a broad section of an adversary's targets to the use of a few warheads against a few targets in a limited strike.

Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. The second step is formulation of the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (Nuclear Supplement), or JSCP-N, which is produced by the Joint Staff and is based on the GEF and presidential guidance. The JSCP-N directs and initiates the deliberate joint operations planning process for development of operational plans by assigning planning tasks and nuclear strike forces to the combatant commanders tasked with nuclear operations.[10]

Command Guidance. The third step is the Command Guidance issued by the commander of STRATCOM. Based on the PPD, GEF, and JSCP-N, the Command Guidance instructs the Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike (JFCC-GS) at STRATCOM how to modify the strategic nuclear war plan so it meets the new guidance. The JFCC-GS, formerly known as the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, is the Component Command at STRATCOM that designs, maintains, and, if so ordered by the president and the STRATCOM commander, executes the strategic war plan.

OPLAN 8010-08 (formerly SIOP). The fourth step is the production of the strategic war plan itself and its promulgation to the military services that maintain the nuclear forces for use by STRATCOM. The current plan is known as "Operations Plan (OPLAN) 8010-08 (Change 1) Strategic Deterrence and Global Strike." As noted above, the war plan was known as the SIOP during the Cold War. OPLAN 8010-08 (Change 1) went into effect on February 1, 2009, and remains the current plan.[11]

Options for Change

Each U.S. administration reviews the four aspects of nuclear policy (declaratory policy, acquisition, deployment, and employment). The Obama administration's review has the potential to be significant because it occurs at a point in the nuclear arms reduction process where changes begin to go beyond simply trimming Cold War force levels to requiring more-fundamental decisions about the nuclear force structure and mission in order to carry out the president's ambitious agenda.

The Prague speech declaration that the administration intends to "put an end to Cold War thinking" by "reduc[ing] the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy" is a rather high bar for the targeting review process to understand and implement. Although Obama did not specify what he meant by "Cold War thinking," the use of the term raises the question of exactly how the administration can reduce the role of nuclear weapons in ways that put an end to such thinking. If the administration is serious and receptive, numerous changes could be adopted.

Reduce Target Categories. One possibility is to reduce the number or categories of targets against which military planners are required to plan nuclear strikes. OPLAN 8010-08 is understood to include strike options against military forces, WMD infrastructure, military and national leadership, and war-supporting infrastructure. Not all categories are covered in all strike options; some may be focused on one or a few.

One or more of these target categories could be dropped or trimmed significantly. Nuclear planning in the 21st century will not be about winning nuclear wars by using nuclear strikes to deplete war-fighting assets but more about ensuring the right kind of retaliatory capability to deter nuclear attack in the first place.

Reduce Damage Expectancy. The new guidance could lower the requirement for how much damage must be accomplished to ensure that a target is destroyed. As specified in weapons effects manuals and guidance documents, "light damage" means "rubble, "moderate damage" means "gravel," and "severe damage" means "dust."[12]

If the guidance requires that target X be severely damaged rather than moderately damaged, then either additional warheads will have to be employed, or the characteristics of the weapon will have to be changed to make it more accurate or give it a higher yield. Therefore, how the damage criteria are set will determine a great deal about the size and composition of the arsenal. If damage expectancy can be lowered, then the number and capability of the weapons can be reduced.

Reduce the Mission. Another option is to reduce the missions for nuclear weapons. Currently, nuclear weapons are used to hold at risk all kinds of WMD facilities and systems, military forces, leadership, and war-supporting capabilities of six adversaries. Surely, this list can be narrowed.

The NPR Report created a new doctrine, according to Donilon, "that reduces the role of nuclear weapons in our overall defense posture by declaring that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks" as opposed to deterring conventional, chemical, and biological attacks.[13]

Yet, the report also declares that "there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring" an attack against the United States or its allies and partners involving conventional, chemical, or biological weapons. "The United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that the 'sole purpose' of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack."[14]

A sole-purpose mission would end nuclear planning against half of the six adversaries in OPLAN 8010-08. The six are not identified, but thought to be China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and a September 11-type attacker with unconventional weapons. Ending the requirement to plan nuclear strikes against conventional, chemical, or biological attacks would have the additional benefit of removing the contradiction with U.S negative security assurances, according to which the United States has pledged not to attack or threaten with nuclear weapons countries that are members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with the treaty.

To truly end Cold War thinking, the review would have to change the mission against the core adversaries, Russia and China.

Reduce the Number and Diversity of Strike Options. The guidance review could reduce the number of strike options that planners make available to the president. Post-Cold War nuclear war planning has been characterized by a proliferation of strike options precipitated by a renewed focus on proliferation of unconventional weapons to states of concern and a fear that they may share this technology with terrorist organizations.

The Clinton administration's PDD-60 and the Bush administration's NSPD-14 each expanded planning against regional proliferators. "STRATCOM is changing the nation's nuclear war plan from a single, large, integrated plan to a family of plans applicable in a wider range of scenarios," Ellis said in 2003.[15] The new plan "provides more flexible options to assure allies, and dissuade, deter, and if necessary, defeat adversaries in a wider range of contingencies," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers later explained.[16]

The philosophy seems to be that more diverse threats require more diverse options and all are offered to the president. A frequently heard claim is that "you cannot take options away from the president," but of course, one can. U.S. legislation and policy have done so frequently in the past, for example by prohibiting indiscriminate attacks on civilians and removing options to use chemical or biological weapons.

Reduce Alert Levels. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Obama's agenda included a pledge to work with Russia to take ballistic missiles off "hair-trigger" alert. For the first couple of months of 2009, the pledge was listed on the White House Web site. Once New START negotiations with Russia got under way, however, the pledge disappeared; the administration, as it indicated in the NPR Report, instead decided to maintain the current readiness level of nuclear forces. That was a complete policy reversal, although perhaps not a final one. As Samore explained earlier this year, as part of the target review, the White House is "expecting that options will be presented to the president that will look at the implications of changing the alert status and postures and what impact that would have on force size and structure."[17]

Predictably, some influential military and former officials have warned against de-alerting weapons, arguing that re-alerting them in a crisis would risk triggering escalation by causing an adversary to conclude that a first strike was imminent. Others have argued that nuclear forces on alert continuously pose a first-strike threat and that U.S. nuclear strategy already includes scenarios for increasing alert levels in a crisis and uploading thousands of reserve warheads.

The United States currently maintains an estimated 800 warheads on high alert, mainly on ICBMs and a handful of ballistic missile submarines, an important motivation for Russia to maintain a portion of its strategic nuclear forces on high alert as well. It is difficult to think of a feature of the current U.S. nuclear posture that symbolizes Cold War thinking more dramatically than the maintenance of strategic forces at high levels of alert. The ICBMs can be fired within minutes, and the submarines patrol at an "operational tempo" similar to that during the Cold War.

Short of fully de-alerting, a half step might be to remove the requirement for the military to plan for prompt launch of nuclear weapons, for example in a preventive attack or to limit the damage an adversarial attack could inflict. This change would significantly reduce the high requirement for the operational readiness of nuclear forces. The NPR Report described efforts to lengthen the decision time for nuclear use, a related but limited measure.

Reduce Damage Limitation Options. A classic Cold War mission is to seek to limit the damage an adversary's WMD forces can inflict on the United States and its allies by destroying the forces before they can be used. Although much less emphasis is placed on this mission today compared with the Cold War, the mission gained new life with the Bush administration's Global Strike mission in 2003, which planned for pre-emptive conventional and nuclear attacks against WMD targets in states of concern.[18] Removing the requirement to plan for damage-limitation options would essentially create a no-first-use policy without publicly committing to one.

Reduce From Triad to Dyad. The statements by senior White House and Defense Department officials that deeper cuts may require cutting one of the legs of the triad would, if implemented, require a major rewriting of the guidance and the strategic nuclear war plan that is derived from it. Targets previously covered by warheads on the amputated leg would have to be covered by warheads on the remaining two legs, or a decision would have to be made to stop holding those targets at risk. Moving to a dyad would require significant changes to the strike options within the war plan and the way forces are deployed.

Most analysts agree that the bombers are the most likely leg to be cut. The land-based and sea-based ballistic missile legs already carry most of the day-to-day deterrence mission, with bombers serving as a backup. Yet, a missile-only posture would retain the most offensive and potentially destabilizing characteristics of the arsenal and give up the bomber's capability to signal in a crisis or be recalled after a strike has been launched. If the goal is to move to deep cuts and reduce the role of nuclear weapons, then one of the ballistic missile legs will have to be cut.

Reduce Counterforce Planning. Another option is to reduce or end the counterforce mission of nuclear weapons. Counterforce is associated with the ability to attack military and leadership targets, with forces kept capable of launching on warning or pre-empting through high levels of alert.[19]

Historically, a half-dozen or so factors formed a counterforce targeting strategy, beginning in the early 1960s and continuing in the decades that followed. The most important factor was the geopolitical context of the Cold War with sophisticated intelligence capabilities and ever more accurate ballistic missiles. The identification of countless new targets in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact generated requirements for new warheads to cover them. Soviet efforts to harden facilities to withstand nuclear blasts further intensified the race for additional capabilities to sharpen U.S. nuclear counterforce capabilities.

The current central nuclear posture of the United States is widely understood to be primarily one of a counterforce attack with force-on-force planning for nuclear weapons used to destroy an adversary's nuclear weapons and other strategic assets. Because some of the targets are near or within population centers, however, countervalue targeting (sometime called "city-busting") is an unintended consequence. In fact, even pure counterforce attacks are likely to kill millions of civilians.

The degree to which the requirements that resulted in nuclear counterforce are still operative will partially determine whether counterforce can be reduced or abandoned and replaced with something else. Maintaining a credible deterrent is frequently described as threatening with highly reliable nuclear forces the targets an adversary values most. However, things are never simple or static when it comes to deterrence; and few terms in discussions of nuclear weaponry are more misused, misunderstood, or distorted than "deterrence." Indeed, as the Cold War vividly demonstrated, the concept of deterrence has been used to justify excessive nuclear forces levels and dangerous strategies.

Deterrence can be limited and simple or, as it turned out, expansive and complex. Over the decades, the concept went through many transmogrifications, ending up late in President Jimmy Carter's administration and then Reagan's to mean that the Soviet Union could only be deterred if it knew that the United States could fight and prevail in a nuclear war. Central to that goal was that the Soviet leadership and its instruments of political control and military power be in the crosshairs and be declared vulnerable.

Today's nuclear capabilities and the thrust of OPLAN 8010-08 are the direct descendants of this Cold War counterforce race. "Counterforce is preemptive, or offensively reactive,"STRATCOM concluded in a document prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2002. "Every [nuclear, biological, or chemical] weapon that is destroyed before it is used... is one less we must intercept... or absorb... and mitigate."[20] To end Cold War thinking, the Obama administration's targeting review must re-examine the need for nuclear counterforce to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.


Obama has an important opportunity to update the nuclear policy guidance for the U.S. nuclear force structure and employment policy in ways that would break from obsolete past practices, make future reductions possible, reduce the role of nuclear weapons, and improve U.S. and global security.

The current U.S. nuclear arsenal and the force structure planned under New START are far larger than required to deter a nuclear attack from Russia or any other nuclear-armed adversary on the United States and its allies. The oversized arsenal reflects the fact that U.S. military planners base targeting calculations on Cold War assumptions, including that U.S. forces must be able to destroy enemy nuclear forces and a wide range of other "strategic" assets in order to be credible. Consequently, previous nuclear policy reviews have only trimmed U.S. nuclear forces.

The guidance review should result in a smaller set of new strike options based on what is sufficient to deter the United States' potential nuclear-armed adversaries from initiating a nuclear attack on the United States, its allies, or its partners. The strike options should be based on a new approach to nuclear planning that significantly scales back the number and types of targets, the damage expectancy, the counterforce focus and force-on-force planning, and the operational readiness of the forces. This approach would significantly reduce the number of targets and missions and facilitate further reductions in the number of nuclear warheads and delivery platforms, while maintaining a secure and sufficiently credible nuclear deterrent.

Such steps would make the U.S. nuclear posture more consistent with the Obama administration's policy of significantly reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons and strengthening nonproliferation. An added benefit would be to facilitate significant budgetary savings in the years ahead by reducing the costs associated with current, multibillion-dollar plans to modernize not only each leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, but also nonstrategic nuclear capabilities, nuclear warheads, and the nuclear production complex. Such reductions will, in turn, also help convince Russia that it is in its security and financial interests to pursue further, parallel reductions in its equally bloated nuclear forces. ACT



Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, where Robert S. Norris is a senior fellow for nuclear policy.




1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, "Remarks by President Barack Obama," April 5, 2009, www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered.

2. Tom Donilon, "The Prague Agenda: The Road Ahead" (remarks at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, March 29, 2011, http://geneva.usmission.gov/2011/03/31/donilon-future-nuclear-policy/).

3. House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, The Status of United States Strategic Forces, 112th Cong., 1st sess., 2011, p. 121, www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-112hhrg65112/pdf/CHRG-112hhrg65112.pdf (answers of Gen. Robert Kehler, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, to questions submitted by Rep. Michael Turner).

4. Gen. Robert Kehler, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, in review of the defense authorization request for fiscal year 2012 and the Future Years Defense Program, June 3, 2011, p. 14, http://armed-services.senate.gov/Transcripts/2011/06%20June/11-46%20-%206-3-11.pdf.

5. "Pursuing the Prague Agenda: An Interview With White House Coordinator Gary Samore," Arms Control Today, May 2011.

6. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Address by Admiral Mike Mullen," September 20, 2011, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/92011_transcript_Mullen.pdf.

7. For a chronology of documents and updates of U.S. nuclear weapons guidance during the Bush administration, see Hans M. Kristensen, "U.S. Nuclear Weapons Guidance,"Nuclear Information Project, January 3, 2008, www.nukestrat.com/us/guidance.htm.

8. U.S. Strategic Command, "Commander U.S. Strategic Command End of Tour Interview for Admiral James O. Ellis, Jr.," June 18, 2004 (last updated January 17, 2006), p. 5 (copy on file with author).

9. Gerald E. Miller, "Beres and Others Have No Access to the 'True Strategy,'" Center Magazine, November/December 1982. Miller was deputy director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff from the summer of 1973 to September 1974.

10. For a description of the declassified fiscal year 1996 JSCP-N, see Hans M. Kristensen, "The Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) Nuclear Supplement," Nuclear Information Project, June 16, 2005, www.nukestrat.com/us/jcs/jscp.htm.

11. For a review of the post-Cold War evolution of the strategic nuclear war plan, see Hans M. Kristensen, "Obama and the Nuclear War Plan," Federation of American Scientists Issue Brief, February 2010, www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/publications1/WarPlanIssueBrief2010.pdf. For a detailed description of U.S. nuclear targeting, see Matthew McKinzie et al., "The U.S. Nuclear War Plan: A Time for Change," Natural Resources Defense Council, June 2001, www.nrdc.org/nuclear/warplan/index.asp.

12. Jerry Miller, Stockpile: The Story Behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), pp. 72-84. For a glossary of nuclear planning terminology and definitions, see William M. Arkin and Hans M. Kristensen, "The Post Cold War SIOP and Nuclear Warfare Planning: A Glossary, Abbreviations, and Acronyms," January 1999, www.nukestrat.com/pubs/SIOP%20Glossary%201999.pdf.

13. Donilon, "Prague Agenda."

14. U.S. Department of Defense, "Nuclear Posture Review Report," April 2010, p. 16.

15. J. O. Ellis, Memorandum to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "USSTRATCOM Request to Change the Name of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) to Operations Plan 8044," January 3, 2003, http://www.fas.org/blog/ssp/united_states/revision03-ellis.pdf.

16. Gen. Richard B. Myers, "Written Posture Statement to SAC-D," Washington, DC, April 27, 2005.

17. "Pursuing the Prague Agenda."

18. For a chronology of the Prompt Global Strike mission, see Hans M. Kristensen, "Global Strike: A Chronology of the Pentagon'S New Offensive Strike Plan," Federation of American Scientists, March 15, 2006, www.nukestrat.com/pubs/GlobalStrikeReport.pdf.

19. For a perceptive analysis of the formation of counterforce and the growth of the strategic arsenal, see Miller, Stockpile.

20. U.S. Department of Defense, Counterproliferation Operational Architecture, prepared by USSTRATCOM and U.S. Special Operations Command, April 26, 2002, pp. 3, 6, 9 (copy on file with author).  


NATO's Incredible Nuclear Strategy: Why U.S. Weapons in Europe Deter No One

At its November 2010 summit in Lisbon, NATO proclaimed itself a nuclear alliance, declaring that any change in the status of the 200-odd U.S. B61 gravity bombs stored in various sites around Europe would have to be made by consensus among all 28 allies.

Indeed, paragraph 17 of the Strategic Concept approved at the Lisbon summit made clear the intended duration of this policy:

Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy. The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.

Edmond Seay

At its November 2010 summit in Lisbon, NATO proclaimed itself a nuclear alliance, declaring that any change in the status of the 200-odd U.S. B61 gravity bombs stored in various sites around Europe would have to be made by consensus among all 28 allies.

Indeed, paragraph 17 of the Strategic Concept approved at the Lisbon summit made clear the intended duration of this policy:

Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy. The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.

This reaffirmation of the status quo disappointed many observers whose hopes had been raised by President Barack Obama’s Prague speech in April 2009. Several NATO members also were not pleased with the Lisbon declaration. Allies who wanted more thought given to changing NATO’s nuclear posture worked out a compromise by which the alliance would determine the right combination of conventional, nuclear, and missile defense forces ahead of the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. This Deterrence and Defense Posture Review has now completed an initial consultation phase and has begun the negotiating phase, which presumably will result in an agreed text by the May summit.

NATO, however, has a big problem. The confluence of several serious challenges has placed in doubt the safety, security, and effectiveness of the alliance’s nuclear deterrent: The weapons and their means of delivery are old, the weapons systems are vulnerable to sabotage and pre-emption; and these systems lack credibility, both operationally and politically.

This last point is crucial. Nuclear weapons that are not obviously useful in crisis situations are “incredible” in the strictest sense: they lack the credibility necessary to deter potential aggressors. NATO’s B61 bombs are not credible in an operational sense because there is no scenario in which NATO could believably load a B61 onto one of its “dual-capable” fighter-bomber aircraft and fly it in harm’s way, as that would amount to a suicide mission for NATO pilots. These weapons are “incredible” politically as well because there is no conceivable scenario under which all 28 NATO allies would grant consensus to use such weapons, especially in a time of crisis.

As NATO attempts to find its “appropriate mix” of deterrence and defense forces through the posture-review process, important questions about the alliance’s nuclear forces, and especially about the continued presence in Europe of U.S. theater nuclear weapons, can and should be raised by the publics and governments of all 28 member countries, especially those that host the weapons.

Dubious Justification

The justification for continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe rests on four main arguments: deterrence, reassurance, signaling, and burden sharing. A realistic examination of these arguments reveals that each of them is unconvincing at best.

Deterrence. According to the common argument, theater nuclear weapons in Europe prevent attacks by potential adversaries by threatening unacceptable damage in return. This is known as “extended deterrence,” a raising of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Europe.

A fundamental prerequisite for deterrence is credibility: an adversary is deterred when it believes that a retaliatory threat is credible and unacceptably harsh. NATO’s nuclear deterrent, however, is short on credibility.

Operationally, it defies belief that any of the four countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands) with B61 bombs and fleets of the needed planes would agree to send its pilots on what amounts to a suicide mission, no matter how grave the crisis of the day. (Turkey stores B61s on its territory, but has no dual-capable aircraft.)

Modern air-defense systems in states that could conceivably be the target of a NATO nuclear strike—Russia, Iran, or even Syria—are so formidable that a NATO nuclear mission would have to be preceded by an air defense suppression effort. These, in turn, are massive conventional air operations designed to take out radar sites, command and control nodes, and surface-to-air missile sites ahead of the nuclear strike. In short, a full-blown state of conventional war would have to exist before NATO could reliably employ U.S. theater nuclear weapons.

This fact leads inevitably to political considerations that make NATO’s credibility problem even greater. NATO makes all decisions by consensus, and on contentious issues, this can be problematic even in times of relative peace and quiet. During crises, consensus on such issues can be nearly impossible to reach. An example is the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003. The United States formally requested NATO support in undertaking military operations against Saddam Hussein’s regime, but no consensus was forthcoming. In fact, insiders still consider that debate to be the closest NATO ever came to splitting up.

A decision to employ nuclear weapons against any state would surely be an even more difficult sale to allies. Germany, for example, would be extremely reluctant to authorize the release of B61 bombs for potential use against Russia, and it would not be alone in that sentiment. Turkey, among others, would have enormous political problems in being seen as going along with a similar NATO decision regarding Iran or Syria. In short, neither the mechanics nor the politics of nuclear weapons use favor the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrent force.

Reassurance. Another argument frequently made in support of U.S. theater nuclear weapons in Europe is the alleged reassurance value these weapons hold for allies, especially those located closest to Russia. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

This guarantee of mutual self-defense is supposedly embodied in the U.S. B61s in Europe, which are believed by some to reassure eastern allies that the United States is committed to Article 5. There is an obvious problem here: if U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe lack the credibility to deter opponents, how can they possibly reassure allies? Beyond that, there is something more than a bit insulting in the supposition that, of all the visible and long-standing U.S. military efforts and elements in Europe, only the nuclear weapons matter.

In fact, eastern allies have repeatedly expressed a preference for the presence of U.S. troops on their soil as the best and most believable Article 5 guarantee. These “boots on the ground” may come in the form of U.S. military aircraft in Poland, land-based Standard Missile-3 interceptors in Romania, or other potential future deployments. The ongoing U.S. commitment to territorial missile defense in Europe may, in fact, be the best short-term way to replace the U.S. theater weapons’ alleged reassurance factor with a real one.

Signaling. Nuclear signaling is an arcane holdover from Cold War days. The theory is that by actively preparing for the use of nuclear weapons, countries can demonstrate intent and resolve to potential adversaries. Extreme forms of the theory even include limited use of nuclear weapons as a signal. Given the very lengthy lead time required to prepare aircraft to receive B61 bombs, it would seem that there is plausibility to this point and that an F-16 mated to a B61 has the potential to warn a potential adversary away from a given course of action in a way that an allied ballistic missile or Tomahawk cruise missile could not.

Here again, however, NATO faces problems. The B61s in Europe are only deliverable by dual-capable aircraft, which have limited ranges unless they are supported by aerial refueling capabilities. Practically speaking, the only potential foe that NATO nuclear-armed fighter-bombers could signal is Russia, which possesses several thousand theater nuclear weapons of its own. If NATO were to signal Russia by increasing the readiness of its nuclear-armed fighter-bombers in Germany, for example, Russia could simply respond by ostentatiously moving nuclear warheads into place to be able to load them quickly onto SS-26 ballistic missiles located near NATO territory.

If the target of nuclear signaling were instead Iran, NATO’s problems would increase exponentially. To send the same kind of signal, NATO would have to transport both dual-capable aircraft and B61 bombs to locations within operational distance of Iran. Such an exposure of extremely inviting targets to Iranian attack would never happen. Alternately, NATO could string together an aerial refueling chain that would allow B61-armed aircraft to fly toward Iranian airspace, but then the whole purpose of signaling would be lost. The signal that matters consists of preparing NATO’s dual-capable aircraft for use, not in actually using them. NATO would no more keep dual-capable fighter jets circling within range of Iranian targets than it would ship B61s to a base within range of Iran’s ballistic missiles.

Burden sharing. The final argument usually presented in favor of a continued U.S. nuclear presence in Europe is one most often made by U.S. commentators, that of burden sharing. Allied hosting of B61 bombs and operation of dual-capable fighter squadrons are seen as an acknowledgment by European allies of the large burden, financial and otherwise, undertaken by the United States in extending nuclear deterrence to Europe. Nuclear burden sharing thus supposedly demonstrates “old” Europe’s willingness to pay its own way. Most U.S. observers of NATO, however, would strongly prefer a different kind of burden sharing, financial rather than nuclear. NATO allies are pledged to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, but at present, only five allies do so. In a time of increasing concern over continuing economic recession, surely it would send a much stronger signal to the U.S. Congress and public if allies were to honor that fundamental obligation first. Allied contributions to territorial missile defense would also be well received, on Capitol Hill as well as on Main Street.


What, then, is to be done about the basing of U.S. theater nuclear weapons in Europe? The NATO posture review appears to be deadlocked along the same lines as the 2010 Strategic Concept debates, at least on the nuclear issue. Germany, Norway, Poland, and others would like NATO at least to contemplate meaningful change in its nuclear posture, and they want the alliance to hold substantive discussions with Russia on finding ways to reduce tensions arising from both sides’ continued deployment of theater nuclear weapons in Europe. France, on the other hand, refuses to allow any serious discussion of reducing the salience of nuclear weapons to NATO, fearing a hidden linkage with France’s independent strategic nuclear deterrent force.

With NATO unable to move forward on this issue, the presence of the U.S. weapons in Europe should be widely and publicly debated, with a special focus on credibility and on value for money. Furthermore, although NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements may not be in technical breach of provisions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—a subject that has been ferociously debated—it certainly violates the spirit of that treaty and lends cheap ammunition to those states that question NATO’s reason to exist in the 21st century.

For that matter, U.S. theater nuclear weapons in Europe provide Russia with the perfect excuse to do nothing about its own massive holdings of such weapons. The status quo suits the Russian government very well, as Moscow can simply invoke its precondition for talks on the removal of the U.S. weapons from Europe.

NATO policymakers should think carefully about why they have rejected this condition out of hand. If, as argued above, these systems have no credibility and thus no deterrent value, what is to be lost through their removal back to the United States? Among other effects, it would force Russia into the much less comfortable position of having to account for the beam in its own eye, rather than being able to point to the mote in NATO’s.

For operational, political, economic, and nonproliferation reasons, NATO needs to agree to the removal of the remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. Only NATO publics and governments can make that happen. Governments that care about this issue need to lobby fellow NATO members before, during, and after the 2012 Chicago summit, while publics need to demand greater transparency on discussions of nuclear posture and policy, both nationally and throughout NATO.

Edmond “Ted” Seay, who recently left the U.S. Foreign Service, was the principal arms control adviser to U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder from 2009 to 2011. He has specialized in arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation issues since 1994.

End of Nuclear Security Summits Mulled

The nuclear security summit process could end in 2014, a top adviser to President Barack Obama indicated last month.

Kelsey Davenport

The nuclear security summit process could end in 2014, a top adviser to President Barack Obama indicated last month.

In remarks at an Oct. 7 press briefing at the United Nations, Gary Samore noted that the first nuclear security summit, held in Washington in April 2010, endorsed the plan “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years,” which Obama had announced a year earlier in a speech in Prague. “We do not intend to create a permanent institution with the nuclear security summit,” said Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) terrorism.

He said he expected 2014 to be the “end point” of the four-year period.
“[A]t that point, it makes most sense for the nuclear security challenge to be transmitted to the broader international community and to the institutions that encompass all of the countries in the world,” he said, citing the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Samore added that although 2014 seemed the “logical” end point, it would be up to the leaders to decide if that was the “appropriate moment” to end the summit process.

Samore is the U.S. sherpa, or lead government negotiator, for next year’s summit, which is to be held March 26-27 in Seoul. In an Oct. 25 e-mail to Arms Control Today, he said that “it made sense to have at least one more summit” after the one in 2012 and, in particular, to have one in 2014 to mark the end of the four-year period.

Speaking at the Oct. 7 press conference, Hahn Choong-hee, the Korean sous-sherpa, or deputy government negotiator, also said the nuclear security process will be transferred to “existing international organizations and initiatives,” but said it was “too early and too premature to say that we are going to finish at a particular time.” He called for a third summit in 2014 to check the progress on the four-year goal of securing all nuclear materials.

Samore said at the briefing that he hoped the summits “will have provided a stimulus for countries to take actions to deal with the global challenge of nuclear security.” Although only 47 countries are participating in the nuclear security summit process, Samore said limiting the number of participants was a practical matter and that “we made sure to make clear that nuclear security is a global challenge that involves all countries.”

Samore expressed confidence in the ability of the UN and the IAEA to continue nuclear security work after the summit process ends, citing their involvement in the Washington and Seoul summits.

The UN, the IAEA, and the European Union participated in the 2010 summit and have attended the preparatory meetings for the 2012 summit. Interpol was added to the list of international organizations invited to 2012 summit. At the Oct. 7 briefing, UN High Representative for Disarmament Sergio de Queiroz Duarte said that strengthening nuclear security remained high on the UN’s international security agenda.

At the Washington summit, 29 countries made more than 50 specific commitments to strengthen nuclear security and help meet the four-year goal. The commitments were based on the consensus communiqué and work plan of the summit, which laid out principles of nuclear security and provided details on how those principles would be implemented.

Laura Holgate, senior director for WMD terrorism and threat reduction at the U.S. National Security Council, said at the press briefing that the countries have made “significant progress” toward fulfilling the principles of the work plan. As the 2012 summit draws closer, Holgate said she expected to see further progress toward meeting the commitments made in Washington and “new pledges of action” to prevent nuclear terrorism and illicit trafficking.

Although the commitments were voluntary and nonbinding, Obama said in an April 14, 2010, statement that the participating countries agreed at the Washington summit that it is a “fundamental responsibility” to secure nuclear materials and facilities effectively.

The UN press briefing took place two days after the conclusion of a preparatory meeting for the 2012 Seoul summit. Sherpas from the 47 countries met in Helsinki Oct. 4-5 to continue working on the Seoul Communiqué, a document drafted by South Korea that will guide the 2012 summit.

In his statement at the briefing, South Korean Ambassador to the UN Kim Sook provided some details on the communiqué, which is in the drafting stage. He said the sherpas at the Helsinki meeting adopted five guiding principles for the communiqué.

One principle cited by Kim is that nuclear security will remain the focus of the Seoul summit. Hahn said that although in the synergy between nuclear safety and security would be discussed in Seoul, safety would remain a secondary issue. The damage to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from an earthquake and tsunami last March sparked a debate among leaders over how much emphasis the summit should place on nuclear safety.

The other four principles that Kim listed were that the summit will build on the work of the 2010 summit, national commitments will remain voluntary, no new regime for nuclear security will be created, and the communiqué will “respect” Obama’s vision for securing all nuclear materials in four years.

Hahn said the agenda from the 2010 summit would be broadened to include security of sensitive information and radioactive sources. Although North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons will not be an explicit agenda item, the summit will provide an opportunity to emphasize the need for peace and security on the Korean peninsula, Hahn said.

The sherpas are scheduled to meet again in New Delhi next February to continue discussing the contents of the communiqué and the summit agenda.


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