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

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
June 2012
Edition Date: 
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Cover Image: 

NATO Sticks With Nuclear Policy

Oliver Meier

Leaders from NATO’s 28 countries, meeting at a May 20-21 summit in Chicago, adopted a report that confirms the basic tenets of the alliance’s nuclear posture and lays the groundwork for future confidence-building talks with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons.

It describes the contributions of nuclear and conventional forces as well as missile defenses and arms control and finds that nuclear weapons remain a “core component” of NATO’s deterrence and defense capabilities.

In 2009, Germany had triggered an extensive debate about the continued deployment of about 180 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons under NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey by promising to advocate withdrawal of U.S. weapons from Germany. (See ACT, December 2009.) At NATO’s Lisbon summit in November 2010, the allies launched the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, primarily to resolve differences among them on the future role of nuclear weapons and to define the mix between NATO’s different defense capabilities. (See ACT, October 2011.) The seven-page document that the NATO heads of state and government formally adopted on May 20 is the result of that review.

The report finds that NATO’s “nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defence posture,” but the allies also pledge to “ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance.”

A senior Polish official said in a May 23 interview that this statement “is related primarily to the replacement of aging delivery means,” a reference to nuclear-capable aircraft in Europe that are scheduled to go out of service this decade. The U.S. life extension program for B61 gravity bombs in Europe, which will lead to the deployment of newer and more capable nuclear weapons after 2019, “is of secondary importance in this regard,” he said.

The report calls on NATO members “to develop concepts for how to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned in their nuclear sharing arrangements, including in case NATO were to decide to reduce its reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe,” but a senior official from a western European country argued in a May 21 interview that this does not represent a significant departure from the existing perspective on nuclear sharing arrangements. That perspective is described in the 2010 Strategic Concept, which was adopted at the Lisbon summit.

A senior French diplomat said on May 22 that “France’s nuclear deterrent will not be directly affected by discussions on the possible reduction of tactical nuclear weapons but we still have to decide in which format such discussions could take place.” France does not commit any nuclear forces to NATO and does not participate in the alliance’s Nuclear Planning Group.

Those who had hoped that NATO’s renewed commitment to territorial missile defense might lead to a reduction of the role of nuclear weapons were disappointed. Ahead of the summit, newly elected French President François Hollande had made protection of the French nuclear deterrent a precondition of France’s support for missile defense. As a result, the posture review report states that “[m]issile defence can complement the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence; it cannot substitute for them.”

Arms Control Proposals

The report links changes in the alliance’s nuclear posture to Russia’s nuclear policy by stating that “NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia, taking into account the greater Russian stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Like NATO, Russia keeps the numbers and locations of tactical nuclear weapons secret, but is estimated to possess about 2,000 operational weapons.

In the report, NATO states that it wants “to develop and exchange transparency and confidence-building ideas with the Russian Federation in the NATO-Russia Council, with the goal of developing detailed proposals on and increasing mutual understanding of NATO’s and Russia’s non-strategic nuclear force postures in Europe.”

The western European official said that “NATO would like to enter into a dialogue with Moscow on this issue as quickly as possible,” but conceded that “realistically we might have to wait until after the U.S. elections. In the meantime, allies should try to elaborate the package of proposals they would like to bring to the table.”

The allies agreed to establish a new committee “as a consultative and advisory forum” on arms control issues, whose name and mandate will be decided by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest decision-making body.

The Polish official predicted that the new arms control committee, which replaces the Weapons of Mass Destruction Control and Disarmament Committee set up in Lisbon, “will try to build its own identity and expand its role, including a general discussion of what role NATO can play in arms control and disarmament.”

The French diplomat, however, argued that the “added value” of the new committee is “to define the conditions for reciprocity of nuclear reductions.” He added, “We do not see a role for this committee in addressing the alliance’s nuclear posture or declaratory policy.”

Confusion on Nuclear Doctrine

Repeating language from NATO’s Strategic Concept, the report states that “the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.”

Yet, in the report the allies attempted to reflect recent changes in the nuclear doctrines of the United Kingdom and the United States. Both countries pledged in 2010 not to use or threaten to use their nuclear weapons against members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that comply with their nonproliferation obligations, although the specific conditions of these negative security assurances differ slightly between the two countries.

The western European official said that “agreement on declaratory policy was among the most difficult issues” in drafting the report. In the end, allies merely “acknowledge” the “independent and unilateral negative security assurances offered by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.”

The French diplomat said that “the agreement in the [report] was a useful step because NATO now recognizes the value of national security guarantees.”

Because France does not assign any of its nuclear weapons to the alliance, NATO’s nuclear planners draw only on British and U.S. nuclear weapons. The posture review report notes that “the states that have assigned nuclear weapons to NATO apply to these weapons the assurances they have each offered on a national basis, including the separate conditions each state has attached to these assurances.”

Most officials described the impact of these statements on NATO’s nuclear policy as marginal at best. In contrast, during a May 22 conference call with reporters, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder called it “a very significant step” that “the U.S. policy as enunciated in the [2010] Nuclear Posture Review is now recognized by NATO as applying to U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.”

The western European official predicted that discussions on declaratory policy “will be off the table for the time being” even though the United States and some European allies were willing to go further on negative security assurances. An Italian diplomat in a May 22 interview said Italy was “open to a discussion on a declaratory policy specifically addressed to the nuclear forces assigned to NATO.”

What Next?

Official and independent assessments of the posture review report differ markedly. The French diplomat said it “is the best possible agreement, nobody had to cross any redlines, and the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence, as defined in NATO’s Strategic Concept, remained untouched.” By contrast, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the co-chairman of the nongovernmental Nuclear Threat Initiative, argued in a May 21 statement that the report indicates “little progress in defining a clear strategy for changing the nuclear status quo and deserves, at best, a grade of ‘incomplete’.”

The Italian diplomat said that Rome is happy with the outcome because it “sets the stage for further debates on NATO‘s reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in a May 22 interview with Deutsche Welle, described the posture review report as “remarkable” because, “for the first time a security alliance like NATO has made disarmament a constituent part of its own strategy.” Daalder said the report represents “major progress” because “we now have an alliance firmly on record as wanting to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons, wanting to find ways to shift the focus to other means of deterrence and defense and to do so on a consultative and reciprocal basis.”

Leaders from NATO’s 28 countries, meeting at a May 20-21 summit in Chicago, adopted a report that confirms the basic tenets of the alliance’s nuclear posture and lays the groundwork for future

IAEA, Iran Close to Deal, Amano Says

Kelsey Davenport

A deal allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to pursue its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program could be signed “quite soon,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said May 22.

Amano flew to Tehran on May 21 to continue negotiations with Iranian officials on a framework agreement for resolving the outstanding concerns raised by the agency in a November 2011 report to the IAEA Board of Governors. An annex to the report listed the agency’s suspicions over Iran’s suspected warhead development program. (See ACT, December 2011.) The board requested that the IAEA and Iran “intensify their dialogue” to clarify the “unresolved issues.”

During the visit, Amano met with several high-ranking officials, including Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Jalili characterized his meeting with Amano as “very good” and said that Iran and the IAEA would have “good cooperation in the future.”

Although Amano conceded that “some differences” remained, he said there was an “important development on the structured approach document” that the two parties had been negotiating. Neither Amano nor Jalili elaborated on the differences that remained to be negotiated or when the agreement was expected to be completed, but in a May 25 IAEA report on the status of Iran’s nuclear program, Amano invited Iran to “expedite final agreement on the structured approach.”

U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on May 22 that the United States supports Amano’s efforts to resolve the IAEA’s areas of concern, but said Washington would be looking for “implementation” and for steps by Iran to “truly follow through and provide access” to agency inspectors.

Amano’s announcement that the IAEA and Iran were close to reaching an agreement came the day before Iran resumed talks on May 23 in Baghdad with the so-called P5+1, which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

The IAEA and Iran have met on three previous occasions this year to discuss an agreement to allow further agency investigations into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. The most recent meeting was held May 14-15 in Vienna between Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, and IAEA Deputy Director-General Herman Nackaerts. Progress at the Vienna meeting is believed to have spurred Amano’s short-notice visit to Tehran. Before leaving Vienna, he said it was the “right time to reach agreement.” This was Amano’s first visit to the country since assuming the IAEA’s top position in 2009.

One of the areas of disagreement prior to Amano’s visit to Tehran was the IAEA’s request to inspect a building at the Parchin military complex where the agency was concerned that high-explosives tests may have been conducted. The IAEA asked to inspect the facility during visits to Iran in January and February of this year, but Iranian officials denied the requests. Tehran stated that a framework agreement must be in place before the IAEA conducts any visits to the site.

In the annex to the November 2011 report, the IAEA revealed that it obtained information that Iran had built a “large explosives containment vessel, or chamber” and installed it at Parchin in 2000. Such a chamber could be used for testing the explosives necessary to detonate a nuclear device. In the original work plan that the IAEA submitted to Iran on Feb. 20, Parchin topped the list of concerns that Tehran needed to address.

In the May 25 report, the IAEA indicated that it had obtained additional information on Parchin that “further corroborates” the evidence on explosive testing presented in the 2011 annex.

Tehran allowed the IAEA to visit Parchin twice in 2005, but the agency did not inspect the building that houses the chamber in question. Amano said that the agency’s interest in visiting Parchin was discussed in Tehran and would be addressed in the agreement, but he provided no specifics.

Although an agreement may be near, agency officials have expressed concern over the past several months that Tehran may be attempting to clean up evidence that could indicate the existence of a nuclear weapons program. Iranian officials dismissed the initial allegations that any such efforts were underway. In its May report, the IAEA formally documented its position. The agency said that, using satellite imagery, it had observed “extensive activities” around the areas to which it had requested access. The IAEA had not observed any such activities, which could interfere with “effective verification,” for a “number of years,” the report said.

A deal allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to pursue its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program could be signed “quite soon,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said May 22.

P5+1 and Iran Claim Progress in Talks

Kelsey Davenport

Following two days of discussions last month in Baghdad, Iran agreed to meet again in June with six world powers to “expand” on the “common ground” that the two sides identified during negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Catherine Ashton, who represented the six countries, said May 24.

Although the two sides did not reach an agreement, they said they had made progress during the May 23-24 discussions. Talks are scheduled to reconvene June 18-19 in Moscow.

The Baghdad talks originally were to last for one day, but were extended to two. Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said it was “clear that both sides want to make progress” but that “significant differences” remain to be worked out. She also said that the six countries—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—known as the P5+1, remain “united in seeking a swift diplomatic resolution” to international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and expect Tehran to take “concrete and practical steps… to meet its international obligations.”

Lead Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili described the atmosphere of the talks as “positive for the two sides to talk about their issues,” but said that getting the six powers to accept Iran’s “clearly irrefutable” right to uranium enrichment was an obstacle during the negotiations.

The Baghdad meetings were the second round of talks between the P5+1 and Tehran this year after negotiations broke down in January 2011. During the first round of talks, on April 14 in Istanbul, the two sides agreed on a process for moving forward in future negotiations. Ashton described it as an incremental approach with reciprocal actions. (See ACT, May 2012.) Both sides described the Istanbul meetings as positive.

Before the Baghdad meeting, Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, said the P5+1 expected gradual progress rather than a final deal. After the talks concluded, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration did not expect “breakthrough moments” during the talks and that the “expectations” for the talks, namely progress and “seriousness on the part of the Iranians,” had been met.

Baghdad Proposals

Two proposals, one from each side, were discussed at the meetings.

Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent was the focus of the P5+1 proposal and was characterized by Mann as one of delegation’s “main concerns,” according to media accounts. The proposal called for Iran to end its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and ship its stockpile of the material out of the country. In return, Tehran would receive highly enriched uranium fabricated into fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor, nuclear security assistance, and some material incentives, including spare parts for civilian aircraft, which are scarce in Iran.

According to a report last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has produced a total of 145 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, up from the 109 kilograms the IAEA reported in February. Iran says it requires the higher enrichment level for the production of medical isotopes in the Tehran reactor. In the days before the talks, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced that it had delivered nuclear fuel plates, produced domestically at the Isfahan nuclear complex, to the reactor. The announcement said that one of the plates was loaded into the core of the reactor to begin producing medical isotopes.

The international community remains concerned that the uranium enriched to 20 percent could be further refined and used for a nuclear weapon. Although weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent, the move from 20 percent to 90 percent requires much less work than beginning with uranium enriched to a reactor-grade level.

Jalili described the P5+1 proposal as “one suggestion” on uranium enrichment and said that any cooperation by Iran on halting enrichment to the 20 percent level was dependent on the “preservation” of Iran’s right to enrichment. The United States has indicated that it is not necessarily opposed to Iran producing uranium enriched to 5 percent if the proper safeguards are in place.

Iran also objected to the lack of sanctions relief in the P5+1 proposal. Iranian officials at the talks described that language as “unbalanced” and not in line with the “reciprocal” approach agreed in Istanbul, media outlets reported. An official from another country reportedly described Jalili as “relentless” in his pursuit of sanctions relief, which Carney said provides Iran with an “impetus” to take the negotiations “very seriously.” U.S. officials indicated that the sanctions relief that Iran was seeking would come later if Tehran followed through on any initial agreement.

News reports described the Iranian proposal as a five-point plan, which offered greater international access to its nuclear facilities in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions on its oil industry and recognition of its right to enrichment. It is unclear how the Iranian proposal dealt with the 20 percent enrichment question, but when Ashton mentioned the proposal in her statement at the end of the talks, she said that Iran “declared its readiness to address the issue.”

Increased Sanctions

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton quashed any speculation that there could be sanctions relief immediately resulting from the Baghdad talks, saying May 24 that the sanctions “will remain in place and continue to move forward.”

Tougher sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and central bank are scheduled to enter into force in the upcoming month. In the United States, the tighter sanctions are part of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in December 2011. (See ACT, January/February 2012.) On June 28, the United States is scheduled to begin sanctioning all foreign banks that process Iranian oil transactions through Iran’s central bank. The president can waive those sanctions if the bank’s country has demonstrated a “significant reduction” in its Iranian oil imports.

In February, the Obama administration released a report indicating that global oil needs could be met by increasing the capacity of non-Iranian sources without creating a spike in prices. Under the defense authorization act, this finding was necessary for the sanctions to begin on June 28. As a result, banks that continue to process oil transactions without a wavier after that date will be prevented from opening accounts in the United States and will have limited access to any of their existing accounts. Iranian oil sold for cash or under barter agreements would be exempt from these sanctions.

As of April, the last month for which an official list was available, waivers have been granted to 10 European countries and Japan. South Korea is believed to be in the process of applying for a waiver, and during a May visit to India, Clinton pressed New Delhi to cut its oil imports from Iran. Although India indicated that it is planning to push local refineries to cut imports from Iran by 15 to 20 percent, the administration has not yet issued a waiver. India, Japan, and South Korea are among the top purchasers of Iranian oil. China, the largest importer of Iranian oil, does not have a waiver.

Further sanctions legislation is making its way through Congress. On May 22, the Senate passed legislation that would strengthen and expand existing sanctions against Iran’s energy and financial sectors. The legislation would broaden the criteria under which companies are placed on the sanctions list, which covers foreign firms that invest in Iran’s energy sector and do business with Iranian firms involved with uranium production and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The House of Representatives passed its own version of the bill last year.

The EU’s sanctions will tighten on July 1 when its embargo on the import of Iranian oil goes into effect. After the conclusion of the Baghdad talks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague left little room for doubt that, without “urgent, concrete steps” by Iran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program, EU sanctions would enter into force as planned on July 1. Hague said that if Iran failed to respond in a “serious manner,” the pressure from sanctions “will intensify.”

In addition to limiting oil imports to EU member countries, the package passed by the European Parliament in January will strengthen sanctions on Iran’s financial sector and prevent European insurers from providing protection and indemnity for tankers carrying Iranian oil. Without this insurance, any countries continuing to import Iranian oil will be forced to look elsewhere for insurance on the tankers’ contents. China and India are reported to be making such arrangements.

Following two days of discussions last month in Baghdad, Iran agreed to meet again in June with six world powers to “expand” on the “common ground” that the two sides identified during negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Catherine Ashton, who represented the six countries, said May 24.

Exposing the Arms Trade

Reviewed by Edward J. Laurance

The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade

By Andrew Feinstein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 704 pp.

At the beginning of July, delegates from UN member states will meet in New York to negotiate an arms trade treaty (ATT). Andrew Feinstein’s book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade illustrates both the need for the treaty and the difficulty of successfully negotiating it. This review evaluates the utility of the book as a primer for those taking on this significant task.

The book is a welcome addition to the literature, mainly because of its depth and its new evidence from previously known cases, as well as from new ones. The chapter on South Africa’s purchase of European armaments, a deal first announced in 1999, rings truest as Feinstein had a front-row seat as a member of South Africa’s Parliament from the African National Congress (ANC). To put the book together, Feinstein hired two very experienced researchers; the 104 pages of notes and references are the result.

In the main, however, those academics and policy professionals who follow the arms trade will find little in the way of new themes or types of negative effects from the arms trade in this book. Rather, its main value, in addition to new evidence and sources, is its comprehensiveness (531 pages of text). One reviewer described it as “possibly the most complete account that has ever been written.”[1]

In a video promoting the book, Feinstein states that the book is about “corruption, massive wastage, and huge profits.”[2] That is a good description; the book is more about corruption than the arms trade per se.[3] Feinstein relies on Transparency International to provide him with the view that 40 percent of the corruption in the world is due to the global arms trade. His chapters on the United States include the titles “Legal Bribery” and “Illegal Bribery.” His excellent chapter titled “Making and Killing: Iraq and Afghanistan” is the comprehensive telling of how U.S. arms manufacturers and their agents made billions of dollars off these two wars. It is also the familiar story of the “revolving door,” in which defense company executives get appointments in the U.S. government, then leave for another stint in defense industry, go back to government, and so on.

Feinstein also revives the age-old debate about guns versus butter. For example, in the chapter on Iraq and Afghanistan, after pages of detail about the corruption, profiteering, arms dealing, and sheer cost of the wars, he gets to what seems to be his major problem with the arms trade: “What has been explicitly avoided in such discussions is the opportunity cost of such expenditure—what could have been bought or achieved if the money had been spent elsewhere.”

Feinstein is even angrier about the arms deal in which defense companies BAE and Saab sold South Africa fighter and trainer aircraft. The companies paid bribes to senior ANC party officials and others involved in reviewing the competitive bids. The deal was estimated to cost roughly $3 billion at the time it was announced in 1999, but may cost some $6 billion when the contract ends in 2018. “South Africa continues to pay for this deal in lives,” Feinstein writes. He cites a Harvard University study that concludes, in his words, that, over the five years following the deal, “365,000 South Africans died avoidable deaths because the state, in thrall to [President] Thabo Mbeki’s Aids [sic] denialism and fiscal discipline on everything but the purchase of unnecessary weapons, would not provide the antiretroviral medicine they needed to live.”[4]

He goes on to say that money spent on these weapons could have been spent on jobs and housing. This is quite a stretch. The history of the guns versus butter debate is replete with similar charges that money was spent on defense at the expense of domestic programs, with little evidence that the two phenomena are causally connected.

There are many other references in the book to wasteful defense spending, an issue that has proven difficult to resolve. The reality is that the peace dividend rarely materializes. In the end, it is up to sovereign states to make choices on spending priorities, and no amount of attention, publicity, policy, or legislation, including at the regional and global levels, has made much difference.[5] Yes, the arms trade writ large and its “dramatis personae” are always at the ready to accommodate states that emphasize guns over butter. However, the debate over whom to blame, supplier or recipient, is a long way from being resolved. Feinstein makes a good case for renewing that debate.

Yet, an ATT negotiated in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) may not be the best place to resolve the matter. The social welfare implications of the arms trade have received scant attention in most negotiations in the committee since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the United Nations did debate guns versus butter, mainly in the Special Sessions on Disarmament held in 1978, 1982, and 1988.[6] The result was thousands of words and no effective action to spend less on defense and more on development.

Sovereign Rights

Not only do states have the sovereign right to spend their money as they see fit, but the UN Charter provides a legally binding safeguard for them. Article 2(7) states that “[n]othing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Article 51 declares that “[n]othing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence.” It is also noteworthy that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, promulgated in 1947, and its successor, the World Trade Organization, intentionally excluded trade in arms from these agreements and processes.

Feinstein’s major target in the book is the “merchants of death,” the arms brokers and dealers who make the legal, gray, and illegal markets in arms possible. He provides an accurate narrative of many of these men, such as the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, and how they work. He concludes that “the secret netherworld of arms dealers and swindlers has been exposed to the public gaze…and yet not a single member of the network had faced a successful prosecution for arms dealing.”[7]

Arms dealers have been in the “public gaze” for many years. However, the public seems to be of two distinct minds about them. On the one hand, those campaigning for global action on small arms and light weapons in the 1990s tirelessly produced reports, books, and documentary films intended to show them as evil and immoral.[8] One major text on the trade in small arms had “Running Guns” in the title, attempting to draw on the negative image such a phrase connotes.[9] Starting in the 1990s, the UN and the network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) addressing small arms and light weapons took up the issue of brokers and how to control them. The UN issued a major report in 2007, and the Small Arms Survey, the major research organization addressing the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, including trade issues, gave the issue prominence in its work in the mid-2000s. Yet, Feinstein reports that little has changed. The dealers and brokers continue to operate with a free hand. Why?

One reason is the lack of national or international laws making their activities illegal. Fewer than 10 governments have serious laws with regard to controlling the activities of their citizens who are arms dealers and brokers operating outside their national boundaries. A second reason is that the focus on dealers and brokers has had little impact because the public tends to glorify or, at a minimum, become fascinated with and excuse the lives of the men who work “in the shadow world.” Another possibility is that the public and their governments think it is a hopeless cause. Feinstein’s book certainly paints such a picture.

As noted above, highlighting wasteful defense spending seems doomed to failure as a tactic for preventing and reducing the negative effects of the arms trade. On another front, states continue to insist on their right to supply armed groups, an activity that requires arms dealers and brokers who are operating under the radar of public scrutiny.

Impact on Security

Feinstein does not seem to emphasize the different effects of the trade in arms based on the class of weapons: major conventional weapons such as tanks, artillery, and aircraft versus small arms and light weapons, such as hand grenades, assault rifles, and mortars. The arms trade rarely produces a war or even serious conflict with major conventional weapons. The last such case was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The response to this war was the UN Arms Register of Conventional Arms, which has basically failed to stem the arms trade largely because it was designed to prevent “excessive and destabilizing buildups” of major conventional weapons, a rarity in the post-Cold War era.[10] In fact, most of the trade is benign when it comes to traditional national security requiring major conventional weapons. This is certainly true in most of the major deals presented in Feinstein’s book.

The chapter on the Al Yamamah arms deal, which involved the United Kingdom, its newly privatized BAE, and Saudi Arabia, is full of details of despicable behavior; but the deal had little impact on security, including human security.[11] If anything, it was a winning deal for both parties. Saudi Arabia gained prestige, and the United Kingdom got jobs. The same would be true for the billions of dollars in weapons and equipment that the United States has sold to Saudi Arabia in the past 30-40 years. The United States was fairly confident that these major conventional arms would not have any negative security consequences from a traditional national security perspective. For example, there was little fear that Saudi Arabia would use these major conventional weapons to invade another country or otherwise act against U.S. national interests, and the arms deals resulted in strategic access to the region, which was critical in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and beyond.

What might succeed is an effort to focus on the negative impacts of the trade in small arms and light weapons, especially violations of international humanitarian law. This has been the approach taken by Control Arms, an NGO coalition promoting an ATT. The 1990s saw the growth of human security as a supplement to traditional national security. One scholar makes the case that global disarmament agreements have begun to reflect this move toward people-centered security.[12] Her cases include the conventions on anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions, the UN program of action on small arms, and potentially an ATT. The ATT negotiations will be a test of how much the human security approach has influenced the thinking of the negotiating states. In other words, will states be more concerned with the effects of the trade on the citizens of their states and other states than the security of the state itself?

Reaching agreement on a treaty that links the arms trade with violations of human rights and international humanitarian law will be a challenge for a committee thus far steeped in the traditional national security paradigm. The traditional paradigm will have held true if the states that are not arms producers resist any conditions that limit their options to buy weapons for their own national security purposes. It likewise will hold true if arms-producing states fight to preserve the freedom to sell arms.

To sum up, those negotiating an ATT need much more knowledge than Feinstein provides if they are to understand the global arms trade fully, beyond the “corruption, huge profits and massive wastage” he accurately describes. In the very beginning of the book, Feinstein quotes Henry Ford: “Show me who makes a profit from war, and I’ll show you how to stop the war.” The historical record suggests, however, that any global or national effort to control the arms trade by targeting corrupt, immoral, and perhaps evil people is doomed to failure. Many have tried, but few have succeeded. Feinstein correctly bemoans the fact that defense contractors rarely get caught and prosecuted as part of national and global efforts to address the negative effects of the arms trade.

This record is not surprising. National governments have had formal control over defense industries since the end of World War II. It is governments that can create the environment for reducing the abuses of the arms trade so well documented by Feinstein. They are the ones that will meet in July and hopefully take the next step in the form of legally binding norms and standards that can then be the centerpiece of the necessary hard work of building the capacity and political will of governments to truly control the arms trade in all its aspects.

Edward J. Laurance is a professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He was a consultant to the UN Register of Conventional Arms (1992-1994), the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (1996-1997), and the UN program of action on small arms (2000-2001) and currently serves as an expert for the UN project developing international standards to control small arms. He is author of The International Arms Trade (1992).


1. John Tirman, “‘The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade,’ by Andrew Feinstein,” The Washington Post, November 4, 2011.

2. “The Shadow World - Andrew Feinstein,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG09qjWYwuk.

3. Feinstein is now the co-director of Corruption Watch in London.

4. See Pride Chigwedere et al., “Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa,” JAIDS Online, October 16, 2008.

5. The legally binding EU conventional arms export regime, as well as U.S. law, asserts that arms should not be sent to states that cannot afford them. This has not always deterred sales to such countries, as national security and foreign policy concerns have trumped concerns about wasteful spending.

6. See www.un.org/disarmament/HomePage/SSOD/.

7. Bout was convicted last November of four conspiracy counts, including conspiracies to sell surface-to-air missiles, to kill Americans and to provide material support to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The conspiracy to sell missiles carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison. Bout received a 25-year sentence in April. Chad Bray, “Suspected Russian Arms Dealer Sentenced to 25 Years,” The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303302504577326183705420436.html.

8. See Brian Wood and Johan Peleman, “The Arms Fixers: Controlling the Brokers and Shipping Agents,” Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers, November 1999.

9. Lora Lumpe, ed., Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms (London: Zed Books, 2000).

10. For an account of the impact of this war on arms trade control, see Edward J. Laurance, “1991 Arms Trade Control Efforts and Their Echoes,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2011.

11. According to one author, “Human security is about the everyday security of individuals and the communities in which they live rather than the security of states and borders.” Mary Kaldor, “Human Security in Complex Operations,” PRISM, Vol. 2, No. 2 (March 2011), www.ndu.edu/press/human-security-complex-operations.html.

12. Denise Garcia, Disarmament Diplomacy and Human Security: Regimes, Norms, and Moral Progress in International Relations (New York: Routledge, 2011.)

Edward J. Laurance is a professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He was a consultant to the UN Register of Conventional Arms (1992-1994), the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (1996-1997), and the UN program of action on small arms (2000-2001) and currently serves as an expert for the UN project developing international standards to control small arms. He is author of The International Arms Trade (1992).

Resolving the Ambiguity of Nuclear Weapons Costs

By Russell Rumbaugh and Nathan Cohn

For many observers, nuclear weapons top the list of areas in which savings should be found in the face of declining defense budgets. Indeed, the Department of Defense’s own strategic guidance acknowledges that “[i]t is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.”[1]

Fewer nuclear weapons presumably mean less spending, but no one can say how much less, in part because there is no definitive estimate of current nuclear weapons spending. Official estimates tend to be narrowly defined. Unofficial estimates capture more costs, but with less detail and authority. Without a definitive cost estimate, controversy over spending creates confusion, which clouds debate over U.S. nuclear posture and force structure.

During the past year, the Stimson Center conducted a study to help dispel that confusion.[2] The study found that most controversy stems from two specific issues. First, people disagree about what counts as nuclear weapons spending. Second, it is genuinely unclear what costs within the Defense Department support the operations and maintenance of nuclear weapons. Once these two issues are addressed, there is little disagreement about the cost of nuclear weapons. The study clarifies these two issues by comparing the various definitions of nuclear weapons spending, including those in official estimates, and using an inductive approach to estimate support costs within the Defense Department. Although the results still are not definitive, they clarify the debate and provide a framework for minimizing confusion about nuclear weapons spending. At the very least, this study should clarify that official estimates relying on a narrow definition of nuclear weapons understate the actual amounts the United States spends on nuclear weapons.

Defining the Spending

What counts as nuclear weapons spending has always been a thorny issue. The Obama administration’s best official estimate puts nuclear weapons spending at $214 billion over the next 10 years, or just more than $20 billion a year.[3] Yet, several independent studies say spending is as high as $55 billion a year.[4] These figures suggest a wide range of estimates for nuclear spending, stoking the controversy over how much nuclear weapons cost. The estimates differ largely because they count different things.

The responsibility for nuclear weapons costs was split more than 65 years ago and is still broken into two different parts run by two different agencies. Today, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous unit of the Department of Energy, is in charge of the fissile material that makes a nuclear weapon nuclear.[5] The Defense Department is in charge of the delivery vehicles that would carry nuclear warheads to their target.[6] This split means no single agency in the federal government is responsible for all nuclear spending. There is no single line item for such spending in the annual budget justification documents. This is not to say that the agencies do not account for the spending. They do, but in ways that accord with their budgeting systems, which are not designed to answer a question such as how much the United States spends on nuclear weapons.

In the Energy Department, costs for nuclear weapons are displayed fairly straightforwardly. In fiscal year 2011, 63 percent of the department’s budget went to Atomic Energy Defense Activities, one of the formal subfunctions by which the U.S. government budget is displayed. The category further breaks down into two big groupings. The first, which accounts for $5.8 billion, or 36 percent, covers Defense Environmental Cleanup and other activities that clean up sites used to develop nuclear weapons. The other 64 percent, or $10.5 billion, goes to the NNSA. The NNSA itself runs four major programs that comprise that $10.5 billion budget: $2.3 billion is allotted to Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation activities, which aim to prevent the spread of nuclear material around the world; $1 billion for the Naval Reactors category, which covers the use of nuclear power for the propulsion of certain U.S. Navy ships; $400 million for the Office of the Administrator, covering NNSA central administrative functions; and $6.9 billion for Weapons Activities, to manage and maintain the stockpile of nuclear warheads.

There is a reasonable disagreement about which of these costs should count as nuclear weapons spending. Under a broad interpretation, all of these costs would qualify. After all, they all fall under Atomic Energy Defense Activities. The costs to clean up from nuclear weapons or prevent the spread of nuclear weapons would not be necessary if nuclear weapons never existed. Yet, under a narrow definition—one focused on the current U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal—these same costs may appear peripheral. A unilateral U.S. decision to end its nuclear weapons programs would have little impact on the policy choice of whether to continue to clean up previously used nuclear weapons sites or whether to try to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world.

Under a broad definition, all $16.3 billion of the expenditures under Atomic Energy Defense Activities would count as nuclear weapons spending. Under a very narrow definition of nuclear weapons spending, only the $6.9 billion of Weapons Activities would count. This difference of classification creates a swing of almost $10 billion in cost estimates.

That $10 billion range may seem broad, but it looks very narrow when compared to the possible range found in the Defense Department’s budget. The department had a base budget, not counting the funding for the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, of $528 billion in fiscal year 2011, 20 times the size of the Energy Department’s budget and 32 times the size of Atomic Energy Defense Activities. Such a scale creates a huge pool of costs that could potentially be described as nuclear weapons spending. Still, as with the Energy Department, most disagreement over costs stems from definitions. Like the Energy Department, the Defense Department runs nonproliferation efforts—$1 billion worth. That figure would be included in a broad definition of nuclear weapons spending, but not a narrow one. The Pentagon also is responsible for the defense of the United States, including air defenses such as defenses focused on stopping enemy bombers and now ballistic missile defenses. In fiscal year 2011, the agency responsible for missile defense within the Defense Department had a budget of $8.4 billion. Some analyses would include these costs as part of nuclear weapons spending, and others would not.

Clarifying these definitional issues resolves most of the disagreement over the costs of nuclear weapons. The official estimate of $20 billion a year is based on a narrow definition. It can be doubled by using a much broader definition and including Energy Department programs beyond those in Weapons Activities and, in the Defense Department, programs such as missile defense. Both definitions are reasonable; they are just different definitions of what constitutes nuclear spending.

Once the official estimates are compared in a like manner to the unofficial estimates, most of the disagreement falls away. Nevertheless, there is a difference of roughly 27 percent between the official estimate and some unofficial estimates. This difference stems from the different treatment of the supporting costs of nuclear weapons.

Estimating Support Spending

Here then is real uncertainty about the costs of nuclear weapons. In the Energy Department, there is a core account of nuclear weapons costs, Weapons Activities. Other accounts could be considered nuclear weapons spending under some definitions—Defense Environmental Cleanup and Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation. Two accounts have some nuclear weapons spending even under a narrow definition—the Office of the Administrator and Naval Reactors. The administrator’s office provides central management of all NNSA programs, including weapons activities, but also including nonproliferation. Naval Reactors funds the development and maintenance of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion systems, including those on nuclear ballistic missile submarines, which carry U.S. nuclear weapons, but also including those on aircraft carriers, which do not carry nuclear weapons. It is difficult to determine what portions of these accounts support nuclear weapons. Still, these two accounts represent only $1.4 billion a year, limiting how much estimates can vary.

In contrast, estimates of spending in the Defense Department could vary across a wide range. It also has a core budgetary account of nuclear weapons costs, called Major Force Program 1 (MFP-1), which covers strategic forces, and it has some costs that could be considered nuclear weapons spending under certain definitions, such as nonproliferation and missile defense. Beyond those two accounts, however, the Defense Department’s budget includes another $500 billion, any part of which might support nuclear weapons.

To estimate what in this large pool of funding supports nuclear weapons, previous studies have used a deductive approach. They estimate the proportion that MFP-1 represents to other mission areas and then apply this proportion to the entire defense budget to determine support costs. For instance, if MFP-1 represents 10 percent of the costs of combat forces, then 10 percent of all support costs would be considered the nuclear weapons share of support costs. Such methodologies generate a reasonable but general estimate. This generality allows critics to charge that these costs are overstated, without having to contest specific costs, inflaming the confusion and thus controversy over nuclear weapons costs. To avoid this confusion, the Stimson study instead used an inductive approach to build a bottom-up list of specific costs.

In order to understand the study’s methodology and results, one must get a better sense of the defense budget. In the 1960s, the defense budget was divided into nine major force programs. Today, there are 11 major force programs, of which one is MFP-1. More than 40 percent, including war costs, of the defense budget is found in a single MFP, called general purpose forces, which are the combat forces that conduct conventional, or non-nuclear, operations.

In contrast, MFP-1 accounts for only 2 percent of the total defense budget. The rest of the budget is spread over the other nine MFPs. Most importantly, although the Defense Department still uses these MFPs to display the budget, they have not been used to manage the Defense Department or its budget for many years. Instead, managers in the Pentagon and overseers in Congress tend to use specific programs or appropriation titles to manage the allocation of funding. This lack of use means MFPs tend not to be completely accurate descriptions of the programs they are supposed to capture.

Nevertheless, MFP-1 does capture a great deal of Defense Department nuclear weapons spending. It includes the Air Force’s strategic bombers, the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines. It includes the people and infrastructure that support those weapons systems, as well as the costs to operate and maintain them. It also includes a large part of the headquarters necessary for operations. MFP-1 underlies most estimates—official or unofficial—of spending on nuclear weapons. In fiscal year 2011, the budget amount for MFP-1 was $12 billion.

MFP-1, however, does not capture all of nuclear weapons spending under almost any definition. It does not include the cost of research, development, testing, and evaluation for programs dedicated to developing new or improved strategic delivery systems. For instance, the cost to research and develop the submarine designed to replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, known as the SSBN(X), as well as the cost to develop the next-generation bomber, is not included in MFP-1, but instead in the MFP that covers research and development funding. Yet, these development programs are direct costs of maintaining nuclear weapons.

MFP-1 also does not include many of the costs necessary to maintain the command and control of nuclear weapons, particularly the satellite-based communication systems and ballistic missile early-warning and detection systems. It also does not include many indirect but essential support costs, such as centralized supply and maintenance, and the strategic airlift necessary to transport nuclear weapons. Similarly, although it includes training for nuclear personnel and their pay, it does not include the costs of basic training, health care infrastructure, recruitment of nuclear personnel, or housing. Yet, these costs, like those of the Office of the Administrator for the NNSA, support not just nuclear weapons but other missions as well. For instance, the infrastructure that recruits and trains nuclear operators also recruits and trains operators of conventional capabilities. If the Defense Department’s accounting systems assigned these costs solely to the nuclear mission, it would then significantly underestimate the costs of the other missions. The Pentagon solves this problem reasonably by not assigning the costs to the nuclear or conventional missions. The costs are detailed in its annual budget justification documents and historical displays, but because they are not specifically assigned to nuclear weapons costs, they are not counted as the costs of nuclear weapons in official estimates.

To address these costs, the Stimson study made a theoretical distinction. It set out to determine the cost of the Pentagon capabilities necessary to maintain and operate nuclear weapons. Simply put, the study sought to assign a dollar figure to what would remain if the Defense Department’s only responsibility were to maintain and operate nuclear weapons. This approach is inherently broader than an approach that sought to determine the cost of support functions dedicated solely to nuclear weapons because many support functions also serve non-nuclear forces.

Using this broader standard of what counts as costs of nuclear weapons, the study looked at three categories outside MFP-1: command and control, other research and development, and other operational and support costs.

Command and control systems have three significant costs: procurement, research and development, and operations. Procurement costs are provided on a system-by-system basis, so the study listed each of the command and control systems relevant to nuclear weapons and summed their costs, finding $1.4 billion of procurement costs in fiscal year 2011. Research and development can be figured in the same way, producing a cost of $2 billion. Operating costs are not as simple because the costs for systems are aggregated in the budget displays; multiple systems are grouped in a single budget line. The study noted which systems were relevant to nuclear weapons and then proportionally calculated the nuclear weapons costs in each budget line. In all, the study found $2 billion in operating costs. For both operating and procurement costs, the study accepted the total cost of the system, even though most systems also support conventional operations. For example, a satellite may have additional capabilities to support nuclear operations. Because the satellite would not be functional without its entire system, however, the entire cost of the satellite is counted as part of the cost of nuclear weapons.

Research and development programs also are displayed in the budget justification documents by system, and as with command and control costs, the study summed up the costs for each relevant system. These costs are particularly important today because of the development programs to replace the bomber and submarine legs of the U.S. strategic triad. After years of fairly stable funding, these modernizations could change the scale of nuclear-related funding in the coming years, reaching possibly a quarter of the annual costs of nuclear weapons. In fiscal year 2011, the total research and development costs for nuclear weapons, not including command and control systems, were $1.5 billion. This figure will rise dramatically in the next 10 years as the follow-on systems advance. The Stimson study addresses these costs in another section on future costs, not addressed in this article.

Determining the other operational and support costs poses the greatest difficulty because they are not displayed in discrete ways as systems are under procurement or research and development. Yet, these costs are necessary to support nuclear weapons. The study looked at six specific components: other operational costs, training and recruiting costs, medical costs, family housing costs, centralized supply and maintenance costs, and centralized administrative costs. The  first category, other operational costs, includes the air refueling tankers that support the strategic bombers and a small amount that provides the nuclear-specific airlift to transport nuclear weapons. Tankers pose the single greatest challenge to estimating supporting costs because there is no public and official assignment of tanker responsibility between nuclear and conventional forces, and the current tanker fleet could be justified almost wholly by the nuclear or conventional mission. Moreover, the total costs of the tanker fleet are so large that the proportion counted toward the nuclear mission produces a wide swing in estimates of the total non-MFP-1 costs.

The study included only a narrow range of tanker costs: the costs to operate enough National Guard and Army Reserve tankers to provide two refuelings to all bombers designated for the nuclear mission. It does not include the modernization costs of the next-generation tanker currently being developed. Even this narrow definition produces about $500 million in costs. If all tanker costs were included, totally disregarding the conventional missions that currently dominate the operation of tankers today, the figure for fiscal year 2011 alone would be $6 billion.

Training and recruiting costs were calculated by determining the proportion of nuclear personnel to total military personnel and then applying that proportion to total training and recruiting costs. Health and housing costs were calculated in the same way. Centralized supply and maintenance costs were calculated using a base index to represent the proportion of infrastructure dedicated to nuclear weapons. Centralized administration was more difficult because war costs, which tend not to apply to nuclear costs, have skewed how centralized administration costs are displayed. In the budget displays, large sums of war costs are provided as contingency funds and captured in the central administration budget lines, creating spikes of funding from year to year. To compensate for this, the study averages projected costs for the next five years. In all, other operations and support costs come to $4 billion per year.

The study found $11 billion in other costs that support nuclear weapons within the Defense Department, besides the $12 billion of MFP-1 costs.

The study also addressed the two accounts within the NNSA that have some narrowly defined nuclear weapons spending and some funding that would be nuclear weapons spending only under a broader definition. The study proportionately calculated the costs of the Office of the Administrator based on the number of employees dedicated to the nonproliferation mission versus weapons activities.

Regarding Naval Reactors, much as with command and control systems, the study included the total cost even though some reactors support aircraft carriers, which do not have a nuclear mission. This decision was made because most of the infrastructure needed to produce and maintain reactors would be necessary regardless of the number of reactors. These two accounts include another $1.3 billion to add to the core NNSA Weapons Activities account’s $6.9 billion, producing a total NNSA cost of $8.2 billion.


By using a different methodology and relying on an inductive, bottom-up estimate, the Stimson study has validated the claim that there are costs that support nuclear weapons beyond those captured by official estimates. These costs are significant—74 percent more in costs than the core accounts alone. The study also helps bound the possible costs of nuclear weapons and thus helps demonstrate that there are not vast uncounted sums of nuclear weapons spending. Instead, most of the swing between various cost estimates stems from differences in definitions. It is perfectly reasonable to include missile defense and environmental cleanup as costs of nuclear weapons, but it is also reasonable to define the costs of nuclear weapons more narrowly. Still, the study has demonstrated that nuclear weapons do incur costs greater than the ones the official estimates describe, no matter how narrowly nuclear weapons spending is defined.

The Stimson study should ease some of the confusion surrounding the issue. Although it is not definitive, it does help distinguish cases in which estimates differ only because of different definitions from cases in which there is genuine uncertainty. In the latter cases, the study uses an approach that not only provides a reasonable estimate, but also makes its methodology clear so its conclusions can be debated analytically. Nuclear weapons are a grave matter, and all of their implications should be debated. This added clarity hopefully will improve the dialogue.

Russell Rumbaugh is director of the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Program.

Nathan Cohn is a research assistant at the Stimson Center.


1. Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 2012.

2. Russell Rumbaugh and Nathan Cohn, “Resolving Ambiguity: Costing Nuclear Weapons,” Stimson Center, May 2012, http://www.stimson.org/images/uploads/Resolving_Ambiguity.pdf

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “November 2010 Update to the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2010, Section 1251 Report, New START Treaty Framework and Nuclear Force Structure Plans,” 2010, www.lasg.org/CMRR/Sect1251_update_17Nov2010.pdf. This report refers to the 1251 report, but as it is a classified document, these references do not refer to the original report but to the aggregate of the reporting and unclassified summaries.

4. Stephen I. Schwartz, Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), Steven M. Kosiak, “Spending on U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Plans and Options for the 21st Century,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2006; Stephen I. Schwartz and Deepti Choubey, “Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2009.

5. At the end of World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission was created to house civilian control of military nuclear programs. In 1974 the commission was dissolved, and oversight responsibility for the national nuclear laboratories was transferred to the newly created Energy Research and Development Administration, which later merged with other federal entities to become the Department of Energy. In 1999, in the aftermath of allegations that lax oversight and security had culminated in the loss of nuclear secrets to China, the National Nuclear Security Administration was created and assumed responsibility for the national security responsibilities of the Energy Department.

6. Other agencies also have programs that could be included as nuclear weapons spending, but this article will focus only on the departments of Defense and Energy.

New layer...

Russell Rumbaugh is director of the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Program. Nathan Cohn is a research assistant at the Stimson Center.

Nuclear Deterrence in a Changed World

By Sidney D. Drell and James E. Goodby

Less than a year after the first atomic bombings, Albert Einstein warned, “Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Despite Einstein’s warning, this drift continued over the next four decades, prior to the Reykjavik summit in October 1986.

The U.S.-Soviet arms race led not only to the production and deployment of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons but also to nuclear postures and strategies that brought the two sides close to nuclear war more than once. Their leaders recognized the growing risks and over time tried—sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing—to negotiate agreements to limit and reduce the numbers of these most deadly weapons and the risk that they might be used again. At the same time, scientists, diplomats, and ordinary citizens the world over campaigned to halt nuclear testing and to stop the nuclear arms competition.

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the nuclear challenge head-on in Reykjavik when they discussed the possibility of eliminating all nuclear weapons. Although they failed, stymied largely by the lack of a common view on the merits of ballistic missile defenses, they did succeed in starting their two countries on a path of reducing numbers of warheads for the first time. It was a watershed year. In 1986, there were about 70,000 nuclear warheads in the world’s arsenals. Today the number has been reduced by more than two-thirds.

More recently, an important new element has been introduced into efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. It is the call to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons in the U.S. defense strategy. When Reagan and Gorbachev discussed the elimination of nuclear weapons in Reykjavik, it was considered heretical by the nuclear mandarins, some of whom are still horrified. Yet, when four distinguished former U.S. leaders with impeccable records as Cold War hawks—George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn—in 2007 offered a vision of a world without nuclear weapons and called for concrete steps toward that goal, the worldwide response was overwhelmingly positive. Two years later, the newly elected U.S. president, Barack Obama, gave weight to their call in his speech in Prague outlining his own strategy for moving step by step toward a world free of nuclear weapons. He pledged to “put an end to Cold War thinking” by “reduc[ing] the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” and to renew negotiations with Russia on further verifiable reductions in the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles.

In April 2010, the Obama administration completed its “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report,” which outlined steps to reduce the role and number of U.S. nuclear weapons and emphasized that “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and our allies and partners.”

In the same month, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Later that year, a bipartisan majority of the Senate approved the treaty, which requires verifiable reductions in deployed U.S. and Russian strategic warheads to a level of 1,550 each by 2018. Obama declared that, after New START, his administration would pursue further negotiations with Russia that would seek to reduce and account for not only deployed strategic nuclear warheads, but also nondeployed warheads and nonstrategic warheads and associated delivery systems.

The Road Ahead

In the years since Reagan and Gorbachev agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and began at Reykjavik to seek nuclear disarmament, substantial steps toward reducing the nuclear risk have been taken. The conversation has evolved from “should we” pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons to include discussion of “how to” do so.

Yet, since the Prague speech and the completion of New START and the NPR, there is a sense that the momentum has slowed once again. New barriers have arisen that seem to have caused an indefinite delay in prospects for renewing U.S.-Russian negotiations. In part, the barriers are domestic politics—the change in Russian leadership and the impending presidential election in the United States—but some of the barriers are substantive. The two sides have differing views on restraint and cooperation in proposed new ballistic missile defense systems and on whether to include shorter-range tactical weapons in addition to strategic ones in future nuclear arms reductions.

Obama soon will make decisions that might open the way for progress if the Russians are ready, and that is a big “if.” The review of the post-NPR implementation options developed by the National Security Council staff and the Pentagon over the past several months could lead to fundamental changes in Cold War-inspired presidential guidance on nuclear employment policy, nuclear targeting, and the size and structure of U.S. nuclear forces. In a March 26 speech, Obama said,

My administration’s nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today’s threats, including nuclear terrorism. Last summer, I therefore directed my national security team to conduct a comprehensive study of our nuclear forces. That study is still underway. But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.

A Need to Rethink

Unfortunately, many policymakers and planners in the United States, Russia, and elsewhere are still caught in a nuclear deterrence trap, believing, wrongly, that security can be maintained by fielding large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in western Europe and Russia’s much larger holdings of tactical warheads are good examples. Policymakers need to rethink their assumptions about the kinds of threats nuclear weapons actually can help deter and how many of those weapons are needed to do that.

A close examination of today’s global security threats, whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan, or Northeast Asia, reveals that they cannot be effectively addressed with the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. The weapons have little or no effect in coercing states, insurgent groups, or terrorists to abstain from actions that threaten international peace and security.

The range of actions that nuclear weapons might deter never was very great. During the Cold War, one declared purpose for U.S. nuclear weapons was to prevent a Soviet land invasion of NATO Europe and the use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union against U.S allies. Yet, nuclear deterrence did not prevent the Soviets from taking aggressive actions on their side of the Iron Curtain. Two major wars involving the United States broke out in Asia despite nuclear deterrence. Nuclear deterrence did not affect the decisions of a number of governments to acquire or attempt to acquire nuclear weapons despite the intense desire of successive U.S. administrations to prevent that from happening.

Today, it is difficult to come up with realistic scenarios that would justify the use of nuclear weapons by the United States, but nuclear deterrence still elicits a mystical faith. Speak of a world without nuclear weapons, and the reaction of some is akin to removing a magical spell that prevents the United States from being victimized by its enemies, real or imagined.

“Containment,” “nuclear deterrence,” and “strategic stability” all were useful guides to U.S. policy during the Cold War. They contributed to the notion that nuclear weapons should be held in reserve for use in worst-case contingences. These concepts, however, did not translate well into guides for common international action. The ideas never were fully or comfortably shared in actual practice between the United States and the Soviet Union, and they are even less likely to become guides to joint action in the current multipolar world, marked as it is by regional rivalries, asymmetric warfare, and threats posed by organizations outside the control of states. It is obvious to nearly everyone that containment and nuclear deterrence have lost the meaning they had during the Cold War. Strategic stability also has a broader meaning, beyond the imperative of avoiding incentives for a first strike.

In order to advance the nuclear disarmament process to its next stages, including further U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions involving all types of nuclear weapons and engagement of the world’s other nuclear-armed states in this joint enterprise, the purpose of nuclear weapons in the 21st century must be clarified and updated. In addition, nuclear forces must undergo concrete changes to reflect the fact that the fundamental purpose and, ultimately, the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack, not to wage a nuclear war or counter conventional military threats.

Deterring Nuclear Attack

Five years ago, we wrote a report entitled “What Are Nuclear Weapons For?”[1] It argued that because the Cold War is over and China’s strategic nuclear arsenal is relatively small (about 50 warheads), there is no need for the large numbers of strategic nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia possessed and deployed then. The same comment holds true for the numbers that Russia and the United States possess and plan to have even after New START expires in 2021.

Today, it is even clearer that it is possible and feasible to maintain a credible U.S. deterrent at lower levels of nuclear weapons than are stipulated in New START. It is clearly very difficult to escape from the mind-set that nuclear-dominated deterrence is required for strategic stability even though conditions have changed very considerably from Cold War days. Thus, although it may have been reasonable to err on the high side while in the early days of the “reset” policy with Russia, there is no reasonable justification today for such high numbers of nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia, the two countries that still possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, can do better in reducing their weapons stockpiles.

Senior U.S. military and civilian defense officials apparently think so too. According to “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” the Pentagon’s January 2012 strategy document, “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.”

New START could be amended in the next year or two so that the goal would be 1,000 strategic deployed warheads by 2018, instead of the 1,550 that the current version of the treaty requires. Beyond that, the best way to proceed with reductions of nuclear weapons would be to include warheads designed for use with short-range delivery systems in the program of reductions, as well as strategic warheads.

The general line of thinking in Washington seems to be to consider both types of warheads as being in one basket with “freedom to mix.” Another method, which would be preferable, is to adapt the procedure used in the case of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiations, where strategic and intermediate-range systems were negotiated in separate but parallel sets of talks. The issues are rather different, and limits on short-range systems have not been attempted previously.

In a separate but parallel negotiation on short-range systems, the objectives should be as follows: first, to consolidate U.S. and Russian warheads in secure facilities deep within the respective countries; second, for the two countries to provide full transparency to each other regarding numbers and types of warheads in the secure facilities; and third, to begin the process of gradually eliminating the warheads in stages in which the numbers of weapons eliminated are roughly proportional to the total holdings of each side so that the two countries will reach zero at the same time.

In parallel with this process, negotiations on strategic forces should be taking place in a separate forum, but the talks on reductions in short-range weapons should receive priority. These weapons are threats to everyone because the portability of many of them makes them ideal for terrorist operations. This does not mean that all warheads in this category should be eliminated prior to any reductions in strategic forces, but that all the short-range warheads should be eliminated by the time that the intermediate ceiling of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads has been achieved. Those not so eliminated in this process would have to be counted as strategic.

In the context of a joint nuclear risk-reduction enterprise among many countries, the United States and Russia could set a ceiling of 500 operationally deployed strategic warheads, with another 500 constituting a responsive force. With the other nuclear powers joining in initiating steps toward nuclear force reductions, agreement on cuts to this level could be reached by 2021, the year New START expires. The approach described here assumes that Russian nuclear forces will decrease in numbers comparable to those proposed for the U.S. force. The contingency of a hostile government taking power in Russia in the future can be met by maintaining the responsive but not operationally deployed force. This need not be available in a matter of days or weeks, but months or even years. Emphasis on adaptive planning—generating war plans quickly in time-critical situations—also will be required to meet possible contingencies. This will require continual upgrading of U.S. command and control capabilities.

Under these assumptions and taking into account the present U.S. relationship with Russia, a U.S. strategic force of about 500 operationally deployed warheads would be more than adequate to deter any nuclear attack against the United States or its allies from any current or future adversary and would provide enough flexibility to take into account changes in the international security environment. As described in the 2007 report, this number is large enough to deal with major command facilities and military targets, numbering between 200 and 300. The size of the operationally deployed force of strategic warheads was set at 500 for reasons of operational conservatism. The excess allows for force readiness concerns, multiple targeting where needed, and the possibility of unexpected events from Russia, for example, a breakdown in its military command and control structure caused by technical failures or a takeover by renegades.

The responsive force would be configured in two parts, the first able to respond to a rapidly building crisis—a ready responsive force—and a second able to respond to strategic warning signals on a longer time scale—a strategic responsive force. This underscores the need for sustaining an infrastructure for supporting it as well as the need to provide this force with appropriate hardening. A few years after it is established, the total responsive force should have 400–500 warheads, a number comparable to the one the operationally deployed force has.

This number is of the order of what would be adequate to target roughly 200 additional Russian sites. This category would include assets affecting industrial recovery, such as the major nodes in the electric power grid and air, ground, and rail transportation systems, as well as major industrial sites. These targets and the forces to attack them should be viewed as only temporary remnants of the Cold War policy of assured destruction.

Potential Chinese targets are likely to cover the same generic list as for Russia, cited above, including Beijing’s strategic strike forces, command and control centers, major military bases, and ports in the vicinity of Taiwan. China’s long-range nuclear forces, as long as they remain at anything like their present levels, should not generate U.S. force requirements in addition to the numbers proposed above for hypothetical emergencies involving Russia. The same warhead can be aimed at multiple designated targets.

If there were drastic changes in the worldwide strategic picture, such as a major buildup of Chinese strategic forces, the United States presumably would begin a major buildup of its own. This would take time, but so would a major Chinese buildup. The interim force configuration of “500+500” proposed above provides a ready basis for such U.S. action. The warhead delivery capacity of the U.S. force of Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles can be doubled above the level at which the original proposal would set it. In addition, as described above, the United States would maintain a functioning nuclear infrastructure.

Regarding potential targets in Iran or North Korea, the list would be much shorter because the territories are smaller and the numbers of defense-related installations are much smaller than in Russia and China. That list would very likely be limited to single digits in each country. Again, it must be stressed that this analysis is aimed only at determining “how much is enough” under traditional deterrence planning procedures.

Structuring the Forces

The following is a force structure that would correspond to the approach proposed in this article, taking into account the targeting and other requirements cited above. It would be survivable and would not present first-strike incentives. The operationally deployed force would consist of

•   three Trident submarines on station at sea, each loaded with 24 missiles and 96 warheads (a mix of low-yield and high-yield ones). Reducing the D-5 missiles’ full complement of eight warheads to four per missile will substantially increase their maximum operating areas.[2] Alternatively, the same numbers of missiles and warheads could be distributed on a larger number of Trident submarines in the interest of greater operational flexibility and survivability, albeit at higher operational costs.

•   100 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles in hardened silos, each with a single warhead; and

•   20 to 25 B-2 and B-52H bombers configured for gravity bombs or air-launched cruise missiles.

The responsive force would consist of

•   three Trident submarines, each loaded with 96 warheads, in transit or being replenished in port for its next missions as part of a ready responsive force for a rapidly building crisis, plus two or three unarmed boats in overhaul, and

•   50 to 100 Minuteman III missiles taken off alert and without warheads, and 20 to 25 bombers, unarmed, in maintenance and training, all of which would comprise a strategic responsive force, for a more slowly building confrontation.

In sum, based on targeting, force readiness, and other requirements for a nuclear deterrent, the proposed U.S. force structure would encompass 500 operationally deployed warheads, plus 288 warheads in a rapid responsive force, and delivery systems in a strategic responsive force capable of deploying up to 212 additional warheads. The United States and Russia should work toward achieving such an agreement before New START expires in 2021.

Achieving the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons clearly would require fundamental changes in current political conditions. The steps described above could lead to changed circumstances and changed political and security relationships. This initiative can help pave a path toward realizing a vision that has been embraced by many U.S. presidents and other world leaders since 1945.

The force structure outlined above is a conservative one in terms of target coverage, allowing for the fact that the door is closing too slowly on the Cold War orthodoxy of assured-destruction thinking by the United States and Russia. After a transition stage of surely less than a decade, a further halving of the total warhead levels should follow, with all remaining warheads being assigned to a responsive force.

These 500 warheads would cover for deterrence purposes all potential targets in other countries, assuming, as a precondition for such progress, nuclear restraint elsewhere in the world. This underscores the imperative of a nuclear joint enterprise.

Pre-planning and adaptive planning can make use of deployed warheads for a variety of contingencies. Massive pre-planned attack options are relics of the past and should be recognized as such.

To insure against the possibility of negotiated force reductions being rapidly reversed and to provide confidence to the rest of the world, the United States and Russia should negotiate verifiable procedures for destroying excess warheads and delivery systems. Other countries could then adopt these procedures.

Hesitation about a world without nuclear weapons is not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon. It is shared in many countries, Russia included. Overcoming that resistance will require assurance that other states are accompanying Russia and the United States on the road to zero.

This task is not easy, but what stands in the way is not physical or technical barriers but the fact that “everything has changed except our way of thinking.”

Sidney D. Drell is a physics professor emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has advised the U.S. government for many years on technical aspects of national security issues.

James E. Goodby, a former U.S. negotiator on arms control, nonproliferation, and transparency issues, is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy. The recommendations offered in this article represent the authors’ personal views.


1. Sidney D. Drell and James E. Goodby, “What Are Nuclear Weapons For? Recommendations for Restructuring U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces,” Arms Control Association, October 2007, www.armscontrol.org/pdf/20071104_Drell_Goodby_07_new.pdf.

2. With reduced numbers of warheads, the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles will have significantly larger maximum flight ranges. See John R. Harvey and Stefan Michalowski, “Nuclear Weapons Safety: The Case of Trident,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1994): 261-337.


Sidney D. Drell is a physics professor emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has advised the U.S. government for many years on technical aspects of national security issues. James E. Goodby, a former U.S. negotiator on arms control, nonproliferation, and transparency issues, is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy. The recommendations offered in this article represent the authors’ personal views.

The Urgent Need for an Arms Trade Treaty

Daryl G. Kimball

Late last month, UN officials confirmed that more than 100 Syrians—the majority women and children—were killed following artillery and tank shelling of civilians near the town of Haoula by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Despite the brutality of the Assad regime over the 15-month conflict in which some 10,000 Syrians have been killed, Russia, Iran, and possibly others continue to sell weapons to Damascus.

To uphold a proposed ceasefire and help prevent an all-out civil war, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging states not to arm either side in the Syrian conflict. Even as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Syrian government “bears the main responsibility for what is going on,” yet another shipment of Russian arms is reported to have arrived in Syria.

The crisis in Syria underscores the urgent necessity of common-sense rules to prevent the international transfer of weapons, particularly when it is determined there is a substantial risk of human rights abuses or if the weapons are going to states under international arms embargoes.

Next month, a final round of multilateral negotiations could finally produce a legally binding global arms trade treaty (ATT). For the first time, this would establish common, legally binding standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms and ammunition.

Each year, thousands of civilians around the world are slaughtered by weapons sold to unscrupulous regimes and transferred by arms brokers to criminals and illegal militias. The enormous human toll of this cycle of violence undermines economic and social development and political stability in fragile regions, as well as international security.

According to a recent report published by Oxfam, more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition have been imported since 2000 by countries operating under 26 UN, regional, or multilateral arms embargoes in force during that time.

To succeed, the United States and other major weapons exporters, including Russia and China, need to put people over arms profiteering and play a constructive role in the upcoming negotiations to secure a treaty with the highest possible standards.

To be effective, an ATT should identify possible criteria for denial of international arms transfer licenses; this list should address human rights, security, and development concerns. A strong treaty should require member states to report regularly on their arms sales and purchases, transfer approvals, and license denials.

Under an effective ATT, states-parties would not authorize a transfer of conventional arms in contravention of UN arms embargoes or when there is a substantial risk the items will be used for serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law, as in the case of Syria.

A key question in the negotiations will be whether the treaty will require states to withhold such arms transfers or simply require that states take into account the potential risks associated with the transfer. The latter approach is simply not acceptable because it will allow many states to ignore existing international obligations and sidestep the basic standards outlined in an ATT.

An ATT also must apply to all types of international trade, transfers, and transactions in conventional weaponry and cover the broadest range of conventional arms possible, from military aircraft to small arms. The British government estimates that at least 400,000 people are killed by illegal small arms and light weapons each year. An ATT also should specifically require that national laws regulate the activities of international arms brokers and other intermediaries.

Negotiators must include ammunition in the scope of the treaty. The world is already full of guns. It is often the supply and resupply of ammunition that feeds and prolongs conflicts and armed violence. Even though the United States already licenses the import and export of ammunition, it has been reluctant to support the regulation of ammunition in an ATT. That position must change. The exclusion of ammunition from the scope of the treaty and from basic reporting requirements would greatly reduce its ability to achieve many of its most important goals.

Although even the most effective ATT cannot stop states from providing aid to regimes and armies that target civilians, such a treaty would make it much more difficult for states, such as Russia, to justify arms sales to the Assad regime and other rogue regimes and militias.

As British Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt has said, the treaty has “the potential to prevent human rights abuses, reduce conflict, and make the world a safer place.” No one, except maybe illicit arms dealers and human rights abusers, should oppose common-sense international law regulating the arms trade.

To help prevent the next humanitarian disaster fueled by the illicit arms trade, President Barack Obama and other global leaders should spare no effort to seize the historic opportunity to negotiate a robust, bulletproof ATT. ACT

Late last month, UN officials confirmed that more than 100 Syrians—the majority women and children—were killed following artillery and tank shelling of civilians near the town of Haoula by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Despite the brutality of the Assad regime over the 15-month conflict in which some 10,000 Syrians have been killed, Russia, Iran, and possibly others continue to sell weapons to Damascus.


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