"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler,
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
October 2012
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
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Science, Technology, and the Biological Weapons Convention

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which currently has 165 states-parties, is the principal international legal instrument against biological warfare. Developments in science and technology pose a continuing challenge to the treaty and the broader biological weapons nonproliferation regime. If they are applied to state or nonstate biological weapons programs, these developments can undermine the treaty’s prohibitions.


John Hart and Ralf Trapp

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which currently has 165 states-parties, is the principal international legal instrument against biological warfare. [1] Developments in science and technology pose a continuing challenge to the treaty and the broader biological weapons nonproliferation regime. If they are applied to state or nonstate biological weapons programs, these developments can undermine the treaty’s prohibitions.

Therefore, the possible impact of science and technology on the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, or use of biological agents for “hostile purposes or in armed conflict,” as the BWC puts it, needs to be assessed periodically. On the other hand, science and technology collaborations are critical to the full and effective implementation of the BWC’s Article X provisions on economic cooperation and development (see box, p. 17). It is important for states to conduct periodic reviews of implementation at an operational level in order to achieve a proper balance between preventing biological warfare and fostering economic cooperation and development.

The need to prevent the spread of technology that would assist weapons programs while allowing and in fact promoting technology dissemination for peaceful purposes is not unique to the BWC. Debates on this issue are a regular feature of conferences to review the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In the case of the BWC, however, the tension and the need for review may be particularly acute because of the rapid pace of advances in the life sciences.

At their review conference in December 2011, BWC states-parties agreed to continue the process of intersessional meetings—meetings that take place between the treaty’s quinquennial review conferences—for 2012-2015 “to discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action” on agreed agenda items, including science and technology and cooperation and assistance. [2] The first of these meetings of experts, chaired by Boujemâa Delmi of Algeria, took place July 16-20. The next meeting of parties will occur December 10-14.

As with the sets of intersessional meetings that preceded the 2006 and 2011 review conferences, states-parties will exchange views and best practices through the tabling of national papers. Notably, states-parties will consider science and technology systematically for the first time since the 1992-1993 Ad Hoc Group of Governmental Experts to Identify and Examine Potential Verification Measures from a Scientific and Technical Standpoint (VEREX). [3]

This article analyzes the ways in which the new intersessional process may address Article X and science and technology, taking account of linkages between them. It poses broader questions of how the treaty can be upheld and strengthened in the light of scientific and technological advances. Governments, the public, and other interested parties should consider at least four overarching questions: Does the regime have the capacity to react to concerns that the treaty is not being fully implemented or that its implementation needs to be adapted to new developments? Is this view shared by all states-parties, as well as the broader international community including international organizations, industry, and civil society? What specific processes and decisions are required to maintain and strengthen the regime without hindering progress in science and technology and international cooperation in the life sciences? Finally, can the regime be used effectively to identify and explore new opportunities for peaceful cooperation among the parties?

Article X

The standing agenda items of the intersessional process are cooperation and assistance, with a particular focus on Article X; review of developments in the field of science and technology; and strengthening national implementation. The 2012 meetings also are considering ways to “enable fuller participation in the confidence-building measures,” which are data declarations covering a variety of topics relevant to compliance with the convention, such as national biodefense programs and unusual outbreaks of infectious disease. In addition, as part of their consideration of science and technology, the meetings are focusing on so-called enabling technologies, that is, technologies that enable the practical application of discoveries in the life sciences or facilitate research and collaboration in this field.

The 2011 review conference mandated that the 2012-2015 intersessional process should cover the following broad subject areas: national reports by states-parties on how they are implementing Article X, practical measures to support full and complete implementation of Article X, improvement in the capacity of states-parties in selected areas such as biosafety and biosecurity and disease surveillance and response, and coordination of cooperation with other stakeholders. [4]

In addition, the review conference participants decided to establish a database, administered by the BWC’s Implementation Support Unit (ISU), to facilitate assistance and cooperation among member states. States-parties will submit data to the ISU on requirements for and offers of assistance, including transfers of equipment and material, as well as science and technology information regarding the peaceful use of biological materials and toxins. [5] Requests are to be matched with offers of states-parties and relevant international organizations to provide or facilitate such assistance.

The underlying assumption behind the database project appears to be that the parties themselves and some international organizations are the principal drivers for collaboration in the life sciences. In the review conference’s final document, however, the countries observed that the private sector plays a strong role in the transfer of technology and information. [6]

There continues to be disagreement within the BWC regime over the legitimate extent of controls and restrictions on transfers of materials, equipment, and technology in the life sciences among states-parties in good standing. Countries from the Non-Aligned Movement in particular often have argued that transfer controls for arms control purposes are unjustified and discriminatory when the recipients are abiding by their obligations to the relevant multilateral treaty regime. In recent years, the legitimacy and utility of strategic trade controls have become more widely accepted, particularly in view of the measures states are obliged to take under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

Nevertheless, there remains a tension between, on one hand, the obligation to promote technology transfers between states-parties for the purpose of fostering economic cooperation and development and, on the other hand, the requirements of strategic trade controls in cases where a state-party believes that another state poses a proliferation risk and therefore should not have access to dual-purpose materials, technology, equipment, or information. Furthermore, despite the generally agreed objective of reducing international trade restrictions, various other legal regimes require states to impose controls and oversight for such reasons as human and environmental health or for legal enforcement reasons such as investigating possible tax avoidance. The practical measures that states take to ensure that such control and oversight efforts are effective may coincide with transfer control measures adopted for BWC implementation purposes, thereby strengthening perceptions that the BWC requirement to promote collaborations and exchanges between states-parties is not being fully met.

Such divergence in perception is not unique to the BWC. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has long experienced challenges in its implementation of Article XI of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). A 2011 report by a high-level advisory panel chaired by Ambassador Rolf Ekéus of Sweden addressed this point. The panel focused on the OPCW’s priorities after the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles, an activity that will gradually wind down, and proposed “an approach whereby any State Party feeling discriminated against over transfer denials could address a complaint to the Director-General, who might use his good offices to bring the parties together to discuss and if possible resolve the matter including by addressing the reasons that have led to the denial. Such a mechanism might increase transparency and help to dispel concerns.” [7] The CWC parties have not acted on that proposal, but could do so at next year’s CWC review conference. Whether a similar approach could be discussed in the BWC context remains uncertain.

Peaceful Cooperation Under the BWC

Article X of the Biological Weapons Convention deals with cooperation among the parties for peaceful purposes. The full text of the article is below.

• (1) The States Parties to this Convention undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes. Parties to the Convention in a position to do so shall also cooperate in contributing individually or together with other States or international organizations to the further development and application of scientific discoveries in the field of bacteriology (biology) for prevention of disease, or for other peaceful purposes.

• (2) This Convention shall be implemented in a manner designed to avoid hampering the economic or technological development of States Parties to the Convention or international cooperation in the field of peaceful bacteriological (biological) activities, including the international exchange of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins and equipment for the processing, use or production of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes in accordance with the provisions of the Convention.

Science and Technology

Last year’s BWC review conference mandated that the intersessional process consider new developments in science and technology that have potential hostile applications. At the same time, the discussions should identify possible measures to strengthen biological risk management, which could include voluntary codes of conduct or similar governance measures, as well as education and awareness raising in the life sciences community. Developments in science and technology should also be reviewed so as to improve the efforts of international organizations that work in fields relevant to the BWC. [8] A further special topic for 2012 is “advances in enabling technologies, including high-throughput systems for sequencing, synthesizing and analyzing DNA; bioinformatics and computational tools; and systems biology.” [9]

Many specific science and technology developments were assessed with regard to their possible impact on the BWC in the lead-up to the review conference. [10] Rapid progress in the life sciences has created a “time compression effect” whereby the period from innovation to general application in society has shrunk from perhaps a century to a decade or less. Enabling technologies allow for the processing and quantitative analysis of vast amounts of data and their distribution and utilization by research groups internationally. New investigative techniques, instrumentation, and methods such as combinatorial synthesis and high-throughput screening facilitate the acquisition of large amounts of biological data.

Furthermore, biology is converging with disciplines including chemistry, engineering sciences, modeling, and simulation, thus creating new insights into the function of biological systems and new medical treatments as well as targeted drug delivery. [11] Although biology remains essentially an empirical science, there is a gradual shift from descriptive to predictive approaches. Once science overcomes certain obstacles, such as the generation of the vast amounts of required biological data and the development of more-sophisticated mathematical algorithms to deal with the complexities of biological systems, the transition of the life sciences to a new level of accelerated and fundamental advancement will be inevitable. [12]

The OPCW advisory panel observed that the convergence between chemistry and biology, although not in itself a cause for treaty convergence, underlines the importance of “exchanges of experience and joint technical reviews” between the two regimes and recommends that the OPCW Technical Secretariat establish a “liaison” with the BWC implementation process. [13] Notably, many of the same national delegates and technical experts attend both the BWC and CWC meetings. Both treaties are rooted in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, cover toxins, and have prohibitions that embody a “general purpose criterion,” which prohibits all toxic chemicals and their precursors and biological materials except for permitted purposes. This criterion is the legal mechanism by which the treaties’ prohibitions remain relevant in the face of scientific and technological developments. States-parties to both treaties have devoted insufficient attention to developing ideas for better operationalizing it.

Moving Forward

A key difficulty for the intersessional process is how to move beyond merely compiling and reviewing advances in science and technology to actually assessing their impact on the BWC and developing policies and practical measures to manage the associated risks and opportunities. There are numerous difficulties associated with the assessment of the possible and actual effects of science and technology on the BWC, especially when the assessment is carried out in a multilateral framework.

Some officials say they have difficulty envisaging whether or how the conduct of research or the application of new technology in the life sciences might constitute a treaty violation. This is particularly true in cases where such an application is not part of traditional state-level biological weapons programs. Another difficulty is how the implications of science and technology, in all of their variety and complexity, can be absorbed meaningfully by negotiators and acted on by policymakers.

Another important issue is the extent to which BWC representatives should focus science and technology discussions on achieving a better understanding of defense sector evaluation methodologies for assessing national security threats and military capacity requirements. Such methodologies reflect threat perceptions, domestic and international defense-related developments, and the drivers of weapons acquisitions programs. Exchanges of views in such areas may raise red flags in national defense establishments and therefore should be approached with care and discretion.

Some of the interactions during the current BWC intersessional meetings will be process oriented, while others may focus on specific developments of concern, such as the 2012 publication describing the experimental increase in transmissibility of an avian influenza H5N1 strain in an animal model. [14] The meetings, however, will not decide any collective actions by BWC states-parties. Practical steps will be left largely to national implementation measures. [15] The intersessional process is not empowered with decision-making authority, and any multilateral decisions will have to wait until the next review conference in 2016. The gap between the pace of science and technology and the diplomatic processes to manage the risks associated with these advances is likely to expand further.

The intersessional process will discuss the various issues placed on its agenda by the 2011 review conference on an individual basis, but it may be worthwhile for the states-parties also to consider the operational interlinkages and relationships among them. Advances in science and technology create risks, but also present opportunities for the regime, for example by improving the conditions for Article X implementation. Science and technology advances often have been evaluated primarily in the context of Article I of the BWC, that is, with regard to how they affect the prohibitions against biological warfare. Yet, as the major documented and acknowledged biological weapons programs recede into history and the regime’s focus is shifting to broader topics such as best practices in biosafety and biosecurity, this assessment has moved beyond a traditional threat assessment to an evaluation of strategies to mitigate the risks of science and technology advances, many of which are dual purpose.

To manage or contain such inherent, yet wide-ranging risks and simultaneously reap the benefits for humanity will require the right balance between maintaining controls and creating incentives and conditions that favor applications that benefit society, promote economic and technological development, and keep countries in compliance with the treaty. Such strategies will be essential given the nature of the science and technology process, but they come with a degree of uncertainty with regard to some states’ intentions and a loss of some control over societal actors by states generally. This is a consequence of a shift toward a postproliferation context, which reflects the increasing international dissemination of science and technology and is not specific to the implementation of the BWC. Thus the dual-purpose nature of the science and technology must be managed, but is not amenable to a conventional solution such as technology transfer controls and denial.

In addition, some researchers and analysts have challenged the general appropriateness of applying export controls and censorship by states to certain research data. This became apparent in the debate about whether to publish the full research papers that show how a modified avian influenza virus strain became readily transmissible among ferrets. The weight of the scientific community, as expressed by a World Health Organization committee that was established to consider the appropriateness of withholding some of the research data from publication, was against any recommendation for the censoring of any of the research. As a result, both of the papers in question were published in full earlier this year.

One broad policy question raised by this episode is whether it is possible to describe scientific research on its merits for peaceful purposes alone when the research has the potential of causing security threats. A related question is how to determine the point in the research cycle at which potential dual-use issues should be addressed. This discussion affects research funding, publication policies, principles in research oversight, and safety and security standards. Some tension between the scientific community and national security establishments is likely and perhaps inevitable. A better-informed and more regular dialogue between these communities is needed to prevent them from drifting apart over how to manage the risks inherent in dual-use research.

In the context of the BWC, there is a need for an effective bridge between the security-driven discussions in the intersessional meetings and the mainstream of the science and industry communities. Past consideration of science and technology by VEREX was operationally focused on supporting states-parties in determining whether prohibited weapons activities were occurring. The dynamic of today’s evaluation of science and technology by the intersessional process is more generic, more wide ranging, and tied to more of the other main provisions of the treaty. Advances in science and technology are assessed not merely with regard to their impact on the BWC’s prohibitions, but also with regard to whether national implementation measures need to be adapted, how they affect international collaborations for peaceful purposes, whether they call for the adoption of additional governance measures in industry and research, and how they may enhance the ability of governments to investigate allegations that states or other actors have misused biological or toxin agents.


The intersessional meetings are likely to remain process oriented and characterized by incremental evolution in implementation practice. Several practical measures can assist in this evolution.

• To reinforce trends that enhance collaborations in the life sciences while ensuring BWC compliance, states-parties should continue their dialogue with the science and technology community to better understand and take advantage of the drivers that push science and technology ahead. In this context, the concept of a biological weapon needs to be addressed as part of a wider spectrum of biological risks, ranging from natural outbreaks and emerging diseases to accidents and different forms of possible abuse. Preventing the misuse of new scientific and technological knowledge for biological weapons purposes is not merely a matter of regulations and prohibitions, but also of using incentives, funding mechanisms, oversight, and other governance measures to steer scientific progress toward beneficial applications. Such an approach should make it possible to flag problematic developments in science and technology that may require regulatory or other governance steps early on.

• The BWC parties’ assistance and collaboration database could be used as a basis for qualitative and quantitative trend analyses. Although the database will be fully accessible only to member states, the intersessional process could nevertheless help to clarify the nature of the existing cooperation and assistance among BWC states-parties, identify opportunities and ways to overcome obstacles, and provide authoritative analyses reflecting the full geographical breadth of the BWC membership.

• States-parties could further consider how the intersessional discussions could promote coordination among international organizations that have mandates relevant to the BWC. For example, the intersessional process could offer an inclusive platform to exchange methodologies for evaluating the impact and sustainability of “existing bilateral, regional and multilateral assistance, cooperation and partnerships.” [16] The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been collecting data to characterize research and development (R&D) levels and trends in OECD member states and in some nonmember states, using such proxy indicators as patents, technology balance of payment, and “trade in R&D intensive industries” [17] to measure the output and impact of science and technology. BWC parties could apply similar methodologies to place the debate about Article X implementation on a more pragmatic and rational basis.

• Finally, science and technology evaluation and assessment methodologies should take account of newly available archival documentation on past military threat evaluation and biological weapons development and acquisition processes [18] when considering broader, longer-term factors of biological weapons arms control. In particular, states-parties could consider further the methods for sharing information on their own national risk assessment processes as they relate to the life sciences, on the role of science and technology in their defense development and acquisition processes, and on science and technology evaluation methodologies most relevant for consideration of BWC compliance.

The intersessional BWC meetings will continue to serve as a forum that allows states-parties to consult with one another on possible areas of concern and to familiarize themselves with relevant science and technology developments that may have an impact on the treaty regime. These discussions should bridge compliance and cooperation issues in order to identify operationally relevant solutions and strategies that serve the security concerns of the parties while enabling peaceful international cooperation and collaborations. The parties can maintain and strengthen the regime’s capacity to react to compliance concerns by exchanging views and best practices on science and technology evaluation methodologies. These discussions will require interaction with and input from other actors, including international organizations, the science and technology and industry communities, and civil society.

John Hart leads the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Ralf Trapp, a former branch head and senior planning officer of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons disarmament.


1. Among the nonparties are 12 that have signed but not ratified the treaty (the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Guyana, Haiti, Liberia, Malawi, Myanmar, Nepal, Somalia, Syria, and Tanzania) and 19 that have neither signed nor ratified it (Andorra, Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Guinea, Israel, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, South Sudan, and Tuvalu). For the text of the BWC, see www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/%28httpPages%29/04FBBDD6315AC720C1257180004B1B2F?OpenDocument.

2. Seventh Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, “Final Document of the Seventh Review Conference,” BWC/CONF.VII/7, January 13, 2012, p. 21 (paras. 6 and 8) (hereinafter 2011 BWC review conference final document). On the 2011 review conference, see Graham S. Pearson and Nicholas A. Sims, “The Biological Weapon Convention Seventh Review Conference: A Modest Outcome,” HSP Reports From Geneva, No. 35 (March 2012), www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/spru/hsp/Reports%20from%20Geneva/HSP%20Reports%20from%20Geneva%20Special%20March%202012.pdf.

3. On VEREX, see Nicholas A. Sims, “The Evolution of Biological Disarmament,” SIPRI Chemical and Biological Warfare Studies, No. 19 (2001), pp. 82-118.

4. 2011 BWC review conference final document, p. 22 (para. 16).

5. Ibid., p. 22 (para. 18).

6. Ibid., p. 16 (para. 52).

7. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Technical Secretariat, “Note by the Director General: Report of the Advisory Panel on Future Priorities of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” S/951/2011, July 25, 2011, annex 2, para. 97 (hereinafter 2011 OPCW future priorities report).

8. 2011 BWC review conference final document, p. 23 (paras. 22-23).

9. See Meeting of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, “Advances in Enabling Technologies: Background Information Document Submitted by the Implementation Support Unit,” BWC/MSP/2012/MX/INF.1, June 11, 2012.

10. U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), “Life Sciences and Related Fields: Trends Relevant to the Biological Weapons Convention,” National Academy of Sciences Report in Brief, 2011, http://dels.nas.edu/resources/static-assets/materials-based-on-reports/reports-in-brief/Life-Sciences-Related-Fields-Report-Brief-Final.pdf; Jonathan B. Tucker, ed., Innovation, Dual Use and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012); John Hart and Ralf Trapp, “Science and Technology and Their Impacts on the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: A Synthesis Report on Preparing for the Seventh Review Conference and Future Challenges,” SIPRI, December 2011; Seventh Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, “New Scientific and Technological Developments Relevant to the Convention: Background Information Document Submitted by the Implementation Support Unit,” BWC/CONF.VII/INF.3, October 10, 2011.

11. On computer modeling and simulation, see Jonathan R. Karr et al., “A Whole-Cell Computational Model Predicts Phenotype From Genotype,” Cell, July 20, 2012, pp. 389-401. With respect to targeted drug delivery, on July 20 the European Medicines Agency recommended the adoption of the first gene therapy in the European Union. The therapy is delivered by a viral vector and corrects a defective gene responsible for the production of an enzyme necessary for breaking down fats. European Medicines Agency, “European Medicines Agency Recommends First Gene Therapy for Approval,” July 20, 2012, www.ema.europa.eu/ema/index.jsp?curl=pages/news_and_events/news/2012/07/news_detail_001574.jsp&mid=WC0b01ac058004d5c1.

12. NAS, “Life Sciences and Related Fields,” p. 117 (Finding IX).

13. 2011 OPCW future priorities report, pp. 20, 28 (paras. 79 and 119).

14. Masaki Imai et al., “Experimental Adaptation of Influenza H5 HA Confers Respiratory Droplet Transmission to a Reassortment of H5 HA/H1N1 Virus in Ferrets,” Nature, May 2, 2012; Sander Herfst et al., “Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets,” Science, June 22, 2012.

15. In the case of the European Union, for example, some such measures can be carried out at the regional level.

16. 2011 BWC review conference final document, p. 17 (para. 56).

17. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Main Science and Technology Indicators,” 2011, pp. 3-4.

18. For examples of state biological weapons verification or evaluations and associated national security and international arms control implications, see Amy Smithson, Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas with Jens H. Kuhn, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Finding the Right Home for FMCT Talks

Efforts to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would require states to cease production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, have been at an impasse for 17 years in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). Almost no substantive discussion has taken place on a treaty, which is a crucial step toward halting the manufacture of nuclear weapons worldwide.

Andrea Berger

Corrected online on January 18, 2013.

Efforts to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would require states to cease production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, have been at an impasse for 17 years in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). Almost no substantive discussion has taken place on a treaty, which is a crucial step toward halting the manufacture of nuclear weapons worldwide.

As argued by Mari Amano, the Japanese ambassador to the CD, an FMCT would be an essential complement to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Once it enters into force, the test ban will act as a “quality cap” on global nuclear weapons programs while the FMCT would be a “quantity cap.”[1] Yet problematically for those keen on advancing an FMCT, various countries, most recently Pakistan, have blocked the CD’s work by taking advantage of the body’s requirement for consensus.

The resulting frustration has fueled a growing movement to start formal FMCT negotiations in another forum. Most recently, Canada in 2011 convinced the UN General Assembly to pass Resolution 66/44, requiring the assembly to “consider options for the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices at its sixty-seventh session.” As expected, none of the draft programs of work proposed to the CD in 2012 was able to muster consensus support. The 67th session of the General Assembly thus opened in late September with the debate over parallel negotiating forums on its agenda.

The nuclear-armed countries have warned that other forums may be unable to secure the participation of the five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and India and Pakistan, non-NPT countries that have nuclear arsenals. A close look at the positions of these countries, as well as the options for parallel negotiating environments, suggests that they may be correct.

Myriad disagreements among these seven states over an FMCT render the initiative unripe for formal negotiations. Instead, selective and frank discussions that seek to resolve major issues, such as verification and existing stocks, are a better alternative. The ongoing “P5-plus”[2] discussions among the five recognized nuclear-weapon states and select nuclear-armed countries outside the NPT are most suited to this task and could later be widened to states that do not have nuclear weapons. With the support of FMCT advocates—those without nuclear weapons as well as those with them—it holds the most promise of getting key states to support the treaty.

The Key-State Challenge

The P5 and India voted in favor of Canadian-sponsored Resolution 66/44, which committed the General Assembly to evaluate options for negotiating an FMCT outside the CD. Yet, these six countries were wary of hastily opening formal negotiations. A parallel forum, they argue, must secure the participation of “key states” throughout discussions and increase the likelihood that they will buy in to an eventual FMCT.

For the most part, “key states” is used by the P5 and India without being explicitly defined, although their reading of the term can be surmised from CD dynamics. Russia asserts that parallel discussions would be counterproductive “unless they comprise all countries possessing military nuclear arsenals.”[3] Despite fitting this description, North Korea is largely ignored; officials from P5 countries assert that including Pyongyang in the definition would go too far toward legitimizing its nuclear weapons program.

Israel also is a unique case. Widely believed to be nuclear armed, it is not officially recognized as such. Its deliberately opaque nuclear posture means that Israeli agreement to a verifiable FMCT is implausible.

Israel has quietly vowed not to hold up the start of negotiations. Other nuclear-armed states seem comfortable with this arrangement because Israel is not a significant factor in their own nuclear calculations. Information released by WikiLeaks highlights U.S. assurance to Israel that an FMCT will not be “predicated on Israel’s joining before its entry into force.”[4] For the purposes of understanding what the key-state demand means in practice, the term should therefore be seen as consisting of the P5 plus India and Pakistan, but excluding Israel and North Korea.

Of the P5, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States already have voluntary but unverified moratoriums on fissile material production for nuclear weapons. Their military fissile material stockpiles are large,[5] with no security need to resume production in the future. Therefore, securing their participation in the opening stages of substantive discussions should be no great challenge.

Yet, verification may prove more contentious for those four nuclear-weapon states once substantive dialogue on an FMCT gets under way. Robust verification provisions that sufficiently assure other states that civilian fissile material is not being diverted to weapons use or that new military fissile material is not being clandestinely produced could risk unearthing sensitive information about a country’s nuclear weapons program.

Securing the sustained engagement of China, which is believed to have stopped producing fissile material for use in nuclear weapons in the early 1990s but has yet to say so publicly, is essential. At present, many analysts and CD representatives suspect China of hiding its concerns behind Pakistan’s veto in the CD. It has not proactively sought to redress this suspicion. In fact, it was the only P5 state to abstain from the informal meetings held in 2011 and 2012 on the sidelines of the CD. These were coordinated by Australia, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands and sought to address some of the technical issues associated with verification and the definition of fissile material, among other things.

Beijing may have been considering a public moratorium in 1995. At the time, U.S. President Bill Clinton believed he could secure the agreement of all recognized nuclear-weapon states to jointly declare a cessation of fissile material production. Yet in the weeks before his planned press conference on March 5, 1995—the 25th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force—signals from China and France grew less positive.[6] The statement was scrapped. Since then, Beijing has come no closer to a public moratorium. It has shown through its relentless advocacy of a no-first-use declaration that it takes its publicly stated nuclear policy seriously. Any substantive FMCT discussion therefore must address the reasons underlying China’s present unwillingness to declare a moratorium.

Various possible explanations exist for China’s ambiguity. First, it may wish to retain flexibility to expand its arsenal if its strategic environment changes. Second, it may simply wish to wait until FMCT verification arrangements are ironed out before declaring that it has decided to stop fissile material production. Third, China may see it as necessary to get India and Pakistan firmly on board the treaty before it makes decisions of its own, in order not to appear too conciliatory. Relatedly, it may simply not see the worth of declaring a moratorium or joining an FMCT.

The key states that now openly declare their continued production of fissile material for weapons purposes, namely India and Pakistan, bear special attention. India at present largely aligns its FMCT stance with that of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It has approximately two metric tons of highly enriched uranium and five metric tons of separated plutonium, compared to 2.75 metric tons and 0.14 metric tons in Pakistan, respectively.[7] A mutually accepted cutoff in future production would preserve the status quo. For now, India seems happy to publicly condemn its nuclear neighbor’s obstinacy and openly support an FMCT, despite the fact that the South Asian strategic environment could change to India’s detriment before a treaty is concluded. For instance, new Pakistani reactors at Khushab could enable Islamabad to further accelerate military fissile material production in the coming years, allowing it to achieve rough parity in fissile material stockpiles with India.

Pakistan is a tougher knot to untangle. For much of the time that an FMCT has been discussed in Geneva, Pakistan’s primary stated objection has been that proposals to commence substantive discussions do not explicitly mention that existing stocks of fissile material will be considered. Islamabad worries about a fissile material gap with India. An FMCT that caps future production but does not address existing stockpiles would freeze the amount of both countries’ fissile material usable for nuclear weapons. Despite Pakistan’s recently accelerated production, the gap between its stockpile and India’s remains wide. In Islamabad’s eyes, freezing this asymmetry would make for an unacceptably fragile nuclear relationship in South Asia.[8]

In 2009, the same year that the CD experienced a fleeting breakthrough and passed a program of work, Pakistan’s objections took on a new dimension. Its leaders have had time to come to an opinion on the 2008 U.S.-Indian civil nuclear agreement, which was a critical step in giving India access to the international nuclear market although New Delhi does not open all its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Pakistan has cited the lack of a similar offer from the United States and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as confirmation of its claim that the nonproliferation regime is discriminatory.[9] Pakistan’s ambassador to the CD has stated plainly that he would acquiesce to FMCT negotiations only when Islamabad has an Indian-style NSG waiver in hand.[10] Pakistan’s fresh objection prevented the CD from implementing the only program of work it has managed to pass in more than a decade.

A process or forum outside the CD therefore needs to support the unique challenge posed by an FMCT: to get the seven key states around the same table and meaningfully work through a variety of politically and technically sensitive issues. These range from core obligations and verification to existing stocks to claims of inequality in the nuclear suppliers regime. In other words, an effective FMCT requires key states to participate throughout substantive discussions, from initial dialogue to an eventual formal drafting process.

Despite the magnitude of the outstanding issues, Canada and the other members of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative—fellow non-nuclear-weapon states Australia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—have continued to push for parallel FMCT forums to be evaluated by the General Assembly this fall. The three options being most seriously considered are General Assembly negotiations, a UN conference similar to the one held in July to negotiate an arms trade treaty (ATT), and an “Ottawa process,” which would consist of a series of conferences entirely outside of the UN system. All three encounter similar problems: they do not secure the participation of the key states, or they are not conducive to the sensitive discussions among military fissile material producers that an FMCT requires at this stage.

Moving to the General Assembly

The General Assembly is most commonly cited by countries without nuclear weapons as a possible new home for FMCT talks, with a plenary and an ad hoc committee as candidates for starting negotiations.

At first glance, the General Assembly checks off the key-state box. Nuclear-armed states would be involved in the process by virtue of their UN membership, but the General Assembly’s majority-vote procedure means that decisions ultimately can be made without the agreement of any or all of the key states. The notion that countries that are not producing fissile material for weapons could dictate the content of an eventual treaty is unacceptable to those states most directly affected by an FMCT.

At the same time, with more than 180 non-nuclear-weapon states in the room, the key states will be extremely hesitant and likely unwilling to openly and frankly address difficult questions about a verifiable FMCT. Debates over how to convert or decommission military facilities verifiably could involve proliferation-sensitive information, as could debates over whether past fissile material production should be mandatorily declared to verify that total stocks for nuclear weapons have not increased following a state’s ratification.

Furthermore, working through these matters and Pakistan’s broader political concerns is certain to take time and could conflate FMCT discussions with other strategic issues. With this in mind, the General Assembly’s relative transparency would make nuclear-armed states vulnerable to high-level name-calling. The slow pace of necessary dialogue could also be misused as evidence of nuclear-weapon states’ failure to make timely progress toward their commitments under the 2010 NPT Review Conference action plan. Ultimately, this combination is not a recipe for an effective treaty.

An ATT-Style Approach

Prior to setbacks at the ATT conference in July, the process for negotiating that treaty, which would regulate trade in conventional arms, was seen as a potentially successful model to be replicated for future arms control agreements. The ATT process opened with a group of governmental experts composed of official representatives selected on an equitable regional basis. It was asked to consider the feasibility of views on the scope and parameters for an ATT and report back to the General Assembly on its findings.[11]

The next step was the creation of an open-ended working group, “open” because all UN member states and accredited nongovernmental organizations were welcome to participate although not required to do so. The group was designed to consider further the major issues identified by the governmental experts, but in practice, few contentious points were resolved at this stage.

The final component of the ATT process was unlocked when the United States, until then the outlier, agreed that it could support a drafting conference if decisions were made by consensus. The negotiating conference turned out to be essentially a supercharged CD-like forum, with 150 de facto vetoes rather than 65. With most contentious issues still unresolved after the working group stage, it should come as no great surprise that the conference, although able to work through many of the issues and come close to agreement on a draft text, could not claim the prize. With residual reservations expressed by the United States and others, including Russia, the conference ended without agreement.

This experience carries important lessons for the FMCT negotiations. In 2011, Canada tried to convince the General Assembly that a group of governmental experts should be created for the FMCT talks.[12] The Non-Aligned Movement objected, arguing that creation of an expert group moved too far away from the CD. As a result, Canada reluctantly dropped the proposition. Notably, much of the fact-finding work envisioned for a group of governmental experts was done during the early 1990s by Gerald Shannon, who was then Canada’s ambassador to the CD.

Last year, Austria, Mexico, and Norway tried to model their approach to advancing the FMCT negotiations on the second stage of the ATT process. They suggested two open-ended working groups: the first addressing “nuclear disarmament,” including an FMCT, and the second addressing the prevention of an arms race in outer space, presumably included at the insistence of China, which has consistently and ardently supported its inclusion in a CD program of work to ensure that the issue is not left behind in favor of an FMCT.

The nonaligned countries expressed the same reservations as they did toward the group of experts focusing on an FMCT. Some NATO countries said that participating in a process explicitly linking an FMCT with a push to comprehensive nuclear disarmament would create friction with their pledge to remain a nuclear alliance as long as other states possess nuclear weapons.[13] Furthermore, the problems that the General Assembly would face in promoting the frank but selective and secure discussion that the FMCT negotiations need also would plague an open-ended working group.

The fact that the earlier stages of a process modeled on the ATT negotiations already have been proposed and rejected shows that such processes are not only poorly suited to the challenge of bridging divides over an FMCT, but also unappetizing to major constituencies.

An Ottawa Process for an FMCT

An alternative approach, more ad hoc and entirely removed from the UN system, is that taken by the Ottawa process on anti-personnel landmines. This is the approach seemingly favored by Canada, which highlights its historical role in leading the process toward what it sees as a successful landmine ban. Canada, together with Austria and Norway, spearheaded that process beginning in 1996. Two main meetings were used to discuss a possible treaty, and Austria assumed responsibility for drafting a text. A final treaty was negotiated and approved by majority vote in a three-week conference in Oslo in September 1997.

One of the lessons of the Ottawa process was that, with devoted leadership and without the rigidity of the UN framework, a treaty can be negotiated in a remarkably short time. Canada and other members of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative have shown that they are willing to push the FMCT process down a road that leads away from Geneva. It is there, however, that useful comparison between the two cases ends.

The Ottawa Convention was largely a normative humanitarian initiative, without a significant emphasis on verification. In contrast, an FMCT is an arms control exercise in which robust verification will play an indispensable role. The complex issues in which an FMCT is entangled cannot be unwound with the dramatic speed of a ban on landmines.

Moreover, the Ottawa process does not address the key-state concern. The treaty itself failed to attract many landmine-producing countries. In the same way, hesitant nuclear-armed states would have little incentive to join the early stages of an ad hoc FMCT process. In addition, as in the General Assembly, majority voting in the final conference carries the risk that a treaty could be decided without the agreement of all military fissile material producers. An ad hoc approach also fails to provide the sustained diplomatic engagement and closed environment needed to resolve the sensitive political and technical challenges of an FMCT.

Turning to the P5-Plus

To guard against the prospect that UN member states will select one of these three alternative forums this fall, some of the nuclear-armed states have taken the initiative to advance the FMCT talks among themselves; the P5 committed to discuss an FMCT with “other relevant partners.”[14] The ongoing P5-plus FMCT dialogue presently includes India and may soon attract Pakistan.

The unique characteristics of a P5-plus forum offer the best hope of drawing in Pakistan. First, as implied by the P5’s refusal to invite North Korea for fear of legitimizing its nuclear program, Pakistan may feel that its involvement in the P5-plus club legitimizes its own program. Secondly, non-nuclear-weapon states that have consistently vilified Pakistan for blocking progress in the CD are not given a voice in or an insight into discussions in the P5-plus forum. This is significant both for Pakistan and other nuclear-armed states, which, as noted above, are reluctant to articulate their positions fully in settings where honesty might be wielded as evidence of stalling or uncooperative spirit. Together, this mix of factors might be enough to compel Pakistan to the table.

The same qualities make this forum far better suited to preserving key-state participation throughout discussions than General Assembly negotiations, an approach modeled on the ATT, or the Ottawa process. Key states may be compelled to stay engaged if they feel that their concerns are being addressed or at least genuinely considered.

The international community should take advantage of the P5-plus design to build agreement among the seven key states on an FMCT that bans future production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices as its core obligation. Israel should be the notable exception to consensus-building efforts in the P5-plus forum. Although its involvement would be welcome, Israel is unlikely to jeopardize its nuclear opacity. Its nuclear program does not seem to constitute any meaningful obstacle to FMCT ratification by other key states. As a result, P5-plus stakeholders should give high priority to establishing the conditions necessary for seven rather than eight of the military fissile material producers to see a benefit in ratifying an FMCT.

Finding appropriate verification provisions to which the seven can agree is a job for which the P5-plus is most suited. The members of that group will need to balance the security concerns of nuclear-armed states with their shared desire to have confidence that others could not cheat the treaty without detection. Zia Mian of the International Panel on Fissile Materials argues that there is a “window of opportunity for cooperative nuclear archaeology projects”[15] to retroactively document fissile material production, contributing to verification of an FMCT. Whether this is a useful starting point could be evaluated in a P5-plus environment. If the key states would agree on verification mechanisms, each state could gain confidence that the military stockpiles of others had been capped.

Should they manage to get Pakistan on board, these closed discussions could address some of Islamabad’s objections to an FMCT. If Islamabad’s complaint about discrimination in the nuclear supply regime is taken at face value, then the road to an FMCT that includes Pakistan may have to run through the NSG. An NSG waiver for Pakistan currently is not palatable to most Western countries, which remember the proliferation activities of the Abdul Qadeer Khan network. Yet, the selective and closed P5-plus environment can still be useful in exploring Islamabad’s position and encouraging it to demonstrate that it can act as a responsible nuclear user.

The rest of the P5 should undoubtedly take advantage of China’s presence to glean its full position on verification, as well as on the fissile material stockpiles of its South Asian neighbors. Ideally and in contrast to other forums, a P5-plus setting is too selective for China to continue hiding its disagreements behind Pakistan, as it is suspected of doing in the CD. Other states around the table will certainly expect Beijing to participate actively and will pressure it to do so.

The opacity of P5-plus discussions should leave Beijing with fewer qualms about honestly communicating its viewpoint. It would be useful to explore, for instance, whether China and India would mutually accept an FMCT that freezes the military fissile material stockpiles of the other at current levels or whether Indian developments in ballistic missile defense and nuclear submarines affect China’s perceptions of its own future fissile material requirements. Understanding the reasons that China has yet to declare a voluntary moratorium on fissile material production for nuclear weapons is important to boosting its support for advancing FMCT dialogue beyond initial stages.

Although an FMCT that includes any one of China, India, or Pakistan would hypothetically add value to the nonproliferation regime, in practice, none of those countries is likely to ratify a treaty without the others. Engaging them together, rather than in a bilateral environment with the United States, is therefore crucial. The P5-plus should use this opportunity to promote the understanding of national positions and verification collaboration that eventually could unlock agreement on an FMCT among key states.

Once key states reach a point at which they see a benefit in jointly supporting an FMCT, the process may be widened to include states that do not have nuclear weapons. Many have argued that an FMCT should be exclusively for nuclear-armed states.[16] An FMCT would not add to the obligations that non-nuclear-weapon states have under the NPT because those states are not producing fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes. Yet, a universal FMCT could create notable regulatory harmony in the international verification regime if it required non-nuclear-weapon states to sign an additional protocol to their IAEA safeguards agreement or adopt a similar verification framework.


Paul Meyer, a former Canadian ambassador to the CD, argued that when it comes to an FMCT, the international community, particularly the United States, should prioritize “functionality over forum.”[17] However, as a look at alternate negotiating environments illuminates, the two are effectively inseparable. A forum’s design will affect whether and how an FMCT is advanced. The ongoing P5-plus process is the best suited to addressing the unique challenges faced by the treaty. Selective and closed discussions are more likely to secure the participation of key states and address the host of significant political and highly technical issues related to a verifiable FMCT.

P5-plus opacity may not provide the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative with the immediate satisfaction of having formal, high-profile negotiations in the General Assembly, at a UN conference, or in something like the Ottawa process. Sustained P5 attention to this issue, however, can gradually untangle disagreements and get the FMCT process closer to a point at which it could move to a more formal negotiating setting and be opened up to other states. Such an approach could, in the longer term, yield an effective and ratifiable FMCT that other environments simply cannot.



Andrea Berger is a research fellow for nuclear analysis at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and deputy director for the UK Project on Nuclear Issues. She wishes to express her appreciation to the government officials and nongovernmental experts who provided assistance for this article.




1. Mari Amano, Statement to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, May 31, 2012, www.disarm.emb-japan.go.jp/statements/Statement/120531FMCT.htm.

2. The five nuclear-weapon states sometimes are known as the P5 because they also are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

3. Alexey Borodavkin, Statement to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, January 31, 2012.

4. Embassy of the United States—Tel Aviv, “U/S Tauscher’s December 1-2 Visit to Israel,” December 22, 2009, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/wikileaks-files/8314526/US-TAUSCHERS-DECEMBER-1-2-VISIT-TO-ISRAEL.html.

5. International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), “Global Fissile Material Report 2011: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production,” January 2012, pp. 9, 17, http://fissilematerials.org/library/gfmr11.pdf.

6. “U.S., Allies at Odds Over Nuclear Material,” United Paramount Network, February 16, 1995.

7. Approximately 4.44 metric tons of India’s plutonium is reactor grade. However, India has retained virtually all of it as “strategic” material, meaning that it is potentially available for use in nuclear weapons and not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. See IPFM, “Global Fissile Material Report 2011,” pp. 9, 17.

8. Zia Mian and A.H. Nayyar, “Playing the Nuclear Game: Pakistan and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty,” Arms Control Today, April 2010.

9. Conference on Disarmament, “Letter Dated 19 January 2010 From the Permanent Representative of Pakistan Addressed to the President of the Conference on Disarmament Transmitting the Text of the Press Statement Issued by Pakistan’s National Command Authority Dated 13 January 2010,” CD/1883, January 22, 2010.

10. “The South Asian Nuclear Balance: An Interview With Pakistani Ambassador to the CD Zamir Akram,” Arms Control Today, December 2011.

11. UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Arms Trade Treaty,” 2012, www.un.org/disarmament/convarms/ArmsTradeTreaty/.

12. UN General Assembly, “Canada: Draft Resolution; Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons and Other Nuclear Explosive Devices,” A/C.1/66/L.40, October 14, 2011.

13. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” November 2010, p. 5, www.nato.int/strategic-concept/pdf/Strat_Concept_web_en.pdf.

14. Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations in Geneva, “First P5 Follow-Up Meeting to the NPT Review Conference, Paris,” July 1, 2011, http://ukmissiongeneva.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/690410782/690411482/p5-press-statement.

15. Zia Mian, “The Fissile Material Challenge and the Conference on Disarmament,” Presentation to the UN secretary-general’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, New York, February 25, 2011, http://fissilematerials.org/library/UNSG-Disarm-25-Feb.pdf.

16. Christopher A. Ford, “Five Plus Three: How to Have a Meaningful and Helpful Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty,” Arms Control Today, March 2009.

17. Paul Meyer, “Free the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty: Functionality Over Forum,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 19, 2011, http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/op-eds/free-the-fissile-material-cut-treaty-functionality-over-forum.



Correction: The original version of this article gave an incorrect figure for France’s stockpile of military fissile material and incorrectly said the French stockpile was the smallest among the four countries that have declared moratoriums on production of such material. France has a military stockpile of 32 metric tons, which makes it the second smallest among the four countries’ stockpiles, behind the United Kingdom’s. The United Kingdom has a stockpile of 27.4 metric tons (19.3 metric tons if the navy’s 8.1 metric tons of irradiated highly enriched uranium is not included).

Reconsidering the Perilous Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States came dangerously close to war. It could have escalated too easily into an all-out nuclear exchange.

Barton J. Bernstein

Last month I said we weren’t going to [allow Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons in Cuba]. Last month I should have said we don’t care. But when we said we’re not going to, and they [the Soviets] go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing, then I think our risks increase.

— President John Kennedy, in the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, October 16, 1962[1]

Fifty years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States came dangerously close to war. It could have escalated too easily into an all-out nuclear exchange.

In October 1962, the United States had about 27,000 nuclear weapons, and the Soviets had about 3,000. In a first salvo of a nuclear exchange with its intercontinental adversary, the United States could have launched about 3,000 nuclear weapons and the Soviets about 250.[2] The total megatonnage in that initial exchange would probably have been approximately 50,000 to 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb. Such use of nuclear weapons in 1962 would have imperiled not only the Soviet and U.S. peoples, but much if not all of humankind.

In seeking to determine policy in October 1962, President John Kennedy met in secret from October 16 to 22 with his chosen high-level advisers in the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm.

To the world, the week of the Cuban missile crisis began publicly on October 22, with Kennedy’s dramatic TV and radio announcement of what he termed Soviet “offensive” missiles in Cuba. He declared that the weapons must be withdrawn and that he was establishing a naval quarantine.[3]

To do nothing in the face of the Soviet act would be unacceptable, he indicated. The implication of Kennedy’s October 22 speech and various other U.S. government statements was that the Soviet deployment in Cuba was overturning the strategic nuclear balance and that unless the Soviet missiles in Cuba were removed, they would place the United States in imminent military peril.

Kennedy also implied that first trying secret diplomacy would have been inadequate and that a public confrontation, the quarantine, was both essential and prudent. Left unspoken in public by Kennedy on October 22 and throughout the week by the U.S. government was what would happen if the Soviets militarily challenged the U.S. quarantine or if they did not soon agree to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. The odds of war seemed quite high.

The near-deadly week of dramatic public confrontation, with the U.S.-imposed quarantine and the dangers of a shoot-out at sea or far worse, seemed to end when the Soviets backed down on October 28. They publicly promised to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, and the United States seemed to promise not to invade Cuba in the future. In fact, the crisis continued, although behind the scenes and in greatly reduced form, for some weeks in the fall of 1962 while the two great powers argued about the removal of Soviet bombers from Cuba and whether there would be on-site inspection of the removal of the Soviet missiles.[4]

The missile crisis raises many important and often interrelated questions that are considered in this article. How did the public understand the crisis at the time, and how did memoirist-historians and others present it for a number of years afterward? What of significance was covered up or not addressed in those published treatments? In particular, what were the limitations and failures of U.S. decision-making during the crisis, and how should newer evidence and interpretations influence assessments of the crisis?

How close did the crisis come to going out of control and spiraling into war? What are the implications of such near-disasters for managing crises and for high-level decision-making, especially when involving nuclear weapons? What role did ethical thinking play in the high-level decision-making?

The ‘Finest Hour’ Interpretations

In the fall of 1962 and for about a quarter-century afterward, Kennedy’s handling of the missile crisis was viewed as his finest hour. By the official and quasi-official U.S. versions of events, which generally dominated popular and scholarly understanding into the mid-1980s, Kennedy had been skillfully tough and resolute and therefore eminently successful. He had, through shrewd intelligence and careful planning, avoided war while compelling Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back down.

Kennedy, in that popular version, had on October 27 resisted the Soviet Union’s public demand for a trade of the 15 U.S. intermediate-range Jupiter missiles in Turkey in return for Soviet removal of its missiles from Cuba. Kennedy had maintained the NATO alliance, defended the U.S.-led system of collective security, and showed that victory could be won without yielding to Communist demands. It was a story of American pluck and skill, of U.S. strength and power, and of wise presidential leadership in managing a crisis.

Such general contentions were promoted in the memoirs-cum-histories by Kennedy aides Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in their heralded, mid-1960s volumes on the Kennedy administration.[5] Their uncritical analyses of the missile crisis were further advanced in the late 1960s by Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days on that dangerous period. (President Kennedy’s brother, Robert, who was attorney general at the time of the crisis, was a member of the ExComm.)

The truly great triumph of the pro-Kennedy memoirists was the celebration of U.S. and Kennedy success and the creation of often false history that sometimes involved knowing deception on crucially important matters in the Cuban missile crisis.

Uncovering a Different History

As key documents and the tapes of the ExComm meetings were slowly declassified and other new information became available, the narrative and interpretation advanced by the ardently pro-Kennedy literature on the crisis were punctured decisively. Declassified documents revealed that, on October 16, building on earlier small attacks (Operation Mongoose), President Kennedy and his brother Robert had wanted new sabotage expeditions against Cuba, apparently without realizing that such quasi-military activities could have led the Soviets and Cubans to believe that a U.S. attack was beginning and to respond by unleashing military retaliation directly against the United States.[6]

The ExComm recordings, when declassified, also underscored that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had first interpreted the Soviet missile emplacement in Cuba as constituting a domestic political threat to the administration, not a significantly increased military threat to the United States. McNamara, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, and President Kennedy had all agreed that the Soviet missiles did not realistically increase the military threat to the United States.[7]

At the time of the crisis, the United States assumed it had significant superiority over the Soviet Union in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and other delivery systems capable of reaching its main adversary. The U.S. numbers included about 177 ICBMs versus what was believed, incorrectly, to be about 75 Soviet ICBMs. It turned out, according to Soviet information released much later, that the Soviets probably had only about 20 to 44 ICBMs. Thus, the U.S.-to-Soviet ratio of at least 4-to-1 and possibly more than twice that gave the United States a near-counterforce capability.[8]

In other words, a U.S. first strike could destroy a very high number of the Soviet land-based ICBMs and might, according to the then-recent public explanations of counterforce thinking, make any Soviet retaliatory strike unlikely. Such analysis, with the continuing large U.S. buildup in missiles under Kennedy, meant that the Soviets were dangerously behind and that the situation would worsen for them.[9]

In looking back on the missile crisis and in particular in focusing on the ExComm transcripts, analysts should be struck by the poor intellectual quality of the discussions at those high-level meetings. The dialogue was sometimes spastic and frequently desultory. Some of the most important issues were treated inadequately or virtually ignored.

One of the most important such issues was why, in the analysis of ExComm members, the Soviets had put the missiles in Cuba. That was possibly the crucial question. It was not pursued systematically; distressingly, it was treated in piecemeal ways. The general answers often converged, albeit loosely, on the idea that Khrushchev was seeking to gain valuable leverage in the ongoing Berlin problem, probably to challenge U.S. credibility and that possibly he hoped to weaken U.S. support in Latin America. Much of that could be cast as likely challenges to the United States’ and Kennedy’s “courage and commitments.”[10]

The analysis of a likely Berlin motive for Khrushchev was possibly correct,[11] although the evidence on that interpretation is still not adequate. Yet, other Soviet motives now generally recognized as important received little attention from Kennedy and the members of the ExComm in October 1962.

Aside from a few passing comments, mostly by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and CIA director John McCone,[12] no one in the ExComm focused on the fact that the Soviets were far behind in the strategic arms race and might well be acting, in part, to narrow that gap or to stop it from getting worse. Excluding that motive undoubtedly helped greatly narrow the range of options that U.S. decision-makers considered during the crisis.

Significantly, no ExComm member suggested that Khrushchev and the Soviets might have been acting, at least in part, to defend Cuba from a feared U.S.-sponsored attack.[13] Yet in a well-publicized statement of September 11, 1962, the Soviets emphasized their commitment to defending Fidel Castro’s regime against a U.S. attack and seemed genuinely to fear that the United States (after the 1961 Bay of Pigs venture) might sponsor such an attack.[14] Moreover, as some ExComm members knew, the United States had carried out a series of secret CIA marauding attacks on Cuba in the preceding 12 months as part of Operation Mongoose and had developed secret plans for possible large-scale U.S. military attacks.

Surprisingly, aside from a few, rather oblique passing comments, no one in the ExComm concluded that Khrushchev and the Soviets might have been responding to the very recent U.S. emplacement of Jupiter missiles in Turkey. At one juncture, Kennedy did briefly liken the Soviet emplacement in Cuba to a U.S. missile emplacement in Turkey, but he apparently had forgotten that the United States already had put missiles in Turkey. When he was told that the United States had done so, he seemed to lose interest in thinking about explaining the Soviet reaction as a response to the U.S. action in Turkey.[15] Yet, years later, Khrushchev was publicly and quite plausibly to claim exactly that.[16]

It still remains something of a puzzle that the ExComm almost completely ignored these multiple explanations of likely Soviet motives: protecting Cuba, narrowing the gap in strategic nuclear missiles, and responding to U.S. missiles in Turkey. There was a marked failure of intellect in the ExComm, as well as a marked failure to seek, even briefly, to view the international situation from an adversary’s perspective.

Such failures, as McNamara pointed out in later years, suggest the need to learn an important lesson: seek to understand the adversary and how the situation looks to that country’s leadership. That may require a level of empathy and a reduction in self-righteousness.[17]

The various pro-Kennedy memoirs also concealed a crucial set of facts that significantly alters the narrative. On October 27, Kennedy made a deal with the Soviets through his brother Robert under which the United States would yield to the Soviet demand for removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. One term of the deal, however, was that the deal had to remain secret. Only about half of Kennedy’s top U.S. advisers knew of that agreement.[18]

The deal was kept secret for about 25 years, and thus most of the attentive world did not know that Kennedy, despite the many claims about his steady toughness, had actually “softened” to make a deal in order to achieve a U.S.-Soviet settlement. Even Lyndon Johnson, who, as Kennedy’s vice president, succeeded him as president after his assassination in 1963, was not aware of the deal.

As president, Johnson often was driven by his sense of rivalry with his dead predecessor. One must wonder whether Johnson, in his lengthy quest for victory in Vietnam, would have clung so resolutely to a policy of toughness in that conflict if he had known that the key claim of Kennedy’s finest hour was factually false. If Johnson had known that, might he have been more flexible in Vietnam and have conducted meaningful negotiations to end that costly war?[19]

Managing a Crisis?

Another issue, probably separate from the problems of generally not understanding Soviet motivation, was failing to anticipate the profound difficulties of managing a crisis and of avoiding potentially catastrophic errors. In discussing U.S. responses to the Soviet missiles in Cuba, no one in the ExComm dwelled on the likelihood of catastrophic error and thus on the need to take that issue into account.

In the ExComm’s planning and analysis, there was usually a heady and profoundly unrealistic sense that the crisis could be well managed: Serious mistakes would not occur, organizations would not make dangerous errors, and crucial orders would not be misunderstood or violated.

The group generally ignored basic and seemingly obvious problems, such as if someone in the U.S. system launched nuclear missiles through error or anti-Soviet anger or if someone in the Soviet system did that.

In elaborate chains of command with various people operating at different levels and often acting amid anxiety and fatigue in a crisis in making crucial decisions, various mistakes—serious mistakes—are virtually inevitable. Signals will be misinterpreted, actions will not be properly calibrated, situations will be misunderstood, necessary revisions of procedures will not be made, and excessive risks will be taken. These problems may be compounded, adding to the danger that what is desired at the upper levels of government may easily unravel and come undone elsewhere in complicated systems and organizations.[20]

Political scientist Scott Sagan and journalist Michael Dobbs have done important work in documenting this phenomenon for the missile-crisis period. Among what seem to have been unusually dangerous errors in the crisis were the following: a high-level U.S. military alert (DEFCON-2) given in the open communications system, possibly presaging to a wary Soviet Union a likely U.S. first strike; a test launch in California of a U.S. ICBM that might have been interpreted by Soviet agents as the beginning of a U.S. first strike; a Soviet submarine captain in the Caribbean apparently coming close to using a nuclear torpedo against U.S. ships; and a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane straying into Soviet air space, with U.S. planes armed with nuclear weapons rushed aloft to help but fortunately no shoot-out in the air.[21] Any one of these acts could have escalated, and some might have quickly involved the use of nuclear weapons.

In none of these frightening U.S. cases was Kennedy or even one of his top associates actually in control. Similarly, in the Soviet case of the submarine captain, Khrushchev and other high-level Soviet officials were not truly in control.[22]

The many revelations, decades after the crisis, of near misses led McNamara to conclude that such crises cannot be managed and therefore must be avoided.[23]

Larger Questions

For a present-day reader of the ExComm minutes and related declassified materials, it still seems lamentable and not easily explicable that Kennedy and his advisers so easily rejected an initial attempt at secret diplomacy with the Soviets before moving to the dangerous option of a quarantine. The scattered evidence indicates that no one in the ExComm significantly pushed for trying secret diplomacy first, the quarantine emerged as the responsible alternative to invasion or attack, and there was a developing majority, not including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a few others, on endorsing the quarantine route. Those dissenters wanted stronger military action without initial attempts at diplomacy.

Probably the most spirited argument along the lines of trying diplomacy first came in an October 18 letter of advice to Kennedy from Charles Bohlen, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and recognized Soviet expert. Bohlen argued that diplomacy first was far safer. If it failed, the United States could still move to other routes to try to secure withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.[24] In contrast, if the United States began with a public confrontation—a quarantine or even more—the result could be war.

Bohlen did not spell out the implications, but they were stark. What would happen if the war became nuclear? How could it be stopped? What would be left of the United States or other countries?

Such painful implications indirectly raise a related set of unstated issues dealing with ethical considerations. Did a U.S. leader have the moral right to choose a course that, quite plausibly, could have meant nuclear war, the deaths of many or all U.S. citizens, similar carnage in the Soviet Union and on much of the European continent, and perhaps the ending of all human life itself? In other words, what was the ethical obligation of the president and his advisers to humanity at large?

During the recorded ExComm deliberations and in the various declassified files of that time, no one in the upper reaches of government explicitly raised that profound question of ethical rights and responsibilities reaching beyond obligations to the United States itself and involving responsibilities to and the rights of other peoples elsewhere.[25]

On the 50th anniversary of that perilous crisis, it seems appropriate now to analyze and assess it. That involves, at least in part, focusing on the narrow U.S. decision-making, the rather quick U.S. elimination of the option of secret negotiations, and the exclusion in 1962 by both sides of large ethical questions reaching beyond the United States and Soviet Union to consider the obligations of those nation-state leaders to humankind



Barton J. Bernstein, a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, has been writing and lecturing on the Cuban missile crisis since 1962. He wishes to acknowledge Alexander George, Martin Hellman, David Holloway, and Scott Sagan for their advice over the years and McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara for their participation in interviews.




1. Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy; The Great Crises, Vol. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), p. 443.

2. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2010, p. 81; Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1989), p. 208; see also Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006), p. 16.

3. Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1962 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), 1963), pp. 806-809. This is the source for all references to Kennedy’s October 22, 1962, speech.

4. Barton J. Bernstein, “Kennedy and Ending the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Foreign Service Journal (July 1979); Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 110-114; Daniel G. Coleman, “The Missiles of November, December, January, February…: The Problem of Acceptable Risk in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer 2007): 5-48.

5. Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), pp. 667-718; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 794-841.

6. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, p. 454; U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-63, Vol. 11 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1997), pp. 45-47.

7. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, pp. 440-441, 464.

8. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 202-203, 206-207 (October 27, 1962, estimate on Soviet missile-launcher numbers and the figure of possibly 44 Soviet missile launchers, which was a much later U.S. intelligence estimate). Soviet Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov in 1989 stated that there were only “about twenty” Soviet ICBM launchers in October 1962. Most analysts seem to have accepted Volkogonov’s report, not the U.S. intelligence’s higher number of 44, and have assumed that the number of reported missile launchers indicated the number of Soviet ICBMs in October 1962. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. 440.

9. Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War, p. 430.

10. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings; Sorensen memorandum, October 17, 1962, Sorensen Papers, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA.

11. Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War, pp. 441-451, 457-460, 464, 492. Analysts should have serious doubts about ascribing a Berlin motive because the evidence on that issue seems weak.

12. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, p. 410.

13. On Operation Mongoose, see Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 6-10. On anti-Castro actions and plans, see Polmar and Gresham, DEFCON-2, pp. 48-50, 218-230.

14. David Larson, ed., “The Cuban Crisis” of 1962: Selected Documents and Chronology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), pp. 7-17.

15. Naftali and Zelikow, Presidential Recordings, p. 451.

16. Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, trans. and ed. by Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 492-494; Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, trans. and ed. by Jerrold L. Schechter (Boston: Little, Brown, 1990), pp. 170-177; Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 10-11; for a different view, see Fursenko and Naftali, Khrushchev’s Cold War, p. 492.

17. Robert McNamara, telephone interviews with author, 1990-1992; Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995), pp. 322-323.

18. McGeorge Bundy, interviews with author, 1990-1992; Barton J. Bernstein, “Reconsidering the Missile Crisis: Dealing With the Problems of American Jupiters in Turkey,” in The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, ed. James Nathan (New York: St Martin’s, 1992), pp. 94-96.

19. See Max Holland and Tara Marie Egan, “What Did LBJ Known About the Cuban Missile Crisis? And When Did He Know It?” October 19, 2007, http://hnn.us/node/43977.

20. These general notions are developed far more fully and with sophistication in other works. See Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

21. Sagan, Limits of Safety, chs. 2-3, 5; Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (New York: Knopf, 2008), pp. 48-49, 60, 95-98, 174-176, 237, 271-274; William Burr and Thomas S. Blanton, eds., “The Submarines of October: U.S. and Soviet Encounters During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, No. 75 (October 31, 2002), and Alexander Mozgovoi, “The Cuban Samba of the Quartet of Foxtrots: Soviet Submarines in the Caribbean Crisis of 1962,” Military Parade, trans. Svetlana Savranskaya (2002).

22. Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, pp. 237, 283-284, 296.

23. James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), pp. 100-101.

24. Charles Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929-1969 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973), pp. 491-492 (October 18, 1962, memorandum).

25. See Blight and Welch, On the Brink, pp. 182-183 (uncritically trusts officials’ highly dubious 1980s recollections on 1962 broad ethical concerns). For similar trusting use of highly dubious post-1962 materials on 1962 broad ethical thinking in the crisis, see Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, p. 271 (relying on material found on pages 106 and 127 of Robert F. Kennedy’s book Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis). Because there are very substantial 1962 archival materials on the missile crisis period, including many ExComm recordings, and there is no 1962 evidence in any of these materials of such ethical thinking, analysts should not rely on much later claims by officials that such thinking occurred during the crisis. The essential evidence should be 1962 material, not later claims.

Gottemoeller Tapped as Undersecretary

President Barack Obama has selected Rose Gottemoeller to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, the White House announced Sept. 10.

Daniel Horner

President Barack Obama has selected Rose Gottemoeller to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, the White House announced Sept. 10.

Since Ellen Tauscher stepped down from that position in February (see ACT, March 2012), Gottemoeller has been the acting undersecretary while continuing to serve as assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not scheduled any action on the Gottemoeller nomination as Arms Control Today went to press. Congress is not in session and is not scheduled to return until after the Nov. 6 elections.

Russia to Field New Heavy Missile by 2018

As part of its declared effort to respond to U.S.-NATO plans to field missile interceptors in eastern Europe by 2020, Russia said in September that it would deploy a new “heavy” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 2018.

Tom Z. Collina

As part of its declared effort to respond to U.S.-NATO plans to field missile interceptors in eastern Europe by 2020, Russia said in September that it would deploy a new “heavy” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 2018.

The new ICBM prototype was flight-tested for the first time at the Plesetsk test site in Archangelsk on May 23, according to Voice of Russia. Strategic Missile Forces commander Sergey Karakayev said Sept. 3 that Moscow plans to deploy the new ICBM by 2018 to replace the Voyevoda, or SS-18 “Satan” missile, which is being retired. The new liquid-fueled, silo-based missile would carry up to 10 warheads and “penetration systems” to prevent “discrimination of the true from false warheads,” Voice of Russia said.

Russian retired Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, now with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, told Voice of Russia Sept. 4 that he did not see “any compelling reason for developing a new fixed-site, liquid-fueled heavy missile,” which can only be used “for a first-strike or counterforce attack,” a prospect he found “absurd.” He said, “[T]he missile is not suitable for a retaliatory strike” due to its vulnerability to “nuclear and high-accuracy non-nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board wrote in an Aug. 14 draft report that the United States and Russia could pursue mutual reductions below the levels established in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and thus “could improve stability by reducing Russia’s incentive to build a new heavy ICBM.”

The report noted that Russia is already below New START limits and said that the United States “can follow Russia downward below New START ceilings,” allowing both countries to avoid “costly or destabilizing modernization efforts.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said last year that it would take steps, such as building a new heavy ICBM, if the United States followed through on its plans to field missile interceptors in eastern Europe capable of targeting Russian long-range missiles.

Israel Raises Doubts About WMD Meeting

The head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission last month offered a bleak assessment of the prospects for holding a long-planned conference on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, citing the “somber realities” in the region.

Daniel Horner

The head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission last month offered a bleak assessment of the prospects for holding a long-planned conference on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, citing the “somber realities” in the region.

The Sept. 19 statement by Shaul Chorev to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna was seen by some observers as indicating an increasing likelihood that Israel would not attend the meeting on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The conference is supposed to take place this year.

The commitment to hold the 2012 conference was a critical piece of the negotiations that produced the final document of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. (See ACT, June 2010.) In that document, the parties reaffirmed their commitment to “a full implementation” of the resolution on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East that, in turn, was central to the agreement at the 1995 review conference to make the NPT permanent.

The participation of Iran and Israel is considered crucial to the planned conference. Iran is an NPT party, but is suspected of using its nuclear program to pursue a weapons capability. Israel is not a party to the treaty and has an undeclared nuclear weapons program.

In his remarks, Chorev said one of the Middle East’s long-standing features has been “the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by despotic regimes, in violation of [all] legally binding international commitments and obligations.”

A WMD-free zone has not been established anywhere in the world, “even in the most peaceful regions,” he said. As he noted, there are nuclear-weapon-free zones, but he said one of the lessons of the world’s experience from those areas is that the process for creating a zone “can only be launched when peaceful relations exist for a reasonable period of time in the region, and the neighboring states have established sufficient confidence among themselves.” Also, he said, the impetus for creation of a zone must come from within the region and “cannot be imposed from outside.”

Chorev argued that “any initiative to promote the 2012 conference on the Middle East under the banner of the NPT review conference, or the General Conference of the IAEA in complete disregard to the present regional, somber realities, is futile.”

After Chorev made his remarks, there were conflicting reports of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s response to questions about the country’s official position on whether it would attend the conference. In a Sept. 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington said, “The only position that has been stated is the [one in Chorev’s] speech.”

In an interview the same day, a former Israeli diplomat said he interpreted the speech as stopping just “short of spelling out ‘no.’”

Advocates of the conference have said on several occasions that no potential participant has said “no” to attending. A member of the team that is organizing the conference used that formulation at a meeting in early September.

The head of that team, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, said in June that there has been “substantial progress” on organizing the conference but that “further and intensified efforts are needed.” (See ACT, June 2012.)

Mongolia Recognized as Nuclear-Free Zone

At a ceremony in New York Sept. 17, representatives from the five original nuclear-weapon states and Mongolia signed parallel political declarations that formally recognize Mongolia’s nuclear-weapon-free status.

Daryl G. Kimball

At a ceremony in New York Sept. 17, representatives from the five original nuclear-weapon states and Mongolia signed parallel political declarations that formally recognize Mongolia’s nuclear-weapon-free status.

China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States reaffirmed their pledges, originally made at the 2000 UN General Assembly, not to use nuclear weapons against Mongolia and pledged to respect Mongolia’s nuclear-weapon-free status.

Mongolia declared that it has fully complied with its commitments as a non-nuclear-weapon state under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and with its own domestic laws. Those laws prohibit various activities relating to nuclear weapons, including developing, manufacturing, or otherwise acquiring them and stationing, transporting, or testing them.

The parallel declarations, which are not legally binding, represent the final steps to formalize Mongolia’s non-nuclear-weapon status, which was first declared in September 1992, and effectively expands the territory now internationally recognized as free of nuclear weapons. To date, five nuclear-weapon-free zones have been established in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, all through multilateral treaties. A Middle Eastern zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is under discussion.

Pakistani Security Called Adequate

Pakistan’s security is adequate to deal with the recent attacks on its military installations, including a Sept. 5 threat to the Dera Ghazi Khan nuclear complex, according to former Pakistani and U.S. officials.

Kelsey Davenport and Marcus Taylor

Pakistan’s security is adequate to deal with the recent attacks on its military installations, including a Sept. 5 threat to the Dera Ghazi Khan nuclear complex, according to former Pakistani and U.S. officials.

Naeem Salik, former director of arms control and disarmament for Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority, told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 16 e-mail that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities are “very well protected” and security arrangements at sites such as the Dera Ghazi Khan complex are “adequate” to deal with threats such as the one last month. He said that nuclear weapons are not stored at that complex or Minhas air base, which was attacked on Aug. 16. (See ACT, September 2012.)

According to The Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper, the threat to the Dera Ghazi Khan complex was discovered when Pakistani intelligence services intercepted a Sept. 5 phone call between two suspected members of the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Pakistani newspapers quoted a military officer as characterizing the plans for this attack as the “first-ever serious security threat” to the Dera Ghazi Khan military facilities.

According to Salik, the Dera Ghazi Khan complex includes facilities for uranium mining and processing and for the fabrication of fuel elements for civilian power plants, but contains “no fissile materials or weapons related facilities.”

Pakistani newspapers reported that suicide bombers were planning to gain access to the complex using three or four vehicles. The government responded by deploying forces from the Pakistani army and the local Punjab police. No actual attack on the facility was reported. If such an attack had occurred, it would have caused “more of an embarrassment than any real damage,” given the nature of the nuclear facilities and the remote location of the complex, Salik said.

In a Sept. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Christopher Clary, who worked on South Asia issues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said the record of such incidents over the past two years “does not suggest any dramatic worsening in Pakistan’s stability.” He said that Pakistan’s “remarkable ability to muddle through” is “often missed by outsiders.”

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and director of its South Asia program, agreed that Pakistani security forces have been “up to the task” of defending against both of the “primary patterns of attack”: attacking “soft targets, like buses, near military installations” and entering “sensitive sites.” In a Sept. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Krepon said the security forces must take into account the possibilities of “more attacks, and attacks by larger numbers.”

The Obama administration also voiced its confidence in Pakistan’s ability to secure its nuclear arsenal after the attack on Minhas air base. In an Aug. 16 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States and Pakistan have been discussing nuclear security issues “for quite a long, long time” and that Washington has “confidence” that Islamabad is “well aware” of the threats to its nuclear weapons and has “secured its nuclear arsenal accordingly.”

Clary said that concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, however, are “understandable and appropriate” because it is difficult for nuclear weapons security in any state to “function perfectly all the time.” Such concerns are even more acute in the case of Pakistan, where the militant and terrorist threat makes the situation “more dangerous” than in any of the other countries that possess nuclear weapons, he said.

At an Aug. 14 press briefing, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that if terrorism is not controlled in Pakistan, the country’s nuclear weapons could be at risk.

Clary expressed greater concern over Pakistan’s decision to pursue battlefield nuclear weapons and the country’s “rapid production” of fissile material. He said that the battlefield weapons are the “most worrisome” and if deployed during a conflict would increase risks in several ways.

During a war, they are more likely to be used, he said. Also, he said, “in the event of a war or a crisis, they are more likely to be assembled, mated, and dispersed, increasing the risk of accidents, unauthorized use, or loss of control.”

North Korea Makes Progress on Reactor

North Korea’s continued construction of a light-water reactor (LWR) that experts say could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium is “deeply troubling,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano said last month.

Kelsey Davenport

North Korea’s continued construction of a light-water reactor (LWR) that experts say could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium is “deeply troubling,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano said last month.

Addressing the IAEA Board of Governors at the start of its quarterly meeting on Sept. 10, Amano said Pyongyang has made “significant progress” on the reactor since the IAEA submitted its previous findings on the status of North Korea’s nuclear program in September 2011. Citing its monitoring through satellite imagery, the agency said in its latest report, dated Aug. 30, that a dome has been installed over the facility and a system for pumping water up to the reactor building has been put in place.

In a Sept. 5 statement, a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry denounced the IAEA report, saying that the agency does not have the “qualifications to intervene” in the country’s “nuclear activities.” The IAEA has not been able to implement safeguards in North Korea since April 2009 when Pyongyang decided to cease cooperation with the agency.

The LWR is one of the two known facilities that North Korea has not declared to the IAEA. In his speech to the board, Amano also expressed concern over statements issued by North Korea regarding its second undeclared facility, which houses centrifuges for uranium enrichment. In the report, the agency said it had “no new information” and is “unable to determine the facility’s configuration or operational status.” However, in an Aug. 31 letter to the UN Security Council, North Korea said it started “the production of enriched uranium” to provide fuel for the LWR.

On the basis of satellite imagery of these construction activities, experts say the reactor could be completed in mid- to late 2013. North Korea announced plans for the facility in 2009.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been plutonium based, and the construction of the uranium-enrichment plant was widely seen as an effort to develop the means to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons.

North Korea’s Intentions

LWRs, while typically not used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, can be configured for this purpose, although the IAEA report draws no conclusion about the eventual purpose of the facility. The agency said that, without access to the site, it cannot assess the facility’s “design features.”

North Korean statements about the purpose of the facilities appear to have shifted in the past year. In a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry Nov. 30, a spokesman said that the country’s nuclear activities were peaceful and that the LWR would be used to solve the “acute electricity problem” in North Korea. However, in an Aug. 31 submission to the UN Security Council, North Korea said it would be “expanding its nuclear deterrent capability” in response to what it perceives as “increased hostile moves” by countries such the United States and had redirected its “peaceful nuclear power industry for producing electricity to the building-up of a self-defensive nuclear deterrent.”

The statement is the latest twist in the history of Pyongyang’s changing actions and rhetoric in connection with its nuclear program. North Korea is building the reactor near the site of its previous plutonium-production reactor and plutonium-separation plant, which it clandestinely built in the late 1980s and 1990s to produce weapons-grade plutonium, despite having signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985.

In 2007, with assistance from the United States, Pyongyang dismantled the reactor and separation plant as part of the denuclearization framework for North Korea being negotiated through the six-party talks, which also included China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. (See ACT, March 2007.) After the negotiations stalled in December 2008, North Korea resumed some nuclear activities (see ACT, May 2009) and began new ones, such as construction of the new LWR.

Shortly after the United States and North Korea reached the Feb. 29 agreement on a uranium-enrichment moratorium in exchange for food aid, North Korea issued an invitation to the IAEA in a letter dated March 16 to visit the country to “discuss technical issues” related to the moratorium. (See ACT, April 2012.) After the agreement between the United States and North Korea broke down following a failed April 13 satellite launch by North Korea, Pyongyang withdrew its offer to the IAEA.

U.S. Response

Addressing the IAEA board Sept. 12, U.S. envoy Robert Wood echoed Amano’s concern over North Korea’s recent nuclear activities, saying that the country “continues to engage in nuclear activities and expand its nuclear infrastructure.” He said that the U.S. “core objective” remains “verifiable denuclearization” and North Korea’s “return to the NPT and IAEA safeguards.” North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003.

When asked at an Aug. 22 press briefing if placement of a dome on the LWR raised concerns in the administration about North Korea’s progress on its nuclear program, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. “concerns are the same as they have always been” and that the State Department would like North Korea to return to the six-party talks “ready to deal with the international community’s concerns.”

Although a resumption of the talks has not been announced, all six parties were present at this year’s Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, which was held Sept. 27-28 in Dalian, China. The group’s 2009 meeting in California was the last that all six countries attended. North Korea did not attend the 2010 meeting in Seoul or the 2011 meeting in Hawaii. Begun in 1993, the talks serve as an unofficial forum for discussions among the six countries on regional security issues.

Reports of German Nuclear Pledge Denied

Contrary to widespread reports, the German government has not made a commitment to its fellow NATO members to modernize its nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft, German and NATO officials said in interviews last month.

Oliver Meier

Contrary to widespread reports, the German government has not made a commitment to its fellow NATO members to modernize its nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft, German and NATO officials said in interviews last month.

In a Sept. 5 article, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper reported that, at the May NATO summit in Chicago, Germany had reneged on its pledge to push for withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany and committed to spending 250 million euros to keep the nuclear-capable Tornado flying until at least 2024. Other German media outlets picked up the story, leading to allegations that Berlin is no longer advocating withdrawal of U.S. bombs from Germany, as promised by the government in 2009.

In interviews, however, the officials said that because there is no official estimate of the costs of keeping the Tornado in service beyond 2020, no such contribution could be pledged.

In a Sept. 10 interview, a senior NATO official dismissed the reported numbers as “nonsense.” He said that “only the text” of the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review report was discussed at the summit, but not details such as the Tornado’s retirement date or life extension program costs. The report was adopted in Chicago to define NATO’s new mix of conventional, nuclear, and missile defense forces.

A senior German official confirmed that Berlin made no promises at the May summit on a specific date until which German nuclear-capable aircraft would be kept in service and that the government did not commit to spending a specific amount on keeping the Tornado flying. “On these particular issues, the German government entered no new commitments beyond those contained in the [posture review] report,” the official said.

The German government, like other members of NATO, agreed in the report to “ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance.” This seemingly open-ended commitment to maintaining nuclear sharing appears to be at odds with the goal of all parties in the German parliament to work toward withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe and with the anti-nuclear mood of the population. Reacting to the article, opposition Social Democrats have pledged to put the issue of Germany’s role in nuclear sharing on the parliamentary agenda this fall.

Under nuclear sharing arrangements, the United States still deploys an estimated 180 to 200 tactical nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Büchel Air Base in Germany probably hosts 10 to 20 of these weapons. Some of the B61 gravity bombs deployed in Europe would be delivered by host-country aircraft in times of war.

The German government repeatedly has stated that it intends to keep nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft in service at least until 2020, but has so far refused to give a specific date when the planes will be phased out. The successor aircraft, called the Eurofighter, is not nuclear capable; and the government, in a Feb. 29 response to questions from Parliament, said it “has not examined the suitability of the Eurofighter/Typhoon as a nuclear weapons delivery system.”

The German Foreign Office reacted to the news reports by stating that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the rest of the government “continue to work towards a reduction and withdrawal of substrategic weapons in Germany.”

It appears that the report in the Berliner Zeitung was based on an article by Karl-Heinz Kamp in the September/October issue of the German journal Internationale Politik. Kamp, who teaches at the NATO Defense College in Rome, argues in the journal that it would cost Germany 250 million euros to keep the Tornado flying in its nuclear role until 2024. The Berliner Zeitung article quotes Kamp and uses the same figures that he does, but does not indicate if its figures came from him.


This story is adapted from an article by Oliver Meier on Arms Control Now, the blog of the Arms Control Association.


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