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September 2013
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Falling Short of Prague: Obama’s Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy

Hans M. Kristensen

Reviews of presidential nuclear weapons employment guidance can result in significant changes, but they rarely do. Nuclear guidance changes slowly, usually very slowly. Instead of forging radical new directions for nuclear policy, presidential guidance generally does little more than catch up with reality.

The Obama administration’s guidance, announced June 19, appears to fit the mold. Rather than to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” as President Barack Obama promised in his Prague speech in 2009, the guidance appears to continue Cold War thinking by reaffirming decades-old core principles and characteristics of nuclear-strike planning. The guidance makes relatively small adjustments to the U.S. posture in response to changes in the international environment after the Cold War and enhancements of non-nuclear military capabilities.

According to a nine-page Pentagon summary report for Congress on the revised nuclear weapons employment strategy, the new guidance “is consistent with the fundamentals of deterrence that have long guided U.S. nuclear weapons policy, but with appropriate changes to meet today’s strategic environment.”[1]

The main purpose of the new guidance is to translate the findings and conclusions of the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” into instructions for how the military should plan for the role and structure of nuclear forces to deter potential adversaries from attacking the United States and its allies and partners with nuclear, chemical, biological, or conventional weapons and, if deterrence fails, how the military should employ nuclear weapons to defeat the adversaries on terms favorable to the United States and its allies and partners.

The Nuclear Forces

The most obvious achievement of the new guidance is the decision that the United States can secure itself and its allies and partners with “up to one-third” fewer deployed strategic warheads than permitted by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). If pursued through “negotiated cuts with Russia,” this decision could potentially remove about 500 additional warheads from U.S. ballistic missiles.

Although the new guidance opens up the possibility of reducing the number of deployed warheads, it “does not direct any changes to the currently deployed nuclear forces of the United States.” It states that the United States will retain a triad of strategic nuclear forces deployed on land, aircraft, and submarines, backed up by nonstrategic nuclear-capable aircraft.

Removal and storage of up to one-third of the deployed strategic warheads would continue the recent trend of reducing the number of warheads on ballistic missiles, but it would not in and of itself require warheads to be destroyed and therefore would not make the reduction irreversible. The warheads most likely would become part of the “hedge” of stored warheads, which could be loaded back onto their launchers in a crisis. Their removal would not directly affect the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile.

The U.S. military already has more warheads in the hedge than are deployed on delivery systems. The additional removal of deployed strategic warheads envisioned by the new guidance would further increase the size of that force. The hedge warheads serve two purposes: to increase the number of warheads loaded onto missiles and bombers if Russia or China were to significantly increase its arsenal and to ensure that there are sufficient quantities of one warhead type to compensate for technical failure of another warhead type or delivery system. Seen from Moscow, however, the growing hedge is a destabilizing trend that could enable the United States to deploy nuclear weapons in excess of New START levels and achieve a strategic advantage over Russia in a crisis.

The new guidance appears to attempt to reduce the size of the hedge. The Pentagon report states that the new guidance “codifies an alternative approach to hedging” that allows the United States to meet its requirements with fewer nondeployed warheads. It is a little unclear, but the guidance report implies that the United States needs to keep only enough nondeployed warheads to guard against technical failures, not additional warheads to increase the number of warheads loaded onto missiles and bombers in response to an increased threat from Russia or China: “A non-deployed hedge that is sized and ready to address these technical risks will also provide the United States the capability to upload additional weapons in response to geopolitical developments.” In other words, the hedge does not need to contain two categories of warheads, only one. Whether this “alternative approach” is cosmetic or would lead to real reductions in the size of the hedge remains to be seen.

A reduction of the hedge appears to require two changes. The first is the creation of a more “responsive infrastructure” of new and modified warhead production facilities to build additional warheads if needed. This plan from the 2010 NPR is under strain because of pressures on overall defense spending as well as significant program cost overruns that will delay and curtail construction.

Second, the new guidance calls for ambitious and very costly warhead life extension programs to build what the National Nuclear Security Administration calls “interoperable warheads” that can be used on more than one delivery system, reducing the overall number of warhead types in the stockpile.[2] Although these interoperable warheads will use previously tested nuclear components from existing warheads, the parts would be used in new combinations and stretch the credibility of Obama’s pledge, as outlined in the 2010 NPR Report, not to build new nuclear warheads. Because these modified warheads will be different from the warheads they replace, the old warheads will have to be retained until the military has sufficient confidence in the reliability of the new warhead designs.

As a result of the long timeline for building the costly responsive infrastructure and gaining confidence in the reliability of new interoperable warheads, it may take a long time to achieve the reductions in the size of the hedge promised by the new approach.

In reality, many warheads in the current hedge probably could be retired much sooner because there is no real need to significantly increase the number of warheads placed on missiles and bombers in a crisis. The Pentagon is confident that Russia would “not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces” and that even a surprise first strike from a nuclear force significantly above the level mandated by New START “would have little to no effects on the U.S. assured second-strike capabilities that underwrite our strategic deterrence posture.”[3]

Moreover, after two decades of successfully certifying the reliability of the warheads with significantly improved surveillance and maintenance capabilities and without nuclear explosive testing, the threat of a catastrophic technical failure suddenly rendering a significant portion of the stockpile inoperable seems to have declined significantly. Producing new interoperable warhead designs or significantly modifying existing warheads appear to be the only real factor that could decrease confidence in the stockpile.

The Role of Nuclear Weapons

Reducing the role of nuclear weapons has been an important pillar of the Obama administration’s nuclear policy. A White House summary says that the new guidance “narrows U.S. nuclear strategy to focus on only those objectives and missions that are necessary for deterrence in the 21st century.”[4] Why the strategy would do anything else is not clear. The Clinton and Bush administrations used similar language.

The new guidance confirms that the “fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack and that the United States has a policy of making that role the “sole purpose” of U.S. nuclear weapons—eventually. It is not clear what conditions would have to be met to move to a sole-purpose policy, other than unspecified enhancements of conventional and missile defense capabilities. As such, the guidance reaffirms the conclusion by the NPR Report that “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.”[5]

Defense Department and White House documents describe steps that have the potential to further reduce the role of nuclear weapons. They also direct the Pentagon to examine additional steps to give the president “more options by directing planning for non-nuclear strikes.” Yet, it is unclear how or to what extent this actually reduces the role that nuclear weapons serve.

The clearest initiative appears to be that the new guidance directs the Defense Department to undertake concrete steps toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy by, in the words of the Pentagon summary report, “conduct[ing] deliberate planning for non-nuclear-strike options to assess what objectives and effects could be achieved through integrated non-nuclear-strike options, and to propose possible means to make these objectives and effects achievable.” James Miller, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, explains that the guidance “includes very deliberate guidance for planning for the use of non-nuclear capabilities.”[6] The White House summary describes the task as “strengthen[ing] non-nuclear capabilities and reduc[ing] the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.”

The idea is that advanced conventional forces and missile defenses can take on some tasks and missions in some scenarios that are currently served by nuclear weapons. “Although they are not a substitute for nuclear weapons, planning for non-nuclear strike options is a central part of reducing the role of nuclear weapons,” the Pentagon guidance summary states. This vision is consistent with language in the Quadrennial Defense Review, Ballistic Missile Defense Review, and NPR reports.[7]

Launch Under Attack

Importantly, the guidance also directs the Defense Department to examine and reduce the role of the concept of “launch under attack” in U.S. contingency planning. Under this Cold War strategy, a country launches a nuclear response once it confirms that it is under nuclear attack. This strategy is potentially extremely dangerous because it compresses the time that national leaders have in which to make significant decisions that could lead to all-out nuclear war and immense destruction.

The main implication of the guidance’s shift in this area is that the White House, two decades after the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, has finally acknowledged that “the potential for a surprise, disarming nuclear attack is exceedingly remote.” Yet, it is not clear how and how much the new guidance requires the military to reduce the role of this strategy. Although the Pentagon is required to examine and reduce the role of this strategy, Defense Department and White House documents state that the United States will retain the capability to launch under attack if necessary.

Reducing the role of the launch-under-attack strategy while retaining the ability to carry out such a strategy probably means that the Defense Department will rely less on the strategy for most of its nuclear planning. Indeed, the strategy seems to have little relevance in any but the most extreme war-fighting scenarios; nor does it matter much for deterrence as long as the United States maintains a sufficient, secure retaliatory capability. The key potential benefit of reducing reliance on the strategy appears to be extending the decision time for the commander-in-chief during a crisis.

A key question is how reducing the role of the launch-under-attack strategy will affect the alert posture of U.S. nuclear forces. Currently, nearly all 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 100 to 120 submarine-launched ballistic missiles are on alert with about 800 warheads, ready to launch five to 15 minutes after receiving a launch order. During the presidential election campaign in 2008, Obama said that “[k]eeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War,” noting that President George W. Bush had promised to address the issue but had not done so. Obama pledged to “work with Russia to end such outdated Cold War policies in a mutual and verifiable way.”[8] To date, Obama has not followed through on this goal.

Odd as it may seem, the reduction of the role of the launch-under-attack strategy does not appear to affect the alert posture directly. The guidance review “did examine postures that involved some additional de-alerting,” according to Miller, but “found that additional steps in this regard would be difficult to verify on the other side, and more importantly could be destabilizing in a crisis as alert levels were raised back up.”[9]

According to Admiral Richard Mies, former head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), the reason the alert posture is not directly affected by a reduction in the role of the launch-under-attack strategy is that U.S. forces are configured so that the United States has “the capability to respond promptly to any attack, without relying upon ‘launch on warning’ or ‘launch under attack.’”[10] Therefore, the decision by the White House to reduce reliance on the launch-under-attack strategy may simply be a case of the official guidance catching up with operational reality.

Reaffirming Counterforce

A particularly striking feature of the new guidance is its strong reaffirmation of counterforce attack—as opposed to countervalue attack—as the basis for U.S. nuclear strategy. A strategy based on counterforce attack employs nuclear weapons to destroy the nuclear forces and other military capabilities of an adversary or render them impotent. “The new guidance requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries” and rejects less ambitious countervalue, or “minimum deterrence,” strategies. The 2010 NPR Report did not make an explicit case for a counterforce strategy.

Counterforce attack, which is the most dynamic and ambitious form of nuclear planning, requires more and better weapons to hold at risk the most difficult targets. Indeed, counterforce attack “is preemptive, or offensively reactive,” STRATCOM concluded in a document prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2002. “Every [nuclear, biological, or chemical] weapon that is destroyed before it is used…is one less we must intercept…or absorb…and mitigate.”[11] Countervalue attack, on the other hand, is focused on the destruction or neutralization of selected enemy military and military-related targets such as industries, resources, or institutions that contribute to the enemy’s ability to wage war and therefore tends to require fewer and less accurate weapons.[12] Contrary to common perception, countervalue strategy does not require attacks on cities. Reaffirming counterforce attack as the basis of U.S. nuclear strategy works against the efforts to reduce the numbers and role of nuclear weapons because the forces needed to implement a counterforce strategy have to be bigger and better than those needed for a countervalue strategy.

Constraints on Nuclear Use

The new guidance formally places several constraints on the potential use of nuclear weapons. All are long-held components of overall U.S. policy, but it is unclear whether they are new to presidential guidance because earlier presidential guidance documents have not been made public.

The first constraint is a statement that the United States will consider the use of nuclear weapons only in “extreme circumstances.” Neither the Defense Department guidance report nor the White House summary describes what constitutes “extreme” or what those “circumstances” might be other than “to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” If “extreme” refers to the intensity or stakes of a crisis, then the constraint could potentially help strip away a role for nuclear weapons in some of the most limited scenarios against small regional adversaries or nonstate actors.

Another constraint is that the guidance makes it clear that all nuclear-strike plans must be consistent with the fundamental principles of the law of armed conflict and that the United States “will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.” Therefore, attacking cities is prohibited unless they contain very important military targets. Some cities do; Moscow and Beijing are probably both targeted under current plans. Even if STRATCOM decided to target a military facility in a city, planning would have to limit civilian collateral damage to the extent possible. Nevertheless, as numerous studies have demonstrated, nuclear attacks against purely military targets could have devastating effects on civilian populations.

A third constraint is that the United States will not carry out or threaten a nuclear attack against non-nuclear-weapon states that are in compliance with their obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This negative security assurance has been part of U.S. nuclear policy since the 1970s, although the 2010 NPR modified it to reflect the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The NPR Report portrayed the modification as a significant reduction of the role of nuclear weapons, even though it had no apparent effect on nuclear planning against current adversaries. The negative security assurances are not mentioned in the White House summary, and the Pentagon guidance report mentions them only in passing.

Nuclear Weapons in Europe

The new guidance also provides some direction for nonstrategic nuclear weapons by concluding that “a forward-based posture should be maintained” in Europe, consistent with NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, until NATO decides it is time to change the posture.

This is disappointing because it effectively surrenders U.S. nuclear policy to any European ally who might object to arms reductions or a withdrawal of the weapons from Europe. It also is curious because Obama declared in his Berlin speech in June that he would “seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.”[13] He may seek them, but it takes only one ally to block them.

A commitment to retain a forward-based nuclear posture in Europe is even more surprising because the White House summary says that the analysis for the new guidance “did not set out to address weapons forward deployed in Europe in support of NATO.”

If the Obama administration truly is committed to seeking “bold reductions” of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe, it needs to resolve these contradictions and refuse to settle for an approach that abdicates leadership to a few NATO allies or Moscow.


The new U.S. nuclear weapons employment guidance fails to put an end to Cold War thinking. Although it appears to contain some moderate steps to reduce the numbers and role of nuclear weapons, the guidance overall comes across as an overly cautious document with many of the core characteristics and principles that guided U.S. nuclear planning during the Cold War continuing to underpin planning in the 21st century.

On the reduction side, the guidance endorses a potential removal and storage of up to one-third of deployed U.S. strategic warheads; directs the Pentagon to continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, reduce the role of the launch-under-attack strategy in contingency planning, and examine increasing the role of non-nuclear weapons in strategic planning; and adopts an alternative approach to reducing the nuclear hedge.

On the status quo side, the guidance reaffirms counterforce strategy; retains a triad of strategic nuclear forces; retains the capability to launch nuclear forces under attack; continues the current alert posture; retains strike options against conventional, chemical, and biological weapons; retains nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe; reaffirms maintenance of a hedge of nondeployed warheads; and appears to endorse the production of modified interoperable warheads.

Despite the administration’s publication of a White House summary and a Defense Department guidance report, which to its credit are more than any previous administration has published about a nuclear guidance review, excessive nuclear secrecy means that the documents are so vague that the administration has a difficult time illustrating how it has reduced the role of nuclear weapons. This factor, combined with the administration’s commitment to costly modernization of all the legs of the nuclear triad, nonstrategic nuclear forces, and the warhead production complex, will sustain rumors and suspicion that U.S. nuclear planning is more focused on retaining the status quo than on moving decisively to carry out the vision of significant nuclear reductions and disarmament described by the administration.

Granted, major changes in U.S. nuclear policy are unlikely to take place over the course of a single review. Many of the decisions in the new guidance appear to require the Defense Department to study how to implement changes in the role of nuclear weapons. Those changes will be influenced by the developments and views of other nuclear-weapon states, allies, and the U.S. Congress. For now, the guidance will inform revisions of two military documents: the defense secretary’s update of the Guidance for the Employment of the Force, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s nuclear supplement to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. Flowing from that, STRATCOM will update the U.S. strategic nuclear war plan (OPLAN 8010-12).[14]

It seems clear that the United States still has a long way to go to put an end to Cold War thinking in its nuclear policy. In light of the global political and military changes since the end of the Cold War and to help stimulate further reductions in the numbers and role of nuclear weapons worldwide, the United States should shift its nuclear planning away from counterforce strategy and reduce the readiness of its nuclear forces to a more basic secure retaliatory posture. Obama’s election and Prague speech raised hopes that he would move decisively in that direction. Unfortunately, his nuclear guidance makes only modest changes, leaving to his successor the task of putting in motion the more fundamental changes that the United States needs to make.



Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.




1. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 12, 2013, p. 3, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/Reportto CongressonUSNuclearEmploymentStrategy_Section491.pdf.

2. U.S. Department of Energy, “Fiscal Year 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” June 2013, pp. 2-18 - 2-20, http://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/nnsa/06-13-inlinefiles/FY14SSMP_2.pdf.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on the Strategic Nuclear Forces of the Russian Federation Pursuant to Section 1240 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012,” pp. 6-7, http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/DOD2012_RussianNukes.pdf.

4. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Fact Sheet: Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 19, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/fact-sheet-nuclear-weapons-employment-strategy-united-states.

5. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, pp. viii, 16, http://www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20Nuclear%20Posture%20Review%20Report.pdf.

6. James Miller, remarks to Huessy Breakfast Series seminar “Nuclear Deterrence: New Guidance, Constant Commitment,” July 17, 2013, p. 5, http://secure.afa.org/HBS/transcripts/2013/July%2017%20-%20Miller.pdf (hereinafter Miller remarks).

7. Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Posture Review to Reduce Regional Role of Nuclear Weapons,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, February 22, 2010, http://blogs.fas.org/security/2010/02/nukemission/.

8. “Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: President-elect Barack Obama,” Arms Control Today, December 2008.

9. Miller remarks, p. 5.

10. Admiral Richard W. Mies, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Subcommittee on Command Posture, July 11, 2001, p. 6, http://www.dod.mil/dodgc/olc/docs/test01-07-11Mies.rtf. “Launch under attack” refers to a decision to launch U.S. nuclear forces after a nuclear attack against the United States is under way and has been detected. “Launch on warning” means U.S. forces would be launched before an adversary attack against the United States based on indications that an attack was imminent.

11. U.S. Department of Defense, “Counterproliferation Operational Architecture,” April 26, 2002, pp. 3, 6, 9, http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/joint_staff/jointStaff_jointOperations/J5_NCD_Counterproliferation_Operational_Architecture.pdf.

12. For a description of the difference between counterforce and countervalue strategies, see U.S. Department of Defense, The Nuclear Matters Handbook (2011), p. 240, http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/nm_book_5_11/index.htm.

13. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate—Berlin, Germany,” June 19, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/remarks-president-obama-brandenburg-gate-berlin-germany.

14. For a description of the war plan update process, see Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Reviewing Nuclear Guidance: Putting Obama’s Words Into Action,” Arms Control Today, November 2011.

President Barack Obama promised to end Cold War thinking on nuclear weapons. But despite some modest adjustments, his new guidance appears to continue it.

Little Content, Even Less Satisfaction in Obama’s Nuclear Weapons Policy

Clark Murdock

In his June 19 speech in Berlin, President Barack Obama began his discussions of nuclear issues by saying, “We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe.”[1] In fact, there is no such thing as “true” or “absolute” safety or security.

With regard to nuclear weapons, many people, including this author, disagree with Obama and believe that the existence of nuclear weapons has made the world safer and Americans more secure.

Nuclear weapons have awesome destructive power—so awesome that it has inhibited the leaders of nation-states with nuclear weapons from risking the actual employment of these weapons. This is a rational calculation, however, not a taboo. It is remarkable that nuclear weapons have not been employed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In part, that reflects the seriousness of the deliberations that countries usually have displayed when “thinking about the unthinkable.” In contrast, the new nuclear weapons employment strategy, as described in documents that the Obama administration released shortly after the Berlin speech, contains tortured logic, non sequiturs, and empty talk. This is hardly a serious attempt to think rigorously about the circumstances under which the United States would employ its nuclear weapons.

Congress had required the president to provide a report on any “modifications to the nuclear weapons employment strategy, plans, and options” and an assessment of the effects of those changes for the nuclear posture of the United States.[2] Instead, it received a report on how the Obama administration would implement its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)[3] and the justification for why, after “a comprehensive review,” Obama “determined that we can ensure the security of America and our Allies and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.”[4] Rather than providing a clear declaratory policy on how the United States would employ nuclear weapons to ensure its strategic interests[5] and how those interests would form the basis for determining U.S. nuclear requirements, the administration produced a document marked by complicated and inconsistent logic that reflected Obama’s ambivalence with respect to nuclear weapons. This document did little to fulfill his Berlin commitment to “maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent.”

Focusing on Reductions

Within three months of Senate approval of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), national security adviser Tom Donilon said, “As we implement New START, we’re making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions. Under the President’s direction, the Department of Defense will review our strategic requirements and develop options for further reductions in our current nuclear stockpile, which stands at approximately 5,000 warheads, including both deployed and reserve warheads.”[6]

Critics, including most Republicans interested in nuclear issues, jumped on this statement because it implied that the focus of the new employment strategy would be on making the case for further reductions, not on determining what U.S. nuclear posture requirements should be. The administration’s report, prepared by the Defense Department, showed that the critics were right.

Although the Pentagon report declared repeatedly that U.S. nuclear weapons employment strategy is adapting to changing security conditions in the 21st century, it clearly stated that the purpose of the comprehensive review was to assess “what changes to nuclear employment strategy could best support the five key objectives of U.S. nuclear weapons policies and postures outlined” in the 2010 NPR Report.[7] The recent review added a sixth objective, and of those six, two predetermined the outcome: “[r]educe the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy” and “[m]aintain strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels.”[8]

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if an administration wants to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and wants to achieve reduced nuclear force levels, it will. Nevertheless, before deciding that it is a good idea to reduce U.S. operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons, that administration should first determine what the nuclear requirements actually are.

The Obama administration has argued consistently that if the United States increases its reliance on ballistic missile defenses or advanced conventional missiles, it has decreased its reliance on nuclear weapons, which in turn means a reduced role for nuclear weapons. The administration apparently has not considered the possibility that the enhanced role of non-nuclear weapons just increases U.S. security. There is no iron law that says that the United States can get only a finite amount of security.

The role of U.S. nuclear weapons has decreased since the end of the Cold War, but that change reflects the outsized role that nuclear deterrence played during the Cold War. U.S. nuclear weapons have played a critical role in international security and U.S. national security.[9] Greater reliance on ballistic missile defenses, for example, can provide stronger and more-credible deterrence against rogue regimes; the United States acquires these capabilities because they supplement, not replace, nuclear weapons.

Strained Reasoning

The new nuclear employment strategy says more about what the U.S. nuclear posture should be—maintain the traditional triad, prevent “large disparities in nuclear capabilities” between Russia and the United States, “maintain the capability to forward-deploy nuclear weapons with heavy bombers and dual-capable aircraft,” and “safely” pursue a reduction of up to one-third in deployed nuclear weapons[10]—than it does about employment strategy. The four “guiding principles” are the same as in the 2010 NPR Report. Yet, there are a few new wrinkles, mostly in the section entitled “Reducing the Role of Nuclear Weapons.”[11]

After restating the NPR Report’s negative security assurance that the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” the Defense Department report says that “[t]he new guidance requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries. The new guidance does not rely on a ‘counter-value’ or ‘minimum deterrence’ strategy.”[12]

That passage describes what the new employment strategy is not—a minimum deterrence strategy that relies on retaliation against cities—rather than what it is. More importantly, the section on nuclear employment planning guidance fails to give any targeting guidance for maintaining strategic stability with Russia or China or for deterring regional rogue states.

Although failing to provide any meaningful guidance to those who formulate employment plans, the new strategy states that all plans must be consistent with the fundamental principles of the law of armed conflict and “will, for example, apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.”[13] No one should object to this, although it can be difficult to apply to weapons having the destructive power of nuclear weapons. The use of even the smallest nuclear weapon will cause much death and destruction.

Finally, the report says that although the United States cannot adopt a policy declaring that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks, “the new guidance reiterates the intention to work toward that goal over time. Toward that end, the new guidance directs [the Defense Department] to undertake concrete steps toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”[14] The Obama administration’s new nuclear employment strategy is really a report on how to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, not a strategy for how U.S. nuclear weapons might be employed in defense of U.S. strategic goals. Obama had repeatedly stated that the United States must maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal “as long as nuclear weapons exist.”[15] If the United States has to retain nuclear weapons, it needs to think through how they might be used. It is inconsistent to direct the Pentagon to reduce the role of nuclear weapons regardless of whether the number of nuclear weapons or nuclear-armed states is going up, going down, or staying the same.

After providing little if any meaningful guidance for employing nuclear weapons, the strategy directs the Defense Department “to conduct deliberate planning for non-nuclear strike options to assess what objectives and efforts could be achieved through integrated non-nuclear strike options, and to propose possible means to make these objectives and effects achievable. Although they are not a substitute for nuclear weapons, planning for non-nuclear strike options is a central part of reducing the role of nuclear weapons.”[16] This is a non sequitur.

If conventional weapons are not a substitute for nuclear weapons, there are very significant limits on the degree to which decisions on employment of conventional weapons should affect decisions on employment of nuclear weapons. As the quote indicates, Obama’s nuclear weapons employment strategy is really about reducing the role and, as a consequence, the numbers of nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department report takes a similar line of reasoning with respect to the strategy of “launch under attack.” According to the report, the guidance directs the Pentagon “to examine further options to reduce the role [that] Launch Under Attack plays in U.S. planning, while retaining the ability to Launch Under Attack if directed.”[17]

This is empty talk, as it suggests a change in policy—a smaller role for a launch-under-attack strategy—when there has been no change in capabilities. Defense planners formulate their plans on the basis of a potential adversary’s capabilities and recognize that intentions can always change. Thus, issuing a declaratory policy that downplays a particular capability but adds, in the same sentence, that the United States will retain that capability is a bit absurd.

Obama’s Goal for Reductions

Obama asserted in his Berlin speech that the United States could reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third, a claim repeated in the Defense Department report. One-third may be the right number, but that depends on the answers to several questions.[18]

What concessions did the United States have to make on ballistic missile defense or advanced conventional weapons to get Russia to agree to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by one-third? What provisions are being made with respect to nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons? Russia probably has about 2,000 of these weapons, while the United States reportedly has about 200 deployed in six European NATO countries. Finally, will the United States retain adequate nuclear superiority over China? U.S. non-nuclear allies, such as Japan and South Korea, depend on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and would be quite concerned about perceptions that the Chinese were inching closer to parity with the United States.

One could argue that a report on how the United States might employ its nuclear weapons is not the place to address these issues. Yet because the report really is making the case for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, it should have provided a rationale for the size of the reduction it is advocating.

Obama’s Flawed Vision

Even those who believe in the Prague vision of a world without nuclear weapons were less than satisfied with the Berlin speech. For example, while calling Obama’s Berlin remarks “overdue and welcome,” Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association and publisher of Arms Control Today, said that the “pace and scope of his proposals for further nuclear reductions are incremental at best and changes in the U.S. nuclear war plan are less than meets the eye.” He went on to conclude that

“[t]o overcome the obstacles and accelerate the pace of progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons during his time in office, President Obama and his team will need to devote far greater energy, creativity, and determination than we’ve seen over the past two years.”[19]

In a July 5 op-ed in The Washington Post, Stimson Center co-founder Barry Blechman was almost mournful: “For those of us who share Obama’s stated desire for ‘the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,’ his Berlin speech and, particularly, the recent [nuclear employment strategy] report are great disappointments.”[20] Blechman argued that the United States should “move unilaterally to the level of forces necessary to ensure our security with or without the other side” and that if the “Russians want to waste their resources on nuclear dinosaurs, let them.”[21]

As argued above, the Prague vision is flawed. Two facts about the Cold War are indisputable: nuclear weapons were not employed during it, and it ended without a major war between the two superpowers. These are historic firsts: two hostile major powers “fought” for more than four decades without resorting to war or using the most powerful weapon available to them. As seen in the Cuban missile crisis, the risk that conventional war could escalate to the nuclear level suppressed the risk-taking propensities in Soviet and U.S. policymakers and made them more cautious. This is a good thing. It is not difficult to imagine what a world without nuclear weapons would look like; it existed before 1945, and it included World War I and World War II.

There is no guarantee that the non-use of nuclear weapons will continue for decades more. The chances that nuclear weapons will be employed may well be increasing because less-deterrable countries have joined or are seeking to join the nuclear club. In addition, new technologies, such as cyberweapons, which many believe pose existential threats to physical and financial infrastructures, are proliferating as well. Nuclear weapons may have lost the centrality they had during the Cold War, but they are not irrelevant today or for the foreseeable future. Any planning with respect to their possible employment should be done with the utmost seriousness. Obama’s new nuclear weapons employment strategy fails to meet this standard.

Clark Murdock is a senior adviser on defense and national security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is also director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and a former government official and university professor.



1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate—Berlin, Germany,” June 19, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/remarks-president-obama-brandenburg-gate-berlin-germany (hereinafter Obama Berlin remarks).

2. Congress has enacted this requirement with slight wording variations in recent defense authorization acts. For the most recent version, see National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, 10 U.S.C. § 491(a) (2013). For one version, see U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 12, 2013, p. 1.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, http://www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20Nuclear%20Posture%20Review%20Report.pdf.

4. Obama Berlin remarks.

5. Congress mandated that the president identify the implications of any changes in nuclear weapons employment strategy, plans, and options for “the ability” of U.S. strategic nuclear forces “to support the goals of the United States with respect to nuclear deterrence, extended deterrence, assurance and defense.” National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, 10 U.S.C. § 491(a)(3) (2012).

6. Tom Donilon, “The Prague Agenda: The Road Ahead” (remarks at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, DC, March 29, 2011), http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2011/03/20110330120145su5.553401e-02.html.

7. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” p. 1.

8. Ibid., pp. 1, 2.

9. For a fuller development of this view, see Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Reflections on Nuclear Policy on the 68th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima: A Discussion With Dr. Clark Murdock,” August 6, 2013, http://csis.org/blog/reflections-nuclear-policy-68th-anniversary-atomic-bombing-hiroshima-discussion-dr-clark-murdoc.

10. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” pp. 3, 6.

11. Ibid., p. 4.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

14. Ibid., p. 5.

15. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama—Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April, 5, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered.

16. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” p. 5.

17. Ibid.

18. For a more extensive analysis of this issue, see CSIS, “Reflections on Nuclear Policy on the 68th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima.”

19. Daryl G. Kimball, “Death by Cuts to a Thousand,” ForeignPolicy.com, June 20, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/06/19/death_by_cuts_to_a_thousand_obama_nuclear_reductions.

20. Barry M. Blechman, “U.S. Nuclear Policy Is Sound,” The Washington Post, July 5, 2013, p. A19.

21. Ibid.

The information that the administration has released on the new policy does not indicate a serious attempt to think rigorously about the circumstances under which the United States would employ its nuclear weapons.

The UN Takes a Big Step Forward on Cybersecurity

Detlev Wolter

After a year of difficult negotiations, a UN group of governmental experts on cybersecurity agreed on a substantial and forward-looking consensus report. It represents an important achievement for the maintenance of international peace and stability in this new and crucial area.

By acknowledging the full applicability of international law to state behavior in cyberspace, by extending traditional transparency and confidence-building measures, and by recommending international cooperation and capacity building to make information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure more secure around the world, the report lays a solid foundation for states to address the mutual risks that arise from rapidly increasing cyberthreats.

For the United Nations, it was high time to act to address this new international security challenge. Increasingly, more-sophisticated cybertools allow states to attack the control systems of critical infrastructure. These tools, coupled with a widespread uncertainty about the rules that would govern state behavior in cyberspace, have raised the risk of cyberconflict between states. It was therefore of crucial importance that the UN find common ground to address these challenges by affirming and clarifying the application of international law to state behavior in cyberspace and by recommending confidence-building measures.

On June 7, the group of experts agreed on a substantial report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The report, publicly released August 9, is entitled “On the Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security.”[1] In 2012, Ban appointed the group of 15 experts from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Argentina, Australia (the chair), Belarus, Canada, Egypt, Estonia, Germany, India, Indonesia, and Japan to carry out a mandate from the UN General Assembly to “study possible cooperative measures in addressing existing and potential threats” related to the use of ICTs. This mandate was more specific than those for expert groups on the topic established in 2005 and 2010, as it explicitly highlighted the need to elaborate confidence-building measures and “norms, rules or principles of responsible behaviour of States.”[2]

UN member states have contributed in varying degrees to requests by the General Assembly to report on their views on international law and cooperation to prevent destabilization of state relations in cyberspace.[3] According to a recent study by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, more than 40 states have now developed some military cybercapabilities, 12 of them for offensive cyberwarfare.[4]

The most recently appointed group of governmental experts met for week-long sessions in New York and Geneva, in August 2012, January 2013, and June 2013. The June session coincided with important progress in bilateral U.S. negotiations with Russia and with China on cybersecurity.

At the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries in Northern Ireland in June, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly announced they had finalized a first-ever bilateral agreement on confidence-building measures in the cyber domain. These measures cover information exchange and crisis communication. Three kinds of cyber-specific crisis communication channels were established: a channel between computer emergency response teams (CERTs) from the two countries to discuss malware stemming from each other’s territory, a link between nuclear risk reductions centers for cyberincidents of national security importance, and a telephone hotline between the White House and the Kremlin for major cyberincidents.[5] With China, the United States was able to agree to set up a bilateral working group on cybersecurity issues to diffuse growing tensions over mutual accusations of massive cyberintrusions for purposes of military and economic intelligence.[6] This progress with two major adversaries in cyberspace was critical in helping to achieve a positive outcome in the experts group.

The group’s report covers four essential categories for enhancing international cybersecurity: cooperation, international law, confidence-building measures, and improvements in states’ capacities for building robust ICT infrastructures. Altogether, the report presents a coherent set of a common international approaches and specific measures to promote the peaceful use of cyberspace in the interest of preventing international conflicts.[7]

Risks, Threats, Vulnerabilities

Several factors make the situation in cyberspace particularly difficult to control. In addition to the absence of a common understanding on the applicable international rules for state behavior in that domain, many of the tools in cyberspace can be used for both legitimate and malicious purposes. States and nonstate actors are carrying out increasingly sophisticated exploitations of vulnerabilities in ICT. Attribution to a specific perpetrator continues to be difficult, increasing the risk of “false flag” attacks—that is, attacks by a state, group, or individual under an assumed identity.

Global connectivity, vulnerable technologies, and anonymity facilitate the spread of disruptive cyberactivities that may cause considerable collateral damage, for example, by spreading malware into computer networks or digital control systems that were not the primary target of the original attack. The experts group report highlights the specific risks stemming from the widespread use of ICTs in critical infrastructure, particularly through so-called ICT-enabled industrial control systems such as those used in nuclear power plants and other critical infrastructure.

To address these new risks, the report calls on member states to agree on an array of international actions in the four categories to promote a “peaceful, secure, open and cooperative ICT environment.”[8] At the outset and as a framework for all the categories, the group recognizes the importance of participation by the private sector and civil society in these efforts.

A Universal Legal Framework

For the first time at the UN level, a group of governmental experts was able to agree to an important set of recommendations on norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior by states in cyberspace. Governmental experts from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and 10 leading cyberpowers from all regions of the world have recognized that international law, including the principles of the law of state responsibility, fully apply to state behavior in cyberspace. This recognition represents a landmark step toward universal acceptance of the legal framework.

The previous lack of clarity as to what rules apply in cyberspace was one of the factors contributing to instability and the risk of escalation. The explicit affirmation that international law, particularly the principles of the UN Charter, is applicable to state activities in cyberspace, including to activities of nonstate actors attributable to states, will allow the international community and affected states to react to violations more effectively. In cyberspace, states have to comply with the prohibition on the use of force, the requirement to respect territorial sovereignty and independence, and the principle of settling disputes by peaceful means in the same way as in the physical world. The right, specified in Article 51 of the UN Charter, to self-defense including the use of force would apply if a cyberattack reached the level of an “armed attack.” The report, however, refrained from spelling out when this could be the case as the legal debate on this issue has only just begun.

These principles of universal law go beyond restricting the use of force in cyberspace. They also cover other areas such as sovereignty and territorial integrity, which restrict the lawfulness of potentially harmful acts below the level of kinetic force. In particular, together with the customary international law principles of state responsibility, the principles of the UN Charter would limit the legitimacy of state actions purposely breaching the intellectual property of companies or the personal data of individuals. Nevertheless, legal experts need to do much more work to specify these principles and rules to cover more specifically a range of diverse actions in cyberspace. Attribution continues to be a key challenge, as legal and technical attribution are required in order to challenge a state, for example, in the Security Council, for wrongful acts in cyberspace.[9]

Concerning cyberattacks that reach the threshold of an armed conflict, a lower threshold than armed attack,[10] most of the 15 experts were willing to explicitly acknowledge the application of international humanitarian law to cyberspace.

Russia has accepted the application of such law to cyberspace.[11] China, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated that it considers such explicit confirmation premature and counter to the objective of preventing a rush to offensive cyberweapons. Future work by the International Committee of the Red Cross or by nongovernmental organizations such as the EastWest Institute might pave the way for such a recognition by China as well.

The experts group report reiterates the statement from the report of the 2010 experts group of the need for common understandings on how such norms apply to state behavior and the use of ICTs by states, as well as the possibility of developing more-specific rules of behavior.

Building Transparency and Trust

On the controversial issue of how to deal with the increasing likelihood that countries will pursue development of cyberweapons, the group managed to take a realistic approach. In their draft code of conduct regarding the use of ICTs by states, submitted to the UN secretary-general in 2011, China and Russia suggested explicit prohibitions of what they term “information weapons” and the proliferation of their technologies.[12]

Yet, in the course of the experts group deliberations, the Chinese and Russian representatives recognized the inherently dual nature of these technologies and joined the more pragmatic approach of starting out with traditional confidence-building measures and other cooperative measures before attempting to agree on prohibitions that are basically unverifiable. At the same time, the experts understood that confidence-building measures can be a starting point should an arms control approach become feasible in the future.

In several paragraphs, the group’s 2013 report refers to language used in other treaties with arms control implications. In particular, the report calls on states to promote a “peaceful” ICT environment, which could be understood as an allusion to the so-called “peaceful purpose” clause of the Outer Space Treaty. In its approach to cyberspace issues, the experts group applies a similar concept by refraining from imposing specific prohibitions but positing the general objective of peaceful state use of cyberspace. This strengthens the ability of future agreements to cover future developments in the field.

Recognizing that confidence-building measures and the exchange of information among states are essential to increasing predictability and reducing the risks of misperception and escalation through cyberthreats, the experts group agreed on a range of voluntary measures to promote transparency and confidence among states in this area. The measures are aimed at increasing transparency and creating or strengthening communication links in order to reduce the possibility that a misunderstood cyberincident could create international instability or a crisis leading to conflict. Taken together, they represent an important foundation for bilateral, regional, and global measures to build confidence and global stability in cyberspace and to prevent unnecessary escalation of cybersecurity incidents.

In particular, the report recommends the following confidence-building measures:

  • Exchanging views and information on national policies, best practices, decision-making processes, and national organizations and structures with regard to cybersecurity. As an example, the United States in 2012 and Germany in 2013 exchanged so-called white papers on cyberdefense with Russia.
  • Creating bilateral or multilateral consultative frameworks for confidence-building measures, for example, within the Arab League, the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Organization of American States. These frameworks could include workshops and exercises on how to prevent and manage disruptive cybersecurity incidents.
  • Enhancing the sharing of information and crisis communication among states on cybersecurity incidents at three levels: between national CERTs bilaterally and within already existing multilateral CERT communities to exchange technical information about malware or other malicious indicators; through previously existing or newly created channels for crisis management and early warning to receive, collect, analyze, and share such information to help mitigate vulnerabilities and risks; and through channels for dialogue at political and policy levels.
  • Increasing cooperation to address incidents that affect critical infrastructure systems, particularly those that rely on ICT-enabled industrial control systems.
  • Enhancing mechanisms for law enforcement cooperation to reduce incidents that could be misunderstood as hostile state actions and that affect international security.

Although governments must take the lead in developing and implementing these measures, the group reiterates and highlights the important role the private sector and civil society should play in these efforts. In future work, governments and the private sector must undertake joint efforts to elaborate the objectives, conditions, requirements, frameworks and models of such public-private partnerships for international cybersecurity on a global scale. Some global ICT companies already are engaged in this discussion. Yet, the specific roles of states and private companies and the limitations on cooperation among them in the sensitive field of cybersecurity need to be more clearly developed by governments and private sector stakeholders.

In its report, the experts group highlights the need for international capacity building to help states in their efforts to overcome the digital divide and to improve the security of vital ICT infrastructure. The report calls on states, working with the private sector and UN specialized agencies, to provide technical or other assistance in building capacities in ICT security. In particular, such assistance could help to strengthen national legal frameworks and law enforcement capabilities and strategies, combat the use of ICTs for criminal or terrorist purposes, and strengthen incident response capabilities, including through CERT-to-CERT cooperation.


The experts group report gives the UN and its member states a unique opportunity to advance toward a more predictable, secure, and peaceful international cyberspace. The report recommends that the UN pursue regular, ongoing institutional dialogue “with broad participation” to enhance common understandings and intensify practical cooperation on global cybersecurity.[13] By emphasizing the “broad” character of the future dialogue, the report appears to be foreshadowing a larger group of experts.

This fall, the UN General Assembly probably will take up a resolution in the First Committee to set up another experts group in 2014, possibly with 25 members. By tradition, that group would include the five permanent members of the Security Council and other interested states selected by the secretary-general on the basis of geographical balance and other criteria. It probably would be mandated to more specifically address issues of international humanitarian law in relation to cyberactivities that could reach the level of armed conflict, particularly how to protect civilian populations from unintended effects of cyberattacks against military targets. Therefore, it should have more regular recourse to advice by legal experts.

In addition, member states and regional organizations now have a set of recommendations for cooperation, conflict prevention, and confidence building that could be agreed bilaterally or multilaterally, following the successful U.S.-Russian model of this past June. The chances that the OSCE will agree to a first set of confidence-building measures by the end of December are better than they were a year ago when the Russian delegation was still raising definitional and ideological objections in the organization’s informal working group on cybersecurity.[14] In July 2012, the ASEAN Regional Forum adopted a forward-looking ministerial statement on cybersecurity.[15] As in the OSCE, this commitment could be fleshed out in the coming months by agreeing on measures for building confidence and improving states’ capacities for building resilient ICT infrastructures to ensure that cyberspace activity is peaceful.

The UN has taken a big step toward shaping an urgently needed international framework for legitimate and prosperous activities in cyberspace while offering the entire UN membership the tools to prevent a hasty militarization of the domain. Yet, this is only a beginning. Member states must make sure to undergird this framework with state practices fully in line with the general purpose criterion to make cyberspace “peaceful, secure, open and cooperative,” the goal articulated in the experts group report.



Detlev Wolter was director for conventional arms control and confidence- and security-building measures in the German Foreign Office from August 2010 to July 2013. He served as one of the 15 experts on the UN group of governmental experts on information and telecommunications in the context of international security. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.




1. UN General Assembly, “Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security,” A/68/98, June 24, 2013 (hereinafter UN experts group cybersecurity report).

2 UN General Assembly, A/RES/66/24, December 13, 2012.

3. For the contributions by Australia, Germany, the United States, and others, see UN General Assembly, “Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security: Report of the Secretary-General,” A/66/152, July 15, 2011; UN General Assembly, “Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security: Report of the Secretary-General,” A/67/167, July 23, 2012. Russia and China refer to their “international code of conduct for information security” as their contribution. UN General Assembly, “Letter Dated 12 September 2011 From the Permanent Representatives of China, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General,” A/66/359, September 14, 2011 (hereinafter Russia and China information security letter). See Timothy Farnsworth, “China and Russia Submit Cyber Proposal,” Arms Control Today, November 2011.

4. UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), “The Cyber Index: International Security Trends and Realities,” UNIDIR/2013/3 (2013).

5. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Information and Communications Technology Security,” June 17, 2013. For a discussion of confidence-building measures in cyberspace, see UNIDIR, “Cyber Index,” pp. 125-138.

6. The bilateral U.S.-China Working Group met for the first time on July, 8, 2013 in Washington, DC. U.S. Department of State, “U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue V, Strategic Track Select Outcomes,” July 12, 2013, http://www.state.gov./r/pa/prs/ps/2013/07/211862.htm.

7. For a positive evaluation of the report, see Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Statement on Consensus Achieved by the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Cyber Issues,” 2013/0705, June 7, 2013.

8. UN experts group cybersecurity report, para. 11.

9. Legal attribution would require either that a state organ itself has directed the cyberattack or that it has control over the nonstate group that directed it. Technical attribution would require identification of the computers from which the malware originated and of the perpetrators behind the malware.

10. The law of armed conflict, also known as international humanitarian law, applies when there is a use of force. Under Article 51 of the UN Charter, the threshold for self-defense is “armed attack.”

11. Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. and Russia Sign Pact to Create Communication Link on Cyber Security,” The Washington Post, June 17, 2013.

12. Russia and China information security letter.

13. UN experts group cybersecurity report, para. 29.

14. For the U.S. statement to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Informal Working Group on Cybersecurity, see U.S. Mission to the OSCE, “Strengthening the OSCE’s Response, Consolidating Progress,” PC.DEL/606/12, June 27, 2012, http://www.osce.org/cio/91717.

15. ASEAN Regional Forum, “Statement by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs on Cooperation in Ensuring Cyber Security,” July 13, 2012, http://aseanregionalforum.asean.org/files/Archive/19th/19th%2520ARF,%2520Phnom%2520Penh,%252012July2012/Annex%25204%2520-%2520ARF%2520Statement%2520on%2520Cooperation%2520in%2520Ensuring%2520Cyber%2520Security.pdf.

By agreeing on recommendations for confidence-building measures and by recognizing the applicability of international law to state behavior in cyberspace...

UN Body Forms Group to Break Deadlock

Tom Z. Collina

Seeking to overcome 16 years of gridlock, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) agreed Aug. 16 to create an informal working group tasked with developing a work plan for the 65-nation negotiating body.

The new working group, open to all member states, will be co-chaired by Luis Gallegos Chiriboga of Ecuador and Peter Woolcott of Australia, those countries’ ambassadors to the CD. The group will meet for the remainder of the 2013 session and can be reconvened in 2014.

Like the CD itself, all decisions of the working group must be made by consensus. The lack of consensus has prevented the full conference from agreeing to a work plan for the past 16 years. The last arms control treaty negotiated by the UN-backed CD was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, completed in 1996.

Since then, the United States, Russia, and many Western countries have sought a mandate at the conference to negotiate a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for weapons, known as a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). But Pakistan opposes the start of FMCT talks unless the negotiating mandate explicitly includes the issue of existing stocks of materials, not just new production. The United States, Russia, and others oppose that approach.

A preliminary work plan was approved in 2009, but then collapsed after Pakistan withdrew its support. Pakistan says that it has a smaller stockpile of fissile materials than India and that a production freeze would put Islamabad at a disadvantage.

The ongoing CD stalemate has led to efforts to seek progress in other forums, such as the United Nations in New York. In November, the UN General Assembly First Committee passed three resolutions that create other, complementary bodies, such as a group of governmental experts. In an April statement, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States “expressed the hope” that the group of governmental experts “will help spur negotiations” in the CD. (See ACT, May 2013.)

Mohammad Sabir Ismail, the Iraqi ambassador to the CD and president of the body, said he hoped that the decision on the working group would start a new phase for the CD and lead to a return to substantive work. But given the consensus requirement for the working group, independent UN observers were less optimistic that the decision represented a step forward. The nongovernmental group Reaching Critical Will, which monitors UN negotiations, said in a statement that “16 years of deadlock has significantly lowered the bar for what constitutes progress.”

Seeking to overcome 16 years of gridlock, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) agreed Aug. 16 to create an informal working group tasked with developing a work plan...

UN Experts Call for Drone Reporting

Jefferson Morley

A group of UN experts has called on member states to report international transfers of armed drones to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. In a July 15 report to the UN General Assembly, experts from 15 countries asserted that drones are covered by the fourth and fifth categories of the register, which cover combat aircraft and attack helicopters, respectively.

The experts, who meet once every three years to assess the effectiveness of the register, debated incorporation of new language on unmanned aerial vehicles to reflect the rapid growth and spread of drone technology. But the group could not reach consensus on the proposed definitions, according to two sources familiar with the experts’ discussions.

The voluntary UN Register seeks to build international confidence and reduce the risk of armed conflict through “transparency in armaments.” Established in 1991 after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait revealed that Saddam Hussein’s government had secretly built up its armed forces with diverse purchases from different nations, the register covers battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers.

The experts discussed adding small arms and light weapons as the eighth category of weapons covered by the register, according to the sources. Consensus again proved elusive as China and Cuba objected, the sources said.

The experts’ report expressed concern about the relevance of the register, noting that participation by member states is declining. Since the inception of the register, 170 states have reported on arms transfers at least once, with an average of 98 governments having submitted reports each year on their international conventional arms transfers. But since 2007, the level of participation in the register has seen a notable decline, with the lowest level of reporting recorded in 2012, when only 52 states provided a report, the report found.

Some experts linked declining participation to the failure to include small arms and light weapons in the register’s tally. “More countries are threatened by small arms and light weapons than anything else,” one of the sources familiar with the experts’ discussions said in an Aug. 28 interview. “Register participation level may be going down because the register doesn’t cover the weapons that most countries find most threatening,” the source said. The failure to incorporate small arms and light weapons into the register was “a setback” that will not be addressed until the experts meet again in 2016, the source said.

A group of UN experts has called on member states to report international transfers of armed drones to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. In a July 15 report to the UN General Assembly...

Israel Back on Agenda of IAEA Conference

Kelsey Davenport

Eighteen Arab countries have requested space on the agenda for discussion of a resolution on Israel’s nuclear capabilities at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in September.

An item on Israel’s nuclear capabilities has been on the annual conference’s agenda since 1987, but 2009 was the only year in which the member states approved a resolution on the topic.

In 2011 and 2012, the Arab states refrained from submitting a resolution on Israel’s nuclear program, a move they said they made to encourage Israeli participation in the process of creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

A June 12 memorandum submitted by Oman’s ambassador to the IAEA, Badr bin Mohamed Al Hinai, said that Israel “continues to defy the international community” by refusing to join the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This refusal threatens peace and exposes the region to “nuclear risks,” the memorandum said. Al Hinai submitted the memorandum and an accompanying letter on behalf of the Arab Group, which is made up of 18 Arab states and the Palestinian territories.

Ehud Azoulay, Israel’s ambassador to the IAEA, told Reuters on July 9 that the Arab states “are taking a counterproductive route by raising this issue…and trying to bash Israel.”

Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, despite the government’s insistence that it will not be the first country to introduce such weapons into the region.

According to the memorandum, the “recent course of events” failed to meet the expectations of the Arab states, motivating them to put the resolution on Israel’s nuclear program back on the agenda for the IAEA conference.

A meeting was scheduled to be held in December 2012 on creating the WMD-free zone in the region, but was postponed.(See ACT, December 2012.)

Eighteen Arab countries have requested space on the agenda for discussion of a resolution on Israel’s nuclear capabilities at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in September.

Summit Off, U.S.-Russian Talks Go On

Tom Z. Collina

Despite public friction over several issues between Russia and the United States, including the postponement of an upcoming presidential meeting, high-level discussions on nuclear arms reductions and missile defense are continuing, according to senior officials on both sides.

Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is wanted for leaking classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs to the media, was a recent and high-profile irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship. That decision prompted sharp criticism from Congress and was cited by President Barack Obama as a reason for calling off a planned Sept. 3 summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The summit could be rescheduled, according to the senior officials, and just two days after the postponement announcement, the United States hosted a previously scheduled Aug. 9 meeting in Washington of defense and foreign ministers, known as a “2+2” meeting. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Obama and Putin had agreed to revive the 2+2 process at the June 17-18 Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.

Both sides reported that they had made progress at the Aug. 9 meeting. “I do not think that the Snowden affair colored the engagement of the 2+2,” a senior U.S. official said during a press call after the meeting. “We would like to hold a summit with Russia, but the substance needs to be there, and so this 2+2 mechanism is a way to move forward,” the official said.

Striking a similar theme, Lavrov said during an Aug. 10 press conference that “Snowden is an anomaly” and there is “no cold war.” He said the two sides had agreed to continue the 2+2 meetings to discuss complicated issues “based on mutual benefit, mutual respect, [and] equality.” Lavrov added that Russia pays attention “to specific issues rather than those issues which some would like to make headlines in the mass media.” A schedule for future meetings was not announced.

Lavrov said that the Aug. 9 meeting “paid particular attention to the anti-ballistic missile problems.” The United States is fielding a missile interceptor system in Europe to defend NATO member states against a possible future missile attack from Iran. Moscow says it is concerned that the U.S. system could be used to target its long-range missiles based in western Russia. Hagel announced in March that the Pentagon had canceled the part of the program that Russia found most threatening, the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy for NATO is known, which included plans to field the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB interceptor. Moscow, however, has continued to express doubts about U.S. intentions. (See ACT, April 2013.)

According to a second senior U.S. official speaking during the Aug. 9 press call, the participants agreed to “look for ways to work together on missile defense, missile defense cooperation, and to explore the possibilities for further nuclear reductions.” Obama said in June that the United States could reduce the number of its deployed strategic nuclear weapons “by up to one-third” and that he intended “to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.” (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

Obama finalized new nuclear policy guidance in June that found that the 1,550 limit on deployed strategic warheads under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is “more than adequate” to meet U.S. national security objectives. The new guidance did not call for any immediate changes to currently deployed nuclear forces. That apparently will have to wait a year or so, until the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff translate the new guidance into more-specific directives. Once U.S. Strategic Command drafts new plans for using nuclear weapons, the administration can make changes to the way in which the United States deploys those weapons. For example, the new policy may allow the Navy to reduce the number of nuclear-armed submarines at sea.

Russia is resisting Obama’s call for reductions due to its concerns about U.S. missile defense and other issues. “Apart from the deployment of European missile defense elements at the sites that have already been determined, we believe issues related to sea-based systems, especially in the Barents and the Baltic Seas, should also be addressed,” Shoigu said.

In an effort to break this logjam, Obama’s then-national security adviser, Tom Donilon, hand-delivered a letter to Putin in April with a U.S. proposal on missile defense cooperation and arms reductions. The second U.S. official at the Aug. 9 briefing said that “we’re still waiting for their formal counterproposal, but they are evidently working on it, and they are ready to engage us intensively on it.”

Lavrov said there are items to discuss at a future summit, including a proposal to boost bilateral contacts and information exchange on nuclear weapons proliferation through Russia’s National Nuclear Threat Reduction Center and to allow the Russian state-run nuclear company Rosatom to collaborate with U.S. national laboratories.

Despite some signs of progress at the working level, Republicans in Congress expressed pessimism about the prospect of Obama-Putin talks in the future. “Obviously, the relationship is souring,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, Politico reported Aug. 9. “And obviously we’re in a period of time in our relationship with Russia where it’s likely the discussions of this nature are not going to be fruitful,” Corker said.

Politico also quoted Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) as saying that the administration should stop trying to win Russian support for U.S. missile defense plans. “The administration needs to be committed to a missile defense policy that is North Korea and Iran directed and quit tying our missile defense initiatives to an elusive Russian relationship,” Turner said.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued an Aug. 8 statement saying, “[N]ow we must move beyond symbolic acts and take the steps necessary to establish a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia,” including moving forward with “completion of all phases of our missile defense programs in Europe,” an apparent reference to the now-canceled fourth phase of the planned deployment in Europe.

Obama still plans to travel to the Russian city of St. Petersburg on September 5-6 to attend the Group of 20 summit, but it is not clear if he plans to meet one-on-one with Putin while he is there.

Despite public friction over several issues between Russia and the United States, high-level discussions on nuclear arms reductions and missile defense are continuing...

Pentagon Defends ‘3+2’ Plan for Warheads

Tom Z. Collina

Amid bipartisan congressional concerns about the cost, the Defense Department is defending its plan to rebuild the remaining stockpile of U.S. nuclear warheads, including the B61 bomb.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) estimates that the program could cost more than $60 billion. James Miller, undersecretary of defense for policy, said July 17 that he continues to think that the program is “very sensible.” But the Senate and House have taken steps to rein in the program at a time of tight budgets.

In an Aug. 6 interview, a staffer for a key senator called the program’s cost “insane” and questioned whether the expense was consistent with President Barack Obama’s commitment to nuclear weapons reductions. In June, Obama said the United States could reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons it deploys “by up to one-third.” (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

The NNSA rolled out the new strategy in June in its Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan for fiscal year 2014. The strategy, known as “3+2,” involves a 25-year plan for rebuilding the stockpile and reducing the number of warhead types from seven today to five.

The current U.S. arsenal has two warhead types deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), two types on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and three types on long-range bombers and fighter jets (fig. 1).

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The NNSA wants to move to having three ballistic missile warhead types and two air-delivered types. Of the three missile warhead types, at least one would be a “swing,” or interoperable, warhead that could be used on the Minuteman III ICBM and the Trident II SLBM. Current missile warhead types are not designed to be used on multiple delivery systems. The bombers would have two warhead types to share, an air-dropped bomb and a cruise missile warhead, possibly with interchangeable parts, according to the NNSA.

According to Miller, part of the administration’s motivation for developing an interoperable warhead is to avoid having only one warhead type for any delivery system in case there is a problem that affects all warheads of a particular type. Miller said July 17 at a Capitol Hill briefing that it is “strongly preferable not to be down to a single warhead in case there’s an issue with it, and therefore to have an inherent hedge.”

Miller said he and his colleagues have been making the case for the 3+2 plan on Capitol Hill and that he has seen nothing to make him change the strategy. But, he said, “it comes down, as in every instance, to the resources required to implement the strategy.”

Under the NNSA plan, replacing the five warhead types to be retained would cost $12.5 billion each on average. Moreover, the NNSA has a history of significantly underestimating resources requirements. For example, the projected cost of the B61 life extension program has more than doubled in the past few years. (See ACT, May 2013.)

The NNSA claims that the refurbished warheads would cost less to maintain than those they replace “due to consolidation of warhead types.” Yet, there is no public analysis to support this assertion; and the extent of these savings “has not yet been determined,” the NNSA acknowledges.

The actual cost of the program will be determined by how many warhead types ultimately are rebuilt. For example, the NNSA and the Pentagon disagree about how many interoperable warheads are needed. The NNSA says it wants three types, at an estimated cost of $40 billion. But the Defense Department thinks only the first one may be necessary, according to senior Pentagon and Senate staff. Defense officials are also questioning the need for a rebuilt warhead for the Air Force’s Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). That warhead could cost another $12 billion. No decision has been made to build the new ALCM.

Meanwhile, the Navy is questioning the NNSA concept of the interoperable warhead. In a September 2012 memo to the Nuclear Weapons Council, through which the Defense and Energy departments coordinate management of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the Navy said it does “not support commencing the effort at this time,” due in part to “uncertainty” about the NNSA’s “ability to execute its currently programmed work.” In response, the council decided in December to study an option for the Navy’s W88 warhead that would not be interoperable.

The 3+2 plan has received mixed reviews on Capitol Hill. In a spending bill approved in June, the Senate Appropriations Committee provided $369 million for the B61 gravity bomb for fiscal year 2014. That is the same funding level as in fiscal year 2013 but 30 percent below the $537 million that the administration requested. In its report, the committee wrote that it is “concerned that NNSA’s proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61 bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements.” The bill is not expected to go to the Senate floor, but it may be included in an omnibus appropriations bill at some point.

Then, on Aug. 1, the committee provided $6 million for a new B61 tail kit, less than 10 percent of the $68 million that the Air Force requested. With a lifetime program cost of $3.7 billion, the tail kit would increase the accuracy of the B61.

The Senate appropriators’ budget allocations would, if enacted, force the NNSA to choose a cheaper path for the B61, which the Pentagon projects would cost more than $10 billion to produce, not including the tail kit. The NNSA would likely have to forgo its plans to consolidate four versions of the bomb into one, the proposed B61-12. Without the consolidation, the new tail kit would not be needed, the Senate staffer said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee also questioned the NNSA’s broader plans to make warheads interoperable. The first such project would integrate the W78 ICBM warhead and the W88 SLBM warhead, known as Interoperable Warhead-1 (IW-1), and would cost at least $14 billion, according to the NNSA. The committee wrote that an interoperable warhead “may be unnecessarily complex and expensive, increase uncertainty about certification,” and “fail to address aging issues [such as the need to replace components with limited lifetimes] in a timely manner.” The Senate Armed Services Committee raised similar cost and mission concerns about the IW-1 in June.

The House Appropriations Committee raised its own concerns about a joint W78/W88 warhead, stating that the committee “will not support dedicating significant funding for new stockpile transformation concepts” unless the administration can show “benefits that justify such a large investment.” The House cut the budget request for the joint W78/W88 warhead by $23 million, but increased funding for the B61 by the same amount.

Amid bipartisan congressional concerns about the cost, the Defense Department is defending its plan to rebuild the remaining stockpile of U.S. nuclear warheads, including the B61 bomb.

UK Review Doubts Trident Alternatives

Robert Golan-Vilella

Nearly all of the leading alternatives to the United Kingdom’s current plan for replacing its nuclear-armed submarines would cost more than the existing approach, a British government study found recently.

The “Trident Alternatives Review,” which was published July 16, examined alternative plans for the replacement of the United Kingdom’s four aging nuclear-armed submarines. The current plan of “like-for-like” renewal, championed by Prime Minister David Cameron, would involve replacing each of the retiring submarines, which are scheduled to reach the end of their service lives in the late 2020s and early 2030s, with a new successor model, which is yet to be developed.

The 64-page report, drafted by officials in the Cabinet Office, considered a variety of plans for fielding an arsenal composed of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles instead of ballistic missiles. The cruise missiles could be deployed on surface ships, submarines, or aircraft.

The report determined that all such options would be more expensive than like-for-like replacement, mainly due to the time required to produce the new weapons systems. The review concluded that a new cruise missile warhead could not be developed and deployed until about 2040, well after the current submarines had left service. The cruise missile options therefore would require the United Kingdom to build two additional nuclear-armed submarines to “bridge the gap” until a cruise missile-based system was ready for use, adding to their costs.

The study estimated that like-for-like replacement would cost approximately 20 billion pounds ($31 billion) over the life cycle of the new submarines. The only cheaper option would be to replace the county’s four Vanguard-class submarines with a fleet of three vessels, according to the report. However, it noted that doing so would force London to abandon its current posture of “continuous at-sea deterrence,” in which at least one of the submarines is kept on patrol at all times.

The review considered a range of other potential nuclear postures but concluded that none of them offered “the same degree of resilience as the current posture.” Whether any of these alternatives would constitute a viable option for the country would depend on a political calculation by the government concerning the amount of risk it would be willing to take, the review said.

Currently, the United Kingdom’s entire operational nuclear arsenal is deployed on the four submarines, each of which is armed with Trident ballistic missiles. As of 2010, London’s stockpile consisted of no more than 225 nuclear weapons, of which fewer than 160 were actively deployed, according to government figures. Those numbers are scheduled to be reduced to 180 and 120, respectively, by the mid-2020s. (See ACT, November 2010.)

The impetus for the review came from the Liberal Democrats, who in 2010 assumed power in a coalition government along with Cameron’s Conservative Party. The two parties pledged to maintain the country’s nuclear deterrent, but also agreed that plans for the replacement of its nuclear weapons systems would be “scrutinised to ensure value for money” and that the Liberal Democrats would “continue to make the case for alternatives.” The following year, the coalition government formally commissioned the Trident review.

With the review’s completion, the Conservative Party leadership argued that the report bolstered the case for like-for-like replacement.

“The Government remains 100 per cent committed to maintaining and renewing the Trident system,” Defence Secretary Philip Hammond wrote in the July 15 Daily Mail. Hammond added that “the logic for this commitment is clear: there is no alternative to Trident that provides the same level of protection and ability to deter an aggressor. The alternatives are less capable, less credible and more expensive.”

In contrast, Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury and lead minister of the review, sought to paint the review as a potential catalyst for change. Speaking in London at the report’s launch, Alexander, a Liberal Democrat, argued that the review demonstrated “that there are credible and viable alternatives to the United Kingdom’s current approach to nuclear deterrence.” The posture of continuous at-sea deterrence has become “unnecessary,” Alexander asserted. By ending this posture and moving from four submarines to three, he said, the government could save 4 billion pounds over the life of the systems.

Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, told Global Security Newswire on July 16 that “the limits of the review are clear. It interprets credibility strictly, and does not consider any options that do not have the capacity of reinstituting continuous at-sea deterrence at a moment’s notice.”

The United Kingdom approved the preliminary “initial gate” investment in the new submarines in 2011, allowing preparatory work on the replacement to proceed. (See ACT, June 2011.) The “main gate” decision to begin construction on the submarines is scheduled to be made in 2016. This would be after the next British general elections, which are slated to take place no later than May 2015.

Nearly all of the leading alternatives to the United Kingdom’s current plan for replacing its nuclear-armed submarines would cost more than the existing approach, a British government study found recently.

White House Makes Case for Syria Strike

Daniel Horner

President Barack Obama and administration officials last month vigorously argued for punitive, targeted U.S. military strikes against Syria, basing their case in part on an intelligence assessment that the administration said provided compelling evidence that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on contested and rebel-controlled areas in the Damascus suburbs.

In an Aug. 31 address, Obama said the attack “risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” Obama also announced that he would seek authorization from Congress for the U.S. action, a step that he said is not legally required.

That decision pushes back the timetable for the strikes beyond what many observers were expecting, but Obama said the ability of U.S. forces “to execute this mission is not time sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.” The action will be “against Syrian regime targets” and “designed to be limited in duration and scope,” he said.

The announcement came two days after the British Parliament voted against military action in spite of strong support for it by Prime Minister David Cameron. The previous day, Aug. 28, a British proposal to obtain UN Security Council support for military action in Syria foundered on objections from Russia, Syria’s strongest ally on the council, and China, according to accounts of a closed-door meeting of the council’s five permanent members.

A summary of the U.S. intelligence assessment said the U.S. government has “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21. “High confidence” is “the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation,” said the summary, which the White House released Aug. 30. It added, “We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.”

The summary said a “preliminary” U.S. assessment had tallied 1,429 deaths from the Aug. 21 attack, including at least 426 children. A British intelligence document issued earlier in the week said there were “at least 350 fatalities.”

According to the U.S. intelligence summary, the Syrian government used a nerve agent in the attack. On Sept. 1, Secretary of State John Kerry, citing analysis conducted since the issuance of the document, said the agent was sarin.

The summary described preparations by “Syrian chemical weapons personnel” in the three days prior to the attack and said that afterward the United States had “intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Aug. 31 that “the alleged call made by a Syrian officer after the alleged attack is too ridiculous to be discussed.” Overall, the U.S. evidence, which Kerry presented in an Aug. 30 speech, is “based on old stories which were published by terrorists over a week ago and are full of fabrication and lies,” the news agency said.

The team from the United Nations arrived in Syria on Aug. 18, after several months of negotiations between representatives of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the specifics of the team’s access to sites of earlier alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government and rebels. But after the Aug. 21 attack took place, the team shifted its focus to sites connected with that event and left the country Aug. 31, the day before its permission to stay in the country expired. At a press conference later that day, Ban spokesman Martin Nesirky said the team had “given a very clear undertaking to the Syrian authorities that it will return” to investigate “all the pending allegations” of chemical weapons use.

The team, which is led by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström and includes nine experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and three from the World Health Organization, flew to The Hague, the site of OPCW headquarters. The evidence collected by the UN team, which includes environmental and biological samples, now is to undergo laboratory analysis. That process “may take up to three weeks,” the OPCW said in an Aug. 31 press release, adding that “every effort will be made to expedite this process.”

The OPCW is the organization charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. Syria is one of seven countries that are not party to the CWC. Under a 1987 UN General Assembly resolution and language in the convention, the UN secretary-general has the authority to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use involving CWC nonparties.

In his Aug. 31 address, Obama said he was “confident in the case our government has made without waiting” for the UN team to complete its analysis. As administration officials have noted, the mandate of the UN team is to determine whether chemical weapons were used and not who used them. Therefore, Kerry said in his Aug. 30 remarks, “[b]y the definition of their own mandate, the UN can’t tell us anything that we haven’t shared with you this afternoon or that we don’t already know.”

But Raymond Zilinskas, a microbiologist and former member of the UN Special Commission that was charged with verifying Iraq’s destruction of its chemical and other weapons after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said in a Sept. 1 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “the role of the UN team is more important than ever[,] whatever its findings.”

The team could provide critical information on the means of delivery for any chemical agents, he said. “If there were bombs and rockets of whatever origin used in attacks, it is reasonable to believe that there almost certainly will be remnants of the weapons like shards, splinters, craters with degradation products from explosives and chemicals and, if the inspectors are really lucky, duds,” he wrote.

If the rockets turn out to be Iranian or Russian, that would implicate the Assad regime, he said. But if they are “homemade,” that would be a strong indication that they came from the rebels, and “Assad probably would be off the hook,” he said.

The intelligence summary was skeptical of the possibility that the rebels were responsible for the attack. In one example of the basis for that conclusion, the summary said that “[s]atellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred.” Those neighborhoods are controlled by the rebels or are contested, Kerry said in his speech.

Overall, Zilinskas said, the intelligence summary is not a full assessment because it does not include information on “sample collections, chain of custody, methods of analysis, or results of analysis by reference laboratories.”

President Barack Obama and administration officials last month vigorously argued for punitive, targeted U.S. military strikes against Syria...


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