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May 2015
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From Nuclear Deterrence to Disarmament: Evolving Catholic Perspectives

May 2015

By Gerard Powers

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on April 15. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)The Roman Catholic Church and other religious actors are confronting the nuclear issue with renewed vigor, condemning the nuclear status quo and pressing for more-dramatic steps toward disarmament.

Three developments have created this opportunity. First, nuclear disarmament, long the lonely call of religious leaders and anti-nuclear activists, has gone mainstream. Nuclear disarmament is now endorsed as a long-term policy goal by the Russian and U.S. governments and a global chorus of prominent military and political figures, led by the initiatives of George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn[1] and the Global Zero campaign. Second, the series of international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use has brought new attention to the legal and moral dimensions of nuclear weapons. Third, Pope Francis has made nuclear disarmament a priority, while the church in the United States, which played a leading role in the 1980s in addressing the morality of nuclear weapons, is deepening its involvement in the issue. This third development—the church’s deepening engagement on nuclear disarmament—is the focus of this article.

If this is a new moment for religious and moral voices in the nuclear debate, three issues need to be addressed. First, what is the church doing, and how does it understand its role? Second, to what extent has the church revised its position? Finally, what can religion and morality contribute to the nuclear debate in the coming years? 

The Church’s Role 

The Holy See routinely addresses the nuclear issue in statements such as those at the meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Conference on Disarmament. The Vatican has played an active role in supporting the international humanitarian-impact conferences. During the Vienna meeting, Francis issued his first major statement on nuclear weapons, which was accompanied by a statement by the Holy See’s representative to UN agencies in Geneva, and a lengthy “study document,” the Vatican’s most detailed treatment of nuclear weapons in many years. Although the study document was approved at the highest levels, it is akin to a white paper and not as authoritative as the Vatican’s formal statements on nuclear weapons. 

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1983 peace pastoral, “The Challenge of Peace,” remains the most comprehensive and well-known church document on nuclear weapons.[2] In recent years, the most comprehensive statements by U.S. bishops were a series of major talks by Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien at U.S. Strategic Air Command in Nebraska in 2009, the Paris Global Zero conference in 2010, and other venues. The bishops also have addressed specific issues, opposing major new funding for Bush and Obama administration programs to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal and supporting ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program. 

Furthermore, the U.S. bishops have been involved in a form of “Track 2” diplomacy with Iranian religious leaders.[3] With the support of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the bishops have teamed up with the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute; Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; and Boston College to launch the multiyear Initiative on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament. 

In considering these church interventions on nuclear weapons, it is important to keep in mind the church’s understanding of its role. Two important theological distinctions underlie official church statements on nuclear weapons. 

First, Catholic social teaching does not provide a blueprint for policy. Church leaders have insisted that morality matters in the nuclear debate and have offered a moral framework for evaluating nuclear use, deterrence, and disarmament. At their best, however, the leaders have avoided moralizing, or oversimplifying, this complicated issue. Church leaders have used their influence to press for policy initiatives they judge to be in keeping with their moral framework. Yet, in their analysis of nuclear weapons, they have taken considerable care in distinguishing moral principles, such as the prohibition against targeting civilians, from their prudential judgments about specific policy issues, such as support for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and opposition to the first-use doctrine and deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative. These prudential judgments are considered less authoritative than statements of principles because they involve applying these principles to complex political and strategic questions. 

Second, although religious leaders have a legitimate role to play in addressing public policy issues with significant moral dimensions, informed lay people, not church leaders, ultimately are responsible for making prudential judgments about how moral norms apply to specific policies. The bishops’ reluctance to offer definitive moral judgments on particular nuclear policies is not a function of excessive caution but of their understanding of the limits of morality and religious leadership. 

The Ethical Nexus 

The study document the Holy See released at the Vienna conference summed up the Vatican’s position on the interrelated ethics of nuclear use, deterrence, and disarmament. 

[I]t must be admitted that the very possession of nuclear weapons, even for purposes of deterrence, is morally problematic. While a consensus continues to grow that any possible use of such weapons is radically inconsistent with the demands of human dignity, in the past the Church has nonetheless expressed a provisional acceptance of their possession for reasons of deterrence, under the condition that this be “a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.” This condition has not been fulfilled—far from it. In the absence of further progress toward complete disarmament, and without concrete steps toward a more secure and a more genuine peace, the nuclear weapon establishment has lost much of its legitimacy.[4]

Is this a new position for the church? To answer that question, it is necessary to consider the ethics of use, deterrence, disarmament, and peace as distinct but intimately related issues.

The ethics of nuclear use is the starting point. In their 1983 peace pastoral, the U.S. bishops categorically rejected, as indiscriminate and disproportionate, the use of nuclear weapons against cities or multiple military targets within cities. They opposed first use of nuclear weapons and were deeply skeptical about the morality of even a limited retaliatory, or second, use in response to a nuclear attack. Those judgments were based on the bishops’ concerns about the consequences of breaking the nuclear taboo and the inherent risks of escalation. Nevertheless, they did not rule out any conceivable second use, acknowledging the moral possibility that an isolated use—for example, against a missile silo in Siberia—might be discriminate and proportionate. In 1993 the U.S. bishops went further and said they “abhor any use of nuclear weapons.”[5] This should be considered a hortatory statement, not a change in their moral analysis of use. 

Archbishop Bernardito Auza, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, participates in the conference “Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Compass” at the UN on April 9. (Global Security Institute)Recent Vatican statements, however, have been unequivocal about the immorality of use. The 2014 study document flatly stated that “[u]se of nuclear weapons is absolutely prohibited.” In an address to the IAEA last September, the Vatican’s deputy foreign minister, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, supported the view that “the mere existence of these weapons is absurd and that arguments in support of their use are an affront against the dignity of all human life.”[6] This position is based on two sets of concerns. One arises from the likelihood that any use of nuclear weapons would cause unnecessary, irreversible suffering and would be indiscriminate and disproportionate, especially given the risk of escalation. The other is the consequences of breaking the nuclear taboo, including undermining prospects for disarmament.[7]

This unequivocal rejection of any use raises questions about the moral status of deterrence. In Catholic moral theology, it is immoral to threaten that which it is immoral to do. Hence, the moral paradox of theories of nuclear deterrence that hold that the way to prevent the unthinkable is to threaten it. The bishops rejected two approaches to the morality of nuclear deterrence: that of nuclear pacifists, who argued that because nuclear weapons are inherently indiscriminate and disproportionate, the threat of use in nuclear deterrence is immoral, and that of the defenders of deterrence, who argued that it could be justified as a necessary evil. Instead, following the lead of the Vatican, the bishops elaborated an “interim ethic” whereby nuclear deterrence could be morally acceptable if it met three criteria: sole use, meaning that its use is limited to deterring the use of nuclear weapons; sufficiency, meaning that it is not based on achieving nuclear superiority; and disarmament, meaning that it is used as a step toward disarmament.

Numerous Vatican statements since the end of the Cold War have brought into question even this strictly conditioned moral acceptance of deterrence. For example, in a talk at Georgetown in 2010, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, decried the “second nuclear age” (the first being the Cold War), when nuclear terrorism is a threat, nuclear weapons are proliferating, and these weapons “are no longer just for deterrence but have become entrenched in the military doctrines of the major powers.” Migliore concluded that “[i]t is evident that nuclear deterrence is preventing genuine nuclear disarmament. Consequently, the conditions that prevailed during the cold war, which gave a basis for the church’s limited toleration of nuclear deterrence, no longer apply.”[8] 

Vatican statements cite several reasons why “the system of nuclear deterrence can no longer be deemed a policy that stands firmly on moral ground.”[9] First, a system that is based on a conditional intent to use nuclear weapons in ways that will lead to mass destruction is morally problematic. Second, “the structure of nuclear deterrence is less stable and more worrisome than at the height of the Cold War” due to the larger number of states possessing nuclear weapons and the increased risk of nuclear weapons use, including by terrorists and unstable nuclear-armed states.[10] Moreover, nuclear weapons do not deter terrorism, intrastate conflicts, and other major threats today. Third, although major cuts in the numbers of nuclear weapons have taken place, nuclear deterrence has not been used as a step toward disarmament but has become an end in itself, a principal impediment to disarmament. Fourth, the “peace dividend” that was supposed to come with the end of the Cold War has not materialized as “enormous amounts of money are still being spent on ‘modernizing’ the nuclear arsenals of the very states that are ostensibly reducing their nuclear weapons numbers.”[11] 

One way to read these documents is that the Vatican has become a nuclear pacifist. The study document concludes, “Now is the time to affirm not only the immorality of the use of nuclear weapons, but the immorality of their possession, thereby clearing the road to nuclear abolition.”[12] The U.S. bishops’ insistence that it is time to “move beyond deterrence” would seem to reinforce this point.

Another, more nuanced interpretation should be considered—that the Vatican has not abandoned its strictly conditioned moral acceptance of deterrence but has revised the way it applies that moral framework. It has moved from enunciating a moral framework for deterrence to making increasingly specific and clear judgments about whether the sole-use, sufficiency, and disarmament conditions of that framework are being met in practice. Based on its reading of the geopolitical signs of the times, it has concluded that nuclear deterrence is not as necessary or stable as it was during the Cold War, that the nuclear powers are making insufficient progress in meeting the conditions, and that they do not seem to have the will to do so. This is not a moral rejection of the concept of deterrence itself, but a prudential judgment—based on an assessment of a host of political, security, and strategic issues—about the morality of the particular structure of deterrence as it exists today. 

Even if one does not accept the Vatican’s assessment of these issues, supporters of the status quo in U.S. or Russian nuclear policy, in 2015 as in 1983, will find little to comfort them in the bishops’ strictly conditioned acceptance of deterrence. Yet, condemning existing nuclear deterrents is not tantamount to condemning the idea of nuclear deterrence. Deterring the use of nuclear weapons remains essential, but existing systems of deterrence need to be dramatically revised in order to meet the three conditions, with much greater priority given to nuclear disarmament as the basis for lasting security.

This dramatic shift in emphasis from the first two conditions (sole use and sufficiency) to progress toward nuclear disarmament is another way the church has revised its application of the conditions. Disarmament has become the primary condition for the moral acceptability of deterrence, the lens through which the other two conditions are viewed. The main purpose of the sole-purpose and sufficiency criteria is no longer to ensure crisis stability and arms race stability, although those remain important. Rather, these conditions now serve mainly to support the disarmament criterion. They do that, for example, by delegitimizing proposals to modernize nuclear arsenals and by providing a rationale for reducing Russian and U.S. stockpiles to the small number of weapons required for a minimal deterrent. 

The church is not calling for immediate, unilateral nuclear disarmament. Rather, it is insisting that it is long past time to move beyond a preoccupation with and moral complacency about nuclear deterrence. Instead, the moral priority must be doing the difficult moral and policy work necessary to move much more rapidly toward nuclear disarmament—to achieve a non-nuclear ethic. 

Yet another way in which the church is revising its use of the strictly conditioned moral acceptance framework relates to strategy. If one wants to make progress on nuclear disarmament, it is necessary to delegitimize the nuclear status quo and find new international mechanisms for moving forward. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi’s statement during the Vienna conference refers to this new strategic calculus. “We are now witnessing a renewed awareness after two decades lost to the cause of nuclear disarmament…. The ‘humanitarian initiative’ is a new hope to make decisive steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” Tomasi added that the partnership among countries, civil society, international organizations, and others “is an additional guarantee of inclusion, cooperation and solidarity. This is not an action of circumstance. This is a fundamental shift that meets a strong quest of a large number of the world’s populations which would be the first victims of a nuclear incident.”[13]

The church’s shift from the ethics of nuclear use and deterrence to the ethics of disarmament must be understood in the context of its broader ethic of peace. The bishops’ interim ethic of strictly conditioned moral acceptance of deterrence is less a function of time than context. Although some advocates of global zero would disagree, the church considers nuclear abolition to be a long-term objective that ultimately is as much about creating the conditions for a more just and peaceful world order as it is about the narrower issue of nuclear arms control and disarmament. 

Nuclear abolition does not require an end to war, but in the church’s view, it does require more than rethinking nuclear policies. It requires the development of a global ethic of solidarity, or cooperative security. National security doctrines that overemphasize military security should be replaced by the concept of “human security,” which focuses on “socio-economic development, political participation, respect for fundamental human rights, strengthening the rule of law, [and] cooperation and solidarity at the regional and international level.”[14] 

Nuclear weapons are an impediment to achieving this ethic of cooperative security. Not only are nuclear doctrines premised on the double standard in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), whereby a few countries are allowed to possess nuclear weapons while most are required to abstain, but they are closely associated with doctrines of national security rooted in military, political, and economic dominance. They are associated with rigid conceptions of sovereignty, especially with the sacrosanct area of national security, that leave little room for strengthening international law and institutions. Nuclear weapons also raise issues of distributive justice. According to Francis, “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. To prioritize such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty.”[15]

A cooperative security framework in which nuclear weapons are banned will require a fundamental reconsideration of the relationship between sovereignty and security and a redefinition of the responsibilities and rights that come with sovereignty. The nuclear have-nots will have to continue to pursue an ethic and practice of restraint in forgoing nuclear weapons. Because of the risks they have imposed on the world by possessing nuclear weapons, the nuclear haves bear a much heavier burden. They must ultimately renounce their reliance on nuclear weapons as a basis for their national security; they must forgo military, political, and economic dominance as central tenets of their foreign policies; and they must take the lead in building a system of cooperative security that will make a global ban more likely and more sustainable. 

Do Religious Voices Matter? 

Religious leaders have been preaching nuclear disarmament for decades. They have had an impact, but it is mostly indirect. Their most important contribution has been to help ensure that morality is not an uninvited guest at an exclusive party dominated by realists. Although the moral dimension of nuclear issues is not always prominent, it should not be underestimated. 

The NPT is inherently unstable and morally flawed because it is based on a double standard. Nuclear deterrence depends in part on the moral credibility of the threats involved. U.S. nuclear policies cannot survive in the long term if major religious bodies and the general public lose faith in their ultimate moral legitimacy. Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, underscored this point in explaining her concerted effort to engage the Holy See on nuclear disarmament issues in recent months: “I think there is a huge moral impact of the Vatican on issues that relate to nuclear weapons deterrence and the disarmament agenda overall.”[16] 

Nuclear disarmament has gone mainstream for a variety of reasons, but the moral imperative is helping to drive this movement. This long-term movement can be sustained only if it is animated by a moral vision of possibilities that can scarcely be imagined, a moral vision whose credibility will depend on the quality of its ethical analysis of nuclear use, nuclear deterrence, nuclear disarmament, and a just peace. 

Another important role that religious bodies can play is to help democratize an otherwise elite debate. The genius of the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s was that it helped get nuclear policy out of Washington offices and into town halls and church basements. Catholic bishops and other religious leaders did not lead this campaign, but they provided moral credibility and institutional authority to legitimize the concerns of an already aroused public. Their vast institutional infrastructure of parishes, dioceses, schools, universities, religious orders, lay organizations, and media gives them the ability to mobilize and motivate grassroots activists on nuclear issues. That has been increasingly difficult in the past 25 years as the nuclear issue has moved to the margins of U.S. foreign policy and consequently has receded in the public consciousness. It remains possible, however, to mobilize Catholics on issues such as ratification of the CTBT, where the church’s broad moral and policy concerns find a concrete legislative handle. 

Unfortunately, the policy debate on nuclear disarmament is now ahead of the moral debate. This article has outlined the contours of the church’s moral case for disarmament, which it is pressing with ever more urgency. 

That moral case will be strengthened as the church addresses an ethics gap on nuclear disarmament that is comparable to the ethics gap on nuclear deterrence of the 1940s and 1950s.[17] The arguments for the moral imperative of disarmament are clear enough. The element that is largely missing is serious ethical reflection on the new moral challenges that will arise as the world moves toward that goal. The world needs an ethic of nuclear disarmament that is as sophisticated as the ethic of nuclear use and deterrence produced during the height of the Cold War. 

A major issue that must be addressed is the relationship between deterrence and disarmament. If progress on disarmament is now the church’s principal condition for the moral acceptability of deterrence and the church has embraced a no-use ethic, what of the moral paradox of deterrence? If the nuclear powers move to the minimal deterrent that is considered the next step in the nuclear disarmament process, will there be an increased tendency to move from targeting of the enemy’s nuclear forces to the city-busting targeting that the church has unequivocally condemned? If achieving global zero would make nuclear weapons even more valuable, more usable, and more destabilizing given the risk of nuclear breakout, what forms of deterrence would be morally acceptable then? 

In both cases, the church’s position would seem to require further exploration of the ethical dimensions of the concept of existential deterrence—that is, that nuclear use can be deterred by the mere fact that a country possesses or can quickly rebuild its nuclear arsenal.[18] The church also might have to reconsider its position on missile defense. The church has opposed deployment of missile defenses in part because they are considered destabilizing. In a world near or at global zero, would shared missile defenses be less morally problematic as a supplement to other forms of deterrence? 

This can be a new moment for religious voices on nuclear issues. That will require even more concerted efforts by religious leaders and a wealth of new initiatives of the kind undertaken by the U.S. bishops and some Catholic universities. The challenge will be to close the ethics gap on these and other issues and to develop a new generation of religious leaders, scholars, and practitioners with the competence and long-term commitment needed to help maintain momentum toward global zero. 

Gerard Powers is director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. From 1987 to 2004, he was an adviser on nuclear issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He coordinates the Initiative on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament, a joint effort of the Kroc Institute; Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; Boston College; and the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, with support from the Nuclear Threat Initiative. 


1. For the first effort of the four men on this issue, see George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007. 

2. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” May 3, 1983.

3. See Arms Control Association, “US-Iranian Religious Leaders’ Dialogue: The Relevance of Moral Questions Related to Nuclear Weapons,” October 29, 2014, http://www.armscontrol.org/event/2014-10-29/US-Iranian-Religious-Leaders-Dialogue-The-Relevance-of-Moral-Questions-Related-to-Nuclear-Weapons (transcript of event at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Track 2 diplomacy is informal, unofficial diplomacy by nonstate actors, usually intended to complement formal, official “Track 1” diplomacy by states. 

4. Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, “Nuclear Weapons: Time for Abolition,” December 8, 2014, http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/holy-see-statement-on.pdf (hereinafter study document). 

5. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace,” November 17, 1993, p. 33.

6. Antoine Camilleri, Address to the 58th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, September 22, 2014.

7. Dominique Mamberti, Address to the 56th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, September 19, 2012.

8. Celestino Migliore, Woodstock Theological Institute, Georgetown University, March 16, 2010. For a summary of the talk, see Thomas Reese, “Vatican Questions Nuclear Deterrence,” Georgetown University, May 12, 2010, http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/vatican-questions-nuclear-deterrence.

9. Study document, p. 4. 

10. Ibid., p. 3. 

11. Dominique Mamberti, Statement at the High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament, 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, September 26, 2013, http://holyseemission.org/pdf/GA68%20HLM%20Nuclear%20Disarmament.pdf

12. Study document, p. 6.

13. Silvano M. Tomasi, Statement at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, December 9, 2014, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2014/documents/rc-seg-st-20141209_tomasi-vienna_en.html

14. Ibid.

15. “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the Occasion of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” December 7, 2014. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2014/documents/papa-francesco_20141207_messaggio-conferenza-vienna-nucleare.html

16. Elizabeth Dias, “Pope Francis’ Latest Mission: Stopping Nuclear Weapons,” Time, April 10, 2015, http://time.com/3817021/pope-francis-nuclear-disarmament/?xid=emailshare.

17. For a more detailed explanation of this gap, see Gerard Powers, “The Nuclear Ethics Gap,” America, May 17, 2010, p. 11.

18. See, for example, J. Bryan Hehir, “There’s No Deterring the Catholic Bishops,” Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1989): 277.

India’s Nuclear Anxieties: The Debate Over Doctrine

May 2015

By Shashank Joshi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at the end of his speech in New Delhi marking the country’s Independence Day on August 15, 2014. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)In April 2014, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which would be swept into office the following month, included in its manifesto a tantalizing promise to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine “to make it relevant to challenges of current times.”[1] When pressed, party officials suggested they were specifically interested in tinkering with India’s no-first-use policy. 

Almost immediately, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s candidate for prime minister, clarified that the policy “was a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” a former BJP prime minister. Modi added that “there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. [It] is a reflection of our cultural inheritance.”[2]

Shortly after taking office as prime minister, in remarks to an audience in Japan in August, Modi said that “there is a tradition of national consensus and continuity on such issues. I can tell you that currently, we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.”[3] This would have reassured foreign observers and dismayed some Indians, as it indicated that Modi’s self-assured vision for foreign and security policy probably would not apply to the nuclear realm. Although Modi apparently had decided against an imminent shift, his party’s manifesto nevertheless was reflective of a new current of critical thinking on India’s nuclear doctrine. 

India’s nuclear modernization over the past 15 years has largely been framed in material terms: the rising numbers of warheads, the growing ranges of missiles, and the improving delivery systems. These undoubtedly play a crucial role in shaping the triangular deterrent relationship among India, Pakistan, and China. Yet, so do psychological factors, which are shaped in turn by a state’s doctrine, the terms in which the state thinks and talks about potential nuclear use. 

In 1998, just after its nuclear tests, India bowed to U.S. pressure and released a draft nuclear doctrine that ruled out first use and endorsed “credible minimum deterrence” while noting that the latter was “a dynamic concept related to the strategic environment, technological imperatives and the needs of national security.”[4] That elasticity was exploited in the next iteration of the nuclear doctrine, a terse official statement issued in 2003.[5] By that year, India’s nuclear doctrine stood on two connected pillars: India would not use nuclear weapons first, but if its opponents did so, then India’s response would be overwhelming. 

Pressure on No-First-Use Pledge

Right from the start, the two pillars were under pressure. A no-first-use policy is tantamount to a declaration of nonuse against states that do not possess nuclear weapons. (Because such states cannot use nuclear arms at all, they cannot use these weapons first. Therefore, any use of nuclear weapons by India against these states would be a case of first use.) The 1998 doctrine modified the policy by noting that states that do not have nuclear weapons but are “aligned with” nuclear-weapon states were not covered.[6] The implication was that non-nuclear-weapon states allied with Indian’s nuclear-armed adversaries—realistically, China or Pakistan—could be targeted with Indian nuclear weapons if their ally were to have used nuclear weapons against India first. 

This proviso has very few implications in practice, given the improbability of non-nuclear-weapon states joining hands with China or Pakistan in a war against India, but it demonstrated India’s willingness to experiment with its doctrine. In addition, the 1998 change undercut earlier claims that the no-first-use pledge was “unconditional” because use of nuclear weapons against a third party that did not possess nuclear weapons, even if precipitated by nuclear first use by China or Pakistan, would still constitute Indian first use of a sort.[7] 

In 2003, when a new statement of doctrine was issued, India further diluted the doctrine by warning that it might use nuclear weapons in response to a “major attack” with chemical or biological weapons, possibly mimicking the “calculated ambiguity” of the U.S. nuclear posture in relation to attacks with nonconventional weapons other than nuclear ones.[8] To determine why the no-first-use policy was being whittled down, it helps to break down the types of arguments that critics have presented because these arguments have tended to recur.  

Keeping even with peers. India should reject a stance that is “weaker” than those of its nuclear peers, particularly the United States or China.[9] For instance, when China was mistakenly viewed as having modified its own no-first-use pledge in 2013, some Indians demanded that India follow suit.[10] 

Demonstrating assertiveness. If nuclear adversaries were taking bold steps, India should do so too even if a response, in the form of a more forceful doctrine, would assume a completely different form. For instance, India should respond to an adversary’s warhead buildup (a change in posture) by altering its no-first-use policy (a change in doctrine). 

Broadening the scope of deterrence. India should use nuclear weapons to deter not only nuclear attacks, but also chemical and biological attacks. Such an argument implicitly drove the change in 2003. 

Strengthening deterrence. A threat of first use can instill greater uncertainty in adversaries and thereby deter them from even non-nuclear provocations. The specific concern here tends to be Pakistan and its sponsorship of terrorist groups. 

Maintaining the pre-emption option. First use would allow India to respond to an adversary’s imminent nuclear use, limiting the damage to India, giving India’s relatively small nuclear forces a better chance of survival, or both. 

No individual critic has ever made these five arguments together, but they can all be found, with growing frequency, in Indian writings. A sample of the many cases that could be cited illustrates the point. 

In 2011, Jaswant Singh, India’s former external affairs, defense, and finance minister and a crucial figure in the U.S.-Indian arms control discussions that followed the 1998 tests, addressed the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament. Raising what he called “the most important question that concerns us all globally,” he argued that the policies he had framed in 1998 and 1999 were “very greatly in need of revision because the situation that warranted the enunciation of the policy of ‘no-first-use’ or…‘credible deterrence with minimum force’, etc. has long been overtaken by events.”[11] 

This reassessment and blunt recommendation is significant, coming as it does from a former senior official who as foreign minister was the most prominent public champion of India’s no-first-use commitment and who, in a September 1999 speech to the UN General Assembly, exhorted the established nuclear powers to pledge likewise.[12]

Tellingly, Singh did not explain in his 2011 speech why, precisely, reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first would increase Indian security or address the problems he had earlier identified, such as a growing perceived imbalance in warhead numbers between India and Pakistan in the latter’s favor. He declined a request by the author to elaborate on his logic.[13] 

Singh’s analysis does not make a clear connection between the claimed source of the problem—events that have changed India’s security situation—and his proposed solution of a change in doctrine. This might suggest that Singh’s interest in modifying the no-first-use policy, like the interest of others, arose primarily from a generalized desire for nuclear assertiveness as a response to perceived adverse shifts in India’s security and nuclear environment, rather than from a belief in some specific deterrent benefits of potential first use. Put another way, Singh advocated changing the no-first-use policy not because he objected to the policy per se, but because he sought some means of prominently demonstrating Indian resolve in the nuclear realm. 

In 2012 an influential Indian think tank, the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, convened a task force of experts from across India’s governmental and nongovernmental strategic community. The task force, which was chaired by P.R. Chari, a former civil servant in India’s Ministry of Defence and a respected analyst, published “an alternative blueprint” of India’s nuclear doctrine.[14] That blueprint declared that “India will not initiate a nuclear strike,” but added, cryptically, “‘Initiation’ covers the process leading up to the actual use of a nuclear weapon by an adversary. This would include mating component systems and deploying warheads with the intent of using them if required.” 

This reinterpretation of nuclear initiation is tenuous and confusing, but nonetheless far-reaching to the point of absurdity. It suggests that, in a crisis, if Pakistan were merely to mate warheads to missiles or even co-locate previously dispersed nuclear pits and warheads to increase the weapons’ readiness and therefore survivability, this might be interpreted in India as Pakistan having formally “initiated” a nuclear strike. This, in turn, would permit India to launch nuclear weapons first while claiming that it had adhered to its no-first-use policy. Naturally, this amounts to an imprimatur for pre-emption.

Importantly, such arguments are not on the fringe. In June 2014, Lieutenant General B.S. Nagal, head of India’s Strategic Forces Command between 2008 and 2011 and thereafter a department under India’s national security adviser, made a radical argument in India’s Force magazine, saying that India under a no-first-use policy “cannot conduct a first strike on the adversary’s counterforce targets, thus allowing the adversary full capability to attrite [India’s] own capability.” Nagal’s argument is that a no-first-use commitment requires that India potentially absorb a nuclear attack on its own nuclear weapons, leaving New Delhi’s arsenal depleted and therefore incapable of launching a second strike to destroy the adversary’s remaining nuclear forces. This, in turn, forces India to resort to countervalue strikes—that is, strikes against population centers—something Nagal regards as a “moral dilemma.”

Nagal consequently argues in favor of replacing the no-first-use policy with a policy of “ambiguity” that “does not allow destruction of the nation and strategic forces at the outset; hence the arsenal is intact for use.” Ambiguity, Nagal contends, “provides a better range of options to launch decapitating and/or disarming strikes to deal with the adversary leadership/arsenal.”[15] Such drastic language is admittedly rare in the Indian debate, but Nagal is not alone. Another former strategic forces commander, Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar, has argued that Indian forces require “select conventional hardware that tracks and targets [adversary] nuclear forces” to “provide the pre-emptive teeth to a deterrent relationship that leans so heavily” on the no-first-use policy.[16] These are striking arguments, coming from individuals who have served at the apex of India’s nuclear weapons program.

One might reasonably argue that Nagal and Shankar are advancing agendas they could not implement while in office and that their prescriptions place implausibly heavy demands on India’s existing and future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Yet, their arguments are likely to shape the tone and substance of the public debate over the coming years, a debate that will weigh on future Indian governments. For these critics, the fundamental purpose of diluting the no-first-use policy is to keep India’s adversaries guessing about the nuclear threshold in the hope that the resultant ambiguity deters a greater range of threats.[17] 

Pressure on Massive Retaliation

As described above, Modi appears to have poured cold water on moves to alter the no-first-use policy in the direction urged by critics such as Nagal and Shankar. Barring a significant exogenous shock, such as a successful terrorist attack from Pakistan that is interpreted as a failure of deterrence, this is unlikely to change. There is, however, a second pressure on doctrine, relating to the formulation of the policy of massive retaliation. It is ironic that the stronger party in a potential conflict on the subcontinent—India, in relation to Pakistan—should find itself debating the value of flexible nuclear use doctrines, as such pressures ordinarily fall on the party whose conventional forces are weaker. Yet, this is precisely what has happened. 

Indian national security adviser Brajesh Mishra addresses the media in New Delhi on August 17, 1999, as India released a draft of its nuclear weapons doctrine. (Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)It is often forgotten that massive retaliation was not always part of India’s doctrine. India’s 1999 draft doctrine promised only “punitive” retaliation, a pliable term consistent with both limited and higher-order nuclear use. It was mentioned three times in the document, indicating that considerable care went into its usage. Yet, four years later, the summary of India’s 2003 revised doctrine stated that “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”[18] It is unclear whether the changed wording was intentional or merely a function of the revision process. After all, the 1999 draft was never an official document, and different personnel were involved in the creation of each doctrine.

Indian concerns over the credibility of massive retaliation are long-standing, and one can find Indian thinkers debating its finer points in the 1980s and earlier. These concerns have sharpened in recent years because of Pakistan’s reported cultivation of tactical nuclear weapons, which themselves can be placed under the broader category of limited nuclear options.[19] 

Simply put, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons are perceived to constrain India’s ability to wage limited conventional war in retaliation for terrorist attacks attributed to the Pakistani authorities. This is because if Pakistan employed tactical nuclear weapons, avoiding Indian population centers, a massive Indian nuclear response would not be a proportional and therefore credible response. In addition, Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons ensure that it could then conduct a further round of nuclear retaliation against Indian population centers were India to have first attacked Pakistani population centers, thereby creating a further layer of deterrence against New Delhi.

In addition to this well-worn proportionality-credibility problem, there is a second, strategic problem. Whereas India increasingly prepares itself for limited war, “massive retaliation proposes a war with unlimited means for unlimited ends.”[20] If wars are limited, the logic of punishment must be subordinate to the logic of war termination.[21] In other words, India’s use of a nuclear doctrine that carries a high risk of escalation to high-level nuclear use is dissonant with its broader political-military strategy, which is to avoid the kind of large-scale wars that characterized the subcontinent before the 1970s. Indian wars would have limited aims, such as curbing Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups or satisfying Indian public opinion. 

Limited aims require that a state end a war at the earliest possible opportunity compatible with these aims. Because massive retaliation escalates a conflict or is seen to do so, it precludes this. Gaurav Kampani, who has studied the development of India’s nuclear program, citing multiple former chairmen of India’s Chiefs of Staff Committee, notes that “senior Indian military leaders” favor “highly calibrated Indian counter-response to terminate war at the lowest possible level of nuclear exchange.”[22] 

Thus far, Indian policymakers have publicly reiterated that, despite these complaints, they will not be self-deterred from adhering to the letter of their doctrine on massive retaliation. In an important speech in New Delhi in April 2013, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, presumably speaking with some degree of official sanction, defended India’s nuclear doctrine and posture from a variety of criticisms.

[If India] is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary. As I have pointed out earlier, the label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective. A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Pakistan would be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do, most recently by developing and perhaps deploying theatre nuclear weapons.[23]

Saran’s protestations are not taken entirely seriously even within the various branches of India’s nuclear establishment. As Rear Admiral Raja Menon, formerly chairman of the task force on Net Assessment and Simulation in India’s National Security Council, wrote in The Hindu in January 2014, “the ideational systems that will ensure the ‘massive’ retaliation promised in [India’s] doctrine are being increasingly questioned by scholars and analysts worldwide.” He added that “Pakistani observers cannot help but be swayed and dangerously influenced by such literature, thereby inducing them to think the unthinkable,” that a nuclear war, once initiated, could be controlled.[24] Menon later argued that India should replace “massive” with “punitive,” as was the case in India’s 1999 draft doctrine, with the aim of signaling India’s “readiness to fight an escalatory nuclear war.”[25]

Other mainstream analysts have argued likewise. In June 2014, Chari lamented that “the determinism inherent in India’s nuclear doctrine…is too extreme to gain much credibility. It defies logic to threaten an adversary with nuclear annihilation to deter or defend against a tactical nuclear strike on an advancing military formation.”[26] In January 2015, Gurmeet Kanwal, former director of India’s Centre for Land Warfare Studies, repeated that “the word ‘massive’…should be substituted with ‘punitive’ as massive is not credible and limits retaliatory options.”[27] 

Even if India were to change its doctrine to punitive rather than massive retaliation, actually developing a range of nuclear options from limited to massive would still be highly challenging. The United States did not possess credible and sophisticated limited nuclear options for two decades after first deploying nuclear weapons. 

Among the future challenges for India will be reconciling nuclear flexibility with exceptionally strong, positive, civilian control. Retired senior military officers routinely complain that the armed forces must have greater involvement in the formulation of nuclear policies.[28] Although India has indeed involved its military in nuclear policy over the last decade to a greater extent than at any prior time, civilian political leaders continue to place great emphasis on retaining the authority and the time to make any final decision on nuclear use. They insist on preserving that authority until the last possible moment and would refrain from authorizing a series of low-level, tit-for-tat nuclear strikes because such strikes might require selection among a large and changing number of targets and a high degree of responsiveness to adversary decisions. Furthermore, such strikes might initiate a sequence that spirals out of control and reduce civilian management of each step up the escalation ladder. 

These civilian concerns inhibit the prospect of pre-emptive first-use doctrines, but they also restrict India’s ability to employ limited nuclear options in precisely the most likely contingencies—notably, limited Indian offensives on Pakistani territory. This is because limited Indian nuclear use on Pakistani soil could interfere with Indian conventional forces present, but Indian civilians might be reluctant to allow coordination between Indian conventional and nuclear forces in a manner that enhances military authority in the nuclear process. Nevertheless, this would not necessarily rule out relatively simple limited nuclear options, such as the use of lower-yield nuclear weapons against static Pakistani military sites. Such targets could be chosen in advance and would not require a highly sophisticated targeting capability. Moreover, use of nuclear weapons against such targets, depending on location, would not necessarily require a high degree of coordination with conventional forces. In this way, India could reintroduce the possibility of nuclear use that is limited and thus proportional and credible, as described above, thereby addressing the problems identified by critics.  


This article has described a series of arguments against two pillars of India’s nuclear doctrine, namely its no-first-use and massive retaliation policies. Underpinning many of these arguments is a widespread sense that “the strategic environment, technological imperatives and…national security,” the factors to which credible minimum deterrence was pegged in 1998, have evolved in the 17 years since India’s nuclear tests and that India’s psychological and material position with regard to nuclear weapons has eroded. Among the causes of this anxiety are the growth in the size and sophistication of Pakistan’s arsenal, perceived slowness in Indian nuclear modernization, nuclear and conventional advances by China, and a worsening security environment on India’s periphery, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan. All of these factors are aggravated by the Indian state’s opacity with regard to nuclear affairs. 

Indian critics’ arguments toward Indian nuclear doctrine should be considered with a series of caveats in mind. First, three consecutive prime ministers have reaffirmed the no-first-use policy, and Modi has ruled out its elimination. Second, many of the arguments described in this article assume the existence of capabilities and institutional changes, some of which are not presently feasible and others of which, notably disarming first strikes, may never become so. Third, there are prominent and numerous examples of advocacy for the status quo. These include Saran’s speech, cited above, and writings by former diplomats Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood, all of whom worked on nuclear issues in their careers.[29] 

In 2002 a committee appointed to “review the national security system in its entirety” produced the “Report of the Group of Ministers on National Security.” It noted that “the publication of a white paper on the Indian nuclear weapons programme is highly desirable.”[30] This report was partially implemented, but progress was interrupted by the change of government in 2004. A decade later, if the BJP follows through on its commitment at least to look again at India’s nuclear doctrine, then any future review process could afford an opportunity for revisionist voices to apply pressure on the government. 

It should be remembered that, in the past, reviews by the Indian government have frequently been commissioned and then ignored, the most notable being a series of defense and security reviews stretching back decades.[31] Therefore, even a review recommending modification of the doctrine would not necessarily lead to revision. If it does, then a shift in the policy of massive retaliation toward ambiguity and flexibility—perhaps a reversion to pre-2003 language of “punitive” retaliation—would be the likeliest outcome. Yet, even this might require a catalyst or shock, such as another major act of terrorism on Indian soil, similar to the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, that comes to be seen as a failure of deterrence.

Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. He has written previously on Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons and other aspects of Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons. This article is based on ideas first presented in a chapter in the Stimson Center’s edited volume Deterrence Instability and Nuclear Weapons in South Asia (2015).


1. Bharatiya Janata Party, “Ek Bharat Shrestha Bharat: Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas [One India, great India: With all, development for all]; Election Manifesto 2014,” March 26, 2014, p. 39, http://www.bjp.org/images/pdf_2014/full_manifesto_english_07.04.2014.pdf

2. Douglas Busvine, “Modi Says Committed to No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Reuters, April 17, 2014; Manoj Joshi, “The Bigger Picture: Modi’s Prime Ministerial Tone Makes Him a Promising Future Leader,” Daily Mail, April 29, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2615170/THE-BIGGER-PICTURE-Modis-prime-ministerial-tone-makes-promising-future-leader.html

3. Indrani Bagchi, “India Not Revisiting Its Nuclear Doctrine, Modi Assures Japan,” The Times of India, August 30, 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-not-revisiting-its-nuclear-doctrine-Modi-assures-Japan/articleshow/41231521.cms.

4. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine,” August 17, 1999, clause 2.3, http://mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?18916/Draft+Report+of+National+Security+Advisory+Board+on+Indian+Nuclear+Doctrine (hereinafter Indian draft nuclear doctrine).

5. Scott Douglas Sagan, “The Evolution of Pakistani and Indian Nuclear Doctrine,” in Inside Nuclear South Asia, ed. Scott Douglas Sagan (Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2009), pp. 245-251. 

6. Indian draft nuclear doctrine, clause 2.5.

7. Brajesh Mishra, “Opening Remarks by National Security Adviser Mr. Brajesh Mishra at the Release of Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine,” in Selected Documents on Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 1, ed. K.R. Gupta (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2000), p. 117.

8. Sagan, “Evolution of Pakistani and Indian Nuclear Doctrine,” p. 249; Scott D. Sagan, “The Commitment Trap: Why the United States Should Not Use Nuclear Threats to Deter Biological and Chemical Weapons Attacks,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 4 (April 1, 2000): 85.

9. For more on the idea of emulating peers, see Theo Farrell, “World Culture and Military Power,” Security Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2005): 454. 

10. Adityanjee, “No First Use Nuclear Doctrine With ‘Chinese Characteristics,’” Vivekananda International Foundation, May 2, 2013, http://www.vifindia.org/article/2013/may/02/no-first-use-nuclear-doctrine-with-chinese-characteristics

11. Jaswant Singh, Transcript of Lok Sabha Debate, March 15, 2011, p. 114,

12. K.R. Gupta, “Introduction,” in Selected Documents on Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 1, ed. K.R. Gupta (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2000), p. xvii. 

13. Jaswant Singh, e-mail correspondence with author, July 2014.

14. India’s Nuclear Doctrine: An Alternative Blueprint (New Delhi: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 2012), http://www.ipcs.org/Indias-Nuclear-Doctrine.pdf

15. B.S. Nagal, “Checks and Balances,” Force, June 2014, http://www.forceindia.net/Checks_and_Balances.aspx

16. Vijay Shankar, “Strategic Non-Nuclear Weapons: An Essential Consort to a Doctrine of No First Use,” Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, January 13, 2014, http://www.ipcs.org/columnist/vice-admiral-vijay-shankar/

17. For a good exposition of this logic, see Bruno Tertrais, “The Trouble With No First Use,” Survival, Vol. 51, No. 5 (2009): 24-25.

18. Indian Prime Minister’s Office, “Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Progress in Operationalizing India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” January 4, 2003, http://pib.nic.in/archieve/lreleng/lyr2003/rjan2003/04012003/r040120033.html

19. Pakistan uses the term “battlefield weapon system,” not “tactical nuclear weapon.” See Shashank Joshi, “Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Nightmare: Déjà Vu?” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Summer 2013): 161.

20. Gaurav Kampani, “India: The Challenges of Nuclear Operationalization and Strategic Stability,” in Strategic Asia 2013-14: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age, ed. Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Travis Tanner (Washington: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2013), p. 118.

21. Ashley J. Tellis, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001), pp. 364-366.

22. Kampani, “India,” p. 119.

23. Shyam Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?” (speech, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, April 24, 2013), p. 16, http://casi.sas.upenn.edu/system/files/Final-Is-Indias-Nuclear-Deterrent-Credible.pdf

24. Raja Menon, “A Mismatch of Nuclear Doctrines,” The Hindu, January 22, 2014.

25. Raja Menon, “Boxed In by Pakistan,” Indian Express, September 8, 2014.

26. P.R. Chari, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Stirrings of Change,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 4, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/06/04/india-s-nuclear-doctrine-stirrings-of-change/hcks

27. Gurmeet Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Reviewing NFU and Massive Retaliation,” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, January 7, 2015, http://www.ipcs.org/article/india/indias-nuclear-doctrine-reviewing-nfu-and-massive-retaliation-4798.html

28. Anit Mukherjee, George Perkovich, and Gaurav Kampani, “Correspondence: Secrecy, Civil-Military Relations, and India’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” International Security, Vol. 39, No. 3 (January 1, 2015): 202-214.

29. Jayant Prasad, “For a Clear Nuclear Doctrine,” The Hindu, May 6, 2014; Rakesh Sood, “Should India Revise Its Nuclear Doctrine?” Policy Brief, No. 18 (Canberra: Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation, December 2014), p. 11.

30. “Reforming the National Security System: Report of the Group of Ministers on National Security,” 2001, p. 122, http://www.vifindia.org/sites/default/files/GoM%20Report%20on%20National%20Security.pdf

31. Anit Mukherjee, “Failing to Deliver: Post-Crises Defence Reforms in India, 1998-2010,” IDSA Occasional Paper, March 2011.

Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi apparently has decided against an imminent shift in New Delhi’s nuclear doctrine, his party’s manifesto was reflective of a new current...

Exercising Restraint? The New U.S. Rules for Drone Transfers

May 2015

By Rachel Stohl

An MQ-1B Predator drone (left) and an MQ-9 Reaper drone taxi to the runway in preparation for takeoff from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada on June 13, 2014. (Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen/U.S. Air Force)On February 5, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) urged the Obama administration to reverse its decision to deny a Jordanian request for unarmed Predator XP drones to fight the Islamic State.

Until the release of Hunter’s letter, the denial of the proposed sale had not been made public. The decision on the Jordanian request reflects the United States’ close hold on drone technology and the lack of transparency for decisions on drone exports. Although Hunter and others who supported the Jordan deal and other drone exports correctly reference the need of allies to acquire technology and weapons to join the U.S. fight against potential threats, the United States has placed extensive limits on drone exports.

These limits have often been imposed without transparent policy guidance. The U.S. government recently revised its policy, but the policy remains classified. On February 17, however, the Department of State released an unclassified summary of the new policy, providing some clarity on its drone transfer decisions.[1] 

The revision of the U.S. export policy for unmanned aerial systems, as drones are formally known, had been highly anticipated by the defense industry and U.S. allies. U.S. industry in particular has been increasingly concerned that the United States has fallen behind in the fast-growing global drone market as more countries step up their indigenous development of the unmanned systems. 

The global drone market is set to double in the next decade, according to Teal Group Corp., increasing from $6.4 billion to $11.5 billion as more countries gain interest in developing and acquiring military drones. U.S. industry worries that if the United States does not participate in global drone sales, it will further diminish the U.S. position in the global drone market and further hinder U.S. industry innovation. U.S. industry is unlikely to invest in research and development for new drone systems if U.S. regulations are too restrictive and burdensome.[2] 

The new drone export policy is part of a broader U.S. policy review of U.S. drone use and transfer and is the culmination of years of work. In May 2013, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University highlighting the importance of a transparent and accountable U.S. drone policy. In a follow-up speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point a year later, Obama did little to expand on his vision of what an accountable and transparent policy would look like. The February release is the first codification of Obama’s promised expansion of transparency. The new policy was developed in response to Obama’s call for clarity, but also because of increasing demand for drones from close allies and nongovernmental end users around the world.

The unclassified summary describes the policy’s tenets and approach. Drone exports are governed, as are all U.S. defense exports, by a variety of laws, regulations, and policies including the Arms Export Control Act, the Foreign Assistance Act, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the Export Administration Regulations (for commercial drones), and the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. 

Much of the policy guidance governing drone exports is clarified in Presidential Policy Directive 27 (PPD-27), which was issued in January 2014 and updated the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy.[3] The policy states the goals of U.S. policy on conventional arms transfers, outlines the process and criteria that guide U.S. arms transfer decisions, clarifies the ways in which U.S. policy on conventional arms transfers supports arms control and arms transfer restraint, and explains how the United States supports responsible arms transfers around the globe. The policy is consistent with long-standing U.S. law (the Arms Export Control Act and Foreign Assistance Act, among others), regulatory regimes, and internal practices. The policy reflects existing U.S. legal authorities and international obligations. 

PPD-27 outlines the U.S. rationale for arms transfers, saying that U.S. policy “supports transfers that meet legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests. At the same time, the policy promotes restraint—both by the United States and other suppliers—in transfers of weapons systems that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.” The document lists 13 specific criteria that the United States “will take into account” when making arms transfer decisions. Each potential transfer is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and one criterion does not outweigh another.

Drones: An Overview

Unmanned aerial systems, known more colloquially as drones, are remotely or autonomously piloted aircraft that do not carry a human operator. Drones are used with increasing frequency around the world in conflicts and for a variety of emerging civilian and commercial purposes. Although targeted strike missions receive the bulk of attention, in practice, lethal strikes account for a small fraction of the drone missions that the U.S. military carries out. Drones are used more widely in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in order to provide information to troops on the ground and for military planners around the world.

Drones can be used for a variety of operations and can provide the military and the CIA with important information without placing soldiers in direct danger. They are able to hover at varying altitudes, continuously providing feedback to operators in distant locations. Drones can be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, but can also be used to carry out lethal strikes and drop supplies to troops on the front lines.

Not all drones are armed or lethal. The distinction between civilian and military drones is often quite ambiguous. For example, military drones can be used for civilian functions. Drones have played prominent roles in agriculture, weather tracking, containment and mitigation of wildfires, disaster relief, search-and-rescue missions, wildlife protection, and support of energy infrastructure, among countless other functions. 

A study by the RAND Corp. estimates that more than 70 countries have some form of drone capability, armed or unarmed. Approximately 23 countries are believed to have or be developing armed drones, and more than 50 produce commercial systems ranging from small handheld drones to medium-sized and larger systems.1

Only three countries are known to have used armed drones in combat—Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The United States and Israel have been global leaders in drone development, but many other states have expressed their interest in developing or have expressed their intent to develop domestic production. Media reports indicate that China, Iran, and Pakistan have stepped up their domestic production and that their drones are being tested and used on the battlefield.

Hundreds of companies are involved in the development and production of a variety of unmanned aircraft, and the market is expected to expand dramatically. This phenomenon is particularly evident in Europe, as commercial innovation is driving an increased demand for a wide variety of uses.

In 2014 the global drone market was estimated to be worth $6.4 billion, and worldwide expenditures are forecast to nearly double to $11.5 billion annually over the next 10 years, according to defense industry analysts at Teal Group Corp. This would amount to almost $91 billion in global expenditures on drone technology by 2024. 

Major producers of U.S. drones include AeroVironment, Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, all of which produce a variety of military and commercial drones. Leading international companies for drones include Israel Aerospace Industries, China-based DJI, and UK-based BAE Systems. 

Israel and the United States are by far the largest exporters of drone technology. Other countries involved in drone exports include Canada, China, France, Italy, and Russia. Israel leads the world in drone exports, with transfers to more than 15 countries in the last five years. Data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute indicate that the UK, India, and Italy are among the top importers of unmanned systems. The number of countries importing this technology will likely continue to increase as international demand for unmanned systems continues to grow.—RACHEL STOHL


1. Lynn E. Davis et al., “Armed and Dangerous? UAVs and U.S. Security,” RAND Corp., 2014, http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR449.html.

    Because the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy includes the export of drones, it is somewhat surprising that the Obama administration singled out one particular conventional weapons system and released a policy specific to drones. 

    Drones have a combination of persistence and precision that makes them uniquely suitable for certain challenging military and counterterrorism operations. They are able to loiter for extended periods of time and can collect information from the battlefield and elsewhere that can then be used for more-accurate targeting. They allow a military to engage in conflict beyond the boundaries of front-line combat in areas that would otherwise be unreachable or hazardous for manned operations. They can help protect ground forces and expand a military mission by allowing a military presence in areas that otherwise would be inaccessible because of topographical, political, resource, and other constraints. 

    In addition, drones are stealthy. Some can easily evade discovery because they are small and quiet, while others can avoid detection by flying at high altitudes. By their very nature, drones change the calculus for actors that use them. Governments may choose to use drones to engage in continual or wider conflicts because personnel and more-expensive machinery are not at risk. These characteristics of drones allow countries to make decisions and respond to threats in ways they would otherwise not if they had to rely solely on manned aircraft. As a result, U.S. policymakers argue that drones warrant a specific policy to address their transfer.

    Elements of the New Policy 

    The new policy on drone transfers does not develop any new legislation or create new bureaucratic institutions, but builds on existing legal frameworks and better clarifies how the decision-making process is implemented. The State Department summary describes the new policy as one that “provides a disciplined and rigorous framework” for U.S. drone exports. The foundation of the policy is to “exercise restraint in sales and transfers” while “advanc[ing] [U.S.] national security and foreign policy interests.” As with the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, a key role of the drone policy is to enhance “operational capabilities and capacity of trusted partner nations, increas[e] U.S. interoperability with these partners for coalition operations, ensur[e]responsible use of these systems, and eas[e] the stress on U.S. force structure for these capabilities.” The Obama administration’s continued reliance on close allies and partners drives the need for a more predictable or at least understandable U.S. export control system for drones. 

    The policy also claims to ensure “appropriate participation for U.S. industry in the emerging commercial drone market, which will contribute to the health of the U.S. industrial base, and thus to U.S. national security which includes economic security.” The reference to the U.S. defense industry mirrors the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, in which economic factors are part of arms transfer determinations.

    The new policy requires that all potential sales be considered on a case-by-case basis, as was done previously, but also “puts in place stringent conditions” on potential drone sales. Specifically, the policy includes “potential requirements” that the United States can impose on its drone exports. Not all recipients will be subject to all of the requirements, but these additional conditions provide the United States with an extra level of oversight over U.S. drone transfers and confirm a recipient government’s commitment to U.S. rules and procedures governing drone use. For example, the policy requires sales and transfers of particularly sensitive drone systems to be made through the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales program, rather than through commercial sales. Moreover, the review of potential transfers can be made through the Department of Defense Technology Security and Foreign Disclosure processes, adding a higher level of scrutiny over potential exports. 

    Recipient countries also will face additional obligations. Under the new policy, these countries could be required to agree to end-use assurances as a condition of sale or transfer or more specific end-use monitoring and additional security conditions as part of the export agreement. All recipient countries will be required to agree to specific “principles for proper use” as a condition of the transfer.

    The policy reinforces U.S. obligations under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR commitments require that Category I systems (those that have a range of at least 300 kilometers and the ability to carry a payload of at least 500 kilograms) are subject to a “strong presumption of denial.”[4] The presumption of denial does not prohibit all Category I exports, but instead allows such transfers on “rare occasions” that are consistent with nonproliferation and export controls.

    The policy also states that U.S.-origin commercial drones, including commercial MTCR Category I systems, are subject to the policy. These sales and transfers are to be reviewed under the “requirements and licensing policies” of the Export Administration Regulations.

    One of the most notable and surprising aspects of the policy is that it contains four “principles for proper use” that recipients must adopt before any drone sales are authorized: 

    “Recipients are to use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable;

    “Armed and other advanced UAS [unmanned aerial systems] are to be used in operations involving the use of force only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense;

    “Recipients are not to use military UAS to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations; and

    “As appropriate, recipients shall provide UAS operators technical and doctrinal training on the use of these systems to reduce the risk of unintended injury or damage.”

    The State Department summary says that the principles are necessary because “the United States has an interest in ensuring that these systems are used lawfully and responsibly.” Critics argue that the principles represent stronger criteria than the United States applies to its own drone use, but Washington claims that these principles guide U.S. use in theaters including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

    Although interpretations of international law with regard to use of military drones vary widely and the U.S. interpretation of international law has been less than transparent, the elevation of international legal principles as a key component of the policy is notable. The United States has not been forthcoming in revealing its underlying legal framework for drone strikes and has been criticized for not providing a public explanation of its process and criteria. 

    The policy summary includes a description of plans to work with other countries to develop international standards for the sale, transfer, and use of drones. Although no details of this cooperation have yet been made public, the potential for the development of norms and standards is important to address widespread international condemnation of U.S. use of drones. Given the growing controversies over drone use around the world, the United States cannot assume that just saying that it wants to set appropriate standards for drone transfer and use is enough. Countries are suspicious of U.S. actions, and the United States can no longer get away with saying that it is using drones responsibly and that everyone should just trust its process. A clear set of international norms can create the framework for determining when drone use and transfer are responsible and can provide a transparent process by which the United States and others can be held accountable.

    Policy Impact Unclear

    When the new policy was released, many media articles indicated that it would open the floodgates and allow U.S.-origin drones to be exported with ease. In reality, however, the new policy does not actually loosen export controls on drones as U.S. drone exports were not automatically prohibited in the past. Indeed, the United States already has exported sophisticated drones to key partners and allies including France, Italy, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and most recently the Netherlands. Furthermore, nothing in the new policy eliminates any previous restrictions on U.S. drone exports—the MTCR guidelines still apply, as does the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. 

    In short, it is not exactly easier to get a military drone from the United States now that the policy has been announced. Instead, there is now a more public and bureaucratically clear framework by which export decisions can be made. That framework may allow decisions to be made in a more expedited fashion, but that does not mean that the answer for all transfer requests will be yes. In the end, the United States will likely sell more drones not because of the new policy but because there is greater demand for these systems. 

    The State Department summary makes explicit the policies that were already guiding U.S. export decisions for military drones and tries to provide additional clarity. Although the policy adds a welcome level of transparency to the drone export process, it remains quite opaque. For example, the summary does not make clear the distinction between commercial and military drones. 

    For the most part, the distinction between military and commercial drones is not intuitive. The line between unarmed military drones and nonmilitary or commercial drones is often indistinguishable. The differences between drone technologies developed for military purposes and those developed for commercial and other civilian purposes are often nonexistent, and distinctions between the two become even more tenuous given that many drones have military and nonmilitary applications that were developed jointly. The lack of a clear articulation of what makes a drone a military system could create implementation challenges for the new policy.

    The policy differentiates “sensitive systems” from other types of drones, subjecting them to more-stringent controls. Although not clearly defined in the summary, sensitive systems are those that facilitate military strikes, are armed, or fall within Category I of the MTCR. In the future, new technological advancements could place other systems on the list of sensitive systems. This differentiation is important because the lack of transparency for drone producers, drone recipients, and those researching and reporting on drone transfers creates additional challenges for a complete understanding of the policy’s potential and future impact.

    The policy focuses on the range and payload, as defined by the MTCR in its description of the systems that require greater controls. Although these are important guidelines for the MTCR and were intended to serve a significant nonproliferation purpose, they do not reflect particular capabilities that might be as dangerous or lethal in unmanned platforms. Therefore, although certain systems may be more difficult to purchase because of the MTCR “presumption of denial,” other systems that do not meet the MTCR thresholds but may be more lethal or dangerous will not be routinely prohibited. For example, the policy does not reflect the U.S. view on issues such as the capability for carrying out highly lethal and evasive “swarming,” in which multiple small drones are used to overwhelm and overpower an adversary; attaining high speeds; carrying highly sophisticated technology that strongly enhances a government’s intelligence gathering capabilities; incorporating features that make drones difficult to detect; or adding armor and anti-aircraft countermeasures that protect drones from being shot down with relative ease. It would be particularly useful for the United States to outline the specific characteristics that will trigger additional scrutiny for exports and clarify how restrictions on transfers will be implemented. 

    The Obama administration’s commitment to exploring possibilities for common standards and international norms on drone use and export is laudable, but the details of what this will entail are vague. Will the United States be pursuing an international code of conduct? If so, in what forum will these discussions be held? The United States would be well advised to begin those conversations with close partners and allies first in order to identify potential areas of common interest or concern and ensure that Washington has a complete understanding of the political and global implications of the transfer and use of drones as more countries acquire this technology. Before it can encourage others to adopt common international standards for transfer and use of drones, however, the United States will have to be able to publicly enunciate its own standards in detail.


    The true impact of the new drone policy will be in its implementation over time. A key question concerns the impact that the policy will have on U.S. drone exports. Will customers turn against the United States because of a more restrictive policy, or will the clarity of the policy promote a willingness to engage in negotiations to acquire drones from the United States? 

    In addition, the principles for proper use create ambiguity for the global drone market and for global use. Will recipients agree to the principles? How will the principles be enforced? How will the United States hold accountable recipients that violate the principles? Will the United States live up to its own standards and implement a comprehensive and transparent U.S. drone policy that provides for greater accountability and oversight of the U.S. drone program? 

    Overall, the new policy on drone exports represents an important step forward even if it is only a limited first step. There is more work to be done, particularly in developing international standards as more countries acquire and use this technology. The Obama administration will need to provide additional policy clarifications in order to establish a more comprehensive U.S. drone policy that takes into account future use and accountability mechanisms. Ignoring the long-term implications of an undefined U.S. drone policy harms the country’s standing and its ability to influence even its closest allies and partners in the development of their own drone policies. Thus far, the Obama administration has not indicated that it will take the necessary additional steps to strengthen and elucidate the policy. 

    As the world’s largest user of drones, the United States has the opportunity and the responsibility to set a clear international standard for the transfer and use of these systems, determine which countries can receive U.S. systems, and hold itself and its customers and partners accountable for their use. The new policy demonstrates an interest in restraining drone technology. The genie is out of the bottle, however, and this technology will only continue to spread around the world. Such proliferation is not inherently a problem, but the United States would be wise to ensure that U.S. policy actively and effectively promotes responsible proliferation and use.

    Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center and was project director of the center’s task force on U.S. drone policy. She is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors.


    1. Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Export Policy for Military Unmanned Aerial Systems,” February 17, 2015, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/02/237541.htm.

    2. “Recommendations and Report of the Task Force on US Drone Policy,” The Stimson Center, June 2014, p. 27, http://www.stimson.org/images/uploads/task_force_report_final_web_062414.pdf

    3. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Presidential Policy Directive—United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” January 15, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/15/presidential-policy-directive-united-states-conventional-arms-transfer-p

    4. Missile Technology Control Regime, “Guidelines for Sensitive Missile-Relevant Transfers,” n.d., http://www.mtcr.info/english/guidetext.html.

    A new U.S. policy on military and commercial drone transfers codifies policies that already regulate U.S. export decisions for conventional arms, but provides additional guidelines for drone systems.

    Getting to Know Alex Wellerstein

    May 2015

    Interviewed by Jefferson Morley

    Alex Wellerstein works at his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, on January 19. (Courtesy of Alex Wellerstein)“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that introduces Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.

    Alex Wellerstein, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, is the creator of NUKEMAP, an interactive website (http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/) that enables viewers to visualize the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon on their neighbor’s house—or the White House. You can choose among a homemade terrorist bomb, a bomb of the type that devastated Hiroshima, or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s biggest intercontinental ballistic missile. The site then displays the size of the fireball that would incinerate everything in its radius and the larger concentric circles marking the extent of radiation poisoning and third-degree burns, as well as corresponding casualty rates. Since its launch in February 2012, NUKEMAP has been viewed 10 million times.

    Arms Control Today caught up with Wellerstein at his campus office. The interview, conducted by Jefferson Morley, has been edited for length and clarity.

    How did you get into the whole world of things nuclear? Do you have science in your background?

    I’m from central California. My dad was a public defender. My mother did human resources for the state of California. No obvious connections to the world of science, except that my grandfather was one those self-taught, eccentric tinkerers who always thought he could invent the next big thing. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Through a series of coincidences, I found there was a discipline called the history of science. One of the topics I became very interested in and wound up writing my thesis on was the relationship of the University of California to the nuclear weapons laboratories, Livermore and Los Alamos. 

    I found [Berkeley] to be a wonderful contradiction. You could walk down Telegraph Avenue, and it’s got all these hippies selling patchouli and tie-dye. And above their heads were these giant banners for all the Berkeley Nobel Prize winners, including Ernest Lawrence and Glenn Seaborg—people who worked on the Manhattan Project. I thought what a funny juxtaposition this is. 

    How did NUKEMAP emerge in your mind?

    I actually made a very crude version around 2002 or 2003, but it wasn’t something I could release publicly. There have been other nuclear-weapon simulator-type things on the Internet. NUKEMAP improved on these through many specific user-interface choices. And later, I upgraded all of the underlying scientific calculations. I thought it would be useful for teachers.

    I taught a class at Harvard, and one of the things I found hard to convey was the difference between early fission and early thermonuclear weapons. One of my classic examples was to show them what happens if you drop a [20-kiloton] Nagasaki-style bomb on Boston. Well, it punches a hole out of downtown Boston. It irradiates MIT, which the Harvard students like, but Cambridge is mostly OK; it’s far enough away from [the] 20 kilotons that the effects are very mild [there]. Then I show them what happens when you do 10 megatons: the first hydrogen bomb. That takes out the whole Boston metro area out to Concord and Lexington. Harvard is on fire. Everything is on fire. Every time you do this, the students give an audible response. They gasp. 

    What’s your favorite nuclear comedy?

    Tom Lehrer’s song “We All Go Together When We Go.” The uplifting side of Armageddon is that you never have to go to anyone’s funeral.

    You say you like talking to the teenagers, to people who are new to nuclear issues. Why? 

    Nuclear weapons have become invisible to people born after the Cold War. People who lived their teenage years throughout the 1980s really felt the bomb was a real element in the world or could be. For people who were born in the 1990s and 2000s, it’s not a variable. They don’t even know [nuclear weapons] are around or exist. But they are around, and they do exist. We need them to be on people’s agendas. 

    Debate on Autonomous Weapons Resumes

    May 2015

    By Jefferson Morley

    Experts convene in Geneva for an April 14 session of the week-long meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems. (UN Geneva)Representatives of 88 countries discussed the specter of robotic warfare at an April 13-17 meeting in Geneva, finding widespread agreement on the importance of controlling weapons that can automatically target and kill people without human control but failing to reach consensus on how to do that. 

    The informal experts meeting, called by the parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) last November, was the second multinational conference held on the lethal autonomous weapons systems. The first meeting was held in Geneva last May. (See ACT, June 2014.)

    A small group of states, including Cuba, Ecuador, the Holy See, and Pakistan continued to call for a ban on the autonomous systems that civil society groups have dubbed “killer robots.” In a statement to the gathering, Irfan Mahmood Bokhari of Pakistan said further development and use of such weapons systems “must be pre-emptively banned through a dedicated protocol of the CCW.” 

    Other countries called for action short of a ban. 

    “As a step forward at this stage,” Sweden’s delegation said in its opening statement, “we would encourage transparency and propose information-sharing measures among interested states.” A representative of Poland said, “It would seem at least advisable to...prevent transfers of such systems and their components to undesirable end users.” 

    But Michael Meier, the State Department official who headed the U.S. delegation, urged the meeting to “focus on increasing our understanding versus trying to decide possible outcomes.”

    Six civil society groups (Article 36, Human Rights Watch, International Committee for Robot Arm Control, Mines Action Canada, PAX, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) called for the prohibition of lethal autonomous systems. 

    The multinational debate on lethal autonomous weapons was triggered by a May 2013 report, written by Christof Heyns, a South African jurist who serves as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. The report called for a moratorium on the building of such weapons. In a speech to last month’s conference, Heyns welcomed what he called “an emerging consensus that the notion of meaningful human control presents a guide to distinguish acceptable forms” of autonomous weapons. 

    In his draft final report on the meeting, chairman Michael Biontino of Germany said that “there was a general understanding that the debate needs further deepening. Delegations supported the idea that the CCW was the right forum for a continuation of the discussions, with some delegations indicating that other fora could complement the CCW debate.” 

    The parties to the CCW will meet in Geneva in November.

    NATO Monitoring Russian Saber Rattling

    May 2015

    By Kingston Reif

    NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, shown in this November 2014 photo, said recent Russian actions and comments dealing with the country’s nuclear arsenal were “irresponsible.” (NATO)NATO is in the process of determining whether “increased Russian attention to nuclear weapons” should prompt steps such as military exercises “to make sure that there is no doubt about the effectiveness of our deterrent,” Alexander Vershbow, the alliance’s deputy secretary-general, said last month. 

    In a video posted on the website of Defense News on March 29, Vershbow said the Russians “are flaunting their nuclear capability, they are holding more nuclear exercises, and they are talking about their nuclear capabilities” as “part of their messaging.” 

    “Maybe this is just rhetoric, but it is irresponsible nonetheless,” he added.

    Among other recent nuclear threats from Russian officials, Mikhail Vanin, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, said on March 21 that “Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles” if Denmark joins NATO’s ballistic missile defense system. 

    It is unclear what specific nuclear-related steps, if any, NATO may be considering to respond to these threats. 

    On the issue of NATO’s nuclear policy posture, Vershbow said the alliance members “think we still have an effective posture.”

    In an April 10 e-mail, a NATO official said that “NATO does not comment on military contingency planning.” 

    But the official said that NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), which acts as the alliance’s senior body on nuclear matters, convened Feb. 5 during the last meeting of NATO defense ministers. The NPG meetings take place about once a year and “provide an opportunity for Allies to address the safety and effectiveness of our nuclear forces,” he said. 

    The official added that NATO’s “nuclear readiness levels have not changed since the start of the Ukraine crisis.” Relations between NATO and Russia have deteriorated significantly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued action in eastern Ukraine, resulting in the imposition of Western economic sanctions against Russia. The official also said NATO is not considering the basing of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states.

    On the other hand, he emphasized that “NATO is currently implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War.” 

    Such steps include increasing NATO’s presence on the territory of the alliance’s easternmost members and doubling the size of the NATO Response Force to up to 30,000 troops. The response force is a multinational force that the alliance can deploy quickly, wherever needed. 

    “All of this shows that NATO is serious about deterrence, and stands ready to defend all Allies against any threat,” the official said.

    Angola Ratifies Test Ban Treaty

    May 2015

    By Shervin Taheran

    Angola on March 20 became the 164th country to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

    Angola’s ratification leaves 10 African countries that have not ratified the pact. 

    Mauritius, Somalia, and South Sudan have not signed the treaty; seven others—Comoros, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, São Tomé and Principe, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe—have signed but not ratified it. 

    Egypt is one of the 44 countries that, under the terms of the treaty’s Annex 2, must ratify the CTBT to bring it into force. In addition to Egypt, seven other countries—China, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States—of the 44 have not ratified the treaty.

    Angola signed the CTBT on Sept. 27, 1996, three days after the pact was opened for signature.

    Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), congratulated Angola on its ratification. “This development is an unequivocal reminder of Angola’s commitment towards creating an Africa free of nuclear weapons, as an essential component of a nuclear-weapons-free world,” Zerbo said in a March 20 press release.

    The CTBTO is building a global monitoring system as part of its verification regime to detect nuclear tests. According to the CTBTO, about 90 percent of this network has been established, including 31 facilities in 22 African countries. Among the African states that have not joined the CTBT, Egypt has two dedicated monitoring stations that are part of the monitoring system, and Zimbabwe has one dedicated station.

    In Memoriam: John D. Steinbruner (1941-2015)

    May 2015

    By Daryl G. Kimball

    John D. Steinbruner (World Affairs Council of Northern California)John David Steinbruner, who for decades was a leading international security affairs and arms control scholar and educator, died on April 16 at his home in the woods of northwest Washington, D.C., following his nine-year struggle with multiple myeloma. His wife, Chris Gobin, and other family members were by his side. 

    John was an insightful and creative thinker, a persistent advocate for sensible security policies, a supportive colleague, and a generous friend and mentor for the many who had the privilege to work with and learn from him.

    The Arms Control Association family and the wider peace and security community are far wiser and stronger because of John’s uncompromising dedication to creating a more peaceful world and avoiding catastrophes caused by great-power conflict, regional war, dangerous pathogens, climate change, cyberattacks, space weaponry, or nuclear war.

    For nearly two decades, John was a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and the influential director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland at the university’s College Park campus. He trained and inspired generations of students, many of whom are now leaders in the field.

    Beginning in 1991, John became an active member and leader of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. After becoming chairman of the board in 2000, he oversaw a rejuvenation of the organization, encouraged work on a wider range of weapons-related security threats, and helped guide the organization through the unique challenges that arose after the September 11 attacks. 

    Well before then, John had already established himself as a leading academic in the field who pushed the boundaries of conventional thinking on the most difficult international challenges. 

    After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology from Stanford University, he earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1968 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1974, his doctoral dissertation became his first and very influential book, The Cybernetic Theory of Decision, which explores how policymakers deal with the intense uncertainty and fundamental value conflicts that arise in bureaucratic politics.

    After graduate school, John served on the political science and government faculties at MIT, Harvard, and Yale until 1978, when he arrived in Washington to direct the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution. 

    Beginning in the late 1970s, his articles and papers helped focus attention on the vulnerability of U.S. and Soviet nuclear command-and-control systems to attack and the potential effects on crisis decision-making. Through the 1980s, along with Brookings colleague Bruce Blair, he helped draw national and international attention to the dangers of the superpowers’ launch-on-warning posture and the attendant risks of catastrophic miscalculation. His last major work at Brookings, Principles of Global Security, stands as a sweeping and insightful analysis of the new factors affecting the post-Cold War global security landscape. 

    His interdisciplinary thinking was well suited for his work from 1981 to 2004 as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on International Security and Arms Control. During this period, the NAS undertook several major studies that were ahead of their time, including the 1997 report “The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy.” In the study, Steinbruner and his NAS colleagues outlined a plan for progressive nuclear restraints on global nuclear arsenals and argued for active consideration of “proposals to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons.”

    Through the years, John was often sought out by others for guidance on the dangers of nuclear weapons. Beginning in the early 1980s, he was an informal and later a formal consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. During that time, the bishops developed their groundbreaking 1983 pastoral letter on the morality of nuclear deterrence, “The Challenge of Peace.” In his last days, John remained keenly interested in the ongoing evolution of the church’s thinking on nuclear weapons and its renewed attention to the issue under Pope Francis.

    John was also keen to build bridges and promote dialogue across political and cultural borders. Through the years, he maintained a quiet rapport with leading Russian security specialists who shared his vision for a more cooperative U.S.-Russian relationship. 

    In 2014, he and his University of Maryland graduate students helped provide advice and support for a historic visit by U.S. Catholic bishops to the Iranian theological center in Qom to discuss the morality of nuclear weapons and the urgency of a comprehensive diplomatic arrangement to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons potential. John was heartened by the recent progress on the issue, which he said was a sign that strategies designed to forge cooperation rather than perpetual confrontation might, in at least one important case, prevail. 

    John Steinbruner, who brought a common-sense, human perspective to the study and practice of security policy and who inspired others to think in new ways for a better world, will be sorely missed.

    John David Steinbruner, who for decades was a leading international security affairs and arms control scholar and educator, died on April 16, 2015 at his home in the woods of northwest Washington, D.C.

    Senate Moves on Iran Bill

    May 2015

    By Kelsey Davenport

    Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), left, shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) during an April 14 committee markup of legislation that would require the president to submit a nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for review. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously last month to approve legislation that would require the president to submit a nuclear deal with Iran to Congress for review. 

    Shortly before the April 14 vote, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama would sign the bill the committee was about to consider although Obama was not “particularly thrilled” with it. The Obama administration had threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill, but negotiations between the committee chairman and its ranking member eliminated some of the provisions most objectionable to the White House. 

    Negotiators from Iran and six world powers announced a framework outlining the major parameters of a deal on April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland. The deadline for completing a comprehensive nuclear deal is June 30 (see page 27).

    Although the agreement will not be a treaty, which requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, many lawmakers voiced support for congressional review of any agreement.

    Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) introduced a bill in February that would give Congress the option to vote on any agreement that the Obama administration and its five negotiating partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) reach with Iran.

    Corker, chairman of the foreign relations panel and primary author of the bill, reached a compromise with ranking member Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) that revised the original legislation. The changes led several Democrats on the committee who originally had opposed the Corker bill to support it. 

    After the committee vote, Corker said the new version still allows Congress “the opportunity to review any final deal to ensure it is verifiable and enforceable before the president could act to unwind the sanctions that Congress put in place.” Congress has passed several laws imposing sanctions on Iran for a number of issues, including its nuclear program. 

    One of the modifications to the bill eliminated a controversial provision that said sanctions could not be waived unless the president has certified that Iran is not involved in any acts of terrorism. Critics of the original bill argued that the provision was misguided because Iran’s support for terrorism is outside of the scope of the negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program.

    Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who initially opposed the deal, said during the committee meeting that she was able to support the revised legislation because it removed “extraneous” issues such as the terrorism provision and that putting these elements back in the bill would be a “deal breaker.” 

    Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) introduced an amendment to reinsert the terrorism provision, but it was defeated 13-6. Corker and three other Republican senators—Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), and David Perdue (Ga.)—joined the Democrats on the committee in voting against the amendment.

    Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he would withdraw his support if the legislation was amended on the Senate floor in a way that would hurt the prospects for a comprehensive deal.

    The legislation still requires the president to submit the text of any agreement to Congress and prohibits the administration from suspending congressional sanctions, but the review period is reduced from 60 days to 30 days. In addition to sanctions passed by Congress, executive orders issued by Obama and past presidents have placed sanctions on Iran. Those can be lifted without congressional action. 

    During the review period, Congress can vote to approve or disapprove the agreement or take no action. If a resolution of disapproval is passed, there is an additional 12-day period for the president to sign or veto the resolution. If the resolution is vetoed, sanctions remain suspended for an additional 10 days, giving Congress time to override the veto. 

    If Congress votes to approve the deal or takes no action, implementation of the agreement begins as scheduled under the terms of the pact. 

    The bill puts in place extensive reporting requirements on a range of issues related to Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal. If the bill becomes law, the administration would be required to report to Congress every 90 days on Iran’s compliance with the agreement. If Iran were not complying with the terms of a deal, Congress could vote, on an expedited basis, to reinstate sanctions on Iran. 

    Cardin said in an April 14 statement that the legislation defines an “appropriate role for Congress” in reviewing any deal with Iran and will “strengthen the President’s hand in negotiations.”

    A UK official, however, said in an April 15 interview that even in its amended state, the legislation is “unhelpful as the negotiators work to finish the comprehensive deal.” 

    He said passage of the bill “strengthens the Iranian hand” by giving Tehran a reason to blame Washington if the negotiations do not succeed. The Obama administration should have maintained its opposition to the legislation, he said. 

    In her April 14 comments, Boxer said she felt that the legislation voted out of committee would not derail the negotiations as the original version would have. 

     Also on April 14, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he is “hopeful” the Senate will vote on the legislation “in the next couple of weeks” and that the House will then move on the bill.

    News Analysis: Iran, P5+1 Agree on Framework Deal

    May 2015

    By Kelsey Davenport

    Iran and six world powers announced last month that they had reached agreement on the broad parameters of a comprehensive nuclear deal. 

    In an April 2 joint statement in the Swiss city of Lausanne, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) said the agreement on the key elements is a “decisive step” that will form the basis of a final text for a comprehensive agreement. 

    The two sides aim to complete a final deal by June 30. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, but the international community is concerned that Iran may choose to pursue nuclear weapons. 

    The April 2 statement did not contain much detail, but noted that Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and stockpiles would be limited, that the Fordow enrichment facility would be repurposed for research and development, and that the currently incomplete Arak heavy-water reactor would be redesigned so as not to produce weapons-grade plutonium. 

    Parameters of a Comprehensive Deal 

    After 15 months of intensive negotiations, Iran and six world powers reached agreement on the broad parameters of a comprehensive nuclear deal. A joint April 2 announcement in Lausanne, Switzerland, by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) laid out the framework that will guide negotiators as they work to complete the final deal by June 30. The White House released a summary that offered details on the framework. 

    According to the summary, the comprehensive agreement would require Iran to

    •   reduce the number of installed centrifuges from about 19,000 to 6,104, of which 5,060 will be used for enriching uranium for 10 years;

    •   store dismantled machines under seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA);

    •   cap uranium-enrichment levels at 3.67 percent (reactor grade) for 15 years; 

    •   reduce stockpiles of reactor-grade enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms;

    •   convert the Fordow enrichment facility to a research center, with no uranium enrichment for at least 15 years;

    •   convert the 900 centrifuges at Fordow to enrichment of elements other than uranium for medical purposes;

    •   limit research and development on advanced centrifuges for at least 10 years;

    •   destroy and replace the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor so the reactor cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium;

    •   commit not to separate plutonium from spent fuel; 

    •   allow continuous monitoring of uranium mines and mills for 25 years;

    •   allow continuous monitoring of centrifuge production and storage facilities for 20 years; 

    •   allow continuous monitoring of the Fordow and Natanz enrichment sites;

    •   implement an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA; and

    •   cooperate with the IAEA investigation into allegations that, in the past, Iran’s nuclear program had “military dimensions.”

    In addition, the P5+1 would develop a dedicated, monitored channel for Iran’s procurement of dual-use technology.

    The P5+1 would be required to terminate some and suspend other nuclear-related UN, U.S., and EU sanctions as Iran takes key steps.

      The statement outlined additional transparency measures that Iran is to take under a final deal. The statement also said that EU sanctions will be terminated and U.S. nuclear sanctions suspended simultaneously as Iran takes key nuclear steps.

      Opinions on the agreed parameters and on whether the limitations will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons were mixed, generally breaking along predictable lines.

      President Barack Obama said shortly after the announcement that if the framework is translated into a final deal, it will “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” and will make the United States and the world safer. 

      Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on April 5 that the agreed parameters will make for a “very bad deal.” He criticized the agreement for leaving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and doing nothing to curb Iranian ballistic missile development. Critics, including Netanyahu, have called for a deal to limit the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles. 

      The White House released a detailed summary of the parameters that included a description of specific cuts to Iran’s nuclear program and agreed transparency measures. In April 3 remarks in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif did not endorse the document and emphasized different elements than the White House did. 

      In his statement in Tehran, Zarif highlighted particular provisions of the deal permitting Iran to continue operating all of its nuclear sites and to conduct nuclear-related research and development in areas such as testing of advanced centrifuge machines. Zarif emphasized that sanctions would be removed at the beginning of an agreement. Those are key goals for Iran in a comprehensive nuclear deal. 

      Both sides said that a number of details remain to resolved before a final agreement can be reached. The parties met again in Vienna on April 22 to begin drafting the comprehensive deal. 

      Enrichment Limits

      Some of the most significant details of the White House summary related to limitations on Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. 

      According to the summary, Iran will cut the number of its installed first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1, from more than 19,000 to 6,104, of which 5,060 will be operating at the Natanz enrichment facility. That number is about half of the current enrichment capacity, about 10,200 operating IR-1 centrifuges. 

      Under a final deal, the roughly 900 IR-1 machines that are not operating would be at the Fordow facility for research. Some of those machines would be used for enrichment of elements other than uranium for research and medical purposes. These limits would remain in place for 10 years. 

      Iran also would limit its enrichment of uranium to reactor-grade levels, 3.67 percent uranium-235, for 15 years and limit its stockpile of enriched uranium gas to 300 kilograms. Iran currently has about 10,000 kilograms in gas form enriched to this level. 

      Together, these limitations would increase to at least 12 months the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one weapon, 25 kilograms of material with an enrichment level above 90 percent U-235. Currently that time period, commonly known as breakout time, is estimated to be two to three months. The Obama administration set a breakout time of one year as a goal for the talks. (See ACT, December 2014.)

      One of the issues yet to be resolved involves neutralizing Iran’s stockpile of enriched material in excess of the 300 kilograms enriched to 3.67 percent. Options include diluting the material down to natural uranium levels of about 0.7 percent U-235, shipping it to Russia, or selling it on the open market. 

      Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, expressed a preference on April 6 for shipping the stockpile to Russia.

      The method of disposition does not affect the breakout time or the outcome, namely that about 97 percent of Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium would no longer be available for possible further enrichment to weapons-grade levels. 

      Intrusive Monitoring 

      One of the most critical elements of an effective nuclear deal with Iran is ensuring that the enhanced monitoring and verification regime is intrusive enough to block a covert path to nuclear weapons development and is able to detect very quickly any deviation from the deal. 

      The monitoring regime as described in the White House summary is a multilayered approach that subjects every step of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle and supply chains to intensive monitoring and verification. Obama characterized it as the most intensive monitoring regime devised to date and said that “if Iran cheats, the world will know.” 

      In addition to regular access to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, such as Natanz, Fordow, and Arak, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would operate continuous surveillance of Iran’s uranium mines for 25 years. The production areas for centrifuge rotors and bellows would be under continuous surveillance for 20 years. The stored centrifuges removed from Fordow and Natanz also would be under continuous surveillance. In addition, any dual-use items or materials procured for Iran’s nuclear program would move through a designated channel and be subject to monitoring and approval. Currently, UN sanctions prohibit the purchase of materials or technology that could be used to advance Iran’s nuclear program. 

      Taken together, these measures cover Iran’s supply chain and would help ensure that Tehran is not covertly pursuing nuclear weapons using a clandestine parallel program.

      The parameters of the deal include Iran’s immediate implementation of an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. This requirement expands Iran’s nuclear declaration to include a larger number of sites that encompass the entirety of Iran’s fuel cycle. Agency inspectors would have access to a greater number of facilities and the ability to conduct short-notice inspections. 

      An additional protocol is permanent once ratified. Iran and the IAEA negotiated an additional protocol in 2003, and Iran voluntarily adhered to it until 2006. 

      The IAEA would receive earlier notification of any new nuclear facilities that Iran intends to build through implementation of a safeguards provision known as “modified Code 3.1.” Under that provision, Iran must notify the agency as soon as it decides to build a new facility. Under existing safeguards, Iran is required to provide notice to the agency only six months before it commissions a facility. 

      Greater notice would give the international community more time to assess the impact of the new facilities and ensure that they are in line with Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.

      Critics, including Netanyahu and some U.S. lawmakers, argue that the comprehensive nuclear deal must allow for inspections at any time and at any place, including at military sites. Supporters counter that it is unrealistic to assume that any country would accept unlimited, no-notice inspections at any and all military sites.

      U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in an April 12 op-ed in The Washington Post that the covert pathway to nuclear weapons development by Iran is blocked by “unprecedented safeguards and access” to Iran’s nuclear sites.

      Iran and six world powers announced an agreement on the broad parameters of a comprehensive nuclear deal.


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