"I greatly appreciate your very swift response, and your organization's work in general. It's a terrific source of authoritative information."

– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
November 2015
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Cover Image: 

Avoiding War in Europe: The Risks From NATO-Russian Close Military Encounters

November 2015

By Ian Kearns

A Russian warship moves through the waters near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol on March 7, 2014, as part of a blockade of Ukrainian ships. [Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]On March 3, 2014, a Russian warplane with its transponders switched off came within seconds of colliding with a Danish civilian airliner carrying 132 passengers from Copenhagen to Rome. SAS flight 737 averted a collision that day only because of evasive action taken by its pilot.1

An almost identical incident occurred nine months later, on December 12, again involving a Russian warplane and a civilian airliner that had just left Copenhagen.

Barely a year after the first incident, in March of this year, Russian Su-30 multirole fighter jets used two NATO warships in the Black Sea as targets in high-intensity training exercises.2 The purpose of the exercise appears to have been to provoke the NATO ships into taking defensive action so that the pilots of the Russian aircraft could observe that action and practice countermaneuvers.

Over the last 18 months, the European Leadership Network has logged more than 60 such dangerous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area.3 The wider catalogue of events includes mock Russian cruise missile attack runs on targets in North America and Denmark, instances of Russian and Western fighter aircraft coming within meters of each other while on maneuvers, a series of submarine hunts off the coasts of Scotland and Sweden, and the abduction by Russian agents in September 2014 of an Estonian security service operative on Estonian, and therefore NATO, territory. In recent weeks, as Russian air operations have commenced in Syria and instances of Russian violations of Turkish airspace have come to light, the theater of these close and dangerous military encounters and incidents appears to have broadened from the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East.

There is a wider military and political context to these events that makes them all the more worrying. In addition to the close NATO-Russian military encounters now occurring, a general deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the West has become visible in an action-reaction cycle of military exercises being conducted in Europe. Russia is conducting more exercises than NATO, and the two sets of exercises are dissimilar in scale. A Russian “snap” exercise conducted in March, for example, brought together 80,000 military personnel in operations focused on the Arctic and the Baltic Sea regions whereas NATO’s largest exercise in many years, Trident Juncture, which started last month, drew about 36,000 military personnel. Moreover, while NATO exercises are aimed at reassuring allies in the eastern part of the alliance in the context of Russian support for separatists in Ukraine, Russia is using its exercises at least partly to intimidate and unsettle its neighbors.

Despite these important differences, however, there are similarities in the exercises of the two sides. These similarities say something important about what is occurring.

Both sides are using their exercises to practice a rapid mobilization and redeployment of forces over long distances to strengthen what they perceive to be their most strategically exposed areas. NATO is conducting exercises with a view to being able to protect the Baltic states and Poland. Russia is focusing on its border areas with Latvia and Estonia; Kaliningrad, the Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland; the Arctic; and occupied Crimea. The exercises of both involve ground, air, and naval forces in joint operations and include high-intensity combined arms training, the conducting and repelling of amphibious assaults, and engagements with low-level irregular forces.

Most importantly, despite protestations by both sides that the exercises are aimed at no particular adversary, it is clear that each side is exercising with the most likely war plans of the other in mind. The Russian military is preparing for a confrontation with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a confrontation with Russia. This does not mean either side has the political intent to start a war, but it does mean that both believe a war is no longer unthinkable. Many in NATO believe that the demonstration of resolve that the NATO exercises and additional force deployments in eastern Europe represent is essential to deterring Russian aggression and therefore to keeping the peace in Europe. In NATO’s view, the exercises are not a problem, but a virtue. Whether this view is justified—given Russia’s recent behavior, it may well be—the total effect of the developments described here is to generate a growing sense of insecurity on both sides. Russian exercises are seen as a provocation and a threat in the West, and NATO exercises and new deployments are seen as threatening in Moscow.

The developing situation also has a nuclear dimension. In a documentary made for a domestic Russian audience in March 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he had considered putting Russian nuclear forces on alert during the operation to annex Crimea. Just a few weeks later, the Russian ambassador to Denmark appeared to tell that country that if it took part in NATO’s emerging missile defense shield, it could expect to go on the target list for Russian nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. These instances of what are seen as nuclear intimidation and nuclear saber rattling are creating pressure for a NATO response.

Last month, in response to Russia’s recent behavior, Adam Thomson, the UK ambassador to NATO, said that since the end of the Cold War, NATO has conducted exercises with conventional weapons and nuclear weapons but not “the transition from one to the other.” Now, however, “[t]hat is a recommendation that is being looked at. It is safe to say the UK does see merit in making sure we know how, as an Alliance, to transition up the escalatory ladder in order to strengthen our deterrence.”4

Meanwhile, Crimea and Ukraine have become flash points of a much more fundamental political disagreement. Not only are there significant policy differences between Russia and the West, but on the Russian side, a growing number of military and national security officials appear to believe Western policy is aimed at overthrowing Putin and weakening the Russian state to the point where it can be effectively destroyed and dismembered. Claims that the removal of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine was a Western-backed unconstitutional coup and a trial run for a “color revolution” in Russia itself are dismissed as rhetoric in the West, but are more deep-rooted in Moscow than some Western policymakers appear willing to acknowledge.5 It therefore seems safe to assume that current Russian behavior is driven as much by a concern for regime survival as it is by a concern for geopolitical advantage or by disagreement with specific policies of the West.

Many in the West at the same time believe that Russia is seeking to change the post-Cold War settlement, or perhaps even the post-World War II settlement, in Europe in a number of ways, including by use of force if necessary. The charge sheet here concerns changes to the borders of the Georgian state since 2008 and events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine over the past two years. It also includes the provision of funding and support to nationalist political parties hostile to the European integration project in central and western Europe and the use of energy as an instrument to influence the domestic and foreign policy choices of a number of states in NATO and the European Union. For many, it is becoming apparent that Russia is a revisionist power in western as well as eastern Europe.

Whether or not the current situation amounts to a new Cold War, the upshot is a confrontation in which both sides now perceive their fundamental interests to be at stake.

At the Mercy of Events

Too few appear to recognize that the current cocktail of incidents, mistrust, changed military posture, and nuclear signaling is creating the conditions in which a single event or combination of events could result in a NATO-Russian war, even if neither side intends it. To understand why this is not an exaggerated concern, one might consider the sequence of events that easily could have transpired if the aforementioned SAS civilian airliner en route from Copenhagen to Rome had collided with the Russian warplane.

The outrage and uproar in Western capitals at what would certainly have been a very serious loss of life would have been understandably huge. Media and public pressure to act quickly against Russia would have been irresistible. A demand for an immediate cessation of Russian military flights with transponders switched off, especially in civilian air corridors, would have been issued. If that demand did not elicit an immediate positive response from Moscow, a move that might imply acceptance of guilt, previously routine civil aviation flights in European airspace would have been declared at risk. In that situation, those flights would have to have been suspended, which would have been politically unacceptable and economically very damaging, or NATO would have needed to begin military interdiction of Russian aircraft. Any European government not willing to support such interdiction would have been taking its future in its hands, exposing itself to claims that it was weak in the face of unacceptable Russian behavior or risking a further incident while doing little or nothing to prevent it.

Amid this kind of uproar in the West, Putin would be highly likely to exhibit sadness at the loss of life and to offer full Russian assistance in any inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened. At the same time, he almost certainly would point out that Western military aircraft themselves fly with transponders switched off and that the Russian military aircraft involved in this particular incident was operating in full compliance with international law and was in international airspace. Although not ruling out talks to manage the situation, his domestic political persona would constrain his options. He has invested a lot of time and effort in portraying himself to his own people as a strong leader, capable of standing up to the West while making Russia respected again on the international stage. Capitulating to Western pressure outright would be politically damaging.

Diplomacy might save the day, but that could not be assumed. The scene would be set for the planes, naval vessels, and land forces of a nuclear-armed state and a nuclear-armed alliance to continue coming up against each other. This time, however, the close encounters would not be part of planned exercises or a game of brinkmanship, which is dangerous enough, but would come amid a real standoff over who had the right to fly where and under what circumstances, with everyone’s fundamental interests and full political prestige at stake.

Little or nothing is being done to avert this kind of crisis, which could be triggered by any one of the other dangerous incidents and encounters that have taken place over the last 18 months. This absence of action is shocking. If such a crisis resulted in military hostilities, there would be no telling where those hostilities might lead and, given the nuclear arsenals on both sides, what the end result could be.

Agreements on Avoiding Incidents

The Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, was signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at their summit in Moscow in May 1972. It is a technical military-to-military agreement rather than a statement of political principle. It requires each side to avoid dangerous maneuvers, refrain from mock attacks that might simulate weapons use against aircraft or ships, and avoid dropping objects close to ships to hinder their navigation. It also requires the surveillance ships and aircraft of one side to communicate with the other.

The agreement was a response to a dangerous pattern of military activities, including instances of each side’s warships maneuvering very close to those of the other, and a pattern of dangerous maritime air surveillance involving close overflights of warships. The latter was often perceived as harassment by the ships’ commanders. The agreement proved its worth when, during the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, it helped ensure there were no serious incidents while 150 U.S. and Soviet warships shared the crowded waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities was signed on June 12, 1989, and entered into force on January 1, 1990. Like the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it governs the activities and personnel of each side when operating in close proximity to the other in peacetime. It focuses on four categories of military activity: military operations by one side near the territory of the other; the use of lasers, particularly those directed at aircraft cockpits, which could be harmful to personnel; operations in areas of high tension, which either party could designate as a “special caution area”; and interference with command-and-control networks. In each of these areas, the agreement requires caution, communication to avoid dangerous incidents and misunderstandings, and action to terminate injurious activity if a problem is identified by the other side. Unlike the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it incorporates certain operations on land as well as those at sea and in the air. It also sets out agreed communications signals and frequencies to be used by the aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles of each side. A joint military commission was set up to issue an annual assessment of compliance and consider how the agreement could be enhanced.—IAN KEARNs

    Negotiating a New Instrument

    The risk of a serious crisis and the absence of action to prevent one led to a recent paper from the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, made up of senior figures from Russia and the rest of Europe. This group called for the NATO-Russia Council to be convened urgently to discuss a possible new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NATO and Russia on rules of behavior in air and maritime encounters between the two sides. This proposal has been signed or endorsed by a total of 78 senior military, political, and diplomatic leaders drawn from across the European continent.

    The task force proposal draws explicitly on an agreement signed by China and the United States in late 2014. This U.S.-Chinese MOU sets out the principles and procedures for communication during encounters between military vessels and aircraft and requires each side to give timely hazard warnings if military exercises and live weapons firing are to take place in an area where the military vessels and aircraft of the other may be operational.6 It also sets out a series of rules for establishing mutual trust. These include a commitment, when conducting operations, to communicate in a timely fashion about the planned maneuvers of military vessels and military aircraft. They also include a list of actions that should be avoided, such as simulation of attacks by aiming guns, missiles, fire control radar, torpedo tubes, or other weapons in the direction of military vessels and military aircraft encountered.

    The agreement specifies the radio frequencies to be used for communication and the signals vocabulary to be used if pilots, commanding officers, or masters of vessels experience language difficulties as they communicate with one another. It also contains a provision for each party to conduct an annual meeting, led by senior military officers, to assess application of the agreement in the previous year and to deal with any problems or issues that have arisen during that time.

    With regard to the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, the 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, and the 1989 Agreement on Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (see box) operate in a similar way. These two agreements could serve as the basis for a more multilateralized arrangement involving all NATO members and Russia and even NATO partners such as Sweden and Finland. Russian and NATO officials should pursue this objective with urgency.

    Some apparently still think such a deal is not necessary. In off-the-record conversations, some military commanders stress that close military encounters of the kind now under way in Europe were a fact of life during the Cold War and that well-trained, professional military personnel are more than up to the task of handling them without incident.7

    Furthermore, some diplomats and politicians, particularly in eastern Europe, see the proposal as dangerously corrosive to Western unity with regard to Russia. This latter group sees any attempt to negotiate a mechanism for reducing the risks of close military encounters with Russia as a reward for aggressive Russian behavior and as an unwelcome opportunity for some Western countries, suspected of wishing to return their relations with Russia to “business as usual,” to advance their case. According to this view, a move to negotiate a new instrument would encourage further aggressive Russian behavior and dissipate the message of resolve, deterrence, and a commitment to collective defense that NATO has been trying to construct and maintain since the annexation of Crimea.8

    On the Russian side, there also are some voices arguing against this proposal, seeing in it a Western tactic aimed at distracting attention from matters of greater significance, such as the eastward enlargement of NATO, the failure of the West to engage in dialogue on future arrangements for European security as a whole, and a lack of willingness to address wider Russian security concerns from missile defense to developments in conventional prompt global-strike systems.

    The arguments on all sides are understandable in the context of what is now a total breakdown of trust between NATO and Russia and a lack of confidence among some allies within NATO. Ultimately, however, they are not persuasive.

    The very existence of the recent U.S.-Chinese MOU validates a concern over the risks that are run when the military forces of states that are not allies come into close proximity with one another. That agreement makes clear the importance of having protocols and military procedures in place to manage events in real time rather than relying on agreements to refrain from certain kinds of activity in the first place. Although some military commanders seem less worried about such incidents, many more believe leaving the outcome of close military encounters to chance or the split-second decisions of individual pilots and other military personnel is unnecessarily dangerous.

    The more recent dialogue between Russia and the United States on the subject of “deconflicting” the roles of the U.S.-led coalition and Russian military forces deployed in and around Syria is another timely recognition of the need for and logic of a new multilateral instrument to manage the risks.

    Although there has been some concern about the ultimate diplomatic consequence of negotiating such an instrument in Europe, the necessity of having the conversation with regard to Syria was realized almost immediately once it became clear that the Russian military presence in Syria was being increased and was changing in character and capability. To put it bluntly, it became evident to everyone that U.S. warplanes operating over Syria could be accidentally shot down by Russian air defense systems being deployed there, embedded U.S. special forces on the ground could be the victim of Russian air attacks, and Russian and U.S. military aircraft could be operating in an uncoordinated way in the same airspace. This overall situation and several instances of Russian warplanes entering Turkish airspace from Syria prompted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to tell a press conference on October 6 that “Russia must deconflict its military activities in Syria” and that “it’s unacceptable to violate the airspace of another country, and this is exactly what we were afraid of, that incidents, accidents may create dangerous situations.”9

    It is difficult to see why dialogue and the negotiation of more-formal arrangements makes strategic sense between China and the United States in the East and South China seas and why deconflicting makes sense in Syria, but neither apparently makes sense between NATO and Russia in Europe.

    Deterrence Is Not Enough

    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 6.  [Photo credit: Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images]The argument that an attempt to negotiate a new instrument between NATO and Russia in Europe could weaken deterrence also is not persuasive. It is a reasonable concern, echoing debates on whether to engage in détente and associated steps toward superpower conflict prevention and crisis management during the Cold War. Yet, it is important to recall that the underlying rationale of détente was a lowering of tension with the Soviet Union to avoid the possibility of an accidental conflict and the potential for catastrophic nuclear war. Détente emphatically was not nor was it intended to be the end of superpower competition or of differences between the Soviet Union and the United States.

    The impetus for dialogue in that period, as manifested in the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, to cite two examples, was an acceptance of the need for mutual restraint and the adoption of measures to avoid accidental war. This approach was seen as the only basis for mutual survival. The nuclear shadow was ever present, and the fear of nuclear war was the driving force. In essence, what followed the near catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was a developing belief that the task of avoiding war between nuclear-armed states could not be left to deterrence alone. Other mechanisms were needed to keep the peace and, no matter what disagreements and confrontations existed, these mechanisms needed to be negotiated and implemented.                 

    Looking at the current absence of dialogue between NATO and Russia and at arguments against negotiating a new instrument to manage close military encounters, one is struck by what appears to be nuclear amnesia, nuclear complacency, or both. If a military confrontation between Russia and NATO were to develop today, for whatever reason, the risks and the potential consequences would be the same as they were during the Cold War.

    For these reasons, the case for a new instrument to help manage the risks in the Euro-Atlantic area, and in particular to manage the risks between NATO members and Russia, is strong. The call for negotiation of such an instrument chimes with the times and with approaches being used in other theaters. Above all, it reflects the lessons of history. To pretend the status quo is safe or acceptable is to abdicate the responsibility of leadership and to leave the security of Europe and potentially of the world at the mercy of events.

    Ian Kearns is co-founder and director of the European Leadership Network. He previously was acting director and deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom and deputy chair of the institute’s independent All-Party Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.


    1.  “SAS Flight in Russian Spy Plane Near Miss,” The Local, May 8, 2014, http://www.thelocal.se/20140508/sas-plane-in-russian-spy-plane-near-miss.

    2.  Government-owned Russian media even bragged about this incident. See Sputnik International, “Russian Jets Penetrate NATO Ships’ Air Defenses in Black Sea,” March 19, 2015, http://sputniknews.com/russia/20150304/1019036875.html.

    3.  Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa, and Ian Kearns, “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014,” European Leadership Network (ELN), November 2014, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2014/11/09/6375e3da/Dangerous%20Brinkmanship.pdf. For a further update on incidents, see Ian Kearns, Łukasz Kulesa, and Thomas Frear, “Russia-West Dangerous Brinkmanship Continues,” ELN, March 12, 2015, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/russia--west-dangerous-brinkmanship-continues-_2529.html.

    4.  “Britain Backs Return of Cold War Nuclear Drills as NATO Hardens Against Russia,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2015.

    5.  The term “color revolution” is a reference to labels used by the world’s media to describe previous waves of revolutionary change in a number of countries. Examples include the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

    6.  “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters,” November 9, 2014, sec. 1, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/141112_MemorandumOfUnderstandingRegarding

    7.  Between March 2014 and October 2015, the author conducted face-to-face, telephone, and e-mail interviews on background with a number of senior military figures from NATO countries and Russia. The statement made in this paragraph reflects the view of a minority of those interviewed.

    8.  Since the publication of the position paper by the Task Force on Greater Europe calling for a new memorandum of understanding, this view has been expressed in August 2015 to the author directly by a former Baltic state defense minister and by several ambassador-level diplomats from the same region.

    9.  “Pre-Ministerial Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,” NATO, October 6, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_123471.htm. NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on October 8.

    With NATO-Russian relations in their current state, a single event or combination of events could result in a war, even if neither side intends it...

    Chinese Strategic Missile Defense: Will It Happen, and What Would It Mean?

    November 2015

    By Bruce W. MacDonald and Charles D. Ferguson

    Military vehicles carrying DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missiles drive past the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on September 3 during a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. [Photo credit: Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images]Since January 2010, China has tested strategic ballistic missile interceptors at least three times.1 Surprisingly little analytic, open-source attention has been paid to these Chinese activities. In contrast, for the past two decades, China has received growing U.S. attention for modernizing and expanding its strategic offensive nuclear forces.2

    The cause of this analytic gap might be self-imposed blinders on U.S. strategic assessment concerning Chinese strategic ballistic missile defense development. Ever since the end of the Cold War, U.S. security policy has largely assumed that only the United States would possess credible strategic missile defense capabilities with non-nuclear interceptors.

    This article examines the question of whether this tacit assumption will remain valid for much longer and seeks to understand the implications for the United States and its allies of further development and possible deployment of a limited Chinese strategic missile defense system. This analysis is based on the authors’ discussions from mid-2014 to the late spring of 2015 with more than 50 experts (government officials, military officers, and nongovernmental analysts at think tanks and universities) in China and the United States. The course of these discussions was guided by a set of incentives and disincentives that China might be considering in weighing whether to continue developing and potentially deploying a strategic missile defense system. The conversations helped further refine these model incentives and disincentives, as described below.

    The overarching assessment is that it is quite possible, certainly less unlikely than many believe, that China could deploy a strategic missile defense system with a small number of interceptors within the next few years for a variety of national security, geopolitical, and domestic reasons.


    For more than 50 years, China has explored and developed capabilities to defend against a spectrum of ballistic missile challenges, from short-range missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In 1964, the year in which China tested its first nuclear explosive device, it launched the 640 Program, which is coded as “64” for 1964 and “0” for the first major defense program that began that year, to study missile interception, early-warning systems, and target discrimination techniques. Yet, this ambitious agenda fell far short of a viable ballistic missile defense system due to China’s relative lack of financial and technical resources in the final two decades of Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule.

    In 1983, Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, canceled this program, in part because his modernization efforts emphasized economic development above all other priorities. Nonetheless, Chinese leaders felt internal political pressure that year to continue examining missile defenses in order at least to understand the implications of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) launched by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. By the mid-1980s, Chinese scholars were advising the foreign affairs and defense ministries about diplomatic and technical options for responding to the U.S. missile defense program.

    Regarding technological development, the 863 Program, which began in March 1986, had the purpose of stimulating development of many advanced technologies in multiple commercial and defense applications. In particular, it encompassed 18 military technologies with the overall objective of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As part of the PLA applications, a team of Chinese technical experts studied concepts related to the SDI, including laser-based interception methods, space-based tracking techniques, and kinetic-energy interceptors. In the latter area, Chinese researchers were seeking to understand the implications of the long-running U.S. defense program awarded to the Lockheed Corp. in August 1978 that was attempting to develop a hit-to-kill non-explosive method for intercepting a ballistic missile re-entry vehicle. (“Hit-to-kill” means that the interceptor would have to make direct contact at high velocity with the missile’s re-entry vehicle to destroy it without using an explosive warhead.)

    After three failed tests in February, May, and December 1983, the fourth test of the U.S. Homing Overlay Experiment was successful on June 10, 1984. This technology could also provide a country with the capability to produce anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, a finding that was not lost on China.

    By the end of 1991, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decision by the George H.W. Bush administration to substantially scale back U.S. research and development (R&D) on strategic missile defense led China’s interest in missile defense to wane. Although the United States remained committed through most of the 1990s to limited-scale strategic missile defense development, North Korea’s August 1998 launch of a long-range Taepo Dong missile tipped the arguments in favor of U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defense systems despite the failure of this launch. In January 1999, William Cohen, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, announced that the United States would invest more in theater and national missile defense systems and would seek an amendment to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to enable a deployment of a missile defense system intended to shield the territory of the United States even if only to intercept a very limited number of ballistic missiles.

    In response, China launched a vigorous diplomatic effort to denounce these U.S. plans, but the United States under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama has pressed ahead with a limited deployment of missile interceptors with the stated purpose of defending against an ICBM threat primarily from North Korea. Behind the scenes, China was quietly performing R&D on countermeasures to U.S. missile defenses and modernizing its strategic nuclear forces.

    This brief history illustrates the decades-long pattern of Chinese behavior that several Chinese academics emphasized in meetings: (1) Chinese arms control officials and political leaders have strongly denounced U.S. deployment of strategic missile defense; (2) in parallel, China has devoted financial and technical resources to understanding the U.S. developments; (3) if the United States significantly expands its strategic missile defense deployment, China takes offsetting steps to ensure the credibility of its offensive nuclear deterrent and accelerate its limited, ongoing missile defense development; and (4) Chinese senior leadership can decide whether to move forward with deployment of its own strategic missile defense system. China may also be inclined to move forward on strategic missile defense by factors unrelated to U.S. ballistic missile defense developments.

    Moving to Deployment?

    Chinese testing of missile interceptors since 2010, discussions with several Chinese experts in the last 12 months, and statements by the U.S. government in recent years suggest that China may be on the verge of making a decision on a limited deployment of a strategic missile defense system. Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Defense in its 2014 report on Chinese military capabilities, “China has made efforts…to gain a [ballistic missile defense] capability in order to provide further protection of China’s mainland and strategic assets.”3 China publicly announced that it conducted ground-based midcourse ballistic missile defense tests in 2010, 2013, and 2014, although the United States believes the 2014 test was actually a test of an ASAT system.4 Chinese state media described all these tests as defensive in nature and not aimed at any country.5

    One unusual feature of Chinese statements about the country’s ballistic missile defense intercept tests is that China made the statements at all. Beijing normally is quite secretive about its strategic weapons tests. Probably a major reason that ballistic missile defense constitutes such a striking exception is the worldwide condemnation China experienced with its 2007 ASAT test, which created a huge amount of harmful long-lived debris in low-earth orbit. The statements help Chinese leaders shape the narrative on these tests, rather than let others characterize them.

    Although it is uncertain at this time whether China will deploy a strategic missile defense system in the coming years, it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility and remain unprepared for what could be an important new development in a dimension of the strategic environment that the United States has had largely to itself for the last 25 years. Just the series of missile defense tests that China has conducted in the past five years should make the United States and its allies alert to this important possibility and encourage closer examination of China’s possible motivations and objectives. Accordingly, a limited Chinese strategic missile defense deployment is probably less unlikely than most people realize.

    Factors in China’s Decision

    Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (left) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in Beijing on October 9, 1986. In 1983, Deng canceled the so-called 640 Program, an early Chinese effort to explore missile defense. [Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images]China’s strategic missile defense program has reached a stage of maturity that makes deployment a viable option. The questions now are whether, when, and to what purpose might it do so. Dozens of officials and experts in China and the United States responded to a list of factors that could make China want to develop strategic missile defense and could lead toward potential deployment. The list was created prior to the meetings, and the officials and experts helped revise and refine it. These factors are presented here in roughly descending order of what is believed to be their importance to China.

    Achieving better understanding of strategic missile defense technology. In discussions, many of the Chinese officials and experts said that R&D would be useful for China’s own planning and intelligence gathering and would provide insight into the vulnerabilities of U.S. ballistic missile defense systems and ways to overcome or defeat those systems. Such knowledge would be useful in general and especially in understanding the intricacies and challenges of current and future U.S. ballistic missile defense systems and their components.

    Some experts believe that China will not go beyond development and thus will not deploy a system. This is certainly possible. Notably, China would gain important operational information and insight if it deployed a missile defense system. Most of those operational insights, however, could be gained from a limited deployment, with only incremental benefit from more-sizable deployment levels.

    Because Chinese leaders have felt humiliated by foreign powers’ domination from the early 19th to the mid-20th century, “there is strong Chinese sentiment that China cannot fall behind technologically …[lest China become] vulnerable to outside security threats. This is evident in the Chinese phrase luohou jiuyao aida, or ‘the backward will be beaten up,’ which permeates Chinese culture as well as defense policy.”6

    Providing a cover for kinetic-energy ASAT testing. The 2007 Chinese ASAT test used hit-to-kill technology very similar to the technology that China is currently testing in its strategic missile defense program, for which China has not been criticized. Unlike a full ASAT test, these missile defense tests do not generate long-lived orbital debris. As a result, developing strategic missile defense provides a public rationale that allows China to continue to improve its kinetic ASAT technology while avoiding the diplomatic downsides of ASAT testing, which have undercut China’s campaign against the weaponization of space. As one PLA official said, the hit-to-kill technology “is useful for both missile defense and space applications, but space is more important.” The connection between strategic missile defense and ASAT weapons was widely accepted and understood. No one tried to deny Chinese ASAT activity. At a minimum, it was defended as necessary for technical readiness and an understanding of what the United States and others might do in that area.

    Enhancing technological prestige and sending a message. Strategic missile defense without nuclear-armed interceptors is a very challenging mission, one that very few nations have even partially mastered. Technologically, it is much more difficult than defense against shorter-range missiles, which travel at much slower velocities. China is rightly proud of its growing technological prowess in many fields and seeks ways to demonstrate this prowess. Demonstrating its capability would represent a “technological merit badge” for China, one that few others can match. Such a capability would be a point of Chinese pride on domestic and international stages. This capability also would be a subtle form of deterrence, sending a message especially to India, Japan, and the United States that “we are strong,” “we have muscle,” and “we are able,” phrases used multiple times during the meetings in China.7

    Countering growing Indian ICBM capabilities. India has successfully tested its canister-launched, three-stage Agni-5 ICBM and is expected to begin deploying it in 2016, putting all major Chinese metropolitan areas within range of Indian nuclear weapons for the first time. India is expected to begin testing an even longer-range, larger-payload Agni-6 ICBM by 2017, expected to be capable of carrying multiple warheads. Because China and India likely see their offensive nuclear capabilities as intended for deterrence rather than nuclear war-fighting, these developments need not be directly provocative. From a domestic political perspective, Chinese leaders may feel the need to respond to such developments because China’s perceived nuclear vulnerability to India, symbolized by the new ICBMs, could become a potent political issue.

    Keeping up with Indian developments in ballistic missile defense. A related incentive for China to develop and deploy at least some form of strategic missile defense is that India is seeking to develop and deploy a strategic missile defense system itself. According to the director-general of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, India expects to have the capability by 2016 to protect against ballistic missiles having a range of up to 5,000 kilometers.8 From a purely political perspective, as one Chinese academic said in a tone of complete incredulity, “Can you imagine India having strategic ballistic missile defense and China not having it?”9 India and China are taking some important steps to reduce tensions between them, but there remains a strong subtext of competition and wariness between the two countries.

    Reinforcing Chinese ICBM survivability. China is deeply committed to maintaining the deterrent credibility of its nuclear forces, especially to ensuring that the country can withstand an intended disarming first strike and still have a sufficient number of weapons to retaliate. Because China has a nuclear arsenal that is far smaller than those of Russia and the United States, it has a smaller margin of error and is quite sensitive to potential perceived threats to its deterrent capabilities. As one Chinese specialist said, “Do not mistake China’s lean nuclear deterrent as meaning it will not do whatever is necessary to maintain the viability of that smaller deterrent.”10

    Because of China’s great respect for U.S. technological capabilities, it is possible that the Chinese leadership and the PLA would have concerns that road-mobile ICBMs that China has been developing are not a permanent future guarantee of ICBM survivability. As U.S. surveillance, intelligence, sensor, reconnaissance, and especially software capabilities advance, along with the ability to extract useful information from the “big data” that these capabilities provide, China will likely continue to have concerns about the survivability of road-mobile ICBMs.

    To destroy these missiles, the United States or Russia would not need to identify a mobile ICBM’s location precisely. It is important to remember that road-mobile ICBMs are much softer targets than silo-based ones, which means that a Chinese adversary would need to locate a Chinese road-mobile ICBM to within only a few miles to have confidence in its ability to destroy it with a nuclear weapon. A Chinese strategic missile defense capability tailored to this threat to the mobile missiles could not guarantee survivability, but at the least, it could seriously complicate an adversary’s planning. China could not count on its missile defense system working well, but neither could the adversary count on the system failing to work well. This perception effect creates a modest but important island of stability in an otherwise potentially unstable crisis situation. In a high-stakes crisis where the use of nuclear weapons is being contemplated, a modest level of Chinese ballistic missile defense for its silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs could strengthen China’s ability to deter an adversary’s launch of nuclear weapons.

    Inoculating the leadership against domestic charges that it was leaving China defenseless against external missile threats. Xi Jinping is a powerful leader, but he serves as president at the pleasure of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. Although his position presently appears secure, it is not very difficult to envision a scenario in which his hold on power could become more tenuous: a serious decline in China’s economy, growing unemployment, a collapse of the stock market or banking system, new scandals, and other ills. A political attack from another party faction that pointed out that Beijing would be helpless if even a single nuclear-armed missile were heading toward China could be a serious political threat, as it proved to be in the United States in the late 1990s. Even a small Chinese missile defense, which would provide other security benefits as well, could seem like a reasonable and low-cost domestic political insurance policy. Politically, there is a big difference between a small strategic missile defense system and none at all.

    Defending essential “point targets.” As a variation on defending its ICBM locations, China may wish to defend smaller, high-value assets against possible attack from, say, India. Particular candidates would be central leadership locations, for example, Beijing; essential military facilities such as nuclear weapons storage sites and the Chinese ballistic missile submarine base; or key economic areas whose loss could threaten domestic stability, such as the Three Gorges Dam.11

    The cost of a robust defense would be substantial, so the number of such sites would likely be limited to a few high-priority locations, but certainly those that provided protection to senior officials would qualify. The radars and interceptors for such point defenses would be different from those used for broad-area defense, with interception taking place within the atmosphere much closer to the attacking missile’s target rather than outside the atmosphere. The atmosphere strips away the chaff and decoys that help hide the nuclear warhead from radar detection, making warhead detection and tracking much easier. At this point, however, the nuclear warhead is very close to its target and still moving quite fast.

    An interceptor for this type of engagement can cover only a limited area, much more limited than missiles that intercept the warhead much farther away. This means that it can defend only a few high-value targets unless a country is prepared to make extraordinary expenditures. China could choose to develop and deploy both kinds of strategic missile defense systems, but this would be a costly endeavor.

    Other possible Chinese incentives for deployment include introducing a level of uncertainty in U.S. allies about the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantee, especially as the U.S. strategic arsenal is reduced in an eventual follow-on agreement to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty; acquiring important negotiating leverage in any eventual multilateral strategic arms control negotiations; and creating technology spin-offs, especially for theater missile defense.

    On the other hand, China has to consider several important disincentives for proceeding with deployment.

    Incurring large costs for the deployment and operation of an effective system. Developing and deploying an effective strategic missile defense system would be expensive. A number of academics in China made reference to the cost of deployment, with a few calling strategic ballistic missile defense “a money-burning program” and “a hole with no bottom.”12

    Contradicting past Chinese position on strategic missile defense. Actual deployment of a missile defense system would represent a major shift in Chinese policy. Yet, it would not be the first time Beijing would have made such a shift; Chinese ASAT behavior is a notable previous example.

    Deployment also would be a jarring contrast to the peaceful image China has sought to present to the world. Nevertheless, if Chinese leaders decide that such a move would be in their national interest, they would provide justifications for the change—for example, that U.S. behavior was forcing them to take this step against their preferences. In two separate meetings, two PLA officials said that internal discussions about China deploying a strategic missile defense system are taking place. They emphasized, however, that nothing has been resolved and that any decision would take place at a very high level.13

    Triggering potential adverse responses from India, Japan, the United States, and possibly others. Chinese work on developing strategic missile defense does not appear to have led to any significant responses from other countries, but actual deployment could do so and could lead to offensive-defensive arms races that China would most likely want to avoid. 

    Observations and Conclusions

    Chinese President Xi Jinping participates in an arrival ceremony at the White House on September 25. [Photo credit: Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images]Chinese development of strategic missile defense is ongoing and is helping China understand the complexities of designing such a system and what its weak points are, whether or not it decides to deploy the system. In addition, this development provides an important hedging option for China against an uncertain and evolving future strategic environment.

    China faces a variety of incentives and disincentives for deploying a strategic missile defense system. Whether China would deploy such a system is unclear, but the very fact that such a decision is under consideration is telling and represents a major change over the last 10 years. At a minimum, it appears that a Chinese deployment of a missile defense system is probably less unlikely than most U.S. defense analysts have assessed it to be.

    Such a deployment would likely be limited. The most compelling reasons for China to deploy a strategic missile defense system involve the small number of interceptors required. Seeking to defend against the larger U.S. or Russian nuclear arsenal would require a very large investment with no assurance it could reach its goal because either adversary would almost certainly take offsetting steps to counter such a Chinese initiative. Furthermore, even were it to ultimately deploy missile defense interceptors in greater numbers over a wider area, China would want to gain more experience in what would be a new class of weapons for it.

    Following are the most likely reasons for a limited deployment.

    • It would provide China with a plausible cover to continue testing its kinetic-energy ASAT system. This suggests that a limited nationwide or regional defense would be more likely than a point defense although the latter cannot be ruled out. Point defense would not provide much cover for an ASAT testing program.
    • It would send a strategic message to India, Japan, and the United States, in that order, that China is capable of defending itself and overcoming major technical obstacles to do so.
    • It would enhance China’s regional prestige and sway, providing a “technological merit badge” of recognition for achieving such a difficult technological task.

    The United States would likely have no technical reason to make any significant adjustments to its strategic posture in response to the most likely levels of any Chinese strategic missile defense deployments. It would be more likely that the United States would need to respond somehow to address domestic U.S. political concerns and concerns of U.S. allies, especially in Asia. The U.S. responses would seek to demonstrate that the U.S. strategic nuclear posture and forces are robust and able to deal with such deployments. A number of technical options available to the United States should suffice, particularly in missile defense penetration aids and enhancements to the bomber leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.

    A Chinese move to deploy early-warning satellites would be a significant indicator of greater interest in strategic missile defense deployment, as it would be a crucial component of an effective strategic missile defense system. Such satellites would not be necessary for a deployment devoted exclusively to ASAT testing.

    In summary, Chinese deployment of a limited strategic missile defense system should be no cause for alarm by the United States and other countries. Yet, the implications would be significant and would merit greater understanding through increased dialogue and more-thorough policy and technical review.

    This article has only scratched the surface of this issue. One area for further analysis is the new dynamics of a multipolar strategic missile defense world. In particular, especially in light of Indian determination to deploy such defenses and Russian deployment a growing possibility as well, the management of strategic nuclear crises in the Eurasian region could become more challenging. Alternatively, if the affected countries can reach agreements through dialogues and the establishment of rules of engagement, strategic stability could result.

    Bruce W. MacDonald is special adviser to the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Project at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Charles D. Ferguson is president of the FAS. This article is based on the report “Understanding the Dragon Shield: Likelihood and Implications of Chinese Strategic Ballistic Missile Defense,” developed under work supported by the Naval Postgraduate School Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering WMD with funding from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The views and conclusions are those of the authors. 


    1.  Frank A. Rose, “Ensuring the Long-Term Sustainability and Security of the Space Environment” (remarks, U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium, Omaha, Nebraska, August 13, 2014), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2014/230611.htm (hereinafter Rose STRATCOM remarks).

    2.  Steps China has taken include deployments of the road-mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), development and likely future deployment of the longer-range DF-41 ICBM, development of Jin-class ballistic missile submarines and associated JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and deployment of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles on its older DF-5 ICBM and possible deployment on the DF-41.

    3.  U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. Department of Defense, April 7, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2015_China_Military_Power_Report.pdf.

    4.  Rose STRATCOM remarks.

    5.  Frank A. Rose, “Ballistic Missile Defense and Strategic Stability in East Asia” (remarks, Federation of American Scientists, Washington, D.C., February 20, 2015), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2015/237746.htm

    6.  Denise E. Der, “Playing Defense: Examining China’s Intentions Regarding Ballistic Missile Defense” (master’s thesis, Georgetown University, 2015), p. 14.

    7.  Chinese academic experts, meetings with authors, Beijing and Shanghai, February 2015.

    8.  Wang Ting, “Agni V and China/India Ballistic Missile Defense” (presentation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, n.d.), http://carnegieendowment.org/files/Wang_Ting%20Presentation.pdf. The presentation took place during the week of October 2, 2012. See Sarah Weiner, “Recap: ‘China-India Nuclear Crossroads,’” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 9, 2012. http://csis.org/blog/event-recap-china-india-nuclear-crossroads. 

    9.  Chinese academic, meeting with authors, Beijing, February 11, 2015.

    10.  Chinese expert, meeting with authors, Beijing, February 10, 2015.

    11.  In 1993 a Chinese scholar published an article that examined the threat to China’s Three Gorges Dam from missile strikes and raised the possibility of missile defense to protect it. Brad Roberts, “China and Ballistic Missile Defense: 1955 to 2002 and Beyond,” IDA Paper P-3826, September 2003, p. 21, n.80, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA418710 (citing Wan Yung-Kui, “Can the Chinese Armed Forces Successfully Protect the Three-Gorges Dam?” Hong Kong Tangai, No. 31 [October 15, 1993], pp. 72-80).

    12.  Chinese academics, meetings with authors, Beijing, February 2015.

    13.  People’s Liberation Army officials, meetings with author (MacDonald), Beijing, February 2015.

    It is quite possible that China could deploy a strategic missile defense system with a small number of interceptors within the next few years. 

    Looking Back: Gen. Marshall and the Atomic Bombing of Japanese Cities

    November 2015

    By Barton J. Bernstein

    The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima with a uranium weapon and Nagasaki with a plutonium weapon in August 1945 caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese, mostly noncombatants, by the end of that year and injured about the same number. Those bombings also killed thousands of Korean noncombatants and some Allied prisoners of war.

    Much has been written over the years about the bombings. That literature includes considerable discussion of the process that led to President Harry Truman’s decision to use the two bombs and to target enemy cities, the resulting killing of massive numbers of noncombatants, and the debate over the necessity and ethics of conducting two bombings rather than one or even none.

    The still-controversial history of the bombings involves disputes in areas such as sources, the uses of evidence, the standards for assessing and interpreting decision-making, and the basis for defining and evaluating morality and ethics in the context of war.

    A key source in this contested history has been the evidence of individuals who were involved in the U.S. government’s development of and decision-making on nuclear weapons. Yet, many of these individuals, be they supporters or critics, somewhat rewrote their history in the aftermath of the August 1945 bombings.

    Untangling postwar contentions from actual pre-Hiroshima actions is generally not a simple matter. It requires close attention to pre-Hiroshima archival sources, which account for well more than 100,000 pages in multiple libraries. In using these sources, the analyst should give much greater weight to the pre-Hiroshima sources than to the later, postwar claims in cases of significant discrepancies.

    After the war, in memoirs and in related statements, three former wartime members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—Admiral William Leahy, the de facto chairman of the Joint Chiefs; General Henry Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, and Admiral Ernest King, head of the Navy—publicly raised sharp questions about the military-political necessity of those atomic bombings and indicated there were other ways of ending the war. In his own widely reviewed memoir I Was There,1 Leahy passionately condemned the bombings as unethical and even barbarous. Yet, the available records, including his own diary, give no indication that he expressed this opinion to Truman or to any other government associate before the bombings.

    Marshall as the Exception

    Admiral Ernest King (left), Admiral William Leahy (center), and General George Marshall arrive at the White House for a wartime conference with President Franklin Roosevelt on July 29, 1942. [Photo credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Of the four retired wartime military chiefs, only General George Marshall, the wartime Army chief of staff, never in public or in any documented private statements in the postwar period joined in such criticisms or even in hints of having ever entertained such doubts about the 1945 use of nuclear weapons. In various interviews and related statements, Marshall strongly defended the atomic bombings of Japanese cities as militarily and politically necessary and as ethically justifiable.

    Nevertheless, Marshall was the only one of those four top-level men who, before the atomic bombings, actively sought to avoid the use of the new weapons on Japanese cities or to provide an adequate warning to Japan so that noncombatants could safely flee the cities. Fiercely loyal to Truman, unwilling to write a memoir, and wary of political controversy, Marshall in the aftermath of the war never revealed or even hinted that he had been a partial dissenter before the bombings, nor did other high-level memoirists ever disclose such information about Marshall’s pre-Hiroshima thinking.

    On May 29, 1945, however, about seven weeks before the Trinity test on July 16 in New Mexico and about 10 weeks before the August 6 bombing of Hiroshima, the 64-year-old Marshall argued generally for not using the weapon on Japanese cities but on a “straight military [target] such as a naval installation,” in the words of the meeting minutes.2 If a city was chosen, it should be a “large manufacturing” area, he urged, and the United States should at least provide a substantial warning about the weapon in order to spare noncombatant lives.

    For him, the definition of noncombatants included workers, as well as their families. That conception apparently did not change for Marshall in his thinking about the manufacturing that might contribute directly to Japan’s war effort.

    Marshall presented his ethically influenced analysis in a secret meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, both Republicans in a Democratic administration.

    Stimson was serving in his fourth presidential cabinet; his previous posts included secretary of war under President William Taft and then secretary of state under President Herbert Hoover. As part of what was designed as a bipartisan national security system, Stimson had rejoined the government as President Franklin Roosevelt’s war secretary about 18 months before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

    By late May 1945, the 77-year-old Stimson and the 50-year-old McCloy had been working comfortably with Marshall for about five years. It was a close relationship of mutual trust and sincere respect. Their policy differences, when they occurred, were hammered out in private. During the war years, the three men easily maintained such discretion and energetically practiced secrecy. Such behavior flowed from their temperament and the context.

    Marshall (left), UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill (center), and U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson meet at Fort Jackson in Louisiana on June 7, 1942. [Photo credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]Marshall, McCloy, and Stimson sought to avoid or minimize open controversy about how to conduct the war, including the uses of weaponry. These men did not want fractious publicity about policy decisions, and they sought to limit considerations of the politics of war to high-level, often secret decision-making. That was part of the intended political strategy of creating and maintaining national consensus on many war-related matters.

    The three men were generally aided in such arrangements by the Senate’s special investigating committee. Initiated early in the war under then-Senator Truman (D-Mo.), the panel had helped insulate the government’s policymaking on defense issues from public scrutiny. When Truman, elected vice president in 1944, became president in April 1945, that Senate committee, maintaining its ways from the Roosevelt period, continued to help protect the chief executive and his bipartisan national security system from intrusive scrutiny on the conduct of the war.

    On the subject of the atomic bomb, only a few congressional leaders drawn from each political party even knew of the top-secret project. The funding, about $1.8 billion by mid-1945, was tucked into appropriations bills without the bulk of senators or representatives knowing about it or about the Manhattan Project itself and the weapons it was designed to build.

    The May 29 Meeting

    At the May 29 meeting, much of the discussion among Marshall, McCloy, and Stimson focused on military policies to help end the Asian war and the use of significant weapons—atomic bombs and toxic gas—against Japan in future months. Breaking ranks with the other two officials, Marshall hoped to use gas, thereby violating Roosevelt’s public pledge of no first use of a “poisonous or noxious” gas,3 but McCloy and Stimson showed no interest in endorsing such a radical departure from established policy. By their response, they seemed uneasy about such a proposal.

    With a nuclear bomb likely to be ready and to be used in about early August 1945, the three men talked about that weapon. Still untested at the time of the meeting, it was expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than even the largest conventional bombs. The uranium bomb was predicted, as of late April 1945, to produce the equivalent of about 8,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT power, and the plutonium weapon about 4,000 to 6,000 tons.4 Regardless of which kind of atomic weapon was used, it clearly would cause massive destruction on any target area by blast and heat, as all three men easily recognized.

    At the time of the meeting, none of the three men apparently knew anything of significance, and quite likely they understood nothing at all about nuclear radiation and its great perils for humans: death or agonizing injury and even impairments in the gene pool for future generations. None of the three men actually knew anything in depth about the science and technology of the new uranium and plutonium bombs.

    The issue that troubled Marshall, as he made clear to Stimson and McCloy at their meeting, was that these new, massively powerful bombs, if used on a city, would kill many noncombatants. To Marshall, that type of killing apparently constituted a dangerous and dramatic crossing of an important moral and ethical threshold by slaying innocent men, women, and children.

    In public statements in the 1930s, Roosevelt had emphasized the moral and ethical line that would be crossed by bombing noncombatants. For Marshall, who had entered the Army more than a decade before World War I, and for Stimson and McCloy, such a line had at one time seemed deeply embedded in the informal U.S. code of conducting warfare.

    By late May 1945, however, Marshall and his two colleagues at the meeting knew that U.S. conduct of so-called conventional warfare, especially with B-17 bombers and then the new B-29 bombers, had crossed that threshold with bombs, including incendiaries, against German and Japanese cities. U.S. and UK aircraft massively fire-bombed the German city of Dresden in February 1945, killing about 35,000 to 45,000. The U.S. fire-bombing of Tokyo in March killed about 80,000. The Tokyo count, with about 16 square miles burned out, was the highest by any bombing raid through late May 1945. In both enemy cities, the dead and injured, as all three U.S. officials knew, had been mostly noncombatants.

    Whether and how such bombings would speed the ending of the wars in Europe and Asia was often rather vague. Among many U.S. government officials, there was a general sense that such bombings would help erode morale in the two enemy states and in multiple ways, often loosely defined, contribute to pushing the two enemy governments toward surrender.

    Those attacks had greatly upset Stimson. He had worried on ethical grounds about the killing of noncombatants in such attacks, and he wished that such killing could be avoided or minimized by “precision” bombing.5 Before, during, and after the May 29 meeting, Marshall apparently never expressed, even in secret, governmental inner circles, such worries or doubts about massive conventional bombing of enemy cities.

    As the head of the Army, Marshall had the moral authority, had he wished to use it, to complain inside the government and to urge different bombing policies. He never had done so or even come close to doing so.

    Yet, even in prospect, the atomic bomb in May 1945 seemed markedly different to him, raising unsettling ethical and moral issues. Apparently troubled by the thought of targeting a city with that weapon, Marshall feared that moral opprobrium might be heaped on the United States in the aftermath. Thus, he offered a proposal for alternatives—bombing a military installation or bombing a large manufacturing area with a prior warning—by which he hoped to protect the United States and its new president from moral and ethical accusations of acting improperly.

    A Likely Missed Opportunity

    Marshall’s pleas on May 29 did not seem to gain support from Stimson or McCloy. Two days later, Stimson helped shape the nuclear targeting policy by outlining with a secret blue-ribbon panel, the Interim Committee, that the weapon should be used without any warning to Japan and on a military-industrial target surrounded by workers’ houses.6

    As Stimson and the other meeting participants, including Marshall, well understood, enemy workers were usually defined as noncombatants. Furthermore, even if there might be some ambiguity about categorizing workers, there was none regarding their children, nonworking wives, and elderly relatives. Thus, many thousands of enemy innocents could be expected to be slain or injured by the atomic bomb.

    Having been quietly defeated in the small meeting on May 29, Marshall raised no objections about that targeting and no-warning policy on May 31 in the larger meeting, which included James Conant, president of Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Karl Compton. Marshall also did not do so in the next 10 weeks in various discussions with Stimson, McCloy, or Truman as the United States moved to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Marshall quite likely missed an opportunity to establish an alliance with the president on redefining the targeting. Marshall did not know that Truman, around the time in late July 1945 that he endorsed the military order to use nuclear weapons on Japanese cities, had chosen to believe that the bombs’ targets would be truly of a military nature. In what was most likely self-deception, Truman wrote in his diary on July 25 that he had instructed Stimson that the new bomb should be used “so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.” The target, Truman falsely contended, would be “purely military.”

    Truman wrote of the Japanese being “savages,” calling them “merciless and fanatic.” The United States, he claimed, was markedly different in its conduct of the war and its concern for noncombatants.

    Marshall apparently never said to anyone that he had regretted not seeking before the Hiroshima bombing to make common cause with Truman on the targeting policy. Had Marshall risked going outside the chain of command and bypassing Stimson, the general might well have been successful in July 1945 and thereby have helped to redefine the targeting policy for the atomic bomb to avoid killing and injuring noncombatants. Whether Marshall ever regretted not approaching Truman on this matter is uncertain.

    Marshall’s Reshaped History

    After the war, Marshall apparently never disclosed, even to his official biographer, historian Forrest Pogue, that, at the May 29 meeting with Stimson and McCloy, he had sought to alter the course of nuclear history as it was then unfolding.

    McCloy’s minutes of the May 29 meeting, the only available record of Marshall’s secret counsel there, were not declassified until about two decades after the general’s October 1959 death. Dismayingly, that documentary record has generally been of little or no interest to most historians studying nuclear weapons or Marshall.

    While concealing his May 1945 effort, Marshall himself, in an interview with Pogue in February 1957, somewhat rewrote the pre-Hiroshima history on the atomic bomb. Marshall contended incorrectly that the Truman administration, before the first atomic bombing of Japan, had provided the Japanese with a vague warning of the planned use by the United States of that new weapon on Japan.

    Although the United States had issued broad warnings about large-scale destruction, it never gave Japan an explicit warning about the atomic bomb in the run-up to the Hiroshima bombing. One wonders—admittedly, in the absence of evidence—whether Marshall’s flawed recollection, as captured by Pogue, was an expression of the general’s unacknowledged personal regret. It might also have been an effort to protect his president, government, and country.

    At the May 29 meeting, Marshall had unsuccessfully sought to reshape the future, and in 1957, he sought to reshape the past. He largely failed in those two efforts. By remaining silent about his advice of May 29, he helped obscure the possibility of a different history of nuclear weapons.

    Stimson never mentioned Marshall’s May 29 advice in his memoir and in an article that drew on it. McCloy did not either in his many postwar commentaries, even though they often were critical of the atomic bombings. Truman, in his ghost-written memoir and elsewhere, never mentioned and probably never knew of Marshall’s urgings on the targeting of nuclear weapons.

    Different Targeting?

    The effect on Hiroshima of the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945, is shown in a photo from that day. The building on the right was preserved as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. [Photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images]If the United States had issued a substantial, explicit warning to Japan before using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; if the U.S. attacks truly had targeted manufacturing areas; or, more significantly, if the targets in Japan had been actually a military installation, the postwar dialogue about the bombings might have been different.

    To consider the plausible alternative history in which the United States chose a military target and therefore avoided the deaths of massive numbers of noncombatants is not to seek to justify the atomic bombings. It is intended to force a rethinking of important aspects of the August 1945 bombings and of the moral and ethical underpinnings of those bombings.

    Whatever their use, the bombs dropped in August 1945 would have crossed a profoundly important and greatly troubling threshold. They represented exceptional power delivered by a new technology. If they had been used against an enemy military installation with comparatively few deaths and injuries to enemy noncombatants, the important moral and ethical threshold of killing massive numbers of noncombatants, despite the earlier attacks on Dresden and Tokyo and the similar conventional bombings elsewhere, would not have been crossed in the atomic bombings of Japan.

    Part of the older moral and ethical code would have been respected in what nevertheless was a brutal, savage war. Fought broadly across three continents and numerous islands, that long war killed many millions of noncombatants among the total of about 55 million people.

    By most estimates, noncombatant deaths, including those in German death camps and those from starvation, malnutrition, and disease elsewhere, significantly outnumbered the ones among soldiers from bombing and ground warfare.

    The two atomic bombs probably added at least 100,000 to the tally of noncombatants but only about 12,000 to the number of military men killed.

    Analysts might contend that limiting the use of the new, devastating weapon to military targets might have made it seem less terrible and thus less effective as a psychological weapon. In a similar vein, the analysts might argue that the large number of deaths and the high percentage that were noncombatants created its own firewall in making future use by any country morally more difficult.

    To discuss such matters involving the dead and who was killed or might otherwise have been killed under a different targeting plan may seem ghoulish and cold blooded. In fact, these matters, which involve ethical considerations, are important in critically examining how the atomic bomb has been understood and why.

    Marshall’s proposals add an important element to the debate over these matters. His proposals make clear that policies on atomic bomb targeting that were different from the ones actually used were not simply hypothetical possibilities but truly plausible alternatives in 1945. For arms control analysts and others who wish to think critically about such alternatives, the generally neglected document on Marshall’s meeting of May 29, 1945, provides firm evidence that an important member of the U.S. government recommended seeking to use the atomic bomb in a way that would not kill massive numbers of noncombatants.

    Barton J. Bernstein is a professor emeritus of history at Stanford University and has long written and lectured on the decision to use the atomic bomb and other aspects of the history of nuclear weapons.


    1.  William D. Leahy, I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time (New York: Whittlesey House, 1950), pp. 440-441.

    2.  John J. McCloy, “Objectives Toward Japan and Methods of Concluding War With Minimum Casualties,” May 29, 1945, in Marshall Papers, George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, VA (memorandum of conversation with General George Marshall with handwritten note by McCloy or Marshall stating “C/S [Marshall] has noted and has no further suggestions”).

    3.  Statement of President Franklin Roosevelt on June 8, 1943, in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol. 1943, ed. Samuel Rosenman (New York: Harper, 1950), p. 242.

    4.  For the formal estimates in the spring of 1945 of TNT equivalence for the two types of atomic bombs, see Gen. Leslie Groves to Secretary of War, “Atomic Fission Bombs,” April 23, 1945, pp. 5-6, in Top Secret of Special Interest to Groves Files, #25, Manhattan Engineer District (MED) Records, RG 77, U.S. National Archives.

    5.  Henry Stimson diary, June 1 and 6, 1945, Sterling Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. The subject has also been thoughtfully treated by various interpreters. See McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988); Sean Malloy, Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

    6.  For the Interim Committee minutes of May 31, 1945, see Harrison-Bundy Files, #100, MED Records, RG 77. For President Harry Truman’s Potsdam diary of July 25, 1945, see Truman Papers, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO. For Marshall’s interview with Pogue of February 11, 1957, see Larry and Joellen Bland, eds., George C. Marshall Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue, rev. ed. (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), pp. 422-425.

    In a May 1945 meeting, General George Marshall sought to avoid using atomic bombs on Japanese cities or to warn Japan so that noncombatants could safely flee the cities. 

    UK Party Leader Shuns Nuclear Arms Use

    November 2015

    By Kingston Reif

    Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament conference in London on October 17. [Photo credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images]Ahead of a possible decision next year to proceed with the replacement of the United Kingdom’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent, the new leader of the country’s Labour Party said he would not authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he were prime minister.

    “We are not in the era of the Cold War anymore; it finished a long time ago,” Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC in a Sept. 30 interview.

    “I am opposed to the use of nuclear weapons,” he said. “I am opposed to the holding of nuclear weapons.”

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron strongly criticized Corbyn’s remarks, stating in an Oct. 4 interview with the BBC that “[i]f you…believe like me that Britain should keep the ultimate insurance policy of an independent nuclear deterrent, you have to accept there are circumstances in which its use would be justified.”

    The UK currently possesses four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident missiles carrying a total of 120 nuclear warheads. (The submarines sometimes are also called Tridents.) The government is planning to replace these submarines with a fleet of four new ones.

    The first new Trident submarine is slated to enter service in 2028.

    Corbyn said he opposes replacing the Tridents. “There are many in the military that do not want Trident renewed because they see it as an obsolete thing they don’t need,” he said.

    In 2011, the government approved a five-year preparatory research and design phase for the new submarines. A final investment decision on the program, known as Main Gate, is scheduled for 2016. But it is unclear when exactly the decision will occur or whether the Conservative Party, which strongly supports the replacement of Trident and currently holds a majority in Parliament, will submit the decision to a vote.

    In 2006, the UK Ministry of Defence estimated the cost of designing and building the new submarines to be 15-20 billion pounds (about $23-31 billion). Reuters reported on Oct. 25 that the total cost to build and operate the new submarine fleet will reach 167 billion pounds, citing figures provided to Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of Parliament, by the Ministry of Defence.

    Jon Thompson, the top civil servant at the ministry, told UK lawmakers on Oct. 14 that the Trident replacement plan is “the single biggest future financial risk” facing the UK defense budget. “The project is a monster,” he added.

    Kerry, Moniz Urge Review of CTBT

    November 2015

    By Shervin Taheran

    Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in Washington on October 21. [Photo credit: State Department]Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last month sought to refocus attention on the issue of U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), in part by stressing the technical advances made since the U.S. Senate voted down the pact 16 years ago.

    At an Oct. 21 event in Washington, both men pointed to progress in the Stockpile Stewardship Program, the effort by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to maintain the long-term safety, reliability, and security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without nuclear explosive testing. Emphasizing a point that was repeated throughout the Oct. 21 event, they said the NNSA’s understanding of the nuclear stockpile is greater today than it was during the era of nuclear testing.

    Moniz reported that last year he had asked the NNSA and the national laboratories it oversees to conduct “a detailed, bottom-up review” to address a key question about the CTBT: “[S]uppose the Senate decided to hold CTBT ratification hearings again; what could you say about our confidence in the stockpile?” The results from the review by the lab directors were “quite gratifying,” he said. “[E]very science-based stockpile tool that had been planned had been built [and] was operating [and] delivering results,…in many cases, well beyond the original expectations.”

    Kerry declared, “I am determined that, in the months to come, we’re going to reopen and re-energize the conversation about the treaty on Capitol Hill and throughout our nation.”

    He noted that the vast majority of current senators were not in office in 1999, when the Senate rejected the treaty by a vote of 51-48. Because there has been little occasion to focus on the treaty since then, these senators probably are not very familiar with it, Kerry said, emphasizing the need to “start having hearings” and “start having scientists come back up and restate the case.”

    In spite of these plans, it does not appear the Obama administration is gearing up for a vote on the treaty in the foreseeable future. In an Oct. 19 speech at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, stressed that the administration is “focused on an open dialogue, rather than a timeline, to refamiliarize senators with the treaty.”

    “Ratification of the CTBT will require debate, discussion, questions, briefings, trips to the national labs and other technical facilities, hearings, and more, as was the case” with the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, she said. “The senators should have every opportunity to ask questions—many, many questions—until they are satisfied.”

    Gottemoeller’s address was one in a series of scheduled visits and remarks on the CTBT she made during the last two weeks of October. In addition to Alaska, she visited California, Colorado, and Utah.

    Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last month sought to refocus attention on the issue of U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

    Smugglers Arrested in Moldova

    November 2015

    By Kelsey Davenport

    Three men were arrested in Moldova earlier this year for attempting to sell radioactive materials to an undercover police officer posing as a middleman for the Islamic State group, according to an Associated Press story published last month.

    According to the Oct. 6 story, a joint operation involving the Moldovan police and the FBI led to the arrest in February, after the alleged smugglers gave the undercover officer cesium in exchange for money.

    Certain types of cesium could be used in a so-called dirty bomb, which combines conventional explosives with radioactive sources to spread contamination.

    State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed the operation during an Oct. 7 press briefing and said the continued smuggling of radioactive material has “grave consequences.”

    According to the AP article, the seller claimed to have enough cesium-137 for a dirty bomb and wanted to sell it to the Islamic State for the purpose of bombing U.S. citizens.

    Three smugglers were arrested after selling cesium-135 to the Moldovan police officer as a test of his intentions before selling him the cesium-137. Cesium-135 is not potent enough for use in a dirty bomb. The AP reported that a fourth man in the smuggling ring, reportedly in possession of the cesium-137, which is suitable for a dirty bomb, escaped.

    Moldovan authorities quoted in the AP story said they thought that the radioactive material came from Russia and that the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations was making it more difficult to track smugglers.

    Kirby said that cooperation with Russia on stemming illicit trafficking in nuclear materials is “certainly an issue where we believe there can be cooperative efforts.” There have been such efforts, and “we hope that there will continue to be,” he said.

    The February arrests are among several in recent years involving illicit trafficking of radioactive material through Moldova. Most recently, in December 2014, six people were arrested in the eastern European country for trying to sell radioactive materials and uranium-238. U-238 is the most common isotope of uranium, but unlike U-235, it cannot be used as a nuclear explosive material.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency tracks theft, loss, and unauthorized use of radioactive materials in its Incident and Trafficking Database, which receives information from about 130 countries. Between 1993 and 2014, the agency confirmed 2,734 illicit incidents involving radioactive materials.

    Three men were arrested in Moldova earlier this year for attempting to sell radioactive materials to an undercover police officer posing as a middleman for the Islamic State group.

    Iran, P5+1 Formally Adopt Nuclear Deal

    November 2015

    By Kelsey Davenport

    EU deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid (left) and Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi sit at the head of the table during a meeting in Vienna on October 19. The two officials were representing their delegations at the first meeting of the joint commission established under a July 14 deal on Iran’s nuclear program. [Photo credit: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images]Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 formally adopted their July 14 nuclear deal last month and began taking steps to implement their respective commitments.

    In an Oct. 18 joint statement marking Adoption Day, as the agreement calls it, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief and head negotiator for the P5+1, said that “all sides remain strongly committed to ensuring” implementation of the deal and “will make all the necessary preparations.”

    The agreement specified that formal adoption was to take place 90 days after the UN Security Council passed a resolution endorsing the deal, which the council did on July 20.               

    The 90-day adoption period allowed countries to review the deal internally. The United States completed its congressional review process on Sept. 17 (see ACT, October 2015), and Iran’s parliament passed a bill approving the deal on Oct. 13. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed the deal on Oct. 21, but said that any new sanctions on Iran would jeopardize Tehran’s participation.

    After the Oct. 18 formal adoption, Iran began taking steps to restrict its nuclear program while the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) took initial steps to provide Iran with relief from nuclear-related sanctions.

    In an Oct. 18 statement marking the adoption of the deal, U.S. President Barack Obama called the day “an important milestone toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” and said he had directed the government to begin preparations to provide relief from the sanctions.

    The European Union also issued a statement on Oct. 18 noting that it adopted the legislative framework to lift its nuclear-related sanctions on the deal’s Implementation Day.

    Under the terms of the deal, Implementation Day is to occur when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certifies that Iran has taken certain steps to restrict its nuclear program and put in place increased monitoring. That determination brings U.S. waivers into effect and triggers the lifting of EU and UN sanctions.

    The steps that Iran must take include reducing the number of installed centrifuges from more than 19,000 to 6,104 first-generation machines, reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium to no more than 300 kilograms, removing and disabling the core of the Arak reactor to prevent it from producing weapons-grade plutonium, and allowing additional monitoring and transparency measures on its nuclear program. (See ACT, September 2015.)

    Next Steps

    Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), told reporters on Oct. 17 that the exact timing of Implementation Day is unknown at this point but that Iran can complete its commitments by the end of the year.

    Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who was part of the team that negotiated with Iran, said in an Oct. 19 e-mail that he thinks “the careful removal, decontamination and storage” of Iran’s excess centrifuges will be the most difficult task.

    Iran currently has more than 19,000 centrifuges installed at two facilities, Natanz and Fordow, of which about 10,200 are currently enriching uranium to reactor-grade levels, or about 3.67 percent uranium-235, according to Iran and the IAEA.

    Under the deal, Iran must cut its number of centrifuges to 6,104, of which 5,060 will enrich uranium to reactor-grade levels for the first 10 years of the deal at the Natanz site. The remaining 1,044 machines will be at Fordow, which is to be repurposed for isotope research.

    On the question of the time that will be required to complete the removal and storage of the centrifuges, Nephew, now at Columbia University, said that he cannot conceive “of a careful effort that takes less than four months,” given the “physical dimensions of the spaces” where the centrifuges are installed, the size and sensitivity of the machines, and the number that must be removed.

    He said it is possible to do the job more quickly “but that will require reckless maneuvers with the centrifuges” that would be surprising for the AEOI. The AEOI oversees Iran’s nuclear facilities and will be responsible for implementing many of the steps under the deal.

    Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said on Oct. 19 that Iran would begin removing centrifuges when President Hassan Rouhani issued an order to the AEOI to implement its nuclear commitments.

    Araqchi also said that Iran, the United States, and China worked together on a plan for the modernization of the Arak reactor.

    Under the terms of the deal, the core of the unfinished reactor must be removed and destroyed before Iran receives any sanctions relief. The reactor will be modified to produce much smaller amounts of plutonium in its spent fuel. If the reactor had been completed as designed, it would have been able to produce enough plutonium for about two weapons a year.

    Chinese officials have said they will work with Iran at the Arak site to modify the reactor.

    Joint Commission Meeting

    Araqchi spoke to reporters in Vienna after the first meeting of the joint commission set up by the nuclear deal to oversee the accord’s implementation and resolve any disputes between the parties.

    In a press briefing two days before the Oct. 19 meeting, a senior U.S. official said setting up the working groups for the commission was on the meeting agenda.

    The text of the deal calls for the joint commission to set up several working groups, including ones to monitor the modification of the Arak reactor and Iran’s procurement of any materials and equipment that could be used for its nuclear program.

    The United States was represented at the meeting by Thomas Shannon, State Department counselor, and Stephen Mull, a former ambassador to Poland. Mull was appointed lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation on Sept. 17 by Secretary of State John Kerry.

    IAEA Completes Probe

    The IAEA announced on Oct. 15 that Iran had complied with its obligations under a separate July 14 agreement between Tehran and the agency, which laid out a schedule for completing the IAEA’s investigation of Tehran’s past activities allegedly related to developing a nuclear weapon.

    The agency’s Oct. 15 statement said that all of the activities specified in its agreement with Iran were completed on schedule and that the IAEA would provide its board of governors by Dec. 15 with a report assessing Iran’s past activities.

    The IAEA listed its concerns that Iran was pursuing activities related to nuclear weapons development in an annex to the November 2011 quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program. (See ACT, December 2011.)

    According to the agreement with the P5+1, Tehran needed to comply with the IAEA probe before the deal could be formally adopted.

    In an Oct. 19 speech in Tehran, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, called on the IAEA to respect the confidentiality of its communications with Iran.

    Larijani said that if the IAEA reveals Iran’s “secrets,” then Tehran will “change the quality” of its cooperation with the agency.

    Iran Tests New Missile

    Iran tested a new ballistic missile last month, apparently violating a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting such launches.

    Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan told reporters on Oct. 10 that the test earlier that day was a success and the missile is “capable of hitting and destroying targets with high precision.”

     State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in an Oct. 13 press briefing that the test “appears to violate” a 2010 UN Security Council resolution and that the United States would raise the issue at the Security Council, which it did on Oct. 21.

    Under Resolution 1929, Iran “shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are generally understood to be missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload over a distance of 300 kilometers.

    The Emad, the missile that Iran launched, is a liquid-fueled, medium-range ballistic missile that is estimated to carry a 750-kilogram payload and has a range of 1,700 kilometers. It is a more precise variant of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile that Iran first deployed in 2003.

    In a 2013 report, a panel of experts set up by the Security Council to monitor compliance with sanctions on Iran found that Tehran had violated the resolution by testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Iranian officials have said they do not consider themselves obligated to follow the restrictions in Resolution 1929, which they view as illegal and based on manufactured evidence that Tehran was developing nuclear weapons.

    Resolution 1929 was put in place to continue pressuring Iran to negotiate a resolution to the controversy over its nuclear program.

    Under the nuclear deal reached between Iran and six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on July 14, Resolution 1929 and other Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to limit its nuclear program will be replaced by Resolution 2231.

    The Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2231, which endorses the July 14 nuclear deal, on July 20. It will come into effect when the International Atomic Energy Agency certifies that Iran has taken key steps to limit its nuclear program and put in place greater transparency measures.

    Resolution 2231 calls on Iran not to develop or test ballistic missiles that are “designed to be capable” of delivering nuclear warheads.

    The July 14 nuclear deal does not restrict Iran’s ballistic missile program.

    Dehqan said that Iran does not “ask for anyone’s permission for boosting our defense and missile power” and that Tehran would continue its ballistic missile development.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

      Iran and six world powers formally adopted their July 14 nuclear deal last month and began taking steps to implement the agreement.

      NATO Weighs Nuclear Exercises

      November 2015

      By Kingston Reif

      UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon (left), U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (center), and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confer during a meeting of defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 8. [Photo credit: John Thys /AFP/Getty Images]Against the backdrop of heightened Russian nuclear saber rattling, NATO is evaluating how to respond to Russia’s actions, with some alliance members calling for the resumption of certain nuclear exercises.

      In comments to reporters on the sidelines of an Oct. 8 meeting in Brussels of defense ministers from NATO member states, Adam Thomson, the UK permanent representative to NATO, said that, since the end of the Cold War, the alliance “has done conventional exercising and nuclear exercising” but has not conducted exercises on “the transition from one to the other.”

      “That is a recommendation that is being looked at” within the alliance, he said.

      Thomson added that the United Kingdom “see[s] merit in making sure we know how, as an alliance, to transition up the escalatory ladder in order to strengthen our deterrence.”

      Similarly, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at a separate Oct. 8 press conference that NATO must “write a new playbook” to adapt to the challenges and threats of the 21st century, including “better integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence.”

      It is unclear what specific nuclear-related exercises NATO may be considering or what the improved integration of conventional and nuclear deterrence would mean in practice.

      In an Oct. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a NATO official said that “we cannot go into detail on our nuclear discussions” as these “are internal and classified matters.”

      The official added that the readiness of NATO nuclear forces has not changed.

      Asked to elaborate on Thomson’s comments, a UK official said in an Oct. 22 e-mail that “discussions and proposals” on responding to Russian nuclear rhetoric and activities “are developing well” and that “these discussions account for a wide range of capabilities, including nuclear capabilities.”

      NATO officials have repeatedly raised concerns about Russian nuclear behavior over the last year. (See ACT, May 2015.) These actions have included more Russian nuclear bomber flights close to the borders of some alliance members, more nuclear exercises, and threats to base nuclear forces in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine last year.

      Of particular concern to some alliance members is the apparently increasing degree to which Russia’s military doctrine relies on nuclear weapons. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 25, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said, “Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy—a strategy that purportedly seeks to de-escalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use.”

      “Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire,” Work added.

      Two European analysts speculated that the potential exercises being considered by NATO were tabletop exercises, which are meetings involving key personnel to discuss and test how to respond to a situation.

      In an Oct. 21 e-mail, Łukasz Kulesa, research director at the European Leadership Network in London, said that the proposal for new exercises “seems to be a suggestion to introduce Russian nuclear escalation and NATO counter-escalation scenarios into table-top staff exercises at NATO headquarters and into the political-military level exercises with the presence of decision-makers.”

      Kulesa added that even if the proposal for new nuclear exercises was adopted, he would not expect that the pattern of already ongoing nuclear exercises or the readiness levels of NATO nuclear forces to change automatically. But “these changes may come later if the table-top exercises show, for example, that NATO’s current posture is totally unsuitable to respond” to the potential “nuclearization” of a crisis involving NATO and Russia, he said.

      Jacek Durkalec, nonproliferation and arms control project manager at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, agreed with Kulesa’s assessment. In a separate Oct. 21 e-mail, he commented that the consideration of new exercises was a “step in the right direction.”

      He added that including “nuclear scenarios in NATO’s table-top crisis-management exercises would strengthen the ability of NATO’s decision-makers to act effectively during crises.”

      Such exercises would not be comparable to “what Russia has been doing in live exercises, where nuclear and conventional forces are closely integrated,” he said.

      NATO is evaluating how to respond to heightened Russian nuclear saber rattling, with some alliance members calling for the resumption of certain nuclear exercises.  

      Hill Urges Military Response on INF Pact

      November 2015

      By Kingston Reif

      President Barack Obama signs a veto of the National Defense Authorization Act on October 22. Many of the policy provisions of the bill are expected to resurface now that Congress and the White House have resolved the budget issue that led to the veto. [Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images]Congress voted in October to push the Defense Department to take the first steps toward developing military capabilities in response to Russia’s alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, even if the testing and deployment of those capabilities would violate the treaty.

      This policy provision is part of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The final compromise version of that bill, which Congress passed last month, establishes spending ceilings and legislative guidelines for Pentagon programs and the activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

      President Barack Obama vetoed the bill Oct. 22 over an unrelated budget issue, but the provisions on the INF Treaty and certain other issues relating to nuclear weapons are expected to resurface in light of a deal between Congress and the White House that resolves their differences over the budget issue.

      The State Department reiterated earlier this year that Russia is violating its INF Treaty obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

      The defense authorization bill calls for a plan for the development of three kinds of response capabilities to address the noncompliance concern: “active defenses to counter” INF Treaty-range GLCM attacks and two types of additional offensive capabilities to match or threaten the Russian missiles. Those three response options mirror the ones the Defense Department has said it already is developing and analyzing. (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

      The offensive forces that the bill contemplates are “[c]ounterforce capabilities” and “[c]ountervailing strike capabilities.” In both cases, the bill specifies that the Pentagon should consider the option “whether or not such capabilities are in compliance with the INF Treaty.”

      But the legislation provides the Defense Department with the latitude to pursue response options that would not run afoul of the pact.

      The bill also mandates that, in making a recommendation on a response capability, the department should give priority to those that could be fielded in two years. Funding to develop any new capabilities would have to be approved by lawmakers through the appropriations process.

      The policy provision on the INF Treaty incorporates elements that were contained in the original House and Senate versions of the authorization legislation. The House version, approved on May 15, included $25 million for the purpose of developing military response capabilities, but the final bill does not provide a specific amount for this purpose.

      In testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 25, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned against a “rush into a definitive” military response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty “because we would like to bring Russia back into this treaty.”

      Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work recently said the allegedly noncompliant Russian missile “is in development” but “has not been fielded yet.”

      At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 29, Work said that the Obama administration was still in the midst of “negotiating” how to respond but that if Russia fielded a system that violates the INF Treaty, he would “expect” the United States to pursue one of the three options the Defense Department outlined.

      Battle Over Spending

      In his statement explaining the veto, Obama declared his strong opposition to the way the bill attempts to circumvent the spending cap on defense for fiscal year 2016 as detailed in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

      Disagreement between the White House and Republican lawmakers over government spending also has stymied the passage of fresh appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016.

      In late September, Congress approved a short-term continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels for a few months, buying time to negotiate new funding levels for fiscal year 2016. (See ACT, October 2015.) Fiscal year 2016 started on Oct. 1 and runs until Sept. 30.

      On Oct. 26, the White House and key congressional leaders announced that they had reached a deal on new spending levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The House and Senate approved the agreement on Oct. 28 and Oct. 30, respectively.

      Some key lawmakers expect the authorization bill to be revised to match the funding levels in the deal while retaining most of the current bill’s policy provisions. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters in Washington on Oct. 26 that revising the bill would not “take much time.” 

      Missile Defense Gets Boost

      The defense authorization bill requires the Defense Department to designate a preferred location on the U.S. East Coast for a third missile defense interceptor site to augment defenses against a limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack. Under the bill, the Pentagon must make that decision within a month of the completion of environmental impact studies of possible sites mandated by Congress in the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization act.

      The United States currently deploys long-range missile defense interceptors at sites in Alaska and California.

      The defense bill requires the Pentagon to develop a plan to accelerate the construction in the event the U.S. government decides to proceed with a third site, and it authorizes $30 million to begin site planning and design once the environmental studies are finished.

      The Defense Department announced in January 2014 that it would conduct environmental impact studies for four possible missile defense sites in the eastern United States, as directed by Congress. The department said the studies would take approximately 24-30 months to complete. (See ACT, March 2014.)

      The four sites are Fort Drum in New York, Portsmouth SERE Training Area in Maine, Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan.

      Department officials continue to reiterate that no decision has been made to move forward with an additional long-range missile defense site and that money would be better spent to upgrade the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system to counter long-range ballistic missiles.

      Another provision in the authorization bill requires the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to evaluate a space-based missile defense option for the United States. The provision mandates a study assessing how such a defense would function and how it could contribute to defending against ICBM attacks.

      In addition, the provision requires a report summarizing the results of the study and a plan for creating one or more developmental programs for space-based missile defense and estimates of the costs of each of these potential programs.

      The final bill does not include a requirement contained in the original House bill that would have mandated the start of research and development of a space-based defense system.

      Nonproliferation Constraints Diluted

      The defense authorization bill dilutes provisions in the original House bill imposing restrictions on NNSA programs to detect nuclear smuggling, undertake research and development of next-generation nuclear verification technologies, and dismantle retired U.S. nuclear warheads.

      The House bill barred spending any money on fixed-site radiological detectors for use in foreign countries to detect nuclear smuggling. The final bill would instead authorize the requested funding for these detectors after the completion by the director of national intelligence of a report on how well the detectors address nuclear proliferation and smuggling threats.

      Similarly, the House bill barred the use of $3 million in requested fiscal year 2016 funding to develop certain advanced technologies for arms control verification and monitoring activities, but the final bill would allow the funds to be spent after the NNSA submitted a report on the technologies being developed.

      On weapons dismantlement, the House bill would have set an annual limit of $50 million for NNSA expenditures in fiscal years 2016 to 2020 on dismantlement and disposal of retired nuclear warheads unless certain stringent conditions could be met. The final bill includes a $50 million limit only for fiscal year 2016.

      The final bill also prohibits the use of fiscal year 2016 funds to dismantle the W84 nuclear warhead, which had been deployed on U.S. GLCMs that were destroyed under the INF Treaty. It was not clear if that ban was intended to preserve the option of deploying the W84 as part of the U.S. response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty.

      UN Mulls Rival Disarmament Proposals

      November 2015

      By Kingston Reif

      Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, shown above in a September 2014 photo, said a recent Mexican proposal for a disarmament working group is “unacceptable.” [Photo credit: U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva/Dominique Nicolas]UN member states are considering two competing proposals to advance nuclear disarmament, a reflection of the continuing differences among states on how to accelerate progress toward a world without nuclear weapons.

      Each of the two proposals under discussion in the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with nuclear disarmament, would create an open-ended working group, a forum in which all UN members can participate.

      The creation of a working group was a recommendation in the draft final document from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference that took place earlier this year. (See ACT, June 2015.) The proposal for the working group grew out of the frustration of many states with the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament.

      According to the NPT document, the purpose of the working group would be “to identify effective measures for the full implementation of Article VI” of the NPT, “including legal provisions or other arrangements,” and to do so on the basis of consensus. Under Article VI, the treaty parties are to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

      One working group proposal in the First Committee, submitted by Iran, closely resembles the language contained in the draft review conference document. It calls for a discussion on advancing nuclear disarmament and would operate on the basis of consensus. The working group would meet for four sessions of 10 working days each, with two sessions in 2016 and two in 2017. The group would send a report on its work, including agreed recommendations, to the UN General Assembly during the 2017 session.

      Mexico, on behalf of a group of countries associated with the so-called humanitarian initiative, an effort focused on raising awareness of the humanitarian and societal impacts of nuclear weapons use, has offered an alternate proposal. A key difference with the Iranian approach is that under the Mexican resolution, the working group would operate according to the General Assembly’s normal rules of conducting business on the basis of a majority vote. The group would convene in Geneva in 2016 for up to 15 days and would present a report on its work to the General Assembly at its session next year.

      The original version of the Mexican proposal also differed from the Iranian approach by specifying the end result of the working group’s effort: “to negotiate with a view to reaching agreement on concrete effective legal measures…that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.” But an Oct. 29 version of the Mexican proposal is closer to the Iranian proposal in calling on the group “to substantively address” the legal measures.

      The contrasting proposals have sparked a contentious debate within the First Committee about the purpose of the working group.

      In an Oct. 29 tweet, Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, said “Mexico [is] still pursuing an unacceptable” proposal for an open-ended working group. He added that the aim of the proposal “is to subvert [the] established [UN] disarmament machinery” and that it “will not succeed.”

      Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, encouraged states to support the Mexican resolution. In an Oct. 27 statement, he said that a forum is needed to allow all states to engage in discussions on nuclear disarmament “without the procedural setup that stifles progress in other fora of the UN disarmament machinery.” Austria is a co-sponsor of the Mexican resolution.

      It remains to be seen if both proposals will come to a vote this month and, if so, which proposal will garner the most support. Resolutions in the First Committee require a simple majority to pass.

      In remarks on Oct. 16 at a conference in Prague, Kim Won-soo, the acting UN high representative for disarmament affairs, said he expects “common ground” to be found on a working group concept that meets the needs of key member states.

      The current session of the First Committee runs through Nov. 9.

      Two competing proposals on disarmament reflect continued differences among UN states on how to achieve that goal.   


      Subscribe to RSS - November 2015